Precious pontiff: Swami at the twice-daily prayer meeting with students
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How a 105-year-old swami and his followers are creating a 21st century spiritual and educational legacy that remains faithful to a 700-year-old past



LOCATED NEAR THE TOWN OF TUMKUR, an hour and a half from Bengaluru, Siddaganga Math is among the foremost Lingayat maths (home of the guru) in Karnataka. Its revered 105-year-old seer, Sree Sree Dr. Shivakumara Swami, has steered a revolution in affordable education for millions of poor students. Indefatigable to this day, Swamiji follows a grueling schedule of worship, work, teaching and administration, putting in over 20 hours a day seeing to the welfare of the 10,500 children housed at his math, serving thousands of devotees and overseeing the math’s many educational institutions.

History and lineage

The math’s 700-year history begins with the 14th-century sage Prabhu Gosala Siddeshwara Swami. Legend has it that while meditating at a dry, rocky hill which was home to many siddhas (mystics), he found a yogi in a cave suffering from thirst and calling out to God for help. Using his yogic power, Swami pressed his knee to the rock and created a spring in the cave, thereby alleviating the yogi’s suffering and giving the hill its name, Siddaganga. Swami later founded the math which shares that name.

Portrait of a steadfast saint
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Siddaganga Math is a Virakta Peetha, where each successor is chosen from the eligible sannyasis rather than from the pontiff’s blood relatives. It is dedicated to three forms of dasoha (sharing or charity)—anna dasoha (food), jnana dasoha (knowledge) and vidya dasoha (education). The anna dasoha tradition of feeding the poor was introduced long ago by Adavi Swami; today thousands are fed daily. The vidya dasoha culture was introduced when Adavi Swami’s successor, Uddhana Swami, started a Sanskrit gurukula in 1917 so that all children, irrespective of caste or religion, could learn our scriptures; now nearly 7,000 students belonging to all castes pursue Sanskrit studies here. Uddhana Swami’s successor, Dr. Shivakumara Swami, the current pontiff, is also deeply committed to providing education for the poor, and he has often walked 15 miles a day in the service of jnana dasoha, spreading the message of Veerashaiva dharma and Siddaganga Math to the surrounding villages.

Overseeing the harvest; schoolboys gather cooked rice for a feeding
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The training of a pontiff

Parameshwarappa is a retired chief engineer and close devotee who spends a lot of time with Dr. Shivakumara Swami. “Uddhana Swami was a hard taskmaster,” he notes. “Shivakumara Swami had to perform all the chores and tasks at the math, besides attending to his guru and learning. One afternoon, returning from the hill exhausted from collecting firewood in the scorching sun, he retired for a brief nap. On learning the young monk was resting, Uddhana Swami summoned him. ‘Did I bring you here and give you sannyas so you could sleep in the afternoon? A sannyasi should not sleep during the day; it is against sannyasa dharma.’ Swamiji endured this grueling training unswervingly for 11 years, from 1930 to 1941.” To this day, 82 years later, Dr. Shivakumara Swami follows his guru’s instructions in toto and has passed on the same values to his successor.

Where service flows from love of God Siva

DR. SHIVAKUMARA SWAMI IS HAILED AS A WALKING GOD. A practitioner of ashtanga yoga, he is a strict disciplinarian who works tirelessly over 20 hours a day, from 2 am till past 11 pm. Without any assistance, he performs the rigorous three-hour Ishtalinga Puja in the morning, the afternoon puja and the evening puja. “Puja gives strength to life and new chaitanya (higher consciousness),” Swamiji says. “In spite of modernization and new lifestyles, puja is the primary essence of our tradition and culture, our foundation to leading a good, purposeful, spiritual life. We must unfailingly adhere to it.”

He lives a frugal lifestyle: no fancy gadgets or cars, no pomp or show. His food habits are meager, and he eats only after worshiping his Siddalinga. If he misses his pujas due to travel, he fasts completely, without even water, even for two full days.

Swamiji makes himself available to each of the thousands of devotees who come to Siddaganga every day from near and far. If not in his chamber, he reclines on a cot in the open verandah outside, where he remains for hours at a stretch until all devotees have had darshan. Devotees throng the math till late at night, even 11 pm, and no one returns home without his blessings. They have faith that their problems will be alleviated with his blessings. “There are innumerable instances when people have had their wishes fulfilled or problems have vanished and health improved,” says Renukaradhya, a senior devotee serving the math.

Swami offers flowers during his daily Sivapuja
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To Swamiji, children are God; he places their well-being and development above all else. Whenever he finds time, he teaches the children Sanskrit and English. His face and eyes light up with joy when he is among them. He gave up drinking milk because it would deprive the children of buttermilk. He practiced walking silently, worried the sound of his wooden sandals would wake the sleeping children. He ensures that the children receive all the warmth and caring of a home and never feel they came from a destitute background. “Even when he is among dignitaries,” says Parameshwarappa, “if a child approaches him, he gives all his attention to the child. Recently during a function he was walking to the dais with the President of India. He called me and instructed me to give some money he had left at his table to a student who would come for it, a young man who had to remit his exam fees.”

