From scholar to Sannidhanam: Immediately after donning the ochre robes of sannyasa, the successor designate receives a holy staff and water pot from his guru
Sringeri’s Pontiff Anoints Successor
An eminent Shankara monastery continues its unbroken guru lineage
BY CHOODIE SHIVARAM, BENGALURU
Twelve centuries ago adi shankara established four centers of Vedic learning across India, appointing the jagadguru of each from among his disciples. These aren’t ordinary monasteries or seminaries, but bastions of a living, unbroken heritage of Vedic philosophy, guiding millions of devotees around the world. Among the four, the Sringeri Sharada Peetham prides itself with an unbroken line of 37 jagadgurus tracing back to Adi Shankara’s disciple, Sureshvaracharya.
The guru-shishya system of successorship is a significant aspect of monasticism in India, especially for these four centers. Highly venerated, the jagadgurus here are Shankara’s legatees. They accept only one disciple, anointed as their successor to carry forth the Shankara lineage without dilution. This once-in-a-generation event is an eagerly anticipated occasion.
In the Sringeri lineage, sannyasa diksha (initiation into the life of a renunciate monk)is received only by those of the brahmacharya ashrama (path of celibacy). The jagadgurus affirm that their selection is guided by Goddess Sharadamba (Saraswati) and divine approbation is sought in the decision of a successor.
On January 4, 2015, the 36th Sringeri jagadguru, Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswami, declared 22-year-old Vedic scholar, Kuppa Venkateshwara Prasada, as his choice: “He has been under my tutelage for the past five years. He has studied the Nyaya Shastra and has mastered the Vedas. He possesses guru bhakti, detachment and all the virtues befitting an ascetic. Thus, I have chosen him as my shishya.”
PHOTOS: SRINGERI SHARADA PEETHAM
As a student at Sringeri; obeisance is paid to the Deities at all the math’s temples and guru samadhi shrines.
On January 23, 2015, in the traditional shishya sveekara ceremony, Sri Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswami (our 2011 Hindu of the year awardee) formally accepted the youth as his disciple and pronounced him successor to preside as the 37th Sringeri jagadguru. The young scholar was given the monastic name Sri Vidhushekhara Bharati. The event was attended by thousands and watched on TV by millions more.
History of Divine Guidance
In an example of Goddess Sharadamba’s direction, when the 32nd pontiff, Sri Sri Narasimha Bharati VIII, was immersed in his worship one night, the Goddess appeared to him and said, “Make room.” Recognizing the divine decree, he began searching for a successor. Eight years later, eight-year-old Sivaswami—born at the time of the vision—was anointed as Sacchidananda Shivabhinava Narasimha Bharati, the peetham’s 33rd pontiff.
Sri Bharati Tirtha himself was anointed in 1974 by Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha. Known as Sitaramanjaneyalu until that time, the youth had become a dedicated devotee of the acharya at Ujjain in 1966 and remained in Sringeri to pursue Shastric studies. His impressive progress prompted speculation among devotees that he might become the successor. One devotee ventured to ask Sri Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha about this. In response, the acharya asked him to fetch the almanac from his cupboard. As the devotee did so, a piece of paper fell from among the books. To his surprise, the acharya saw that the piece of paper contained the date and time of his own installation as jagadguru. He exclaimed, “Goddess has given me the signal for the shishya sveekara.” Having already identified the traits of an ascetic in Sitaramanjaneyalu and upon receiving this divine sign, Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha Swamiji proceeded to anoint him as his successor.
“The guru-shishya parampara in this monastery exists solely because of the will and grace of Goddess Sharadamba” Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Swamiji explained. “As my guru did earlier, I too have received Her divine signal to nominate a successor and mold him to carry on the lineage. In the Sringeri tradition, we do not choose the successor based on their horoscope, but based on their qualities and virtues.”
The New Successor’s Early Life
Kuppa Venkateshwara Prasada was born on Naga Panchami, July 24, 1993, to Kuppa Shivasubrahmanya Avadhani and Seetha Nagalakshmi in the holy town of Tirupati. Hailing from a scholarly lineage, he was exposed to the Shastras from early childhood. K. V. Sarma, Sri Avadhani’s brother, explained: “For 96 years without break, our family has conducted Bhagavatha Sapthaha (reading of the Srimad Bhagavatha for seven days) at a temple in Hamsaladeevi, a village near our native town in Andhra Pradesh. My father feels the result of this dedicated spiritual pursuit is what has given a jagadguru in this family.”
The family exemplifies balance between tradition and modernity. Their daughter Krishnapriya is a software engineer in the US; their other son is an engineer with one of India’s largest corporations. But the consumerism and technological addictions that pervade modern life held no attraction for the young Venkateshwara Prasada, who remained austere and unattached.
After his sacred thread ceremony at the age of five, Venkateshwara Prasada began learning the Krishna Yajur Veda from his grandfather, Sri Kuppa Ramagopala Vajapeyayaaji, a Vedic scholar. He continued Vedic studies under his illustrious father, principal of the TTD Veda Pathashala in Tirumala. Interactions with Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji during his father’s visits to Sringeri, beginning in 2006, profoundly impacted the brahmachari, who decided to study at the Veda Pathashala in Sringeri.
His progress there was phenomenal. “Within five years, beginning with the basics of Sanskrit, he has mastered Tarka, Nyaya Shastra and other texts,” marvels Dr. Shivakumara Sharma, a senior Shastric scholar at the Pathashala. “Scriptures that take six years to learn, he mastered in two. It is a blessing from my previous lives that I had an opportunity to tutor the jagadguru.” Sharma continues, “He was never drawn to distractions that his generation is addicted to, like cell phones or cricket. He was an intense learner and a dedicated student.”
Recognizing qualities befitting a successor, Sri Bharati Tirtha Swamiji discreetly nurtured and groomed the young student, closely monitoring his day-to-day activities and progress. “Often, while I was tutoring the youth, Sri Swamiji would walk in to observe, evaluating my teaching and the shishya’s progress,” Shivakumara recalled.
PHOTOS: SRINGERI SHARADA PEETHAM
A spiritual rebirth: Devotees attending shishya sweekara celebrations
The Family’s Reactions
Daughter Krishnapriya observed: “We knew that Sri Swamiji was paying special attention to him, and thought that was because of his progress in studies and devotion to the guru. We never imagined he would be chosen to head the peetham.” She flew in from the US to be part of the ceremonies. “We still cannot believe there was a jagadguru amongst us. Yesterday he was my younger brother. Today he is the Sringeri jagadguru. It is overwhelming. Words cannot express my joy and devotion. I feel blessed to address my brother as Sri Sannidhanam.”
The family’s elation was boundless. “This is the fruition of merit earned over a million births and will lead us in a pious path for another million. The feeling of blessedness is beyond description,” exults his father, Shivasubrahmanya.
The Shastras decree that the mother’s consent is mandatory in order for one to be granted sannyasa diksha, a requirement that is strictly followed in the Sringeri tradition. From Adi Shankaracharya’s mother, Aryamba, to the present, devotees feel a deep sense of gratitude to these mothers for giving them a guru who will lead them into the path of spiritual pursuits.
Overwhelmed, devotees reverentially touched the feet of mother Seetha Nagalakshmi. Sister Krishnapriya remarked, “This has raised the benchmark for us and spiritually elevated us. In everything we do, we must be conscious that the jagadguru belonged to our family. Our conduct and practices should be driven by this.”
The Initiation Rites
The math administration made elaborate arrangements for devotees to witness the all-important rites on January 22 and 23, 2015. Thousands of devotees thronged Sringeri. Even before daybreak they had occupied vantage points to witness the rituals of induction into sannyasa on the banks of the river Tunga—an event that had not occurred in four decades. A strong media contingent, incuding a gaggle of cameras and outdoor broadcasting vans, brought the celebration into the homes of millions of viewers.
Brimming with festive excitement, Sringeri town decorated itself to welcome the new Sannidhanam. Huge signs paid obeisance to the jagadgurus; traditional garlands, mango leaves and banana plants adorned every lane. People bustled about clad in their best traditional attire.
All rituals were performed in adherence to the tenets laid down in the Shastras, transporting us to the era of Adi Shankara. The event began on the morning of the 22nd with the successor-designate seeking his guru’s blessings, followed by Ganapati homa. The youth then paid obeisance to all the Deities at the math’s temples and the samadhi shrines of previous jagadgurus. Next came the important ashta-shraddhas, signifying the irrevocable severing of all familial and worldly ties.
Shraddhas are rituals normally performed in veneration of deceased ancestors. Performing these is an important duty for householders. When taking sannyasa, the initiate performs these rituals to ancestors, living parents and even to himself—fulfilling final obligations to family, signifying the end of his personal life and the commencement of his life as a sannyasin. Held in front of the samadhi shrines, the rite was intently watched by devotees and family, including grandparents. Notably, his father stoically guided the young brahmachari through the ceremonies. “Vairagya (dispassion, non-attachment) is a great virtue in this family,” observed a pandit of the math. “No wonder they were able to give us a jagadguru.”
The youth then performed purification rituals which included the brahmanvadhana (a small fire ceremony preparing for initiation into sannyasa) and abhishekam (ritual bathing) of the danda, the staff he would receive the next day. He fasted all day and stayed awake all night in penance at the samadhi shrines. This vigil the night before the initiation is an important ritual for renunciates. Throughout, people reverently followed the successor-designate’s movements, observing his gait, stature and demeanor. Acceptance and reverence was instant. But the young brahmachari was oblivious to this; his mind was firmly on his duties.
