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Life and Social Philosophy of His Divine Holiness Narayana Guru

Life and Social Philosophy of His Divine Holiness Narayana Guru

harsha narayanguru

Harshkumar Kugwe

It is commendable that the government of Karnataka is celebrating the birthday of the great thinker Sri Narayana Guru as an official ceremony. It is definitely a means of showing respect to the great religious thinker and social reformer. Unfortunately, though, the situation has become such that whenever governments celebrate birthdays, it is usually for the appeasement of the castes and communities the person was born in. Basava Jayanthi for Lingayatas, Valmiki Jayanti for Valmiki Nayakas, Kanaka Jayanthi for the Kurubas, Kempgegouda Jayanti for Vokkaliga Goudas, Ambedkar Jayanti for Dalits, Tippu Jayanti for Muslims, and Narayana Guru Jayanti for Idigas, Billava Deevas… The limiting of the birthdays to the groups is an irony of our times and also a symptom of ill health of our society.

harsha narayanguruThe reason I had to say this was because all those great souls mentioned above dedicated their lives to expel the very caste-religion-gender fissures from our society and to realize a world where all humans are equal. Narayana Guru is no exception. It will become evident when you look at the life of the great 19th century south Indian sage, and the work he did in concert with his disciples. On the occasion of the Narayana Guru Jayanthi being celebrated today, this article intends to introduce the reader to Narayana Guru’s life, and the social transformations he brought about and the social philosophy he espoused.

Narayana Guru was born in the village of Chembalanti, 7 miles north of Thiruvanthantpuram in Kerala, as the 4th son of a middle-class couple Madanasan and Kuttiyamma, on the 20th of August 1854. The couple belonged to the Ezhava community –considered untouchable in those days (Anthropologist Edgar Thurston has established that the castes called Billava, Namadhaari, Halepaika or Deeva in Karnataka and Ezhava of Kerala are related). The couple was involved in farming along with that they also practiced Ayurveda or folk-medicine. The Asan appendage (literally teacher) came into the father’s name as he served as a teacher for a while.

Nobody could have even guessed that Narayana (He was affectionately called naaNu when he was a boy) born in such a family, would go on to transform the lives of lakhs of people across Kerala so drastically. The caste system in Kerala was so disgusting, in the early 19th century – around the time when Narayana Guru was born, that Vivekananda who once visited Kerala said that Kerala, in the grip of inter-castes fights, has become a mental asylum. Thanks to the castes which acted like frogs in ponds. Kerala was engulfed in darkness.
How did such a situation even arise?

After the 5th century AD, Brahmins entered Kerala from North India. Till then, even though there were communities engaged in different professions, there was no fixed hierarchy among them, no discrimination. Some communities did the administration. Communities called Pulaya and Paraya (Holeya in Kannada) were involved in cultivation. Ezhavas, Nayars and few others did cultivation, practiced trade, medication and also served as warriors in armies. When Brahmins, who called themselves Namboodaris descended and settled, the entire social fabric got disfigured. Saying that they come from the Moon God, the sun God, the fire God; saying they came from the mouth of Brahma the creator; incessantly flattering and glorifying the kings; calling themselves supremely ‘knowledgeable’; chanting hymns in Sanskrit, the so-called language of the Gods, a language which the people didn’t understand; and through all this, fooling the people and the kings; they continued to plant themselves in the highest echelons of the Kerala society. Because of the land titles bestowed by the kings, all the tillable land came under their ownership. As time passed, the people who came empty handed not only stood equal to the king but also started to do the king’s job themselves. Consequently, the farmers of the past lost their land holdings. They ended up as ‘untouchables’ in society. At this stage in Kerala history, all the landowners of the Malabar province happened to be Namboodaris. They coercively enforced the Varnashrama (caste-system) on the society. Even while keeping the Kshatriyas and Nayars beneath themselves in the social hierarchy, the Brahmins bestowed some privileges on them and kept them above the rest of the castes. It was a practice that the first son of the Brahmin couple married a Brahmin girl and the rest married Nayar girls. The children born of these out of caste marriages had no property rights. Through such arrangements Kshatriyas, Brahmins and Nayars formed an alliance calling themselves the ‘Savarnas’. The group comprising the rest –Ezhava, Theeya and Holeyas – came in to be known as the ‘Avarnas’. And thus the society split into two halves. Following such an arrangement, the lives of the ‘untouchable’ avarnas got pushed below ground level. They had to live the life of humiliation in front of the Savarnas. Ezhavas and Holeyas were forbidden from being seen by Savarnas around dusk, because their shadows would make the Savarnas impure! The Avarna women were forced to remain bare-breasted in public. Out of the 200 odd types of taxes levied on Avarnas one was based on the size of the breasts of Ezhava women! A woman had to pay a higher tax to the Brahmin landlords if she had bigger breasts! Non-payment of taxes attracted severe punishments. It could even lead to the death penalty sometimes! At the beginning of the 19th century Nangeli an Ezhava girl from the Chartela village of Travencore cut her breasts placed them on a banana leaf and presented them to the men who came to collect taxes and then died of bleeding thus registering her protest against the vile taxes. If weavers weaved they paid tax. If the fishermen fished they paid tax. If the oilman extracted oil he paid tax. If the farmer extracted toddy he paid tax… in this way, the Brahmin landlords suffocated everybody through vicious cycles of taxes. When the Avarnas spoke to the Savarnas, they couldn’t address themselves as me or I, they had to say ‘your servant’. Even a Brahmin kid had to be called ‘Lord’! And that’s not all. Avarnas had no entry the temples constructed by Brahmins. Even on the street of the Shiva temple built by the 8th-century Advaitist (non-dualist) Shankaracharya at Vynkana, there was a big board proclaiming the ban on the Avarnas. It was even said that Shankaracharya himself ordered that board into existence.

Starting from the 5th century up to the 19th century, for around 1400 years, with Kerala stuck in the stranglehold of Brahminism, mired in caste discrimination, the lower castes had no way of raising their heads. The downtrodden did protest now and then even under such circumstances. However, whenever such protests surfaced, they were brutally crushed. For example, in 1800, when 200 Ezhava youths tried to break the ban and enter the Vaikom temple, the Brahmin Dewan came riding on his horse and butchered many by wantonly wielding his sword. This incident drove terror in the hearts of Ezhavas. When the oppression and subjugation faced by the Avarna communities were at their peak, there came a ray of hope in the form of Narayana Guru.

NaaNu got a good education due to his family background. He even learned Sanskrit quickly and took to writing eloquent poetry in both Sanskrit and Malayalam. At the same time boy, NaaNu felt sympathy for the plight of the oppressed and progressed as a good-hearted student. It bothered him to see Brahmins and Nayars treat Ezhavas badly, but it bothered NaaNu, even more, when he saw the way Ezhavas ran a mile away from the ‘impure’ lower castes of Holeyas, Paras, Nayadis. NaaNu grew mutinous early. He would intentionally touch Holeyas and then go stand beside his caste brethren to spite them. Once he rushed into a Holeya house to turn off the stove to stop a rice pot from boiling over. His mother said, “Kutti, you made yourself impure going into a Holeya house!” NaaNu then ran and hugged his mother, saying “Now you became impure also” and started laughing.

In another incident, when he was a student, his friends became suspicious and displeased with him when he kept the company of a Holeya Girl. Resolute on uncovering the truth behind this, they followed NaaNu as he went into the Holeya girl’s house. Peaking in, what did they see? NaaNu cleaning and treating the wounds of the girl’s father, ailing with severe leprosy! NaNu had learned Ayurveda from his father and uncle; he used his skills to treat the infirm without regard to caste barriers.

NaaNu with such a bent of mind naturally gravitated towards deliberations on religious philosophy. He studied Vedanta and Upanishads. He eventually developed an interest in Advaitha philosophy. In the end, he told his wife about the purpose of his life, he made her understand it, renounced worldly attachments, became a yogi, became an Avadhootha, roamed the hills, forests and caves and studied and deliberated for years. Narayana who was hitherto called NaaNu, became the Guru of people. People, who saw his immense spiritual and worldly knowledge and his ability to treat ailments, devoted themselves to him and deeply respected him. They came to him with their pains and worries and found solace. Being fully aware of the situation of his ‘untouchable’ people in society, he embarked on a journey to bring new light in to their lives. The first milestone he achieved as part of this ended up being a religious revolution!

