Sree Narayana Guru - The Practical Philosopher

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                                                                                                                              By Smt. Sathya Bai Sivadas, M.A, Lecture in English ( Retd.)

This is a humble attempt on my part to present a micro picture of Sree Narayana Guru’s magnificent personality and the unlimited legacy which he had bestowed on his followers through his words and deeds.

During the Ambedkar Centenary year, 1993, a National Seminar on “The Up-liftment of the Downtrodden” was sponsored by the University Grants Commission (UGC) at Government Degree College, Siddipet. I was invited to present a paper on a relevant topic, and I selected “The Role of Sree Narayana Guru in the upliftment of the Downtrodden in Kerala”. The paper was presented in the National Seminar held on 31st March, 1993 at Siddipet, This book-let is a slightly modified version of that paper.

During my career as Lecturer in Government Degree Colleges of Andhra Pradesh, I had the scope and means to interact with the people of Andhra Pradesh, especially the younger generation. The people of Andhra Pradesh, except some educated elite, do not know much about Sree Narayana Guru, leave alone the younger generation. But to my surprise, I found that the younger generation of Malayalees living in Andhra Pradesh are also sailing in the same boat. This is an unfortunate situation. And I have discovered the reason also. Almost all books on Sree Narayana Guru are in Malayalam and the Malayalee younger generation, born and brought up outside Kerala, cannot read Malayalam. I hope, this book-let of mine will help a little to offset the situation.

I do not claim that this is a comprehensive study. This is only an introduction – an initiation – to the study of Sree Narayana Guru. If this serves to generate an interest in readers to learn more about Sree Narayana Guru and search for further reading. I am gratified and I hope, the Sree Narayana Educational & Cultural Society of the win cities will produce and publish a lot of reading material in various languages so that the messages of Sree Narayana Guru will reach the hearts of the people outside Kerala.

The suggestion to publish the seminar paper in book from came from my husband Sri P. Prabhakara Rao, an ardent admirer of the Guru and his achievements. Though he is a non- Malayalee, he has understood theGuru and his messages very well. The constructive criticism offered by him at every stage of the book has certainly helped me to maintain clarity and simplicity in ideas and expressions.

My sincere thanks are due to Sri K. Kochaiyappan, President SNECS, who has exposed his vast knowledge of Sree Narayana Guru for my benefit. Similarly I express my gratitude to Prof. F.D. Vakil, Professor of 
Political Science, Osmania University, who went through my Seminar Paper patiently and suggested corrections and modifications and to Madhavi Printers who brought out the booklet in time. 

Sept, 1996                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 - Sathya Bai Sivadas
SREE NARAYANA GURU The Practical Philosopher

Great men are those whose lives and teachings give a new impetus to the cultural evolution of large masses of people. Their actions and messages have vital significance and universal value. Sree Narayana Guru of Kerala (1855-1928) was one such superhuman who became the spiritual force behind the social renaissance of Kerala.

Romain Rolland referred to him as a “Jnanin of action and a religious intellectual who had a keen living sense of the people and of social necessities”. Ravindranath Tagore Said “ I have to frankly admit that I have never come across one who is spiritually greater than Swami Sree Narayana Guru of Malayalam”.

Sree Narayana Guru was a social and spiritual revolutionary. The slogans which he gave to his followers express his philosophy of unity in unmistakable terms.

“One caste, one religion and one God of man”
“Ask not, say not, think not caste”

He was the first man in Kerala who gave the clarion call against caste system, standing on the threshold of a temple. He had set in motion waves of drastic social changes, which will go on forever. In fact, he has set his axe at the root of superstitions and foolishness practised in the name of religion and tradition and shaken the social conscience of Kerala. If the people of Kerala now stand first in literacy, it is the ultimate result of the massive educational projects launched by him. If untouchability has become a thin of the past in Kerala, Sree Narayana Guru’s temples are the inspiration behind it. If conflicts and confrontations in the name of religions is minimal in Kerala, the credit goes to Sree Narayana Guru’s “Gospel of Unity”.

Most of his influence was on the socially oppressed or downtrodden people of Kerala, the so-called Avarnas or untouchables. He has rejuvenated them with soul and spirit through religious teachings, and invested them with dignity and self-respect through education and economic power. Guru Narayana simply proved to them through their own development that they are not inferior to anyone. He struck at the “root of penury in their hearts” and taught them “not to bend their knees before insolent might”.


Unit the 5th Century AD the people of Kerala ad no organized religion. A few followed Buddhist practices, but the majority followed the Dravidian practices of worship. It is traditionally said that St. Thomas the Apostle had founded the Syrian Church in Malabar Coast, before 100 AD. This had not affected the masses at all. The people worshipped a Mother Goddess and lived comfortably. Evils of untouchability, and division of population on the basis of caste and occupation, were unknown to them. People enjoyed full social freedom, and equality. Dignity of labour was recognized, women enjoyed complete freedom and full right to education. 


The Aryan culture was introduced into Kerala by Immigrant Brahmins from the North. They reached Kerala in small periodical waves from the 5th century AD onwards. They came to be called Nambudiris. Though the Aryan culture began to spread in Kerala from the 5th century AD, Hinduism was a very minor religion until 9th Century AD. During 8th Century AD, a new wave of immigrants reached and strengthened the existing force of Brahminism, and during the 9th Century, at the time of Adi Sankaracharya, Brahminism reached its zenith.

