K A R N A T A K A
Chitrapur’s Innovative Leader
Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji sets new patterns for passing dharma to the next generation and service to his community
BY SHAILAJA GANGULY, MUMBAI
AT THE AGE OF 35, A YOUNG SWAMI from the Saraswat brahmin community was immersed in his sadhanas at Mount Abu, Rajasthan, when an emissary of his community approached him regarding the spiritual leadership of the Chitrapur Math in Karnataka. The head of the math, His Holiness Parijnanashram III Swamiji, had just passed away without naming his successor. The emissary’s request: that Swamiji take over the math. Thus did His Holiness Shrimat Sadyojat Shankarashrama Swamiji become the eleventh guru of this lineage. He is notably publicity shy; only after three years of polite requests did he finally grant me the interview for this article.
There are approximately 25,000 Saraswat brahmins today. Many live in Karnataka, but they are also found across northern India, from Kashmir to Bengal, and now in other countries, including the US. They trace their origins to the Saraswati River civilization and find mention in the Vedas. Prior to 1700, some of them—Smarta Saraswats, who follow the teachings of Adi Shankara—migrated from the Goa area to Karnataka, without a spiritual leader. This was a period when a number of Hindu communities were fleeing the persecution and atrocities then common in the Portuguese colony.
Around 1700, a sannyasin of the Ashram order (one of the Dasanami orders of sadhus) came to Karnataka from Kashmir. He became Shrimat Parijnanashram I Swamiji (the “I” differentiating him from subsequent heads of the same name) and established the first math in Gokarna. His successor, Swami Shankarashram I (of the same name as the current head), firmly established the math’s spiritual authority in the Saraswat community. Upon his passing in 1757, the Chitrapur Math was founded at the site of his samadhi (burial) in the seaside village of Shirali. In a pattern oddly frequent to this lineage, he left no designated successor, so one had to be chosen from the community, as was the case in 1997 with the ordination of our Swami Shankarashram.
Capturing the Next Generation
A natural teacher and lecturer, Swamiji has developed innovative programs with a particular focus on engaging the community’s youth. With the help of about 75 young adults trained as workers and leaders, Swamiji established eight prarthana centers in 2007 for children of ages 5-15. Now there are 41 schools, including five in the US and one in the UK.
Swami explained, “Many parents felt guilty and helpless. Their children were not getting value-based education, even in the best of schools. If both parents work or do not know enough and there are no grandparents, children have no one to tell them stories or anecdotes and make them aware of their glorious heritage. Our leaders have also helped children who are unwilling to share problems with their parents—or whose problems have actually been compounded by the parents. They are now keen to participate regularly and take part in interactive discussions and all the creative and cultural activities.”
n addition to the prarthana centers there are 23 yuvadhara centers for some 700 young adults, actively involved in various projects such as cleaning, tree-planting, festivals, PowerPoint presentations of the math’s work and more. “They sense a growing identification with something good and worthy,” Swamiji says. “Here the youth have opportunities to express themselves and their potential in ways not available in the classrooms.”
The math has produced a well-made video (bit.ly/ChitrapurYouth) on one of their 2012 youth camps. Two camps are held each year, one in Pune and one in Bengaluru, engaging city-raised children in a wide range of activities—puja, garland making, worship, spreading manure in fields, cleaning reservoir ponds, meditating and even martial arts. Judging by the video, it is an exemplary program.
The math also runs a small Veda pathashala (priest training school) with twelve boys in residence. When trained, they will serve either in their home community or in Chitrapur and its related maths.
In 2002, to encourage the use of Sanskrit, Swami created an educational program called Girvaana Pratishtha, which now has 18 centers in India and three abroad. Sixty devotees have completed the teacher’s training, 1,500 have passed the conversation test and 1,000 have passed the theory exam.
Through the Srivali Trust, Chitrapur Math has established Srivali High School with 352 students and Mallapur High School with 250. A second agency, the Parijnan Foundation, funds a 45-seat program of vocational training for 45 underprivileged young women. So far, Swamiji reports, “Over 500 have graduated and many have started their own businesses.”
A museum at the math displays books and sculptures, some quite ancient, to inspire the younger generation. “Volunteers help clean and preserve our vast collection of palm-leaf manuscripts, which are then photographed and preserved for posterity,” says Swamiji.
Life at Chitrapur Math
The math has a 35-acre campus with an additional 25 acres of farm land. Worship, bhajana and cultural events are attended by 150 to 200 visitors daily and as many as two thousand on festival days. When in residence, Swamiji gives discourses and holds guided meditations.
