The honorific title, Guru, is synonymous with Sree Narayana Guru, whose teaching and ideals remain a beacon of hope and resilience for the downtrodden across the country.
Friday, 22 September, marks the 95th death anniversary of Guru, who upheld humanity above caste and religion.
The reformist legacy of Guru, who contributed immensely to the fight against caste-based discrimination, continues to inspire not just Kerala, but also the rest of India.
According to thinker and academic Sunil P Elayidam, Guru strongly disliked the caste system and untouchability since childhood, and remained vocal against injustice.
Born in an Ezhava family in Chempazhanthi, then a tiny hamlet in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, Nanu, who later became Sree Narayana Guru, espoused the cause of an egalitarian world.
Kerala’s Renaissance now remains largely oblivious to Guru, whose philosophies provided a fertile ground for revolutionary thoughts to grow and flourish.
He stands foremost among the reformists Kerala has seen so far because of his progressive and radical thinking. But, for the Sangh Parivar, misappropriating his reformist legacy continues to be an uphill task.
When he was born in 1856, social change had just begun in Kerala, largely because of the society’s exposure to science and contemporary knowledge brought in by Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial influences.
Guru exhorted for comprehensive change using the fertile ground of the emerging knowledge society.
Catalyst for change
Along with Ayyankali, the legendary leader who batted for the rights of the untouchables, Guru facilitated a thorough change in the then feudal and obscurantist Kerala.
It marked the beginning of a social reformation movement that swept across Kerala’s society during the days of the national movement.
Guru opened up a road to progress and modernisation for the Ezhavas, a backward community. Ezhavas constitute the largest segment of Kerala’s Hindu population.
The empowerment of the community — acquired through Guru’s intervention — had a ripple effect on coexisting communities and faiths.
Most of Guru’s teachings involved rational and secular visions apart from spirituality, and they reached out not just to Ezhavas but to all.
His concept of “One Caste, One Religion, and One God for Humans” became revolutionary.
Through his famous comment, “Whatever be the religion, it’s enough if man becomes virtuous,” Guru laid a solid foundation for secularism and co-existence in Kerala.
Guru was a Vedantist to the core and had a firm footing in his native geography. His philosophical vision and observations were often laced with humour.
During the peak of the Vaikom Satyagraha demanding temple entry for lower caste people, the protesters often fled when attacked.
Mahatma Gandhi advised the protesters to face the attacks by the caste Hindus instead of running away.
Somebody told Guru about Gandhiji’s advice. A known supporter of the satyagraha, Guru instantly responded, saying that he needed a good stick.
A disciple told him nobody would harm him, so he didn’t require a stick.
“The stick is not for me. I am keeping it ready for those who may come to attack me. Without a good stick, their mission would not be accomplished,” he said.
Once, a judge approached Guru, seeking to know whether the dead should be buried or consigned to flames.
“My preference is for crushing the bodies in oil presses. A pressed dead body is good manure,” he said, prompting the judge to wail. Guru asked: “Why? Will it hurt?”
Bid to hijack Guru’s legacy
A few years later, a man stole a jackfruit from Guru’s ashram’s premises at Aruvikkara on Thiruvananthapuram’s outskirts. The man was caught and produced before the Guru, who asked if he had trouble in plucking the fruit.
“It’s a dark, rainy night. There are snakes and stones and thorns around. Don’t attempt stealing at night,” Guru advised the man before sending him off with the jackfruit.
His sense of humour was on display once again when someone stole the offering box at the Sivagiri ashram. “How tough it would’ve been for the thief if all that money stayed with those who had made the offerings. Now that it’s in one place, it’s become so easy for him,” was his refrain.
Of late, attempts have been made to hijack the Guru’s legacy.
“Guru’s legacy needs to be reinvented and propagated, especially when the Hindutva forces are trying to hijack him and reduce him to the level of yet another Hindu monk,” scholar Sunny Kapikkad opined.
For the elitists in Kerala, his thoughts and writings are worthy only of informal education. They overlook the fact that he always advocated modern formal education and encouraged all his disciples to pursue university degrees and research,” he told South First.
Kapikkad held Guru as a leading light for those who believe in secularism, pluralism, and critical egalitarianism.
“Guru’s ideology is based on non-violence, generosity, and human fraternity. Guru found the concept of conscious human equality in Advaita. The fundamental elements of Guru’s teaching include truth, equality, fraternity, and freedom,” his disciple T Baskaran observed in his book Sree Narayana Guruvum Manavikathayum (Sree Narayana Guru and Humanity).
“Guru’s humanism was God-centered. But it did not have any theological fanaticism in it. Guru knew that the expanse of spirituality has no limit. He clubbed the humanitarian trait with spirituality because he knew it to function within the complex web of human nature,” he added.
Guru tried to fill an individual’s spiritual experience with humanity while living amidst an ideologically spiritual humanism,” leading Malayalam critic KP Appan opined.
Defender of values
Across Kerala, Guru is the sole defender of its pluralistic, egalitarian, and co-existence values. And his thoughts are the biggest defense against cultural appropriation and communalism. He continues to be the reformist of the ordinary masses.
In a message marking Guru’s 169th birth anniversary on 31 August, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the nation was passing through a time when politics of caste and religious hatred were posing a big challenge to society.
“Therefore, it is more imperative now than ever to vigorously uphold the teachings of the reformist leader,” he said.
Vijayan said that people should try to overcome the challenges posed by communal forces and become a society as envisioned by the Guru by drawing strength from his visions and struggles.
The chief minister said Kerala has become what it is today due to the intervention and activities of spiritual leaders and social reformers like Sree Narayana Guru.
There is only one Guru across Kerala, Sree Narayana. Kerala’s Renaissance now remains largely oblivious to Guru’s philosophies that provided fertile ground for revolutionary thoughts to grow and flourish. He stands foremost among the reformists Kerala has seen so far.