Shree Narayana Guru

Religion

Shree Narayana Guru

Sree Narayana Guru

 (1856-1928)

"Education is the sine qua non of all progress .... Lack of money was the main obstacle that prevents them from rising to higher levels. Rich men .. _ should come forward to help these intelligent, studious, hard-working lads by granting them scholarships and other monetary aids ... the girls' education is to be encouraged. The masses .. _ should be provided with cottage industries and workplaces in the cooperative sector. "

 

"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 Maharishis (great saints). 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, illuminated by self-effulgent light of divine glory and those yogic eyes fixing their gaze on a remote point on the distant horizon." This was the impression, which Rabindranath Tagore gathered when he met Sree Narayana Guru in 1922. According to Romain Rolland, Sree Narayana Guru was a great religious intellectual, who had a living sense of the people and of social necessities. Sree Narayana Guru has contributed greatly to the elevation of the oppressed classes in south India and his work was associated at certain times with that of Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi always referred to the Guru as His Holiness Sree Narayana Guru and accepted the Guru's points of view in intensifying the upliftment of Harijans.

 

Sree Narayana Guru was born in A.D. 1856 in Chembazanthi, a quiet little town, about 12 kilometres north of Thiruvananthapuram. His father was Madanashan, a teacher and a physician, and his mother's name was Kutty. Sree Narayana Guru's maternal uncles were Vaidyas and Sanskrit scholars. Krishnan Vaidiar, being an Ashan, or teacher, as a social reformer, strove hard to uplift people of his awn caste. He nevertheless tried to keep the castes below the Ezhavas in their place. Untouchability and unapproachability were not anathema to any caste, so long as the customs applied to people below them. The boy, affectionately called Nanu, was mischievous. The little boy would take special delight in running out to touch the lower caste people and then return straight to the orthodox members of the family to touch and pollute them. Fruits and sweets, specially reserved for the-gods, were the main targets of his foraging raids. He would eat them with gusto, saying, "If I, as a child, am pleased, the gods wo-uld be happy."

 

Here it may be useful to mention that there are two communities in Kerala, known generally as Nairs and Ezhavas, the largest castes in the State. Nairs belong to the hierarchy of the Varna (caste) system and are counted among the cluster of the higher castes known as Sauarnas. The Ezhavas are an unapproachable caste belonging to the group of castes outside the Varna system and are, therefore, Avarnas (outcastes, those not in the caste purview). Sree Narayana Guru was born as an Ezhava. There used to be a number of castes below the Ezhava, one below the other, who polluted each other in various ways at varying distances.

 

The maltreatment, which Avarnas had to suffer, was so horrible and meaningless that Swami Vivekananda characterized Kerala as the "lunatic asylum of India".

At the age of 5, Nanu was sent to Chembazanthi Mootha Pillai, a Savarna, for study. Nanu was quick to learn, never forgetting what he had learnt. Since there was no facility for further study in that elementary school, Nanu's uncles continued to teach the child. Nanu became a cowherd. He enjoyed lonely sojourns in the nearby hills and jungles while the cows calmly grazed and dozed as they chewed their cud. The thoughtful cowherd would be seen perched on cashew trees chanting to himself the shlokas (verses) he had learnt, lost in reflection on their relevance to life. Back at home, his studies under uncle Krishna Vaidiar continued. After sometime, the boy was entrusted with the task of ploughing the fields. Absorbed as he was in lofty thoughts and in solving the stubborn riddles of life and sorrow and death, the budding metaphysicist would let the bullocks go where they liked. He could not bother to guide them and could certainly not bring himself to beat them to take a particular pathway.

 

Nanu showed indifference in becoming a householder. He started wandering from place to place. He often stayed away with friends and relatives at different places like Kayikkara, Thiruvananthapuram, Anchuthengu, Venniyuode and Nedunganda. He was regular in his baths and prayers, and was often seen in thoughtful mood with marks of ashes on his brow. Thus, his outward appearance highly amused the people. They called him a bhakta, devotee of God, in a derogatory tone. His relatives thought that this was due to his religious fervour, which would easily disappear once the boy was married. The barber of the place, who, in those days, performed the task of marriage-broker, tried his best to ''hook'' the youth, only to go away defeated before the determination of this young man whose bhakti (devotion) was made of sterner stuff than people had bargained for. One day, Nanu disappeared. He was suffering from smallpox. He retreated into a temple of goddess situated in the midst of a jungle. His temperature rose and he had a severe headache. Weakness, thirst, pain and restlessness tortured him but he still continued to stay in this frightful, lonely place. At night, when darkness hid the marks of smallpox, he would throw a cloth over his head, go to houses where he was not known, get alms and return to the temple. During this time, he managed to memorize a work about spiritual detachment written by Melputtur Narayana Bhattathiri, one of the greatest savants of sixteenth-century Kerala.

