Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi passes away: Kancheepuram pontiff who dared to stir out of the mutt

Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi who died in Kancheepuram on Wednesday at the age of 82 had a chequered career as a pontiff. He was the 69th pontiff handpicked by His Holiness Mahaperiyava, Chandrashekarendra Saraswathi Swamigal who anointed him as his successor. He actually took charge in 1994 on the demise of HH Mahaperiyava often reverentially referred to as nadamadum daivam (walking God). Jayendra did what other Shankaracharyas had not done -- stir out of the mutt. The elder Shankaracharya was not reportedly entirely happy with the external forays of the ebullient and energetic junior.

Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati . AFP

Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati . AFP

His forays into societal issues inevitably dragged him into controversies leading to his arrest in the Shankarraman murder case in 2004. Shankarraman was the manager of Kanchi Varadaraja Perumal temple. Kancheepuram is a sacred Hindu temple town a la Madurai and Srirangam. Of course, he was acquitted in 2013 by the Pondicherry trial court. He also came unscathed from the charges of organising an assault on auditor Radhakrishnan in 2002 in collusion with his junior pontiff Vijayendra Saraswathi. Both the cases emanated from complaints of alleged irregularities in the finances of the mutt.

One of the news doing the rounds at the time of his arrests was he had rubbed powerful politicians on the wrong side to the extent of misappropriating the cash (read black money) parked with the mutt for safekeeping in the comforting knowledge that religious trusts enjoyed tax immunity. The charge, of course, took on a Robin Hood hue what with the counter-story attributing loftier motives for what he did -- the ill-gotten cash entrusted to him for safekeeping was donated by him to some educational institutions for altruistic purposes. Some poetic justice indeed! The politicians thus left holding the can, of course, were not amused. They allegedly unleashed the law on him. So goes the folklore.

During his tenure as head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, the institution expanded its horizons through its educational and medical institutions. While Shankaracharya of Puri and other mutts have expressed their political views and preferences freely, Jayendra did more. Possessed with reformist zeal, he held took the mutt into unchartered territories—education and health—besides exhorting Hindus to maintain the existing temple and reviving the thousands of languishing ones instead of building more and more.

He was revered by the Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu which has been feeling marginalised insofar as admissions to educational institutions were concerned. More than four decades of the Dravidian rule with its barely hidden contempt for Brahmins had served to alienate them from the Dravidian parties. They naturally looked to Jayendra as their savior. He did not let them down. Some of the colleges promoted by him or assisted by him in Tamil Nadu offered a helping hand to Brahmin boys and girls by offering them admission even while state universities were giving them a short shrift thanks to the heavy reservation in favor of the backward castes.

Of course, he couldn’t stop brain drain that is quite heavy from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Young boys aspiring to strike it rich went abroad mainly to the US for MS and PhD.

Should pontiff remain within the claustrophobic but spiritually uplifting confines of the mutts? The debate has been raging on without any finality. When funds pour into a religious shrine, it might find use for altruistic purposes transcending religion. Tirumala Tirupati Dewasthanam does it.

Comparisons are also being made between Jayendra and Ramanuja the Vaishnavite reformist of the Bhakti movement who achieved a different kind of altruism in his lifetime -- bringing the
Narayana mantra within the reach of everyone which in its pristine form was meant for the salvation of Vaishnavite Brahmins alone. Both the seers dared to stir out of the mutt.


Updated Date: Feb 28, 2018 20:28 PM