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Home > 2023 > Rajeev Lochan Das: a sanyasi rebel | Radhakanta Barik and Bijay (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 28, July 8, 2023

Rajeev Lochan Das: a sanyasi rebel | Radhakanta Barik and Bijay Padhiari

Friday 7 July 2023, by Radhakanta Barik


Rajeev Lochan Mantri was born in 1839 and died in 1924 in a landed cultivating community in the village Nua Gaun (Kujanga). After he had a mastery over the Bhagvat he turned into Rajeev Lochan Das. He abandoned the village and family as a saint who entered into the domain of spiritualism. His spiritualism pushed him to the social reform movement. In the process, he turned into a sanyasi rebel against British rule. His reforms work in coastal Odisha broke the caste hierarchy. His creative interpretation of the Bhagvat gave a political meaning in the colonial period. He suffered at the hands of the colonial state which imprisoned him.

The 16th century is the most productive age of Odiya literature and society. The economy started changing towards the industrial economy. Ship-building activities got organised in two towns Cuttack and Balasore which brought other ancillary economic activities to Odisha. The textile industry got organized in Sambalpur and Berhmapur and Cuttack. It continued till the Marhatta rule started in the middle of the 18th century which ruled for fifty years till the Britishers took over from them in 1803. They plundered the cities which destroyed the industrial economy and brought Brahmins from outside and handed over the land to them and they entered into the interior of rural Odisha and grabbed the best land by evicting the farmers. Social conservatism got organised by the Brahmins by pushing the Bhagvat of Jagannath Das into a sacred text and banning of the other castes and women from reading the book. This created protests in many areas of Odisha. One movement was led by Rajeev Lochan Das who was a saint called Baba. We will examine his contribution to the social reform movement and national movement.

The Bhagvat brought a lot of critical thinking to the reading public who looked at Jagannath Das as a public intellectual. He abandoned his caste and cultural worldview of the Brahmins and wrote Bhagvat in simpler and lucid style. He played as Milton in English literature. Milton wrote on religion but questioned the concept of Heaven and reimagined the construction of hell as heaven. This inspired Shakespeare to tell hell is empty and all the devils are here.’
Jagannath Das questioned the concept of heaven and told the home could be made heaven where one could pursue his or her spiritual life without any hesitation. It created an ethical moral order which is based on puritan values which can sustain capitalism. A new ethical order got created where liquor consumption got discouraged but eating of fish or meat was encouraged. During the Maratha rule in the second half of the 19th century, it turned the text for earning money for the Brahmins. Brahmins could only recite the book and those who would listen to it had to pay money. Dalits and women were not allowed to read it. This created furor in the intellectual public life of Odisha. A tradition was built around the text of Bhagvat which brought a lot of energy to the literature. This book got accepted as part of Lekhan puja in the Karan caste who used to read and write those days. The cultivating community enjoyed reading this text and cited the couplet in settling the disputes among themselves. Dalits started reading and enjoying the text. Suddenly the tradition got disturbed by the order during the Maratha rule and turned into social rule established by the Britishers as the colonial administration took Martha rule as the model rule for exploiting the peasantry which had never happened during the Islamic period or the Moghul period. They kept the Amils the bureaucrats to collect the rent from the peasantry. This was the time Rajeev Lochan Das questioned as a religious person and redefined himself as the Jagannath Das reborn in him.

