The Jyotirmath Sankaracharya Lineage in the 20th Century

Vidyasankar Sundaresan


This page was first born in response to the INDOLOGY listserv discussion (January 19, 1998) about the Sankaracharya of the North, and has been updated a few times since then. Barring fresh developments in future, this version (July 2000) will be final. There is also another version of this page, which uses standard diacritical marks [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)].


There is currently a succession dispute at the Jyotirmath Sankaracharya seat, the origin of which dates back to the year 1953. Till recently, the two major rivals were Swami Swarupananda Saraswati (who is also the Sankaracharya of Dwaraka in the west) and Swami Vasudevananda Saraswati. Since 1993-4, another Sannyasin named Madhava Asrama has been a third claimant to the Jyotirmath title.

Background -

Adi Sankaracharya (8th century) is traditionally said to have established four mathas (monasteries) in India, and to have placed them under the leadership of his four chief disciples. The heads of these four and other monasteries of the Dasanami orders have come to be known as Sankaracharyas themselves, in honor of the founder. They are considered to be the leaders of the ten orders of the Dasanami Sannyasins associated with Advaita Vedanta [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)]. The principal eastern (Purvamnaya), southern (Dakshinamnaya) and western (Pascimamnaya) institutions are based at Puri (Orissa), Sringeri (Karnataka) and Dwaraka (Gujarat) respectively. The northern (Uttaramnaya) Sankaracharya seat is at Jyotirmath (also known as Joshimath) near Badrinath. In addition to these four, there are numerous other mathas throughout India, and the seven Dasanami Akhadas (Juna, Niranjani, Mahanirvani, Ananda, Atal, Avahan, Agni - the last is a Brahmacharin Akhada, not a Sannyasin one) that have their own separate administrations and leaders.

The history of Jyotirmath is extremely complicated. According to official accounts, after the period of one Swami Ramakrishna Tirtha in the 18th century, the matha was extinct for about 165 years, before it was revived in 1941, under Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. However, in the meantime, various Sannyasins had claimed to be the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath, and for some time, many people thought that the Rawal (head-priest) of the Badrinath temple was also the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath. There are records of lawsuits from the early 1900's, which show a number of names, each laying claim to the Jyotirmath Sankaracharya title. Before discussing the recent history of this institution, one issue must be properly understood. What does it mean for a matha to have become extinct? In the traditional understanding, the answer is always with reference to the Mathadhipati, the head of the matha. To say that a matha has become extinct is to say that the lineage of successors has petered out, either because of confusions in the line of succession or because of lack of qualified people to lead the matha.

The appointment of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati in 1941 was made by a group of monks and pundits based in Varanasi (the Bharata Dharma Mahamandala, Kashi Vidvat Parishad, and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha), with the blessings of Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha, the then Sankaracharya of Puri. Swami Chandrasekhara Bharati of Sringeri also endorsed Brahmananda's appointment. Thus, right from the beginning of the Jyotirmath's revival in 1941, the opinions of the heads of other Amnaya mathas were taken seriously into consideration. [1] Another important factor that legitimated the Jyotirmath revival should not be overlooked. This is the involvement of the Hindu kings in north India in the process, and their acceptance of Brahmananda Saraswati. The ruler of Garhwal was important because Badrinath was in his province, while the rulers of Varanasi and Darbhanga were well known and respected as patrons of several religious institutions. India was not yet independent in 1941, and this royal recognition helped in overcoming potential opposition from previous claimants to the Jyotirmath title, and their followers. Brahmananda was selected as he was widely regarded as the epitome of the qualifications mentioned in texts like Mahanusasana and Mathamnaya, which are attributed to Adi Sankaracharya. For the purposes of this discussion, it is immaterial to investigate who wrote these texts, or to question whether Adi Sankaracharya established any mathas at all. It is sufficient to note that the living tradition of Advaita monasticism more or less unanimously accepts these texts and the four Amnaya mathas as originating from Adi Sankaracharya himself.

Beginnings of Conflict -

Swami Brahmananda Saraswati passed away in 1953, but he had not clearly indicated his successor. This immediately caused a problem, as he had initiated a number of disciples into Sannyasa. A few weeks after he passed away, a will was found, according to the terms of which, a disciple called Swami Santananda Saraswati was named as the first choice for succeeding to the Jyotirmath title. However, many followers of Brahmananda Saraswati were satisfied neither with the credentials of Santananda, nor with the validity/authenticity of the will. Perhaps, the doubts about the will were themselves based partly upon the perception that Santananda was not a good choice for successor. His quickness to take charge of the matha administration on the basis of this will also probably raised many eyebrows. Meanwhile, there was a widespread rumor that Brahmananda Saraswati had been poisoned. This set a number of civil lawsuits into motion. To the best of my knowledge, no criminal lawsuits were filed against anyone, on the basis of the poisoning theory. However, Santananda's reputation definitely took a blow, although the major complaint against him was simply that he was unfit for the post of Sankaracharya, because he did not measure up to the qualifications described in the Mahanusasana texts. [2]

Also, in 1953, Swami Hariharananda Saraswati (popularly known as Karapatri Swami), another disciple of Brahmananda Saraswati, was seen as the more deserving candidate to become the Sankaracharya, but he didn't want the title. In fact, as the head of the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha, it is said that Hariharananda had been the first choice for the Sankaracharya post in 1941, but he had declined and proposed his guru's name (Brahmananda) instead. It is also said that it was Hariharananda who convinced his guru to accept the position. Hariharananda Saraswati passed away recently, and avoided the Sankaracharya title for himself, but the opinion of his followers is reflected in the title they have given him - Abhinava Sankara. [3]

Divided Lineage -

Because of the controversy over Brahmananda's will and Santananda's succession, the organizations involved in reviving Jyotirmath in 1941 considered other nominations for the Sankaracharya post. These efforts were blessed by Swami Abhinava Sacchidananda Tirtha, the then Sankaracharya of Dwaraka. In 1953 itself, one Swami Krishnabodha Asrama was appointed as the new Jyotirmath Sankaracharya, contesting Santananda's claim.

