Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Mahaswamiji (20 May 1894 – 8 January 1994), or the Sage of Kanchi, was the 68th Jagadguru of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham. He is usually referred to as Paramacharya, Mahaswami or Maha Periyavar. He is widely considered as one of the greatest Indian sages of recent times. He was renowned for his saintly life, strict adherence to the sanyasa (asceticism) and unparalleled knowledge in a wide array of subjects. His foremost vision was the protection of Vedas, tradition, and dharma.
Chandrashekarendra Saraswati was born on 20 May 1894, under Anuradha nakshatra according to the Hindu calendar, into a Smartha Brahmin family in Viluppuram, South Arcot District, Tamil Nadu as Swaminatha. He was the second son of Shri Subramanya Sastrigal, a District Education Officer and his devout wife, Smt Mahalakshmi. The child was named Swaminatha, after the family deity, Lord Swaminatha of Swamimalai, near Kumbakonam. Swaminatha began his early education at the Arcot American Mission High School at Tindivanam, where his father was working. He was an exceptional student and excelled in several subjects. In 1905, his parents performed his Upanayanam, a Vedic ceremony which qualifies a Brahmin boy to begin his Vedic studies under an accomplished teacher.He attained siddhi at Kancheepuram on 8 January 1994 (Dhanur, Krishna Dwadasi) in his Centenary year.
His brother was Sadasiva Sastrigal, popularly known as Sivan Sir.Sadasiva Sastri was born on 3 October 1903 in Viluppuram, South Arcot District, Tamil Nadu. He has written a magnum opus based on Hindu philosophy in a Tamil book titled "Yenippadigalil Maanthargal".
Incidents leading to Sainthood
During the childhood of the Acharya, his father consulted an astrologer who, upon studying the boy's horoscope, is said to have been so stunned that he prostrated himself before the boy exclaiming that "One day the whole world will fall at his feet". In 1906, the 66th Acharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham performed the annual Chaturmasyam (a four-month annual ritual performed by Hindu ascetics while remaining in one place), in a village near Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu. This was Swaminatha's first exposure to the Math and its Acharya. Later, Swaminatha accompanied his father whenever he visited the Math where the Acharya was deeply impressed by the young boy.
In the first week of February 1907, the Kanchi Kamakoti Math had informed Subramanya Sastrigal that Swaminatha's first cousin (son of his mother's sister) was to be installed as the 67th Peetathipathi. The presiding Acharya was then suffering from smallpox and had the premonition that he might not live long. He had, therefore, administered upadesa to his disciple Lakshminathan before he attained Samadhi. Sastrigal being away in Trichinopoly on duty arranged for the departure of Swaminatha with his mother to Kanchipuram. The boy and his mother started for Kalavai (where Lakshminathan was camping) to console his aunt who, while also being a widow, had just given up her only son to be an ascetic. They travelled by train to Kanchipuram and halted at the Sankara Math. By then, Lakshminathan had fallen ill.
As a Jagadguru
The term Jagadguru aptly suited him. He had devotees from all walks of life. From the downtrodden to the affluent, from Hindus to Muslims, from Asians to Europeans, there were many who found solace from this man who lived in a small thatched hut in Kanchipuram. He was known throughout the world as a great jnani, in whose presence everyone found great peace and tranquil.
Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Vice chancellor of Tehran university who participated in the World Conference of Philosophy in Madras in 1970, met the Paramacharya at Kanchi and said:
To behold the presence of His Holiness the Jagadguru, and to be blessed by the privileges of the fresh breeze which flows from him and which extinguishes the very fire that separates man from God, is to realise that the divine freedom manifests itself where it wills. In Kanchipuram one feels the proximity of the Light which as a Muslim , I have experienced near Muslim saints.In the eyes of the Jagadguru, the silence of the Eternity of India which is immutable and eternal like the peak of the Himalayas, shines and penetrates into the very heart where presides the throne of God. Through his glance, the heart becomes suddenly transmuted alchemically from a piece of flesh into a jewel that reflects Inner Light and Illuminates the whole from within.
K. M. Munshi, founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan wrote about the Mahaswami :
He is one of the most remarkable men I've ever seen, a tapasvin who reminds us of the ancient ascetics referred to in our ancient literature, giving validity to the concept of our ancient ideal of austerity, rising superior to the demands of flesh. A profoundly learned man , he combines within himself sastraic scholarship with a discerning understanding of modern life and its problems.
