According to the ancient tradition of India, after comparing the Guru to the Indian pantheon of gods, Vishnu, Brahma, and Maheswara, the riches decided that the Guru par excellence can not be identified with any such symbolically caricatured idea. Hence they held that the true Guru is to be looked upon as the Absolute the incomparable one. This ancient way of transcending all limitations is favored by us. Hence we pay our homage to the historical person Of Narayana Guru, just as we revere Gautma Buddha, Vardhamana Mahaveera, Socrates, Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohmoud and other great heroes of the world. We also pay our obeisance to Narayana Guru in recognition of The noble example he set before us as a person who lived in our own century. In fact, we place upon him the highest encomium for excellence of his teaching which is on par with perennial truth seen highlighted in great books like Vedas, the Upanishads, the writings if Confucius and Lao Tsu, the Pentateuch, which is accepted also in the Old Testament, The Bhagavt Gita, Zend Avasta, The Holy Qur’an and songs of various bards sung all over the world. Narayana Guru a new example before us by exhorting the acceptance of Absolute knowledge. Instead of putting his emphasis on theologically conceived God or any particular religious aspect of the concept, he always gave his first reverence to knowledge. In which ever way knowledge reveals itself, or is reveled to us, he had no hesitation in accepting it as the light that should ever lead man in his path to perfection.
Mathematical truths, whether of arithmetic, geometry, or algebra, are always honored by people universally, without deifying any particular mathematician. What people value is only the intrinsic worth of the truth revalued. Incidentally we may associate the names of great mathematicians who have made the world familiar with certain mathematical laws, but we have not defied Euclid or Copernicus, Pythagoras or Galileo. We have great respect for those pioneers in mathematical search. In the same way we should see the perennial validity of the teachings of Narayana Guru rather than treating him as the expounder of any dogma and we should not make a fetish or cliché of what he said in certain context of his personal life.
Einstein made great contributions in theoretical physics. We have great respect for his genius, but that does not mean it is possible for everyone to have a full understanding of what he expounded as his general and special Theory of Relativity. It is common knowledge that one who has no basic education in mathematics and physics cannot successfully put his teeth into findings of Einstein. In the same manner one who cannot popularize some of the basic writings of Narayana Guru which are given in his subtly treatises such as Arivu, The Epistemology of Gnosis, and Darshanamala, The garland of Philosophic Visions. Even so the mystical works of Narayana Guru will remain some what closed books to many who have no mystical inclination, devotional discipline, or poetic vision. However we see a tendency now among the self-styled followers of Narayana Guru that every world he uttered be though even though those who volunteer to teach cannot themselves make head or tail of what the Guru meant by his cryptic writings. I cannot think of such sentiments as anything better than clannish and tribalastic enthusiasm which is not of much value if not to be discarded as only a snobbish or puerile tendency of cultist. Let us examine certain relevant questions which are again and again asked by people who take an interest in the life and teachings of Narayana Guru.
WAS NARAYANA GURU A SOCIAL REFORMER?
If we study social anthropology, and the history of the evolution of political and economic theories of the world, we can say that in all of us there is a tendency to converse a value which gives us comfort in our social set-up and also an instinctive tendency to challenge certain social patterns of conventional behavior which offer inconvenience, discomfort, and cruelty to us. Thus potentially every person is at once a conservative as well as a reformer calling for radical change. As Narayana Guru was a man of high sensibility , who had also a penetrating vision into the finest texture of the values of human excellence, he was naturally interested in changing all forms of crude interpersonal relationships handed over to us from our tribalistic days. It is true that Narayana Guru was in the forefront of a good number of pioneers in India who have advocated change. That shows not mean that without Narayana Guru India would not have changed. One can look at all the other countries that have undergone great changes such as China, Japan, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, the African Countries and Latin America. In all these countries also the changes came through the worlds, actions and innovations of leaders who were of the same caliber of Narayana Guru. In one part of India, the southern most, Kerala and partly Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Narayana Guru’s initiative made an impact on the younger generation of his time which raised the billowy waves of social transformation which are still continuously growing wider and wider in bringing more and more people to a conscientization that is helpful in bringing radical changes in people’s social outlook. Of course, Narayana Guru did play his part excellently, yet he is not to be confused with conventional social reformer. In fact the, the political significance in historical terms of changes brought about by Dayananda Saraswati, Ram Mohan Roy, Kesab Chandra Sen, the Gaekwad of Baroda, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, E.V.Ramaswamy Naikar and Mahatma Gandhi are remembered and accepted by the Indian people much more than what Narayana Guru could pose before the people of India. The change the Guru was bringing about was not of any spectacular kind. However the principle of change that the Guru initiated in the thought stream of humanity is more far-reaching even though it did not come with a bang of fury and tumult of insurrection. One distinctive mark of Narayana Guru’s way of transforming society lay in his impartial and neutral way of considering each man’s social, religious or moral stand from where he stood. He always respected the adherence of each man to his faith even though that faith was of little value to Narayana Guru.