The religious texts speak always in a binary manner: good or bad/evil or good / black or white, male vs female, human vs animal / body vs soul, life vs death. Critical thinking helps us to explain how these work in concrete sense. Bhagvat brings people to stand in a concrete world and look at the surroundings critically. It is a text for all without creating a binary one. But the Brahmins brought the binary one that only vegetarians can read which got demolished long before by Chaitany Dev that “bola hari nam khao magur machhar jhol" that reciting the name of Hari does not bar you to eat the Magur fish and its curry. It got initiated by the priestly class that only male members after eating unboiled rice or Arua anna and veg can recite the book. Women and Dalits cannot read the book which the Brahmins imported from the west or north start imposing over the readers of the text. This created a lot of confusion among readers. Reading a text creates pleasures but following the rules prescribed by the Brahmins created irritation in the minds of the public. As people do not usually eat unboiled rice and they have to borrow it. Furthermore, if a priest reads out the book then one goes straight to heaven. Bhagvat is a text so popular among rural masses who could not follow the rules and regulations fixed by the Brahmins. Text for pleasure and text for holding discussions among his or her friends to settle conflicts got restricted. Reading the Bhagvat is a public act and also a private act. All sorts of restrictions imposed by them were laughed at by Rajeev Lochan Das the Baba who himself claimed that he was reincarnated as Jagannatha Das. He started reciting the book among people and explained the truth covered with mystery. His saintly figure and speaking wisdom through the Bhagvat had tremendous legitimacy among people. He slowly turned into a public intellectual with a long beard and yellow dress. He was named Baba Rajeev Lochan Das.

Rajeev Lochan was an adventurist in the spiritual world and he was critical of those who practice spiritualism in his time. He had the capacity to interpret the Bhagavat in a lucid and creative way. The crowd came to listen to him. He articulated the story in an imaginative manner. He had an agile and energetic writing which was reflected in his Bhagvat. He explained the stories in Bhagvat by taking examples from its own culture. He was able to articulate the cultural anxieties of rural Odisha in a simpler and more lucid style in which people could realize the stories. He used to explain aphorisms in a brilliant manner. This tradition of interpreting stories in the cultural context is still a living tradition.

Kujanga Paradip has produced some of the leading Palawalas who could interpret the stories in poetic form taking examples from their own cultural world. They use mythological stories and give creative interpretations in their palas. They tell stories in a poetic manner. Reciting poetry turns into a daily activity in rural Odisha. People enjoy reciting Bhanja the lyricist and other poets in Odiya. Reading poetry turns into a daily activity among people.

Rajeev Lochan got engaged with the text of Bhagvat and confronted the problems thrown by the Bhagvat. His critical thinking started relooking at these problems. All these problems he articulated in poetic imagination. His poetry turned into an adventurism. With little education, he turned into a poet and a critical thinker. He started writing Bhagvat in his words and poetic metaphors. He wrote three books on the Bhagvat known as the Udayaskanda Bhagvat which starts with Aa to Ma. Once his poetic talent got recognized by the people of the area and he moved out of the area and established the Ashram in Madhuban which is present in Paradeep and established Udhaya Bata (Rising Peepal). Reading Rajeev Lochan Das’s Bhagavat turned into a cultural event. People gathered here and listened to his poetry while gazing at the stormy sea. Their hearts faced storms and minds started imagining to solve these storms. They started questioning the Brahmins who used to say that reading of the Bhagavat required vegetarian food and unboiled rice and their questions gave new thinking to Rajeev Lochan. He openly stated that eating fish and boiled rice did not create problems in reading the spiritual text. They collected fish from the sea and rice from the paddy field and lived on them. They lived next to the sea and river Mahanadi which reaches here with the sea which looks like an ocean. Thinking got expanded into oceanic thinking with richness and complexity having a deep understanding of the Bhagvat with a wide vision. His adventurism into spiritualism pushed him slowly to be a trespasser into the social domain where reforms were imminent.

Rajeev Lochan had a network of 121 ashrams in the coastal Odisha which he used to visit and interacted with the villagers belonging to all castes and communities. This gave him a lesson that each is a human being having soul and body where caste turns into a frozen idea. Class creates division among people. A strong egalitarian philosophical outlook grew in him. He moved from literature the most imaginative world to real world that is society. He confronted society and created his own social imaginary. Bhagvat centers around the individual and his or her soul enrichment which does not require any prescription but reading and rereading of spiritual texts help the seeker of truth a new meaning. Restrictions imposed on reading and listening to Bhagvat by the Brahmins made him a rebel. He intervened in the social world and told them all could listen from Brahmin to Chandal. He learnt by interacting with his followers belonging to all castes and found human beings did not carry caste on their sleeves. They shared the same space in the ashram. All sit under the peepal tree and relish a non-vegetarian meal as fish was easily available. Double-boiled rice and fish turned out to be food in the ashram. Brahmin to chandal becomes the inmates of the Ashram. Ashram turned into a social space carrying all rich and poor the rich bring rice to the ashram poor brings the fish. Social space created social imaginary which dissolved the caste hierarchy. This reinvented the Buddhist society. That made him announce that rice and fish turned out to staple food for the truth seekers in the domain of spiritualism. This made him a rebel as coastal Odisha had a strong Buddhist influence where caste was a loose constellation. During the Marhatha and British rule it turned into rigid and social stratification made it impossible to have an entry of each into the spiritual world.

