“Should we not do something to remove caste from people’s minds? The only way is to act against caste discrimination,”
92 years ago, on 20 September 1928, Narayana Guru passed away at Sarada Mutt in Thiruvananthapuram. He was a spiritual leader, philosopher, and social reformer who led the anti-caste movement in Kerala in the 19th Century.
Narayana Guru was on 28 August 1855 to Madan Asan wife Kuttiyamma, belonging to the Ezhava caste (former untouchables; now classified as OBC), in village Chempazhanty in Thiruvananthapuram. At 15, while he was studying under Chempazhanthi Mootha Pillai in a Gurukula, his mother passed away. At 21, he went to central Travancore and learnt the Vedas, Upanishads, and Sanskirt from Raman Pillai Asan. He was a good student and wrote eloquent Sanskrit poetry. He returned to his village in 1881 when his father was seriously ill, and started a village school where he taught local children who affectionately called him Nanu Asan.
A year after his father’s death, he married Kaliamma. By then he had adopted the Advaitha philosophy, made wife her understand it as his life’s purpose. He renounced worldly attachments became an Avadhootha who roamed forests and hills, studying and philosophizing. Narayana Guru became the “Guru of the people.”
Early Encounters With Casteism
Even though he was able to achieve this because of his family’s position, Nanu (as he was called) was aware of and frustrated by the way Brahmins and Nairs treated Ezhavas and the practices Ezhavas had to conduct to avoid “polluting” upper castes. He was even more frustrated by their own role in graded inequality, and how Ezhavas ran a mile away from “impure” castes of Holeyas, Paras, Nayadis.
So, at a young age, he became mutinous, he would intentionally touch people from the Holeya caste and then go stand with people from his own caste to spite them:
Young Nanu also learned Ayurveda and treated people without caste barriers.
“Guru of the People”: the Anti-Caste Ascetic
After leaving home, Naanu traveled through Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He learnt meditation and yoga from Ayyavu Swamikal from whom he learned meditation and yoga. At the Pathadam caves, he set up a hermitage and practiced meditation for eight years. After this, he meditated in Arrivipuram for some time. There, he consecrated a piece of rock as the Shiva linga, which became the Aruvippuram Shiva Temple in what would be known as the Aruvipuram Pratishta act. This was met with great opposition from Brahmins, who questioned Guru’s right to consecrate the idol. To this, he famously replied:
This is not a Brahmin Shiva but an Ezhava Shiva
After this incident, Narayana Guru consecrated forty-five temples across Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Sri Lanka. These were meant to be places for worship for those who were denied access to Brahmin-controlled temples. These were not necessarily conventional, brahminic idols; one of them was a slab inscribed with the words, Truth, Ethics, Compassion, Love. Notably, in 1912 he built Sarada Mutt for the Goddess Saraswati in Varkala, after trying for seven years. After falling ill, Narayana Guru returned to this Mutt, where he died at the age of 73.
At the same place, on 15 May 1903, the Ezhava leader, Dr. Padmanabhan “Palpu” and founder-president Narayana Guru created the Sree Narayana Dharam Paripalana Yogam for the betterment of the Ezhava community. After the consecration of the Sree Bhavaneeswara temple, its main institution, the two also built a lower primary school.
After shifting his base to Varkala, Narayana Guru created another school for students from lower strata of society, which gave free education to children regardless of their caste background.
Narayana Guru & the Vaikom Satyagraha
Narayana Guru and the anti-caste reformer and poet, Kumaran Asan were walking in front of the Shiva temple in Vaikom when they were stopped by Brahmins who told them “you are not allowed here. This is for Savarnas”. At the same temple, in 1800, 200 Ezhavas were massacred by a Brahmin when they tried to break the temple entry ban. Guru’s disciple T. K Madhavan, with his guidance, took the movement forward. Under SNDP, they organised Ezhava and Holeyas in thousands to fight the ban in what was known as the Kerala Paryatanam movement. Kumaran Asan wrote poetry for the movement.
Madhavan believed that the movement should highlight Kerala’s caste system to the nation, and therefore he invited the Indian National Congress and M. K Gandhi to join the movement. Following Gandhi, they started a Satyagraha on 30th March 1924 which went on for a year.
Narayana Guru was dismissive of this, urging the followers to jump across the temple gates and eat the Prasada with the Savarnas. However, Gandhi saw this as encouragement of violence. Periyar Ramaswami, who had defied Gandhi, also joined the movement and went to jail alongside Madhavan and came to be known as “the Vaikom Hero”. Meanwhile, Gandhi wanted to increase the participation of Savarna and called the Savarna Jatha. Thousands of Nairs and some Namboodiri Brahmins joined in on the movement. However, when the temple association held discussions, the Namboodiris made Gandhi wait outside as he had become “impure” by the touch of lower castes.
Despite these issues, the movement got mass appeal and was recognized nationally. It also influenced the Temple Entry Proclamation. This movement, and especially Narayana Guru, also inspired trade unionism in Kerala.
Hinduisation of Narayana Guru
Since its establishment, the RSS and its organisations have been trying to rewrite various anti-caste icons, especially those who are considered regional heroes as part of the Hindutva fold. This is part of an effort of bringing in Bahujans into the RSS. These icons include Shivaji, Buddha, Ambedkar, and, of course, Narayana Guru.
The attempt at “Hinduising” these figures is twofold; firstly, instead of human beings or social reformers, they’re termed as Hindu Gods. Dominant Vaishnavite groups claim both Buddha and the Guru are avatars of Vishnu. Most images of him also create a “Godlike” halo around his head.
The second is by making them into icons that the RSS follow and protect. The venue of Jan Sangh’s first national meeting in Kerala was christened after the Guru. Narendra Modi’s visit to Sarada Mutt in 2015, was also extensively covered by media outlets for PR purposes, to connect him and the BJP to Naryana Guru. In 2016, 3 days prior to his Death Anniversary, the BJP in Kerala also posted a series of tweets in his praise. One of these blatantly made an attempt at saffronising him into their Brahmanic fold:
Sree NarayanaGuru was a Hindu saint who worked towards reforming Hinduism staying w/in the frames of the religion. #SreeNarayanaGuruJayanti— BJP KERALAM (@BJP4Keralam) September 16, 2016
Moreover, they wrote “We should oppose any move to distort his vision and take him out of the mainstream” and that Narayana Guru was a conforming Hindu. This was met with backlash, and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan called this “offensive” to his legacy and reminded people of Guru’s “No Caste” proclamation. He also noted that Narayana Guru never aspired to live as a particular caste or religion.
To term him a Hindu saint is decontextualisation; “Hindu” as a religious and personal identity was not as concrete as it is today, and largely existed as a colonial legal category. It is true that Narayana Guru followed the Vedantic Advaita philosophy, but he worked to reform the caste system, which required challenging Brahmanical laws. He did not identify himself as a Hindu, or with any religion; in 1924 he convened the All Religions Conference in Aluva, Kerala. At the conference, it was a Brahmin from Madras who represented the Hindu religion. Moreover, in his Universal Prayer for the masses, Narayana Guru wrote: