A debate is going on in the social and cultural circles of Karnataka over Bhootharadhane, a ritual of spirit worship practised by people of coastal Karnataka, as to whether it is part of Hindu culture. The discussion was opened up with the stupendous success of Rishab Shetty’s Kannada film Kantara, a story based on the traditions and beliefs, including worship of Bhootha Kola, in the Dakshina Kannada region.
The controversy was kicked off by Kannada actor-activist Chetan Kumar who questioned Rishab Shetty’s claim in an interview that the Bhootha Kola ritual is part of Hindu culture. During the interview, Shetty was asked whether Panjurli, a spirit in the form of a wild boar, was depicted in the movie as a Hindu deity. Shetty, in his reply said those gods are ‘all part of our tradition’ and of Hindu culture and rituals. “Because I am a Hindu, I have belief and respect for my religion. But I will not say others are wrong. What we have said (in the movie) is through the element that is present in Hindu dharma,” he said.
Contesting this, Kumar told a press conference that it is important how we use the word ‘Hindu’. “It is wrong to say that Bhootha Kola is part of the Hindu religion. Adivasis practised the ritual and there is no ‘Brahminism’ in Bhootha Kola, he pointed out. Cautioning against bracketing ancient ‘Moolvasi’ culture with Hinduism, he said it is the culture of the Adivasis. Do not put Adivasi culture in the column of Hindu religion,” he said, inviting strong protests from right wing Hindu outfits.
Bhootha Kola is a ritual performance where local spirits or deities are worshipped. It is believed that the person performing the ritual turns himself in as God at the moment and listens to people’s grievances and provides answers. Several Bhoothas are being worshipped in the Tulu-speaking belt of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. The rituals are mostly confined to small local communities and rural areas where the Daivas are believed to protect the villagers from all evils.
North Kerala’s Theyyam performed in local temples and houses has strong resemblance to the Bhootha Kola.
Chetan Kumar, an activist who had earlier taken up the cause of Adivasis, said Bhootha Kola, a non-Vedic ritual, was not part of Hindu tradition but of indigenous people who are Moolvasis, which was later ‘hijacked’ by Aryans. In a tweet, Kumar said, “Glad our Kannada film Kantara is making national waves. Director Rishab Shetty claims Bhootha Kola is ‘Hindu culture’. False. Our Pambada/Nalike/Parawa’s Bahujan traditions pre-date Vedic-Brahminical Hinduism. We ask that Moolnivasi cultures be shown w/ truth on & off screen.”
Karnataka’s land has its own culture, tradition and history even before the Hindu religion began. Bhootha Kola and other practices are part of the Adivasi culture which has been existing for several thousand years, he later said, clarifying his argument.
Rishab Shetty, who sought to distance himself from the controversy, said he has no comment on the issue. “When I was making this movie, those people who practised this culture were with me and I have been very cautious. I come from the same part, still I do not want to comment about it as only people who perform it have the right to speak,” he told media. Many others joined issue criticising Chetan Kumar for his remarks.
Noting that Bhootha Kola represents Hindu culture and tradition, Sri Rama Sene chief Pramod Muthalik in a statement said the actor, who is an atheist, does not know the culture of the land. Identifying Panjurli, a spirit worshiped in Bhootha Kola, with the Hindu God Vishnu has led to the controversy, with some pointing out the ‘appropriation’ of Adivasi culture in films that depict Hinduism.
Reacting to the row, Dharmasthala dharmadhikari (hereditary administrator) and Rajya Sabha MP Veerendra Heggade said several such practices have evolved over the years and people have strong belief in them. The people in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts believe in Daivaradhane and Bhootharadhane. There is no need to link it with dharma, he told media after watching the movie in Mangaluru recently.
Karnataka Tulu Sahitya academy president Dayanand G Kathalsar affirmed that Bhootharadhane and worship of Bhoothas are part and parcel of Hindu religion. Attempts are being made to separate those practising the worship from the mainstream of Hindu religion, he told reporters here.
Kathalsar, who is also former president of Pampadara Yane Daivaradkara Seva Samaja, said there are 16 different classes who are involved in Daivaradhane in the coastal region. All the people from different classes are involved in the process, he said, adding it is unfair to try to distance it from Hinduism. He said all Tuluvas believed in Daivradhane, including the scheduled caste people who belong to the Hindu religion. The right-wing outfits are up in arms against Chetan Kumar for his comments on Bhootha Kola.
Recently, an FIR was registered in Bengaluru against the actor for his comments on Bhootha Kola, based on a complaint from a Bajrang Dal activist. The Hindu Jagarana Vedike (HJV), which has also taken up the issue, also lodged a complaint at Karkala police station in Udupi stating that Chetan Kumar’s statement has hurt the sentiments of Hindus. The Vedike has urged the police to take suitable action against the actor.