Vaishnava sannyasis from the deep south come to the far north: Chinna Jeeyar Swami visits England
Recently, on a south India train journey from Tirupati to Chennai, a middle-aged man sat down opposite me. His distinctive tilak markings made it obvious which philosophical school he belonged to: the Tenkalai sect of the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya. It wasn’t long before we started a conversation, mainly consisting of me asking questions about one of my favourite subjects of interest: authority and transmission in Vaishnava history, and he answering from the Sri Vaishnava point of view. As we talked, he revealed that he was associated with a sannyasi known as the Chinna Jeeyar Swami. My travelling companion was surprised when I mentioned that the same sannyasi was scheduled to visit the Bhaktivedanta Manor just after I returned to England.
Chinna Jeeyar Swami is becoming well known for his travelling and teaching. He took to the sannyasa order at the tender age of 23 and is continuing the mission of his guru to preach the siddhanta, or philosophical conclusions, of Sri Vaishnavism. Of course, many are doing that in India, but he has taken the unconventional step to travel beyond India.
For us in the Hare Krishna movement the fact that a sannyasi came out of India to preach and start a world movement is the stuff of legend. Srila Prabhupada did it, and thereby set the pattern for all future members of the senior renunciate order in the line of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So we might naturally assume that all sannyasis would also be world travellers. Yet the centuries-old rules for the sannyasa order forbid the crossing of bodies of water, and the majority of orthodox sannyasis still follow this rule. For this reason, many traditionalists in India consider that the spiritual purity of the two or three Vaishnava sannyasis from the Madhva or Ramanuja lineages that have visited America or Europe has been compromised.
But these teachers have responded to the stark facts of modern life: that many young people from Vaishnava families have left India for education or careers in the West yet have not completely abandoned their culture. Who will help them to learn and practise more if not the travelling preachers of Vaishnava siddhanta? Everyone needs help and guidance in order to fully reap the benefits of spiritual life; book knowledge alone is insufficient. But even such book knowledge as this generation has is sometimes inaccessible to them because they cannot read the Tamil or Telugu language, even though they may speak it with their parents. So there are moves within the orthodox Sri Vaishnava community to render the classical texts in the English language for the next generation. With that comes the challenges of making the traditional Vaishnava lifestyle practicable in western cultural settings.
There’s less problem keeping to Vaishnava practises in your own home, before breakfast, especially with a supportive family. You may need advice, ongoing guidance, and a certain amount of willpower but nobody will prevent you from your own religious choices. Outside the home, at university, in the workplace, within your diverse social circle, at the restaurant or at parties – all these situations present a range of extraneous influences and often perplexing choices. Sri Vaishnava teachers now have to concern themselves with helping this generation in situations that never arose in India in more classical times. In this respect the orthodox Vaishnava teachers who now come west have a lot in common with Vaishnava teachers in ISKCON.
Chinna Jeeyar Swami arrived at Bhaktivedanta Manor on a very cold, blustery, wet afternoon. He walked bare-shouldered with two disciples chanting verses behind him. I received him with a small Vedic ceremony involving a kumbha (coconut-pot) and lamp, and invited him to take up his seat in the Manor theatre. The word had got around and the theatre filled up quickly. He spoke on Krishna and the blessings of the great Vaishnavas. Afterwards the Swami said that he would like to return to the Manor on a future date, when he next comes to England. We all wish him well in his western preaching.