 

After spending eighteen days in this penance, Nanu was cured. He took his bath and returned home. His uncle was amazed to know that the boy had suffered from smallpox and he had spent the entire period in the precincts of the temple to avoid contagion. His uncle decided to send the boy for higher study instead of wasting his life as cowherd and ploughman. Thus, in 1876, Nanu was sent to Kummanpally Ashan, a great scholar, a savarna again. In the institution at Kayamkulam there were other Ezhava youths studying under the same high-caste teacher. While the Nair boys stayed in the house of the Ahsan, the Ezhava disciples had to stay elsewhere. Two shlokas (verses) from Kalidasa's Raghuvamsa Mahakavya were the daily quota of learning in Kummanpally Ashan's Gurukula (teacher's residence). With his quick grasp of meaning, extreme ease in memorizing, and tenacious memory, Nanu impressed his teacher to accelerate the pace of teaching. Very soon, Nanu became the monitor (chattambi) and started assisting the Guru. He now became Nanu Chattambi, a respected student in the school. In 1879, Nanu had a severe attack of dysentery. His uncle took him home. Thus, the second and last course of regular study under a guru ended all too abruptly.

 

When Nanu recovered, he started teaching young boys to read, write and study. Thus, he became Nanu Ashan (teacher). While he was a teacher at Anchuthengu, he used to live in the precincts of the Jnaneswaram temple close-by. He invariably spent his leisure hours in prayer and meditation. He conducted Gita classes in the temple for-the benefit of those who were poised for righteousness. The verses he composed at that time show him as searching for the true meaning of life. His continual aspirations took the form of prayers to Ishta Devata (tutelary deity) where he adorned the deity with abstract attributes which carried metaphysical undertones, changing the terms from verse to verse as his spirit rose upwards. Hehad left worldly yearnings behind and yet worldly bonds of flesh continued to vex him. He then took refuge in Shiva as the saviour from the trammels of the flesh. It is apparent from his following invocation:

 

Shiva, Shiva, there is none equal to thee,

Knowing all this,

Still am I straying

Among puzzling thoughts that

Lead me, to what?

 

Nanu's relatives thought that marriage should cure him. Marriage, they thought, had proved a cure to several youths whose waywardness seemed very much like the outward signs of spiritual yearnings. They persuaded him again. This time, Nanu agreed. The wedding ceremonies, however, shook him up. He returned to his own celibate ways. The marriage was not consummated. He did not go to the bride's house. However, the marriage-broker persuaded him at least to visit his wife. He went and sat in the verandah of the lady's house. She brought him sweets and plantains. Nanu Ashan took some plantains and giving some of them to the barber, ate one or two himself. after that, he got up and said to all the inmates: "People are born in this world with diverse objectives. You and I have different paths to tread. You would do well to follow yours.· Let me follow mine." after this, he walked away.

 

Nanu Ashan went out into the world at large, as did all saints, who were eager to understand the secrets of life, cutting himself a way from the bonds of flesh. He was seen wandering from place to place, on hilltops, in dales, on seashore and in jungles, lost in deep meditation in temples.

 

He now became Nanu Swami. The Swami's determination to remain celibate called for great strength of will. It was not an easy task to conquer the urges of sex. He prayed to Shiva:

 

Your third eye that commands

The worship of Narahari Moorthy

Did consume to ashes

The god Cupid, long long ago.

Why is he then bothering me now?

Consume him to ashes once again, Oh Lord.

