Social Revolution By Sree Narayana Guru through Temple Reformation

Sree Narayana Guru was an embodiment of all virtues, values and rare qualities seldom found in human race. He was a mystic, a teacher, a philosopher, a visionary, a rationalist, a saint, a humanist, a social reformer, and a poet, all blended into one. His teachings are straight forward and simple , bringing out spiritual, moral and social revolution. He demonstrated his teachings in practice through his own life.

It is normally understood that revolution  is:- perpetuating a drastic and far-reaching change in the attitude and behavior of the people. In the political context a revolution is a violent, radical change in the existing social order brought about by people's agitation and struggle for change. It shakes up the existing social order and political system, causes hostilities and bloodshed and passes through chaotic periods of instability and confusion before a semblance of stability settles in. .Such a revolution divides people into groups and classes, each fighting for protecting their own self-interests. But the revolution that Sree Narayana Guru set in motion through temples at Aruvippuram defies any stereotyping. It was a unification process and not division, and therefore peaceful and silent. It was a harmonious integration of spirituality and material progress. In effecting fundamental changes in existing order, its power was more than what the ordinary mortals could have imagined. He used the same institution of temples which were used to keep the people divided to integrate them and guide them for a meaningful and prosperous life. It was the creative approach of a social revolutionary, a practical genius, for transforming these traditional institutions of temples  into vehicles of social change, while maintaining its characteristic as a place of worship.

Why did Narayana Guru launch the revolution through temples?  

The role of temples in the social life of the people.

Temples are at the heart of Hindu religious life. Temples bring devotees closer to the divine. They are the imitation of the cosmic order on the earth, a sociological “middle cosmos” established by priest-craft between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the individual and that the icons in the temple synthesize both doctrine and sacred presence, both didactic and suggestive of the feeling of divine power. The temples act as mediums through which devotees approach godhead. The idols at temples are concrete expressions of godhead, which cannot be otherwise comprehended or grasped directly as we do the world around us. When we worship at a temple, we temporarily step out of the limitations of worldly life and try to have a glimpse of transcendental reality. The deity, which is the object of devotion and worship, guide the devotees in their pious endeavor

The temples in Kerala during the Guru’s time

Social history tells that temples are the instruments to perpetuate caste hierarchy and discrimination and in Kerala at that time, this phenomenon was at its worst. The society was cleft into Savarnas (the forward castes ) and Avarnas (the Backward classes and Dalits). Both the groups practiced caste hierarchy and rigid rules to maintain it, while the Avarnas as a bulk were condemned as untouchables.

The Avarnas ,though in majority, were kept strictly away from the general stream of the society. The rigid caste rules to precipitate untouchability and social tyranny, observed for generations, made them live like a dumb-driven cattle serving their masters without complaint. They were denied all the avenues to know their inner strength, by the denial of education. They were not permitted to speak cultured language. They were forced to clothe, speak and behave in such a way as to affirm their lowliness and submissiveness every moment. They were denied the right to construct a house of their own choice, the freedom to walk along the public roads, to wear decent clothes to cover nakedness or to wear jewelry made of gold. Added to all these was the burden of unjust taxation and inhuman punishments .

But the master stroke to keep these people permanently inferior was the division of Gods.(Imagine, in the land of Adi Shankara’s Advaitha, even the gods were divided in the name of caste!)To worship Shiva, Parvathi, Ganesha, Subrahmanya, etc of the Aryan pantheon, was the prerogative of the Savarnas,and the Avarnas were not allowed to worship these deities, not even to come within the compound-wall of  these temples, but their offerings in cash were shamelessly accepted. They were allowed  to worship only inferior local deities like chathan , madan, yakshi etc. The mode of worship was also different. The Savarnas conducted their worship in a sober way, with offerings of flowers and fruits and delicious food items. The Avarnas offered crude items like animal blood, roasted bran, liquor, and other intoxicating substances. After the ritual of worship, they consumed these items as sacramental food. This was certainly an instrument to keep their morals at a low level., to induce the feeling of inferiority and self pity in them, so that they will never think of equality with their masters, and be content to remain permanent underdogs.

