700 Years After a Disappearance: A Meditation on Sri Madhvacharya, My Father and Memory

Seven hundred years ago, almost to the day, he entered the dark stone chambers of an ancient temple and was never seen again.

Some say he vanished under a shower of flowers from heaven, and others more rationally explain that he probably walked away from human society, his work in our world done. Some believe that he still lives on in a distant Himalayan hermitage, invisible to mortal eyes.

Whatever our intellectual inclinations might be, whatever our spectrum of reasonable belief might be, we are but fortunate to remember those like Sri Madhvacharya (1238-1317), philosopher, saint, scholar, athlete and founder of one of the most vibrant devotional traditions in India (and indirectly, around the world too).

Last weekend, in the holy temple town of Udupi in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, a gathering of saints and devotees took place in honor of Sri Madhvacharya. Prime Minister Modi addressed the gathering via videoconferencing and evoked the names of saints and sages from Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and other traditions and their great deeds in stimulating India's social conscience from time to time. Contrary to the vague colonial and neo-colonial notion many of us grew up learning in our schools that our religious thinkers were often concerned only with "otherworldly" affairs like reincarnation and salvation, the legacy of India's saints and devotees has always been connected with concerns about the real lives of people.

I learned about Madhvacharya primarily through my father, and my extended family. Our traditional family deities were Krishna, Venkateshwara, and preeminent saints from the Dvaita tradition like Sri Raghavendra Swami. My aunts, Indira Jaya Rao and Malathi Padmanabha Rao were great exponents and teachers of Carnatic music, and sang the songs of the Dasaras, the Dvaita-inspired popular-devotional (bhakti) singers from the days of the Vijayanagara empire.

Later, my father and mother became devotees of an unconventional deity, a living god as it were. He was a child of a simple peasant family from a poor Indian village who said he was an incarnation of Shiva and Shakti, and my father, a devout Madhva, had no qualms in accepting him, and treating him with the same reverence and love he had for his traditional family deities. Sri Sathya Sai Baba spoke in his discourses mainly about the Advaita tradition, but somehow, in my father's conception of things, it was never one or the other, never Shiva or Vishnu, Raghavendra or Baba, this or that. He spoke with affection to everyone, rich or poor, and he gave generously to charities and the needy of all faiths, leaving me the legacy of a life lived in good deeds and affection for all.

My father never forgot who he was, nor did he forget who the other was.

When he passed away two years ago, I remember the sober and powerful mood at the tenth day ceremony, and the fact that one of the people who offered a traditional, ritualistic Hindu gesture of reverence to his memory was an old and trusted aide of his, an elderly Muslim man. His mere presence was enough to have showed that he respected and loved my father, but the quiet and confident way he walked up to the altar, sure of his place in my father's world as his own, remains an example to me of friendship and religiosity beyond mere form.

My father never forgot himself, or the other, because he knew what the saints had said, even the most seemingly "traditional" or "orthodox."

The Madhvacharya I know has come to me mainly through the words and affectionate examples of my father. Over the years, I have also come to see bits and pieces of Sri Madhvacharya's world, of his sacred geography; the lush green farms of coastal Karnataka, the hills of the Western ghats, the sea where he supposedly saved a ship from capsizing by calming a violent gale with a mere mantra (Madhva is said to be an embodiment of Vayu, the wind-god, in a series consisting of Hanuman, Bheema and Madhva himself), and most of all, the sacred Krishna temple in Udupi. I recall the awe I felt when I visited the temple on Guru Purnima day nearly one decade ago, and followed the pontiff (the pontiffs take turn heading the ceremonies at the temples from eight different monastic orders established by Sri Madhvacharya) as he offered prayers and food to cows, saints, and deities, followed by one of the largest mass feedings done regularly in Indian temples.

For several centuries, a legacy has been practiced, without change in intent, understanding or execution.

And yet, even as the ritual legacies of worship remain, a determined struggle has also been launched in the tradition in changing the legacies of social exclusion and hierarchy that divide and demean self and other. The present pontiff of the Udupi temple, a gentle and boyish-looking 85 year old saint and healer known popularly and affectionately as Pejawar Swami (from the Pejawar tradition which is one of the eight mathas or orders established by Sri Madhvacharya) was among the major traditional Hindu leaders in independent India to have broken several hurtful and oppressive caste-based rules against social interaction between certain castes in a symbolic gesture of healing and inclusion.

The most inspiring example I remember of Pejawar Swami is watching him ease the tension in the monastery hall one day when a young and enthusiastic student slipped on the wet floor and dropped all the sacred and ancient figurines he was carrying. The room froze in silence at the sacrilege, but Pejawar Swami laughed, setting an example to all that fun and love are more appropriate in the presence of the divine rather than fear and stiffness!

I share some of these memories because the way a culture remembers its past has an enormous bearing on what it decides to do with its present and the future. In the time of my childhood, mixed up between a Nehruvian-rational conception of the world and a deeply rooted traditional one expressed as mysticism, we accepted many more things as fate than we do today perhaps. Today, we see religious traditions less as some inviolable custom and more as a cultural resource for cultivating kindness and truth. For me, the memory of Sri Madhvacharya's life has also been an example of such a change. Although the world of his commentaries and scholarly works is vast and influential, what remains most inspiring is the sense of devotion that we see in the tales of his life; the way he supposedly held the long-lost sacred figurine of the child Krishna like a parent in his arms, and ran from the beach through the forests composing and singing 12 songs of praise (the Dvaadasha Stotram), and the way in which as a child he answered his worried father that the Lord himself had taken his hand and led him through the forest to his temple.

The Krishna temple, and the older Ananteswara temple in Udupi where Madhvacharya is said to have vanished are still there to this day. I do not know what secrets and what clues to the inner universe those places hold. But the greatest lesson perhaps to those of us living in this bubble called existence, with its trappings of culture and traps of petty posture, is that absence is only what we make of it. As I remember the dark and silent space of the Ananteswara temple, I think of the vanishing of Madhvacharya, and my father, and all who are seemingly gone. And I think that somehow in another time, on another day in the future, someone will stand there too, a parent and a child, at that site, and somehow, some prompting from nature, from the universe, will make that child say it was the Lord himself who showed her or him the way.

Seven hundred years after, we are in our self, and we are in the other; and we worship in that moment when we know we are same.