A REVERED philosopher and spiritual leader, Chandrasekharendra Saraswati was Hinduism's greatest scholar. He made a unique contribution to the preservation and study of its texts and its code of moral law. For the past 87 years he had presided as the 68th Acharaya, , or pontiff, in succession at the math (monastery) at Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, near Madras. He was widely known as the Sage, or the Jagadguru, of Kanchi.
Sri Saraswati set out to teach the truth of non-duality expounded by the philosopher Adi Shankara, who had founded the math at Kanchi, and four others like it, in the eighth century. Saraswati taught by precept and example that men should realise the need for preserving and augmenting the culture of the spirit. His was a life of purity and wisdom which sanctified those who met him and many millions who have read his works. He had followers throughout the world.
The Argentinian scholar Eugina Borghini wrote of him that he lived 'like Jesus, homeless and devoted to a life of renunciation, with his contemplation, worship, penance and teachings, working for the welfare of mankind'. To the writer Paul Brunton 'His noble face . . . might have belonged to one of the saints who graced the Christian Church during the Middle Ages, except that this one possesses the added quality of intellectuality.'
He was born in 1894 at Viluppuram, about 100 miles south of Madras, and named by his parents Swaminathan after the second son of Lord Siva in Hindu mythology. Swaminathan was a brilliant pupil. In 1907, barely 13 years of age, he was initiated into sannyasa (professional ascetic) life, transformed overnight into the Acharya and given the sannyasa name Chandrasekharendra Saraswati.
On the death of the previous Acharya, earlier in that year, it had originally appeared that a maternal cousin of Swaminathan's would succeed as Acharya, leaving a widowed mother alone and bereft. Swaminathan set off with his mother and her other children to console his aunt. Later in life he described the fateful journey:
We travelled by rail to Kanchipuram, and halted at the Sankaracharya Math there. A carriage of the math had come there from Kalavai with persons to buy articles for the ceremonial worship on the 10th day after the passing away of the late Acharya. But one of them, a hereditary maistry (member of the supervisory staff) of the math asked me to accompany him.
During our journey, the maistry hinted to me that I might not return home and that the rest of my life might have to be spent in the math itself] At first I thought that my elder cousin having become the Head of the math, it might have been his wish that I was to live with him. But the maistry gradually began to clarify as the miles rolled on, that the Acharya, my cousin, in his earlier stage of life had fever which developed into delirium and that was why I was being separated from the family to be quickly taken to Kalavai.
I was stunned with this unexpected turn of events. I lay in a kneeling posture in the cart itself, shocked as I was, repeating 'Rama Rama', the only spiritual prayer I knew, during the rest of my journey.
My mother and the other children came some time later only to find that, instead of her mission of consoling her sister, she herself was placed in the state of having to be consoled by someone else.
Saraswati made an enormous contribution to the preservation of the four Vedas, - Hinduism's revelations, which are divided into prayer, practical ritual, singing praise, and the consideraton of political science. They are the treasure-house of knowledge on which Hinduism is founded. He also resuscitated the study and teaching of Dharma, Hinduism's moral law. For the past eight decades he convened seminars and conferences, where scholars were encouraged to arrange for the teaching of the Vedas and Dharma.
He was known as a great padayatri ('walking pilgrim') and had twice travelled the length and breadth of India, visiting thousands of Hindu pilgrim centres, carrying out for the first time a careful study of their histories and characteristics and meeting local scholars, poets and artists. His photographic memory was a byword. In 1927, the Acharya met Mahatma Gandhi at a place in Kerala. He, clad in Khadi, spoke in Sanskrit and Gandhi in Hindi. It was a historic meeting of the two Mahatmas.
The end of the Sage of Kanchi came peacefully at 2.58pm on Saturday 8 January. It was Sarvatra Ekadashi - an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar when Hindus observe fast and offer prayers to their chosen deities. As though it was a providential coincidence, the ruling star of the day happened to be his birth star - Anusham.