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Swami And Fiends

By S. Anand

23 November, 2004
The Outlook

Why He Got Caught

Calls traced from the Shankara Math's manager's cellphone to contract killers

Two prime suspects confess to interacting with Jayendra Saraswati on Sankararaman's murder

Police have evidence linking Appu, who is said to be the man who organised the murder, with Jayendra Saraswati

Prosecution claims it has proof of the money having been paid to the killers from a sub-trust of the math

Jayendra Saraswati's interview, saying: "My bhaktas could have killed Sankararaman"

This Diwali, darkness descended on the Shankara math in Kanchipuram. The head of one of the most powerful religious institutions in the country, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, was arrested as the first accused on the charge of masterminding the brutal killing of his detractor, A. Sankararaman, a former math functionary. The arrest had the approval of chief minister J. Jayalalitha to whom Jayendra Saraswati had played the role of raj-guru till about a year ago.

When the police arrested Hinduism's most public face in Mehboobnagar, Andhra Pradesh, he was reportedly speaking on a mobile phone owned by an industrialist. "He was not exactly performing trikala puja as was reported in the media," a senior police official told Outlook. Public prosecutor K. Duraiswamy says another industrialist had arranged a copter to help the pontiff flee to the Hindu theocracy of Nepal. The prosecutor's words were strong: "Jayendra Saraswati is the most undeserving criminal deserving no special treatment. We are also devotees of the math. We respect the seat but not the individual occupying it."

Over the years, muck has been accumulating behind the math walls. Hard to believe, but scandalous stories of sleaze, debauchery, greed and sex are doing the rounds. The math, which has come to own assets worth Rs 2,000 crore, courted powerful leaders as well as controversy. Accretion of property necessitated contacts with rowdy elements, apparently leading to a Mumbai underworld-style supari killing. In an interview to Nakkheeran, the Tamil bi-weekly which first broke the murder story, Jayendra Saraswati charged: "There are several complaints on the junior pontiff's brother Raghu, including affairs with women." An investigating officer confirmed: "There's a lot we found about the abuse of women in the math and the financial mess. But our investigation deals only with the murder and we have a watertight case against the pontiff."

Even as he was playing peacemaker in the Ayodhya issue during the NDA regime, Jayendra Saraswati had some serious firefighting to do back home with Sankararaman, 52, a manager with the Varadarajaperumal temple. He has been estranged from the math since the death in 1994 of Jayendra's predecessor, Chandrasekharendra Saraswati. In October 2001, he had an altercation with Jayendra Saraswati and math officials while paying respects at Chandrasekharendra Saraswati's samadhi. Since 2001, Sankararaman had been expressing disapproval of the "moral and financial decrepitude" in the math in letters to the math and the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department. He later began sending copies of his letters to Nakkheeran.

This year, Sankararaman wrote a series of letters dated May 13, May 20, May 24, July 12, July 30, August 8 and finally on August 30—three days before he was murdered. He repeatedly referred to the misappropriation of temple-related funds by the senior Shankaracharya, Jayendra Saraswati, and the junior Shankaracharya, Vijayendra Saraswati, and to the "materialistic and physical pleasures" the pontiffs were getting used to.

He ridiculed both swamis for being "closeted for long hours with certain women".The pursuit of ungodly matters, he alleged, resulted in the neglect of basic rituals like the 'Chandramouleeswara puja'. Sankararaman also accused both sanyasis of not rising above familial attachments: Jayendra Saraswati's brothers Visu and Ramakrishnan, and Vijayendra Saraswati's brother Raghu play key roles in math affairs. In his August 30 letter, ironically titled 'The Final Notice', Sankararaman threatened to take the math to court and get Jayendra Saraswati sacked under the HR&CE Act.

Following Nakkheeran's reports on Sankararaman's murder, Jayendra Saraswati gave an interview to the magazine (September 25) in which he said: "I have bhaktas who shed tears even if my toenail aches. Sankararaman is not the kind of man you can talk to and convince. Unable to witness the constant harassment, some of my bhaktas may have been responsible for Sankararaman's end." First, the police misled the math stating that all they needed was for the murderers to surrender.

On October 27, five persons surrendered claiming to be the killers. Following interrogation the police team arrested 10 people. Enquiries, confessions and material evidence seized from them firmly established the pontiff's involvement. The case registered against Jayendra Saraswati spans Sections 302 (for murder), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence or giving false information to screen offender) and 205 (false personation for purpose of act or proceeding in suit or prosecution). In all, 19 persons, including Jayendra Saraswati, have been arrested so far. An investigating officer told Outlook, "After Sankararaman's final letter, the Shankaracharya seems to have got in touch with Appu and Kadiravan via Ramasubramanian. The three conspired with Jayendra Saraswati and hired six assassins who bludgeoned Sankararaman in the Varadarajaperumal temple premises on September 3."

