This year is the 160th birth anniversary of the great social reformer, philosopher, saint and visionary Sree Narayana Guru. But unfortunately with the exception of his dedicated followers in Kerala, not many know of this great advocate of social equality who stood for “One Caste, One Religion and One God for Man.”
According to most traditional sources, Gurudevan (as he was respectfully called) was born in 1854, in the village of Chempazhanthy near Thiruvananthapuram, to Madan Asan and Kutti Amma. He was the only son of his parents and was lovingly called Nanu. Even though Madan Asan was not very rich, he was looked upon with respect by the villagers. Madan Asan taught young Nanu the basics of both Tamil and Malayalam as well as schooled him in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Nanu had his formal schooling in the village school of Chempazhanthy. As was the rule of the day, a well-to-do family would arrange their son’s higher education by seeking out eminent scholars who would volunteer to teach deserving students as well as providing them with free boarding and lodging. Thus, in 1877 Nanu was sent to another village, Varanapally where he was to be tutored by one such well-known scholar named Kummampilli Raman Pillai Asan.
At Varanapally, Nanu Asan learned Sankrit grammar and literature, logic, arithmetic as well as Vedic philosophy. Nanu with his intelligence and conviction impressed the learned Raman Pillai who predicted the young man will make it big in the future. The young Nanu’s education in Varnapally ended around 1881 after which he returned home and spent a lot of time with his father who after some time , passed away.
Following this tragedy, Nanu appeared to have become very silent and distracted. This prompted his relatives to arrange his marriage. Although Nanu had no wish to be married, he succumbed to family pressure and gave his consent. According to his biographers, he had no physical relation with the woman who became hiswife because by that time the young man had decided to begin his quest for spiritual truth. Unfortunately his wife passed away soon after the marriage and the couple had no children.
It was as if the death of his wife was the final link Nanu had with the material world because he soon left his home and became a parivrajaka—a spiritual wanderer. Most of his wanderings were either on the coastlines of Kerala or in the interior villages of the present day Tamil Nadu.
Finding a Spiritual Mentor
After wandering for some time, he came to live with an old friend named Perunelli Krishnan Vaidyar who was a Sanskrit scholar. Krishnan introduced Nanu to a well-known theatre artist and a poet of great merit who was also familiar with the Vedas. This man was known by different names, but became popularly known as Chattampi Swami.
In many respects Nanu and Chattampi Swami were very different. Nanu Asan was a man of restraint and avoided speaking on erotic matters, while Chattampi Swami approached the same topic with the creative mind of a poetic genius.
In spite of their differences, Nanu Asan and Chattampi Swami respected each other as fellow truth seekers. Chattampi Swami who was an adept in Yoga gave Nanu certain instructions on Yoga and through him, Nanu Asan became skilled in various Yogic disciplines.
Social Scenario of Kerala at the time
In the days of Narayana Guru, the most fundamental issue plaguing Kerala was the unbridled discrimination of the lower-caste groups by the upper-castes. The lower-castes had no access to enter any sacred temple or draw water from public wells. Their people were not allowed to cover the upper parts of their bodies: so women had to go bare-breasted, and were prohibited from wearing jewelry.
In some cases, a lower caste’s very shadow was considered polluting for an ‘upper caste’ person, so there were well defined distances like five feet or twenty feet, beyond which members of even the ‘upper castes’ had to stand. If that was not enough, the groups termed untouchables were deemed so substandard that the very sight of them would cause people to be polluted. These unfortunates had to shout, “I am coming, please look away!” to avoid being seen.
And the punishment for failing to follow any of these inhuman strictures was death. The situation was well summed up by Swami Vivekananda who during his visit to Kerala called it a ‘lunatic asylum.’
In a strange way, the Ezhavas/Thiyyas (the community to which Narayana Guru belonged) were in slightly better conditions as some of them were Sanskrit-scholars, landowners and small-businessmen, most of them being peasants. Although traditionally thought to be descended from the pioneers of the combat sport of Kalaripayattu, their status as ‘Shudras’ subjected them to discrimination from the upper-caste elites.
As was the unfortunate scenario during those days, all these unjust laws were only applied to the Hindus. Any ‘lower caste’ person only had to convert to Christianity and Islam, to escape this kind of torment. There were many roads along which ‘lower caste’ Hindus were not allowed to pass, but Christians and Muslims could use them. This sorry state of affairs was about to be radically changed courtesy of the great Gurudevan.
