By Swami Harshananda
Origin of Maṭhas
A maṭha or monastery as defined is perhaps not a very ancient institution. The Baudhāyana Dharmasutras has used the word ‘maṭha’ in the sense of a hut, where a teacher and his pupils reside to pursue their studies. Maṭhas might have evolved from the example of the Buddhist vihāras. They definitely received a fillip from the celebrated teacher of Advaita Vedānta, Śaṅkara who established four principal maṭhas in the four cardinal directions of the country.
Difference in Temple and Maṭha
A temple and a maṭha both have a common religious motive and sentiment. However, if a temple is built primarily for the purpose of prayer and worship and religious instructions for the masses in a general way, a maṭha is specially meant for the training of the pupils and the laity in the tenets of the sect to which it belongs or in the doctrines of some philosophy including allied fields of knowledge. The heads of these maṭhas were generally sanyāsins and were called ‘maṭhādhipatis’.
Growth of Maṭhas
Originally, the maṭhas were simple dwelling places for these monks since they were expected to constantly tour the country for spreading the message of dharma. However, due to the enthusiasm and generosity of the laity, these maṭhas gradually acquired a lot of movable and immovable property. This naturally necessitated the evolution of some norms, guidelines and rules for the judicious management of the maṭha and its property. Succession was also one of the major issues related to it.
Over the centuries, maṭhas of various sects have proliferated. However, whenever a spiritually eminent person has occupied the pontiffs seat, really great work has been done for the welfare of society by these maṭhas. Types of service also have been increased and diversified. Wherever an important temple and a maṭha have been closely associated with each other both have grown in quantity and quality.
Selection of Maṭhādhipati
Though the entire property belonged to the maṭha, its legal head-the maṭhādhipati had the full control and the freedom to use it in the best interests of the institution and its followers. A maṭhādhipati is selected in one of the three ways as follows:
- The present head selects from among his disciples, a fit one to succeed him.
- The disciples will elect from among themselves one person if the previous head had passed away without choosing his successor.
- The ruling power or the original founder or his heirs appoint the next head.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore