Real history of the Kanchi math (Re: Former President Inaugurates...) Celebrations
Subject: Real history of the Kanchi math (Re: Former President Inaugurates...) Celebrations
From: email@example.com (Vidyasankar Sundaresan)
Date: 3 Aug 1994 04:05:16 GMT
Organization: California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org> email@example.com (K.
> In article <firstname.lastname@example.org>, editor.csm.uc.edu (digest
> > * Former President Inaugurates Celebrations
> > Kanchipuram, July 24 (PTI) The former President, Mr R
> > Venkataraman, today inaugurated the year long 60th centenary
> > celebrations of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the head of the 2,500
> > year old Kanchi mutt, amidst religious fervour.
> > Sri Jayendra Saraswathi is the 69th pontiff of the mutt,
> > which was established here by Adi Sankara, who was the first
> > 'peedapathi' (head of the mutt) from 482 to 477 bc.
> May I bring to your attention that by all accounts Adi Sankara time was
> some where around 8th to 9th century AD. And of the four Matts that he
> established Kanchi is not one of them. Either the Mutt is less than
> 1100 years old or if it is 482 B.C. as is claimed in the news then it
> must not have been established by Adi Sankaracharya. Please check the
> dates and the real history of the kanchi matt. Is there any one in the
> network that has better information about the Kanchi peetam? Sadananda
Both this post and a previous one by Bon Giovanni have raised questions of
historicity of Adi Sankaracharya and the Kanchi math. This is not a new
question. It is generally accepted as tradition that Adi Sankaracharya,
the famous Advaita philosopher, founded four maths (monasteries) at
Sringeri, Puri, Dwaraka and Badrinath; that he ascended the famous
sarvagna-pitha in Kashmir, and finally passed away near Kedarnath. None of
the four recognized mathas claims jurisdiction over the other three. However,
the Kanchi math claims that Sankaracharya established a fifth math in
Kanchi, with jurisdiction over the recognized four mathas; that
Sankaracharya ascended a sarvagna-pitha not in Kashmir, but at Kanchi, and
that he passed away not in Kedarnath, but at Kanchi. These and other such
claims have been widely publicized by the followers of the Kanchi math
with the direct participation of and encouragement from the heads of the
Kanchi math, including the recently departed centenarian Sri
Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (C.S., for short) and his successor Sri
Jayendra Saraswati (J.S.).
In Tamil, we have a saying "Do not question the origins of rivers
(nadimoolam) and rishis (rishimoolam)." Still, in terms of answering some
basic questions regarding dates in Indian history, one has to perforce
look at these. C.S. had a commanding personality. He impressed people of
such wide interests as Mahatma Gandhi, Arthur Koestler, Paul Brunton,
Milton Singer etc. Some of his more ardent followers have gone to the
extent of deifying him as "Nadamadum deivam" - the deity who walks. People
compose and sing songs in his praise, and dancers stage dance-dramas on his
life - all of which are widely advertised and reviewed in the south Indian
press. However, while some people might respect the recently departed
acharya of Kanchi as a rishi or as a deity, there is no reason why a frank
discussion cannot be held regarding the origins of the Kanchi math, and
C.S.'s involvement in propagating a thoroughly revised history of that
math - so thoroughly revised as to be almost wholly falsified. I would
like to clarify at the outset that no disrespect is meant to the Kanchi
math or its heads, but while talking of some aspects of history, one has
to call a spade a spade.
Seven years ago, on August 22, 1987, Sri Jayendra Saraswati disappeared
from the Kanchi math. R. Venkatraman, an ardent devotee of the Kanchi math
was President of India at that time. A frantic search was held, with the
police of all four southern states, the CID and other agencies involved.
What made the disappearance more shocking to the orthodox followers of the
Kanchi math was that it was the period of chaturmasya, when a sannyasi was
not supposed to travel from his camping station. Sri Jayendra Saraswati
was finally traced to Talakaveri, the source of the Kaveri near Coorg in
Karnataka. Whatever else it accomplished, this episode created major stories
in the Indian media. Tthe Kanchi math came under the spotlight once again,
and it obtained wide publicity in the national media. I quote a few excerpts
(without permission) from the Sept. 13, 1987 issue of The Illustrated Weekly
of India, from a feature written by well-known journalist, K. P. Sunil. 
