The vision of Sree Narayana Guru

That prophets are not honoured at home is an accepted fact. Hence it is rare indeed that Sree Narayana Guru is honored as a visionary and prophet to take his lead to bring about deliberate changes in the history of a group of people around him. At least two million people of a country treated him as God incarnate and as their deliverer. He remained as a contemplative catalyst, absorbed always in natural quietude, with sublime calmness and inner clarity. No wonder, poet Rabindra Nath Tagore after his visit to Guru at his ashram expressed himself as : “ I have been touring different parts of the world… I have the good fortune to come in to contact with several saints and Maharshis. But I frankly admit that I can never come across one who is spiritually greater than Swami Sree Narayana Guru of Malayalam…. I shall never forget his radiant face illuminated by the self-effulgent light of divine glory and his yogic eyes whose gaze fixed at a far more remote point in the distant horizon.”

Sree Narayana Guru, a saint and socio-religious reformer of the last century hails from the capital city of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. His life and teachings carry enormous significance not only to the people of Kerala but to the world-community as well. Born and brought up in the avarna  community of Ezhavas, Narayana-Nanu for short-invariably maintained righteous conduct and an infinite compassion for suffering people. He displayed several noble attributes even as a boy. One instance can be cited from his school days : one day when he was returning from the local school he saw his friends hurling stones at a mendicant sannyasin, amused by his curious appearance. Nanu tried his best to restrain them  from attacking the mendicant. Failed and in utter helplessness he cried aloud thus succeeded in refraining the others from their sinful deed.

Guru spent the whole of his life for the up-liftment and betterment of the outcastes and down-trodden people of Kerala. He was a’religious preceptor’, Guru of the Indian tradition, at the same time a ‘social revolutionary’ who never wanted to escape from the hard realities of life of the common man. His very life, writings and teachings all  meant for the common man, the suffering and poor folk with no barriers of cast or clime. His philosophy is derived mostly from his own experiences of solitary penance which culminated in a cave at Maruthuamalai in the Kannyakumari district of Tamilnadu. It was here that he attained liberation and became a jivanmukta. His systematic training in Sanskrit and Vedanta philosophy, his profound and accurate understanding of the Darshanas, his critical outlook, philosophical discussions and constant meditation, all helped him to develop a plan of action to stop the miseries of the lives of the laymen.

Guru was a man of few words, neither an eloquent orator nor a prolific writer. Yet he did some compositions mostly in Malayalam, a few in Sanskrit and one in Tamil, namely, Tevarappatinkankal – Five Hymns extolling God. A topic-wise analysis of these works reveals the fact that they reflect the various stages of the life of Guru. At the first stage he was a wandering sadhaka, a devotee in total seclusion. As such his earlier writings were mystical, devotional hyms; hyms of bhakti. In the second stage of a full –fledged tapaswin, he wrote short essays notable for their depth of thought.At the final stage of a yogin, he was a ‘Jnanin in action’ when the philosophical works like Atmospadesasatakam (One Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction) and Darsanamala (Garland of Vision)- the typical and authoritative works of his philosophy were born.

Guru had remarkable proficiency in Tamil. In addition to his original Tamil work, he has attempted translations of Tamil works too. The translation of the 32 kurals of the 1330 kurals or maxims of the immortal Tamil work of Thirukkural of the great Tamil Saint Thiruvalluvar is worth mentioning. Three of which are stated as:

1.    Bhagaval Swarup sthuti : In the praise of Lord’s real image-dealing with Almighty, the Supreme Truth and the Sea of Righteousness. He refers to God as endowed with gunas or siddhis including anima(minute-ness), grima (grossness) and mahima(greatness). Worshipping at his feet alone one can cross the samsara sagara and attain salvation

2.     Varsha Varnam (In praise of rain): Rain is described as the nectar for the world, pouring down as elixir for the survival of the world. There will be endless suffering and even religious rites will be held up if clouds refuse to pour down.

3.    Sannyasamahatmyam (the glory of Sannyasa) : About the greatness of sannyasis he says, he who subdues the five elephants, namely the five senses with the hook of knowledge becomes the seed that sprouts in the mokshabhumi (field of salvation). This world is vulnerable to the ignorant and lowly but great sages have the power to subjugate them and achieve anything they want.

The objective of Guru’s mission are many and varied :
1.    Moral reconstruction and spiritual elevation of the people :
One of Guru’s cardinal aims was that the spiritual level of the people of Kerala in general and Ezhavas in particular should be raised in gradual but steady progression. The caste system was so rabid and wildly practiced in Kerala that the lower community people were denied even the right to worship the God of their choice. Caste has a structured hierarchy for its durability with an equal hierarchy of Gods. The lower communities were allowed to worship only the most inferior of gods like ghouls, devils, succubs and mad ghosts, Kali and other blood thirsty goddesses. They were restrained from worshipping gods other than lower deities. Sacrifices of birds and animals (blood sacrifices), drunken revelry, witchcraft and black magic were resorted to in the temples. These restrictions actually affected the intellectual capacity and the quality of mind of mind of the common man. Progress demands self  confidence and self assertion. It was this crude and morbid state of the social mind of Kerala that Sree Narayana Guru started treating with the ‘magic of minimum dose’ of spirituality. The ailing mind is to be made healthy by cleansing it and simultaneously treating it. In this process Guru exhorted them to exclude the mischievous and malevolent forces of nature from the sphere of worship. He consecrated temples and shrines for eliminating the dreadful fears of the average man who was the victim of imposed ignorance and repressive denials. Gradually, step by step, he raised the average man to resume the path of discovering God and equality before God.

2.    Reforms in Temple and worship :
Guru is deeply moved by the pathetic life of the common man : the ill-fed and down-trodden man of the street. For those people who cannot rise to the level of mystic experience or contemplative wisdom, Guru promoted the worship of a personal God. For that he established temples where these neglected members of society can live out their cherished desire to worship a personal God. The temple installations of Guru can be understood under two phases : Under the first phase, his installations were confined to Idols and under the second phase, they were in the form of symbols. During the early days of his Sannyasi life a group of natives from Aruvippuram represented him that the backward classes of people were denied entry in the temple controlled by the upper classes. In those days temples of worship became the monopoly of the rich and influential savarnas or upper castes. The avarnas have to take refuge with crude gods like Madan and Maruta Guru reformed this practice through his installations or prathistas of over fifty temples at different places. Mention may be made of three of them:

  a.)    Aruvippuram Siva Prathista: On the Sivarathri day in 1888, on the eastern bank of river Neyyar at Aruvippuram, in the presence of devotees and at about 3’0 clock in the morning, Guru walked in to the flowing river water, went down in its depth and emerged with a stone, shaped like a Sivalinga,  and installed the Idol on a pedestal and performed the abhisheka / pooja by sprinkling water over it. This marked the beginning of Guru’s reform of worship and the concept of temple. It was a historic and momentous event that the orthodox sections of society raised a hue and cry about it; Guru’s reply was  remarkable : “I  have installed only the Ezhava Siva” In fact Guru blew the trumpet of change with his momentous utterance on the occasion : “ this is an ideal place where everyone lives in fraternity with no differences between castes and no hostilities between religions”. Though a religious renovation, it became a part of the social revolution of Kerala.

  b.) Murukkumpuzha prathista : The prathista (installation) at Murukkumpuzha is an inscription ‘aum’ with a plaque engraved on it with the words : “ Truth, Righteousness, love and Compassion’. A very revolutionary concept of worshipping these words carrying the message that God lives in mind. 

  c) The Mirror installation: The most significant of all installations of Guru was  in Kalavankodam near Cherthala in Kerala where in a temple instead of an Idol, a mirror was placed on the pedestal revealing the highest vedantic principle of identity of Atman and Brahman.

  d)    Guru’s attempts to intellectualise and spiritualise the social atmosphere found another milestone in the   Chidambaranatha (Siva) temple at Karamukhu Trichur. The people built a temple here by their own efforts and at the auspicious moment of installation ceremony, Guru asked for a lamp instead of an idol which he placed on the mounting, lighted and said “ let there be light”

3. Social reforms:
  a)    Guru took note of the many of the worn out practices and customs that afflicted the  people. His clearing of the serpent grove in Mavelikkara unique in this respect. Kavu (grove)  in Kerala is a thick piece of jungle (serpent grove) considered to be the abode of the fierce deity kali for whom blood sacrifices and drunken bouts were everyday affairs. For the simple folk some of these kavus were centers of nightmarish fears that if they interfered with them they would become victims of serpents or wrath of Kali. In his attempts to reform the society, Guru urged the people to put an end to the superstitious fears associated with the serpent groves and bring them under proper use.     

   b)    His attempts at the internal cleansing of the community is also well known.  The discarding of the custom of mock marriages in families, the termination of the practices of thirandukuli or announcement of puberty for girls and pulikkudi(the practice of the husband feeding the wife with tamarind pulp in the seventh month of the first pregnancy) were welcomed and accepted as progressive lines of development.  