 

Thus, he prayed for attaining mental strength. Chattambi Swami introduced him to Thaikkat Ayyavu, a Tamilian, who had practised yoga to a very high stage. Under Ayyavu, Swami Nanu Ashan learned the practice of yoga. Nanu quickly grasped the lessons on yoga. He was advised to resort to secluded places in a remote area and practise yoga. He would take shelter in various caves from time to time. In the rough forest dwellings, he lived amidst animals of the jungle, both wild and otherwise. He felt no fear, not even uneasiness about their nearness to him. He partook of the food they gave him and shared with them whatever he himself had gathered. He became a yogi. After leaving Maruthwa mountain as well as the solitary life in the cave, Pillathadom, he went from temple to temple, in and out of Kerala, walking barefoot all the way. As a true mendicant, he partook of whatever food pilgrims and pious householders offered him. He ate whatever people gave him, performed wonders and cured them of even the so-called incurable diseases. Nairs now respected him. Christians, Muslims and Chammars (low- caste Tamilians) had also regard for him. He also mastered Muslim mysticism and philosophy. He had a great regard for the yogic practices of Muslims described by Dara Shikosh, the great mystic, son of Shahjahan, the Moghul Emperor and brother of Aurangzeb. Muslims, too, were in agreement with the Swami's interpretation of the verses in the Quran. Great Muslim scholars in southern Travancore respected him.

News spread that Nanu Swami was living in Aruvipuram in Cherukunnu and that he was a siddha, a saint who has attained spiritual powers, and who performed miracles. People visited him and brought offerings to the Swami. The place became a place of pilgrimage and Nanu Swami was idolized. On Shivaratri, at dead of night, Swami had a dip in the river and came up after sometime with a sivalingam in his hands. At 3 am, he placed the sivalingam on the pedestal, consecrated it, and performed abhisheka (holy bathing of the idol). A new era dawned in Kerala at that pre-dawn hour on February 10, 1888. A temple was built there and Sree Narayana Guru got the message of his life engraved in granite there:

 

Here is a model abode

Where men live like brothers:

Bereft of the prejudice of caste

Or the rancour of religious differences.

 

Sree Narayana Guru wanted Kerala to be that model; the whole world to be its manifestation. "One caste, One religion, One God for man", became his message.

 

Thus, Narayana Guru brought out a social transformation in the society and a strong and effective movement of reform was brought about through his inspiration. In Kerala, the Ezhavas and the castes below them were forbidden even to walk along the public roads adjoining the temples. When the idol of a temple was taken in a procession round the town, the lower castes had to clear out of their own houses situated along the route of the procession. Here was an Ezhava, performing the most sacred ceremonies and knocking out the very bottom of the caste system and all that it stood for, at one stroke. The people were taken aback. Superstitious people feared the skies to fall! The intellectual elite raised their eyebrows. The orthodox decried the act. But when all was said and done, it was Sree Narayana Guru's commanding personality, which overcame all opposition. Sree Narayana Guru went on establishing, one by one, year after year, Hindu temples on the pattern of the orthodox temples of the higher castes. Gradually, a number of temples were established in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. These temples were consecrated by untouchables and no one objected to this.

 

Sree Narayana Guru observed that the Avarnas were worshipping their ancestors, tribal heroes and heroines, tragic persons whose life-stories had the sublime qualities of Greek tragedies. They also worshipped hills and rocks, stones and brooks, snakes and other fearsome creatures, spirits that spread pestilence, or created miseries all around. He could understand all that and never said a word against them. He could not, however, tolerate the drunken brawls and the sacrifice of fowls in the name of worship. These were corrupt practices that had to be stopped, he said. He stopped them wherever he came face to face with them. He never lectured. He simply said, "We must stop this". People obeyed him. In more than a hundred places, he unseated the gods whose names had associations with the killing of birds and consumption of liquor, replacing them by idols of Shiva, Subramania and Ganesa and instituted puja (worship) of the type performed in temples dedicated to them. Once the Guru went to a village and he walked into a place of worship while drunken brawls were in full swing. The authorities of the temple stood up as one man and with folded hands received him as an honoured guest. They offered him a seat, wiping the dust off his feet with their own hands. When the Guru said calmly that these barbarous rites should be stopped, they did not dare to disobey. People were convinced how vested interests had corrupted religions the world over. In this way, the Guru.worked for wiping out the degradation of worship that had taken place in the rites performed by the Avarnas. He did not criticize the gods they worshipped nor the legends that formed the foundation of that worship, but only the mode of worship.

