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Interview- Pujyashri Shankara Vijayendra Saraswati Shankaracharya Swamigal

INTERVIEW OF PARAMA PUJYA SRI SANKARA VIJAYENDRA SARASWATHI SWAMIGAL

“SPIRITUALTY IS GOOD FOR ALL”

It is Devotion that has percolated into all corners of this country, spread spirituality thereby and strengthened the nation. Great men like Adi Sankara, Srimad Ramanuja and Sri Madhva incarnated at different times and laid good manure for the healthy growth of the tree of Devotion. We are now comfortably reaping the fruit of those efforts. We go to temple to rid ourselves of the burden of mind; we worship for getting peace of mind. In spite of many difficulties, challenges and slippages, if we as a nation hold our head high, the only reason is that our nation is spiritual; it transforms all misery into joy.

In order to deliver spirituality to the most illiterate person, the Mathams and Adinams in Bharat are making huge efforts. Of them, Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham established by Adi Sankara is noteworthy. The prime deity worshipped in this Peetham is Sri Chandramouliswara, one of the five Sivalingas brought by Adi Sankara from Kailasa. It is only Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham who is authorised to perform Puja to this deity. Devotees used to stay in Srimatham for days to have darshan of this Puja. This Puja continues in  unbroken tradition to this day for the past over 2500 years.

Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, which had Adi Sankara as its first Acharya, has seen 70 Acharyas so far. In the tenure of the 68th Acharya, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swamigal, known popularly as ‘MahaPeriyaval’, the fame of the Peetham spread all over the world. The next Peethadhipati, the 69th Acharya, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, put into action the ideas of Sri MahaPeriyaval and plunged headlong into social welfare schemes. The Adhishthanams of both these Acharyas are located in the Peetham premises in Salai Street near the main Kanchipuram bus stand. Innumerable devotees visit these Samadhi Sthalas for darshan and feel riddance of their misery. The 70th Acharya, decorating this sacred Peetham now is Sri SankaraVijayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, called with affection as ‘Bala Periyaval’.

The native place of Swamigal is Thandalam, a village in Tiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu. Born on 13th March 1969 to Krishnamurthy and Ambalakshmiin Arani, he was given the name of Sankaranarayanan. Having done school studies as well as Vedic learning, he became the Acharya of the Peetham in 1983 when he was 14. Till the Siddhi of MahaPeriyaval in 1994, three Acharyas looked after the affairs of Srimatham. Thereafter till Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal attained Siddhi in 2018, two Acharyas conducted the affairs. Right now, Sri SankaraVijayendra Saraswathi Swamigal alone is taking care of all the Srimatham activities.

A few months are only left for him to complete 50 years of age. However, he is in action with the verve of a 25 year old, the maturity of a 50 year old, and the experience of a 75 year old. When informed of the request for interview for the ‘Rani’ weekly, he consented with a smile, asking, ‘Is it from Dina Thanthi’ group? We reached Srimatham in Kanchi around 3.45 in the afternoon. Time of rest after the noon darshan to devotees! But people ranging from kids to elders thronged for darshan for various purposes – to submit marriage invitation, to discuss auspicious family events, to seek advice on education of children etc. Srimatham was buzzing with activity. Devotees coming out after darshan were seen informing the waiting people, “Periyaval is giving darshan; go quickly; next he will be busy with some interview.” They had mango fruit in their hands received as Prasadam from Sri Periyaval. A crowd, which included foreigners, was inside Sri Periyaval’s chamber. We were then called for the interview.

Sri Vijayendra Saraswati Swamigal appears different when we meet him from our ideas gained from familiar pictures – wide eyes, right hand rising frequently to convey blessings; joy on meeting known devotees; urge to bless and satisfy newly arrived devotees. While listening to the words of devotees, he moves his eyes, conveys his response silently with a smile; sometimes he looks upwards and closes his eyes. In a few seconds he opens his eyes wide and smiles. Devotees overflow with deference of being present in front of a saint. When a few devotees were still present, Sri Periyaval gestures to us to commence the interview. For the next fortyfive minutes, answers flowed smoothly in response to our questions.

