The Sage of Shambhavi

The life and message of HH Shri Sudhindra Thirtha Swamiji
of Shri Kashi Math Samsthan
by Shri K G Mallya

Chapter 8 of 12: Making Of A Muni
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Author's note: For smooth flow of reading, instead of mentioning "His Holiness" every time, I have made use of commonly available pronouns in English. Shambhavi is a river flowing in Mulki, Dakshina Kannada district in the state of Karnataka. It was here that HH Shri Sudhindra Thirtha Swamiji had the customary holy dip before embracing sanyas.

Shri Vyasa Raghupati Shri Veda Vyas

The position of a Mathadhipati is a strange combination. He has to be a sanyasi observing lifelong celibacy renouncing the world and side by side be like a king with all the paraphernalia and titles. On one hand, he has to wear saffron coloured cloth throughout and lead a very simple life spending most of the time in spiritual pursuits and on the other hand, he can sit on the gold throne and give audience to the disciples and followers with every authority on religious matters. More than that, he has to live in modern times, understanding the modern day complexities and give suitable advice and guidance to the followers drawing knowledge from the ancient scriptures. On the face of it many of the injunctions of the days of yore, especially like crossing the sea and live in a distant land or going abroad for higher education have to be reinterpreted in the present day context. The job becomes difficult when the present generation equipped with modern education and outlook asks reasons for everything. To them faith seems like superstition. Custom, bondage and tradition seem strange. And the Gowda Saraswat Brahmin Samaj ! One of the most ancient communities that has wandered the length and breadth of the country in search of new pastures - sometimes on account of famines, sometimes as a part of a mission to spread the message of Hindu Dharma, and sometimes as a part of protecting and preserving their age old dharma and moral values. And again they are on the move now for economic reasons. But interestingly enough the Samaj, although on constant move, has retained intact quite a few characteristics of the age old society and moral values. Whenever they settle down they first think of a place of worship and their dharma guru. Thus the institutions of temples and maths are still strong and each and every home has a tulasi plant and a god's niche. Each one has his own Ishtadeva (deity of his choice), Grama Deva (deity of the place where he lives) and Kula Deva (family deity) which the family as a whole has to worship without any choice. The Kula Deva concept must have originated from the days of settling down in Trihotrapura in Gowda Desha (dating back to the Parashurama Avtar era) when each family must have had a deity of its choice. As the families grew in size, they must have maintained family links through the deity. When these families migrated to Goa, they carried the idols of deities with them and erected temples so that the devotees could visit them at their free will. That is how most of the Kuladevata temples are concentrated in Goa.

All Gowda Saraswat Brahmins are the descendants of the ancient sages and prominent among them are the seven rishis (Saptarishis): Atri, Bharadwaja, Gautama, Jamadagni, Kashyapa, Vasistha and Vishwamitra. Even today they go by what is called a Gotra named after the rishi who is the moola purusha or father of that Gotra. Since people belonging to the same Gotra are deemed to be progeny of the same parents in a distant past, marriages rarely take place within the same Gotra. The followers of Kashi Math Samsthan have Rig Veda as their main scripture which they study and recite as per Shakala branch of study and they are followers of the Ashwalayana Sutras in their way of life.

A study of the Kula Devas indicate that they were worshipping Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesha and Surya. All the deities were considered equal and the concept of Saivaism was that both Siva and Vishnu are equal and none of them is more than equal.

With the advent of Shriman Madhwacharya on the religious scene, some of those that were already Vaishavaites embraced Madhwa Math and strengthened their devotion to Lord Vishnu. When Goa was under the rule of Vijayanagar, they accepted as their Ishta Devata, Lord Venkatesha of Tirupati - an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, worshipped by the ruler of Vijayanagar - and built temples dedicated to Shri Venkatesha popularly known as Venkataramana.

It is in Gomantaka that the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins earned titles to their names depending upon their vocation, position and profession. They continue to this day by way of surnames like Shenoy (accountant), Mallya (builder), Bhandari (treasurer), Nayak (leader) etc. as relics of the past, though the professions have changed from generation to generation thereafter.

With the ever-changing times, leading a community that has inherited an ancient way of life and at the same time striving hard to adjust itself to the needs of modern life, is not an ordinary task. Then again, this is an uprooted community that has been on constant move from time immemorial and it is only the head of the Samsthan that can hold the members of the Samaj together as a unifying force. A powerful leadership, flexibility and above all mobility has to be there to gather and weave the scattered flowers into a garland - one with flowers of different colours and fragrances. Flowers are many but the garland is one....

From Bombay to Trivandrum or Mangalore to Madras, all members of the Samaj are followers and the language is Konkani, but the customs are in variance and so are accents, to suit the needs of each locality. Yet, since the Guru is one, the differences simply fade away.

Swamijis of Shri Kashi Math have lived up to the tradition. The headquarters are in Banaras but the areas of operation are mainly in South India and that too along the west coast. As the community spread out to different parts of the country in recent times, Swamiji's itineraries have expanded to cover those areas as well.

