Founded in the 19th century, the Mahima Gadi religious movement began as a way to evade the harsh caste system in India.
- Published On September 4, 2018
As we entered through the richly decorated gates of the Mahima Gadi in the Dhenkanal district of Orissa, India, the auspicious sound of conch shells and bells greeted our ears. Drawn by the music, we moved towards the main shrine of the complex where barely-clad monks with long beards and hair were performing the evening worship ritual. These monks are keeping alive a religion called the Mahima Dharma that was born as a sign of protest against the exploitative practices of casteism in India.
Casteism: An Evil in Society?
To many, casteism is regarded as an evil in Indian society. This centuries-old practice continues to be prevalent in Indian society to date. It influences the nation’s politics and culture and shapes the way of life of its citizens. It even determines the marriage partners in arranged marriages. In the past, casteism divided Indian society into rigid social groups with defined roles in the society. Those of the lowest castes were assigned the task of providing service to the higher castes. Often, this means that they were heavily exploited. A rigid society meant that their dreams of leading a life of their choice were never realized.
Although modern India has overcome the barriers of casteism to a certain extent, it still has a significant presence in the country. The fact is clearly visible when one sees a large section of educated Indian youth seeking marriage partners within their own caste.
Throughout its history, India has witnessed the birth of many social reformers and organizations that have vehemently protested against the practice of casteism. Often, unable to bear with the oppression, Hindus of lower castes have discarded their religion to accept other religions that have promised them equality. At other times, they have founded a religion of their own.
The Mahima Dharma is one such religion that was started by members of India’s underprivileged castes to condemn all the customs set by the upper class and wealthy society that often ridiculed the lower ones and crushed their dreams of a better life.
A Religion Born To Free The Society Of Its Evils
On the temple grounds in Mahima Gadi, we waited for the evening worship ritual to end before we could speak to one of the ascetics about the history of the religion.
In the 19th-century, when casteism still ruled strong in India, an ascetic named Mahima Gosain exhibited great courage as he broke all barriers of casteism to establish a new religion that promised equality for all. Many legends are associated with Gosain. It is believed that he had the power to create miracles. He also managed to attract many followers who believed in his principle of a single God who is formless and omnipresent. He traveled extensively throughout Orissa and the neighboring states to spread the Mahima Dharma. His final resting place at Mahima Gadi today serves as the headquarters of the Mahima Dharma.
Today, the temple at Mahima Gadi is idol-less. Although some believe that the followers of Mahima Dharma worship the sun god, the ascetics at Mahima Gadi confirmed that this is false. Followers instead pray to the supreme lord facing the direction of the sun but can also choose to face any other direction. However, once fixed, the direction cannot be altered.
Life for the ascetics at Mahima Gadi is not easy when viewed from the perspective of the materialistic world. They are expected to lead a life of poverty, sacrifice, piety, and constant movement. They must give up all material wealth and move from place to place in search of food and shelter. Although the religion has a monastic order, the monks cannot behave as a superior priestly class and dictate the lay practitioners about their religious duties. This factor distinguished Mahima Dharma from an orthodox Hindu society where the priestly class called the Brahmins controlled the lives of the people of the lower castes to a great extent.
For the other followers of the religious movement, idol worship, and the consumption of intoxicants and animal flesh are strictly forbidden. They must always abstain from violence. Saran/Darsan, the act of complete surrender to the supreme God, must be performed every day prior to sunrise.
The Mahima Dharma Teaches That Change Is Possible
By rejecting the age-old caste system, the practitioners of Mahima Dharma have overcome one of the biggest barriers to progress in India. While a section of educated youth in modern India still adhere to the practice of casteism, the ascetics of the Mahima religious movement have broken free of this age-old system and represent a powerful force of liberation in the country.
Dr. Oishimaya Sen Nag is a freelance writer and editor from Kolkata, India. She loves to participate in wildlife conservation activities and to explore new places and cultures.