THE APOSTLE OF SOCIAL EQUALITY
Dr. K.I. Vasu
(This has been adapted from the essay which appeared in the Organization of Hindu Malayalees (OHM) souvenir, 1997)Introduction
Kerala - Yesterday and Today
The Advent of Guru Narayana
The Guru: A social Reformer or a Philosopher?
Early Life and Education
Wandering life: Attainment of Spirituality
Onward to other places
The Guru and Advaita in action
Three essential steps for Social progress
BIRTH and DEATH are the two REALITIES OF EQUALITY IN LIFE. At birth, every child is an innocent angel. INEQUALITIES in the name of religion, creed and language, or in the form of wealth, and our inhibitions and obsessions thereof are the products of the environments of our growth. An in the end, death equalizes everyone again, the rich and the poor, the Brahmin and the Chandala, the Kannadiga and the Malayalee.
In between birth and death, the two realities of equality, we live in a lunatic asylum of social and economic inequalities, in the undulations of our own creation.
Kerala- Yesterday and Today
A few decades ago, the ever-green land of Kerala was an extreme example of social and economic inequalities- a ‘lunatic asylum’ in the words of Swami Vivekananda. Over a third of its population were treated as untouchables. Educational Institutions were not open to them. They were denied of all government jobs. They were completely forbidden from entering temples, and even worshipping any of the Hindu pantheon of Gods, inspite of all the pious statements such as ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ or ‘Tatwamsi’ in the Vedas and the Upanishads. They lived in abject poverty. Often, they thought, rather they were tutored by the social customs to believe, that it is their fate to be born an outcast and it is their dharma or social duty to serve others and live in servility. The ‘Karma theory’ fitted very well to evolve such a social theory. It is now a recognized fact in India. It is the extreme social inequality that has led to the economic inequality and it is economic inequality that has led to intellectual inequality. The utter poverty and the consequent undernourishment and malnutrition among the children generally thwarted the intellectual growth in the community. Where there is poverty, there is impoverishment of the growth of the intellect.
That was the situation a few decades ago. Today it is an entirely different picture in Kerala. Things have completely changed now. Many of those untouchables now wield intellectual power and professional skills; amongst them there are now judges, doctors, engineers, professors and teachers, government secretaries, and so on in all walks of life from all echelons of society. They wield economic and political power too, and social subjugation will never come again. Untouchability is unheard of amongst the younger generation, even though by birth he may be branded to a particular community. A great social and economic transformation has taken place in Kerala within a span of just four or five decades.
The change from a traditional to an egalitarian society is evident from a recent report on Indian Planning which, while stating that "an outcome of Indian Planning has been the increase in poverty and the widening of disparities" contains the following crucial observation: "Taking India as being an example, some comments relating to the State of Kerala being rated as one of the better developed states, are noteworthy. Kerala’s life expectancy is the highest in the country; its infant mortality rate is the lowest,- its number of children per woman is one amongst the lowest, inspite of a very large Catholic and Muslim population; its median marriage age is the highest; so is its percentage of literacy-more than double the All India average of 29.5%; its stock of professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc) per 1000 of population is 53 which is more than 3 times the national average of 16". And also remember that Kerala is the cleanest state in the whole of India with excellent rural sanitation and hygiene conditions.
The Advent of Guru Narayana
For many observers, it is difficult to understand the reason for these tremendous social and economic transformation involving the lowest strata of society in Kerala, all in a democratic set-up. For many, it is still a miracle eluding all answers. But to any one who is aware of the dramatic personae of the transformation, it is clear that this has been brought about by the reformations initiated by one of the greatest saints and seers of India-Maharishi Shree Narayana Guru.
