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.
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 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.
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.