Read part I.
You have dedicated your newly refurbished website to your father, where you describe him as ‘a monumental example of a Karma Yogi, Ananya Bhakta, and Atmajnani all put together’. Please share with us more about your father, his life, his works, your interactions with him, how he inspired and continues to inspire you. It would be great if you can share some interesting anecdotes from the times you spent with your father.
In one of your conversations, you had mentioned that your father has left 27 original manuscripts and that among them his magnum opus is ‘Gita-amrita-mahodadhi’, on which you have been working for last many years and intend to get them published. Can you share more about this work on Gita, what are its salient features, your long engagement with this text, and how you are planning to get it published? Also, enlighten our readers about the other 26 manuscripts and the subject matter they deal with.
Since both questions are about my father and his works, I am answering them together.
My father, Sri R. Visvanatha Sastri (1982 – 1956), whom I consider to be my guru for everything that may be good in me. From my childhood he educated me. Even as a boy I walked along with him in the early mornings to the river for a bath followed by Sandhyavandanam and the like. And during the walk either we recited Vishnu Sahasranamam along with his contemporaries who walked along with us or he was teaching me how to read the stars and use some Sanskrit formulae for telling the time even at night by just a look at the stars. At home I had accompanied him on his daily Puja and followed his instructions. On all possible days when he and I were at home, he had taught me Vedic recitations by the strict traditional process. I have observed him how he reacts to various problems of family and secular life and the lessons and morals that I have learnt cannot be numbered. Many times I have sat in his Vedanta lectures. These lectures of his, according to me, outshone any of the lectures of the great expositors, because in his case it was a hundred percent original ‘juice’; no compromise, no mixture, it was a totally pure extract of the scriptures. Certain times I have helped him transcribe some of his original writings. Every time it was a process of education for me into the unknown world of spiritual knowledge, culture and heritage. Well, I cannot list them all. I have to bow and prostrate to him hundred times and thank God that He gave me such a Father!
yoginaM vishvanAthAkhyaM asmat-tAta-svarUpiNaM
Atma-lAbhAt paraM laabhaM vaktAraM na kadAcana
GItArtha-grantha-kartAraM shrIguruM praNamAmyahaM
Yo.antaH pravishya me vAcaM dhRRitiM buddhiM pracodayAt
As a latest news the book entitled GitAmrita-mahodadhi has now been published as a hard-cover book of 433 pages by the Samskrita Academy, Mylapore, Chennai in 2018, as one of their Navati Samvatsara Publications. One can write to the KSRI, Mylapore for the book. Here is the introduction I wrote for GitAmritamahodadhi which also contains a brief biographical note on my father.
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. In his younger years, round about the second decade of the 20th century, when he was working in Tirukkoilur and Cuddalore, every year (probably for four or five years) during the summer recess, sending his wife and children to her father’s place, he went over to Ganapathy Agraharam in Tanjore District, to be for day and night, at the lotus feet of Sri Sri Vasudeva Brahmendra Saraswati and stayed there in his Ashram like a gurukulavAsi. He had all his Bhashya pAthas this way. It was at this time he was probably also a sahapAThI (contemporary student) of Sri S. Kuppuswamy Sastry, in whose name the research Institute KSRI is known. It seems VasudevabrahmendrAL was also revered by Sri Ramakrishna Sastrigal, my father’s father. A picture of this Sri Sri Vasudeva Brahmendra Saraswati remained in father’s pUjA all his life. This Acarya attained Samadhi on 4th March 1931.
During his lifetime father gave numerous lectures and expositions of the scriptures including several Saptahas of the Srimad Bhagavatam and navahas 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 (in 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 Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal (now known as the Kanchi Maha Swamigal) who was then on his first all-India tour.
My father has left 27 original manuscripts expounding the Advaita school of thinking and its symbiosis with Bhakti. The longest of them all 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. The Gita for him is only a jumping board. He goes into raptures on Shankara’s Dakshinamurti stotram, covers the 108 Upanishads each in a few shlokas, and gets into the saptabhumikas of Mahopanishad. The entire work is an elaboration of advaita vedanta through a unique track chalked out by himself. He wrote the whole mss. as was his custom always, in the Grantha script of the Sanskrit language. The first thing he planned was to send it to the Kanchi Mutt for the MahaPeriava to bless it. In the process he decided to have it transcribed into Devanagari script, because not many would be comfortable with Grantha script. I as a lecturer in Maths, Thiagarajar College, Madurai at that time. I offered to do the transcription and he dictated it for me from the Grantha version. While doing so I used to ask him for some of the meanings – not that I understood the rest. While I listened to his explanations, once I ventured to suggest that his slokas might need a commentary by himself since he seemed to be putting meanings and significance into them which were very profound. Fortunately for posterity, he took this meek suggestion of this 27-year-old seriously and spent another two months or so writing a prose commentary (again in Sanskrit, of course in Grantha script) on 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 his original slokas and his own Sanskrit commentary (vyakhyana) in prose. This original copy in his grantha handwriting continues to be one of my treasured possessions.
