Why We Should Read, Remember, And Emulate The Socio-Spiritual Fight Of Sri Karpatri Sivaprakasa Swamigal Against Casteism
A dynamic spirit of social reform is more organic to traditional Hindu Dharma than birth-based, caste-emphasising institutions.
At the very beginning, the readers should be cautioned that the article is not about Hariharanand Saraswati, popularly known as Swami Karpatri Maharaj (1907-1980), an eccentric scholarly monk, who was a strong opponent of scheduled communities entering temples.
If one looks for information about Karpatri Maharaj, then one gets mostly his views and stands. They are used either to essentialise and demonise Hindu Dharma in the hands of Hindu-haters or in the hands of the 'neo-net-orthodoxy' to attack the reformist stand of Hindutva movements like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The point to be remembered here is that 'Karpatri' is actually the name of a monk who has no material possession — not even a begging bowl. So the monk would receive the alms, food he begs for — in his hands. His hands (kar) are his begging bowl (patra) and hence the name 'Karpatri'.
Nattrinai — a classic Tamil Sangam-era literature, that was probably written 1,800 years ago, speaks of those penance-performing monks who have only their hands to hold the food. In other words, Karpatri monks have been a pan-Indian concept, and hence a characteristically Hindu phenomenon uniting the nation through the ages.
So when 'Hindumisia' and 'neo-trads' use one Sri Karpatri to essentialise, demonise and/or force-fit Hindu Dharma into their 'Lilliputian' categories, Hindutva needs to point out to another Sri Karpatri Maharaj, who silently yet effectively and spiritually, worked to flower a socio-spiritual revolution.
Born in a Veera Saiva family in Tamil Nadu in the nineteenth century, the name given by the parents to their child who would become Karpatri Maharaj was 'Sivaprakasa'.
It is said that the child, instead of using the usual first words "Amma" and "Appa", started uttering the words "Uma" and "Shiva" to the surprise of all.
When he was 16, his father died and his elder brothers made Sivaprakasa take up the trade of betel leaves.
During this time, Sivaprakasa started getting attracted to both the Shankara school of monist Vedanta as well as the Advaita school of Saiva Siddhanta. His teacher of Vedanta was 'Vedanta Banu' Ratna Desikar. Soon, Sivaprakasa persuaded his family, gently but firmly, to allow him to renounce the world. It is said when his mother insisted that he marry and give her a grandchild, he agreed, which in his own way meant marrying the life of renunciation and giving her the child of wisdom, liberation which would give her true joy.
This method of agreeing with the person arguing against him, and then slowly working to change the mind of the opponent became a characteristic feature of the Swami.
During the final food-serving ceremony before the renunciation, Swami asked that the plantain leaf be removed and received the food in his hand and hence the name Sri Karpatri Sivaprakasa Swamigal.
While his teacher in Vedanta, Sri Ratna Desikar had left his body, Swami Krishnananda Yatindra, a saint of Adi Shankara tradition, was a spiritual guide when Sivaprakasa entered into sainthood.
From here on his life took a turn, very much like that of Bhagwan Sri Ramana Maharishi. Many scholars and sadhus sat at his feet and received wisdom.
Among those who came to Swami was a young boy, Munuswamy. He radiated the aura of spiritual knowledge and was in search of truth. Earlier, he had been a brilliant student in a missionary school. He came from a poor background and belonged to a scheduled community.
The missionaries, looking at his brilliance, wanted to take him into the Christian fold. They gave him a new name and asked him to get converted. When Munuswamy refused, he was humiliated and made to discontinue his education.
The reason Munuswamy refused to convert was because he was having a strong Hindu spiritual bent of mind.
Soon, he was initiated into Vedantic studies by another spiritual institution which was under the guidance of yet another Karpatri Swami — of Tamil Nadu at that time — Thiruthuruti Indra Peetham Karpatri Satchitananda Maharaj. Here Sri Neelamega Swami trained the young boy, in Vedanta and then asked him to go to Sri Karpatri Sivaprakasa Swami.
Sri Karpatri Sivaprakasa Maharaj got the best talents of Tamil and Sanskrit grammar, Nyaya and Vedanta to teach Munuswamy. Many of those who came to see Karpatri Maharaj were zamindars and the educated power elite of colonial Madras. They were shocked to see this attitude of Swami towards a scheduled community youth. But Swami made him the most intimate disciple to the chagrin of these so-called upper castes.
Murugesa Mudaliyar, an authority then in Nyaya Sastra, was initially reluctant to teach Nyaya to the boy. But Sri Karpatri Maharaj insisted. As the hesitating Mudaliyar started teaching the young boy, he soon realised not only the brilliance of his student but how teaching Munuswamy could benefit the entire society. He later confided with Swami that the very purpose of Mudaliyar learning Nyaya Sastra was fulfilled only by teaching that boy.
Sri Karpatri Maharaj initiated him into the life of renunciation, service and sadhana. He gave Munuswamy the name 'Swami Sahajananda'.
