Evening with a sage by Arthur Isenberg!!!
The person who sat opposite to me was sixty-five years old, slim, a bit on the
smallish side. The top of his head was almost entirely bald or shaven, the lower
portion of his face was outlined by a short white beard. He had a white mustache
and white eyebrows. His body was clothed in the saffron-coloured mantle of the
Not that any of this mattered. What did matter was his face, and more
particularly, his eyes, which looked at me with a mixture, or rather a fine
blending of intelligence kindness and compassion, while at the same time
somehow reflecting a most gentle sense of humour.
I had the definite sensation of being in the presence of a man thoroughly at
peace with himself, a sage. This impression grew to conviction during the course of the three and a half hour conversation that night on 20 April 1959.
The sage is His Holiness Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Sri
Pada, the present Sankaracharya or spiritual head of the Math in Conjeevaram,
South India, the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.
The physical setting may have played a part in shaping my impression. There
was the magic of the South Indian night in early summer : the light of the full
moon sithouetting a variety of palm trees; the silent flight of bats and flying foxes; occasional gentle cool breezes; now and then the sounds of little screech owls; or the distant barking of a dog or jackal.
The Acharya (Preceptor) and I sat cross-legged in a little grove of a garden in
Numbal, a small village some half a dozen miles from Madras.
Two others were present; a retired employee of the Madras High Court.
Anantananda Indra Saraswati (Anjaneya) who had chosen to become a sanyasin and to serve the Acharya and who remained standing, leaning on his pilgrim’s staff,
• Of a meeting on 20-4-1959, at Numbal near Madras.
Troughout the entire interview, never opening his mouth. The only other person who sat next to me was the eminent Sanskritist and Indologist, a scholar with a world-wide reputation, my friend, Dr. V. Raghavan who had arranged the interview and generously agreed to serve as interpreter.
The Acharya explained in the course of our conversation that while he could
read English with ease, he did not trust himself to speak that language, nor would
he trust his ability to understand spoken English. He spoke Tamil, liberally
interlarded with English words and phrases, invariably pronounced correctly.
Almost from the start I was impressed by a most remarkable habit which the
Acharya practises. Not only does he never interrupt a question (which would be
remarkable enough!) but he invariably pauses about a minute or more before
answering. His reply, when it comes, clearly shows that it was preceded by
reflection : it is invariably concise and to the point.
Many of the questions discussed by the Acharya and myself were of purely
personal interest, but there were others of a more general scope.
I asked the Acharya what, in his opinion would be the most significant aid
which a foreign government or institution, sincerely interested in helping India, could provide for the country. As usual, he thought for about a minute before replying substantially as follows:
“The answer to your question depends of course on whom you address it to.
If you were to ask the Indian Government, they would probably say that help was most urgently needed in the field of agriculture or education. But since you are asking me, I must give you my answer.”
“As I see it, the most significant help which a foreign government or
institution could render India would be in the cultural field. To help us deepen our understanding and appreciation of our own cultural heritage in all its forms -
literature, dance, arts, and philosophy – to help us carry on research in these fields and to bring the knowledge of these matters to our people – that would be rendering truly significant help.”
The views expressed by the Acharya on the subject of the proper role of
Indian women were conservative in the extreme. While I do not share his views I
respect the reasons which prompt him to hold them.
The Acharya believes that the proper place for a woman is in the home
where she should devote her life to the welfare of her husband and the rearing of
her children. If these duties do leave her any free time, she might undertake some form of cottage industrial work. There should be no co-education and generally, a woman’s education should be completed by the time she was 12 years old.
Assuredly, these are not the views of modern India, as His Holiness himself knows very well. It is his overriding belief that the greatest• tragedy which can befall a woman is to remain unmarried. Since he also believes that the longer a woman waits before getting married, the smaller her chances of contracting a desirable marriage, he is in favor of marriage at the earliest possible time, just as soon after puberty as the laws of the land will allow. He is convinced that a woman who will whole-heartedly devote herself to her husband and family will experience a sense of fulfillment and thus lead a richer, more rewarding life than a woman who follows any other career, emulating the example set by men and competing with them. However old-fashioned these views may be, there is no denying the sincerity and depth of his compassionate interest in the welfare of Indian’s women.
On the subject of the probable fate of India’s national unity, the Acharya was
guardedly optimistic. He said that India’s national unity was bound to deepen and triumph provided only that the leaders of the country’s political parties would act with even a modicum of good sense.
I had prepared only one question deliberately in anticipation of the interview.
His reply to that question showed that the Acharya was by no means without a
very fine sense of humour.
My question : “It has been said that the real beginning of wisdom consists of
knowing the right question to ask. Suppose then that I were wise : what question
should I ask you?”
He had begun to smile even as I was asking my question; nevertheless, he
listened carefully to Dr. Raghavan’s translation, even asked him to repeat it. There ensued the customary one minute pause for reflection. Then came his answer: “If you were wise, you would not ask any question. ” It was my turn to smile, appreciatively. Then I said : “True enough. But suppose that I were just a novice, at the beginning stage of the quest for wisdom. What question ought I to ask then?”
“In that case you might ask me what you ought to do.”
“All-right, your Holiness : Please consider yourself asked.”
His answer, when it came, was perhaps, a bit anti-climatic he told me to continue along the line I was already following.
I warned him that for better or worse, such was my nature and bent, that I
could only follow an intellectual path, that the world of faith was pretty much a
closed book to me. He declared that the path of reason was ultimately not only the best, but indeed the only one, that all other ways – faith, devotion or whatever – were of value only as preliminaries, preparations, interim stages, meaning nothing unless superseded by understanding.
“But,” I queried, “isn’t there such a thing as the pride or arrogance of the intellect?”
“Yes,” he replied, “but what makes you, ask that question if not your intellect:
which is its own observer, critic, watchman.”
“How,” I asked, “can one know whether one is making progress, stagnating
or retrogressing in the quest for wisdom?”
He replied : “If each year, the number of things or events which can arouse
your anger or lust grows smaller, you are making progress, if it remains the same
you are stagnating; if it increases, your spiritual development is retrogressive.”
I enquired whether there was any consolation or joy any true happiness to be
found. He answered that there was consolation and joy in the quest itself. In reply to a further question, he amended his answer by stating that ultimate, non-derivative existence was in itself blissful.
Our conversation covered many other topics. His Holiness evinced particular
interest in certain implications of theoretical physics which, to put it negatively a rather cautiously, do not clash with the thorough monism of Advaita Vedanta. (He has repeatedly written and spoken about the relation of modern science an advaita.)
It is my cherished hope to be able to avail myself of his kind invitation to
meet the Sankaracharya again. Meanwhile, there remains the vivid memory of my
privileged meeting on that peaceful evening with one of the most truly remarkable persons of our troubled age : the gentle sage of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.
Not only for the sake of those living near him, but for the benefit of
the world at large”