Akharas in Prayagraj

Akhara (अखाडा) is a Sanskrit and Hindi term for the place equipped with facilities for boarding, lodging, education and training of the religious renunciates of various ‘sampradaya’ (संप्रदाय -sects). These ‘akharas’ operate as per the ‘guru shishya parampara’ (गुरु शिष्य परंपरा – Teacher Disciple Tradition) guidelines. These ‘akharas’ were created & established by Jagat Guru Shankaracharya for protecting the Hindus from forcible conversion and propagating the Vedic religion. The ‘Akharas’ were created soon after the establishment of four ‘mathas’ (मठ - Puri, Sringeri, Dwarka and Badrinath) by Adi Guru Shankaracharya in four corners of the country with four of his disciples as ‘acharyas’ (आचार्य), one for each of them.

The ‘akharas’ actively participate in Magh Mela , Ardh Kumbh Mela & Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj . There are a total of seven ‘Dashnami Akharas’ (दशनामी अखाडा) of ‘sanyasins’ (सन्यासी – Hermit, Frier) who enter the Ardh Kumbh and Kumbh Mela area in colourful processions on different auspicious dates to give darshan to their devotees, pilgrims and camp in the Mela. The seven Dashnami Akharas are Nirvani Akhara, Atal Akhara, Niranjani Akhara, Anand Akhara, Joona Akhara, Awahan Akhara and Agni Akhara. Nirvani Akhara and Atal Akhara are together known as Nirvani Akhara. Niranjani Akhara and Anand Akhara are together called as Niranjani Akhara. Similarly, Joona Akhara, Awahan Akhara and Agni Akhara, clubbed together, are known as Joona Akhara. Shankaracharya streamlined the ‘sanyas ashram’ (सन्यास आश्रम) practices. He directed his disciples in the four ‘mathas’ to work hard to rejuvenate the Vedic Dharma and created Dashnam Sanyasin (दशनाम संन्यासी) system for reorganizing the ‘sanyas’ system of the Hindu life.

Hindu philosophy and social way of life considers average life-span of a person as hundred years. These 100 years are divided into four equal parts, called ‘ashramas’ – Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य), Grihastha (गृहस्थ), Vanaprastha (वानप्रस्थ) and Sanyas (सन्यास). The first twenty five years were devoted to Brahmacharya and study, the second quarter to family life, the third quarter to gradual withdrawal from cares and worries of life and the last quarter to total renunciation. The ‘acharyas’ in the four ‘mathas’ with their respective titles as Swarup (स्वरुप), Prakash (प्रकाश), Anand (आनंद) and Chaitanya (चैतन्य) are known as Shankaracharya who have made a deep study of the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishadas, the ‘shastras’ and the ‘smritis’, fully conversant with and trained in performing and conducting pooja, yagyas and ‘karmakanda’.

The pilgrims and devotees feel elated having seen the congregation of ‘sadhu’ & ‘sanyasi’ of thirteen akharas – above mentioned seven Shaiva akharas; three Vaishnava akharas - Nirvani Akhara, Digambara Akhara & Nirmohi Akhara; two Udasina akharas - Bada Udasin Akhara & Naya Udasin Akhara; and one Sikh akhara - Nirmal Akhara. These akharas have traditionally participated in the Kumbh Mela. It’s Niranjani Akhara that first and foremost enters into the Mela area in the form of a colourful procession, followed by the entry of Nirvani and Joona Akharas. A large number of people, including the pilgrims, devotees and ‘kalpavasis’, throng the procession routes on such occasions to have ‘darshan’ of the sanyasi. The Dashnami organization is complex to understand, unique in functioning and utterly pivotal to the cause of Hindu Dharma. In this Dashnam system there are a large number of ‘Nagas’ with matted hair ash-smeared body, naked, unmindful of the public gaze and some others wearing only ‘kaupeen’ (कौपीन, लंगोटी - Lion cloth). The Dashnami sanyasi are worshippers of Lord Shiv. At the end of religious discourses by the Shankaracharyas, the disciples around them raise slogans in full-throated ease, such as ‘Dharm Ki Jai Ho’ (let the dharma win), ‘Adharm Ka Nash Ho’ (let ‘adharma’perish), ‘Praniyon Mein Sadbhawana Ho’ (let the people have fellow feeling), ‘Desh Ka Vikas Ho’ (let the nation develop and progress), ‘Vishwa Ka Kalyan Ho’ (let the world have bliss of happiness) and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ (हर हर महादेव).

The Nirvanis, who are Naga gosains, have a large establishment at Daraganj in Prayagraj. Niranjanis with a similar fraternity, called Joonas, too, belong chiefly to Daraganj. The Vairagis are all Vaishnavites and wandering mendicants without any fixed residence. They have three divisions, the Nirvanis, Nirmonhis and Digambaris, who are generally at variance with each other and are always apt to cause trouble at these assemblages. Then comes the Chhota Panchayati Akhara, a body of Udasins of Punjab, who have a large monastery in Muthiganj (Prayagraj). Originally Sikh, with all intents the Hindus, though they retain the Guru Granth Sahib as their chief religious book. An offshoot of this body is the Bara Panchayati Akhara in Kidganj (Prayagraj) where they have a large establishment. They are very wealthy and make much money by banking. The Ramanujis of Daraganj (Prayagraj) are one of the richest and largest communities in Prayagraj and the Ramanandis of the Dharmashala of Baba Hari Das in Kidganj (Prayagraj) are another important body of the Vaishnavites. Both are Tyagis, that is to say married men who have deserted their families, and they depend mainly on alms given by people of the city.

On the special bathing occasions during the period of Kumbh Mela, ascetics of different akharas (order of sects) march to the river in a formal procession, viewed en route by millions of devout pilgrims who have their ‘darshan’ and pay their homage. Each sect has its own camp and only those with prescriptive rights are allowed to participate in the procession. Lay people have their turn for the holy bath only after the sadhus have had a dip. The Nirvanis, who are Naga gosains and followers of Lord Shiva, lead the (bathing) procession. They remain naked, have matted hair and each carries a bell. None of them ask for alms. The Niranjanis, who take the next place in the procession, are also Shaivites and remain naked. The Bairagis who come next are wandering sadhus. Then comes the Chhota Panchayati Akhara, a body of Udasins. An offshoot of this body is the opulent Bara Panchayati Akhara, with which are associated with the Nanakshahis, the Nirmalis: members of these as well as the Bindbasis join the procession.

Various ‘akharas’ march in great pomp with a number of elephants, musicians and palanquins for their Mahantas. In addition to the ‘akharas’, a large number of ‘sadhus’ frequent these fairs and have camps of their own. Two important Vaishnava sects, the Ramanujis and the Ramanandis, also join the procession.

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