The saint-reformer, who led a quiet but significant social revolution. A champion of the humble and the downtrodden, he gave the watchwords: “One people, One Dharma, One God for all men.”
To Indians, the word Guru (Teacher) (read more about an article on Guru and Guru Purnima Speech here) is a very sacred one. It has many meanings. It may mean that which is weighty and valuable; it may mean that which is worthy of honor; it may also mean that which dispels ignorance. The word with its several meanings is known in several countries of the world, in one form or the other, both in education and in religion. Guru and Guru Hood are revered.
The mother is the first Guru to a child. Then comes the father. Later, he who gives knowledge is the Guru. After that comes the Guru who teaches the secret of a good life and of true happiness. Last of all, when wisdom comes, one is a Guru unto oneself.
Though Gurus may be many, Guru Hood is the same for all. From the knowledge a disciple gains from his Guru, he himself becomes a Guru. That Guru imparts knowledge to his disciple in turn.
Thus the Guru tradition has continued without a break from times immemorial. The Gurus appearing at different times taught men how to live a good and useful life. They have also given the world, knowledge that is of high value to man’s life. The world has witnessed many a crisis.
The knowledge given by the Guru has survived them all.
In India, the Vedic Rishis and before him the Shiva-Yogi, the Upanishad seers, and a number of others Valmiki, Vyasa, Buddha, Shankara, Ramanuja, Basava, Madhva, Samartha Ramadas, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Gandhi, Ramana – have all come in the Guru tradition. There are saints, Jnanies (men of wisdom) and lovers of mankind among them. They have helped to enrich Knowledge, Science, Art, Literature and Spiritual Values. Around them have grown up story, legend, and history.
The ‘Word’ of the Guru
Every part of India is hailed as sacred land. It is due to the influence of some Guru. But some of the Gurus have practiced in their own lives the ever-true, ever-living and universal principles of Guru Hood. They have taught men about them. They have left something very precious to mankind. They do not know the limitations of time and place.
Religious or caste differences do not bind them. They are like the pure air that blows every-where giving cheer to all. They are like the lifegiving Amrita or Ambrosia, which is welcomed by all and at all, times. They teach no distinction of birth or status. These Gurus show the greatness and the uniqueness of the enlightened ones.
They represent the time-old Guru Hood which cannot be described in words. Even though they may not speak out, there is great power in their very looks.
The teaching of the word of the Guru can show the path of freedom from sorrow and evil in the world. The ‘word’ of Narayana Guru of Kerala belongs to such a tradition.
Blessed souls in the Land of Beauty
Kerala is a state on the west coast of South India. The Western Ghats and the sea-bound it.
Rivers and streams flow there in large numbers. In olden times, it was famous as ‘Malabar’ or ‘Malayalam’. Malabar comprised two Princely States -- Travancore and Cochin. When India became free, the two states merged into one with the name ‘Kerala’.
Kerala has been well known in and outside India from very early times. Its people were brave and adventurous by nature. They sailed over the high seas and carried on trade with European countries. India became known in all those countries. Kerala is the land of the beauty of nature and of peace. Brought up there in the cradle of nature many men grew – Joe holy. It is the pride of Kerala that it gave birth to the great teacher-saint Shankara.
The capital of Kerala is Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). There is a famous temple in this city. It is the temple of Sri Anantapadmanabha.
It is one of the many names of God Vishnu. He is called ‘Padmanabha’ because a lotus or Padma rose from his Nabhi i.e., navel.
Chempazhanthy is a village twelve miles to the northeast of Thiruvananthapuram. Coconut palms grow there in plenty. Palm leaves are used to cover the roofs of houses. The place is rich in vegetation. The jack and the mango trees grow in abundance. There was a farmer’s family called ‘Vyallvaram’ in the village. The family belonged to the Ezhava sect. Madan Asan was the head of the family. Kutti Amma was his wife. To this couple, a male child was born on the twentieth of August in 1854. It was named ‘Nanu’ (which means Narayana).