As was done in the North, to suppress or supplant the native people by force was not possible in the South due to three reasons:

1. The immigrant Brahmins were small in number.
2. The native society was well organized.
3. The geographical and social conditions were different from those of the North.

Hence, the Aryanisation of Kerala had to be a gradual, peaceful, cultural move and a systematic enslavement of the natives.

Several strategies were adopted almost simultaneously to achieve this. It was like attack on several fronts at the same time.

One step taken by these immigrant Brahmins was to win the support and allegiance of the native Draidian chieftains. The chieftains were flattered with Aryan titles and were made to believe that they belonged to Suryakula, Chandrakula or Agnikula race ( ie., descendents of Sun god, Moon god or Fire god) of Kings and that they were different and much superior to those who were ruled by them. Then they were taught to imitate and emulate the grandeur and habits of those legendary kings. Thus emerged the ruling class of Kshatriyas in Kerala. The Brahmins were able to persuade these rulers to follow the brahminical ways for spiritual attainment and perform various Aryan rites for their spiritual and material benefit. In return, respect for the Brahmins and their protection became great virtues for the rulers. The rulers supported the Brahmins in all their actions.

Another step taken by the Brahmins was to get temples of Aryan gods constructed throughout Kerala under the patronage of Kulasekharas, the then rulers of Kerala. These temples were completely under the control of the Brahmins and became live centres of Brahminic activity and bases for enslavement of the natives and perpetuation of Brahminic domination. All the people except the rulers were strictly kept away from the temples. However, it was not an easy task for the Brahmins to penetrate deep into the well integrated society and establish their domination over it. The encroachment of the Brahmins into their social and religious life was resented and resisted by certain strong sections of the native population.

Hence, their next step was to create a split among the masses. The so called divine law of “Varna” was a ready weapon to achieve this objecative. Those among the masses who were at that time moving close to the Brahmins and Kshatriyas and serving them were designated as ‘Shudras’ and assimilated into the Aryan ‘varna’ system, which forms the fourth group of the Hindu caste hierarchy. 

The label of ‘Shudra’ lost currency and the later nomenclature ‘Nair’ in local vernacular came to stay for this caste. The Nairs were constantly told by their superiors that they were the people ordained by God to serve the other upper castes, and they were superior to and privileged over the natives who were outside the caste system. As an incentive to accepting Brahminical ways and the caste system, the Nairs were given certain privileges such as entry into temple premises, employment in Government service and temple service, facilities for education etc., which were denied to the others. During the course of time, these privileges had far reaching consequences on the society, giving positions of administrative power and related wealth and privileges to Nairs, and the positions of the others deteriorated. 

At a certain point, this process of assimilation also came to an end. The Shudras felt that if all the natives were assimilated as Shudras they would have no one inferior to them, and that would affect their privileges. So they saw that the assimilation should stop. Moreover, the policy of the Brahmins was also not unification of the people but division, in order to perpetuate their superiority. Thus with the emergence of the Shudras from among the native masses as a superior and privileged class over and above their native counterparts, the hitherto integrated society of Kerala came to be divided into two main divisions. The Savarnas who belonged to any of the four Varnas, and the Avarnas - those who were outside the Varna system. The Avarnas were later condemned as untouchables. The Ezhavas constitute the bulk of the Avarnas, because they are more in number.

Another step taken was a land grab attempt. The Brahmins were considered superhuman by the rulers. The properties belonging to the temple (Devaswom) and to the Brahmin ( Brahmaswom) were considered immune to taxes and confiscation by anybody including the enemy, in case of war. So during a war, (Wars were many in those days of anarchy caused by the sudden death of Kulasekhara) the Nambudiris persuaded the people to transfer their land and properties to the temples or Nambudiris so as to protect them from the enemy. By this clever stategy, The temples and Nambudiris became big land owners. Land belonging to the temple were naturally enjoyed by the Nambudiris, as they were the sole administrators of temples. History shows that most of the feudal lords of Malabar were Nambudiris.

Meanwhile the judicial system was also manipulated. A new penal code based on caste was introduced, in which degrees of punishment varied according to the caste, for the same crime. According to this, the avarnas got the worst. With this, the enforcement of caste system was legalized.

With the introduction of caste system, the idea of social superiority and inferiority entered the minds of the people. In order to perpetuate social superiority and inferiority, new customs and practices like untouchability and unapproachability appeared and the society began to disintegrate fast. Social harmony and dignity of labour disappeared. Rights, privileges, duties and punishments came to be defined in terms of caste. Even the Avarnas were affected by the ideas of social hierarchy, as they were branded inferior and untouchable by the Savarnas. Naturally, the Avarnas also looked for a hierarchy among themselves, in their social scale. The rich found the poor inferior, the learned found the unlearned inferior, and the civilized found the tribals inferior. In short, castes and sub-castes, and social hierarchy appeared among the native Avarnas who never had any system of such social ranking. Out of these ranks the Ezhava, Pulayan, and Paraiah emerged as the major castes. They had no working models. So, they imitated the Savarnas and followed the rules of untouchability and unapproachablity among themselves. Each caste found some other caste to be considered inferior. A thousand years passed, and the once balanced and integrated society of Kerala degenerated into a ‘lunatic asylum’ as called by Swami Vivekananda.

