FLASHES OF MY LIFE - 7
My Father and his great last moments
Shri R. Visvanatha Sastri (1882 – 1956), (my father), worked in the judicial department of South Arcot District in the erstwhile Madras Province of British India and retired as Sub-Court Sheristadar, Cuddalore, in 1939. Even when he was in his twenties he had been, during summer vacations, studying under the feet of Shri Shri Vasudeva Brahmendra of Ganapati Agraharam, Tanjore District. He had his training in the Bhashyas of Adi Sankaracharya in the conventional manner of Guru-kula-vasam under the lotus feet of that Guru of his. Perhaps he was then also a sahapathi (student-contemporary) of the famous Shri S. Kuppusweamy Sastri of Madras. He had also been sitting as a public witness-listener to the Bhashya teachings given to Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (now called Kanchi Mahaswamigal) in the second (or first?) decade of the 20th century at the Kanchi mutt, Kumbakonam. Further he used to study and write vigorously (literally till the last day of his 74-year life) all the 24 hours from any scriptural book that he can bring from the Library. By age 32 or so he had already started his Vedantic expositions. His first such exposition was on SUta-samhitA! During his lifetime he gave numerous lectures and expositions of the scriptures including several SaptAhas (seven-day expositions) of the Shrimad Bhagavatam. and navAhas (nine-day expositions) of the Valmiki Ramayana at various places in the present Tamilnadu and Kerala and also in some north Indian locations. One such event is recalled by him with pride in his autobiographical notes. In the early thirties (15th October 1934) he gave a fifteen-day exposition of the Bhagavatam at the Mani-karnika ghat in Varanasi in the beatific presence of His Holiness the Kamakoti Sankaracharya Shri Shri Chandrasekharendra Swamigal (now known as the Kanchi Maha Swamigal) who was then on his first all-India tour.
Father has left 27 original manuscripts expounding the advaita school of thinking and its symbiosis with Bhakti. The longest of them all is Gita-amrita-mahodadhi. It is a marathon treatise on advaita through the medium of the Gita and the Upanishads. It consists of 2400 Anushtup slokas divided into five chapters. He wrote the whole manuscript as was his custom always, in the Grantha script of the Sanskrit language. While transcribing the manuscript for being sent (in May - August, 1954) to the Kanchi mutt, under his dictation, it was pointed out to him by me that his shlokas need a commentary by himself since he seemed to be putting meanings and significance into them which were very profound. Fortunately for posterity, the father took this only comment of the son seriously and spent another two months or so writing a prose commentary of his own work. All this was finished by October 1954. The resulting manuscript (running up to 879 pages of notebook size writing) now contains therefore both the original shlokas of the author and his own Sanskrit commentary (vyakhyana) in prose. This original copy in grantha characters is in my possession. The copy of the original manuscript of 2400 slokas alone is with the Kanchi Mutt Library. Before his passing away I asked him: Which ones of your manuscript would you like to have published, ultimately? The answer was that Gitamritamahodadhi was his magnum opus, it contained his lifetime of studies and research and it was the one that should see the light of day, if nothing else. In order that the work may have a wider reading, the whole work has now been transcribed into Devanagari script by me. A copy of this has been deposited (Nov.1998) with the Kuppusami Sastri Research Institute, Tiru Vi Ka Salai, Mylapore, Chennai, 600004, India, so that posterity may not miss it. A scanned copy as written originally in Grantha script is available in the files section of the advaitin yahoo-group.
His daily living as a karma-bhakti-jnAna-yogI was a role model for every one who knew him. For all this the circumstances in the family (though not the family itself) were anything but concordant. He was not a renunciate (Sannyasi) in the physical sense. He lived all his life in the midst of family and household. He had two widowed, issueless sisters (elder to him, both without financial stability). He was supporting both of them ever since his age 25 when he lost his father. One of these widowed sisters was being supported by him by allowing her to remain in her own village. The other sister and a widowed sister-in-law of his were alternately taking care of the household (after the demise of my mother) and in their absence, with the help of hired help of maid-servant-cooks. Of the ten issues he had only two sons (I am the younger son) and two daughters who lived into adulthood. The two daughters would keep coming in alternate years for their next delivery. One of them had a husband, a non-believer in frugality, so that through him there would be always financial challenges presented to the father who was himself a meagre earner as an employee in the local Sub-court.