Madan was not only a farmer. He was an Asan too. Asan means ‘Acharyan’ – a teacher. He knew Samskrita (Sanskrit) and had studied Astrology and Ayurveda. The people of the village highly respected him. He used to help the rustics by advising them on many matters. His dress was simple. He wore a piece to wrap around the waist, and a piece to cover the upper part of the body.
He carried with him a palm- leaf umbrella, when-ever he left home. That was the custom in those days in Kerala.
As Madan was learned in Samskrita, he knew well the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, our great epics. He used to give talks on them in simple language once a week, sitting in the verandah of his house. The people of the village used to gather and listen to him with great interest. Nanu too would listen with interest. Some times when Madan was not present, he had to give the talks himself.
Nanu’s mother was true to her name ‘Kutti’ – i.e., a child without a blemish. She was intelligent and full of kindness. She was ever calm in her work.
Nanu Becomes Nanu Asan
Young Nanu was slim, active and clever. He had a good physique. He showed great interest both in studies and in games. He was always the first in the class. His writing was correct and easy to read. He excelled his companions in hitting a mark; at one attempt he could bring down a mango on a branch far above.
Nanu lost his mother when he was fifteen years old. Then he left home without even telling his father about it. He went to Karunagapalli, a village fifty miles away from his native place. He studied under a generous and liberal-minded teacher called Raman Pillai Asan. Raman Pillai taught Nanu with love. Soon Nanu became a scholar in Samskrita. He studied the Vedas and the Upanishads. He led a pure life. His knowledge earned for him the respect of many. He became famous as Nanu Asan.
Thirteen years after the death of his mother, Nanu returned once to his village to see his father, who was on his deathbed. It was a great joy for the father to see his son after a long time. He was proud of his son who had become an Asan too.
He addressed him as a Vidwan (scholar). He also desired to be fed by his sacred hands.
Very little is known about the married life of Nanu Asan. In a nearby village called Chirainkal, there was a doctor who used to cure snake bites and scorpion stings. He had a daughter. Nanu’s sisters made him agree to marry that girl. The marriage was a simple affair. Nanu was not at all interested in it. He was interested in reciting the Ramayana and explaining it to others. The sisters themselves invested the bride with the ‘Tali’(emblem of the wedding on his behalf. The bride stayed away in her parents’ house, as was the custom in Malayalam in those days. Nanu used to visit his father-in-law’s house often. His wife passed away after a few years. It is not known whether she bore him any children.
‘Parivrajaka’ (A Spiritual Wanderer)
After the death of his father and his wife Nanu Asan continued his life of a wandering Sannyasin.
He became a ‘Parivrajaka’ (one who wanders from place to place in quest of Truth). During his travels, he came in contact with two Gurus, who left a deep impression on him. One of them was called Kunjan Pillai. He was also famous as Chettambi Swami. Thikkad Ayyavu was the other Guru. Chettambi Swami was a great scholar. He understood the innate powers of Nanu Asan. He encouraged Nanu who was shy by nature. He induced him to compose poems in Samskrita.
Nanu Asan wrote ‘Nava Manjari’ – a string of nine stanzas. It was dedicated to Chettambi Swami.
Thikkad Ayyavu knew the Science of Yoga well.
He taught it to Nanu Asan.
Learning from the sacred books and the practice of Yoga did not give peace of mind to Nanu Asan. He continued his wanderings in quest of Truth. By and by, he came to a place called Aruvipuram. It was a forest area. There were hills around. A gurgling rivulet also flowed there.
It was a solitary place. There was deep peace.
Nanu stayed there and entered into meditation.
Only cowherds used to visit that place now and then. They were full of wonder to see a Yogi in meditation. They spread the news far and wide.
