“Dharmaprakasha” Sajjan Rao’s [i] home named, “Lakshmi Nivasa” is located opposite the North East side of the Venkataramana Swamy Temple at the Bangalore Fort. The verandah of that house sported the photographs of some Sadhus and Sants. Among these photographs was that of an Avadhoota[ii] named Mahadeva Sastri.
Although I have seen Mahadeva Sastri, I don’t know much about his life. I have enquired at numerous places to learn more about him but didn’t find anyone who could tell me. It appears that he kept the details of his private life to himself. He wasn’t the one to fall in the hands of press reporters or election agents. Remaining obscure, he chose and lived a life of obscurity.
Periyavar (Noble One)
Around 1908-09, two or three filthy people used to stand before the large gate at the east of the Victoria Hospital from morning till evening. Mahadeva Sastri was one of these filthy people. Unkempt hair, overgrown beard, and rags that they wore that had never seen water. This was their defining feature. They spoke to none. Neither did anyone speak to them. They never met anyone’s eyes.
When I first saw them, I thought they were beggars. The guard of the Victoria Hospital used to stay in the shed near the gate. Even he never spoke to them. If someone asked him who they were, he used to simply shoo them off with, “go away, just go away.” When insisted, he used to say, “Periyavar” (Great people, Sadhus). “Don’t try to approach them. Mind your own business,” he would chide. Given this, I was unable to learn much about Mahadeva Sastri back then.
There’s another thing here. About twenty or twenty-five feet from where these folks were standing lay a large Municipality garbage bin perpetually overflowing with filth, plantain leaves with leftover food and other rotten refuse about a feet or two high. I was surprised at how Sri Sastri could stand amidst this squalor for hours on end.
I’ve heard that Narayana Sastri, one of Mahadeva Sastri’s sons was a great scholar and that he had served in the Dharwad Karnataka College for some years as a Kannada and Sanskrit Pandit.
During the period in which my narration is set, Mahadeva Sastri had become a renunciate but hadn’t become a Sanyasin; he was akin to a Sanyasin, staying in his son’s house. That house was located in a street West of Aralepet somewhere near the Goods Shed Road. I haven’t seen the house. I will now narrate what I have seen.
I used to frequent the vicinity of Chickpet in those days. Every morning was spent at Appanna’s Coffee Club or at K.S Krishna Iyer’s home reading newspaper and discussing politics and the general news in the city. This had become a routine, a habit. Glued to this routine was the Darshana of Mahadeva Sastri, which came about circumstantially.
Every morning at around six, Mahadeva Sastri would appear the square where Aralepet and Chickpet met. As I noted earlier, torn rags on his upper body, dhoti just above his knees, and the selfsame matted hair. At times, a smiling countenance, at times, a frown on his face. There was a throng of street urchins at all times around him. Hindus, Muslims…everyone was part of this throng. Never once did this extended family of urchins leave him.
People of that locality referred to Mahadeva Sastri as “Swami” and “Sadhu.” Henceforth, I shall refer to him as “Swami.”
As Swami walked around the streets, all kinds of people would approach him from all directions and tie around his hand the Ananta thread, the Kashi thread or some other thread as part of a Vrata (vow) they had undertaken. And so, his hand always sported an assortment of red, white, and black threads from wrist to elbow. He wouldn’t ever remove the threads on his own. They would drop off on their own. Instead, new threads would get added on a daily basis. Whenever someone came forward to tie a thread, it appeared that Swami would emit a slight grin.
By the time Swami reached the Aralepete Square or arrived at the Mastan Saabi Temple, which was a little ahead, the traders and shopkeepers who had businesses there would have opened the locks on their shops. But the doors would still be shut expectantly awaiting the Swami’s arrival. It needn’t be explicitly said that the Swami’s procession was entirely on foot. The Swami and his entourage would sometimes have to stop before each shop and home.
When the procession arrived at their respective shops, the businessmen opened the door, fished out some offering from their cashbox, placed it in the Swami’s hands, uttering “Krishnarpanam,” “Shivarpanam.” Given this, the progress of the procession was extremely slow. The amount of the offering ranged from a quarter of an Anna to five or ten Rupee notes. The traders used to give according to their ability. The unanimous belief was that their business that day would be good if their first offering of the day was made to the Swami.
On his part, the moment the offering touched the Swami’s hands, he would instantly transfer it to the hands of some random urchin belonging to his extended family uttering, “Prarabdham[iii], Prarabdham.” It’s still a surprise to me how easily he would say this. All our gains and losses are the consequences of the interplay of Prarabdham, right?
Only the hands that distributed that money belonged to the Swami; the money itself came from Prarabdham.