In the 19th and the 20th century, India had the good fortune of having a large number of eminent social, religious and political reformers; most important of them were Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. These men have received international acclaim either due to their ability to reinterpret the vedopanishadic ideals of Hinduism and its relevance to modern man, or due to their charismatic leadership. Shree Narayana Guru has not received this aura in the same tradition of socio-relegious reforms, far more effective at the grass root level and far more successful in bringing about concrete and creative social reformations in South India, especially in and around Kerala. During a period of extreme social ostracism and rigid religious orthodoxy, Narayana Guru preached the maxim of "One In Kin, One In Faith and One in God is Man". He interpreted the advaita philosophy in its most universal social form as "ALL MEN ARE EQUAL AND EQUAL TO GOD". It is this philosophy that made an indelible imprint of equality among the fertile minds of the people of Kerala, which ultimately helped in creating a socialistic thinking in the entire populace of Kerala. Perhaps nearest to Kerala in this respect is Bengal, where one can easily place that it is again the result of similar spiritual by Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and Guru Dev Tagore. There was only this difference: Guru Narayana was cast in an earthly mould of the downtrodden and hence had a solid base at the grass-root level, whereas the Bengali reforms were cast in a poetic mould of the elite. Guru Narayana, lived and worked with them to bring about practical social uplift through organization, education and industrialization, while the same philosophy of the Bengali reformers took time to percolate from the elite to the masses.
No wonder, then, in what "Sanatana Dharma" the official journal of the Theosophical Society, wrote about him soon after his Mahasamadhi in 1928:
"During recent centuries, no one in India has enjoyed so much reverence as Narayana Guru commanded - a reverence so glorious, so enduring, so comprehensive, so universal and so pure. His life has exemplified the great truth, sometimes courageous souls who have attained liberation do take birth among people who are oppressed by custom to show them the path of emancipation, and in doing so, take upon themselves suffering and Rishi Narayana who was to have awakened Malabar Patanjali in yoga, Shankara in wisdom, Manu in the art of government, Buddha in renunciation, Mohammed in strength of spirit and Christ in humility, after 72 years spend in the drama of human life has gone back to whence he came."
The Guru: A social Reformer or a Philosopher?
There are many who believe that Maharshi Shree Narayana Guru is one of the greatest philosophers that the world has ever produced - a philosopher far beyond clime and time. They believe that the contributions he made to social reformations, impressive and timely as they were, are but just the byproducts of his perfectly practical philosophy. According to them, to treat Narayana Guru as a social reformer par excellence, even though true in the historical perspective and social context, is rather to denigrate him from his luminous status as a philosopher, supreme-philosopher absolute.
Early Life and Education
Chempazhanthi is a small village about 15 Kms North East of Trivandrum in Kerala. It was quite obscure at the time of the birth of Narayana Guru on August 20, 1854 which happens to be on the Chathayam or Satabish star and the third day of Kerala’s famous Onam festival. His father, Madan Asan, was a good farmer, a noted teacher(of the Gurukula type) and a Sanskrit scholar, well-versed in astronomy and ayurveda. His mother, Kutty, was a simple and pleasant woman. Narayanan or ‘Nanu’ was the only boy among four children of this couple.
Very little is known about his childhood, but there seems to have been nothing unusual about Nanu’s early years. Her grew up as an ordinary boy. At the age of five, he was sent to a village school for his elementary education in Malayalam. There he learned Sanskrit as well. In later years, he had acquired a commending proficiency in Tamil, and his philosophical transactions and writings were essentially in these three languages.
After his primary education, Nanu stayed home helping his parents in their domestic chores and agriculture. It is stated that he made it a normal habit to recite Sanskrit poems everyday. More interesting was his religious habits which included a morning bath, worship in the nearby temple and solitary meditation. At the age of fourteen, he was already popular as Nanu Bhaktan. Another usual habit that he developed is that he would suddenly disappear from his company to a lonely place for meditation and cogitation.
He lost his mother before he was fifteen and his uncle, Krishna Vaidyar(Ayurvedic physician) became his chief benefactor. Krishna Vaidyar soon realized the potential talents of his nephew, and sent him to Raman Pillai Asan, a good teacher at Karunagapally, for higher education.
Raman Pillai Asan was a high-caste Hindu. Nanu being an untouchable by birth had to stay outside the residence of the teacher to learn lessons from him. Nanu was however, a brilliant student, surpassing all his colleagues, and he impressed all his teachers with his ability to learn, understand and interpret many Sanskrit literary and philosophical works. During the course of his studies, he received a good training in logic and philosophy. In fact, he soon grew much beyond this stage. The secrets of the vedantic and upanishadic wisdom became an open book to him by sheer dint of his straight forward simplicity, his purity of life and altert positiveness of mental outlook and discipline.
