Today is the 127th birth star of His Holiness Shri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. Hence I thought of bringing you the glimpses from His life history as a tribute to Him. I have taken inputs from various books on the Paramacharya.
Fondly known as “Mahaperiyava” (Meaning – the Great One) or “Paramacharya” to his devotees, he is also referred to as the “Nadamaadum Deivam”, (the walking God).
The name “Mahaperiyava” was to differentiate Him from the other Acharyas of the Kanchi Mutt and hence I am using that name throughout.
Mahaperiyava, was born on 20th May 1894, at Villupuram as Swaminathan to his parents Mahalakshmi Ammal and Subramanya Sastry. He was their second child. He had an elder brother, two younger brothers and a younger sister.
His father was employed as supervisor of schools in the education department and was serving at Villupuram (In today’s Tamil Nadu) when Swaminathan was born. Swaminathan was a very bright boy with remarkable grasp of anything that was taught and his father decided to educate him at home till his eighth year. In 1905, the family had to move to another city Tindivanam (also in today’s Tamil Nadu) when he was admitted to second form (today’s seventh standard) at the Arcot American Mission High School there.
Swaminathan displayed remarkable intelligence and stood first in all the subjects and got prizes including one for proficiency in the Holy Bible.
In 1906, the school was staging Shakespeare’s King John and Swaminathan was selected at the last moment to played lay the role of Prince Arthur. Earlier his teacher thought he was very young for the role but the Headmaster wanted him to take up the role. He had to get special costumes for the same and though initially his father was reluctant because of his financial condition, he could not refuse young Swaminathan’s wish and within two days, Swaminathan learnt all the dialogues by heart . Needless to say, his performance was stellar and he won accolades for the same.
Later that year, Swaminathan’s father visited with family a place called Perumukkal where the 66th Acharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam was camping. The Acharya’s gaze fell upon Swaminathan and he made detailed enquiries about Swaminathan and his family. It seemed like the Acharya had decided in his mind to select Swaminathan to succeed him as the next Acharya of the Peetam. He announced to the people present that Swaminathan would be a great person in the future. His parents thought that it was a general blessing and were very happy. Little did they know that the young one would soon leave the family permanently.
In February 1907, the family received a telegram from the Kanchi Mutt addressed to Subramanya Sastri to bring Swaminathan to Kalavai, a place near Kanchipuram where the 66th Acharya was camping. Since Subramanya Sastri was on official tour to Trichy, the neighbours arranged for Swaminathan to go with his mother Mahalakshmi Ammal and his siblings by train to Kanchipuram. They went to the Kanchi Mutt at Kanchipuram and from there a horse cart had been arranged to take Swaminathan to Kalavai alone, much to the surprise of his mother and siblings. They were asked to come in another vehicle. Swaminathan was barely 13 years then. While he was wondering why he was being taken alone, the person who had come to take him slowly revealed that he would never go back to his family as the 66th Acharya had passed away.
Those were the days when telecommunication was at a primitive stage and so one had to depend on the postal services for telegram etc. and telephones in houses were unheard of. So, while the telegram was being sent to bring Swaminathan, the 66th Acharya was suffering from small pox and wanted to appoint Swaminathan as his successor, but in his final moments, since Swaminathan had not arrived, had initiated the cousin of Swaminathan, by name Lakshmikanthan as his successor.
Lakshmikanthan was 18 years old and was well versed in Rig Veda. Unfortunately Lakshmikanthan had also contracted small pox and lived only for eight days. However before passing away he had approved of Swaminathan as his successor to the Kanchi Peetam.
This unexpected turn of events was indeed a rude shock for the little Swaminathan and for his parents. The parents were deeply worried as the life of a Sanyasi required the highest level of self-discipline, meditation and complete disconnect with the family members. The very thought of giving up a child to live a monastic life was unbearable for them.
However, Swaminathan regained his composure very quickly and was reconciled to the reality and told them, “Why are you hesitant? I feel I have the complete blessings of my Acharyas. Please permit me whole-heartedly to become a Sanyasi and fulfil my duties ”
The parents had no other option but to let him go.
Swaminathan was then anointed as the 68th Acharya of the Kamakoti Peetam at the age of 13. He was given the title of “Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi”.
