Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

May 31, 2023

First published May 30, 2023

 in The Times of India

Who are the power-broking landlord monks of Tamil Nadu?

Sengol is a staff of royal authority. We can call the symbol of justice in the spirit of wordplay, when a symbol of monarchy is made the symbol of democracy. The one currently in the news is topped by the image of a bull. The bull cannot be domesticated (answerable to no one), hence it is a symbol of Hindu royalty.

This bull is Nandi, mount of Shiva. Shiva, in Tamil Nadu, is rather regal, very different from the Bhola (guileless) Bairagi (mendicant) of North India. He is seen as the enabler of kings, for more than a thousand years, since the days of the Cholas.

Adheenam is an alpha monastic order, managing a Shiva temple and its lands, and controlling other monastic orders, managing other Shiva temples and more lands. Such a feudal model, anchored on the worship of Shiva, helped establish the Hindu polity known as Raja-mandala, or the circle of kings, especially in South India. Through these monks, and the divine authority of Shiva, the king controlled the countryside.

The idea of power-broking landlord monks shocks those who are taught in schools that monks are those who shun all things material. However, around the world, monastic orders have always controlled vast amounts of wealth, especially in the form of land.

The Catholic Church is the most popular and successful example. The Buddhist monasteries of Himalayan kingdoms and Southeast Asia are another. To understand this strange phenomenon of power-brokering landlord monks, we need to step into history.

The first monastic institution was established by the Buddha in 500 BCE (2,500 years ago). From around 100 BCE (2,000 years ago), we have records of land grants to the Buddhist monasteries by rich patrons, seeking spiritual merit. Buddhism was patronised by merchants who understood the concept of debit and credit well and this material concept made its way into the spiritual realm as paap (sin) and punya (good deeds) of the karmic balance sheet.

While property of a householder divides over time, the property of hermits multiplies over time, as there are no children who inherit the property; the institution inherits everything.

The Nalanda University of Bihar, though run by monks, was not just an educational institution. It was also a rich landlord, which supported, and was supported by, Pala kings. Eventually such land-rich institutions turned into political centres and power brokers, as is quite evident today.

Courting warlords

The Vedic Brahmins did not have an institutional order equivalent to the Buddhist sangha. To regain political control, the idea of the Brahmin community of priests called ‘Agrahara’ emerged. They offered Vedic services to ambitious warlords who wished to be kings in exchange for land. Thus we find stories of Brahmins from Kashmir, Kanyakubja (Kanpur) and Kashi (Varanasi) being invited by kings of eastern and southern India from 5th century BCE onwards.

But an even more powerful model emerged around the same time with Pashupata and Bhagavata communities, who popularised theism, and devotion to Shiva and Vishnu. They promised kings great power provided they expressed their devotion by building temples to the chosen god, and granting lands for the maintenance of these temples.

Eventually, through ritual, they promised to channel the god’s energy into the body of the king. This explains the popularity of Shiva temples in South India and Southeast Asia from the eighth to 12th centuries. The line between god and king is blurred. Both Shiva and the king of Chola lands were seen as masters of the river (Gangadhara) and destroyers of cities (Tripurantaka).

The spokesperson of the gods were specially trained priests who referred not to the Veda, like Brahmins, but to literature known as Tantra and Agama. They were enabled by poet-saints like Alvars who praised Vishnu (located in temples) and Nayamnars who prayed to Shiva (also located in temples). The temple manager eventually became steward of the god’s lands, known as the deva-bhoga (god-feeding) lands.

Some of these theistic orders were taken over by Brahmins who started embracing monasticism. The most popular examples are the famous Vedanta gurus — Shankara who was aligned to Shiva, and Ramanuja was aligned to Vishnu.

Brahmin monastic orders have obscured the non-Brahmin ones in popular imagination. We forget that Hindu monastic orders inherited many ideas, including vegetarianism and refusal to eat root vegetables, especially onion and garlic, from Buddhists and Jain orders.

Brahmin, non-Brahmin or Buddhist, these monk-landlords were structurally very similar. The celibacy ensured the lands of the institution remained with the institution. There was a strict hierarchy of power among the monks, which often led to monastic orders splitting as two charismatic leaders fought over control.

And most importantly, since land was involved, caste was involved. The monks typically belonged to a single community, usually that of those who donated the land. Those who tilled the land — the peasants — were from another community. In fact, access to these temple lands, like access to these temples, shaped the caste system we know today. Lazy scholars attribute this phenomenon to Brahmins.

The caste question

Caste was reinforced through the temple: Who could enter the temple, who could not and who could actually touch the deity within. Only during the annual rides, when the god emerged from the temple, could all castes gain access to the landlord god. These mathas had surplus resources and so became major food providers (annadana) during famine. This made that temple god famous and the monks more powerful.

The great medieval ‘debates’ between Buddhists and Brahmins often resulted in ‘death’ of the loser. This meant land given to one religious order shifted to the other religious order, as it lost royal patronage. The Buddha was replaced by Shiva. The ‘shunya’ of Buddha became the ‘atma linga’ of Shiva. When Muslims destroyed Hindu temples, the lands of the temple were distributed to Sufi orders by warlords eager to become sultans. For if the spiritual Sufi gave his cloak to the warlord, and named him in Friday prayers, he could become sultan.

In this regard, the Jain order stands out. Jainism introduced the principle of aparigraha (non-possession) over and above the monastic idea of brahmacharya (detachment from sensory pleasures). Jain monks were forbidden to own anything. Not cloth. Not even a begging bowl.

More than 1,500 years ago, Tamil Nadu was a great centre of Jainism, as indicated by cave art and inscriptions on the hills outside Madurai. References to Jain monks and nuns are found in the oldest Tamil epics such as Silappadikaram and Jivaka Chitamani .

In the time of Chola kings, the Jain monastic orders were gradually replaced by Hindu theistic orders. We find songs where monks ‘defeat’ monks in ‘intellectual warfare’. These appear logical and philosophical, but they obscure the underlying quest to control rich mercantile and powerful agrarian networks.

Stories emerged where Shaiva monk-priests could cut and replace their heads by grace of Shiva while Jains monks failed to do so. Shaiva monk-priests could royal cure ailments that Jains monks could not. This justified their erasure.

In Madurai temples, we have artwork that shows hundreds of Jains being impaled by the followers of Shiva. Historians believe these are not representations of any historical event, but political propaganda. But we live in times where mythology is history. Surely, this massacre in Dravidian lands for spiritual or material reasons can be seen as real as Ram Rajya and the Mahabharata war of North Indian Aryan lands.

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