The 69th pontiff or ‘peetathipathi’ of the Kanchi Mutt, Jayendra Saraswathi, 83, breathed his last at Kanchipuram on Wednesday, after a brief stay at the ABC Hospital. He had been rushed to the hospital when he complained of breathlessness.
Politicians, industrialists and celebrities of all hues, along with lakhs of followers mourned his passing.
Born as Subramaniyam, on July 18, 1935 at Irulneekki village in Thanjavur district, the young Brahmin was initiated into Sanyasa at the age of 19, following his initiation into the Vedas at Tiruvidaimarudur.
As a junior seer, Jayendra Saraswathi was a rebel of sorts. Curious by nature and wanting to interact with the society at large, as Adi Shankara had, he wanted to break many stringent and rigid rules set by his senior Acharyas.
Jayendra Saraswati vanished for 17 days in September 1987 after a tiff with his senior Paramacharya Chandrashekharendra Saraswati on what a mutt head’s role was. His disappearance caused alarm – no one knew where he had gone – especially because a junior pontiff was expected to be confined to the mutt.
The junior’s social involvement in issues relating to education and healthcare had angered the senior, according to reports at the time. The Lede’s GS Radhakrishna, who was a correspondent with The Week magazine at the time, interviewed the junior pontiff before his return to the mutt.
“Before he chose to return to mutt life at Kanchi, Jayendra Sarawati paid a visit to Tirumala to seek the blessings of his Lord Balaji,” recalls Radhakrishna. “But he did not come at the appointed time and day. I had to wait in Tirupati for two days.
While there I learnt that Raghu, the owner of the famous Bhima’s Deluxe Hotel, was a great follower. I joined him to receive the pontiff at Alipiri at the foothills of Tirumala.
Later I rushed to Tirumala as Jayendra Saraswati wanted to walk up to the temple. I got the first picture of the pontiff after his escapade when he kissed the road at the entrance to Tirumala. He was just 52 then.”
Radhakrishna recalls that the seer was closeted all night and sent word to him that he would speak only after he had had the Lord’s darshan in the morning. By 7.30 am the pontiff, he says, arrived at the mutt at Tirumala and spent two hours in conversation with Radhakrishna.
“I had to wear a panchakattu and sacred thread – Janyam – for the sake of the interview,” recollects Radhakrishna.
Speaking fluent Kannada and Telugu as needed, Jayendra Saraswathi spoke about why he had left the mutt and why he had decided to return.
“I had gone away from the mutt as I was not ready to compromise on my new path to serve the society through education and hospitals which the traditional people opposed,” said the seer. He told Radhakrishna how he had spent the previous 17 days traveling by road and train, more or less in mufti. “I learnt what real life is outside the mutt,” he had said then.
Here is an excerpt from the interview.
Radhakrishna: “Sir why did you leave the mutt giving room for so many rumours, if you needed time to chalk out your social agenda?
Jayendra Saraswathi: “What rumours!” (laughs) “Good I am still considered vibrant. My responsibilities in the mutt did not give space to think over my focus on an active social movement for the people of Tamil Nadu. I had informed my senior about my plans.
Radhakrishna: “Was there any hurdle in your path of social activism from the mutt?”
Jayendra Saraswathi: “My senior was with me. But others in our trust wanted me to not meddle in activities outside mutt goals. But I told them I wanted to change the way the mutt and its leaders felt about society and the need to bring religion closer to society.”
Jayendra Saraswathi became the senior pontiff upon the death of Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi in 1994. This was the time he began to put into practice his belief that religion should be available to all and not just to the Brahmins.
“At the time that Jayendrar became the head of the mutt, Tamil Nadu was witnessing the height of campaigns against God, religion and faith,” said L Ganesan, Rajya Sabha MP with the BJP. “Conversions from Hinduism to other religions were booming. Jayendrar decided that there was not much service he could do to society if he sat inside the walls of the Kanchi mutt. He began to go into Dalit colonies and conducted religious and social services there.”
Ganesan says that Jayendra Saraswathi attempted to do what the Adi Shankara did. “He would repeatedly say that Kanchi mutt was not only for one caste or one religion. He changed the mutt into a space where people of all religions and castes could converge,” he said.
