Sree Narayana Guru: Founder of an Intellectual Religion
by C I Issac on 01 Nov 2009 12 Comments

Kerala of the foregone century’s first half caught the attention of the rest of the world by effecting revolutionary changes in the socio-economic as well as spiritual framework. It is interesting to see that long before these radical changes took place, Swami Vivekananda, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, portrayed this place/society as a ‘lunatic asylum’ [1].

Anyone can understand the intrinsic value of the depth and extent of the changes brought about in a place where socio-religious and economic transactions were determined by lunatic conditions. Hence the reality is that the changes did not maintain momentum in the second half of the bygone century and later. Thus we can see a rupture in the onward progressive socio-economic and religious movements of this sort. Hence an enquiry in this direction is essential. This enquiry will be complete with the finding of the fountainhead of the said reform movements.

Kerala’s social relations were entirely different from the rest of India, and were determined on most primitive transactional concepts of pollution or irrational discriminative institution popularly known as ‘aiyatham’ (un-seeability, untouchability, un-approachability) [2]. The specific conditions of Kerala’s pollution relations, aiyatham, were not simply an affair of Brahmin versus Shudra social formations. The ruling social ideology of this land, i.e. compartmentalized jati (caste) system differed from the chaturvarna (traditional four-fold caste system) practiced by conventional Hindu society.

In short, this jati system was once the base of all social justice of the land. All the jatis who were part of the Shudra social formation practiced the dreadful social discriminative system without a sense of blemish. In the specific case of Kerala, all jatis other than Namboothiri [native Brahmin jati] are part of the Shudra social structure. In the jati hierarchical order, Nair comes next to Namboothiri in the social status ladder of status. “Nairs by virtue of their association with the Namboothiris had a high status in the society and they observed the rules of caste in all their rigidity” [3]. The same Nairs without any fear of pollution or loss of jati status usually kept concubines from Velutheda (washermen) and Chaliya (weaver) communities. The Nairs, being a warrior community, while in the battlefront, could touch persons of low caste and eat and drink in their houses without the fear of losing their caste [4]. These are some of the contradictions and paradoxes that governed pre-modern Kerala.

But the Shudra jatis [5] or subalterns of Kerala kept the pollution concepts alive between themselves during the period under study. Even within the jati framework there existed powerful and hierarchical discriminative (aiyatham) mechanism that functioned uninterruptedly for several centuries throughout Kerala.  Brahmin (Namboothiri) jati being at the apex of Kerala’s jati pecking order was not free from intra-jati anomalies. Each and every Brahmin household (tharavadu) was a hatchery of innumerable untoward social practices / relations and social notions. The very foundations of these unequal and discriminative social relations of the time were made fragile by Sree Narayana Guru, a great saint, through popularizing Sree Sankara’s monism [Advaitam]. This year is the 150th birth anniversary of such a great revolutionary that rarely glitters in the annals of history.

It is interesting to see that the women of subaltern jatis of Kerala enjoyed comparatively a good level of social freedom; the women of elite jatis - particularly Brahmin jatis - were subjected to various repressive conditions in their respective societal units. The social canons that prevailed amongst the subaltern jatis ensured a good amount of social freedom to their women, but its fruits were reduced by the general social sanctions of the day. The intra-juridical system of smarthavicharam [6] that existed amongst Brahmin jatis, based on smriti (believed to be authored by Manu, the ancient Hindu law-giver] laws, was cruel.

While considering the rotten concepts regarding marriage [7] amongst the Namboothiris, this trial has no moral fervour. This arbitrary trial under smarthavicharam resulted in the ostracism of poor women from the community; it gave sadistic pleasure to the custodians of this rotten social order. It is believed this practice crept into Brahmin society after the eighth century CE by force of Sankara smriti [8] and continued until 1918 [9]. Above all, a good number of Namboothiri women were destined to live as chronic spinsters within the four walls of their household [Illam] due to the unchanging intra-jati customary commandments [10].

The Nair jati recognized the freedom of women and accepted matrilineal system of inheritance as the mode of succession. Whether or not the womenfolk of the Nair jati really enjoyed the fruits of social freedom ensured by their jati laws of the day is a subject for further study. But no doubt the intra-jati hierarchical relations of the Nair jati subjected them to some disabilities. The mannappedi and pulappedi were swords of Damocles that hung over assertive Nair ladies prior to the eighteen century CE.

