On hearing the word ‘Akahara’, wrestling comes to the mind, but here, the meaning is related to the origin of the word. The word ‘akahra’ is the distorted form of the word ‘akhand’ whose literal meaning is indivisible. Adi Guru Shankracharya attempted to unite organizations of ascetics to protect the ‘Sanatan’ way of life. Therefore, various Akharas were established for uniting followers of similar religious customs, views and ideologies. The saints and ascetics associated with an Akhara specializes in both scriptures and armaments.
Akharas are a symbol of social order, unity, culture and ethics. Their main objective is establishment of spiritual values in the society. The greatest responsibility of Akhara Mathas is to establish ethical values in the society. For this reason, during the selection process of Dharma Gurus special emphasis is given on virtue, morality, self-restrain, compassion, rigorousness, farsightedness, and religiosity. Indian culture and unity derives its strength from these Akharas. Despite being divided under various organisations, Akharas are a symbol of unity among diversity. A specific type of Akahara Matha consisting of Naga sages holds special significance. Each Naga sage is always associated with some or the other Akahara. These sages on one hand specialize in scriptures and on the other are experts in the art of combat.
Akahras may be categorised into the following three sections based on their favoured deity:
A five-member committee looks after order and operations of the organization and are considered the representatives of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, and Shakti. In terms of numbers, ‘Juna Akahara’ is the largest, closely followed by ‘Niranjani’ and ‘Mahanirvani’ Akharas. Mahamandaleshwaras lead the Akharas and they are the only ones authorised to share the Guru-mantra to the inexperienced saints. During Peshvai and Shahi Snaans, ‘Mahamandaleshwaras’ lead the procession on ornate chariots accompanied by ‘Shri Mahanta’, followed by their secretaries on elephants, Naga sages on horses and rest of the saints following on foot. Akharas display great pomp and royal glory by displaying their skills using traditional weapons along with all the paraphernalia during the procession.
Akhil Bhartiya Akahda Parishad has been established to promote mutual harmony and settlement of any dispute among the Akaharas. Akhil Bhartiya Akahda Parishad in consultation with the Mela committee comprising of Mandal Commissioner, District Magistrate and Mela Adhikari determine the date and time along with the order of Akharas for the procession of Shahi Snaan and Peshvai.
Nowadays, these Akharas are perceived with much admiration and devotion. Holding the flags and banners of Sanatan Dharma, these akaharas spread the lustre and glory of Akahara Dharm in all directions. The reverence and devotion of pilgrims towards these akaharas is apparent during the processions of Shahi Snaan when they gather on both sides of the processions to receive their blessings.
Ascetics who hold wooden logs called ‘Bhramha Danda’ are known as ‘Dandi’ Sanyasis. Organization of Dandi Sanyasis is called ‘Dandi Bara’. ‘Dand Sanyas’ is not a sect but it is a tradition of Ashram system. Under this system only Brahmins have the right to take up this Sanyas. It is said that Lord Narayana himself was the first Dandi Sanyasi who held the ‘Danda’.
" Narayanam padya bhavm vashinshtah, shaktim cha tatputra parashram cha
Vyasam sukam gaur padam mahantam Govind yogindramathaasya shishyam
Shri Shankaracharyamathaasya padya padam a hastamalankam cha shishyam
Tam trotankam vartikkar manmansya guru santat maanatosim II"
Thereafter, Lord Adi Guru Shankaracharya established four ‘Mathas’ in all four directions and appointed ‘Dharmacharyas’ in all the ‘Mathas’. Afterwards, for protection of religion Adi Shankaracharya founded ‘Dashanam Sanyas’ in which three (Ashram, Tirth, Sarasvati) became ‘Dandi Sanyasis’ and rest seven were established as’ Akharas’
Among Dandi Sanyasis, the very first one is the Ashram sect whose prime matha is Sharda matha, favoured deity is Siddheshwara, Goddess is Bhadrakali, and Acharya is ‘Vishvaroopacharya’. The title of their Brahamcharis is “Swaroop”. ‘Tirth’ who adopts the code of conduct of the Ashram takes the second place, and the followers of Shringareri Matha are addressed as ‘Saravati’.
