|Narayana Guru (1856-1928)
In the lush tropics of southwest India a century ago a beloved sage, healer, educator and social reformer splendidly lived Jesus’ ideal of being in the world, but not of it. With his motto, “One Caste, One Faith, One God for Humanity,” Narayana Guru gently campaigned along the Malabar Coast, bringing nondual truth to bear upon the unjust caste system, superstition, and other practices that oppress or diminish human beings. All the while he remained unattached, free, suffused with blissful peace. A hero in Kerala to millions, he isn’t well known outside the state. He surely deserves to be.
Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore came to meet Swami in November 1922 and later stated, “I have never seen one who is spiritually greater than Swami Narayana Guru.… I shall never forget that radiant face illumined by the self-effulgent light of divine glory and those mystic eyes fixing their gaze on a far remote point in the distant horizon.”
Narayana was the only son of a relatively affluent, non-brahmin family, born on August 20, 1856 in Chempazhanti village.1 This hamlet lies six miles north of Trivandram, capital of the old princely state Travancore. The area features rice paddy fields, swaying coconut palms and jungle filled with wild animals. Little Nanu, as his parents and sisters lovingly called him, was smart and acutely sensitive to others’ needs, yet he was also mischievous. He took special delight in defying caste restrictions that kept brahmins at the top of the pecking order above kshatriyas above vaisyas above sudras/nairs above the outcaste ezhavas above pulayas—the last considered totally “untouchable.” Nanu, of the Ezhava caste, would run around “polluting” upper caste persons by touching them immediately after embracing a Pulaya.
Nanu attended a village school where he learned Malayalam, Tamil, and other subjects. His father taught him Sanskrit, Vedanta and Ayurveda medicine. The boy diligently pored over his texts and became a fine student. He cherished his friends, but most loved wandering in nature, alone or with the family’s cows. Often he sat serenely under a tree or in its branches, gazing at lush greenery or giant clouds overhead, composing beautiful hymns. He also liked to farm and garden. Two events in his teens made him even more meditative: around 1871 his beloved mother died. A few years later he spent 18 days alone in an empty Goddess temple enduring a smallpox attack.
In 1877 Nanu, now a young man, began a tutorship under Raman Pillai Asan. This famous pandit and staunch advaitin taught over 60 students at Karunagapalli, many of them accomplished scholars. Pillai selected the brilliant, witty Nanu to be head of his class. Other students teased him for his exceptional spirituality: he regularly meditated and prayed before sunrise when others still slumbered, and he often appeared enthralled in inner ecstasy. In any case, his peers appointed Nanu arbiter of their academic debates. He mastered many texts studying with Pillai. He especially enjoyed the Bhagavatam Purana on Lord Krishna, and began to see everywhere the beautiful visage of Sri Krishna. More and more, the world seemed like a dream. Nanu grew unattached to selfish concerns. As part of his renunciation, he ate only vegetarian food, though most Keralans consume fish and meat. The experience of befriending an outcaste leper led him to deeply ponder the ideal of an applied spirituality that could heal social injustices.
During his third year of studies, severe dysentery forced a semi-conscious Nanu to be taken home. Once recovered, he abandoned school, hungering for greater freedom. His relatives naturally wanted a more conventional life for him, so they built a school for small children and had Nanu tutor them. He visited outcastes and taught them, too, greatly upsetting village elders in the process. Beyond his humble teaching work he immersed himself in scriptural study, prayer and meditation in the local temple, wandering in the jungle and communing with nature’s Divine Source.
In 1882, Nanu’s sisters arranged by proxy a marriage for him, but after a short time he would no longer visit the young lady, telling his kin: “Every one is born in this world for a definite purpose; you have yours and I have mine. You mind yours, let me pursue mine.” The marriage, likely never consummated, was dissolved. It was a hard decision for Nanu not to bring the lass home. He had struggled inwardly: part of him sought freedom, another part pulled for a householder’s life of family delights and sexual intimacy.
When Nanu’s father died in 1884, an ailing uncle made it clear that Nanu was expected to shoulder responsibility for the household. But deep yearning for God-realization and for an unattached ministry to humanity compelled him to renounce all. One day he simply set out in a southerly direction, walking on and on until he arrived in the mountains far to the south, near Cape Comorin. Sitting on a rock by a stream, he spent the night meditating. The sound of crickets and the call of jackals welcomed him to his new life of oneness with all that is. Before dawn he ambled down to a temple and stayed all day, rapt in bliss. His presence attracted locals, whom he instructed in spiritual principles. Unattachment urged him to move on.
