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Real history of the Kanchi math (Re: Former President Inaugurates...) Celebrations

In article <31a8jt$21j@ucunix.san.uc.edu> sadananda@anvil.nrl.navy.mil (K.  
Sadananda) writes:
> In article <311hto$ni@ucunix.san.uc.edu>, editor.csm.uc.edu (digest  
> wrote:
> > * Former President Inaugurates Celebrations
> >      Kanchipuram, July 24 (PTI) The former President, Mr R
> > Venkataraman, today inaugurated the year long 60th centenary
> > celebrations of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the head of the 2,500
> > year old Kanchi mutt, amidst religious fervour.
> >      Sri Jayendra Saraswathi is the 69th pontiff of the mutt,
> > which was established here by Adi Sankara, who was the first
> > 'peedapathi' (head of the mutt) from 482 to 477 bc.
> May I bring to your attention that by all accounts Adi Sankara time was
> some where around 8th to 9th century AD.  And of the four Matts that he
> established Kanchi is not one of them.  Either the Mutt is less than 
> 1100 years old or if it is 482 B.C. as is claimed in the news then it 
> must not have been established by Adi Sankaracharya.  Please check the 
> dates and the real history of the kanchi matt. Is there any one in the 
> network that has better information about the Kanchi peetam?  Sadananda

Both this post and a previous one by Bon Giovanni have raised questions of  
historicity of Adi Sankaracharya and the Kanchi math. This is not a new  
question. It is generally accepted as tradition that Adi Sankaracharya,  
the famous Advaita philosopher, founded four maths (monasteries) at  
Sringeri, Puri, Dwaraka and Badrinath; that he ascended the famous  
sarvagna-pitha in Kashmir, and finally passed away near Kedarnath. None of  
the four recognized mathas claims jurisdiction over the other three. However,  
the Kanchi math claims that Sankaracharya established a fifth math in  
Kanchi, with jurisdiction over the recognized four mathas; that  
Sankaracharya ascended a sarvagna-pitha not in Kashmir, but at Kanchi, and  
that he passed away not in Kedarnath, but at Kanchi. These and other such  
claims have been widely publicized by the followers of the Kanchi math  
with the direct participation of and encouragement from the heads of the  
Kanchi math, including the recently departed centenarian Sri  
Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (C.S., for short) and his successor Sri  
Jayendra Saraswati (J.S.). 

In Tamil, we have a saying "Do not question the origins of rivers  
(nadimoolam) and rishis (rishimoolam)." Still, in terms of answering some  
basic questions regarding dates in Indian history, one has to perforce  
look at these. C.S. had a commanding personality. He impressed people of  
such wide interests as Mahatma Gandhi, Arthur Koestler, Paul Brunton,  
Milton Singer etc. Some of his more ardent followers have gone to the  
extent of deifying him as "Nadamadum deivam" - the deity who walks. People  
compose and sing songs in his praise, and dancers stage dance-dramas on his  
life - all of which are widely advertised and reviewed in the south Indian  
press. However, while some people might respect the recently departed  
acharya of Kanchi as a rishi or as a deity, there is no reason why a frank  
discussion cannot be held regarding the origins of the Kanchi math, and  
C.S.'s involvement in propagating a thoroughly revised history of that  
math - so thoroughly revised as to be almost wholly falsified. I would  
like to clarify at the outset that no disrespect is meant to the Kanchi  
math or its heads, but while talking of some aspects of history, one has  
to call a spade a spade. 

Seven years ago, on August 22, 1987, Sri Jayendra Saraswati disappeared  
from the Kanchi math. R. Venkatraman, an ardent devotee of the Kanchi math  
was President of India at that time. A frantic search was held, with the  
police of all four southern states, the CID and other agencies involved.  
What made the disappearance more shocking to the orthodox followers of the  
Kanchi math was that it was the period of chaturmasya, when a sannyasi was  
not supposed to travel from his camping station. Sri Jayendra Saraswati  
was finally traced to Talakaveri, the source of the Kaveri near Coorg in  
Karnataka. Whatever else it accomplished, this episode created major stories
in the Indian media. Tthe Kanchi math came under the spotlight once again, 
and it obtained wide publicity in the national media. I quote a few excerpts
(without permission) from the Sept. 13, 1987 issue of The Illustrated Weekly
of India, from a feature written by well-known journalist, K. P. Sunil. [1] 

