Narayana Guru

Narayana Guru
Narayana Guru

Sri Nārāyana Guru (Malayalam: ശ്രീ നാരായണ ഗുരു) (1855–1928), also known as Sree Nārāyana Guru Swami, was a Hindu saint, sadhu[1][2] 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, led Reform movement in Kerala, 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.[1][2]

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[3] 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 superstitions that clouded the fundamental Hindu religious convention of Chaturvarna.



Family and Early life

A digitised image of a photograph taken when Narayana Guru was sixty

Narayana Guru was born on August 20, 1855, in the village of Chempazhanthi near Thiruvananthapuram, the son of Madan Asan, a farmer, and Kutti Amma. The boy was dotingly called Nanu. Madan was also a teacher ("Asan")[citation needed] who was learned in Sanskrit and proficient in Astrology and Ayurveda.[citation needed]He had three sisters. 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 Siddharupam, Bālaprobhodhanam and Amarakosam.

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.[4]

Transformation as master, yogi and seeker of truth

The young Nanu had a keen mind and was sent to a famous scholar, Kummampilli Rāman Pillai Asan at Karunagapally, a village fifty miles away from his home, at the age of 21. Living as a guest in a family house Varanapally near Kayamkulam, Nānu, along with other students, was taught Sanskrit language and poetry, drama and literary criticism, and logical rhetoric. He studied the Vedas and the Upanishads. He also began teaching in a near-by school. His knowledge earned him the respect of many and he came to be known as "Nanu Asan".

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", Nanu would often spend time in the confines of temples, writing poems and hymns and lecturing to villagers on philosophy and moral values.

Married life

Under pressure from his family, Nanu married Kaliamma, the daughter of a traditional village doctor. The marriage was a simple affair with the groom's sisters themselves investing the bride with the 'Thaali' (wedding knot) on his behalf. The bride remained with her parents, since Nanu became a wanderer not long after.[citation needed]

'Parivrajaka' (A Spiritual Wanderer)

After the demise of his father and wife, Nanu Asan continued his life of a wandering Sanyasi. He became a 'Parivrajaka' (one who wanders from place to place in quest of Truth). It was during one of these days that Nanu met Kunjan Pillai, who later came to be known as Chattampi Swamikal. Kunjan Pillai, who discovered and appreciated Nānu Āśān's philosophical genius and passion for Yoga, introduced him to Thycattu Ayyaavu, a 'Hatha yogi'. Under the Yogi, Nānu Āśān mastered various Yogic practices including Hatha Yoga. The exposure gained from these scholars had a lasting impact on the later life and philosophy of Nārāyana Guru.[citation needed]

Enlightenment and its poetic expression

Nānu moved to his hermitage deep inside the hilly forests of Maruthwāmala, where he led an austere life immersed in meditative thought and yoga and subjected himself to extreme sustenance rituals. This phase of solitude lasted for 8 long years. After an unpretentious life of over thirty years abounding in knowledge and harsh experiences, this epoch is considered the culmination of the meditative recluse; the point at which Nārāyana Guru is believed to have attained a state of Enlightenment.

Nārāyana Guru's later literary and philosophical masterpiece Atmopadesa Satakam (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.

Consecration of Siva Lingam at Aruvippuram

Narayana Guru's Tomb at Sivagiri

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 Aruvippuram. 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. When Brahmins challenged his right to consecrate, he replied in his famous quote:I installed my siva; not a brahmin siva.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:

Devoid of dividing walls of Caste
Or hatred of rival faith,
We all live here
In Brotherhood,
Such, know this place to be!
This Model Foundation!

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, Anchuthengu, 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 organizing talent competitions. These competitions, regularly held every year, have been a platform for youngsters to stand up and recognize 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 in the Nilgiri Hills with the blessings of Nārāyana Guru.

Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra (The Brotherhood of All)

In 1913, the Guru founded an Ashram at Aluva. It was called the Advaita Ashram. This was an important event in the life of the Guru. The Ashram was dedicated to a great principle - Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra (all human beings are equal in the eyes of God). In 1921, a Conference of Universal Brotherhood was held at Aluva. Again in 1924, a conference of all religions was held there. The Guru stressed the need for a Brahma Vidyalayam for the comparative study of various religious faiths. An institution called Narayana Gurukulam was established in the Nilgiri Hills, Tamil Nadu by Bodhananda Swamikal and later handed over to Nataraja Guru.