Q: A lot of public welfare activities like education, medical treatment, social service etc. are being conducted by the KanchiMatham. How are you going to take them to the next level?
A:All welfare activities are going on in an excellent manner. It was MahaPeriyaval who started them and bestowed on them the stamp of importance. He has also put in place the facilities required to execute them. It is now left to me to expand them and supervise and ensure proper execution. Periyaval created the chariot; it is my turn to run the chariot well with people’s cooperation.

Q: What is the level of devotion in the youth? How does it feel to carry the power of spirituality to the next generation? What is your outlook?
A:The youth of today have started to evince keen interest in devotion. The youth come in large numbers to listen to spiritual discourses. Compared to earlier times, more people have been going to Sabarimala with the ritual necklace and austerities. They are also keenly interested in meditation and social service. Scientific intellect exists; interest in spirituality is also there. We have to put the two together. We have to teach them the necessary means for that. With interest being there, we have to let them into the means of realisation, of getting everyone along and acting without expectation of fruit. In mundane matters, people do expect fruit. When it comes to public welfare activities, we have to instil the commitment to performing them with a sense of duty without expecting fruit. If it is cleaning up temples, for instance, it should be done with bhakti; not expecting certificate or appreciation.

The youth have good thoughts. What is required is good training and effort. We have to provide that. What one plays with computers, graphics, animation etc. is different from actually playing in the field. While doing public service, the youth should have pride and faith in our culture and tradition. Training is needed – training to combine patriotism with devotion to God. People of all communities and faiths should get together and advance the progress of the nation.

We should preserve our cultural identity through our Devaram, (Divya) Prabandham, and epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata. In that respect we should work alone. In some matters one should not and cannot work in isolation. If we are generous, everyone will respond with good work. Though we encourage Saivism and Vaishnavism, activities involving Tiruppavai, Tiruvembavai, temple cleaning, eye treatment etc. have been started with a view to serving the general public. These are schemes involving all.

In addition to rendering help to Pujaris, Gurukkals, Bhattacharyas et al, arrangements are made for looking after religious aspects in our temples like lighting lamps, offering Naivedya etc. It is important to preserve the practice of Aagama Sastra. The kind of construction and sculpture we find in our temples here is not there in a significant manner in the rest of India. In the north including Kashmir, some temples exhibit such features; but they are also in ruin. It is only in Tamil Nadu that we have beautiful temples with sculptures, Gopuras, Mantapas etc. – like the Brihadiswara Temple in Thanjavur. The art of performing Puja, making flower garlands, sculpture, percussion instrumental music etc. need to be preserved. As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, temples are an institution! In these temples, Pujas, arts etc. – everything should be given importance; importance should be accorded to carrying the UtsavaVigraha on the shoulder, holding the divine umbrella and ‘Sripadam’.

In Tamil Nadu, there are stones erected on roads for the tired wayfarer to unload his heavy baggage. They put up three stones for this purpose. These are the expression of human love in order to help those who carry heavy loads. One can also see another stone erected by the side for cattle to scratch their bodies with. Humans can scratch themselves with their hands. Those who are engaged in performance of Yaga cannot use their finger nails for scratching themselves; they use the horn of the deer for this. Animals can only find relief this way, isn’t it? Two holes are made in stone pillars for tying the cattle. For humans to get down to the tanks for bath and drinking water, steps are built; on the other side a ramp is generally constructed for the cattle to get down and bathe. You can see this in Cheyyar tank for instance. The purpose is to provide convenience to humans as well as animals. This is the central idea in Hinduism. Spirituality means doing good to all – all should be happy. Youth must be taught this.Culture is not to be assessed on the basis of buildings alone; those are places of assembly of humans; that isall. Temples can generate good thoughts. Temples are indeed the places where thoughts of love are generated – ‘I should lead a virtuous life; I should engage in charity; I should respect elders and love the youngsters’. Necessary literature to inculcate this kind of love should be taught. There are lots of valuable books – Acharakkovai, AbiramiAndadi, Kamakshi Viruttam, Trikadugam, Tirukkural, Bhagavadgita, Bhagavatham etc. There are many teachings in Hinduism guiding humans to live as humans. These should reach the people.

In earlier times, people used to go and seek out such things of value; they would travel on foot for this. But now values should go and reach the people; we have to go and meet people and tell them all this. Though we may possess valuable gold and diamond, we should never feel that spirituality is not needed. We should spread love and spirituality without any hostility.

