The head pontiff of Siddaganga Mutt of the dominant Lingayat community in Karnataka, who wielded social and political influence on account of his contributions to the educational sector through creation of over 70 schools and colleges, was declared dead Monday by doctors at the Siddaganga Hospital run by the Mutt in Tumkur.
Shivakumar Swami, 111, popularly known as “walking God’’, had been battling age-related complications over the past fortnight. He became an ascetic in 1930 and the head of the Mutt in 1941. Shivakumar Swami supervised the growth of Siddaganga Mutt — which traces itself back to the 11th century — by expanding the number of educational institutions of the Mutt from four in 1940 to over 70 at present.
Although Shivakumar Swami rarely made political statements in public, he was courted by leaders of all parties at election time since his word could influence voters. Leaders of the BJP, however, were closest to him and his word was considered crucial to clinch the chief minister’s seat when the BJP was in power between 2008-2013 and the party shuffled three chief ministers.
In 2011-12, as BJP leaders jostled for his approval to be chief minister after the Mutt favourite B S Yeddyurappa was ousted on charges of corruption, Shivakumar Swami said that whoever becomes the chief minister must be a “clean hand”.
Ahead of the 2018 Assembly polls in Karnataka, Shivakumar Swami was one of the first Lingayat seers BJP president Amit Shah called upon amid an uproar over a demand by a Lingayat seers’ group for the status of an independent religion from Hinduism.
Though Shivakumar Swami was not a vocal supporter of the demand, the Congress, which decided to recommend the status of a separate religion in March 2018, claimed to have received his approval to do so.
The Mutt was embroiled in a controversy in the 1980s when Shivakumar Swami ousted his second-in-command from the ashram on charges of incompetence. While the ousted junior seer Gowrishankar Swami went to court over the matter, a case of sodomy was filed against him for allegedly attacking a student. The junior seer was acquitted by a trial court on technical grounds in 1988, but was sentenced to life in prison in 1992 by the Karnataka high court before being acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2008. The former junior seer died in 2017 at the age of 71.
Following the ouster of Gowrishankar Swami in 1988, Shivakumar Swami appointed a new second-in-command, Siddalinga Swamy, who will now take over the Mutt.
“HH Dr. Sree Sree Sree Sivakumara Swamigalu remained at the forefront of ensuring better healthcare and education facilities for the marginalised. He represents the best of our traditions of compassionate service, spirituality and protecting the rights of the underprivileged,’’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
“I have lost a Guru who always guided me. The Siddaganga Mutt was the epicentre of a silent revolution in the field of education and in providing food. His inspiring personality and his intrinsic spiritual strength were the mainstay of the Siddaganga Mutt,’’ BJP state president Yeddyurappa said.
“I am deeply saddened by the demise of the saint of the century Dr. Shri Shri Shri Shivakumara Mahaswamiji,” former PM H D Devegowda said.
“Swamiji was a towering figure of inspiration and guidance for the Lingayat community, not only for his deep spiritualism and profound scholarship but also for his enormous work to promote education from the primary school to the college level through the Sri Siddaganga Education Society that he founded, providing quality education with ethical and moral values to generations of young people,’’ Congress leader Sonia Gandhi said in a message.
The Congress-JDS government in Karnataka has declared three days of mourning to mark the seer’s death. Schools and colleges will remain closed Tuesday.