The swami and his disciples

The demise of Jayendra Saraswathi in the Kanchi Kamakoti peetam takes me back to a sunny morning in May, 1992. The pontiff was camping in the "matham" in Bangalore and I was assigned to interview him. It was a turbulent time with Ayodhya on everybody's mind.

I reached his place at 7 am with a photographer in tow. We were taken to the second floor where the Sankaracharya was camping. We found him reclining on a wooden bed, eating his breakfast of nuts and milk. He waved me to a corner of the bed and continued eating. It was the strangest interview ever, with the photographer standing at a deferential distance, taking candid pictures, while the Sankaracharya offered me small pieces of jaggery and nuts from his bowl.

"Eat them," he said. "They are very good for breaking a fast."

He spoke with conviction on Ayodhya and everything else. I asked him the usual question of how to resolve this issue of the temple and mosque.

"Keep the politicians out," he said briefly. Then added: "If you give me a week, I will solve it."

His strategy was remarkable.

"I will take my begging bowl to the Imam of the masjid and plead with him to allow us to worship our god."

"And you are sure he will agree", I asked.

"Without doubt," came the swift answer.

It was a great interview lasting a full 60 minutes. There was a lead story the following Sunday with the Sankaracharya's photo splashed across half the page. I knew my subject would feel very happy. Armed with a copy of this newspaper, I went to the matham again.

Just as I was about to climb the staircase, a young brahmachari stopped me.

"Women not allowed," he said.

I told him the "periyavar" was expecting me and started climbing the stairs. He was there before me with two more brahmacharis guarding an iron gate.

"Women not allowed," they chorused.

Before I could explain why I had come, a host of saffron-clad, ash-smeared priests rushed out shouting "Who allowed a woman here?" and to me "Go away, go away" while throwing vessels of water around to purify the ground I had stepped on.

Shocked and humiliated, I shot back angrily: "I have interviewed your periyavar only yesterday in his room! Why didn't you stop me then?"

Before they could react, there was a sudden silence. The iron gate opened and there stood the junior Sankaracharya, Vijayendra Saraswathi. His disciples immediately threw themselves on the floor prostrating in total silence.

"Come in, please," he said with a smile."Periyavar is waiting for you."

I found Jayendra Saraswathi calmly eating his breakfast He waved me to sit on his bed like before and offered me nuts and jaggery again as if nothing had happened.

Still seething with anger, I told him "your disciples tried to push me out of this place!"

"Remember what I told you yesterday about Ayodhya?" he grinned.

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