It has been reported by a section of the media that Kadakampally Surendran, Minister for Cooperatives, Tourism and Devaswom of Kerala belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had removed a throne-like chair placed for Sringeri Shankaracharya at a public function held in Thiruvananthapuram. According to some reports of this kind, Sringeri Shankaracharya Bharti Tirtha Swami was supposed to attend a programme to dedicate the Mithranandapuram pond to the people. For the event, a throne-like seat was placed in the arena for him. Upon his arrival, the organisers reportedly told Surendran that the arrangement had been made for the Sringeri Swami. The minister then, with the help of Congress MLA and former minister VS Sivakumar, replaced the throne-like chair with plastic chairs. Though the Shankaracharya did not eventually attend the function, his successor-designate Vidhushekhara Bharati did visit the venue, ‘blessed’ the pool and left the place without climbing the dais.
Some sources in the mutt have stated that the throne-like chair was arranged for another swami who visited the programme and that the peetham of the Shankaracharyas are always carried by the Sringeri mutt officials themselves, wherever the Acharyas go. They further added that the throne-like chair was then brought down from the dais since the said swami was not in a position to climb it.
Whatever may be the truth of the events, the Kerala minister was quick to endorse the first version published in the media. He has been quoted as saying,
“When I saw the throne and enquired, the members of the administrative committee said that it was there to seat the Sringeri Mutt head if he came. On a government programme, there is no need for such a throne for a minister or a mutt head. I said that and with the help of MLA V S Sivakumar, I removed that throne. There is no need of any doubt in my stand. For one person to sit there, there is no need of thrones that can seat two to three people. Such thrones should be removed from government programmes.”
Endorsing this, Congress MLA VT Balram posted on Facebook that it was only through such actions that the reign of these exploitative classes that enjoy privileges like Ithilkkanni (parasites) in the name of religion and belief could be ended.
In short, while Surendran found it appropriate to displace the arrangements made for a swami’s seating on the pretext of it being throne-like (or, he at least claimed so), Balram finds all acharyas and gurus of Hindu tradition, especially the Shankaracharyas, as exploitive “parasites”.
Whereas some media houses are busy speculating how this act has received social media praise, they missed — or are perhaps wilfully ignorant of — the fact that there is nothing praiseworthy in calling our teachers and preceptors parasites or insulting them by disrupting their seating arrangements.
Sannyasis (ascetics), dispassionate and renounced as they are, are least bothered about mundane things like food, cloth and shelter. Does this, however, mean that we insult the very people who have dedicated their lives to the cause of imparting knowledge, spreading love and rendering service to the entire humankind by making a fuss out of a seating arrangement and then defending this indefensible action by branding the gurus as parasites? Should the Government of Kerala make a person with an irreverent attitude to the guru-shishya (teacher-pupil) tradition the minister in charge of a religious body, the Devaswom? It does not matter whether the minister really changed the seating arrangement as claimed by him or he is making the claim to gain some political mileage. In either case, it shows a serious disregard for gurus and teachers.
Since India has a knowledge-oriented tradition, it has always held the guru, who takes one from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge, in high esteem. A popular hymn equates him with Brahmaa, Vishnu and Maheshwara — the trinity that presides over creation, sustenance and dissolution of the universe as per Hindu beliefs. The Taittiriya Upanishad (Shikshavalli 11.2) proclaims “acharya devo bhava” (the teacher is a god). Manusmriti describes the teacher as the “image of Brahman” (2.226), more venerable than a father (2.146). Sureshwaracharya, the celebrated student of Adi Shankaracharya, has equated the guru, Ishwara and Atman in his Manasollasa (1.30). [For more on the importance of Guru in Hindu tradition, refer to this article]
In short, the guru and reverence to him is at the very core of Indian life. From this, it follows that insulting or showing disrespect to a guru — by way of thought, speech or action — has been looked at as one of the most heinous and dishonourable of actions. It is not for no reason that the Manusmriti advises one to never show disrespect to a teacher, father or a mother, even when they have offended one (2.225). Add to this the Pauranic statements warning that those who disrespect teachers would fall into the Vaitarani (the realm of Yama) and suffer immensely (Garuda Purana 5.7, 4.9, 4.14; Vishnu Purana Ch 6).
Whether one believes in the existence of Vaitarani or not, the gist is that insulting a teacher, especially a spiritual preceptor, is a heinous action that constitutes adharma (the opposite of dharma). What Surendran and Balram have committed is the adharma of guru ninda. There is neither merit nor honour in that.
And even from a rationalistic point of view, whenever there is a public function, do we not place some distinct chairs for the dignitaries? Do we not decorate the stage, the tables and the chairs to welcome the special guests? Do we not make lengthy arrangements for welcoming not only prime ministers and chief ministers but even office bearers of municipalities to some programme? Do we not decorate the stage and seat the new couples on the throne-like chairs during wedding receptions? When such display of respect to the dignitaries are acceptable — in fact, they are desirable with respect to welcoming political or family guests — what is wrong in extending the same treatment to gurus and swamis? Is this not plain hypocrisy and prejudice? By the way, calling a person or persons “parasites” also constitutes hate speech, apart from the utterance being in poor taste.