In 1881, after some years of advanced learning in Sanskrit, Nanu had to return home with a severe illness, and upon recovery, he decided to start village schools in and around his native village. It is here, for the first time he started imparting knowledge and wisdom to the local children, in particular the children of the depressed and oppressed sections of society.
Indeed, this was also a period of intense mental struggle in his life. On the one hand he was obliged to fulfill the duty of supporting his family. On the other hand, he was faced with an ever-increasing desire, an inner urge, for a deep spiritual life, which will lead him to experience Reality. All his activities were overshadowed by an intense desire for a pure and free spiritual life. To divert him from this spiritual bent his relatives thought it best to get him married. He had not yet reached the stage where he could defy the desires of his relatives and was forced to enter marriage at the age of twenty eight. We don’t have much factual evidence concerning the physical relations of the couple. Many believe that although the wedding ceremony took place as per custom, the marriage was never consummated, leading to any conjugal relationship. It is, however recorded that, like Siddhartha before he became Buddha, Nanu withdrew from his home after a short period and his wife died a little later after their seperation. He had already lost his father in 1884.
Wandering life: Attainment of Spirituality
To everyone he used to say: "Every man is born in this world to fulfill a certain definite purpose. I must fulfill the purpose for which I was born."
Having ended all temporal relationships with his family, Nanu left home in search of truth and entered into a period of wandering in search of spiritual knowledge, seeking advice from several holy men in order to attain the goal of self-realization. He learned the technique of yoga and even went to the caves of Maruthvamalai (Maruthva hills) in Kanyakumari to perfect his own practice of discipline.
Maruthvamalai had a calm, serene and quiet atmosphere and solitary caves, surrounded by fountains of water and fresh air. All these were enormously conducive to this ascetic life, and led to the realization of Truth. The personality of Nanu bloomed, blossomed and matured here and attained the full stature of GURU. A new phase of life began, not a life of abnegation and renunciation, but one of action and movement, aimed at the development of man to the maximum capacity and maximum possible perfection.
Shree Narayana Guru now returned to the people and wandered amongst them. Sometimes he went out like a mendicant from village to village, eating whatever is offered, and mingling with the most lowly of all classes. The children became very fond of this stranger with sparkling eyes. The elders found that his presence somehow was augury of good luck in all their undertakings. Often he would also disappear from the haunts of man and go back to the seclusion of the hills and valleys to continue his penance. In this way, living in communion with men, nature and God, and occasionally coming out to mingle with the lowliest and the poorest, he spent some of his formative years. We do not know how long he led this type of life, but it was certainly a period of preparation and orientation for the mammoth task which he had to perform in his public life.
The active public life of Shree Narayana Guru spans over forty years covering the period between 1888 and 1928, and within this short period, he transformed the entire social fabric of Kerala in a way none would have ever dreamt of.
There was no set pattern of actions, which the Guru followed, but his public ministry is distinguished by directness, correctness and brevity in word and deed. He remained fully active and yet filled with practical wisdom and compassionate concern for the people. He traveled from place to place throughout Kerala, parts of South India and Ceylon. Though his activities were mostly confined to Kerala, his mission of helping the needy people struck across geographical boundaries as well as the barriers of caste and religion.
The very first act of his public work was at Aruvipuram, some 20 km south of Trivandrum, near a cascade of the Nayyar river, where in 1888, Narayana Guru consecrated a Shiva temple defying the tradition that only a Brahmin priest could officiate at such relegious acts. On the walls of this temple the Guru inscribed the following:
"Without differences of caste,
Nor enimities of creed,
Here it is, the model of an abode,
Where all live like brothers at heart".This temple was consecrated for those who were denied access to Hindu temples. Near this new temple, he also founded a monastery(Ashram) and formed an organization for the protection of temple properties and the welfare of the worshippers. It is this organization which later became Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP, the society for Shree Narayana Dharma Propagation) with hundreds of branches all over Kerala, the biggest social force in Kerala, and the first such organization in India.
