When I was in Madras in the winter of 1954-55 I heard references on a number of occasions to Swami Sankaracharya which greatly aroused my curiosity. Some of these references were made by avowed followers of the Swami, others by the critics, but all singled him out as person of unusual position and attainment. (My) interviews (with him) were among the highlights of my visit to India and still stand out with great vividness.
For an American, the setting of the meetings under a green tree in the garden of the Conjeevaram Mutt was in itself most charming and, I may say, misleading since I did not at the first interview recognize the Swami still under the tree until my companions had prostrated themselves before him. But the most memorable part of these interviews was the Swami himself. On both occasions he showed a very lively curiosity about the outside world and asked me about where I had been, who and what I had seen, what foreign languages I knew, and similar questions. He also showed a very strong interest in the American Indians, their history, diet and customs. In these questions, and more so in his answers to my questions about Hinduism, the Swami showed a most unusually clear and can did mind. From him I believe I learned more about the essential foundations of orthodox Hinduism than I had learned from a two-years previous study of the subject. In fact, this holy man had a view of the foundations which would be more congenial to an anthropologist than to the Western study of religion and theology. For according to the Swami, the distinctiveness of Hinduism does not rest in its philosophy, ethics, or theology, things which tend to be common to all schools and all religions. Hinduism adds to these a hereditary discipline based on family and caste, and the growth of decline of Hinduism is directly dependent on the social disciplines. The Swami referred to these social disciplines as the `sociological foundation' of Hinduism.
While he showed considerable concern about the recent weakening of these disciplines, he nevertheless felt that there was good prospect for activating the religious non-Brahmins to maintain them along with the Brahmins.
This way of looking at Hinduism brings together in a very illuminating manner many apparently disparate things that I had seen in India and gave me a most intimate insight into Hindu institutions and ideas.
The Swami's intense seriousness and active concern for the future of Hinduism was refreshingly mixed with a wry humour and detachment. At one point in our conversation when I asked him about the obligation of the people to see him regularly at the Mutt, he said that the allegiance to Sankara Mutt is no specific and definite as in the case of some other Mutts and wistfully remarked that there are some people who never come to see him. At another point, in talking about the Dravidan movement, he suggested that my study of South Indian Culture would be incomplete if I did not interview at least one of the leaders of this movement.
Before I west to India I had heard and read much about the great `soul force' of its holy men and saints but I had assumed that this was something in the ancient past. And it was not until I had met Sankaracharya that I realised it was still part of the living force of Hinduism today.
During my first interviews in Madras in 1954, people in different walks of life spontaneously expressed warm appreciation of Swami Shankaracharya of Kanchi as a spiritual leader. He was often referred to as H.H. ("His Holiness"). Since on that first trip I was interested in the social organization of Hinduism in the area, I asked Dr. V. Raghavan, the Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Madras, whether he could arrange a meeting with the Swami.
Dr. Raghavan was able to arrange an interview for me with the Swami at his ashram in Conjeevaram. My description of this interview and of a later one in Madras city at the home of a follower will be found in my book When a Great Tradition Modernizes: an Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (1972) 1980, pp. 86-89, 341-42.
The Swami's intellectual vigour and coherent views of the problem of poverty in India, and of the future of Hinduism and its relation to industrialization made a deep impression on me, especially during the first interview at Conjeevaram. Sitting on the ground, leaning against the trunk of a large shady tree, and surrounded by a group of disciples, also sitting on the ground in a semi-circle, the Swami explained that India's poverty might be helped by gifts of land to the land-less, by community development, and by Five-years Plans. Ultimately, however, he thought that the problem was " a spiritual" one and called for a change in the life-style of the four classes in Indian society. He said that if the Brahmins and working classes renounced their desire for "luxuries" and foreign goods in favour of a more simple life which followed their traditional "family disciplines", then the other two classes would be able to develop the "arts" of civilization.
The Swami did not think that the popular criticism of case, ritualism and other-worldliness was historically accurate or realistic. Indians, he said, have always been an active and practical people, who have fought many wars and developed numerous arts. The doctrine of the unreality of the world is an abstract theory which refers to "a higher level of experience" and does not discourage practice and activity. "We do not stop eating because we believe in the atomic theory of matter." The future of Hinduism does not depend on such beliefs, he said, but on its "sociological foundations", that is, the ability of some classes, even non-Brahmins, to maintain the traditional "family disciplines". So long as they do so, he declared, even an industrialist can be a good Hindu.
As far as his own life-style was concerned, he said that a simple diet of leaves, fruit and milk was sufficient and healthy for him. Who will doubt this at a celebration of the Swami's centenary?