It was eleven or twelve in the afternoon by the time the Swami’s procession covered the entire length of Chickpet and reached beyond the Dharmaraya Temple. As the procession drew to a close, the extended family thinned down proportionally. There were no shops beyond the Dharmaraya Temple. The Swami’s hands would be empty.
Till the jaggery remains in the hands
Will remain relatives and friends like crows
As the jaggery in the hand melts
None will follow behind
After this, it was the routine of the Swami to visit a certain house that lay in the Southern direction. Apparently, that house belonged to a family of oil-pressers. They would offer a pot of milk to the Swami as soon as he arrived. This was the everyday routine. The Swami would depart after drinking this milk. Nobody knew where we went after that. He wouldn’t be seen until the next day when he arrived with his procession on the streets of Chickpet.
I’ve heard another story narrated to me by the former Principal of the Bangalore Law College, Sri M Narayana Rao. Here is the summary of that story.
Mahadeva Sastri was accomplished in Yoga. Some Muslim fakir apparently used to practice Yoga with him. The fakir and Mahadeva Sastri used to frequent some cave in the hills of Ramanagara and carry out their Yoga Sadhana there.
On one occasion, both of them left their mortal bodies in the cave and emerged out in the form of Jiva, the subtle, unseen inner body. On another, they emerged out of their physical body, cut their body into pieces and using Yogic powers, rejoined these pieces like before and reentered their body.
Narayana Rao told me that he had heard this from someone. Neither he nor I have actually witnessed this.
Sajjan Rao’s Service
Be that as it may, the Swami’s renown as a person endowed with spiritual powers had spread far and wide. Sajjan Rao had somehow learned of this fame. Indeed, Sajjan Rao had immense faith in and devotion towards Sadhus, Sants, Yogis, Bairagis, Yatis, and spiritual people. He would never fail to show his reverence towards any Sadhu he met. His house was dotted with pictures of such truly spiritual people.
Sajjan Rao had memorized the dates of the death anniversaries of Mahadeva Sastri’s parents. Accordingly, on those two dates, he would send the necessary provisions of rice, pulses etc required for the Vaidika rites to Sastri’s house together with the gifts of Dhoti, Dakshina, and saris to given to Brahmanas and Sumangalis.
Each year, Mahadeva Sastri unfailingly turned up at his home on those two days at the appointed hour. He drew water from the well and chanting mantras from the Rudra Prashna, performed Abhishekam to himself with this water. After this, he carried out the death rituals in detail missing no nuance, and after the Pitrs[iv] were fed, he left home.
This is the overall picture of the accounts that I have heard about Mahadeva Sastri. There might be minor differences in terms of details. They don’t impact this overall picture in any way. This is the picture of an inward-looking worldly renunciate endowed with friendship and compassion with firm devotion to the Paramatma.
The Path of an Avadhoota
I feel an emptiness within me because I’ve been unable to narrate any facet of Mahadeva Sastri’s Yogic accomplishment and his scholarship in the Sastras. I never got an opportunity to talk to him in person. But the full import and realization of the characteristics of an Avadhoota which I had read in books struck me when I saw him. When I was in high school, I somehow chanced upon a book titled AtmavidyAvilAsa, which contained this verse:
jaDabaDhirAndhOpamah kOpi |…
jaMtushu sarvartra pUrNatAm pashyan |
Can a person even live like this? This question has repeatedly gripped my mind. The Vedanta lore holds, “jaDavallokamAcaret.” But is it possible to live like that? Every second, at every step, the world pokes us, prods us, and provokes our passions in numerous ways. Amid all this fervency, is it possible to remain still, in tranquility, our mind unwavering?
Whenever I face this question, I recall the picture of Mahadeva Sastri.
Translator’s Note: This forms part of the iconic D.V. Gundappa’s series of pen portraits in the volume titled Hrudaya Sampannaru (People Endowed with a Magnanimous Heart) forming part of his acclaimed Jnapaka Chitrashaale (The Art Gallery of Memories).
Translated by Sandeep Balakrishna.
[i] A renowned merchant, businessman, and philanthropist, Rao Bahadur Sajjan Rao (1868-1942) is an inseparable facet of Bangalore’s heritage. He built the Subrahmanya Temple near Basavanagudi, a choultry, donated to the Vani Vilas Hospital, and constructed a roundabout, today known as the Sajjan Rao Circle.
[ii] A saint or a mystic who is beyond the usual ego-consciousness and common worldly concerns and one who acts without consideration for accepted social norms and etiquette.
[iii] A Karma from the past lives which one experiences in the present life.
[iv] Lineage of ancestors who become Deities after leaving their mortal bodies.