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RSS's new mission: Bhagwat's ATMA eyes Hindu temples

Panini Anand | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 6:07 IST

The proposal

  • The RSS wants to create an umbrella body to oversee all Hindu temples in India
  • Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat is keen on the move

The reasons

  • The idea is to build consensus on a cultural-religious-social action
  • It can also help reach out to practicing Hindus previously untouched by the RSS

More in the story

  • How ATMA could be at odds with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad
  • Why non-RSS Hindu bodies believe it is destined to fail

The RSS is working on a new body to bring all the Hindu temples in India under one umbrella organisation.

This new body is to be called the All Temple Management Association (ATMA). The idea is to connect the centres of worship and bring them together for collective actions and goals.

During his visit to Lucknow on 14 October, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat spent time with IIM Lucknow students and faculty members. Sources say the idea and nitty-gritties of ATMA were also part of the discussion. People with IIM backgrounds are set to play a significant role in framing its basic structure.

The RSS chief is said to have attended a 'shakha' in the campus, though Sangh leaders deny it was that. "It was a family event. He came here to meet a family. A few more people joined in later," Prabhunath Srivastava, Awadh Prant Sangh Chalak, told Catch.

Sources within the RSS say this is not a very new idea. "We had been working on it. Now, after a break, it is being pursued again," a source said.

The initiative, if successful, could end up being the most prominent body in the country on the religious front. And with the RSS chief's personal interest, the wheels could turn very quickly indeed.

Not a new idea

"Bhagwatji has always said that there should be one temple and one water body for all in the village. This will bring samta (equality) in samaj (society). This idea is a reflection of the same," the RSS source added.

The basic idea is to bring all temples together. For this, there has to be a body which would help channelise resources, coordinate and control the functioning of temples.

It will also help with the Sangh's ultimate aim - to build consensus over cultural-religious-social action.

"Today, temples have either become too commercial, like Tirupati, or they are controlled by the government. The real purpose of temples is also to bind society together with one thread. This is not happening. This needs to be done. The concept of ATMA is to be that thread," the source adds.

Who will take it forward?

ATMA will be kept away from the visible control of the RSS, VHP and even the BJP. Unlike the VHP, the faces of this body will not be sadhus or godmen. Instead, eminent citizens will be brought in from different backgrounds to lead the initiative.

Another important plank of ATMA is to get the youth on board. At the local level, youth will join it and participate in its activities. The Sangh believes this will bring strength and energy to the body.

"Many sections of society want to contribute for society and social change. Temples are important tools for social change. Thus, we have to bring people together through temples," says the RSS source.

Possible clash with VHP?

It seems the RSS wants to get rid of the hardliner image of the VHP and other sister organisations. Through ATMA, it can project a more liberal image, rather than keeping the reigns in the hands of sadhus.

This will also help the RSS open a channel for those who are religious, but don't participate or agree with the actions of the Sangh and its affiliates.

In a country like India, where innumerable temples dot the landscape, it would be a huge gain if one single network could be woven around all of them.

The idea is to bring together all temples under one body, called All Temple Management Association

"The VHP's role is not just about temples. It works on issues related to Hindu astitva (being) and swabhimaan (pride). It has a large canvas, and it'll keep working on those things," the source says.

"The VHP's main responsibility is to bring different sects of Hindu society together. They were doing it through religious figures. Let them keep doing it."

The source also clarifies that fighting for a disputed temple site like Ayodhya will not be on ATMA's agenda, simply because it would decrease its inclusiveness.

The benefits

  • Reaching out to people previously untouched by the RSS through the route of religion
  • Using the vast infrastructure and resources of temples rather than having to start from scratch
  • Shepherding the masses towards common political and socio-cultural interests
  • The RSS doesn't manage religious activities in people's daily lives. This will open up a completely new avenue for the organisation.
  • Eyeing greater Hindu acceptability for its ideology

The challenges

  • Many important temples are focused on religious and commercial activities. They might not allow any other body to meddle in their affairs.
  • Some sects don't agree with the 'Sanatan Dharma' idea of Hinduism that the Sangh subscribes to. They might distance themselves from ATMA.
  • Some shrines are controlled by trusts, which may not want their positions diluted.
  • Many important temples are controlled by governments. Intervention could be a problem for the body in non-BJP ruled states.
  • The caste divide is still gaping in many temples across the country. This is also a challenge.

The reaction

Reactions to the idea of ATMA from outside the RSS are similar: that it's 'over-ambitious'.

One VHP godman says: "They want to create something like the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee or the churches in the West. This is almost impossible. I don't think this is a practical idea. Also, it looks like a very urban idea."

Acharya Ashok Dwivedi, president of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Nyas Parishad in Varanasi, doubts this will be a successful project.

"They have named it Atma (soul), which is an ideal thing. The purpose, however, is in the realm of the mundane. They ought to realise that any attempt to centrally control temples has always resulted in an increase of corruption, and weakened Hinduism itself," he says.

Undoubtedly, the RSS has a bigger goal in mind. And in a bid to achieve that goal, ambitious efforts like ATMA are inevitable.

First published: 17 October 2015, 11:03 IST
Panini Anand @paninianand

Senior Assistant Editor at Catch, Panini is a poet, singer, cook, painter, commentator, traveller and photographer who has worked as reporter, producer and editor for organizations including BBC, Outlook and Rajya Sabha TV. An IIMC-New Delhi alumni who comes from Rae Bareli of UP, Panini is fond of the Ghats of Varanasi, Hindustani classical music, Awadhi biryani, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, political talks and heritage walks. He has closely observed the mainstream national political parties, the Hindi belt politics along with many mass movements and campaigns in last two decades. He has experimented with many mass mediums: theatre, street plays and slum-based tabloids, wallpapers to online, TV, radio, photography and print.