Great men are those , whose life and teaching give a new impetus to the cultural evolution of large masses of people. Their actions and messages have universal significance and perennial values as they remain the source of inspiration for generations to come. Sree Narayana Guru was one such superhuman, who had set in motion an unprecedented spiritual and intellectual ferment in Kerala with his Unitive vedantic vision and the synthesis of the spiritual and temporal, he had reshaped the social conscience of Kerala, brought in a miraculous transformation of its social psyche, and wrested a new civilization based on religious tolerance and communal harmony, which earned him the title. “The Father of Social Renaissance in Kerala ”.
At Kollam, in south Kerala, the 150th Jayanti celebrations of Sree Narayana Guru was inaugurated by Ms. Sonia Gandhi on 30th August, 04 and an year from the date is declared as the year of Sree Narayana Guru on that occasion, Ms. Gandhi had enumerated some aspects of his multifarious personality. He was a spiritual leader, philosopher, humanist, poet and revolutionary all rolled into one, the greatest India had ever seen. Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi also had paid glowing tributes to him, when they visited his shrine at Sivagiri, a few kms south of Kollam, Ravindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi had gone to his abode at Sivagiri meet him (1922, 1925) (Tagore found in him “ Self effulgent of Divine Glore ”. Deena Bandhu C. F. Andrews, who accompanied Tagore considered him “ God in Man’s form” The French philosopher Romain Rolland qualified him as a “Jnani of Action ”, where as K.R. Narayanan, our former President considered him “ The light of hope of downtrodden people ”.)
These are credentials to his greatness, issued by great men. What about the common people? He has carved out a niche for himself in everyone’s heart. A tour of Kerala will reveal that there is no village or town without a mandir with his statue as idol, or a small temple consecrated by him, or an educational institution or a library in his name. People come to the Gurumandir, surrender themselves in piety, light lamps and offer prayers and unburden all their woes. He is their God, they have no other God, they don’t need either. To the intellectuals his messages are the perennial source of inspiration to fight for social justice.
He lived (1855-1928) in a society which was caste ridden to the core, with untouchability and inapproachability as norms. It was deeply cleft into Savarnas and Avarnas. Castes like Nambudiri (Kerala Brahmin), Menon, Nair etc constituted the Savarnas and were considered the upper caste. The Avarnas were castes like Ezhava, Paraya and Pulaya, and were condemned as untouchables, destined to subhuman existence. Caste hierarchy was strictly maintained by Savarnas as well as Avarnas. Among the Avarnas, the Ezhavas were the highest in social ranking. Hence castes like Paraya and Pulaya became untouchable to them. Each caste practised untouchability with as much rigour and venom as their caste superiors did, as each caste had someone inferior to them. But if anyone accepted a Christian or Muslim name, he became socially acceptable. Such was the limit of absurdity prevailing in the society. No wonder Swami Vivekananda called it a “Lunatic Asylum”.
Narayana Guru was born in a moderately educated middle class family of Ezhavas. As a child he was precocious, and spiritually inclined. He became a scholar of Malayalam, Tamil, Sanskrit, Ayurvedam, and the Hindu scriptures at a very young age.
As he grew up, the humanist in him woke up and responded to the woes of miserable millions around him. Illiteracy, ignorance, superstitions and poverty reigned over the majority of Avarnas. Religion, which should have been a solace and support had become an instrument of tribulation for them by raising barriers and imposing restrictions in the name of caste. He saw how the essential goodness of the human soul was stifled under the weight of unhealthy traditions and the progressive human spirit suppressed by denials and restrictions.
After years of Meditation, he found the solution for all maladies caused by religion and caste in the Advaitha theory of Adi Shankara. Advaitha stipulates that the same Divine spirit dwells in all living beings. ALL IS ONE. Narayana Guru assimilated this great truth, If all life is the manifestation of the same universal spirit, how can there be any essential difference between one man and another ? Difference like colour of skin, dress, language and even religion are external and superficial. They induce variety in the great unity of basic equality. They do not impose any social ranking. But the caste system is a mischief maker. With the enforced social grading, it divides and subdivides humanity, and with its denials and restrictions it obstructs the spiritual and material progress of man. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that the caste system is against the spirit of Advaitha.
He was the next person who struck at the root of caste system by pointing out how it contradicts the spirit of Advaitha. He was up rooting a system which was rooted in religion, by making use of another tenet of the same religion.
Sree Narayana Guru evolved a unitive philosophy- a Gospel Unity- based on Advaitha- it is well explained through his poetic compositions “ Advaitha Deepika ” and “ Atmospadesa Shathakam”. The essence of his philosophy is in three assertions.
One Caste, One Religion and One God for man.
Ask not, Say not, Think not Caste.
What ever be the religion, let man improve himself.