Soon people began to come in-groups to see the Yogi. In the course of time, the number of visitors grew. This disturbed Nanu. He tried to hide in greater solitude. His meditations too became deeper. At last, he realized peace of mind. He got confidence in himself and faith in life. He realized that true joy lied in doing good to others. He found divine joy in human association. Soon, Yogi Nanu’s place became a center of sacred pilgrimage. An Ashram was founded there. There was no temple for worship. At the suggestion of Yogi, Nanu people agreed to build a temple for Lord Shiva there.
The question in the minds of all was: How should the idol be installed? Should they follow the old practices and customs?”
Dedicating the Temple A New Way
The day for the dedication of the temple arrived. Thousands of people assembled with great eagerness. “How will the idol of Shiva be installed? With what chanting and rites will it be done?” The large assembly was anxiously waiting for the great moment.
Yogi Nanu rose in the early hours of the day.
He bathed in the rivulet. He stood amidst the people in deep meditation. He offered Arati (the sacred flame) to the Lingam, which was the idol of Lord Shiva. Then he stood with eyes uplifted towards the heavens. He offered a silent prayer. His prayer was: “May the Grace of Lord Shiva increase without bounds! May the poor and the hungry find happiness! May they progress well! May they find without fail, their daily bread! May all men be truthful, and work to increase the happiness of one another by mutual aid! May they become purer day by day! May hatred and jealousy disappear! May the mind, which honors the meanest in God’s creation, take shape in all men! May at least the least part of Absolute Truth take root in all! May peace come to all!”.
Tears were dripping down the eyes of Nanu. He had installed the idol of Lord Shiva. He did it as the representative of the common man.
There was peace around. Daybreak was silently on the march all those who had gathered there felt wonderful joy, which they could not explain.
From that day, Yogi Nanu became’ Narayana Guru’. The Guru had shown a new way: it was, that worship needs only a pure heart. It does not need the chanting and techniques of a priest.
Nanu had shown the ever-new ideal. It was the law, which had come down the ages. He taught that all are equal before God, without any distinction of high or low.
Superstitions die hard. Sacred Shivaratri day arrived. At the place where Narayana Guru had initiated a pure and simple tradition, a big fair gathered. That was also like any other fair! To keep vigil the night over, there was music and Kirtans by minstrels. Shiva’s idol was carried on an elephant in procession. There was a display of fireworks. At midnight, a meeting was held. The Guru presided.
The meeting commenced. Speaker after speaker delivered long orations on the ideals of the Guru. The people assembled there heard in rapt attention. A small group of people sat apart from the others at a distance. They could not mix with a large group of people. They were ‘untouchables’ – unfit to be touched. Many people then had the wrong belief that some people were outcastes. The Guru’s eyes turned towards them. He then asked the speaker to stop for a while. He beckoned two children sitting among the ‘untouchables’ and spoke kind words to them. He asked them to sit by his side, and said to himself “These are also God’s children as everyone else is.” His compassion was visible in his eyes, which were wet with tears. The Guru then gave his message. It was as follows: Without distinction of caste or birth, Without hatred of other religions, We all live here in brotherhood, This is the ideal that is here, Let every one of you know this.
The Gentle Reformer
This was the beginning of a Movement for Social Reform by Narayana Guru. ‘Untouchability’, animal sacrifice to please the gods, and the evil of drink existed in Travancore (Kerala) State also, as in all the other parts of India. The people forgot the fact that ‘all are men’. Now and then religious teachers, who came upon the scene, taught about the true nature of ‘Dharma’ – the law of Life. But still, superstitious practices were the order of the day. The reformation was not an easy task. But Narayana Guru freely mingled with the people and tried to make them understand their follies. He argued with them in a gentle manner. He won their hearts and worked hard to put an end to the practice of animal sacrifice. He made them pull down the temples meant for such sacrifices. He had new temples and schools built on the very spot by them.
The Guru would be pained to see the harm done by men to animals. Once when he was traveling in a bullock-cart, he could not bear to see the pain inflicted on the dumb animals by the cart-driver. He got down and walked twenty miles to reach the destination. Many a time he refused to take the milk and fasted because the milk-men did not leave enough milk to the tender calves.
