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Glimpses from the life history of Sri Mahaperiyava

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.

Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam

Tenali Ramalingam, or Tenali Rama as he was known was the extremely intelligent court jester of the emperor Krishnadevaraya who ruled the Vijayanagara Empire. Not only was he the court jester, but also, he played advisor to the king on many occasions and helped Krishnadevaraya come out of difficult situations and saved the reputation of the kingdom.

This story is about one such incident. Vijayanagara Empire was known for the intelligent and extremely knowledgeable scholars. Once a scholar from Kashi visited Vijayanagara Empire. The emperor as was usual, welcomed the learned man and enquired about the purpose of his visit to his palace. The scholar, who had a look of arrogance said, “Well, your Majesty, I have heard that you have many learned scholars in your kingdom. I would like to have a debate with them on any literary work they choose. It does not matter to me, you see, as to what work is chosen, for, I have read all the literary works that are available, ha.. And, if your men defeat me, I shall surrender all my titles, whereas, if I defeat them, they should become my slaves. Can any of your scholars debate with me?”

The Emperor was confident of his learned men and agreed to the condition and ordered, “Let the debate take place tomorrow”.

However, the arrogance and pomp of the scholar dampened the confidence of the learned men of the court and they feared that they would be easily defeated. They met the emperor and with great apprehension, told him about their reluctance to participate in the debate.

Krishnadevaraya was furious. “Is there nobody to take on this scholar?” he roared in anger. “Is my empire starved of learned men? Is it not a shame to the empire that we do not have even one single person to debate with this scholar?” he seethed with anger.

Tenali Rama who was present watching what had happened, stepped forward. “Your Majesty,” he said humbly. “I will debate with that scholar tomorrow. Do not worry”

The emperor was angrier than before. “Rama, this is not the time to joke about. I am seriously talking about the stake of the kingdom and here you are joking eh?”

Raman said hurriedly, in a firm voice, “I mean what I say your majesty. The only requirement of mine is that these scholars here should come dressed up as my disciples and I shall take care of the rest”. Krishnadevaraya could do nothing and he agreed half-heartedly.

The next day, as the court gathered with the scholar from Kashi present, Raman walked in majestically, his ‘disciples’ in front of him, hailing his praises and ‘titles’. He was wearing a grand silk dhoti and a dazzling turban studded with Gems and had big rings on his fingers and a heavy gold chain around his neck. He carried a bundle wrapped in red silk and held it close to his chest. Even the Emperor was stunned at this show but was not still sure of Raman’s capability.

Raman sat with his disciples on the dais where already the scholar from Kashi was seated. Raman placed the silk bundle in front of him and looked at the emperor for his consent to start the debate. The emperor signalled that the debate could be started.

Raman cleared his throat. “Hmm.. Hmm.. Respected Sir,” he said addressing the scholar from Kashi. “Since you have told that we could debate on a literary work of my choice, I have chosen to debate about “Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam.. Will you start the debate or should I?” He stopped to observe the scholar. The scholar had a shock of his life. He had read almost all the literary works of his time but had never even in his dreams heard of this work “Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam”. He realised his mistake of having allowed Tenali Rama to choose the work of his choice. His face was filled with panic and he hurriedly looked at the emperor and said very humbly, “Your Majesty, I have read this work about thirty years ago and I seek a day’s time to recall the contents of the work. If you permit, can we debate on this tomorrow?

The emperor was surprised at the scholar’s action. However, he had also not even remotely heard of “Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam” and was sort of confused as to how Tenali Rama had mastered this ‘rare’ literary work. Anyhow, the scholar was a guest and the emperor could not be rude to him and so he said, “Well, Sir, if you wish the debate to take place tomorrow, so be it. The darbar is adjourned now.”

The scholar hurriedly got up with his disciples and rushed to the guest house where he was staying. The next day he was not seen at the darbar and when the emperor sent word to the guest house, they found he had left the kingdom with bag and baggage.

