“Your Attention, Please!”


Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

Srimate SrivanSatakopa Sri Vedanta Desika Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

Once upon a time, there was a large flock of sheep. Times were prosperous, rains were timely and lands were covered with succulent grass. The sheep grazed to their hearts’ content, were happy and contented and led a life of peace and tranquillity. The flock was looked after ably by several Shepherds, who knew all the fertile grasslands and led the sheep unerringly to them daily for grazing. They knew too how to avoid dangerous paths, where predators lay in wait, eager to pounce and feast on the fattened sheep and goats. Throughout the night, the Shepherds kept vigil, without sleeping a wink, lest a tiger or fox sneak in and claim an unsuspecting victim from the flock. The sheep were extremely obedient and followed their Shepherds without deviation. Not a single one went astray and the Shepherds never had an occasion to count the sheep before closing the gates of the ranch. The herd multiplied and prospered, growing from strength to strength, and became the envy of all farmer s for miles around. The flock was held out to be an example, whenever the talk of cattle arose in the neighbourhood.

Such a situation, you would agree, was too good to last, and in due time, things began to change.

While grazing, one of the sheep, the youngest of the flock, met another of its own age, but belonging to another flock, which had strayed from its own. While sharing a cud of succulent grass, the new sheep told the young one of the extremely green and tasty grass that was to be found in far-off pastures. It appeared that the newcomer was on its own, having separated from its friends and relatives. When it described to the young one the pleasures of freedom from the strict discipline of the flock, the independence to go where it chose, the lack of control by any Shepherd, etc., the young one too was tempted. Realising little that discipline and restraint were for its own good, the young and ignorant lamb fell prey to temptation and decided to walk off one day, without heeding the Shepherd’s call for all sheep to return at the end of grazing. It just sneaked off with the newcomer, in search of fresh pastures and freedom.

Having left the safety and security of the parent flock and entrusted its fortunes to the stray sheep, the lamb duly fell into further bad company. Not only did it go astray, it returned to the flock clandestinely and tempted other sheep too to follow it, with promises of a pleasurable and free life. Temptation and avarice are such powerful destroyers of discipline, that the persuasive lamb found several followers in due course, who too broke away from the flock. All of them now belonged to a renegade group of sheep, all belonging to other, less-disciplined flocks, where the Shepherds were neither as dedicated nor dutiful. With none to lead them in safe paths, the truant sheep duly fell prey to a pack of wolves, which was for long lying in wait, and struck at an opportune moment. With no Shepherd to protect them, the sheep perished and along with them the young and impressionable lamb which had abandoned its own great flock.

Lest readers should start wondering where exactly this tale of sheep is heading, let me bring it to a close.

Our glorious Sri Vaishnava Sampradayam too is somewhat like the aforesaid flock of sheep. Time was when Srivaishnavites were an extremely disciplined and dedicated lot, with an abiding faith in their unerring Acharyas, who guided them in this life and, at the end of it, led them to the gates of Paradise. The word of Acharyas was held in greater reverence than the Scripture itself, a life of piety and Paropakaaram was considered worthier than one of plenty and prosperity. SriVaishnavite homes were not endowed with creature comforts like television, mixer, grinder, refrigerator or even a washing machine. Families were large and incomes insufficient. Despite all these, people led happy lives, were contented with what the Lord had blessed them with, helped their friends and relatives as much as they could, were guided by an innate sense of right and wrong imbibed from pious parents and fed from childhood with stories of Rama, Krishna, Azhwars and Acharyas. People of the Samprada ya commanded respect and reverence from other sections of society, who looked up to the former for guidance and wisdom.

The rot seeped in slowly, in the form of western influence. The first victims to this assault were the SriVaishnava’s physical appearance as well as his mental make-up. Having decided to go for employment, Vaishnavites found that it necessitated wholesale changes, head to foot, in the way one looked and behaved. And since at the place of employment, they encountered people of other persuasions and beliefs who were “fashionable”, Sri Vaishnavites too gradually became hesitant about adorning their foreheads with Tiruman and Sri Choornam. While some compromised by wearing just Sri Choornam, others gave it up totally. Feeling the absence of any mark on their foreheads, some tried a dash of vermilion, which they felt to be more “becoming”.