 

Millions of people now accepted Sree Narayana Guru. They gave up consumption of alcohol and killing of goats and fowls as part of their worship. Many of them even agreed to replacement of the earlier deities by gods from the orthodox Hindu pantheon. After consecration of the Shiva temple at Aruvipuram, Deveswaram temple was consecrated in Chirayinkizhu. Vakkam was the next temple instituted by the Guru. The deity there is Subramania, son of Shiva. In 1893, he replaced an old type of Bhagavathi temple at Kulathur, a place north of Thiruvananthapuram, and consecrated there an idol of Shiva. Kunnumpara temple, near Kovalam, now an international tourist centre, is another important temple instituted by him. In 1904, when the Guru visited Varkala, the irresistible beauty of the hill east of it, he was so pleased that he built a small parnasala (forest dwelling) there and stayed in it, tending a vegetable garden. But he could not remain in solitary meditation for more than a few days. On August 14, 1904, he arranged for appropriate ceremonies to be performed there for those who would come to the Sivagiri Hill, thus saving them from being duped. The income accrued was utilized, two years later, for establishing a school for all and a night school for people of Therava caste and others who were unable to attend the day school. In 1912, a temple with an image of Saraswati was installed there, along with a Vaidika Vidyalaya (Vedic school). While the temples in other places were erected at the request of the people, the Sarada Matham (monastery), as the Saraswati temple is known, and the Vaidika Vidyalaya were the Guru's creations.

 

Yet Karamukku temple, consecrated by the Guru, has only a lamp as a symbol. The Vedas, the Upanishads and all the treatises on Hindu religion speak of the rise towards spirituality as progress from darkness to light. The Guru pronounced, "Let there be light" and simply placed the lamps on the altar. 'When a lamp is lit," he said, "we feel the presence of the spirit more strongly." At the Murukumpuzha temple, the Guru placed a slab with the words sat yam (truth), dharmam (religion, duty), daya (compassion), sneham (love), etched on it. The greater the noble thoughts, which a symbol evokes, better is the effect. Since the highest pinnacle of symbolic images consists in the esoteric syllable Aum, in Kalavamcodam temple he asked the devotees to get him a mirror. An artist was instructed to erase the mercury coating at the back so as to project the letter Aum in front. Thus, Aum becomes the idol in that temple. He established an Advaita Ashram at Alwyae, where Hindus, Christians and Muslims can pray in a prayer-hall, each according to his or her own faith. Students read religious literature and no religion is excluded from the collection of books in the Ashram's library. It is now converted into an English High School of the general type.

 

In 1903, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, or S.N.D.P., was formed. It is a society under the aegis of the Guru for dissemination of the ideals of Sree Narayana dharma among the masses and for upliftment of the downtrodden castes of Kerala. Anyone from any caste could be a member of the Society. The uniformity of the S.N.D.P.'s membership facilitated the smooth management of the Society. The Ezhavas had a pivotal position. What they achieved inspired all castes below them to emulate their move for betterment, and induced the higher caste to examine and improve the customs and ways of their respective castes. The Ezhava tradition of Vaidyas (physicians) and Sanskrit scholars, landlords, and rich men. on top among them equipped them for quick progress up the social ladder. Their leader was a great saint and so the whole movement was imbued with a spiritual aura. The S.N.D.P. had its vast annual gatherings. They were graced by the presence of the Guru who gave them guidance and determined the tenor of the deliberations. Gradually, the depressed castes lost their disabilities, which they had been experiencing earlier. They were now able to walk along the public roads without fear of polluting anyone, used roads around temples, were admitted to schools, colleges and hostels, and secured jobs in government service. As a result of his consistent efforts, some percentages of jobs have been reserved for different groups of castes. Finally, they secured entry into temples in 1936.

 

In 1924, Sree Narayana Guru organized a conference at which Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Parsi thinkers and leaders gave discourses on the various religions. It was conducted in the Advaita Ashram at Alwaye. He provided guidelines on religion to the people at large. He wanted them to understand that religion was not a mere formula or a set of rites and ceremonies, but a way of life. It permeated all life and was devoid of differences between the sacred and the profane. The metaphysics of Advaita is based on soul-force, which should form the ultimate impulse of our normal principles in life. Conversely, Advaita philosophy becomes pointless unless it teaches men to treat their fellowmen as equals, he said. His message of universal love was expressed in the idiom of the people of Kerala, when he said: one caste for man. He admitted the lowest castes into the institutions at Varkala and Alwaye. Several Ezhava leaders followed suit. They employed the lowest caste boys as domestic servants and cooks. The repercussions of Sree Narayana Guru's activities resulted in all castes of Kerala opening their eyes and taking vigorous action to reform their own customs and rites. The Nambudiris of Kerala, who were counted as the most orthodox of Brahmins, now became one of the foremost of radical communities in India. The Nairs formed a society on the lines of the Servants of India Society and effected most significant changes in social life. Great progress was achieved without shedding a drop of blood.

