Jayendra Saraswathi redefined Kanchi Mutt’s role – but did not earn the stature of his predecessor

To his credit, though, he was a self-made man, who built his own identity and a set of devoted believers.

From the very moment Jayendra Saraswathi was anointed as the 69th pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, succeeding Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi, he was put on the back foot. His predecessor was no ordinary religious leader. He was revered as an “avatara purusha, a seer, a realised Vedantin, someone who had transcended the temporal realm. Stories of his insight and clairvoyance were part of Brahmin smarta folklore. His disciples and followers came from across the world and consisted of the who’s who of India’s cultural and political nobility. It would not be wrong to say that everyone saw in him a realised soul. He might not have been a mystic of the order of Ramana Maharishi, but he was considered by most as a modern day saint. It was under his leadership that the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt achieved spiritual significance.

Jayendra Saraswathi thus had to contend with comparisons from the word go. He seemed to have a very different worldview from his guru. Jayendra Saraswathi saw in himself a socio-religious leader. To him, being a pontiff was not just about performing his everyday ritual duties and spreading the word of Shankara to the already dedicated and established Brahmin audience. He saw a larger role for himself, as a propagator of Hinduism, beyond the upper caste belt. There is no doubt that Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi worked within the boundaries that his organisation and identity had set. If others came in, they did so of their own accord; it was not his work to take Advaita to everyone. By just being who he was and performing his duty as the acharya, he believed people would come into the Mutt.

For Jayendra Saraswathi, it was about opening up the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt to the larger Hindu society. This seems to have naturally led to philosophical and sociological confrontations between mahaperiyava and periyava, as Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi and Jayendra Saraswathi were referred to by their followers. It is also said that Jayendra Saraswathi’s controversial unannounced temporary departure from the Mutt in 1987 was a result of such differences.

For many ardent followers of Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi, Jayendra Saraswathi was a poor successor. In him, they did not see the sanctity or purity that the older man exuded. I have myself seen many treat him more as the head of the organisation than a spiritual guru. Some disciples of Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi moved away from the Kanchi Mutt and formed separate groups that continued to worship only the 68th pontiff. To them Jayendra Saraswathi was too much a man of the outer world to have the capacity to dwell in the deep inner reaches of existence.

Different path

And so it was an up-hill battle for Jayendra Saraswathi. To his credit, he was a self-made man, who created his own identity and a set of devoted believers. He had two gifts, unexpected and unusual for one of his background: he had an uncanny way with languages, speaking Hindi fluently and thereby “bringing in” pilgrims from North India. And he had a phenomenal memory, remembering people by their names even if he had met them just once earlier. Many appreciated his socio-religious zeal and felt that this was the need of the hour. Consequently he started and supported many schools, colleges, hospitals, and rural programmes. Other Hindu organisations and religious leaders who worked directly with people in order to keep them within or draw them in might have inspired Jayendra Saraswathi.

He was a strong anti-conversion advocate and believed that Christian conversions had to be countered by outreach programmes from within the Hindu religious system. I vividly remember a disciple saying with pride that Jayendra Saraswathi was the first Brahmin pontiff from the Shankara tradition to walk into slums and poor neighborhoods, something that the old timers did not appreciate.

'His connections with the RSS, VHP, BJP and AIADMK grew and with it came the pitfalls of keeping close acquaintances with the powerful.' Photo credit:
'His connections with the RSS, VHP, BJP and AIADMK grew and with it came the pitfalls of keeping close acquaintances with the powerful.' Photo credit:

His involvement in activities beyond the precincts of the Mutt did not stop with the social. In the 1990s he saw himself as a pan-national religious leader who could make a difference in the Babri Masjid conundrum. But after some initial movement his initiative failed. If memory serves me right, it was one of his interviews during the course of the negotiations that led to the collapse of the initiative. Connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bharatiya Janata Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam only grew and with it came the pitfalls of keeping close acquaintances with the powerful. Rumours of financial impropriety within the Mutt were constantly doing the rounds, but the most damning event was his arrest in the Shankararaman murder case in November 2004. This too, many say, is linked to a financial misunderstanding between him and J Jayalalithaa, then chief minister of Tamil Nadu. In spite of being a religio-political mover and shaker for a period of time, it does seem that he was politically naïve.

