The suspicious death of an Udupi seer, and the conflict around the reigning deity

The seer who had found himself in the eye of a controversy is suspected to have been poisoned.
The suspicious death of an Udupi seer, and the conflict around the reigning deity
The suspicious death of an Udupi seer, and the conflict around the reigning deity

Lakshmivara Teertha Swami, the 30th head of the Shiroor Mutt in Udupi, who passed away on Thursday morning, had earned quite a name for himself in Udupi -- not only did he win the loyalty of Mutt devotees, he was also well-known for his lifestyle, his love for bikes and karate. 

Lakshmivara was born as Harish in 1964 in Mandamakki in Kundapur taluk. He received ‘sansara deeksha’ at the age of 8, and began actively pursuing a spiritual life. 

The 54-year-old made a name among his contemporaries for his lifestyle– be it his passion for swimming, collecting antiques, or his expertise in musical instruments.  He also had mass followership in Udupi for his developmental and charity work.

Late on Wednesday night, the seer was rushed to hospital with symptoms of food poisoning. He passed away on Thursday morning.

The hospital raised suspicions of Lakshmivara being poisoned, with the official statement saying, "There is suspicion of poisoning and toxicological samples have been sent. However, his condition continued to deteriorate rapidly in spite of the best efforts of the medical team.”

Doctors in the hospital confirmed to TNM that nothing could be conclusively proven unless the toxicology reports came back.

The seer had found himself in the eye of the storm recently. Lakshmivara’s lawyer confirmed to TNM that his client was planning to file a criminal case against Vidyadheesha Theertha Swami, the chief of Palimar Mutt who currently holds power at the Krishna Mutt in Udupi.

The seers of the Ashta Mutts (eight mutts) in Udupi are at loggerheads over the custody of the ‘Pattatu Devaru Vittala’ or ‘presiding deity’.

The Ashta Mutts see a system of power rotation or the paryaya system. Here, one chief of the eight mutts holds power in Sri Krishna Mutt for two years before passing it on to the next seer. Under this system, the presiding deity is also passed on to the new chief. 

Lakshmivara ascended the paryaya peetha thrice – in 1978-80, then in 1994-96 and most recently in 2010-2012.

Lakshmivara, however, claimed that the rightful place of the idol was in his Shiroor Mutt, and planned to file a criminal case against Vidyadheesha Theertha Swami. 

According to sources, the majority of the seers have refused this version by Lakshmivara Theertha Swamiji. 

"I spoke to Lakshmivara Theertha Swamiji and he told me to file a criminal case against the chief of Palimar Mutt over the issue of returning an idol that he had given to the Krishna Temple during the elections. We were also going to file a caveat against six other swamijis in the Krishna Temple," says Ravikiran, a Kundapura-based lawyer who represents Lakshmivara Theertha. 

According to leaders of the Ashta Peetha mutts, Lakshmivara’s conduct hurt them. 

"It is true that at this point the rightful location of the 'presiding deity' is at Shiroor Mutt. However, the seer's uncharitable, baseless and personal comments against his peer-monks in public, especially on television is against the expected conduct," a priest from another mutt who spoke on conditions of anonymity said.

In March this year, a Kannada news channel released a clip in which a voice purportedly of Lakshmivara Theertha called out corruption at the Ashta Mutt. In the video, the voice claimed the he (the seer) has children, and alleged that pontiffs at other Mutts too had children and families. Further, he also threatened the Pejawar seer Vishvesha Teertha Swami. 

Later, Lakshmivara Teertha called the video 'morphed' and said that people with vested interests had circulated it. Insiders at the Mutt say that the video caused a major rift between the followers and seers of the Ashta Mutt.

In 2010, Lakshmivara ascended the paryaya peetha for the third time. His term ended in 2012, and owing to ill health, he kept the presiding deity in Sri Krishna Mutt. 

This year, five seers from the eight Mutts said that Lakshmivara had to appoint a successor, a junior seer to take over his position. This did not go down well with Lakshmivara. 

In the 2018 Karnataka Assembly polls, Lakshmivara ran into rough waters again when he decided to enter the poll fray. He hoped the BJP would give him a ticket. This move once again upset the other seers, and Vishvesha Teertha Swami said it was unbecoming for a monk to contest polls.

However, when the party snubbed him, he decided to contest as an independent. Later, Lakshmivara withdrew his nomination and ‘blessed’ the BJP candidate, Raghupathi Bhat, who eventually won from the coastal region. 

This isn’t the first time the Astha Mutt is fighting fire. Earlier, the junior seer of Pejawar Mutt, Sri Vishwa Vijaya, had approached the court asking to disqualify his successor who had travelled to a ‘foreign country’. 

In 2008, Sugunendra Teertha Swami of Putige Mutt was accused of breaking away from tradition and earned the wrath of other seers in the Astha Mutt.

Story by (Subs and Scribes Media Ventures LLP).

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