Archive for September, 2015

Swami Dayananda Saraswati – A Rishi of our times

Rarely does one encounter a ‘rishi’ – a ‘seer’ in real life. Swami Dayananda Saraswatis (1930 – 2015) life story is a source of inspiration for all; his vision – wide ranging – and his ability to translate vision to action without attachment – legendary. His commitment to sharing knowledge without any strings attached and to providing food, hospitality (and knowledge) gratis to any seeker cause him to shine as a living example of what we come to know as the upanishadic teaching tradition of yore.

cd_releaseI had been wanting to meet him ever since I read about him in 2004 – while I was finalizing the music score and the script of ‘Shanti – A Journey of Peace’.

My first meeting with him was during the Labor Day weekend of 2004, 11 years ago at the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. I was struck by his sharpness, his presence, and his grasp of everything that anyone uttered and his quick lapse into a conversation on the South Indian Vaggeyakara Dikshitar with me. Above all, I was struck by his accessibility. There was no veneer of protocol that had to be surmounted to even see him. The dress code was casual; the conversation jovial with a profound sense of humor, yet deep. The kids were of course delighted by the 21st century Chocolate prasad that he offered.

I listened to his lecture (titled namaha) on the way back and was just blown away by the clarity of speech – and his razor sharp inquiry into the nature of who we are as human beings – and what our relationship is to all of creation – and our understanding of our interconnectedness with it all.

My second visit to the ashram in 2005 blew me away even more – as he remembered who I was with the comment ‘How is your choir work going? How is your research on Dikshitar’s music?”. This was an amazing feat for a septuagenarian meeting thousands of people each month – to remember after a whole year details regarding a person he had met just once.

My annual trips to the ashram continued and Swamiji always had time for a long conversation with me regarding my research on the life and music of Muthuswami Dikshitar. He even had insight into spurious compositions that pass off as Dikshitar originals.

I was touched and honored by the fact that we were invited to present ‘Shanti – A Journey of Peace’ as the celebration concert at the culmination of fund raising efforts in 2008 and as part of a fund raising effort for Aim for Seva in Houston in 2010. He released the Indian edition of ‘Vismaya – The nottusvara Sahityas of Dikshitar’ that I had recorded with Vidita Kanniks at a colorful celebration at Narada Gana Sabha – with a galaxy of veteran Karnatic musicians on stage and in the audience.

I am always inspired by the energy and the air of positivism that pervades the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. Even in his 80s Swamiji was an inspiring leader. He had no fancy titles. He called himself a teacher of Vedanta in the Indian teaching tradition. He sold no product or technique. His vision was one of bringing awareness of this deep knowledge of the self and the Indian cultural heritage that preserved this learning tradition.

And how did he translate vision into action? Swamiji was a catalyst in the emergence of three ashrams (Saylorsburg USA, Anaikkatti – Tamilnadu and Rishikesh in the Himalayas). He has personally taught and trained several students in the Vedantic mold and has created a galaxy of teachers. He was clear in his communication – with a deft command over English, Tamil and Sanskrit; he didn’t hesitate to speak in Hindi or Telugu when the audience needed it. He has lectured tirelessly all over the world; teachers trained by him continue the teaching tradition in such far flung places as Mauritius.

His efforts to sustain sampradaya have resulted in the rejuvenation of vernacular liturgy – The Tevaram in Tamil, the renovation of several temples and the restoration of the community building chariot festival in Tiruvidaimarudur, the building of several educational institutions and the establishment of several student homes all across India to provide access to children to primary education. His Hindu-Jewish summits and his initiatives in creating a body of Hindu chaplains and scholars will bear fruits in the decades to come. All this rich legacy is left behind by a monk without any belonging to call his own!

His childlike enthusiasm and energy are infectious and they belie his depth of knowledge in Vedanta, physics, geography, history, medicine and several other subjects. He was a master of his body and mind. A pair of malfunctioning kidneys and a body that relied on mandatory biweekly dialysis did not stand in the way of his activity.

There are two gifts from him that I will cherish forever. The first is his wholehearted praise of Vidita Kanniks’ rendition (then a 10 year old child) of my composition ‘Santatam Chintaye Sankaram’. The second is his gift of a canvas portrait of the 19th century Karnatic Music Composers Tyagaraja/Swama Sastri/Dikshitar – as reproduced from their family portraits (these portraits precede S Rajam’s 20th century portraits of these composers).

Apart from these, I stand moved by his clarity of expression and the distinctions that he elucidated. For instance he defined faith as “something that you believe in that is subject to correction upon verification”. How much more rational could you get? He stressed the importance of inquiry as opposed to blind acceptance of what is told. I am moved by his non-parochial translation of works such as the Vishnu sahasranamam; his lectures on ‘Upanishads in a nutshell’; his clearcut definition of terms such as Ishwara/bhagawan and more and the non-equivalence of these words to the Biblical terminology of ‘God’ to which they are commonly mistranslated.

His life is to be celebrated. The fact that we got to spend time with him is to be celebrated. We will no doubt miss his physical presence. But we have a lifetime to fathom his legacy and take it forward.

Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran

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September 23, 2015 at 2:30 pm 1 comment


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