As these temples became the exclusive domain of priesthood and upper castes, who also controlled state authority, temples and power gradually became synonymous. The psyche of the masses in general will be that all good things in life are given to them by the grace of their God. The stronger the God, the better off you are in life. So, the Avarnas who were forced to live in humiliating conditions, attributed their pitiable state to their being denied entry into temples and worship the gods there! So, they waited patiently at a distance outside  temples to get a glimpse of the prosperous deity, with the hope that their lot might improve with that. They hoped to prosper by remaining in full obedience. But in the depth of their hearts was hidden the spark of virtue and desire to progress., which was stifled under unhealthy traditions. The Guru, with his deep insight into human nature, recognized this inner power in their piety and patience and inflated it to become the propelling force for their upward social mobility

The Guru had comprehended the injustice which was being perpetuated on the large section of the society in the name of God. He searched for the cause and solution. He had .wandered around in the planes and the hills, interacted with the people in close quarters and lived with them. He practiced deep meditation and undertook long penance on the Maruthwan Hills and emerged from there an enlightened man. He came down to the midst of humanity with a definite plan and a well defined programme to reform the society from decadence by making them know their inner capacity to understand their problems and to respond positively. The temples seemed to be the best medium to launch this. If temples were the main culprit in subjecting these people to oppression and misery, the very same temples must be used to resurrect them .  

This culminated in the consecration of Shiva temple at Aruvipuram, a village situated at a distance of 24 kms

from Tiruvananthapuram, on a Shivaratri night on12.03.1888. After the consecration of Shiva idol

Guru wrote on the walls of the temple:-
jaathibhedam-mathadvesham   “This is a model abode

ethumillathe sarvarum                  where all men shall live as brothers

sodarathvena vazhunna               without caste distinctions

mathruka sthanamanithu              and  religious rivalries”


This was not a small event. Hundreds of devotees had attended this function. Aftermath of this event sparked the social revolution in Kerala. The news spread like wild fire. An Avarna whose place is 32 feet away from the temple wall, broke all accepted social norms, and consecrated the holy shivalingam!  It was an unprovoked challenge to the centuries old supremacy of priesthood. The enraged priesthood could not take it. A learned Brahmin confronted the young Guru with the question, “What right does a non-Brahmin have  for consecrating Lord Shiva?" The Guru replied nonchalantly, “we have consecrated our own Shiva. Where is the directive against it?" The learned Brahmin had no reply

Historically, this action was the launching of a major rebellion against Indian orthodoxy. This was an assertion of the fundamental right of man to worship the deity of one’s choice. It demolished the dividing wall between Gods and rang the death knell to priestly authority. It was his first lesson on universal brotherhood to his followers. The small stanza which he wrote on the newly constructed temple was not another hymn to worship Lord Shiva, but a declaration of equality and fraternity, and an eye-opener to custodians of casteism .

 The next temple that Sree Narayana Guru consecrated was at Mannanthala in Thiruvananthapuram in 1889. The Guru arrived a little later than the appointed time and installed the idol. A noted person among the public, who was aghast that the installation did not take place at the auspicious time that was determined for it beforehand, tried to know from the Guru the zodiac sign of the installation that he had just done. The Guru replied,  “The horoscope is ascertained after the birth of the baby. Here the installation is over. Now you check the auspicious time and cast the horoscope accordingly. This event was quickly followed up by similar consecrations of temples in other parts of Kerala at the request of his followers. The Guru consecrated more than 60 temples in and out of Kerala and used the temples as  institutions to educate the masses. The temples itself turned as an embodiment of the creative imagination of the great seer. He opened the doors of the temples to all without any caste distinctions. People were made to realise  that the Gods and Goddesses were not the monopoly of a few priests.

Two revolutionary steps.

To prove this point beyond doubt to his followers and others, he introduced another revolutionary step. He trained Avarnas in rituals of worship and appointed them as Archakas in the temples consecrated by him. As the Guru was a scholar of Sanskrit and well-versed in Hindu scriptures, he started Sanskrit schools which were open to all castes and religions. Young Avarna boys who had some lenience towards spirituality were selected for this purpose and trained. Their recitation of Upanishads and Vedas were so perfect that even Mahatma Gandhi admired them.

During the series of consecrations of temples, there was another daring step taken  by the Guru.  Without an iota of hesitation, he removed the idols of chatan, yakshi, marutha etc and installed shiva, subrahmanyan and devi (mother goddess) in their places. The motive behind this action was certainly his deep commitment to improve the life-style of the people. He knew that if these blood-thirsty deities continued to preside over the lives of the people, animal sacrifices and drunken orgies would not stop, and people would continue the same uncivilized life. So , he replaced these deities with sober ones ,so that people could forget the old ways and start the new method of worship which the Guru had taught them.  

