Pradeep Krishnan talks to Dr. Veerendra Heggade, the extraordinary personality behind the transformation of Dharmasthala from a non-descript village to a unique city of spirituality and progress.
Dharmasthala, as the name indicates, is a place of Dharma: justice, truthfulness, faith, solace, fulfilment and peace. Everyday thousands of people, irrespective of caste, colour, belief and religion, flock to this unique temple town situated 300 kms west of Bengaluru, Karnataka, seeking Dharma.
Three decades after my first visit in November 2016, my wife, Sreelakshmi, and I had the opportunity to visit this exceptional place, the seat of Lord Manjunatha (Lord Shiva). We were amazed to learn that the temple administration, in addition to being involved in the customary rituals, is also the nerve centre of various socio-economic activities. It manages schools, hospitals and cultural institutions, running several rural development projects, administering schemes for the empowerment of women, children and the marginalised sections, et al. Interestingly, all those who visit the temple are given free food and accommodation.
The extraordinary personality behind the transformation of Dharmasthala from a non-descript village to the present day unique city of spirituality and progress is Dr D. Veerendra Heggade, born on November 28, 1948, to Ratnavarma Heggade and Rathnamma. Since assuming charge in 1968 as Dharmadhikari (the hereditary head of the temple that has an unbroken tradition of over 600 years), he has been at the forefront as a spiritual head, social reformer, educationist, and dispenser of justice and has changed the landscape of the place.
The large number of socio-cultural institutions that have sprung up all over the city bear testimony to Dr. Heggade’s vision of relentlessly engaging in charity. They offer vidya (knowledge), aahar (food), oushada (medicine) and abhaya dan (freedom from fear) to anyone who seeks it, without worrying about tomorrow. Dr. Heggade has won several honours and accolades, including the Padma Vibhushan in 2015. In the temple town, whoever you meet has something good to say about this unique personality. Dr. AV Shetty, a retired Civil Surgeon, said, “Compassionate and zealous, Dr. Heggade is always trying to change things for the better and has been the guiding spirit behind numerous institutions.”
Dr. Heggade’s role, as dispenser of justice in settling disputes, has been widely acclaimed. Abdul Jabbar, a shopkeeper who was waiting to meet him while we were there, said, “Once this exceptional spiritual leader gives a verdict, it is accepted by all concerned, without a murmur. This might be the only place in the whole world where this inimitable way of dispensing justice prevails even today.”
One can see a beautiful integration of faiths in this place. While Dr. Heggade’s family follows Jainism, the temple administered by him follows Hindu traditions and customs. Interestingly, the temple dedicated to Sri Manjunatha has vaishnavites (Madhwa Brahmins) as priests. Dr. Heggade says, “I think such integration is unique to this world.”
His concern for women empowerment resulted in forming the Shri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project (SKDRDP), which has a membership of about 37 lakh women volunteers. They reach out to disadvantaged women in villages and small towns, and work for their social and economic upliftment.
With folded hands and a warm smile, Dr. Heggade welcomed us to the spacious drawing room of his white bungalow in front of the temple, where he lives with his wife, Hemavathi, and daughter, Shraddha. His cheerful mannerisms and unassuming character made us feel instantly comfortable, as if we were in the company of an elderly brother. As soon as I presented him a copy of Life Positive, he quipped, “I enjoy Life Positive and have been reading it for years. In Sanatana Dharma, there are two extremes in practice; one rooted in traditions, rituals and customs, and the other in modernity, which ridicules all conventions as superstition. All these years, Life Positive has been bridging this gap by re-establishing sattva, the essence of our practices, thoughts, and deeds, in a practical way.” He said that out of the several periodicals that he receives every day, Life Positive is the only publication that he has specifically instructed his secretary to keep on his office table so that he can read it all at once. Excerpts from the interview:
Sir, tell us about your spiritual life?
My father, late Ratnavarma Heggade, knew very well that people revered and respected Dharmasthala and wanted me to continue this glorious tradition. He wanted me to follow the path shown by our predecessors and in order to make me experience the difficulties and problems faced by the common man, he sent me to the Siddhavana Gurukula for studies. I lived there as a common child for about four years, eating kanji (rice porridge) for breakfast and studying the scriptures. These experiences helped me to easily relate to the problems and difficulties of the common man.
