A PROLEGOMENON TO THE BIOGRAPHY OF NARAYANA GURU

We live in an age where the global order and the national level social orders are undergoing transformation more profound and disruptive than any since the accumulation of wealth and escalation of technology extinguished the cultural values and traditional mores which are integral to the moral moorings of humanity. The rate, complexity and variety of change in our time are without precedent. The wheels that whirl us restlessly about the earth, the technological innovations that produce exploitative commercial control over the globe under guise of development , and the spiritual of plural vulgarity of sex and malignant ubiquity of violence as well as the ethnic, racial and communal conflicts showing up in organized confrontations, are producing universal disillusionments, aggravation of clashes and passions. The right to be human is denied to numberless people. They are deprived or decimated as Unpeople!  Indeed, a subtle,  intangible, invisible dictatorship of the human mind is in operation far beyond what Aldous Huxley had envisioned in the Brave New World. We have lost our spiritual anchorage and value-based stability under the various challenges of ultra-modernity. From this confusion and turbulence, the mature minds must rise, rebel against the heady, hedonist pleasures of  the moment and be able to contemplate the whole. What we have lost is a holistic perspective and cosmic vision which is the quintessence of the Upanishadic sages. We have ceased to be humanity and become mere individuals and micro-nuclear families. There are few who are concerned to survey life in its entirety and our leaders are consumed by corruption, money-manic temptations and the pernicious politics of power. Analysis leads and synthesis lags, specilaities and technologies flourish but sensitivity and simplicity are a casualty. Life itself, by the paradox of technological development, has become vain, meaningless and ethically empty. At a time when science, with its arrogant march forward, boasts of omniscience and omnipotence, our future as Will Durant points out, ‘is superficial today and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanisms  and poor in purposes’, abundant in material goods, but bankrupt in the fundamental noesis of life.  Science has raped morality and passion for pleasure and craze for five star life reflect the fragmentation of our character and rebarbarization of our being. There is chaos in the cosmos. “We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we do not know, and have not thought, where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge, which has made us drunk with our power. And we shall not be saved without wisdom”. This new looney mentality expresses itself as globalization, liberalization, privatization and other euphemisms, exceeding in duplicity and double-speak Orwellian connotations. Oft I quote I S Eliot :

“Where is the life we have lost in living ?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge ?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

As the world is reeling without feeling or sense of fraternity and finer values, men and women with great concern about the grave crisis of the human race are hungry for a higher message and search for some new messenger who will restore the ague of the soul and abolish the race to share the glory of the glitterati which has incarnated as the New World Order. In this poignant background, the supreme significance of a frail soul who walked southern part of India-His name is Sree Narayana Guru- needs to be studied as an emphatic reassertion of the soul that has been lost but must be regained if humanity is to survive. The suppressed and the oppressed, the outcast and the down-cast, the Unpeople and the non-persons, were his global constituency and obliteration of the aberrations of casteism, over-religiosity, obdurate obscurantism and restoration of the world  communityin its divinity and egalite, weaving a creative synthesis of materialism and spiritualism through a divine fusion of values-these were his manifesto de profundis, his revolutionary thesis of dynamic unitive philosophy of action. Where, in eloquent silence and sanyasin’s attire he moved and spread radiant light, he worked a matchless miracle of rousing the under privileged, raising their material, moral and spiritual status and masterminding a new social order of justice, equity and good conscience where the lowliest, the lost and the last mattered.

