The abode of advaita
samsparshamAtrENa vitIrNabhadrA vidyOtatE yatra ca tungabhadrA
ijyAshtairyatra samullasantaha shAntantarAyA nivasanti santaha
- mAdhavIyasankaravijayam, Canto 12
Where, even today, rshis of the highest order dwell ever in communion with the Self!
Where even at a simple touch, the mighty Tungabhadra offers all that is desired!
Where it is a tradition to put even the wish fulfilling tree to shame when it comes to hospitality!
Where dwell those who have reached the frontiers of knowledge!
Where dwell those who perform great sacrifices and are filled with inner peace!
Thus goes a description in Madhava Vidyaranya?s Shankara Digvijaya, a treatise on the life of Adi Sankara, foremost among the exponents of monism.
The kshEtra of Sringeri is one of the hallowed pilgrim centres of India. Though it is most closely associated with the Sarada Peetham, it has a tradition dating back to mythological times. It is believed that the name Sringeri is a corruption of rShyashrnga giri or the hill of Rishya Shrnga, a sage of the time of Lord Rama. Rshyashrnga was born of the union of sage Vibhandaka with a female antelope and due to this had a horn (shrnga) on his head. He was brought up by his father without any contact with the outside world in the forests surrounding the place that was to later become Sringeri.
Meanwhile King Lomapada of Anga, was facing a severe drought in his kingdom. On the advise of his ministers, he decided to invite Rshyashrnga to his country. The sage acquiesced and his arrival brought copious rains. King Lomapada had an adopted daughter called Shanta (her real father being King Dasharatha). She was given in marriage to Rshyashrnga who along with her, retired to the forests to perform penances. He was sought out by Dasharatha on the advice of sage Vasishtha for performing the putrakAmEShTi sacrifice. The sacrifice was successful resulting in the birth of Rama and his brothers.
The history of Sringeri then remained uneventful till Adi Sankara (788-820AD/805-837AD) arrived at this picturesque hamlet in the foothills of the Western Ghats. Sankara was returning from the north, fresh from his victory over Mandana Misra (jewel among scholars) whose real name was Vishwarupa and who was an authority in the Vedic school of Purvamimamsa. On his defeat Mandana embraced Advaita and became a monk in the order of Sankara, taking on the name of Sureshwara. Travelling with him, Sankara arrived in Sringeri, where he was fascinated by the sight of a cobra shielding a pregnant frog from the harsh rays of the summer sun. Deciding that such a peaceful spot where even natural enemies coexist was the ideal place, he set up a monastery there. He installed Goddess Saraswati (Sarada) on a hill nearby. He worshipped a crystal linga by the name of Chandramouleeswara and a Ganapati idol with a ruby embedded in it. This idol, the Ratnagarbha Ganapati and the Shiva Linga, form the core of the puja at the Sringeri Sarada Peetham till date. Sringeri was the first among the four Peethas (sacred establishments) set up by Sankara, the others being located at Puri, Dwaraka and Badrinath. The seat is also referred to as Dakshinamnaya Peetham ( the Southern Seat of the Benedictory Instruction). Sureshwara became the first head of the holy order at the Sarada Peetham.
Since then, there has been an unbroken chain of Jagadgurus or Peethadhipatis, with the present pontiff Bharati Teertha being the thirty sixth in that august line. The succession is purely decided on the basis of merit, with the reigning pontiff making the selection from a set of suitable disciples. It is indeed divine grace that each of the pontiffs has been a glorious personage eminently suited to the post.
The middle ages saw several eminent pontiffs of whom Vidya Sankara or Vidya Tirtha was one. With the help of his disciple Bharati Krishna, he had a pit dug on the banks of the Tunga river and entered it in a state of yOga. He instructed his disciples to excavate the pit after twelve years. When this was done, it was found that the Acharya had transformed into a Chaturmurti Vidyeshwara (four faced Lord of Learning). This idol can still be seen.
Yet another stellar Acharya was Vidyaranya. Vidyaranya appears to have travelled far and wide and during these he met the brothers Harihara and Bukka and helped them found the Vijayanagar Empire in the year 1336. It was Vidyaranya who wrote the Madhaviyasankaravijayam, a work on the life of Adi Sankara, from which the opening verse of this account is extracted. With the Vijayanagar Empire on the ascendant, the power of the Sringeri Peetham also waxed, with several vast tracts of land being gifted to it by successive kings. The Peetham was given the right to wield temporal powers in the areas under its control and an inscription dated 1403 AD even refers to the then pontiff, Narasimha Bharati I, by the title of Wodeyar, which was the title of the Mysore rulers. The pontifical seat was however always referred to as the throne of Dharma and thus distinguished from that of the king.
