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Evening with A Sage

Arthur Isenberg

The person who sat opposite me was sixty five years old, slim, a bit on the smallish side. The top of his head was almost entirely bald or shaven, the lower portion of his face was outlined by a white beard. He had white moustache and white eyebrows. His body was clothed in the saffron-coloured mantle of the Sannyasin.

Not that any of this mattered. What did matter was his face, and more particularly, his eyes, which looked at me with a mixture, or rather a fine blending, of intelligence, kindliness and compassion, while at the same time somehow reflecting a most gentle sense of humour.

I had the definite sensation of being in the presence of man thoroughly at peace with himself, a sage. The impression grew to conviction during the course of the three and a half hour conversation that night on 20th April 1959.

The sage is His Holiness, Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Sri Pada, the present Sankaracharya or spiritual head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham Conjeevaram, South India.

The physical setting may have played a part in shaping my impression. There is the magic on the South Indian night in early summer; the light of the full moon silhouetting a variety of palm trees; the silent flight of bats and flying foxes; occasional, gentle cool breeze; now and then a sounds of little screech of owls; or the distant barking of a dog or a jackal.

The Acharya (Preceptor) and I sit cross-legged in a little grove of a garden in Numbal, a small village some half of dozen miles from Madras.

Almost form the start I impressed by the most remarkable habit which the Acharya practices. Not only does he never interrupt a question (which would be remarkable enough!) but he invariably pauses about a minute or more before answering. His reply, when it comes, clearly shows that it was preceded by reflection. It is invariably concise and to the point.

Many of the questions discussed by the Acharya and myself were purely personal interest, but there were other of a more scope.

I asked the Acharya what, in his opinion, would be the most significant aid which a foreign government or institution, sincerely interested in helping India, could provide for the country. As usual, he thought for about a minute before replying, substantially as follows:

"The answer to your question depends, of course, on whom you address it to. If you were to ask the Indian Government, they would probably say that help was most urgently needed in the field of agriculture or education. But since you are asking me, I must give you my answer.

"As I see it, the most significant help which a foreign government or institution could render to India would be in the cultural field. To help us deepen our understanding and appreciation of our own cultural heritage in all its forms-literature, dance, arts, philosophy-to help us carry on research in these fields and do bring the knowledge of these matters to our people-that would be rendering truly significant help."

The views expressed by the Acharya on the subject of the proper role of Indian women were conservative in the extreme. When I do not share his views. I respect the reasons which prompt him to hold them.

I had prepared only one question deliberately in anticipation of the interview. His reply to that question showed that the Acharya was by no means without a very fine sense of humour.

My question: "It has been said that the real beginning of wisdom consisting of knowing the right question to ask. Suppose then that I were wise, what question should I ask you?"

He had begun to smile even as I was asking my question; nevertheless, he listened carefully to Dr. Raghavan's translation and even asked him to repeat it. There ensued the customary one-minute pause for reflection. Then came his answer: "If you were wise, you would not ask any question.' It was my turn to smile, appreciatively. Then I said: "True enough. But suppose that I were just a novice, at the beginning stage of the quest of wisdom. That question ought I to ask you then?"

"In that case you might ask me what you ought to do."

"All right. Your Holiness, please consider yourself asked."

His answer, when it came, was, perhaps, a bit anticlimactic. He told me to continue along the line I was already following.

I warned him that, for better or worse, such was my nature and bent that I could only follow an intellectual path, that the world of faith was pretty much a closed book to me. He declared that the path of reason was ultimately not only the best but indeed that only one, that all other ways-faith, devotion or whatever-were of value only as preliminaries, preparation, interim stages, meaning nothing unless superseded by understanding.

"But," I queried," isn't there such a thing as pride or arrogance of the intellect?"

"Yes," he replied, "but what makes you ask that question is not your intellect which is its own observer, critic, watchman."

"How," I asked, "can one know whether one is making progress, stagnating or retrogressing in the quest of wisdom?"

He replied: "If each year, the number of things or events, which can arouse you your anger or lust grows smaller, you are making progress; if it remains the same, you are stagnating; if it increases, you spiritual development is retrogressive."

I enquired whether there was any consolation or joy, any true happiness to be found. He answered that there was consolation and joy in the quest itself. In reply to a further question, he amended his answer by stating that ultimate, non-derivative existence was in itself blissful.

Our conversation covered many other topics. His Holiness evinced particular interest in certain implications of theoretical physics which, to put it negatively and rather cautiously, do not clash with the thorough monism of Advaita Vedanta. (He has repeatedly written and spoken about the relation of modern science and Advaita).

It is my cherished hope to be able to avail myself of the kind invitation to meet the Sankaracharya again. Meanwhile, there remains the vivid memory of my privileged meeting on that peaceful evening with one of the most truly remarkable persons of our troubled age: the gentle sage of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.