The taciturn wonder of Sree Narayana Guru’s impact on the human community is almost comparable to the thunderous oratory of Swami Vivekananda.In essence, both were Advaitins and both stressed socio-spiritual action beyond religious worship and ritual rubbish and caste-religion bigotry. A radical synthesis of material well-being and spiritual values is the only way by which the human race can shape a happy future and overcome the present manifestations of decadence. The symbiotic development of harmonious personality, whereby temporal and divine perspectives elevate the human race is a rare therapy for mankind’s current moral deficiency syndrome. Technology, if not guided by higher morality and humanist dimensions, may surrender to thanatos (lord of death). Otherwise, ‘ethical culture’, to use Einstein’s phrase may be destroyed by predatory instincts, fertilized by grab-as-much-as- you- may ethos. Ennoblement of social and individual life is the high priority item on the agenda of our post-industrial epoch. The timeless message of the great Guru is, perhaps, the principal panacea for the deeper ailment of the world gone awry with no ‘certitude, nor peace,nor help for pain’, where the ‘madding crowd’s ignoble strife’ suggests a scenario ‘as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night’ (Mathew Arnold).

What is that alchemic message of the Guru? Who was the Guru in the social hierarchy of his time? What was the milieu in which he worked, and what the saga of this mahatma?  What is the heritage of hope we gain from that temporal-spiritual testament? I approach the sublime subject of Narayana Guru in the spirit of Cardinal Newman: “Lead Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on!’.

These prolegomenonic words are inadequate to introduce the odyssey of the Guru. The author of the work is a literary light of cultural eminence and peerless intimacy of information about the great soul. His perspective is fine-tuned to the Guru’s philosophy and field of Karma. His wealth of inside knowledge which makes the book unique adds value to the pages of that rarest of rare pilgrim’s progress.

This is my preface to the real forward expressing my evaluation of the extra-ordinary ascetic, visionary and Karmayogi who moved from place to place and, by his mellow presence, transformed Kerala and presented to the world a unitive mission, transcendental yet pragmatic course of action thro’ sayings and doings worthy of a Jesus, Gandhi or other Maharshi.

‘Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth’. This sublime tribute to Gandhiji by Einstein is indubitably apt about Sree Narayana Guru as well. This is obvious from the profound expression of admiration of the Guru couched in chiseled simplicity of diction by Gurudev Ravindranath Tagore after meeting this great, yet frail, figure who was a beautiful blend of Sankara, Ramakrishna and the Mahatma. Read Tagore before we take off.

“I have been touring different parts of the world. During these travels, I have had the good fortune to come into contact with several saints and maharshis.

“But I have frankly to admit that I have never come across one who is spiritually greater than  Swami Sree Narayana Guru of Malayalam –nay, a person who is on a par with him in spiritual attainment.

“I am sure, I shall never forget that radiant face illumined by the self-effulgent  light of divine glory and those yogic eyes fixing their gaze on a far remote point in the distant horizon”.

