Jayendra Saraswati

Controversial legacy

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Jayendra Saraswathi in Visakhapatnam on March 15, 2012. Photo: C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Jayendra Saraswathi’s (1935-2018) life as a religious leader was marked by attempts at reform and involvement in social work before his image was tarnished by a murder case.

THE mortal remains of the 69th seer of the Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Jayendra Saraswathi, were interred on the math (Hindu monastery) premises in the temple town of Kancheepuram, some 60 kilometres from Chennai, on March 1.

Jayendra Saraswathi, who was initiated into ascetic life as a Sankaracharya (seer) at the age of 19, was 83 when he passed away in a hospital in Kancheepuram on February 28. He had been ill for quite some time. His body was laid in state at the math so that devotees could pay homage to their departed spiritual head. Tributes poured in from dignitaries, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tweeted: “Deeply anguished by the passing away of Acharya…. He will live on in the hearts and minds of lakhs of devotees due to his exemplary service and noblest thoughts…”

(His successor, Vijayendra Saraswathi, has been anointed as the 70th seer.)

Buried with him were the controversies that surrounded his life. Perhaps no other head of a hoary math has been subjected to such critical scrutiny of his life and activities as Jayendra Saraswathi was. While his predecessors preferred to confine themselves to religious activities, he loved to engage with the caste-ridden society around him, sometimes in a highly controversial way.

Born as Subramanyam Mahadeva Iyer in Irulneeki village in the undivided Thanjavur district on July 18, 1935, he became, on March 22, 1954, the junior pontiff of the highly revered Hindu math, claimed to have been founded by the propagator of Advaita Vedanta, Adi Sankara. He became its peetathipathi (chief) after the demise in 1994 of Chandrasekharendra Sarawathi.

Jayendra Saraswathi was of the opinion that a math should go to the people and help them socially and economically. He wanted to radicalise, to a certain extent, the customs of the institution, which he believed were archaic. He felt that when the world outside was on the cusp of a sociopolitical and cultural-religious change, the math’s profile was also in need of a change of course without disturbing its holy strictures, failing which it would be isolated.

Hence his attempts to propagate an alternative episteme, which was resented by many Hindu zealots. He ignored them, but controversies dogged him persistently. But even his hardened critics would not deny that his experiments with new elements in dogmatic religious narratives gave the religious institution a social outreach and an element of inclusiveness. During his time as chief pontiff, the math expanded its activities by managing and running several charitable hospitals, including a multi-speciality one, an advanced eye care hospital, clinics and reputed educational institutions including a deemed university, besides a number of veda pathashalas (schools), which benefited all sections of society. He was widely believed to have enjoyed a good rapport with many high-level politicians across the country.

His dabbling in politics began in 2002 when he took the initiative of finding a solution to the Babri Masjid issue. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister then. Although the talks failed, he emerged as a pan-Indian guru of sorts. Reacting to a language row in Tamil Nadu, he retorted by saying that Sanskrit was his father tongue while Tamil was his mother tongue. He went to Dalit colonies to send a message across to them that the math was not an exclusive institution for Brahmins, although he came in for sharp criticism from activists on this issue. When he went to visit a temple at Thumbapatti near Madurai, the native village of former Congress and Dalit leader Kakkan, in 2000, he did not allow Dalits to come near him fearing that they would touch his feet.

He also emerged as a reformist religious leader from within the canons of his institution. This new avatar shocked the senior pontiff, who, sources close to the math said, had never been comfortable with the disposition of his junior. Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi strongly believed that the math’s primary work was in matters of religion and spirituality only and that other activities were not permitted and were considered sacrilegious.

There were rumours from inside the math’s precincts in the mid 1980s suggesting that a tussle was going on between the two pontiffs . The senior surprised everyone by anointing 13-year-old Sankaran (Vijayendra Saraswathi) as the 70th Sankaracharya in 1983. It led to yet another round of misunderstanding between the two pontiffs. The reason given by the senior was that since Jayendra Saraswathi would frequently go out for social work, Vijayendra Saraswathi would take care of the daily rituals and traditions of the math. The crisis did not end there, but worsened.

On the night of August 22-23, 1987, Jayendra Saraswathi abandoned his holy staff and vanished. The disappearance became all the more significant as it was during the “chaturmasya” period when a sage is not supposed to leave his institution. The then President, R. Venkataraman, who was an ardent follower of the math, took a personal interest in the situation and a massive search operation was launched by the country’s top security agencies. Jayendra Saraswathi was traced to Talacauvery in Karnataka. He returned to the math after 17 days. A compromise was brokered between the two seers.

High-profile life

After the demise of Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, Jayendra Saraswathi took over as the full-time chief of the math in 1994 and continued his activities unhindered thereafter. But where he failed was in not realising the dangers of politicising the math and ignoring the math’s limitations. His high-profile life, both social and political, brought many outside forces into the math and they became extraconstitutional authorities, wielding a lot of power. The death of the senior seer, hitherto a sober force of influence, had given room for all sorts of manoeuvres and encouraged some unpleasant activities. This led to a situation where he was named as Accused No. 1 in a murder case. It devastated him, and the reputation that the math had been enjoying until then suffered a serious dent.

Sankararaman, who had been working as the manager of the Sri Varadarajaperumal Temple in Kancheepuram, was murdered on the temple premises by a gang in 2004. The prosecution charged that his letters accusing the seers of “moral and financial decrepitude” and misappropriation of temple funds had embarrassed them.

The then Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu shocked everybody by arresting both the seers in connection with the murder. Many called it a case of “political vendetta” since Jayendra Saraswathi, at the time of his arrest, was totally immersed in social and public life, which, political critics pointed out, might have irritated the powers that be. On an earlier occasion, Jayalalithaa had even submitted the list of her party candidates just before the elections for his blessings.

Jayendra Saraswathi and Vijayendra Saraswathi were named as Accused No. 1 and 2 respectively; 22 others were also named as accused. Cases were registered under Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code. Vijayendra Saraswathi came out on bail within a fortnight or so, but Jayendra Saraswathi spent two months in the Vellore prison before getting bail from the Supreme Court on January 10, 2005. They moved the Supreme Court and got the case transferred to Puducherry in 2005, pleading that the atmosphere in Tamil Nadu was vitiated and against a free and fair trial.

The case was placed before the Puducherry Sessions Court where, during the trial, half of the 189 prosecution witnesses turned hostile. In November 17, 2013, the Puducherry Principal District and Sessions Judge, C.S. Murugan, acquitted all the accused, saying that “the motive for the commission of murder and the act of conspiracy are not proved” ( Frontline, December 27, 2013).

The murder and the subsequent arrests had left the math’s followers embarrassed. Social and national media went to town with scandalous stories about the math and the seers. The sanctity of the institution was tarnished.

Many questions related to the murder, such as the identity of the perpetrators and the motive, remain unanswered and still haunt the math. Also, it remains a mystery why the State has not gone on appeal to date before a higher judicial forum.

Although critics blame him for destroying a system on which the math had been functioning for ages, Jayendra Saraswathi’s life remains a tale of mystery, tempered by sorrow and frustration.

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