He continued his ministry for a few years in and around Aruvipuram. In 1904, the Guru chose Varkala Shivagiri, a coastal suburb of Quilon (Kollam) as the next centre of his public activity. It was here at Shivagiri, that the Guru spent a great deal of his time until his mahasamadhi in 1928. Today the body of the Guru lies in state in the Maha Samadhi Mandir on the beautiful peak of Shivagiri. Many worship him as a god - rather an Avathar of God. The beauty and serenity of the location impressess anybody, and Shivagiri gradually got transformed into a place of pilgrimage, worship and meditation. On New Year day every year, thousands of pilgrims visit the place and participate in the annual spiritual convention attended by leaders of all religions.
The Guru founded a monastery and cosecrated two temples at Shivagiri. The one dedicated to Saradha in 1912 is distinguished by exquisite architecture, more so by the simplicity of its construction and in the form of worship maintained at the instruction of the Guru.
It was here in Shivagiri that Rabrindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi visited Maharashi Shree Narayana Guru. After his visit in 1922, Tagore paid him tribute in the following words:
"I have been touring different parts of the world. During these travels, I have had the good fortune to come into contact with several saints and maharishis……. But I have frankly to admit that I have never come across one who is spiritually greater than Swami Narayana Guru of Malayalam-nay, a person who is on par with him in spiritual attainment."Onward to other places:
The dedication of various temples and other reform works caught the attention of millions of people in South India. He was accepted as a Vedantin and a Sanskrit scholar. By 1912, he had changed his headquarters and wandered further north. After several extensive tours in which he became publicly recognized as a spiritual Guru and a social force that could no more be ignored, he decided on Alwaye-the birth place of Adi Shankara as his abode and next center of activity.
In Alwaye, Shree Narayana Guru founded an Advaita Ashram in 1913 in order to reach, propogate as well as live the Advaitha philosophy. Here he also established a Sanskrit school to restore the sanctity of the language through which universal spiritual teachings can be grasped and imparted to dedicated disciples.
The 60th birthday of the Guru was celebrated all over Kerala and outside. The extended celebration ceremonies in South Kanara, Madurai, Tirunelveli, Madras, Calcutta and Ceylone, convey the fact that by this time the recognition of Guru as a spiritual leader had reached far beyond the boundaries of his native state of Kerala. Simplicity in life and work was his philosophy, never resorting to the modern techniques of publicity and popularity. People flocked to him for various purposes. Some out of curiosity, some to learn from him, some to get diseases cured, some to get his blessings in starting any new venture in trade or industry, and some even to have evil spirits cast out.
Shree Narayana Guru presided over two important conferences in Alwaye. The first was the annual meeting of the All Kerala Association of Brotherhood in 1921, when the Guru proclaimed the following message:
"Whatever may be the difference in man’s creed, dress, language etc. because they all belong to the same kind of creation, there is no harm at all in dining together or having marital relations with one another."This is the first open, definite, forthright statement of the Guru against caste distinctions and its corollary of prohibition of inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriages.
The second historic event at Alwaye was the conference of All Religions in 1924, under the direct leadership of the Guru, inaugurating the study of comparative religions. The object of this first-ever conference of its type in Kerala was, in his own words:
To inform, and
Not for dispution."Such a conference is still conducted annually by his followers and attracts scholars of various religions from both India and abroad.
For nearly forty years, the Guru worked incessantly as an organizer, preacher, and reformer in Kerala, amidst aggressive oppostion from high caste Hindus and unfavourable socio-economic conditions. But not one in a million can achieve what he did and the wonders he worked in the communities of outcasts and untouchables. The height to which he raised these communities in Kerala can be imagined only in comparison with what the positions of their counterparts are in other parts of India. The Guru’s chief concern was the emancipation of the whole society. He was no spectacular preacher or propagandist, nor did he indulge in any lengthy metaphysical dissertations. But the very acts he performed remain as the embodiment of his religious reforms. His life was in essence his message.
