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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 34 New Delhi August 11, 2018

Welcome Addition to the Literature on Sree Narayana Guru

Sunday 12 August 2018

BOOK REVIEW

by Kadayam Subramanian

Sree Narayana Guru: The Perfect Union Buddha and Sankara: A Comprehensive Biography by Asokan Vengassery Krishnan; Konark Publishers Pvt Limited, New Delhi, Seattle; pp. 365; Price: Rs 850.

The author of this book hails from a village in the Kottayam district of Kerala. He took a B.Sc. degree from the University of Kerala and worked in the Education Department of the State. In 1985, however, he went to the US and took an MBA degree. He has worked as accounts official in an international corporation in Philadelphia. He is an author in his mother tongue, Malayalam. He says that philosophy and history are his passion. He is a firm believer in the philosophy and social action practised by the saint and sage Sree Narayana Guru, which has and motivated him to write this biography.

There are many books on the Guru in Malayalam but not many in English and the author fills a gap in that respect based as he in Philadelphia, where non-Malayalam speaking Indians and Westerners can access his book to know more about the saint Sree Narayana Guru of Kerala. He has done a service to humanity. The saint’s message ‘One Caste, One Religion, One God for all mankind’ has universal significance but counts particularly in the multiple conflict-ridden India of our time.

Dr Karan Singh has written the Foreword and messages have come from Lokesh Chandra, Swamis Vasudhananda, Guruprasad, William J. Viola and Lama Doboom Tulku. The author, in his preface, says that the book is to introduce the reader to the illustrious life of the sage who lived about a century ago in South India. As a spiritual master, philosopher and social revolutionary, Sree Narayana Guru, had a profound impact on the lives of millions of people in Kerala and elsewhere. Rabindranath Tagore visited him at his ashram in Sivagiri in 1922 and noted his ‘unparalleled spiritual grace’. Others too followed in their praise: Mahatma Gandhi (1925) and Romain Rolland. As a philosopher, Sree Narayana Guru was a follower of the Advaita doctrine, which is the essence of the Upanishads, the author says. Guru transformed the philosophy from an elite theoretical construct into a ‘relevant principle of practical applicability’. He composed many hymns and devotional prayers. The defining theme of his philosophical writings was to stress the oneness of the human race transcending all peripheral differences among religions. As a multifaceted personality, the guru was a ‘saint, sage, siddha, yogi, socio-religious reformer, thinker, educator, educator, philosopher, pragmatic visionary and poet’ .The author had the rare opportunity to accompany Swami Guruprasad of the Sivagiri ashram during his visit to H H Pope Francis at Rome in 2015.

Sree Narayana Guru was born on August 28, 1855 in a well-reputed family in Kerala. His father, Madan Asan, was a teacher and mother, Kutttiamma, erudite in ancient lore, was a pious woman. Though married, Sree Narayan Guru opted for an ascetic life and the pursuit of spiritual truth. Colonial India was then in social, moral and intellectual turmoil. Buddhism, which was dominant in Kerala had declined and the caste system of the Brahmins was at its worst phase in in 1888 when the Guru entered the social scene and brought fresh ideas and new possibilities. He felt that the divisions among the people could only be remedied through the acquisition of right knowledge based on a genuine understanding of the commonalities that connect all human beings. Though a humble ascetic, the Guru was fearless in his actions. His sense of justice, strength of convictions, intellectual acumen and spiritual prowess led to his acceptance as a foremost leader of the masses. His philosophical contributions epitomised the resilience of long-held verities of the age-old Upanishads. However, unlike many saints and ascetics, the Guru was highly socially aware.

The author says life in Kerala was peaceful and progressive, till the caste system based on Chaturvarnya under the growing influence of the Brahmins, took control of society making many social evils emerge. ‘Untouchability’ became the norm in Kerala since the ‘early stages of the post-Buddhist era’. Brahmins, who had taken control of society, converted the Hindu temples into new power-centres. Brahmin priests became representatives of God and the ruling class became subservient to the priestly class. A warrior caste emerged supportive of the financially powerful Brahmin caste. By the 9th century AD, a network of aristocratic power-centres had emerged. The aristocratic families leased out lands from Brahmin landowners to individual tenants for cultivation leading to the emergence of a feudal layer in society. Various castes and caste groups with different rights and privileges surrounding the Brahmin elites came up. The alliance between the ruling class and the Brahmin elites led to far-reaching changes in society from the 10th century onwards. This caste system strangled the life of the masses.

The author goes on to describe the evils of the caste system in Kerala and the evils of untouchability which made the State into the ‘lunatic asylum’ as perceived by Swami Vivekanandawho visited Kerala in December 1892.

Many untouchables from all over Kerala began to embrace Christianity and Islam to get away from the shackles of caste Hindu society. The opportunities made available from conversion to Christianity came as a priceless gift to the lower castes. The members of backward Ezhava community, from which Sree Narayana Guru had emerged and others such as the Naadars, Pulayas and Parayas converted to Christianity. The author goes on to describe the grooming of Sree Narayana Guru (1855 to 1876); his life away from home (1876 to 79) confronted the caste system and Preparations (1879 to 82); his path as a Yogi (1882 to 86) and emergence as a unique Guru (1886-87).