Let us take for example Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi – two great leaders of the world who advocated change with entirely different vistas and methodology. Karl Marx’s main submission was there are always two polemically polarized classes such as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, exploiters and the exploited, the suppressers and the suppressed, and he put weight on the side of the suppressed, exploited and the proletariat working class. Of course, that shows a genuinely humanistic interest which is basically rooted in compassion. His cause was to fight and establish the rights of the aggrieved. He is to be admired for his high sense of justice. Mahtma Gandhi saw the problem as a clash of interests between religious groups such as the Hindus, the Muslims and the Christians. Even among the Hindus he saw the clash precipitated in the form of social rivalry among classes called the varnas and occupational communities called jatis, and the growing rivalry between the untouchables and those who considered them selves to be privileged classes. Even when he advocated the same right for the Muslim and the Christian religions to exist, and the untouchables to be treated on par with any other person of the Hindu community, most people did not take him seriously because of his own partisan stand with the Hindus and with the caste Hindus within the Hindu religion. He was sincere to the core, but he unintentionally precipitated and perpetuated the inferior – superior class consciousness among the Hindus by calling one section Harijan. Thus these great reformers did not see that the seeds of change which they planted had already within them the germs of antithesis, which instead of fading out in synthesis would only proliferate to bring a cyclic recurrence of divisions. It is in this respect that Narayana Guru is to be understood as one who always offered holistic solution in which he never labeled one group of people against another. Thus he was social reformer with a difference — a difference that is yet to be understood and appreciated. I do not say Narayana Guru made no miscalculation when he gave his blessings to people of a particular community to rally around him in his own name. He did not see the danger of communalism entering through the back door which has now proved that the very ideals for which Guru lived are being drowned with ritualistic worship and euphonic of the so-called leaders whose vested interests have made his name highly commercialized.
WAS NARAYANA GURU A HINDU REVIVALIST?
From his very childhood, the Guru gave his attention to whatever was expedient and never strayed out of his way to interfere with the order set by nature or by tradition unless he saw gross injustice shown to any particular section of the community. Even when he saw the need for a change he was always careful to consider the social values implied in the belief of those who supported such traditions. Before effecting any change he was careful to win the hart s of people and he made them fully committed to the change by clearly showing them where they had erred and how they could correct the society. He was not motivated by personal ambitions such as to become an academic scholar, a political leader, a popular pedagogist, or a partisan dictator. He was a respecter of the order in which physical nature and social nature presented forces that came from within and without. Meeting the contingencies of these forces from a purely humanistic attitude was his way of monitoring action-reaction situations.
The regional languages to which he was exposed were Sanskrit, Malayalam, and Tamil. He lived at a stage when Malayalam language was still forming out of the two major language matrixes of the Dravidian-Tamil and Aryan-Sanskrit languages. He had no partisan spirit he studied on the one hand the basics of Sanskrit and made himself quite at ease with Amarakosham and Pananiyam. Thus, he had mastery of Sanskrit vocabulary and the rules of Sanskrit grammar. He turned to darshanas and made himself through with a special recourse to Nyaya ethics and Tarka logic. The best example before him was Shankaracharya, who is said to have hailed from Kerala too. However, he did not take lopsided partisan spirit with Advaitha and gave due consideration to the arguments of Sri Ramanuja and Madhava.
