Jayendra Saraswathi passes away: Controversial seer's successor Vijayendra Saraswathi has his task cut out

The mood is understandably sombre at the Kanchi Mutt in Kanchipuram. The business-like approach to making arrangements for the final journey of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the 69th Shankaracharya of the religious institution, is an inadequate mask for the pall of gloom that has overcome the followers. The 48-year-old successor, Sri Vijayendra Saraswathi, has his task cut out for he not only has to identify and anoint a successor but also preside over the affairs of the Mutt, without the counsel of his senior to guide him.

Many of the followers, however, see it as an occasion to make a fresh beginning. The reference – often left unsaid – is to the taint of the Sankararaman murder case, in which Jayendra figured as an accused till his acquittal in 2013. Sankararaman was a Mutt functionary who had turned into a whistleblower, accusing the two pontiffs of misappropriation of temple funds and worse, "moral decrepitude".

File image of Jayendra Saraswathi. Wikimedia Commons

File image of Jayendra Saraswathi. Wikimedia Commons

After he had finished writing the last of the letters which blew the cover off the goings-on in the Mutt, he was found murdered at a temple in Kanchipuram in September 2004. The needle of suspicion pointed at the Shankaracharya and he was arrested in November 2004 and spent the next two months in prison.

"More than the case, the ugliness of what came out, tainted his legacy. Whoever knew Jayendra would tell you he would not have consciously said, finish off Sankararaman. The episode was the result of internal Mutt politics, with too many outsiders including bureaucrats and politicians meddling in its affairs,'' says Mohan Raman, film historian.

The world of Jayendra however, came crumbling down with the Sankaraman case. Along with the murder case, writer Anuradha Ramanan charged the seer with trying to sexually abuse her in 1992. Even as the Mutt's followers doubted her credentials, questioning why she was making these allegations after 12 years, the junior pontiff too was accused of having links with other women.

It embarrassed the devoted who found it difficult to defend the tales of corruption and sleaze that found its way into different publications and TV channels. The suspicion was that much of the dope had its roots in an intense dislike for what was perceived as an institution of Brahminical hegemony in Tamil Nadu. But with mudslinging taking place fast and furious, the Mutt did not know how to defend the muck in the public domain.

"Even today, the 68th Shankaracharya, the late Sri Chandrasekhara Saraswathi, is spoken of with respect, even by critics of the Mutt. But Jayendra and Vijayendra used the Mutt for their nefarious activities. They could have elevated the stature of the institution if they had conducted themselves well,'' says Shankar A, a political analyst.

Legally, the seer got a clean chit. But the Mutt could not effectively rebut the whisper campaign that it was because witnesses turned hostile. The allegation is that the Kanchi Mutt, being a politically powerful entity, it is difficult for anyone to oppose it over a period of time. Also, the BJP has consistently backed the seers, seeing the Mutt as a significant outpost of the Hindu religion.

"Jayendra got off only because the government did not go after him. Eyewitnesses were silenced. Under the pontiff, the process of criminalisation of religious structures began,'' says A Narayanan, social activist.

It is no secret that the Kanchi Mutt is a powerful institution. Under the venerable Sri Chandrasekharendra, it confined itself to engaging in spiritual activities. But under Jayendra, the Mutt to its credit took on a reformist character. To rebuff the anti-Brahminism sentiment criticised by the DMK, Jayendra tried to break the image by stepping into slums, which hitherto in the eyes of the Mutt were deemed as 'unclean' places.

The seer rode on the philanthropic work the Mutt undertook in the field of healthcare and education, most of it subsidised. His campaign against conversions to Islam and Christianity endeared Jayendra to the BJP, that tried to use his good offices to find a negotiated settlement to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue by speaking to stakeholders on both sides.

Jayendra enjoyed the political clout and he also positioned himself as a raj guru of sorts to J Jayalalithaa. But things reportedly turned ugly resulting in his arrest on Jayalalithaa's orders.

Where does the Mutt go from here? With the Mutt's assets valued at over Rs 5,000 crore, the fear is that outsiders, including the politically powerful, will try to remote control Vijayendra. The jury is out on whether Vijayendra has the political acumen his predecessor had, to navigate his way through the intersection of religion and dirty politics.

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Updated Date: Feb 28, 2018 17:53:08 IST

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