The Last Days of a Contemporary Rishi and Vedacharya Sri Sheshanna Shrauti
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After Smt Sharadamma passed away, he remained alone in the house. The house was of modest size when it was built decades ago. After his son Parthasarathi got married, it was extended and grew into a large, one-storied building. Even though his son and daughter-in-law insisted that he move in with them to a new house, he refused. His son would visit daily. He visited their home once a week. He would joke about the arrangement, “Once a week, my procession is arranged by Parthasarathi. My daily meals are arranged. Routine cleaning of this house goes on as usual. I have a phone if I need to contact someone. I also have tons of students and relatives visiting me everyday. Why should I leave this house?” But behind this humour, he harboured a deep attachment to the house which he had built with his hard-earned money and therefore wanted to spend his entire life there.
However, even beyond this, there was a stupendous dignity behind this decision.
On occasion I asked him the reason for his self-imposed lifestyle of living in solitude. He laughed and said, “When are we really alone? Tell me. All the Vishwa-Devatas [Deities guarding the universe] are always with us. The Five Elements, the Guardian Deities of the Directions, the Sun and Moon…all of them are always with us, right?” When I heard this spontaneous, effortless response, I lapsed into a state of elevated joy. I felt that this was the true state of being of someone who actually lived a Vedic life.
But I’m a stubborn, insistent fellow. I kept asking this question in various, circuitous ways. For example: “Your reply relates to the level of the Paramartha, or Ultimate Philosophy. But there is something called the worldly life, the transactional world. Right? We should respect that as well. Parthasarathi’s house is lovely. He has shifted near my home recently. It is spacious. Great ambience. It’s completely undisturbed. Calm, serene environment. Poor man, he’s also waiting for you to move in with him.” He swatted this off with great ease:
“What is worldly life? And what is philosophy? It’s all the same. But I’ll say just this much for your satisfaction. There is an ideal sort of comfort and convenience in this house for those who come to learn the Veda. They freely come and go as they like. This freedom is completely absent in apartments. People out there live in their own individual worlds. Besides, majority of those who come to learn the Veda from me are old-fashioned…traditional, and simple, middle-class people. Such folks might feel embarrassed to visit these posh apartments and enclaves. A sign at the entrance gate, another after entering it, then the security guard must call the house…all these rules will suffocate these folks. Eventually, it will make them stop coming to learn the Veda. My son and daughter-in-law are doing just fine. That apartment system suits them. I’m fine here. This arrangement suits me. In any case, my weekly sojourn is always there. Right?”
I went mute at this and instantly performed the Sashtanga-Pranama to him. This kind of character, conduct and conviction…of not blaming anybody for anything, of not being obstinate in any matter…never compromising with his chosen path and ideal…this level of inner tranquility could only come with a Tapasya undertaken over several births.
Sri Sheshanna himself undertook most of the work related to his son’s housewarming ceremony. It was a brilliant celebration complete with the full grandeur of Vedic ceremonies, which he personally conducted. He waited to have the celebratory feast with me. It was my last meal with him.
Despite all this mingling and friendship and courtesy with the external world, Sri Sheshanna Shrauti’s inner life and ideals never left his focus. The focus was firm, steadfast. And serene.
Leading a simple, contented and self-restrained life is an inextricable part of the Sanatana lifestyle. Needles, it came naturally to Sri Sheshanna Shrauti. Moderate but regular exercise. A healthy regime of diet. Fasting on Ekadashi. Using our traditional medicine systems. A day of silence in a month. These and other items of personal discipline helped him maintain his health till the end. However, towards the end, his hands began to shake. He also developed joint pain. However, he never disclosed this to anyone or cribbed about it but went on with his life’s Vrata as usual.
Woollen topi. Sleeveless sweater. Socks. Gloves. He added these items to his regular attire. I asked him, “What’s this new dress?” He said, “Our health is in our hands. This is also a form of Yoga to maintain that.”