These functioned as the two strategic weapons rarely used by the Karnavar (eldest male member who acted as head administrator of the Nair household) against the hardline/self-assured Nair ladies of the day. It is the customary belief that in the night of a certain day of every year [11] a male/adult member of the subaltern/pollution creating jati can by touch or throwing a stone over a Nair lady, claim her for him. There is a suspicion that behind the operation of this dreadful custom that used to shut the mouth of the Nair lady, some malicious designs of the covetous Karnavar were hidden.

That no Mannan [12] or Pulayan [13] dared to violate hierarchical jati values unilaterally and pollute a Nair lady without the consent or silent permission from the all-powerful corners of the respective tharavadus (households) was the burning reality of the social relations of the day. All the said were stories regarding the freedom or limitation enjoyed/subjected to by the women of the non-Brahmin aristocracy of early Kerala. On the other hand, society in general until the nineteenth century gave least importance to the purity of conjugal relations. P.K. Balakrishnan’s study gives a thumbnail picture of the lucid and fragile moral stature of Kerala society of the said duration [14].

In the first five decades of the last century, Kerala witnessed a Hindu renaissance. The sprit of reawakening continued over this land for over a period of half a century and cleansed the societal sin of a millennium without much pain. Behind this wonderful social transformation lay the hegemonic role of Sree Narayana Guru. He ably introduced a multifaceted strategy for the modification of the rusted Malayali psyche. The average Malayali for a thousand years was stunned before the nectar of Advaitam, monism, was presented by Adi Sankara (788 – 820 CE). For more than a millennium, the doctrine of non-duality [15] remained in the psyche of average Malayalis as an indigestive one.

At this critical juncture of Malayali social life, Sree Narayana Guru played the role of an incarnation and brought Sankara’s philosophy of monism from its lofty ivory towers and presented it before the multitudes in an easily digestible form. He presented the glory and synchronization of Sankara’s view of oneness/non-dualism in a more popular catchphrase of “one jati, one religion, one god for man.” Through this exposition he was able to dictate the oneness of humanity, the sum and substance of Sree Sankara’s philosophy, to all levels/strata of society. It was not an evasion or a strategic retreat from contemporary social realities.

This revolutionary disclosure of the Guru was really the true reflection of Hindutva. The Hindu society of his days was under pressure of external threat of proselytism and internal social antagonism based on birth/jati. His new catchphrase was sufficient to keep the Hindu jatis in their respective religious conviction or dharma. His was an age of mass conversion from lesser Hindu jatis to various alien dharmas. Guru’s endeavour really put a brake to the notorious missionary attempt of taking advantage of Hindu delinquency.

Through this message, he was able to redefine the role of religion in the social life of man. The hermeneutic of Guru’s mission was to establish the idea that religion is for the well being of all humanity, and that man is not for the sake of religion.

At the same time, he was able to keep society in its own linear culture and tradition without infringing the existing social structure, and simultaneously defused and neutralized the age-old diabolic social relations and established recognition to egalitarian social values from top to bottom without shedding a drop of blood. That is why Rabindranath Tagore once pictured him: “I have been touring different parts of the world. During these travels, I have had good fortune to come into contact with several Saints and Rishies. But I have frankly to admit that I have not come across one who is spiritually greater than Swami Narayana Guru of Malayalam” [16].

Narayana Guru defused the alien cultural and religious invasion by countering missionary methods. Later his paradigms were freely used by all Hindu jatis to protect their culture and tradition from the onslaughts of agents of proselytizing religions. To a certain extent his conceptualization of monism through the humanist approach of ‘one jati, one religion and one god for man’ became an answer to the intolerant alien religious enterprises that worked freely amongst the subalterns of Hindu society with abundant material, men and money. His new reading regarding the concepts religion, God and jati are the same that are highlighted in the classical Hindu view.

Thus he reiterated that one jati, one religion and one god was nothing but the Rg Vedic mantra:
Indram mitram varunam agni mahoo
Ratho diviasa suparnno guruth man
Eakam sat vipra bahuta vantanti
Agnim yamam matareesana mahoo

[It signifies that the all-adorning gods like Indra, Varuna, Agni, etc are synonyms of the same and also are the different forms of the same God. There is only one true God but enlightened men suggest different paths to realize the ultimate reality]
But Hindu society reduced and distorted this classical view into a tool of discrimination and exploitation.

