Honoring the orthodox life and teachings of the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Peeth, Puri

HIS HOLINESS JAGADGURU SWAMI Shri Nischalananda Saraswati is current Shankaracharya and religious head of the Govardhan Peeth of Puri, one of the cardinal institutions established by Adi Shankaracharya in the seventh century. HINDUISM TODAY interviewed him at the 2019 Kumbh Mela and found him an articulate spokesperson for Hindu concerns—though not all may agree with his views on every issue. In recognition of his years of teaching and counseling, his efforts to resolve troublesome matters concerning the famed Jagannath Temple and his determination to thwart political and legal interference by the government, he is the recipient of the Hindu Renaissance Award as our “Hindu of the Year” for 2019 (see plaque below).

The 145th in the lineage of Govardhan Peeth (govardhanpeeth.org), Swamiji was appointed in 1992 by his predecessor, Swami Niranjan Deva. After intense study of scripture and visits to many holy places, he took initiation from Swami Karapatri, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath. Swami Karapatri conferred upon him his present name, Nischalananda Saraswati.

Now age 75, Shankaracharya travels regularly to teach. “If one achieves Self Realization, which is the form of God, before death, it can be said that such person has fulfilled the goal of his life.” Along with such high-minded spiritual teachings, he addresses contemporary concerns about youth, women, the environment and peaceful coexistence among people. As Shankaracharya, he is the permanent head of the Mukti Mandap, which advises the Sri Jagannath Temple authorities on matters of rites and rituals. His guidance was sought, for example, when it was necessary to move the main Deities for repairs inside the temple. During the temple’s famed chariot festival, Swamiji is the first to greet the Gods.

He has founded several organizations for education, medical care, cow protection (for which he was once jailed as a young man) and general sociocultural development. In 2007, he started a new tradition along the lines of the popular riverside “Ganga Arati” at Rishikesh, initiating a similar seaside worship of the ocean, Mahodadhi Arati, at Puri.

Shankaracharya has not shied from controversy. He speaks out strongly against child marriage and female foeticide. He criticized Mother Teresa for converting Hindus to Christianity under the guise of social work, as well as her receipt of foreign funds for that stealth endeavor. He opposed the Indian government’s plan to open part of the Ram Setu shoal, believed to be what’s left of the bridge built by Lord Rama to cross to Lanka as told in the Ramayana.

In recent years he has been deeply involved with management issues at the Puri Sri Jagannath Temple; even India’s Supreme Court has consulted him. In a 2018 interview with Swarajya magazine, he criticized the state government’s management of Hindu temples, including Jagannath: “From ancient times, mandirs were the cultural, religious, philosophical, educational and social centers of all Sanatanis. But once the state took over the mandirs, and due to a number of other factors that were designed to harm Sanatana Dharma and Indian society, the cultural, social, educational and other functions of the mandirs disappeared.”

The government takeover of the temple management was justified by charges of corruption of the previous management. But corruption remained, he pointed out, and the government uses the temple funds for projects entirely unrelated to Hindu religion, including the funding of Muslim madrasa schools. One consequence has been the gross underpayment of temple priests and workers. Educated specifically for temple work, he explained, they cannot get other jobs. “So they are left with no option but to harass and fleece devotees.” All this could be corrected, he pointed out, by proper spiritual management of the temples.

During our interview with him at the Kumbh Mela, the Shankaracharya criticized the event as too political and social: “The role it should be playing in the raising of religious and spiritual consciousness is not happening.” He largely blamed first the British and then the government of independent India. “After one hundred years, due to the Machiavellian policies of both governments, there are hardly any Hindus whose mind and intellect is sanatani. Only a few who have a strong character due to their good karma in past births are truly following Sanatana Dharma. The rest of our people have polluted hearts and minds.”

Toward the end of his talk with us at the Mela, he offered this assessment of the world’s and India’s spiritual prospects. “When there is a crisis, then only the path to come out of that crisis is found. When anarchy reaches its peak, then only a healthy revolution with the appearance of the Gods takes place. Though today the number of those knowledgeable in the Vedic traditions is not very high, the world has no alternative to the philosophy and vision offered by Sanatana Dharma to solve its problems. There is no other dharma that can offer the needed balance of philosophy, science and practicality. In the name of development, America and Britain have reached a situation where they see only destruction, and have to turn to us. As for our own situation, we are directionless until we ourselves start to follow our own principles.”

With reporting by M.P. Mohanty, Orissa