THE LIFE AND activities of Sree Narayana Guru exemplify that he was a Vedantist , (believer in Vedanta) pure and simple. He had the yogic experience of a Supreme Identity “in which oppositions and all contraries, even of being and not being are resolved.” Through that experience he realized that the worlds and gods of the ordinary man’s religion, “were levels of reference and symbolic entities which were neither places nor individuals but states of being realizable within oneself.” The characters and events in the Puranas may not be all historically authentic. Nevertheless, they possess the “superior reality of religious mythology.” The greatest of the Puranas, the Bhagavatha , states that the tales are not to be taken as literal truth. They are intended to lead men to wisdom and detachment. These and other great truths were demonstrated by the Guru to the masses through a series of idols of Siva, Subramania, Ganesa and a lighted lamp, a plaque with a great thought engraved on it, and Aum , the mystic syllable, engraved on a mirror, capping it all by an Adwaita Asrama where devotees of different faiths meditated in the same prayer-hall, studying and living together as partners in a common quest. The entire programme was a demonstration in concrete images, and finally in the absence of images which represent the higher significance of idol-worship. Through that process, the Swami taught people to apprehend the idea that religious rites so far practiced by them could be adapted towards a visible representation (if one may use that expression here) of the Vedantic doctrine of the non-duality of the Divine Being. They had only to progress along this path. The way had been thrown open to them. No other sage or saint had concretized these various steps as Sree Narayana Guru had done. He was unique in teaching idol worshippers, in this manner, how to understand their own time honoured practices in a better light, a light that would illuminate their onward path toward spirituality.
As Ananda Coomaraswami puts it, “One had to believe in order to understand, and one had to understand in order to believe.” That, in short, is one of the paradoxes in spiritual advancement. While the idols of different significance illustrated how “belief leads to understanding”, the other side of the medal, i.e. “the need to understand in order to believe” remained to be satisfied. The two processes interact and function simultaneously. They are being separately dealt with here,
simply because that is the only logical means of analyzing this composite concept. C.V. Kunhuraman, one of the greatest disciples of Sree Narayana Guru, a thinker, a scholar and a social reformer of first rank and writer of lucid, penetrating, persuasive prose, suffused with bubbling humour, was one of a band of great followers of the Swami who revolutionized social
thinking and metamorphosed the religious atmosphere of Kerala. True, he worshipped the Guru, this side of idolatry. But he would not believe anything—even if it be the Guru who said it—unless he was intellectually convinced. His weekly newspaper Kerala Kaumudi was one of the great papers of the day, read avidly by the common people. He wanted his readers to be convinced of the Swami’s preaching. The Swami obliged and explained thus: “The aim of all religions is one. Once the different rivers run into the sea all of them merge into it; the differences disappear.
“The aim of religion is to lift the thought of man towards the summit. After that is achieved, each individual will find his way to it, on his own.
“For the man who has experienced the ultimate truth, the aid of
religion is no longer needed. He becomes the source of religion for other men.
“The Buddha did not attain the ultimate in enlightenment by studying Buddhism. He realized. He preached what he had realized. And those teachings became Buddhism. Jesus Christ never had any use for Christianity, did he? But the followers of the Buddha had to depend on Buddhism and the followers of Christ needed Christianity. This is true of other religions also.
“We do not know who were the architects of the Vedas. Nor do we need to know them. The thoughts they propound are of eternal significance. But ordinary men who are unable to grasp their meaning require other religious works that explain how these eternal truths can
be applied in daily life.
“At the same time, the seers who explain that eternal truths should ensure that the well of religion is undefined.
“Swami Dayananda Saraswathi accepted the Vedas as the foundation of his teachings. Even so, he discarded those parts of the Vedas which he considered to be artificial additions to them. This
discrimination, however, has to be exercised by Acharyas, who know what they are discarding and why. “Wars between countries will cease when one country is defeated. Religious wars and communal strifes will have no end because no community can be annihilated. As they have to live together and cooperate in all walks of life after the fighting is over, animosities created
by strife poison the entire country. “If religious strife is to end, everyone should be taught the other man’s religion and he should learn it with an open mind. “That will show us all, that different religions do not differ in fundamentals. It is such a realization of the fundamentals which is meant by the expression, ‘one religion for man’. “You say that there appears to be a strong move for mass conversion of the down-trodden to other religions? “Religion has two aspects: The inner and the outer. Which of these do they want to change? If it is in the external aspects that they want a change, then it is social reformation that they are after. As for internal
change, such a transformation is taking place continually in all people, and it occurs in accordance with one’s own mental development. The process is a natural one which cannot be brought about by anyone else on your behalf. Saints can only show you the way. The journey is yours. “A Hindu or a Christian or a member of any other religion should forgo his religion as soon as he ceases to believe in it… Cowardice and insincerity alone persuade you to remain in a religion once you stop believing its tenets. The continuance of such a person in any religion is not good, either for him or for the religion concerned.