Under a box titled "Disputed Lineage," K. P. Sunil writes, (My comments
are in parantheses):
"On August 25, as speculation about the whereabouts of Jayendra
Saraswati mounted, the Sankaracharya of Dwaraka, Swaroopananda Saraswati,
camping at Pune for the Chaturmasya Vrata, while demanding a high level
probe into the mystery, asserted: "Sri Jayendra Saraswati cannot be
regarded as a Sankaracharya at all, because the Kanchi math is not one of
the four peethas constituted by Adi Sankaracharya. It is only a shakha
(branch) of the Sringeri peetham."
"Several years earlier, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer, who headed the
central commission on Hindu religious and charitable endowments, had
announced that `there is no such thing as the Kanchi Kamakoti peetham.'
"Yet the Kanchi math has emerged as one of the most powerful
religious institutions in the country.
"Full credit for this should go to Chandrasekharendra Saraswati
himself, who lifted a math disintegrating in Kumbhakonam and
re-established it in Kanchipuram, according it a position of pre-eminence.
"Legend has it that Sankara, at the age of 32, after having toured
most parts of India and after having established the four maths ........
"The turn of the present century saw a math claiming a lineage of
over 67 pontiffs in Kumbhakonam in Tanjore district."
"It was only in the 20th century works, all compiled after
Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, the present Paramacharya ascended the
peetha, that the history of the Kanchipuram math has been rewritten.
Accordingly, it was established (by whom, may I ask?) that Adi
Sankaracharya had spent the last days of his life in Kanchipuram where he
attained samadhi, and not in the Himalayas as is generally believed. A
mandapam named after the father of the school of advaita philosophy, seen
in the Kamakshi temple premises, is cited as his samadhi. (The said
mandapam has been constructed very recently. It was originally called
`Sankaracharya samadhi', but when it was pointed out there could not be a
samadhi inside a Devi temple, the mandapam was renamed `Sankaracharya
sannidhi' - sanctum, not a tomb.)
"The twentieth century chronicles explain that before his demise,
Sankaracharya established a fifth math at Kanchi which he intended to be a
controlling centre of all the other maths. Sri Sureswaracharya, Sankara's
prime disciple was placed in charge of it. Interestingly, the Sringeri
math also claims Sureswaracharya as their first pontiff. (As an aside, the
tale of Sureswaracharya being in charge of the Kanchi math is pure
fiction. If Sankaracharya did not establish the Kanchi math at all,
where was the need to appoint a successor there?!! It is the Kanchi math
that "claims" Sureswara. The Sringeri math does not "claim" so. In fact, a
very old structure that is reputed to be Sureswara's samadhi is still
preserved outside the Sarada temple at Sringeri.)
"According to the Kanchi chronicles, the math in Kanchipuram had
to be shifted in the 18th century AD, in the face of opposition from local
kings and hence the shift to Kumbhakonam. (One does not know of any
Hindu-hating king near Kanchipuram from the 18th century.)
"Historians, however, hold that the Kumbhakonam math was in verity
a branch of the Sringeri math established in 1821 AD by the famous monarch
of Tanjore, Serfoji. (Mr. Sunil has a fact wrong here. The monarch of
Tanjore in 1821 was not Serfoji, but Pratap Singh Tuljaji. The
date 1821 is correct - it is the date of the oldest inscription found in
the Kumbhakonam math building.) Later, when a war broke out between the
kings of Tanjore and Mysore, the Kumbhakonam math proclaimed independence
from Sringeri and established itself as the Kamakoti peetham." (There is
no war documented between the Maratha rulers of Tanjore and the Wodeyars
of Mysore after 1821. By this time, both were more or less puppets of the
British. That the Kumbhakonam math proclaimed independence from Sringeri
however, is a fact. One does not have to explain it as a consequence of an
imaginary war that the maths had no connection with.)