Final Ceylon Journey

Gurudevan 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, Gurudevan did not want to return. He went back only after repeated requests of his disciples and devotees.

Message to Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam

In a message to the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam in 1926 Gurudevan 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 and he made temple rights to everyone. 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 - with the message "Om shanti" written on the surface - in a temple in Kalavankode. The prathishta of the mirror is symbolic in that Advaita Vedanta 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 Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam held at Palluruthy 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 Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam at Kottayam and gave away registration certificates to the branch organizations.

Even though Guru started SNDP as a forum to lead the activities for social equality and caste less society, eventually SNDP turned out to be a forum of Ezhava caste, which is a contradiction to Guru's vision. Various factions in the SNDP Yogam accuse others of financial irregularities and corruption.[5][6] There are allegations that liquor barons are controlling the SNDP Yogam.[7] It is an irony that today SNDP Yogam represents exactly those things/ideas which Guru opposed.

Sivagiri pilgrimage

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 Gregorian calendar 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 - body, food, mind, word, deed called as Pancha Dharma.

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

  • 1. Education
  • 2. Cleanliness
  • 3. Devotion to God
  • 4. Organization
  • 5. Agriculture
  • 6. Trade
  • 7. Handicrafts
  • 8. Technical training

He advised them to organize 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.

Finally, it was decided to start the first pilgrimage from the village of Elavumthitta in Pathanamthitta District. The S N D P unit No.76 of Elavumthitta selected 5 youngsters for the pilgrimage, namely, P.K.Divakara Panicker, P.K.Kesavan, P.V.Raghavan, M.K.Raghavan, S.Sankunni. All the 5 pilgrims wore bright yellow dress, as suggested by Sree narayana Guru. All the way to Sivagiri, they were reciting 'Swaathanthrya gadha' – written by the great poet Kumaranaasan. They were teased with the words 'Manjakkilikal' –meaning yellow birds. They never got provoked, with a smile they moved on. The dominant thought in their mind was the mission to fulfil, will have to reach Sivagiri, a great responsibility bestowed on their shoulders by the Sreenarayana devotees. Their mission was a great success. Today thousands are following the way they have shown.

The Palluruthi event in 1927 was the last anniversary of the Yogam which Gurudevan attended. It was also the last public function Gurudevan attended.

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 became seriously ill in September 1928. He remained bedridden for some time. Devotees came in large numbers to have a glimpse. The same year, Gurudevan's birthday was celebrated in many places, mostly in Kerala, Madras, Mangalore, Srilanka and Europe. On 20 September, Guru died.

Commemorative coins issued by the Reserve Bank of India in 2006 on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Nārāyana Guru. Click on picture for enlarged view.

Nārāyana Guru's philosophy

Hailing from the land of Adi Shankara, Sree Nārāyana Guru was a great proponent and re-evaluator of Advaita Vedanta. Guru's philosophy, which is fundamentally of Advaitic and non-dual wisdom in principles, further extended Advaitic concepts into practical modes of self-realisation through spiritual education, compassion and peaceful co-existence of humanity, whilst promoting social equality and universal brotherhood. His philosophy strongly denounced discrimination in the name of caste or religion, and emphasised focusing on education and private enterprise for the ongoing upliftment of the quality of life. Guru's philosophy emphasised the consistency between true existence of the "common reality" on Earth and one Divine behind the creation and sustenance of the Universe.

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.

Tolerance toward others

A message sent by Nārāyana Guru to Sahodarasangham during their annual conference - May 15, 1921

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 religion, caste, colour or beliefs. He was tolerant toward all philosophies that stood for the progress 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.

The Guru's influence on other social thinkers

Concerning the caste system, Gandhi said the following to Nārāyana Guru: "The caste-Hindus and the low caste-Hindus are both the sons of Hinduism. The caste-Hindu is the elder brother who shoulders responsibility, and he therefore exercises certain privileges. The low caste-Hindu is his younger brother who is to be cared for. If the elder brother turns out to be somewhat rough and aggressive that should not make the younger brother a runaway from his mother Hinduism."[8] Nārāyana Guru, however, disagreed, and voiced his tolerance for those who converted to other religions, with the argument that one should follow what one truly believes in. He also questioned the logic of Gandhi's argument, arguing that caste in India was a socio-economic issue.

Guru's Famous Teachings