“Conversely, those who get converted for wordly gain will only defile the purity of the religion which they join. It is bad for any religion to increase the number of unbelievers in its congregation. (The kingdom of God is within you. Conversion to a particular religion should be to
realise that truth and not for the attainment of wordly wealth.)
“The elite who argue that conversion of Hindus to some other religion is indicated by the excrescences and corruption that have vitiated Hinduism are really making out a case for reformation of Hinduism. That is what they should attempt. (Those thinkers should not
desert the arena and leave the masses without leadership.) “For that matter, however, there is no such religion that may be called Hinduism. Foreigners styled the people of Hindustan as Hindus. Therefore, if by Hinduism one denote the religion of ‘Hindus’, then Christianity and Islam Professed by thousands of inhabitants here should also be called Hinduism. Nobody says so, and no one will accept such a definition. Today Hinduism means the entire conglomeration of an immense variety of beliefs belonging to an entire scale of values which spans a considerable hiatus that exists in the matter of customs, manners, rites and philosophy among different group and believers. Veda, Mimamsa (explanation), Dwaita (dualily), Adwaita, Vishishtadwaita,
Saiva, Sakteya, Vaishnava—all these are forms of Hinduism (not excluding the innumerable modes of primitive beliefs that differ from place to place and caste to caste.) They exist at different levels of spiritual development. If this entire gamut of beliefs can be call ed one
religion, viz. Hinduism, then all religion-Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, etc., can also be collectively known as ‘one religion’. “If the religion preached by its founder, and subsequently
elaborated into different branches by his followers, can be called one religion and given the name of the founder, the spiritual tenets preached by different Acharyas can also, by an extension of this principle, be termed as one religion. People should see the phenomenon of unity in
diversity as it exists between different religions.” C.V. had nothing more to ask.
Conference of Religions (1924)
Earlier to this dialogue, Sree Narayana Guru had held a conference of religions at which Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Parsi thinkers and leaders gave discourses on the various religions. The spirit of the discourses was set by the Swami in a pamphlet entitled:
“To know and to make known, not to argue and to vanquish.” The motto was writ large on the gate and in various parts of the assembly. It was written on the dais, too, serving as a backdrop to the speakers, and as a background to their discourses. The opening speech approved by and read on behalf of the Guru explained the main theme of unity among the religions detailing how,
outward differences notwithstanding, an inner unity prevailed. All the speakers who were devoted followers of their faiths, well- versed in religious literature other than theirs, eloquently expatiated on their own religious teachings, bearing in mind the words of the motto
that were to provide the spirit of their dissertations. This was the first Conference of Religions held in India. It was conducted in the Adwaita Asrama at Alwaye on Sivaratri day in 1924.
The immense crowds of devotees who used to assemble at Alwaye on that day had an engaging feature common to all Indian crowds that assemble at religious festivals. They had tarried and worshipped at every shrine on the way, whether it was the Sri Krishna Temple at Guruvayur,
or the Bhagavati temple at Kotungalloor, or even a shrine belonging to some group or other of indigenous Hindu-fold in Kerala. Geography alone decided the particular shrine or shrines at which they worshipped. Simple religious people have always instinctively believed in the oneness of all deities without any philosophical persuasions. They were like children. That crowd reminded the educated elite of Christ’s words:
“Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter
into the kingdom of heaven.”
In the case of the masses who assembled at Alwaye on Sivaratri day, belief had led to understanding. Here at this conference, next door at Advaita Asrama, understanding was lending support to their instinctive beliefs.