Acharya Bara sect is also known as ‘Ramanuj Sect. The first Acharya of this sect was ‘Shathkop’ who used to sell winnowing basket (soop);
“shupra vikriya vichaar shatkop yogi”
His disciple was ‘Munivahan’ who was the second Acharya. The third Acharya was ‘Yamnacharya’ and the fourth one was Ramanuj. The fourth Acharya propagated this sect by creating various holy books. It is from that time that the sect came to be known as ‘Shri Ramanuj sect’. The followers of this sect worship ‘Narayana’ and revere ‘Laxmi’ as their deity. Their main pilgrimages include the banks of ‘Kaveri’ and ‘tri-dand’.
In the Acharya Bada sect, boys over eight years are bestowed with ‘Brahmchari Diksha’. Thereafter, they study Vedas and after completion of their study, Sam Veda is considered as their Veda. But ‘Sanyasa’ is bestowed to them only after passing multiple stages of examinations. However, they have the freedom to choose normal family life (Grihasta) after the completion of their studies. However, if they choose to take Sanyas, they cannot indulge themselves into any family relations.
The Sanyasis are educated in Panch Sanskara in which the heated conch (Shankh Chakra) is touched at the base of the palm, are made to wear tripund tika of sandalwood on their forehead and are named after the names of the honored Gods. Thereafter, they are provided with the Guru Mantra and it’s only then, they are initiated into the sects with yajna sanskar.
In conclusion, it may be said that Acharya Bara is a supreme example of dualism and this sect and practicing differentiation between self and God, worships their favored deity.
Prayagwals share a very close relationship with historically celebrated Tirathraj Prayagraj. The name ‘Prayagwal’ refers to the original citizens of Prayagraj who continue to live here from many generations.
Pilgrims and devotees visiting the Kumbh Mela or Magh Mela are welcomed and settled in the Mela area by Prayagwals who perform various rituals of Kumbh for the pilgrims. Same has been described in ‘Matsya Purana’ and Prayagraj Mahatamya. As a practise, Tirth Purohit (priest) accompanies pilgrims visiting Prayagraj. The relationship between the devotee and the priest is of Guru and Shishya (student and teacher). Prayagwals, as religious gurus of the devotees are the only people allowed to collect donations from the pilgrims at the Triveni Sangam.
Mr. Nemil wrote in the district gazetteer, that the pilgrims who pay their homage at Prayagraj have all kinds of religious rituals performed by Prayagwals. First, a visit is made to Beni Madhava followed by the ritual of Sankalp. Thereafter, the devotee gets his head shaved (Mundan ceremony) followed by bathing ritual and Pind Daan (offering of libations of water to the Gods). Afterwards, Shaiyya daan (donation of bedding), Gau-dan (donation of cow) and Bhumidan (donation of land) are made. Prayagwals perform all kinds of daan-updaans for the pilgrims. Genealogy of the pilgrims are available with the specified priest of their family. Prayagwal’s Yajmaan are duly noted based on area and family name in their records. Tirth Purohits finds the details of their Yajmaans in moments by which Yajmaans get very pleased to see the names and signatures of their ancestors on the registers. Prayagwals are allotted land at the Mela site on negligible rent from the authority on which arrangement for tents are made. Devotees are invited to stay there for the duration of the Kumbh Mela and the rent is covered by the donations offered by Yaajmans
The organization of Prayagwals is known as Prayagwal Sabha. Demarcation and allotment of land to Prayagwal is done through Prayagwal Sabha. The number of Takhats (wooden platforms) per Prayawal are also fixed. Prayagwal maintains the records in the registers kept in a big box on the Takhat, and from these Takhats all religious rituals are performed by Prayagwals for the Yajmaans. Prayagwal display their banner on a tall bamboo pole by which pilgrims identify their specific Prayagwals.