Sri Narayana Guru The saint who led Kerala from darkness to light
Social set up of Kerala that time
It was not long ago the state of Kerala was immersed in utter darkness to say the least. People were divided in to numerous water tight compartments by name castes. There were written as well as unwritten laws to differentiate one from the other among them.
There were even written dictations that if a low caste person happened to hear the scriptures, he should be punished with pouring molten metal in to his ears!
Birth and childhood
It is in this period of darkness the birth of Sri Narayana guru took place, on 1856 in a remote village by name Chempazhanthi about 20 Miles from Thiruvanathapuram the capital of Kerala. His father was Sri Madan Assan of valiyavarathu joint family (the word assan is used for teacher). Sri Madan Assan was a Sanskrit scholar and he conducted a Sanskrit school near his house. Sri Narayanaguru’s original name was Narayanan but used to be called Nanu.
Sri Narayanan’s family belonged to the Ezhava community which occupied the middle rung in the caste hierarchy that existed at that time. He had to undergo much bitter experience from the members of the upper communities. Yet the boy was able to acquire sufficient knowledge in the Vedas and Puranas.
Narayanan was initiated in to the world of letters by Sri Chempazhanthy Pillay. But further education was imparted by his maternal uncle Krishnan Vaidyar. Vaidyar in Malayalam is for a Physician practicing Ayurveda. Vaidyar taught him methods of Ayurvedic treatment and along with that the boy was taught Amarakosam (the Sanskrit encyclopaedia), Sidha roopam, bala prabodhanam etc by the age of fifteen.
As physician and teacher
Narayanan a teen aged boy then had to divide his time with his uncle and father alternatively. This arrangement helped him to acquire the wisdom from both persons who were masters in respective fields. Thus Narayanan became an expert in Ayurveda, Tamil as well as Sanskrit. Narayanan was unfortunate enough to lose his mother at the early age of 15.
Narayanan was a god fearing boy and an ardent devotee of Mundackal temple adjacent to his home. He liked to be in the temple for long time either composing hymns or in deep meditation in the free times he got after serving as a teacher in the Sanskrit school or assisting his uncle as a vaidyan. This close association with the temple earned him a nick name “Nanu Bhakthan”
His uncle took him to the school conducted by Sri Raman Pillay assan but finding the formal education not satisfying to his soul, Narayanan chose to discontinue it. After leaving the school Narayanan joined as a salesman in a bookstall at Chala market
By this time Narayanan came to be known as Nanu Assan as he had a short association in his father’s school as a teacher. His expertise in Sanskrit, Ayurveda etc did not give the young Narayanan a real satisfaction in his life and he used to wander in search of the un known.
Marriage was the shortcut Narayanan’s relatives found to put an end to his wandering life and get him settled. Finding the strong persuasion of relatives hard to resist, Narayanan had to oblige. Later Naraynan revealed his real mind to the bride and left home, he continued his wandering life in search of a guru who could quench his inner thirst for real knowledge.
In search of a guru
As he was not a member of the upper caste he was not able to find a good guru, prepared to accept him as disciple. In one of the long journeys he happened to meet Sri Perunali Krishnan vaidyar, one of his old classmates. Hearing the stories of Narayanan and impressed by his quest for knowledge that old friend took him to Sri Kunjanpillay the guru of Sri Chattambi Swamikal. The search ended in Sri Ayyavu swami of Thattakkad.
The Ayyavu Swami of Thattakkadu was an expert in yoga also. Perhaps the first man Narayanan could find fit to be his guru was Ayyavu, who could -to some extend - satisfy the inner urge for spiritual knowledge in his heart. Narayanan was able to acquire expertise in yoga also from this guru.
As per the advice of Ayyavu Narayanan proceeded to the Maruthva hills. There in the forests and desolate places Narayanan spent his time in deep penance and meditation. This period of meditation made him gain the highest form of spiritual wisdom known as “Brahmajnanam”.
The wisdom Narayanan gained through hard penance and meditation had to be put in use for the benefit of the society. He reached in Aruvippuram. The spirituality radiated from his face was so divine and commanding that people of walks of life gathered around him. “This yogi was with a great mission and he is here to start a revolution” they could read from his face, and they were all ears as he spoke.
Installation of temples
Sri Narayanan installed there the idol of lord Siva. Installation of and idol was considered the job of only Brahmins and not even other forward community members dared to do such a thing! This was unimaginable, considering the social set up prevailing at that time. There were voices of resent to which he had calm and well thought answers. His deep knowledge in scriptures was so formidable that no one could challenge him for an open argument.
The installation of the Siva idol at Aruvippuram was only a beginning. Sree Narayana Guru (by that time he came to be known in that name) was able to install about 60 idols in different temples throughout Kerala. Thrissur, Kannur, Kozhikode Achuthengu, Thalssery, Mangalapuram Sivagiri etc are places fortunate enough to be blessed by his.
In istalling deities and consecrating temples Sree Narayana Guru even surpass the great saint the “Swami of Vilwamangalathu” of the ancient Kerala mythologies. Later Guru got fed up with installation of deities and he found installing a mirror (symbolic of self knowledge) or an oil lamp (symbolic of light) or even a depicting a slogan more meaningful than deities.
