Social media and online news today makes it real time for us to get to know what happens in different parts of the world. Whether it is real news or fake, good or bad, all it takes is a moment before the notification on one’s phone tells us what is happening. The message that I got on the 28th was not just sad but something that left a sense of emptiness within me. As I sat coming to terms with the several emotions that I was feeling, I remembered how 30 years ago, HH Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham had come visiting to our small dispensary at Brahmagiri.
It was early October 1987 and the three of us – Devaraj Acharya (presently in the UK and a founding member of the SVYM of UK), Ramesh S.S. (presently working as Professor of Medicine at K.R.Hospital, Mysuru) and I were holding on to the SVYM flag with great difficulty. We were running out of our meagre monthly stipend as Interns (or house surgeons as we were known then) and our motivation was also running low. We had stationed ourselves in the watchman’s shed at the old Inspection Bungalow at Beechanahalli and were yet to get the clinic at Brahmagiri up and going. Things were not looking good and only the embarrassment of failure and being ridiculed by friends and foes alike prevented us from returning to Mysuru. As luck would have it, the doctor working in the hospital run by the Ramakrishna Ashram at Ponampet quit and they were not able to find a replacement. Swami Veetamohanandaji, the President of this ashram met me in Mysuru (currently he serves as the Head of the Vedanta Center in Gretz, France) and wanted to know if I could refer anyone to work as a doctor on an ad hoc basis. It was the silver lining that I was looking for. I told him that two doctors would come to Ponampet and would be happy to manage the hospital at least for the next one or two months.
Back in Beechanahalli (where the Kabini dam is located), I told a relieved Devaraj and Ramesh that they could now lead a comfortable life at least for the next 2 months and could do some doctoring too! Both left for Ponampet and I stayed back to hold fort. My mind was blank and I could not figure out what to do. The next 15 days were possibly the greatest test of my resolve to undertake rural service. Here I was, a young intern who believed that he could make a difference. The only problem was that SVYM and I were completely broke. I would wake up each day hoping that something would happen to give me back my sinking courage and fill me with hope and encouragement. I still remember the long walk of nearly 16 km one way to reach Brahmagiri to oversee the construction of a toilet that the Zilla Panchayath (called Zilla Parishad then) was building for us. Whenever my rationed finances permitted me, I would travel by bus till Begur and then walk to Brahmagiri. This was few and far between. Lunch was indeed a luxury and wholly depended on the generosity of Karunakar, who was the caretaker at the Traveller’s Bungalow of the forest department. These were the times I felt like giving up and even today I wonder what kept me going then. But for the inspiring words of Swami Vivekananda that I would read every day, I am sure I would have closed shop and returned. It is now hard to imagine what I would have ended up doing if I had done that then.
HH Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal (1935-2018)
One of those days, I had come to Mysuru and was reading the newspaper at the Ramakrishna Vidyashala and came across a news item that the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Peetham (or Mutt), Shri Jayendra Saraswathi had abdicated the Mutt and was in the Talacauvery area in Madikeri. What caught my attention was the fact that he had told the interviewer that he felt shackled by the orthodoxy of the Mutt and wanted to initiate a movement for the regeneration of India based on the ideals of Swami Vivekananda. I immediately shot off a post card to him, explaining what I was doing and suggested that he help us if he was indeed serious about it. I expected that he would never even read my letter, leave alone respond to it. It was a spur-of-the-moment gesture by a frustrated and tired young man who gave vent to his feelings and that was that. What indeed surprised me was that I got a reply from the Mutt. He had by then returned to the Mutt on the persuasion of his devotees and the senior Acharya. The Srikaryam (administrator) had written to me asking me to come to Kanchipuram to meet Shri Jayendra Saraswathi and share with him what I was doing . It was indeed a welcome break and I borrowed Rs.400 from Swami Sureshananda and reached Kanchipuram via Bangalore the next morning. I reached Kanchipuram by bus very early in the morning. It was around 4 am and I did not have enough money to take a hotel room for myself. Not knowing what to do, I started walking towards the Mutt and was there within the next 20 min. The doors were obviously closed and I just walked ahead. One of the houses down the road had an open and inviting front yard and I just walked in and lay down.