Krishnabodha Asrama was not a direct disciple of Brahmananda Saraswati, but given the nature of Jyotirmath's revival in 1941, this was not necessarily a disqualification. The new appointment also had the support of the Puri matha, but it must be noted that this matha was to have a few succession problems of its own, within a decade. [4] When Krishnabodha Asrama passed away in 1973, he nominated Swami Swarupananda Saraswati to the title. Swarupananda is a direct disciple of Brahmananda Saraswati, but he has also studied under both Krishnabodha Asrama and Abhinava Sacchidananda Tirtha of Dwaraka. [5] Meanwhile, Santananda had not relinquished the Sankaracharya seat, so that by this time, the two major claimants of the title were Swarupananda and Santananda.

In the year 1980, Santananda stepped down from the title, in favor of Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati, another disciple of Brahmananda. However, Vishnudevananda Saraswati passed away in 1989/90, while Santananda Saraswati was still alive. Following this, one Swami Vasudevananda Saraswati was named as the successor. Santananda passed away in late 1997, and Vasudevananda Saraswati is currently the sole representative of this lineage. Vasudevananda was present at the appointment of a Mahamandaleswara of the Mahanirvani Akhada in 1995 (according to Hinduism Today, August 1995). Adding to the complexity of this dispute is the fact that according to the terms of Brahmananda's contested will, one Swami Dwarakesananda Saraswati was supposed to have been the second choice after Santananda. There is no indication that Dwarakesananda ever claimed the Sankaracharya title, or that it was ever formally offered to him. A similar situation obtains with a Swami Paramatmananda Saraswati, who was also named in the will, but as the next choice after Vishnudevananda. [6]

It is difficult to ascertain the opinions of the heads of other institutions about this course of events. After the nomination of Krishnabodha Asrama, the Puri and Dwaraka mathas do not seem to have been involved in Jyotirmath affairs to any significant extent. In the south, Swami Chandrasekhara Bharati of Sringeri had been succeeded by his disciple, Swami Abhinava Vidya Tirtha, in late 1954. Some official Sringeri accounts mention that the new Swami met Santananda Saraswati during his first northern tour in 1956/7, but this may not indicate that the Sringeri authorities differed from the Puri and Dwaraka authorities, with respect to endorsing Santananda. It remains unknown whether the Sringeri Sankaracharyas tried to mediate or took sides in the Jyotirmath dispute in this early period. However, in 1979, when a conference [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)] of the Sankaracharyas of the four Amnaya mathas was held at Sringeri, Santananda and Vishnudevananda were not invited. It was Swarupananda Saraswati who represented Jyotirmath. There is no indication that the rival lineage of Santananda and his disciples was endorsed at this time by any of the other Sankaracharyas.

Accounts written by Swarupananda's followers do not mention Krishnabodha Asrama very prominently, probably because he was not a direct disciple of Brahmananda Saraswati. [7] Swarupananda, being a direct disciple of Brahmananda, traces his lineage directly to the ascetic who was the first Sankaracharya of the revived Jyotirmath. Needless to say, the list of Sankaracharyas of a matha must be distinguished from the Guru-Sishya lineages of the Sannyasins who become Sankaracharyas. In an ideal situation, the lineages are identical, but circumstances often dictate otherwise.

Other major factors that affect this succession dispute are the relationships of the principals with Indian political parties and with internationally popular gurus. Swarupananda Saraswati's involvement with the Indian Congress party dates back to the period of the Indepedence struggle, before he became a Sannyasin. He remains close to numerous Congress politicians (e.g. Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh and P. V. Narasimha Rao, the former Prime Minister of India), and has been quite vocally anti-VHP and anti-RSS. [8] In contrast, or perhaps because of this, Santananda, Vishnudevananda and Vasudevananda have all had the support of the "Hindutva" organizations. Vasudevananda is usually present at major VHP and RSS events, where he is introduced as the Jyotirmath Sankaracharya. Santananda and Vishnudevananda have also had close connections with Mahesh Yogi, who used to be Brahmananda Saraswati's secretary. In fact, the earliest doubts about the will left by Brahmananda Saraswati were linked to suspicion of the motives and actions of Mahesh Yogi (then called Mahesh Brahmachari). These TM connections probably did not endear Santananda and Vishnudevananda to the predominantly Brahmana following of the various mathas. I have also heard rumors that when Santananda stepped down in favor of Vishnudevananda, there was the hand of Mahesh Yogi behind it. As with so many aspects of this dispute, I don't know if this is just rumor, or if there is something more to it. It is well known that Swarupananda and Mahesh Yogi don't see eye to eye on any issue, and the ex-TM literature has much information about their disputes. [9] However, the connection of Mahesh Yogi to Santananda and his lineal successors is not without its own complications. For example, Deepak Chopra, the popular New Age author, who used to have intimate ties to Mahesh Yogi and his organization, has now broken his connections to him, and claims acknowledgement directly from Vasudevananda Saraswati [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)] instead.

Other Candidates -

Another Swami has claimed that he was once offered the Jyotirmath Sankaracharya title, which he respectfully declined. This is Prakasananda Saraswati, who has set up an "International Society of Divine Love" and a Rasesvari Radharani temple, known as Barsana Dham, in Texas, USA. Although he was initiated into Sannyasa by Brahmananda Saraswati, his personal religious philosophy is Acintya Bhedabheda, associated with Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Gaudiya Vaishnavas. [10] This leads me to seriously suspect his claim of having been offered the Sankaracharya post. Still, for the record, if his claim is valid, then we have two Swamis who have rejected offers to become the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath, namely Hariharananda Saraswati and Prakasananda Saraswati. We should also not forget Dwarakesananda Saraswati, and Paramatmananda Saraswati, who were named in a contested will, but did not really get an opportunity to press their claims. And if we dig deep enough, we will probably unearth more disciples of Brahmananda Saraswati, who were all potential candidates for the Sankaracharya position at one time or the other, which they all rejected. As an aside, a few relatively unknown, early Indian publications of the Transcendental Meditation movement claim the Sankaracharya title for Mahesh Yogi himself, but this is not to be taken seriously. While Mahesh Yogi was indeed one of the followers of Brahmananda Saraswati, he has never formally become a Sannyasin. Moreover, his international following probably obviates any need for him to claim the Sankaracharya title for himself now.