With the fall of Vijayanagar in 1565AD, the areas surrounding Sringeri came under the control of the Muslim rulers of Bijapur. By 1637AD all the erstwhile Vijayanagar lands had been taken over by Randaula Khan, emissary of the Mohammed Adil Shah of Bijapur. However, by a special firman, the lands belonging to the Peetham were spared and during the pontifical reign of Satchidananda Bharati (1662-63AD), Randaula even sent his salams to the illustrious seer and restored the lands up to Shimoga to the Peetham.
With the arrival of the Nizam Shahi rule in Hyderabad, the Peetham had to deal with them too. Nizam Ul Mulk, the founder, conferred several grants to the Peetham which his son further enhanced in 1782. Meanwhile Mysore had come under the control of Hyder Ali (1717-1782), though it was still nominally ruled by the Wodeyars. During his tenure, Hyder showed the greatest respect to the Jagadgurus of the Peetham and when his bitter enemy, the Peshwa, Madhava Rao and his uncle Raghunatha invited the pontiff Abhinava Satchidananda Bharati on a tour of Poona and its surroundings, Hyder sent the Guru an escort comprising elephants, horses, palanquins, camels and Rs 10,500 towards travel expenses.
Hyder?s son Tipu Sultan (1753-1799) too greatly venerated the Peetham and when during the third Mysore War (1790-92), a Maratha general looted Sringeri, Tipu Sultan wrote a letter to Satchidananda Bharati III (1770-1814) and also sent money for restoration of the holy precincts. The fourth Mysore War (1799) saw the death of Tipu and the restoration of Wodeyar rule. The dynasty considered the Sringeri Jagadgurus to be their preceptors and greatly added to the lands and estates under the Peetham?s control. Similarly the royal families of Travancore, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram and Sivaganga too came under the spiritual guidance of the seers of Sringeri. In time the Peetham?s influence spread as far as Nepal, Gwalior and Baroda. With the coming of independence in 1947, the new rulers continued their veneration with several such as Babu Rajendra Prasad, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi being ardent devotees of the Acharyas of Sringeri.
Some of the recent Acharyas
Several are the great sayings and deeds of the Acharyas who have graced the Peetha. Of these the highlights in the lives of some of the Acharyas are given below:
Satchidananda Sivabhinava Nrsimha Bharati (1856-1912) ? Nrsimha Bharati Swamigal took to monastic orders in 1865 and was ordained successor to His Holiness ?Ugra? Nrsimha Bharati in that year. He succeeded to the pontificate in 1880. By the power of his penance, he was able to identify the exact location of Sankara?s birth in Kalady (in present day Kerala) and with the cooperation of the Maharajahs of Mysore, Travancore and Cochin, land was acquired there for the construction of a temple, which was completed in 1910.
Chandrashekhara Bharati Swamigal (1892-1954)- Considered till date as being a Jivan Mukta (a realized soul even while in a corporeal form), Chandrashekhara Bharati became the pontiff in 1912. By 1916 he had completed the renovation of the great temples of Sringeri and embarked on a tour of south India. In 1927 he returned to Sringeri and completely immersed himself in meditation from which he rarely emerged. Realising that the Peetham required administration, he nominated on 22nd May 1931, his successor Abhinava Vidyateertha Swamigal. Chandrashekhara Bharati travelled once more in 1938 to Bangalore and Travancore, but by 1940 had returned to his beloved Sringeri where he once again went into solitude in the Narasimhatapovana. His body lost all suggestion of being purely material and appeared sublimated into spirit, radiating a halo all around. Chandrashekhara Bharati shuffled off his mortal coils while having his dip in the river Tunga Bhadra on September 26th 1954. His act of jala Samadhi is considered a miracle by itself, his body having floated up instantaneously with not a drop of water having entered his lungs.
Abhinava Vidyateertha Swamigal ( 1917- 1989) ? Popularly referred to as Maha Sannidhanam, Sri Vidya Teertha was appointed successor in 1931 and became pontiff in 1954. His was a life of meditation and arduous travels as he strived to take the philosophy of Sankara to all corners of the country. A majestic personality who combined erudition and great powers, he was venerated by millions of devotees. The Acharya established several branches of the Sringeri Peetham, besides renovating the earlier ones and greatly strengthened the order. He nominated Bharati Teertha Swamigal (b1951), who is referred to as Sannidhanam, as his successor in n1973. Sri Sannidhanam is the present pontiff of the Peetham.