Born in Travancore during the last century (19th century)  in a social order afflicted by lunatic superstitions, oppressed by caste-creed-sect bedlam and victimized by illiteracy, primitive praxis and feudal serfdom, the community in which Narayana Guru found himself needed revolutionary social and spiritual surgery and economic egalite.  ‘The eternal tenants of an extortionate system’, to borrow Tagore’s traumatic thought, could not battle for deliverance by the bullet. But the power of spiritual transformation of seer, the invisible operational skill of a social super-activist and the transcendence which synthesizes, by a holistic vision and unitive understanding, the material and higher values, presenting them in profound, yet penetrating, truths, all-inclusive of all religious teachings and universally valid principles- only such an instrumentality had a chance to reach and touch the awareness of the people at all levels and stir up the spirit and revolutionize  the conscience of Kerala humanity wherefrom Adi Sankara sprang to spread his vedantic mission but the supervening decadence of feudal vulgarity overran the undying values which he radiantly spread. When society sinks into putrifying cultural depths the dialectical thesis – antithesis forces produce a creative Colossus to restore a progressive balance and nobler human order. That Promethean fire, incarnating to salvage and set free mankind, within and beyond Kerala or India, as a cosmic laser light beaming from the small corner of Kerala, that divinity that dwells in us all, in ‘leaves of grass’ and ‘the journey work of the stars’, in the blossoms that dance in the breeze and the butterflies that flit from flower to flower, that cosmic being in human frame was Narayana Guru. From a coy boy he gently grew into a power -packed but silent thunderbolt, a saintly messenger of a Higher Power and Ambassador of an Upanishadic vintage wisdom delivered to a more distant and darker generation in the grip of socio-economic structures, charged with moral degeneracies and religious bigotries. In this bizaare milieu, only the rarest of rare human-divine incarnations  can operate a value-militant coup which was to defeat the brahminical cultural stranglehold cocooned by Nambudiries and the ignorant, stagnant victim status of the vast masses who were alienated from Hindu temples and refined ways of life and sullied by toxic habits and customs and blocked from educational avenues. The Guru, if we make a dialectical analysis of Kerala of light and shade, was born unobtrusively in an obscure segment of community, to meet the challenges and guide the world, not by the sword nor agitational campaigns but by a mystic strategy and universal vision invincibly innocent and impregnably fortified. The world’s most invasive weapon is not the atom bomb but the atmic awakening. Hiroshima killed a peaceful city and, instead of ending war and violence, the nuclear bomb intimidates humanity with Globoshima, since more bombs sufficient to wipe out the biosphere have been the competitive consequence and current arsenal.  But a pair of radiant eyes, soft speech, rich with revolutionary truths and seeping into the soul of society, can arrest the tumult, trauma and mental-moral debasement now terrorizing humankind. Such figure was the Guru about whom Romain Rolland penetratingly observed that ‘the great Guru, Sree Narayana, whose beneficent spiritual activity’ cast a spell on a few million humans. ‘His teaching, permeated with the philosophy of Sankara’ went beyond the bhakti movement of Bengal. ‘ He was one might say, a Jnanin  of action, a grand religious intellectual, who had a keen living sense of the people and of social necessities’. 

It is the life story of this human marvel that Prof. Sanoo sets out in this splendid work. It is luminous, though not voluminous; it is a history of the times and the encounters with obdurate obscurantisms one is confronted with in the Guruera. It is stimulating saga of enlightenment not only of Kerala but of India. It is the divine odyssey of a sadu too epic to be compressed into a slim volume . Narayana Guru – the sublime wanderer with a torch which emited light but not heat- revived dharmic values of ‘the purest ray serene’ and synthesized plural religions reducing their essentials into single, simple sentences, deprived the divisive dragon’s teeth from all religions and uplifted the larger, lower layers of the masses and transformed Kerala as a social reformer’s theatre of action, a spiritual wonder in constant lucent locomotion as a half- naked fakir whose mission was human liberation and passion leading humankind from darkness to light. The Guru thro’ devotional poems and imperishable parables, conversational communication of values too deep to learn from books and too straight to miss their piercing sense, performed a super-surgery of the soul of a community spiritually slumbering and materially backward. Every method, pure and austere, free from pomp and glamour, was available to him because his very touch made sublime the process and the goal. For instance, the Guru, belonging to a ‘backward’ caste, if viewed from a communal angle ( tho’ in sublime vision, he excelled many saintly beings), adopted an extraordinary strategy of installing idols, a function traditionally the exclusive preserve of Brahmins. This master-stroke of Narayana Guru was a radical challenge to the status quo ante. The entire edifice of Brahmanism and the caste structure suffered a collapse when, by installing Siva in a temple built by him, Narayana Guru worked a miracle of spiritual  transmutation and social reformation. What was at stake was not an Ezhava Siva installed by an Ezhava Sadhu with access to all regardless of caste, creed or religion or sect but an irreverent subversion of an obscurantist order which dominated and blinded the masses of Hindus. It was like lightning in the dense darkness. Indeed, the great Guru thro’ every deity and temple, conveyed the universal truth that the supreme Being was beyond the orthodox monopoly of higher caste but an omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient radiance which knew no barriers of community, no difference of caste and no confinement to crude godist ritualism.  His temples were hallowed by Swami’s founding faith of Advaita and culminated in the installation of a mirror as a deity. The obvious celestial message, when the votary looked at the mirror deity, was to see himself as God, know himself as divine and realize himself in the Vedic teaching”Thou Art That”. So humble, so humane, and so holy was he that one might well say: Where he walked was hallowed ground; where he sat was shrine. 