Swarupananda at Dwaraka -

A further complication was introduced in 1982, when Abhinava Sacchidananda Tirtha, the Sankaracharya of Dwaraka, passed away, leaving a will with a few names as possible choices for his successor. Among these was Swarupananda Saraswati of Jyotirmath. The others either declined or were eliminated from consideration for one reason or the other. Swarupananda was then coronated at Dwaraka, in a ceremony presided over by Swami Abhinava Vidya Tirtha of Sringeri. Swarupananda Saraswati's Dwaraka title is undisputed, and he is routinely described in press reports as the Sankaracharya of Dwaraka. However, it should be noted that while his status as the head of two principal mathas is somewhat unusual, and also confusing for the lay public, it had not been insisted that he relinquish his position at Jyotirmath, before taking charge at Dwaraka. Swarupananda had attended the 1979 meeting of the Sankaracharyas at Sringeri, in his capacity as the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath. He also attended the funeral ceremonies of Swami Abhinava Vidya Tirtha at Sringeri in 1989. In June 1993, a joint statement was issued by the Sankaracharyas, in connection with the Babri Masjid demolition, which Swarupananda Saraswati signed twice, in his dual capacity as the head of both Dwaraka and Jyotirmath. And as Jayendra Saraswati of the Kanchi matha has also signed the 1993 statement, I assume that he too accepts Swarupananda at both Dwaraka and Jyotirmath. Swarupananda has publicly stated that the Kanchi matha is only a branch of the Sringeri matha, [11] but he did attend the birth centenary celebrations of Chandrasekharendra Saraswati of Kanchipuram in 1993. It must be noted that the Kanchi matha is a very influential institution today, and although it is not one of the four original institutions, the opinion of its head counts for something in these controversies. [12] Indeed, the very presence of Jayendra Saraswati along with the heads of the four Amnaya mathas is a marked change from the absence of the Kanchi matha in the 1979 meeting of the Sankaracharyas, and is an acknowledgement of the current political importance of this institution. Clearly, at least in the eyes of these others, Swarupananda Saraswati is the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath, and also the Sankaracharya of Dwaraka. However, Vasudevananda Saraswati's connections with the Akhada Parishad (a coordination body that deals with such matters as order of procession of the Akhadas during the Kumbha Mela, etc.) indicate that the Dasanami Akhada structure may not be unanimously supportive of Swarupananda. [13]

Madhava Asrama's claim to the title -

There is a third claimant to account for, named Swami Madhava Asrama, who is also a leading light of the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha. This Sannyasin is a disciple of Krishnabodha Asrama, whose name has been noted earlier. Madhava Asrama's name crops up routinely in Nepali newspapers like The Kathmandu Post and The Rising Nepal. He visited Nepal in 1997, for the 25th anniversary celebrations of King Birendra's accession to the throne. He also attended the Kumbha Mela [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)] in 1998, where he was injured in a riot. [14]

Madhava Asrama's claim to the Jyotirmath Sankaracharya title is based on the stance that after Swarupananda Saraswati took up the Dwaraka Sankaracharya title in 1982, his title at Jyotirmath has been nullified by the passage of time. Supporters of Vasudevananda's claim have also offered an identical argument. Madhava Asrama does not recognize the claim of Vasudevananda Saraswati to the Jyotirmath title, as he traces his own claim to the title through his guru, Krishnabodha Asrama, and to the decision of the Kashi Vidvat Parishad and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha. According to his followers, in 1982 itself, Niranjanadeva Tirtha of Puri had requested Swarupananda to give up his Jyotirmath title in favor of another Sannyasin before taking up the Dwaraka Sankaracharya post. However, for more than a decade after assuming charge at Dwaraka, Swarupananda Saraswati had continued to retain his Jyotirmath title. It is said that in 1993-4, the Kashi Vidvat Parishad and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha decided that this was creating much public confusion, and decided to appoint Madhava Asrama as the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath. The coronation ceremony is reported to have been conducted in Varanasi itself. [15] To summarize, the three competing Jyotirmath lineages are -

1. Brahmananda Saraswati (1941-1953; revived the matha after a vacancy of 165 years)
2. Santananda Saraswati
    (1953-1980, d. 1997)
3. Vishnudevananda Saraswati
    (1980-1990;
    disciple of Brahmananda;
    predeceased Santananda)
4. Vasudevananda Saraswati
    (since 1997 [1990 ?];
    disciple of Santananda)
2. Krishnabodha Asrama (1953-1973; not a direct disciple)
3. Swarupananda Saraswati
    (since 1973;
    disciple of Brahmananda)
3. Swarupananda Saraswati
    (1973-1993/4 [1982?])
4. Madhava Asrama
    (since 1993/4; disciple of
    Krishnabodha Asrama)
Not including - Hariharananda (Karapatri), Dwarakesananda,
Paramatmananda and Prakasananda (?)


The Role of Other Traditional and Modern Institutions - [16]

The above discussion has dealt only with the cultural and religious aspects of the Jyotirmath dispute. A few centuries ago, such problems would have been referred to the local king, and perhaps solved quickly. In independent India, the dispute has been taken to the secular courts, but these are quite different from the old princely durbars in their procedures and rules. The judges also lack legislative and executive authority over religious institutions, unlike the Hindu king of old days. It seems to me that those who did not wish to acknowledge Santananda as the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath did not sufficiently appreciate these changes in modern times, and expected the courts to accept their cultural, moral and religious arguments as legally valid. Thus, none of the civil suits in this dispute seems to have been framed in terms of contesting the legal bona fides of Brahmananda's will. Consequently, although one judge did acknowledge the merits of the claim that Santananda was not properly qualified, he found no legally valid reason to give a verdict voiding Santananda's claim to the title.