The emperor, with a bemused expression looked at Rama and asked him, “Rama, even I have not read this literary work ‘Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam’. What is it about?”

Rama with a sparkle in his eyes, opened the silk bundle he was holding and to the utter shock of every one present, the bundle contained a dried twig of a sesame plant and a rope which is used to tie a buffalo.

To the confused onlookers, Raman explained, “This sesame is called ’tila’ in sanskrit.’Kashta’ in Sanskrit, means stick and so the twig of a sesame plant is ’tilakashta’.’Mahisha’ is buffalo in Sanskrit and ‘Bandhanam’ means tying in Sanskrit. This rope therefore is ‘Mahisha Bandhanam’ as it is used for that purpose. Now you know what “Tilakashta Mahisha Bandhanam” is all about!”

The courtiers and the emperor were guffawing uncontrollably at the wit of Rama and the emperor as usual gave Rama loads of gifts for saving the name and fame of Vijayanagara Kingdom.

A Tale From The Jatakas – The Tale Of The Banyan Deer

The Jataka tales talk about the various lives of the Buddha when he was born as animal or bird and how he showed mercy and virtuousness in whichever form he was.

This is one such story where the Buddha (Bodhisattva) was born as a deer in a herd of Banyan Deer in the forests adjoining Kashi. He was a beautiful one with a golden coat and spots like shining stars. He had a crimson mouth and his hoofs were jet black. His antlers were majestic. He was charming and so the herd made him their king. He was very kind and compassionate and just, which were the qualities needed for a king.

In the same forest there was another herd of Branch Deer whose king was also a very impressive Branch Deer. The herd was also a big herd.

Now, the King of Kashi, Brahmadatta had developed a fondness for deer meat. He wanted to eat deer meat everyday and therefore went to hunt for deer every day. Not only did he go, but wanted the villagers to come with him into the jungle to scare the animals so that he could hunt easily.

This went on for quite some time and the villagers started getting fed up with this directive of the King. They felt it was a huge waste of their time to go with the king and their daily routine and businesses were suffering due to this and therefore decided among themselves that they would make a park near the jungle and drive all the deer into it.

Accordingly, they made a park and built a high fence around it. The area they fenced had lot of trees and shrubs and the people made some ponds for water and managed to drive all the deer into the park. The park had strong gates too.

The next day, the Headman of the village met the King and said with great humility “Your Majesty, we all want to very much help you in your hunting trips, but our vocations suffer if we do not devote time for it. Hence we have built a huge park and all the deer are in there making it easy for you to hunt. Pardon us your majesty!”

The King understood their problem and agreed to hunt in the park every day. The people were happy that they could do their jobs without being disturbed. But, the deer were greatly disturbed. Now they had limited space and it was sure that one of them would die every day. But they could do nothing about it.

The King went to the park and he first spotted the two king deer, the King Banyan Deer and the King Branch Deer.  The King Banyan deer was so charming and attractive and so was the King Branch deer that the King told his men who had come with him including the Royal Cook and these two deer should not be touched come what may.

Every day, the King or his cook went to the park, hunted a deer and brought the meat with great ease.  Whenever the deer knew that the King or the cook had come, they ran hither and thither and dashed against trees and each other and their large antlers got entangled in tree branches and broke and everyday many were injured in this process. The King Banyan deer was extremely sad for what was happening.

He called a meeting with the King Branch Deer and discussed how the damage could be minimised.

“We are destined to be killed one day or the other” said he, “but we can certainly reduce the damage and injuries to the members of our herd. It is really painful that our herd has to endure a lot of pain everyday”

“Yes” agreed the King of Branch Deer.” I am also thinking on what could be done to minimise the damage. But what can be done, I wonder?”

“Well”, said The King of Banyan Deer, “If I may suggest something, maybe one from our herds could go and lie at the gate everyday taking turns. First day it will be from my herd and next day it can be from your herd and so on. At least the King or his cook will not come in and hunt and thereby the damage to the herd will be avoided”

“I agree to your suggestion” said the King of Branch Deer. They then called their herds and told them of the suggestion and all the deer agreed.