Ezhavas ranked first among the ‘Avarnas’ or Non- caste Hindus, and about 30% of the population. This once valiant fighter community had become meek and passive accepting the mandates of caste system. They paid respectful homage to their social superiors, and expected the same from their social inferiors. They insulted and illtreated their inferiors, with as much venom as they received from their superiors. They had no idea that untouchability was evil. It was an accepted social norm. Their ancestors had refused to come into the fold of the Varna system . But the descendants had been caught by the pincers of the system, and they lived accepting their miserable situation as destiny. The fatal lethargy of slavery had entered their souls.

They were not eligible for Government jobs, only Savarnas were given Government jobs. 

Some of them were rich, many had lands, and those who had to labour for sustenance , took up weaving and toddy- tapping which, in course of time , became their traditional professions.
They were not allowed inside the ‘Savarna” temples. So they followed their old custom of worshipping Mother Goddess. They propitiated their Goddess with animal sacrifices.
They were not admitted to Government schools. It was again the privilege of Savarnas. So they had their own small schools, where Ezhava men taught Ezhava children, simple skills of reading and writing, and fundamentals of Arithmetics. A blessing for them were the Christian Institutions. They readily admitted Avarna children. But this could be enjoyed by only those who lived within the vicinity of such schools. Some families, who could afford private tuitions engaged Sanskrit Teachers of Nair Community. The Nairs moved close to Brahmins, so they were privileged to learn Sanskrit. In fact, it was one of the privileges bestowed on them to elevate them to the status of Savarna. Some of these Nair men who were broadminded enough, or for monetary gains, were prepared to teach Ezhava boys. Some Ezhava families acquired proficiency in Ayurveda (it was a legacy from Buddhism) and became traditional physicians or ‘Vaidyar’ and they taught the younger generation, the science of Ayurveda. 

The Evolution of Guru Narayana

Sree Narayana Guru was born in the year 1855 in a small village near Thiruvananthapuram, in the community of Ezhava (Thiyya or Chovan), the major and highest placed community among the Avarnas. With the help of generous patrons his family could educate him. He became an expert in Ayurvedam, a scholar of Sanskrit, Philosophy and Hindu scriptures. He wanted to be a teacher, but his family would not permit him to teach Paraiahs, Pulayas and Kuravas who were supposed to be of lower caste than Ezhava. As an educated young man, he tried to protest against this discrimination, but his family would not listen. To register his protest, he left his home in search of Truth. The seeds of revolution were sown in his mind.

His mind was in confusion – the confusion that prevails in the mind of every seeker of Truth. He learnt yogic practice which made his inner powers explicit. He lived with the poor and ate the food given by the untouchables. He discussed religion with Christians and Muslims. He saw that the essential goodness of the human soul was stifled under the weight of unhealthy traditions and blinded by ignorance and superstitions. There are many retrogressive forces from which humanity is to be liberated. To find a solution he withdrew into a forest for meditation.

His meditations on the Advaitha Philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya revealed to him a great Truth that since the same of divine spirit glows in all human beings, all humanity is one. Acceptance of the non-duality of the Individual Self and Divine Self (Jeevatma and Paramatma) led to the assertion that there is absolutely no difference between one man and another. If the same Universal Spirit glows in all human beings , how can there be difference between one man and another? Any difference like colour of the skin, dress, languages or even religion is superficial. They acknowledge the basic human equality. But the caste system, with its enforced social ranking and its direct off-shoot untouchability does not acknowledge this. Hence, the caste system is against the spirit of Advaitha. It is absolutely baseless, artificial and arbitrary division of the people and offend human dignity. This must be broken down. People should not think, say or ask about caste.

On further meditation he arrived at the logical conclusion that there is only one caste- Humanity, one religion- Humanism and one God – the Universal Spirit. He was firmly convinced of this principle. He evolved a Gospel of unity based on this.

One Caste, One Religion and One God for man

The Principle became the dynamic centre from which he must act.

It is not an easy task to make the poor ignorant people realize the presence of the Universal Spirit within them. For that, they have to be brought together and educated, but there are so many forces to overcome. Not only the external forces, which imposed segmentation from outside, but also the complacency of these segmented people to remain within their self created prisons. The people must get the strength to come out of their prisons, and then the courage to accept and declare that these sectarian principles are against universal spirit of humanity.

He also understood that the social degradation of the Avarnas started when they were barred from entry into the temples and with the denial of education. So, he decided to restore the lost dignity and self-respect of the Avarnas by means of the very same temples and education.

