Greatness may be open to interpretation; it may even be hard to define it. But Sree Narayana Guru makes definitions and interpretations largely superfluous.
In him Indian Renaissance had its most far-sighted prophet and advocate. Sree Narayana Guru has a multifaceted personality as spiritual guru, seer, poet, social reformer and a great sage with yogic sidhis or attainments.
Sree Narayana Guru was born at Chempazhanthi, a small hamlet 12 km north of Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. It is widely held that he was born under the star ‘Chathayam’ in the month of ‘Chingam’ in 1855 AD (1031 of the Malayalam calendar). When his 60th birth anniversary was being celebrated 1916 he laughingly said “my 60th birthday (sashtabhdhapoorty) was quite a while ago.”
His father was Madan Asan, a middle level farmer and village school master and his mother Kuttiyamma. His family, Vayalvaram house, enjoyed a high level of social respectability and economic status. He was named Narayanan and fondly called Nanoo. Nanoo had three sisters.
In those days society was in the strangulating grip of caste system. People were divided into high castes and low castes. Forbidden to touch one another or to co-operate with one another in any way, they practised untouchability. But Nanoo, who was destined to lead one of the greatest social revolutions in Indian society, defied untouchability from his boyhood days.
His education began at the age of five. Chempazhanthi Mootha Pillai was his first guru. In those days children in Kerala learned the alphabet through the ‘Kalary’ system. There he learned chiefly Malayalam. Higher education was then conducted mostly in Sanskrit. Nanoo made a start in it. From his childhood he exhibited prodigious powers of memory. He learned things quickly, and thoroughly remembered what he learned.
After learning the preliminary lessons in Sanskrit, he studied some of the simple books in that language. His village lacked facilities for higher studies in Sanskrit. So he discontinued his studies for a while and helped his parents in domestic matters. He took up farming and studied Sanskrit books. His uncle Krishnan Vaidyar was a renowned physician. From him he began to learn medicine. Although his uncle was very fond of him he was not the demonstrative type. He was very strict with his nephew.
A pious boy, Nanoo went to the temple every day. He adopted a righteous way of life. In 1877 (1053) he went to Kummampally Raman Pillai Asan in Karunagappally for his higher education in Sanskrit. His trip to Asan was jointly overseen by his father and uncle. Asan was one of the greatest scholars of the time. Students from many parts of the country came to him to be tutored in Sanskrit. Nanoo pursued his higher studies in Sanskrit there, staying with the reputed Puthupally Varanappally family. He learned poetry, drama, logic, poetics and grammar from Kummampally Asan. Nanoo loved solitude and contemplation. During his stay at Varanappally he showed his talent for poetry. He composed some hymns and devotional songs. During his stay in Varanappally he was called Nanoo Chattampy – Chattampy in those days meant “senior student’ or “monitor”.
After returning from Varanappally he taught children for some time. That was in 1881. Since then people respectfully called him Nanoo Asan. He took to worshipping deities, first Shri Krishna and then Sri Subramanya.
According to the custom of the time a wedding could be solemnized in the absence of the bridegroom if the bridegroom’s sister offered a thali to the bride. Nanoo Asan’s wedding was formally solemnized that way in 1882. The marriage was conducted at the behest of his guardians and Nanoo Asan soon stopped going home. After two months he left his native place forever.
Guru- a prolific writer
Sree Narayana Guru was a highly gifted and distinguished poet. Guru has written profound works in Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam, blending lofty philosophical thoughts into a fine harmony.
Guru’s Darsanam and Philosophical Interpretations can be read in Atmopadesa Satakam (One Hundred Verses on Self Instruction – Malayalam-1897 ), Dasrana Mala (Garland of Vision – Sanskrit-1916), Advaita Deepika (The Lamp of Non-Duality – Malayalam), Arivu (Fifteen verses on Knowledge / Consciousness – Malayalam), Daivadasakam (Ten Verses on God -Malayalam-1914), Brahmavidya Panchakam (Five verses on the Science of the Absolute- Sanskrit), Vedanta Sutra (Essence of Vedanta –Sanskrit) , Nirvruti Panchakam ( Five verses on Inward Release- Sanskrit- 1915), Sloka Trayi (Sanskrit) and Homa Mantra ( Sanskrit- 1925) . Atmopadesa Satakam is widely regarded as a literary and philosophical masterpiece of the Guru.
Gurudevan has also penned innumerable hymns on different deities. Among them are Vinayaka Ashtakam (Eight Verses on Ganapati –Sanskrit), Sri Vasudeva Ashtkam (Eight verses on Vishnu- Sanskrit-1884), Vishnu Ashtakam (Eight verses on Vishnu-Sanskrit), Sreekrishna Darsanam (A single verse in praise of Shree Krishna – Sanskrit?- Malayalam?), Sivaprasada Panchakam (Five verses on the Grace of Lord Siva- Malayalam-1888- 1897), Sadasiva Darsanam (A Vision of the Eternal Siva – Malayalam), Sivasatakam (One Hundred Verses on Siva- Malayalam), Shiva Ashtakam (Eight verses on Shiva- Malayalam – 1887), Ardhanareeswara Stavam (A Hymn to the androgynous Shiva- Malayalam - between 1888 and 1897), Vairagya Desakam (Mananateetam -Ten verses on Detachment- Malayalam-1884), Chitha Chintanam (Reflections on the Mind and Matter- Malayalam – 1881), Kundalini Pattu (Seventeen verses with a refrain of the Kundalini snake-Malayalam), Indriya Vairagyam (Fifteen verses on Detachment -Malayalam), Prapancha Srushti (Shivastavam -hymn praising the Creation of the Universe – Malayalam), Kolateeresa Sthavam (Ten verses on Kolateeresa [Shiva of Kolathukara Temple]-Malayalam ), Vibhoothi darshanam (Swanubhava Giti -Song of self-Realization -Malayalam ) , Pinda Nandi (Nine verses on Prenatal Gratitude- Malayalam )Chidambara Ashtakam (Eight verses praising Etherial Shiva –Sanskrit?), Thevarappathikangal (Hymn in praise of Siva – Tamil-1887) , Devi Stavam (Hymn to Goddess- Malayalam), Mannanthala Devi Stavam (Hymn in nine verses to Devi at Mannanthala temple- Malayalam), Kali Natam (a long poem on the dance of Kali- Malayalam), Janani Nava Ratna Manjari (A cluster of nine verses on Supreme Mother- Malayalam – 1909), Bhadrakali Ashtakam (Eight verses on Bhadrakali- Sanskrit-1884 ), Bahuleya Ashtakam (Eight verses address to Bahuleya / Subramanya –Sanskrit), Guha Ashtakam (Eight verses on Guha / Subrahmanyan - Sanskrit -1884), Shanmukha stotram (Nineteen verses on the six-headed Subrahmanyan -Malayalam), Subrahmanyan Ashtakam (Eight verses to Subrahmanyan- Malayalam. - 1887), Shanmukha Dasakam (Ten verses addressed to Shanmukha – Malayalam), Subramanya Keerthanam (Fifteen verses of praise to Lord Subrhamanya- Malayalam – 1887), Subrahmanyan Stuthi(sixty one verses in praise of Lord Subrahmanyan – Malayalam), Shanmathura Stavam ( Hymn to the lake born god Subrahmanyan -Sanskrit – 1887), Saravana Bhava Stuti (Ten verses on Subrahmanyan- Malayalam ), Devi Pranama Devyashtakam (Eight verses addressed to Devi – Sanskrit), Devi Stavam (Nine verses on the Goddess Supreme –Malayalam). It was Guru’s wish that "Jananee Navarathna Manjari" has to be read along with the pratishta of the goddess Sarada. This poem which pays homage to the goddess in nine beautiful stanzas proclaims Gurudev's remarkable poetic genius.
Gurudevan has to his credit the following works on Moral value and ways of living. Jeeva Karunya Panchakam (Five Verses on Kindness to life –Malayalam - 1914), Anukampa Dasakam (Ten Verses on Mercy- Malayalam- 1914), Jaati Mimamsa (A critique of Caste: First verse in Sanskrit remaining in Malayalam – 1914) , Jaati Lakshanam (Ten verses on the signs of Jati (kind) of living things – Malayalam), Sadacharam (Seven verses on good Conduct- Malayalam), Bhariya Dharmam (Ten verses on the qualities of a housewife-translated from Tamil), Municharya panchakam (Five verse on the life of a recluse – Sanskrit-1916), Ahimsa (Non-Violence- Malayalam), Dharmam (Sanskrit), Ashramam (Five verses in Sanskrit on the rules of the of the ‘Sree Narayana Dharmasangham’ - Sanskrit -1928), Sanyasimahima (Nittarperumai- Ten verses translated from Tamil).
Guru’s prose works include Chitjjada Chintakam - an essay on the Reflection on Mind and Matter in Malayalam, Daiva Chintanam in two parts on Reflection of the Devine in Malayalam (1881), Gadya Prarthana -A Prayer in Prose in Malayalam, Atma Vilasam an essay on Self Manifestation in Malyalam.
