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Above: PM Modi with the 111-year-old Lingayat pontiff Dr Shivakumara Swami in Karnataka (file picture)

By Stephen David

India’s oldest pontiff Dr Shivakumara Swami, who oversaw nearly 130 educational institutions housing more than 20,000 students from a 15th century mutt in Suttur in Tumkuru district about 70 km from the Karnataka capital Bengaluru, passed away aged 111 on Jan 21, 2019, Monday. He was appointed the head of Siddaganga Mutt by the then chief of the mutt when he was studying in Central College, in Bengaluru, in March 1930, the same month Mahatma Gandhi embarked on his 384-km salt satyagraha Dandi march in Gujarat and the same year the Simon Commission prepared its report on constitutional reforms for India under the British Raj.

For almost 90 years, Dr Shivakumara Swami – fondly known as Buddhi – followed a military style disciplined routine to keep himself fit: prayers, teaching English and Sanskrit, meeting students, people and devotees and overseeing free feeding for thousands who visited the mutt and sleep from 11pm to 2am only. He didn’t wear glasses. No hearing aids. And no prejudice towards anyone. He was not even dogmatic about religion, being a firm believer of the 12th century social reformer Basavanna.

Karnataka’s most dominant caste bloc Lingayats – who comprise 18 per cent of the state’s sixty million – revered him as their own while politicians of all hues and colours called on him from time to time. He believed in the religion of humanity so managed to stay above narrow minded dogmatic discourses or polarizing conversations.

Even at the height of the movement demanding separate religion status by a section of the Lingayat followers – especially some ministers under the Siddaramaiah-led Congress regime who claimed that the Buddhi had given them his backing for it – the revered pontiff did not make any public statements for or against, choosing to confine himself to his disciplined lifestyle.

He was ailing for a while and was even treated at a hospital in Chennai before being brought back to his ashram. While he was born in Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy’s assembly seat Ramanagaram, he spent his lifetime of service and his last days at deputy chief minister G Parameshwara’s home district Tumkuru.

Several governments in the state, including the incumbent one, were hoping that the Centre will bestow the coveted Bharat Ratna upon the Swami but that did not happen. Karnataka government has declared a three-day mourning and a public holiday on Jan 22 when the burial will take place. The state honoured him with a Karnataka Ratna award when he turned 100.

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