The Aryan temples were citadels of caste superiority and domination. The caste hierarchy was strictly kept up by prescribing approachable distances from the sanctum sanctorum, for each caste. The Avarnas were not allowed even to come near the compound wall. But, offerings from them in the form of cash or kind were always accepted. The poor souls waited patiently 30-50 feet away from the temple premises with the hope that a glimpse of that prosperous deity would improve their lives. In their piety and patience, the Guru saw the hidden desire for emancipation and progress but subdued and stifled by tradition. Narayana Guru realized that, this dormant spirit, if awakened, will become the propelling force for their upward social mobility. They should derive the courage to shed the shackles of tradition from within themselves. The shameless exploitation to which they were subjected to and the supercilious disdain of their caste superiors were to be met with in a telling manner. The answer lay in the founding of new temples which are open to all equally.
Narayana Guru made a calculated move in this direction. He consecrated a Shiva temple at Aruvippuram, about 40 Kms. south of Trivandrum, in the early morning hours of Shivarathri of 1888. It was an open challenge to the Brahmin priesthood. In a caste-ruled society, an Avarna Hindu, an untouchable had performed the installation of a deity defying all codes and norms. The Brahmin priesthood could not take it. Their authority had so far been unchallenged. So, a great Brahmin scholar came to question the right of an Avarna and Ezhava, to install a deity. The answer given by the Guru has become famous. “This is not a Brahmin Shiva, This is an Ezhava Shiva”. The revolutionary spirit that prompted this reply needs no explanation.

The explosive potentials of the installation at Aruvippuram was not known to the hundreds of devotees who watched the scene. Ezhavas and other Avarnas in those days were allowed to worship only a set of inferior deities who had to be propitiated through drunken orgies and animal sacrifices. The Aryan deities of Shiva, Gouri, Vishnu, Lakshmi etc., were inaccessible to them. Even gods were divided in the land where Advaitha was breached. The installation of Shiva at Aruvippurm was the demolition of this dividing wall between man and God and the assertion of man’s fundamental right to worship any deity he likes. To the downtrodden people, it was the first lesson in human freedom and equality and the first step towards their liberation from spiritual serfdom. It was the launching of a bloodless revolution for progress and prosperity, through the introduction of a higher level of spirituality. 

The Guru’s Philosophy of the equality of human beings is captured in his motto displayed at the entrance to Aruvippuram Temple. It is a message of Universal brotherhood.
“This is a model abode, where all live in brotherhood
Without caste distinctions and religious rivalries”

The temple at Aruvippuram grew in stature. More and more people came to worship. Guru talked to them patiently. They had much to tell him about social injustice and unrest. He had other plans of action: organizing and unifying people. He persuaded the people to form an association for the management of the temple, as a first step towards unification of the people.

A “Gurukulam” and a Sanskrit school also were started at Aruvippuram to give religious training to young men of the lower strata of society through lessons in scriptures.

Sree Narayana Guru continued to construct and consecrate as many as 60 temples, throughout Kerala and in the neighboring states of Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Sri Lanka also. They promptly display his messages. 

“One Caste, One Religion and one God for Man”
“Ask not, say not, think not caste”
“Whatever may be the religion, let man improve himself”.

The most important of these are Jagannath Temple at Tellichery, Sreekanteswaran at Calicut, Sundareswaran at Cannannore and Gokarneswaran at Mangalore. The most significant and meaningful installation of Sharada, Goddess of Education, at Sivagiri was during April, 1912. This is called Sharada Mattom. It is a brick construction, neat and beautiful, octagonal in shape, fitted with windows with multi-coloured glass panes. There is an idol of Sharada in her lotus abode. The customary religious rituals are not performed there. Instead, facilities are provided for devotees to sing hymns and meditate.

In all these temples, idols of deities were consecrated. Some scholars of the time, who were influenced by Brahmosamaj, (They are against idol worship) even suspected that Guru was in favour of idolatry. At the installation of Lord Shiva at Trichur, Some newspaper reporters asked him, why he was installing stones for people to worship. In reply the Guru said, “When a man goes to a temple he is thinking only of God and not of stone images. They are confused only when people like you ask them to look for stone images. Nobody worships stone”. 

“Illumination in the hearts of the devotees” - that was the Guru’s concept about the purpose of temples. He always took care to give expression to this idea in words as well as in deeds. So he installed “Jyothi” – a lamp – instead of the conventional idol, at Karamukku near Trichur and Murukumpuzha near Trivandrum, a plaque with words to mean Truth, Duty, compassion, Love (Satyam, Dharma, Daya and Prema) inscribed on it was installed.

The next and last installation was a mirror at Kalavankodam near Sherthalai. When the Guru was invited for the consecration ceremony, the intention was not to install a mirror. The organizers had actually got a conventional idol ready for installation. When the Guru arrived at the place a controversy was raging between two sections of devotees – those claiming to be progressive denouncing idol installation as a retrograde step and another group demanding installation of the conventional idol. The Guru listened to the arguments of both sides, but made no comment, With his natural smile he asked for a good mirror. When it was brought, he inscribed on it the sign “Om”. Before anyone could think of debating, it was installed in the place of the deity. This ‘Pranava Prathishta’ is the last installation by the Guru. These three stages of installations – the idol, the lamp and the mirror with ‘Om’ – 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 Guru had certain definite conceptions about temples. The orthodox temples had become breeding grounds of meaningless customs and rituals. He considered temples as centres of purity and development. A temple can be a good stepping stone for a more serious search into the higher values of life. So he wanted the temples to be clean and beautiful places where people should come with clean bodies and minds. Those who visit them must talk about good things and think of God. Some would observe fasts there to purify the mind and body. Is it not a real gain?.