He is considered as one of the greatest spiritual leaders of Hinduism in the line of Adi Sankara, Ramakrishna, and Ramana Maharshi. Kirupanandha Variyar swamigal explained:
The Kanchi Kamakoti Paramacharya is an embodiment of enlightment. His benign face smeared with sacred ash , His lotus like eyes, dripping the honey of compassion, His mouth ever fragnant with the Vedas, His pure body adorned with rudraksha, His frail body reflecting great austerity, and his holy feet chasing away the misfortune of the devotee- such is the form of his holiness, the darshan of which is the greatest fortune for one born on the earth.
His strict adherence to the tenets of sanyasa ashrama made him shine as a great saint. He travelled widely by foot and rarely by palanquin, this way he toured entire India once and south India several times.
In spite of being the pontiff of an important spiritual institution of India, he rejected the royal paraphernalia usually associated with such high offices. Living at places like dilapidated temples, cowsheds, and thatched huts, even in the remotest of villages, he strived to spread dharma amongst the people. Taking one meal a day, sleeping in makeshift rooms, withered palanquins and cowsheds, he advocated simplicity and shunned extravagance.Wherever he went, the common folk and the elite thronged to receive him with honours.Vinoba Bhave said :
Even to the most obscure village of our land , he has gone and stayed and met and conversed with the people from the humblest to the highest in the society.His stay in every village has been a source of inspiration, illumination,instruction to the people.He is a walking encyclopedia of variegated knowledge. Every man, woman and child has received his blessings and enjoyed the delight of words falling from his lips. The person struck with sorrow has received consolation and courage from his sympathetic looks and words. In fact, wherever he went he has spread joy, comfort, knowledge, spirituality.
Periyavar and the Indian Freedom Movement
Though Periyavar did not get directly into politics, he was interested in the happenings. At Nellichery in Palakkad (Present Day Kerala), Rajaji and Mahatma Gandhi met the Acharya in a cow shed. It was a practice in the mutt to wear silk clothes. But Acharya was the first one to do away with them and shifted to Khadi robes at Rameshwaram. He requested his devotees to do away with foreign/ non-natural clothes some time earlier at Trichy.
Periyavaa (the other name of "Periyavar") is credited with reforming the noted Indian National Congress leader F. G. Natesa Iyer from Tiruchirappalli, during the Indian independence movement. Periyavaa is recorded to have reconverted F.G.Natesa Iyer from the Christian religion back to Hinduism. It is recorded that, F.G. Natesa Iyer, as a young boy of ten years, "took shelter with Englishmen who brought him up and converted him to Christianity. Twenty years later, dissatisfied with the ability of the priests to clarify his doubts, he met the Kanchi Sankaracharya and, getting satisfactory answers from him, reconverted to Hinduism."
The Indian National Congress, in the decade of the 1920s, started organising the Non-Cooperation Movement, which involved getting many people to protest on the streets. F.G.Natesa Iyer, the leading Congress activist of Tiruchirappalli then, as also the elected Mayor, took this opportunity to convert the movement to also show support for the Periyavaa. He described the occasion, thus: "I was nominated by the public as the chairman of the Reception committee for arranging a reception for the Acharya of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. As the municipal chairman , it was my duty to provide a proper welcome and respect to Swamigal who was visiting after a long time. The opportunity to welcome His Holiness in a manner that was exponentially greater than receptions given to kings and viceroys, was accorded to me, along with my supporters: Sri M.Kandaswamy Servai, Sri. R.Srinivasa Iyengar, the lawyer and the larger public. The procession that was seven miles long, was preceded by seven groups of nadaswaram players, three band groups, four elephants, many horses and camels, instrumental players, Bhajan singers, Seva Samitis. I had the blessing to hold the front side of the ivory palanquin where our guru for the whole world , Sri Sankaracharya Swamigal was seated. He gave darshan to numerous people lined on both sides of the roads, in every floor, irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. There was no count of arathis, Poorna kumbams, garlands, asthika goshams. The procession that started at 6 pm ended at 10 pm in front of the mutt at Thiruvanaikkaval. I was enthralled in my service to Swamigal as service to Lord Shiva himself".
The day India became free, He gave a speech on the significance of the flag and the Dharma chakra in it on that day.