The Rivalry for Jyotir Math by Dana Sawyer 2001
High in the Garhwal Himalayas, near the border with Tibet, lies the sacred Hindu temple of Badrinath, one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the Uttarkand, the “northern portion.” Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims journey from the plains to worship Lord Badri, a form of Visnu in the shadow of the snow capped peaks. Tradition says that this temple was re-established (after having been desecrated by Buddhists) by Sankara himself, who retrieved the sacred murti of Badri from the Alakananda river just below the temple. Hagiographical accounts of Sankara’s life also tell us that he then established one of his four primaryvidyapiths near there, and called it the Jyotir (“Radiant”) Math, installing one of his favorite disciples, Totaka, on its gaddi. Today, the Jyotir Mathvidyapith is located at Joshi, a small village 40 kms. south of Badrinath and the take-off point for tourist treks into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary.
The history of the math is murky, having more to do with legend than fact, in part due to the circumstance that the math was closed, by all accounts, for more than a century and a half, and only reinstated in the middle of this century. Traditional accounts, kept by the present claimants for the abbottship, tell us that the last Sankaracarya before the lapse was Swami Ramakrsna Asrama, who presided there until 1833. (*footnote: Vidyasankar Sundaresan, at the Jyot-Shank web site, gives the Dasnami name as “Tirtha” and says he has this from “official accounts,” but all accounts I’ve seen, e.g., Jyotispith-Parampara, Ek Anusilan , p.3, from Swami Svarupananda’s press in Banaras, 1996, give it as “Asrama”) For various reasons, the math became vacant. Some say there was no properly qualified person to follow Swami Ramakrisna; others say that the Gurkha invasion from Nepal caused the lapse. Whatever the facts might be, it is only in the late 1930s that the story becomes clear. At that time, a Dandi swami from Banaras named Gyanananda Saraswati established a trust for the Jyotir Math, overseen by his organization, the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal, and began a search for a Dandi qualified to head the post, not wanting the position himself.
After a reconaissance mission to locate the site of the original math, which had become obscured over time, Gyanananda became satisfied that he had found the ruins of it on a hillside above Joshi, and on Aprl 11, 1941 the particluar spot was secured by deed and endowment. In the meantime, Gyanananda, the Mahamandal, and members of the Kashi Vidvat Parisad had decided to ask Swami Hariharananda Saraswati (popularly known as Karpatri Swamiji), a popular and powerful Dandi (*footnote: in fact, the most influential Dandi in India at the time, e.g., see Tripathi, pp.64 and 224), to accept the post. Karpatri, however, had, the year before, begun an organization called Dharma Sangh to fight for Hindu principles and so, being busy with other matters, he declined. However, before declining he offered his help in selecting a suitable candidate and recommended his own guru, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati (later to become famous in the West as the guru of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, once guru to the Beatles and Mia Farrow). Given the influence of Karpatri, and the quickly acknowledged suitability of the candidate, Brahmananda was duly installed as Sankaracarya of Jyotir Math that same year.
Brahmananda, well respected by all, presided over the math until his death on May 20, 1953. Immediately after his death a succession dispute arose. Unfortunately, before his death, he had not made clear who should follow him on the gaddi. Some of his followers came forward with a will, saying that Brahmananda had made it just before his death. This will, published on June 8, 1953, stated that Brahmananda had actually nominated four persons as qualified for the position, and named them in order of preference, as: (1) Swami Santananda Saraswati, (2) Dwarka Pasad Sastri (who would first have to take diksa as an ascetic to become qualified), (3) Swami Visnudevananda Saraswati, and (4) Swami Paramatmananda Saraswati. In line with this will, the first respondent, who was installed on June 12, 1953 as head of the math, came into possession of the math properties and applied for a certificate of succession in the district court at Allahabad. This was eventually granted on Dec. 12, 1956 - that is, three years later. But this did not settle the dispute. Three allegations continued to be aimed by various parties at the acarya and his supporters:
(1) Questions regarding the authenicity of the will arose, for instance, why hadn’t Brahmananda published the will while he was still alive? Why hadn’t he made clear then who he wanted to follow him? Some believed the will to be a forgery, and sited that Mehesh Brahmacari, a ascetic from the Shudra caste, acting, as members of the kyastha subcaste often do, as a secretary, had the opportunity to create such a document, and as a supporter of Santananda might be willing. They also argued that even if the will was authentic, it had probably been tampered with, claiming that someone must have reversed the order of the four persons as Swami Paramananda was clearly the best choice.
(2) Another allegation held that even if the will was real that Brahmananda had not been is a “sound disposing state of mind” (*footnote: court case, p.793) when the will was executed and cited their personal experience with him during those last days as testimony. This allegation had even spread to rumors that Brahmananda had been poisoned.
