Jayendra Saraswathi: An Acharya with a difference

By S Gurumurthy| Published: 01st March 2018 04:00 AM
File photo of Kanchi Shankaracharya Jayendra 82 the 69th pontiff of the Kanchi Mutt died on Wednesday in Tamil Nadu's Kanchipuram. | PTI

Jayendra Saraswathi, the direct disciple of the Mahaswami, was particularly distinct from his predecessor in almost every respect. Being more contemporary than traditional, he often tested the limits of orthodoxy and extended the areas of the Math’s reach and influence

Jayendra Saraswathi Swami, the 69th Shankaracharya of the famous Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, who attained samadhi on Wednesday was an Acharya different in comparison to his peers in the pantheon of Shankaracharyas. He was particularly distinct from his predecessor and Guru, Chandrashekarendra Saraswathi, popularly known as the Kanchi Mahaswami, in almost every respect. Jayendra Saraswathi was even controversial because of the risky territories he traversed that were never unravelled to him in the training he had received in the innocent surroundings at the Math.

Guru-Sishya contrast

The Kanchi Math, rebuilt from scratch by the Mahaswami, attained the most revered status among all Maths in the country and the Mahaswami was revered as the walking Divinity. An epitome of modesty and simplicity, his calmness and silence attracted millions to him. The tallest intellectuals, the mightiest leaders and the most respected men and women from all walks of life queued up for his darshan and to hear his profound words. Even his detractors were silenced by the power of his calmness and quietude. The Math reached its pinnacle under his stewardship. Jayendra Saraswathi, the direct disciple of the Mahaswami, was almost a contrast.

If the Mahaswami was silent, Jayendra was outspoken. If his Guru was inner directed, Jayendra was outgoing. If the Mahaswami walked, Jayendra motored, even flew. If the Guru avoided fame, the disciple enjoyed it. If the Mahaswami immersed in contemplation with self, Jayendra involved in conversation with the world. This contrast did create a situation in 1988, when Jayendra Saraswathi, piqued by some in the Math not accepting the culture change he was bringing about, left the Math without informing anyone suddenly. It shook the Math and its millions of followers. Though he returned after calming himself, the incident demonstrated his trans-traditional impulses.

Unchartered territories

The calm, quiet and inward-looking Math and its grammar changed into one of high pulse and activity under Jayendra Saraswathi’s leadership after the Mahaswami attained siddhi in 1994. Being more contemporary than traditional, Jayendra Saraswathi often tested the limits of orthodoxy and extended the areas of the Math’s reach and influence beyond its traditional adherents even as he explored areas of social thrust. He was instrumental in the Kanchi Math expanding directly into people’s service and not remaining merely a spiritual fountainhead as it was under the Mahaswami.

Today, the Kanchi Math runs a deemed university and dozens of schools and hospitals — territories previously not in the reach of Math — besides over 50 traditional Vedic schools and temples. Jayendra broke the restraining rules of the Math and reached out to the downtrodden. He went to Harijan bastis and attracted thousands of new followers and devotees. He transformed a spiritual and ritualistic Math into a socially vibrant one. This brought him high popularity and also into interaction with a multitude of social and political leaders in the country. It had had its pluses and minuses.

Arrest and vicious atmosphere

Jayendra Saraswathi’s independent course provoked some elements in the Math to fault him for deviating from the celebrated traditions. This led to an uncomplimentary campaign against him and the murder of one of the dissenters. In a state where Hinduism has borne the burden of unjust assault at the hands of the Dravida Kazhagam and its offshoots, political parties and others found it opportune to attack Jayendra, finally leading his arrest.

This sparked a nationwide uproar, but in Tamil Nadu, a vicious campaign was carried by political parties, intellectuals, activists and even the media against the Math and the Acharya. The New Indian Express alone gave the other side view and carried five counter-investigation articles [authored by me]. The first article titled As the Shankaracharya stands like Abhimanyu [NIE 23.11.2004] captured how the Dravidian political and secular media in the state were hounding the hapless Acharya, who was stung and stunned by the heinous charge against him. The third one titled The case is dead. Who’ll do the funeral, and when, exposed the frivolous prosecution. An angry government ordered my arrest and even the bail available to any accused was denied to the Acharya by the Magistrate and Sessions Court and by the Madras High Court. Finally, he had to get bail from the Supreme Court! Even the junior Acharya was arrested.

The final article titled Will the Secular Media Heed Justice Reddy’s Warning? [Jan 14, 2005] was on the judgment of Justice Narasimha Reddy of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, who condemned the unprecedented process of denigration of the ancient, prestigious and glorious Math with almost 2,500-year history by “not only individuals, but also a section of the institutions, such as the State and the Press”. Noting the stoic silence of the proponents of human rights, fair play and dignity, the judge said “a powerful section is celebrating or watching with indifference” the “perfidy against the Math” that had shocked the nation and beyond”. Pointing to the “amount of disrepute and sacrilege inflicted on Jayendra Saraswathi that had no comparables, Justice Reddy pointed out that harshest possible words were used directly or in innuendo against him”. Finally he declared, “today he is subjected to similar treatment as was Draupati in the Court of Kauravas.”

Acquittal

Later, the Principal Sessions Court in Puducherry acquitted Jayendra Saraswathi, Vijayendra Saraswathi and all others. The judgment almost echoed the third counter investigation article in The New Indian Express which opened thus: “On counter investigation, we found the case against the Shankaracharya not just slippery, but actually groundless from day one. Not just that. It involves a bit of fabrication too. Yes the fabrication to fix the Acharya. The police are running for cover. They may not give up yet and may fabricate more to put the case, which is dead, on life support system. But the case is irretrievably lost. The dramatic turn came on Wednesday in the Kancheepuram Magistrate court. The two criminals on whom the police had exclusively relied to name the Shankaracharya as an accused in the case have actually turned to accuse the police as the fabricators of the case itself.”

Within two weeks of the Acharyas’ arrest, The New Indian Express had called the prosecution’s bluff. The judgment acquitting the Acharyas pretty much said the same thing. But that was after nine years of intense pain and humiliation the Acharya underwent, having been declared a criminal even before a chargesheet was filed against him.

Jayendra Saraswathi is no more and the pain inflicted on him has died with him. But the pain the Math and the millions of peaceful devotees underwent at the hands of a hostile state, egged on by the media and watched by the proponents of human rights, as Justice Reddy had said, will remain a permanent scar in the political, judicial and media history of Tamil Nadu. Jayendra Saraswathi’s demise may be an occasion for all those who hounded him for a decade and more to introspect so that they don’t repeat it ever.

S Gurumurthy

(The author is a well-known commentator on social, political and economic issues)

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