Under a box titled "Disputed Lineage," K. P. Sunil writes, (My comments  
are in parantheses):

	"On August 25, as speculation about the whereabouts of Jayendra  
Saraswati mounted, the Sankaracharya of Dwaraka, Swaroopananda Saraswati,  
camping at Pune for the Chaturmasya Vrata, while demanding a high level  
probe into the mystery, asserted: "Sri Jayendra Saraswati cannot be  
regarded as a Sankaracharya at all, because the Kanchi math is not one of  
the four peethas constituted by Adi Sankaracharya. It is only a shakha  
(branch) of the Sringeri peetham." 
	"Several years earlier, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer, who headed the  
central commission on Hindu religious and charitable endowments, had  
announced that `there is no such thing as the Kanchi Kamakoti peetham.'
	"Yet the Kanchi math has emerged as one of the most powerful  
religious institutions in the country. 
	"Full credit for this should go to Chandrasekharendra Saraswati  
himself, who lifted a math disintegrating in Kumbhakonam and  
re-established it in Kanchipuram, according it a position of pre-eminence. 
	"Legend has it that Sankara, at the age of 32, after having toured  
most parts of India and after having established the four maths ........
	"The turn of the present century saw a math claiming a lineage of  
over 67 pontiffs in Kumbhakonam in Tanjore district."
	"It was only in the 20th century works, all compiled after  
Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, the present Paramacharya ascended the  
peetha, that the history of the Kanchipuram math has been rewritten.  
Accordingly, it was established (by whom, may I ask?) that Adi  
Sankaracharya had spent the last days of his life in Kanchipuram where he  
attained samadhi, and not in the Himalayas as is generally believed. A  
mandapam named after the father of the school of advaita philosophy, seen  
in the Kamakshi temple premises, is cited as his samadhi. (The said  
mandapam has been constructed very recently. It was originally called  
`Sankaracharya samadhi', but when it was pointed out there could not be a  
samadhi inside a Devi temple, the mandapam was renamed `Sankaracharya  
sannidhi' - sanctum, not a tomb.) 
	"The twentieth century chronicles explain that before his demise,  
Sankaracharya established a fifth math at Kanchi which he intended to be a  
controlling centre of all the other maths. Sri Sureswaracharya, Sankara's  
prime disciple was placed in charge of it. Interestingly, the Sringeri  
math also claims Sureswaracharya as their first pontiff. (As an aside, the  
tale of Sureswaracharya being in charge of the Kanchi math is pure  
fiction. If Sankaracharya did not establish the Kanchi math at all,  
where was the need to appoint a successor there?!! It is the Kanchi math  
that "claims" Sureswara. The Sringeri math does not "claim" so. In fact, a  
very old structure that is reputed to be Sureswara's samadhi is still  
preserved outside the Sarada temple at Sringeri.) 
	"According to the Kanchi chronicles, the math in Kanchipuram had  
to be shifted in the 18th century AD, in the face of opposition from local  
kings and hence the shift to Kumbhakonam. (One does not know of any  
Hindu-hating king near Kanchipuram from the 18th century.)
	"Historians, however, hold that the Kumbhakonam math was in verity  
a branch of the Sringeri math established in 1821 AD by the famous monarch  
of Tanjore, Serfoji. (Mr. Sunil has a fact wrong here. The monarch of  
Tanjore in 1821 was not Serfoji, but Pratap Singh Tuljaji. The  
date 1821 is correct - it is the date of the oldest inscription found in  
the Kumbhakonam math building.) Later, when a war broke out between the  
kings of Tanjore and Mysore, the Kumbhakonam math proclaimed independence  
from Sringeri and established itself as the Kamakoti peetham." (There is  
no war documented between the Maratha rulers of Tanjore and the Wodeyars  
of Mysore after 1821. By this time, both were more or less puppets of the  
British. That the Kumbhakonam math proclaimed independence from Sringeri  
however, is a fact. One does not have to explain it as a consequence of an  
imaginary war that the maths had no connection with.) 

