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Narayana Guru was modern like Ambedkar and anti-caste unlike Gandhi

Narayana Guru envisioned and practised liberation through education and empowerment through organization like Ambedkar would go on to do later with his slogan ‘educate, agitate and organize’. He believed caste is the evil that annihilates the human and prevents the making of an egalitarian society, writes Ajay S. Sekher

By the early 19th century, the much-celebrated renaissance had already begun and modern Kerala was in the making (Sugathan 2016: 7). It had its origin in the western colonial modernity and missionary intervention; the Nadar revolts for self-respect; Ayya Vaikundhar’s defiant critique of both the British Raj and the Varnasrama-based Travancore kingdom; and in the socio-cultural interventions of Tykad Ayya and Chattambi Swamikal (Sekher 2017: 8-27). But it was Narayana Guru (1855-1928) who gave these modern values like liberty, equality and fraternity an ethical and compassionate social philosophy and visionary praxis on a higher human and secular plane through his articulations and pluralistic writings (Guru 2006; Velayudhan 2015). While the aforementioned three predecessors of Narayana Guru and others like them operated within the Vaishnava and Saivite Hindu meta-referential structure, we have in Guru a truly polyphonic and secular vision that encompasses various ethical and religious praxes of the world, including the rational and agnostic argumentative modes of critical enquiry. Modern Kerala thus came of age with the pluralistic and egalitarian ethical thinking of Narayana Guru in the late 19th century. His legacy needs to be recovered and cherished, especially when the Hindutva forces are trying to hijack him and reduce him into a “Hindu Sanyasi” in true fascist fashion; and when the elite in Kerala consider his thinking and writings to be worthy of informal education only, overlooking the fact that he was always for modern formal education and encouraged all his disciples to pursue university degrees and higher research.


He made it amply clear that he is not a Hindu sage when he said, “It is the British who gave us Sanyasam (sagehood) and they are our gurus. And if it was in the time of Ram, Sudras and Atisudras wouldn’t be allowed an ascetic life (Sambuka, a Sudra, was beheaded by Ram himself for his pursuit of sagehood) because the Hindus rule by the Smritis” (Balakrishnan 2000: 164). He used to talk about improvement of the human condition rather than a strict religious identity and always upheld the choice and freedom of religion, unlike Chattambi Swamikal, who wrote the Kristumata Chedam, a defiant and militant refutation of the Christianity. Whatever be the religion the human must improve was his key message. He also stressed on the ethical core of religions in a compassionate and comparative way: “Palamatasaravumekam…” (The essence of many religions is the same …), “Matametayalum Manushyan Nannayalmati …”(Irrespective of religions, the human needs improvement).

Secularism, pluralism and critical egalitarianism

If we read about Guru’s teachings and praxes we realize his engagements with various religious and rational discourses of his time. Either he directly was involved in these engagements or his disciples were. While his mentee C.V. Kunjiraman delivered a historic speech at the Maramon Christian convention on the banks of the Pampa in March 1936, Sahodaran and Mitavadi pioneered the neo-Buddhist movement in Kerala from the 1910s to the 1930s. This period fell between two landmark events in the spread of neo-Buddhism in India – Ayyothee Thasar of Tamilakam adopting Buddhism in the 1890s (Aloysius, Geeta) and Ambedkar doing so in the 1950s. The Panchasudhi concept of Guru is a regional re-rendering of Buddha’s Panchaseela. He advised Sahodaran to develop Christlike patience when Sahodaran met him at Aluva after the 1917 Cherai inter-caste dining. In his later philosophical works, he also wrote on Prophet Mohammad and Christ, comparing them to Buddha. It is true that he wrote about the Hindu gods and the pantheon in his early devotional works or Stotra Kritis, but this was part of his traditional Kudipallykoodam education in Sanskrit and Bhasha in his early devotional developmental phase, in which he was called Nanu Bhaktan (Nanu the devotee) or Nanu Asan (Nanu the teacher) (Sekher 2016: 20-27). In his later dialogues, writings and acts, a clear polyphonic, pluralistic and secular legacy and ethical, humanist philosophy is evident.

