Most people, even those close to him, knew my father to have been a staunch Veerashaiva, flaunting his faith by wearing the three bhasma stripes chaste of this faith on his forehead and spending long hours in his puja with the ‘lingam’. But I know differently / better. He was neither a fundamentalist nor a fanatic in matters of religion. He had equal respect for all religions and had great reverence for seers and saint, be they of different faiths. I have known him to have devotionally visited Dargas (in Miraj and Gwalior), Gurudwaras and Churches (St. Peter’s Church in Goa) and even performed in these places with the same ‘seva’ mentality that he displayed at the various Hindu temples and religious institutions of his faith. One place where he has not performed is the Christian church and that is because he was never invited to perform. Veerashaivism does not recognize any deity beyond the ‘guru-linga-jangama’. For the Verashaivas, the deity is Shiva. But my father has performed at various other Hindu religious institutions / temples / mathas – Lakshmi Devi temple at Kolhapur, Yellamma temple near Dharwad etc.
Deep down in him, there was religiosity / spiritualism which crossed all barriers of religions or sects. It is also true that he despised fundamentalists and fanatics of all hues. When I once asked him why he staunchly practiced Veerashaivism, he said “Son, every man needs some faith to go by and I have chosen Veerashaiva teachings. That is all. I have no disrespect for other religions or sects and seers”. Quoting Christ’s words on the Cross, “Lord, forgive these men, they do not know what they are doing” he would ask “What else do you need to be the Lord!”
It is true that one of the three rooms in the house he built was transformed into a ‘worship place’, but part of this room was also used as a place for storing things! He had installed a wooden foldable partition around the ceramic tiled altar of worship in one corner of the room. Here, after his morning bath, he used to spend an hour or so doing his puja. The actual linga-puja was done silently when he would squat in deep concentration with his eyes focused on the linga. He would first wash the black and shining lingum made out of soot. He would then apply bhasma and decorate it with either flowers or bilwa leaves, then burn the incense sticks or light camphor and then go into open-eyed communion with his ‘ishta-linga’. After some time, he would sing a couple of Kannada prayers or Vachanas to his lingu. After his puja, he would be ready to eat. He never took his morning meals or any breakfast before his bath and linga-puja. Even on his journey by train, he would not eat anything before his bath and puja. This stern practice came into existence after he took ‘diksha’ from his family guru in 1960 and it continued until the very last. As he grew older, he began to indulge more and more in pujas. But he was not always like this – at least, he didn’t spend so much time in puja in his 30s and 40s. What is also important to be noted is that he was not a stickler with these elaborate puja performances. When he happened to be staying elsewhere on his programme tours, whether staying in luxurious five star hotels or in his favourite haunt in Bombay, the New Shri Krishna Boarding House or with the families of friends or organizers, he would curtail the rituals to a minimum – like covering his head and his lingu with a cotton shawl and go through his communion with the lingu for a couple of minutes. And he would not be complaining about such circumstances. He would be as joyous and pleased as though he had gone with the elaborate ceremonies at home. However, if the families with whom he stayed happened to be religiously inclined or happened to give him all the privacy he needed for his puja, as the Bengeri family in Bombay, he would perform the puja as long as he wanted. The Bengeris, both husband and wife had great reverence for my father and they would make all the necessary arrangements for his puja. In fact, Mrs. Bengeri (whom I call ‘Vaini’) would consider it her great honour that a ‘saintly person’ like him would stay in their house. She had gone so far as to say to her husband that since the frequenting of my father in their house, it had become a holy place not to be defiled by anybody and everybody. I remember an incident in Delhi when we happened to be staying with the Jalani family which is religiously inclined. They even have an entire room for worship. Kamayani Jalani who was the treasurer of Spic-Macay ran about the house to provide for the requirements of my father’s puja asking me about the things required for the purpose. Like a child, she ran helter-skelter to fetch him flowers and incense sticks and camphor. She enquired if he also needed ‘ganga jal’ for his puja. As my father came out of the room after hs puja, she asked him, ‘Panditji, aap ko accha laga?’ (Did you feel happy with the puja?) and one laughter from him was enough to convince her that she had done everything to satisfy him. Her elders too were immensely happy that my father was able to observe his puja in their residence.
I have also known him to complete his puja in three or four minutes whenever I accompanied him on his tours. He knew how to adjust and adapt to circumstances. Only when he was at home or at places favourable for his elaborate puja, would he indulge in elaborate ceremony.My father was not this religious from the beginning. He would tell us how in his younger days, he never bowed to any swamiji or other religious persons excepting his music gurus. His mother who was religious would chide him for this irreverence. “After my mother’s death in Srishailam, I somehow realized that god exists and then onwards this arrogant head of mine began to bow down before deities and their representatives”. Although he himself was no great believer in God, my father took upon himself to fulfill his mother’s long standing desire to have the ‘darshan’ of Lord Mallikarjun of Srishailam. He made all arrangements for the long journey and himself accompanied his mother, his brothers, his sisters and his wife. On reaching the temple, my grandmother was, in her son’s words, ‘overjoyed to have the darshan of the Lord and with great devotion, she performed all the religious rites she had intended to do. My father was only an onlooker and a provider for the various expenses although not to displease his mother, he went through the ceremonies. That night the entire group slept under the open sky. My grandmother appears to have said to my father, ‘Son, if it be true that Lord Mallikarjuna dwells here, he should take me before it dawns’. My father had then laughed at her wish and had said, ‘Mother, your Mallikarjuna knows well that his namesake has need of you and he dare not take you away’. They went to sleep on the grassy land of what seemed to be a sloping hill. There were other devotees too who had come for darshan and some of them had left the carts on the sloping land. My father would tell us how he was woken up by frantic cries of people cautioning the sleeping people to move away. A cart stationed on the slope has got dislodged and had been moving down the slope and it was coming in the direction of my father’s group. Barely were they able to move out of harm’s way, when the wheels of the cart brushed my father’s arm and came to a stop as they touched my grandmother’s chest. She had not been crushed under the wheels. But the impact was enough to do what she had prayed / wished. By the timer they all got together to move away the cart, she was dead. My father was struck dumb. Had his mother become more needful to the Lord? Whenever my father narrated this incident, one could clearly see signs of sorrow in his eyes. “Son, that was the turning point in my life. Although I cursed the Lord then at losing my mother, it appeared to me that he was teaching me a lesson”. A second factor in turning my father towards religion / religiosity was the influence of the sage / swami Mrutyunjaya of Murughamath, Dharwad. This saintly person was well versed in Carnatic music and used to sing Kritis in Public Darshans. It was he who made my father perform every year in Murugha Math during Shravanamasa which he continued until the end.