When the expansionist Mughal Empire imploded under the weight of its own maladministration, the British sniffed a huge opportunity. They not only seized its economic realm but made great inroads into the political might that had sustained this realm of wealth. It was at this historical juncture that the Sanyasi Movement arose as a lion-like self-expression of the Hindu society. It was also a radiant illustration of the power of the Sadhus and Sants in recent history. Even after an entire century had passed since its occurrence, the force of its impact can be seen in the manner in which Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya immortalised it in his Anandmath novel. Indeed, this fiery nationalist and patriot took inspiration from it and captured its glorious footprint in the novel.
After the 1757 Battle of Plassey, the British wrested political power in India with astonishing speed. In 1772, Warren Hastings became the Governor and unleashed a reign of terror. The Sanyasi Movement was a response against this reign of terror. Thus, much before the Indian political leadership could anticipate the far-reaching, fatal consequences of the fledgling British expansionism, it was our Sanyasis who first spotted it and mounted a heroic counteroffensive. This central fact cannot be emphasised enough. In fact, British records of the time are the clearest proofs in themselves, testifying the kind of terror that the Sanyasi Movement instilled in them.
A report titled Annals of Rural Bengal that the British ICS officer W.W. Hunter compiled reads as follows:
Hunter has also recorded how the locals offered their unstinted support to the Sanyasis.
In a letter dated 9 March, 1773 to a friend, Warren Hastings writeshow these Sanyasis have no fixed dwelling and how they are always on the move. And as they travel from place to place, they attract and enlist newer and newer followers into their bands. Because they are pilgrims, the people regard them with great reverence. Therefore, they give us no information about their activities or travel details. These Sanyasi bands have extremely rugged physiques and are endowed with courage inexpressible in mere words.
Even experienced military commanders like Captain Stuart failed to hunt down these Sanyasi bands.
More significantly, as the Sanyasi Freedom Movement gained in strength, it began to collect taxes in direct defiance of the British administration. This was not only an open challenge but also led to a marked decline in the revenues of the East India Company.
When we recall the epochal story of the Sanyasi Movement, it is important to grasp a few key historical and social details. The Sanyasi tradition of India has a hoary antiquity dating as far back as the sixth century BCE. In the later centuries, this tradition cleaved into streams such as Shaiva, Vaishnava, etc. In the Rajaputana and other regions, kings used to appoint dedicated and separate military contingents titled Dhira-Yogis (Yogi Warriors)for safeguarding their dominions. Over time, other kingdoms followed suit so much so that this practice became a tradition by itself. However, whenever disturbances or threats arose elsewhere in this sacred geography, these Yogi-warrior contingents would voluntarily resign from their royal appointments, get out of their respective kingdoms and join the struggle to quell such threats and restore order and Dharma.
Because these Sanyasi-warriors had the complete and ungrudging support of the entire populace, nobody would complain even if they occasionally went on rampage. Their infrequent acts of recklessness invited no punishment. It was an unwritten law that Sanyasis were beyond rules that applied to ordinary people. And this law derived from the peerless force of their hallowed spirituality, piety, and renunciation. A substantial portion of the society genuinely believed that they possessed supernatural powers.
After Muslim political power became dominant—that is, after the 14th century, the Fakir class spread throughout the country in a big way. Akin to the Sanyasis, the Fakirs were wandering renunciates. Among them, a good number were well-trained in using weapons like bows and arrows. Like Hindu Sanyasis, Fakirs were beyond normal rules and laws. They were split into sects like Kalandar, etc.
Clashes used to infrequently erupt between the Sanyasis and Fakirs.
Which brings us to a pivotal, shrewd and prescient juncture in India’s mediaeval history. To be precise, during Akbar’s reign. This was the formation of the magnificent blend of Brahma-Kshatra, the institution of the Akhadas, briefly mentioned in the previous part of this series. It would scorch a trail of immense glory and valour. Over the centuries, the Akhada system would evolve and take hundreds of localised variants throughout Bharatavarsha, and its abiding, strong-backboned legacy would supply both the spirit and the arsenal required to strike panic into the British heart.
That story will be narrated in the next part.
To be continued
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