In 1980, after Santananda abdicated in favor of Vishnudevananda, a new lawsuit was filed, on the grounds that according to Brahmananda's will, Dwarakesananda Saraswati should have been appointed in case Santananda stepped down. Thus, notwithstanding what was privately thought about the will and its legitimacy, its terms were co-opted, as a strategy to displace Vishnudevananda. However, the proverbial judicial delays in India played their role, and before this case was even heard, Dwarakesananda passed away. After Vishnudevananda also passed away, and Vasudevananda took charge, a fresh round of litigation was begun. The latest development from this angle is that on February 22, 1999, the court at Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, has passed an interim order, prohibiting Vasudevananda from using the title of Sankaracharya to collect any donations, till the legal case gets resolved either way. The reasons cited for this order are that his installation is suspect, and that Swarupananda has the better claim to the Jyotirmath title, both for historical reasons and by virtue of being acknowledged by the other Sankaracharyas. Thus, notwithstanding the previous legal standing of Santananda at Jyotirmath, his disciple and successor seems to have suffered a legal setback at present.

According to currently applicable Indian law, which is itself based on pan-Indian tradition, a Mathadhipati has a right to choose his successor from among his disciples. In an ideal case, this right is vested solely in and exercised solely by the Mathadhipati, in accordance with the norms specified in texts like the Mahanusasana. However, given the history of this particular case, the involvement of two bodies external to Jyotirmath proper has to be duly noted. These are the Kashi Vidvat Parishad and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha. It is agreed on all hands that the role played by members of these two organizations was a key factor in reviving the Jyotirmath in the year 1941. However, once Swami Brahmananda Saraswati was accepted as the Jyotirmath Sankaracharya, and there were no serious disputes about it at the time, further activities of these other institutions with respect to succession issues could be construed as unnecessary interference. Santananda and his successors trace their claim to a will of Brahmananda, but the Kashi Vidvat Parishad and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha have not accepted this. Interestingly, if the opinions of these bodies are to be set aside at any time after 1941, only the lineage of Vasudevananda (through Santananda) can be traced directly to Brahmananda, without any interruptions. However, it is precisely this lineage that seems to lack the necessary traditional support and that also seems to have now lost its previous legal standing.

Clearly, the role played by the Kashi Vidvat Parishad and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha was not questioned when Krishnabodha Asrama was appointed to the Jyotirmath title, except perhaps by Santananda and his followers. As for the other mathas and their heads, whatever their reservations may have been about Santananda's qualifications for the Sankaracharya title, their endorsement of Krishnabodha Asrama's appointment and/or his subsequent appointment of Swarupananda meant that they tacitly approved of and accepted the actions of these two organizations. Thus, both bodies got more firmly entrenched in matters relating to succession at Jyotirmath. Both Swarupananda Saraswati and Madhava Asrama trace their claim to the Jyotirmath title through Krishnabodha Asrama and via an acknowledgement of the right of the Kashi Vidvat Parishad and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha to decide the question of who would be the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath. However, it could also be argued that these organizations have no right to unseat a Sankaracharya who is generally seen to be qualified for the post. Swarupananda was nominated by Krishnabodha Asrama, but these two organizations seem to have had no objections against him, at least till 1982, when he took charge of Dwaraka also. The decade-long gap between Swarupananda's accession to the Dwaraka title and Madhava Asrama's appointment in 1993/4 also seems significant. If Madhava Asrama's claim of having been appointed by these two bodies is correct, this only means that the Kashi Vidvat Parishad and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha have tried to exercise a right over Jyotirmath for the third time. In 1941, the rationale was the revival of an extinct institution. In the 1950's, the rationale was the controversy over Brahmananda's will. In the 1990's, it has been the confusion arising due to Swarupananda's acceptance of the Sankaracharya title at the Dwaraka seat. As Madhava Asrama's Jyotirmath Sankaracharya title is very much dependent upon the latest intervention by these two bodies, it is not too far off the mark to say that his claim to the title holds only so long as he enjoys their confidence. It is not at all inconceivable that a fourth competing lineage will be put forth in the future, if either Madhava Asrama or his successor develops differences of opinion with the leaders of one of these organizations. Another possible scenario is that Madhava Asrama could stand to lose, if either Swarupananda or Vasudevananda manages to win their support.

The major lawsuits involved in the Jyotirmath succession are still pending, either unresolved in the lower courts, or under appeal in the Allahabad High Court. The property of Jyotirmath is presently divided between Santananda's (now Vasudevananda's) camp and Swarupananda's camp. On the way to Badrinath, in the village of Joshimath, there are two separate establishments, respectively controlled by Vasudevananda and Swarupananda. The two are quite near each other, each calling itself the official Jyotirmath. I am unaware if Madhava Asrama and his supporters have filed any lawsuits against either Swarupananda or Vasudevananda or both. My personal opinion is that it would be extremely difficult to legally uphold a claim that one man cannot be the head of two different mathas. Unless the permanent legal standing of the Kashi Vidvat Parishad and the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha in matters of succession at Jyotirmath can be proved, Madhava Asrama's claim seems to be the weakest, from all possible perspectives. It is also unclear whether Madhava Asrama and his followers have been able to get established in the old matha property. However, in this dispute, possession of or jurisdiction over the matha's property is not the criterion which decides the identity of the legitimate Sankaracharya. The primary issue is one of authenticity and/or authority of the disciple lineage. As may be expected, no side is willing to concede the Sankaracharya title to one of the other two. Both Swarupananda Saraswati and Madhava Asrama seriously deny the authority of the entire lineage beginning with Santananda Saraswati. However, Madhava Asrama and Swarupananda Saraswati also question the legitimacy of each other, and Vasudevananda Saraswati denies the rights of both. No quick resolution of the dispute seems possible, but none of these three are very young in age. Unless there is a consensus candidate acceptable to all parties in the current dispute, reconciliation seems quite impossible. When any one of them passes away, or nominates another person to his own title while alive, he will simply transfer to the person of his successor all the associated disputes against the other two (and their respective successors).