Having been blessed with abundant intelligence by the Lord for learning and propagating the Shastras, Sri Vaishnavites excelled in their employment too, soon rising to top positions within their organisations. With rank came prosperity, with prosperity came the necessity for socialising, and with socialising came the compulsion to abandon traditional and time-tested mores. Attendance at parties at evenings or at clubs with friends made it inconvenient to perform Sandhyavandanam and rendered it difficult to refuse food one was normally not accustomed to and that was mostly Raajasic and Taamasic. The need to keep oneself posted on the affairs of the world through the Newspaper, made it difficult to accommodate Brahma Yagyam or Tiruvaradhanam in the crowded morning hours, with time also having to be reserved for walking or jogging. Spare time, which was formerly spent in learning Vedas, Divya Prabandam and Stotras, was now spent before the idiot box or in the company of the new found friends, whose tastes were entirely different. Some of the hands that previously held the Vaidika Agni now began to sport a different type of Agni. And in the name of “giving company” and “being sociable”, the “Lakshman Rekha” of good conduct, maintained by innumerable generations over countless centuries, was breached, with predictable consequences.

It gradually became unfashionable to speak of one’s beliefs. And the need to be “broad minded” and “secular”, and not to distinguish between the Lord and other deities and demi-gods, was acutely felt, especially in view of the “enlightened company” one chose to keep. All Gods were equal, one felt, and it was archaic to adhere to practices of one’s forefathers, who had lived in times that were rather “backward”. It became the fashion to talk loftily about the rarefied concepts of Vedanta, without adhering to basic requirements of devotion or performing the nitya karmas ordained on one.

The Shruti lost its sheen, the Divya Prabandas their resonance and divya desams were visited mostly by the eager few bent upon notching up their tally of temples visited. Many glorious sannidhis teetered on the verge of dilapidation, the magnificent moorthies sung by Azhwars languishing uncared for and clothed in not-so-clean and sometimes torn apparel, in the place of the soft silk they used to wear. Whether Sri Vaishnavites visited the Lord’s abodes or not, they were “broad minded” enough to offer worship at other shrines. Contrary to Azhwar’s dictums, they became “Marandum puram tozhum maandar”, instead of the “Marandum puram tozhaa maandar” they originally were. It became common for Vaishnavites to pray to demi-gods for minor boons, forgetting that the Lord was a one-stop-shop for all our needs, right from relief from a common cold to grant of Moksham.

And after a couple of indifferent generations of such Sri Vaishnavites, what we have today is a younger generation that is fast losing its moorings—cultural, ethical, moral and spiritual. Most of our boys never even consider wearing Tiruman and Srichoornam and parents, having given up the practice, are in no position to insist, even if they want to. As for nitya karma, most of the parents having forsaken the basic minimum programme of Sandhyavandanam, do adorn their boys with the “Sacred Thread” at around 16 or 18 years of age (much beyond the appropriate age) but don’t even think of asking their wards to worship the Sandhya thrice daily. As for Veda adhyayanam, the less said the better—even mantras required for nitya karmas are hardly learnt by heart: in any case, the need doesn’t arise, since the karmas have been given up. When there is such widespread malady, can it fail to afflict the Purohits? It does, and they too willingly accept, aid and abet mantra lopam, dravya lo pam and kriya lopam, cutting short and even skipping rituals, to suit the attitude of Yajamaanaas.

Average Sishyas pay only lip service to the dicta of Acharyas and consider their duty done, if they send an occasional contribution to some cause or the other espoused by the Acharya. While unfailingly according due place to “Acharya anugraham” in their wedding invitations, they fail to approach these Preceptors for Samashrayanam and Bharanyasam in due time or to learn the esoteric truths and treasures that are rightfully theirs to claim.