(3) The third allegation was pedagogical, specifically, that Santananda did not have the requisite learning in Sanskrit and the Vedas required to assume the gaddi. Forwarders of this allegation cited that when Sankara founded these specific maths he created a constitution for them, presented in two brief texts, the Mathamnaya and the Mahanusasan. (the authenticity of these texts is academically disputed but tradition has upheld them). In those texts, Sankara specifies that to be the acarya of avidyapith, a claimant must (a) have control of his senses and desires, (b) must have a good knowledge of Sanskrit and the Vedas (including the vedangas, etc.), and (3) must be well versed in all aspects of the varnasrama-dharma. But, to the contrary, Santananda, his opponents maintained, though a good and moral person, did not have the requisite learning, having been a book binder in his pre-ascetic life and Brahmananda’s cook during his time with the guru.
The two sides squared off immediately after the death of Brahmananda, and the detractors to Santananda’s ascension were not without clout. Among those opposed were the members of the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal, who had originally created the trust, including Swami Gyanananda. Also in this camp was the influential Swami Karpatri; increased force was lent to his disapproval in that he also, like Santananda, was a direct disciple of Swami Brahmananda. Bharat Dharma Mahamandal, claiming they had, at the time of the establishing of the Jyotir Math trust, reserved the right to decide who ascended the gaddi if succession ever became again muddled, and allegedly producing a document that proved this (*footnote: I have never seen it or found a copy), pronounced at Karpatri’s recommendation (as he himself did not want the job, though he was asked), one Swami Krsnabodh Asrama as the new acarya and installed him on June 25th, 1953, just less than two weeks after the installation of Santananda.
History of the Jyotir Math dispute, including history of its litigation
Because litigation was not immediately begun, the early circumstances of the dispute are clouded in opinion but what is certain is that there was soon after the death of Brahmananda two maths in the village of Joshi claiming to be the proper pith of the Sankaracarya. This was, and still is, a cumbersome situation since it confused pilgrims stopping by on their way to Badrinath and seeking the blessings of the acarya. Moreover, it created an obscured parampara (lineage) for the pith’s future (*footnote: in many ways reminicent of the position medival Catholics found themselves in during the period of the rival Avignon papacy). The situation was futher complicated when the acaryas went out on tour, a custom considered essential for the abbott of avidyapith. Then (and still) Hindu laity could find themselves in the unenviable position of being asked to donate money to the support of the regional pith after, they thought, they had already done so. In this way, a succession dispute quickly became a jurisdiction dispute, for as one Indian author explained about a similar Sankaracarya conflict : “Two lions cannot live in the same forest without meeting.” (A. Saraswati, p.118)
By the late fifties a court case was being framed by those contending against Santananda and in the early sixties they obtained permission of the Advocate general in Allahabad to file a suit under s.92 of the Civil Procedure Code (instituted by the British in 1908) against him. This case, first heard in District court at Seoni, was brought forward in the name of Swami Paramatmananda, the fourth person named in the disputed will, along with three pandits, two of which, Mahdev Sastra and Nagesh Upadyaya, were of the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal. Paramatmananda, by all accounts had no real interest in becoming the acarya, and would have abdicated immediately to Krsnabodh Asrama had the case gone in his favor, but the hope was that having appeared on the original will, itself already recognized as a legal document when the certificate of succession had been granted, some credibility would be gained. In the suit against Santananda he was named as “Ramji Tripathi,” his name before becoming an ascetic, an implicit defamation of his position.
After much deliberation, the court dismissed the case, siding for neither person, and so leaving Santananda, by default, with the succession certificate that had been issued in 1956. The court maintained that under s. 92 of the Civil Procedure Code dealing with public trusts, a suit must be brought forward only to protect the public interest. In contrast to this, the court felt that the plaintiffs were suing only to defend the personal interests, rights and position, of Krisnabodh Asrama, through Swami Paramatmananda, and so they threw the case out of court, standing on several precedent cases (court case, p.794).
The case was appealed to the High court at Allahabad in 1962 (Civil Appeal No. 385), and received the same judgement, that is “the High Court found that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations of breach of trust against the first respondent. No reasons were given in the plaint for asking the directions of the court for the administration of the trust. “ (court case, p.791) Though it is interesting to note that the court itself acknowledged that Santananda lacked the knowledge “in Sanskrit and the Vedas which was a necessary qualification for holding the headship of the Math.” (p.793, pt. E of the court case) But, perceiving this as outside the scope of the suit, and of the jurisdiction of the secular court, it was of no consequence.
With no recourse for litigation on the grounds of incompetence to preside for religious reasons, the plaintiffs continued their civil suit and appealed the case to the Supreme Court of India at Delhi. The case was filed as “Civil Appeal No. 1589” of 1973 and decided on August 21, 1974. The position of the court was again that “there was an allegation that the direction of the Court was necessary for the administration of the trust. But no reasons were given in the plaint why the plaintiffs were seeking the direction of the Court. There were no clear allegations of maladministration...” and so “We think that the High Court was right in dismissing the suit on the ground that it did not fall within S. 92... We therefore dismiss the appeal.” (court case, p.796).
