Seer was known for his plain-spoken remarks
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Seer was known for his plain-spoken remarks

December 29, 2019

Udupi: Sri Vishwesha Theertha Swamiji embraced appreciation and criticism showered on him and had said difference of opinion sparked debate on various issues. As Paryaya Swamiji, he has divided opinion for his plain-spoken remarks.

The first flashpoint in his final term as the Paryaya Swamiji occurred in the fall out of the ‘Chalo Udupi’ protest rally organised by the Dalita Damanitara Swabhimani Horata Samiti in the district in October 2016.

The rally closely mirrored the ‘Chalo Una’ movement in Gujarat and was led by Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani. In his speech in Udupi, Mewani demanded that the practice of ‘Pankti Bheda’ should be eradicated within two months at the Udupi Krishna Temple and also threatened to lay siege to the temple.

Pankti Bheda is a historical practice in which priests of the Brahmin caste are served food separately in the Krishna Temple in Udupi. Vishwesha Theertha Swamy accused the activists including Mewani of maligning him and targeting the Krishna Mutt but the issue did not end there. 

A few days later, ‘Kanaka Nade’ cleanliness programme was organised at the Udupi Krishna Temple by writer Chakravarthy Sulibele and the Yuva Brigade to clean the areas surrounding the Krishna Temple.

Incensed by Yuva Brigade’s statements that progressive groups had “polluted” the city, the Dalit-Damanitara Swabhimani Horata Samiti asked the district administration not to give permission to the event. Dalit activists also called for the ‘Swabhimana Nadige’ in response on the same day.

Both events were denied permission by the Police but the ‘Kanaka Nade’ programme went ahead with the volunteers of the Yuva Brigade cleaning the goshala, Rajangana and parking areas of the temple premises where permission from the Police was not needed.

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Vishwesha Theertha Swamy maintained that the Kanaka Nade was planned months ago and was not in response to the Chalo Udupi movement but the timing of the “cleansing drive” taking place a mere two weeks after the rally raised doubts about the statements.

Campaigner of Dalit rights

At the time, the Pejawar Seer defended his efforts to help Dalits. “I’ve always fought for equality and stood with Dalits at all times. Muslims and Dalits love me and call me for all their programmes. However, some people are trying to spoil the relationship between Brahmins and non-Brahmins, in the name of Pankti Bheda and communal harmony and so on. The temples at Dharmasthala, Subramanya, Sringeri and some other places have a separate food-serving system. Why is only the Krishna Mutt being targeted?” he had asked.

Pejawar Seer with former Karnataka CM Ramakrishna Hegde.

Iftar in temple premises

A year later in July 2017, the Pejawar Seer was in the news for organising an Iftar at the Udupi Krishna Temple for the first time ever. He invited Muslims to break their fast during Ramzan in a ‘Souharda Upahara Koota’ (harmony breakfast meet) in the temple premises.

The Seer’s decision to hold the iftar in the temple premises invited the wrath of pro-Hindu groups like Sri Ram Sena and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. Members of the two groups held protests in Udupi against the decision while Sri Ram Sene chief Pramod Muthalik criticised the Pejawar Seer for his gesture.

The Seer had earlier firmly advocated that organising the Iftaar and namaz at the Mutt were not unnatural, owing to an ancient understanding between people of the two faiths in the region. 

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“God is one to all mankind. Hindus and Muslims should live together in harmony. When there was an attempt to gherao Sri Krishna Temple, Muslims came forward to defend the Mutt. There is history where both communities have co-existed peacefully in Udupi. It should become the model for people in Karnataka,” the Seer said.

‘Lingayats are Hindus’

Later in the same year, a different nature of the Seer was brought to the fore once again as he traded words with S.M. Jamdaar, the retired IAS officer spearheading the Lingayat movement seeking separate religion status. He remarked that Lingayats should stay within the Hindu religion as its followers worshipped Lord Shiva and agreed to engage in a debate about the issue with Jamdaar after the Paryaya festivities.

‘Minority rights to majority’

At the Dharma Sansad in Udupi in November 2017, Vishwesha Theertha reportedly claimed that benefits and privileges given to minorities should be given to the majority. The Seer’s statements were opposed by the then Karnataka Chief Minister Siddharamaiah.

The influential Seer’s candid comments about religion and caste are in sharp contrast with other Seers in Udupi who generally prefer to stay silent on issues surrounding caste and religion. This has led to criticism from both Hindus and Muslims, and Brahmins and Dalits, in Karnataka.

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