I must have fallen asleep, for I was awakened by an elderly lady (Iyer maami – as she is called in Tamil) who was quite surprised to see a stranger sleeping in her yard. She was gracious enough not to scream and politely asked who I was and what I was doing there. I told her that I was here to see the Shankaracharya and was waiting for the Mutt doors to open. This kind-hearted lady then invited me in and gave me a cup of steaming coffee. On getting to know my background, her family offered that I rest, bathe and have breakfast with them. Sometimes, poverty can limit your sense of dignity and I did not even wait to be pressed to accept their generosity. Around 7 am, I strolled into the Mutt and found the Shankaracharya giving darshan and prasad to a long line of his devotees. I too stood in line and introduced myself and told him that he had asked to see me. He invited me into his room and heard my story. After an hour of listening patiently, he asked if I would like to walk with him to the Kamakshi Temple. Here I was, a 22-year old idealist walking alongside a man, whose generosity and support I was to experience later. It never occurred to me that this very man was revered and worshiped by thousands of devotees and he could with his mere wish, command extraordinary resources to help us. After returning to the Mutt, he suddenly switched to speaking in Kannada and asked me about my needs. I just blurted out that I would need his support to serve the forest-based tribes in and around Brahmagiri. He sat pensive for a moment and then told me that he had to verify my credentials. He told me that one of his devotees by name Chandramouli lived in Bangalore and that I needed to meet and take him along to Brahmagiri. Chandramouli would then report back to the Shankaracharya about my work. If his assessment were to be satisfactory, then he would consider supporting me.
I thought that this was indeed fair and rushed back to Bangalore. The same evening I met Chandramouli who had been spoken to by the Shankaracharya and told about his assignment. I requested him to visit us the very next day and pleaded with him to come with me. He agreed and offered to drive down, but warned me that he needed to return to Bangalore the same day. Chandramouli was a very devout person. After a morning pooja at a Ganesha temple near his house, we set out to Brahmagiri in his new Fiat car. Chandramouli did not believe in driving at less than 100 km per hour and in those days, this was an adventure which I did not exactly relish! As we neared Kengal on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, Chandramouli noticed that there were celebrations going on at the famous Hanuman temple located there. He swung his car towards the temple and declared that we would take a break to have darshan. He was now convinced that the festivities at the temple were a good omen and a signal that I could be trusted. We reached Brahmagiri at around 1 pm. The drive on the bumpy road had tired him out and he did not want to spend too much time there. All that he remarked was that it would be difficult to work in that god-forsaken place! We hardly spent 15 minutes there and drove back. On the way back, he insisted on having his ‘tiffin and coffee’ at his favourite Dasaprakash Hotel at Mysore. We reached Bangalore around 8 pm. I insisted that he speak to the Shankaracharya immediately and update him on our visit.
The next morning, I set out once again to Kanchipuram. By evening I was with the Shankaracharya, who informed me that he had heard from Chandramouli. He asked me what kind of support I was expecting from him. This was indeed an unexpected question and I was unsure how to ask him for money or for anything else. Would he consider me greedy? Would he think that I was there only to get his financial support? As all these questions raced through my mind, I decided that I would ask for a princely sum of Rs.1000! After all, I had to borrow money to reach Kanchi and my first priority was to return it! Even before I could ask him for anything specific, he asked me if Rs 100,000 would help in starting the work. He also matter-of-factly told me that he would ask the Trustee of the Golden Jubilee Charitable Trust in Chennai to give me the money and a Jeep for my use in the forest. It took a while for this generous offer to sink in. He gave me the address of the Trust and I left for Chennai in a daze.
In Chennai, with the help of my uncle Mr.Narasimhan, I went to the Trust and met the Trustee. He gave me a DD for Rs 100,000 and told me to meet Mr. Ravi for the vehicle. Ravi showed me an old broken down stationary ‘Trekker’. I was indeed disappointed. This vehicle did not look like it was road worthy and I was crest fallen. But then beggars can’t be choosers. This Trekker needed repairs, a new set of tyres, new battery and everything except the shell and the engine. Using the name of the Shankaracharya and his credibility, I managed to find donors in Chennai with Ravi’s help and got the vehicle moving. My uncle volunteered to drive it down along with me to Brahmagiri. We left for Bangalore early one morning and as we neared Bangalore, the vehicle broke down. The first expense that I incurred with the donation given by the Shankaracharya was to get this Trekker repaired again in Bangalore. After a couple of days, I drove this vehicle to Ponampet where Devaraj and Ramesh were still staying. Imagine their shock, when they saw me getting off an old vehicle and announcing that it was ours and that we could now return to Brahmagiri in style! We left to Brahmagiri the next day and the vehicle broke down again as soon as we reached there. By then, I had realized that I was flogging a dead horse and decided to make this vehicle our temporary home. The ‘Trekker’ stood there motionless for a few months more, till the Shankaracharya visited us in 1988.