‘Untouchables’ came to him. They said “Guru, they are not letting us inside the temple. Shouldn’t we see God?” He showed them God. That too, in the temple these very people built at the place he designated. And the tradition mandated that only the Brahmin shall install the idols. Also, society firmly believed that only Brahmins shall construct temples and do priestly duties. But the steps Guru took uprooted these beliefs. Narayana Guru led the devotees to build the first temple at Aravipuram, in 1888. It was a very simple temple made of just a gazebo. Even when the temple was in place the question of where to get the idol from, hung in the air. Guru thought about this for half a moment, then he took a dive into the lake by the side of the temple, came up after a while carrying a stone shaped like a Linga, and placed it in the temple. “He is your Shiva” Guru pronounced. So, even God came there! In this way, when you count the ones in neighbouring Sri Lanka and Karnataka, he led to the construction of 39 temples. He said, “now, go and worship your own God”. This obviously enraged the priestly class. How can they not be angry? In response to the Brahmin Namboodaris who hissed with rage, “we have the lease on God. It is our God-given right. And because of you who are defying our rights and installing Gods for the lower castes, Shiva himself has become ‘impure’. You made God himself ‘impure’.” Narayana Guru had a calm response to shut them up “Look, the Shiva here is not the Shiva of Naboodaris. This is the Ezhava Shiva. Let the ‘impure’ people worship an ‘impure’ God. Why should you have a problem with that?” The construction of temples in this way was a massive revolution for the believers of that era. Furthermore, there was no place for expensive sacrificial fire prayers and such in these temples.

Around this time, enchanted by his social reformation work, his commitment to society, his spiritual thinking, Dr. Palpu, Kumaran Asan, T K Madhavan, and Sahodaran Ayyappan and other leaders joined forces with Narayana Guru. Due to the collective and balanced action of all these people not only did the movement started by Narayana Guru proliferate far-and-wide but also kindled the dream of unprecedented changes in the lives of oppressed masses.

Dr. Palpu came from a well to do Ezhava family, even in those days he had gone on to study medicine abroad. In spite of that, the ‘untouchable Ezhava’ wasn’t allowed to become a doctor in Kerala. Later he started his practice at the Madras Medical College and was posted in Mysore. Dr. Palpu was tormented thinking of the fate of Ezhava commoners, especially given the extent of discrimination even a man of his stature had to face. He was looking forward to finding a solution to this problem. During his stay in Mysore, he had developed a friendship with the King of Mysore within a short period of time and had become his confidante. Swamy Vivekananda visited Mysore around this time. When Dr. Palpu brought up the topic of caste hatred in Kerala in a discussion with him, Vivekananda said “You would have to work alongside a spiritual reformation movement for this. Only this way can you bring in changes in other spheres.” Dr. Palpu took his advice and went looking. The person he found was Narayana Guru. It should be said that even Narayana Guru gained immense strength befriending Dr. Palpu. Guru and Dr. Palpu put their heads together and created a blueprint for transforming the Ezhava community and also the Kerala society as a whole. As a result of this, in 1903, Sri Narayana Guru Dharma Paripalana Yogam SNDP-Yogam came into existence. It was registered under the companies’ act of the then British government as the Guru himself being its head. Kumaran Asan, who had taken to poetry as a student and had shown immense talent had been helped by Dr. Palpu in his higher education by introducing him to the Deewan of Mysore. Dr. Palpu and Kumaran Asan worked as the founder secretaries of SNDP.
Education revolution carried out by Guru!

For many years hence, Narayana Guru channelled his reform work through SNDP. Chiefly – wherever temples were being erected accompanying libraries were built, schools came up in the vicinity, other means of gaining knowledge also cropped up, spiritual training was imparted, people were brought out of superstitions, simple marriages were encouraged, and many more such activities were arranged through SNDP. At that time, in the government run schools there was no entry for Ezhavas or Holeyas. The Dharma Paripalana was successful in organizing people against this discrimination and was successful in gaining entry to the schools. On this occasion Guru called on people to get involved in education and industry. His call “Be free through education, be strong through organizing and be financially independent through industry” attracted many people like a magnet. With the help of SNDP thousands of Ezhavas, Holeyas, Theeyas and other education deprived masses started sending their children to schools; Guru also ran night schools for the adults. In Shivagiri for shepherd families, in Chembalanthi for the Holeyas, in Vetturu for the paraya people… In this way Guru opened night schools in 42 different places. All this lead to a revolution in education. The people, who were treated worse than trash for centuries – by economic and social oppression – by educational deprivation, got introduced to the wonders of education through the SNDP institutions. Many such beneficiaries became the followers of Narayana Guru and actively involved themselves in the movement. Some in the Ezhava community made living drawing toddy from palm trees. Narayana Guru, realizing the social implications of it, told them to leave that work. He encouraged them to take up various forms of self-employments. SNDP imparted vocational trainings in coir and other cottage industries. ‘VivekOdayama’, the newspaper run by the institutions in remembrance of Swami Vivekananda, worked as the kindle of intellectual revolution among the oppressed. It only helped that, ‘revolution poet’ Kumaran Asan, a star by this time in the Kerala literary world, was its editor. Thanks to the effective leadership of SNDP, Ezhavas and other backward communities could emerge out of the shroud darkness. Ballads (Khanda Kavya) composed by Kumaran Asan – ‘Duravastha’, ‘Chandala Bhikkuni’, ‘Karuna’ and others had made him a luminary in Malayalam literary scene. Kumaran Asan’s source material of the then prevalent caste untouchability in Kerala and Buddhist philosophy had made his work immensely popular.

