By U Mahesh Prabhu
I was born a “Goud Saraswat Brahman”, but I prefer to call myself a Saraswat – for Goud has little or no significance. While I do consider myself a Brahman, owing to my vocation (Brahman is anyone who earns his living by using his intellect only), I am not a believer in caste. My belief emanates from my understanding of Vedic scriptures – particularly Upanishads, Samhitas, Neeti and Dharma Shastras. People of my community are called Saraswat since our ancestors lived alongside the now extinct river, Sarasvati. Our ancestors were also the authors of Vedas. We are one of the oldest living communities. Historical facts – now that the existence of River Sarasvati is validated beyond doubt – suggest that we are at least 3,000 years old. Ramayana as well as Mahabharata, two epics of India’s ancient heritage, mention “Saraswat Brahmans” with pride and honor.
That which is known to the world today as yoga was founded by our ancestors. Yes, there are pointers to suggest that Patanjali was a Saraswat himself. Of the seven revered rishis, at least four are confirmed to be Saraswat – Bharadwaj, Vaccha, Kaumsha and Kashyap. Our ancestors were by far the most revered and respected across the sub-continent for their intellectual prowess and wisdom.
In a country where historical records often go missing, it is difficult to ascertain how a branch of Saraswat Brahmans landed in Gomantak – modern-day Goa – and declared themselves “Goud Saraswat Brahmins”. They were revered by many kings of the land, including Vijayanagara, Kadamba, Chalukyas and Hoysala empires.
When the Portuguese brought their infamous Inquisition in 1560, ruthless torture was focussed on the Saraswat community. A good many Saraswats fled the region, but a great number were captured, tortured or, when they refused to convert, slaughtered. The Catholic Church refuses to acknowledge let alone apologise for this bloody massacre. Torture incurred by the Inquisition included brute force to separate families – husbands and wives, children and their mothers – before slaughtering or converting them. My late mentor M V Kamath – doyen of Indian journalism – has spoken about this in great length in his autobiography Reporter At Large. Anant Kakba Pirolkar’s (A K Pirolkar) book Goa Inquisition speaks about this brutality in the name of the benevolent Jesus Christ with heart-wrenching details.
It’s very clear from the facts, that until the Inquisition, there was hardly any organized approach to administering or “ruling” the Saraswat community as a religion through a pontiff. It was after the persecution at the hands of the Portuguese that Saraswats must have considered having a religious order like that of the Vatican. It often happens that the suppressed learn a lesson or two from their suppressors.
Today, many Saraswats believe in one of the four Mathas as their spiritual and social leader. Originally, the order was followed with the objective of keeping alive the rich intellectual and spiritual traditions of Saraswats’ Vedic past. It was clear, after the Inquisition, that Saraswats would have to work extremely hard to make their living and there was a fear that it would turn them into intellectually bankrupt people. To ensure that it didn’t happen, Mathaadhipathis were anointed and a tradition of “Guru Shishya Parampara” was born.
It’s very important to note that none of these Mathaas were started by Saraswats since these Mathaas existed ages before the arrival of Saraswat in the region. Kashi Math, which has its base in Kashi, was founded by a seer who was of Tamil origin. Strange? But true.
Now arises a question, why is it that in over 2,500 years, before seeking these Mathaas and Mathaadhipathis, Saraswat ancestors never had a religious order? The answer is simple, but hard to fathom. Vedic texts, unlike Koran, Torah, and Bible, were not religious texts. Swadharma – realizing one’s own objective of life through the use of conscience – was the tradition. Free will and free speech were invented, not by Europeans, British or Americans but Vedic (i.e. ancient Indian) people. When there was a sense of self-inquiry, there was a need for a guru, who could spend quality individual time and teach deserving students, not a self-styled godman who sits on a throne and seeks appeasement of his people.
While Kashi Mathaa claims to revere and worship Vyasa or Veda Vyasa, they hardly offer an answer to why Vyasa didn’t start a Mathaa of his own or any of the rishis of the Saraswat lineage? Mathaas are a foreign concept. Kavale Math – also known as Gaudapadacharya Math – which initiated the revered teacher of Dwaita Sampradaya – Adi Shankaracharya was in fact a monastery which imparted Vedic education to aspirants. When it was turned into a religious order, it’s hard to say. But that it wasn’t a religious sect as it has been made today is a fact. Besides, Gaudapadacharya was not a Saraswat. It existed much before the arrival of Saraswats in Gomantak.
Like all other religious organizations, these Mathaas and Mathaadhipathis, are infested by intellectually bereft and, sometimes, even self-aggrandizing people. Kashi Math’s recent infamous rift between Raghavendra Teertha and Samyamindra Teertha is a classic case. Their guru Sudheendra Teertha had legally adopted and accepted Raghavendra Teertha as his shishya and even made him the legal Mathaadhipathi before asking him to withdraw from the position. Technically, the contest of Raghavendra Teertha as the rightful Mathaadhipathi of Kashi Math is viable. Samyameendra Teertha holds no legal claim to the position of Kashi Math Mathaadhipathi. “But then in the matter of faith there’s no scope for the law?” supporters of Samyameendra Teertha argue. If that be the case, I wonder why his disciples filed a criminal caveat against Raghavendra Teertha in the first place. It’s hard for me to even justify Raghavendra Teertha from a Dharmic standpoint. His recent video statements, although touching, don’t come close to the very idea of Sanyasa Dharma – that which is suggested by Vedic texts.
There is no written law of Kashi or other Mathaas in the Saraswat community. Therefore, when a situation of contradiction arises, Vedic texts are supposed to be referred to – particularly Upanishads, Neeti and Dharma Shastras.