Politics & The Godman
Jayendra Saraswati had political and industrial links more in Andhra Pradesh than in Tamil Nadu. He was a mentor for several Congress leaders and industrial tycoons of erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh.
Former AP Chief Minister Nadendla Bhaskara Rao once told The Lede’s GS Radhakrishna that both Jayendra Saraswathi and the elder pontiff Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi were instrumental in shaping the Indira Congress formed by Indira Gandhi after the split with Congress (O) in the early 1970s.
“It was the pontiffs who had advised Indira Gandhi to use the ‘hand’ (abhaya hasta) as her election symbol,” Bhaskara Rao said at the time.
There are many stories surrounding Jayendra Saraswathi’s senior – the Mahaperiyava as he is called in Tamil. A meeting between him and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s at Theynambakkam is narrated by one Janakiraman, a close associate of the elder seer and documented in the mutt records.
“Periyava was on this side of the compound of the well, sitting on the floor. “Only Janakiraman can be here,” said he. Everyone dispersed.
A chair was placed on the other side of the compound of the well for Indira Gandhi to sit. That Amma did not sit, however!
For ninety minutes, just like that, without removing her eyes, she was looking at Periyava. (Indira Gandhi had eyes shining like those of a lion!)
Then Periyava said, “Enna venumnu keluda (ask her what she wants).”
I asked her in Hindi: “Anything to be told by you? You want his blessings?” (Sanjay Gandhi’s marriage was to be held within ten days)
“I have not come for that. Evil forces have grown by lots in the country. The country should get relieved of them and subhiksha (prosperity) should come up. I came only to pray for that,”said Indira Gandhi.
I told Periyava what she said.
Spreading out the five fingers of his right hand and raising it, Periyava blessed, “Narayana, Narayana.”
It is said that this symbol of the open palm was ultimately used as a party symbol by Mrs Gandhi. Not just Indira Gandhi, the entire phalanx of the RSS and the BJP as well as political leaders cutting across party lines, were devotees of this powerful Godman.
A Murder At Kanchipuram
Controversy began to dog Jayendra Saraswathi after 2000. A group of officials of the Kanchi mutt, wrote a number of letters to the journalists, followers and even the President of India under the pseudonym ‘Somasundara Ganapadigal’. The letters were about alleged malpractices within the mutt and hinting at the seer’s relationships with women. The pontiff, according to the Kanchi mutt rules, is a Sanyasi, meaning that he cannot have conjugal relations during his lifetime.
Senior journalist with Tamil magazine Nakkheeran Prakash Damodaran who doggedly followed the trail of this scandal for over 15 years said that the group hiding behind the ‘Somasundara Ganapadigal’ letters were sniffed out and attempts were made on their lives.
“One of them, auditor Radhakrishnan managed to escape, but Sankararaman, the manager of the Varadarajaperumal temple was killed at his office within the temple premises in 2004,” he said.
24 persons, including Jayendra Saraswathi were chargesheeted for this murder. In November 2004, the Jayalalithaa government arrested the Kanchi pontiff at Hyderabad. The trial went on for nine years, with the hearings being shifted to Puducherry court from the Kanchipuram court. Out of 183 witnesses, over 80 turned hostile, including the son and wife of the victim. In 2013, the Puducherry court decreed that Jayendra Saraswathi was not guilty. The Puducherry government preferred not to go on appeal against the verdict.
“The case against Jayendra Saraswathi for the attempt to murder auditor Radhakrishnan is still pending in the Madras High Court,” said Prakash. Charges would now abate upon the seer’s death.
Following the murder and other allegations of sexual misconduct, not just the seer but the Kanchi mutt itself took a beating in terms of image.
Jayendra Saraswathi may have lost face in Tamil Nadu, but he continued to be well respected in northern India. He set up educational institutions and hospitals in remote areas of the north east. In fact, during his arrest, the outcry from followers was more from the north than from Tamil Nadu.
He is succeeded by Vijayendra Saraswathi who will take over as the senior pontiff here on.