Math officials told Outlook that differences had cropped up between the two pontiffs—Jayendra and Vijayendra Saraswati—over the last two years. The power struggle in the math dates back to 1983 when Paramacharya Chandrashekharendra Saraswati appointed 13-year-old Sankaran (rechristened Vijayendra Saraswati) as Shankaracharya because of his differences with Jayendra Saraswati. Three Shankaracharyas for a single math was unprecedented. On the night of August 22, 1987, Jayendra Saraswati abandoned his holy staff and "disappeared" from the math and was traced to Talacauvery in Karnataka. On August 25, 1987, the Paramacharya formally anointed Vijayendra Saraswati as the math head. The treasury key and account books were handed over to the teenage pontiff. When Jayendra Saraswati returned after 17 days, a compromise was worked out. So, when Chandrasekharendra Saraswati died in 1994, the Kanchi math was left with two heads.

Differences between Chandrasekharendra Saraswati and Jayendra Saraswati arose essentially over the latter's enthusiasm for politics and keenness on a larger role for the math, rather than puja and Vedic studies. Vocal in his pro-Ram mandir views, Jayendra Saraswati started the Jan Kalyan and Jan Jagaran movements. In 1989, he even announced that Jan Kalyan would participate in elections. He began to attract several people in power—cabinet ministers, bureaucrats, judges, industrialists and nri Brahmins sympathetic to the emerging Hindutva movement. The Shankaracharya's national ascendance coincides with the ascension of Hindutva. Not surprisingly, his decline comes when Hindutva is waning. Says N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu, "In his personal and political actions, he aspired to be Hindusim's first pope. This unfortunately got intertwined with the VHP's agenda".

This is not the first time Jayendra Saraswati seems to have organised an attack through goons.In September 2002, Radhakrishnan, earlier associated with the math, was attacked by a two-member gang allegedly at Jayendra Saraswati's behest. Journalist K.P. Sunil recalls that in 1989, after he filed an interview with Jayendra Saraswati, he was threatened by thugs sent by the math.

One of Sankararaman's basic charges—financial irregularities—seems to be a natural outcome of the math's propensity to amass wealth. "Senior math officials are hand-picked Brahmins retired from banks, the income tax and police departments.They are considered competent to 'fix' problems," says Sunil.

In the 1990s, the math entered the businesses of education and healthcare. Besides Veda pathshalas and 17 Oriental schools, the math today runs 38 Sankara schools.Within two years of its establishment, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami Viswa Mahavidyalaya in Kanchi was bestowed deemed university status by then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1993. The math also runs several hospitals, including the Kamakoti Child's Trust Hospital in Chennai. In April 2003, the Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Sankara Charitable Trust acquired the super-specialty Tamilnadu Hospitals for Rs 45 crore. The math had also been pursuing the idea of establishing medical colleges.

However, these institutions were not run professionally. According to a senior doctor with Child's Trust, the math administered hospitals like it did temples. When asked about the high fees charged at Child's Trust Hospital, Jayendra Saraswati said, "We must first recover the Rs 9 crore invested and then think about charity." In 2001, there were reports about discrimination between Brahmin and non-Brahmin students at the university run by the math. In June 2004, V. Balasubramanian, correspondent of Sri Sankara Vidyalaya School in Pondicherry, wrote to the director of education: "The school is run with commercial motive, but admission to Christian and Muslim candidates has been avoided. Ponmalar, a periodical, is imposed on every student on the recommendation of Sri Ramakrishnan, brother of His Holiness, just to promote sales."

But now Jayendra Saraswati being named as the first accused in a murder case has dismayed many of his followers. Says S. Krishnaswamy who made a documentary film on the Kanchi math ten years ago: "Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal must relinquish his post. Devotees should allow the legal processes to proceed. We should not close our eyes. The math should also not throw its weight around by meeting vvips." Well-wishers of the math seem to have decided to let the law take its course and are trying to launch a salvage operation. This has led devotees like Cho Ramaswamy to defend Jayalalitha and those like former president R. Venkataraman to maintain silence. "The math should now concentrate on its spiritual work and look ahead. The institution must not be allowed to die. The math has several followers and it must continue to function," says Ram.

But Sankararaman had cast aspersions on the junior pontiff Viyayendra Saraswati as well. The boat has been rocked, a new captain has set sail, but the leaks are yet to be plugged.

©Outlook Publishing (India) Private Limited 2004











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