(From now on I will be using the term “Mahaperiyava”)
During the 18th century in the time of the 62nd Acharya, the administrative headquarters of the Kanchi Mutt was shifted to Kumbakonam due to political turmoil and continued to function from there. Hence Mahaperiyava went and stayed at Kumbakonam from 1908 and learned the Vedas, Sanskrit scriptures and fine arts under the guidance of learned scholars. However, the constant stream of visitors to the Mutt was causing great disturbance to His studies and therefore the Mutt officials identified a beautiful village called Mahendramangalam, on the banks of the river Cauvery. This village was accessible only by ferry and so not many people would come.
In 1911, Mahaperiyava moved to Mahendramangalam and continued His studies.
He learnt Sanskrit grammar, logic and Vedanta , epics, history of holy places, archaeology, world history, mathematics, astronomy , astrology, in addition to English , French, Tamil grammar and literature. He was deeply interested in Tamil classics like Tirukkural, Thevaram and Tiruvachagam. Erudite scholars in these subjects came and stayed in the village and taught Him all these subjects. A Marathi scholar was specifically brought in from Maharashtra as Mahaperiyava was interested in researching Marathi books. The teacher stayed there for three years and taught him Marathi.
While at Mahendramangalam, He used to go to the middle of the Cauvery where there were sand dunes and He enjoyed the scenic beauty of Mother Nature. He was also very interested in photography and knew the intricacies of a camera and nuances of photography very well.
In 1914, within a period of six years Mahaperiyava was well versed in a whole range of subjects and languages. At the age of twenty, He took on the whole responsibility of the Kanchi Mutt. His only goal was welfare of mankind and He strove towards that through His thought, words and deeds. He had taken many initiatives keeping the welfare of all in mind. These initiatives were wide-ranged. From restoration of ponds and digging of wells, providing medical aid for the poor, encouraging students and scholars in their fields of studies, providing food for the needy, to restoring cultural heritage. Emphasis was given for protection of the cow and the Vedas which were the backbone of the Indic culture ages ago.
Mahaperiyava toured the length and breadth of India by foot, meeting so many people. He never cared for any comfort and used to stay even in cow-sheds. Though He did not care for his comfort, He was always keen that his visitors should be taken care of well. With his frail body He used to walk from place to place at such a fast pace that would stun His followers. His daily schedule included long hours of worship and meditation, meeting visitors from far and near. He ate minimal food only once a day. His complete control of the senses coupled with His real concern for the well-being of the world seems to have given Him the strength, both physical and mental to undergo such arduous journeys. He was an avid reader and would keep Himself abreast of all the happenings in India and the world.
Mahaperiyava respected all religions that believed in the existence of a God. That was the reason why scholars from all religions found themselves comfortable in His presence and would come and discuss with Him on the religions of the world. He was always of the opinion that one should stick to one’s religion at birth and continue to practice their worship to their Gods.
He was equally well versed in the matters of the state as He was in Vedanta which drew many political leaders and royal families from India and abroad to Him.
Artists and artisans of all fine arts including sculpting used to go and present their works to Him to which He would meaningfully interact and give valuable inputs.
There are a lot of incidents connected to Him which show His greatness and humility and I will be writing on them from time to time but I am just giving one incident here.
In 1933, Mahaperiyava visited Varanasi and was given a rousing welcome by the king of Kashi and all the learned scholars there. However some of the scholars were not happy that a young man in his late thirties be called a ‘Jagadguru’ (literally translating to teacher of the world)
So one of them asked Mahaperiyava in Sanskrit, “Who is this Jagadguru?”
“I am” replied Mahaperiyava with great humility.
“Oh! So you are the Jagadguru” said the man with sarcasm in his voice.
Mahaperiyava replied, “I am not the Guru of this Jagath (world). All the living beings in this Jagath are my Guru” (jagathAm guruh na, jagathi padyamanAh sarvE mama guravah)
The man was taken aback by this explanation.
By then they had reached a hall where a scholarly debate was about to take place and Mahaperiyava then pointed to a sparrow’s nest on a ledge in the ceiling and asked the man “What is this?”
The man replied “A nest”
“Who built it?”
“Sparrows” said the man.
“The sparrow which does not have hands and legs like us can be so creative and build a nest whereas we cannot. Hence the sparrow is my Guru” He said.
That was His spirit and that is what He preached- take only the good qualities of others and learn to respect them. He always practiced what He preached.
Mahaperiyava lived a whole hundred years before he attained Siddhi on January 8, 1994. His physical body is interred in a place inside the Kanchi Mutt itself and He lives forever in the hearts of all and his divine presence is evident even to this day as experienced by His devotees.