Sree Narayana Guru, the legendary social reformer, mystical savant, poet and a versatile genius played a prominent role in elevating a society like Kerala engrossed in caste evils and untouchability to a state that stands in front in equality and literacy now. Being a karma yogi and Jnana yogi rolled into one, his mantra of “with malice towards none and love for all” enabled him to fight against the heinous acts of casteism and become the voice of the marginalized. He exhorted one caste, one religion and one god for man, the same genitals, and the same form and difference therein none. He opined that determination of caste or jati on the basis of birth has no scientific base and he never accepted these distinctions in society at all. His own poem Jathi Nirnayam ( The Critique of Caste) opens with the very words:
Jaatir gotvam gavam yadha
ha thatvam veti ko pina
As bovinity is the distinctive quality of a cow, humaneness is the quality of a human being. The man made categories like Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, Nair, Namboodiri, Ezhava, Pulaya and Paraya are not castes or jatis like “bovinity” or “humaneness”. Sree Narayana Guru laments “no one knows this truth” like Veda Vyasa lamented in his epic. His indefatigable preaching of the doctrine “one caste, one religion, one god” turned out to be a clarion call for the multitudes of oppressed sections of Kerala to make them aware of the need for the social and spiritual upliftment. In order to change the mindset of the mass of Kerala steeped in the evils of casteism, untouchability, unshadowability and unseeability, it required a true revolution. The grandeur of Guru lies here in his nonviolent and bloodless revolution for bringing a radical transformation in Kerala (then princely state of Travancore) from being a “lunatic asylum” (in Swami Vivekananda’s words) to one of the most egalitarian states in India. His ardent call for self-reliance and self-improvement is explicitly penned by his favourite disciple and one among the trio of modern Malayalam poetry, Kumaran Asan – “Reform, change the rules! Else those very rules will be your downfall. Reform, change the rules! Else they will change you”.
Hailing from a humble “Ezhava” community to which his Vayalvarath family belonged to, Sree Narayana Guru elevated to the status of a “Jnana and Karma yogi” by his sheer perseverance, indomitable belief in himself and his philanthropic nature. He was born at a time when Kerala was the hotbed of casteism and religious discrepancies. The role played by him is vital is Vaikom Satyagraha and Temple Entry Proclamation. The great temple at Vaikom was known as Dakshina Kasi (Varanasi of South). It was so important among the temples of Kerala. The temple was enclosed by high walls alongside of which ran public roads. There were similar roads leading up to the gates on the other three sides. On all these roads, there were sign boards prohibiting entry to non-caste Hindus beyond a certain point. Hindus belonging to the Ezhava community and below were not free to go beyond these sign boards. But the restrictions were not applicable to Christians or Muslims. This sparked a social revolution which ended with the Temple Entry Proclamation by Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balrama Varma in 1936 who abolished the ban on the so- called ‘low-caste people’ or Avarnas from entering Hindu temples in the Princely State of Travancore. Guru was of the opinion that one should enter wherever entry is banned and one has to put up with the problems arising out of it. One should be prepared even to die. He discerned that those who think that the touch of another man would defile them should not be allowed to go undefiled.
Even though Guru was not interested in the activities of Indian National Congress, he extended his full support for Vaikom Satyagraha to sanctify Hindu society from its flaws. In fact this was what Guru also attempted through his words and deeds. This created an incredible acclaim with the culmination of the Temple Entry Proclamation. This promulgation was a reform of far- reaching importance, not only to the teeming millions of Travancore but a momentous act of emancipation to the whole of India. In his Atmopadesha Shatakam (One Hundred Verses of Self Instruction), he quotes,
Pala- matha- saravum-ekamennu-para-
Thulakil- oru- aanayil – andharennapole
Pala- pala yukti paranju paamaranmaar
Alavathu- kanda – alayath – amarnnidenam
It states that people’s understanding of religion is like the idea behind the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each one thinks that what he has felt is the shape of the elephant. Similarly each one feels that his religion is the true religion. He is blind to the fact that all religions mean the same.