An event happened around this time. Narayana Guru and Kumaran Asan were walking in the street in front of the Shiva temple at Vaikom in Kottayam taluka. A bunch of Brahmins stopped them and treated them viciously. They said “you are not allowed here. This is for Savarnas”. This happened to be the same temple where a massacre had taken place a hundred years ago. This time around Ezhavas and Holeyas were not to digest the dishonour meted out to their Guru himself. In the ensuing days, Kumaran Asan’s voicing of concern against this had found cold responses. At this point, two people realized the seriousness and saw the seeds of a revolution here. They were Narayana Guru and a disciple of him – T.K. Madhavan.

After long deliberations with Guru and with his guidance, the historical Vaikom Satyagraha movement took off. Ezhavas and Holeyas organized under the SNDP banner and started jumping into the ‘temple entry’ Satyagraha in thousands. Madhavan envisioned that the movement shouldn’t be limited to the temple or to the street, it should work to show the rotten state of Kerala caste discrimination in front of the whole nation. To realize this goal, he invited the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi to participate in the movement. He brought them up to speed about the education revolution which happened in Kerala under Narayana Gurus leadership. In the end, the movement gained extra significance when not only did Gandhi agree to the movement and also asked his followers and the members of the Indian National Congress to participate. He even met Narayana Guru in person and discussed the matter. The Satyagraha started on the 30th of March 1924 and went on for a year. Narayana Guru addressing the fasting Satyagrahis once said “Why do you fast? Don’t torment yourself this way, jump across the temple gates. Sit along with the Savarnas to get Prasada. Don’t hesitate, thrust yourself to the forefront”. Gandhi saw this as encouragement to violence and this lead to some misunderstanding between Gandhi and Guru. However, it didn’t last long. When support started pouring in from outside Kerala, Gandhi asked for it to be refused. Periyar Ramaswamy who had written the foreword for the Dravida movement in Kerala defied Gandhi, came to Vaikom, participated in the movement and even went to jail along with Madhavan. Periyar was later respected as “The Vaikom Hero” for having gone to jail in Vaikom. With the intent of bringing about change in the hearts of Savarnas, Gandhi called for Savarna Jatha. Responding to this, thousands of Nayars participated and took out processions through their caste front, thus supporting the Ezhava-Holeya fight. Even Naboodaripad Brahmins participated. However, when the administrative committee of the temple wanted to hold discussions with Gandhi, Namboodari Brahmins made Gandhi stop outside their houses not letting him in. They talked to him outside their houses since Gandhi had become impure by the touch of the low-born. In these negotiations, they turned down all of Gandhi’s proposals and snubbed him. In spite of all this, the movement only gained in strength due to the organizing ability of Madhavan, guidance of Narayana Guru, and the participation of the kinds of Gandhi and Periyar. In spite of the impudence show by Raghava Ayyar, the Diwan, the administration finally had to relent.

A similar uprising happened in Guruvayur in 1931. As a result of all this, in 1936 the king of Travancore decreed that, in his kingdom anybody can enter any temple without discrimination. This edict was first in the history of the whole country. T.K. Madhavan grew enormously as a leader because of the Vaikom movement. From then on he has been called ‘the godfather of Ezhava politics’. That’s not all. The Congress which was an upper caste party in Kerala till then, thanks to this fight against untouchability, gained huge followership among Ezhavas, Holeyas, Parayas and other low castes and became a mass party.

Even though Narayana guru at the core was a spiritual person, through his ideas and work he demonstrated that he was a social reformer first and foremost. He has written many works in both Malayalam and Sanskrit. They include works of spiritual teachings such as Aatmopadesha Shatakam, Darshana Mala, Vedaanta Sootra, further his works of the likes of ‘Jaati Nirnaya’, ‘Jaati Lakshana’ and others distinctly show his perspectives on society – the goal of all religions is the same. He has argued: like the rivers flowing from different directions all reach the sea, ‘for humans there is only one religion’. In Atmopadesha Shatakam, he says “No religion can defeat another religion by fighting. Only those who don’t know this argue against other religions. Everybody should know this.” Guru who had such views organized a conference of religions in 1924 at the advaita Ashrama in Alavaayi. He invited leaders, gurus and spiritual thinkers among Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Parsis. The invitation note said, “To know from others and to tell others, not to argue and perish”. It is worth noting that such a conference was unprecedented in Indian history.