This Gospel of Unity has shaken the social conscience of Kerala, a hundred years ago. It is equality relevant to modern times as the best antidote for communal disharmony and religious fundamentalism.
The Saint turns Revolutionary:
The philosopher turned a revolutionary when he saw the blunders and atrocities committed in the name of religion and caste. The inhuman treatment meted out to the so called untouchables troubled his compassionate heart and raised moral indignation. Not only were they nurtured in ignorance, condemned to slavish drudgery, but also were subjected to shameless exploitation. They were not allowed to enter the Aryan (upper caste) temples, not even to walk on the roads around them. But their offerings in cash were accepted. The poor souls waited patently 30-60 feet away from the temple premises, with the hope that a glimpse of the prosperous deity would improve their lot. Their own gods, whom the Avarnas propitiated with drunken orgies and animal sacrifices seemed ineffective in improving their lot. So, to propitiate the Aryan gods, they threw their coins into the temple premises which were washed and collected by the priests. However, seldom were the poor souls given a glimpse of the deity, as they were not allowed to worship those deities. Even gods were segregated in the land where Advaitha was born. This irony had to be changed and the thirst for worship would have to be satiated. Behind their piety and patience Narayana Guru saw the spark of human desire for emancipation and progress deep in their hearts, but hidden and subdued by restrogressive convictions and conventions. It was this hidden spark which he ignited with his unitive philosophy, to explode and become the propelling force for their spiritual and social upward mobility. The whole process is a bloodless revolution, in the upsurge of which all decadent and purile traditions were swept away and a new social order was ushered in.
Narayana Guru launched this revolution through a unique step. Challenging social norms, he an Avarna who had no right to enter a temple, consecrated a temple for Lord Siva, who is strictly a deity for the upper caste, at Aruvippuram, ( a few kms south east of Trivandrum) on the wee hours of Sivaratri of 1888, he picked up a stone from the adjacent River Neyyar, stood in meditation for hours, clutching the stone, and then placed it on an altar as “Sivalingam”. It was the demolition of the dividing wall of caste and tradition between men and gods, and the assertion of man’s fundamental right to worship. To the hundreds of untouchable devotees who stood watching the ceremony, it was the first lesson in equality- equality of all before God, and the first step in their liberation from spiritual serfdom. They can worship the same Lord, as their upper caste overlords worship, if they cannot go to the temple, the temple has come to them. To the enraged priesthood, he gave the befitting reply that it was an Avarna Shiva, and not a Brahmin Shiva that he had installed. If was the death knell to the authority of priesthood, and the launching of the bloodless revolution.
But his message to humanity was something more than that. On the newly erected temple wall he wrote a small poem. It was not another Panchakshari to worship Lord Siva but it was a hymn of universal brotherhood to unify humanity. It read,
This is the model abode
Where all live in brotherhood
Without the dividing walls
Of caste discrimination and religious rivalry.
Through these lines, the small stone which he installed as Lord siva, evolved into a symbol of human unity, objectifying Advaitha.
Hundreds of Sree Narayana temples sprang up for different deities with trained non-Brahmins as Archakas. Through these temples, his clarion call to liberate the so-called untouchables from social and spiritual serfdom reached out to every nook and corner of Kerala and awakened the lethargic souls. Temples became the centers of activity-unification, enlightenment, and emancipation of the people.
Revolution through Education :
This was the second step, but launched almost simultaneously. The Guru had realized that ignorance, and poverty are the root cause for all social evils. And the only remedy is education, with equal stress on its two emanations-education for character and education for career. It should ensure that the mind is enriched with the sense of truth, beauty, virtue and love, and also the ability to earn sufficiently for a comfortable living. Education has to enable them to integrate the opposing values of spiritual and material, traditional and contemporary. Only enlightenment trough, such education can make these crippled souls aware of their rights as human beings and their potentialities and induce in them the strength and confidence to compete with the privileged classes. He taught the people to make use of education as tool to liberate themselves form superstitious traditions, a means for economic independence, and a weapon to fight social injustice.
The down trodden people found a fresh breath of energy and a source of inspiration in his slogans.
Freedom through Education
Strength through Organization
Economic independence through industries.
Under his leadership his followers organized themselves into Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana ( S.N.D.P ) Yogam, and launched massive educational programmes, both formal and informal .
Though he established sanskrit schools to teach the scriptures, he encouraged English education and inspired rich men to invest in industries and sponsor the deserving poor for technical education abroad.