In 1904 Sree Narayana Guru started to settle down at Sivagiri Ashram near Varkala about 20 miles from Thiruvananthapuram. There at Sivagiri Sree Narayana Guru built the Sharadha Devi temple. By this time Sree Narayana Guru gained the status of an icon representing the upliftment of the downtrodden.
It was Sri Vallabhassery Govindan Vaidyar who presented the idea of organizing a pilgrimage to Sivagiri to the Guru. After hearing the details the Guru put forward some conditions for the pilgrimage. It should start at 1st of Dhanu (December)
The pilgrims should not wear primitive looking dark dresses like those of Sabarimala pilgrims.
Vehicles can be used only to certain distance then alight and walk rest of the distance singing hymns of devotion.
Eleven days of penance (vrutha) should be observed before starting for the pilgrimage.
Spend the days hearing spiritual advices and reading of scriptures in the Ashram and return by the month of Makaram (January)
As all the conditions were accepted sanction was given for the annual pilgrimage to Sivagiri. This pilgrimage is attracting millions of people from every where in
Sree Narayana Guru has made his mark in the field of Hindu ideology also. In 1913 he built the Advaidashramam at Alwaye. The ideology of “Advaitam” was formulated by the great guru “Sri Sankaracharya”. Sree Narayana Guru being a progressive reformer saint, questions whether he supported the “Advaitham” of Sankaracharyar often popped up. Sree Narayana Guru’s reply to such questions was simple he supported advaitham by its real meaning, A+ Dvaitham. = not + two = Both are one and same.
His famous dictum “One religion, One caste, One god for human being” (oru jathi, oru matham, oru daivam manshyanu) was so revolutionary that it was for the first time people of Kerala could hear a voice that could mean they are all one and the same regardless of their caste. His other one liner was this “whatever be the religion it is enough to be a good man” easily breaks the barriers of religions.
Human beings are one and same regardless of their caste or creed. God also is one and the same regardless to what name he is addressed. Sree Narayana Guru was a great genius and he never stood for and ideological dispute with old gurus, he just shed a new light on the old concepts and projected the old dictums as relevant ones to the present contexts.
Old obscurantist ideologists left without any strategy for offence as Sree Naryana guru was playing the very cards they used before, while they did not know the meanings of what they preached, Sree Naryana Guru knew what he said. Sree Narayana Guru was shedding light in to darkness. The “thamas” (darkness) had to retreat while “jyothi” had its way. “thamsorma jyothirgamaya” as the manthra goes.
Simple and practical
Sree Narayana Guru never kept his hair or beard long to wear the aura of a yogi, he wore only white plain clothes, he never mystified day today things to make them un understandable to ordinary people.
His approach to daily life was very practical and logical. Once a toddy- tapper, who was leading a loose life, approached him with the intention of becoming his disciple. Narayanaguru’s advice to him was this “you need not become a sanyasi, go and do your work with responsibility and tend your family well”. Sanyas to him was not an excuse to evade duties of day today life.
Many great persons had visited him like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Romain Roland etc. Sree Narayanaguru had long discussions with Mahatma gandhi. Though with respect Sree Narayanaguru disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi’s views of the relationships between upper and lower castes.
The great poet of Kerala Sri Kumaranasan, Sahodaran Ayyappan etc were staunch supporters and disciples of Sree Narayana Guru and Guru was always there guiding light.
Sahodaran Ayyappan who was an atheist revised the sayings of Narayana Guru “one caste one religion, one god to human being” as “no caste, no religion and no god required to human beings. But Sree Narayana Guru did not prevent him from distorting an advice as guru understood Ayyappan’s sincerity in this regard.
Sree Narayana Guru has also proved his ability as a writer. His creations are simple enough to be understood by laymen. Sri Narayanaguru has written a prayer song intended for children by name “daiva dasakam” which is simple to read and understand but heavy in its content. Sree Narayana guru promoted single god theory without contradicting the dictums of polytheism. Old theory advaitham itself was helpful in its advocation.
Formation of SNDP
The formation of SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam) was perhaps the greatest achievement of his life. It was in 1903 long before the neo revolutionary parties were formed. Narayana guru was particular that the temples owned by SNDP should admit all devotees without considering their caste or creed. Sree Narayana Guru promoted mixed marriages between communities and community feasts. (Before that lower community members were not allowed to have food jointly with people of higher communities).
To say the least Sree Naryana Guru was initiating a silent revolution that changed the entire cultural and social scenarios of this state. People of Kerala were made aware of the darkness in which they were immersed. This knowledge was enough to work as a catalyst to change themselves. A change, that was most urgently needed to save the face of Kerala.
Let us conclude with the statement from Acharya Vinoba Bhave the prime disciple of Mahatma Gandhi “Sree Narayanaguru in one of the greatest men ever born in India, I was lucky enough meet that great man and spend one or two hours in conversation with him. I bow my head with respect before the memory of that great soul.