Nārāyana Guru (नारायण गुरु,നാരായണ ഗുരു) (1855 - 1928), also known as Sree Nārāyana Guru Swami, was a saint, sage, prophet and social reformer of India. The Guru was born into an Ezhava family, in an era when people from backward communities like the Ezhavas faced much social injustices in the caste-ridden Kerala society. Gurudevan, as he was fondly known to his followers, revolted against casteism and worked on propagating new values of freedom in spirituality and of social equality, thereby transforming the Kerala society and as such he is adored as a prophet.
Nārāyana Guru is revered for his Vedic knowledge, poetic proficiency, openness to the views of others, non-violent philosophy and his unrelenting resolve to set aright social wrongs. Nārāyana Guru was instrumental in setting the spiritual foundations for social reform in today's Kerala and was one of the most successful social reformers who tackled caste in India. He demonstrated a path to social emancipation without invoking the dualism of the oppressed and the oppressor.
Guru stressed the need for the spiritual and social upliftment of the downtrodden by their own efforts through the establishment of temples and educational institutions. In the process he brushed aside the Hindu religious conventions based upon Chaturvarna.
Nārāyana Guru was born in 1856, in the village of Chempazhanthi near Thiruvananthapuram, the son of Madan Asan, a farmer, and Kutti Amma. The boy was dotingly called Nānu. Madan was also a teacher ("Asān") who was learned in Sanskrit and proficient in Astrology and Ayurveda. As a boy, Nānu would listen to his father with keen interest when he narrated stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the simple folks of his village. Nānu was initiated into the traditional formal education Ezhuthinirithal by Chempazhanthi Pillai, a local schoolmaster and a village officer. Besides schooling, young Nānu continued to be educated at home, under the guidance of both his father and uncle Krishnan Vaidyan who was a reputed Ayurvedic physician and a Sanskrit scholar, where he was taught the basics of the Tamil and Sanskrit languages and traditional subjects such as Siddharūpam, Bālaprobhodhanam and Amarakośam.
As a child, Nanu was very reticent and was intensely drawn to worship at the local temple. He would criticise his own relatives for social discrimination and the apartheid-like practice of segregating children from, supposedly, lower castes. He preferred solitude and would be found immersed in meditation for hours on end. He showed strong affinity for poetics and reasoning, composing hymns and singing them in praise of God. He lost his mother when he was 15. Nānu spent the most part of his early youth assisting his father in tutoring, and his uncle in the practice of Ayurveda, while devoting the rest of his time for devotional practices at the temples nearby.
Nanu returned home to spend some time with his father, who was on the death bed. For a short period he ran a village school for the children of his neighbourhood. While continuing his quest for "the ultimate truth", Nānu would often spend time in the confines of temples, writing poems and hymns and lecturing to villagers on philosophy and moral values.
Nārāyana Guru’s later literary and philosophical masterpiece Atmopadeśa Śatakam (one hundred verses of self-instruction, written in Malayalam circa 1897) is considered a fertile poetic expression, encapsulating the Guru’s philosophy of egalitarianism, emanating from the author’s attainment of an experienced state of primordial knowledge and quintessence of the Universe; and his ensuing ability to view the human race, from a dignified and elevated perspective, as nothing but one of a genus, in unqualified equality and without any racial, religious, caste or other discriminations whatsoever.