In this way, the compassionate Narayana Guru traveled for over fifteen years in the land of Malayalam. He tried to wipe out the superstitious beliefs and practices of the lowly and the lost in society. In short, he tried to transform the very way of life that the people fol owed. He also taught them the need to lead a life of cleanliness, keeping their houses and surroundings free from dirt. He taught them the way to lead a good life.
Many young men were attracted to the Guru by his compassion. They founded an institution called ‘Narayana Dharmaparipalana Yogam’.
In 1903, the Guru traveled to Cochin State. The public accorded him great ovation wherever he went. He ended differences and advised parties opposed to each other not to run to Law Courts.
The Travancore High Court admired his teaching. It made mention of the Guru’s efforts in its reports.
A new phase began in the Guru’s life in 1904.
He decided to give up his wandering life and settle down in a place to continue his ‘Sadhana’ (spiritual endeavor). He chooses Shivagiri, a place near Varkala, which is twenty miles to the north of Thiruvananthapuram. It is also quite close to the seacoast. After he settled down there in a coconut-palm leaf cottage, the Guru’s Sadhana also took a new turn. Goddess ‘Amba’ became his deity of worship.
Very soon Varkala also became a place of pilgrimage. The Guru started a Samskrita school there. Poorboys and orphans were taken under his care. They were given an education. They were also taught some useful art. There was no caste distinction at all. The Guru himself was absorbed in some work during the greater part of the day.
Many devotees used to visit him seeking relief in their problems. His teaching then was as follows
“Our fingers, hands, and feet should always find work. They are like restless horses. If we do not keep them engaged in sufficient work, we shall fall ill.”
He set an example himself to this maxim. He not only cooked his food but also washed his clothes.
Devotees from distant places like Simhala (Sree Lanka) and Mangalore used to visit the Ashram at Varkala. They saw that the Guru had no attachment to any kind of work. But in spite of it, he got built many temples and founded educational institutions to teach English and Samskrita, during the nine years from 1904 to 1913. At Varkala, a temple for Anjengo (Anjaneya) was built. Temples were built at different places – Tiruchur, Kannanur, Tellicherry, Calicut, and Mangalore. A temple was built for Sharada Devi in 1912, at Shivagiri. Worship at such temples helped to reduce to a large extent superstitious beliefs and practices.
‘Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra’ (The Brotherhood of All)
In 1913, the Guru founded an Ashram at Aluva.
It was called ‘Advaita Ashram’. This was an important event in the life of the Guru in his spiritual quest. That Ashram was dedicated to a great principle – ‘Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra’ (all men are equal in the eyes of God). This became the motto of the new Ashram.
When Narayana Guru attained the age of sixty, his birth-day was observed throughout the west-coast from Mangalore to Simhala. Between the years 1918 and 1923 he visited the island of Simhala and taught the philosophy of ‘Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra’. In 1921, a Conference of Universal Brotherhood was held at Aluva. Again in 1924, a conference of all religions was held at Aluva. The Guru stressed the need for a ‘Brahma Vidyalaya’ for the comparative study of various religious faiths. An institution called Narayana Guru Kula was established at the Nilgiris.
Two Memorable Events
Two memorable events took place at Shivagiri after the Guru settled down there. The first was the visit of Poet Rabindranath Tagore, and the second was that of Mahatma Gandhi. The visits of these two great men of modern India to the Ashram show the greatness of the Guru.
Rabindranath Tagore was on a visit to South India. Having heard about Narayana Guru, he desired to call on him. The people of the villages around the Ashram welcomed the poet with great enthusiasm. It was almost a welcome befitting a king. He was taken in a procession on an elephant. People acclaimed with great joy the meeting of the Nobel Laureate and the Guru.
