Swami Mathurananda Centenary Year Begins: The Saint Who Re-Energised Dharma In India's Southern-Most Tip
Working in Kanyakumari, Swami Mathurananda provided spiritual, intellectual and practical vigour to the observance of dharma.
14 Aprill 2022 is his birth centenary.
Political pundits analysing Tamil Nadu often wonder about the critical Hindu unity witnessed in the Kanyakumari district. Whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins assembly or Parliament elections or not, there is always an underlying Hindu unity here.
One can say that there is a 'common minimum Hindu unity' which cannot be overlooked by any political party. Often, the pundits attribute it to the dominance of radical Christianity in the region.
But that does not explain the entire truth. While Christian aggression is true, it has evolved in its manifestation over the decades. The Catholic church and the most evangelical of the Protestant diocese have stopped attacking Hinduism directly. Instead, they have started concentrating on increasing their stranglehold on the secular institutions and discourse. The new generation of the Kanyakumari district may not even know the sordid events surrounding the 1982 riots and the Christian opposition to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, etc. Yet, a consolidated Hindu awareness which permeates society, culture and politics can be seen in the district.
An important reason for this is the network of Samaya Vahuppu (spiritual classes) that runs through the villages and towns of the district.
During the 1970s, there were aggressive proselytising and intimidation of Hindus in the district. Not just the clergy but even ordinary Christians took pleasure in demeaning Hindu customs and traditions. If a Hindu wore vibhuti, he or she would be subjected to ridicule. Usually this torment started with questioning the meaning of a custom or festival, which then led to slandering of Hinduism and an assertion of the superiority of Christianity. Hindus who did not know much about their own religion would fall silent in shame or stop practising the 'visible' traditions of their religion.
However, Samaya Vahuppu changed all that.
At the centre of this phenomenon was Sri Vivekananda Ashram of Vellimalai, a small hillock with a Murugan temple at its top. The ashram had unbelievably humble origins.
A student from what is today Kanyakumari district was studying in a college in Madras (now Chennai) in 1897, the year a reception was accorded to a sanyasi who had returned from the West. The college student was impressed by this sanyasi and caught up with him during a morning walk on the Madras beach. That meeting with (sanyasi) Swami Vivekananda transformed student Mathuranayakam Pillai.
Later he obtained charnamrut from Sarada Devi and became Swami Ambananda. On the auspicious day of Thai Pusam, he started an ashram in Kanyakumari's Vellimalai — a lonely place infested with snakes and wild creatures at that time.
In 1951, a few months before he attained mahasamadhi, a young boy who had finished his graduation visited him. The 29-year-old Subbiah Pillai became Swami Mathurananda and on succeeding Swami Ambananda, Swami Mathurananda became the head of the ashram.
During his student days, Subbiah Pillai along with his pursuit of spirituality immersed himself in the freedom struggle. (See the photo below where he is holding the tricolour and participating in a 1945 procession celebrating the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi). He graduated in philosophy and could have landed plum government jobs, but he had no such desires.
Swami was a true sanyasi. His spiritual aura let anyone who came in contact with him feel his magnificence. His austere appearance exuded a mighty spiritual personality, and many approached him for spiritual advice and to experience peace.
Swami always set off on spiritual yatras with other great mendicants of his age. Accompanied by Swami Abedhananda of Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) as early as 1957, before the Chinese occupation of Kailash, Swami Mathurananda visited Kailash. It was then a dangerous and tedious journey. Not many were in favour of him taking this trip. Later, when asked what was it that he gained by such a tedious trip, he answered that it was the experience of Sivoham.
Swami never revealed his spiritual experiences to others. Yet, in some conversations it was divulged like the one cited above.
He was also a master of traditional poetry. His poems were all devotional hymns to the gods, goddess and to the Holy Trinity of Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda. From one of the poems, we learn that when he had doubts in the Upanishads and Gita, he had a vision of Mother Sarada who clarified the doubts. He also met Bhagwan Sri Ramana Maharishi.
For Swami, spirituality and social service were not different. He was pained by the ignorance of dharma prevalent in the dharmic society. He started giving lectures and encouraged Gita classes. By late 1970s and early 1980s, many Gita classes were being held on Sundays, mainly for the adults. Out of these, Swami created the Samaya Vahuppu for children.