Progress from idols to abstract spirituality

Slowly and steadily his axe started to fall on the mindset or perception of the people. The changed mental programming made them to believe that they are lower to none. Guru revealed through the consecrations of temples that the idols are not very essential and practically demonstrated it by progressively changing the consecration of idols to lamp, mirror, words, symbol etc. God lives not in temples  but in the hearts of the seeker. The meanings of the symbols were aided by the stories and songs related. Thus, Guru composed 15 poems on Shiva ,7 Poems on Subrahmanya ,6 poems on  Devi, 3 poems on Vishnu and one on Vinayaka. These compositions link the Godhead  in an icon to the absolute truth , through contemplation of meaning. Thus the form (image ) and the word (alphabet) got equal role in communicating  wisdom to the common village folks. Guru explicitly represented both orthodoxy and heterodoxy by installing a mirror and a lamp instead of idols during  the later period. He revealed that the temples are required for men to purify themselves on their journey to the realization of truth.

Guru’s revolutionary ideas about temple construction and management :

He set an example to make the temples to be centers for purity and development. He wanted fresh air and light to enter the temple and to keep it clean. He wanted the temples to be places for the people to assemble, exchange their views and to work together for the betterment of their lives. Temples which were hitherto the instrument for dividing people, became a place for the unification of the people and centres of informal education. In Sree Narayana Guru's vision, along with the experiential knowledge of the ultimate reality, knowledge and learning that ordinary mortals gain through schooling and thinking also had importance. The Guru's exhortation to "awaken through learning/knowledge" bears this out. Moreover, the Guru dedicated a temple at Sivagiri exclusively to the Goddess of Learning, Saraswathi. One of the other names for Goddess Saraswathi is Sarada and the Guru preferred it. Hence this temple is known as Sarada Mutt. The Sarada Temple is octagonal in shape with eight windows that let in a flood of light and fresh air - a departure from traditional temple architecture. Not only that, the Guru forbade festivals and other temple rituals here. He advised collective chanting of hymns and offering of flowers, instead. The Guru composed a hymn titled Janani Navaratna Manjari praising the Goddess of Learning for the sake of devotees.

Guru was available for more than 40 years to execute his mission of transforming the society by instilling self respect and human dignity in the minds of the people. People of various talents from various fields of activity were attracted to Guru. Social reformers, freedom fighters, educationalists, thinkers, poets, writers, journalists, socially persecuted people and many more were attracted to Guru for guidance, light and inspiration. All of them actively participated  and contributed to the revolution that followed. The temple entry proclamation in the state of Travancore(1936) and other rights and privileges conferred on the lower castes were the direct result of the reformation movement initiated by Sree Narayana Guru.

Sree Narayana Guru was a practical genius for transforming traditional institutions to serve as vehicles of change. The modernization was also reflected in his concept of the temple. Guru said that the temples “should not be built in an expensive manner” as was the custom in ancient days. No money should be spent on elaborate festivals. Adjacent to temple there should be schools, library, reading rooms, small scale industrial training institutes to be used for the welfare of the people. This is the creative approach of a social revolutionary, who understood the heart of the people and their culture, and who sought to transform a traditional institution into an organ of social change while maintaining its characteristic as a place of worship. If our social reformers and political leaders understood this strategy of swimming along with the masses, and at the same time changing the direction of the current for them, a social revolutionary movement would emerge in our country as a more widely accepted and powerful force. The magnificent facilities and the immense wealth of our ancient temples could be put to social, cultural, educational and economic uses of community, while retaining their central role as places of worship. This can be done without interference in the pursuit of religion and without any sort of imposition from above. The owners and trustees of the temples should voluntarily accept the noble and the constructive role that Sree Narayana Guru envisaged for the house of worship. That would help in making religion real and meaningful to the people instead of being the so-called opium of the people.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that God does not dare to appear before a starving man except in the form food and work. If that is so, no temple can exist in an ignorant and poverty-stricken society unless it has some role to play in meeting at least some of the crying needs of the people. In the present stage of Kerala’s and India’s development when there is a new cultural renaissance and a resurgence of religious beliefs and practices among the masses, it is important that a constructive and progressive direction is given to the revivalism so that our society would not lapse into its ancient obscurantist ways . Sree Narayana Guru’s teachings and example are profoundly relevant in this context.

When the temples began to copy the example of their ancient prototypes, caste exclusiveness started creeping in , religious antagonisms had not been removed, the Gods were being compressed into the traditional forms,  unnecessary rituals and ceremonies were getting in, Guru felt that it was time to call halt to this sort of progress. He said “I have not given you the God of a caste but the God of all who seek and that the doors of the temples should be opened to all who knock. Some heard, hesitated and left the doors closed. A few heard, bowed their heads and flung the doors open. He then said. You have had enough of these temples .People are losing faith in temples. Money spent on building them may become a waste. God may be worshiped anywhere. Just a small prayer hall is therefore quite sufficient. It can easily be constructed and easily be maintained. The idols are not essential. It is the ideals which matter. Worship the ideals. Put up the mottoes of  Truth, Love and Duty in your temples and practice these virtues in your lives. That would be better  than all the idols in the world. So he consecrated temples without idols.