Later, during my college days, I was guided by my spiritual guru, Shri Bhaskaram Seshacharya, a Tamilian saint, who had settled here during my grandfather, Shri Manja Heggade’s time. Every day, we interacted on spiritual matters. He was a staunch disciplinarian and often used to be very strict with me. “Always adapt, accommodate and adjust,” was his remedy to any of life’s problems. I am what I am today because of my guru, and for that, I am truly thankful to him. He lived for 105 years and passed away in the year 2000. The Dwarka Ashram, built across the river Netravati, commemorates his life.
How are you successfully able to handle your responsibilities as Dharmadhikari? What is the secret of your success?
Being the 21st Heggade, I follow Dharmasthala’s unbroken tradition of 600 years, in letter and spirit—all the oral and written practices. I do what I am supposed to do with devotion and dedication. The secret to my success is following the traditions set by my predecessors, perfectly. The Dharmadhikari performs the duties ordained by the Dharma devatas, who manage all the institutions in the holy presence of the Lord, who is the witness. As it is believed that the Dharmadhikari is a servant of the Lord as well as Dharma, he is answerable to them for all his acts. Every month, on the sankrama day (last day of Kannada month), I have to stand on the Annapetta hill before two representatives of Lord Manjunatha, who are visited by him, and who raise questions on various aspects of my duties and responsibilities; I give them convincing answers. I think this is the only place in India where accountability is given by a physical person to an invisible spirit.
Looking back, are you satisfied and happy with the special work God entrusted you with?
Yes. I am extremely happy and totally satisfied because in almost 49 years, I have been guided by the Lord. I have been doing all the work very sincerely.
How are you able to handle disputes among different sections of society and conflicts between people of different religions without involving law enforcing agencies?
Dharmasthala, as the name indicates, is well-known for Nyaya (justice). People, from far and wide, rich and poor, come here seeking solutions to disputes like land rows, conflicts within the family, and money matters, instead of approaching legal or other avenues. As the chosen representative of the Lord, I listen patiently to the arguments and offer solutions. As I take decisions from a higher plane of intuition, 90 per cent accept it. Once a verdict is given, I advise the families to visit each other’s houses and dine together, so that they bond, cooperate and remain good friends for the rest of their lives.
You have been engaged in reforming society in a big way. What are your views on the reformation of the Indian society?
All reformation must be aimed at helping the poor and needy. It is important to build a stable, strong and civilised life for villagers across the country, as a majority of the Indian society resides in the villages. In our rural development projects, 37 lakh women volunteers are active. They provide free education, build toilets and give microfinance to set up small scale units, and establish schools. Women are the backbone of the family and if they change their attitude, the whole family will change for the better. Instead of making people mere beneficiaries of schemes, the government must equip them to stand on their own feet. Every section of society must help the poor and needy come out of their backwardness. Spiritual education is also important and will help people realise their true potential, so that they strive to become better human beings.
Are you advocating the Gandhian way of living and economy?
Yes. I support the Gandhian ideal of rural development, as it is the best way for both, underdeveloped and developing nations. Gandhiji advised us to practice self-restraint in our desires and advocated changing oneself rather than changing the world. He said if you change, the whole world will look beautiful to you.
You are at the forefront of imparting quality education. What are your suggestions in reforming the Indian education system?
Reforms in education or any field must be a continuous and natural process and must be adapted to suit the changing times. I am very happy that during the last 25 years, there has been a conscious move to bridge the gap between science and spirituality, in India. In the past, all our traditional sciences such as ayurveda and yoga were considered outdated and superstitious. Ironically, now the whole world is not only turning towards traditional knowledge systems but also stressing the need for synchronisation between science and spirituality. In fact, Life Positive, through its articles has convincingly shown that spirituality and science can work together.
What is your philosophy of life?
One must have a clear heart and light mind. One’s actions—Karma —should be pure and spotless. Wherever you can, decentralise, share responsibility and delegate authority. Always try to become quiet and peaceful.
While bidding good-bye, Dr. Heggade ensured we would have a comfortable stay in the temple guest house and presented us with gifts. His loving and affectionate gestures still linger on our minds.
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