In Maharashtra, near Pune, is the town of Jejuri. Here, atop a hill, is a citadel-like turmeric-covered temple dedicated to the much-revered folk deity locally known as Khandoba. This is a collaborative ecosystem of the people, by the people, for the people, where gods exist to unite not divide.
Khandoba is probably a deified form of an ancient warrior-hero (vira) who rode a magnificent horse, battled local threats, protected local people and property and brought diverse people together. In modern times, he tends to be considered to be a form of Shiva-Bhairava on earth, in an attempt to make him meaningful to the larger Hindu community. Many refer to this as a local (desi parampara) manifestation of mainstream Hindu traditions (margi parampara). But the gaze should be bottom-up, not top-down.
Khandoba’s narrative is incomplete without including his wives. He is married to many women and they belong to different communities. For example, Mhalsa belongs to the trader community. Some say she is from the Lingayat community, which is a non-Brahmanical Shiva-worshipping community that emerged in Karnataka around the 11th century. Banai is related to the shepherd community. His third wife is from the tailor community. The fourth wife is from the gardener community. The fifth wife is from the oil presser community. There is also one wife who is linked to the Muslim community, who played a prominent role in this region during the 14th century Bahamani and later the 16th century Bijapur Sultanates.
Each wife has a separate shrine. There are ritual celebrations when Khandoba comes to visit each wife to celebrate her glory. And there are festivals when she gathers with other wives to celebrate his glory. Ritual marriage thus was a tool to bring different people together. The clan goddesses of multiple communities become part of a larger network. Thus collaborative relationships have been traditionally established. The tailor and the trader shared a divine son-in-law. The shepherd was told that he is as important as the farmer, as both their daughters were loved by Khandoba. Everyone becomes part of an extended family.
In folk songs, we hear about how wives fight with each other, and the god has to bring peace between them by managing the tensions. This is clearly a metaphor for the tension that exists between different communities. For example, the shepherds are shown as wild, while the oil-pressers love routine work, the flower-sellers bring colour into their lives, while the trader is rich and pompous. But a good thriving society needs all of them.
Khandoba is vegetarian but his shepherd wife who loves the forests, enjoys meat. So she is offered what she likes. He does not convert her to his ways. He respects her ways. He maintains his own ways. Thus is mutual respect taught to the larger community. Even his enemies are not rejected, but included. Which is why his name (Malhar) includes the name of his enemy (Mala).
These marriages ensure a wider sphere of influence. This is not acquisition and merger; this is partnership. The king is not simply the dowry or tribute collecting son-in-law. He is the one who is able to minimise conflict in the region, through skilful negotiation, and careful distribution of resources as well as respect. Each one’s autonomy is respected. No identity is subsumed, or appropriated.
When we visit these rural communities, we are confronted with the reality of caste (jati) in India. Hundreds of communities: some nomadic, some pastoral, some agricultural, some into trading, some into mining, some into crafts, some foragers, some herders, some offering entertainment services. Each community has its own internal ceremonies. Then there are ceremonies of neighbours it participates in. In gatherings (jatra), everyone gatherers and displays their pomp, and celebrates other people’s capability and capacity. There is careful protocol maintained so there is no competitive one up-manship.
The ritual activities of the temple, its ceremonies are divided into small functions. One community is responsible for providing food, someone provides music, someone supplies flowers, the other provides turmeric, one provides services in the form of cleaning the temple, cooking food in the temple, and carrying the palanquin. These are called honours (maan) distributed across groups that constitute the wider people. Thus, everybody participates in the construction of the temple, and its many celebrations. So the impact of the mythological narrative can be seen in social practices. Everyone feels proud to be a significant part of a collective. No one is exploited. No one is dominant. Everyone has a moment in the sun.
This is not the religion of modern times, that secretly yearns to convert people into their fold. This does not demand a singular constitution that everyone has to align with. Where diversity is seen as difference and eventually minimised. Here diversity is celebrated and brought together as in a jigsaw puzzle. One can see Khandoba’s culture as a tent. Khandoba is the pole, the community is the cloth, but without the goddesses, the wives, who serve as pegs, the tent cannot be established. This is how polytheism worked, respecting all deities, and creating a network of mutual respect and enablement, unlike monotheism – favoured by modern management – that indulges only one god, one doctrine, one economic ideology, and gravitates towards monopoly.