At Murukkumpuzha temple Sree Narayana Guru instatted a bronze plate with "Aum" written in the middle and "Satyam (Truth), Dharmam (Ethical Principles), Daya( Kindness) and Shanthi (Peace)" written around it (1921). He did not stop there. Guru wanted the mottoes to  enter the hearts of the people. So he asked them to keep a mirror in the temple instead of the idol or the motto. In two temples Guru instatted mirrors. One of them is at Kalavamkodu where the mirror installed is with the inscription "Aum Shanthi"(1927). The other one is at Vechur Ullala where the mirror with the inscription of "Aum" in the centre is installed(1927). The mirror, by its truthful reflection , always reminds us that as we are, so are our Gods too. God lives not in temples but in the hearts of the good. A noted Sanyasi follower of Sree Narayana Guru had explained the message of these unique installations thus: "A seeker begins his religious pursuit  with the worship of god in idols; he gradually ascends to the sphere of great effulgent light; he reflects truth, kindness, peace, etc., in his life; finally he experiences Supreme Truth, which is Aum, shining like the sun in his Soul, like the reflection in a mirror."

After all the temples are not for the benefits of Gods. They are for the men who require rest houses on the high road of progress. They are flag staff which beckons all  to the post of duty. Having gathered in temple, in the name of highest and best; we should think of the work outside the temple; for all work is outside. He said once pointing to a temple “ Here look at this nice temple . Open up a beautiful flower garden all round. Good trees should be grown, and in their shades platforms should be erected for people to sit on and enjoy the light and air. There should be a reading room in every temple. The sacred books of all faiths should be collected there and taught to those who want to learn. Let the temple be in a corner ; if you keep the place clean and beautiful people will come. It will be an aid to healthy living and serve as a place of ennobling thoughts. We should use the temples intelligently.The income generated in the temples should be used for the welfare of the poor. Take the instance of the Sivagiri temple. How many go there to improve their health and return hale and healthy. If you bath in good water, keep clean, breath pure air and think of God, certainly your diseases must be cured. All have their places of worship. Who have not? So we cannot say that temples are unnecessary.”  

Guru started educational institutions around the temples ,which empowered the beneficiaries with literacy ( Malayalam, tamil, sansrit, and English) and even technical know-how. Cottage industries like weaving , coir making and mat making were started in them. On another occasion when people came to take him for the consecration of a temple he said-“keep a light is not that sufficient? God is light”. He  installed burning lamp at Karamukku near Trissur (1921)   reciting the famous mantra Tamaso ma jyothir gamaya , thus giving  practical expression to the ancient Upanishadic prayer at this temple. They wanted something more, and then he suggested it would be well to keep the portraits of great men all round the light. There is another humorous incident worth remembering in this connection. In the early days of Sivgiri, people had installed a three pointed golden rod at the place of worship. One of the followers of Gurudev threw away that rod and placed Gurudev’s sandals in the place. The audacious fellow was caught hold of by the rest and taken to the presence of Gurudev.

Gurudev : why did you throw away that rod ?

The Fellow : Gurudev’s is the only image worthy of worship. That is our faith. Gurudev : Then what about the sandals ?

The Fellow : The sandals are a symbol of Gurudev.

Gurudev : If the sandals can represent me , why cannot the golden rod also? In these ways , he slowly led the minds of the people out of the limitations of temples and creeds to the ideal of ‘One caste, One religion, One God’ for man.

Through the temples Guru could regain for the downtrodden their lost self-respect and a new spirituality was introduced by changing the idols and changing the mode of worship. The spirttual and social revolution that took place in Kerala at the instance of Sree Narayana Guru had great impact on the freedom movement that was taking place in the country. Guru wanted a total transformation. He wanted balanced growth for the society spiritually as well as materially. The increase in the literary level and removal of unsociability in Kerala was due to the revolution initiated by Guru.   Indian constitution drafted few years after the demise of guru had his influence. The secularism, Education, womens’ education, equality, prohibition etc were drawn from the teachings of the Guru.

Some aspects of Sree Narayana Guru's unique reform were remarkable. It destroyed the nefarious hold of the upper class on all aspects of social and religious life of the society without spreading bitterness and enmity. Ended the exploitation without violence. It did not destroy the oppressors, but their oppression. It resulted in the upliftment of the oppressor and the oppressed alike..