Among Guru’s translations, the major works are Isa Vashya Upanishad from Sanskrit to Malayalam and Tirukkural from Tamil to Malayalam.
Guru has also penned Charamaslokam an obituary of two verses two verses in Sanskrit on Sri Chattampi Swamikal, Nava Manjari Navamanjari (a cluster of nine verses in two series, one in Malayalam and another in Sanskrit), Ozhivil Odukkam (trans. from Tamil), a single Tamil verse praising Lord Siva, Brahmavidyapanchakam, five verses in Sanskrit on the science of the Absolute , Ottapadyangal (asequence of fifteen verses- Malayalam) , Oru Samasyapooranam, one verse written in Malayalam in 1897, Oru Tamil Slokam (one verse in Tamil), Oru Mangalashamsa ( One verses written in Malayalam on the occasion of the publication of a magazine in memory of Mahakavi Kumaranasan in 1925.
Gurudev forcefully argued for establishing literary clubs, reading rooms and libraries in all places. One thing which deserves particular mention in the life of Gurudev who has seen the farthest end of the Vedanta is that he strove to give perfection to the worldly life of people. We can see in Gurudev an attractive blending of the idealist and the pragmatist.
Not before long, Gurudev started another great institution. This is the Advaitasharam at Alwaye.The Advaithashram is situated on the bank of the river Periyar at a place which charms us with its natural beauty. For a fairly long time this was one of the favourite camps of Gurudev. In this Ashram which Gurudev founded in 1914 no deity has been consecrated. This Ashram proclaims that the essence of all religions is the same. Here in 1924 Gurudev convened the first Asian Conference of World Religions. The platinum jubilee of the conference was appropriately celebrated recently in 1999. In 1915 during his early days at Alwaye, Gurudev established a Sanskrit school there. Later it developed into high school. Students of all communities attend this school irrespective of caste or religion. Gurudev planned programmes such as inter-dining and inter-marriage for the eradication of caste. Sahodaran Ayyappan who was an ideal disciple and devotee of the guru, worked with steadfast courage for the success of this enterprise.
The movement in inter-dining with people of different castes which he began at Cherayi in 1917 sent the conservatives into jitters. But Sahodaran Ayyappan had received the consent and blessings of Gurudev. This movement produced far-reaching beneficial effects in the social life of Kerala. By founding temples for true worship from Cape Comorin to Gokarnam, Gurudev created a revolution in thought which is of inestimable importance. In the early period of his prathishta he used idols of the traditional kind. But afterwards he consecrated meaningful symbols and objects.
Aruvipuran consecration of Shiva deity has considerable significance. At the Sand Temple Gurudev removed the idol of Devi and consecrated Shiva. This was done to specifically remove such unholy practices as the sacrifice of chicken.
He consecrated deities in 50 places of worship. Among them are:
Sivagiri Sarada Mutt (1912), Thalasseri Jagannath Temple (1908), Kulathur Kolathukara Temple (1893), Kunnumpara Subramanya Temple (1899), Mannanthala Devi Temple. Sri Narayanamangalam Devi Temple, Aayiram Tengu Prathishta (1892), Kottar Ganapathi Temple, Perinkottukara Somasekhara Temple, Sreekanteswara Temple in Kozhikode(1912), Jnaneswara temple at Anchuthengu (1915) Sundareswara Temple in Kannur(1916) , Karamukku Temple (1920), Murukkumpuzha Temple prathishta (1921), mirror consecration at Kalavangodam temple(1927), Bhavani Temple in Erode, Bhadrakali Temple in Mysore.
At Murukkumpuzha he consecrated a mirror with the words "Truth, Dharma, Love, Kindness" inscribed on it.
Gurudev's prathishta in which the lamp, the mirror, the pranava mantra 'Om' and other symbols are harmoniously combined were meant to accommodate all kinds of people. Strikingly, the words "Truth, Dharma, Love, Kindness" are inscribed around Om as cosmic embellishment. This consecration remains an inspiring reflection of Gurudev's philosophical vision.
The most important and very the last act of consecration by Gurudev was done with mirror at Chertala Kalavankode temple in 1927. In its vision and philosophical scope it remains timeless. The prathishta of the mirror is symbolic. Advaita philosophers have interpreted the mirror prathishta as the visible symbol which expresses the unity of the Infinite and the Finite.
After this consecration Narayana Guru shifted the focus of his activities quietly and dramatically, from temples to seats of learning. He exhorted people that it was more desirable to set up educational institutions than places of worship.