Moorkoth Kumaran Says “The temples as envisaged by Swami should enrich the people culturally and financially, through their attached groves, libraries lecture halls, educational institutions and industrial centres. Let the temple remain a centre of such activities. Let it be a means of social uplift both to those who have faith in idol worship and to those who do not have, each according to his own conviction.” All the educational programmes of the Guru were launched through temples and lectures at temples. Dr. Palpu saw these temples as great instruments for the spiritual, social and economic uplift of a backward community, as institutions which fostered friendliness, comradeship, and as trusts for the common weal.

Sree Narayana Temples are different from other temples. Any ritual that will make the premises dirty is prohibited. The rituals prescribed by the Guru are simple enough for the common man to follow. Animal sacrifices are strictly forbidden. The Archakas ( Priests) in these temples are those who are trained at the “Brahma Vidyalayam” of Sivagiri. Birth as a Brahmin is not necessary to be an Archaka. These temples are open to all irrespective of their caste and religions. Swami did not approve of temple tanks because it was very difficult to keep them clan. Instead, he preferred a number of bath-rooms with running water facility. That is what Sivagiri has !.

In retrospect, one is dumbfounded in realizing, what a gigantic and well thought out plan was executed by the Guru in destroying the stranglehold of the priesthood on the society and in restoring the self - respect, dignity and stature of the Avarnas, the so called untouchables, by making use of temples. When the Guru came on the scene, he saw huge masses of people living under utter humiliation, dejection and self-pity. For centuries and generations they were denied entry into temples, education and employment in Government Service and worst of all they were labeled ‘outcastes’ or ‘untouchables’ . As the 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. Stronger the God, better off you are in life. So the Avarnas who were forced to live humiliating conditions, attributed their pitiable state to their being denied entry into temples and worship of the gods in the temples. This attribution of their misery to the supernatural powers, destroyed their will to fight back for their rightful place in the Society.

The Guru, with his deep insight into human nature, understood the situation perfectly, if the temples were the main culprit in subjecting these people to such oppression and misery, he must use the very same temples to resurrect the people from these, the Guru thought. If the people were not allowed to go near the temple , then, the temples should come to the people!. Who else is best suited to achieve this impossible ask than himself ?. He had armed himself with scriptural and spiritual authority before embarking on this unheard of task. He was sure to withstand any onslaught from the priesthood. Then, after years of meditation and interaction with people, he decided to consecrate his first temple at Aruvippuram. Then followed many temples. The people were enthralled. Now, they have the very same gods – Shiva, Subrahmanya, Sharada etc. to worship, that too to worship in the temple itself !.

But the Guru’s main thrust was on education. Temples were only a tool in his hands to bring his people out of their dejection and self pity. This is evident from his declaration that money need not be spent any more in construction of large temples. Instead, large halls should be constructed attached to temples, for people to gather, to discuss and educate themselves. That the temples consecrated by the Guru in the later stages do not have conventional idols of any god is a pointer to his thinking . he is one of those rare persons who said that a temple building can be used for running a school.

At one stage he felt that the religious sensibility he had awakened was enough and more attention had to be paid to education, economy and eradication of social evils.

He has understood that ignorance and poverty are the root cause for all social evils and backwardness. Mere worship in temples is not enough to dispel these. Education, which was denied to them for so many generations, is the supreme remedy and the only means by which the so-called weaker section can be strengthened and liberated from backwardness.

Education must be a tool to liberate them from superstitious traditions, a means for economic independence and a weapon to fight social injustice. Education should enable the people to integrate the opposing values of spiritual and temporal, traditional and contemporary.

Education has two dimensions, education for character and education for career. Education for character should ensure the mind with values and virtues, sense of beauty and truth. Education for career should enable them to earn sufficiently for a comfortable living. These two dimensions are not separate entities, but integral and interlinked components of knowledge. According to the Guru “Knowledge is God” .

He was aware that the men in and around Aryan temples were storehouses of such knowledge. And it was this knowledge which gave them the power to claim intellectual superiority . His people must understand that “Knowledge is Power”.

He has already laid the foundation of education for character through the moral, religious and spiritual sensibilities he had awakened. It was the first step in their progress, liberation from spiritual serfdom. Equally important is economic freedom and the means for that is education for career. He felt the need for more organized effort to start and carry on massive educational programmes and improve the life styles of his people. 

Though he had started Sanskrit schools, he encouraged the learning of English, as it was the passage to technology and industries. He gave the people a formula for development. 

Freedom though education
Strength through organization
Economic independence through industries

On the social front, enthusiastic young Ezhavas like Dr. Palpu were trying for the upliftment and recognition of the community. Following the advice of Swami Vivekananda, he sought the spiritual leadership of Guru Narayana. The result is that the temple association of Aruvippuram was converted into “Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam” (SNDP), in 1903 with Sree Narayana Guru as its life time President, Dr. Palpu as Vice President and Kumaran Asan as Secretary. A Periodical “Vivekodayam” was also started to express the voice of SNDP.

