River Neyyar in South Travancore, originates from the mountain of Agasthya Kutam, and joins the sea at Poovar in the West making the land in its course highly fertile. After about 20 miles from its origin, the river swells to become a very strong flow. It passes though a rocky terrain generating a special musical note of its own and then, suddenly drops to a deep pit called Shankaran Kuzhi. The area is a beauty spot of nature, where the river unravels in all her glory. The foamy white flow is interrupted by projecting black rocks here and there as if the flow of virtue is obstructed on the way by concentrated evil and cruelty.
On both the banks of the river the foliage is so thick that, from a bird’s perspective, the area appears like a green silken carpet on which runs a white silver streak with black spots on it.
A small hillock on the western side of Shankaran Kuzhi, has played a very important role in the social and religious progress of the people of Kerala. Once upon a time, the whole area was a thick forest, which attracted only two types of people, yogis who wanted to withdraw from the rumpus and turmoil of humanity and enjoy the beauty of virginal nature, and hunters who wished for the pleasure of killing animals. But now this hillock has become the holy land which attracts thousands of devotees. The only reason for this transformation was the presence of our protagonist, Sree Narayana Guru.
He came down from the mountain top after penance and settled down on this hillock. News spread by word of mouth that there was a siddha on the hill top, performing miracles. ( the miracles are mentioned in the next Chapter). What each one heard was repeated with a little exaggeration and a little imagination and finally the end product lost its credibility and degenerated into a type of fantasy inviting ridicule. But those who had met the Swami personally and understood his character and way of life, knew the exact truth.
There is no doubt that Kumaran Aasaan had taken the Swami as his model, to describe a hero in one of his long poems, who had achieved victory over sensuality.
“Fear did not touch him, he was kind and considerate to all. The stamp of courage was on his face, and daring in his words. He was like a responsible king with his sceptre and an innocent child with toys at the same time. He could maintain this equanimity as he had conquered the enemy within him, namely his mind. Indeed such persons are the lucky ones!”.
As the programme executive for the uplift of the downtrodden, when he looked at humanity from the moral heights of his self and the physical height of Aruvippuram, what was the scene?.
The virtues of Hinduism had been disfigured beyond recognition due to pride and selfishness of its preceptors, and the resultant pernicious customs. Hundreds of years have passed like this. Those who enjoyed the privileges granted by the religion had degenerated to the status of jealous wealthy men who could not stand the prosperity of others. Therefore, religion became like a misers’ money in their hands. They would not use it properly for themselves nor would they give to others. When spirituality and other values to be derived from the religion are lost, this set of people had resorted to other means to prove that they are superior. The present caste system is the means they adopted to establish their imagined superiority. They tried and succeeded to get royal approval to this system, feigning religious sanction and divine attribution. The theory that a person’s “Caste” (Varna) is to be decided by the quality of his mind and actions, was conveniently inverted to mean that a person’s quality is decided by his caste. When the quality of the mind of those superiors deteriorated thoroughly, this inversion was the only means to maintain their pseudo-superiority.
This was thoughtfully followed by the declaration, that as one inherits the wealth of the family, caste also is inherited as paternal or maternal legacy as per the established tradition. Neither virtuous nor evil deeds can effect a change of caste. This system got royal approval from Hindu kings, as they were also beneficiaries to some extent. Thus a system which was perpetuated by artificiality and false interpretations of religion, became an established tradition to be pitilessly implemented as hereditary right by the rulers. It came to pass that all other principles of Hinduism could be ignored, but caste could not be. A Hindu can opt out of “Chathurashrama”. But he cannot come out of “Varnashrama”. Varna dharma became compulsory.
“Varna”, a flexible classification of people based on their intellectual level as a sort of division of labour, degenerated into an artificial and arbitrary system of segmentation of the people. If a fence which was intended to protect a garden grows wild like a forest, spreads out and occupies the entire garden, the original plants are subdued, made unrecognizable or simply destroyed. The once beautiful garden would become an unwieldy forest full of thorny and spiny growth. This is what happened to Hinduism.
This was the condition of Kerala as seen by Sree Narayana Guru from Aruvippuram.
At this point in social history, the condition of those who were condemned as inferior castes, was extremely miserable under local chieftains. They did not have the scope and liberty to maintain themselves, at least clean and tidy. Their bodies, clothes and even food were soiled and spoilt. They had no freedom to use the public roads. They were not supposed to appear in the vicinity of certain upper caste persons. Education was not within their reach. Though schools were maintained by Govt. using the taxes paid by these people also, they were not admitted to schools. When they applied for jobs, their applications were rejected on the ground that they were not educated . If someone got himself educated somehow or other, and applied for the job, he was blatantly insulted by saying that he did not have the high social level to be the colleague of Savarnas. Though they were called Hindus, their religious practices and rituals were different, and demeaning. They worshipped inferior and evil deities like Gulikan, Kuttichathan, Chudalamaadan, Karinkaali etc. Their important rituals in worship were animal sacrifice and drunken orgies. Their money, as offerings to Savarna temples was shamelessly accepted but they were not allowed even to enter temple premises Prasadam (the remnants of offerings to the deity) was flung to them from a distance. These poor innocents accepted that, after spending their money, and return satisfied as though they had a glimpse of god. When they came to the temple, carrying offerings to the deity, they were not allowed even to recite the deity’s name. On the otherhand they were expected to recite obscene verses which is a taboo to any decent person.
The power of speech is a gift of God to be used to sing his praise and to utter good and pleasant words. But these unfortunate beings were compelled to misuse that gift to recite vulgar words that should never be uttered, and to sing obscene songs which will inspire only evil and immorality. They were physically mentally and morally degraded.