Narayana Guru was a vistaramic  in his vision as Creation itself. Material happiness, agricultural advance and industrial prosperity, health and well-being were a necessary part of life even as godward meditation and self realization. The Guru was a Karma Yogi, visionary and adhyatmic plenipotentiary.

In Adi Sankara tradition, he was an advaitin. The inner meaning of the Universe inspired him to compose the Atmopadesa Satakam and a wealth of lucid poems in Sanskrit, Malayalam and Tamil that Brahman could be better understood thro’ these texts than thro’ laborious esoteric literature. Narayana Guru was Adi Sankara in his philosophical quintessence. He was one who could, with William Blake, whisper to humanity.

“To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour”.

He was casteless and could not be assigned to any particular religion. He stood for women and their dignity and for the Pariah and his equality. In the words of Walt Whitman, one could see the embodiment of song in the Guru’s personality. I quote :

“I have said that the soul is not more than the body, And I have said that the body is not more than the soul, And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is”.

“In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where there they are, for I know that whereso’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.” 

He raised the higher consciousness of man but, in symbiosis, also promoted sobriety, industrious and thrifty ways of life, learning and light. He defeated with disarming ease all vices, weaknesses, drink evils and like tamasic tendencies and insisted on temples becoming the vibrant centers at festivals.

It is interesting to recall, at this stage, a conversation between Swami and Gandhi which is a glowing tribute to Narayana Guru’s  divinized humanism and eclectic  philosophy. Gandhiji came to Sivagiri in 1925.

Gandhiji : Has Swamiji come across any command in the Hindu Scriptures for observing untouchability?

Swami :  No.

Gandhiji : Has Swamiji any difference of opinion regarding the Satyagraha that is being held at Vaikom to remove untouchability?

Swami : No.

Gandhiji : What should be  done other than removing unsociability to improve the lot of the depressed people?

Swami : They should have education and wealth. I do not think that inter-caste dinners and  inter-caste marriages should be practiced immediately. They should have the opportunity for advancement as everybody else.

Gandhiji : Some consider that non-violent Satyagraha is ineffectual and use of force is required to establish rights. What is Swamiji’s opinion?

Swami : I do not consider force as good. Gandhiji ; There is a view that people should change their religion and that is the right means for achieving freedom. Does Swamiji permit this.?

Swami : We see people who got converted enjoying freedom. People cannot therefore be blamed if they hold such a view.

Gandhiji : Does Swamiji consider the Hindu religion sufficient for spiritual salvation ?

Swami : There are means of salvation in other religions also.

Gandhiji : Leave the other religions for the time being. Is Swamiji is of the opinion that Hinduism is enough for salvation?

Swami : Hinduism is sufficient for spiritual freedom. But people are more after worldly  freedom.

Gandhiji : That is about the prohibitions like untouchability. But does Swamiji think that conversion is necessary for spiritual freedom?

Swami : No. Conversion is not needed for spiritual salvation.

Gandhiji :  Untouchability is practiced even among the depressed classes. Is entry allowed to everyone in Swamiji’s temples?

Swami : Entry has been allowed to everyone. Pulaya and Pariah  children live and study with other children at Sivagiri and they join others in worship.

In his speech at a public meeting at Trivandrum Gandhiji said that he considered it his greatest fortune to have visited the beautiful land of Travancore and met the holy Swami”.

The answers of Swami in thoughtful brevity reveal how he could compress in one word or sentence the universe of meanings and how he tremendously transcended and facilely turned militant to drive his views on  social problems, banish scripturally petrified dogmas and illumine his people with farsighted wisdom. His sight searched for the infinite, his speech abbreviated the infinite, his silence was deep as eternity, even as his smile was eloquent communication. His poetry was profound philosophy, his prose was practical, the best words weighed and arranged in the best order. A divine artist divinizes every tool, every talk, every walk, every work. Narayana Guru belonged to the rarest of that rare group.

