And so he fades into the twilight. Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal will be missed for he had a knack of being forever in the news. His death triggered in me memories of the intense Sringeri vs Kanchi wars that were fought in my family during the 1970s and 1980s. The matter faded out thereafter, at least in chez Ramaiya but it did occupy centerstage for a decade and more.
We came from a strongly Sringeri tradition. My paternal grandfather, V Ramaiya, was an amazingly talented civil engineer who rose to very senior levels in the South Indian Railway Company and later became a Sanskrit scholar. His talent in that area was liked by both HH Abhinava Vidyateertha of Sringeri and HH Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi of Kanchi but for all practical purposes he was a Sringeri man.
He never made his inclination public and if you had to see fanatics then you needed to meet my imperious grandmother and my equally imperious aunt. They were both devoted to (aunt was in particular obsessed with) the Sringeri Sarada Peetham (in our house we could never refer to it as the Mutt/Matham) and therefore took no cognisance of the Kanchi Mutt (in our house you never referred to it as the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham).
By some quirk of fate, my dad and the majority of his siblings married into Kanchi following families and that gave rise to many peculiar situations. Take for instance the obligatory green-and-yellow-on-the-inside-and-pink-and-blue-outside invitation cards. Which Jagadguru were you to hold responsible for the forthcoming wedding/sacred thread ceremony/seemantham, etc? Many acrimonious debates would take place. One cousin thought he had solved it all by simply stating that the event was with the blessings of the Sankaracharya. But this pleased nobody, because each camp thought he was favouring the other. This battle was such a recurring feature that even today when I get those traditional invites I always look to see who is the Sankaracharya getting all the credit. Not that it matters, but my mind got conditioned that way.
A related matter was the ushering in of the blessings of the Peetham (whichever it was) at the culmination of a happy event. The mutt representative would come in carrying a tray laden with prasadam and this had to be greeted with everyone standing up, while a long and sonorous recitation of the pontiff’s honours and titles (a lovely set of lines in Sanskrit) would be recited. An eagle eye would be kept on the audience to ensure everyone stood up. In case someone did not you knew where his or her allegiance lay. Grandmother would burn holes into them via her thick glasses.
Grandmother was very keen that a cousin married a girl she had identified for him. In earlier years this would have been a bagatelle-a pronouncement by grandmother to this effect meant it was all over. But the 1970s were a rebellious time, as grandmother would say – too much of communist influence. So she organised for the traditional girl viewing ceremony. We all went. Grandmother was graciousness personified. The obligatory sojji and bajji was gone through and then the girl, having fallen at everyone’s feet, was asked to sing (we were a very musical family). I can still recall that air of expectancy. The girl sat down, pulled out a Sruti box, cleared her throat and began:
Sreeeeeeeee Jayendra Saraswatheeeeeeee eeeeeeeee eeeeeeeeee
Thus went the refrain, or given what happened thereafter, the burden. None of us heard the rest of the song for we were all looking at grandmother. She had become a sculpture of ice. My mother, a great giggler, was stuffing her pallu into her mouth. The song wound to a close and my grandmother came back to life like Galatea. She rose, and we followed. The journey home was made in silence except for mom who had hiccups. She had to be calmed with water etc later. The only one who was pleased was cousin. “I never liked the girl,”he said. “God bless old JS.”
My mother’s aunt, who lived up to a 100 was a staunch follower of the Maha Periyava of Kanchi. She carried around his picture wherever she went and was known therefore as Pada Patti. The atmosphere would be tense each time she came to visit my paternal grandmother. Time and again she would refer to the Sringeri Swamigal (oops sorry Jagadguru of Dakshinamnaya Sarada Peetham) as Mysore Swamiyar. This was too much for my grandmother. She would bring on the matter of how the Sringeri Mutt (sorry Sarada Peetham) was so spic and span while the Kumbhakonam Mutt (yes, we were rather cruel about it all) was not very clean.That enraged my mother’s aunt who retorted that the Kamakoti Peetham was all about Bhakti and acharam, not like the Mysore Mutt which was run on the organised lines of a hospital.
There came a day when the Kapaliswarar Temple (which as we all knew was in the Kanchi pocket) put up a series of uniformly ugly calendar prints of goddesses from famous temples of India all along the Karpagambal shrine. Conceive the Sringeri camp’s horror when it discovered that the Sarada picture showed the goddess with two hands only. My aunt roundly ticked off a poor temple priest for this insult and hinted darkly that she knew who was behind this rank conspiracy. It was Kamakshi vs Sarada now.
The Kanchi group would routinely hurl insinuations at Sringeri – the latter’s pontiff wore dark glasses, he went around in a Cadillac while the Maha Periyava walked. To counter this the Sringeri group raked up the forever burning issue of whether Sankara really established the Kanchi Mutt. Each group would roundly berate the other and so it went on.
Stances had hardened to such an extent that when my aunt rented the first floor of her house she stipulated that the newly shifted in tenant,a known Kanchi man, could not put up any pictures of swamis 1, 2 or 3. He and his wife meekly obeyed. It was a reflection of the times that no retribution descended on my aunt when this particular tenant went on to become Finance Minister and Defence Minister and then rounded off his political career by becoming Vice President and President of India! But he was routinely blamed for politically manoeuvring in favour of the Kanchi Mutt.MS Subbulakshmi too was always rated second to ML Vasanthakumari. You know why.
There was however one matter – the Sringeri group could do nothing as long as the Maha Periyava was around, such being his image. But it sat back and watched the fun each time his successor made it to the news for all the wrong reasons. It was money for jam for the Sringeri camp. Which is indeed a pity- given that Jayendrar did do his bit for social uplift, medical treatment for the poor and the spread of education. But his penchant for remaining in the limelight and courting the company of some politicians did cause him plenty of trouble. At Sringeri, they did the same but with plenty of panache and elan – the pontiff never lent his name to anything. It was all care of a powerful administrator – the sarvAdhikAri (Sri kAryam in Kanchi parlance). Sringeri realised long ago that it would never do for the religious head to be seen getting involved. The Maha Periyava was well aware of this and achieved monumental things by simply asking someone else to get them done. Sadly for Jayendrar, he did not.
Such matters as Sringeri vs Kanchi have long ceased to hold attention. Grandmother, aunt and mother’s aunt are all dead. The family has since contended with Sri-Sris and Jaggis, not to mention converts, inter-racial marriages, etc. Where is the question of a yellow, green, pink and blue invite with the Jagadguru collaring all the credit?