Sri Sheshanna practiced Yoga throughout his life. It was the Ashtangayoga in the true sense of the term. Yama and Niyama were akin to his breathing. These apart, he was well-versed in performing several asanas. He used to perform the Shirshasana (head stand) even at the age of eighty! As far as Pranayama was concerned, it was not merely an organ of the Karma Kanda but to him it was a method of restraining and realizing his own Atman. As for the remaining four stages of Ashtangayoga, I had no doubt that he would attain them easily.
Even at this ripe age and his health condition, he would unfailingly offer the same hospitality to anyone who visited his home. Hot milk and cut fruits were in constant supply, which he would offer with his own hands. Almonds, raisins, dates, and other dry fruits were liberally distributed. He never missed his daily rituals of Sandhyavandanam, Puja, and Brahma-Yajna.
Sri Sheshanna Shrauti would feel extremely happy whenever I introduced some of my young friends who were interested in Sanatana Dharma. No matter their age, he would treat them with affection and respect. On such occasions, he would say: “When people like you visit me, I feel as if the Rishis of your respective gotras have personally visited me.”
How does one even respond to this level of regard?
Sri Sheshanna who generously offered such hospitality to everyone even in his advanced age, leading a widower’s life, never accepted any food from anyone. That wasn’t because he was orthodox. Once Shrivathsa watched him prepare a delicious mix of spicy flat rice. He felt that it was not proper for his Guru to undergo this difficulty. And so, one fine day, he prepared it himself and offered it to his Guru. Sri Sheshanna refused to take it. But Shrivathsa repeated the same feat. Then, Sri Sheshanna said,
“Look, I know you do this out of genuine affection for me. But I mustn’t eat all this now. That’s because I’m under the care of my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. They must not feel bad thinking that they’re not doing enough for me. Those who are closest to us…we must never make them feel that they’re not doing enough for us. If we evoke such a feeling in them, it’s a great injustice on our part. Please don’t mistake me.”
More than textual prescriptions related to ethics, values and the intricacies of human relationships, such situations are more effective in driving home the intended principle and message. This is why the Upanishads declare[i] that the conduct of noble people is the best proof of the validity of Dharmasastra.
When the visitors were ready to depart, he would accompany them till the gate. Till the time he still had the requisite physical strength, he would accompany them till the end of his street. He would make a joke even out of this:
“The Dharmasastras say that one should drop off the guest to the point where a water body was available. Now, if I drop them off at the manhole outside my gate, it satisfies this Dharmasastra prescription.”
Before saying goodbye, he would invariably, unmissably chant a few Swasti-vacana Mantras, bless[ii] everyone and leave. He didn’t chant them perfunctorily. Those who have been fortunate to undergo the experience of these Sama Veda Mantras will testify to the depth of his feeling behind them.
Even as his final days approached, Sri Sheshanna Shrauti was a ball of happiness, and was entirely self-reliant. I made a casual visit during that period and in the course of random conversations, I asked him: “Your life has spread over a vast expanse of nearly ninety-five years. In the twilight of such a long life, do you feel the paucity of anything? Anything lacking? Do you have any other ambition?” I was aware, and I am aware that this is quite an audacious question. But I was used to asking such questions to numerous elderly people and so I didn’t feel any hesitation. Besides, Sri Sheshanna had great affection for me. His reply was natural, said in a matter-of-fact tone:
“I have no other desire. Neither do I lack anything. But there’s one defect. My entire day is spent in meditating on Bhagavan, and in service of the Veda. Even at night, I meditate on Bhagavan till I get sleep. But when I wake up in the morning, I must consciously remember that I need to take His name and then begin my daily rituals. The thought of automatically taking His name naturally, like breathing, doesn’t occur to me the moment I wake up from sleep. That’s my only worry.”
[i] Taittiriya Upanishad: 1.11
[ii] A set of Mantras intended to bestow auspiciousness
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