Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Venerated No More

A story. My paternal grandfather was a gambler who'd gamble away hard earned money at the card table. Money that was desperately needed to run the household which he shared with his brother. Between them the brothers had sired seventeen children and cash was always in short supply. The story continues that late one night upon finding that his brother had not returned home, my grandfather's younger brother made his way to the local club where he knew he'd find him. There, the younger brother is said to have simply called out my grandfather's name and together they returned home wordless. My grandfather quit cold turkey and would never grace the club again with his presence.

What he however did, was replace his gambling addiction with an altogether more socially acceptable obsession. Religion. In particular, he became a staunch supporter of the Kanchi Madam. He would follow the chief pontiff of the monastery around the country. On various occasions, his daughters and their offsprings would join him on the journey across the country and I've heard how he has been as far north as Rishikesh as part of the entourage.

Appa with Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal at home,
sometime in the mid-80s
Whenever the pontiffs came to Madras, they would pay a visit to our house and it is said that on one such occasion, the then chief sage is said to have left his wooden sandals behind and walked ahead barefoot. When my grandfather ran after him to return them, he supposed to have said that he left them behind intentionally. The sandals remain at my parent's house to date, where they have since been given a silver sheath for protection.

And in my growing up years, even though my grandfather had passed away, the rest of his multitudinous family continue to worship the Kanchi Madam although I could never decide where I stood about revering human beings. On one occasion, I asked someone what the seer had done to deserve being prostrated before. And my impertinence was swiftly curtailed with some vague response about divinity and meditation. My ambivalence has never really gone away.

Such was the influence of this particular monastery and its pontiffs on our family that once when I was about eight or nine, some well meaning uncle suggested that I spend my summer holidays helping out at the Madam. Doing light chores that included reading out from the number of letters that came to the pontiffs as they liked children to read them out aloud to them. Innocent enough, but with the benefit of hindsight, I shudder to think what other chores I may have been asked to do. Luckily, I was never sent away and I never got to find out (the blasphemy of such a thought!).

It might be sacrilegious to even think that but my disquiet with such institutions returned when some fifteen or so years ago, criminal charges were filed against it and the chief pontiff was taken into custody. There was much uproar at such an eminent person being treated like a common criminal. While I initially bristled at the images of someone whose photos hung all over the walls of the house where I grew up, being handcuffed, I found myself shrugging my shoulders and moving on. These were not the gods I was worshipping and I no longer held them in the same level of esteem as I had when I was a child.

Then news arrived this morning that the presiding pontiff Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal had passed away. My old ambivalence returns. There's a mild sadness that the man who was venerated as god incarnate in my family circles is no more. The pontiff had, in his time as head, made significant departure from the establishment and moved the Madam in a direction that incorporated social good into the religious practices. He had recognised that as a religious unit they needed to go beyond simply preaching and had to have a greater common purpose for the people. In that respect, he had also invited criticism but had stuck to his principles.

Despite these significant ventures, I am less than convinced about what made this order of monks special (I confess, I do not know enough about their teachings or more about the social causes they supported). They are good, kind, decent, generous people but I doubt they have superior powers (there! I've said it!) to the rest of us. My own uncertainty lives alongside the strong conditioning of my childhood years. And I'm fine with that.

Addendum: When I called my father to commiserate on the passing away of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, he spent more time talking about another godman (a well known con) that he is currently representing that the other more respected recently-deceased sage. We all move on, I guess. 


Anonymous said...

I am always very unsure of a ‘human’ god.
And I think you are brave to write your thoughts and feelings on such a ‘controversial ‘ topic that is close to our childhood ways of living.


ammani said...

There's no bravery here, Uma. Just past caring and self-censoring, I guess.