Random Thoughts

Legends of Shankara

Shankara remains a mystery--to me. He is widely believed to have been born at Kalady which is now famous for its rice mills and Sanskrit University. Sadly, I have not been to  that idyllic village off Kochi.  In thirty two years in the eighth century, he accomplished, physically and spiritually, what was far beyond a human lifetime. The four  learning centers he set up, Badari, Puri, Shringeri, Dwaraka, date him back before the Christian Era. They do not recognize Kanchi which dates him further back.

As far as possible, I recite his six verses of liberation to twist my tongue and tease my mind. “I am not this, nor that, I am not born, I never die” and so on goes the theory of inclusion and exclusion of this master of monism. As I commit it to memory, I ask myself how he could traverse the sprawling land between the sea and the hill, not once but twice, not by cart or luxury liner, when there was no link language other than god’s own tongue. 

What took me to the tortuous trail of Shankara was a short note on social media sent round by Vijendra Rao, highlighting the feats of the seer of Kanchi, Chandrasekhara Saraswati, popularly known as Paramacharya. That Paramacharya’s tradition is not approved by the monks of the four monasteries, striking perhaps an odd note of dualism, is a different matter. I had been to Paramacharya’s haven long after he was gone and Shringeri across the breath-taking Tungabhadra. Shankara chose that spot when he saw there, they say, a serpent standing guard for a frog in labour pain. Contemporary gossip was that an extremist faction operated from adjoining wilds. Tungabhadra has, indeed, a genius for harmonizing contradictions.

My subject is the late seer of Kanchi whose uncanny acts and spiritual heights are recalled in a Tamil book by R Ganapathi. Paramacharya’s sayings are legion. Ganapathi has placed as the motif of his book a simple catchline:  Feed people without distinction. It is easier said than done. Paramacharya would explain his injunction with and without striking anecdotes from his life and history. He would hark back to Sangam literature and invoke the story of  the Chera King Udhiyan Cheralathan who used to feed both the Kauravas and the Pandavas during the devastating war at Kurukshetra. 

I felt small when a creative temple tradition from Kerala was used to illustrate the great monk’s adage “feed people without distinction.” My discomfiture was that I had never heard about that temple at Cherukunnu or its distinguishing ritual. After the day’s rituals are over, when all available devotees are given prasadam, usually rice, a few food packets would be tied around a tree in temple portals. That was for the consumption of thieves who might be out on prowl by midnight. The moral is obvious and delightful. It is good to feed even thieves.

I never got to see Paramacharya. His unorthodox ways and uncompromising gestures struck me when I was in Bengaluru in the early nineties. His would-be successor, Jayendra Saraswati, was sent out to Thalai Kaveri on what seemed like a sabbatical. There was no explanation to the world outside the monastery of Kanchi. Outsiders had no clue what was happening to the hallowed spiritual tradition. But everyone knew two things: first, that order of virtual exile had the firm though invisible imprimatur of Paramacharya; second, it must have been a pretty serious situation for the great monk to resort to what he did. 

Jayendra Saraswati returned after a year or more of penitence and meditation, later in good time being installed as the head of the monastery. When I called on him later, I recalled covering his peregrinations in north Kerala in the seventies. He gave us a garland of cardamom seeds which my wife meticulously stored in her shelf for many years. Unsavory periods ensued. He was hauled over the coals, Chief Minister Jayalalitha sending him to jail following stories of criminality. The irascible lady possibly wanted to show what she could. The monk went to his prison cell with all the spiritual paraphernalia.  

Paramacharya was a big, invisible presence in our newsroom when his shatabhishekam, viewing a thousand full  moons, was under way. An important event of the celebration was showering gold coins on the blessed soul. Why gold, when abstinence and austerity is the ideal, I muttered to myself. Perhaps the ageing monk was helpless. A coin or two got stuck on his drooping eyelids and lips, unbeknown to him. Gurus may never have an escape from disciples and devotees.

His death came when I was in Delhi, remotely looking after the front page of the late edition. Those were days when we thought of standardizing names of people, skipping honorifics and irrelevant initials. Why should some people be known by their professions and others not? Why tag on a ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ when people could be on their own without a gender identification? Why have different death styles, so to say, when death is described as the leveler of all people? I held that Paramacharya’s death was simply that, death, requiring no embellishment for the final exit, “He died.” There was an extreme, but rational, view that even “passed away” should pass. Late in the night, the old hackneyed style came back, “Mahaswami attaining samadhi.” 

I remember T N Seshan, mercurial chief election commissioner, telling me an anecdote. He had gone to seek Paramacharya’s guidance and blessing when he got a coveted United Nations’ assignment. He spent the whole day with the seer, sitting cross legged on the floor, not a word being spoken. After a few hours, Paramaccharya got up and walked away. Seshan knew the silent message. He was not to accept the offer. When he was becoming CEC, Seshan went to him again, this time yielding a short verbal communication. Yes, Paramacharya told him, yes, take the job, you will have things to do. And so it was.

Whether Indira Gandhi was a believer or not, she knew whom to meet when she needed a spiritual consultation. Her meeting with J Krishnamurthy during the repressive period of the Emergency has been chronicled by her friend, Pupul Jaykar. Earlier she had an occasion to call on Paramacharya at his monastery. But Paramacharya had his own reason to turn down a request for a meeting. A learned friend in Chennai told me Periyavar had refused to see K Sadashivam, M S Subbalakshmi’s husband. The inference was that Sadashivam had transgressed his dharma. But Paramacharya agreed to see Subbalakshmi--because she had lived up to her dharma. I mumbled, for my own benefit, a line from Mahabharata: “The path of dharma is difficult to track. Do whatever karma behooves you.

Image (c) istock.com


More by :  K Govindan Kutty

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