Keeping The Faith

The Shankaracharya of the Sarvanga Peetam, Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, 'Pujyashri Jayendra Saraswathi', who is on a ten-day sojourn in Mumbai, to attend the Kanchi Mahaswami Festival, does not subscribe to political endeavours to mould the masses. "I do not have any definition of Hindutva, I only believe in Hindus who are true to tenets of the faith...," he tells HUBERT VAZ in an exclusive interview at the Shankarmatham at Matunga.

THE 'upper room' at the Shankarmatham, the popular temple cum abode of visiting south Indian sages at Matunga, was overcome by the fragrance of fresh 'sindoor' (red vermillion), steel thalis heaped with bananas and apples, aggarbattis which were yet to be lit and the heady odour of wooden sandals when Jagadguru Jayendra Saraswathi, the Shankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, emerged from a simple rest room and settled on a wooden pedestal...

He had been expecting to meet someone from the Mumbai press, as told to him by an organiser of his religious engagement in the metropolis, but he could not figure out who had taken an appointment. As we stepped forward, he signalled us to be seated near him even as a few awestruck devotees prostrated themselves in utter reverence at his very sight. A few middle-aged ladies with their spouses tagging behind and a few young devotees also moved forward to form an impromptu audience as we commenced our prized interview with the 'sage from Kanchi' who every Hindu is not fortunate to meet in person in his/her lifetime.

Simply dressed in an amber-coloured cotton wrap that speaks tales of his vows to lead a life of poverty and chastity, Swami Jayendra Saraswathi, who heads Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam (one of the five main peetams in the country) was all game for an interview. His few assistants in the room stood in attendance (like security men surrounding a politician) as if waiting to adhere to his beck and call as the Shankaracharya offered a comely smile and said "hmmmm...bolo, kya sawaal hain?"

Responding in Hindi his vocabulary was limited but there was an unmistaken playfulness in his eyes, as if he was undertaking a fond exercise. And as he, by and by told the waiting devotees in Tamil (and then translated it in Hindi) "I have nothing to do, so I am passing my time giving interviews to the press..."

We began on a tame note asking for a message for those caught in the daily grind, especially the youth, who push religious traditions and commitments to the back burner and get lost while keeping in step with the demands of modern living. He closed his eyes for a few moments, drew in his breath, then reeled out a message that was universally applicable for people of different faiths.

The Kanchi seer said, "Every person must learn to carry on the tradition and moral values inculcated in him/her by parents, something which generations have been passing on to every subsequent generation in India. A life founded on sound principles always leads to success and fulfillment and prevents a person from going seeking till his last breath."

He further elaborated that parents of the modern generation was so caught up with getting a career in place for their children that the focus on religion and religious traditions gets dimmed. Very few people continue value-based family traditions while the rest are busy achieving several things in life. Parents do their utmost for their kids, give them education, careers, jobs, etc. but when children go ahead and choose their own life partner and marry against their will, the trouble starts. But, even this gets sorted out once the grand children arrive, he quipped.

Stressing the need to cherish the rich and varied Indian culture, he said, next to a obedient and disciplined lifestyle one must only pursue two goals: education and sports, both of which are very important for growth of one's personality.

The second question was direct but a bit sensitive. We asked the sage what was his own definition of the term 'Hindutva' in view of the fact that a whole range of political definitions of the term have recently surfaced from different quarters, including the Shiv Sena chief, Mr. Bal Thackeray and Gujarat chief minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, both of whom are being showcased as self-styled custodians of the Hindu faith. "There is nothing like 'Hindutva', there are only Hindus who keep up the faith," he retorted adding "I do not have any definition of Hindutva, I only believe in Hindus who are true to tenets of the faith and lead a sublime life that's not built on hate, but love and peace."

He, however, added that there has been a sure decline in moral standards in society and that everyone was about to attain selfish goals irrespective of the fact of whether it was conducive to good community living. When asked whether he felt inclined to the ideology of any political party, he nodded his head like a child stating, "I do not feel close to any political party. Why should I. Politics is not my cup of tea nor am I influenced by any politician." The few devotees listening with rapt attention began giggling as the seer grinned at their delight.

The Shankaracharya also declined to offer suggestions to the government, either in the state or at the centre saying that they comprise a bunch of learned men who know what is best for their people. "My suggestions would not be valid or feasible since I think about the good of all mankind. May be politicians have their own constraints in working for the welfare of the masses." When asked whether he supported the 'Ram Mandir' issue at Ayodhya, the Kanchi seer shut his eyes again and with a perturbed tone, that didn't sound too offensive, said "let that issue rest in peace." To a query as to what he exactly meant, he said. "I do not want to restart something that has been silent for long now. It's better that people continue coexisting in peace than to rake up a controversy by bringing up fresh debate over it."

His views on international terrorism, which has recently made people all over the world feel insecure, were also simple. "Terrorism is not a recent problem. It existed in human society for centuries on end. Who was Ravana? Was he not someone who unleashed a reign of terror? Such characters always existed, only they were fewer in number. The numbers of these terrorists have now increased and their activities are diversely destructive."

With a philosophical explanation to terrorist acts, he said one has to try to understand what makes a man a terrorist and find a solution for that. Unemployment is one problem which leads a man to activities not acceptable in society and one must try to address these problems in order to refine the existence of all human beings, he said.

The Shankaracharya, is a staunch follower of vegetarianism and 'satvik bhojan' which is now almost alien to Indian culture. "The West have begun turning to such Indian traditions while we Indians are following western patterns of life. A reversal of roles is in vogue," he said. A fan of Pandit Jasraj, the seer also said revealed his affinity for Indian classical music which, he said, has more acceptance and appreciation abroad than in India where it has originated.

Swami Jayendra Saraswathi who took up the mantle of the peetam from his predecessor Jagadguru Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi, has already nominated his successor Jagadguru Vijayendra Saraswathi who will continue shepherding the flock once he attains 'samadhi'. The functions of the peetam includes keeping up the tradition of 'veda-pathashalas', maintenance of old temples as well as social obligations like heading Hindu mission hospitals, schools, old age homes, a deemed university and an international library at Kanchi.

Born in village Irulleekki in Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, the Shankaracharya's original name was 'Sbramaniyam'. After an exhaustive education in the vedas at Tiruvelaimarudur (in TN), he had attained the title of Jayendra Saraswathi on March 22, 1954 when his guru and predecessor spotted an unique spark and a calling to serve mankind in him.

With a cheerful disposition and a learned background he keeps the faith and hopes every moment for the redemption and refinement of humankind. Pranam!