Obituary | Shivakumara Swami, the ‘Walking God’ who gave hope to millions
The abiding image of the clout that Sree Sree Shivakumara Swami wielded in Karnataka politics came on the day when BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa was sworn in as chief minister for a third time in May 2018, in what turned out ultimately to be a short-lived tenure. The first thing after taking oath as the chief minister, Yeddyurappa’s convoy with its red beacon blazing, raced to Tumakuru a city 70 kilometers north-west of Bangalore. There, the newly sworn-in CM fell at the feet of the supercentenarian Swamiji to seek his blessings and also signal to his Lingayat constituency about the fealty of his government to the community.
It is not Yeddyurappa alone who has sought the blessings and backing of the powerful Siddaganga matha which the Swami headed. In April 2012, when the 105th birthday celebrations of the seer were held, the then all-powerful UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi flew in specially to greet him, as have Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee in the past apart from a bevy of senior political leaders who have paid obeisance to him.
While Shivakumara Swami or the Siddaganga Matha never openly sided with any party, come election time politicians cutting across party lines would make a beeline to it, indicating the hold it had over the dominant Lingayat community, which is numerically the largest caste in the state with nearly 17 per cent population.
However, considering the humble background of Swamiji and even the Matha that he inherited in 1941 from his predecessor, not many would have given him much chance to attain the kind of clout he eventually did. There were already well established, well-funded and run influential pancha (five) peethas of Veerashivas, as Lingayats are also called. Then how did this relatively obscure, till recently at least, matha emerge to punch above its weight in community affairs?
For that, the credit should go fully to Shivakumara Swami for his single-minded determination in enhancing the social services provided by the Matha. Realizing that several villages and taluks surrounding the Matha were dirt poor, he stepped up ‘Dasoha’, the traditional Lingayat hospitality of providing a hearty meal as ‘prasad’ or offering. This was open to anybody irrespective of caste, class, region or religion. No visitor would be turned back without a hot meal in their stomach.
After providing food for the body, he realised that the community was also being held back because of lack of education and decided to provide food for the mind. An institution builder par excellence, he set up a series of educational enterprises (more than 100 at last count) which included schools, engineering and medical colleges.
Watch: Siddaganga seer Shivakumara Swami dies at the age of 111
Critics would complain that his institutions accepted ‘donations’ (capitation) for admission into some of the high demand courses. In turn, the Siddaganga Matha would point to the more than 10,000 students mostly from the deprived sections of society who were offered education, food and living quarters, completely free of cost under a traditional ‘Gurukul’ system. Unlike other Swamis who limited themselves to spiritual rather than the temporal world, the pontiff involved himself in the day-to-day running of the institutions. In fact, he taught English and Sanskrit to students till a very advanced age, supervised the cooking of meals, lead prayer ceremonies personally and blessed devotees.
All this work attracted attention from the community members who began to fund it more generously. The more money he got, the more he built, turning it into a virtuous cycle. Given the growing number of devotees and the clout it enjoyed, the Matha naturally attracted politicians. Always careful to be not identified with any party, nonetheless analysts read for any likely ‘signals’ to the Lingayats especially during polls, as the community is the deciding factor in 90 of the 224 assembly constituencies in the state. However, the Matha took great pains to point out that it was egalitarian and open to people from all backgrounds.
While the Swami himself was considered above reproach, some of his actions invited scrutiny. For instance, he first appointed a successor Gowrishankara, only to rescind that order after the junior was accused and eventually convicted of sodomising a class 9 boy in one of the schools run by the Matha. He subsequently appointed his current successor Siddalinga Mahaswami who will succeed him. Even in the matter of a separate Lingayat religion tag, his stand was never clear with politicians on both sides of the divide claiming his support.
Active till the very end in Matha affairs, he was showered with numerous accolades including the Padma Bhushan and Karnataka Ratna. Considered to be a ‘walking god’ by millions of his followers, his institution building abilities and ability to shape lives of lakhs of young students will be sorely missed.