At that time, the concept of colour-based casteism had started percolating into the collective psyche of our people. When a devotee murmured about the dark complexion of Swami Sahajananda, Sri Karpatri Maharaj replied:
What is in colour? Cannot you see his character and intelligence? If colour is the criterion for nobility then the British should be considered as the noblest which is not the case. So bless this boy who is learning and do not judge by colour.
Here, then is an instance of how traditional Vedantic humanism of Hindu nation repudiated the concept of colour-based superiority, mixed with Indian caste.
When some of his disciples asked him that he should get a disciple from a non-scheduled community, and ask Swami Sahajananda to go, Sri Karpatri Sivaprakasa Maharaj replied with his Vedantic satire. "Yes, he should be made to go. He came from somewhere and he will have to go somewhere. He cannot stay."
Then when the casteists started settling down, Swami elaborated to them the futility of caste-based notions. These were superficial affiliations, he said to them. But if one looks deeper, were we all not born of women and are we all not divine in our essence?
From Upanishads to Thirukkural to Manisha Panchakam, he would cite and make the assembled disciples realise the utter stupidity of their caste-based objections to Swami Sahajananda.
When a person questioned, in an offensive way, if the scheduled community children could really study, Sri Karpatri Maharaj simply asked Swami Sahajananda to recite a tough verse and explain its meaning. When Swami Sahajananda did, the person who questioned repented for his folly and declared that jaati etc, were simply artificial constructions.
Sri Karpatri Maharaj had a highly valued copy of Ribhu Gita — then a very rare copy. He had been given that text by his guru. Of all his disciples, it was to Swami Sahajananda that he presented that sacred text. It was a statement of profound significance, both spiritual as well as social.
Sahajananda was a very calm personality but economically poor.
When one made a remark on Swami Sahajananda's poverty, Sri Karpatri Maharaj said that he was actually a very (spiritually) rich person. And when someone made a comment on the young seer being always silent and calm, Sri Karpatri Maharaj stated that Swami Sahajananda was an equivalent of Shankaracharya himself.
Not all his disciples took to such praise of Sahajananda easily. One Natesa Nayakar wrote a letter to Sri Karpatri Maharaj that if he would not send the boy away, Nayakar would be forced to kill Karpatri Maharaj by poison. Even after this letter, Sri Karpatri Maharaj treated Nayakar with love but did not flinch in his love and concern for Swami Sahajananda.
Later, Swami Sahajananda wanted to start social and spiritual institutions to uplift the marginalised and exploited sections of the society at Chidambaram. Naturally, there was opposition. The so-called upper castes wanted to stop such institutions from coming up.
Sri Karpatri Maharaj not only supported the saint but also contacted Paranjothi Swami of an influential Saivite Mutt in Chidambaram. This Swami too was not very favourable with respect to establishment of the institutions. But Sri Karpatri Maharaj convinced him and made him assist Swami Sahajananda in overcoming the opposition as well as in establishing the institutions.
Though born in Veera Saiva family, Sri Karpatri Maharaj was attracted to the legendary Adi Shankara — particularly the implications of Maneesha Panchakam. On every janma thithi of Shankara, Sri Karpatri Maharaj performed a grand puja of Adi Shankaracharya. At Vyasarpadi, Chennai, where he had established a Vedanta Sangha, he also made the sacred idol of the Vedantic sage which was carried in a procession.
Sri Karpatri Sivaprakasa Swamigal attained mahasamadhi in 1918.
One has to note two important points in these events that unfolded in the late nineteenth and twentieth century Tamil Nadu:
One: the upper strata and upper-middle strata of the society that established itself in the key seats of powers divested to Indians by the colonial government, were strongly caste-conscious.
They had developed a hybrid concept of fixed-castes — partly derived from local communities and partly from the race theories of Europe. Most of them were either English-educated or were working closely with the British colonialists. This was the colonised realm of the Hindu mind — to them birth-based caste was central to their social calculus and religious universe.
Secondly: there co-existed a non-colonised Hindu spiritual universe. It had its own network. They interacted and employed the best of traditional knowledge to empower the deprived communities. For this, they relied on Vedanta — whether it was Saiva Siddhanta Advaita or Shankara's monist Vedanta.
It is quite interesting to know that by the end of nineteenth century, indifferent to the Smartha centres traditionally believed to have been established by Shankara, there existed a vibrant, more dynamic and definitely more humanistic Shankara schools of Vedanta.
Incidentally, the scholarly eccentric Sri Karpatri Maharaj of northern India and a few Shankaracharyas as well as some (not all) Dharmacharyas who spoke in favour of untouchability, child marriage, birth-based varna etc, were anchored in the former universe just as how the venerable Sri Karpatri Sivaprakasa Swamigal was anchored in the authentic non-colonised Hindu universe.
Social reformist movement of Hindutva of Veer Savarkar, Guruji Golwalkar Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya and Balasaheb Deoras (1915-1996) as well as the universal Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, should be then seen more as a continuation of Sanatana tradition than a deviation.
In fact, the social reform is more organic and authentic to the true traditional Hindu Dharma than the birth-based, caste-emphasising institutions which call themselves traditional but rely on frozen British caste records.
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