So from the next day onwards, one of the deer went and lay down near the gate and the King or Cook came and killed it and took it away. This went on for a while.

One day, it was the turn of a pregnant doe to go and lie at the gate to be killed. She was a branch deer and she felt terrible to go and sacrifice her fawn in the process of killing herself. She hesitated to go and ask her king but the motherly instinct in her would not let her fawn to be killed before he was born. So, slowly, she walked to the King Branch Deer with faltering steps and said “O King, I am pregnant with a fawn and it has been decided that it is my turn to sacrifice myself tomorrow….” She paused. Tears were flowing from her eyes.

The king looked at her questioningly. She continued. “I do not mind giving up my life for the herd your majesty!  But… but…”  The doe could not continue.

The King was not happy. “Look here doe” he said. “I cannot show any preference to you. All the deer are same to me. Do not expect any relaxation” he said in a stern voice.

The doe broke down. “O King, it is not for my sake I am speaking. What is the fault of the fawn that is unborn? Does he not have the right to be born, or the right to enjoy the fresh grass with fresh dew drops? Does he not have the right to jump and play with other fawns…?  It is not that I will not go O King. Let my fawn be born and as soon as he is a few months old and is independent of me, I shall go”

The King Branch Deer was unperturbed by her emotional outburst. With a stone like expression he said, “I cannot make any exceptions for any one O doe! Go away from here and prepare yourself”

The doe felt miserable and was walking towards the gate with tears gushing from her eyes. The King Banyan Deer happened to sight her. He was feeling bad to see the doe shedding tears and asked her what the matter was.

Reluctantly, the doe told her request and what had happened when she requested her king.

“Do not worry” said the King Banyan Deer. “Go and take rest and be happy. I will take care of the situation” The doe was reluctant to go and he again said, “Go, my dear, go and eat fresh grass and keep your mind calm. You need not go to be sacrificed today I will take care”

The doe went away, thanking him but wondered who would take her place.

It was time for the King’s hunt. That day, the King himself came to pick up the prey. He was surprised to see the King Banyan Deer lying at the gate, with his skin glistening in the morning sun. He was shocked.

“Get up O Deer”, he said, “I have granted immunity to you as you are so charming and noble looking. Are there no deer in your herd to give up their life? Get up O deer and send another deer”

“No” said the King Banyan Deer. “It was the turn of a pregnant doe to come today. Well, being a member of this herd, she had to come but what is the fault of the fawn that is unborn? Is he not destined to be born, or to enjoy the fresh grass and the nature and his mother’s love? Should he not enjoy jumping and playing with other fawns… Therefore I decided I will give up my life in her place today. Take me O King. Kill me now!”

The King was deeply touched. He felt very very ashamed of his greed for deer meat and the manner in which he was mercilessly slaughtering the herds of deer day by day.

“Get up, O King of Deer! You have enlightened me. Please get up. I am feeling terribly ashamed of my actions all these days. Even though I am endowed with the sixth sense, I have behaved like an animal whereas, your action has made you superior to me. I… I..am terribly ashamed” His eyes were full of tears and he covered his face crying.

After a while he regained his composure and said. “OK  King Banyan Deer, I will not  kill any of your herd any more. Please go to the jungle and be free”

The King Banyan Deer said, “ O King, I do not want my herd alone to enjoy this gesture of yours…” The King said hurriedly, “ Oh no, all the deer can go. I will not harm even one of them”, to which the King Banyan Deer said, “ Not only deer, O King, all the animals , birds and fishes deserve to live”

“Yes”, said King Brahmadatta, from now onwards, I will see that no harm befalls you all in my kingdom!”

So saying, he threw open the gates of the park and all the deer ran out joyfully into the wilderness and the King stood seeing the sight with tears of joy!

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