Lunatic asylum to God’s abode: When Tagore met Narayana Guru in Kerala’s Sivagiri 100 years ago

Tuesday marks the centenary of the meeting. The visit of Tagore and his appreciation of the contributions of the Sivagiri Mutt brought nationwide attention towards Sree Narayana Guru.

ByK A Shaji

Published Nov 14, 2022 | 11:23 AMUpdatedNov 14, 2022 | 11:23 AM

Rabindranath Tagore in conversation with Sree Narayana Guru in Sivagiri, hundred years ago, on 15 November 1922

Rabindranath Tagore met Sree Narayana Guru in Sivagiri near Thiruvananthapuram on 15 November, 1922. The meeting led to widespread recognition of the massive reform movement initiated by the latter in the then Kerala society that was deeply divided along caste and communal lines.

The historic meeting between the two iconic social reformers happened almost 30 years after Swami Vivekananda visited Kerala as part of a southern vacation in which the philosopher-monk termed the region a “lunatic asylum” after seeing the rigid caste system and cruel social discrimination prevailing all around.

“During my travels worldwide, I have had the good fortune to come in contact with several saints and maharishis. But I have frankly to admit that I have never come across one who is spiritually greater than Swami Narayana Guru or a person who is at par with him in spiritual attainment,” wrote Tagore in the visitors’ book at the modest ashram in Sivagiri.

‘My heart changed after seeing you’

Tuesday marks the centenary of the meeting. Several dignitaries from West Bengal, including Bidyut Chakravarthy, vice-chancellor of Visva Bharati Central University that was established by Tagore, will arrive in Sivagiri to take part in the celebrations that mark the occasion. Several socio-cultural events would follow.

“My heart changed after seeing you,” said Tagore while bidding goodbye to Narayana Guru.

Though Tagore invited Narayana Guru to Shantiniketan, home to the university he established in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, that visit failed to take place. But the Sivagiri meeting between the two icons remains a milestone in Kerala’s history.

“During their conversation, Tagore told Guru that Kerala was no more the lunatic asylum described by Vivekananda. He said it has evolved over the years as God’s dwelling place because of the Guru’s radical thoughts and social reformation ideas. Tagore also complimented the Guru by terming him a model to be emulated by talented people in other parts of India,” Swami Satchidananda, president of the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham Trust, told South First.

Satchidananda added: “To all these, the Guru responded saying he did nothing to be mentioned specifically. But Tagore’s words were a big affirmation of what the Guru and his followers did in fighting the caste system and laying the foundations for an equal and inclusive society.”

Also read: Rahul Gandhi pays tribute to reformer Sree Narayana Guru

Tagore’s visit brought Sivagiri nationwide attention

The visit of Tagore and his appreciation of the contributions of the Sivagiri Mutt brought nationwide attention to Narayana Guru, and there began a widespread acceptance of Sree Narayana’s ideals by anti-caste crusaders.

Going by the records maintained by the Sivagiri Mutt, Tagore told Narayana Guru that dividing people on communal and caste lines was an enormous injustice. He also observed that the religions that stand for spiritual advancements are also becoming instruments to promote hate and divisions.

“I know how much you have done to uplift those pushed to the boundaries. I have great regard for you, and I am happy with you. I directly understood how much the ordinary people of the region owe you. You are winning the admiration of disciples and followers and the whole people around you. You have done a lot,” said Tagore to  Narayana Guru, who remained a patient listener throughout the conversation, which continued for over an hour.

The maharajah’s invitation

Tagore reached Thiruvananthapuram on an invitation from Sreemoolam Thirunal, the maharajah of the princely state of Travancore.

Sreemoolam Thirunal

Travancore maharajah Sreemoolam Thirunal.

The maharaja promised him a sizeable contribution towards Visva Bharati, which Tagore had established just the previous year, in December 1921. Knowing about the visit, Swami Sivaprasad of the Kerala unit of Brahmo Samaj had written a letter to Tagore to modify his itinerary by including a visit to Sivagiri.

Under Sivaprasad’s influence, Narayana Guru’s close confidant Dr P Palpu also wrote to Tagore, inviting him to the Sivagiri Mutt for an interaction with the Kerala saint. Tagore confirmed his arrival through a telegram and visited Narayana Guru around 4 pm on 15 November, 1922.

Gurudev and Guru

According to local historian Malayankeezhu Gopalakrishnan, Tagore was accompanied by his son Rathindranath, daughter-in-law Pratima Devi, and Deenbandhu CF Andrews, who was then working as a secretary to the poet.

A massive public reception was accorded when they reached Attingal town from Thiruvananthapuram. Tagore was carried in a ceremonial chariot accompanied by caparisoned elephants to the Sivagiri Mutt. Traditional Kerala musical instruments were played.

Those who received Tagore at the mutt included celebrated Malayalam poet Kumaran Asan, Dr Palpu and Swami Sivaprasad. Narayana Guru, who was meditating at his abode, Vaidika Madom in Sivagiri, came out and received Tagore.

“Oh, Great Saint,” were the initial words uttered by Tagore on seeing Guru.

They sat together on the verandah of the Vaidika Madom, and Guru told Tagore to initiate the conversation in either English or Sanskrit. Tagore spoke mainly in English, and Palpu translated it to Guru in Malayalam. Kumaran Asan, who had studied in Kolkata, conversed with the other team members in Bengali.

The Sivagiri Mutt offered tender coconut water to Tagore, fried cashew nuts, and local delicacies.

After leaving Sivagiri, Tagore and his team went to the picturesque Thevally Palace on the banks of Ashtamudi backwaters in Kollam. Tagore wrote in the guest book that meeting a tireless scholar like Narayana Guru was a great experience, and that the memory reverberated in his mind like the waves of the Ashtamudi backwaters.

Kumaran Asan explained to Tagore the practices of Guru

“Though many contemporaries visited the Guru in Sivagiri those days, Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi were the most eminent ones. Like Tagore, Mahatma also opined that meeting the Guru was a great blessing, and without that, no South Indian trip would be complete. The meeting between Gurudev and Guru had created waves of ethereal emotion in both of them,” said Satchidananda, who currently heads Sivagiri.

Kumaran Asan

Celebrated Malayalam poet and social reformer N Kumaran Asan. (Supplied)

During the visit to Sivagiri, Kumaran Asan explained to Tagore the practices of Narayana Guru and his followers, which involved entirely staying away from Vedic rituals and appointing Dalit children as priests.

The overall functioning of the mutt was explained to him, along with the importance it gives to education, social reforms, and women’s empowerment.

“We will carry forward the inclusive vision of Guru and the composite culture of the mutt come what may. In this centenary year, we are dedicating ourselves to the common ground found by Guru and Gurudev,” said Satchidananda.

According to him, the centenary conference on Tuesday will mark the beginning of a series of awareness programmes on the ideals of Tagore and Narayana Guru.