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A Living Institution

Sachidananda Murthy

By Vasudev Rao
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 232, Rs. 475.00


The Madhva Matha of Udupi, founded by Madhvacharya, the proponent of the dvaita, is a fascinating institution. It is an octagonal arrangement where eight Mathas (or Matthas, as pronounced in Kannada) taking their names from villages near the temple town of Udupi have the right of conducting worship in the Krishna Temple by rotation. The Krishna idol was installed by Madhvacharya, who blended philosophy with bhakti, to propel a religious sect, distinct from the advaita propogated by Adi Shankara and his Mathas spread across the country. Unlike Shankara, the reach of Madhavacharya is confined to southern India, though modernization and urbanization have now made the upwardly mobile Madhwas set up their temples in India and abroad, as has happened to other Indian religious sects.   The Udupi Mathas have also been in the public eye because of the activist role of Swami Vishwesh Thirtha, the head of the Pejawar Matha, one of the Astha Mathas. He is in the Margadarshak Mandal for the Ram Janma-bhoomi temple, has the top leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishwa Hindu Parishad among his followers, he trod a new path by visiting homes of the people who were once regarded as untouchables, he gave sanyas diksha to a woman politician. Compared to the high profile of Vishwesh Thirtha, the other seven pontiffs have not been in the national limelight.   Vasudev Rao, is a scholar who combines his training in anthropology with personal knowledge of the Madhva faith by birth and practice. His is the researcher’s eye and ear which is sensitive to look for the changes amidst the rigours of tradition in a highly developed segment of Indian society. He devotes his attention to painstakingly chronicling the details of the rituals, traditions and precedents of the Krishna Matha, even as his eyes and ears record the way the Mathas, their pontiffs, and lay followers adjust to the changes in society. He deals with the controversies which have embroiled the Mathas, but avoids sensationalism. Instead he looks at these controversies, like the abdication of the post by a swamiji who preferred marriage, or the controversy over the foreign trip of a junior swamiji, and tries to find whether the Mathas are clinging to old formulations or whether they are reforming. He is neither a blind follower nor an iconoclast. Instead he is a scholar who accepts that the Matha is a living institution which ...

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