Mr. Sunil captures the major facts regarding the Kanchi math correctly
1. A branch of the Sringeri math was established in Kumbhakonam, the
building for which was constructed in 1821 AD, with the help of the
Tanjore king. The seal of this math is in Kannada language, and refers to
it as a "Sarada math." Since Sarada is worshipped only at Sringeri, and
the Goddess at Kanchipuram is Kamakshi, not Sarada, it is seen at once
that the Kumbhakonam math did not originally come from Kanchipuram.
2. The Kumbhakonam math soon proclaimed independence from Sringeri. In
fact, this math went one step further. In addition to denying the
historical truth of its origin as a branch of the Sringeri math, the story
propagated was that it was originally established by Adi Sankaracharya
himself at Kanchipuram, with control over the recognized four maths.
Worse, a wholly fictitious story that Adi Sankaracharya ascended a
sarvagna-pitha at Kanchi and attained samadhi at Kanchi is propagated as
"tradition." The real problem though was that in the course of this
campaign, someone with more enthusiasm than scholarship, "fixed" the date
of Adi Sankaracharya as 477 B.C. and wrote up a continuous list of gurus
of the math from 477 B.C. to the present! This guru parampara is filled
with names of sannyasis taken at random, with no thought to chronology.
3. The Kumbhakonam math shifted to Kanchipuram in accordance with its new
story. In 1839 AD, the head of the Kumbhakonam math applied for permission
to the English Collector to perform the kumbhabhishekam of the Kamakshi
temple in Kanchipuram. In 1842 AD, he was appointed sole trustee of the
Kamakshi temple by the English East India Company Government. This is well
documented because the original priests of the Kamakshi temple, who were
thereby deprived of their rights, complained to whomever they could possibly
complain to. Numerous petitions, counter petitions, letters, and other such
documents are available from this period that allow us to piece together this
account.  Thus the Kanchi math as an institution dates from 1842 AD. The
headquarters continued to be at Kumbhakonam but the sannyasi head would
periodically visit Kanchipuram to assert his rights over the Kamakshi temple.
This math originally had a limited following in the Tanjore and Kanchipuram
areas, but soon embarked on a massive propaganda campaign that ensured it
4. This propaganda campaign to disseminate disinformation received a major
fillip from the activites of C.S. As Mr. Sunil puts it, it is only in the
20th century, after C.S. took over as the head of the disintegrating math
at Kumbhakonam, that the accounts have been totally rewritten. Part of this
propaganda campaign includes a guru parampara that dates back to 477 BC.
One can go into great details to show that this guru parampara is false.
Suffice it to say however, that it is full of holes and is correct only in
the details given for the post-1820 period. Thus J.S. who is said to be
the 69th in direct succession from Adi Sankaracharya himself is actually
only the 6th or the 7th head of the Kumbhakonam/Kanchi math. C.S. and
J.S. have been extremely fortunate in favourably impressing people like
Dr. T. M. P. Mahadevan, the famous philosopher, and Sri S. Ramakrishnan,
the executive secretary of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, not to speak of
influential journalists like Arun Shourie and Ram Nath Goenka, and
politicians like President R. Venkatraman. As an example, in recent years,
there has not been a single issue of the Bhavan's Journal without some
feature or the other on either C.S. or J.S. For example, when the Berlin wall
fell, the well-known guru, Sri Chinmoy, sent a piece of the rubble to the
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan as a souvenir. Sri Ramakrishnan immediately saw a
photo opportunity, took the rock to Kanchipuram, and featured a picture of
J.S. holding the rock on the cover of the Bhavan's Journal. Thus, Sri Chinmoy
sends a souvenir to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and J.S. of Kanchi Kamakoti
Peetham gets photo credit! Sri Ramakrishnan apparently has no qualms in
converting a prestigious magazine like the Bhavan's Journal into yet another
propaganda pamphlet of the Kanchi math.
If I sound like I am fulminating unjustifiably against the propaganda that
the Kanchi math engages in, I assure readers here that I am in fact
perfectly justified. I can cite innumerable instances where the most
blatant lies have been made without any compunction. All with an eye at
enhancing the apparent prestige of the Kanchi math. What the Kanchi math
doen't realize however, is that such stories only weaken its own
credibility and the respect which people may have for its acharyas. Thus a
simple PTI news item about the 60th birthday celebrations of J.S.
necessarily has to state something about the "2500 year history" of the
math. If the news item had been silent about it, I would not have felt the
need to write this article debunking their myths. The following excerpt
from the same article in the Illustrated Weekly should show readers the
exact means which the Kanchi math propaganda adopts.
