By Prabhath P
One religion, one caste, one god for humanity, was Sree Narayana guru’s rallying cry.
Swami Vivekananda was horrified by Kerala’s oppressive caste structure and he termed it a “lunatic asylum.” However, Kerala is now the topmost Indian state in social and human development. The source of this miraculous transformation was Sree Narayana Guru, the spiritual revolutionary, who brought the transcendental nondualist advaita vedanta down-to-earth and applied it practically for social and spiritual reform and upliftment of the underprivileged.
Liberator of the Downtrodden
“He was, one might say, a Jnanin of action, a grand religious intellectual, who had a keen living sense of the people and of social necessities. He has contributed greatly to the elevation of the oppressed classes in South India..,” said the French writer, Romain Rolland about the guru. When Narayana Guru incarnated, Kerala, then encompassing the regions of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, was reeling under unbelievable caste oppression.
Kerala’s caste structure was not exactly like the fourfold varna system. Only Brahmins, Nairs and temple attendant castes were privileged. Other backward castes like Ezhava/Thiyya and Dalit castes were branded avarnas (outcastes), lower than even the lowest varna, Sudra.
Heinous practices like unsociability, unsuitability and unshadowability prevailed. An avarna caste person’s shadow itself was supposed to pollute the upper castes. Some lowest castes were considered so inauspicious that even their very sighting would defile upper caste purity. Backward and lower caste women were forced to go bare-breasted. Temples, education and government jobs were off-limits to the under castes. Violation of the caste taboos meant death penalty for the oppressed castes.
Dr. K.I. Vasu, writes in his essay, The Apostle of Social Equality, “The guru belongs to this last grass-root level class of reformers, and he alone in India belonged to this down-to-earth category. It is only his work that has so far given immediate and permanent effects without denouncing or denigrating anybody in the process; so much so, that communal harmony and national integration are always maintained in the process of bringing about social equality.”
A Life Extarordinary
Narayana Guru was born as Nanu in 1854 in the backward Ezhava caste, at Chempazanthi, near Thiruvanantha-puram, Kerala’s capital. His parents were Madan Asan and Kuttiamma. Nanu learnt Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam from his father. Nanu was further educated by a scholar, Kummampilli Raman Pillai Asan. An arranged marriage was done by proxy for Nanu without his consent. Though Nanu never showed displeasure, he had no physical relation with her and she lived with her parents till her death.
Nanu left his family and wandered on a spiritual search. Writes Dr. S. Omana, the guru’s biographer, “He had a very high critical acumen and did not accept anything at its face value without experiencing and experimenting with instructions in his own life to prove their verity to himself.” Nanu and his spiritual collaborator, Chattampi Swami, studied yoga with the yogi Thycattu Ayyavu. Narayana Guru did not consider himself to be anyone’s disciple and said his guru was God and man.
The last phase of Nanu’s spiritual penance and awakening were in the Marutvamalai cave near Kanyakumari. His all-inclusive vision of unity on realizing the Transcendental Absolute did not cause withdrawal from the world. He returned to the world for uplifting the oppressed. Narayana Guru’s disciple, Nataraja Guru, writes in his book, The Word of the Guru, “The hunger of a simple villager who came to visit him became a matter of greater concern to him than theological disputation or the establishment of a new religion…”
Narayana Guru initiated his spiritual revolution by installing a Sivalinga in Aruvippuram on the Sivaratri of 1888, defying the 3,000-years-old rule that only Brahmins could consecrate idols. He made two untouchable boys sit on either side of him.
Near the Aruvippuram temple, the guru inscribed:
Devoid of dividing walls
of caste or race
or hatred of rival faith,
we all live here
Such, know this place to be!
This model foundation!
He established about 60 temples. The purpose of these temples was: “Illumination in the heart of devotees”. He declared, “Temples should not be built in an expensive manner…No money should be spent for elaborate festivals and its pomp… Adjacent to the temple should be schools and reading rooms. Small-scale industrial training schools should also be attached to temples. The offertory at the temple should be used for the welfare of the poor people.”