The support given by HH Sri Jayendra Saraswathi will possibly be one of the most significant events in the history of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement. But for his support, we may not have been able to set up and start the Brahmagiri clinic (in those days, we used to call it the Jan Kalyan Tribal Health Center). I became a regular visitor to the Kanchi Mutt and used to meet with him at least once a month. Apart from the usual updates from my end, we used to have such wonderful conversations – from development to politics to the economy of India to Karma Yoga! He had a wonderful sense of humour too and it was such a joy to interact with him and just be seated in his room as he went about conversing with the several thousand people who came to get his darshan and blessings. He was not the Shankaracharya in the traditional sense and differed from his Guru the revered ‘Maha Periyava’. He was a monk, a humanist, a philanthropist, a mentor and several other things all rolled into one. Not just the traditional Dharmic Guru that the whole country revered him as, but also the social reformer that India desperately needed.
It was during one of my many such visits that he mentioned that he was going to give us Rs.5000 every month and that he would do so for the next 5 years. He told me that I needed to use those 5 years to build the organization and go beyond depending on him. While I might not have understood the far-sightedness of his actions then, today I must say that we have been able to grow only because we never became dependant on any one person, donor agency or the Government for financial assistance. True to his word, he gave us Rs.5000 per month for 2 years and then raised it to Rs.7000 per month for the subsequent 3 years.
More than the money, his support reinforced in me the belief that all good work will eventually find support. It also gave me access to a wide network of his devotees. His association gave Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement the legitimacy and much needed credibility at a time when we were small and hardly known. It gave us the exposure and visibility that helped shape public opinion about us. My repeated visits and interactions with the Shankaracharya helped me learn and understand a lot of things. I was amazed at the level of compassion and concern that he could generate for his fellow human beings. I was a witness to his generosity – many occasions where he would respond spontaneously from the heart to pleas for help. Once I asked him if he had been let down by somebody whom he trusted. His explanation was simple. He told me that the question of being let down comes only when you expect something in return from people whom you support. His point of view was that you support somebody because you are placed in the position of being able to do so. The moment you expect the other person to use your support wisely and benefit from it, then it means being attached to the fruits of your actions. Here I was, being explained the concept of Bhagavad Gita and Karma Yoga in such simple and pragmatic fashion.
Unveiling the plaque at Kenchanahalli for the Hospital that was built there
He visited us in August 1988 to lay the foundation for the hospital that we proposed to build at Kenchanahalli. He also visited our clinic at Brahmagiri and the campus at Hosahalli. He had brought along with him hundreds of expensive sarees that people had gifted to the Kamakshi temple. I still remember that day. It was raining and there was no road to our campus at Hosahalli then. One had to walk in the slush to reach there. Much to the chagrin of his attenders, he alighted from his vehicle and started to walk along with me. Along the way, he told me how people were blinded by faith. He told me that people were willing to spend thousands of rupees on expensive sarees for the Goddess, but were unwilling to buy clothes for the poor who needed it more. He said that he was making sure that the sarees were reaching the ‘real gods’. At Brahmagiri, he noticed the broken down ‘Trekker’ and without hesitation, called his driver Rama and told him to hand over a Jeep which was part of his entourage. But people in his coterie created a ruckus and told him that they would need the Jeep to get back to Kanchipuram. He then asked me to come to Kanchipuram and collect the vehicle. Despite the rains, the foundation laying program was great fun. Vivek and Seetharam had laboured for 3-4 days, walking each day from Brahmagiri to Kenchanahalli to oversee the preparations and it turned out to be the beginning of our collective journey.
Several years later, when I was at Harvard, I suddenly got a call from him asking me to come to India and meet him. Even before I could respond, he mentioned that several of his devotees were having a event in Bengaluru and he wanted to felicitate me on that occasion. Though I was in Bengaluru when the event happened, I could not receive the award that he bestowed on me as my father had just then passed away.
Some of the many memorable moments that I spent with the Shankaracharya during his visits to our centers
The years have now rolled on and fate and many forces with vested interests conspired to humiliate and marginalize this extraordinary person. From being arrested to being acquitted by the court, from being courted by thousands to being side-lined, from being worshiped to being ignored – he saw it all. But the inner strength, poise, humour and equanimity that he displayed is something that has always stood out for me. For me and several like me, he was not just the upholder of the Hindu Dharma, but the very incarnation of it. He was not just a monk at whose feet you prostrated, but someone who inspired you to take on the cause of National reconstruction for one’s own inner spiritual evolution. Though millions of his devotees will miss his smiling presence, what remains testimony to his life and times are the many social development activities that he initiated and supported.