The morning of the big day began with Purushasukta and Viraja homas, performed to cleanse the body and absolve one of all sins committed knowingly and unknowingly. As the rays of the morning sun brightened the sky, the young devotee walked into the river to perform the preshocharana and sarva-bhoota-abhaya pradhana rituals. “In these rituals,” Shivakumara Sharma explains, “the renunciate stands in the river and takes a vow of nonviolence towards all beings by thought, action or words. Performing Gayatri japa one last time, he discards his white robes, the holy thread and sacred tuft into the river, becoming free of all bindings. This is called Savitri tyaga.”
Sri Vidhushekara Bharati performs a padapuja to his guru, a ceremony done only once in the life of the young jagadguru
Then he rose from the Tunga river and stepped into a thatched hut on the banks, where Sri Bharati Tirtha Swamiji bestowed upon him the saffron monastic robes, danda and kamandalu (water pot), thus initiating him into sannyasa. When the guru and his shishya emerged from the hut, the skies reverberated with the sounds of auspicious chants, drums and slogans of euphoric devotees hailing the gurus.
Taking his disciple to the samadhi shrine of his guru, Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha, Sri Sri Swamiji bestowed on his successor pranava mantra diksha, completing the process of shishya sveekara. Pranava signifies Parabrahman, the ultimate in knowledge. Shivakumar explains, “The guru places his hand on the disciple’s head and transfers divine powers so he may attain brahmajnana.”
Crossing the river, the newly initiated sannyasin performed the paryankashoucha, a ritual first bath (as a new-born, having begun a new life) at the riverside. The two pontiffs then proceeded to the Sharada temple for the yoga-patta ceremony, which marks the official declaration of the shishya as the successor to the peetham.
Sri Swamiji seated his shishya on the Vyakhyana Simhasana (throne of transcendental wisdom), placed a saligrama (a small sacred stone) on his head and worshiped it. The jagadguru then blessed the youth with the monastic name Vidhushekhara Bharati. The initiate then performed padapuja, reverently bathing his guru’s feet, and together they offered prayers to Goddess Sharadamba. The senior and junior jagadgurus are reverently referred to as Mahasannidhanam and Sannidhanam respectively.
That evening they addressed the devotees. Speaking in chaste Kannada and showing no nervousness or hesitation, Sri Vidhushekhara Bharati left his audience spellbound. “From early on, I wished to lead a spiritual life and fulfill a higher purpose. I also had a wish to learn the shastras from the jagadguru. When I reverentially placed this request, the jagadguru graced me with his highest blessings and unbounded grace, seeking my progress at all times. Any joy or accomplishment I might have today are solely due to his blessings; and with his blessings, I will carry forth my duties as the math pontiff.” The celebrations concluded with a palanquin procession.
Responses and Reactions
Sannidhanam’s now former family were the first to accept his new station. “Immediately after the initiation, we noticed a complete change in his demeanor,” Krishnapriya recalls. “There was an aura around him. We could no longer identify him as Venkateshwara Prasada. For us, he had become Sri Sri Vidhushekhara Bharati. We felt an overpowering and instantaneous reverence.”
On renouncing his birth family, the shishya becomes the child of his guru. One could see the motherly tenderness and pride in the eyes of Sri Swamiji as he followed every move of his successor. “The most important duty of the jagadguru is to choose a shishya,” he said. “My guru once told me, ‘The biggest test for me was in anointing a successor, and I have passed with flying colors.’ I too have to pass this test.” He implored devotees to accord full devotion and status to his successor.
The Sringeri jagadgurus have traditionally ensured that equal status and protocol are bestowed upon the new incumbent, without discrimination in seniority. In 1931, during the ceremonial procession for Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha’s induction, his guru Sri Chandrashekara Bharati quickly walked ahead and sat in the silver palanquin meant for the successor. Bewildered math officials approached the guru, pleading that he occupy the golden palanquin as per tradition. Directing them to seat the new pontiff, just 14, in the golden palanquin, the acharya replied, “This day’s celebrations are for the new jagadguru. Henceforth, Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha is our jagadguru. All honors, protocol and celebrations to the peetham belong to him.”
Struck by the young Sannidhanam’s erudition and effulgent countenance, devotees applauded him as the most felicitous successor for the peetham. Mahasannidhanam confirmed this, saying, “I wished to name him after my paramaguru, Sri Sri Chandrashekhara Bharati. However, it would be inappropriate to address my disciple with the name of my paramaguru. In Sanskrit, vidhu is a synonym for chandra. Thus, I gave him the monastic name Vidhushekhara Bharati, with the belief that in him we will see Chandrashekhara Bharati again.”
Just as we always need competent doctors and engineers, we also need qualified spiritual leaders. Hinduism, the Sanatana Dharma, is in express need of devout ascetics who can guide people spiritually. Sri Avadhani encourages parents to allow their children to embrace sannyasa: “By detaching from family and in allowing the child to take sannyasa, both the child and parents help establish and strengthen dharma. This sacrifice will lead us towards salvation, which should be the ultimate goal of life.”