Vishwesha Tirtha Swami tried to balance tradition and reform

An archive photo of Vishwesha Tirtha Swami of Pejawar Mutt at a Harijan colony in Bengaluru.

An archive photo of Vishwesha Tirtha Swami of Pejawar Mutt at a Harijan colony in Bengaluru.   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Vishwesha Tirtha Swami, the 88-year-old seer of Pejawar Mutt who breathed his last on Sunday, will be remembered for his attempts at negotiating between centuries-old traditions and the demand for radical reform in the modern context. While many of his attempts were controversial, he did not shy away from engaging with this fraught debate constantly.

He visited Dalit colonies when it was considered taboo. For this, he attracted criticism from both traditionalists and progressives, who saw it as tokenism. Noted writer U.R. Ananthamurthy had a long-running conversation with him throughout his life and once welcomed Vishwesha Tirtha going to Dalit colonies. “He opened the doors for Dalits and even a very orthodox and traditional person like my mother was influenced by him,” the late writer had once said.

The seer’s Dalit outreach was both nuanced and complex. “While he seemed to have been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi on the eradication of untouchability and the reform of Hindu dharma, the outreach was also aimed at retaining Dalits in the Hindu-fold, preventing conversions, and building a social base for Hindutva politics,” said advocate and activist C.S. Dwarkanath.

In perhaps a rarity in today’s environment, he always engaged with even his bitter critics. “I respected him, for it was possible for us to have a conversation. He was a democratic man. Such conversations were never possible with any other seers heading Brahmin mutts,” said writer Chandrashekhar Patil. “He used to write to me, beginning his letter with ‘Narayana namaskaragalu’, and I would start my reply with ‘Shambhuka namaskaragalu’. But he never stopped engaging with me.”

The seer’s solutions to most problems within the Hindu faith were aimed at reform without abandoning traditions. When a controversy over ‘Pankti Bheda’ — different seating arrangements for meals for devotees — broke out some years ago, the seer said there was ‘Sahapankti Bhojana’ where people of all communities had meals in the dining halls of Sri Krishna Mutt/Temple. But he insisted that this could not be followed in the ‘chowki’ area of the temple because some “purists” had their own regulations when it came to food. Since no one was turned away from the ‘Sahapankti Bhojana’ at the dining halls, there was no scope for insult to anyone, he had opined.

On ‘Made Snana’ — the practice of devotees rolling on plantain leaves containing leftovers after Brahmins had lunch at Kukke Subrahmanya — the Pejawar seer came up the solution of ‘Ede Snana’. Under this, devotees rolled on plantain leaves containing the prasada offered to the deity. This is being followed at Subrahmanya Temple at Muchlugodu, which falls under the jurisdiction of Pejawar Mutt. He had recently welcomed the Supreme Court order allowing women to enter Sabarimala temple as well.

Vishwesha Tirtha Swami invited the ire of Hindutva groups when he allowed a group of Muslims to break their fast at the dining hall in the outer periphery of Sri Krishna Mutt, and followed it up with an Iftar, or “Souharda Upahara Koota” as he termed it, on June 24, 2017. However, the seer stood his ground, saying his objective was to promote harmony among communities.

As progressives expected him to move further down the road of reforms, he also received brickbats from traditionalists for veering away. “He often seemed to be caught in a bind between the two. Though he had an instinct for reform, he was a product of an orthodox mutt that restricted him as well,” Mr. Dwarkanath said.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 12:38:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/vishwesha-tirtha-swami-tried-to-balance-tradition-and-reform/article30428259.ece

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