 

Stories and legends prevalent about the miracles performed by Sree Narayana Guru greatly contribute to the success of his mission among the people at large. Several of them are exaggerated and are the products of superstition, while some others are pure concoctions like the one about his drying up a tank belonging to the higher castes because he was not permitted to bathe in it. Nevertheless, the ordinary man's belief is a solid fact. This belief undoubtedly, profoundly affects the reactions of the masses at large. When they consider through those tales that a certain personage is a saint, they are ready to follow. One day, a messenger came to the hospital where a patient was admitted and informed him that his mother was seriously ill. As he was suffering from rheumatism, he was unable to walk. His desire to be at his mother's deathbed was so intense that he decided to go home, crawling. With great difficulty, he crawled up to the entrance of the hospital. There on seeing Sree Narayana Guru in front of him, the patient pleaded with folded hands for succour. Swami asked him to get up. He stood up and Swami made him walk. The patient walked home. Such tales of cures of mental afflictions, hysteria, hallucinations, etc. effected by the Guru abound among the miracles attributed to his spiritual powers.

 

The activities, which the Guru suggested to the downtrodden classes to take up for their advancement, included social reforms. Education, he said, is the sine qua non of all progress. Lack of money was the main obstacle that prevents them from rising to higher levels. Rich men, he said, should come forward to help intelligent, studious, hard-working lads by granting them scholarships and other monetary aids. He wanted girls' education to be encouraged. The masses, he said, should be provided with cottage industries and workplace in the cooperative sector. He encouraged adult literacy and establishment of libraries in every locality. He wanted educated men to inculcate modern ideas and culture in the illiterate through speeches, songs, dramas and similar means. The S.N.D.P. started a magazine, Viuekodayam, which aimed at raising the cultural level of the ordinary man suggesting changes of modernization. The magazine advocated modern approach to inter-communal marriages and in reforming and shortening the duration of various ceremonies as well as economizing in their cost. The status of marriage rites was raised to that of a sacrament. Costly, meaningless customs, etc. were sought to be abolished. He converted the non-Brahmin marriages into sacramental ceremonies with the performance of puja, chanting of Vedic hymns, exchange of vows with other concomitant observances. The Guru limited the duration of the wedding ceremony to half an hour. Another custom stopped by the Guru was the public feast and function conducted when a girl attained puberty. As early as 1921, he stated that ''liquor is poison. It should not be produced, sold or consumed."

 

In February 1928, Sree Narayana Guru fell seriously ill. In spite of the best medical treatment and expert nursing, he got worse. He attained samadhi at 3.30 pm on September 20, 1928. He was 72. Sannyasis, lay disciples of the Guru, leaders of society, along with a huge concourse of people, arrived there from far and near. Most of them stayed on at Sivagiri right up to the consignment of his mortal remains to the mother earth in a special sacramental pit prepared for the purpose, strictly according to prescribed religious rites. Next day, the body was placed on a palanquin, decorated with flowers. It was taken to the bower of Vanajakshi temple in the evening, accompanied by a huge procession. The funeral procession wended its way to the spot specially prepared for the samadhi. The whole of Kerala was plunged into grief by the demise of the great rishi.

 

People place Sree Narayana Guru on a pedestal equal to that of Sankaracharya and Thunchath Acharyar, two other great sages of Kerala. Sankaracharya was ill-treated by Keralites and Thunchath Acharyar received his due exalted position centuries after his demise. None in India, during the last few centuries, has received the same respect from everyone in the land as Sree Narayana Guru did. For the enlightened people of Kerala, he was Patanjali in yoga, Manu in social law, Buddha in tyaga (renunciation), and Jesus in humility. He has passed on from the realm of humanity to that of immortals. For the future generations, he will be one among the avatars (incarnations), a true rishi who lived with the people and for the people. He knew that without providing material comforts, it is futile to hold out the illusion of spiritual happiness to the starving and suffering millions.

 

 

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