The current plight of SriVaishanavas brings to mind Sri Prativadi Bhayankaram Anna’s words—

“Vede sanjaata khede, muni jana vachane praapta nitya avamaane,
sankeerne sarva varne sati tat anugune, nishpramaane Puraane
maayaa vaade samode kali kalusha vasaat soonya vaade vivaade”

Vedas, without seekers, have fallen on hard times. No one sets much store by the great Itihasas or Puranas, which are considered old wives’ tales. With all barriers of approved social, spiritual and moral conduct having fallen like nine pins, persuasive pseudo-Swamijis, clad in shiny, silky and flowing ochre robes and sporting bushy beards, reign supreme with their glib formulae for universal welfare.

If this state of affairs continues, what would be the fate of our sacred Sri Vaishnava Sampradayam fifty years, nay, even 25 years hence? What would be the state of our glorious divya desams, which even now languish without patrons or visitors? What would be the state of our ancient treasure house of wisdom, our Scriptures, of which learners are dwindling by the day? There is no doubt that Vedas, being eternal and endless, would definitely survive the holocaust through some devoted soul uttering them in some unspoilt corner of the globe, but what would happen to mass learning and recitation of the Shruti and what would happen to our Patashalas? What would be the state of mind of those philanthropic souls who set up such centres of learning in the hope that they would turn out future protectors of the Siddhantam? Was this what was envisaged by such great souls like Sri Ramanuja, Sri Bhattar, Sri Nampillai, Sri Pillai Lokacharya, Swami Desikan, Sri Adivan Satakopa Swami and Sr i Manavala Mamunigal, who composed such great treatises in such great number, hoping that they would serve as beacons of wisdom to the generations that followed? And what would be state of mind of Azhwars, when they see the divya desams they so lovingly sung about languishing without even minimum basic upkeep?

This, then, is the current state of affairs. The aforesaid narrative may strike you as exaggerated, embellished or even alarmist. However, truth to tell, it is an extremely realistic picture of where, how and what we are now and where we are heading. This could very well be called, in political parlance, a “White Paper” or a “Status Report” on the Sampradaya. If the picture is bleak, it is so because we have made it so.

You may feel that it is too pessimistic a picture that I have painted. After all, various festivals are still being conducted at temples, Acharyas’ tirunakshatrams are being celebrated with enthusiasm, Upanyasams are delivered at various centres in the city with regularity and seminars and Vidvat Sadas too are not infrequent. Marriages and Upanayanams are still celebrated with the aid of Veda Mantras, with Vadyars officiating. Traditional attire, whether it be “Panchakaccham” or “Madisaar” is still being worn, at least on festive occasions, though many lack the expertise to wear the same unaided.

However, are all the aforesaid true barometers of the current state of affairs? Crowds do throng temples, but what is the level of their attachment to Emperuman? If there is a Tiruveedi Purappaadu on a Sunday evening, very few in the maada veedis turn up to greet the Lord, being engrossed with the idiot box. Any serious lecturer on Sampradaayic topics would tell you that the number of listeners keeps dwindling and that the average age of the audience is 60+. Participants in the Vidwat Sadas too are elderly, with meagre representation from the younger generation and the middle-aged. What would happen to such scholarly seminars when the current elderly participants leave for performing kainkaryam to Paramapadanatha? And as for Marriages and Upanayanam, most of the grooms or Kartas hardly move their lips, leave alone recite the mantras after the Vadyar—they are busy instead, greeting friends and acquaintances. These have become more of social functions than the solemn rituals they are intended to be (“Upanayana Vivvahou utsavaika pradhaanou”). Receptions and “light” music have replaced Vaidika karmas as items of priority on such occasions. (Incidentally, I have never understood the logic behind calling these blaring and raucous renderings as “light” music.)