Every day at 6 am brahmin priests conduct an hour-long puja, with Swamiji doing the abhishekam to the six Sivalingams at the six samadhi shrines of earlier gurus and other shrines. At midday there is arati for the main Deity, Lord Bhavanishankar, and Swamiji’s predecessor. From 4 pm to 7 pm, Swamiji is available to visitors. The main puja and abhishekam of the day, for Lord Bhavanishankar, begins at 7 pm. Swami sets aside one or two days a week for a personal silent retreat.
During the rainy season, July through September, Swamiji observes the Chaturmasya Vrata tradition by remaining in one of the lineage’s other maths—Shirali, Gokarna, Mallapur, Mangalore, Bengaluru, Pune or Karla—and his resident center becomes the “parent math” during that time. He has taken devotees on pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, Chardham, Amarnath, Vaishnodevi, and two journeys to trace the course of the ancient River Sarasvati.
Swamiji reaches the global Saraswat community through his books on meditation, monthly math newsletter, audio CDs and the Internet. For more information, go to or listen to Swamiji on YouTube at bit.ly/chitrapur
(SHAILAJA GANGULY of Mumbai is a journalist and Saraswat brahmin. She has assisted the math with its DVDs, publications and in writing bhajanas and songs.)
Steps to Reach the Absolute
To attain our true Self requires honing our humility and aspiration through service, fitness and purification, followed by consistent meditation
B Y H I S H O L I N E S S S A D Y O J A T S H A N K A R A S H R A M S W A M I J I
Aside from his social service work, Swamiji is a raja yoga adept. He regularly conducts guided meditation sessions in two complementary forms. One is indoors, with eyes closed in the traditional manner. The other, known as Ashtamoorti Upasana, is outdoors, with eyes open, at a scenic spot where the participant is taught how to meditate on the elements and arrive at one’s True Self in an illuminating, methodical and unhurried manner. Swamiji shares these thoughts about sadhana.
SEVA PLAYS AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN THE aspirant’s search for the Absolute, the Ultimate Truth. It brings about purification, strengthens the connection with the Divine and thus helps to stabilize a sadhaka’s spiritual search. The earnest desire to learn, shrotum iccha, is slowly built up through seva. Along with this is kindled the awareness of both the benefits and the responsibilities of a serious seeker. You begin to stop paying attention to that “me, me” feeling as you try keenly to understand more about the principle of serving others. Thus the mind is occupied and alert, but its dependence on the ego begins to lessen. It is no longer “I-centric.”
When you work within a group, you gradually learn to assert or tone down your opinion as needed, because here the goal is more important than petty concerns like “I have been insulted” or “I did the work and someone else took the credit.” There is an element of dispassion, tyaga, in your effort, because it is not made for personal gain. When you are serving your master, your guru, there is a lot of reverence and purity in your actions, because you look up to him and are giving without any selfish motive. Seva done in the right spirit is the first step towards true surrender.
Physical fitness is also very important. Making time for exercise is a must. The good effects of a regular workout can be felt very soon. If you do not have a proper diet and are overweight and unhealthy, you cannot have the tenacity that is required for sustained spiritual practice. Moderation is the key for fitness of the body and consequently of the mind as well.
Then we can take steps in meditation. The untrained mind is like a child who needs to be placated before getting disciplined and drawn towards the right point of focus. The mind harbors many samskaras—inherited traits and conditioning—which cannot be erased in a trice. That is why mantra-japa is advised. Concentration on a mantra helps a beginner, in particular, to hold other thoughts at bay until he realizes that he is learning to surrender to a divine force that exists within and without. Consistency helps the seeker to shed all the negativity within until he understands that “pure” is not what he has to become. “Pure” is who he is!
The mind has to be made aware of the need for relaxation, the need for discovering something very calm, very peaceful. Feeling that I am wasting my time because I am not “doing” anything is self-defeating. Doing a few warm-ups and exercises, breathing deeply and learning yogic processes—like kapalbhati or anulom-vilom (breathing exercises) from a qualified teacher—enable your body and mind to receive the fruits of meditation.
Regular meditation can bring mental equipoise, strengthen your willpower immensely, generate enthusiasm and inspiration in day-to-day tasks and thereby enhance your efficiency. Meditation, therefore, is a must to learn how to draw upon your inner resources, how to connect with your Higher Self.
