Saturday, November 20, 2010

THE SAGE OF KANCHI [1894-1994]

THE SAGE OF KANCHI [1894-1994]
--Was there anything which he did not know?
By B.N.Murthy
Among the path- finders to the Eternal, Acharya Shankara stands pre-eminent. He spent his entire life, short though it was, in urging his fellowmen to turn from the ephemeral to the abiding, from the fleeting phenomena of the temporal world to the spiritual felicity of the Eternal life. He taught the path to the Eternal not merely by precept but also by his own shining example. Cast in the image of Shankara, the Sage of Kanchi, also popular as the Paramacharya, followed in the footsteps of Shankara and carried forward the message of Shankara and consolidated Advaita in the 20th century at a time when materialism was gaining the upper hand in society. A well known Professor of Religion and Philosophy from the University of Chicago, after having met the Paramacharya, observed “Before I went to India, I had heard and read much about the great sages and saints of India and I had assumed that it was something belonging to the ancient past. And it was not till I had met the Sage of Kanchi in 1955 that I realized that it was still a part of the living force of Hinduism even today”

The Sage of Kanchi always reminded anyone who met him for the first time about our ancient Rishis of the past. The simplicity of his living was proverbial. His simplicity, amenability and humility belied the fact that he was a store- house of all knowledge, both spiritual as well as secular. The versatility of his knowledge even in such secular subjects like Music, Dance, Drama, English Literature, Foreign Language, Sculpture and Architecture was something amazing, as the following incidents testify. The Paramacharya’s formal education ended when he was 13 years of age when he took up Sanyasa.

Shelly, The English Poet: Years ago when the Sage was camping in the Mylapore Sanskrit College, Madras, a discussion was going on between a retired Professor of English, fairly advanced in age, and the Sage on the subject “Traces of Advaita in English Literature” The Professor referred to some lines in Shakespeare’s drama “As you Like It” and some lines from Wordswoth’s poem “Tintern Abbey”. The Sage asked the Professor if there was any clearer reference in Shelly’s works. The Professor could not recollect immediately. The Achrya quipped “Have you not heard Shelly’s “Adonais?”. The Professor said “Yes”. The Acharya then observed “Perhaps you have forgotten the line “The One remains, the many change and pass”. The Professor submitted that due to his advanced age, his memory had failed him.

Shakespeare: Sometime in 1988 some devotees, including a few foreigners went to Kanchi to have the darshan of the Paramacharya. A little girl about 3 years old, daughter of one of the devotees, was playing merrily, often putting her hand in the interspace between the railings. A sudden gush of wind caused the screen besides the railing to flutter. The child screamed. The father rushed towards the child to console.
The Acharya, who was watching the child all along, asked the father if he had read Shakespeare’s drama ‘Tempest’. When he said no, the Acharya asked one of the attendants to enquire the small group of foreigners sitting close by and find out if they have read. Two said they had read. The Acharya then explained that the child, while playing, got frightened because of the strong wind, even as Miranda, the little daughter of Prospero, had been portrayed by Shakespeare as having been terrified when the vessel in which they were sailing got tossed by the gale, in his drama ‘Tempest’.

Russian Language: An oriental scholar by name Prof. Ribakov from Moscow, accompanied by the famous dancer Dr. Padma Subramanian, once went to have the darshan of the Paramachrya at Kanchi.. The Professor had brought a questionnaire with him for which he wanted the Sage’s clarifications. After a brief introduction, His Holiness asked the Professor “Does not the northernmost part of Russia use a dialect which has a large content of Sanskrit?” As it was so, the Professor was stunned at the Paramacharya’s close acquaintance with the Russian language and its dialects..

Music: Many decades back, when the Paramacharya was camping in Madras, he visited the house of Madurai Mani Iyer, a doyen of Carnatic music, early in the morning without notice. Mani Iyer was doing his Sadhana practicing Sangitha, deeply immersed in it. When some one announced that the Paramacharya was entering his house, Mani Iyer was stunned and it took sometime for him to react. When Iyer came and met the Sage, the Sage asked him to sing a song. Iyer replied hesitatingly that he had not even had his bath. The Sage replied “You always swim in the Sangitha Sagaram [Ocean of music]. You do not have to have a bath to sing before me!” Moved to tears, Madurai Mani fell at his feet, crying “Parmeshwara!” “Now, start” said the Acharya. “You saw the mridangam man leave just now. How do I sing?” pleaded Madurai Mani. “Don’t worry. I will keep the talam for you!” Paramacharya began keeping the beats with his hands and Mani Iyer sang.

Sculpture : When a memorial was conceived in memory of Swami Vivekananda to be put up in Kanyakumari in 1962 [ A year ahead of his birth centenary], a group of Swamiji’s disciples were having the idea of putting up a statue on the rock, now popular as the Vivekananda Rock, which is about 500 meters away from the coast. This is the rock sitting on which Swamiji meditated for three days from on 26th December 1882 before he left for Chicago in 1893. The local Christians opposed the idea as they wanted a memorial in the same place for St.Xavier. When the proposal became controversial with communal overtones, a patriot and dynamic social worker by name Ekanath Ranade entered the scene. He got in touch with almost all the top national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajaji, Babu Rajendra Prasad, Dr.S.Radhakrishnan etc and convinced them about the propriety of putting up Swamiji’s statue. When all agreed, Ranade went to the Paramacharya with a well known Sthapathi [Sculptor] and got complete guidance from the Paramacharya and got the blueprint prepared. Finally, he called on the then Chief Minister Sri. M. Bhaktavatsalam and requested the CM to give his approval in consultation with the Government Architect. The Chief Minister simply remarked “When the Paramacharya has himself approved the design, there is no need to consult anyone else”.

Even though the Sage of Kanchi appeared immersed in mundane affairs, all along he was deeply immersed in the Eternal Bliss of Self-Realization. It would be easy to visualize such a noble soul, if only we study Oliver Goldsmith’s famous poem ‘The Deserted Village” wherein the poet refers to the Village Preacher in these memorable lines:

“As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form,
Swells from the vale, and midway leaves the storm,
Though round the breast the rolling clouds are spread,
Eternal sunshine settles on its head”.

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