In this century, there have been similar disputes and lawsuits in connection with the succession at Puri and Dwaraka also. In contrast, south Indian mathas in the Advaita Vedanta tradition are relatively non-controversial in this regard. To begin with, the southern Sankaracharyas are very selective about whom they personally initiate as monks, and tend not to have a large retinue of Sannyasin disciples with them. Traditionally, at Sringeri, the current Sankaracharya carefully chooses and trains his successor, who therefore is in the public eye for at least a few years before assuming charge. The senior Acharya also typically withdraws from public life, and lets the chosen successor handle administrative issues. Or else, just before his own passing, the Sankaracharya clearly names his unique choice of successor from among his own disciples. Kanchi and other southern mathas also usually take similar caution about their succession. In cases of southern mathas with a following hailing mainly from particular communities, but where the lineage has suddenly become extinct, e.g. the Shirali Chitrapura matha [501 Not Implemented (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)] associated with Saraswata Brahmanas in southern Karnataka, the succession is revived by other means, often with the help and support of other well respected mathas. Puri, Dwaraka and Jyotirmath seem to operate by very different procedures. Matters of succession are left rather nebulous, or stated in a will, with a choice of candidates for the successor. More often than not, the will is contested, so that the succession soon becomes a highly charged political issue, and the lineages become more complicated than in the Wars of the Roses.

The Role of Royalty -

The relationship of all these institutions with members of current and erstwhile royal houses continues to remain important. Madhava Asrama's visits to Nepal are usually highlighted to buttress his claim. Reading the publications of his followers, one gets the distinct impression that the support of the King of Nepal is seen as a very important factor in legitimating Madhava Asrama's claim to the Jyotirmath Sankaracharya title. Reciprocally, the King of Nepal is described as the "King of all Hindus in the world," presumably because he is the only legitimate Hindu monarch left today, even if his role within Nepal has been much reduced in recent times. The Kashi Vidvat Parishad is usually supported by the current "king of Varanasi," who is, I assume, also a leader of the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha. The revival of Jyotirmath in 1941 was facilitated by the role played by the then significant Hindu princes in north India. Members of India's erstwhile royalty continue to be important in Hindu religious institutions, even if their roles have become largely ceremonial, e.g. the Gajapati royal family in the Puri Jagannatha temple and the Travancore royal family in the Tiruvanantapuram Padmanabhaswami temple. As for the other mathas, in the pre-1947 era, administrative issues were routinely referred to the local rulers. For example, there are well documented records of the interactions of the Sringeri administration with various ruling houses, from the Vijayanagara emperors, many centuries ago, to the Mysore Wodeyars and Hyderabad Nizams, just before Indian independence. A large part of the rise of the Kanchi matha to importance can be traced to the relationship that successive Mathadhipatis have maintained with the Maratha rulers of Tanjavur, the British administrators of Madras Presidency and the rulers of independent India.

Perhaps, all this is in keeping with the nature of generic Hindu religion, as ascetics are supposed to be supported mainly by householders, and the rulers are expected to uphold dharma. However, although Sankara describes the ascetic as an atyA'sramin (one who is beyond all A'sramas), and asks rhetorically, "katham varNA'sramI bhavet?," the situation of the contemporary Sankaracharyas is considerably more complicated. Ideally, a Mathadhipati pursues only other-worldly concerns, as he is first and foremost a monk. In the Advaita tradition, he is also eventually expected to transcend all concerns of both this world and the next. However, a matha is a social institution, and has one foot firmly planted in this world. The coronation of a Sankaracharya as the head of a matha is called a Pattabhisheka, and closely resembles that of a classical Hindu king. Therefore, when the very issue of who is the legitimate Mathadhipati is confused or controversial, the realities of this world take center-stage. Certainly, ever since Swami Vidyaranya's celebrated involvement with the Vijayanagara empire in the 14th century, and possibly from even earlier times, the Sankaracharyas and their mathas have not been strangers to rulers of India and their politics. It could be argued that the leaders of the Dasanami Sannyasin tradition have not woken up to the constitutional reality of democratic India, and that they continue to expect outmoded patterns of social behavior, and that they continue to give undue importance to old royal dynasties. On the other hand, it could also be argued that this is simply one manifestation of a larger reality in India, whose new rulers have succeeded only in establishing modern political dynasties in place of the old royal ones. In any case, the current interactions among politicians, erstwhile royal houses and Sannyasins, as also disputes over which Sannyasin is a legitimate Sankaracharya, can be understood only along the lines of age-old brahma-kshatra relationships.

A Review of Cenkner's Work -

In connection with the Sankaracharya tradition, Prof. Harzer-Clear (Jan 19, 1998) mentions William Cenkner's book "A Tradition of Teachers", published by Motilal Banarsidass (1983). While Cenkner makes some valid observations about the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the Sankaracharya tradition, he is simply unreliable when it comes to factual details. What his introduction calls the "inclusive tradition" of the Kanchi matha is in fact a highly contested claim within the Dasanami tradition, with the potential to cause a deep schism. As for the Jyotirmath succession controversy, it has always been a matter of public knowledge in India, both because of the close physical proximity of the two separate establishments at Joshimath and because of the fact that all the people involved are public figures. Cenkner is astoundingly silent about it, and if he were to be believed, there is just no succession dispute at all, so that Santananda's position at Jyotirmath is unquestioned. He also specifically mentions the succession disputes at Dwaraka and Puri in this century, but strangely enough, he mentions a controversy where none existed, namely at Sringeri. [17] Cenkner tells us that Niranjanadeva Tirtha's coronation as the Sankaracharya of Puri in 1964 was conducted in the presence of the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath, but neglects to inform us that this was Krishnabodha Asrama, not Santananda. Cenkner is also aware of the 1979 conference of the four Sankaracharyas, but seems unaware that it was Swarupananda, not Santananda or Vishnudevananda, who was described as the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath then. Cenkner's 1995 edition seems to be a reprint of the 1983 edition, and although he has provided a fresh preface, which mentions Swarupananda Saraswati's name, he still does not mention the Jyotirmath succession dispute. One is left with the impression that even as late as 1995, Santananda's position as Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath remained undisputed. Cenkner's silence regarding this dispute is extremely surprising, and he is either astoundingly naive or one has to suspect an unbecoming bias on his part.