M.K.Sanoo is the biographer, a scholar, writer and public speaker whose familiarity with the Sree Narayana Guru’s times and thoughts, travels and talks, institutions and disciples are unbeatable. His narrative in easy style is charming in Malayalam and agreeably readable in English. When the subject is sublime, the true biographer produces instructive literature. Sanoo’s pen possesses professional skill and encompasses a great man’s long span of life with accuracy, presentability and faithful transmission of the message and the man. Chempazhanti, where  the Guru was born, its sylvan milieu and communal pluralism, is now a memorable place. Sivagiri sanctified  by his samadhi, is now a pilgrim centre, a spot of glory where the Guru spoke softly ‘I experience peace’ – the peace of the deep ocean far below the surface turbulence, the peace of the mountain peak high above darkling clouds. His last days , like those of Ramakrishna or Ramana were striken with bodily pain; but a moment comes at the parting point, when the atman masters the pain and beholds ‘the peace that passeth understanding’,the calm That conquers agony of the flesh and moves from one dimention to another when the assigned mission is done. The serene face of a saintly soul, the index of an infinite perception, has left behind a testament of human deliverance and vision of the Supreme Absolute that paints the relativity of worldliness on the canvas of the Universe. The mortal brevity of Narayana Guru is gone but the immortal glory of the Guru Spirit and the Dharma heritage can never go into oblivion. That treasure is already shining all over India, in London and New York, Hawai, and wherever human hunger for the unbounded wisdom which helps us realize the divinity latent in us presses on to celestial heights. For generations to come this Light will need to drive darkness away. “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours”-wrote Wordsworth, hardly anticipating the gluttonous generation suffering from ‘affluenza’ syndrome. Martin Luther King diagonised the disease more perceptively. He said :

The means by which we live have out-distanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” 
Martin Luther King Jr.,1963.

The human condition worldwide is so corrupt that the Guru’s healing universalism alone holds out a hopeful prognosis. “ The madding crowd’s  ignoble strife ‘ cannot be cured by the insatiable pursuit of pleasure and pelf. A new World Human Order is the urgent desideratum. The finer spirit of all knowledge is the recipe to save humanity. Prof. Sanoo deals with an epoch and the single soul who by silence and speech, poetry and prose, institutions and disciples, temples and devotees, and above all , by his radiant presence and scintillating  discourses, creatively regenerated the Sankara gospel, the Ambedkar thrust and egalitarian march towards human destiny. M.K.Sanoo is an instrument in fulfilling this dynamic mission by writing this noble work. “ the reward of a thing well done, is to have done it’. M.K.Sanoo is a purposefull author. Creative writers like him rise equal to the cause they espouse.

The finest institution in the east that wings its way to the west and radiates universal wisdom, ancient and modern, with a creative passion for the fulfillment of a magnificent mission, is the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Justly, therefore, has the Bhavan readily consented to bring out the second edition of Narayana Guru by Prof. M.K.Sanoo. The first edition, which burst into the English-speaking world, is, of course, by the Bhavan. Never,  in the modern world , have so many lovers of learning owed so much to so few as the world readership does to the Bhavan. Therefore, Bharat and Kerala must be grateful to the Bhavan which is the store-house of wisdom and publishes the most precious thoughts ever expressed by Indians. I am sure, now that the book in its second edition is being published by the Bhavan, the inspirational teachings of that Karma Yogi, Narayana Guru, who is a sublime bridge between the ancient Indian past and the modern Indian present, will affect the human spirit worldwide.

There are two kinds of books. Some books leave us free and some books make us free(Emerson). Prof. M.K.Sanoo’s book is a liberative work in every dimention because the subject, Sree Narayana Guru is among the greatest  liberators of our time in body, mind and spirit.

V R Krishna Iyer
(07.01.1997)