Swamiji’s calendar is astounding. On average he attends 15 padapujas a day (reverential bathing of his feet by devotees), up to 30 during festivals. There is no fixed donation for the seva; he has instructed his staff not to charge a fee for any seva or seek money from devotees. “He accepts even ten rupees,” says Shivarudraiah.

Swami travels out of Tumkur and goes for three or four padapujas continuously, not taking even a morsel of food till he returns to the math, no matter what the time. Renukaradhya explains that “the padapuja brings in more devotees to the math, and charity naturally follows, which will help the children. Even a swami has to earn the prasad he consumes, his guru told him. Swamiji believes in earning his food so long as his body is able.”

Swamiji is a voracious reader and does not waste a minute. “He reads throughout the journey without break. At times for hours together he doesn’t shift his position or take his eyes off what he is reading,” says Veerabhadraiah.

I asked Swamiji the secret of his longevity. He gave a mischievous laugh. “If indeed there were a secret, how can one reveal a secret?” His elderly devotees told me his disciplined ways and dedication are the secret of his long life. Dr. Vijayalakshmi attempted to explain: “Our rishi munis lived a very long life, spanning 150, 160 years. Now our lifespan is shorter because of mechanization and modern lifestyle. We are less active, while stress and strain are increased. Swamiji follows the two tenets of Veerashaivism, kayaka and dasoha. He believes in working endlessly and performs service to mankind as seva to God. He has no desire and eats very frugally. He lives for others and has surrendered himself to service. That is the secret of his longevity.”

Sree Sree Dr. Sivakumara Swami is the personification of Siddaganga Math. He inspires all who encounter him. Thousands of children growing under his shadow watch him closely and are motivated to serve and live a virtouos life. No wonder he is called Living God.

Even in those early days Swamiji was intellectually curious and erudite, holding graduate degrees in Sanskrit, Kannada and English. In 1965 he was given an honorary Doctorate in Literature by the prestigious Karnatak University. He taught mathematics, Sanskrit and English at the Siddaganga institutions for 65 years, until the age of 90. Knowing the value of education, especially in this modern age, he has passionately steered the math to bring education to those who cannot otherwise afford it.

Educating the Underprivileged

Growing from the tiny Sanskrit gurukula founded by Uddhana Swami, today Siddaganga runs 132 institutions, ranging from primary school to engineering colleges. Barring a few, most provide free education; priority is given to the lowest strata of society. If a student is unable to pay, the donation and even the fees are often waived.

Holy scribe: Swami takes great care inscribing personal prayers on copper leaves, which devotees cherish
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Millions of indigent students have received free shelter and education at Siddaganga institutions. The math runs 29 free hostels and orphanages in Karnataka and three more in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. More than 45,000 students—from kindergarten to post-graduate, professional and pedagogic schools—study in its various branches.

Swamiji is determined that the most eligible of the poor get this opportunity and use it well. At the beginning of each academic year, he screens nearly a thousand applications and personally interviews parents of the selected children. During the year, he makes surprise visits to the hostel to exhort lazing students to study.

Many of the math’s protegés have risen to positions of acclaim, both in government and society, and often return to serve the guru. Siddaganga’s alumni association presently has 50,000 members.

Retired professor Veerabadraiah, who taught here for 36 years, is one of those who has returned to serve. “We have seen Swamiji lift stones and gravel for construction,” he recalls. “He has worked so hard to nurture and look after us. He has cooked food for the students and served them personally. There is no work he has not done. He has brought up all of us and the institution by his hard work. We came here with nothing and have reached high positions in life. All the children of Siddaganga employees have received education to the highest level they can reach. Once a person steps into Siddaganga, he’s on the road to prosperity, especially in the values he imbibes.”

The math’s jnana dasoha centers around lectures, discourses by scholars and religious heads, recitations of Vachanas (Veerasaiva sacred writings) and events highlighting our Hindu traditions and Sanatana Dharma. Every day 10,000 students assemble at 6am for puja and prayer. Swamiji unfailingly sits through the half-hour rites and blesses the students. In the evening he again attends the prayer and talks to students about dharma, tradition and culture. The math also promotes spiritually oriented cultural activities; guided by Swamiji, the Siddaganga drama group enthralls people with performances based on the lives and philosophies of the Veerashaiva saints.

Swamiji keeps tabs on every activity, every visitor and all matters related to each and every project. He inspects the kitchen, store room and dining room several times a day to ensure hygiene is maintained and the children are well looked after. Siddaganga Math provides health care, not only to its students but to many who come seeking help.