Guru never celebrated the Vedas or the Gita, the iconic texts of Varnasramadharma. In fact, he mercilessly ridiculed the Rigvedic creation story in Purushasukta: “Is it something like the tree putting out leaves that the Virat Brahmapurusha or the cosmic Man is said to have given birth to the four Varnas through his body organs?” There is an urgent need to recover this critical, rational, secular and cosmopolitan worldview and liberating sceptical outlook of Guru from the Hindutva forces who are assimilating his legacy and erasing its transformative potentials.

His original name was Nanu, a rural name that denotes the shy little Buddha or the coy Tirthankara. Nanu, Nanan, Nanappan are names that were used to refer to the Buddha or Tirthankara in the ancient pre-Hindu days of Kerala. Only after the Aruvippuram installation he adopted the seemingly Vaishnava name Narayana Guru as a self-defensive strategy in the face of threats from the caste Hindu quarters. The word Narayana is also used for the Buddha as the one who is floating above the lake of the people or Nara. Buddha has been represented thus in the Buddha Nilkantha or Jala Narayana shrine in Kathmandu, Nepal. When the upper castes questioned his consecration of the deity at Aruvippuram and Thalassery, he said he had consecrated the “Ezhava Siva” and not “Nambutiri Siva” (Bhaskaran 2015: 108). Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker was the first to invoke Ezhava Siva. He did so when questioned by Travancore Diwan T. Madhava Rao after his consecration of the deity, Jnaneswara, at Mangalam in Arattupuzha, west of Kayamkulam, in 1850s.

The ancient Tamil or Damila word “Ezham” denotes something that is intertwined as the Sangha. Therefore, Ezhava means the people of the Sangha or the democratic order or Gana initiated by the Buddha, and by Asokan missionaries in South India. In 1916 during his first visit to Ezham (land of the Sangha) or Ceylon the guru made it clear that his religion is also that of the Buddha (“Nammutetum Buddha Matam Tanne…”). He also quoted the Amarakosa written by the Sinhalese Buddhist monk Amara Simha (“Dasabalo Shadhabhijno Advayavadi … Vinayaka”) to prove that his philosophy is the original Advayavada of the Buddha, and said that the Buddha is the real non-dualist or holist. It is unfortunate that some elite commentators and interpreters of the texts of Guru went on to reduce his philosophy to the Advaita of Adi Sankara. They conveniently forgot to mention Guru had said that Adi Sankara had tried to re-establish caste and Varna and that Adi Sankara was “a little dwarf” when it came to understanding the complexity of the caste system. It is interesting to note that Nagarjuna who, along with Chanakya, is revered by the makers of the National Education Policy 2020. It was Nagarjuna who mystified the Anitya or Advayavada of the Buddha into Sunyavada in the 2nd century CE. Then it was Gaudha Pada in the 6th century who linked it to the Vedic Brahmavada. In the early 9th century Adi Sankara appropriated it as Advaita in theory and practised and reinforced untouchability in real life and further consolidated the caste system.

These are part of the brahmanical appropriations and hegemonic embrace of the other and annihilation of the difference of the other, and establishment of the endless Self even in the other – the Agamyagamana kind of exorcism that was practised by Sankara himself. The Sangh Parivar is trying to turn Guru, who was a critic of Hinduism, into a Hindu, as it needs the votes of the Bahujans to capture political power in Kerala. Also, they need to erase the non-Hindu, especially the Buddhist, Christian and Islamic or even Sufi and eclectic dimension of the Guru, so that they can accomplish the creation of the singular Sanatan Vedic Hindurashtra.