In his wanderings he met a former classmate from Pillai’s academy, a poet who later drew fame as saint Chattampi Swamikal. The two friends went to see Chattampi’s hatha yoga guru, Thyacaud Ayyavu, from whom Nanu learned advanced yoga skills to supplement his advaita understanding.
Nanu proceeded to visit many south Indian villages. Come nighttime, he meditated and slept at wayside verandahs or forsaken temple yards under the changing phases of the moon. His subtle-energy kundalini-shakti vital force intensified and he began to glow with lustrous charisma. Though he never took formal sannyas initiation, throngs revered him as a renunciate Swami and sought his help. Wherever he stayed, he welcomed people of all strata, including outcaste pulayas. They flocked to him from dawn to dusk, drawn by his ability to heal ills, remedy wrongs, and turn hearts toward God.
Despite his high level of spirituality, Swami felt the need for deeper enlightenment. So he withdrew for a period of austere meditation in a sand-floored cave in Marutwamalai, a dense mountain forest east of Nagercoil, a dozen miles from India’s southern tip. Here, with wild animals for companions, he drank water from a nearby spring and subsisted on fruit, leaves and roots, helped by his knowledge of ayurveda. In such total solitude, the saintly 29-year-old hermit soon merged in the realization of God as utterly formless and simultaneously embodied as the Kosmos.2 The subtlest vestiges of ego were burnt up in the purity of the Divine flame.
After weeks of immersion in Spirit, Swami Narayana wished to reconnect with humanity. He dwelt with fishermen at a seaside village, seeing them as manifestations of God’s beauty, helping in their work and sleeping on their nets at night to bring them bountiful catches the next day. He affiliated with the poor, not just Hindus, but Muslims and Christians as well. He saw that, while customs separate people, beneath these differences there is “a universal stratum of noble humanity,” and he relished solidarity with all.
Coming to Aruvipuram, a few miles west of Neyyattinkara on the banks of the Neyyar River, Swami found a rocky cave by the cascading waters in the thick jungle above town. This was his base for nearly two decades. When a 16-year-old boy found Swami, became his disciple and leaked news about him, the site quickly became a pilgrimage site for folks desiring ayurveda healing or Divine blessing pouring forth from the power of his gaze.
In 1888, Swami erected by the river a little temple covered by mango and coconut leaves. On the festival night honoring Siva, a thousand devotees gazed on, wondering how the new temple would be consecrated. Swami entered the river, took a stone, and tearfully installed it as a traditional Siva lingam. The lingam symbolizes God’s creative power, the Form of the Formless. This was a radical act, offending orthodox brahmins who thought themselves alone pure enough to install temple idols. The Guru’s revolutionary move, “a landmark in the social and spiritual history of India,” signified the age-old dominance of upper castes was coming to an end. He insisted: “This is a model abode where all men shall live as brothers without caste distinctions or religious rivalries.” Tales of his extraordinary powers and activities to end segregation spread rapidly and drew throngs. His Aruvipuram Temple Association managed the expanding site and endeavored to reform society under his motto, “Strength through organization; freedom through education.” A larger temple sanctum and a hall arose, and property on the temple’s southern side was gained for a monastery (math) to house the educated young men dedicating themselves as Swami’s disciples.
Passionate and brilliant souls from far away visited the Guru to launch projects in his name and discuss plans for social change. The Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam organization was born in 1903 from the old Temple Association. Swami never wanted the SNDP Yogam to be limited to a specific caste or community, but it effectively became an Ezhava congress for spiritual and social upliftment and stopping atrocities wrought by higher castes upon Kerala’s downtrodden. (Passing through the area a decade earlier, Swami Vivekananda had described Kerala as a “lunatic asylum of caste bigotry.”) The SNDP Yogam published the monthly Vivekodayam and was managed by Kumaran Asan, a distinguished young poet converted by the powerful influence of Narayana Guru into a Vedantin yogi and a leading light of social reform within Kerala. Swami’s terse suggestions sufficed for Kumaran and colleagues to know his views on SNDP Yogam’s proper course.3
Now a potent social force, Narayana Guru accepted invitations from all over Kerala to promote reforms and unity among people and to propagate true spirituality. He didn’t preach from podiums, preferring to give gentle counsel in informal gatherings. With his richly mellow, tender voice, this universalist sage of few words would break his silence to lovingly speak of God, human solidarity, love for animals and respect for natural ecosystems. He spoke against untouchability, alcohol, superstition, animal sacrifices to Kali, and costly rituals and weddings for females. He often personally intervened to insure that rites be kept simple and spiritual. He promoted education, especially for girls, and encouraged learning English. He invited laborers to industrialize and manufacture finished products from their raw goods, freeing themselves from chronic exploitation by certain greedy capitalists.