Narayana Guru introduced iconoclastic ideas. In the Kaaramukku temple, Trichur, in 1920, he consecrated a lamp. In 1922, at Murukkumpuzha, he consecrated an inscription ‘Truth, dharma, love, mercy’. The pinnacle of his temple reform was the mirror installation inscribed with OM, symbolic of Self-realisation, in the Kalavankode temple.
In 1903, with the guru’s blessings, Dr. Palpu and Kumaran Asan founded Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) for social reform. In 1907, Narayana Guru made Sivagiri, Varkala, his abode. The guru established Advaita Ashram in Alwaye in 1913. He founded a monastery and two temples in Sivagiri, including the temple of Sharada, goddess of wisdom. He founded a sannyasin order, Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham in 1926, which had monks from all castes. He attained mahasamadhi in Sivagiri in 1928 and his body lies in state in the Mahasamadhi Mandir on Mount Sivagiri.
A Universal Philosophy
“Universality of outlook constitutes the striking feature of the great life and thought of Sree Narayana Guru,” said Swami Sivananda. Narayana Guru integrated Dravidian siddhanta with Aryan vedanta. Bhakti, karma and jnana yoga streams merged in him.
His writings in Malayalam, Sanskrit and Tamil include many mystical/devotional, metaphysical, socio-ethical and aesthetic works. Atmopadesa Satakam (One Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction) and Advaita Deepika explain philosophical principles in Malayalam. Darsanamala is his Sanskrit philosophical treatise. Jati Meemamasa (The Critique of Caste) questions caste. He revered the Divine Feminine in hymns to the goddess like Devistavam, Kali Natakam, Janani Navaratna Manjari, Bhadrakali Ashtakam and Kundalini Pattu. Hymns to God include Daiva Dasakam, Siva Ashtakam and Subrahmanya Ashtakam. He translated the Tamil classic Thirukural into Malayalam.
Prof. M. K. Sanu, eminent writer and former head, Sree Narayana Study Centre, Kerala University, says, “Narayana Guru’s philosophy asserts that the essence of all religions is the same. He did not emphasize external rituals. He created a philosophical system and applied it in human life.”
According to Dr. T. Bhaskaran, syndicate member, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, and former Honorary Director,Sree Narayana Study Centre for Social Change, Kerala University, “The philosophy of Sree Narayana Guru recognizes that every man in pristine purity is essentially equal to God and there is no room for inequality. The distinction of caste is superimposed on man by tradition and there is no logical or moral justification for it…Adi Sankara did not consider the world to be absolutely an illusion. He held that the world was an illusion compared to the Supreme Truth (Brahman).
The world is transitory whereas the Supreme is eternal. This fact was not recognized by the advaita followers and they neglected worldly affairs. Sree Narayana Guru set this straight by categorically stating that material and spiritual aspects are not contradictory because both strive for the attainment of happiness… The ultimate is in fact identical with one’s own Self.”
Teitsworth, Portland Gurukula, US, of Narayana Gurukula, explains, “The essence of Narayana Guru’s philosophy is stated in his dictum: one caste, one religion and one God for man. On the surface we appear as different individuals, but the inner reality is that everything is created the same way from one common material. Social arrangements tend to serve a few manipulators at the expense of the majority, who are assigned a servile role. Awareness of the oneness of humanity effortlessly topples this arbitrary construct. Your heart recoils at the possibility of oppressing others, so you are very careful to give each person their due.” He adds that for human unity, “ the guru’s suggestion, in the light of the Gita, is to attune first to the Absolute and then you will see its light in the hearts of all.”
1924, Rabindranath Tagore visited Narayana Guru. They were both above narrow nationalism, and were open to all traditions, religions and races. Said Tagore, “I have frankly to admit that I have never come across one who is spiritually greater than Swami Sree Narayana Guru of Malayalam.”
Gandhi met Narayana Guru at Sivagiri in 1925. While Gandhiji tried to abolish untouchability from within the varna system, Narayana Guru condemned chaturvarnya as against the advaita spirit. The meeting with Narayana Guru triggered a crucial transformation in Gandhiji’s approach to caste conflict.
