So who was Sree Narayana Guru? Here’s a short introduction to this personage, the preamble from a brief biography written by Rajeev Srinivasan. The Guru ought to be much better known than he is. His message, of the remarkable renaissance and reformation that is possible in Hinduism, is of great merit at this time.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, Swami Vivekananda went to Kerala. He was so outraged by the overt discrimination that he saw there that he declared the place a lunatic asylum. He was incensed by the extraordinarily cruel practices that were imposed on so called ‘lower caste’ people.
Obviously, temples were out of bounds to them. So were public wells. The ‘upper castes’ eating together with them was clearly out of the question. ‘Lower caste’ people were not allowed to cover the upper parts of their bodies: so women had to go bare-breasted, and were prohibited from wearing jewellery. They had to use extremely self-abasing language to refer to themselves, and at the same time had to use fulsome praise in referring to the ‘upper castes’: thus reinforcing with every word the gulf between themselves and their masters, and thereby their own unworthiness. Interestingly, the most intolerant were not the Nambudiri Brahmins, but ‘high’ Sudra castes just barely above the ‘lower castes’.
Relatively speaking, the Ezhavas/Thiyyas (an OBC caste in today’s parlance) were somewhat well-off: quite a few were vaidyas and Sanskrit-scholars, landowners and small-businessmen, but most were peasants, landless laborers, and toddy-tappers. They had memories of a martial tradition, especially as the samurai-like chekavar warriors of Malabar. They were severely discriminated against, but as ‘low’ Sudras they were much better off than the truly oppressed ‘untouchable’ castes of Pariahs, Pulayas, Nayadis etc.
There existed not only untouchability; there was unshadowability -- that is, a ‘lower caste’ person’s very shadow would pollute an ‘upper caste’ person, so there were well defined distances -- 5 feet, 30 feet -- beyond which members of even the ‘upper castes’ had to stand in relation to the top caste.
Unbelievably, there was even ‘unseeability.’ At least one caste of lowly hunters was considered so inauspicious that the very sight of them would cause people to be polluted. These unfortunates had to shout, “I am coming this way, please look away, my masters!” to avoid being seen.
Incidentally, the punishment for pollution -- even if inadvertent -- was generally the death of the lower caste person.
Yes, it is hard to believe that we had such inhumanity in our midst. What was all the more startling was that all these pollution laws only applied to Hindus. Any ‘lower caste’ person only had to convert to Christianity and Islam, and immediately they escaped the worst of the discrimination. There were many roads along which ‘lower caste’ Hindus were not allowed to pass, but Christians and Muslims could use them. It is therefore astonishing that there are any ‘lower caste’ Hindus left in Kerala. But there are, and they still form the majority of the Hindu population there as they do everywhere else. In fact, had it not been for the Guru, the Ezhavas would have converted en masse to Christianity, thus instantly making Kerala -- like Nagaland and so forth -- Christian-majority.
Today, a bare one hundred years later, it is truly unbelievable that this was what Kerala -- or to be more precise, the princely states of Travancore and Cochin -- were like at one time, within living memory. Today Kerala is a model of egalitarianism, perhaps the only place in India where overt casteism and discrimination are completely absent. A mass movement forced the Maharaja of Travancore to make an epoch-making ‘Temple Entry Proclamation’ on November 12, 1936, throwing open all temples to all Hindus.
What had changed was the mindset of the masses. They realised the evils of casteism. This metamorphosis required a true revolution. And this revolution was inspired and catalysed by a most unlikely revolutionary: a traditional Saivite vedantin, a practicing ascetic and monk who composed innumerable devotional songs in Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam. That great revolutionary was Sree Narayana Guru.
When one talks about the Guru, one is forced to use superlatives, and to compare him with a galaxy of notables. The greatest Hindu reformer to come out to southern India since the incomparable Adi Sankara. The greatest and most successful champion of the rights of oppressed Hindus in the twentieth century, more successful than the much better known Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Sree Narayana Guru overturned the entire social system of Kerala, but without creating severe animosities and reverse oppression as E V Ramaswamy Naicker did in Tamil Nadu. The Guru was a radical reformer whose clarion call of self reliance and self improvement strikes a chord in the oppressed anywhere in the world. The man’s ideals inspired the great Malayalam poet Kumaran Asan’s clarion call:
mattuvin chattangale! allenkil mattum
Reform, change the rules! Else those very
Rules will be your downfall!
