Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal (20 May 1894 – 8 January 1994) or the Sage of Kanchi was the 68th Jagadguru in the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham. He is usually referred to as Paramacharya, Mahaswami or Maha Periyavaal.
Chandrashekarendra Saraswati was born on 20 May 1894, under Anuradha nakshatra according to the Hindu calendar, into a Kannadiga Smartha Hoysala Karnataka Brahmin family in Viluppuram, South Arcot District, Tamil Nadu as Swaminatha. He was the second son of Shri Subramanya Sastrigal, a District Education Officer and his devout wife, Smt Mahalakshmi. The child was named Swaminatha, after the family deity, Lord Swaminatha of Swamimalai, near Kumbakonam. Swaminatha began his early education at the Arcot American Mission High School at Tindivanam, where his father was working. He was an exceptional student and excelled in several subjects. In 1905, his parents performed his Upanayanam, a Vedic ceremony which qualifies a Brahmin boy to begin his Vedic studies under an accomplished teacher.
His brother was Sadasiva Sastrigal, popularly known as Sivan Sir. Sadasiva Sastri was born on 3 October 1903 in Viluppuram, South Arcot District, Tamil Nadu. He has written a magnum opus based on Hindu philosophy in a Tamil book titled “Yenippadigalil Maanthargal”. He attained moksha at Kancheepuram on 8th January 1994 (Dhanur, Krishna Dwadasi) in his Centenary year.
During the childhood of the Acharya, his father consulted an astrologer who, upon studying the boy’s horoscope, is said to have been so stunned that he prostrated himself before the boy exclaiming that “One day the whole world will fall at his feet”.In 1906, the 66th Acharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham performed the annual Chaturmasyam (a four-month annual ritual performed by Hindu ascetics while remaining in one place), in a village near Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu. This was Swaminatha’s first exposure to the Math and its Acharya. Later, Swaminatha accompanied his father whenever he visited the Math where the Acharya was deeply impressed by the young boy.
In the first week of February 1907, the Kanchi Kamakoti Math had informed Subramanya Sastrigal that Swaminatha’s first cousin (son of his mother’s sister) was to be installed as the 66th Peetathipathi. The presiding Acharya was then suffering from smallpox and had the premonition that he might not live long. He had, therefore, administered upadesa to his disciple Lakshminathan before he died. Sastrigal being away in Trichinopoly on duty arranged for the departure of Swaminatha with his mother to Kanchipuram. The boy and his mother started for Kalavai (where Lakshminathan was camping) to console his aunt who, while also being a widow, had just given up her only son to be an ascetic. They travelled by train to Kanchipuram and halted at the Sankara Math. By then, Lakshminathan had fallen ill:
I had a bath at the Kumara Koshta Tirtha. A carriage of the Math had come there from Kalavai with the people to buy articles for the Maha Puja on the tenth day of the passing of the previous 67th Acharya. One of them, a hereditary maistry (mason) of the Math, asked me to accompany him. A separate cart was engaged for the rest of the family to follow me. During the journey the maistry hinted to me that I might not return home and that the rest of my life might be spent in the Math itself. At first I thought that my elder cousin having become the Head of the Math, it was his wish that I should live with him. But the maistry gradually clarified matters as the cart rolled on. The acharya had fever which developed into delirium and that was why I was being separated from the family to be taken to Kalavai… I was stunned by this unexpected turn of events. I lay in a kneeling posture in the cart, shocked as I was, repeating “Rama… Rama,” the only prayer I knew. My mother and other children came some time later only to find that instead of her mission of consoling her sister, she herself was placed in the state of having to be consoled
The 67th Acharya also died, after reigning for a brief period of seven days as the head of the Math. Swaminatha was immediately installed as the 68th head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam on 13 February 1907, the second day of the Tamil month of Masi, Prabhava year. He was given Sanyasa Asramam at the early age of 13 and was named Chandrasekharendra Saraswati. On 9 May 1907 his “Pattabishekam” as the 68th Peetathipathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam was performed at the Kumbakonam Math. Devotees including Shivaji Maharaja of Tanjavur, government officials and pundits participated in the event.
Even though there was not enough property in the mutt to be administered, the court considering the benefit of the mutt, ordered the mutt to be administered under the “Guardian and Wards Act”. Sri C.H.Venkataramana Iyer, an illustrious personality from Kolinjivadi (Colinjivadi) village near Coimbatore was appointed as the guardian by the court. The administration of the mutt was under guardianship from 1911 to May,1915. On the day of Sankara Jayanthi in the year 1915, Swamigal took over the administration of the mutt on the completion of his 21st year. The administration of the mutt was taken over only in name, but the actual work was taken care of by an agent, one Sri Pasupathi Iyer. He hailed from Thirupathiripuliyur, was an able administrator, who volunteered to do the job without compensation. Acharya does not sign any document, instead Sri Mukham stamp is placed on documents.