Gandhi, Narayana Guru and Ambedkar

It is also important to contextualize Guru’s disguise as a Vaishnava sage after his 1888 consecration of Ezhava Siva in Aruvippuram. Like Ayya Vaikundhar, Guru also adopted a Vaishanava name Narayana, and began signing his name as “Narayana Guru”. It must be remembered that the Travancore king, Swati Tirunal, had Ayya Vaikundhar arrested and tortured, and put into a panthers’ den or Pulimadai for 141 days (Darwin, Pandian). Caste Hindu forces had murdered another Avarna social reformer and the immediate predecessor of Guru, Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker, while he was fast asleep in his boat at night in the backwaters of Kayamkulam. Caste Christians, who would boast about their brahmanical paternal heritage to gain brahmanical patronage, attacked a younger dalit contemporary of Guru, Sri Kumara Gurudevan or Poykayil Appachan, several times, and Appachan narrowly escaped each time (Sekher 2011). The Pulaya revolts and the Nair-Pulaya and Nair-Ezhava riots can also be cited as examples of an open caste war and genocidal violence in early 20th century Kerala (Sanal Mohan). This caste violence prompted Guru to voice and enshrine his compassion and ethics in Kerala’s social and cultural consciousness, to reconcile and pacify society to bring an end to the bloodshed. It was this caste violence that led him to write Jati Nirnayam and Jati Lakshanam in 1913-14. There is an urgent need to include these key texts of humanism, reason and compassion in the university syllabuses at least in Kerala.

Modern world thinker who acknowledged the other

He was rightly identified and called “Narayana Buddha” by his leading disciples and poets like Muloor, Karuppan and Sahodaran who shaped the language, literature and culture of Kerala. Like Buddha’s teachings, compassion, ethics and enlightenment are at the heart of his philosophy and praxes. Buddha has been radically recovered and textualized by Ambedkar; Guru has been aptly recovered by the historic articulations of Sahodaran. Guru’s critical praxis and liberating discourse are based on Ahimsa and are anti-caste at the same time. Caste is the most inhuman form of violence in India. Guru has said that caste is the evil that annihilates the human and prevents the making of an egalitarian society and therefore must be annihilated. His disciple Swami John Dharmateerthar’s critique of Brahmanism and appraisal of Buddhism in the History of Hindu Imperialism (1941) are expressions of this Buddhist affiliation. Guru envisioned and practised liberation through education and empowerment through organization like Buddha did before him (Trisarana or Triratna – Buddham, Dhammam and Sangham) and Ambedkar would go on to do later with his slogan ‘educate, agitate and organize’.

Also Read: How the modern Kerala Narayana Guru dreamt of is being undermined

Intersubjective ethics was his core teaching. He has addressed and acknowledged the other with a keen sense of justice and compassion. He defused conflicts by invoking equality and democracy. Guru’s egalitarian philosophy is the panacea for the communalism in Kerala, India and the world at large. It is an intellectual and ethical manifesto for the whole world as the learned public figures and orators K.E.N. Kunjahammad and P.K. Pokker reiterate in their speeches today. Literary critic K.P. Appan has observed that Guru has made history more profound and compassionate. Thus, there is an urgent need to accent Guru’s secular and pluralistic legacies in Kerala and elsewhere so that he cannot be co-opted by brahmanical forces and put in the company of those who adhered to the Veda and the Gita and majoritarian, hegemonic nationalism, including Gandhi, Tilak, Sardar Patel, Vivekananda and Aurobindo (Gandhi 1962). Jotirao and Savitribai Phule, Narayana Guru, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Ayyankali, Poykaylil Appachan and Ambedkar and their social visions and praxes have crucial roles to play in the resistance to communalism and totalitarian forms of ultra-nationalism and in upholding the Constitution.

We need to look to them for inspiration to resist, for instance, the National Education Policy, which presents India as a cultural monolith, obliterates its linguistic and cultural diversity, and undermines the significance of English as a language of modernity, and to resist the efforts to rewrite the Constitution and tear apart the secular social fabric. Guru’s defence of the English language and European enlightenment, which his disciples like Muloor and Sahodaran rearticulated in their vernacular verse, must be introduced in pedagogy and academia and the media to unleash real change in the present. The basic epistemological and social premises of the guru, Sahodarya and Samudaya (fraternity and human community), are the only way ahead for the human race and the planet.



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(Copy-editing: Anil)

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About The Author

Dr Ajay S. Sekher

Dr Ajay S. Sekher is an assistant professor in the Department of English, SS University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala. He is the author of ‘Sahodaran Ayyappan: Towards a Democratic Future’ and more recently of ‘Putan Keralam’, a book in Malayalam on the Buddhist foundation of Kerala culture and civilization

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