The work of Swami and his colleagues was a major factor in turning Kerala into perhaps the most advanced state in the entire Third World.4
At this stage in his life, Swami divided his time between solitary meditation and active ministry as a traveling catalyst for social change and Guru to his devotees, who viewed him as a Divine incarnation. Swami spoke and wrote in short tracts the Advaita truth that God is both formless and form-full, beyond all and yet within all beings, both Transpersonal and Personal.
In this spirit, over the years he built scores of temples to rejuvenate spirituality and create community solidarity at Anjengo, Peringottukara, Trichur, Cannanore, Tellichery, Calicut, Mangalore and elsewhere. All sites were picked for their natural beauty and serenity. These temples eschewed the superstition and exploitation that had occurred for centuries at too many Indian shrines; his temples were empowerment centers for spiritual, cultural and material upliftment. In his shrines he installed images of Lord Siva or Subramania (one of Siva’s two sons in Hindu myth). Yet at Kalavankodam Temple at Shertallai he resolved a clash between traditional Hindus and iconoclast modernists by installing a mirror in the sanctum, inscribed with the Upanishad dictum, Tat Tvam Asi, That Thou Art. At his Karamukku temple he installed a simple lamp as the central object in the sanctum. At his Murukkumpuzha shrine he set up a slab etched with the words Satyam (Truth), Dharmam (Virtue), Daya (Compassion), and Sneham (Love). These unconventional items underscored his wish that temples be free of idolatry.
In 1904, Swami moved his base to Sivagiri, a rugged hill near Varkala.5 There he initiated persons into sannyas and formed a monastery for them. In time a Siva temple (1908) and a Sarada Temple (1912) to wisdom Goddess Sarasvati were built, in line with his ideal that funds not be wasted on needless extravagances. His temples had a sanctum, communal hall, rest-house, garden, library, school, vocational training center, medical dispensary and shower rooms (instead of the traditional bathing tank, too hard to clean).
Swami opened his shrines and schools to all persons—a special boon for outcaste persons long denied entrance. At a time when even low-caste Hindus believed a temple so holy they shouldn’t go near it, and brahmin laws actually specified distances that low-castes and outcastes must always observe, the Sri Narayana temples were radically progressive. Yet in many cases Swami couldn’t get pulaya outcastes accepted into his shrines. Locals refused to allow it. So he finally issued a message: “Time was when it was hoped that people could be brought together in a common place of worship disregarding caste. But experience has taught otherwise. Temples stress the distinction between castes. Hereafter efforts should be towards educating the people…. That is the only means of making them whole.”6
In 1913, on the banks of the Alwaye River in the forested hills overlooking Alwaye town, Swami set up his Advaita Ashram, later to include a monastery and Sanskrit school. Here Hindus of all strata could come to meditate and study along the lines of Sankara’s advaita system. As a shock to Hindu society, Swami let pulayas have the sacred duty of preparing and serving food for inmates and visitors, and made a special point to have pulaya boys frequently study and eat with him. On the walls were posters with Swami’s famous slogan, “One caste, one dharma, one God for humanity.”7
A raging controversy impacted all Kerala in 1917 when K. Ayyappan, one of Swami’s most dedicated youths, was excommunicated by Ezhavas and scorned by higher castes for starting his Sahodara Sangham (Brothers’ Society) in which pulayas were invited to eat with them. In support of his courageous disciple, Swami wrote a widely distributed, no-nonsense memo: “Since all men belong to the same species whatever be their religion, dress, language, etc., there is no objection to their marriage or taking food together.” He always decried caste as a “silly phantom,” not self-evident, mere convention.8 Mahatma Gandhi, visiting Swami in 1925, was deeply impressed with Narayana Guru’s commitment to stamping out untouchability and thereafter made it an integral part of the Indian National Congress’s political program. Swami also convinced Gandhiji of the merit of not stopping people from converting to another faith if it better suited them, in line with his saying: “Whichever the religion, it suffices if it makes a better man.”
To foster interfaith dialogue in India, Swami hosted a landmark All Religions Conference at Alwaye in 1924. In October 1926, two months after multitudes celebrated his 70th birthday, he toured Sri Lanka for three months, edifying huge crowds, just as he had done on a sojourn there eight years earlier.9 Back at Sivagiri, Swami took long daily walks to study the problems of local people and mobilize his SNDP Yogam to remedy them.