Lest this appear to be a mere recital of shortcomings without any constructive remedy, I would hasten to add that there are indeed a few promising rays of hope, the proverbial silver linings, amidst the all-pervading gloom. Educational institutions like the Madhurantakam Patashala (founded by the great Mahan Srimad Injimedu Azhagiasingar), grooming children and youth in traditional ways, imparting them education that matters in the Shruti, Shastras and Sampradaya, do offer a promise. It is only when one sees such organisations that one feels some comfort that all is not lost and some effort is indeed afoot towards damage control. It is therefore our duty to support such institutions to the best of our ability, in all possible ways.

However, this is only one aspect of our ultimate goal of rejuvenation. While youngsters can be enrolled in Madhurantakam Patasala and similar institutions, what about the vast majority of our youth and middle-aged, who are strangers to Sri Vaishnava doctrine and tradition? What about our Women, on whom rests the responsibility of turning our homes into places the Lord would love to reside in? Having fought for and achieved their rightful places in the economic and social spheres, what is their role in regaining lost ground in the field of Srivaishnavite tradition and culture?

Instead of formulating general prescriptions or programmes for rejuvenation of the beleagured Sampradaya, it would be better if every one of us could do some introspection. First and foremost, we must acknowledge the existence of the problem, without which solutions would be hard to think of. Each of us must do some soul-searching to see whether we are aware of the sorry state of affairs, and, if so, consider what we intend doing about it. We may or may not be part of the problem, but it behoves us, as concerned members of the once-glorious group, to see in what way we can contribute. Acharyas are doing their best in an unhelpful environment, struggling to keep their flock afloat amidst a Tsunami of materialism and indifference. Each of us has to ponder as to the ways in which Acharyas’ hands can be strengthened. Rather than participate in a group effort, every individual, be it man, woman, boy or girl, should feel the urge in the heart to be a Sri Vaishnava, good and true.

We make so many new year resolutions—the resolution required now cannot wait for any new year, but has to be made right now. It could be a resolution to resume the abandoned Sandhyavandanam, to enrol oneself or one’s son in a neighbourhood study group for Vedas, to imbibe and impart the wealth we have inherited in the form of Divya Prabandas and Stotra Paatam, to recommence Tiruvaaraadhanam at home which would please Emperuman no end, to start wearing Tiruman and Srichoornam to office, school or college and to persuade others of our acquaintance to do so, to contribute liberally to institutions like the Madhurantakam Patasala by sponsoring the traditional education of at least one student, approaching the Acharya for Samaashrayanam and Bharanyaasam for ourselves and our kin and adhering thereafter to the prescribed regimen, and so on. This is just an indicative list, to be modified according to individual convenience and taste—it could be any of these or all, or others too, a s applicable and found needed.

You may feel that the most important of all requisites for a true Sri Vaishnava has been left out in the aforesaid list—developing Bhakti or devotion to the Lord. Bhakti, however, doesn’t appear on its own: it is the logical culmination of all the aforesaid steps and is the higher floor of the building, to be reached through the steps prescribed above. It is for the Lord to grant us Bhakti and He will indeed do that, once we propitiate Him with paeans of praise from the Shruti, Smriti, Divya Prabandam and Stotra Patam and with unerring adherence to the prescribed nitya karmas.

This article is no attempt to preach or pontificate, for which I am the least qualified. My only eligibility to write on this topic is that I belong to the community and am sad at the path we are treading, which leads not to Paradise but to Perdition. This is just an attempt, to share my anguish with kindred souls who would be equally concerned, to find sympathetic shoulders to lean and cry on. It is not that we are unaware of the problem or its seriousness—this is an attempt to focus your attention on the issue, which has been crying out for a solution for long.

If each of us spends a few minutes to ponder the problem and to come up with individual solutions, then the lost glory of our haloed Sampradaya can be regained in no time. And the beauty is that the process or the effort itself would enrich our lives beyond measure and make it extremely pleasurable.

Srimate Sri LakshmiNrsimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:
dasan, sadagopan

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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