ANCESTRY AND PARENTS
(For information about my father, his ancestors, and his activities which I could not personally know, the source is his own autobiographical notes written in Sanskrit in the grantha script sometime in the fifties of the last century)
ShrI rAmaH sharaNaM mama.
Shri mAtre namaH
And namskarams to all these ancestors of mine:
My father: R. Visvanatha Sastri. (1882-1956) My mother: Ananthalakshmi ( died 1933)
Father’s father: Sri Ramakrishna Sastri. ( died 1901) His wife: Rukmini . Her father: Madurai Ramaswamy Sastri (died 1880); His father Sethurama Sastri whose father was Gopala Sastri.
Ramakrishna Sastri’s father & mother : Seshadri Sastri and Lakshmi
Seshadri Sastri’s father: Sri Raama Sastri.
My mother’s parents: B. Narayanaswami Iyer (died 1941) & Seethalakshmi
Narayanaswami Iyer’s parents: Balakrishna Iyer and Alamelu
Balakrishna Iyer’s parents: Gopala Iyer and Ananthalakshmi.
My gotra: Srivatsa . My mother’s gothra : naidrupa-kashyapa
Ancestry and Parents
My father Visvanatha Sastri was born in Madurai (1882). He had two elder sisters Janaki & Parvati. When he was two the family shifted to Madhyarjunam (Tiruvidaimurudur in Tanjore District, near Kumbakonam) . Reason for this:
Madurai Ramaswami Sastrigal (my father’s mother’s father, had a very rich brother, by name Mahalinga Iyer. Very learned man. Also learnt all shastras under the feet of his elder brother Ramaswami Sastri who was himself almost an erudite Pandit. Ramakrishna Sastri was a Tamil Vakil in New Street in Madurai. In 1884 he shifted to MadhyarjunaM, where his father-in-law’s brother Mahalinga Iyer had built an agraharam (known in later times as Mahalinga Agraharam. The colony itself came to be known as twelve-house colony). From this place Ramakrishna Sastri went to Kumbakonam to discharge his official duties as Tamil Vakil, but very soon (perhaps in 1885) shifted to Kumbakonam itself.
The family lived in Bhaktapuri Agraharam in Kumbakonam. Income was not great. It was just touch and go. But because of the vedantic leanings, there was no feeling of unhappiness. In his profession Ramakrishna Sastri was highly respected.
In 1887 the family visited Chidambaram. Lots of relatives were nearby. And the young Visvanathan (now five, six, seven years old) enjoyed the company of relatives.
At the age of eight Visvanathan had his Upanayanam performed. And immediately, Sri rudram & camakam were taught to him. Also some Upanishads and Purushha sUktaM. He studied Amaram, the standard traditional lexicon in the form of poetry in Sanskrit. Lots of stotras were also learnt by him. He was also taken to Swamimalai to do angapradakshinam so that his stammering could be overcome. During this period the father (Ramakrishna Sastri) taught the young boy Sundarakandam from Valmiki Ramayanam.
Round this time the boy was admitted into school where English was taught. When he was nine, mother Rukmani passed away.. The houseowner would not allow the rites (of the 13 days ) to be performed in that house. So the rites were performed in a specially rented place. And the family moved to a new house (Owner Kuppamma). Thirteen griha yajnas (running over a whole year) were performed there , after which the earlier houseowner apologised.
The new houseowner Kuppamma and her son Ayyan were very helpful. Ramakrishna Sastri’s family lived in that house for many years. The elder daughter Janaki could not live with her husband Krishna Sharma who had married a second wife. She had appealed through the court in Tiruvaiyaru for support and subsistence. When this court case was going on the younger daughter Parvati was widowed.
Visvanathan studied in Banadurai High School, Kumbakonam and in the year 1894 passed in first class the middle school leaving examination . Then he got admitted to Town High School and in due course in 1897 passed his Matriculation.
Swami Krishnananda of Siddhamalli was the guru of Ramakrishna Sastri. During summer times Visvanathan learnt Shanti Paatha from this Acharya and treasured this experience all his life with great reverence. At this point in his autobiography he quotes the Gita shloka (6-41) which assures the meritorious ones a good birth in a family of Sadhus and spiritual learning at the feet of a guru. At home Ramakrishna Sastri used to have sat sangh and he himself gave bhashya lessons along with his friends regularly and the son Visvanathan benefitted much from these associations even as a teen-ager. He remembers with gratitude and reverence this good fortune of his to get all this sad-vAsanA.