Changed person

The 10-year-long murder trail definitively dented his image and reduced his role in the larger society. While the case was going on, his close aides and well-wishers mounted a strong online rebuttal campaign, but that did not make much of a difference. The damage had been done. For a person who was seen so often in front of the camera in the 1990s, the post-2003 Jayendra Saraswathi became quieter, reclusive, a protected pontiff. Not much was heard of his movements, only the devout kept track. Visits by political leaders might have reduced; if they occurred, they were rarely reported. We do not know how much he was personally affected by the case and all the nastiness that surrounded it. Even his acquittal in 2013 did not help restore his stature. Age too might have caught up with him.

Jayendra Saraswathi, like most pontiffs of the Kanchi Mutt, also had to vie for upper caste attention with the pontiff of the Sringeri Mutt, one of the four established by Adi Shankara, who appointed his leading disciples to head each of them. The Kanchi Mutt, they say, is a much later creation. The people of the Kanchi Mutt, of course, contest this claim; they believe Adi Shankara created their institution for himself. Without going into the nuances of a century-old battle, it will suffice to say that Jayendra Saraswathi’s emergence as a religio-socio-political figure was critiqued by many belonging to the Sringeri circle. Chandresekharendra Saraswathi in public perception was an awakened soul and hence much harder to ward off. Jayendra Saraswathi, on the other hand, was an easy target. He was not Brahmanical enough and they believed his actions diluted Shankara’s legacy. The controversies surrounding him made this intra-Brahmin religious whispering war even worse.

Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi was and looked austere, severe. He rarely smiled. His eyes, deep-set, were veiled by thick-lensed spectacles. When he died, or “attained immortality” as his devotees would say, he left with his elevatedness in tact. Jayendra Saraswathi, on the other hand, was and looked happy, and happy to talk. By the time he moved on, however, his smile had narrowed, his not-quite laugh had gone silent.

Keeping the disciples aside, there is no doubt that by the end of his reign the image of the Kanchi Mutt had diminished. What this will mean for the new pontiff, Vijayendra Saraswathi, we do not know. But in the passing of Jayendra Saraswathi we have seen the passing of an unusual and contentious religious leader. It might have been divine providence that a person who was subject to so much public scrutiny died quietly when the country was preoccupied by Sridevi’s sudden, accidental death.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Some of the most significant innovations in automotive history made their debut in this iconic automobile

The latest version features India's first BS VI norms-compliant engine and a host of 'intelligent' features.

The S-Class, also known as Sonderklasse or special class, represents Mercedes Benz’ top-of-the-line sedan line up. Over the decades, this line of luxury vehicles has brought significant automotive technologies to the mainstream, with several firsts to its credit and has often been called the best car in the world. It’s in the S-Class that the first electronic ESP and ABS anti-lock braking system made their debut in the 20th century.

Twenty first-century driver assistance technologies which predict driver-behaviour and the vehicle’s course in order to take preventive safety measures are also now a staple of the S-Class. In the latest 2018 S-Class, the S 350 d, a 360-degree network of cameras, radars and other sensors communicate with each other for an ‘intelligent’ driving experience.

The new S-Class systems are built on Mercedes Benz’s cutting-edge radar-based driving assistance features, and also make use of map and navigation data to calculate driving behaviour. In cities and on other crowded roads, the Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC helps maintain the distance between car and the vehicle in front during speeds of up to 210 kmph. In the same speed range, Active Steering Assist helps the driver stay in the centre of the lane on stretches of straight road and on slight bends. Blind Spot Assist, meanwhile, makes up for human limitations by indicating vehicles present in the blind spot during a lane change. The new S-Class also communicates with other cars equipped with the Car-to-X communication system about dicey road conditions and low visibility due to fog, rain, accidents etc. en route.

The new S-Class can even automatically engage the emergency system when the driver is unable to raise an alarm. Active Emergency Stop Assist brings the car to a stop if it detects sustained periods of inactivity from the driver when Active Steering Assist is switched on. If the driver doesn’t respond to repeated visual and audible prompts, it automatically activates the emergency call system and unlocks the car to provide access to first responders.

The new Mercedes-Benz S 350 d in India features another notable innovation – the country’s first BS VI norms-compliant car engine, in accordance with government regulations to control vehicular pollution. Debuting two years before the BS VI deadline of 2020, the S 350 d engine also remains compatible with the current BS IV fuels.

The S 350 d is an intelligent car made in India, for Indian roads - in the Mercedes Benz S-Class tradition. See the video below to know what drives the S-Class series by Mercedes Benz.

To know more about the 2018 S-Class, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Mercedes Benz and not by the Scroll editorial team.