Revolution through Reformation :
The third step of the revolution was social and religious reformations. To safeguard the economy of a developing community, he forbade all ceremonies and rituals, including weddings and funerals and other religious functions where money was being wasted in feasting and festivities. Instead he suggested to make use of the money to educate a suitable person so that he would be useful to the society. He demysified religion by simplifying all rituals. He recognized the futility of chanting Sanskrit verses to ignorant masses and replaced them with simple malayalam verses and hymns so that people understnad the meaning of all. He saw how the consumption of alcohol was degrading the individual and undermining the economy of the society at large. So he gave the command. “ Liquor is poison, do not make it, do not give it, do not drink it. ” people obeyed his orders as he had become “God in human form”.
Spirituality beyond Religions:
While S.N.D.P was taking care of people’s material prosperity the Guru was concerned about their spiritual needs. He believed that prayer and worship are the first step towards a higher spirituality. So he constructed temples and installed idols. But he turned an iconoclast, if the deity was to be propitiated with drunken orgies or animal sacrifice which was contrary to the higher values he was trying to inculcate in the people.
“Illumination in the hearts of the people” was the Guru’s concept about the purpose of temples. To illustrate this, he installed lamps instead of idols in two temples, and finally a mirror. These consecrations, starting with idols, passing through lamps and ending in a mirror represent the progressive steps in spirituality. From the first step of worshipping idols, man evolves to the enlightened stage of conceiving the Ultimate Truth-Aham Brahmasmi Through the mirror installation, the Guru revealed to the masses his message, “God is not somewhere up above, he is the innermost Being of one’s own Self”. The kingdom of God is within you.
This is the “One God” he preached about, the Spirit or Energy that animates and activates everything in this Universe. He had imbibed this spirit of the Universe. The Universe had become part of him. It was a spirituality beyond religions- a peak from where he could see and show that all religions point the way to the same eternal Truth. Hence, conversions from one religion to another is only a change of paths. All religious tenets are legacies to humanity from wise men. They have to be shared by all. Any religion is good enough for the believer to attain spirituality. (He accepted even atheism, if it could make a man better. Some of his followers were atheists).
The first All Religions meet in Asia was organized by him in Feb. 1924 at his Advaithashram in Aluva, close to the birthplace of Adi Sankara. At the entrance to the meeting hall the motto was displayed, “ We meet here not to argue and win, but to know and be known.” If, religious fanatics all over the world could understand the sense in these words, so much of bloodshed in the name of religion could have been avoided and the world would have been a much better place to live in.
The Guru’s endeavour was to evolve a new culture, a synthesis of the old and the new, a smooth transfer from outdated ideas to progressive modernism. And he achieved this social miracle within a short span of forty years. He had metamorphosed the depressed castes of Kerala, from prostate subhuman status to educated decent citizens with dignity, self respect and economic power. A radical change in sentiment, intellect and perspective was ushered in, where rancour and dissention prevailed, he brought in unity and harmony, poverty and ignorance was replaced with prosperity and erudition. The impetus brought out the literary, artistic and academic talents hidden in the depressed people and opened before them the way for growth and prosperity for which sky is the limit. The flowers of Indian Renaissance began blooming among the once downtrodden masses of Kerala. It was both a spiritual and social Renaissance.
No other state in India has the record of such tremendous progress within such a short span of time. If the state of Kerala now stands first in literacy, it is the ultimate result of the massive educational projects launched by Sree Narayana Guru. If untouchability has become a thing of the past in Kerala, Sree Narayana Guru’s temples are the inspiration behind it. If conflicts and confrontations in the name of religion is minimal in Kerala, the credit goes to his Gospel of Unity.
The secret of Narayana Guru’s success is his integrated vision of man’ need for spiritual salvation and physical well being. The basis of his humanism is an all encompassing love and faith in man’s ability to evolve. In all his endeavors to uplift the downtrodden, he never said a word against the upper castes. In fact, many upper caste men were his followers. He was a philosopher, but he brought philosophy down to practical life. He was pious, but not a fanatic. Piety to him was something personal to each individual, a communion with the inner self. He was loyal to the essence of religions, but not their external crusts. He was born a Hindu, but never claimed as one. Though he was born and lived in Kerala, he was universal Guru, since his messages have universal application as they cut across cultural barriers and can inspire humanity at large. The world which is facing religious, racial and regional contradictions and conflicts, will certainly find solace and solutions in his messages. His legacy to humanity is a spirituality beyond the narrow confines of religions, respect for human dignity irrespective of caste, race and creed and the courage to shed the shackles of tradition, if it stands in the way of human progress. This legacy belongs to the entire world, and it is the duty of his devotees and followers to make this known to the world.
Smt. Sathya Bai Sivadas
(The writer is a retired lecturer in English from Andhra Predesh Educational Service, and the author of:
1. Sree Narayana Guru, The Practical Philosopher,
Published by Sree Narayana Educational and Cultural Society of Secunderabad.
2. English Version published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
3. Telugu Version published by Hyderabad Book Trust.