Sree Narayana Guru, one of the greatest revolutionary social reformers Kerala has ever produced, was born on August 20, 1856, in a humble cottage in Chempazhanthy, a village near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, as the son of Madan Asan and Kutty Amma. Madan Asan was a farmer as well as a teacher, with proficiency in Sanskrit, Astrology and Ayurveda, and his son, the little “Nanu” grew up listening to his narrations of the stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha to the local residents of the village. Nanu’s uncle Krishnan Vaidyan, a reputed Ayurvedic physician and a Sanskrit scholar, taught him the basics of Tamil and Sanskrit languages. He was drawn to meditation and poetry right from his childhood years, and criticised the social discrimination against the backward classes, which was plaguing the society at that time.
At the age of 21, Nanu became the disciple of the famous Kummampilli Raman Pillai Asan of Karunagappally, and learned Sanskrit language and poetry, the Vedas and Upanishads etc. He soon began teaching in a near-by school and came to be known as “Nanu Asan”. Nanu Asan married Kaliamma, under pressure from his family. The wedding was solemnized by the bride groom’s sister offering the “Thali” to the bride, in the absence of the groom. But the bride remained with her parents as Nanu Asan soon became a “Parivrajaka”, wandering from place to place in quest of “the ultimate truth”. He stayed for a brief period in the house of Perunnalli Krishnan Vaidyar, a renowned scholar and physician of Travancore, and studied some rare medicinal books written by him. During this brief stay, he met Kunjan Pillai, who later became the Chattampi Swamikal, and this meeting marked the beginning of a great friendship between them. Chattampi Swamikal introduced him to Thycattu Ayyaavu, a hathayogi, and from him Nanu Swami learned the yogasanaas in 1884.
Nanu Swami observed tapas and meditation in Pillathadam cave at the top of Maruthwamala in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. He survived in the deep forest, eating berries and tubers and drinking from the mountain brooks. In the solitude of the cave, Nanu Swami conceived the supreme power to be Lord Shiva, and sat meditating for several hours together in the same posture, often guarded by a cobra and a tiger. This phase of solitude lasted for about eight years, during which he is believed to have attained “Enlightment” and became the Sree Narayana Guru. Soon news spread that Gurudevan was observing tapas in Maruthwamala, and people started going there to have a darshan of him.
Sree Narayana Guru strived for redressing the evil customs and caste discriminations rampant in the society due to illiteracy and superstitious beliefs. The society had by then stooped to such a low level that Swami Vivekananda had described Kerala as a “lunatic asylum”. Gurudevan strived to reform the lower classes of people by staying with them and sharing their food. Soon people recognised him as a great Yogi who performed miracles, and respected him. In 1888 he reached Aruvippuram, a forest area near Neyyar, and installed an idol of Lord Shiva in the form of a small rock which he himself had picked up from the flowing river. He installed this idol at 3 in the morning after several hours of meditation, with tears streaming down his cheeks. The Brahmin community opposed this, as till then idol installation was their sole right. Gurudevan replied to them calmly “ I installed my Siva not a Brahmin Siva”.
Sree Narayana Guru settled in Sivagiri in 1904 and continued his “Sadhana” , worshipping Goddess “Amba”. He established Sanskrit school at Varkala, built temples at Sivagiri, Thrissur, Kannur, Thalassery, Kozhikode etc. and founded the Advaita Ashramam at Aluva. One of his noted disciples, Nataraja Guru established Narayana Gurukulam in the Nilgiri Hills in 1923. In the All Kerala Fraternity Conference held at Alwaye in 1921, Gurudevan delivered his eternal message “One Caste, One Religion, One God for Mankind”. Gurudevan installed a slab as idol at Murikkumpuzha temple, with the words Sathyam, Dharmam, Daya and Sneham written on it.
Sree Narayana Guru consecrated a mirror with “Om Shanthi” written on it, in the Kalavankodam Saktheeswaram temple in 1927, as a symbol of the unity of the finite and infinite. Gurudevan thus made us aware that man should find his salvation not in lifeless deities but by worshipping his inner self (atman) which is a portion of the Almighty or the Parabrahmam within us.
Soon Gurudevan exerted a dramatic shift in his focus and opined that temples were enough, and that more schools should be built for the empowerment of the backward classes. In 1927-28 Gurudevan participated in the meetings of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam at Pallithuruthy and Kottayam. The S.N.D.P Yogam was founded by Dr. P. Palpu, a devotee of Sree Narayana Guru in 1903. Kumaran Asan, the great Malayalam poet was its first General Secretary. The organization has played a very significant role in the struggle against the oppressive caste system in Kerala.
In 1928 Gurudevan founded the “Dharma Sangha”, an order of Sanyasins who were expected to be his true disciples and propagate his teachings. The idea of Sivagiri Pilgrimage conceived by Vallabhasseri Govindan Vaidyar and TK Kittan Writer, was approved by Gurudevan in 1928. Gurudevan opined that the pilgrims should observe 10 days self-purification according to Sri Buddha’s principles of five purities – body, food, mind, word and deed called as Pancha Dharma. He also suggested that the pilgrims could wear yellow clothes – the colour of Sri Buddha’s garments.
Gurudevan has been the author of many works in Malayalam, Sanskrit and Tamil, such as Atmopadesa Sathakam, Advaita Deepika, Atmavilasam, Brahmavidya Panchakam, Thevarappathinkangal and Darsanamala. He has also translated Tamil works like Thirukkural, Isavasyo Upanishad and Ozhuvil Odukkam into Malayalam. Daiva Dasakam a simple prayer written by Guru for all religions.
Gurudevan became seriously ill in September 1928 and attained samadhi on the 20th of the same month. Although Gurudevan has departed us physically, his words, ideals and teachings continue to inspire us to empower ourselves and others with education and treat our brothers and sisters with respect and love, transcending the barriers of caste and creed, thereby paving the way for a better tomorrow.