A copy of the original manuscript of just the 2400 slokas alone in Devanagari script is in the Kanchi Mutt Library. Before his passing away, I chanced to ask him: Which ones of your mss. 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 transcription of the whole work, (including his vyakhyana in prose) into Devanagari script has been done, by the Grace of God, over the years, by me. A xerox copy of this version is in the Library of KSRI since 1998.
His daily living as a karma-bhakti-jnAna-yogI was a role model for everyone 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 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!
Apart from your father, who else inspired you or guided you in your journey into Vedanta? Did you formally study the Vedanta Shastras under any other Acharyas?
Certainly many others inspired me by their lectures and attitudes. But I did not study the Shastras under anybody except under my father. It was he who kept my interest in Sanatana Dharma alive and blossoming, until it really possessed me even long after he was no more. Otherwise, those who inspired me by their Vedanta talks are: Swami Chinmayananda; Sengalipuram Anantharama Dikshidar, Srivatsa Jayarama Sharma, Upanyasakar Sundar Kumar, Krishna Premi Swamigal and most, in my later life, Swami Paramarthananda, and a few others — by their lectures in public. Particularly my friend-philosopher, Dr. Kuntimaddi Sadananda, by his books, writings in the yahoo group called advaitin, and his conversations with me. Those whose writings have captured me even when I was young are Swami Vivekananda , Ramana Maharishi and Aurobindo , certainly, Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, Paul Brunton, Anna Subramania Iyer, and S.V. Radhakrishna Sastrigal of Kanchi Mutt. After my retirement in 1988, for the next thirteen years or so I was in Chennai, engaged all the time in the only occupation of spiritual studies, , listening to lectures by giants in the area of Sanatana Dharma and its scriptures, working on the preparation of my own spiritual expositions and compiling them in the form of books to be authored by me. These thirteen years proved very productive for my spiritual seeking.
When I was one of the active moderators of Advaitin Yahoo group in the first decade of this century, my projects of contributing English translations of Kanchi Mahaperiava’s Tamil discourses on Soundarya lahari and Advaita Sadhana must be credited as my successful catalysts in the area of spiritual learning and seeking.
In the actual living of one’s life I was very greatly influenced by my Maths. Guide Prof.V. Ganapathy Iyer. The fact that I learnt from him a lot of how to learn a lot of Mathematics, is not relevant here. But what is relevant is, next to my father, he was the one who taught to me by his example how to live a noble life of humility, learning and activity without a trace of indolence or pride or self-praise – all the same things which my father taught me both by example and precept. Following my father I have myself performed several laksharchanas (performed singly by myself during the nine days of Navaratri) to our family deity Sri Raja Rajeswari, a small vigraha that has been living in our family for probably four generations now.
Prof. Dr. M. Venkataraman (my colleague in Annamali University, and later he was Prof. & Head of the Maths. Dept. at Madurai University). His discipleship as a devotee of Aurobindo and the Mother, made him mix Mathematics and Vedanta so well so that I learnt many things not only from his lectures but also from his conversations and his attitudes to happenings.
One other who in some small way inspired me by his right attitudes to life was: Sri R. Trivikraman (a colleague in Annamalai University). He, as an elder to me, taught me many things about how to face life honestly.
Of course, among my own family I learnt from my own wife Kamala (1931-2019) (who took care of me and my health for 73 years from 1946 onwards) the important practice of a hospitable nature ever and everywhere. My two sons Ravi and Balaji are my role models for a life of complete integrity and transparent honesty both in personal and public life.
You have been a voracious writer yourself and your website alone contains more than 100 articles on various topics related to Hindu philosophy in general, Vedanta in particular. You have written many books as well. Tell us more about your journey as an author
Two recent books you have written are ‘Meet the Ancient Scriptures of Hinduism’ and ‘Thoughts of Spiritual Wisdom’. Tell us more about these books, how they were conceptualized, what are the themes they deal with, what audience they intend to address.
Since these two questions are about me and my books I shall answer them together. From my younger days I have always been interested in teaching others what I know. Even though in the fashion of youths I did compete for administrative services in the Govt. by writing examinations, my heart was in teaching and learning. Fortunately Providence cooperated with me and put me in the teaching profession. And that led on to my writing what I wanted to teach. My first book was Plane Trigonometry for the Intermediate – in the year 1955, when I was 28. The interesting thing to note is that I published it myself without the intermediary of any professional publisher. At Pillani where I was Professor of Mathematics I authored three books – one of them jointly with two others. After retirement also three others and myself have authored ‘Challenge and Thrill of Pre-college Mathematics’ which is not a text book at any level or any college or school but is one of the bestsellers because of its catering to the upper half of the spectrum of students all over India and also outside.