There were three major groups functioning in South India. Guru did not hesitate to expose himself to the literature of those three groups. Even when he had full recourse into the philosophical doctrines of these religious groups he held himself fast to his conviction in the advert philosophy. Fully appreciating people’s emotional adherence to the Vishnava deities the Shiva deities and to the several manifestations of the Devi, he wrote hymns on popular deities such as Shiva, Subrhamania, Vinayaka, Vasudeva, Bhadrakali, and Devi with view of revaluing the symbolic significance of the ideograms preserved in these concepts as man’s archetypal adherence to the concepts of the Fatherhood and the Motherhood of God. What prompted him to revalue South Indian Spirituality whether Shivite or Vaishnavite was his constant visits to most of the well known temples of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The major temples in the south were his hounding places specially in the Tirunalveli, Arcot, Madurai, Tanjavur, and Tiruchirapalli areas. Guru frequented the Karnataka area ranging from Mangalore to Goa. Thus he was exposed to Shivite Tamil literature of Shivapuranam, Tevaram and Tirukkural, and the sixty three stalwarts of Shaivisam. He did not show any hesitation in having a recourse to the works of the Alwars. The ionographic mysticism, both Devi and Ardhanariswara fired his imagination. Thus the problem of interlacing spiritual cultures become very natural to him and he brought into Malayalam the rich legacy of the Upanishads as well as the writings of the great Tamil mystics Appear, Sundaramurthi, Manikkavasakar and Tirujnanasambandar. Three other authors who inspired the Guru were Pattanathupillair, Tiruvalluvar and Taimanavar. When we study the collected works of Narayana Guru we can see two models before us. For all the Sanskrit allegiance he kept Shankaracharya as his model and in his Shaivite themes his model was Tirujnasambandar. As he was also a constant visitor of Southern Karnataka, he was familiar with the works of Basuvesvariah and his admiration for the dasa culture developed by Purandaradasa and other Vaisnava saints like Tulasidasa and Kabirdasa are understandable. In spite of his exposure to Shaivisam, including Virasaivisam, he did not make himself polemic to Vaisnavism. He considered all these sampradayas as naturally belonging to his cultural heritage and he embraced those cultures more as a connoisseur of poetics rather than a religious fanatic. In all these aspects of growing civilization there was an urgent need to prune superstitious overgrowths and to revalue the perennial wisdom sponsored by each branch of Indian spiritual wisdom. Thus we see that Narayana Guru was placed in a situation where people belonging to the Shivite, Vaishnavite, and Devi worship came to him for clarity and inspiration and it become the Guru’s natural office to function as a revaluator of any Indian school that was presented to him by the votaries of these schools of thought. As he was continuously meditating on the meaning of things before him and pouring out his thoughts in mystical songs and verse, and also was churning the cream of metaphysical insights, the Guru certainly gave a great impetus for the growth of Indian wisdom outlooks which can be identified with the heritage of Hindus. So if the Hindu loyalists see in Narayana Guru a great patron and benefactor of the Hindus one cannot deny the fact because of the substantial guidance he has given to his contemporaries. At the same time, he was not the least interested in claiming the interest of Hindu hegemony against the two main religious groups of his era – Islam and Christianity.
Narayana Guru’s headquarters was in Varkala and two villages close by, Edava and Narayana, are both places interested in the conversion of Islamic culture. It was only natural that he was on intimate terms with the maulavis of these regions. There were many occasions when Muslims and Arabic pundits were astonished at Narayana Guru’s insight into the subtle bearings of certain passages of the Qur’an and many Muslim pundits were irresistibly drawn to him to hear his expositions of the Quranic adoration of the Absolute – Allah.
Once some Christian missionaries came to Narayana Guru with the intention of converting him to Christianity. He received them with cordial friendship and welcomed the idea of their arranging with an evangelist to come and read the bible to him every day. The man deputed was Mr K.M. John of Ayroor, who became drown to the ideals of the Guru and offered him self to be in the services of the Guru by taking a teaching position in the English school founded by the Guru. Thus Narayana Guru loved all and hated none. In spite of his whole-hearted acceptance of the ideals of Islam and Christianity he never thought the rich heritage of the Hindus was wanting in anything to live a full and rich life freedom in the realization of the Upanishadic wisdom. He always gurdled the preservation of wisdom with great zeal without becoming a zealot and with absolute adherence without becoming a religious fanatic. It was this openness and egalitarian catholicity that made the Guru fascinating and even physically charming in the eyes of Rabindranath Tagore.
Even when the Guru provoked Mahathma Gandhi it yielded good results in Gandhi becoming convinced that free India was possible only by safeguarding the rights and privileges of the vast masses of India’s working class who were considered the ‘fifth’ class (panchama) of people of India. One question which Narayana Guru put poignantly to Gandhi was the right of India to ask for freedom from British when the Hindus were not giving at least a semblance of freedom to the so-called untouchables. In the Round-Table Conference convened in London by Ramsay Macdonald, Mahatma Gandhi realized how crucial was the question raised by the Guru. Without wasting any time on his return to India, Gandhi changed the names of Navajivan and young India into Harijan and fully opted for the recognition of untouchables as equal citizens of India.
Thus Narayana Guru stood firm in his natural placement regionally, culturally, and spiritually and yet he extended his arms to all to bestow his friendship in its fullest cordiality to all concerned. He made a symbolic gesture his common affiliation to the Aryan culture and Dravidian culture by translating into Malayalam the Isavasya Upanishad and Tirukkural of Tiruvalluvar.