Learning from the sacred books and the practice of Yoga did not quench the thirst of Nanu. He continued his wanderings in quest of Truth. By and by, he came to a beautiful place called Aruvipuram. It was a forest area. There were hills around. A gurgling rivulet (of river Neyyar) also flowed there. As more people sought him out for healing or advice, he and his disciples felt the need for a regular temple for worshipping Shiva. At a beautiful spot near the river, he had his followers build a small canopy of coconut leaves and mango leaves over an altar on a rock jutting out in the water. The year was 1888. They improvised lamps with shells and arranged them in rows. They were lighted at dusk and a piper began to play devotional tunes. The whole place was soon filled with pious village folk. Gurudevan, who had been sitting apart and meditating all night, stood at midnight and walked into the river. As thousands watched silently (If silence had music, the atmosphere was filled with it, wrote one correspondent) he descended into the river and then reemerged, holding an idol of Shiva. He stood beneath the canopy with it in his arms for three hours, totally lost in meditation, tears flowing down his cheeks. Finally, at three in the morning, he installed the idol on the pedestal. His action was equivalent of overturning the tables of the money changers, or refusing to give up a seat on the bus. From the beginning of time, so far as anyone knew, only Brahmins had ever installed an idol. Yet when Gurudevan performed the sacred rite it appeared so natural for him to pick up a small rock and install it. To those who questioned the timing of the consecration saying it was not an astrologically auspicious time, he replied: Horoscope is to be cast after the birth of a child, not before''. He instructed to place a plaque containing a motto on the temple wall which read as:
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 practice). He chose Sivagiri, twenty miles north of Thiruvananthapuram. Goddess 'Amba' became his deity of worship.
Next, he started a Sanskrit school in Varkala. Poor boys and orphans were taken under his care. They were given education regardless of caste distinctions. Temples were built at different places - Thrissur, Kannur, Anjuthengu, Tellicherry, Calicut, Mangalore. A temple was built for Sharada Devi in 1912, at Sivagiri. Worship at such temples helped reduce to a large extent superstitious beliefs and practices.
One of the temples built in Thrissur is the Sri Narayana Temple at Koorkenchery. The temple has a school in its compound named Sri Narayana School. The School encourages students' talents by organising talent competitions. These competitions, regularly held every year, have been a platform for youngsters to stand up and recognise their talents.
In 1913, he founded the Advaita Ashram at Aluva. This was an important event in his spiritual quest. This 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 Nārāyana Guru attained the age of sixty, his birth day was observed throughout the west-coast from Mangalore to Sri Lanka. Between 1918 and 1923 he visited Sri Lanka many times. In 1921, a Conference of Universal Brotherhood was held at Aluva. Again in 1924, a conference of all religions was held there. Guru stressed the need for a Brahma Vidyalaya for a comparative study of different religious faiths.
Sree Nārāyana Guru had many followers and disciples. Nataraja Guru, a notable disciple of Sree Nārāyana Guru, introduced Guru's visions and ideals to the western world. He established Narayana Gurukulam in 1923 at the Nilgiris with the blessings of Nārāyana Guru.
On June 14, 1927 Sree Narayana Guru consecrated a mirror - with the message "Om shanti" written on the surface - in a temple in Kalavankode. The prathishta of the mirror is symbolic in that Advaita philosophers interpret the mirror as the visible symbol of the unity of the Finite and the Infinite. That was the last prathishta that the Guru would do. Schools rather than temples are to be preferred, he exhorted in a dramatic shift of focus. Gurudevan participated in the anniversary of the SNDP Yogam held at Palluruthi in 1927. It was a splendid meeting which demonstrated the sincere, devout faith of the people in Gurudevan. T. K. Madhavan was one of the chief architects of this meeting. In 1928 Gurudevan took part in the special meeting of the SNDP Yogam at Kottayam and gave away registration certificates to the branch organizations.Sivagiri pilgrimage was conceived by Vallabhasseri Govindan Vaidyar and T K Kittan Writer. It was duly approved by Gurudevan on January, 1928. The setting was SNDP's Nagambadam Shiva temple. It was 3 pm and Gurudevan was resting under a mango tree when the two presented the concept of Sivagiri pilgrimage. Before giving its his blessings he set out the goals of such a pilgrimage. He said: "Let the pilgrims congregate at the beginning of the European New Year. It should be Dhanu 16-17 in Malayalam calendar. Let the pilgrims observe 10 days'self-purification according to Sri Buddha's principles of five purities (pancha dharma) - body, food, mind, word, deed.
He ruled that pilgrims could wear yellow clothes - the colour of the garments Sri Buddha wore. Let no one purchase yellow silk because we have recommended yellow garments. Not even new clothes are required on the pilgrimage. A pilgrim can dip a white garment in turmeric water and wear after drying. The pilgrimage should be conducted with simplicity and preferably be accompanied by the chanting of hymns. There should be no shouting and pilgrims should scrupulously avoid trappings of ostentation.