Swami formally inaugurated his society of monks as the Sri Narayana Dharma Sangha and transferred to these renunciates custody of all his ashrams, maths and temples. He appointed Swami Bodhananda his successor and the Sorbonne-educated Nataraja Guru (1895-1973), son of Dr. P. Palpu (founder of SNDP Yogam), as adviser to the sangha.10 His monks were to be meditative mystics and humanitarians committed to social service. They could model themselves on Swami: “He took root in reality and brought forth a giant tree with fruits and flowers, giving shelter to numerous people and adding beauty to their lives. He exemplified to what divine heights even the humblest of men could rise by self-culture and love of humanity.”11
In early 1928, a blocked urethra began to undermine Narayana Guru’s health. Allopathic and ayurveda medical treatments intermittently relieved this terribly painful condition, but at last the obstruction, the fevers and the weakness exacted too great a toll. For most of the process, especially toward the end, Swamiji’s serenity and blissful cheerfulness outshone the pain.
On a rainy September 20, 1928, the sun came out in the afternoon, bathing the world in its glow. Swami, residing at Sivagiri, asked disciples to recite his Malayam prayer Daiva Dasakam. They came to the last verse: Let us be in Your greatness for ever and ever deep as an ocean. “As he listened in peace to this last stanza, those eyes, which were the sources of blessings and consolation for mankind throughout their lifetime, gently closed.”12
Teachings of Narayana Guru13
There is not much to learn in Vedanta. This visible world is not different from the true essence in the same way as a wave is not different from the sea. This should not be forgotten … [and] should be maintained by daily practice. (S 228)
All that comes within the ambit of experience can be divided into two. One is the ordinary (that can be perceived, calculated, analyzed and categorized). The other is the transcendent which is beyond the ken of one’s mind to grasp. Apart from these, there is nothing else, here or elsewhere. This is certain. (A 67)
Fundamental Reality does not reside in the seen object as such, but in the Seer. The Seen is the form of the Seer. He who unites these is the superior. (D 9/7)
With relentless search realize that the inner faculties, the senses, the body and all the worlds of our interest are transformations of the glorious substance of the Sun that shines in the void of the Absolute. […] There is neither any death nor birth nor any manifested form of life. There are neither men nor gods nor anything of that sort—there are only names and forms. Their substance is only that of a mirage in a desert—and that is, for sure, no substance at all. (A 2, 78)
Like a twin creeper, “Self and other” entwine the maya-tree all over and hide everything. […] What is known distinctively as separate, specific entities—that is the “other.” What shines forth as the indivisible whole—that is the “same.”… Learn the art of unifying consciousness in the all-inclusiveness of the “same.” […] Awaken to the clarity of vision in which all forms of “otherness” merge and become one with “sameness.” It is hard to win over the obduracy of “the other” without having achieved the mastery of a vivid vision which leaves nothing outside it. […] I am neither this nor that…. [I am] pure existence, all-embracing consciousness and the joy immortal. Be brave with such clear vision, discard all attachment to being and non-being, and gently, gently, merge in that Truth that fills all with enlightenment and serene joy. (A 51, 38, 36-7, 100)
The visible has three forms—gross, minute and the cause. They emanate from the Supreme and merge with it. Therefore nothing is, other than the Supreme…. Whatever is seen by the eyes is not permanent. The body too is non-permanent, like a bubble. Everything is but a dream. We are not the body but Consciousness. Consciousness … existed before the body and continues after its destruction. We cannot be affected by birth, death, poverty, diseases, fear, etc. (S 220)
The Absolute Being created everything through his own power of maya, like a magician creating an illusion. […]This world is emptiness, like some ghostly city. Thus did the Absolute Being create this whole universe—a marvel! […] Because it is an effect, this world does not have primary reality. The Absolute alone, as cause, is Real. Unclear minds mistake it as un-Real. […] The Absolute Self does not change into some other form. Therefore, the whole world exists only as an image in the Self. […]The world is seen in the Self as the blue is seen in the sky. […] It is the Self alone which acts. Although it is by nature self-luminous and detached, the Self through its power of maya assumes many varied forms, like the creative dreamer in sleep. (D 1/2, 1/8, 2/5, 3/7, 3/1, 6/1)
Body and such things cannot be rated as real or unreal. They are to be termed as indescribable. In fact, all that we encounter is real as such. The sage in his contemplation sees everything as belonging to one unitive principle. […]What is known as that person, or this person, when carefully considered, is the one undifferentiated form of the primeval Self. (A 87-8, 24)
