The perception of Guru is an ancient one in India, with a lot of emphasis on the tradition of reverence and consideration of the Guru as indispensable to the acquisition of knowledge and spiritual development.
In modern times, the word “Godman” is often used as a colloquial for the word Guru, who are seen as charismatic personalities, attracting attention and support from large sections of the society. Many establish religious, social or educational institutions with a view to propagating their legacy. They come cloaked in an aura of divinity, mystery and associated controversies. But the public struggles to identify with them as normal people who have had their share of challenges and failures before attaining the positions they are in today. This often happens because of limited awareness of the Guru’s lives as normal people and invariably leads to two very skewed perceptions – the rightists or so-called ‘devotees’ who put the Gurus on a pedestal and blindly follow their tenets and justify all their deeds, and the leftists on the other end of the spectrum, who are distrustful of all Gurus and denounce them as fakes with a highly personal agenda.
This story is about trying to strike a balance in our perception of Godmen/women!
I was fairly excited to be visiting my maternal uncle (Sethu Mama) after a gap of 6 years and a lot had changed in this period. As I reached his home on a typically hot Friday afternoon in Chennai, my Mama and Mami (aunt – Sethu mama’s wife) greeted me. After freshening up, I joined my uncle at the table for lunch, which Mami served while attending to her mischievous grandson simultaneously. Post lunch and an afternoon siesta, I woke up to be served the traditional south Indian filter coffee by Mami. She then got busy plucking flowers from the jasmine plant in the garden and asked me if I would be interested in joining her and Sethu mama in visiting the temple in the evening. I readily agreed and it was around 5.30 pm in the evening when we reached the Navashakthi Kamakshi Amman Temple in Madipakkam, armed with the traditional offerings of fruits and flowers.
The temple, consecrated in June, 2009 stretched lengthwise right on the banks of the Madipakkam lake. Entering the main temple, I was awestruck by the majestic 9 foot tall deity of the Kamakshi Amman (a form of the Goddess Parvathi), seated in the yogic Padmasana posture. The Goddess held a sugarcane bow and flowers with a parrot perched on top in her lower arms and a pasha (lasso) and ankusha (goad) in her upper two arms. The inner shrine was surrounded by deities of other forms of the Goddess and was flanked by idols Ganesha and Murugan on the sides.
We saw a group of around 35 ladies seated in front of the Goddess reciting shlokas, while some others stood in front of the deity, praying and awaiting the priest to accept their offerings and give them the Prasad. We squeezed ourselves in front of the group of women and sat at the head of the line, while Sethu Mama made his way to the temple office room. My Mami too started to chant aloud the prayers. Friday being considered an auspicious day for praying to the Goddess, the crowd gradually swelled as the evening wore till the entire sanctum was crowded.
Post prayers and the traditional aarthi, people started queuing up to receive the Prasad and Kumkum offerings from my Mami. I watched with amazement as many, even those older in age prostrated before her while receiving the offerings. Some spoke to her about their personal problems or aspirations as they sought her blessings, while yet others spoke about how they had benefitted from their prayers.
It was 9 pm by the time we returned home after performing all the closing rituals in the temple. Once home, my aunt went back to the household duties of serving dinner, tidying up the kitchen and playing with her grandson. Post dinner, I settled down for a chat with my uncle and the conversation ran thus:
Mama, my memories of Radha Mami is that of being a shy and slightly timid, typically focused on managing her household and dependent on you for all external affairs. Then, how did this transformation take place?
To be very honest, this is a wonder to me too till date. Like most Tamil ladies, Radha was also engaged in regular prayers and temple visits. In early 2005, she undertook recital of the Lalitha Sahasaranamam (a prayer dedicated to the Goddess Durga) for 48 days, which was accompanied by stringent fasting. It was during this period that she started feeling a strong spiritual connect. Her focus shifted from her homely duties and she started behaving strangely and her personality was totally transformed. People started flocking to our house to see her and offer homage. Now whether it was due to some divine intervention or an impact of her own austerities, we really do not know. It was around this time that, she single-handedly took up cudgels against the priest of another temple, who was suspected of indulging in mal-practices and mobilized the public against him. In another incident, when the holy seer, the Sankaracharya of Kancheepuram was in our neighborhood, she went to him and accused him of not paying her respect and visiting her home. Now, this was quite unthinkable of had she been in a normal condition.
So, what inspired you to construct a temple? Was it an easy thing to do?
Well again, I would attribute this to the insistence of Radha. She was like a woman on a mission and wanted to build a temple for Kamakshi Amman. Initially, I had laughed it off and tried my best to discourage her, keeping in mind the associated financial implications and responsibilities. However, your Mami was adamant and approached the local panchayat directly for support. On repeated follow-ups and support of the local councilors, she was offered a spot which was 5-6 feet below ground level near the Madipakkam lake. We managed to level the ground and set up a makeshift hut, wherein people started offering prayers to a picture of the Goddess. Then, there was a change in the local governing party and the new party started to oppose the temple construction and even initiated demolition of the structure. Radha opposed the move strongly and mobilized local support in her favor and forced them to retract. Coming to finances, most of it was self-sponsored and I had to dig into my personal savings. Gradually, as the public too started supporting the initiative, we had a team for garnering contributions and sponsorships. There were several other challenges during actual temple construction and deity installation, but thanks to the grace of the Goddess, we were able to overcome them successfully.
How do you manage the temple now? What are the key activities?
For the initial 4 years, apart from Mami spending time in the temple, I had hired a person for managing it and would also pitch in post office hours and on the weekends. However, I gradually started sensing that it was not being managed very well. So in 2013, when both my children had grown up and were working, I opted for voluntary retirement to dedicate my time completely to the temple. Today, both I and Radha are completely focused on managing the temple. We are continuously thinking of improvising on the services we provide. For example, other than the customary prayers and rituals we periodically arrange social welfare programs like child scholarships, feeding the poor, managing goshalas etc. The Annadanam program we conduct every year on 26th January is the largest in the area and this year we managed to distribute food to 10,000 people.
Does Radha Mami have any specific message?
She does not preach to people. We help people in offering their prayers to the Goddess and get a feeling of satisfaction when they are answered. People identify with her as a person of God, who is as normal as they themselves are, easily approachable and probably a facilitator of solutions to their problems. Other than that we conduct various programs which help in community building and spread a social message.
But, if it is social work that you want to do, why do you need to build a temple for that? Are there not already too many temples where people can go to pray?
Like I had already said, if someone had told me 10 years back that we would build a temple, I would have laughed my head off. We had never planned to build a temple or establish ourselves as Godmen. It just happened and now that we are involved in this, it is our responsibility to ensure we manage it to the best of our abilities. And think of it, people have only benefitted from the temple. It’s not only the devout, but also children and aged people who come here regularly and they do go back with peace in their minds. This effectively functions as a community gathering place. We did what we felt inspired to do and hope that we keep up to the expectations of people.
As we retired for the night, I felt the crux of the matter is that while religious Gurus may be exceptional or enlightened spiritual leaders, they are also normal people with lives like anyone of us. So good to understand and be inspired by their success stories, but not put them on a pedestal blindly, which only does harm to all in the long run.