Presumptive successor: Like those before him, Sree Sree Siddalinga Swami has been rigorously tested and trained
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The math has been criticized for its involvement in politics. Lingayat politicians do visit the math often; as Parameshwarappa explains, it is only natural that they seek their guru’s grace and blessings for all their ventures and when they face problems. “But Swamiji does not engage in any political conversation. He would give them general advice on good conduct and good governance.”


Dr. Shivakumara Swami has trained his presumptive successor, Sree Sree Siddalinga Swami, just as he was trained by Uddhana Swami. And though Swamiji has never left India, he recently sent his successor to Australia and the US, explaining that since he will have to carry on the math’s activities in this modern age, he must see the world, broaden his experience and learn.

For Karnataka’s less fortunate people, Siddaganga Math is a welcome boon, an oasis of learning amidst illiteracy and poverty. Swamiji speaks sanguinely of the math’s future: “It was my guru who inspired me on this path. I am only continuing his work. I have confidence in my successors; they will take this work forward. Our goal is to serve and to uplift the children.”

“My encounter with Shivakumara Swami”


WHEN MY MOTHER MENTIONS SHE IS TRAVELING TO SIDDAGANGA, I eagerly join her so I can meet the 105-year-old pontiff I have known only from television and newspapers.

It is 8am on a cloudy Saturday morning when we drive into the bustling village of Kyatsandra. The steady morning traffic of working people streams past. The narrow lane becomes a pleasant, tree-lined boulevard thronged with groups of schoolchildren and passersby in traditional attire. Soon we sight ahead of us the famed Siddaganga Math, nestled below Siddaganga hill. Painted in large letters on that imposing backdrop are the edicts “Kaayakave kailasa,” meaning hard work leads to heaven, and “God is one, the faithful call Him by many names.”

Entering the math, we pass through a sea of excited, smartly dressed young children carrying books and chalk slates. Their holidays are beginning, and they are about to leave for their hometowns. Many parents have already arrived, dressed in traditional North Karnataka garb. A large group of boys listen attentively as their teacher advises them how to live well and utilize their vacations fruitfully.

Shown into Dr. Shivakumara Swami’s chambers, where devotees come to seek his blessings, we behold a beautiful marble murti of a meditating Siva. Seated in a large cushioned chair behind an ornate wooden desk, Swamiji’s presence fills the room, belying his small frame. Spiritual books line one end of his desk.

Swamiji’s sharp eyes regularly dart towards the glass door to ensure that no devotee is kept waiting outside. No one is turned away; no gatekeepers bar access or control the devotees. Math administrators mill about, discussing official matters with the pontiff, but Swamiji’s first thought is always for his devotees: if a devotee seeks his blessings, everything else is put aside.

Authors: Choodie Shivaram and son Skanda Prasad with HINDUISM TODAY editor in Bengaluru
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This year the monsoon rains have been inadequate, causing severe drought; local farmers’ crops are failing. A television crew is seeking a message from Swamiji to provide strength and solace to the farmers. Someone hands Swamiji a small cue card. He glances at it but speaks unscripted, exhorting the suffering farmers not to despair, but to face with courage an unavoidable natural calamity that, he assures them, will pass. He reminds them of their duty to their families and asks them not to take any extreme steps (perhaps a reference to the high suicide rate among this group).

Swamiji seems almost unaffected by age. His back is bent, but his strength and alertness are undiminished. I find his gaze piercing and alert, and note he reads the newspaper without glasses. His answers to our many questions are straight and lucid.

Noticing another clan of devotees gathered at the door, he shortens his responses and using his body language indicates we should conclude. We cut short the interview and seek his blessings. Leaving the room, I glance back. Swamiji is already speaking to a devotee. The room around him bustles with activity, but he sits motionless and peaceful in his large chair, unaffected by the commotion around him, his face displaying overwhelming compassion and love.

I have heard of Swamiji’s love for children. As we leave the math, we see a crowd of devotees receiving darshan from Swamiji, who is reclining on a wooden platform. As we watch, he speaks to each and every devotee. His eyes are closed for the most part, but when a mother brings her two sons before him, his eyes open and brighten. He draws them closer, eyes brimming with mirth and happiness. With childlike enthusiasm and a grandfather’s tenderness, he asks about their studies and life, advising the elder one to study well. As they move on and the next devotee approaches, Swamiji returns to his normal meditative pose.

Even while tending to the hundreds of devotees, Swamiji has not forgotten us; the administrators have been instructed to take us for lunch and show us around.

Honored sage: Shishyas from Siddaganga and other maths perform padapuja on Swamiji’s 105th birthday
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I have never experienced the love and kindness Swamiji showers equally on everyone nor the calm peace he radiates while attending to every detail in his impossibly busy schedule. I feel blessed.

SKANDA PRASAD is an electronics engineer working for a multinational semiconductor company in Bengaluru