The Guru and the Mahatma met in 1925. It was an equal y significant event. The Mahatma’s philosophy of life and his constructive program fascinated the Guru. He had given full support to Khadi, village industries and above all to the cause of uplifting the classes which had been pushed down, and particularly to the attempts to end Untouchability’, Swami Dayananda, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and Swami Vivekananda started a Social Reform Movement in India; this caught the imagination of thoughtful young men. Narayana Guru had done it in his own way in Kerala.
The worship of God in a very simple manner, and the equality of all in the eyes of God – these principles he had practiced. His main aim was to dispell all superstitious beliefs and Practices. The members of the Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam worked for this aim. They thought of securing the right of temple entry to people of all castes. They tried to organize this Reform Movement on the lines of Satyagraha taught by Mahatma Gandhi.
The Vykom Satyagraha
Three young men, Kelappan, Madhava and Krishnaswamy took up the leadership of the Satyagraha Movement. They got in touch with Gandhiji, ‘obtained his blessings and started Satyagraha in a town called ‘Vykom’. At Vykom, the way to the temple of Lord Shiva lay through a particular street; Harijans were not allowed to walk there. The Satyagraha was to put an end to this unjust rule. Gandhiji was giving directions to the volunteers from Ahmedabad. Narayana Guru did not participate in the Satyagraha. He encouraged the volunteers who were all his devotees. People who believed in very old practices opposed the Movement. The Satyagrahis suffered much trouble at their hands. But the Satyagrahis bore them with patience. At last, in April 1925, Gandhiji himself came to Vykom to see that the question was settled. It was on this occasion that the Guru and Gandhiji met.
Gandhiji had great regard for the Guru. The Satyagraha succeeded only partially.
Of course, the right of way in the public street was given to all people. But it was only in 1937 that the Travancore State Government issued an order in the name of the Maharaja and gave the right of entry to temples to the Harijans also, for the first time in the whole of India.
The Satyagraha ended. The Guru got a Primary School constructed for the use of poor children, as a memorial to it, on the spot where the Satyagraha was conducted.
The Passing Away of the Guru
The Guru became seriously ill in September 1928. He could not leave the bed for some time.
Devotees came in huge crowds to have the last Darshan. In the same year, his devotees in many places, mostly in Kerala, Madras, and Simhala celebrated the birthday of the Guru. His chief disciple Dr. Natarajan (later Nataraja Guru – who also recently passed away) was then in Geneva.
The Guru’s birthday was celebrated in that distant city of Europe also. On the twentieth of September, the Guru passed away at Varkala, a place that was very dear to him. His followers felt a great loss. The world too lost a truly great teacher.
Thus Nanu, the son of a farmer, who became ‘Asan’, ‘Yogi ‘and ‘Guru’, found his final resting place. Thousands of his disciples who followed him with absolute faith derived peace, spiritual strength and satisfaction.
Narayana Guru was a great scholar in Samskrita. He wrote a number of books both in Samskrita and in Malayalam. ‘Jati Mimamsa’ (an inquiry into caste), a poem in five stanzas is of great significance. It gives in a nut-shell the Guru’s philosophy of life. The first stanza is in Samskrita.
The rest of the stanzas are in Malayalam. The gist of the first stanza is as follows: “There is no reason for caste differences among human beings. All those who possess’ humanity, are human beings.
Just as there are different languages and different systems, though human beings seem to be different, there can be no reason for caste differences. Humanity is common to all.” Thus the Guru did not recognize differences of caste.
The gist of the second stanza is as follows:
“One caste, one religion, one God for all the people of the world; one form and the same blood in all; I cannot find any differences.”
This teaches the equality of all human beings.
It is another form of the teaching of the Brotherhood of Man (Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra).
How this maxim should be practiced in life was explained by the Guru as follows:
“Men may differ in their faiths, their languages and their modes of dressing; but there can be no evil in interdining and intermarriage because all belong to the same kind of creation.”
He practiced this in his own life. His aim was to build a society without caste distinctions.