India has witnessed three categories of reformers of the Hindu religion:
- the abrasive reformers, who wage a war on high caste Hindus, pulling them down from their high pedestals;
- the poetic reformers of the elite, who try to purify the high cast Hindu, in the hope that the effect of these reforms would slowly percolate down to the downtrodden; and
- the earthly reformers who organize, educate, industrialize and elevate the depressed and oppressed classes.
The common people in those days had no entry to orthodox Hindu temples; they were not even expected to worship Gods like Shiva and Vishnu and had to be content with worshipping evil spirits only. The Guru defied this orthodoxy and indicated the right of every man to worship any God in his own right. This is reflected in the consecration of a Shiva temple at Aruvipuram in 1888. For the orthodox high caste Hindus, the consecration of a temple by an outcaste untouchable by birth was a sacrilege, a rebellion against God and society. This first act, however represented the beginning of a peaceful and creative revolution in Kerala and marked the turning point in the struggle for equality of mankind in social and religious matters. It is regarded as a veritable bomb, which blasted the rock of religious orthodoxy. After this, Shree Narayana Guru consecrated more than sixty such temples in different parts of South India which remained the means of emancipation of millions of people who were denied the primary human right of worshipping in temples of one’s own choice or a God of one’s own choice.
Shree Narayana Guru established three types of temples and brought about three specific reforms.
Firstly, he consecrated higher Gods in place of evil spirits and appointed trained, dedicated Sanyasins from the lower strata to function as priests, thus elevating them religiously. Most of his temples have a garden and a reading room so that there could be an atmosphere of worshipping God with purity of intent.
Secondly, he instructed his followers to build new temples in simple, inexpensive ways so that energy and money could be utilized for useful purposes. He reduced the customarily elaborate and long temple worship to a much simpler and shorter form. Regarding the building of new temples, his instructions were:
"Temples should not be build in expensive manner as was the custom of ancient days. No money should be spend for elaborate festivals and its pomp….. Adjacent to the temple should be schools and reading rooms. Small scale industrial training schools should also be attached to temples. The offertory at the temple should be used for the welfare of the poor people."Thirdly, and most importantly, a notable change is reflected in Shree Narayana Guru’s attitude towards idol worship. He wanted to elevate man to God, to sublimate idolatry to the pure level of abstract virtues, to lead the stem of devotion to the boundless ocean of Brahmin, the changeless and imperishable "Tat Tvan Asi" and "Aham Bhramsmi".
The iconoclastic view of the Guru is evident in his consecration of just a lamp, instead of an idol, in the Kaaramukku temple in Trichur in 1920, saying "Let there be Light". In 1922, he built a temple at Murukkumpuzha and consecrated, not an idol but a mere inscription of "Truth, Dharma, Love, Mercy", and in 1924, in the last temple he consecrated, he placed just a mirror in the sanctuary, instead of an idol or an image, in the Kalavankode temple in Shertalai district; his intention is clear; you will see god in yourself--look to the inner self to see God.
In other words, in his temple reforms, Shree Narayana Guru began with personal gods such as Shiva. Here again he was fully imbued with the Rigveda (1-164-46). The wise call that one God by various names. One entity functions in different forms. From personal God, he then gradually moved towards an emphasis of the worship of qualities, and finally arrived at the contemplation of the self as Brahmin. In the first category of temples there are regular poojas and festivals; in the second category, no customary pooja or celebration; and the last category of temples have no idols or images, thus meeting the various levels of emotional and spiritual inclinations of the people from the ordinary to the intellectual. Here is thus the quintessence of Hindu philosophy in action. He is also an example of a man who precisely practiced what he publicly preached.
We can also see a clear distinction in the ideal of ashram or monasteries established by Shree Narayana Guru. Ascetics generally tried to live out of the ordinary world; but according to the Guru, a sanyasin should of course be a man of renunciation, but whose life is dedicated to the service of humanity, for every man is an image of Brahma. Man is verily the goal of man. The public monasteries should be homes of service, no less than of spiritual exercise. The sanyasins should work among the people with all the ardor and purity of renunciation. His own life sets an example to his followers of what could be achieved by a true sanyasin.