In May (or March?) 1901 Visvanathan was married to Ananthalakshmi daughter of B. Narayanaswami Iyer of Town High School, Kumbakonam. Only four of their (ten ?) children survived to adulthood; I am the youngest of the four. But let us come back to the narrative, to the first decade of the century.
The teen-age couple Visvanathan & Ananthalakshmi had their parents living in the same town (Kumbakonam) at a distance of about a mile and a half. Visvanathan had to attend his college (Government college, Kumbakonam) and also do certain religious rituals – like daily aupasanam, periodical sthalipakam, etc – along with his wife. So the daily routine after marriage was for him to stay at night at Karnakollai Agraharam (his in-law’s house), do the homa-rituals there in the morning, and then leave for his home in Bhaktapuri Agraharam from where he had only to cross the river Cauvery (by a ferry) to reach his college. The college studies were upto BA, his subjects being Mathematics and Sanskrit and of course, English. But he did not get his B.A. degree easily because he could not pass in English, though he appeared for the examination a few successive years. But in those days they changed the Shakespeare texts (two each year) and so it turned out that in his life - he used to speak of it proudly to me later when I was going to college – ‘he had studied, probably, ten or twelve Shakespeare plays in full detail’. Of course this experience in the language, (coupled with his judicial department service, yet to come) reflected in his bombastic style in his Vedantic writings (in English) in his later years.
The early married years of the young couple proved to be quite a challenge. The father Sri Ramakrishna Sastri was confined to bed (I know not for what ailment). Two sisters – one of them widowed and the other abandoned by the husband – were certainly looking after the father at home but that was not enough. So Visvanathan had three major calls on his time and energy – one, the daily ritual obligations to be performed at the f-in-law’s place, two, the sishrushA ( = service) to his ailing bed-ridden father and three, his college attendance and studies.
The final BA examinations (of his first attempt) were to be written in Madras (two hundred miles away) and for that he needed to go and stay there for two months prior to the exam dates. He writes in his autobiography : “ pitrA anumoditashcAhaM shayanasthenApi dhimatA /tatra hotel bhuktim svIkRRitA pitranujnaayayA’ – meaning: ‘ Even though he was confined to bed father permitted me (to go to Madras for two months). Also he allowed me to have my meals at a hotel’! This was 1901 December. But very soon after he went to Madras he got the news that father was serious. So he came back to Kumbakonam to be assured by a good neighbour that father was better and he went back to Madras to write the exam. But not long after he returned from his exams the father passed away . The daily rites were all done in a house owned by one Sundarambal, because only the 12th day function were allowed in Ayyan’s house. That whole year he did nitya-shraddha (daily shraddha ceremony) for the father. 360 brass vessels of water were formally distributed to Brahmins over the year as per religious requirements.
The exam results showed only Sanskrit in glowing terms. So he had to write Maths and English once more in future attempts. He attended maths coaching provided by the college. Next year in 1902 December, he went to Madras along with sister Janaki, stayed in one Ramanatha Iyer’s place, continued the nitya-shraddha there for two or three days, wrote the exams. And this time he passed in Maths also. But English remained.
1903 April, Shanti muhurtam (nuptials-ceremony) took place. Studies for English exam continued at home. A trip to Rameswaram was done along with the two sisters – but not with the wife, which fact he later regretfully remarks in his autobiography, when he narrates how he went along to Rameswaram with his son and daughter-in-law in May 1947.. how his son, (namely, myself, this writer) was more fortunate because the son has been able to take his wife to Rameswaram! ‘bhaginyAjnA balIyasI’– (Sister’s demand was more powerful) says he! And in the diary of May 1947 he writes ‘kamalA krishnamurthyshcaapyAgatau pUrvabhAgyataH; sethusnAnapuNyalabhyaM matpatnyAstaddhi durlabhaM’. ( Meaning: Krishnamurthy & Kamala also came to Rameswaram by their pUrva-puNya; but to my wife that puNya of bath in the Sethu was not to be’)!!
On return from Rameswaram he was initiated into pancAyatana Puja, pancAksharI japa and ashhTAkshari. In the meantime the attempt at English exam (of BA) continued.
