THE COMING OF NIKALANK AVATAR: A MESSIANIC THEME IN SOME SECTARIAN TRADITIONS OF NORTH-WESTERN INDIA
Journal of Indian Philosophy 25: 401-426, 1997.
(c) 1997 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
In the literary tradition associated with a few "obscure" religious movements of Rajasthan and Gujarat one finds a number of prophetic songs the central motifs of which are of an eschatological and messianic nature. They describe the end of the world or rather, according to Hindu beliefs, the cataclysms and disasters preceding the dissolution (pralaya) of the universe at the end of the fourth cosmic Age (Kali yuga) before a new Era begins.The advent of a saviour and restorer of justice in the form of Vishnu's tenth incarnation is also predicted, although, unlike the Epic and Puranic Kalki, he is referred to as Nikalank Avatar.
Some of these devotional compositions known as Agam vanis (litt. "poems of the time to come") are still sung during the sacred vigils (jama-jagrans) organized by the followers of a sect called Mahapanth or Nizarpanth, who accept as one of their gurus Ramdev Pir, a fourteenth- fifteenth century saint of Marwar (D.S. Khan, 1993, 1996). The numerous modern devotees who also worship him as a folk-deity but do not belong to the panth are not familiar with these songs which are a part of the religious heritage of some other sects as well: the Bisnoi, Jasnathi and Ai panths. The founders of these movements which are mostly spread in Rajasthan but also found in neighbouring areas, such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, are believed to have flourished in the fifteenth century. Most of their teachings have remained secret to this day, although the devotional poems ascribed to them and to their disciples may superficially display similarities with the compositions of better known Medieval saints of North India (D.S. Khan, 1997). The same type of vanis are also found in other traditions such as the Ravi-Ban sampraday and the Pranami sect (Gohil, 1994: 20).
Remarking that this prophetic theme plays a major role in the Nizarpanthi tradition, most followers of which seem to belong to untouchables groups (Gohil, Ibid.: 52-3) asserts that the theme is a part of an esoteric revelation connected with the sect. He also attempts to show that the messianic accents of the Agam vanis reflect the condition of the depressed communities of North India and their expectations of a brighter future. According to the same author, the poets and prophets of the panth have been inspired by an old pan-Hindu tradition which they have revived and brought into prominence. The roots of their messianism would thus lie in the Epic and Puranic literature where mention is made of the advent of Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu.
In the following pages I will attempt to demonstrate that this viewpoint does not account for the presence of many prominent themes in the Agam vanis and leaves a series of questions unanswered. It may indeed be tempting to think that the down-trodden have, at some time in their still unwritten history, resorted to a traditional messianic motif which they would have adapted to their requirements and preserved to this day since, despite modern law, society has not been able to do them full justice. Prohibited by the Indian constitution (article 17), untouchability is still a reality in contemporary India. However, the idea of an exclusive link between this type of messianic expectations and the social helplessness of the lower Hindu castes is contradicted by one fact: the presence of the same motif, expressed in similar terms, in the Bisnoi, Jasnathi and Aipanthi sectarian traditions in which agricultural "clean" communities (Jats, Sirvis) enjoying a much higher status are the major bulk of followers.
Moreover, the Nizarpanth shares with the above mentioned movements a number of other devotional compositions, rituals and organizational features which are not found in other better known Medieval sampradays. This may lead us to contemplate the existence of some historical link between them -a link which some of my Nizarpanthi informants were ready to acknowledge when they stated that "originally there was only one sect, the Bisnoi and Ai panths are but offshoots of our sectarian tradition".
Another trait which they share (although modern followers are rather reluctant to admit it in the present context of "communal" conflicts) is the presence of Muslim elements in their sacred literature and ceremonies. This phenomenon, encountered at various levels in the religious life of the Subcontinent, has invariably been explained by repeated interactions with Sufism (interpreted as Sunni mysticism) or so called "popular Islam" -which in some cases would have even resulted in a kind of syncretism. As far as the Ramdev movement is concerned, Muslim influences have been noted but admittedly remained of obscure origin (Binford, 1976: 126).
Reexamining the problem and drawing attention to the forgotten work of some nineteenth century Gujarati authors such as Nanjiani, others (D.S. Khan, Moir, Mumtaz Ali) have recently suggested an altogether different view. The Islamic components of the traditions studied here have not been drawn from Sunni Islam, whether in its more "legalistic" or mystical, Sufic forms, but have a Shia background. According to this hypothesis, these sects which appeared in Medieval India could have been offshoots or "lost branches" of Nizari Ismailism -a religious movement the role of which in the Subcontinent has been greatly underestimated and remained unexplored to this day. It is only recently that a few authors (Allana, Kassam, D.S. Khan, Mumtaz Ali) have alluded to the fact that the Ismaili mission (dawa) may have had in the past a much greater extension than can be surmised from the number of communities which subsist in India and Pakistan.
At this stage it may be necessary to say a few words about the particular form which Ismailism assumed in this part of the world and the nature of its interaction with various local communities before turning our attention to the messianic theme which is the subject of this article.