Thereafter SNDP took up the formal and non-formal education of the people and the struggle for social justice. On the advice of the Guru, SNDP conducted regular “Lecture Tours” and enlightened the people on matters of religion, morals, health, industries and the need for education. Formal educational institutions, libraries and vocational training centres were started, attached to temples, and independently. The effect of massive educational programmes was tremendous, leading to the miraculous progress of the people . Gradually, illiteracy was eradicated among his followers. 

The formation of SNDP was a milestone in the progress of Ezhavas. It became a great social force. The whole community of Ezhavas were united under its banner. Units of SNDP sprang up in every nook and corner of Kerala. Eminent scholars and political and social activists like Dr. Palpu, T.K. Madhavan, Sahodaran Ayyappan, C. Krishnan, M. Govindan, etc. had lined up behind the Guru to lead SNDP. The spiritual guidance of The Guru was always there.


Sree Narayana Guru was a teacher in the true sense of the word “Guru”. People came to him seeking his advice on personal, communal and religious matters, as he had become a very important and powerful figure in the social atmosphere of Kerala. He never held discourses, but took part in informal discussions like Socrates, and gave clear solutions to problems. Sometimes he used gentle satire to drive home his points. 

He had realized that the spiritual and temporal are equally important for a good and comfortable life. So he taught his people never to ignore one for the other, but strike a balance and live comfortably.

As the religious preceptor of a large mass of people, it was his “Swadharma” (duty) to reform religion to suit the idiom and climate of the time. He took upon himself the task of religious reformation, by getting rid of obsolete and illogical rituals and made it a guiding force acceptable to the people. He demystified religion by replacing the Sanskrit mantras in rituals, with simple Malayalam verses so that the common people understood the meaning. He composed simple hymns and prayers for them. He never asked the common man to learn the nuances of philosophy.

As a teacher of wisdom, and as a crusader against casteism, he had a great task before him. He had to enlarge the scope of vision of his followers, beyond their own personal self and immediate circle into a wider horizon. His people must be made willing to accept the equality of the fellow human being.


By this time, the Guru’s words have become law for his people. Through ‘Vivekondayam” a periodical by SNDP, he struck at a number of social customs and ceremonies where money was wasted in feasting and festivities. He restricted the number of people to be present at a wedding to be ten. In case of death, he advised fasting and mourning for ten days for the kith and kin of the deceased and to pray for the soul of the dead rather than listening to the chanting unintelligible words by an ignorant priest. Feasting on account of death was strictly forbidden. He told the people to use the money to educate a poor man rather than wasting on feasts. Sree Narayana Temples to not, celebrate festivals spending money. Again and again Guru stressed the need for economy and economic independence. 

Guru had advocated total abstinence from liquor even before Gandhiji included it in his programmes. He gave the message ‘Liquor is poison, do not make it, do not give it, do not drink it’. The Ezhavas willingly gave up their traditional profession of toddy – tapping and resorted to weaving, which was made a respectable profession by Gandhiji.

Guru and Religion 
He had discussions with the theologians of other religions and discovered that no religion is superior or inferior to another. Human mind went on trying to find answers to the mysteries of life, death and universe. Answers to these spiritual problems evolved by great thinkers and intellectuals are found in the principles and philosophy of each religion. This great inheritance belongs to the whole of humanity and no one has any exclusive rights on it. Exclusivism would be against the spirit of the ancestors, who acquired them for posterity. Just like the principles of science, considered the common inheritance of humanity and shared by all, books on spiritual matters also should be utilized by all for the common good of humanity. Each individual can select his own favourite authors.

All religions in essence, help man to evolve into a perfect human being and lead him to salvation. And all religions have some apparent absurdities in their mythology . The stories of mythology were originally the search for meaning in spiritual matters or parables and fables for codes of conduct. They are magnified thousands of times, through the lens of poetic imagination, so that they look absurd to the modern mind. It is meaningless to take these as tenets of religion and start arguing and ridiculing. Rituals and stories alone are not religion. As all religions are equally good , arguments about religions are meaningless. No one can defeat another. They will only increase rivalry and destroy the unity of the people. Understanding this fact clearly, the Guru formulated his message to humanity at large.

“What ever may be the religion, let man improve himself”. 
He included comparative study of religions as a compulsory subject in his institutions of religions training.

He was the first person in India to organize an All Religions’ Meet. This was held in his Advaithashram ( February, 1924) at Alwaye, close to the birth place of Adi Shankaracharya. At the entrance to the meeting hall was written.

“We meet here not to argue and win, but to know and be known”

According to him, true religion should include the peace of Buddha, the compassion of Christ and the brotherhood of Mohammad.


His entire life was a crusade against caste. His endeavour was to get the very idea of caste banished from the minds of his followers. His words to his people, “Ask not, say not, think not caste” is not a mere protest against caste discriminations or a command to ignore caste, but an absolute denial of it. He encouraged intercaste marriages and interdining.


His philosophical teachings are expressed beautifully through his poems in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit. He wrote simple hymns for the people to sing at home during prayer. His Atmopadesha Shathakam and Advaita Deepika explain philosophical principles in simple Malayalam. Darshanamala is a philosophical treatise in Sanskrit. Jathi Meemamsa (Critique of Caste) and Jathi Lakshnam (Characteristics of Caste) are denials of the validity of the caste system. 