The illiterate people who listened to stories from the Puranas at temples, festivals and places of pilgrimage had also learnt in the legends, litanies, prayers and songs, that each god or goddess is the god of all gods or the supreme mother of all. In their own childish manner, therefore, they did not find it strange to worship saints of other religions also. Offerings by the Hindus at some of the Christian and Muslim shrines and vice versa are common throughout Kerala. The Guru
elevated this primitive belief into the essential oneness of religion, and gave it depth of meaning and converted it into faith based on reason. They who understood through belief now believed through understanding. They had gained ears to hear and eyes to see. Ever since that day, the holding of a “conference of all religions” has become an annual feature at Alwaye. Not only that. No function in honour of Sree Narayana Guru anywhere at any time is complete today
without a conference of religions. Distinguished speakers on these occasions belong to all religions. Bishops of different Christian denominations are there. Muslim scholars who expound the philosophy of Sree Narayana Guru to the astonishment of Hindus are there.
However, these meetings are, more often than not, conducted on the precincts of the Sree Narayana temples. Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims assembled at Hindu temple festivals; came together in unison by their respect for Sree Narayana Guru. It is the most inspiring, soul-stirring sight for any man to see. Believers and atheists can be seen
seated side by side on the dais when the Guru is being honoured. Adwaita philosophy was brought out of the closets of sages and scholars into the open, common grounds by the Guru.
A Motley Set A glance at the men who organized the first conference of religions
produces a delightful smile in any one who takes into account their different and differing mental make-up. Swami’s irrepressible humour was expressed not only in his sayings, but also in these actions. There was C. V. Kunhuraman who, as has been said before, refused to believe unless he was intellectually convinced. Ayyappan, known popularly as Sahodaran Ayyappan who had the epithet prefixed to his name in consideration of the Sahodara Sangham (The Organisation of
Brotherhood) which he had founded was an agnostic and a firebrand in the field of social reform, but all the same a devotee of Swami and one of the greatest social reformers in Kerala. The motto quoted earlier in this chapter was formulated by him at the Guru’s behest. T.K. Madhavan, a Hindu who conducted a satyagraha for establishing the right of the untouchables to walk along a public road around the Vaikom temple in 1924, an untiring fighter on behalf of the down-trodden, and an indefatigable personage who brought Mahatma Gandhi himself down to
Vaikom and Kerala to bless his ventures, was there. Swami Satyavratan who had been initiated into sanyasa by the Guru was the master of ceremonies. A Hindu sanyasin , a rationalist, an agnostic and a bhakta — those personages formed the most incongruous set of disciples of the
Guru who were behind the conference of religions.
In fact, his great disciples were men who had the courage of their convictions. T.K. Madhavan was a Hindu. C.V. Kunhuraman, a rationalist and yet a believer. Ayyappan an agnostic. C. Krishnan was a Buddhist. Kumaran Asan was the Vivekananda of Sree Narayana Guru. Dr. Palpu was the greatest social reformer of all time. Murkot Kumaran was one to whom the word of the Guru was gospel truth. They edited different journals where they argued with one another and had verbal fights in which no punches were pulled. And yet in the presence of the guru they
were like kittens. The masses who had looked upon them as tigers were amazed to see them thus metamorphosed before the Guru. The good humour with which they hailed one another, slapping each other on the back, pervaded over all the people who had assembled. Hindsight after a period of fifty years makes on feel now that, most probably the Guru saw their verbal fisticuffs as the innocent tumblings of kittens of the same mothers. He never tried to reconcile their views. He just drove the chariot, four in hand, drawn by them at varying angles along the straight and narrow path of spiritual progress. How many years and what an amount of living it has taken for some of us to understand the Guru’s ways one by one! For instance, looking up references, one notices that the Guru did not preach religious tolerance. The reason for it is also clear—clear now. Tolerance is not a good word. We tolerate ideas and customs which we
do not approve. When Sahodaran Ayyappan approached the Guru for his advice saying that C. V. Kunhuraman and others were contemplating whether Ezhavas should en masse
be converted to Christianity or Buddhism, the Guru’s reply was as usual cryptic, to the point, and devastating:
“I understand that there is corruption in Buddhism also. Is not
Christianity a holy religion? Are all Christians good?”
Three questions which were answers, too knocked the bottom out of the argument for mass conversion of Ezhavas and other depressed classes. It was in this context that he made a casual remark arising out of the topic of discussion, a remark which has become one of his greatest