As in the elegiac poem by Thomas Gray, the tremendous waste of human potential and ability was a crime against humanity; it was an intolerable sin against Mother India that a large segment of the population was not allowed to be the best they could be.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
There are also similarities with the struggles of blacks in the US, led by Dr Martin Luther King. Just before he was assassinated, Dr King led a civil rights-related strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, when the protesters carried a banner with just the simple but striking statement: ‘I am a man,’ a human being. The Guru brought to the oppressed of Kerala the same realisation: that they were human beings, worthy of respect and consideration.
The fact that today, in Kerala, there is an assertive egalitarianism, is primarily attributable to the spiritual and intellectual revival that the Guru brought to a moribund and decadent society. The fact that this happened in Kerala offers us considerable hope that similar, benign, revolutions can take place in other parts of India which are currently as benighted as Kerala was a hundred years ago: say, the badlands of the Indo-Gangetic plain.
And the fact that Sree Narayana Guru was able to do this entirely within the framework of Hinduism is truly remarkable. One of Hinduism’s greatest strengths has always been its capacity for renewal, renaissance, reform: and in this instance, the power of the personality of one great saint was enough to cleanse Kerala’s Hinduism of the accumulated dross of centuries.
This has its own great lesson for India: the ancient civilization of our nation, perhaps the only one that has survived more or less intact the attacks of determined outsiders. It is indeed sanatana, eternal. Whenever the civilisation is under great stress, individuals arise who, by the power of their personalities, are able to revitalise society and renew it.
It is remarkable that Hinduism, alone amongst the world’s currently numerically dominant religions, is susceptible to reform. It can be reformed, and indeed it may need to be reformed periodically. It is astonishing that in historical times, every 1,200 years or so, with amazing regularity, Hinduism has indeed reformed itself. Extrapolating from the past, it is now time for yet another Golden Age for the sanatana dharma, after it has been cleansed of a millennium’s excrescences.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord promises to return when ignorance and evil run riot:
Yada yadahi dharmasya glanirbhavati bharata
Abhyuthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srujam yaham
Paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya cha dushkrtam
Dharma samsthapanardhaya sambhavami yuge yuge
Arjuna, whenever righteousness suffers decline
And unrighteousness is rampant, then I manifest Myself personally.
For the protection of the virtuous, the destruction of evil-doers
And for re-establishing Dharma, I appear, from millennium to millennium.
When the sanatana dharma became decadent 2,500 years ago, the divine personalities of the Buddha and Mahavira appeared. Their Reformation attacked and corrected the practices that had accumulated in the dharma over time, returning it to its roots.
But Reformations too decay. Twelve hundred years later, when the dharma needed a Counter-Reformation, there appeared divinely inspired personages such as Adi Sankara, Manikkavachakar, Tirujnana Sambandhar, Avvaiyyar, Jayadeva, whose intellect and devotion helped Hinduism rejuvenate itself.
Similarly, yet another twelve hundred years later, a glittering galaxy of sages appeared: Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Mohandas Gandhi, Sree Narayana Guru. Surely, there is an element of the Divine reincarnating Himself in defense of the sanatana dharma.
It is clear to historians too, and not only the devout, that mahapurushas appear from time to time. Says Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History that individuals arise ‘who set going the process of growth in the societies to which they ‘belong’... They can work what to men seem miracles because they themselves are superhuman in a literal and no mere metaphorical sense.’
Sree Narayana Guru was such a man of the ages, a yugapurusha. His words and actions are universal, and an inspiration to the oppressed anywhere in the world, and his singular exhortation to them to gain self respect and to make themselves indubitably worthy of respect by others is a stroke of genius.
And the Guru’s ability to create this benign revolution entirely within the framework of the sanatana dharma, without creating a dangerous dichotomy, is perhaps unparalleled in the history of religious reformers. Indeed, one might even say that the Guru was a subversive: for he showed the teeming masses, what in today’s terms may be called the bahujan, that the dharma that they had been denied access to was in fact theirs. The priestly class had merely been entrusted with the faith in the name of the people.
With an inspired act, the consecration of a Siva image at Aruvippuram near Trivandrum, he showed the masses how easily they could re-appropriate the dharma: for it was always theirs, and theirs alone; it was not to be monopolised by anyone. For, the Creator of all of us surely belongs to all of us equally.
On Sivaratri night, in 1888, at midnight, the Guru picked up a sivalinga from the Neyyar River and consecrated it. This was the very first satyagraha, a peaceful, non-violent protest against an obviously unjust rule, to be echoed later when Mahatma Gandhi took that handful of salt from the sea at Dandi.
Here is an eyewitness account: ‘At midnight, Swami took a dip in the river. He rose after a moment with something in his hands, a cylindrical stone in the shape of a sivalinga, and he walked into the makeshift temple. He stood there with his eyes closed in deep meditation, his hands holding the sivalinga to his chest, tears flowing down his cheeks, oblivious to the world. For a full three hours, he stood motionless, while the crowd rent the midnight air with the chant “Om Nama Sivayah”, “Om Nama Sivayah”. They had only one impulse, one thought, one prayer, ‘Om Nama Sivayah!’’
When challenged as to his right to do the consecration, he replied, mildly but with immense import, ‘It was only an Ezhava Siva that I consecrated.’ The great irony of that simple statement -- how could the Great Lord himself be ‘owned’ by anyone? -- reverberated throughout the land.
Later, the Guru consecrated a mirror in one temple; and a lamp in another: his message was that the divine was in all of us, and that we need to honor and nurture that. When his followers complained that they were excluded from schools, he asked them to build their own. Because they were excluded from temples, he asked them to build their own. Self-help and self-improvement was his mantra.
For his divinely motivated acts of subversion, it would not be inappropriate to call the Guru the greatest changer of the status quo, the greatest revolutionary in matters spiritual in India in a millennium. What Mahatma Gandhi accomplished in the political sphere, Sree Narayana Guru accomplished in the spiritual sphere: they both made free men out of slaves.
This is the aspect of the Guru that is most often commented on. But it is also a fact that the Guru was a great religious scholar and writer, a commentator on the dharma on par with Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo.
The Guru’s most significant message was: ‘one caste, one religion, one God for man’ -- and what he meant was not the oppressive monotheism of Semitic religions, but the pantheistic monism of Adi Sankara’s Advaita. All of us belong to one caste: the human caste; one religion: the religion of humanism; and we should worship one God, the Creator of all of us, who, after all, is no different from His Creation. This echoes the Lord’s emphatic statement in the Gita:
chatur varnyam maya srshtam guna karmavibhagasa:
The four classes were created by Me according to aptitude and occupation
(Bhagavad Gita 4:13)
Clearly, the Lord himself clarifies that it is not janma, birth, that determines caste, but guna, aptitude/ability/interest and karma, occupation/activities/work. This is the Guru’s critique of casteism as well: we may all have different natural endowments, but that is based on individual nature, rather than the accident of birth and inheritance.
As a truly eclectic person, the Guru also believed that: ‘It doesn’t matter what your religion is, you as a human being must improve.’ He had the following inscribed on the entrance to the temple and ashram at Aruvippuram:
Jati bhedam mata dwesham
Etum illaathe sarvarum
Matrka sthanam aanithu
Free of the prejudice of caste
And religion, everyone here
Lives like brothers
In this exemplary abode.
This was his ideal of the ‘city on the hill’, his Ram Rajya.
In essence the Guru’s exhortation was very simple:
vidya kondu prabuddhar avuka
sanghatana kondu shaktar avuka
prayatnam kondu sampannar avuka
Become enlightened, through education
Become strengthened, through organization
Become prosperous, through hard work
The Guru’s message resonated with other great souls who were part of the spiritual and intellectual renaissance a hundred years ago. Here is what Rabindranath Tagore recorded after his visit to Sivagiri: ‘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 Sree Narayana Guru of Kerala -- nay, a person who is on par with him in spiritual attainments. I am sure I shall never forget that radiant face, illumined by the self-effulgent light of divine glory and those yogic eyes fixing their gaze on a remote point on a far-away horizon.’
Mahatma Gandhi was similarly impressed, even though the Guru may have been a little underwhelmed by the Mahatma’s ambivalent support for the Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924 (the famous struggle where ‘lower-castes’ were agitating for the right to use the grounds around the great Siva temple). Furthermore, upon meeting the Guru, the Mahatma asked, perhaps a little superciliously, ‘Does the Guru speak English?’ The Guru replied with characteristic understated wit, ‘No, but does the Mahatma speak Sanskrit?’ Which, of course the Mahatma did not.
The meeting must have had a major impact on Gandhi’s views on the issue of caste, for thereafter he redoubled his efforts to remove casteism. He was delighted to see ‘low caste’ children being trained to be priests at Sivagiri. He wrote in the guest book: ‘I consider it the greatest good fortune of my life to have visited the beautiful Travancore state and met the most venerable saint, Sree Narayana Guru Swami trippadangal.’
For unclear reasons, the Guru’s extraordinary achievements have not received their full due outside Kerala. One can only hope that over time, the life and times of this extraordinary humanist, reformer, and saint, become more accessible to the general public. For he was one of the greatest sons of India, in the lineage of the Buddha and Adi Sankara.
Note from Swarajya: In honour of Sree Narayana Guru, Swarajya had instituted the ‘Sree Narayana Guru’ award for social service in 2015. Last year the award was conferred upon the Robin Hood Army.