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It's a fusion of faiths

It's a fusion of faiths

Author: Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
Publication: The Speaking Tree
Date: September 11, 2011

Monday is dedicated to Shiva. Through the huge gateway we saw thousands of pilgrims milling around, streaming in and out, drying their garments from the railings of multi-storeyed dharamshalas. There were people everywhere. But more important than the people was Sri Manjunatha Temple's message of inter-faith amity sustained for centuries.

The infallible judge

It all began with an odd encounter, 800 years ago. Dharmasthala was then,a village known as Kuduma. Its chieftain, Bamanna Pergade and his wife, Ammu Ballathi, lived in a modest, tiled house. One day, four strangers arrived at the Pergade house and were welcomed very warmly. That night, the Pergades had a dream:their guests were dharma daivas or powerful spirit protectors of dharma or righteousness. The Pergades vacated their house, gave it over for the worship of the daivas, and dedicated the rest of their lives to dharma - the conduct that binds a society together.

Following the instructions of the daivas, they invited Brahmin priests to perform rituals in the shrines and accepted the advice of the priests to install an idol of Shiva in his aspect as Manjunatheswara. The lingam, installed in the sanctum, was brought by a spirit vassal of the dharma daivas - Annappa Bhuta. He was asked to do so by a famed Vaishnavite scholar, Vadiraja Swami. This, according to an authoritative book, is the reason why the priests that officiate in the premier temple of Shiva, are Vaishnavite Brahmins. After this idol had been consecrated according to Vedic rites, the name of the hamlet was changed to Dharmasthala.

Somewhere along the way, the surname 'Pergade' was changed to 'Heggade' though it is only when the eldest son takes over the duties of the dharmadhikari or the guardian of the temple, that he is referred to as the Heggade.

The temple was fragrant with incense as devotees and priests worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. In the verandah, supplicants were being weighed against offerings which they would donate to the kitchen. Children and their parents waited in the forecourt. We stepped across the court to see the Heggade in his role as an infallible judge.

Petitioners' tale

His 'audience chamber' was an ordinary room with wall cupboards, a few pillars, a sofa settee to one side, with a long queue of waiting petitioners. At the far end, a pleasant-featured man with glasses and a moustache, sat on an armchair. He wore a white shirt and a white dhoti. He was Veerendra Heggade who has been the Heggade of Dharmasthala from the time he assumed the title in 1968, at the age of 20.

We looked on as petitioners stepped up to him; their hands joined, and explained their problems. This was the Holiyu. If there is a civil dispute between people who have faith in Dharmasthala, they take the matter to the 'court' of Sri Manjunatha. Closing their eyes and raising their hands, they make him the final arbitrator on the matter. Once the dispute has been referred to the deity, the verdict given by 'Sri Manjunatha's voice' - through the Heggade - is accepted as final and binding. Even the civil courts accept the verdict.

The petitioners came forward, spoke in moderate tones, presented their conflicting cases, answered the questions asked by the Heggade, got a verdict and walked away gratefully without questioning his decision. While we were there, no verdict took more than 10 minutes, some were much faster.

The four folk spirits

Then the Heggade came across and sat with us. He confirmed the legends we had heard about the origins of Dharmasthala, and that he consulted the oracles of the dharma daivas. He volunteered that, in the coastal regions of Karnataka, there is still a strong belief in spirits. He said that after giving his verdict, he advised all petitioners to go to the temple and thank Manjunatheswara. He told us that he and his family were fervent Jains and that there was an ancient Basadi or Jain temple, in Dharmasthala. After this, he wished us goodbye and went back to his seat. The queue of petitioners rose and the Heggade began to listen to their petitions once again.

Confluence of faiths

As we drove out, the real wonder of Karnataka's Dharmasthala homed in on us. Here was an organisation based on faith, owned for centuries by a single Jain family whose head is recognised as the voice of the idol of Shiva and worshipped in a temple attended by Vaishnavite priests. The ultimate guidance for all this is provided by oracles controlled by four ancient folk spirits. The icons of these faiths were as varied as those of Judaism, Christianity and Islam but they, happily, found common ground here. Dharmasthala's fusion of faiths and justice could be the template of a more tolerant future for all mankind.

- gantzerhc@gmail.com

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