Institutions are not mere brick and concrete structures, it's when those at the helm of affairs make them come alive with their spirit and virtuosity that they became hallowed places where people repose their trust and come seeking solace for their problems. And when a religious institution, revered and adored by millions, has an equally ardent personality heading it, its fame grows manifold. Dharmasthala, headed by its Dharmadhikari, Padma Vibhushan Dr Veerendra Heggade, is one such institution with its stature growing leaps and bounds over the decades. Gururaj A. Paniyadi profiles this amazing individual, who has become an iconic figure handling everything from the nagging doubts mortals have, to social problems plaguing the region where he holds sway
There is a long queue of devotees at Dharmasthala, many of them with tonsured heads The famous pilgrim centre in Dakshina Kannada district draws people from far and near and one of them is a 60-year-old who has come not only to have 'Darshan' of the presiding deities, Lord Manjunatha, Ammanavaru and Sri Annappa but also for 'Abaya' (protection from fear).
Finally, he has his Darshan of Lord Manjunatha and also has the tasty lunch at the 'Chatra.' There is still a feeling of his tour being incomplete as he walks on the road opposite the temple in the evening. He enters 'Beedu'- the house of Heggades as it is called to complete his pilgrimage. Like him, hundreds of others have also come to meet Heggade.
Finally, Dr Veerendra Heggade walks in wearing a white 'Kachche Panche,' a white shirt and white shawl. He sits in a small half back seat, metaphorically indicating that the post is not to rest but to serve the people!
Some seek his blessings for functions like house warming and weddings, others complain of infighting in the family. A businessman says he is unable to get water from his borewell. When his turn came, the 60-year-old narrated his problem and Dr Heggade said, "Don't worry, Pray to Lord Manjunatha." This was enough for the devotee to feel satisfied with the doubts vanishing from his mind. Heggade and Ballal are the administrative heads of the region and belong to the Jain community. There are many Heggade and Ballal families in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts. The Heggades of Dharmashtala have always been respected by the people and are considered the final word on justice.
Dharmasthala has an interesting history. The presiding deity is a Hindu deity, Lord Manjunatha and the administration is led by a Jain family, the Heggades. Dr Veerendra Heggade assumed the post at the age of 20 and a week ago, completed fifty years of doling out hope and justice.
"I had to handle this responsibility all of a sudden. I was just 20 and a college student when I started after the sudden demise of my father. When I took charge, I saw devotees many of them elderly people, touching my feet and bowing before me making me feel uncomfortable. Our senior 'Shanbhog' explained to me that they were touching the feet of 'Heggade' as a mark of respect for the post."
There may be a modern judicial system and courts in place now but the number of devotees who approach Heggade has not decreased but has actually increased! "I rely on people's faith in the peetha to solve the problem. I find how submissive they are when I tell them something sitting on my seat. I allow them to speak straight from the heart and convince them on how to solve the problem. There is no lawyer who can present the case from a different angle," he says. Because of his perseverance, Dharmasthala is no longer just a pilgrim centre, it is a role model for individuals and governments. Traditionally, the temple has been providing 'Chaturvida Dana' (four types of Dana)- Anna Dana (food), Aushadha Dana (Healing),Vidya Dana (Education) and Abhaya Dana (Protection from fear). But Dr Heggade has added many other services. He believes in changing society and calls his team, 'Change Makers.' Entrepreneurship is another area Dr Heggade has focused on, trying to convert youth into entrepreneurs at the Rural Devel
opment and Self Employment Training (RUDSET) Institute. Instead of giving sermons asking people not to consume alcohol, he started deaddiction camps. When he saw the hardships jobless women were facing, he came up with the concept of Self Help groups and started SKDRDP (Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Programme).
Interestingly, several of his concepts have been adopted by the state and central governments. The best example is RUDSET of SDME Trust which was adopted by the government to form NACER (National Centre for Excellence of RSETIs). Dr Heggade is its honorary co-chairman.
Honours and accolades have been coming his way all the time. He has not only received the Padma Vibhushan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dharmasthala Sri Manjunatha Swamy Temple and attended a programme at Ujire.
Explaining the philosophy which has kept him going with dogged determination over the years, Dr Heggade says for him, social work and spiritual work are inseparable."They are two sides of the same coin. The basic concept of Heggade is to provide spiritual service to Manjunatha Swami and social service to the public," he explains.
Politics could have been a natural choice but he has kept away from the rough and tumble of the political world saying he does not want devotees to identify him with a political party. He has also proved with his devotion to social service that temples need not be restricted to Poojas, Annadanam or education, they could show the government how social reform programmes can be envisaged.
For the poor and suffering, Dharmasthala and Dr Heggade are shining examples of how shrines can adapt to a fast changing world and retain the aura of religiosity even while unleashing winds of change in society. The change of course, has to start from within, before the change maker sets out to spreadhis ideals of compassion, sacrifice and service. That's what Dr Heggade excels in, lending a healing touch to the mind, torn apart by fear, doubt and anxiety....