Guru organized the first-ever All Religions Conference in Asia and only the second in the world, in Alwaye in 1924 with the message: “We meet here to know and let know, not to argue and win.”
We are One
Narayana Guru transformed people through compassion and a disarming sense of humor. Writes Nataraja Guru, “Manifold were the ways in which he became intimately related to the people. He was thus loved and respected as a leader within a growing circle of devotees. To come into touch with him was to be influenced by him for life.”
Brahmins challenged his Sivalinga consecration at Aruvippuram, he silenced them with this statement, “I was not installing a Brahmin’s Siva, only our Siva.” Once when the guru was traveling by train, a passenger asked his caste. The guru replied that his caste was humanity.
Guru in The Word of the Guru, narrates anecdotes about Narayana Guru’s impact on people. A Christian labourer invited Narayana Guru to his hut. The guru blessed his son and gave a rupee to the boy and told him that he should return that rupee, when he became an adult, back into the public funds. The guru told the labourer that he shouldn’t consider himself as belonging to another religion, “We are all one and the same.”
In the Advaita Ashram, the guru asked a young man preparing for a meeting, whether meetings are of any use. When the young man said meetings were the best means to spread ideas, the guru replied, “But they do not appear to produce as much action as noise…But they may not be completely useless. It is good…to have some meetings now and then to raise public conscience…” Guru asked him to speak to the crowd, “It would be a good thing to tell them about the excessive greed of human beings…The animals have no exaggerated needs like man. Man trots about the earth as a veritable demon of destruction…He cuts down the trees and blasts and bleeds into paleness the green beauty of nature for the sake of the plantations and smoky towns and factories which his unbridled desires necessitate.”
The Futuristic Guru
Narayana Guru’s influence first unfolded through four foremost followers – social reformers T. K. Madhavan and K. Ayyappan, the great poet Kumaran Asan and Nataraja Guru who founded the international movement, Narayana Gurukula in 1923. Nataraja Guru introduced Narayana Guru to the world through the book, The Word of the Guru and English translations of Guru’s works.
Narayana Guru’s following now consists of several groups. SNDP Yogam is the largest. The Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham Trust runs the Sivagiri Mutt. The Sree Narayana Trust founded by R. Shankar, manages a vast network of colleges, schools and hospitals. Narayana Gurukula propagates the Guru’s philosophy through centres in India, Asia, Europe and America. After Nataraja Guru, Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati took charge and put Narayana Guru’s message in the context of Gaiamind, the living Earth. Narayana Gurukula’s current Guru is Muni Narayana Prasad. Gurukula also founded the East-West University. Sree Narayana Kendra, New Delhi, is another organisation spreading the word.
K.J.Yesudas, the famous playback singer, considers Narayana Guru, his role model. A powerful expression of Narayana Guru’s call for One World, is the world citizen, Garry Davis. The World Service Authority and the World Government for World Citizens, based in Washington, London, Paris and Basel, inspire a planetary consciousness.
Narayana Guru’s message is futuristic in a world facing ecological meltdown, consumerism, poverty, terrorism and religious and ethnic conflicts. Says P.V. Chandran, Managing Editor, Mathrubhumi newspaper, “Sree Narayana Guru’s ideals have great practical relevance now. He was against indulgence in materialistic luxuries and called for human oneness. His message must be spread to the whole world like the message of the Buddha.” As Nataraja Guru, Narayana Guru’s disciple, aptly writes, “As has always been the case with the teachers of the perennial wisdom, his deeper message with all its real values will persist, like a glowing subterranean fire, which will influence thought through time.”
Contact: www.sivagiri.org, www.sndp.org, www.narayanagurukula.org, www.scottteitsworth.tripod.com, www.sreenarayanakendra.org, www.worldservice.org
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• ‘One religion, one caste, one God for humanity.’
• ‘Acts that one performs for one’s own sake, should also aim the good of others.
• ‘Whichever the religion, it suffices if it makes a better man.’
• ‘Ask not, say not, think not caste.’
• ‘The Self and the world are not two.’
• ‘Liquor is poison; make it not; sell it not; drink it not.’
• ‘Giving and receiving dowry is equal to selling and buying one’s own sons and daughters.’