Making of an ascetic activist

In times when society is divided on the lines of caste and faith, it is always prudent to look back at the life and teachings of spiritual gurus who fought the evils through their ideas. One such teacher is Sree Narayana Guru. Born on August 28, 1855 in Chempazhanty, a village located near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, he read extensively in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit, composing hymns and mystic poems in early years of his adult life. Later, he embarked upon a long and arduous journey to attain eternal bliss and supreme wisdom. An ascetic, Narayana Guru preferred to break away from the traditional path, launching himself as a social reformer and activist, who took on the evils of the deeply entrenched caste system in the society while emphasising on education and entrepreneurship, till he breathed his last on September 20, 1928.

Message lives on: Sree Narayana Guru

Message lives on: Sree Narayana Guru

Now, Asokan Vengassery Krishnan encapsulates the guru’s life and teachings in a well-researched biography, “Sree Narayana Guru: The Perfect Union of Buddha and Sankara” (Konark). The US-based author, in an interaction, highlights the guru’s musical and poetic acumen and the relevance of his teachings in today’s world.

Edited excerpts:

On the motivation

Though Sree Narayana Guru is widely revered in Kerala and his role in liberating the region from the dark ages of the 19th Century has been well documented. We have collectively failed in adequately educating the larger Indian audience about the guru. His characterisationas a leader of Kerala’s Ezhava community by Ramachandra Guha in “India After Gandhi” (2007) was not only disquieting but also underscores this dilemma. Guru’s declarations against caste, his creative propositions for religious harmony, and his monumental written works on Vedanta should receive serious national attention.

On comparisons with Buddha and Sankara

Like Buddha, he opposed caste system and dedicated himself to cleanse the socio-religious system. Buddha introduced ahimsa to profoundly change societal character and Guru reintroduced it millenniums later as evident in his poems “Anukampadasakam”, “Jeevakarunyapanchakam”, “Ahimsa”, etc. Sankara extracted Advaita from Vedas and established it as the essence of Vedas. In principle, Guru followed the Advaita of Sankara, and the philosophical underpinning of Guru’s poems “Atmopadeshasatakam”, “Darsanamala” and “Vedantasutram”, etc is Advaita.

On using poetry for reform and spiritual awakening

Guru encapsulated his philosophical insights, metaphysical experiences, and intuitive wisdom in verses, and wrote around 60 poems including hymns as well as moral and philosophical works. “Janani Navaratna Manjari”, “Siva Satakam”, “Shanmukha Strotam”, “Kundalinippattu”, and “Chijjadachintham” are a few among the most popular hymns. Guru’s verses are reflective of his realm as a master poet, as a pragmatic and creative social reformer and as an authentic philosopher.

In general, Guru’s hymns distinctively differ from most of the traditional ones as they go beyond mere praise of the deity. He engages with the ‘Big Picture’ of the Advaita philosophy in his hymns, and prompts serious devotees to go beyond traditional deity worship.

On his music sense

The perfect blend of words and phrases laced with rhythm for fluent recitation is the hallmark of Guru’s verses. Be it “Vinayakashtakam”, the hymn on Lord Ganapati, “Kalinatakam” or “Jananeenavaratnamanjari” on Mother Goddess, “Chidambarashtakam” or “Sadasivadarsanam” on Lord Siva, or for that matter the long philosophical poem “Atmopadeshasatakam”, they all excel in their mystic beauty. The lively flow of language filled with imagery and pregnant with meaning while expressing intimate devotional experiences or abstract philosophical concepts reveal Guru’s genius as a poet. Guru was proficient in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit, and those verses reflect the true essence of Guru’s vision and persona.

On Guru’s emphasis on education, entrepreneurship and skill development

Guru believed self-empowerment as the key for transformation. Guru’s magical mantra to the oppressed masses, was, “Get education and be free and fearless.” He stressed the importance of educating women for the overall development of society. When he opened a Sanskrit school in his Advaitashram in Aluva, Guru admitted students from Christian, Muslim, and Dalit communities.

For achieving financial progress, Guru proposed pooling of resources for building factories and trade and businesses ventures. He deployed his disciple, Ernst Kerk (of European descent), to design special programmes for agriculture and industry making use of the idle resources available in the Sivagiri Ashram. Kerk developed various skill development training programmes as technicians and craftsmen for local men who lacked a regular livelihood.

On Guru’s views on other faiths and conversion.

He valued the philosophical and spiritual merits of India’s wisdom traditions, and his written works reflect his authority on Vedas, Upanishads, and other scriptures of Hinduism. Yet Guru held an affirmative attitude towards all religions. Two of Guru’s most famous messages which reverberate almost daily in Kerala’s public discourses and which epitomise his philosophy are “Oru Jathi-Oru Matham-Oru Daivam-Manushyanu” and “Matam Ethayalyum Manushyan Nannayal Mathi”. These messages are reflective of his preference for the primacy of individual virtue and an aspiration to mould men and women beyond the constraints of religion. On religious conversion, Guru explicitly stated that conversion was unnecessary for spiritual needs. On conversion as an avenue for escaping social oppression and other material disadvantages, he proposed internal reform. Guru was not opposed to conversion based on genuine religious or spiritual convictions and supported such rights of every individual.

On Guru’s interaction with Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi

Tagore visited Guru at the Sivagiri Ashram in November 1922. They greeted each other graciously, exchanged some pleasantries, and had a hearty but brief conversation. It was a meeting of the minds. The comments made afterwards by Tagore that he had never met a more graceful spiritual being than Guru encapsulates the impact of Guru on Tagore. Gandhiji came to the Sivagiri Ashram in March 1925 as part of his second visit to Kerala for attending the Vaikkom Satyagragha, a peaceful agitation for walking rights for the traditionally untouchable communities. Gandhi stayed overnight in the ashram, attended prayer meetings, and discussed a wide range of issues. The Guru had an enduring influence on Gandhiji and his views on nationalism, religion, and the independence movement.

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Printable version | Mar 27, 2022 1:21:44 am |