A Guru for All times
Around the time Sree Narayana Guru launched his socio-economic-religious reform movement in India’s southern state of Kerala, there was a parallel resistance movement in the neighbouring region of Tamil Nadu where radical leader E.V. Ramaswamy Naickar organised people against caste and its oppressive framework.
Unlike the Naickar “line”, Guru’s transformative work was a continuum in the tradition of religious reformers who started spreading the message of unity and the fraternity of mankind, overriding the deeply-entrenched caste consciousness which has been the defining feature of Indian society over the ages.
The most critical difference in the Guru’s approach, was its balance of the religious, ethical, social and economic content, founded on a principle of universal brotherhood and compassion for everyone. At the time he formulated his solution and even now, it remains distinctively original, intrinsically constructive and innately humane. The Guru’s compass of thinking was far ahead of his time.
If the social fabric of Kerala stands out as an example of a durable compact of people belonging to different castes, communities and religions holding together as a unique laboratory of cohesive diversity, the credit in a large measure should go to the “Light of Sivagiri”. Guru’s teachings have a contemporary significance in the multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic world that we live in now. Guru realised that for a change of heart to be permanent it has to be based on a vision of love and brotherhood. It cannot be sustained on negativity and hatred.
Guru’s relevance is for all times and all climes. This is because his approach was constructive, spiritual and inclusive. That’s why, Guru’s philosophy continues to inspire people even today. In his authentic biography of the Guru, noted scholar Prof M.K. Sanoo writes: “This is how ideas work. They transmit from heart to heart. Speeches and exhortations are but catalysts”. Guru believed that people have to undergo a change of heart on their own, based on inner convictions and the realisation that all humans are equal intrinsically.
This, I believe, is a continuation of the reformatory work attempted by others over the years in India. Guru stood out because he chose the line of least resistance and genuinely felt that inner change should be the basis for this progression.
Of late, there have been attempts to portray the Guru as someone who was not in this unbroken tradition of our saints. To my mind, this is patently wrong and perceptibly mischievous. The Guru was one of the most important links in the long line of our sages and seers who responded in their own way to the issues of their times.
Sometimes, in India’s history, this required the coldness of logic and the sharpness of intellect which Adi Sankara brought in. At other times it called for the highlighting of the humaneness of spirit, catholicity of outlook, the universality of mankind and the common bases of love for all, which saints like the Guru expounded.
But, there is a unitary thread which flows through all the great saints of India whether it was Nanak, the Buddha, Vardhamana Mahaveera, Adi Sankara, Ramanujacharya or Sree Narayana Guru. The wellsprings of their thinking and philosophy lies within the folds of what we have come to perceive as Hindu/Bharathiya culture, not outside of it. Any attempt to demarcate the Guru’s legacy as outside of this holistic Bharathiya culture and tradition does not correspond to the basic religious-spiritual transformation that he aimed at.
I have no better authority than the Nobel-prize winning great French writer and thinker Romain Rolland who said of the Guru: “His teachings, permeated with the philosophy of Sankara, shows evidence of a striking difference of temperament compared with the mysticism of Bengal… He was, one might say, a Jnanin of action, a grand religious intellectual, who had a keen living sense of the people and of social necessities. He has contributed greatly to the elevation of the oppressed classes in south India, and his work has been associated at certain times with that of Gandhi.”
The Guru, it can be said, refined the non-dualistic principle of Adi Sankara into a contemporary mode, through emphasis on development of the self with education, egalitarianism and coexistence of humanity. Essentially, the Guru’s way out of social degeneration and the oppressive structure of castes was from “within” the basic structure of what we understand as Hinduism.
The Guru sought to bring about a revolution through transformation of thought, not through violent, negative or hateful means. As the world looks for answers of human integration which only can sustain peace, prosperity and indeed our collective coexistence, the Guru’s philosophy offers hope. There is an urgent and indubitable need to spread his thinking to wider audiences.