Kanchi Seer Jayendra Saraswati – Inclusive Approach to Orthodoxy

As Kanchi Kamakoti mutt’s 69th seer Jayendra Saraswati dies; a look back at his inclusive approach to orthodoxy.

4 min read
Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt’s 69th Seer Jagadguru Jayendra Saraswathi.

Shri Jayendra Saraswati, the 69th seer of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, was the first acharya in an unbroken lineage of over 2,500 years to have stepped into a prison.

NOT as a convict though, but as the head of the mutt, to address the prisoners.

His way was a potent mix of orthodoxy and inclusiveness.

Too caught up to read? You can listen to this story instead.

The 69th Acharya of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam Jagadguru Pujyashri Jayendra Saraswati Shankaracharya Swamigal attained Siddhi at 9.00 am today – Shukla Trayodashi – 28 February 2018 at Sri Kanchi Kamakotii Peetam Sankara Matam, Kanchipuram.
Kamakoti.org, Kanchi Shankara Mutt’s Official Website
Swami Jayendra Saraswati paying obeisance to his predecessor Swami Chandrashekarendra Saraswati
Swami Jayendra Saraswati paying obeisance to his predecessor Swami Chandrashekarendra Saraswati
(Photo Courtesy: Mahaperiyablog.org)

Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (‘Mahaperiyava’), the 68th seer of the Mutt appointed his successor in 1954.

Subramanyam Mahadeva, who was then 18-years-old, was given the monastic name Jayendra Saraswati (‘Saraswati’ being the monastic ‘surname’ specific to the mutt). The 50s saw the anti-religion movement of EV Ramasamy (Periyar, to his followers), on a sudden rise.

Mahaperiyava had left behind a legacy of immense trust, sustainable charitable activities, and an orthodox, yet inclusive, niche in the society. But Sri Jayendra Saraswati had to contend with a Tamil Nadu, whose politics was based squarely on caste and religion, and which harboured overtly anti-brahmin sentiments.

Swami Jayendra Saraswati in his teens.
Swami Jayendra Saraswati in his teens.
(Photo Courtesy: Mahaperiyablog.org)

Extending the Brief

For the first time in the Kanchi mutt’s history, Swami Jayendra Saraswati extended the mutt’s charitable activities to include education, employment, health and temple renovation. He set up charities under each section, and traveled the state and the country to garner financial support for these.

During the 60s and 70s, Tamil Nadu was polarised. It was at this time that the anti-religion movement of the DK (Dravida Kazhagam, founded by Periyar) and the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, founded by Annadurai) picked up steam.

While the acharya did not engage directly with the karuppu karai (black border, referring to the dhotis of the Dravidian supporters), he did eventually break their ranks, even converting a large number of them to Hinduism and changing the atheist stand of many.

Swami Jayendra Saraswati’s approach to religion and its propagation seemed to be diametrically opposed to those of his predecessors. He broke many long-standing rules of orthodoxy, in lieu of inclusiveness. Under him, the mutt was open to all.

Temple Entry, Dalits and Politics

In 2002, the acharya visited Thumbaipatti village, an hour’s drive from Madurai, and paid obeisance to the deity of the temple. He then went on to partake of the ‘prasad’ from the hands of the priest who was a Dalit.

Two years later, in 2004, he embarked on a journey across the Dalit dominated slums of north Chennai. He offered ‘puja’ at the temples, and spoke at length to the Dalit leaders. By this time, his influence in the wider circle of politics was immense.

His views on the necessity of a temple for Lord Ram in Ayodhya was well known. He had even visited Ayodhya and tried to mediate with the Mullahs there. His political clout in Tamil Nadu was huge. A large section of Dalits, across various slums (the acharya visited around fifteen of them) were in favour of his visits, while many wondered if there was an ulterior motive.

Nevertheless, this was the first time ever that the head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peeth visited the slums of Chennai.

The ‘Ambedkar Makkal Sabhai’ (Ambedkar People’s Forum), launched by the acharya in February 2004, comprises leaders of 20-odd fringe Dalit outfits, who continue to present the issues of the Dalits to the government.

Going Beyond the Mutt

Swami Jayendra Saraswati also has the distinction of being the first acharya to visit the Sringeri Shankara Mutt, another lineage of acharyas, who too, trace their origins to Adi Shankara.

Many of the followers of the respective mutts consider the other as rivals. The acharya’s visit to Sringeri was shocking to some, and liberating to others, on both camps.

His desire to bring in every part and section of the society into the ambit of the mutt led him into stranger waters, and also attracted a form of scrutiny that the previous generation of acharyas were never subjected to. All thanks to a new, and all pervasive, media.

Loss of Reputation, A Gain in Trust?

After Mahaperiyava’s demise in 1994, the Kanchi mutt’s socio-religious, and consequently, political activities, gradually increased under Swami Jayendra Saraswati.

On 2 October 1987, Swami Jayendra Saraswati launched the campaign ‘Jana Kalyan Jana Jagaran’, specifically meant for social activities, and which was not under the purview of the mutt. This was immediately after he returned from a sudden three day disappearance.

The ‘Jana Kalyan Jana Jagaran’ initiative strengthened his political ties.

Soon, politicians from the Centre and the state alike, came to the mutt to pay their respects to the acharya.

As is usually the case with politics, respect is fleeting, and suddenly, Jayalalitha and her AIADMK, once considered close to the mutt, turned against the acharya, and jailed him under the pretext of murder (September 2004).

Eventually, Swami Jayendra Saraswati was cleared of all charges. But by then, the Tamil TV media duo of Jaya TV (AIADMK) and Sun TV (DMK), both controlled by the government and chief opposition, had tarnished his name.

That he was vocal in his comments for or against the TN government and the Centre, also made the situation more volatile for the mutt.

The 69th seer of Kanchi breathed his last at the age of 82. He leaves behind a redefined mutt; one that is not afraid of political affiliation, made great headway in the field of education and inclusiveness in religion, and which inspite of all this, continues to hold on to its orthodox roots.

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