But dismissing the case did not end the dispute, for nothing had been decided and no worldly power was restraining either man from functioning as the acarya. By the early eighties the situation was further complicated by the fact that with the passage of so much time, both men had left their gaddi s and there were now two lines of succession. Krsnabodh Asrama died in 1973, but before his death had made clear that he wished Swami Swarupananda Saraswati to replace him as acarya. Swarupananda, he believed, would be particularly suited to claim the true parampara as he was, like Santananda (and unlike himself), a direct diksa disciple of Brahamananda and yet also his own vidya disciple with the requisite learning. In the rival camp, Santananda abdicated his position to Swami Visnudevananda, also a diksa disciple of Brahmananda, who became acarya of that lineage on Feb. 28, 1980.
Immediately after Santananda’s abdication, the Krsnabodh Asrama camp, now led by Swarupananda, launched a new court case. In this new tactic, Swarupananda initiated Dwarka Prasad Shastri, the second named person in Brahmananda’s disputed will, into samnyas, making him Dandi Swami Dwarikeshananda Saraswati. The idea here was that they would plead that he, as the second named person in the disputed will should proceed to the gaddi after Santananda ahead of the third named person who had been Visnudevananda. So even though they believed the will had been a forgery, they would use it against the rival camp, and then the new swami would simply abdicate to Swarupananda, whom he endorsed. However, the new swami died before the case was ever tried. (*footnote: Prakash Mishra, the attorney framing this case, related this information in interview, 1/9/98)
In 1989 a new turn developed when Visnudevananda also died. A new case was launched by the Swarupananda group (case # 513, filed at Allahabad) this time aimed at Swami Vasudevananda, the inheritor of Santananda’s math and his diksa disciple, who possesses a will of Visnudevananda’s giving the acaryaship to him. The Swarupananda camp claims Vasudevananda is a personae non grata, exempt from the contest by virture of the fact that he is not a diksa disciple of Brahmananda and supported mainly by the money of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a devotee of the Santananda camp “who wishes to be legitimated by a Sankaracarya but can get no real Sankaracarya to sit with him,” according to Prakash Mishra, a lawyer supporting the suit. Whereas, according to Vasudevananda, his position is perfectly legitimate in that he is in direct parampara from Brahmananda as per the traditional maurusi rules of succession.
Where things stand today
On Feb. 22, 1999, Mrdulesh Kumar Singh, the Second Additional Judge at Allahabad issued a formal restraining order against Swami Vasudevananda. In the order, he explans that having reviewed the case (for nine years!) the court believes Swarupananda to have the better claim to the gaddi, for historical reasons and in that he has the support of the Sankaracaryas of the other amnaya piths (at Dwaraka, Sringeri and Puri). Furthermore, the order relates, Vasudevananda’s installation is also suspect. This being the situation, Vasudevananda is disallowed from using the title Sankaracarya, traveling as the Sankaracarya, or collecting funds as the Sankaracarya until such time as the case might be formally decided in his favor. Clearly, the Swarupananda camp sees this as a major vindication of their original position and have reprinted the order in a short monograph entitled Jyotispith Vivad - Ek Aitihasika Nyayalyiya Nirnaya (“Jyotir Pith Dispute - A Historical Court Decision”).
The Vasudevananda group claims that this is a case of power politics, and there are those who believe them. Swami Narendrananda Saraswati, one of the Dandis claiming authority over the Sumeru Math at Banaras mentioned earlier, related in an interview (Mar. 1999) that the decision was made because Swarupananda has become very powerful with various political organizations, including the Congress Party and the BJP, and financially influental. As regards the support of the other Sankaracaryas, he dismisses it, saying, “Originally, they were against him, but now he is powerful and they hope he can help them in some way.” However, facts do not completely bear out this claim, and it is a historical fact that Krnsabodh Asrama was on better terms with the acaryas than was Santananda, and was present when the previous acarya of Puri ascended the gaddi, and that Swarupananda has been meeting regularly with the acaryas for more than twenty years. Even the present acarya of the disputed Kanchi vidyapith, Swami Jayendra Saraswati, names Swarupananda as the proper claimant. (*footnote: my field notes) Vasudevananda seems to be the lame duck these days, a position not helped by the fact that Santananda has now also died, in 1997, and can give no support to him on that side of the lineage dispute. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi continues to support Vasudevananda, but, after all, as a sudra with a reputation, right or wrong, for catering to his own needs, seems to be doing more harm than good to Vasudevananda’s claim in traditional circles.
So the dispute goes on, and is further complicated by the fact that today, and since 1994, there is a third person claiming to be the proper acarya of Jyotir Math, Swami Madhav Asrama, a diksha disciple of Krsnabodh Asrama, who has gained some measure of support (according to several Dandis in Banaras) from a group of Banarsi pandits. His claim to the gaddi is based on the position that when Svarupananda accepted the Dwaraka acaryaship in 1982, he made himself automatically exempt as a candidate for the Jyotir Math title.
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