Mr. Sunil captures the major facts regarding the Kanchi math correctly  
though. Briefly, 

1. A branch of the Sringeri math was established in Kumbhakonam, the  
building for which was constructed in 1821 AD, with the help of the  
Tanjore king. The seal of this math is in Kannada language, and refers to  
it as a "Sarada math." Since Sarada is worshipped only at Sringeri, and  
the Goddess at Kanchipuram is Kamakshi, not Sarada, it is seen at once  
that the Kumbhakonam math did not originally come from Kanchipuram. 
2. The Kumbhakonam math soon proclaimed independence from Sringeri. In  
fact, this math went one step further. In addition to denying the  
historical truth of its origin as a branch of the Sringeri math, the story  
propagated was that it was originally established by Adi Sankaracharya  
himself at Kanchipuram, with control over the recognized four maths.  
Worse, a wholly fictitious story that Adi Sankaracharya ascended a  
sarvagna-pitha at Kanchi and attained samadhi at Kanchi is propagated as  
"tradition." The real problem though was that in the course of this  
campaign, someone with more enthusiasm than scholarship, "fixed" the date  
of Adi Sankaracharya as 477 B.C. and wrote up a continuous list of gurus  
of the math from 477 B.C. to the present! This guru parampara is filled  
with names of sannyasis taken at random, with no thought to chronology. 

3. The Kumbhakonam math shifted to Kanchipuram in accordance with its new  
story. In 1839 AD, the head of the Kumbhakonam math applied for permission  
to the English Collector to perform the kumbhabhishekam of the Kamakshi  
temple in Kanchipuram. In 1842 AD, he was appointed sole trustee of the  
Kamakshi temple by the English East India Company Government. This is well  
documented because the original priests of the Kamakshi temple, who were
thereby deprived of their rights, complained to whomever they could possibly
complain to. Numerous petitions, counter petitions, letters, and other such
documents are available from this period that allow us to piece together this
account. [2] Thus the Kanchi math as an institution dates from 1842 AD. The
headquarters continued to be at Kumbhakonam but the sannyasi head would
periodically visit Kanchipuram to assert his rights over the Kamakshi temple.
This math originally had a limited following in the Tanjore and Kanchipuram
areas, but soon embarked on a massive propaganda campaign that ensured it

4. This propaganda campaign to disseminate disinformation received a major  
fillip from the activites of C.S. As Mr. Sunil puts it, it is only in the  
20th century, after C.S. took over as the head of the disintegrating math  
at Kumbhakonam, that the accounts have been totally rewritten. Part of this  
propaganda campaign includes a guru parampara that dates back to 477 BC.  
One can go into great details to show that this guru parampara is false.  
Suffice it to say however, that it is full of holes and is correct only in  
the details given for the post-1820 period. Thus J.S. who is said to be  
the 69th in direct succession from Adi Sankaracharya himself is actually  
only the 6th or the 7th head  of the Kumbhakonam/Kanchi math. C.S. and   
J.S. have been extremely fortunate in favourably impressing people like  
Dr. T. M. P. Mahadevan, the famous philosopher, and Sri S. Ramakrishnan,  
the executive secretary of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, not to speak of  
influential journalists like Arun Shourie and Ram Nath Goenka, and
politicians like President R. Venkatraman. As an example, in recent years,
there has not been a single issue of the Bhavan's Journal without some
feature or the other on either C.S. or J.S. For example, when the Berlin wall
fell, the well-known guru, Sri Chinmoy, sent a piece of the rubble to the
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan as a souvenir. Sri Ramakrishnan immediately saw a
photo opportunity, took the rock to Kanchipuram, and featured a picture of
J.S. holding the rock on the cover of the Bhavan's Journal. Thus, Sri Chinmoy
sends a souvenir to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and J.S. of Kanchi Kamakoti
Peetham gets photo credit! Sri Ramakrishnan apparently has no qualms in
converting a prestigious magazine like the Bhavan's Journal into yet another
propaganda pamphlet of the Kanchi math. 

If I sound like I am fulminating unjustifiably against the propaganda that  
the Kanchi math engages in, I assure readers here that I am in fact  
perfectly justified. I can cite innumerable instances where the most  
blatant lies have been made without any compunction. All with an eye at  
enhancing the apparent prestige of the Kanchi math. What the Kanchi math  
doen't realize however, is that such stories only weaken its own  
credibility and the respect which people may have for its acharyas. Thus a  
simple PTI news item about the 60th birthday celebrations of J.S.  
necessarily has to state something about the "2500 year history" of the  
math. If the news item had been silent about it, I would not have felt the  
need to write this article debunking their myths. The following excerpt  
from the same article in the Illustrated Weekly should show readers the  
exact means which the Kanchi math propaganda adopts. 