To Govindan Vaidyar and Kitten Writer, Gurudevan counted on his fingers the goals of the pilgrimage, explaining how to achieve them. The goals were the promotion of
He advised them to organise a series of lectures on the themes with experts conducting them. The lectures should be listened to attentively. More important, the principles should be put into practice. Success must accompany efforts. Only then will the country and the people benefit. this must be the core purpose of Sivagiri pilgrimage.
Gurudevan went to Vellur Mutt at Vaikom to rest. There he was taken ill. He went to Alwaye and later to Trichur for treatment. Dr. Krishnan took Gurudevan to Palghat. From there Gurudevan travelled to Madras for treatment.
Guru’s philosophy is exemplified in his mystical writings that are truly interchanging warps and wefts of ethics, logic, aesthetics and metaphysics woven into masterpieces of silken rich poetry. Guru’s literary works in Malayalam, Sanskrit and Tamil are of a conceptual and aesthetic quality at par with the Upanishads.
At the time of its conception, Nārāyana Guru’s philosophy was in many respects ahead of its time and focused on a futuristic world order that could be shaped from his philosophical connotations that are underlain with transcendental aesthetics and logic embodied in knowledge and pure reason. Most of the serious scholars of Nārāyana Guru’s philosophy have been from generations beyond his lifetime; and this list keeps growing.
Guru had followers from all walks of life. Some of these were atheists. An Advaithin to the core, he did not differentiate people on the basis of their relegion, caste, colour or beliefs. He was tolerant toward all philosophies that stood for the progresss of mankind.
To avoid the attempts made by a section of his followers to identify him with the community he was born into, Nārāyana Guru was forced to state explicitly that he did not belong to any particular caste or religion. Through a message he sent in the year 1916, he proclaimed : It is years since I left castes and religions. Yet some people think that I belong to their caste. That is not correct. I do not belong to any particular caste or religion.
Since his lifetime Nārāyana Guru has been conferred formal recognitions and honours by the State, intelligentsia and society. In 1901 the State Census Manual of Travancore recorded Sree Nārāyana as a revered "Guru" and an erudite Sanskrit scholar. A sharp drop in the statistics of the commission of crime was also attributed to the correcting and moralizing influence of Nārāyana Guru on the society. In 1904 the then Maharajah of Travancore exempted Nārāyana Guru from personal appearances in court, an honour recognizing the Guru as a distinguished living personality.
The first statue of the Guru was conceived by Moorkoth Kumaran and sculpted by an Italian sculptor Prof. Tavaroli whilst the Guru was still alive. The bronze statue, which took 14 months to complete, was installed at the Jaggannaatha temple at Thalassery and unveiled on 13th March 1927, after the consecration of the statue by Bodhananda Swamikal, the disciple and then spiritual successor-designate to Nārāyana Guru.
On the Guru's Mahasamadhi (passing away), the famed Jnanapith award winner poet Mahakavi G. Sankara Kurup paid tribute to Nārāyana Guru by writing a Malayalam verse venerating the Guru as The Second Buddha. Sree Nārāyana Guru's legacy continues to be revered at esteemed levels within social, intellectual and spiritually organised communities worldwide.
All across the State of Kerala, and outside of the State, hundreds of small chapel-like Guru Mandirams are devoted to the reverence and worship of Sree Nārāyana Guru. Most recently, a distinctively styled iconographic statue of Nārāyana Guru named the Jnana Vigraham was conceived and created by a team of artists, as a suggestive model for the future, to improve the aesthetic quality of statues of Nārāyana Guru kept in homes and placed in Guru Mandirams worldwide.
At the turn of the 21th Century, Sree Nārāyana Guru was named as The Malayalee of the Century by Kerala's leading daily Malayala Manorama. The full cover-page spread of the newspaper was dedicated to Nārāyana Guru in its last issue of the Century on 31 December 1999. So also Nārāyana Guru was featured first among the "100 great lives" nominated by Malayala Manorama on the occasion of Malayala Manorama's centenary celebrations in the year 1988.