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Reminiscences of A Tanjavur Brahmin!!!

“Only thing that is permanent in this world is the impermanence of all things material including our bodies”

Lord Buddha

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My parents were not very orthodox in their countenance or rituals. My father had a cropped head and wore dhoti in the normal style and not as panchakacham except during auspicious occasions or amavasya or shradha days. Since he was working in the railways at irregular time shifts even his eating patterns were not very regular. He did a quick sandhyavandanam in the morning and evening, did achamaniyam before taking food, all in an abridged fashion. My maternal grandfather had all the brahminical traits, a sikha in the head, panchakacham dhoti, a three tiered vibuthi forehead and was always chanting some slokas. My mother wore always her 9 yards saree in “madisar”. Since my upanayanam was performed only when I was 15 years old and I was already busy with my studies in college I did not observe all the daily rituals of a brahmin excepting when some seniors were around to show off. I did abhivathaye to the elders with a shastanga namaskaram. One major advantage , I had thanks to my father , was that I chose Sanskrit as my second language and Tamil as the third language in my class VI until Class XI ( SSLC) in those days while the medium of instruction for all subjects was in tamil. I continued study of sanskrit in my intermediate (two year course) in St. Josph’s college in Trichy . I was in the pre 10+2+3 system. It was 11+ 2+ 2 for a bachelor’s degree and, 11+2+3 for an honour’s degree and 11+2+4 for a Master’s degree though the honors’ students can get their master’s degree automatically after the lapse of an year. I did schooling from Class VI to XI at Mayavaram during 1944-49, mathematics honors course at Trichy from 1951-54

My parents:--- Sri N. Krishnamurthy Iyer and Smt. P . Avayambal Ammal

My father did not know sanskrit but bought me a book on Gita and on Vishnusahasranamam when I was 15.. He was a great devotee of Lord Venkateswara and we used to go Tirupathy every year with the whole family usually for a mundan of the youngest child. Since ours was a large family with very limited income we had acute financial problems all the time with 7 children, all going to school or college. We had no electricity nor furniture in the house until I was 18 , after we moved to Tambaram to a bigger railway quarters. Being the eldest, studying in college without adequate space or facilities in the house my father knew the difficulties I was going through and encouraged me to read Vishnu sahasranamam every day. I knew it by heart. Similarly he also encouraged me to read Bhagawat Gita and I also knew all the slokas by heart, one time. I was blessed by a good memory.

My interest in Sanskrit continued after my college days and even during my post graduate studies and research in India and abroad and till date. I have studied most of the Upanishadic works of Sankara and other great seers of this country. I was not that much ritually inclined except that I visit Tirupathy Balaji temple regularly ( Lord Venkateswara being my Ishta devata) and my village deities off and on.

In my opinion the ritualistic part of brahminism including nithya karmas, visiting temples regularly, pithru karmas ( tarpanam, shraddham etc) and obligations to the community and acharyas have declined over the years since 1960s and continuing to decline both among the residual brahmin community in India and those migrated to other countries. These generations, I call them, BBO’s or “ Brahmins by Birth Only” and I can frankly say that I am one of them and I have to share some responsibility. But one good thing is happening; and that is interest in Vedanta and Upanishads especially on the advaita philosophy. It is considered as a philosophical anchor for unifying all humanity, irrespective of race, religion, caste and community. Advaita gives a solid philosophical basis for humanizing mankind and generating compassion in the hearts of all human beings without which man will kill his own fellow beings in the name of affiliations to nationality, religion, caste or community.. Even in the 1960’s when I went to Harvard for my Master’s degree in public health and when I had to go through serious health problems the slokas of Gita, and atmabodh and bhajagovindam of sankara pulled me through. When you start seeing divinity in all human beings and, the world as stage in which actors come and go , attachments to material goods and blood relationships slowly decline and you get into a state of samatwa or stability. I cannot say that I have reached the perfect state of “stithapragna” described in the Gita but I am on the road to this. Surprisingly many great seers and spiritual leaders from other religions are also drawn to this principle of realizing the oneness of all life at the deepest level and man’s ability and need to realize this oneness like Eckhart Tolle, Mooji, Pappaji in addition to our own seers as Maha Periaval,Raman Maharishi, Nisarga Datta Guru Maharaj, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda , Shirdi Sai Baba and many others who are still present with us. Brahmins are shifting in large numbers from ritualistic traditions to Vedanta. I know of many young IIT graduates becoming Sanyasins in their ‘twenties and ‘thirties and preaching the essentials of Vedanta and Upanishads and Gita in India and abroad. Crass pursuit of materialism will only divide the world between “haves” and “have nots” and cannot unify them. The basis for unification of human beings and peace in the world is humanism and realization of underlying essential principle of divine consciousness in all life forms and this is found in Vedanta and the steps to realize it is also available in the Upanishads. The first verse of Ishopanishad “Isavasyam idham Sarvam , Yat Kintcha Jagatyam Jagat, thena thyakthena bunjhitha ma grita kasyachit dhanam” ( The whole universe is fused with underlying divinity, whether outwardly it appears to be minuscule or big, and those who do not attach to the material things realize and enjoy this oneness, covet not others wealth”) . Mahjatma Gandhi thought so highly of this verse that he remarked, "If all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live for ever."