Here we can visualize in him the sanatana, eternal, Hindu. Finally he concluded that whatever may be the religion of man, the secret of healthy social living is ‘to become each and everyone as good’. Beyond a shadow of doubt he opposed proselytism and believed that it is not an ultimate solution, but will generate future social crisis. Converts from the lower strata of Hindu society to Christianity during the colonial period are now causing several social and theological problems in contemporary Christian society of Kerala, a pointer to the relevance of the disclosures of Guru. 

As a strong Advaitin (monist), he was not ready to bypass realities that evolved from non-Indian channels. He showed courage to adopt western education system, to go with the time was a necessary condition. Above all, he used the Protestant Missionary religious stratagem of religious conventions and public sermons alien to the Hindu way of life, adapted and introduced in the native spiritual scenario. He took the initiative to start routine religious discourses in Hindu society by recruiting big scholastic orators like Karuva and M. Krishnan Aasan [17]. The sufferers of inherent social discrimination of Hindu society were in search of solace in para (other) dharmas. Guru found that this alternative solution helped the draining away process. All his efforts in the direction to protect swa (own) dharma helped arrest the exodus of Hindu population to Christianity and Islam.

He maintained a positive approach towards the newly introduced colonial education system. He recognized it and attempted to transform it to serve the purpose of national requirements. On the other hand, several forward jatis had shown reluctance to the new education and so became marginalized groups in emerging colonial socio-economic transactions. Similarly missionary efforts to educate the Ezhavas since 1812 to 1902 produced no remarkable outcome. Socio-economic changes wrought under colonial interaction resulted in the birth of a middle class among all communities, who availed of the benefit of the new education introduced by missionaries/colonialists. 

The middleclass consisted of the lower strata of upper caste/jati Hindus and upper strata of lower caste/jati Hindus along with the Christian and Muslim communities [18]. This implies that only a nominal amount of Hindus enjoyed the fruits of colonial education while many Christians became its benefactors. Ninety years of missionary efforts since 1812 produced only 11.14 percent literates in Kerala and the women’s share was only 3.15 percent. On the other hand, between the establishment of SNDP Yogam in 1903, the flagship organization started by Sree Narayan Guru for modernization of Hindus, and his samadhi (death) in 1928, that is of twenty-six years effort of Sree Narayan Guru, the literacy rate of Kerala rose to 21.34 percent and its women share was 11.99 percent. [Source: Census of India].

Beyond doubt one can say Guru’s role was decisive in making Kerala the highest literate state in India. His response to democratic and industrial ideologies of colonialism was more creative and practical. He called for “the attainment of progress/power through education, organization and industries.”

Guru’s influence reflected amongst all Hindus of the day irrespective of their jati differences. As a result the Hindu jati hierarchy starting from Namboothiris acknowledged themselves as Hindus and subject to correction and introspection. A new sense of Hindu sentiment developed amongst all and their leaders altogether came forward with the creative proposal for a common platform for all Hindus. The new dynamism on account of Narayana Guru’s divine mission paved the way for Hindu Maha Mandalam, a common podium of various Hindu jatis of Kerala. But later in the sixties of the last century, political forces of Kerala hijacked it. Hindus once again became compartmentalized under narrow and introvert jati mechanism and shed their Hindu feeling.  They became voters not administrators, onlookers not players. Further, they lost the battle and became marginalized in the ongoing political process.

Guru was a staunch monist after Sankaracharya. That is why, in a highly vertically stratified jati society (like Kerala), he received disciples from all strata by breaking jati barriers. Most disciples who reached Sivagiri Mutt at Varkala and Advaita Mutt at Aluva were the cream of the day. Later they became apostles of Narayana Guru’s ideology. Romain Rolland rightly acknowledged, “He preached if one may say so, a Jnana of action, a great intellectual religion, having a lively sense of the people and their social needs. It greatly contributed to the uplifting of the oppressed classes in Southern India and its activities have in a measure been allied to those of Gandhi” [19].

