Brahmashree Narayana Guru
On 20th August, 1854 a child was born in a small cottage in Chempazhanthi village twelve miles to the north-east of Trivandrum (Tiruvanantapura). The child was named ‘Narayana’ but was dearly called ‘Naanu’. Nanu’s father, Madan Asan was a farmer, teacher as well as a Sanskrit scholar. He was well versed in astronomy and ayurveda. Kutty Amma, his mother was a pleasant and young wife. Her name ‘Kutty’ which means ‘child’, perfectly portrayed the basic simplicity of her nature. Nanu was the only boy among his parents’ four children. It is well known fact that a newborn must cry at birth. But infant Nanu did not cry leaving the people wondering about him. As a boy he was quite mischievous. He showed an unusual delight in eating the fruits and other preparations even before they were offered to God, saying that God would be pleased if he made himself happy.
Even as a child, the inequality bothered Nanu. Much against the prevalent customs, Nanu would touch the untouchable children and then touch his parents/relatives. Narayana used to graze the cattle with other boys. He had great love and reverence for monks. Once he cried when he saw some boys pelting stones at a monk. When Nanu was 6 years old someone died in his home. A couple of days later Nanu went missing. He was later found sitting in a nearby woods lost in thought. When the elders enquired him why he had gone there, he answered ” You were loudly lamenting the death in the house day before yesterday. But by yesterday you had forgotten it and had started laughing as if nothing had happened. It looked strange to me.” During his early childhood years, Nanu would have a daily bath and come to worship at this temple near his home. Due to his religious habits, even at the age of fourteen he was known as “Nanu Bhaktan” (Nanu the worshiper).
At the age of five, he began his education in the neighboring school in the old “Gurukula” model. After his elementary education in this school, he became the disciple of a great Sanskrit scholar ‘Raman Pillai Asan’ of Puthupally in Central Travancore. He became well versed in Sanskrit texts. He also started teaching young children in the neighbourhood. Thus he also came to be known as ‘Nanu Asan’.
Nanu’s mother passed away when he was around 20 years old. The death of his mother deepened his spiritual yearning. His sensitive heart was strong enough to face adversities of life. Once Nanu contracted smallpox. Although he suffered a lot he did not let his people know about it. He hid himself in a deserted temple in the forest and applied self medication based on the Ayurveda knowledge imparted by his uncle Krishnan. For eighteen days he stayed in the temple worshiping God and reading ‘Vairagyopadakam’. He returned home on 19th day completely cured.
Nanu’s uncle – Krishnan Vaidyar (Ayurvedic Doctor) saw great potential in his nephew and he arranged for Nanu’s higher education under a revered teacher Raman Pillai at Varanappally. Since Raman Pillai was a High Caste Hindu and Nanu belonged to the Ezhava community, he had to stay outside the residence of the Pillai’s. As a student Nanu was very intelligent and possessed great imagination. He could understand the meaning of all the verses of poetic works without the teacher’s help. He never engaged in gossip but loved solitude instead. He mastered Sanskrit and studied Vedanta and Upanishads. His devotion for God was deepening day by day. Lord Shri Krishna was his chosen deity in those days.
Nanu had to leave school early due to illness. On the eve of leaving school, he asked a friend to give him a small copper pot like those usually carried by wandering mendicants. When queried regarding his memento, he expressed his wish to sink down to collect pearls of wisdom from the bottom of the Ocean of Knowledge and present them in the pot for the welfare of the world.
When he was on the threshold of his youth, he married due to intense parental pressure. But he never led a married life. Narayana’s mind was always agitated by a spiritual urge. After his father’s death, Narayana left his home in search of spiritual knowledge to achieve his goal of self-realization. During his wanderings he came into contact with Kunjan Pillai also famous as ‘Chattampi Swami’. Narayana become the disciple of a man named Thikkad Ayyavu, from whom he learned Yoga.
Wandering in quest of Truth he came to a place called Aruvipuram. In the solitary forest of Aruvipuram Narayana entered into meditation. Soon devotees began to gather around him. They attended his prayers and spiritual lectures. He realized that true joy lied in doing good to others. He found immense joy in human association. Soon “Narayana Guru”s place became a sacred place of pilgrimage. An Ashram was founded there. Gradually he began his crusade against social inequality.
In those days, the foundation and consecration of a Hindu temple was the exclusive monopoly of the Brahmins. Untouchables were forbidden from entering temples. Kerala then, was a highly caste-ridden society and boiling conundrum of social and economic inequalities. In fact, Swami Vivekanand once described Kerala as a “Lunatic Asylum”. Those days an Ezhava could not get closer than 64 feet to a Nair. The Ezhava in turn, would resent it if any Pulaya or Pariah …still lower down the hierarchy… got closer than 30 feet to him. Educational Institutions / opportunities were not open to untouchables. They were denied all government jobs and had to do traditional occupations specified on the basis of their caste. The lower caste people lived in abject poverty & in servility.