Other sages declared to which religion they belonged while the Guru never declared his religion. Though he lived like a Hindu he was content to call himself a man. He had assimilated the spirit of all religions. “On one side he was a contemplative Buddha, on another side a delightfully laughing Krishna, an absolutely realistic Confucius, everloving Christ, and an uncompromising Prophet who solidly stood for justice”.

Three crusaders against untouchability are Sree Narayana Guru, Gandhiji and Ambedkar – Gandhiji tried to abolish untouchability remaining within the Varna System Where as the Guru condemned Varna System itself as against the spirit of Advaitha. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism as he found the tenets of the caste system offensive to human dignity. But the Guru had imbibed the essential spirituality of Hinduism and exposed the absurdity of the caste system through his practices.

The dialogue between Mahatma Gandhi and Sree Narayana Guru has become famous. Gandhiji was bitter about Hindus converting themselves to other religions. The Guru disagreed. He held that a man should have the freedom to accept the religion he believes in. Then both the religions are benefited as one gets rid of a non-believer, and other gains a believer. But, Gandhiji complained that the lower caste Hindus are converting themselves to Christianity in order to get social privileges, and not on account of belief. The Guru replied, “In that case, the best way to stop them would be, to give them privileges” Gandhiji’s answer was through his actions. He took up Harijan upliftment programme after he met Narayana Guru. Gandhiji’s Periodical “Navjeean” was changed to “Harijan”.

The pious among the Guru’s followers felt the need to go on an annual pilgrimage to a holy place. But the holy places of caste – Hindus were not open to them as most of them were untouchables. For them the holiest of holy places is Sivagiri, their Guru’s abode. The Guru himself fixed the dates for this pilgrimage as Dec.30th, 31st & 1st Jan of the following year. 

Devotes come here, clad in yellow, singing hymns of the Guru, to spend three days. But rituals of worship is not a major item here. The Guru with his practical sense had suggested that these three days must be used for enriching their knowledge. Lectures on health & hygiene, religion and ethics, science and technology, agriculture, trade, industries, and handicrafts are arranged. People listen, learn and implement the ideas in their lives, leading to progress and prosperity. Thus, Sivagiri pilgrimage is a pilgrimage to knowledge.

Through he has performed a great miracle in transforming the lives of millions of people, he lived a life of simplicy, purity and renunciation. He breathed his last on 20th September 1928 at the Vaidika Mattom, his abode in Sivagiri.

He is a rare saint, who could combine successful and constructive organizing activities with idealism. He stands out as a shining example of cultural culmination and spiritual fulfillment, a true ‘Jeevan Mukta karma Yoga’ who identified himself with the problems, of common man. People worship him as God. His messages to humanity have perennial values, as they have become the source of inspiration for generations.

His legacy to humanity is a spirituality beyond the narrow confines of ritualistic religion, respect for human dignity irrespective of caste, creed and race, and courage to shed the shackles of tradition if it stands in the way of human freedom and progress. The philosophy he preached has shaken the foundations of the old ideas of society and religion, and is capable of heralding a new social order of global proportions.


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 Sri Narayana Guru of Malayalam, nay a person who is on par with him in spiritual attainment.
I am sure, I shall never forget that radiant face illuminated by the self effulgent light of divine glory and those yogic eyes fixing their gaze on a far remote point in the distant horizon.


I feel it as a great privilege in my life to have visited the beautiful state of Travancore, and to have a darshan of the venerable sage Sree Narayana Guru. I had the fortune to stay for one day in his ashram……. Her Highness the Reagent Maharani also spoke to me about the greatness of Guru Swamy. I fervently hope that you would enforce his lofty ideals.
(Statement after visiting Sivagiri on 13.03.1925)

“Shri Narayana Guru is considered one of the five or ten Avatars that have appeared in India during the last hundred years. I had an opportunity of meting him in the year 1925 when I hade been to Kerala for Vaikom Satyagraha. In those days he was residing at Varkala. There I had talked to him for an hour or two. My humble respects to the memory of this great sage.”


“I am happy and privileged to come here and pay my tribute to a great man whose message is as vital and essential today as it was when he gave it” (From the Visitor’s Diary in Sivagiri Mutt).

Shri. JAGJIVAN RAM (32-12-1958)

I deem it a great privilege to be present here on this occasion to pay my humble tribute to the great soul who preached the gospel of universal religion. At no time his tenets were so essential as at present, when the world stands at the proximity of annihilation of the human civilization. Let us rededicate ourselves to the ideal that the Guru placed before us.

(Founder, Chinmaya Mission)

Can India rediscover her heart? Can Religion and Philosophy of the Upanishads help us in meeting the challenges of our Nation? Can they rediscover our moral balance? All these burning questions are an swerved in living life by the Sivagiri Ashram.

My humble and devoted prostrations to Sri Narayana Gurudev may his blessings be upon all of us. 


