Bea Teuten interviewed Radha Sundararajan, our senior Vedic chanting teacher and patron of TSYP in February 2020.
Radha was a student of Sri T.K.V. Desikachar, the son and student of Prof. T. Krishnamacharya. He personally appointed Radha to lead the Vedic Chanting division of the world-renowned Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) in Chennai, India, which she did for 30 years. Radha then went on to work independently and travelled all over the world conducting workshops. She passed away on 14th May 2021.
Radha Sundararajan with her students on the TSYP Vedic Chanting Teacher Training course, 2018. Photo Mari Kadanik
Bea: How did you first get involved with the KYM?
Radha: I belonged to an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family where the girls looked after the home and so I hadn’t done any work outside the house. Then as my son grew up I decided to help with his French. I did a crash course at the Alliance Francaise in Chennai and ended up teaching French there. It worked well as I could be home for him after school which kept the family happy! At that time my husband was working hard in business so would go to the KYM once a week for a yoga lesson to help him unwind. As I had nothing to do I went along with him and sat in the veranda waiting for him. While he was there he got to know TKV Desikachar well and became one of the many sponsors of ‘Darśanam’ the quarterly newsletter of the KYM, which continues even today.
One evening, while I was waiting outside, I noticed an advertisement for a yoga diploma course. It was a two year course, just evenings once or twice a week for two hours. I decided to apply but they refused my application as I was one year too old! I really wanted to do this course, so I asked my husband to appeal to TKV Desikachar himself. Desikachar said that I looked like ‘a society woman’ who would start but then leave, however despite his reservations he allowed me on to the course. There were 16 students who started the course and whilst everyone one finished I was the only one who became a longstanding faculty member of the KYM. Desikachar was my tutor for the whole course and by finishing I could honour my husband and make Desikachar proud for giving me the place.
Bea: That is a brilliant story, did you immediately start teaching at KYM?
Radha: I became a part time teacher of just one class a day as there were not many students at that time. My first pay cheque was 45 rupees which I wanted to return to Desikachar as a donation to the KYM. TKV Desikachar would not accept it, he said that it was a ‘prasād’ – a gift, a blessing from his father to me.
Bea: I have heard that Professor Krishnamacharya was absolutely central to everything TKV Desikachar did, is that so?
Radha: TKV only ever said, “my father wants this, is asking you do this, thanks you for this”. He used to say that he would speak to his father and seek his permission for everything. He would always feel it was all his father’s work – would say “my father would be very proud of you” – never “I am very proud”. He would never say that the request or praise came from him.
The Professor lived in an outhouse of TKV Desikachar’s house. When he died it was converted and given to KYM and this is where we learned our chanting. It was called the Sannidhi. The mosaic floor was broken and KYM wanted to replace it at some substantial cost. This was agreed but the very next day TKV Desikachar said that he had seen his father in his dream and that the Professor had told him that he was only a beggar and did not need a new floor. The new floor was never laid.
Bea: Is there any one event that was central to your relationship with him?
Radha: I see Desikachar in my mind’s eye every single day because of this one event. We were sitting in the Sannidhi being taught the mahānārāyaṇa – upaniṣat by a very senior teacher. Most were chanting from the roman script. Desikachar walked past and from outside the window inspected the group – he called out “Radha! Tomorrow I won’t see any transliteration in your hand. You will only chant from the samskritam!” (samskritam means ‘well done’ he always said this and not Sanskrit ) I wanted to argue but he had already gone. So I went home to my mother who was a Sanskrit scholar and told her what had happened. She stayed up with me until 3am helping me learn the text from the Sanskrit. The next day I took the Sanskrit version to the Sannidhi and struggled through the class. Desikachar came past, looked through the window and then went away. He did not say a word! Within two months I had overtaken all my colleagues as I did not want to let him down. So I think about this everyday. Quite simply, I only know what I know now because of my teacher TKV Desikachar and my mother whose name was Veda. It was a turning point in my life. The Gāyatrī mantraḥ asks for the Sun to bring out courage and clarity – he was my Sun. The taittiryā- āraṇyaka dvitīya-prapāṭhaka tells us to do five great offerings every day. To offer to God, to your ancestors, to care for other beings such as the birds and animals, to care for those who are less fortunate than you and to honour your teacher. He was my teacher and I still honour him every day.
Bea: What was it that made you trust him so deeply?
Radha: He was a man of few words but who would give you responsibility for something and then trust you absolutely to do the job. He brought out the best in you. He brought out the best in everyone.
Bea: How did you become the Head of Vedic Chanting?
Radha: After I had been at the KYM for about seven to ten years he asked me to set up the chanting arm for KYM. I was shocked and scared. I knew nothing of administration or finance, and we had no pupils! We were even in a different building. Despite my reservations he would never check what I was doing -he would just say “my father will look after everything” – and he did. I wanted to make him really proud for trusting me as such a novice to run the organisation, and I learned fast. Then, he said he wanted to start a training programme for Vedic Chanting. His dream was to take chanting to everyone throughout the world, irrespective of nationality, religion or colour. To have everyone chant of one voice. He felt it was his father’s dream. How happy he would be to see so many people chanting across the whole world.
Bea: If you were talking to someone who had never chanted what would you say made it so special?
Radha: TKV Desikachar would always say that if you wanted someone to do something you had to tell them the benefits – why else would they do it?
Everyone knows the word yoga and yoga has eight limbs – it is so easy to start with the body and then breath and move upwards. On a practical level sound protects the body – how? Because you are in constant exhale which eliminates and gets rid of impurities at the physical level. At the mind level the words bring calmness and serenity, and at the vijñānamaya, the power of discrimination between right and wrong, chanting gives you special clarity. Finally at ānandamaya, you are totally linked to the Highest Force …
Yoga means to move inwards. Amongst the many spiritual tools, sound is one of the most powerful. Vedic mantras work deep inside at an emotional level, releasing negative emotions and creating an inner confidence that is unbelievable So chanting is a very high spiritual practice. You do not need to understand what you are chanting – chanting is not an intellectual practice, it is the experience that matters. You need not go and sit alone in a small room. Chanting is a state of dhyāna, meditation.
Bea: What is the one thing you would hope that people remember about TKV Desikachar?
Radha: He was a man with no ego who spoke little. He was a great visionary who treated everyone as a friend and gave all he had. Above all his most amazing quality was that he never took credit for anything he did, he only gave credit to his father. His father, Professor Sri Krishnamacharya, was his īśvara.
Bea: How can we protect all that he has given us?
Radha: We just need to follow the teachings. I continue to teach even though he is no longer with us, and you must do the same once I am no longer here. The śīkṣavallī (from the taittirīya upaniṣat) tells us ‘svādhyāyapravacane ca’. You have to chant and teach.
Bea: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. As one of our three patrons it is wonderful to hear from you at first-hand about the KYM and above all your relationship with TKV Desikachar. Thank you.