Senior pontiff and Pejawar seer Shree Vishwesha Theertha Swami breathed his last on Sunday morning after multiple organ failure. With his demise, India has lost one of its most loved and compassionate voices. He was 88.
Known for his crusades against social ills, young Venkataramana, the name given to him by his parents, was ordained into asceticism in December 1938 at the tender age of seven.
Vishwesha Theertha Swami has served five paryayas (a religious ritual of Udupi Krishna puja every two years, that transfers power from one of the eight pontiffs to another), one more than Vadiraja Theertha of Sodhe Mutt, the 15th-century seer and Dvaita scholar, a fact that bothered the pontiff so much so that he served his fifth paryaya with a junior pontiff so as not to overtake Vadiraja. He is the only pontiff to have ascended the ‘Paryaya Peetha’ or the Paryaya throne five times ever since the system was brought into practice in 1522, having undertaken his last paryaya in 2016.
The pontiff was an influential public figure, who was also politically active. Known as a reformist seer with Gandhian principles, he visited Dalit colonies, back when it was considered taboo by Hindu society and undertook initiatives to reform backward Hindu practices of untouchability. He set up hospitals and ashrams for the poor and the underprivileged and campaigned against cow
He was also known for his social initiatives in education, most notable of which is the founding and establishment of Poornaprajna Vidyapeetha, Bangalore’s school for Vedic studies in 1956. The initial years of Vidyapeetha would see the pontiff parade the neighbourhood seeking alms to feed the young scholars at the school. Today, the traditional gurukula boasts of a library with over 20,000 books in Sanskrit, two fully equipped hostels, with many of the pontiff’s own students serving as faculty.
He courted controversy recently for welcoming people from the Muslim community into the Udupi Krishna Mutt for the observance of Iftar during the month of Ramadan, receiving blowback from the more stringent factions of his own community, but the pontiff’s response was steadfast. He said that his main objective was to forge peace and harmony between people belonging to all religions. By his own account, members of the orthodoxy considered him radical and revolutionary, while intellectuals considered him reactionary.
He once stated that his life’s work was to find the middle path between these two extremes.
The gentle giant
To his devotees, Vishwesha Theertha was the very epitome of the divine. The news of his unplanned visit to a village in Rajasthan when his vehicle broke down spread like wildfire, and devotees from far and wide landed up to meet the “Sant from the south who was camping on the riverbank”. A practitioner of yoga from a young age, he was known to have climbed the Parashu Theertha in Kunjarugiri hills, the highest of the theerthas that legend says was one of the five created by Parashurama’s axe. Known to be taxing to even people in their prime, the pontiff is reported to have scaled the peak effortlessly several times.
Once during the branding of mudras on to one’s skin that is practised among Madhwa Brahmins, the pontiff branded himself before branding a child so the child wouldn’t feel the heat as much, says a devotee.
Small of stature and gentle by nature, he was much more than just a pontiff: he was a true progressive who opened the doors of the Mutt to non-Hindus, ordained women into sanyas (the most famous being Uma Bharti), had enduring faith in humanity and leaves behind a 80-year legacy of kindness and compassion for man and beast alike.