That savant, realising that Hinduism was under threat from religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, created the concept of the Kumbh snan as a means to bring about a religious reawakening among the Hindu community. And simultaneously created the concept of the Akharas in order to provide the Hindu religion with what, in effect, would be a standing army.
Thus, the Akharas -- which translate into arenas -- were designed as collectives of sadhus equally well-versed in religion and martial arts. In the hierarchy of Hindu religion, the Akharas would come one rung below the four Maths, similarly set up by Adi Shankaracharya at Dwarka, Puri, Badrinath and Kanchi.
Each Akhara has a base camp. The sadhus initiated into any one particular Akhara tend to make that base their home, but travel all over the country propagating their particular faith and finding new acolytes to bolster their numbers.
The Dashanami Akharas -- the 10 leading Akharas of Hinduism -- can be broadly divided into the Shaivite and the Vaishnavite branches, with the Shaivite Akharas numbering seven while the other three profess the Vaishnavite belief.
The Shaivite Akharas are led by the intensely religious and scholarly Mahanirvani Akhara and the enormously well-funded Niranjani Akhara (which, in fact, have the first and second places in the bathing schedules that are drawn up at the Kumbh), but the real stars are the sadhus of the Juna (also known as Bhairav) Akhara. The Naga sadhus of the Juna Akhara are famed for their naked state, ash being the only covering they permit themselves. The other Saivite Akharas are the Anand, Atal, Awahan and Agni.
The Vaishnav (Bairagi) Akharas, believed to have been founded by Shri Balanandji Maharaj, are led by the Nirmohi Akhara, the Nirvani Akharav and the Digamber Akhara. All three have in course of time fragmented further, with the Nirmohi now boasting nine branches, the Nirvani (not to be confused with the Shaivite Mahanirvani Akhara) being further split into seven sub-branches and the Digamber being split into two.
Besides these two streams -- Shaivite and Vaishnavite -- that together comprise the Dashanami Akharas, there is also the Udasin Akhara, comprising of Sikhs who have converted to Hinduism, yet still venerate the Guru Granth Sahib as their chief religious text. The Udasin Akhara is further divided into two sub-branches.
Also forming part of the honour roll of the leading Akharas is the Nirmal -- more accurately the Nirmal Panchayati Akhara -- who comprise of Sikhs who follow Guru Nanak and who have not converted to Hinduism.
The Akharas are headed by Acharya Mahamandaleshwars, followed by the Mahamandaleshwars, the Acharyas and the Mahants, with the lay sadhus making up the following. The structure is simple -- depending on the overall strength of the Akhara, a certain number of sadhus fall under a Mahant, with a group of Mahants coming under each Mahamandaleshwar and the latter, in turn, reporting to the Acharya Mahamandaleshwar who, as far as that particular Akhara is concerned, is the supreme authority.
Photograph: Abhishek Pandey
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