Cenkner goes on to describe Santananda Saraswati as the head of all Dandi Sannyasins. This is extremely misleading, to say the least. There is no one head of all these Sannyasins. The heads of the Puri matha have traditionally been Dandi Sannyasins, so that the Puri Sankaracharya might as well be described as their head. The Dwaraka and Sringeri Sankaracharyas, who are Paramahamsa Sannyasins, nominally the highest rank among the Dasanamis, would each have a better claim to being the overall head. Moreover, in spite of the affiliation of all Dasanami Sannyasins with the four mathas at Sringeri, Puri, Dwaraka and Jyotirmath, the Dasanami Akhadas are more important throughout north India, with numerous Mahamandaleswaras, each with his own significant following. Even if there were no dispute about the Jyotirmath succession, Santananda's description as the head of all Dandi Sannyasins would be rather inaccurate. And the endorsement of Swarupananda by the Puri and Sringeri mathas would make Santananda's claim (and now Vasudevananda's claim) even more tenuous. It may be added that acrimonious disputes about succession within one matha and about the relative importance of the various mathas are not limited to recent history. There are records of such disputes dating back to the 17th century and earlier. Often, such disputes are also accompanied by philosophical and doctrinal differences, so that a study of these would offer significant clues to the development of the post-Sankaran traditions of Dasanami Sannyasins and Advaita Vedanta. Cenkner seems completely blind to such crucial features of the Sankaracharya tradition, and this is because his historical research leaves much to be desired.

Appendix -

Since the above discussion has repeatedly mentioned the names of some of the other Sankaracharyas in India, here is some information about their lineages. [18] Only the 20th century is covered. Dates given here are dates of accession to the title, not the date of initiation into Sannyasa. It should be noted that there were succession controversies in both Puri and Dwaraka mathas in the 19th century. More detailed information may be found at http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/ad-today.html [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)].

Puri (Purvamnaya) -

Sringeri (Dakshinamnaya) -

Dwaraka (Pascimamnaya) -


Notes -

  1. This reflects the spirit of the times. Although widespread Dasanami tradition affiliates the ten orders with the four Amnaya mathas, this is quite nominal in nature. In the 20th century, the relations among these four mathas have been much strengthened and placed on a more formal footing. For example, Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha had begun as a student of Vedanta at Sringeri, but he was initiated into Sannyasa by Swami Trivikrama Tirtha of Dwaraka. He was the Sankaracharya of Dwaraka from 1921 to 1925, and was appointed to the Puri title in 1925. And after more than a century of neglect, a concerted effort was made to revive the Jyotirmath seat. It is said that Brahmananda's guru, Krishnananda Saraswati, was associated with the Sringeri matha, but this may be due to nothing more than the traditional affiliation of the Saraswati orders with Sringeri. Note that the last known Jyotirmath Sankaracharya in the 18th century is named as Ramakrishna Tirtha in some sources, and as Ramakrishna Asrama in others.

  2. On a cautionary note, publications from either side of this dispute are often likely to make unsubstantiated claims, and cannot be accepted without independent confirmation. For Swami Santananda's side of the story, see Rameswar Tiwari, The whole thing, the real thing: brief biography of Shri Gurudeva, Shri Jyotishpeethoddharak Brahmleen Jagadguru Bhagwan Shankaracharya Shrimad Swami Brahmanand Saraswatiji Maharaj of Jyotirmath, Badrikashram, Delhi Photo Co., New Delhi, 1977 (LC Call No.: BL1175.B68T5813).

  3. See Krishna Prasad Sharma, Abhinava Sankara, Swami Karapatriji, Smrti Grantha, Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha Prakashan, Meerut, 1988 (LC Call No.: BL1175.H35 A62 1988) for details.

  4. Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha of Puri was away touring the USA and UK in the late 1950's. During this absence, Swami Sankara Purushottama Tirtha was placed in charge of the matha. Bharati Krishna Tirtha passed away soon after returning to India, and was succeeded by another disciple named Yogeswarananda Tirtha in the year 1960. He too passed away just a few months after taking charge, in the year 1961. This resulted in some uncertainty in the Puri succession also, followed by the inevitable litigation. In 1964, one Chandrasekhara Sastri of Jaipur, who was one of the nominees in Bharati Krishna Tirtha's will, was initiated into Sannyasa by Abhinava Sacchidananda Tirtha of Dwaraka. He was given the name Niranjanadeva Tirtha, and coronated as the Sankaracharya of Puri. See Manonita Jagadguru Sankaracharya Sri Chandrasekhara Sastri Abhinandana Grantha, Abhinandana Samaroha Samiti, Jaipur, 1964 (LC Call No.: BL1210.M346).

  5. Details about Hariharananda Saraswati, Krishnabodha Asrama and Swarupananda Saraswati are available from a publication titled Jagadguru Gaurav (undated, probably 1973-4), published by the Akhila Bharatiya Dharmasangha Prakashan, Meerut. This carries messages from the heads of a number of other mathas, including the other three Amnaya mathas, and from the Mahamandaleswaras of various Dasanami Akhadas.