	"The Vyasachaliya Sankara Vijayam, written by Maha Devendra  
Saraswati, the 53rd acharya of the Kumbhakonam math in the 15th century,  
makes no mention of the Kanchi math in his work. However, in a Tamil  
translation of the work by Acharya Krishna Sastri, it is mentioned that  
the then King of Nepal had accepted the acharya of Kanchi, located in  
Kumbhakonam, as his Rajguru and was making a payment to the math every  
year as guru dakshina. 
	"Researchers, who doubted the claim, referred the matter to the  
royal family of Nepal. the reply dated May 13. 1940 read `...Nepal has  
never recognized the head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham as their guru.  
Nor do we annually contribute any portion of our income as alleged by  
Pandit Acharya Krishna Sastri.'"

Mr. Sunil who quotes this bit of history, seems to have overlooked one  
minor point though. If the Kumbhakonam math was only established as a  
branch math in 1821 AD, as he says in his article, the question of its  
existence in the 15th century does not arise. Much less a name of its head  
and a number to be attached to that name. Such "Pandits" as Acharya  
Krishna Sastri who do not hesitate to blatantly lie, have been routinely  
pressed into service by the Kanchi math for conducting its propaganda.  
After all, who in south India would have thought of verifying his story  
from such a distant place as Nepal? The technique of the Kanchi math has  
been to lie left and right, with such thoroughness, that invariably some  
part of its preposterous claims are accepted as truth by people. Exactly  
the same phenomenon has occured with Mr. Sunil. He does not question the
veracity of the claim that the Vyasachaliya Sankara Vijayam was written
by one "Maha Devendra Saraswati, the 53rd acharya of the Kumbhakonam
math in the 15th century." Nor does he particularly elaborate on the
strangeness of the fact that this fictitious author of this real book only
mentions the four traditionally accepted maths, and makes no mention of
"his own" math.

To sum up, the claims of the Kanchi math have been unprecedented in the  
history of Hinduism. We have never had an organized structure comparable  
to the Roman Catholic Church. In the event, a math in the remote south  
claiming to be the central math of the Advaita sampradaya makes no sense.  
Firstly, such centralized religious jurisdiction is alien to the spirit  
and history of our culture. Secondly, even if Adi Sankaracharya did  
establish a central math with jurisdiction over the recognized four, was  
he so ignorant of India's geography that he bypassed all holy cities with  
more central locations (Prayag/Kashi/Ujjain?) and chose instead Kanchi in  
the extreme south? Thus, the idea of a central math is clearly pure myth.  
The reality is that the Kanchi math is a relatively recent institution  
with tall claims. That it has a large following is an undeniable fact.  
Every saffron-robed person invariably attracts some following. Couple that  
with the tremendous charisma that C.S. had, and a famous temple like the  
Kamakshi temple in Kanchipuram - one has a ready-made formula for success  
in attracting a following. The sad part is that the sannyasis involved  
take advantage of the general reverence that people show them, for their  
own ulterior motives. 

In India, among south Indian Brahmin circles especially, when this topic  
comes up for discussion, most people usually say something like, "The  
Kanchi math is also doing so much for the cause of dharma. Why rake up  
this issue?" My answer is that firstly it is the Kanchi math which forces  
one to rake up the issue by ceaselessly continuing its propaganda of  
disinformation. Secondly, and more importantly, an institution like the  
Kanchi math which supposedly is doing so much for dharma, should not  
forget the most basic dharma of all - satyam vada. People are free to choose  
their gurus, but when the guru sets such a perniciously wrong example, by  
not sticking to the truth, dharma itself is compromised. 

S. Vidyasankar 

1. The Illustrated Weekly of India, "The Weekly Cover Story" - K. P.  
Sunil, September 13, 1987. 

2 a. The Truth about the Kumbhakonam Math, - Sri R. Krishnaswamy  
Aiyar and Sri K. R. Venkatraman, Sri Ramakrishna Press, Madurai,  

  b. Kanchi Kamakoti Math - a Myth - Sri Varanasi Raj Gopal Sarma,  
Ganga Tunga Prakashan, Varanasi, 1987. 
     LC Call No.: BL1243.76.C62 K367 1987