Tamil Nadu has a rich history. Nayanmars and Alwars have enriched us. Many do-gooders have been here. We should carry the true history – the tales in history – to people. There are two aspects of development – the world around us and our own minds. Mental growth is indeed man’s growth. For this Hinduism should be developed in a simple way. It should be made intelligible even to simple people. The youth have capacity and interest; they need training and effort; we should progress patiently.

Hinduism shows the good way of life for attaining peace of mind under all circumstances. Just as there are five levels in a temple gopuram, there are four phases in human life – learning, householdership, old age and the fourth, knowledge (brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha and Sanyasa). The role of spirituality in all these four phases should be understood well.

Q: You have been with MahaPeriyaval. Can you tell us about what impressed you?
A:MahaPeriyaval‘s memory was awesome; no doubt about that. There could be viruses in computer; but there was never any deficiency in his power of memory. He had great consideration for everyone’s welfare. He had whole-hearted desire for everyone’s well-being; not superficial. He never wished for anything for himself; but prayed for relief of everyone’s misery.

Matters divine…special for him; not possible for us to talk about it. If anyone has done any help to Matham, he would never forget it. He would remember even small services like donating a cow etc.; he would not forget for any number of years. Not just that, he would remember even the family lineage and tradition of the donor. Supposing someone’s grandfather had built a temple somewhere, he would mention it with joy to his grandson. With unimaginable memory and love, he would connect many generations through dharma. In short, he is a university; he would respect all arts; no doubt.

Many are the incidents reminding one of his greatness. In 1984 we three (including Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal and MahaPeriyaval) left on foot from Karnool in Andhra for Kanchipuram. We were to reach Kanchipuram on Tamil New Year day. On the final day of the yatra, the rickshaw tyre got punctured when we were near Hanuman temple in GangaikondanMandapam. Even then, we reached here by 2 o’clock in the night. He had special regard for Kanchipuram. He came back only for staying here. He was here till the age of 91.

There was beauty in whatever he did. He performed ChandramouliswaraPradosha Puja in the Mandapam here after many years. He was about 93 then. He did the Archana, Abhishekam etc. very beautifully with heart molten with devotion even at that age. He had great consideration for everyone’s welfare. He started a Trust for Pujaris of village temples like Ayyanar’s etc. He has executed many tasks, awe-inspiring and joyous - all nice and rare. Even things not possible of execution for ordinary persons, he would do with great ease.

Q: You are now performing the many acts of dharma, which he used to do, like looking at the letters received by Matham, attending temple Kumbhabhishekams, Puja, yatra etc. How do you feel?
A:The encouragement and training given to me by my two predecessor Periyavals show me the path. That is, I engaged with persons who showed great sense of responsibility. The services should be continued even better. Certain things cannot and should not be compared. Both Periyavals have lived in the last hundred years and rendered numerous services for Tamil Nadu, advancement of Tamilians and protection of Tamil culture. Their role in securing a top slot for Tamil Nadu in the field of culture in India is very great. It is important to continue on that path. We must preserve and protect our pride by involving people and executing service activities related to religion and society, be they in the field of literature, spirituality, education, medical facility. They have built good edifices; we have to protect them. Preservation is important. A number of volunteers are required for this. Volunteers, educated, well-placed and willing to work, should be brought together. With the cooperation of these three types of volunteers, the above services should be continued. That is, the role of planning with foresight and empathy is over. What all should be done, who will benefit thereby – this part of planning is completed. Now we should set up a good team of workers to ensure continued effective implementation.

Q: Though the youth have bhakti, it revolves round mundane things. They give primacy to films and only secondary position to bhakti. How to change this? It looks like our tradition is weakened by the western cultural impact…what is the solution for this?
A: We may follow foreigners to the extent required in matters of science, not available with us. That is, in case a new instrument has arrived, or a modern industrial technique has been introduced, we may use it to the extent required. But we should not change ourselves into a foreign tool. That is, we shouldn’t become their dice.
We should spread our great culture in foreign lands. We should translate in foreign tongues the tenets of our culture to show them how lofty our culture is, how broad-minded it is and how it encompasses everyone’s progress. Our land is self-sufficient in culture. We just don’t need anything from outside in culture. We should therefore act with realisation of our completeness. Hinduism has human empathy, science, Ayurveda, astronomy. It thus has science, progress and discrimination. We should learn this from qualified experts, act with faith and live in that tradition without any change.

