The Sanyasi Freedom Movement: Busting Myths and Revealing Truths

This is the first part of a series examining the various myths about the so-called Fakir-Sanyasi Rebellion that occurred in the first half of the 19th century. The correct term for this brilliant historical episode is "The Sanyasi Freedom Movement," whose origins can be traced back to the Bhakti Movement.
The Sanyasi Freedom Movement: Busting Myths and Revealing Truths

Given the breathtaking pace and extent to which we have been self-alienated over the last century, today, it will sound like surreal fiction if one says that the role of Dharma should be paramount in guiding the political affairs of the state. Surreal fiction or the ideal of an imagined world. Yet, it is undeniable that from the Indian societal perspective, Dharma still occupies a peak position. Even the political poseurs who, for outward show, claim that the field of Dharma and politics are different stop only at that—in their inner lives and social interactions, they have abiding reverence for Dharma.

All leaders who gave decisive turns to our freedom struggle during the last leg of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th, derived their inspiration primarily from Dharma. They carried forward and enriched the inheritance of Swami Dayananda and Vivekananda. The same thing applies to those freedom fighters who carried on their struggle from the underground. Several revolutionaries eventually became Sanyasis. For example, Neelakanta Brahmachari, the chief accused in the murder of Tinnevelly’s Collector, Ash, became a Sanyasi named Swami Omkarananda and established an Ashram at Nandidurga (Nandi Hills) near Bangalore.

The Primacy of Dharma

In the Indian tradition, the foundational philosophy of a stable and healthy state is the fact that Dharma should wield a controlling scepter over Artha (wealth) and Kama (desire or sex). It is now a well-known historical fact that whenever the Hindu society faced extenuating challenges, saints like Kautilya, Vidyaranya, and Samartha Ramadas blazed a great trail of Dharmic reawakening across the country and rejuvenated Sanatana values.

Notwithstanding external circumstances or political situations, it is our universal experience that Swamis, Sants and Sadhus enjoy the highest veneration in the eyes of the Sanatana society. The reason so many millions of Indians were attracted to Gandhi was due to his positioning as a saint. This is hardwired in the Indian psyche and indeed, defines it. Our tradition holds that politics should be the flowering of Dharma and spirituality. This tenet is most definitely unobjectionable. Even today, the majority of Hindus give an exalted status to Sadhus and not to those who occupy positions of political power. Those who doubt this observable truth, those who even question the very foundation of this truth have not understood the life-impulses of Bharatavarsha.

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The Sanyasi Freedom Movement: Busting Myths and Revealing Truths

The primacy of Dharma is also the singularity and uniqueness of Bharata’s tradition. The currents of political thought in the rest of the world are chiefly focused on the transactional, materialistic and authoritarian elements. The impetus and direction of our Sastras and Smritis is to subordinate all sources and kinds of power to Dharma. This mentality is imbued with two fundamental aspects- stability of the world and the well-being of people. Indeed, it is this fundamental tenet that unifies the whole country. Every stream of thought that has proceeded in the opposite direction—that is, granting paramountcy only to the transactional element—has inevitably culminated in destroying the human society. Every movement that has advertised “cultural revolution” as its reigning badge has resulted in enormous loss of life.

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The Sanyasi Freedom Movement: Busting Myths and Revealing Truths

Whenever clashes have occurred between the wellspring of Dharma and the excesses of political authority, the strength of Sattva (life-affirming force, stabilizing element, etc) has overpowered the dominance of Tamas (barbarism, cruelty, sloth, etc) and has eventually resulted in re-enshrining Dharma. All such triumphs of Dharma continue to be regarded as the golden epochs of Indian history. Such major epochs include the establishment of the Mauryan Empire by Kautilya, the founding of the Vijayanagara Empire by Sri Vidyaranya, and the germination of Shivaji’s Haindavi Swarajya by Samartha Ramadas.

Renewal of Kshatra

But for the extraordinary inspiration provided by Kautilya, Vidyaranya and Samartha Ramadas, it is unlikely that these great empires would have ever been founded. This is an indisputable historical truth. Thus, at supremely decisive points in history, it was the power of these Sadhus and Sants that brought the nation back to its cultural stream and re-stabilised it. In this, we also notice another unbroken thread.

From a philosophical perspective, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s campaign for Swarajya was just the continuation of the earlier cultural campaign seeded by Madhava (Sri Vidyaranya) and Sayana. Much before Samartha Ramadas, the roots of Sanatana Dharma were kept alive and strengthened by our Three Acharyas and a long line of self-realised saints like Jnaneshwar and Tukaram.

Let’s visualise the social condition of our country dating back to seven or eight hundred years. What do we see? What was the culture-nourishing strength back then? It was a time when the entire country was in chaos, repeatedly torn by the rapid and barbaric depredations of the Mlecchas. In such a situation, it was the Bhakti movement that came to our rescue, to help preserve the true culture of our country at least in seed-form. This truth of history is clear as daylight. The intent and purpose was both brilliant and visionary and it is something that has endured till this day. Institutions like the Akhadas were established with the twofold purpose of training and grooming Sadhus and Sants who then took the spiritual and social aspects of the Bhakti movement throughout this sacred land. This Santa-Shakti (power of the Sadhus and Sants) slapped awake the spirit of Kshatra that had lain in slumber for so many centuries thanks to repeated alien assaults. This is an unmatched illustration of how spiritual power reawakened martial strength. This is the unparalleled, real-life demonstration of the superiority of “soft power.”

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The Sanyasi Freedom Movement: Busting Myths and Revealing Truths

In fact, there is a prolonged history of how these renunciate Sadhus and Sanyasis first inculcated Kshtra within themselves and how they led by example. Mahadeva or Shiva has two facets to him: Tandava (the final dance of world-destruction) and Lasya (mirthful dance). Over time, both these facets developed into distinct schools, each with its own set of substantial adherents. Among the two, when he displayed his Tandava dimension, Shiva became Bhairava (literally meaning, “inspiring terror, awe, dread). Indeed, the iconic, artistic and sculptural expression of Bhairava is renowned: Bhairava wears a garland of skulls, holds a menacing sword in his hand, is three-eyed, four-armed and terrifyingly sports his matted locks. It was but natural that the Kshatra element among Bhairava-Upasakas (worshippers) heightened over time. There are enough records that show Yogis who transformed themselves into warriors and enlisted as soldiers. The incomparable poet, Banabhatta, in his Harshacharita, narrates a story of how a Yogi cum warrior named Bhairavacharya helped the king Pushpabhuti in war and how he vanquished a supernatural evil force named Srikanta.

The Backdrop

The foregoing backdrop was essential to trace the historical tradition of and the precedent to the now-forgotten blazing historical episode that occurred in the first half of the 19th century. It is incorrectly called variously as the Sanyasi Rebellion or the Fakir-Sanyasi Rebellion. Like the innumerable myths about Indian history manufactured after independence, this myth too, declaims a central fact of this monumental episode: that it was not at all a historical event in the real sense, that it had no historical precedent, and that was not Hindu in its moorings or inspiration.

And like all such manufactured myths, this too, needs to be busted.

To be continued

Note: This is an English adaptation of Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy's brilliant Kannada essay titled Sanyasi Andolana published in Mareyabarada Itihaasaadhyayagalu, by Rashtrotthana Sahitya.

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