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What lies beneath the Kanchi murder

I am going to remove you from the leadership of the Kanchi Math,’’ goes the letter purportedly written by an angry middle-aged man...

I am going to remove you from the leadership of the Kanchi Math,’’ goes the letter purportedly written by an angry middle-aged man on August 30 this year and reproduced in a leading Tamil daily. ‘‘You are misusing your authority.’’

On September 3, four days after he supposedly shot off that letter, 52-year-old Sankara Raman was attacked by five men in the temple he managed. The stab wounds were deep and numerous and within 15 minutes he was dead.

Kanchi Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, who is accused of masterminding the murder, will have to stay in Vellore prison at least until Wednesday, as his bail hearing was postponed today.

The prosecution claims it has records of phone conversations between the assailants and the Shankaracharya before and after the murder. It claims that the currency notes seized from the alleged killers had been withdrawn by the Kanchi Math from a leading bank. The public prosecutor, while accepting he is a “believer” in the institution of the Shankaracharya, has described the 69th pontiff as “a most undeserving criminal”.

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That may be a harsh way to speak of a man who once mediated on the Ayodhya dispute and saw himself—and not the Sangh Parivar—as the true custodian of Hindu interests, but one man who knew him for decades had repeatedly challenged his authority.

 
Seer was fleeing to Nepal, say police; claim money trail, cellphone records
   

The biggest crisis in the Math’s history may have its origins in an improbable and apparently mismatched rivalry. Sankara Raman, now dead, may have argued that his association with the Kanchi Math went back as long as the seer’s. His father Anantakrishnasharma had worked there for 60 years and was among the four men who walked from Kanchi to Kashi with the previous Shankaracharya, the late Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati.

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When his father died, Sankara Raman, a matriculate, was given the job. In his own mind, he was the watch-dog who would make sure that the Math stayed true to its traditions. It was, perhaps, inevitable that he should clash with Jayendra, the man who would become an unconventional seer.

The seeds were sown in 1987, when the impulsive Jayendra, fell out with his mentor Chandrasekharendra—the man Sankara Raman worshipped—and left the Math, leaving only his danda (holy staff) behind. A frantic hunt followed and he was found after a couple of weeks and coaxed back. In Sankara Raman’s book, this was simply not done.

In 2000, when Jayendra was planning a visit to China, a horrified Sankara Raman approached court to stall the trip. He argued that religion forbade Hindus from crossing the seas and it was shocking that a Hindu religious head should even contemplate doing so. An embarrassed Shankaracharya called off the visit.

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In 2001, Sankara Raman was forbidden from visiting the Math. “We were told very rudely not to go there. We just left the place and came away,” said his widow Padma.

In October that year, he was even prevented from praying at the temple on his mother’s first anniversary.

Sankara Raman, who took up a job at the local Vardaraja Perumal Temple as a manager, kept an eye on happenings at the Math. Each time he disapproved of something, he would shoot off a letter to Jayendra Saraswati, attaching copies to the local media. The last letter was written on August 30.

While Sankara Raman was born in 1952, Jayendra himself had first come to Kanchi just two years later as a frail 19-year-old to cut his sacred thread in a temple tank. Around the time Sankara Raman started challenging his every move, his profile was rising nationally.

Trying to mediate on the Ayodhya issue, he upset the Sangh Parivar by portraying himself as the supreme Hindu leader and also upset the Muslims by pointing out that Kashi and Mathura were still unresolved issues. Of late, he has fallen out with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa after slamming her in public.

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In Kanchi, while the town stands bitterly divided over the seer’s arrest, Sankara Raman’s house is silent. His 17-year-old daughter Uma is fasting. His 20-year-old son Anandasharma, studying for a Sanskrit degree, will eventually try to master the scriptures. After a lifetime of prayer, Sankara Raman’s family will get less than a lakh of rupees from the temple as settlement. And a lasting mention in history books.

First published on: 14-11-2004 at 00:59 IST
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