Amidst all the overweighing family problems, in his later years (he lost his wife when he was 50), I remember he was teaching Gita Bhashya pAtham at home to a few friends every morning – except five anadhyayana days in the month. (I was not yet ten then, but I used to sit in those classes). He was always a picture of karma-bhakti-jnAna in action. On his big table in the office, any office paper that needed his attention or signature would be disposed off then and there, leaving the table free for his vedantic books and non-stop writing. His elaborate puja never stopped even for a single day. You would be surprised to know that in one of his travels by train from Madras to Calcutta, his train stopped at a major station on the banks of the Godavari and it appears he had a quick bath in the river, came back to the platform, spread out his puja paraphernalia, finished his puja and got back into the same train in which he was travelling. His advaita knowledge and pursuit of advaita was so convincing from his behaviour as well as his reactions to events. He would take everything as God’s will -- good or bad, honour or dishonour, praise or blame, pain or pleasure, blame or insult, success or failure, small or big. I have seen it day by day, hour by hour. I have learnt most of my advaita more by observing him than from scriptures. His writings tell me now that all the time he was ‘experiencing advaita’. I cannot describe it because it was his experience. But I can ‘feel’ his experience even now, long after he left me!
His last moments were so remarkable that as one who went through the unique blessed experience of watching how a noble soul should leave the body fully resonating with the shlokas 5 to 14 of B.G. Ch.8. I cannot but record it here for the sake of posterity to understand what Lord Krishna meant by these shlokas and to know what great traditions dominated this land from time immemorial.
It was January 8, 1956. My father was living in
( South India) with me, my wife and three
children of ours. Generally he was in perfect health, doing his daily religious
routines which start with a bath in the early
morning, sometimes in the river, but mostly as his age advanced, in the home.
He went through a routine of pUjA for possibly one or two hours. Then
throughout the day he would keep himself busy reading and writing. He is the
author of several manuscripts of advaita
character. I have heard several of his religious expositions. Naturally as
every Hindu expositor would do, if the context demanded, he would refer to
these slokas of the gita in these expositions. And when he expounds on the name
and glory of Narayana, he used to say that one should cry out ‘Narayana’ so
loud, that it is heard even in distant VaikunTha, the abode of Vishnu. Whenever
as a teenager I heard these statements from him, I used to treat them as just
rhetoric, but I did not realise he was really serious about it, until he showed
me how one must die.
One month before his demise, he fell ill for a few days, even lost consciousness, but recovered very soon. Thereafter he even exhibited signs of double vigour. He resumed his river bath, and visits to the temple for darSan and so on. One day he called the pundits, (it was an eclipse on that day, perhaps solar), performed some rituals (which later I understood was a prAyaScitta ritual), performed an actual godAn (gift of a cow), and so on. Since he was generally religious and of a most saintly type, we took these things for granted and did not realise that he was gradually preparing for his final exit from this world. December-January corresponds to the Tamil month of Margazhi (Recall: mAsAnAm mArgasIrsho’ham – B.G. 10 -35) which corresponds in the divine reckoning, to their early morning time: 4 to 6. During this month throughout the Hindu world, morning pujas will be performed certainly in all temples, but also in most families of the traditional kind. My father used to do this early morning puja (which would be in addition to the daily puja which came later in the morning at the usual time of 8 or 9). His routine for the early mornings during December-January was to get up at four, heat water for his bath and have his bath. The previous night itself my wife would have kept ready the firewood and the pot of water that was necessary. He would himself light the firewood and heat the water. After bath he would sit for the puja. Simultaneously, he would also light the small charcoal oven (known as kumutti in Tamil) and put on it a small vessel containing water and moong dhal and rice with a few spices, for making Pongal, for the naivedya to the Lord after Puja. The necessary materials would all have been kept ready for him by my wife the previous night itself. He would finish the Puja about 5-45 or so, and just before the Arti time the rest of the family (myself, my wife and children) would wake up and have darSan of the Arti.
