Jayendra Saraswathi, the leader of one of Hinduism’s biggest monastic orders, and a man whose final years were marred by his alleged involvement in a murder case, died on Wednesday of cardiac arrest at the age of 82.
Saraswathi, who headed a mutt — or monastery — in the southeastern town of Kanchipuram, near Chennai, was rushed to hospital early on Wednesday morning when he had trouble breathing. He had already been ill for a few months, the mutt told media, without detailing what he had been suffering from.
The Kanchipuram mutt is one of five that were established in the 8th century by Adi Sankara, one of Hinduism’s foremost reformers. Sankara unified several strands of the religion’s philosophy and emphasised the role of self-knowledge in the quest for spiritual liberation.
The mutts — located in the towns of Puri, Dwarka, Badrinath, Sringeri and Kanchipuram — were intended to protect and propagate Sankara’s philosophy, with the head of each taking on the title of “Sankaracharya”. Saraswathi was the 69th Sankaracharya at Kanchipuram, the mutt that Sankara was believed to have established as his own seat, and the most influential of the five.
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Funded by donations, the mutt in turn runs numerous schools, hospitals and other charitable organisations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a series of Twitter statements that he was “deeply anguished” by Saraswathi’s passing.
“He will live on in the hearts and minds of lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of devotees due to his exemplary service and noblest thoughts,” he tweeted.
Born Subramanyam Mahadeva in the village of Irulneeki, in the state of Tamil Nadu, Saraswathi acquired his monastic name after he joined the Kanchipuram order in his teenage years. At the age of 19, he was hand-picked by the 68th Sankaracharya, Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi, to succeed him.
Saraswathi took office in 1994 after his predecessor died, soon becoming an influential figure. Politicians, actors and industrialists sought him out in Kanchipuram to ask for his blessings or advice — some even loaning him the use of their private aircraft.
The Hindu priest was also a more public personality than the Sankaracharyas before him. As cable television exploded in India through the 1990s and the 2000s, he became a familiar face on 24-hour channels devoted to Hindu spirituality, lecturing on aspects of the faith.
L Easwaran, a Chennai-based chartered accountant who considers himself a devotee of the mutt, used to drive frequently down to Kanchipuram in the 1980s and 1990s to see the Sankaracharya there or soak in the atmosphere of the monastery — something that he says was a way of renewing his faith and achieving a peaceful mind.
"After Jayendra Saraswathi took the title though, the crowds really started growing," Mr Easwaran told The National. "You needed special ways to get an appointment to see him, or you could try, during one of his public lectures, to approach him. Sometimes I'd drive down, see the size of the crowd, and turn back to go home."
In 2004, A Sankararaman, a former mutt employee who had gone on to manage a temple in Kanchipuram, was found murdered on the temple's premises. Five members of a local gang were arrested for ordering the murder, but after police discovered that Sankararaman had been writing letters to Saraswathi, accusing him of corruption and malpractice in the mutt’s affairs, the Sankaracharya was arrested as well.
The police claimed Saraswathi had been in touch with the gang’s leader and that he had confessed while in custody. Saraswathi denied his involvement, although admitted in a magazine interview at the time that “some of my devotees may have been responsible for Sankararaman’s end”.
Saraswathi remained in prison for two months before being released on bail. After winding its way through the courts for several years, the murder case eventually ended in 2013 with all of the suspects — including Saraswathi — being acquitted, the state prosecution’s case having fallen apart.
But although Saraswathi emerged from the episode legally absolved of blame, the case tarnished his reputation, said Sushila Ravindranath, an analyst of politics and economics in Tamil Nadu.
Vijayendra Saraswathi, the junior Sankaracharya who will now preside over the mutt, began to take a larger role in the order’s affairs after 2013, especially as the elder priest’s health began to falter.
For Jayendra Saraswathi’s most ardent followers, however, he remained an icon until the end, Ms Ravindranath said.
“People were still going to Kanchipuram, still seeking him out,” she added. “The believers continued to believe.”