IN THE LATE 50s, for students of Siddaganga Mutt school in Karnataka’s Tumkur district, the day began at 5.30 am with prayers, after which they would be sent to gather stones from fields to build educational institutions. As a 12-year-old, Chambi Puranik hated that task. Being from the city, he found it difficult to adjust to the discipline and rigorous routine at the school, often slipping out with friends to watch English movies. Then one morning, he heard the head pontiff Shivakumara Swami say in a lecture that one should be honest to one’s “antaratma” (soul). It was a lesson he kept in mind all his life, even though after four months Puranik left the school and returned to the city.
“I could not manage. That was my shortcoming. But that short stay taught me integrity,” says Puranik, an educationist and former professor of political science at University of Mysore, who continued to visit the seer regularly. Every morning, the pontiff would engage with children as part of an exercise to impart what some describe as ‘education with ethics’.
In 1958-59, the school had a few thousand students and Puranik recalls they came from all religions and castes. “He was a visionary. He realised the importance of education for all, particularly the poor. It was till then a privilege of the elite. It is injustice to call him a ‘Lingayat pontiff’. He was much more than that,” he says. When Shivakumara Swami took over as the head of the math in 1941 it had just four educational institutions under it. Today, it runs around 130 schools with 15,000 students.
Fires in the math kitchen have been burning since 1917 to serve rice and raagi balls with curd, apart from vegetables grown in its fields. Shivakumara Swami carried on the tradition of Anna Dashooha, providing three meals a day, inspecting the food himself almost daily. In the late 70s, he is believed to have agreed to a demand for ‘sah-pankti bhojanam’ (all castes eating together). Later, then Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde gave land to maths to set up institutes. Puranik says at one meeting with him, the seer expressed sadness over corruption and told him officials and politicians were demanding bribes to release grants to educational institutions.
By the time he passed away on January 21st, at the age of 111, he was called Nadedaduva Devaru (‘walking god’). Condolences poured in from leaders across parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi. Politicians, from the last Maharaja of Mysore, the Gandhis, Modi to state leaders, have travelled to Tumkur, 70 km from Bengaluru, for the pontiff’s blessings. He, however, remained equidistant from all parties. Mubarak Ali Chhote Saab, a hostel in-charge at the math, says Swami treated poor visitors and politician alike.
Mubarak, who did his secondary school from the math in 1998, recalls the day eight years ago when he went back to it. “Guruji told me there is no religion or caste here. Whoever comes should work truthfully.” On another occasion while giving Mubarak fruits when he was about to break his Ramzan fast, he told him there is one God, but everyone has different ways of praying. In the early 90s, the seer reportedly condemned the demolition of the Babri Masjid, saying that nobody had the right to destroy another’s place of worship.
His apolitical stance did not deter politicians. “He had enormous influence on the people. If he endorsed somebody, people would believe him,” says Harish Ramaswamy, a political analyst. The entire economy of Tumkur, which became a centre for learning, changed. “An educated ascetic himself, he taught the locals how to improve their lives and instilled spirituality in the hearts and minds of those who revered his math against a mere ritualistic way of life. He was a model worth emulating even for the ordinary.”
Initiated into the Viraktha Ashrama in 1930 at 22, he believed in the ‘Kayaka’ (work) and ‘Dashooha’ (contributing to society) philosophy of Basavanna, a 12th century philosopher, poet and social reformer who revolted against caste and founded a community of Lingayats whose political preferences are decisive in Karnataka. The math was dragged into a political controversy in the run-up to the state elections in September 2017, when the Congress government granted the status of a separate religion to Lingayats in a bid to wean away votes from the BJP, which was then led by BS Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat himself. The math had put out a statement at the time, clarifying it did not favour any division of the community.
“As head of one of the oldest maths, Shivakumara Swami was seen as one of the most revered and powerful voices among religious institutions and had the respect of all political parties,” says Sandeep Shastri, another political scientist.
Born Shivanna in Veerapura, Ramanagara district, he embodied what he preached. Beginning his day at 2 am, he would study for an hour. By 3.30 am, he would be ready for meditation, puja and bhajans. He spent two hours in the morning and evening with students. At night, he would spend three hours studying the works of philosophers.