Science is different from culture. In our proud Bharata desa, they have formulated even entertainment activities very well by soaking culture into them. These entertainments have culture, faith and togetherness in-built. Even in  bhajan, they have included bhakti and music. The aims of entertainment in foreign countries are different from those of Indian sports and arts. Not to deviate from dharma is the aim of Indian arts. Be it temple, Annadanam (food distribution), or sports, dharma, courtesy and responsible action are important. Thus there is fundamental difference between our culture and entertainment, and theirs We should only pick up what is required for us in western science. We should teach them the roadmap of our culture. Our Yoga is widely prevalent in foreign countries.

It is not a matter for conceit that our culture is superior, but it is a matter of pride and self-respect. Daily routine and environment are important. How children are brought up in the family is paramount. Opportunities exist in plenty. At the same time, many obstacles and distractions are also there. Hence concentration and deep interest in spirituality are essential. One can engage in the path of bhakti even in a simple way. There are simple ways – daily chanting, prayer, meditation, darshan in temple etc. Bhakta Sanghas and good organisations of NGO type should be set up and the youth integrated. In the initial stage, we should help in matters like distribution of books, organising discourses, distribution of Prasadam etc.

On one hand there is what is called immediate benefit, but with undesirable side effect; there is on the other hand long term enduring benefit with no side effect. Spirituality and Hinduism offer long term enduring comfort and peace. Like ‘Fast Food’, there is apparent benefit in certain matters with some side effect. That is, it would appear as though good will result, but one never knows what other effects one is saddled with. With immediate benefit in view, one should not deviate from the path of dharma. For a safe journey in spirituality, children should be engaged in bhakti path with the help of elders – may be, grandparents. This habit will generate good maturity. This task is but simple, but joint effort is called for. Parents, the public, temple management – all should get together and guide the youth. The youth need guidance alone; capacity and keenness are with them. Patience and faith are required in this effort.

Q: Not just youth, even elders, though having bhakti, are devoid of grip over life; they feel exhausted on facing just one instance of trouble. What kind of guidance do they require?
A:Many are the ideas in Hinduism. Discrimination (Viveka) is required. Hinduism has logic, science, development…understanding how toapply our energy to induce sense organs to do good, necessary guidance for this etc. In other words, Hinduism has all the required good ideas; what is needed is just good presentation. As these ideas are not covered in school syllabus, and temple activities have shrunk, we are facing a lot of losses. The car streets around temple, festivals, daily Pujas etc. have also shrunk. Hinduism has good topics and good books. There is no moral not covered in Mahabharata. Still, detailed explanation and reaching out are required. It is important to know how to convey something. Conveying clearly, without the listener getting bored, the time duration for communication…should it be on a single day, or spread over several days in short durations.. all this is important. Like joyful learning, conveying should also be joyful. What is required is to get everyone along and speak frequently and create deep interest. For people to live with faith and camaraderie, the foundation of spirituality is essential. The human life is built on this foundation. Only if foundation is strong, the building will be good, isn’t it? Hence one has to ensure that he does not lose faith in himself and in God. For mutual faith among people to flourish, whether it be in place of work, or commerce, we must preach religious education from young age. Suitable books and discoursers should be readied, and spiritual education should be given. This should be done as a necessary adjunct to formal education. Whether it is engineer, doctor or lawyer, the youth should be made to understand our culture, our history.

India has huge responsibility. Foreigners should comprehend India properly; our youth should work for this.Even if we are good, but if others recognise us as bad, it is of no use. There are good opportunities for the youth to work in this field. We should see that we show our culture properly to outsiders without any obstacles.

Q: During Mr.(Abdul) Kalam’s time, the position of President attracted the people through simplicity. In the same way, is there a plan for spiritualists like you to travel towards the public?
A: (Smiling) Our physical travel towards people may be less; but our vision is always towards their welfare.
Finally, the question regarding the next Peethadhipati was placed before him. There was a smile in reply, conveying ‘we are searching; let us wait a little’.
With a smiling face, Sri Vijayendra Saraswathi Swamigal gets up saying, ‘will meet again’. He blesses those who are waiting. What a joy, a deep satisfaction in those devotees!

Translated by: P R Kannan, Navi Mumbai