The Guru believed that “it doesn’t matter which religion you belong to, you just have to better yourself”. He also fought against the irrational practices comprising ‘thirandukuli’ and ‘pulikudi’ which stood in the way of progress. He advocated commensality and inter- marriages between different castes as a means of achieving social cohesion and evolving a casteless cum classless society. He set up shrines dedicated to ‘Lord Siva’ as a parallel system to that of the Hindu castes who denied entry of Ezhavas in their temples. His consecration of Siva temple at Aruvippuram (1888) deserves special mention here. It had been deeply ingrained into the minds of everyone in Kerala that this is the way things had always been: only ‘upper castes’ were allowed to worship the great Trinity of Hinduism. Only Brahmins were allowed to consecrate temples. Why was this? Nobody knew and nobody questioned these practices. Guru once caused great consternation amongst the Brahmins by gently suggesting that he had merely consecrated an “Ezhava Siva”. The very idea is absurd, as though the Infinite, the Creator himself, could be categorized into a small, watertight compartment. This is how he responded to the orthodoxy blinded by religious superstitions. Aruvippuram is an extremely unlikely location to start a revolution: a small, quite village on the banks of Neyyar River, near Trivandrum. After Marutvamala, Guru went to this charming bucolic location. He found a cave to reside in and a hilltop boulder where he could meditate, while enjoying the bounteous beauty of nature all around. Incidentally, Guru had a particular talent for identifying locations of great natural beauty where he would set up his abodes: for example, Sivagiri at Varkala. News spread far and wide about the arrival of a holy man, and the simple villagers began to arrive to have darshan of this sage and to ask for his advice. They also asked him to cure their sickness. A combination of the Guru’s knowledge of Ayurveda, his sympathetic attention, and their faith in him, would have helped to cure a number of people. Perhaps there was also the effect of mystical powers he had gained from rigorous presence. The story of miracles wrought by the Guru started bringing large numbers of pilgrims to the site. Over the years, the Guru had become a Siva devotee, although in his youth he had been successively a devotee of Subhramanya and of Krishna. His knowledge in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit is astounding and is reflected in the form of literary outputs like “Atmopadesha Sathakam”, “Darsanamala” and the translation of “Thirukkural” into Malayalam.
The Guru unleashed the momentum for the secular and social thrust by being the inspiration and fountain head of a reformist movement namely the S.N.D.P. Yogam. There are very few instances of a Jnanin becoming the founder and life time president of such an organization. Luckily, the Guru had in Dr. Palpu and Kumaran Asan, two illustrious lieutenants. As Dr. Palpu emphasized in the first annual meeting of the Yogam: “A society or for that matter a group, makes durable progress and achieves prosperity only through education. In our community, there should be none without at least primary education. For that one and all should specially strive. When you refer to an Ezhava male or female, it should imply that he or she is one who knows how to read and write”. It was education not only in the traditional sense of the term, but also in the removal of excesses and ostentatious, wasteful ceremonies. For social reasons, most people chose to ignore that last bit of advice, but an Ezhava wedding must now be the simplest in India. It takes a grand total of ten minutes, for the bride and groom to exchange rings and garlands, for the mangalsutra to be tied, and for a ritual circumambulation of the sacred fire. The marriages that happen in these days of COVID-19 pandemic are the absolute replica of what Sree Narayana Guru has envisioned eons ago.
The aura of this magnetic personality inspired many prodigies of India. This is obvious from the profound expression of admiration of the Guru couched in chiseled simplicity of diction by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore after meeting this great, yet frail, figure who was a beautiful blend of Sankara, Ramakrishna and the Mahatma. He says,
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 Malayalam – nay, a person who is on a par with him in spiritual attainment. 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 far remote point in the distant horizon.
It can indubitably be said that Sree Narayana Guru and his contributions to God’s own country as well as to the entire humanity can never be ignored. Hence “posterity will not willingly let this Yugapurusha die”.