A message delivered by the Guru, on the occasion of the anniversary of Away Ashram, is of great value in understanding the Guru’s philosophy. It said: ‘A man’s religion is a matter of his personal belief. This naturally depends on the growth of the man’s mind. It may, therefore, be said that each man has his own religion.
All the religions of the world accept ‘Atman’s the pith and core of religion. All religions speak of Truth and Dharma. The aim of all is the same. Such being the truth why should people fight for their religions? This is indeed unwise.
One should not lose one’s peace of mind just because religions are different. Do not all people try hard to get happiness? Are there not differences in the clothes that men wear? Some like to grow beards, while others may like to have a clean-shaven face. Wise men do not quarrel over these things. Do not people speak different languages? In spite of such differences, are not all men alike? Why should men, therefore, hate one another because their religions are different? If people fight one another the only possible result is destruction. All men are of one Caste. Religion is one. Their God is one.”
‘Sarve Janah Sukhino Bhavantu’
The Guru did not desire anyone to give up his religion and accept that of another. This indeed is the universal message that Narayana Guru has left for the world. This has in it the deep desire of the prayer ‘Sarve Janah Sukhino Bhavantu’ (May all men be happy). The Guru’s greatness lies in giving a practical shape to this ideal. This is the age-old principle that Guru Hood has given to mankind from the earliest times. If this is practiced in life, truly, the earth will be transformed into Heaven. As a Samskrita Poet has said, ‘Shivamastu Jagatam’ – the world becomes filled with ‘Shiva’ i.e., bliss and well being.
Narayana Guru’s literature is uplifting in nature. The Guru also encouraged and inspired many young men to become writers. Kumaran Asan, the first Poet Laureate of Kerala, came into prominence because of the Guru’s direct help.
Narayana Guru is worthy of the highest respect as a symbol of immortal Guru Hood.
The Way Shown by the Guru
Some stories about the Guru will help to illustrate some important ideas of his message and his philosophy of life. Here is one of them:
One bright morning, the Guru was standing under a mango tree at Shivagiri. A young Brahmachari disciple had got up in the early morning as usual. He gathered flowers. He went from temple to temple and was busy prostrating before the idols and offering flowers. In one of the temples, there was a beautiful portrait of the Guru. The Brahmachari placed flowers before the portrait, lighted camphor, and with folded hands recited the Samskrita stanza, which sings the glory of the Guru “Guru is Brahma, Guru is Vishnu, and Guru is Maheshwara.” At that time a number of devotees were standing around the Guru. He said to them: “Look at this strange thing! I am standing here in flesh and blood. I have not had my breakfast yet. My portrait is more fortunate than I am. It has camphor light, floral offering, and song recital before it.” In this humorous way, the Guru taught that such is the way of thoughtless custom.
The future society of India should not remain apart from the rest of mankind. Humanity should be its sole base. For this, the Guru advocated inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. Here is an example: A rich young man went to Europe for higher studies. He desired to marry a girl there. The girl also gave her consent. Both of them came to India. The boy’s father was afraid that society would be displeased if the marriage took place. The Guru got the marriage solemnized in his Ashram. Thereafter everything went on happily.
Some Sayings of the Guru
Have the objects for which the temples were created been realized in practice? The worship of Ishwara should not go on only in the temples.
It should fill every heart and every home.
All living beings form one brotherhood. This ought to be the law of life. This being so, how can we sacrifice animals? How can we eat animals without mercy?
God may be worshipped anywhere. Idols are not always necessary. It is the ideal that counts.
Declare truth and love as well as dutifulness in all your temples. Put them into action in your lives too.
THE EVIL OF LIQUOR
Liquor is as evil as poison. It should not be manufactured at all. One should neither offer it to others nor drink it.
Education is a means for anyone who desires progress in this world. Therefore, it has to be given to all. Like men, women also should be educated.
The wealth of a country cannot increase if the people do not engage themselves in the industry. Our children should be trained in Industrial Schools.