As we have seen earlier, the Guru lived in a period of renaissance in India: cultural, social, literary and political renaissance, the abolition of Sati among Brahmins being one of the best examples. Shree Narayana Guru realized that if all of the communities are to progress, the cobwebs of many of the prevalent social evils have to be eradicated. He propagated his message of social reform through the help of his close associates and the annual meeting of the SNDP yogam. The member of innumerable branches of the association were the agents to spread his message throughout the country. His message included specific reforms to be practiced in the building of new temples (if people cannot help without temples); the worship in temples, and the traditional customs such as those during birth of a child, the naming of the child, the mock marriage of the child, the puberty ceremony for girls, the first pregnancy festival and many more before and even after the death of man. The Guru exhorted his disciples that these festivals and ceremonies have no vedic sanction, but were introduced by the priestly class to perpetuate their hegemony. The people were convinced of the force of sincerity in his arguments, and it was resolved in 1905 to abolish these customs, wherever possible, or simplify them, where a symbolic retention of the custom is called forth. A new liturgy for the marriage ceremony was drawn and a beginning was made for the first time to hold marriages in a simple way in temples or before priests with prayer and worship.
The best known of all messages of Shree Narayana Guru is the one exhorting his followers not to observe caste distinctions. Right from the vedic period, except perhaps during the Buddhist period, the caste system prevailed in the Indian society. The advent of Adi Shankara and his emphasis on Chaturvarna (the four-tier social system) aggravated this situation and the tradition of caste was too deeply rooted in the minds of people to be corrected by mere advice or preaching. Nonetheless, the Guru lived the life which he wanted others to live. In his own headquarters he abolished all kinds of disparity, and all were admitted to temples consecrated by him. Poor children were taken as free scholars and he taught them sacred books. Although the Guru did not live long to see the full effects of his campaign, his work helped release the forces which eventually contributed to the removal of untouchability completely in Kerala. He brought an awareness of human rights to the people and awakening of a sense of social brotherhood among all sections of society.
The Guru and Advaita in action:
Shree Narayana Guru was convinced, both by several years of spiritual experience and by philosophical reasoning, that the Advaita philosophy of Shankaracharaya-the nondualism between Atman and Brahman--is the ultimate truth. But when looked at Kerala, the land which produced the Shankara, he could see nothing of the transcendental philosophy of advaita translated into the life of the common people, not even among Shankara’s own Brahmin community. Deeply disturbed by this situation, Shree Narayana Guru accepted advaita as the metaphysical basis for man’s practical concern in the world, devoted his whole life to showing the world that advaita can be translated into action, firstly by bringing about equality between man and main, then transcending humanity from a material plane to a sublime spiritual plane and finally bringing about the realization of equality of the Atman(soul of man) with the Brahman.
There are three phases of advaita in India. It begins with the Buddha. Buddhist teachings, concerning the cessation of suffering with the right duties or practice of dharma, may be said the DHARMIKADVAITA. Shankara established advaita in the proper spiritual perspective through his authoritative interpretation of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Brahma sutras and the Gita. His advaita became popular among the intellectual circles, and thus it may be called the VAIJNANIKADVAITA, or the advaita of knowledge. Gradually, however the misinterpretation and malapplication of advaitic teachings monopolized by the high caste Hindus, paved the way for growth of divisive forces among the Hindus, and led to the imposition of social injustice and discrimination by the Hindu orthodoxy. Shree Narayana Guru attempted to bring the true advaitic teachings into the realm of practical life, with social equality of mankind as the first prerequisite for the unitive understanding of the Brahman. Many call it the advaita of practical life or PRAYOGIKADVAITA.
It is true that many other religious leaders have also emphasized the practical applications of Shankara’s advaita vedanda; prominent among them are Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. What is significant about Shree Narayana Guru may be expressed as follows: "More than a millennium after Shankara, from almost the same part of India, there appears another Guru, the Guru Narayana, who, as it were is a representative of the same direct and vertical line of philosophical revaluation-recognizable valuators, a line which can be said also to connect Shankara in his turn with the most ancient phase of human history".
The advaita philosophy is based in the essential oneness and identity of all life. The essential difference between Shankara and Shree Narayana Guru lies in their application of advaita to the realm of practical life. In his forty years of active public ministry the Guru combined the advaita vedanta theory of EKATMAVADA (the oneness with Brahman) with the theistic vedanta practice of love and service, not new in India. The Buddhists and Jainis teach the service of man as man, while the theistic vedantins propound the service of man as ‘part’ of God. Shree Narayana Guru, on the other hand, thought that we should serve man as man, first because everyone belongs to ‘humanity’ (there is only one caste, the human caste, and there is only one religion, the religion of man), and secondly because we also acknowledge Atman, the reality in man, is non-different from Brahman, the ultimate reality(there is only one God for man).
One has to view the Guru’s teachings of "One Caste, One Religion and One God for man", from the perspective of an advaitin. It would then become apparent that man should attempt to attain the ultimate Truth, not by discriminating between man and man, religion and religion or between God and God, but by discriminating between reality and unreality. God is the universal reality behind the world. To realize his basic unity is the supreme goal of man. On this basis, Shree Narayana Guru could not and did not compartmentalize humanity into groups, national population, linguistic clusters or economic classes. The life of the Guru is the proof of advaita vedanta, and in him, one can find fulfillment and completion of the teachings of Shankara. Romain Rolland, in "Prophets of New India", has commented on Shree Narayana Guru as follows:
"His doctrine was impregnated with the monist metaphysics of Shankara, but tended to PRACTICAL ACTION showing very marked differences from Bengal mysticism, of which effusions of love (bhakti) inspire in him a certain misturst. He was, if one may say so, a Jnanin of Action, a grand religious intellectual who had a keen living sense of people and their social needs".The Guru’s advaitic vision was being translated every minute of his life into channels that were beneficial to his fellow men, individual growth being in consonance with social evolution and fellow feeling.
Three essential steps for Social progress:
On the basis of this philosophy, Shree Narayana Guru started a campaign against caste prejudices and religious bigotry. He brought an awareness of human rights and an awakening of a sense of social brotherhood among all sections of society. The people at the lower social strata were craving to raise themselves up socially; for them he showed the religious and spiritual channels in the first place and the social means in the second instance for such and upliftment. We have to contrast this with the cutery of some of the leaders for mass conversion to Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. The Guru was much above such escapist approaches to social problems. In fact Shree Narayana Guru’s life coincided with the renaissance period in India, a confluence of spiritual (religious), literary and national movements and India was fortunate enough to have the Guru as a moving and living spirit of the dynamic movements for the emancipation of the oppressed and depressed classes.
Shree Narayana Guru proposed three essential steps for social progress, namely organization, education and industrial development. He believed in the necessity of organization in the fight against social evils, for organizations give strength to the people.
In 1912 after consecrating a temple in Cochin he said:
"… any caste can be uplifted by means of good education. If we have any plan of improving the condition of downtrodden masses, we must educate our children."
He exhorted the rich to provide for the education of poor children who had an aptitude for learning. He encouraged students to go abroad for advanced study. He also advocated equal educational opportunities for women.
When people asked him to consecrate temples, Shree Narayana Guru sometimes urged them to start schools instead. Education, as the Guru hoped had brought about a tremendous progress of the downtrodden communities in Kerala. It is unfortunate that this is hardly realized seriously in other parts of India. A major shift in thinking is required in this direction.
Shree Narayana Guru was concerned about the economic plight of poor masses. He understood that only through industrial development would these people be able to improve their economic conditions. Therefore, he advised the people to take different kinds of industrial training and encouraged the comparatively few wealthy people to start small scale industries. He once said:
"If it is difficult for one man to meet all the initial expenses to run a factory, then a group of people should get together. Factories will provide jobs for people. There are so many ways for making progress, but the people will not follow them. We must manufacture goods from coconut fiber here ourselves instead of exporting them and then importing the manufactured goods from foreign countries".
The Guru himself started a weaving center at Varkala to train people in spinning and weaving. Thus, his reforms were directed towards the emancipation of the entirety of human life-the soul, mind and body. It was an integrated approach for social development.