In the initial stage of sadhana, having accepted that this is as a place for learning, the seeker is filled with zeal; he is respectful and eager to follow, even imitate all that he observes in the guru. This infuses a certain discipline; it gives his mind lessons about some dos and don’ts. He does not seek any explanation, nor is he ready to receive it at this point of time.
Gradually, unconsciously, he begins to develop a shivmayi drishti (purity of thought and outlook). His negative thinking fades away because amangalata (any form of impure thought or behavior) has absolutely no chance to flourish. His ability to see and appreciate the good in others increases, along with tolerance and acceptance. His spontaneity, clarity of mind and the need to express this creative energy in better and better ways accelerates.
Finally he becomes ready and worthy to receive the grace that was waiting to bless him. There is a complete burning away of all the limitations that were earlier the identification marks for his ego. The petty ego now gives way to total purity, the shuddha aham, and the blissful discovery that “I am not who I thought I was! This shivatwa—this totality and vastness of pure consciousness—of which I was getting glimpses now and then—is my own swarupa, my True Self!”
(HIS HOLINESS SADYOJAT SHANKARASHRAM SWAMIJI, 48, is 11th in the Paramapara of Mathadhipathis of Shri Chitrapur Math, Shirali, Karnataka, India, the spiritual sanctum of 25,000 Chitrapur Saraswats scattered all over the globe. See
Quotes and Quips
“Let us not pray to be sheltered from
dangers but to be fearless when facing them.”
dangers but to be fearless when facing them.”
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
When I look inside and see I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see I am everything, that is love. Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981), Hindu spiritual teacher
A language is something infinitely greater than grammar and philology. It is the poetic testament of the genius of a race and a culture, and the living embodiment of the thoughts and fancies that have molded them. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), first Prime Minister of independent India
Greater than a thousand ghee offerings consumed in sacrificial fires is to not sacrifice and consume any living creature. Tirukural 259
Love, love, love—that is what life is about. Study, pray, meditate, but love, love, love— that is what life is about. All scriptures sing of love. All saints roar of love. All the known prophets continuously demonstrate love. Swami Chinmayananda (1916-1993), founder of Chinmaya Mission
Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. Will Rogers (1879-1935), American actor and humorist
The wise man should merge his speech in his mind and his mind in his intellect. He should merge his intellect in the Cosmic Mind and the Cosmic Mind in the Tranquil Self. Katha Upanishad 1.3.13
Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), Lebonese-American writer
Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them? Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), US President
When you submit yourself to the Divine, where is the need of melody and rhythm? Paravathy Baul, singer and musician, when asked if she had any formal musical training
Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish writer and poet
Two men please God—one who serves Him with all his heart because he knows Him; and one who seeks Him with all his heart because he knows Him not. Nikita Ivanovich Panin (1718-1783), Russian author
Wisdom ceases to be wisdom when it becomes too proud to weep, too grave to laugh, and too self-full to seek other than itself. Kabir (1440-1518), mystic Indian poet
India is to me the dearest country in the world, because I have discovered goodness in it. It has been subject to foreign rule, it is true. But the status of a slave is preferable to that of a slave holder. Mahatma Gandhi
The true state of meditation is oneness of the meditator with the object of meditation, God. Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of Self-Realization Fellowship
It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), American author and poet
So great is glory gained by men in this world that celestials cease praising ascended sages. Tirukural 234
In ancient India, the intention to discover truth was so consuming that in the process, they discovered perhaps the most perfect tool for fulfilling such a search that the world has ever known—the Sanskrit language. Rick Briggs, NASA researcher
What for do we need a book? The whole spiritual truth, every Shastra, is secret in the human heart. Sita Ram Goel (1921-2003), Indian political commentator
Never think there is anything impossible for the soul. It is the greatest heresy to think so. If there is sin, this is the only sin—to say that you are weak, or others are weak. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)
Many Western ideals and goals are based on the underlying attitude that there is only one life—so we had better do everything we can in this life. We had better achieve God Realization in this life, just in case. The Hindu attitude, based on the confidence that we have many lives, is: “I know I’m coming back; no rush. I will do as much as I can in this lifetime, and there will be ample time for further advancement.” Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami
In the final analysis we are all doing exactly as we want, as we must, doing what is next on our personal path of evolution. Nothing is wrong. Nothing should be that is not. Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (1927-2001)
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today for the collection)
(The Blog is reverently for all the seekers of truth, lovers of wisdom and to share the Hindu Dharma with others on the spiritual path and also this is purely a non-commercial blog)