"The Vyasachaliya Sankara Vijayam, written by Maha Devendra
Saraswati, the 53rd acharya of the Kumbhakonam math in the 15th century,
makes no mention of the Kanchi math in his work. However, in a Tamil
translation of the work by Acharya Krishna Sastri, it is mentioned that
the then King of Nepal had accepted the acharya of Kanchi, located in
Kumbhakonam, as his Rajguru and was making a payment to the math every
year as guru dakshina.
"Researchers, who doubted the claim, referred the matter to the
royal family of Nepal. the reply dated May 13. 1940 read `...Nepal has
never recognized the head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham as their guru.
Nor do we annually contribute any portion of our income as alleged by
Pandit Acharya Krishna Sastri.'"
Mr. Sunil who quotes this bit of history, seems to have overlooked one
minor point though. If the Kumbhakonam math was only established as a
branch math in 1821 AD, as he says in his article, the question of its
existence in the 15th century does not arise. Much less a name of its head
and a number to be attached to that name. Such "Pandits" as Acharya
Krishna Sastri who do not hesitate to blatantly lie, have been routinely
pressed into service by the Kanchi math for conducting its propaganda.
After all, who in south India would have thought of verifying his story
from such a distant place as Nepal? The technique of the Kanchi math has
been to lie left and right, with such thoroughness, that invariably some
part of its preposterous claims are accepted as truth by people. Exactly
the same phenomenon has occured with Mr. Sunil. He does not question the
veracity of the claim that the Vyasachaliya Sankara Vijayam was written
by one "Maha Devendra Saraswati, the 53rd acharya of the Kumbhakonam
math in the 15th century." Nor does he particularly elaborate on the
strangeness of the fact that this fictitious author of this real book only
mentions the four traditionally accepted maths, and makes no mention of
"his own" math.
To sum up, the claims of the Kanchi math have been unprecedented in the
history of Hinduism. We have never had an organized structure comparable
to the Roman Catholic Church. In the event, a math in the remote south
claiming to be the central math of the Advaita sampradaya makes no sense.
Firstly, such centralized religious jurisdiction is alien to the spirit
and history of our culture. Secondly, even if Adi Sankaracharya did
establish a central math with jurisdiction over the recognized four, was
he so ignorant of India's geography that he bypassed all holy cities with
more central locations (Prayag/Kashi/Ujjain?) and chose instead Kanchi in
the extreme south? Thus, the idea of a central math is clearly pure myth.
The reality is that the Kanchi math is a relatively recent institution
with tall claims. That it has a large following is an undeniable fact.
Every saffron-robed person invariably attracts some following. Couple that
with the tremendous charisma that C.S. had, and a famous temple like the
Kamakshi temple in Kanchipuram - one has a ready-made formula for success
in attracting a following. The sad part is that the sannyasis involved
take advantage of the general reverence that people show them, for their
own ulterior motives.
In India, among south Indian Brahmin circles especially, when this topic
comes up for discussion, most people usually say something like, "The
Kanchi math is also doing so much for the cause of dharma. Why rake up
this issue?" My answer is that firstly it is the Kanchi math which forces
one to rake up the issue by ceaselessly continuing its propaganda of
disinformation. Secondly, and more importantly, an institution like the
Kanchi math which supposedly is doing so much for dharma, should not
forget the most basic dharma of all - satyam vada. People are free to choose
their gurus, but when the guru sets such a perniciously wrong example, by
not sticking to the truth, dharma itself is compromised.
1. The Illustrated Weekly of India, "The Weekly Cover Story" - K. P.
Sunil, September 13, 1987.
2 a. The Truth about the Kumbhakonam Math, - Sri R. Krishnaswamy
Aiyar and Sri K. R. Venkatraman, Sri Ramakrishna Press, Madurai,
b. Kanchi Kamakoti Math - a Myth - Sri Varanasi Raj Gopal Sarma,
Ganga Tunga Prakashan, Varanasi, 1987.
LC Call No.: BL1243.76.C62 K367 1987