At Pilani I used to teach Gita in the evenings to students, purely on a voluntary basis. This led me on later to become one of the three or four faculty members who taught a regular one-semester course on Comparative Religion (as an elective), my part being to teach Hinduism. After my lectures, which I recorded for myself, I compiled them in the form of a book. One of those years Swami Chinmayananda visited Pilani to give his well-known lectures. That year it was on Bhaja Govindam. As a Deputy Director of the Institute I was sitting in the first row, listening to his lectures all five days or so. At the end on the fifth day the Institue had to offer the Swamiji a reverential vote of thanks and I was chosen to do this. Before starting my vote of thanks on the dais I asked him whether he will permit me to give a fifteen minute summary of his lectures for the benefit of students. He replied in his majestic voice: Go ahead, if you can! As I had written very close notes (some of them in shorthand) of his five-day lectures, and as I have studied Bhaja Govidam myself, I was able to give a good fifteen minute summary, but the important thing was, I was almost using his own exact words (because of my shorthand notes), exactly the way he had used them and in the same sonorous voice of mine which almost parodied him. When I finished my vote of thanks, he said: “If you can do that, why call me?” This was my first introduction to him. Later when I wrote my book on Hinduism, I wrote to him for a foreword and he was obliging enough to write a very kindly foreword to my book ‘Essentials of Hinduism’, my first book in the area of Sanatana Dharma, published in Delhi, 1988. This is how my authorship in the area of spirituality started. Then over the years I have written half a dozen books in the area.
Last year Thoughts Of Spiritual Wisdom was published. This is a book of 365 pages of spiritual quest, with one Thought on each page, for reflection and contemplation, not as a treatise or a catalogue, or reference text. It is also not a book of proverbs or catchy two or three-line quotations. It is aimed at an audience who may be any English-knowing citizen of the world, young or old, who seeks to know something beyond the needs and pleasures of material welfare, particularly oriented towards Hindu philosophy. The purpose of the book is to spread spiritually oriented thinking across the world. The prerequisite is a basic urge to know about and move towards spiritual elevation.
The main pattern of the book is its variety by which it opens out the windows of universal spiritual panorama through several key-hole views. The thoughts have no continuity from one to the other. Naturally each Thought is likely to trigger a different train of thinking. By opening different pages even at random one gets a good variety of illuminating thoughts. The source of each quote or thought is given on the same page. The book according to me is a permanent trigger-worthy spiritual companion. Most of the quotations are slanted towards Hindu Vedanta; but as every citizen of the world should know, after Swami Vivekananda’s advent, Vedanta itself is now a worldwide subject of interest, study and practice. The origin of the book goes to my practice in 2017 to post one such thought on my Facebook page daily during the year. No title was posted for the thoughts except to serially number them and date the post. Readers were invited to suggest a title, and that brought in a good response and that was how titles of the various thoughts were evolved.
In these Thoughts we have subjects like Meditation, Meaning of Life, Science and Spirituality, the Gita as a guide not only to a fulfilling life but as a manual for management students. We have passages from the Bhumi Sukta of the Atharva Veda which deals with the essential divinity of the world. And we have the charming episode of Rama stepping on his Padukas before handing them over to Bharata – a classic example of transmission of spiritual power from Him to the devotee. We have a passage where Rama who could not be present at His father’s obsequies makes up in part by performing the rites for Jatayu, a foster father figure for Rama, a case of Pitru Vakya Paripalana. By performing the obsequies Rama was honouring a promise Dasaratha had made to Jatayu to give the latter his first born. Sri Aurobindo is represented with his concept of the supramental and the real and how man can verily become superman. Paul Brunton shows spirituality as intertwined with daily life and the one where he gives a clarion call to Mystics to speak out and relay their message to the world which is ignorant of that dimension of experience. The unity of India and her religious culture is the burden of some of the passages. Passages on astronomy, mathematics and science and their relation to the spiritual mysteries are also there. The religious English poet TS Eliot is represented in his musings on Death, Life and Immortality. Saints like Ramakrishna, Moolar and Jyothi Ramalingar, are alsothere, either through their statements and wisdom or through moving anecdotes about them. Kabir and Tulsi Das and Tyagaraja find place here. Dr Radhakrishnan is of course , very much there with his mellifluous prose , but the passages of his friend Hiriyanna on Vedanta, on Advaita, Vishishta Advaita and Dwaita match Radhakrishnan in their remarkable lucidity and clarity those passages are apropos to the task on hand and lucidly explain many complicated concepts.
The latest book is Meet The Ancient Scriptures of Hinduism (2019). In modern days, people, particularly the youth are overwhelmed by the different options of entertainment as well as education that Technology makes open to them. Except some of these, these are mostly distractions. These distractions take away the spare time that any one has either from his studies or his professional involvement. As such very few Hindus (probably 5 per cent.) have any time or interest to think about spirituality, much less our scriptures. So I have written a book which is an apology for a guided tour of the various scriptures, namely, the Vedas, the Upanishads, Itihasa, Purana and many prayers. I hope people will have time to read at least this!
Indic Academy has published Prof. VK’s book ‘Thoughts of Spiritual Wisdom’, which is now available on Amazon.
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