My opinion is that we should encourage brahmin boys, as my father did when I was 14 or 15, to read the works of Sankara, Eckhart Tolle and others and pursue their own spiritual path and evolve themselves rather than sticking to a parampara of rituals which are difficult to follow in the modern competitive world and which they will definitely discard some time or other. Following rituals and discriminating Brahmins from others will lead only to more problems for the brahmin boys than helping them in their lives.

Mahaperiyava Darshan

The first direct meeting I had with the Kanchee seer, Sri. Chandrasekhar Saraswathi Swamigal (Mahaperiaval) was in 1971 when I came from Bangkok where I was working with the United Nations office ( ECAFE) at that time to fix the marriage of younger brother ( Parity 5) and with the marriage invitation we went to see him and take his blessings.He was in a small village near Conjeevaram, staying in a hut adjacent to a well, He was not in good health, had probably fever and he was lying on the floor with a number of tablets strewn around him. I asked his assistant on his problem and he said that he was suffering from stomach ache but not taking any medicines. Since he was not seeing anyone the small crowd that came to see him was dispersing and we were also planning to get back home. As we, my parents, brother, sister and myself were about to move away he got up and asked me “who are you”. I said that I was grandson of Sri. S.V. Panchapakesa Iyer, who was his elementary school teacher in Villupuram or a nearby village. This gave him a jerk of memory and he asked me what I am doing. I said that I working with the United Nations at Bangkok and I have come to Chennai to fix the marriage of my younger brother and come to seek his blessings. He seemed to have got back his energy and asked me many questions about Thailand and Bangkok. After these discussions which lasted for more than half an hour he gave us his blessings and we were about to move away. Suddenly looking at me straight in my eyes he asked me whether I can do him a help. I obviously said ‘ yes’ without knowing what was coming. He said that his friend, an elderly orthodox Brahmin priest is having an acute stomach problem and he had to undergo surgery. He needed Rs 300 urgently and it will be good if I can go to the village where he was staying and give him the money. The village he was staying was Edayathumangalam, near Lalgudi and I have to go there by train. My program was to return to Bangkok by flight from Chennai by Trident via Colombo the next day. I had some hesitation but later I said yes, planning to give some reason for my delayed arrival at Bangkok to my boss. As I was about to go back home , the crowd has gathered to see Mahaperiaval. The person next to me was a typical south Indian Brahmin in panchakatcham dhoti giving the marriage invitation of his daughter to the seer and seeking his blessings. Lo and behold he was the Tashildar from Edayathumangalam and the seer looked at me with a whimsical smile and told me that the Tashildar would do the work requested of me and I can go back to my work at Bangkok without any qualms. I was dumbfounded and was amazed by the clairvoyant powers of the seer.

The next time I met him was in 1975 when I returned to India on an assignment at Bangalore. He was talking to me freely and expressed his desire to erect a good monument to honor the scientists of India at Mahabalipuram and asked me to convey this desire to Mr. R. Venkataraman, who later became the President of India. I promptly did it visiting his earlier Kotturpuram residence --- but for some reason this did not come through. To continue and complete this desire of Maha Periaval will be a great contribution to India and Tamil Nadu.

Special moments

My Sashtiabdapurthi function at Tirupathi in 1995

Duruing Kumbabishekam of Ayyar Temple at Kanthamangalam village in March 2017

Grahapravesam of my daughter’s house in Pallikarnai in November 2016 with my brother and sister.

Article Courtesy:

K. Srinivasan, National Fellow ( ICSSR) & Emeritus Professor, International Institute for Population Sciences, Deonar, Mumbai, India, 400 088

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