Temples of Sringeri
Sringeri abounds in temples, all of them closely associated with the pontiffs of the Peetham. The oldest however are those of Sarada, Malahannikareswara and Vidyasankara, all of which are identified in the documents of Harihara II of Vijayanagara, who began the construction of a well defined agrahara (settlement) in Sringeri. The original Sarada temple was a simple construction with a sandalwood image of the Goddess with a Sri Chakra carved on a rock by Adi Sankara himself. Vidyaranya had the sandalwood image replaced with one made of gold and he had a temple built in the Malnad and West Coast styles for the Goddess. This has since been renovated and added to. Goddess Sarada is four armed and is the embodiment of Saraswati.
The Vidyasankara Temple was built in 1338AD. Built in a combination of Hoysala and Dravidian styles, it?s most striking architectural feature is a set of twelve pillars each of which has a sign of the zodiac carved on it. They are arranged in such a fashion that the rays of the sun fall on them in the order of the solar months.
The Malahannikareswara shrine stands in the heart of Sringeri and is said to mark the site where sage Vibhandaka merged with the supreme. It is on a hillock and also has a shrine to Goddess Bhavani. The temple has a pillar on which Sri Abhinava Nrsimha Bharati (1599-1622) once drew the profile of Ganapati with turmeric. This has since bulged out to form an icon.
There are besides these, temples dedicated to Janardhana, Bindu Madhava, Kala Bhairava, Kalika, Durga, Hanuman, Subrahmanya and many other deities. The town of Sringeri and the Peetham premises are ever bustling hives of development with new shrines and monastery premises being added all the time. The Peetham has also adapted itself to the calls of modernity, with several schools, colleges, hospitals, vEda pAThashAlas and other noble causes receiving its continuous attention and help. Free feeding of the thousands who visit the shrine is carried out on a daily basis. The cleanliness observed in Sringeri is one of the most awe inspiring features of the place.
The Navaratri Festival is the most popular and awe inspiring event in Sringeri. Goddess Sarada is decorated in different attire each day and is placed on different mounts. Music performances are held and the reigning pontiff is arrayed in Durbar costume and holds court for all his disciples. This festival was instituted by Satchidananda Bharati (1705-41). Besides the Rathotsava (car festival), the Dipotsava (festival of lights) and the Kartika festivals are also popular.
The Performing Arts
Being a seat of learning and culture, Sringeri has naturally played a prominent role in the fostering of the arts. Sri Sankara himself laid the seeds with his rich shlokas which when set to tune form an integral part of any music performance. The Sarada Bhujanga Prayatashtakam, composed by him is a set of eight verses on the presiding deity of this seat.
Sadasiva Brahmendra, the avadhuta saint who composed several songs on the Supreme, has always been held in deep veneration by the pontiffs of the Sarada Peetham. Beginning with Nrsimha Bharati VIII (1817-1879), several pontiffs have visited his Samadhi at Nerur and worshipped there.
Several musicians and composers have visited Sringeri. Mysore Sadasiva Rao and the Anai Ayya brothers were among the earliest. Anai Ayya composed saraNu saraNu (cenjuruTTi) at this holy spot. Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan visited Sringeri during the Navaratri of 1885 and composed a kriti beginning srI sankara guruvaram, for which he was rewarded by Satchidananda Shivabhinava Nrsimha Bharati Swamigal. Patnam Subramania Iyer too visited the shrine. In the next generation Mysore Vasudevachar and Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar too composed on the shrine. Muthiah Bhagavatar?s shiva aShTottara kritis were performed here for the first time and he was honoured by Chandrashekhara Bharati Swamigal for his efforts. Sri Chandrashekhara Bharati himself wrote lyrics for several kritis in which he even specified the ragas to be used. The last Maharajah of Mysore, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, was a great composer himself. Using the mudra of Sri Vidya he composed songs in several rare ragas. The kriti vandEham sadA in hamsanaTani is one of his works on Goddess Sarada. Papanasam Sivan?s sAradE in dEvagAndhAri is one of the finest works of that composer. Besides TG Krishna Iyer, who composed using the mudra of Lalitha Dasa and whose songs were set to tune by Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, also created songs on Sringeri. Of these shrI sAradAmbikE in kharaharapriya is one. The present pontiff Bharati Teertha has composed lyrics for kritis on Saradamba and Sankaracharya and these have been set to music by V Subrahmaniam, disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. V Subrahmaniam also set to tune the works of Chandrashekhara Bharati.
The Navaratri festival has traditionally been the time for music performances in Sringeri and several artistes have been honoured by the Peetham.
Sringeri continues to guide the seekers of the truth and lead them to the Supreme. Its pontiffs are the embodiments of what Sankara defined as the role of a guru ? One who ever contemplates the well being of the disciples.