By Mahesh Nayak
Mangaluru, Jan 30, 2016: Death is non-existent in the higher echelons of Hindu spirituality. When someone of eminence passes away, the right term to notify this occurrence is to say, he has attained ‘Samadhi’. This means to ‘go into eternal meditation’. Or as some others would have it, to ‘merge with universal consciousness’. When it was announced that Swami Srimad Sudhindra Thirtha, the erstwhile Matadhipathi of Shree Kashi Math Samsthan had attained ‘Mahasamadhi’ on 17th January at the age of 90 years, his devotees were paying the great sage their richest tribute. For such was the close bond that he shared with the five million strong Goud Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) community, whom he led with love, grace and impeccable rectitude for close to seven decades.
Born in Ernakulam, on 31st March 1926 as Sadashiv Shenoy, he was personally chosen by his predecessor and guru Swami Srimad Sukrithindra Thirtha to continue the system of ‘Guruparampara’ and lead the Samsthan, succeeding him as its 20th Matadhipathi. He was anointed on 24 May 1944 during a Sanyas Sweekar ritual held at Mulky and thereby transformed into Swami Srimad Sudhindra Thirtha. Succeeding the guru swami in 1949, Swami Sudhindra Thirtha reigned as the supreme head of the Math and a spiritual leader and guide of GSB community for 67 long years setting a new record in the lineage of the Math. His completion of 72 years of sanyas is yet another record in longevity.
His reign was witness to some of the momentous happenings of world history, such as the culmination of India’s freedom movement, the end of Second World War, Indian Independence, the country’s steady growth into a robust democracy with all its accompanying ups and downs, the advent of the Nuclear Age, followed by the Space Age, the emergence of Knowledge Age, the turn of the Millennium and the complete transformation of lifestyle ushered in by the Digital Era. No other swami among his predecessors would have been similarly challenged by the rapidly evolving world as Swami Srimad Sudhindra Thirtha. That he traversed these developments with effortless ease and continued to command the confidence of his devotees in increasing measure should itself speak highly of his vision, his intellectual prowess and his deep rootedness in spirituality.
Among the GSB community, the institution of swami and his relationship with his people is as unique as it is sacred. The GSBs claim their origins to the mythical river Saraswati in North West India. Following the drying up of this holy river several millennia past, they are believed to have migrated east and then south to finally settle in Goa on the Konkan coast. It is here that they picked up their presently spoken Konkani dialect. They prospered too, as some sections of their populace co-opted their Vedic preoccupations for the vocation of trading, in which they excelled by virtue of their intellectual proficiency. Following the Portuguese occupation of Goa, huge sections of these settlers further dispersed into neighbouring Maharashtra to the north and Karnataka and Kerala to the south. This was in order to escape the persecution unleashed by the Inquisition – the infamous Portuguese programme for forcible mass conversion of the native population to Christianity.
Due to this history of constant mass migrations, GSBs have attempted to retain their community identity by cultivating allegiance to three institutions or streams of solidarity, namely Gramadevatha (community temples in each major settlement), the Guruparampara (system of ‘Guru Maths’ or pontifical orders) and Kuladevatha (the original clan temples situated in Goa). Of these three, only the Guruparampara provides continuity through human agency. Shree Kashi Math Samsthan is one of the three Guru Maths of the GSB community, the other two being Shree Kaivalya Math and Shree Gokarna Parthagali Math.
Hence the swamis or the supreme heads of these Guru Maths have a great unifying role to play in GSB community life. The swami is considered to be a teacher and the supreme spiritual guide for the entire community. His duty is to nurture the community with love and guide the followers through continuous interpretation of life in the light of spirituality. The swami is considered to be infallible and his words inviolate. He is at once an icon and an institution in himself. Complete renunciation of personal identity marked by celibacy and austerity, and the assumption of the new spiritual identity bestowed up on him by the community with total devotion is the basis of his authority. This supreme personal sacrifice on the part of the individual is reciprocated by the community with unquestioned reverence and accordance of kingly stature on him.
