Preceptors of Advaita
THE SAGE OF KANCHI
T. M. P. Mahadevan
M.A., Ph. D.
2. Early life
‘Chandrasekharendra Sarasvati’ is the sannyasa name given to Svaminathan when he was barely thirteen. It was on the 20th of May 1894, that Svaminathan was born in Viluppuram (South Arcot District). His father, Subrahmanya Sastri, belonged to the Hoysala Karnataka Smarta Brahmana family which had migrated years earlier to the Tamil country and had settled in Chola-desa. After passing the Matriculation Examination from the Government School, Kumbhakonam, taking the first place, Subrahmanya Sastri served as a teacher for some time and then entered the Educational Service. At the time of Svaminathan’s birth, he was at Viluppuram. Svaminathan’s mother, Mahalakshmi, hailed from a family belonging to Icchangudi, a village near Tiruvaiyaru. An illustrious and saintly person connected with the family, Raja Govinda Dikshita of the sixteenth century, was minister to the first Nayak King of Tanjavur; Dikshita popularly known as Ayyan, was responsible for many development projects in Chola-territory; his name is still associated with a tank, a canal, etc. (Ayyan Canal, Ayyan Kulam).
Svaminathan was the second child of his parents. He was named Svaminathan after the Deity of the family, the Lord Svaminatha of Svamimalai. Two incidents relating to this early childhood period are recorded by the Acharya himself in an article contributed to a symposium on What Life Has Taught Me2. This is how he has described these incidents:
“A ‘mara nai’ as they call it in Tamil or teddy cat (an animal which generally climbs on trees and destroys the fruits during nights) somehow got into a room in the house and thrust its head into a small copper pot with a neck, which was kept in a sling and contained jaggery. The animal was not able to pull out its head and was running here and there in the room all through the night. People in the house and neighbours were aroused by the noise and thought that some thief was at his job. But, the incessant noise continued even till morning hours and some bravados armed with sticks opened the door of the room and found the greedy animal. It was roped and tied to a pillar. Some experienced men were brought and after being engaged in a tug-of-war, they ultimately succeeded in removing the vessel from the head of the animal. The animal was struggling for life. It was at last removed to some spot to roam freely, I presume. The first experience of my life was this dreadful ocular demonstration born of greed causing all our neighbours to spend an anxious and sleepless night.
The next experience was a man in the street who entered into the house seeing me alone with tiny golden bangles upon which he began to lay his hands. I asked him to tighten the hooks of the bangles which had become loose and gave a peremptory and authoritative direction to him to bring them back repaired without delay. The man took my orders most obediently and took leave of me with the golden booty. In glee of having arranged for repairs to my ornament, I speeded to inform my people inside of the arrangement made by me with the man in the street who gave his name as Ponnusvami. The people inside hurried to the street to find out the culprit. But the booty had become his property true to his assumed name, Ponnusami (master of gold)”
Reflecting on those experiences, the Acharya observes with characteristic humility: “I am prone to come to the conclusion that there lives none without predominantly selfish motives. But with years rolling on, an impression, that too a superficial one true to my nature, is dawning upon me that there breathe on this globe some souls firmly rooted in morals and ethics who live exclusively for others voluntarily forsaking not only their material gains and comforts but also their own sadhana towards their spiritual improvements.”
A significant incident occurred in the year 1899. Svaminatha’s father was then serving as a teacher at a school in Porto-novo. He took the boy to Chidambaram for the Kumbhabhishekam of Ilaimaiyakkinar temple. Ilaimaiyakkinar it was that, according to a legend, gave salvation to Tirunila-kanthanayanar, one of the sixty-three Saiva saints whose biographies constitute the theme of Sekkilar’s Periyapuranam. The father and son reached Chidambaram one evening and stayed at the house of Sri Venkatapati Aiyar, an Inspector of Schools. Svaminathan was asked by his father to go to sleep after being assured that he would be woken up at night and taken to the temple to see the procession and have the darsan of the Deity. Svaminathan woke up only next morning and felt that his father had disappointed him very much by not waking him up at night and taking him to the temple. He gave expression to his feeling of disappointment to his father. The latter consoled him saying that he himself had not gone to the temple and added that it was very fortunate that none in the house had gone there. There was a fire accident that night at the temple and many of those who were inside the temple perished in that great fire. On the same night, Svaminathan’s mother at Porto-novo had dreamt of the fire accident at the Chidambaram temple and in the early hours of the next day she was very much perturbed imagining that danger might have befallen her husband and child. In a fit of frenzy she came out of the house only to be told by her servant-maid that there had been a gruesome fire accident at the Chidambaram temple. She proceeded towards the railway station to enquire from the people who were returning from Chidambaram about her husband and her son. Her joy knew no bounds when she saw both of them coming out of the railway station. The agony she had experienced in her dream the previous night and the providential manner in which the father and son were saved from the tragedy should have had some mysterious connection.
In the year 1900, Svaminathan was in the first standard in a school at Chidambaram. Sri M. Singaravelu Mudaliyar, the Assistant Inspector of Schools, visited the school on an inspection and discovered in the boy the makings of a genius. He asked him to read the Longman’s English Reader prescribed for a higher standard: and Svaminathan read it remarkably well. At his instance Svaminathan was promoted to the third standard.
The upanayanam of the boy was performed in 1905 at Tindivanam to which place Subrahmanya Sastri had been transferred. It is significant that the Sixty-sixth Sankaracharya of Kamakoti Pitha, Sri Chandrasekharendra Sarasvati, who was at the time touring in South Arcot District, sent his blessings: and it was he that later on literally captivated the boy and chose him as successor to the holy seat; and it is also significant that Svaminathan came to bear the sannyasa name of the Sixty-sixth Acharya.
When Svaminathan was ten years of age, he was admitted in the Second Form in the Arcot American Mission School, Tindivanam. The prodigy that the boy was, he gave an excellent record of himself at school. He used to carry away many prizes, including the one for proficiency in the Bible studies. The teachers of the school naturally took a great liking for Svaminathan; they were proud of him and cited him to the other boys as a model student.
In 1906, when Svaminathan was studying in the Fourth Form, the school was arranging for a dialogue from Shakespeare’s King John. The teachers who were responsible for fixing the participants in the dialogue could not find a suitable candidate from the age-group fixed for taking on the role of Prince Arthur, the central character in the play. The Head-Master who knew Svaminathan’s extraordinary talents sent for the boy who was only twelve then and assigned the role to him. After obtaining permission from his parents, Svaminathan rehearsed his part for only two days and acquitted himself remarkably well as Prince Arthur in the dialogue winning the appreciation of the entire audience: the acting was so perfect and the enunciation of Shakespeare’s classical English so accurate. One of Svaminathan’s friends had lent him the attire of a prince and Svaminathan really looked a prince. Many of the teachers went to Subrahmanya Sastri’s house next day and expressed how greatly they were pleased with Svaminathan’s superb performance.
2. What Life Has Taught Me, Series II, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1964, pp. 1–9.
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Sage of Kanchi
Preceptors of Advaita