[From his Brahma Vidya Panchakam:] “That Brahman [Divine Reality] is the Self here!” / Singing thus and so established in peace of mind; / and reborn to pure ways in life by the dawn of Brahma-wisdom, / Where could there be for thee the bondage of action / Whether of the past, present, or future? / For everything is but superimposed conditioning on thy prime Self. / Thou verily art That existing-subsisting One of pure intelligence, the Lord. (P 25)
Fear arises when we think that there are things in this world other than our Self. When we know everything is only our Self, where is the cause for fear? (S 43)
Realize that it is futile to ruminate on the past, be expectant of the present and fancy about the future. Without endlessly counting and measuring in confusion, cognize the One that always prevails, allowing of no differentiation. (A 58)
Like fire that emits from churning sticks, there arises a wisdom of great discrimination from the mind of discerning contemplatives. It burns in the sky of consciousness as a supernal sun and everything becomes fuel for it. (A 82)
Who is there to know the one unchanging Reality when all are subjected to the frequent rise of latent urges that compel them to wake and sleep and to eat and fondle their objects of desires? One should remain without waking oneself to distracting interests and without sleeping away from the reality of the Self. […] Aspire for the good instead of being ensnared by the pleasurable. […] Even good people engaged in virtuous action are caught in Nature's repetitive compulsions and they helplessly go round and round in obligatory action. Mere omission of action does not cure the mind of its urge to modulate. Only unitive understanding, which is bereft of desires, brings emancipation. […] One pleasure-principle (rati) expands and transforms into the ego, the senses, the mind, the body and all that is; and it is as if its proliferation has no end. It will go on operating until the cognizing Self realizes that it is not any of the pleasure-pursuits but Awareness, pure and simple. (A 6-8, 43, 70)
To become established in the Supreme Being, offer the flowers of your mind to the Great Lord … Turn your senses away from all objects of desire. Feel freed of all bondages. Be cool and do not be excited even by the wonder of the Absolute. Remember the secret of the Upanishads. The Self in its pure state is limitless and indivisible. It is bereft of divisions in time and it fills the entire consciousness without the divisions of the knower, the known and the knowledge. One does not gain this state by merely making false claims to it. (A 13-14)
What realization can come by mere negation [e.g., just thinking “I am not the body or mind”]? Nothing. Nor does realization come by merely repeating the word “Absolute.” It comes only by continuous contemplation. (A 62)
As the eye cannot see itself, the Self cannot perceive itself. The Self is not an object-of-consciousness. What the Self perceives is an object-of-consciousness.
Whatever is an object-of-consciousness is conditional. Whatever is not conditional is not an object-of-consciousness. What is conditional is un-Real. But what is utterly unconditional, that is the Real. (D 5/9, 5/10)
Wise men know that there is only Awareness, so they remain one with it and do not struggle. For them the truth to be known is here and now. Those who do not know their secret think of it as an unknown entity to be sought and discovered. Under that illusion they struggle... Only a few see the secret of the wise. (A 63)
Knowledge, the object of knowledge, and one’s cognition of both are in fact only variations of beginningless Being. By merging in that awareness of infinitude one should become undifferentiated with it. […]The only memory worth cherishing is one's primal identification with the ultimate Awareness. […] The all-filling consciousness … [and] its immeasurable magnitude… is like an ocean of silence in which everything is submerged. (A 4, 64, 97)
[From his Nirvriti panchakam:] For him alone is bliss who has been freed from thoughts of nationality, caste, profession, age and the like. / For him alone is bliss who has been freed from thoughts like “come,” “go,” “do not go,” “enter,” “where do you go?”… / For him alone is bliss for whom the arguments “I, you,” “that man—this man,” “inside—outside,” “affirmation—negation” and the like have ceased to exist. / For him alone is bliss for whom there is no difference between the known and the unknown, between self and another and for whom the differences have ceased to exist. (S 219-20)
A compassionate man without any vested interest works both day and night for the welfare of others. On the other hand, a selfish man, desirous of his own good, toils day and night and comes again and again to his frustration. (A 23)
[Anukampa Dasakam, “Scriptures of Mercy”:] A heart Love-empty spells disaster of every kind…. Grace, Love, Mercy—all three—Stand for one same reality, Life’s Star. / “He who loves is he who really lives” [“Arul ullavananu jivi”]. / Do learn these syllables nine by heart, in place of lettered charm. (P 41)