Swami Sudhindra Thirtha understood this role with absolute clarity and lived up to the traditions of the Math with amazing broadness of vision. His greatness surely lies in his Herculean achievement of having kept the flock together for nearly 70 years of his reign, in the face of the great transformations the world has gone through during the last century. Over the course of his lifetime, he travelled extensively, to each and every place where GSBs are settled and took great pains to connect with the people. Occupying such an exalted position, the swami has a rigorous daily schedule, involving a string of religious duties including the elaborate Trikala Pooja – offering of worship to the deity thrice a day. Yet, he cheerfully gave personal audience to the devotees, interacting with them and enquiring about their joys and sorrows, giving solace to the needy. His charisma, his knowledge and sense of understanding touched the hearts of all. Even at the ripe old age bordering 80 years, he showed great strength and restraint in enduring the pain of betrayal and abandonment by a former disciple – Raghavendra Thirtha – who was training under him to eventually succeed him. Even amidst such dire circumstances, he continued in his single minded quest and virtually reinvented himself, thereby restoring the dignity of the institution and the faith of his followers.
It might not be out of place here to add that Mangalore was close to the heart of Swami Sudhindra Thirtha and the local GSB community held him in high esteem. In the early part of this decade, he had started showing signs of age. Despite his frail health, he agreed to preside over the renovation of Sri Venkatramana Temple, Car Street and undertake the Punarprathistapana (reinstallation) of the deity. As both the warm coastal weather and the love showered on him by the devotees seemed to have a beneficial impact on his health, he went on to camp in the city for an unprecedented three years. He would often request devotees to take him to the beach in the evenings to view the sunset. The sea breeze refreshed him greatly and he rapidly regained his health, much to the delight of his care givers.
It was his oft-expressed desire to attain Samadhi at Haridwar, where he had built Vyasashram - a temple and hermitage – on the banks of the sacred river Ganga. With advancing age, he shifted into permanent residence there, only occasionally making a trip to visit nearby GSB communities. In the concluding months of the last year, he had taken ill and was shifted to Seven Hills Hospital in Mumbai for treatment and recuperation. He initially responded well to the treatment and the devotees hoped that he would make a complete recovery. But that was not to be. When it became clear that he had only a short while to live, the devotees decided to shift him back to Haridwar in deference to his wishes. His final journey by air-ambulance from Mumbai to Dehra Dun was the only occasion when he had undertaken air travel in a life devoted to simplicity. On all other occasions, he had chosen to travel by train or on road.
More than 70 years back, while training under Srimad Sukrithindra Thirtha, the young disciple had expressed a desire to see an aeroplane to his Guru. Airplanes were a new phenomenon then and young Sudhindra Thirtha, who had an interest in science during his school days, was apparently fascinated by the great flying machines. The senior swami, without a moment’s hesitation had arranged for an excursion for both of them to the aerodrome at Coimbatore. Here both Guru and Shishya had the opportunity to view an aeroplane which was parked on the tarmac. It is said that they studied the big bird and its interiors with keen interest. Upon landing in Dehra Dun, which is the closest airport to Haridwar, Swami Sudhindra Thirtha was able to return to the peace, quiet and familiarity of the sanctified precincts of Vyasashram for the final time. Being in the place he loved so much itself brought great relief to his ailing body. Devotees had converted his personal chambers into a make-shift ICU to provide the best care for him. It is in such ideal settings that the revered sage breathed his last at 1.10 a.m. and his soul merged with the cosmos.
Swami Sudhindra Thirtha along with his Guru Swami Sukrithindra Thirtha after viewing aeroplane at Coimbatore Aerodrome
With his Guru Srimad Sukrithindra Thirtha
With his Pattashishya Srimad Samyamindra Thirtha Swami
In the fluid world of today, when the very ideas of heroism and leadership themselves are proving to be unreliable and impermanent measures of success, Swami Sudhindra Thirtha’s stature had only risen to iconic heights. Now, his legacy will be continued by his chosen disciple and successor-designate, Swami Srimad Samyamindra Thirtha. He is poised to ascend the throne as the 21st Matadhipathi of the 500-year old Shree Kashi Math Samsthan, which is based in the scared city of Varanasi. His coronation will take place in a grand ceremony on 28th January in the holy city of Haridwar, in the vicinity of the final resting place of his Guru, where a ‘Vrindavan’ or a simple mausoleum shrine is being built to mark his transition into eternity.
Through his exemplary tenure of a lifetime of devotion to his patron deity Vyas Raghupathi and his boundless love, compassion, commitment and communion with his followers, Swami Srimad Sudhindra Thirtha will indeed continue to live in the hearts of his devotees forever.