Dharmasthala literally means “the abode of Dharma”. Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala is a small temple town and a much sought-after pilgrimage center, 65 km east of Mangalore, in Karnataka state. Sadhguru recently criss-crossed the country to be in Dharmasthala, where he inaugurated a unique multi-religious conference at the invitation of Dr. Veerandra Heggade, the 21st Dharmadhikari of Dharmasthala.

Having been ordained into Heggadeship at an early age of 20, Dr. Heggade he has been at the helm of affairs for the last 40 years. Not being content with its past glories, he continuously applies himself to adapt to the changing situations and needs of society and strives to keep dharma as a leading beacon for common people. He is widely recognized as a trendsetter in the administration of religious centers and as having made Dharmasthala a model center for social and spiritual wellbeing of all people without discriminations of any sort.

When Dr. Heggade requested Sadhguru to visit Dharmasthala and inaugurate the 76th Annual Multi-Religious Meet on 26th November, Sadhguru initially was reluctant to accept, as it meant non-stop travel for him just after his arrival from the US. However, when Dr. Heggade mentioned that he would be delighted to have Sadhguru there on his birthday the previous day, and also that like Sadhguru, he was an auto-enthusiast himself, and that he wanted to show Sadhguru his antique car collection of close to 100 cars – all restored and kept in working condition – Sadhguru did not seem to need further encouragement.

An interest in automobiles was not the only thing Dr. Heggade had in common with Sadhguru. A few weeks before the event, when I was with Dr. Heggade, working out the details of the event with Sadhguru, I could see a familiar penchant for details and a genuine concern about all things and people that one is used to with Sadhguru. As our discussion time spilled over the scheduled time slot, he invited me to join his walk in their Naturopathy Center. A top management group of their Health Services awaited him there and Dr. Heggade shifted seamlessly between receiving updates, giving directions, exchanging a few words with patients, showing me the place and explaining the philosophy behind their actions – all at the same time.

When Sadhguru arrived at Dharmasthala, the first thing he commented on was how the buildings were tastefully done. “Otherwise, in all the religious institutions that I have been, the buildings are always horrible,” he said. Dr. Heggade told me that their architecture is something he looks into himself. Like Sadhguru, he is a graduate in English literature and not a formally trained architect or an engineer himself. So, I was surprised to see him not only effortlessly read full-scale building plans that people presented for his approval, but also comment with ease on the proportions needed and the changes to be made.

His love for architecture did not limit itself to their own buildings, but extended into a massive heritage conservation and restoration effort wherein they have restored hundreds of ancient temples that had fallen into ruins. He told Sadhguru, “People used to invite me to inaugurations of renovated temples and it was really painful to see beautiful, ancient structures being defaced by crude concrete work.” On the rural development side, Dharmasthala is credited with running one of the best social engineering projects in the country today, integrating social, cultural and religious considerations. Though Dr. Heggade is well-informed and aware of the other contemporary attempts, it is not surprising that their approach is entirely home-grown.

Multi-Religiousness at Dharmastha

According to the legend, over 800 years ago, the dharma devatas (celestial guardians of the dharma) descended from heaven and appearing in his dream, extolled a local Jain chieftain to dedicate himself and his family to performing charity. They complied, and the devatas promised all their support and protection for him and his future successors. “It is not your business to worry how much money is in the treasury, it is not your business to worry whether there is grain in the granary; that is our business. You just perform charity,” they said.

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While similarities between Dr. Heggade and Sadhguru first struck me, so did the differences between the two. Fundamentally, Dharmasthala is a good example of how the society, culture, religion and tradition can be woven together to serve a spiritual cause. In contrast, Sadhguru’s whole life and work-has been to strip spirituality of all culture and tradition and present it as a pure science and technology for inner wellbeing. Dr. Heggade draws from lineage and history and uses it to strengthen social structures, while in an effort to create universal access to spiritual processes Sadhguru seeks to free it from all the moorings of the past.

In spite of their fundamental approach being diametrically opposed, there seemed to be great interest and appreciation for each other. It was also fun to see the two literature graduates engage in some multi-lingual pun. When Sadhguru greeted Dr. Heggade on his birthday, he also handed him a birthday present – a large, artistically done Shiva Panel (by Isha Craft, of course). As it took two people to carry it in, Sadhguru said in Kannada, “Nimage idondu chikka koduge” or “This is a small present for you”, Dr. Heggade was quick to reply: “Tamilalli chikka andare china. Nimma koduge nijavagalu Chinna” (The Kannada word for “small” is chikka, while in Tamil, it is chinna. But chinna in Kannada means “gold.” So he said “Your present is really a golden one!”)

That evening, Sadhguru witnessed the decorations of the famous Laksha Deepotsava (“Million Lamps” festival) and the time-old temple rituals. The next morning, Sadhguru was taken to the Manjunatha Temple, where he was offered the seat of honor, next to the formal seat of the Heggade. Later, Sadhguru was taken around the antique car collection as promised, where Dr. Heggade showed him various models of cars from horse-driven and human-driven to 6, 12 and 18 cylinder ones. Among the antique Fords, Rolls Royces and Cadillacs, he also showed cars used by Maharajas, Mahatma Gandhi and Sir C V Raman. Dharmasthala is also famous for the free meals they serve to devotees at the Temple. Their state-of-art kitchen and dining hall with a seating capacity of 5,000 was established more than 20 years ago when cooking and serving meals in that scale was unheard of. That noon, Sadhguru requested to have lunch in the Annapoorna Dining Hall along with the Temple devotees.

In the evening, Sadhguru addressed a public gathering where he shared the dais with Prof. Mumtaz Ali Khan, Minister of Minority Welfare of Karnataka and Mr. Jagadish Shettar, Speaker of Karnataka Legislative Assembly. Though Sadhguru began with the Kannada song “Ello Hudikide Illada Devara” that held everybody spellbound and switched to speaking in Kannada in between (when the audience cheered), much of the talk was still in English. Sadhguru paid rich compliments to the multi-religiousness at Dharmasthala and said it is a fitting tribute to Shiva, who comes from no lineage and sees no distinction in devotees.

Dr. Heggade is assisted in his work it by his three brothers who are equally passionate about it. Their combined effort has been successful in creating a role model in charity work. Thus for us, what was meant to be only a speaking engagement, turned out to be a very inspiring and enriching visit. Sadhguru deeply commended the social work there and particularly appreciated how it blended tradition with modernity and reinforced the local culture rather than destroy it, as most developmental work usually tend to do.

A visit to Dharmasthala is a treat not just for the religious-minded or for those who wish to see some good old-fashioned charity in action, but for all who seek a harmonious approach to human well-being.

– By an Isha Volunteer