Shree Narayana Guru was a great saint, scholar, philosopher, poet, and forerunner of a social renaissance in the southern part of Bharat.
Shree Narayana Guru was born on 20 August 1856 to Madan Asan and his wife Kuttiyamma in Chempazhanthy, a village near Thiruvananthapuram Kerala in the erstwhile state of Travancore, in British India. A farmer’s family called ‘Vyallvaram’ on 20 August in 1856 was named ‘Nanu’ (which means Narayana).
His father Madan got the surname “Asan” because he was a farmer and an ‘Asan’ as well. The term ‘Asan’-a, a Malayalam word derived from Sanskrit, means ‘Acharyan’–a teacher. He knew Sanskrit and had studied Astrology and Ayurveda. The people of the village highly respected him. He used to help people by advising them on many matters. His dress was simple. He wore a piece of cloth to wrap around the waist and a piece of cloth to cover the upper part of the body.
He carried with him a palm-leaf umbrella whenever he left home. That was the custom in those days in Kerala.
As Madan was learned in Sanskrit, he knew well about the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He used to give talks to them in simple language once a week, sitting on 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. Sometimes 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. His early education was in the gurukula way under ChempazhanthiMootha Pillai, during which time his mother died when he was 15. At 21, he went to central Travancore to learn from Raman Pillai Asan, a Sanskrit scholar who taught him Vedas, Upanishads, and the literature and logical rhetoric of Sanskrit. He returned to his village in 1881 when his father was seriously ill and started a village school where he taught local children, which earned him the name Nanu Asan. A year later, he married Kaliamma. His wife passed away after a few years.
After the death of his father and his wife, Nanu Asan continued his life as a wandering Sannyasi. 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. ThikkadAyyavu was the other guru. Chettambi Swami was a great scholar. He understood the innate powers of Nanu Asan and encouraged Nanu to compose poems in Sanskrit. ThikkadAyyavuwas, a master of the Science of Yoga. Inspired by his Guru, Nanu Asan wrote ‘Nava Manjari’–a string of nine stanzas. He dedicated his poems to Chettambi Swami.
During his wanderings, he reached the Pillathadam cave at Maruthwamala, where he set up a hermitage and practised meditation and yoga. In 1888, he consecrated a piece of rock taken from the river as the idol of Shiva, which has since become the Aruvippuram Shiva Temple. On 15 May 1903, Dr. Padmanabhan Palpu established the Shree Narayana Dharma ParipalanaYogam at this temple with the inspiration of Narayan Guru. In 1904, he shifted his base to Sivagiri, near Varkala, where he opened a school for children from the lower strata of the society and provided free education without considering their caste. He built a temple, there too, popularly known as Sharada Mutt by 1912. He built several temples in other places, such as Thrissur, Kannur, Anchuthengu, Thalassery, Kozhikode, and Mangalore. After a long journey of spreading love and humanity, he returned to Sarada Mutt, and it was here. He left his body on 20 September 1928, at the age of 73.
Since his childhood, he had a strong abhorrence towards caste distinctions and untouchability. He always protested against injustice. “Ask not, say not and think not caste” was his motto. The first revolutionary step was the consecration of a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva in Aruvippuram in 1888. He proclaimed that everyone, irrespective of his caste or religion, has the right to realize God.
In subsequent years, he consecrated several temples in different parts of Kerala with revolutionary changes. In one temple at Kalavancode in Sherthallai, instead of deities, he installed a mirror for worship, revealing that God is within oneself and one should find salvation by developing inner self. In another temple at Murikkumpuzha near Trivandrum, in place of a deity, a bright light revealed the words “Truth, Duty, Kindness, Love”. His temples were open to all without any discrimination of caste or creed.
He taught equality but felt the inequalities should not be exploited to carry out conversions and generate strife in society. Narayana Guru organized an All-Region Conference in 1923 with a slogan “Not to argue and win but to know and to make known” at AlwayeAdvaita Ashram, which was reported to be the first such event in India. This was an effort to counter the religious conversions the Ezhava community was susceptible to. In 1925, Guru supported the famous Vaikom Satyagraha movement, which demanded entry for lower caste people in the Shiva temple at Vaikom and all temples in Kerala. Mahatma Gandhi visited Kerala to support the Vaikom Satyagraha and met Shree Narayana Guru at Sivagiri Ashram. They had interesting discussions on the issues of caste and untouchability. Gandhiji expressed it was a great privilege in his life to have the darshan of an esteemed sage, like Shree Narayana Guru.
The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore met Guru in 1922. About his warm meeting with Guru, Tagore later said: “I have been touring different parts of the world. But I have never come across one who is spiritually greater than Shree Narayana Guru.”
He emphasized the practice of ideals of cleanliness, promotion of education, agriculture, trade, handicrafts and technical training. Shree Narayana Guru’s Adyaropadarsanam (Darsanamala) explains the creation of the universe.
Daivadasakam and Atmopadesasatakam are a few examples of how mystic reflections and insights closely resemble recent advances in physics.
Narayana Guru was a great scholar in Sanskrit. He wrote several books, both in Sanskrit and in Malayalam. ‘JatiMimamsa’ (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 from Samskrita. He published 45 works in Malayalam, Sanskrit and Tamil languages, which include AtmopadesaŚatakam, a hundred-verse spiritual poem and DaivaDasakam, a universal prayer in ten verses. He also translated three major texts, Thirukural of Valluvar, Ishavasya Upanishad and OzhivilOdukkam of KannudaiyaVallalaar. He propagated the motto, One Caste, One Religion, One God for All (OruJathi, OruMatham, OruDaivam, Manushyanu), which has become popular as a saying in Kerala. He furthered the non-dualistic philosophy of Adi Shankara by bringing it into practice by adding the concepts of social equality and universal brotherhood.
Shree Narayana Guru's biography is not just a story of a saint; it is an epic of a crusade against social evils and awakening of social resurgence. The Guru was aware that spirituality could not be fed to starving millions. He believed that the oppressed classes needed education and wealth other than freedom from the curse of untouchability. They needed opportunities to improve like others. He suggested that the goals of the pilgrimage should be the promotion of education, cleanliness, devotion to God, organization, agriculture, trade, handicrafts, and technical training. He was a real Karma Yogi, and his whole life was dedicated to the betterment of the suppressed. He was an innate poet and a great scholar in Malayalam, Tamil, and Sanskrit.
He was the author of many beautiful and inspirational works in these languages. His words and deeds ignited sparks of a revolution that led to a remarkable cultural renaissance in the profligate society of Kerala. He was one of the greatest Hindu reformers to come out to Bharat since Adi Shankara.
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