Young teachers well versed in the basic knowledge of Hindu Dharma taught children. Swami crafted the textbooks for different stages of Samaya Vahuupu — from primary to graduation. The graduates called Vidya Jothis then started taking spiritual classes for children, conducting pujas in temples, counselling, offering prayers for bereaved families, and offering their services during calamities.
In 1981, with his blessings, the ‘Hindu Youth Movement’ was started which provided the youths with sat sanghs and knowledge of Hinduism.
Meanwhile, Swami Chidbavananda had introduced a initiative called ‘Antar Yoga’, a one-day spiritual exercise for families. Families attended spiritual discourses, bhajans and meditation. This was a phenomenal, cost-effective ‘spiritual retreat’ in modern terms but something which the middle class and lower middle classes could afford, and which attracted Hindus from all strata of society.
Vellimalai Sri Vivekananda Ashram became a centre for many such ‘Antar Yoga’ camps. Families of nearby villages with their children attended these sessions and received lectures on dharma in the simplest terms and language.
Dr Pa Arunachalam, a retired Tamil and a formidable Saiva Siddhanta scholar from Malaysia, who had settled in Nagercoil, gave scintillating lectures.
Someone who walked throughout the network of villages in the district, even to the remotest of every Samaya Vahuppu, and gifted the nectar of the Gita, was Sri N Krishnamurthy — the editor of Viveka Vani of Vivekananda Kendra. An MTech in Geology from IIT, and having worked with Geological Survey of India, he was with Acharya Vinoba and later came to the Vivekananda Kendra. A great scholar of Gita, and who lives its Vedanta in his everyday life, Swami Mathurananda cherished him in his heart and harnessed his wisdom for the benefit of every Hindu child in the district.
Another self-effacing person was ‘Tulsi’ Ram, who used to translate every spiritual classic into Tamil verses melodiously, lucidly and without diluting the meaning. His translation of Bhagavad Gita into Tamil verses was a phenomenon in the history of translations.
The great scholar Dr Iravatham Mahadevan, who was a patron of Vivekananda Kendra, was surprised to read the translation and commented that it had retained and reproduced the very tone and magnificence of the original verses. Swami Mathurananda and Vivekananda Kendra used these verses in their classes. So, children not only memorised the Sanskrit original verses but also committed to memory the Tamil translations of ‘Tulsi’ Ram.
In 1984, Kanyakumari district saw the flowering of Hindu Dharma Vidya Peeth because of the efforts of Swami Mathurananda.
Samaya Vahuppu was not just about religious classes like in the Sunday Bible schools. It provided children an in-depth odyssey into the diverse spiritual mansions of dharma. The texts provide Tamil spiritual literature of Nayanmar and Alwar along with verses from the Upanishads and Gita. The children learn also about patriots and social reformers.
Creating such a series of textbooks in the 1980s from a remote corner of Kanyakumari district out of a far-flung ashram with no proper electricity and no assured financial assistance, Swami Mathurananda took the knowledge of dharma to every willing child in the Kanyakumari district.
From practical Vedanta to patriotism, the movement provided children with the core knowledge base of dharma. If they decided to pursue it further, they could become Vidya Jothis.
Today, the graduation ceremony of Vidya Jothis is a grand event and conducting of exams for Vidya Jothis is an event important enough to be reported in newspapers. A person with Vidya Jothi degree, even if not recognised by any formal university, is accepted with respect and love by the communities.
The Swami attained mahasamadhi in the year 1999 on 2 June.
The impact of the Samaya Vahuppu phenomenon can be gauged from the fact that even during the civil war in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka asked Swami Chaitanyananda, who succeeded Swami Mathurananda, to provide religious education in the strife-torn places of the island nation. Swami Chaitanyananda and a team of Mathurannada bhaktas obliged.
Swami Mathurananda was born on 14 April 1922.
This year is the centenary year of this great sage who singularly blessed us with a map for a fundamental transformation of Tamil Nadu into the land of dharma, once again.
(Photos: courtesy Dr Sidharth Parivallal, Puducherry)
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