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Updated: October 25, 2011 02:41 IST

The sadhu who inspired Narayana Guru

Prema Nandakumar
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CHATTAMPI SWAMI — An Intellectual Biography: R. Raman Nair, L. Sulochana Devi; Pub. by Centre for South Indian Studies, Kudapanakunnu, Thiruvananthapuram-695043. Price not mentioned.
CHATTAMPI SWAMI — An Intellectual Biography: R. Raman Nair, L. Sulochana Devi; Pub. by Centre for South Indian Studies, Kudapanakunnu, Thiruvananthapuram-695043. Price not mentioned.

Glorious was the 19th century for India, the seed time when several great leaders and spiritual luminaries were born to lead the Indian renaissance. Among them was Chattampi Swami (1853-1924), a siddha of Kerala who laid the foundations for reform movements to chase away evils like untouchability and religious exclusivism.

Fondly called Kunjan, he had to bear the burden of helping his mother and siblings at a very young age. However, with all the disadvantages of poverty and birth as a sudra, he managed to gain a good grounding in education. While studying at Pettayil Raman Pillai's gurukula, Kunjan was made the monitor (chattampillai) and the name stuck to him for all time.

Chattampi's natural leaning towards image worship presently drew him to the regions of spirituality. It was a hard and long journey punctuated by ill-will and caste-born arrogance. There were also compensations in the form of tutelage under the brahmin guru Subba Jata Vallabhar and friendship with eminent scholars like Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai. During these years of growing up, it became clear to him that the Tamil heritage was as important as that of Sanskrit to gain a total view of Indian culture. To get to know the pulse of the common man, he took to wandering all over India and, in the process, absorbed the many sub-cultures and different religious ways. He even spent a few months in a Church and learnt Christian philosophy from a priest. Retiring into mountain caves for meditation became second nature to him. Among his important acquisitions during these years was the knowledge of establishing temples which was, till then, denied to non-brahmins.

His personality

Working with available biographies of Chattampi, including one in Sanskrit published during his life-time, the authors reconstruct the image of a homeless sadhu, who was welcomed everywhere and who performed miracles. But the real miracle was his personality of love towards all creation which not only transcended caste and creed, but extended even to the animal and vegetable kingdoms. His gently worded letters are proof of his having attained the universal truth that ‘love is god'. Though Chattampi Swami is so close to us in time, it is difficult to discern reality from fiction in his life, perhaps because he had become a legend even when he was alive. He was blessed with equipoise and his memory was unbelievably sharp.

After scanning all the available literature of his times, the authors have done their best to sift facts from fantasies quite well. They have also happily laid to rest the controversy regarding the guru-sishya relationship between him and Narayana Guru. It becomes clear that if Narayana Guru could effect a tremendous social revolution, it was because he was inspired by Chattampi Swami to consecrate temples even in Dalit areas. The Swami was a complete teacher: he could even teach wrestling! He had a deep knowledge of herbs and was an expert doctor.

Raman Nair and Sulochana Devi have evidently worked very hard to write this biography which, in effect, contains a vast amount of information about persons who were associated with the Swami, each one of whom was a glowing lamp in his own way. Details about the Swami's works and the controversies that followed give us important insights into the 19{+t}{+h} century cultural history.

The authors have shown commendable patience and perseverance in collecting information and also in gathering a sheaf of photographs that take us back to the times of the Swami. Regrettably, the book has not been properly edited; there are repetitions and printer's devils galore. Again, they have mistaken the Tamil poems of Vallalar Ramalinga Swamigal and Annamalai Reddiar to be the compositions of Chattampi Swami. It is hoped that a future edition would be shorn of such flaws and the book would become a standard study material on Indian Renaissance.

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