Indian culture has survived the ravages of time, other religions, invasions and aggressive introduction of foreign cultures. In fact out of the 46 old civilizations of this World, only Bharatiya Civilization survived. Today, when newer excavations keep digging out the artefacts of the past, we realize that Sanatan Dharma existed in a vast area from Russia in Europe to the African Continent and the entire Asian Continent. But while Hinduism vanished in the regions out of Bharat, it survived here. Probably the main reason why Vedic Dharma survived here is because of the existence of the various Shree Mathas which kept the religion, tradition and culture alive.
A Shree Matha can be called a complete eco-system where education, propagation and conservation of Vedic culture exists. Mathas are a wider term than Ashrams or Gurukuls. All branches of Hinduism – Vaishnavite tradition, Shaivite, Veer Shaiva, and various Sects have their own Shree Matha established by a Guru of that Sect or Tradition. It was the responsibility of the Shree Matha to look after the continuation and following of culture, tradition, rituals and teachings in the society. For this they ran their own administration and defence set-ups too. Most of the Shree Mathas had Royal Patronage of the land they were originally formed in. Most of the Mathas also had a temple attached to them, though this was not essential. What do these Mathas do?
· The first duty of the Shree Matha is propagation and conservation of a branch of thought or teachings of the First Guru of that Matha. For example the Ashtha Mathas of Udupi continue with the Dwaita teachings of their First Guru Madhavacharya. Similarly, all the Mathas set up by Adi Shankaracharya continue with the teachings of Advaita as propounded by Adi Shankaracharya.
· Conformation of various rituals and culture and providing knowledge about these rituals to the common man or follower is another important function of the ShreeMathas. This is how these rituals continue to exist till today. The Brahmopadesham or Janayu Sanskaar (Thread ceremony) is a good example of the same. Today, when people have forgotten many of the 16 Sanskaars that a Hindu is supposed to do before he dies, information is just one Matha away.
· Running Gurukulams – In today’s materialistic world, there are fewer places which impart knowledge of our Shastras. Gurukuls which impart education of the Vedas and Shastras are a responsibility of the ShreeMathas, even if they are not geographically attached to the ShreeMatha. In these Gurukuls, young boys (and girls too in some places) study Sanskrit and the other subjects, along with modern education. They are provided free boarding, lodging, meals and education. They are also taught the various rituals that they can practise as a profession – as a priest.
· Some Mathas were setup for defence purposes. For example King Narasingh Dev-1 established 4 mathas (‘Akhadas’) namely Bagha, Khaki, Hati and Nirmohi Mathas with strong valiant Sadhus to guard the temple.
· Protection of Cows – Running Goushalas was an important part of every Shree Matha. The veneration that Hindus have over cows (Gou Mata) is unparalleled. This is not just because cows were an integral part of our economy and agriculture. It is also because our Rishis recognized the subtle vibrations that are present in our land, water and atmosphere due to the cows, their movements (goudhuli), their sounds (hambarna) and their products. Modern technology is yet to acknowledge these subtle vibrations, but the Shree Mathas have always played a substantial role in protecting the cows and cattle.
· Guidance to regents and rulers – Hindu Samskriti owes a lot to the kings (and queens) who protected our religion from the various foreign invasions over time. And these rulers were always given divine protection and guidance by our various Gurus who did tapasya for the welfare of mankind. While gracious rulers donated land for the gurukulams, ashrams and Shree Mathas, the Shree Mathas along with their Peethadeeshas also guided the rulers from time to time on worldly matters and spiritual matters. The Vijayanagara Empire would be a good example of the contribution of a Shree Matha to the forming of a kingdom.
· Annadaana and Hospitality – While Anna Santarpane (feeding people) and Dharamshalas are an integral part of every ShreeMatha, these are some of the minor but important roles played by the ShreeMathas.
· Keeping the Harmony in Society – Many Shree Mathas have followers only of certain communities or villages or regions. Such Shree Mathas always worked for the upliftment of that community or society religiously. They were also responsible for keeping the whole society bound in harmony and free of animosity. Our mental, emotional and spiritual health owes a lot to the various Shree Mathas and gurus/religious heads that exist in various parts of our country. Most of the Heads of these Shree Mathas still follow the system of celibacy and for them their shishyas are their only family. The gurus/peethadeeshas advice their followers as and when approached.
· Preservation of ancient books and materials – Most of the Shree Mathas are the preservers of our ancient Vedas, Shastras and Scriptures. Also, they have preserved and still do Pujas to ancient Idols which have been passed on from one Guru/Peethadeesha to the next, till today.
· Administration of Temples – Most of the Shree Mathas owe allegiance to one or more temples of the land. They are responsible for the administration and continuation of the rituals of these temples. If it were not for our Shree Mathas, most of the temples would have been in the hands of the government solely and continuation of the rituals through selection of the right priests would have been impossible.
We owe a lot to our Shree Mathas which have been upholders of our ancient culture, rituals and traditions. While it may be true that some Shree Mathas have had controversies attached to them, by and large, they have only worked for the benefit of society and have kept our Sanatan Dharma alive. Even during the various attempts to build the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya and during our Freedom Struggle (Sannyasi Rebellion which inspired the book ‘Anand Math’), our Shree Mathas have played an important role. Today we even have a chief minister who is the Peethadeesha of Gorakshnath Matha and who has followers from Nepal and Bharat. The science of abstinence (Brahmacharya), which is completely beyond the understanding of other religions would have been lost if it were not our Shree Mathas. If we have to keep our people in our Sanatan fold, our Shree Mathas need our complete support.