  6. It should also be remembered that Dwarakesananda was one of those skeptical about the authenticity of the will, and he probably hadn't changed his mind about it. He passed away before the major lawsuits involved in this dispute were resolved. I am unaware if he has personally initiated any disciples into Sannyasa. As for Paramatmananda, the general perception was that he should have been named before Vishnudevananda. That he was listed after the latter was another reason offered to doubt the authenticity of Brahmananda's will.

  7. For other reasons, official Puri accounts do not mention Yogeswarananda Tirtha, who succeeded Bharati Krishna Tirtha in late 1960. See note 4 above. Niranjanadeva Tirtha, who became the Sankaracharya of Puri in the year 1964, is listed immediately after Bharati Krishna Tirtha.

  8. In 1990, Swarupananda fiercely opposed the VHP's Silanyas ceremonies at the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi site in Ayodhya. He proposed to conduct a ceremony of his own, at a different site, but was placed under preemptive arrest before he reached Ayodhya. He used to be characterized by the VHP as a Sarkari-Sadhu, at a time when Sarkar was synonymous with the Congress party. After 1992, however, he has insisted that a temple must be built at the controversial site, although not under the VHP's leadership. To that end, he has set up an independent trust, whose members are the other Sankaracharyas and representatives of the Madhva, Ramanuji and Ramanandi traditions.

  9. Ample material from the ex-TM literature is available online, at http://www.minet.org. See files named shank-1 through shank-5, at http://www.minet.org/Documents [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)]. These are based on an interview of Swarupananda by Richard Kropinski, a former TM follower. The sequence of events is somewhat confused in these documents, probably because of Kropinsky's poor command of the Hindi language. Thus, he reports that Swarupananda was already the Sankaracharya of Dwaraka before taking up the Jyotirmath title. However, Swarupananda succeeded to the Dwaraka title only in 1982, when he had already been at Jyotirmath for close to a decade.

  10. See the September 95 issue of Hinduism Today. There is also a website of Prakasananda Saraswati's organization, at http://www.isdl.org/html/swamiji.html. Close watchers claim that membership of ISDL is made up mostly of former TM followers, but Prakasananda's affiliation with Acintya Bhedabheda and Caitanya Mahaprabhu also probably attracts ex-ISKCON members. Prakasananda Saraswati also represents an interesting contemporary example of how a person can be a Dasanami Sannyasin and still not be an Advaita Vedantin.

  11. See Swarupananda's press statements reported in The Curious Case of the Missing Monk, cover story in The Illustrated Weekly of India, issue dated September 13, 1987, and in other Indian newspapers and magazines from around the same time.

  12. It is well known that the heads of a matha in Kumbhakonam acquired control of the Kamakshi temple in Kanchipuram and moved their establishment to that city, between the years 1842 and 1863. This marks the origin of the Kanchi matha. See Mattison Mines and Vijayalakshmi Gourishankar, Leadership and Individuality in South Asia: The Case of the South Indian Big-Man, Journal of Asian Studies, 49 (4): 761-786, 1990. The fame of the Kanchi matha has grown in this century, under the leadership of its late centenarian head, Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, whose powerful and influential disciples included R. Venkataraman, the former President of India, and T. N. Seshan, the former election commissioner. The Kanchi matha sometimes claims the Dakshinamnaya status for itself, denying Sringeri's traditional status. See the preface in T. M. P. Mahadevan, The Sage of Kanchi, Kanchi Mahaswami Ninetieth Birthday Celebration Committee, Secunderabad, 1983, pp. i-iii. However, Sushama, an important lineage text of the Kanchi matha, claims a "Mulamnaya" status for Kanchi, with jurisdiction even over the four Amnaya mathas. The 1993 joint statement carries Jayendra Saraswati's signature, but interestingly enough, no Amnaya designation is given to the Kanchi matha. This matha's origins and history remain highly controversial, and contested most vigorously by followers of the Sringeri matha. See R. Krishnaswamy Aiyar & K. R. Venkataraman, The Truth About the Kumbhakonam Mutt, Sri Ramakrishna Press, Madurai, 1973, and Raj Gopal Sharma, Kanchi Kamakoti Math - A Myth, Ganga-Tunga Prakashan, Varanasi, 1987.

  13. Hinduism Today (August 1995) reported that Swami Nityananda, a disciple of Swami Muktananda of the Siddha Yoga movement, was appointed as a Mahamandaleswara of the Mahanirvani Akhada, in the presence of Vasudevananda Saraswati of Jyotirmath. Nityananda was thrown out of the official organization of the Siddha Yoga group by his sister and co-disciple, Chidvilasananda (Gurumayi). Nityananda continues to have some Siddha Yoga followers of his own, who do not recognize Chidvilasananda. International connections between Mahesh Yogi's TM followers and Nityananda's faction of Siddha Yoga followers should not also be ruled out. However, the Dasanami Akhadas constitute a diverse set of institutions, and there could be many different kinds of internal alliances and disagreements. Unlike the Sankaracharyas of a matha, Mahamandaleswaras of the Dasanami Akhada are appointed/elected on a more democratic basis, along the lines of the old village Panchayat system.

  14. Madhava Asrama's 1997 visit to Nepal is reported in the online issues of The Rising Nepal (http://www.south-asia.com/news-trn.htm) [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)], dated April 5, 1997 [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)], April 11, 1997 [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)] and April 12, 1997 [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)]. Jayendra Saraswati of the Kanchi matha also visited Nepal at the same time and is said to have met with Madhava Asrama. The riot during the 1998 Kumbha Mela began as a conflict among Naga monks belonging to the Juna and Niranjani Akhada, and caused a split within the Akhada Parishad. However, there were also allegations that hooligans hired by either Swarupananda or Vasudevananda or both were responsible for breaking into Madhava Asrama's rooms and beating him up. Also see http://www.smsu.edu/contrib/relst/madhwashram.html [404 Not Found (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)] (maintained by J. E. Llewellyn).

