The waiter who rose to be a vedic encyclopaedia

Mathoor Krishnamurthy (left), the executive director of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bangalore, passed away on October 6 at the age of 84. Mathoorji, as the world called him, rose from his humble beginnings as a waiter and bus conductor, to be chief of BVB’s London centre for a quarter of a century.

Captain G.R. Gopinath, the founder of the low cost airline Air Deccan, pays tribute to the slightly built scholar hailing from the Sanskrit-speaking village of Mathoor, who held audiences spellbound with his wit, intellect and wisdom.



Though I was acquainted with Mathoorji since long, I got to know him intimately only a couple of years ago.

I decided to host a Gamaka concert at my residence. (Gamaka a dying art, unique only to Karnataka, is where a singer adopts a suitable raga as he recites a poem usually from the epics, a raga or a rasa which verily captures the meaning and spirit of the lines).

I called Mathoorji for breakfast to my house to talk it over. He created an unforgettable impression. He was on the dot at the appointed hour. He was dressed impeccably in the traditional style of a Kannada Sanskrit pandit, with a crisp starched white cotton dhoti and waist coat on a white khadi shirt.

His eyes had a sparkle and he was sprightly and mercurial.

He could converse in flawless Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada, English and many Indian languages.

When I told him that I intended to host a Gamaka concert on episodes from either Valmiki Ramayana or Mahabharatha, and if he could render a discourse on it both in Kannada and English, he was elated, for he never imagined that someone steeped in the business world would find either the time or have the inclination for such a traditional art form.

He had the energy and enthusiasm of an eighteen year old, and he readily agreed.

Sitting next to Mathoorji was an overwhelming experience—as an experience when you are by the ocean. Whether it was a discourse on the Bhagavad Gita on stage or when he conversed in family circles, he was both akin to a gushing mountain brook and the mighty ocean.

He had wit, great story telling ability that held your attention, and could recite extensively from memory from the Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Upanishads and Puranas, and also from all the great poets of Kannada and Sanskrit. He was a treasure trove of anecdotes and could hold you spellbound with stories both from his own life and from the mythological epics.

He was steeped in tradition and yet very modern in his thinking and a true Gandhian.

Even at 84, he was involved in multifarious activities – producing videos and audios, writing, publishing and giving a daily discourse on TV channels and also in the educational and cultural activities of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Bangalore.

But his most endearing quality was his humility.

He had seen extreme hardship during his younger days and pursued his studies living in ashrams and taking meals at the homes of well-wishers who offered free board. He had worked in various jobs as a bus conductor and a waiter.

When I praised him, he merely said, “We cannot take credit for anything. We are only instruments in His hands – you do your work and leave it to Him”.

He had come home 20 days ago. He was a bundle of energy. He invited me to a book launch on “GandhiUpanishad” which he had just written. He regaled us with stories and anecdotes and as is usually the case with scholars, he was wont to meander from one story to another.

As he was leaving, he quoted a few lines from the ancient ‘Subhashita’ on the virtue of speaking with love and affection.

I asked him to write it for me in his own hand in the small note book I had in my pocket.

This is what he wrote:

“On your tongue resides Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth,
Your tongue can win you friends and relationships,
Your tongue can land you in prison,
 And your tongue can also lead to death.
Is there any poverty for good words?”

Mathoorji  left us suddenly and his death was a shock to all who knew him. But his message lives on.

He showed us that work is worship, love of the particular need not be in contradiction to love of the universal, and non-violence in speech and action, cleanliness and perennial enthusiasm in daily activities and dedicating as much time as one can spare, to doing public good is way to happiness and salvation.

His life was his message.

File photograph: Mathoor Krishnamurthy with sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, in Bangalore in 2009 (courtesy The Hindu)

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