A SCEPTIC'S PILGRIMAGE | May 9th 2008
A cranky cynic, Anand Prakash didn't know what to expect from his summer of ashram-hopping. But he found something unexpectedly heartening in the story of Anandathirtha, a formidable monk and his namesake ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Pop Hinduism permeates global culture. Yoga practitioners worldwide can access it to lower their blood pressures. The transcendentally disgruntled can "find" themselves by reading the New Age musings of Deepak Chopra. Seekers can find cultivate true peace by chanting the primordial "om". And the really frisky few can check out the codified set of ancient acrobatics inspired by Kama, the divine embodiment of love. But beneath this, richer and more resilient, lies a remarkable history of serious theological conflict and evolution. This was when my namesake, a formidable monk named Anandathirtha, arrived on the scene and shook things up.
This came to my mind last summer, as I was trekking through the Himalayan villages, ashrams, and glaciers of north India. Within 100km of New Delhi there is a cluster of religious sites that lure believers from around the globe. As a cranky sceptic who laps up the work of the bestselling antitheists, I was an unlikely pilgrim. But my mother had convinced me to join her, dangling the prospect of a side excursion to historic Mughal Agra, as well as a trip to our ancestral digs in the south. So I dutifully packed my suitcase and the sceptical chip on my shoulder and pushed off for the hotbeds of Vedic spiritualism.
A wild week of mountain grub and ashram-hopping depleted my supply of Pepto-Bismol and taxed my ageing lungs, so I had to wait for retrospect and a resting heart rate to appraise my trip. I later reflected on the fact that it was at one of our stops, in the ancient city of Badrinath, that Anandathirtha (also known as Madhva) concluded a pilgrimage of his own. He then disappeared, melting into seven centuries of history, legend, and devotion.
Hinduism, as it is understood by laymen and cocktail-party goers, usually involves liberation from rebirth and a merging with the divine. This approach has a prominent and rich tradition within Vedanta. Known as the Advaita philosophy, it was refined by the scholar Adi Shankara, and it dominated Hindu spiritual life for at least three centuries by Madhva's time. It is also the philosophy with which Madhva spent his life locked in combat. (It is an historical pity that he could never meet and go toe-to-toe with Adi Shankara himself.)
According to his biographers, Madhva grew up in what is now Karnataka state, where he showed an early talent for theology, mastering Vedic scriptures with little effort. But he struggled with the Hindu belief of merging with the divine. He developed a theology that declared the supremacy of one god over all the rest. More importantly, he preached a philosophy of robust dualism: the essential separation of the Creator and the creation.
Armed with rhetorical skill and apparently boundless confidence in his own formulations, Madhva travelled throughout southern India, subduing his antagonists in debate and winning many over to his side. With a stout collection of apostles, Madhva made the town of Udupi the centre of his school and established the eight maths, or temple-monasteries, that would serve as the strongholds of his "Dvaita" philosophy.
A fascinating folklore surrounds the person of Madhvacharya in south India. As a bearer of his name, the descriptions that interest me the most are those depicting a figure of resplendent appearance, athletic talent and prodigious intellectual competence (naturally). Portraits reveal a determined-looking, well-built monk with saffron garb, holding the scriptures in his left hand and, always, raising the two-fingered V sign of dualism in his right.
Along with the familiar litany of feats and miracles ascribed to such men and women, of course there is the miraculous end: Madhva literally disappeared into history. Having established the math complex in southern India, he set out on a pilgrimage to the north sometime early in the 14th century and, in the belief of the faithful, attained moksha "transcendence” at Badrinath. He left behind a venerable monastic tradition and a community that refers to itself by his name to this day.
This history sunk in only after I had recovered from my own pilgrimage. I was reminded of it again late last year, when storm clouds gathered and dissent struck the Madhva schools.
At issue was the ascension of the dean of the Puttige monastery, one of the eight schools, to the job of performing worship in the Udupi temple. Direction of the worship is awarded on rotation, with the title passing to a new dean every two years. With an elaborate processional and ceremony, the new head priest enters the temple in Udupi and begins his term.
But there was a problem: the prospective head priest had accumulated more frequent flier miles than the average diplomat. He had travelled widely in the United States and Europe, meeting President George Bush (surely not a sin in itself?) and visiting strife-torn regions such as the Balkans. His detractors, including a fellow priest, cited scriptures suggesting that travel across the "seven seas" disqualified him from the post. The swami struck back in an interview with the Hindu, saying "They consider only India as a holy land, while I consider the whole earth as holy. I do not believe people living in foreign countries are sinners."
The notion of travel outside of India as being spiritually polluting was once more prominent. Motilal Nehru, father of India's first prime minister, was excommunicated by his Kashmiri Brahmin community after he refused to undergo purification ceremonies following a trip to Europe. In this more recent case of the head priest, crankiness evolved into crisis as lay Madhvas took sides. The events made headlines in prominent Indian newspapers and websites. The small but well-informed Madhva diaspora even joined in, with some American Madhvas travelling to south India to support the beleaguered priest. Eventually, after public negotiations and whatever passes for smoky backroom dealings in priestly circles, the Puttige dean ascended to the position on January 18th. He was met with great fanfare and not a little misgiving among the parties opposed. A crisis was defused.
And so here we are. Even as I kick back with my copies of Hitchens and Harris, I find it rewarding to consider the spiritual lessons of the past few months. It seems that as the world's most powerful monotheisms undergo their own theological headaches, observers may look to the monk from south India and the most recent case of his followers to appreciate a process in microcosm. The grievances were, to many, ridiculous. The conflict was unseemly. And the solution was unwelcome in many quarters. But the community decided to concentrate on the nobler aspects of its tradition and deferred to civility. In a cosy corner of the subcontinent, one proud, ancient community is making its negotiation with modernity.
(Anand Prakash is a writer based in Washington, DC.)