Background of the Mahanirvani Akhāḍā
Akhāḍās (also called Akharas) form the core body of the Hindu tradition. They are the oldest and largest Apex body of Hinduism. As of now at least 1 million dedicated Sādhus (saints) live under the Akhada Parishad, which is the apex council body of Hinduism with a democratic selection structure of its spiritual leaders, where all the fourteen Akhadas are members.
14 Akhāḍās are accepted widely as mainstream Akhāḍās, but there are many minor Akhāḍās affiliated to these, which function as their sister organizations or subsidiaries, carrying the ideological connection yet having their independent identity.
Allahabad or Prayag was the spiritual headquarters of the MahaNirvani Peetha where Sri Kapila Mahāmuni’s Māhā Jīvasamādhi (final enlightened resting place) is located. Haridwar is the current spiritual headquarters.
Sectarian Structure of the Sadhus
(ORTHODOX SHAIVA SAMPRADAYAS – Shaiva Traditions)
Dashnami Sanyasis are broadly divided into two sections namely, Astra Dharis (weapon-holders) and Shaastra dharis (scripture holders). Astra Dharis are ascetic warriors and Shaastra dharis are learned ascetics.
Shankaracharya, the reviver saint of the Dashnami Order, realised that unless there is a warrior class of ascetics who fiercely protect it, the Order re-established by him cannot last long. Similarly, Hinduism had undergone extreme persecution where its scriptures, palm leaf manuscripts, books and such sources of knowledge were stolen, burnt, destroyed and maliciously misinterpreted. There was now a need for the Sanyasis of the country to physically protect against invasions, as well as protect the knowledge and ancient heritage of Hinduism itself. So, he recruited warrior and scholarly Sanyasis to form the ten orders of Sanyasis who came to be known as Dashnami Sanyasis.
Dashnami Naga Sanyasis in particular were imparted military training, as well as expected to be highly knowledgeable in the Hindu scriptures.
A short account of the original Dashnami Akharas is given below:
- Awahan Akhara: It was revived in 546 A.D. The tutelary deity is Gajanan Dattatreya. The head office of this Akhara is situated at Kashi (Varanasi) and branches are at Haridwar and Prayagraj.
- Atal Akhara: It was revived in 646 A.D. in Gondwana with Ganesh (Paramasiva’s own son) as its tutelary deity. This Akhara has its branches in Haridwar, Ujjain and Baroda, and its head office at Kashi (Varanasi).
- Mahanirvani Akhara: It was founded at Jharkand (Vaidyanath Dham) in 748 A.D. with Kapil Muni as its tutelary deity. This Akhara has its head office at Haridwar and branches at Kankhal, Kashi, Nasik and Ujjain.
- Anand Akhara: This Akhara was revived in 855 A.D. with Surya Deva (Sun God) as its tutelary deity. The Atal, Anand and Awahan Akharas are affiliated to Nirvani, Juna and Niranjani Akharas respectively.
- Niranjani Akhara: It was revived at Kachcha Mandavi in 903 AD. with its head-office at Prayag and branches at Ujjain and Udaipur. The tutelary deity of this Akhara is Kartikeya (or Subramanya – Parasiva’s own son). It is the protective army of Kartikeya that turned into the Niranjani Akhara of Sadhus.
- Juna or Bhairo: It was revived in 1145 A.D. at Kama Prayag with Rudravatar Dattatreya as its special deity. Main centres of this Akhara are situated at Kashi, Prayag, Hardwar and Ujjain.
- Nirvani Akhara: Nirvani and Niranjani akhada are considered as the leading akhadas from the point of view of the number of members and movable property.Only advanced aspirants are initiated into these Akharas who have already received preliminary instructions from the Guru.
Shankaracharya also organized the Dashnami order, which includes the following ten categories of Sanyasis. (1) Giri (hill) meaning living in the hills (2) Puri (City) meaning living in the city (3) Bharati (goddess of learning) meaning to be established in learning (4) Vana (Wood) meaning living in the woods (5) Parvata (Mountain) meaning living in the mountains (6) Aranya (forest) meaning living in the forest (7) Sagara (ocean) meaning living by the ocean (8) Tirtha (Pilgrimage) meaning travelling, visiting holy shrines and enriching people (9) Ashrama (hermitage) meaning living in a hermitage (10) Saraswati (symbol of knowledge) meaning being blessed by Goddess Saraswati and therefore well established in the ocean of knowledge.
Shankaracharya also established four big monastic centres namely Jyotir Math. Shringeri Math, Govardhan Math and Dwaraka or Sharda Math in North, South, East and West respectively and installed his disciples there to propagate his religious message to the world.
The four great Mathas of the Dashnami order, have in the course of centuries come to adopt certain definite rules of affiliation and organisation. A Sanyasi must first of all enrol himself in a Marhi (recruiting centre). A Math can take members belonging to one Marhi only but all the fifty-two Marhis can become the members of Akharas.
Dandi Sanyasi, a Hindu ascetic, in Eastern Bengal in the 1860s
The Dashnami Sanyasis are further divided into two broad sections namely Dandadharis (staff holders) and Paramahamsas (not holding a staff). Out of the ten sub-sects of the Dashnami Order, Sanyasis of only three sub-sects that is, Tirtha, Ashram and Saraswati, hold a staff and the rest called Paramahamsas do not hold a staff. The three Dandi sub-sects initiate only Brahmanas as ascetic disciples but in the rest, persons from Kshatriya (warrior caste) and Vaisya (merchant community) Varnas (castes) may also be initiated.
In Varanasi, the home of Shaiva ascetics, twenty-eight Mathas (monastic centres) are managed by Dandis and fifteen are managed by Paramahamsas.
Dashnami ascetics are graded according to their spiritual attainment into four categories as follows:
- Kutichaka: He is an ascetic who has renounced the world and lives in a hut engaged in contemplation and worship. He subsists on alms given to him by others.
- Bahudaka: Such ascetics collect alms in kind but never in cash.
- Hansa: Such ascetics are well-versed in Vedanta (Scriptural knowledge) and pursue the aim of attaining complete knowledge of the Supreme Being.
- Paramahamsa: Such ascetics represent the stage of highest spiritual evolution.