In the Shankaracharya Mutt at Kumbakonam there was a continuous upanyAsa series of Bhagavad Gita for almost two years. Visvanathan attended the entire series and became indebted for life to that vidvan Ganapati Shastrigal who gave that lecture series. He had also been sitting as a public silent witness-listener to the Bhashya teachings given to Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (now called Kanchi Mahaswamigal) in the first decade of the 20th century at the Kanchi mutt, Kumbakonam, when the Swamigal had just been initiated and was being ‘taught’ formally . During this period my father learnt a number of veda-adhyayana routines and Vedanta literature from various pundits.
This was the time when he was searching for a suitable job. A school in Gudalur offered a teacher’s job; but the remuneration was not attractive enough for him to accept it. A clerk’s post in Mayavaram was also in the offing. But finally he accepted a clerk’s post in Cuddalore (the then South Arcot District). This was on 1st April 1907. So his family, consisting of the wife and two sisters, moved to Manjakkuppam, Cuddalore. This was the time also of his voracious Vedanta studies from whatever book he could lay his hands on from whatever place.
His pancAkshara Guru obtained siddhi. The mahA pUja of that sannyAsI was to take place in Madurai. My father went there for the functions. Stayed at one Sundarambal’s house. There was one Sundararaja Sharma, a well-known exponent of Vedanta. Father listened to that great exposition. (Incidentally this Sundararaja Sharma’ s Tamil translations of Shankara’s Gita Bhashya and Suresvaracharya’s Manasollasa vArtikam are very famous).
Coming back home to Manjakuppam, father gave his first series of lectures on Vedanta. The topic was Sutasamhita. This went on every night for six months at the house of Gopala ShreshhTi.
Around 1909 he started the daily obligatory Vaishvadeva ritual which continued all his life.
In or around 1910 there were his expositions every night of Bhagavatam 10th and 11thskandas. In describing these events in his autobiography, he gives a capsule summary of each of these expositions.
In English exam. of BA finally he got a second class. But by about the same time he passed creditably the departmental examinations of Civil and Criminal code.
On 24th June 1911, the first child, Rukmani, was born.
One year in Chidambaram (Dates are not clear).
On 8th June 1914 he obtained a job in Mannargudy subcourt.
Whenever and wherever he found time and an opportunity, he improved his vedadhyayana. At Tirukkoilur there was one Srinivasa Sastri from whom he learnt some more veda-patha. Round about these years 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 feet of 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 also a sahapAThI (contemporary student) of Sri S. Kuppuswamy Sastry, in whose name the research Institute is flourishing in Mylapore, Chennai nowadays . It seems this VasudevabrahmendrAL was also revered by Sri Ramakrishna Sastrigal, my grandfather. A picture of this Sri Sri Vasudeva Brahmendra Saraswati remained in his pUjA all his life and even now it is with me. This Acarya attained Samadhi in 4th March 1931.
10th July 1914. The second daughter, Lakshmi, was born.
1-1-1916: At Kallakurichi, South Arcot District Five years stay here.
13th April, 1917. Sri V. Ramachandran was born (in Kallakurichi)
In 1921 the first daughter Rukmani was married to Sri S.S. Srinivasan of Tanjore
Father’s various assignments over the years:
October 1920 to November 1920 : Head Clerk, District Munsif Court Cuddalore
November 1920 to April 1921: Head Clerk, District Munsif Court, Kallakurichi
May 1921 to July 1932 : Head Clerk, Subcourt , Kallakurichi
July 1932 to December1934: Head Clerk Subcourt, Tirukkoilur
January 1935 to March 1936: Record Keeper, District Court, Cuddalore
April 1936 to April 1939: Sheristadar, Subcourt, Cuddalore
15th July 1925. My brother’s Upanayanam was performed but I have no further information about it.
In 1925, the second daughter Lakshmi was married to Sri R. Gopalasundaram of Tirunelveli
In the succeeding years after 1917, my mother had, it seems, a few pregnancies, which resulted only in miscarriages. Round about 1926 or 1927, father, in a meeting with the Kanchi Periaval (Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati swamigal), requested for Guru’s Grace in respect of this recurring ailment. The Grace was obtained through a shobhanAkshata prasadam from the compassionate Acharyal himself.