Each Swamiji is the product of the period that he is passing through and he will act, react and guide the followers depending on the needs of the times. But before doing so, he has to undergo a vigorous training besides mastering the scriptures that are not only age old but also new every time as one can interpret them in his own scholarly way as done by the three famous acharyas: Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madwacharya.

The making of a muni is not an ordinary job. Firstly, because the candidate comes from a household like any other family. Secondly, because in the formative years of boyhood, he will receive the usual present day education and thirdly, because he must must show the necessary signs of willingness to renounce the world and remain a celibate and be dedicated to the cause of the society and social service. He must have the qualities of patience, hard work, steadfastness, honesty and above all devotion to God and dedication to duties. Then it takes years of studies to gain knowledge to guide others. Maturity cannot be a one shot affair that could be acquired within a day, month or year. Then more often than not, people around expect the guru to perform some miracles at least, knowing not that God alone can work miracles overruling the laws of nature, that the guru can and should only show the pathway to God and that it is for an individual to try hard and uplift his soul under the guidance of the guru. If these basic principles are properly understood then it will be easy to appreciate the role of a spiritual master.

HH Shri Sudhindra Thirtha On Wednesday, the 31st of March, 1926, a star shone brightly on the house of Shri Ramdas Shenoy, one of the trustees of Tirumala Devaswom Temple of Ernakulam, for his wife Shrimati Draupadi Shenoy gave birth to a son, the fourth one in the family. The baby was named Sadashiva. When Sadashiva was four, a catastrophe befell the family. The mother gave birth to another baby. However when the baby opened its tiny innocent eyes to see the world around, the mother closed her eyes forever on the world. The family sunk in sadness for a long time and to the tiny tot Sadashiva who, sitting on the mother's lap was trying to understand the world and its ways, it was almost a deadly blow. The eldest sister, Smt. Sharada Ranga Prabhu came forward to take care of both the new born and Sadashiva. After sometime the father remarried and a stepmother entered the house. The kids returned but the stepmother could not provide the same love and affection that the mother used to provide.

Starved of a mother's tender love and guidance, Sadashiva slowly grew up. He had no one at home to talk to or share his views with and so, at times, he would go to the backyard where there was a jackfruit tree with branches that hung very low. He would climb, sit on a branch and relax in the shadow for a long time think and pondering over several things he had seen or heard. As time passed, the jackfruit tree became his favourite companion and sometimes he would whisper to the tree his success and failures, how he felt about others and so on.

Shri Ramdas Shenoy was a trader. He and his elder brother were running a business jointly in a partnership. The brothers once had a difference of opinion and the rift grew in alarming proportions resulting in Shri Ramdas Shenoy being thrown out of the business. After this unfortunate event, for about six months, the family had to spend days almost in abject poverty, living only on conjee and pickles.

Shri Ramdas Shenoy was a very religious person. In religious matters he was very strict and nobody at home could take food unless everyday pooja was offered to the deities, Lord Venkataramana and Lord Shiva, in the pooja room. Interestingly, he had arranged the everyday pooja in such a way that one would automatically get the right to offer pooja on behalf of the family as soon as this upanayanam was over. From the father, the first son got this right after his upanayanam, the second son took over from the first after his upanayanam, the third from the second and subsequently the fourth son, Sadashiva took over from the third one after his upanayanam at the age of eleven.

Sadashiva had a flair for singing bhajans and stotras and also watching poojas while others were performing. In fact, he was eagerly waiting for his turn to come. When the right to perform the pooja was passed on to him, he was told of another stipulation. "If you miss reciting stotras today, you have to recite the same stotras twice tomorrow and if you fail tomorrow, you have to recite them four times on the day after tomorrow. Thus with each passing day, the count will be doubled".

Sadashiva accepted all the conditions with a smile. "I shall not miss the pooja even on a single occasion throughout my life. You will see this for yourselves !", he declared in front of all the members of his family, little realising that it would happen that way in his later life. Sadashiva had a great fascination for worship and pooja. Added to that, in the third standard itself, he started to learn Sanskrit which came in very handy while memorising prayers and stotras. As he grew up he started to spend more time in devotional activities.

One day when he was offering pooja, suddenly he heard an inner voice that stated that he was destined to become a Swamiji ! He had a thrill and looked around whether any one had come to the pooja room to make a prediction. But no one was around. The lamp was burning with a strange glow and in its light were clearly visible the idol of Lord Venkataramana and Shiva linga symbolising Lord Sadashiva. But somehow, today they were looking brighter than ever.

He concluded the pooja and went to the backyard. The friendly jackfruit tree welcomed him as usual. He sat there for a long time pondering over the flash of thought that had risen from the bottom of his heart. So far he had not seen any Swamiji including the Dharmaguru of the Samaj, Shrimat Sukrateendra Swamiji He had only heard the name and not even seen a photograph. After sometime he felt that it might have been a stray thought that crossed his mind much like a feathery cloud that brought no rain. He got down from the tree and as he was entering the house, he saw his elder brother Datta waiting for him. Datta was in a service that required constant travel and tour and he had come home on a brief vacation. It was an unexpected and sudden visit and Sadashiva was very happy because Datta was one person who took active interest in his welfare. Sadashiva at once wanted to discuss with him about the strange voice he had heard during the pooja but refrained from making a direct reference. He preferred to ask, "Anna (Elder brother), it is good that you have come. I wanted to seek your guidance in respect of my career. Tell me, what should I do after my matriculation ?"