He had vedic studies at Kumbakonam Mutt opposite the mahamaham tank (Melkarai) from 1913–1915. In 1915, Sri Anantharama Srouthigal was his prathama adhyayana tutor. As a little girl, his granddaughter Nagam used to carry milk in a pot to the pontiff next door. She said the acharya was sharp in memory and divinely blessed with prediction. Avidly she recalled how the acharya directed her father Narayana Iyer (Son-inlaw of Anantharama Srouthigal, H/o. Visalakshi) to vacate the place and go to his house next door. Narayana came home and died within minutes. Thus was his spiritual darshan.When her family visited the Kanchi Mutt in 1991, the aged acharya blessed the family members and enquired if they were Nagam’s children. Such was his memory.
Acharya spent several years in the study of the scriptures and dharma shastras and acquainted himself with his role as the Head of the Math. He soon gained the reverence and respect of the devotees and people around him. To millions of devotees he was simply “Periyavar”—the revered one or Maha-Periyavar or Periya-Periyavar. “Periyavar” in Tamil means a great person, and conveys endearment, reverence, and devotion. “Mahaswami” and “Paramacharya” are his other well-known appellations.
He was the head of the Mutt for eighty-seven years.Throughout his life, the focus of his concern and activities was rejuvenating Veda adhyayana, the Dharma Sasthras, and the age-old tradition, which had suffered decline. He referred to Veda rakshanam in most of his talks.
Remaining active throughout his life, the sage of Kanchi twice undertook pilgrimages on foot from Rameshwaram in the far south of the Indian peninsula to Benares in the North.
Providing support through Veda Patashalas (schools teaching Vedic lore) through the Veda Rakshana Nidhi which he founded and honouring Vedic scholars, he reinvigorated Vedic studies in India. He organised regular sadhas (‘conferences’) which included discussions on arts and culture—these led to a renewed interest in Vedic religion, Dharma sasthras, and the Sanskrit language. His long tenure as Peetadhipathi is considered by many to have been the Golden Era of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. He attained Mukti (died) on 8 January 1994 at the age of 100 and was succeeded by Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal.
He preached about the importance of following the Dharmic path. His various discourses are available in a volume of books called ‘Deivathin Kural’ (Voice of the Divine) which have been compiled by R. Ganapathi, a devotee of Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, and published by Vaanathi Publications. These books are available both in Tamil and English. A condensed form of these books is also available in English. These are available in all branches of the Kanchi math. He treated all religions equally and with respect.
Though Periyavaa did not get directly into politics, he was interested in the happenings. At Nellichery in Palakkad (Present Day Kerala), Rajaji and Mahatma Gandhi met the Acharya in a cow shed. It was a practice in the mutt to wear silk clothes. But Acharya was the first one to do away with them and shifted to Khadi robes at Rameshwaram. He requested his devotees to do away with foreign/ non-natural clothes some time earlier at Trichy.
Periyavaa is credited with reforming the noted Indian National Congress leader F. G. Natesa Iyer from Tiruchirappalli, during the Indian independence movement. Periyavaa is recorded to have reconverted F.G.Natesa Iyer from the Christian religion back to Hinduism. It is recorded that, F.G. Natesa Iyer, as a young boy of ten years, “took shelter with Englishmen who brought him up and converted him to Christianity. Twenty years later, dissatisfied with the ability of the priests to clarify his doubts, he met the Kanchi Sankaracharya and, getting satisfactory answers from him, reconverted to Hinduism.”
The Indian National Congress, in the decade of the 1920s, started organising the Non-Cooperation Movement, which involved getting many people to protest on the streets. F.G.Natesa Iyer, the leading Congress activist of Tiruchirappalli then, as also the elected Mayor, took this opportunity to convert the movement to also show support for the Periyavaa. He described the occasion, thus: “I was nominated by the public as the chairman of the Reception committee for arranging a reception for the Acharya of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. As the municipal chairman , it was my duty to provide a proper welcome and respect to Swamigal who was visiting after a long time. The opportunity to welcome His Holiness in a manner that was exponentially greater than receptions given to kings and viceroys, was accorded to me, along with my supporters: Sri M.Kandaswamy Servai, Sri. R.Srinivasa Iyengar, the lawyer and the larger public. The procession that was seven miles long, was preceded by seven groups of nadaswaram players, three band groups, four elephants, many horses and camels, instrumental players, Bhajan singers, Seva Samitis. I had the blessing to hold the front side of the ivory palanquin where our guru for the whole world , Sri Sankaracharya Swamigal was seated. He gave darshan to numerous people lined on both sides of the roads, in every floor, irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. There was no count of arathis, Poorna kumbams, garlands, asthika goshams. The procession that started at 6 pm ended at 10 pm in front of the mutt at Thiruvanaikkaval. I was enthralled in my service to Swamigal as service to Lord Shiva himself”.
The day India became free, Periyavaa gave the Maithreem Bhajata song, which was later to be sung at the UN by M S Subbulakshmi. He gave a speech on the significance of the flag and the Dharma chakra in it on that day.
Some of his famous devotees include, their highness the King and Queen of Nepal, the Queen mother of Greece, the Dalai Lama, M. S. Subbulakshmi, Indira Gandhi, R. Venkatraman, Shankar Dayal Sharma, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Subramanian Swamy, S. Gurumurthy, T.H.Vinayakram among others. Lakhs of his devotees still revere him, and pray to him as a messenger of the Supreme or an ultimate Guru.