Brahmasri Neelakkal C.N.Ramachandra Sastrigal
in the service Sri Kamakshi Ammal
The ancient text ‘Sowbhagya Chintamani’ provides a valuable account of Sri Kanchi Kamakshi Amman temple and the traditional families that were conducting worship and rituals in the temple. According to it, families belonging to six Gothrams were ordained this great duty of worship. But centuries ago, families belonging to four Gothrams left Kanchipuram for Thanjavur (then Tanjore) for various historical reasons. At present, only two families of Bharatwaja Gothram and one family of Kausika Gothram are residing in Kanchipuram and conducting rituals in the temple with hereditary rights.
The family of Brahmasri Neelakkal Ramachandra Sastrigal belongs to Bharathwaja Gothram and is called as the grand old ‘Neelakkal Lineage’. The ancestors of this lineage are as follows:
- Sri Neelakkal Arunachala Sastrigal – His son,
- Sri Neelakkal Ramaswamy Sastrigal – His son,
- Sri Neelakkal Kachapeswara Sastrigal – His son,
- Sri Neelakkal Krishna Sastrigal – His son,
- Sri Neelakkal Muthuswamy Sastrigal – Srimathi Dharmasamvardhini Ammal
(Dharmasamvardhini Ammal was also called ‘Dharmambal’. She was the granddaughter of Sri Syama Sastrigal – one among the Carnatic Music Trinity) _ Their son,
- Sri Neelakkal Nataraja Sastrigal – Srimathi Alamelu Ammal
(Father of Alamelu Ammal served in the then princely State of Pudukkottai holding an important position). Their son,
- Sri Neelakkal Ramachandra Sastrigal – Srimathi Alamelu Ammal
Birth and Siblings: Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal was born in the year 1938 (Tamil year Vegudhanya) under auspicious Vaikasi Pooram star. He was brought up in their ancestral home situated in the Sri Kamakshi Ambal Sannidhi Street.He continues to live there. Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal has two sisters (elder Kamakshi and younger sister Jayalakshmi) and one younger brother, Muthuswamy Sastrigal.
School Education: To anyone obsessed with the degree and rank seeking formal education structure of these days, it might appear that his academic qualifications were meagre and only at the school level. But the standard of education and the commitment of teachers of those days laid a strong foundation in pupils in the elementary stage that enabled them to pursue traditional scriptural study directly under the guidance of gurus. Thus Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal studied up to third standard in the S.S.K.V school. After that with a double promotion he was admitted to the fifth standard in the K.M. Subbarayar school. Again with a double promotion he moved on to the seventh standard. In that school, Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal studied up to eighth standard. After that, he took up traditional Vedic studies and acquited himself creditably and to the satisfaction of his masters.
Upanayanam and Vedic Education:
In the year 1949, at the age of 11 years, Upanayanam was performed to Sastrigal. After that he was sent to a Vedic school situated in the Keezh Ambi village, to the west of Kanchipuram town. There he studied Tharkam (Logic), Vyakaranam (Grammar), Vedanta (Vedic Philosophy), Mimamsa, etc. Erudite scholars in Vedic literature of that time in south India taught Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal in the Kizh Ambi Veda Patashala. Pandit Vepathur Sri Subramanya Sastrigal, Chidambaram Sri Ranganatha Sastrigal, Bolagam Sri Rama Sastrigal, Andhra Mandali Sri Venkatesa Sastrigal, Sri S.R. Krishnamurthy Sastrigal taught pupils in the Veda Patashala. It is useful to recall here that Sri Kanchi Kamakoti 69th Pitathipathi Sri Jayendra Saraswati Sankaracharya Swamigal also learnt in Orikkai along with Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal.
Nothing could give greater elation and spiritual solace than the fact that Sri Kanchi Kamakoti 68th Pitathipathi, Maha Periyava Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati Sankaracharya Swamigal himself taught Ramachandra Sastrigal in Orikkai. He studied Bhardruhari (Vairagya Sadhakam) under Kanchi Periyava. Further, in Thiruvanaikkaval near Trichi, he studied under Vidhyasthanam Sri T.S. Balakrishna Sastrigal. He was taught Siddhantha Lesa Sangraha and given Pareeksha in Advaitha Sadas in the year 1960-62.
After that Sri Neelakkal Ramachandra Sastrigal obtained Deeksha from Sri Guhanandha Mandali. There are many paths of sadhana within Srividya depending on the upasakas. What is right for a given aspirant depends on one's level of spiritual development, and also upon one's circumstances and is decided by the teacher. Not everyone can cope with the rigorous rituals required by Srividyopasana due to unfamiliarity with details, or lack of time and /or facilities. Not everyone can undertake daily austerities and worship that requires long hours. The main practice of Srividya can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a full day, depending on how one does it and how deeply he gets immersed in the intricasies.
Srividya is an ancient and influential school of Goddess-centric Shakta Tantrism, focusing on the goddess's three manifestations 1.The beneficent deity Lalita Tripurasundari, 2. Her mantra; 3. and the Yantra known as Sri Chakra. Srividya creates a systematic, esoteric discipline combining elements of the yoga of knowledge, of devotion, and of ritual. Srividyopasana (i.e., the pursuit of enlightenment via Srividya) is considered the pinnacle of achievement. If the aspirant is initiated properly, it is the ultimate path, because it gives the sadhaka the experience of union with the Universe, the Cosmos. It is believed that one must, in past lives, have done thousands of years of sadhana of all the devatas to receive the message. Also one can obtain initiation into Srividya only if one is in his/her or his final birth - or is verily Shiva Himself. Hence devotees consider it a great privilege to prostrate before the Upasaka whom they believe is a God in a human form. They strongly feel that all their sins and mistakes will be wiped off and their prayers granted and their earthly desires fulfilled when they obtain the blessings of any one doing Srividyopasana.