  15. Madhava Asrama's claims can be found in a booklet titled Jyotishpitha k Acharya Parampara aura Sankaracharya Sri Swami Madhavasrama ji Maharaja (undated, probably 1993-4), published by Sanatana Dharma Sangha, Delhi. Page 3 of this booklet gives his installation date as 27 November, 1994, while page 10 gives the date as 27 November, 1993. Thanks to J. E. Llewellyn for making available a copy of this publication.

  16. My thanks go to Dana Sawyer of Maine College of Art [400 Bad Request (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)], who kindly shared with me the results of his field studies and interviews. See also his article, "Monastic Structure of Banarsi Dandi Sadhus" in Living Banaras: Hindu Religion in Cultural Context, ed. Hertel, Bradley R. and Cynthia Humes, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, and his forthcoming publication(s) on the Dandi Sadhus.

  17. William Cenkner, A Tradition of Teachers - Sankara and The Jagadgurus Today, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1983, pp. 109-110, mentions an early 20th-century challenge to the Sringeri Sankaracharya. This statement can be traced to Cenkner's rather blind reliance on a Kanchi matha publication (A. Nataraja Aiyer and S. Lakshminarasimha Sastri, The Traditional Age of Sri Sankaracharya and The Maths, Minerva Press, Madras, 1962). However, this book only describes a succession controversy in the Kudali matha, dating back to 1875 CE. The Kudali matha, which is said to have originated as a branch of the Sringeri matha, is situated near the confluence of the rivers Tunga and Bhadra. Kudali and other old branches of Sringeri have their own independent lineages, which have branched off from the Sringeri list at some point in the past. The succession dispute at the Kudali matha has still not been resolved, and there continue to be two competing lineages there today. Obviously, the controversy in the succession of Kudali matha does not affect the main Sringeri lineage, and it is very surprising that Cenkner seems not to realize this. It must also be mentioned that Aiyer and Sastri are only interested in proclaiming the Kanchi matha's supremacy over all other mathas. Among other curiously partisan statements, they attempt to prove that Kudali is the "original" Sringeri matha, and that the Sringeri matha itself is a "neo-Sringeri" matha. Aiyer and Sastri are also quoted in Volume III of The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies - Advaita Vedanta up to Sankara and His Pupils, edited by Karl Potter, where Sankara's disciple, Sureswara, is said to have been especially associated with the Kanchi matha. It should be obvious that the political relationships among the various mathas, succession disputes within a matha, and the consequent propaganda literature have started to adversely affect academic discussions of Advaita and Advaitins. Many publications from the Department of Philosophy in the University of Madras have also been affected by this.

  18. The Kanchi matha has had two heads for most of the 20th century, Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (1905-1994) and his disciple, Jayendra Saraswati, inducted in 1954. The chosen successor to Jayendra is Vijayendra Saraswati, who has been at Kanchi since 1983.

  19. See Maulana Mohammed Ali, The historic trial of Ali brothers, Dr. Kitchlew, Shri Shankaracharya, Maulana Hussain Ahmed, Pir Ghulam Mujaddid and Maulana Nisar Ahmed, "New Times" Office, Karachi, 1921, with a foreword by Mahatma Gandhi. The Shri Shankaracharya in the title is a reference to Bharati Krishna Tirtha.

  20. The 1998 Kumbha Mela was witness to a small dispute about the Puri Sankaracharya also. One Sannyasin named Adhokshajananda Tirtha, who called himself the Sankaracharya of Puri, gave press interviews, calling on Swarupananda, Vasudevananda and Madhava Asrama to resolve their mutual controversy during the Kumbha Mela itself. He suggested that if they could not resolve their dispute in a timely fasion, all three should be removed from the seat, and Niscalananda should be made the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmath instead. Nothing came out of this, as it seems to have been quickly realized that Adhokshajananda himself had no valid claim to the Puri title. His attempt to resolve the Jyotirmath dispute seems to have had no other purpose than to create doubt regarding Niscalananda's title at Puri, thereby strengthening his own claim to being the Puri Sankaracharya (private communication from J. E. Llewellyn).

    This story is not over yet. Adhokshajananda has been busy giving press interviews, to project himself in the Indian media as the rightful head of Puri matha. Niscalananda is quite close to many VHP leaders, while Adhokshajananda seems close to Congress party politicians, and is opposed to the VHP. Adhokshajananda has tried to use to his advantage the fact that both the current Sankaracharyas of Sringeri and Dwaraka keep away from the VHP leaders, although for different reasons. See http://www.rediff.com/news/1998/aug/31shan.htm, and http://www.the-asian.com/features/98oct/vhp.htm [403 Forbidden (Wed, 13 Jul 2005 20:47:54 GMT)] (cautionary note - the writer of this article has got many of her facts wrong, and doesn't seem to have realized that being opposed to VHP people is not correlated with the traditional norms that legitimate the contemporary Sankaracharyas). It is only recently that some Indian journalists have begun to question Adhokshajananda's credentials. For example, see http://www.rediff.com/news/2000/jun/28puri1.htm, and http://www.rediff.com/news/2000/jul/06khan1.htm.

  21. The appointment of Abhinava Sacchidananda Tirtha in 1945 finally settled an old succession dispute with respect to the Dwaraka matha. Before taking over at Dwaraka, he was the head of a minor matha at Mulavagil in Karnataka, which is said to have been established by a visiting Dwaraka Sankaracharya, probably in the 17th-18th century. In the late 19th century, the heads of the Mulavagil matha had challenged the then existing Dwaraka succession, which was also internally divided, much like the current situation at Jyotirmath. Bharati Krishna Tirtha's move to Puri from Dwaraka in 1925 lead to further confusion in the Dwaraka lineage. In 1945, Yogeswarananda Tirtha stepped down from the Dwaraka seat and moved to Puri, to join his guru, Bharati Krishna Tirtha. Abhinava Sacchidananda Tirtha moved to Dwaraka with Bharati Krishna Tirtha's approval, thereby merging the collateral lines of Dwaraka and Mulavagil.