Customs, he noted, are the external expressions of religious faith. They are mingled and blended in different ways in marriage, in the rights of succession, in habits of dressing, in food, cleanliness and numerous other things. Having realized that the people will enter a state of decadence if customs are debased, Gurudev took the utmost interest in reforming customs in a healthy way. He introduced reforms in marriage rites, that shunned luxury.
Gurudev condemned the system of dowry which civilized society still practises unabashedly. Society has not yet fully recognize the vision of Gurudev who boldly declared, "Giving and receiving dowry is equal to selling and buying one's own son and daughters". It is the progressive nature of Gurudev's message that makes it a permanent asset to a changing society.
Gurudev's regulations on marriage can be made a model in any part of the world. According to his instructions, there should be a maximum of only 10 people in a wedding. They are the bride and the bridegroom, their parents, a friend each of the bride and the bridegroom, a priest and a prominent citizen. Sree Narayana Guru is unique among those rare spiritual leaders who laid stress on the importance of wealth and the just means of acquiring it.
He emphasized the need for adequately promoting industries and at the same encouraged thrift. Gurudev realized that the people cannot achieve economic progress unless the society gives up unnecessary expenses.
"There should not be any luxury connected with an auspicious function", he exhorted. Gurudev used to personally attend and bless the annual meetings of the S N D P Yogam in order to encourage reforms in social customs. He selected outstanding speakers from among the S N D P activists and encouraged them to speak judiciously on such subjects and to spread the message of reform among people. He made it a condition that they should not challenge the teachings of other religions.
In 1916 Sree Narayana Guru had a meeting with another spiritual guru of that time. Gurudev went to Thiruvannamala and visited the sage Ramana Maharshi. Ramana Maharshi was very pleased with this visit. It has been recorded that afterwards he said to his disciples about Sree Narayana Guru, "Avaar Periyavar ('He is a great man'.) After visiting Ramana Maharshi , Gurudev composed the Sanskrit poem "Municharya Panchakam", which is a celebrated work. It describes the glorious nature of a sage who has the intuitive power of perceiving truth.
Making perfectly clear his casteless perspective, Gurudev issued a message in 1916. It is entitled "I Have No Caste". From the beginning Gurudev saw very clearly the miserable plight of the Harijans. He was deeply interested in redressing their disabilities. It is well-known that he had made the children of Pulayas the inmates of Sivagiri and had given them education. Gurudev had particularly advised his disciples to treat them like brothers.
In 1916 Gurudev's 60th year of birth was celebrated in a festive manner in Kerala and outside. The celebrations were held in Madura, Tirunelveli, Madras and Calcutta and also in foreign countries like Singapore and Ceylon (the present "Sri Lanka"). On his 60th birthday Gurudev took rest at the Alwaye Advaitashram. He had said earlier that there should not be any festivity. The people offered him many gifts, bowed to him and received his blessings. In that year Gurudev visited Madras.
The Tamil people had always held him in high esteem and Gurudev had an intimate knowledge of Tamil. He knew thoroughly well the famous Tamil work Thirukkural. He translated it into Malayalam. Gurudev had written excellent poems in Tamil too. It was during this journey that Gurudev founded Sree Narayana Seva Ashram at Kancheepuram. In 1918 and afterwards in 1926 Gurudev visited Sri Lanka. At Colombo a large crowd of people gathered to welcome him. Many eminent Buddhist scholars called on him and paid tributes to his greatness. A wealthy Muslim named Khadar acclaimed Gurudev as his guru.
The next six years formed an important phase in Gurudev's life. Leaving the narrow field of one particular community, he soared to the lofty horizon of universal brotherhood and equality. Gurudev's famous message against the use of liquor was issued on his birthday, Chathayam, in 1920. In this message Gurudev Said, "Liquor is poison, don't make it, don't give it, don't drink it." Gurudev pointed out that liquor will ruin man in various ways and that the wealth gained through liquor trade will not last permanently. He strongly urged that liquor should be completely abjured as it tends to weaken the intellect.
Gurudev's disciples started a movement to carry anti-liquor message to the people and propagated the message in the whole country. The foremost of this disciples who strove to build up this movement was the patriot T.K. Madhavan. It was around this same birthday that Gurudev issued the message "One caste, one religion, one God for man" which proclaims the oneness of humanity. He declared that the ultimate goal of all religions is the same. Gurudev was convinced that religious strife was caused not by the innate principles of religion but by differences about religious customs. About religious fights Gurudev has written,
'No religion can win in a fight with another
For no religion ever perishes in a fight.''