Many major developments took place in the life and role of Sree Narayana Guru till the time he passed away in 1928. These included the formation of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam on May 15, 1903, an organisation meant for socio-religious welfare of the people, which is discussed in chapter 10; this chapter includes (i) an important discussion on the role of the Ezhavas of Kerala, the third biggest community in the population of Kerala (about 33 million) and the community in which Sree Narayana Guru was born; (ii) the founding of the ashram at Sivagiri in Varkala, a hilly region about 30 miles north of the State capital, Thiruvananthapuram; (iii) the great men who met Sree Narayana Guru, Rabindranath Tagore, C.F. Andrews and Mahatma Gandhi and; the holding of the Asia’s First Parliament of Religions (1924-25); (iv) the Vaikkom Satyagraha which witnessed the participation of Mahatma Gandhi and led to the liberation of Dalits and backwards from some of the worst forms of religious and social discrimination meted out to them including the Ezhavas.

In November 1992, the legendary monk Swami Vivekananda visited the Kingdom of Travancore in south Kerala. Dr Palpu, Kerala’s pioneer social activist who belonged to the untouchable Ezhava caste and personal physician of the Maharaja of Mysore, met Swami Vivekananda at Bangalore and had a discussion with him on the plight of the depressed classes in Kerala. His nine-day stay in the princely state, helped Vivekananda to understand the sufferings meted out to the untouchable castes in Kerala leading him to describe the state as a ‘lunatic asylum’.

Dr Paplu, along with Dr Kumaran Asan a leading intellectual, were close followers and supporters of Sree Narayana Guru’s mission of socio-religious awakening. The formation of the SNDP Yogam and the impact of Swami Vivekananda strengthened the belief that a strong and stable organisation guided by a spiritual master was a pre-requisite in dealing with the social ills of Kerala. Narayana Guru was the permanent President of the SNDP, Paplu was the Vice-President and Kumaran Asan was the General Secretary. Contrary to the aspirations of the Guru, the SNDP attracted its membership primarily from the Ezhava community considered ‘untouchable’. Though the Guru distanced himself from the organisation on account of his casteless and universal aims, the Ezhava community regarded him as the supreme religious and spiritual master of the SNDP.

SNDP Yogam is said to be primarily active among the numerous Ezhava community thanks to the activities of leaders such as Dr Palpu and Kumaran Asan. Mahatma Gandhi and others in the Congress party were persuaded to include eradication of untouchability as a goal of the freedom movement. Similar movements came up for other communities also: the Dalit community of Pulayas was led by a significant leadership. Moreover, the SNDP Yogam along with the Nair Service Society (NSS), agitated against caste discrimination.

The author provides a useful discussion on the Ezhava community (pp. 130-132). Though traditionally considered as ‘untouchable’, many in the community are highly educated and advanced socially. Since Sree Narayana Guru was born among the Ezhavas, the community naturally became an agency for launching and implementing reformist ideas. The Ezhavas are said to have been the major chunk of the labouring classes in Kerala. They owned vast areas of farm lands before the arrival of the Brahmins. Those who opposed Brahmin domination are said to have been branded as ‘untouchables’, such as the Ezhavas. Others who accepted the Sudra status imposed on them by the Brahmins became Nairs. The Ezhavas lost many of their traditional privileges and were discriminated against.

It is said that before being assimilated into the Hindu fold, Ezhavas were said to have been followers of Buddhism who possessed prestige and prominence in society. They had knowledge of Sanskrit and practised Ayurveda. The arrival of Saiva-Vaishnava devotional movement led to the temple culture. Many of the Buddhist places of worship were converted into Hindu temples. Buddhist priests were said to have become Hindu priests who were the forefathers of the Namboodiri community in Kerala. Later the Namboodiris were assimilated into the Brahmin priestly class. Historically, it is said that Nairs and Namboodiris were a single class with a Buddhist past. It is said that many Hindu temples in Kerala still follow the art and culture of their Buddhist past.

The author concludes that historically the Ezhavas have occupied a unique place in Kerala. They constitute about a third of Kerala’s Population and are a progressive block of the Kerala society. They contributed to the formation of the first ever communist government in the world in Kerala in 1957.

The Vaikkom satyagraha in 1925 on the demand for the removal of restrictions imposed by the upper castes was a significant event during India’s freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi was active in support of the satyagraha. Chapters 31 to 38 contain an illuminating discussion of Sree Narayana Gurus’ philoso-phical and spiritual heritage. The defining aspect of the Guru’s character was his spiritual grace, says the author. His prayer composed for Lord Shiva at the Kolathukara temple, says the author was an attempt to elevate the reciter to experience the non-dual or Advaita realm allowing him to feel the ultimate ecstasy of joining the Supreme Being, ‘Param Atma’. This is as close to Adi-Sankara as can be imagined.

Thus put, Sree Narayana Guru seems to be closer to Sankara than to Buddha whose philosophy is not discussed in the book.

This book is a welcome addition to the literature in English on thedistinguished seer and saint Sree Narayana Guru.

The book is brilliantly produced by Konark Publishers International, New Delhi and Seattle.

The reviewer is a former member of the Indian Police Service and a writer.

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