Narayana Guru was a social revolutionary. He had a universal vision of humanity. He held that the different peoples of different countries, cultures, regions and origins are but units of a single world society. His message of ‘One Caste, One Religion, One God for man’ had an electrifying effect up on the Kerala society which had been dubbed as a ‘mad house of castes’ by Swami Vivekananda. On the other hand, the message on account of its simplicity and intelligibility, profoundly appealed to the masses who were longing for equality for centuries. The intellectual, the learned, their radical and the revolutionary in spite of their differences of opinion, recognized its intrinsic merit where the frivolous factionalism of the old order should be replaced by the spirit of unity and basic accord. The social equality between the oppressor and the oppressed; the tormentor and the tormented in a caste-ridden society lies only in the re-conditioning and re-casting of the mind beyond the reach of caste. This is the message Guru wanted to convey.
The epigrammatic expression ‘liquor is poison, drink not, give not and make not it’ though un-meaningful today was the lone voice raised so convincingly and confidently by Guru, after Buddha many centuries earlier, for the intellectual, moral and spiritual elevation of man. Liquor induces morbidity whereas sane action in society requires sane thinking. Guru held that the aberrant addict is as guilty as the maker of the liquor for the de-generation of the society.

In many of his dialogues Guru discusses the case of ‘One Religion’. According to him, there is nothing illogical about the idea of One Religion. Actually one religion can cover all the religions of the world which have a common aim although they are taught by different teachers with slight difference according to places and periods. All religions are for the salvation of mankind. His famous composition ‘Atmopadesasatakam’ contains a chapter on Mata mimamsa – Critique of religion. Verse No. 44 presents the idea of One Religion in the following manner : The normative essence of everybody’s conviction is the same. Those who do not know this secret become fanatical in establishing relativistic points of view and argue like the proverbial blind men who went to ‘see’ the elephant and couldn’t agree between them in the description of the animal. In essence all religions are one. No amount of fighting or mutual attack can abolish a religion or conquer a religion. Further more, the essential goal to which all religions aim at is one and the same thing – attainment of perpetual happiness or highest bliss. The verse reads like this : “all beings at all times, everywhere, are exerting themselves to obtain happiness. This quest for happiness is the ‘One Religion’ in the world of which no one has any dispute. Knowing this, one should restrain from being lured in to any sign of fighting one’s own fellow beings’.

It is interesting to note that Narayana Guru did not mention any particular religion by his idea of One Religion. Unlike Swami Vivekananda who extolled Vedanta as the salvation of mankind, Guru encouraged the study of all religions by saying that religions are only guides in man’s quest to seek the supreme. He says : “whatever be his religion, man must be good”. The question is not what a man’s religion is, but whether the religion in which a man believes is conducive to his betterment, whether it helps him to become a better man. Hence according to Guru, the choice of religion must be left to people themselves. They can believe in any religion depending up on their taste provided it would make them good men in the world. The function of religion is to turn the hearts of men upward and hence for the seeker of truth religions are finger posts pointing out the direction of spiritual growth and perfection

Guru realized that temples serve other purpose than simple God worshipping. Thy can be instrumental in changing the whole life-style of the people, educating, organizing, creating awareness in the minds of people of their enslavement and social oppression. His temple installations are symbolic and hence are great instruments for the spiritual, social and economic uplift of the masses.
Narayana Guru is a great philosopher of the advaita tradition. Just a mention of the concluding verse of his seminal work. ‘Atmopadesasatakam’ reveals this : “I am neither this, not that, nor is the content of what is perceived as being, know it to be pure existence, all-embracing consciousness and joy immortal. Be brave with such a vision, discard all attachment to being and not-being and gently merge in that Truth that fills all with enlightenment, peace and serene joy”. But Guru did not stop with this theory of oneness of Brahman, he combined with it the traditional ideals of love and service wherein lies his uniqueness. He translated his position into the service of man, effected a revolution of the advaita doctrine in terms of practical ethics. He was a thinker moved by the hard realities of life attempting to apply the theoretical advaita into the realm of life, explaining everything in terms of the non-difference principle. He continued to remind humanity that temples are necessary to spread the light in the minds of common man. They should not generate darkness in the mind of man. Spreading the rays of new light in the minds of man-that is the cardinal message of Sree Narayana Guru
(Dr. D. Nesy is the professor and head of the department of philosophy, University of Kerala)