Secular pontiff Vishwesha Theertha Swami of Pejavara Matha no more

The Pejavara Matha seer passed away on Sunday following a brief illness

Pejawar Mutt pontiff with Modi Pejawar Mutt pontiff Vishwesha Teertha with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 | Narendra Modi's website

Sri Vishwesha Theertha Swami (88), the presiding pontiff of Sri Pejavara Adhokshaja Matha in Udupi, passed away on Sunday, following a brief illness.

The very influential pontiff was the 32nd seer of the Pejavara Matha, one of the Ashta Mathas belonging to the “Dvaita” school of philosophy founded by Sri Madhvacharya.

The seer had been admitted to KMC hospital, Manipal, with severe difficulty in breathing on December 20. The doctors reported blockage of lungs by dry cough and was supported by ventilators and other life supporting devices. On December 29, the Swamiji was shifted to the Pejavara Matha as he had desired to spend his last moments in the Mutt. He breathed his last on Sunday morning.

His last rites will be performed at the Poornaprajna Vidyapeetha, an institution founded by him, in Bengaluru.

In 1969, the Sant Sammelan (conclave of saints) held in the temple town of Udupi witnessed a rare and historical sight―an on-stage embrace between RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar and IAS officer Bharanayya, a dalit who presided over the meet. It was the beginning of the Sangh Parivar's efforts to create a common Hindu identity. It was a symbolic gesture to eradicate casteism and untouchability as much as the primer for a saffron surge in Karnataka.

The man instrumental in bringing the conference to Udupi was Sri Vishvesha Thirtha Swami, the pontiff of Pejawar Math―one of the Ashta Mathas (eight monasteries) of the Madhwa Brahmin cult.

Swamiji, a strong advocate of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist outfit, who was at the forefront of Ram Janmabhoomi Movement, had earned the reputation of a liberal and secular pontiff.

In 1970, the pontiff, for the first time, took out a padayatra in a dalit colony in Bengaluru to send out a strong message against untouchability. He was criticised by both conservative Hindus and the liberal intellectuals. But the criticism did little to dissuade him. He strongly advocated against untouchability. His last “Samarasya Padayatre” (social harmony walk) was in Manjunathapura in Mysuru in September 2019, when the seer was indisposed, but decided to go ahead with the rally on a wheelchair. He asserted that he wanted to see dalits in the mainstream, living with no inferiority complex or stigma.

The outspoken seer has courted controversies, too.

In October 2016, the dalit and Left organisations launched the “Udupi Chalo Jatha”―a 10-day-long padayatra from Bengaluru to Udupi to condemn the murder of Praveen Poojari (29) by self-styled gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes). But the protest turned against the Krishna Mutt after social activist Jignesh Mevani gave a two-month deadline to the Mutt to stop the discriminatory practice of “Pankti Bheda”, a system of serving food separately to Brahmins and non-Brahmins.

Swamiji expressed his annoyance at the protesters targeting the Krishna Mutt and claimed there was no discrimination practiced in Udupi.

In 2017, the pontiff had to face brickbats for hosting “Iftaar Koota” (lunch) for Muslims at the Annabrahma dining hall attached to the Krishna temple. Hindu organisations led by Sri Rama Sene chief Pramod Mutalik held a protest for allowing Muslims to offer prayers (namaaz) inside the Math premises. “What is the message the Swamiji want to give gau rakshaks (cow protectors),” Mutalik had demanded to know.

Ironically, even the secular brigade looked at the seer with suspicion despite his long history of fostering social harmony.

In November 2018, the seer had urged the Modi government to promulgate an ordinance for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya or call a joint sitting if both houses of Parliament to pass a law for the construction of the temple.

The seer, who is one of the trustees of Ram Janmabhoomi Trust run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) lauded the Supreme Court verdict in Ayodhya land dispute case saying it has strengthened the harmony between the two communities.

“Suddenly there was chaos and a group of Hindu activist begun demolishing Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. I tried my best to convince and stop them from carrying out such act of violence. But we remained powerless against such high emotions,” the seer had recalled, while narrating the incident. In fact, the seer had been arrested twice for trying to offer prayers at the disputed site.

When the Lingayat Movement in Karnataka demanding a separate religion status was supported by the previous Congress government, the seer had appealed to the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community not to allow the breaking down of the Hindu society. “How can Lingayats who worship Lord Shiva be different from Hindus? The Ramakrishna Mission, Arya Samaj, Swaminarayan, Chaithanya and the Shaivite cults too shun the caste system, but they have not departed from Hinduism.”

“The Hindu society should be united like other religions. It is alarming to know that some people are supporting the move in the hope of getting special benefits under the religious minority tag,” he had lamented.

Born in Ramakunja village to a Shivalli Madhwa Brahmin family on April 27, 1931, Venkatrama was ordained into “sanyasa” at the age of 7. He trained under his guru Shri Vidyamanya Tirtharu of Shri Bhandarkeri Math, and Shri Palimaru Math.

The pontiff has the distinction of having ascended the “Paryaya Peetha” (a system of transfer of power between the eight Mutts started in 1522) for the fifth time, only one to complete five Paryayas after Shri Vadiraja Swamiji of Sodhe Mutt. He started his fifth Paryaya on January 18, 2016 and completed it on January 18, 2018. He also appointed Shri Vishwaprasanna Tirtha, the junior seer, as his successor.