And within Srividyopasana there are stages of practice - from simple recitation of mantras (japam) to long and ritually complex meditation, all of which are followed progressively until suddenly the ultimate Truth is realised as taught in the Upanishads.
A rare trait to find in Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal is that he has used his Srividya knowledge only to gain spiritual strength and to be able to offer diligent worship at the Amman temple. In recent years we have seen a few people using their scriptural and spiritual knowledge to personal benefit or for the sake of close disciples. Sastrigal was not a practitioner of that kind. His Jnana is for Jnana sake.
Significance of Srividya Upasana
An article in the internet yielded the following discourse given by Paramacharya Chandrasekara Saraswati Swamigal at Vuyyuru, Andhra Pradesh on January 25, 1968, in the temple of Siva at the invitation of members of Sri Vidyanilayam, Vuyyuru. His Telugu speech had elements which we will see as a small digression here.
"Generally, every human being wants happiness and thinks happiness comes through money. So, he struggles to earn money. All people in this world are surviving and living by learning one Vidya (learning one subject) or the other. There is no real happiness in this way of living Profession for earning food is called art (kalaa). What we do for happiness is called Vidya. We get happiness if we do work with our own interest without expecting results. Even will become vidyas if we do not expect the result. Aim of vidya is for happiness (ananda). Ultimate aim of Vidya is peace and equality. Then only, Vidya will become immortal (Amruta). ...
"We cannot get real happiness through some Vidya if we learn it only to know some extent. Everyone should learn one Sri Vidya which gives peace, equality, happiness along with other vidyas for earning food. After learning Sri Vidya, we should give it to others and others to next generations." That much for the speech of Mahaperiyava.
When the Atman merges with the supreme Paramatman, when finite happiness is replaced by Infinite Bliss, the unending happiness of the soul soaked in the bliss of the supreme meeting between Siva and Shakthi which is celebrated so well in the Soundarya Lahiri of Adi Shankaracharya.
We must see what is Not Sri Vidya: Sri Vidya is not just "A ritual worship of Devi "; not just " Mantra upadesa and chanting of Panchadasi or Shodasi"; not just " A Deeksha ceremony", not just " Performing Sri Chakra pooja," not just " Even Self Realisation," It is all above and much more... Much much Beyond all that. It is a way of life. "Sri" means All soubhagyams. Vidya is the highest, Ultimate, Pure Intelligence. Sri Vidya means "The highest knowledge and practice that gives All Soubhagyams including eternal Iswaryam - Moksha at the end, as C V Swami Sastrigal used to tell Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal.
The process involves staying connected with Devi throughout while one is engaged in day to day routine activities _ Experiencing Devi in all living entities. Remaining in an inherently happy frame of mind radiating enthusiasm. The realised person has a friendly disposition with everyone he comes across. The frame of mind what the upasaka had during devoted worship of Devi is extended throughout the day even while interacting with others. This attitude and approach one can see when he comes across Sri Ramachandra Sastrigal.
Sri Vidya is "Atma Vidya," "Maha Vidya," "Brahma Vidya ", the highest knowledge, as explained in Sri Lalitha Sahasranama.
Enlightened persons renounced their worldly life and become sanyasis to get Atma Gnyana. But Sri Vidya gives both bhoga and moksha without any conflict, as was made clear by Muthuswamy Dikshithar in one of his Navavarna Kritis.
The Vedantic Gnyana marga is widely considered suitable for highly intellectual persons with a very high level of Chittha Shuddhi and Punya accumulated over several births. Because Vedantic thoughts are difficult to comprehend for the modern mind. Sri Devi out of Her abundant love and affection has revealed through Sri Siva Her own Sri Vidya tantra which is easy to comprehend by one and all, the Mandali followers believe.
Service in Sri Kamakshi Ambal Temple:
In the year 1962, with the blessings and permission of Kanchi Maha Periyava, he started Pooja service in the Sannidhi of Sri Kanchi Kamakshi Amman. Sastrigal has since been serving in the temple for nearly 50 years without a break. He never put his knowledge to Vaidhika use by obliging devotees with doing this homa or that pooja. He believes he is living just to serve the presiding deity of the Kanchi temple and is happy with that. At this age of 75, he is leading a stoic and austere life and has nothing to complain about or keep chasing which we ordinary folks do much of our time.
Marriage and Family Life:
In the year 1966 Neelakkal C.N. Ramachandra Sastrigal married Alamelu Ammal hailing from Kanchipuram. He has four sons and two daughters. All of them are married and have children. Ramachandra Sastrigal has placed all his four sons in the service of Goddess Sri Kamakshi Ambal. In memory of his relationship with Sri Syama Sastrigal (Carnatic music trinity) through his grandmother Dharmambal, he has named one of his sons ‘Syama Krishna’ and one of his grand daughters Dharmambal.
He is a great connoisseur of music who has had the opportunity to interact with musicians par excellence who used to visit Kanchipuram in those days. It is but natural for Devi Upasakas to delight in soul lifting music and Sastrigal is no exception to the rule. That he is more keen on looking inward all the time and avoids lengthy discussions on mundane matters with those interacting with him shows the purity of his spiritual pursuits and blissful communion with the Almighty.
Neelakkal Family’s Heriditary Right in the Temple:
Out of the four Vattams (traditional nomenclature for ritual and administrative rights in the temple), two Vattams belong to the Neelakkal family. That means, in a year, six months of Pooja rituals and prasadam come to them as a matter of right. Moreover, of the five keys to the locker of the temple holding jewellery, two keys are in the hereditary possession of this family. The family members have taken the tradition in best faith and are doing their best, of course, with the Ashirvadam of Sastrigal. We need his blessings for many more years.