Shree Chaţţampi Swāmikal (1853 – 1924) was a consummate saint in the advaitic tradition, a scholar of Vedanta (in both the Sanskrit and Tamizh canons), and a quiet social reformer. His multi-faceted personality also embraced profound skills in arts such as music and painting. He was born to an impoverished family in Kannanmoola (part of the city of Thiruvanantapuram), in Tiruvitāmkūr (Travancore) state. As a young boy in school, he was a diligent student and was therefore assigned the position of ‘Chattampi’ (one who enforces ‘chattam,’ i.e., discipline; in other words, class monitor); this title eventually became part of his name. Due to poverty, he worked as a physical labourer at the tender age of 16-17. Even as a young man, however, he was recognized as both exceptionally pious and outstandingly intelligent by his elders and peers. Although he was devout, this young man had the courage to challenge customs and practices that he considered meaningless. He belonged to the “Nair” community (considered an ‘upper’ caste in Kerala state), and convention dictated that he should not accept food prepared by ‘lower’ castes, nor have a meal along with them. Even as a teenager, he openly defied this rule and, with razor-sharp acumen and wit, defeated all arguments raised by those who tried to defend this hoary custom.
He learnt the basics of Vedanta from some qualified teachers (Pēţţayil Rāman Pillai Āshān, Subba Jaţā Pāţhikal) and also by his own heroic endeavour. He received the final self-realizing instruction from an ‘Avadhūta’ (mendicant), at the young age of 28. For the rest of his life on earth, he was an itinerant sannyasin, sometimes staying with one or the other of his many devotees and occasionally residing in a cave or under a tree. Even though he led a nomadic life, the power of his spiritual attainment gradually attracted many disciples to him, both renunciates and householders. His eminence as a teacher of Advaita Vedanta was recognized by none other than Swāmi Vivēkānanda, who learnt the esoteric truth behind the ‘Chinmudra’ from Shree Chattampi Swāmikal. (Swāmi Vivēkānanda reportedly observed: “Here I met a remarkable man!” about meeting Shree Swāmikal in Ernakulam.) Although he mostly led a wandering life, he left behind many works of scholarship, both regarding Advaita Vedanta and about the moral aspects of life and society. In his two works Prāchīna Malayālam and Veda-adhikāra Nirūpaņam he demolished the unreasonable restrictions imposed by the caste system and contended forcefully that the Vedas were open for study to genuine seekers of any caste. (Shree Swāmikal made the following famous remark about caste restrictions: “If a fisherman (Veda Vyāsa) writes a book (Mahābhārata) in which a Yādava (Lord Krishna) gives life-changing advice (Bhagavad Gīta) to a Kshatriya (Arjuna), how can it be that Brahmins are the only people allowed to study that advice?”) In Jīvakāruņya Nirūpaņam he advocated the termination of animal sacrifice in temples and promoted vegetarianism as the ideal dietary choice for all. Advaita Chintā Paddhathi, Nijānanda Vilāsam, and Vedānta Sāram are some of the many philosophical works penned by Shree Swamikal. His disciples have rued the fact that many of his works – poems, songs, critical essays etc. – were written spontaneously on scrap paper, and are therefore lost to posterity.
Unlike Shree Nārāyaņa Guru, his illustrious contemporary, Shree Chaţţampi Swāmikal did not set up institutions or organizations to fight social evils. However, his influence was palpable in the social change that swept over Kerala during late 19th and early 20th century. Among members of his erstwhile caste, the Nairs, his forceful opposition to the evils of caste-based restraints lead to a quiet revolution. His sannyasin disciples – Shree Neelakaņţha Theerthapāda Swāmikal, Shree Theerthapāda Paramahamsa Swāmikal among them – as well as lay followers – Kumpalathu Śanku Pillai, Nanthiāruveeţţil Paramēśwaran Pillai, Karimpuvilākom Gōvinda Pillai, and Kalluveettil Gōvinda Pillai prominent among them – carried his message to all corners of Kerala, changing the face of society at large.
As mentioned earlier, Shree Swāmikal was also a lover of the arts and was genuinely talented in many of them. He was especially skilled in playing percussion instruments – Cheņda, Maddalam, Ganjira, and Udukk being some of them – and he also played the Veeņa very well. He could sing in both the Northern (Hindustani) as well as Southern (Karnatic) Indian classical styles. His disciples have certified that he could draw and paint exceptionally well, and loved to do humorous caricatures of his devotees and acquaintances. He had deep knowledge of Āyurvēda, and was an expert in the use of herbal remedies – even for diseases such as malaria. Not surprisingly, Shree Nārāyaņa Guru described Shree Swāmikal as “Sarvajna” (polymath) and “Paripūrņa Kalā Nidhi” (repository of all arts). Shree Neelakaņţha Theerthapāda Swāmikal used the title Vidyādhirājan (monarch of all knowledge) to describe his illustrious master, and this is also now commonly used as part of Shree Chaţţampi Swāmikal’s name.
There are many episodes from Shree Swāmikal’s life that reveal the transcendent wisdom and deep humanity of this great sage. Here is one such well-known incident: A government officer, who was wealthy and quite arrogant, invited Shree Swāmikal to his house for lunch. Although he was usually delighted to grace a devotee’s house with his presence, Shree Swāmikal sensed that this man only wanted to brag to friends and neighbours and was therefore not quite pleased. Shree Swāmikal replied that he usually had many disciples accompanying him, and that he could accept the invitation only if they were also included in it. The official boasted that he could provide for any number of disciples. They then fixed the time and date for the lunch. On the appointed day, Shree Swāmikal turned up at the officer’s house accompanied by about 50 street dogs. He explained that the dogs were all his disciples and were to be provided lunch. Hoist by his own petard, the official had no recourse but to seat this odd group of guests for the grand feast. Swamikal then instructed his ‘disciples’ that they had to behave properly, that they should not create any commotion. The dogs then proceeded to consume their food like well-bred ladies and gentlemen, joined, of course, by the sage himself. In this subtle way did Shree Swamikal teach the arrogant officer a lesson in humility.
Shree Nārāyaņa Guru, in the eulogy composed on the occasion of Shree Chaţţampi Swāmikal’s Mahāsamādhi, mentions that Shree Swāmikal lead his life in a blithe, playful manner (Leelayā kālamadhikam neethvā…). This, of course, is indicative of the detachment from worldly affairs that characterizes all self-realized sages, as it did Shree Swāmikal. For many years after the Mahāsamādhi there were precious few institutions commemorating the name of Shree Vidyādhirāja Chaţţampi Swāmikal. This was mainly because Shree Swāmikal himself used to be completely unconcerned about memorials. However, since 1971, Shree Vidyādhirāja Vidyā Samājam, a sister organization of the Ettumanoor Education Society, has been running many educational institutions in Shree Chaţţampi Swāmikal’s name. It is indeed the good fortune of Ettumanoorappan College that we have such a towering personality in the spiritual sphere as our patron saint. The management and staff of Ettumanoorappan College pray that the benign grace of Shree Vidyādhirāja Chaţţampi Swāmikal be always showered on us and on our institution.