Rajeev Lochan turned into a rebel in the true sense. He abandoned his family and property as he was in a rebellious mood. He turned to spiritualism and started rereading the Bhagvat of Jagannath Das and claimed himself as a reincarnation of Jagannath Das. He turned into a rebel as he wrote three volumes on the Bhagvat which turned into an original text. He built ashrams and started having a dialogue with the people who wanted to listen to him. From monologue to dialogue is a big jump as the saints in practice always have monologue as they are built into authoritarian personalities. By breaking all these traditions he turned into a rebel in a political sense. While pursuing the social reforms movement among people he found the real obstacle was coming from colonialism. The colonial state did not approve his actions for interfering in social sphere as their basic principle is to noninterference in the social sphere. Let the caste system remain as it is without any cracks which can be easily handled by the colonial masters. He looked at the Bhagvat as a text which contained a rebellious philosophy in it. It is a story of dialogue between Krishna to Udhava. In the story, he found the seeds of rebellion as he elucidated the story of Krishna. He found Krishna as a leader of rural masses fighting against the Kansa a brutalized king. Here he found the colonial masters were real Kansa who oppressed the rural masses. High rent from the farmers and allowing landlords to exploit these rural people pushed him to think that in such a context Krishna was the leader of rural masses cutting castes and classes. They turned into masses and Krishna here turned into an organic intellectual. He tried to conceptualize their problems and articulated these problems to the colonial state who was standing for Kansa. This is an interesting analogy that worked in rural Odisha as the national movement was in the stage of infancy as the Congress was virtually absent. Gandhi’s coming made the Congress Party into a mass organization. Policemen and Landlords started informing to the District administration regarding his radical interpretation of the Bhagvat. He was put into jail for some time in Cuttack. Here his rich supporters from the city put a request to the District Collector that he was confined to only spiritualism not political movement. In the beginning he was allowed to stay in one of the Bhakta’s house where police men looking at his activities. It was virtually the house arrest for him. They came to DM and told that his meditating for hours ended with a rebellious talk to his followers. He got arrested once more and put him to jail. The case got filed in the Patna High Court as Odisha was coming under its jurisdiction. The High court released him in the end.

Rajeev Lochan Das had an interesting and intriguing reading of the Bhagvat. The second reading of the text made him very forceful and illuminating. His agile and vibrant mind made him to write three volumes on Bhagvat. His creativity made him a reformer. He turned into a social rebel against the Caste hierarchy by enacting a political programme of ‘Brahmin and Chandal’ combination for holding discussions and dialogue on the Bhagvat. He turned into a crowd puller which made him to establish 121ashrams in coastal Odisha. His interpretation of the Bhagvat made him a political sanyasi. He turned into a leader of the Sanyasi rebel against the colonial state. Everything happened before the Congress led the national movement in Odisha. He could be called a proto-nationalist who created the foundation for the Congress Party to create an architecture of nationalism through mass protest in a nonviolent manner. For example, during the Salt Satyagraha movement, it is the coastal Odisha gave the second largest protesters who marched to the sea. As the story goes this happened because of the works of Rajeev Lochan in terms of his problematic understanding of social cohesion and political protest. It seems that when Bankim Chandra came to Jajapur a coastal town and educated the town of Odisha as the Sub Collector he got impressed with the works of these ashrams which worked as the catalysts in creating agitation against British imperialism. This inspired him to write his famous novel ‘Ananda Math’.

(Authors: Radhakanta Barik was former Professor at Indian Institute of Public Administration; Bijay Padhiari a social activist and peace activist)

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