The whole of Kerala and its history has been revolutionized by the great saint Shri Narayana Guru, not only by his qualities of head and heart but on account of his teachings to the people when he declared that all men are equal, that there is only one living God and that there should be no difference of caste, creed or colour, race or religion. He is great because he never differentiated between precept and practice. That is why he was revered and he will revered as long as the world exists. His teaching have proved to us that all human beings are one in the sight of God and also in the sight of man. (From a speech at Sivagiri Mutt on 31-12-1962)


Universality of outlook constitutes the striking feature of the great life and thought of Sri Narayana Guru. Serene, kind and humorous, Shri Narayana Guru possessed a keen intelligence of Vedanta. His entire life’s work formed one splendid story that illustrated powerfully the applicability of the principles of Vedanta to daily life. May Kerala, India and all the world draw from his life yet grater inspiration and seek to propagate on a wider scale his brilliant teachings, his lofty principles and his gospel of unity.(From a message sent to the 107th Sree Narayana Birth Anniversary Souvenir)

M. Roman Rolland

“Glasenapp does not say anything regarding the new religious manifestations in South India which are nor negligible: such, for example is the great Guru Sri Narayana , whose beneficent spiritual activity has been exercising its influence during the past 40 years in the State of Travancore on nearly two millions of his followers. (he passed away in 1928). His teaching, permeated with the philosophy of Sankara, shows evidence of a striking difference of temperament compared with the mysticism of Bengal, of which effusion of love (bhakti) inspire in him a certain mistrust. He was, one might say, a Jnani of action, a grand religious intellectual, who had a keen living sense of the people and of social necessities. He has contributed greatly to the elevation of the oppressed classes in South India and his work has been associated at certain times with that of Gandhi.”
(Quoted from the Preface to the “Word of the Guru” by Nataraja Guru)


People ask me, ‘was Narayana Guru a believer in God?’ My answer is, ‘Of course.’. But not on any caricature of God which the mentally ill people conceive as a crutch for them to walk on the uneven road of life’s uncertainty.

His God was not the God of religion or the temple or the Church.
He has given his definition of God in his universal Prayer-“thou art existence, knowledge, the norm of all measurement of values, the variety of the present, the temporal receding of the present into the last, and the up surging of possibilities manifesting from the future to refresh and recreate the present”. with an allusion to the words with which he articulated, he goes into an indescribable silence that was his God. That is my God too.

People ask me, was he a Sankarite?’ I answer, ‘Yes of course!’ In upholding the philosophical imperativeness of the one which implies in it All-what is commonly accepted as the non-dual philosophy, Advaita. All the same Sankara’s maya was a cliché to him. He redefined it so that Vedanta cannot be laughed at as a snobbish and puerile philosophy of an impractical somnambulist.

People ask me, Was Narayana Guru a ‘Bhakta’ like Sri Ramanuja?’ My answer is, ‘Hardly anyone excels Narayana Guru in his Bhakti.’ To avoid any misunderstanding one should know how he defined Bhakti. Continuous contemplation of one’s own Self is Bhakti. As one’s Self is not unidentified with the Self of one’s mother, father, Guru, husband, wife, child, neighbour, social laws, and all appreciations in every heart, the contemplation of self involves and envelopes everyone and everything. So naturally there was much in common between Narayana Guru and Ramanuja in upholding the shimmering of single values which is collectively7 recognized as both the beauty and justice of truth.

When people ask me, Was Narayana Guru a dualist?’ I point out his meticulous care not to use another’s toothbrush or bath towel. He knew that everything had its separate place and unique quality which was not to confused with its similarity of form and semblance of nature. So he respected the logic of Madhva. All the same, he knew that there is a philosophical unity which can comfortably give the individual items of plurality their due claim for separate existence.

People ask me. ’Was Narayana Guru a Gandhian? Then I remember that Guru had great reverence for the Gandhian ideology of respecting every member of the human species and being in absolute harmony with nature’s inimitable laws. But Narayana Guru was certainly not a nationalist. In his eyes India was only pat and parcel of this blue globe called earth and he did not want to look upon anyone as an alien or of another creed or religion. He never tolerated racial claims or the uncouth classification of man into caste by birth. Otherwise he was in fully sympathy with 
People ask me, ‘Was Narayana Guru a Communist/’ I readily give my answer, ‘Why not?’ But he was not a Marxist or Leninist. He recognized the common need of mankind and everybody’s right to share the bounty of the world as of their common heritage. He did not want to divide humanity into sheep and goats. He recognized only one class amidst mankind and that was having humanity as the mark of man. 

Some people are in doubt whether Narayana Guru was an idolater or an iconoclast. As icons are attempts by imaginative artists who were intriguingly clever to fashion out of metals, carve out of wood, or mould with clay and had the ability to chip off stones to put the softness and nimbleness of the meaning of a smile or the gait of a dance in the un wieldy material, he was there to appreciate the skill of the artist. Here he looked like an idolater. But “When he saw religious fanatics exaggerating the stupidity of someone’s superstition and using an image to torment the soul of the gullible and exploit eh weak, he was an iconoclast who could fearlessly tear down an altar and trample upon it to convince people that stone images cannot bite you.

Did Narayana Guru approve of riches? He was certainly not an admirer of poverty. He wanted everyone to learn the alchemy by which the charred mind of a self-condemning person could be transformed into jewel of rare value so that one could be proud of oneself. Thus out of dust he created millions of self-respecting humans. That is a processes still continuing.

Such is my Narayana Guru, whom I adore not as a relic of the past, but as promise of my own future. 

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