[His Municharyapanchakam, “Way of the Renunciate,” penned immediately after his whimsical visit with Sri Ramana Maharshi in 191614:] The arm would do for a pillow, the ground for a bed. The earth one steps on assists movement. Of what use is other wealth for a sage free from desires? Having acquired release he enjoys the greatest of all enjoyment. / A sage may be eloquent at certain places, silent at others, a scholar or a fool, may move about or remain standing or sitting. He always abides in the supreme, nondual consciousness … / To sustain the body the sage eats without desire what fate offers him without his seeking. He sleeps on the road with nothing to agitate his mind. He always turns his eyes inward. He realizes the unity of his individual soul and the Supreme and attains the matchless state of saccidananda [Being-Awareness-Bliss]./ The sage…abides in the supreme state which is inconceivable, unknowable, minute and massive, pure, changeless, deep and the most high. / A sage may be staying in his own house or in a forest, on the sandy banks or by the roadside. His mind always dwells in Brahman. With his inner eyes he sees everything as mirages and delights in the incomparable Brahman. (S 218-9)
[Janani Nava Ratna Manjari, “Nine Stanzas to the Divine Mother”:] From that unitive mind-stuff, all encompassing, / Countless tri-basic rays (of knowledge-knower-known) come and, lo and anon, Self-consciousness gone, / There awakened love of food and such; / Fallen thus into the ocean of need and lost altogether, / Say when, O Mother, shall my inner being regain that path of hope / To be merged within the domain of pure [awareness], bereft of all tri-basic prejudice / And, within the core of the radiance outspread of [awareness] pure, / Reabsorbed in communion cool, ever remain. // This variegated display by Maya wrought— / Itself nothing—is no other than Awareness pure; / Air, stone, sea or fire, and the void too, / Are all but prime Awareness alone!… // [The sage] of good deeds is but a bee / Fallen into the lotus core, drinking there the nectar / Of the unlimited experience of bliss supreme. //…O Mother! Who within the encircling veil / Of the prime mind on high, ever dwells, / Whose free dance it is that impels here below / This clamorous medley of earth, water, air and fire / As the world manifest—when all is but name alone; / With that delicate yarn of time and so on / A fancy vesture covers your form / So none do know your true appearance… // You became the deer and the fish / The snake and the heavenly bird, / The earth and the river, woman as well as man, / Even the world on high and inferno.… As the “I” that too is even you! / O, one of word-content alone [conceptual construct], all is comedy indeed! //… The earth and other elements here, / No basis they have, semblance only, / Specific expressions in awareness merely; / Whatever reality they have in this world / Is by you conferred alone! / In that exalted region where [senses] / Have no place, is where your glory abides, / Who is there to know your greatness, O Mother? (P 33-6)
[From his poem Pinda Nandi, “Prenatal Gratitude”:] Within the womb, O Lord of Good, / Was that lump—this humble self. / With what exceeding love, / Who but Thou, kind One, nurtured it into life! / Ordered by Thee, all comes about. / Thus knowing, this Thy servant / To Thee now surrenders all. (P 8)
[From the last verse of his Anubhuti Dasakam:] When all attachment is completely cut off, / Genuine waters of happiness shall come gushing! (P 82)
[His universal prayer, Daiva Dasakam (1914), recited daily by his devotees:] From the most high, O Divine, protect us here…. / You are the navigator / Of this ocean of ephemeral becoming, / And your name a mighty steamship. // Counting all things here one after another, / When all things have thus been touched and counted, / There remains still the seeing eye [drk, “eye” or Consciousness] alone. / In like manner, let my inner self attain to rest in You.… // As ocean, wave, wind and depth / Let us within see the scheme of us, nescience, your glory and You. // Are You not creation, the Creator too, / As also the magic variety of created things? / Is it not You again, O God, who is the very stuff / Of which all creation is made? // Are You not the great illusion / and also the Author and / Enjoyer of that illusion? / Are You not the master / Who can remove all illusion / and grant the Supreme Union? // You are existence, knowledge and the endeared value; / You Yourself are the present, the past, and the future…. // That state which fills, inside as well as outside, / Brimfully with Your glory, / We adore That, Blessed God of Goodness, / Hail, victory to You. // Victory be to you, God of gods, / Ever intent on saving those in need. / Victory be to you, Blissful Intelligence through and through. / Hail, O Ocean of Mercy! // In the deep deep ocean of Your Glory / Immersed let us all become; / There to dwell, dwell everlastingly / In Felicity Supreme. (DD and P 37-9)
My sources on Narayana Guru are S. Omana’s long essay, “Biography of Sree Narayana Guru,” adapted from his doctoral thesis at the Univ. of Kerala, and posted on the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam website: www.sndp.org/Html/Bio graphyByDrSOmana.html; M.K. Sanoo, Narayana Guru