Datta took a fountain pen that he had brought as a present for his younger brother. Handing it over, he said, "After you matric, go to college. Take science and pass Intermediate. Once you complete it, I will make you an engineer or a scientist. My younger brother should shine like a sun thereafter."

"Really ?", Sadashiva's eyes twinkled.

"Yes. Will you promise me that you'll study hard and become an engineer ?"

To Sadashiva his career path seemed very clear. He was happy and held out his palm to give the promise and Datta immediately put his palm over it to confirm the promise made and then held it firmly to the delight of both the brothers.

After the vacation, Datta had to leave. He embraced his younger brother, reminded him of the promise he made and left.

Days rolled on and on. Sadashiva, now seventeen, was in Intermediate studying science and within a few months he was hoping to pass it in flying colours. Then he had to make a choice - should he become an engineer or a scientist ?

Over the years, Sadashiva was wont to go to the temple every night to watch the pooja offered to the deity attentively and return home promptly thereafter.

One night when Sadashiva was in the temple watching the Aarti, he felt a soft touch on his back. He turned back and saw behind him a person standing and smiling. It was Subba Bhat, a priest. In a whisper, he said, "Sadashiva, please come with me. I have something important to talk to you".

Sadashiva joined his palms, bowed his head as a mark of salutation to the deity and obediently followed the priest. They went out and stood in front of the temple, the deity still in full view so that both of them could watch the Aarti from outside.

The priest introduced the topic. "Sadashiva, it is a strange mission on which I am here. I know you very well and your qualities too. All of us believe that you are the most suitable person....". He paused for a while looking deep into his eyes.

"Suitable person for what ?", Sadashiva wanted to ask. But this was an elderly person and that too a priest, commanding respect. Etiquette demanded a patient and full hearing. So he silently looked up but inquiringly at the graceful countenance of the priest.

"Our most revered Dharmaguru Shrimat Sukrateendra Swamiji is on the lookout for a suitable successor. Somebody has recommended your name to His Holiness and so Shri Swamiji has sent me as his emissary to your father to inquire...."

"Has father consented ?" Sadashiva asked.

"Yes ! At first he was hesitant. Then he agreed. After all it is the commandment from our Dharmaguru. It is the bounden duty of the Shishya Varga to fulfill his desire. Saying this, he gave me your horoscope. We have got it scrutinised. It matches very well with the requirements of the duties of the position. Now all of us are eager to have your consent."

Sadashiva smiled for a while. All seventeen years of his life, he had not said "No" to anybody on any occasion. He looked up at the deity. The waving of camphor mangalarti was going on to the accompaniment of the ringing of bells, beating of drums and blowing of pipes and conchshells at a climax.

"Shall I say Yes ?" he asked of the deity. To his astonishment, he felt the bells, pipes, drums and conchshells telling him in one voice: "Say 'yes', say 'yes', say 'yes' !"

The Aarti was over. And Subba Bhat was waiting for an answer.

But Sadashiva was yet to make up his mind to give his consent. He thought for a while. Did God also desire that he should become a sanyasi ? Otherwise why should the priest approach him in the temple, that too at the time of Aarti ? Perhaps it was at His decree and will only ! After a few moments Subba Bhat affectionately asked, "Sadashiva dear, what have you decided ?"

Sadashiva smiled and conveyed: "When my father has already consented and you have asked me in front of the deity, how can I say 'No' ? I will accept the offer."

The elderly priest was immensely pleased. If it were not to be the temple square, he would have perhaps jumped for joy !

"May Lord Venkataramana bless you !" He heartily wished and hurriedly left the place.

When Sadashiva reached home, it was quiet everywhere. Although all the members of the family except Datta were present, no one spoke with him. They raised their head and looked up at him silently with awe, wonder and respect. Sadashiva inwardly laughed at the sudden change in the atmosphere of the home.

After food, he silently went to bed. For a long time, he could not sleep. In the past whenever he was happy or sad, he used to remember his mother though he was unable to recollect exactly her features, figure or face. All he could remember faintly was a red sari with white dots. "Mother, you should have been alive today !" He remembered and without his knowledge tears appeared in his eyes. In the darkness, he quietly wiped his tears and tried his best to remember and picture his lost mother. But he could not think beyond the red sari and its white dots. Yes, once had led him by holding his tender arms affectionately and at that time was he able to catch a glimpse of her countenance ? No ! "Mother, why did you depart so early making me an orphan ?" He wanted to cry loudly but could not. "Mother, hold my hand to lead me forever !" He offered silent prayers to his departed mother and only then did sleep come to him.

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