Social Change initiated by Gurudevan
After being trained in Yoga and equipped with knowledge in Vedanta, Shree Narayana Guru decided to help clean the filth that had crept into the then Hindu society. His most notable act in this matter started in 1888 when Gurudevan visited Aruvippuram, a town located near Thiruvandapuram. There, people belonging to the lower caste community expressed their grief to him and asked for a solution. The night of Shivratri was approaching and these poor devotees wanted to enter the local Shiva temple but were prevented from doing so by the local priests. The Guru responded by asking the villagers to erect a makeshift temple and leave the rest to him. The incident is best described by one of Gurudevan’s renowned disciple Nataraj Guru:
A group of women and children, more sun-burnt than the rest of the crowd, sat segregated from the others. They were poor peasants, who, after a day’s hard work, had come in search of consolation to the festive scene. For ages these poor labourers and their ancestors had tilled the soil for the richer people who took advantage of their goodness. On the basis of their caste, these people had been condemned to age-long suffering, and were segregated and spurned. The Guru’s watchful eyes lighted on the group ….. He asked why should they not come and feel equality with the others …. “They are God’s children as much as the others”…
What followed next can be inferred from this account:
‘At midnight, Swami took a dip in the river. He rose after a moment with something in his hands, a cylindrical stone in the shape of a Shivalinga, and he walked into the makeshift temple. He stood there with his eyes closed in deep meditation, his hands holding the Shivalinga to his chest, tears flowing down his cheeks, oblivious to the world. For a full three hours, he stood motionless, while the crowd rent the midnight air with the chant “Om Nama Sivayah”, “Om Nama Sivayah”. They had only one impulse, one thought, one prayer, ‘Om Nama Sivayah!”
When challenged by the Nambudri Brahmins as to his right to do the sanctification, he replied
‘It was only an Thiyya Siva that I consecrated.’
The message of that declaration was how could Shiva be ‘owned’ by anyone?
Later, the Guru consecrated a mirror in one temple and a lamp in another: his message was that the divine was in all of us, and that we need to honour and nurture that. He instructed to place a plaque near the temple with the following lines-
Devoid of dividing walls of Caste
Or hatred of rival faith,
We all live here
Such, know this place to be!
This Model Foundation!
From 1888 to 1904, Narayana Guru stayed mostly at Aruvipuram. From there he walked on foot to almost every village in Kerala and the then Madras State to spread his message of equality. This enabled many people to relate to him personally.
In 1904, Narayana Guru settled at Sivagiri to pursue his Sadhana (spiritual practice). He consequently opened a Sanskrit school there. Poor boys and orphans were given education regardless of caste distinctions. Under his supervision temples were built at different places – Thrissur, Kannur, Calicut, and Mangalore. In 1913, he founded the Advaita Ashram at Aluva, dedicating it to the principle of Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra (all men are equal in the eyes of God).
Openly expressing his respect for the Buddha, Gurudevan visited Sri Lanka many times between 1918 and 1923.
The great Guru met Rabindranth Tagore in November 1922 who claimed –
“I have never come across one who is spiritually greater than Swami Narayana Guru or a person who is at par with him in spiritual attainment.”
In 1925. Gurudevan led the Vaikom Satyagraha which demanded the entry for lower-castes in the Shiva temple at Vaikom, near Kottayam. When local Hindu youngsters asked for help from Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation hesitated. But Narayana Guru visited Vaikom and joined the campaigners. Gandhi later visited Vaikom and admitted Gurudevan to be a true ‘Sant’. Gurudevan became seriously ill in the beginning of 1928 and remained bedridden for some time. Finally, on 20 September 1928, he left his mortal remains behind.
Narayana Guru challenged the foundations of orthodoxy by building temples that were open to all, irrespective of caste as well as prescribing education as a means of enlightenment. The fact that Kerala in present times is seen as a state with social egalitarian characteristics is the result of Narayana Guru’s vision. The Guru reversed the entire social system of Kerala, and did so without causing any social discontent unlike what E V Ramaswamy Naicker did in Tamil Nadu.
So deep was Gurudevan’s impact in Kerala that even the Communist Party, which was first elected to power in the state in 1957, had to recognize the fact that the party could gain popularity easily as the Sree Narayana Guru had already prepared the ground.
And it is worth mentioning that Gurudevan was able to do all this entirely within the framework of Hinduism. This shows Hinduism’s capacity for revitalization and reform. However, Narayan Guru is not very popular among the Indian social progressives, unlike E V Ramaswamy Naicker. In the present day, very few people outside Kerala even know about him. We hope that over time, the life and teachings of this exceptional reformer, and philosopher is more widely known and disseminated in the whole of India.