Narayan Guru was among the early rebels against the oppressive caste system of Kerala. Narayana Guru, also known as Sree Narayana Guru, was a prominent Indian social reformer, spiritual leader, and philosopher who lived from 1856 to 1928. He was born in Chempazhanthi, a village in the Thiruvananthapuram district in the state of Kerala, which is in the southern part of India, during a time when Kerala society was plagued by caste-based discrimination and social inequality. He was born into an Ezhava family, which was considered “avarna” or a low-caste in Kerala society.
Narayana Guru advocated for social equality, education, and the upliftment of marginalized and oppressed communities. Some of his notable contributions include:
Caste Reforms: Narayana Guru strongly criticized the caste system and worked to eradicate caste-based discrimination. He emphasized the idea that all human beings are equal and should be treated as such, regardless of their caste or social background. He believed in One Caste, One Religion, One God for Humanity.
One of his most significant efforts was the temple entry for the Lower Castes. He advocated for the right of lower-caste individuals to enter Hindu temples that were previously restricted to higher castes. His efforts played a crucial role in breaking down barriers of caste-based segregation in places of worship. The movement against the caste-based entry in temples got a boost during the Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924. In the town of Viakom, located in the princely state of Travancore, the untouchables were prohibited from entering the temple dedicated to Mahadev. This practice had been in existence for centuries, and around two hundred youths had made an unsuccessful attempt to enter the temple in 1805-06. In fact, the road near the temples was also out of bounds for the castes which were untouchables.
Narayan Guru was stopped from passing through a road which led to the Temple. He was accompanied by Dalit-backward leaders, including Mahakavi and social reformer Kumaran Ashan, and some of his disciples. This incident hurt the disciples of Guru, and they composed a poem in protest of the incident. The attempts to enter the temple were thwarted with the help of the cruel and feudal Dewan of Travancore, Velu Thampi, who even went to the extent of getting the agitators killed. Finally, Gandhi was approached, and in 1924, the Movement started. It was here that Gandhi met Narayan Guru in 1925. Under the able leadership of Periyar and the guidance of Narayan Guru, the Vaikom struggle was successful in enabling the temple entry of the “untouchables”.
Aruvipuram Pratishta: Narayan Guru left his home and traveled through Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He reached Pilathadam cave in Maruthwamala and meditated for years. In 1888, he visited Aruvippuram and consecrated a piece of rock taken from the river as the idol of Shiva, which later became the Aruvipuram Shiva Temple, and the act came to be known as Aruvipuram Pratishta. This was a very daring act in those times and infuriated the Brahmins, who questioned Guru’s right to consecrate the idol; to which he replied, "This is not a Brahmin Shiva but an Ezhava Shiva."
Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam: At Aruvippuram, he established Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam in 1903 with Padmanabhan Palpu for the welfare of the Ezhava community.
Education: Narayana Guru believed that education was the key to empowering individuals and communities. He established schools and educational institutions that were open to people of all castes, contributing to the spread of education among the marginalized sections of society. He believed that spiritual and social growth could be attained through education and the establishment of learning centers. He established the "Saraswati Mandiram" in Kerala, a place where people from all castes and backgrounds could come together to learn and practice spirituality without discrimination. He also established Sanskrit Schools at Alwaye Advaita Ashram to impart Sanskrit teaching to students belonging to every community.
Spiritual Philosophy: Narayana Guru's teachings were rooted in the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which emphasizes the oneness of all beings and the spiritual unity of humanity. He emphasized self-realization and inner growth as the means to overcome social divisions. He was vehemently opposed to the concept of “Chatur Varna” and the beliefs attached to it. He organized an All Religion Conference in 1923 at Alwaye Advaita Ashram in the Ernakulam district in Kerala. Narayana Guru's teachings and actions had a profound impact on the social fabric of Kerala and India as a whole. He promoted harmony among different communities and worked towards a more just and equitable society. His legacy continues to inspire people who seek social justice, equality, and spiritual growth.
The Legacy of Narayan Guru: The great spiritual reformer of Kerala died in 1928 in Varkala Town of Kerala. His tomb is at Sivagiri, a pilgrimage center. His Samadhi attracts thousands of devotees every year during the Sivagiri Pilgrimage from 30 December to 1 January. On 21 August 1967, Narayan was commemorated on an Indian postage stamp. In 2009, the government of Sri Lanka issued a commemorative stamp. He has also been portrayed in a number of movies. The social and spiritual reforms ushered in by Narayan Guru can be compared to later reformers like Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda, whose social reform had a spiritual tinge. However, Narayan Guru distinguishes himself in comparison to other such spiritual reformers by completely rejecting the varna system."