This routine was going on every day. But on the 8th January, early morning, around 4-15 or so, he called me aloud and woke me up. I got up and noted that something was strange that morning. He said that he had just taken a quick bath, and was about to begin the puja, but he felt not quite well. ‘Go brush your teeth and come quickly’ he said. My wife also got up and both of us were ready for him in a few minutes. He asked me to bring a shawl and cover him up. I saw he was shivering. He sat opposite the puja altar where all the puja materials had already been arranged as usual the previous night itself. He asked me to open the vessel containing
Ganges water (which had earlier
been opened on the day of the eclipse a few days earlier) and give a few drops
to him. He took up the rudraksha mAla from the puja materials and wore
it. Also he wore the vibhuti as well as the usual Urdhva-pundram on his
forehead. He spoke only a few words to get the things done as he wanted. My min
d began to find meanings for the instruction he had given me a few days earlier
that I should read aloud the Gajendra Moksham chapter from the Bha. daily while
he would be doing the early morning Puja – which I had been following.
This day he made me sit near him and asked me to go get the book and read ‘ambhasya pAre’. This refers to the first chapter of the M.N.U. which follows the three chapters of the T.U. in the taittirIya brAhmana of the yajurveda. It is a long paragraph going over to four pages. I have heard him say on many occasions that this particular anuvAka (paragraph) contains all the great mantras. I picked up the book from his bookshelf and started reading it. By that time I realised the gravity of the situation because when I noted that he was not starting his puja, but just asked me to sit and read this portion from the veda, and remembering the instruction about the Gajendra Moksham regimen of the past few days, I knew he was preparing himself for the final journey. Naturally I faltered in my reading, both because of the excitement and also because I had not been keeping myself in touch with the reading of these passages due to my worldly activities and professional obligations. When I faltered, he told me, ‘See, you have not been reciting it regularly and now you are faltering’. And then he started shouting the name ‘Narayana’, ‘Narayana’. His crying out the name of ‘Narayana’ repeatedly became so loud in the next few minutes, that later in the day my friends who lived a furlong away from me were going to report to me that they heard the shouts of ‘Narayana’ in the early morning several times. He must have cried aloud the name ‘Narayana, probably more than a hundred times that morning. I became fully aware of what was going on, from his point of view; so, I did not disturb him. But he signalled to me and put his head on my right lap while all the time crying out ‘Narayana’. The recitation of the Narayana name did not stop at all.
My wife in her anxiety called a neighbor, who called another neighbor who was a doctor. The doctor came, examined, gave a coromin injection and went away. But all the while my father, though fully conscious, did not respond to any of the mundane conversation that either the doctor or my wife generated. The children (ages 8, 5 and 3) came and watched the drama that the grandfather seemed to be enacting. He just signalled to them to sit. My wife offered some black coffee (there was no milk in the house at that time) which he did not refuse. He allowed it to go through his throat. He was lying on my lap and the nArAyana mantra was going on still aloud. It was clear that he had already bid good-bye to this body and its mundane associations.
I had now finished reading ambhasya pAre, and not knowing what to do further and not getting any further instruction from him, (because he was now not allowing himself to be distracted even a little from his loud nArAyaNa recitation) I started reciting the purusha sUkta which I happened to know by heart. As soon as I started it, he signalled to me that that was OK. The decibel level of the narAyana recitation was going down now. My wife got panicky and went out to call the same doctor once again. She returned in just a few minutes with the doctor. By this time he had stopped reciting Narayana and appeared to be sleeping, still on my lap. The time was 5-40 AM. The doctor came and pronounced him dead.