(Madhavan Ayyappath, Tr.), Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978; the biographical essay, “Sree Narayana Guru” by G.V. Narayan Murthi
, posted at various Narayana Guru organization websites, e.g., www.sreenarayanaguru.org/; Swami Dharma Theerthar’s article, “A Great Nation Builder” and the “Biographical Sketch” posted at SNDP Yogam New York Branch’s website at www.narayanaguru.org/article/; and three works published by the Narayana Gurukula / East-West University (Srinivasapuram, Varkala, Kerala, India 695145): Nataraja Guru, Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru
, rev. ed., 1990; Deborah Buchanan, Gestures in Silence: Who and What Narayana Guru Is
, 1979; and Nancy Yeilding, What Narayana Guru Is Not
The biographies vary in several details, starting with Swami Narayana’s year of birth. Nearly all the earliest biographies, including some published years before his passing, state that he was born in 1856. Nataraja Guru, one of his youngest close disciples, wrote his biography during the Swami’s life, not published until 20 years after Swami’s passing, in which it is stated that when devotees celebrated his 60th birthday in 1916, Swami said that event should have been celebrated two years earlier, hinting that 1854 was his birth year. Others dispute this. I have settled on the later birthdate. Other details hard to pin down are the exact year his mother died, the year he settled at Aruvipuram, and the year he opened Advaita Ashram at Alwaye.
Numerous other books and articles on Narayana Guru have been written, most of them in the Malayalam language. English language materials primarily come from the Island Gurukula Aranya / East-West University, 8311 Quail Hill Rd., Bainbridge Island, WA 98110; www.geocities.com/islandgurukula. The latter is the main branch outside India and also the publication and distribution center for the worldwide Narayana Gurukula, headquartered at Varkala, India. Books published by the Narayana Gurukula (in addition to aforementioned works) include Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati, Sree Narayana Guru: A Brief Biographical Sketch; N.C. Kumaran, Narayana Guru: Relevancy Today; and Dr. S. Omana, The Philosophy of Sree Narayana Guru. See also Swami John Spiers, The Guru: Essays on Narayana Guru, published by Swami Shaktidhara, Visranti Munisthanam, Nidangalluhalli, Karnataka, 562117, India; Swami Dharma Theerthar, Sree Narayana Guru, Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham Trust, Shivagiri Mutt, Varkala, Kerala. Two English-language periodicals are Gurukulam, published by the Narayana Gurukula (Bainbridge Island branch), and Gurudarshanam, published by the Sree Narayana Association of North America, P.O. Box 260009, Bellerose, NY 11426-0009.
India’s Surya TV has produced a dramatic serial in 104 episodes, “Guruprasadam,” about the life and work of Narayana Guru, sure to make him more famous.
2 Nataraja Guru writes about Narayana Guru’s realization: “This new experience was not in the nature of an event. It was an experience that changed for him the meaning and import of all events.” (Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru, p. 17.)
3 By most accounts, SNDP Yogam, especially after Swami’s death, went astray by losing his universal vision and becoming a lobbying group for Ezhava interests.
Development experts have been astounded by Kerala’s achievements for a state within a Third World nation. See Bill McKibben, “The Enigma of Kerala: One state in India is proving development experts wrong,” Double Take
, Summer 1995, posted at http://guruforum.welcome.to/. Herein he sums up the anomalous findings: despite its extremely high population density and low per capita income (some 1/70th
that of the U.S.), Kerala has a “physical quality of life (PQLI) index” in the 80s, higher than any country in Africa and any country in Asia after Japan (98), Taiwan (87), and South Korea (85). By 1989, Kerala’s PQLI score had risen to 88, compared to India’s overall PQLI of 60. Kerala also has a high life expectancy rate (almost on a par with the U.S.), a literacy rate of over 90%, a very low birthrate (primarily due to widespread female education
, Kerala’s birthrate is some 60% lower than the rest of the Third World and 40% lower than the rest of India), a higher female birthrate (because of far fewer abortions of female fetuses), extensive and well-informed popular political activity, and an array of health services unmatched anywhere else in India or most of Asia. He also states: “Kerala is now less caste-ridden than any spot in the Hindu world; it is a transition more complete than, say, the transformation achieved by the civil rights movement in the American South.” McKibben singles out Narayana Guru as the ethical hero whose spiritual and social-justice ministry most inspired the successful progressive movement in Kerala that effected these improvements over the course of the 20th
5 Varkala is located on the coast, 33 miles north of Trivandram.
6 Sanoo, Narayana Guru, p. 114. The message was given in 1917. Note that it was not until 1937 that the Travancore State Government finally issued an order giving, for the first time anywhere in India, formal temple-entry rights to harijans.