Being himself a victim of caste discrimination, his opposition to it formed the crux of his philosophy. It is important to note that his resistance to caste discrimination during his formative years led to his later study of Vedas and Upanishads and consequently his adopting the Advaitha philosophy. It is worth noting that in the 8th century in the same land was born Adi Shankara who preached Advaitha and that lead to religious intolerance and caste discrimination. And through the same Adviatha the ‘untouchable’ Narayana Guru strived to eradicate caste discrimination. In his ‘Jaathi Nirnayam’ he says:

In human species

a Brahmin is born

a Paraiah also is born. So, where is the caste difference

among human lives?

In the womb of a Paraiah woman

was born the great sage Parashara.

The secret of Vedas

were uttered in small couplets

by the son of a daughter of a fisherman.

So, in the human species

between people and people

where is the difference?

only Illusory difference 

between person to person.

As a worldview, Advaitha is an emotionalist one and one which defends the authority of Vedas. There were also worldviews in India which rejected Vedas like Saankhya and Lokayatha. However, continuing to advocate the theistic philosophy of ‘unity of soul and God’, still not turning away from the burning problems of material existence, managing to assimilate them all within his spiritual and religious endeavour and putting forth it all in a model of social philosophy is the singular achievement of Narayana Guru. Buddha, Basava, Vivekananda, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Kuvempu and others worked along similar lines.

Another person who joined hands in these efforts of Narayana Guru was the unrivaled thinker Sahodaran Ayyappan. Being an Ezhava he strived for the development of communities lower in social order than Ezhavas, the Holeyas, the Parayas, and others. Through the ‘Sahodaran Sanghatan’ (The association of the brothers) he built, he conducted inter-caste marriages, communal banquets cutting through caste lines and many such activities striving towards creating a bond of brotherhood between castes. He was the first graduate among the Ezhavas of the Cochin area. It was his greatest desire to get all communities called ‘untouchables’ to live together as brothers.

At one point in time, the opposition to his activities started coming from within the Ezhava community itself. Ayyappan directly approached Narayana Guru and confided in him his woes. Guru was deeply pained listening to him. He published a written statement in which he declared his support for Sahodaran Ayyappan. In that message, he said, “Let whatever be the religion, language, tradition, caste, attire, the lives are all the same, hence there shall not be any opposition to inter-caste or inter-religion marriages.” In later times, this became one of his most popular messages. The Guru who gave this message, addressing Ayyappan said: “Ayyappan, you should develop patience like Jesus Christ.” Sahodaran took this passionately and it led him to play an important role in the founding of the trade union movement in Kerala.

Narayana Guru who in this way, dedicating his life thinking and working for the downtrodden, was the strength in individuals, was an organization unto himself and even a movement in himself. It’s only natural that he couldn’t hope to see the complete fruition of all his work in his lifetime. On 20th of September in 1928, Guru departed from this world. However, the movement he initiated continue unhindered. The social consciousness he kindled became the prime mover in changing the Kerala society – from Vivekananda’s ‘mental asylum’ to a civilized and educated modern society. The awareness which Narayana Guru created worked as a foundation to the national movement gathering steam in Kerala. And it led to the Indian National Congress and the Communist party gaining strength among the majority Ezhavas and other marginalized ‘untouchables’ and among Muslims and Christians. Among the many followers of Narayana Guru are Ezhavas, Paraiahs, Brahmins, Nayars,  and members of other castes and religions. And they have carried forward his spiritual tradition. Nataraja Guru, the son of Dr. Palpu is notable among them for being an important spiritual thinker.

It is essential for everyone in today’s world to understand Narayana Guru’s life, the work he did through organizing and the social philosophy he stood for. In these times when the politics is  adding venom between religions and leaving no stone unturned to widen the crevices between castes instead of narrowing them, we very much need Guru’s philosophy of ‘human religion and human caste’.


The original Kannada article was published on Round Table India in September 2018 and this translation to English is done by Swarna Kumar BA.


Harshkmar Kugve is actively involved in pro-people movements. He has worked to awaken the communities through his effective writings. ‘Desha Andre Manushyaru’ (Nation means human), ‘Nakshatrada DhooLu’ (Star Dust) and ‘Maang Gaarudi’ (A socio ethnolical research of Mang Garudi, a Denotified Tribe) are the books he has written so far. He has also translated Ravish Kumar’s book ‘The Free Voice – On Democracy, Culture and Nation’ into Kannada