According to Dharma shastras, Sanyasi is he who “lives in Sat”. Sat means truth. Truth has great significance in the Vedic tradition and it’s not just data or a fact; it goes beyond this. If a person is to live in company of that ultimate truth, he must retract himself from all and any material pleasures including wealth, (wo)men and wine. Unless a person has transcended himself from carnal pleasures, a person can seldom be called a sanyasi in the Vedic sense. Tyaaga or renunciation is the hallmark of Sanyasa. Tyaaga can seldom happen until the Arishadvargas are uprooted from an individual. Ari (negative) Shad (six) Vargas (qualities) are Kama (lust), Krodha (Anger), Lobha (greed), Moha (Infatuation), Mada (Ego) and Matsarya (Envy). Even if a minute trace of those Arishadvargas are found, the person cannot be called a sanyasi. Any Sanskrit scholar can confirm this fact. Given this, it’s hard for me to call a person driving the finest car, living in the finest places, wearing the costliest jewellery and seeking self-aggrandizement and publicity as a sanyasi – let alone fall at his feet in utmost humility. I’ve no issues calling them Mathaadhipathis.
How is it then that the heads of these Mathaas, who were supposed to exemplify spirituality, were overwhelmed by materialistic tendencies? Sanyasis, sadhus, sants, rishis, and munis of yore all lived as hermits in forests or secluded areas including mountains like the Himalayas. Materialistic tendencies stem from being in the company of materialistic people. All people are, by default, materialistic in nature – this is as per Vedic sages and seers. Until all threads to these materialistic ideas are not renounced, sannyasa is simply impossible. Ideas of Mathaas and Mathaadhipathis, therefore, are in complete contradiction to Vedic doctrines. Even if it was started as an experiment, the experiment has grossly failed.
Here’s an interesting legend about the Kashi Math. I call it legend because I’ve had no chance to verify it. But at the outset, it looked credible and believable.
The guru of Sudheendra Teertha was Sukrutendra Teertha. His reign at the math was mostly during the pre-independence era. It happened such that an eminent GSB lawyer from Mangalore, who also happened to be a staunch Gandhian, at the behest of Gandhi went for a luncheon where Dalits were present. He apparently shared the same place and food, pure vegetarian. This didn’t go well with other members of the Mangalorean GSB committee and they appealed to Sukrutendra Teertha to banish the lawyer from the community. This lawyer didn’t take it lying down. Using his legal prowess, he appealed to the courts and struck down the dictum ordained by the anointed spiritual leader. This is said to have irked Sukrutendra Teertha immensely. “If I have no right in the affairs of my community of what use is the position,” he is claimed to have said before secluding himself from all public engagements and limiting himself to the service of the gods through Trikala pujas.
After the demise of Sukrutendra Teertha, the charismatic Sudheendra Teertha took upon himself the task of organizing the community, through public outreach. His Midas touch attracted thousands of GSBs. Funds through Dakshina (alms or donation in Sanskrit) also flowed generously. A true Sanyasi, he had no personal use for money and decided to give it back to the deserving and needy. Essentially, he poured the water of the lake back into the lake.
This attracted the attention of unscrupulous and self-serving people who flocked across the Mathaadhipathi and sought funds for their business. These businesses included Beedis, hotels, real estate, bars and even veg and non-veg restaurants. They realized that getting more people to attend the Darshan of the swami would attract more money and this would get them access to more funds to expand their business and commercial interests. Their assumption was that the money they received from Mathaadhipathi was their fee for increasing the popularity of the pontiff.
Eventually, Sudheendra Teertha saw through these people and stopped offering funds discreetly. By then, Raghavendra Teertha was chosen as his shishya– successor. To ensure that their source of flush funds never dried, they hatched a clever plan. They pursued Sudheendra Teertha to hand over the position of Mathaadhipathi to Raghavendra Teertha. Initially, he resisted the idea but eventually had to reluctantly give in to their demands. The lobby of self-serving people was way too strong. Their idea was that with Raghavendra Teertha at the helm, it would provide more money and their previous arrears would be forgotten.
To their bad luck, the plan misfired. When Raghavendra Teertha took charge as Mathaadhipathi, he first considered the financial affairs of the monastery and enlisted all the people who had benefited from its treasury and dispatched notices to repay their “loans”. Raghavendra Teertha was considered a threat and they soon began hatching plans to create a rift between the elder and younger pontiff. The details of the plan are disgusting, to say the least. But, that it worked to separate the guru and shishya is a fact. A vicious tirade was begun and Raghavendra Teertha was to see horrifying things, unheard of by his predecessors. He was discredited and even called by names by these very people who pushed for his early anointment as Mathaadhipathi. Others in the community, blindly following these “respected” people of the community, followed suit – until recently.
In the event of the infamous and brutal murder of RTI activist Vinayak Baliga, there were strong rumours of involvement of Samyameendra Teertha – although there’s no substantial evidence to prove it. When Samyameendra Teertha asked GSBs not to pursue “other gods” like Ayyappan Swamy of Sabarimala, this brought on him certain discontent for those in Kerala and Karnataka belt saw him as an autocrat. When Purohits – respected in the community – offered advice to Samyameendra Teertha, they were asked not to advise the “seer”. All this led to a further decline in the popularity of Samyameendra Teertha. Raghavendra Teertha seems to be good at making the best of opportunities. There’s currently a cold war between the two factions of the Mathaas, which will stay here for a while.
Many good-intentioned and law-abiding spiritual Saraswats fear the severe implications this would have on the community. Of course, these are the Saraswats who’ve no idea of their own heritage. Saraswats have survived severe famines, abject poverty, ruthless barbarism and yet we have continued to survive and thrive as a community for millennia. Saraswats are older than these Mathaas and their Mathaadhipathis. If Saraswats have lived for 2,500 (approximately) without Mathaas and Mathaadhipathis, they could as well live without them.