It was to impress these truths upon the minds of the people that Gurudev convened at Alwaye the first Asian Conference of World Religions.
Gurudev visited Ceylon again in 1926. He had some moving experiences while travelling in Tamil Nadu in connection with his journey to Ceylon. While he was in Sree Ganapathi temple in heavy rain he said, "If there is anyone writing my biography, these experiences should not be missed, they should be recorded. "After that journey to Ceylon, Gurudev did not want to return. He went back only after repeated requests of his disciples and devotees.
In a message to the S.N.D.P. Yogam in 1926 Gurudev declared, "No community can make progress except through organization." He further said in that message, "The name Ezhava does not denote a caste or a religion. Therefore people can be admitted to this organization without paying heed to differences of caste."
On June 14, 1927 Sree Narayana Guru consecrated a mirror in a temple in Kalavankode - perhaps his last prathishta in a temple. The prathishta of the mirror is symbolic. Advaita philosophers interpret the mirror as the visible symbol of the unity of the Finite and the Infinite. When he arrived in Kalavankode one K C Kutten approached him. There was local opposition to the consecration of a deity, Kutten informed Gurudev. "Bring a mirror," Narayana Guru instructed him. "In its centre scrape out the surface to read 'Om shanti'.
He did no more prathishtas. Schools rather than temples are to be preferred, he exhorted in a dramatic shift of focus.
Gurudev participated in the anniversary of the S.N.D.P. Yogam held at Pallathuruthi in 1927. It was a splendid meeting which demonstrated the sincere, devout faith of the people in Gurudev. T.K. Madhavan was one of the chief architects of this meeting. In 1928 Gurudev took part in the special meeting of the S.N.D.P. Yogam at Kottayam and gave away registration certificates to the branch organizations.
'Sivagiri pilgrimage' was conceived by Vallasseri Govindan Vaidyar and T K Kittan 'Writer'. It was duly approved by Gurudev on January 1928. The setting was SNDP's Nagambadam Siva temple. It was 3 pm and Gurudev was resting under a mango tree when the two presented the concept of Sivagiri pilgrimage. Before giving it 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 Shri Buddha's principles of five purities (pancha dharma) - body, food, mind, word and deed.
He ruled that pilgrims could wear yellow clothes - the colour of the garments Shri Krishna and Shri 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
3. Devotion to God
8. Technical training
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.
The Palluruthi event in 1927 was the last anniversary of the Yogam which Gurudev attended. It was also the last public function Gurudev attended.
Gurudev 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 Gurudev to Palghat. From there Gurudev travelled to Madras for treatment.
Gurudev returned to Kerala again. He underwent regular courses of indigenous and Ayurvedic treatments. Then Gurudev came to the rest-house (vaidika madhom) at Sivagiri Mutt and stayed there. Those who treated him include the reputed Ayurvedic physicians Cholayil Mami Vaidyar, Panappally Krishnan Vaidyar, Thycauttu Divakaran Moos, besides Dr. Krishnan Thampi, Dr. Panikker and Dr. Palpu. The European physician Dr. Noble also treated Gurudev. But Gurudev appeared tired. Those who were with Gurudev at this time have recorded that his cheerfulness and sense of humour did not fade even on his sick bed.
Sree Narayana Guru who was the embodiment of compassion attained mahasamadhi at 3.00 p.m on Thursday September 20, 1928 at Sivagiri Vaidika Mutt.
Sree Guruprasada Swamikal who was with Sree Narayana Guru at the time of mahasamadhi has said the following in his authoritative account of the scene, "By the inevitable law of destiny that great light passed from our sight”.
At the time of samadhi Sree Vidynanda Swami was reading Yogavasishtam Jeevanmuktha prakaranam in the presence of Gurudev. "Sree Narayana Gurudevan attained mahasamadhi in a meditative mood, listening to the recital of the section describing the attainment of moksha."
The next day about 6 o'clock in the afternoon Sree Narayana Gurudevan's mortal remains were laid to rest at the top of the Sivagiri hill in the presence of thousands of devotees. The Mahasamadhi Mandir stands there today.
Sree Narayana Gurudevan was the incarnation of extraordinary purity of nature, perfect compassion, unwavering idealism, unique karma yoga and celestial genius. As Sri. Moorkoth Kumaran, Gurudevan's grahastha disciple, has recorded in his biography of the saintly guru:
"The world will certainly know the real greatness of that extraordinary saint Sree Narayana Guruswamikal in the days to come when the seed that he has sowed germinates, grows, branches out and blossoms."