In short, Kerala which started its journey towards a new dawn through Sree Narayana Guru, missed its right path elsewhere in the deluge after his Samadhi. This missing of the path is the cause of the contemporary social crisis. Hindu society of Kerala has deviated from the path of Sree Narayana Guru. They were in search of para (other) dharma and ran away from swa (own) dharma, made empirical/pragmatic by Guru.

Were all the setbacks of contemporary Kerala due to this deviation? Yes, now we can hear the divine voice of Guru, but we are not patient enough to listen/react to it properly. It is a fact that so far we are not tolerant enough to respond properly to him. Until we come to the mood of Arjuna, who after listening to the Bhagavat Gita from Lord Krishna, said “Stitho asmi gatha sandhem: kareshia vachanam tava” [20] (I have cleared all doubts and am ready to do my duty), our days to come will not be filled with everlasting joy.

End notes

1] Selections from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Calcutta, 1998, pp 284-285.
2] For details, see A. Sreedharamenon, A Survey of Kerala History, Kottayam, 1970, pp 267 - 269.
3] District Gazetteer- Kozhikode, State Gazetteer Dept. Trivandrum, 1962, p 133.
4] Ibid.
5] They all are the part of the State’s occupational groups.
6] Religious/jati trial of Namboothiri lady by Brahmin priests when suspected of adultery.
7] According to Namboothiri jati precedence/practice, only the elder son can enjoy the privilege of endogamous marriage [Veli]; the rest were entitled to marry women from Nair or equivalent jati only. This exogamous system is known as sambandham. Under this marriage practice, husband did not have the legal responsibility to maintain such wife and children and they had no legal right over the property of the husband/father. In short, it was a form of polyandry. See, A. Sreedharamenon, Cultural Heritage of Kerala, Madras, 1996, pp 264, 265.
8] A section of writers attributing the authorship of this smriti to Sankaracharya has no historicity; See William Logan, Malabar Manual, Vol. I, [Mal. tran.] Calicut, 1985, P161.
9] Under the Colonial regime, the smarthavicharam was made a procedural and documented affair. So the proceedings of the early twentieth century smarthavicharams are available in the State Archives. Most known smarthavicharams of the century was 1903, 05 and 18. The smarthavicharam of 1918 was the last of its series in the Sate. Meanwhile, intra-jati reform movements gained momentum in Namboothiri society. Yoga Shema Sabha and Namboothiri Youvajana Sangam were started respectively in 1908 and 1928 and they laboured for the correction of society. See, P. V. Ramankutty, “Smriti Parambariya Prabhavaoum Prathirodhavoum Keraleeya Brahmana Jeevitathil”, Anjooru Varshathe Keralam, Ed. ScariaZachria, Kottayam, 1999, pp 103, 104.
10] Because of the peculiar custom of restricted or conditional endogamy to Namboothiri boys, several women of this community were in want of proper match. K. P. Padmanabha Menon, History of Kerala, Vol. III, Trivandrum, 1933, p 89.
11] According to Dr. Gundhert, the time during which high caste women might lose caste, if a slave happen to throw a stone at them after sunset, is the month of Karkatakom – 15 July to 15 August, See K. P. Padmanabha Menon, History of Kerala, Vol. II, Trivandrum, 1929, p 274.
12] A traditional lower jati engaged in coconut plucking and washing clothes.
13] Conventional agriculture worker.
14] Kerala Charitravoum Jati Vyvastitoum, Kottayam, 1983, pp 274 - 283.
15] Monism/Advaitam; the Hindu doctrine that the Supreme Being/Universal Creator and the Individual Soul are one and the same.
16] C. R. Mitra, Sree Narayana Guru and Social Revolution, 1979, p 143.
17] A.R. Sreenivasan, Yogeswaranaya Sree Narayanaguru, 1997, pp 14,15 & Great Poet Kumaran Aasan, Vivekodayam Monthly, 1084 Makaram, [ME]/1909 January-February [CE].
18] P.K. Michael Tharakan, “Socio Economic Factors in Educational Development,” Economic and Political Weekly, Bombay, 17 November 1984.
19] Quoted from A. Sreedharamenon, Cultural Heritage of Kerala, Madras, 1996, p 286.
20] See Bhagavat Gita, Ch XVIII, Verse 73.

The author is a retired Professor of History, and lives in Trivandrum


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