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Voicing Silence 7

Saturday, November 27, 2004

From rediff...

27th November

My thougts exactly. Only better put.

From rediff.com - November 22, 2004

On Diwali, the Kanchi Shankaracharya, Jayendra Saraswathi, was arrested oncharges of murder. On the next day, the title of an article in a national daily read 'Seer heads 5,000 crore empire. Another article in a leading national newspaper read, 'Of high priests and their lust for more power.' He has been variously described as high profile, influential and the seventhmost powerful man in India.

The Shankaracharya is in custody, the police are on a wild evidence hunt,and the media is marauding a large cut of the spoils. The seer's high profile status has somehow been conveniently used to imply that he is a goon-wielding, power kooky tycoon. The assets of the Kanchi Math are being referred to as if they were the acharya's personal possessions, and everyone of his past actions is being interpreted according to the revised image that the press has decided to give him.

While the mainstream media sensationalises the latest newsmaker, often indulging in misrepresentation, let us try to examine the Shankaracharya in the eyes of millions of his followers. The Shankaracharya is a sanyasi.Sanyas, as all history books will tell you, is the last stage prescribed by the Hindu way of life. The current Shankaracharya, however, like others in his monastic lineage, did not live the other stages before dedicating hislife to asceticism. He was divined by the previous Shankaracharya as the successor to the title, at whose behest he was given away to the Math by his father.

As a 19-year-old boy, he stood in hip-deep waters and embraced asceticism,pledging detachment from every material pursuit. Ever since, he has eaten minimally for subsistence, not slept on a comfortable bed and not indulgedin any sensual pleasure. He has no next of kin; he severed ties even with his parents. Austerity in the absolute sense. For more than 50 years, he haslived such a life in complete public view. He is a scholar of wide attainments and great versatility who has mastered the Rig Veda, the Dharmashastras, the Upanishads under all the Veda Shakas, Vyakarana, Vedanta,Nyaya and Tarka shastras through the course of his life.

All the articles that holler about the 'high profile' pontiff do not devoteany newsprint to how he has utilised his position of authority. Jayendra Saraswathi, after taking over as the Shankaracharya, is singularly responsible for opening 55 schools and a string of hospitals, professional colleges, child care centres and universities throughout the country. The services in these institutions are offered free of charge or at subsidisedrates, and benefit large sections of society. In addition, charitable trustsfor aiding poor families, old-age homes, rural development trusts, food donation projects, and research projects have also been flagged off by theacharya. Although the seer is perceived as a Hindu Brahmin icon, the condemnation of his arrest by the Muslim and Christian clergy is acomforting testimony to the tolerant, secular face of Hinduism that he has presented in crises.

The Shankaracharya wears saffron according to the canon prescribed for a sanyasi, thereby giving the media and the literati, an easy stereotype. So,the Shankaracharya gets pigeonholed with the paan-chewing, debauched politician who views the ochre as lucre. Hinduism's lack of rigidity doesnot prevent all and sundry from donning saffron. What is unfortunate is that we are not able to distinguish between a genuine ascetic and a masquerader.For the most poignant players in this drama, the followers of the acharya,these are nightmarish times. Within a matter of hours, a man, who for manyyears, had graced their puja with the Gods, had been disgraced. The episode itself, with the unceremonious arrest of the venerable religious leader on an auspicious day, after a yagna, by commandos, was a rude jolt. To exacerbate the wounds, the acharya, a 70-year-old diabetic, was held incustody for the outrageous reason that he would abscond to Nepal. He was not allowed to cook his own food, despite his religious caveats that prohibit food from outside, since it was alleged that he would attempt suicide. He was denied transfer to a hospital or house, unlike most high profile captives. His bail application was adjourned and he was remanded to judicial custody.

To the followers who have seen the Shankaracharya in all his glory, theimage of an old man with failing health, drinking ragi porridge given to prisoners, and performing pujas in a cell, is heart-rending. Yet, unlike anyother community in the world that can speak up when it is hurt, they find themselves mute. Before they could feel the impact of the shock, the VHP and the rest of the Hindutva brigade were already well on their way to politicising the issue and promoting party agendas. Worse yet, due to theirpublic perception as extremist troublemakers, the support of these parties in this issue is a liability for the followers of the acharya. For them, this intensely personal moment of distress does not have asounding board.

The denigration of one of the last bastions of their faith has left them disoriented, victimised and hurt. Their grievances will neverget print footage, as they will be viewed with saffron coloured glasses and quickly branded as 'right wing' or 'fundamentalist.' Since their cause is not as fashionable as those of large dam project victims, people ofalternate sexuality or people in another country's war, they are media-untouchables.The overriding concerns in this issue are its actual intent and impact. The arrest of a religious leader is unprecedented. If the seer is proven guilty,the law will take its course of action as it rightfully should, for everycitizen. However, speculation is rife on the political machinations and theframe-and-blame-game in the case. If the seer is proven not guilty, then where do we go from here? If this case is a political conspiracy, what is to become of the millions of devotees of the man? Do the politicians enmeshed in the throes of the immediate, understand the cultural and moral impact ofthis issue, and the possible damage that they have done?In the smutty power and revenge match between individuals, along with thearrested seer, a 2,500-year-old institution has also been sullied, an institution that has stood the test of time, of cultural invasions and of religious warfare.

The Shankaracharya is not a person, but a sacrosanct position of eminence in people's minds. After this episode, irrespective of its outcome, will the devotee still feel the sanctity of this position andthis institution? Will he not feel demoralised and despondent about hisfaith, against the overwhelming backdrop of scepticism? Will millions of our citizens, with a beaten spirit, be able to place credence and hope in a leader again?

Shobha Vasudevan is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin


Nachiketas said...

Exactly. Cannot agree more. I felt so angry at the way he was treated, not just from a religious perspective but from the perspective of a democratic one as well.

tamilian said...

1.'He has no next of kin; he severed ties even with his parents' - what do you think of the co-accused brother raghu.
2.what about the sexual harrasment allegations of the leading female writer after the story came in the media.
3.why are the accounts not maintained properly ie- why all the hush hush.
4. other leaders condemn because this can happen to them anytime, no wonder tehy condemn.
5. the simple reason this has happened is that the mutt, the head and the followers were out of touch with 21 century happenings in the country.

blackdatura said...

Source: Society, June 2005 issue.

C.S.S. Latha: Do you feel (Kanchi) Shankaracharya's episode has shaken the faith of the people in spiritual leaders?

I don't think so. Public figures being accused of wrong doings is not new.
Once you stand in public, accusations are a normal part of life. I don't see why it should shake or unshake people, and if it's shaking them up, it's good. After all, if your spirituality is something that is so fragile that it can shake and collapse, it's better it collapses today than tomorow. At least you know you haven't found anything worthwhile. If you have tasted spirituality in it's genuine form, then it won't shake no matter what happens.

maami said...