Narayana Guru challenged the deep-rooted caste system by picking up a stone from river Neyyar and installing it as ‘shivalinga’ on a pedestal with a silent prayer. This event made a landmark in the social and spiritual history of India. The first in this line was the temple dedicated to Lord Shiva in Aruvippuram in 1888 A.D. He inscribed the following lines in the temple “This is the ideal place where all live in full harmony without distinction of caste or prejudice of creed”.
Around 1904, Narayana guru visited Varkala Hills. Varkala is a sacred place known from olden days as Dakshina Kashi. After leaving Aruvipuram, Narayana guru chose Varkala as the main centre of his various activities. Varkala Hill was eventually named as Shivagiri. Narayana guru built a Shiva temple on the Hills. Later in 1912 he built a Sharada temple that is unique for its structure and mode of worship.
Naryana Guru trained untouchable boys for priesthood along with other Hindu children at Shivagiri. The Shivagiri Ashram was also engaged in reviving handicrafts and cottage industries.
In 1909, he travelled to Mangalore and founded the “Kudroli Gokarnanatha” temple at the request of the Billawa community.
Revolutionary changes were also introduced in the traditional rituals and ceremonials to be observed in temples. The next milestone in the path of his reform was the foundation of a temple in Murikkumpuzha near Trivandrum in 1922, where, in the place of a deity a bright light revealing the words “Truth, Duty, Kindness, Love” was installed. The climax of his temple reform was the installation of a mirror for worship in the temple founded at Kalavancode in Sherthallai.
The mirror is symbolic of Narayana guru’s teachings that man should find his salvation not in lifeless deities but in himself by the development and utilization of his inner self. Narayana guru’s temples made no discrimination on the ground of caste, creed or religion. Unlike caste Hindu temples, they were open to both Hindus and non-Hindus.
Sri Narayana Guru preached against the caste system. He championed the cause of Education & stressed heavily on education as a tool towards development of the downtrodden. In his great endeavor to uplift the downtrodden and give them respectability in society, he had to face severe personal and institutional resistance. His doctrine, “One caste, one religion and one God” for mankind became quite famous. However, the stress on “one religion” did not mean that he questioned the validity of religions other than his own. Sri Narayana Guru, by his life and example, spoke for the oppressed. He worked for an egalitarian social order.
Sri Narayana guru was 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. He worked hard to make people give up superstitions and obsolete, irrational social customs. He gave a new code of conduct according to the changing conditions of life. It is known as ‘Shri Narayana Smriti’.
Sri Narayana guru was a profound thinker, a great seer and a born poet. He was also a great scholar in Sanskrit and Tamil. He has been the author of many works in Malayalam and Sanskrit, which are “Atmopadesa Sathakam” and “Darsanamala” which epitomize his great moral and spiritual precepts. He has also beautifully translated Tamil works like “Thirukkural” and “Ozhuvilotukkam” into Malayalam. In his works he has superbly expounded the ‘Advaita’ philosophy. ‘Daiva Dasakam’ a simple prayer written by Guru.
Sri Narayana Guru is one of those rare men whose greatness was recognized while he was alive. No better testimony is needed for this than the fact that Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi had visited and paid respects to him. Tagore, when he visited Kerala in 1922, interviewed the Guru and was deeply impressed that he remarked- “Among the ‘Paramahamsas’ alive in India now, there is none who has lived such a life of purity as Swami Shri Narayana”.
When Mahatma Gandhi visited Sri Narayana Guru in 1923, there was a heart-to-heart exchange of ideas between them and in their dialogue Shri Narayana made no secret of his strong feelings, about the need to eradicate the caste system.
A “All Religious Conference” – a parliament of religions, was convened at the behest of Sri Narayana guru at Alwaye in 1924. In this conference where eminent representatives of all great religions assembled, Shri Narayana proclaimed that the conference was convened “Not to argue and win but to know and to make known”. In a message which he delivered at the conference, he said “This great Parliament of religions makes it abundantly clear that the ultimate goal of all religions is same and so there is no need for followers of different religions to indulge in mutual conflict.”
The Movement of reforms by Sri Narayana Guru was entirely constructive and devoid of any bitterness against the higher classes. None of his teachings and activities had western influence. He was no a superficial reformer. He went to the root of the matter and tried to solve problems in a fundamental manner. He knew that social evils were only manifestations of deeper maladies. Inequalities and injustices arising out of caste-system and other discrimination can be permanently eliminated only if the sense of equality and brotherhood is established. He took the socio-spiritual approach to awaken the spiritual consciousness of the people, to make them realize the essential unity of all beings. He made them realize the utter irrationality of customs and beliefs that make unfair discrimination between man and man.
The great Guru Shri Narayana attained Samadhi on September 20, 1928 at Varkala. The world lost one of its greatest social reformers. But he lives forever in the minds of the mankind.