7 The word dharma, sometimes translated as “religion,” means “spiritual way,” which Narayana Guru in some contexts summarized as Truth, Duty, Compassion, Love. Swami once remarked: “All religions should be studied without prejudice. This would reveal that there was no difference between them in basic principles. The ‘one religion’ which we advocate is the religion that emerges after such a scrutiny.” (Sanoo, p. 146.) He also wrote in his Atmopadesa Satakam (verse 49): “All beings, at all times, everywhere, are exerting themselves to attain happiness. This quest for happiness is the ‘One Religion’ in the world.”
Swami once stated in a conversation, “Caste was not created by God. It was devised by men.” Sanoo, p. 185. Swami’s famous poem Jati Mimamsa
, “A Critique of Caste,” runs, in part: “One of kind, one of faith, and one in God is man. Of one womb, of one form; difference herein none. Within a species, is it not, that offspring truly breed? The community of man
, thus viewed, to a single caste belongs. Of the human species is even a brahmin born, as is the pariah too. Where is difference then in caste as between man and man?” (An Anthology of the Poems of Narayana Guru
[Nataraja Guru, Tr.], Narayana Gurukula, Bangalore, Karnataka 562112 India.)
9 Eyewitnesses report Swami’s daily visitors on his first Sri Lankan visit averaged 3,000–4,000 people. It was here that he first took to wearing ochre robes. Up to then and for most of his last years he wore only two white cotton garments.
During the ministry of Bodhananda’s successor Swami Sankarananda, a Kerala High Court ordered that a trust be created to operate all the monasteries, ashrams and temples managed by the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham. The Sangham’s sannyasin
s elect one among themselves as president for a 5-year term.
For his part, Nataraja Guru in 1923 founded the worldwide Narayana Gurukula or family of contemplatives following Narayana Guru. Nataraja’s successor was Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati (1923-99), who roamed India in his youth training under numerous saints. He later prolifically authored 200 volumes in Malayalam and English, and expanded the Gurukula with his East-West University of Unitive Sciences, a “university without walls.” See prior endnote for Narayana Gurukula’s Indian address and main U.S. address. The Gurukula has 20 branches in South India, and branches worldwide (U.S., U.K., France, Australia, Fiji, Singapore).
11 Swami Dharma Theerthar, “A Great Nation Builder,” op. cit.
12 Sanoo, Narayana Guru, p. 216.
Narayana Guru authored 60 short works in Malayalam, Sanskrit, and Tamil. For this section of his teachings, I have used these sources (the first three of which are generally considered his most important), abbreviated as follows:
A = Narayana Guru, Atmopadesa Satakam: One Hundred Verses on Self Instruction
(1903), posted at the SNDP Yogam website: www.sndp.org/Html/Atmopadesa Satakam.html. Verse numbers, not page numbers, are given in parentheses. Note: I have consistently substituted the term “Awareness” for the translator’s use of the word “Knowledge,” which in the West has discursive connotations.
D = Narayana Guru, Darshana Mala: Visions of the Real (dictated circa 1916; translated from Sanskrit by Nataraja Guru in 1949; rendered into modern English in 1979 by Don Berry), posted at www.speakeasy.org/berry/Philosophy/ Darsana/dm-title.html. Chapter/verse numbers are given in parentheses.
DD = Narayana Guru, Daiva Dasakam: The Universal Prayer of Narayana Guru (Nitya Chaitanya Yati, Tr. and Commentary), Narayana Gurukula (Srinivasapuram P.O., Trivandram Dt., Kerala 695145), 1981.
S = M.K. Sanoo, Narayana Guru, op. cit.
P = An Anthology of the Poems of Narayana Guru
(Nataraja Guru, Tr.), Narayana Gurukula, 1977.
14 When Swami Narayana came near Mt. Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi’s seat, disciples of the two masters wanted them to meet. So Swami sat on a rock near Maharshi’s Skandashram. Maharshi came out and sat in silence on another rock some distance away. After a time, Maharshi went inside. Swami turned to Maharshi’s disciples and asked, “Do you know him?” “Yes,” they answered. Turning to his own disciples, Swami asked, “Do you know him?” They also replied affirmatively. Swami spoke from the depths of Silence: “Then only we do not know.”