With the objective of keeping them permanently depraved and defiled, they were ordered to perform the heinous action of beheading thousand of animals and birds, within the ambience of Savarna Temples.
Is it not an irony that a minority could impose these rules and traditions and a majority was subdued and subjugated to obey all these?.
When the entire world was illuminated by the light of knowledge and ushered in improvements in their living conditions, only these people closed their eyes to all that and remained in the self-created darkness of ignorance. Narayana Guru strained his mind to awaken these people from their psychological slumber.
In India great men had been trying to eradicate caste system and uplift the downtrodden since long ago. Those who know the history of caste discrimination, would agree that the project which Narayana Guru launched in Kerala was definitely novel and more effective. There is no use founding a new religion for the low castes. We have to note that Brahma Samaj and Arya Samaj could not gain popularity among the Avarnas of Kerala. As an alternative to Hinduism, the people had Christianity and Islam before them as an escape route from social stigma but they did not think of that as a solution. Will such people accept another religion?.
The Swami understood the psyche of the people. It is not their habit to traverse a new path. They will follow only the old path. Therefore, the solution is to illuminate the old path. So he wisely decided that the path had to be lit up slowly and they must be carefully led through the same path to a new goal without precipitating a revolution through blood shed. This has o be effected gradually. What did he do for this?.
Swami Vivekananda had a firm belief that any attempt to awaken the people of India should have a solid foundation based on religion. Narayana Guru also found this to be true. The Avarnas had nothing that deserved to be considered religion. What they had were only some pernicious traditions which they thought were religious rituals. Hence, how could their religion be reformed when they have no religion?. What is the path that he could open for them?. Only when we turn to look at the past we will see the Swami’s methods clearly. Before we start to do that we have to remember a few important points.
There is no need to mention specifically that the Swami, who was a Yogi and an ascetic (Sanyasi) had absolutely no tinge of caste in his mind. But, because the purpose of his birth and life was to uplift the downtrodden people of Kerala, he had to work among them. The highest ranking among the Avarnas was the Ezhavas or Thiyyas. He found it convenient to make use of this community as the medium to work for improving the life of Avarnas. Because he was born in that caste, the people of this caste nurtured a special affection and respect for him. They were proud of him, so he was sure and certain that they would follow his instructions verbatim. Not only that, all the injustice and cruelty meted out to the Avarnas by Savarnas reflected in their behaviour also. They treated their caste- inferiors with equal malice and disdain which they received from their caste- superiors. The Swami knew what a stumbling block this behaviour was. But he had the wisdom to turn the tables, and make it his special advantage .
All the modern Indian leaders have the fear of losing their prestige and popularity among the Savarnas, if they try to influence the Savarnas to eradicate caste system. It is much more easier to unite the Ezhavas, and their inferiors than to unite Savarnas and Avarnas. After considering all these, the Swami decided to join the Ezhavas and make use of them as a tool for religious and social reformations. But we have to remember that from the beginning till the end of his life the thought of his caste never entered his mind.
An unconscious change from good to better is the real step towards prosperity. The religious practices of Thiyyas were indeed heinous and diabolic. But, they had a hidden desire to follow better methods and rituals. This was proved by their actions. They were not allowed to enter Savarna temple where the rituals of worship were of a superior level. Though they were made to wait at the prescribed distance to avoid defilement of the deity and the upper caste people (theendapaadu), they found satisfaction in making offerings in kind and cash to the deity. Not only the illiterates, but the educated also did the same. The Swami decided that this hidden desire in them to improve themselves was to be converted into a motive force to propel them towards progress. That is how the decision and arrangements to consecrate a temple at Aruvippuram came to pass. The narration of this by Kumaran Aasaan is quoted from an old issue of Vivekodayam.
“At this young age, the Swami was quite impressive to look at, and was easily recognizable in any crowd. The rays of internal peace that radiated from his countenance proclaimed that he was a super-human. If he was seen in a town or even in a small village, a big crowd used to gather around him. But it was his habit to slip away from crowds and roam about all alone. During these days the Swami had written a number of beautiful hymns, on Lord Subrahmanya in both Sanskrit and Malayalam. It was the early stages of western education in India which has revived atheism also among the people. It can be convincingly mentioned that the Swami’s life was an antidote to this. At this stage, without any restrictions the Swami used to partake any item of food and drink ( of course, no liquor) that was given to him. There were rumours that the Swami had taken poisonous food also and nothing had happened to him.
In one of his wanderings, he came to Aruvippuram in the year 1884 AD. He was very much fascinated by the scenic beauty of the location. The mighty flow of River Neyyar forcing its way through gaps between boulders making melodious music echoing from the sandy banks and high hills on both sides, and the green foliage all around, captured his heart. Sometimes he came there to spend days together in some caves or creeks without food and unknown to others. Gradually people observed this and some devotees started to bring food for him. After that, Aruvippuam did not remain a secluded place for long.
People started coming for him from different places. His interaction with the people began, with simple cures for their health problems, sometimes exorcising ghosts and demons, giving advice and suggesting solution to all their problems and finally instructing them about religion and ethics. People had first-hand experience of his power of foresight and the ability to divine the thoughts of others. People of different castes came there to pay obeisance to him, and some became his disciples. Householders from far and near started to bring victuals like rice, stay back to cook and feed others . Gradually, because of the Swami’s presence, Aruvippuram became a holy place for the people . During the Swami’s absence also people came there, took bath in the river, offered prayers and returned. The Swami felt that a house of worship would be most suitable for the area. He started to mention this to some young devotees, who came regularly. His wish was openly expressed a few days before Sivaratri (an auspicious day for the worship of Lord Siva) In the year 1888 AD. In that jungle around Aruvippuram, there was no scope to get an idol of Lord Siva made. The Swami also did not ask for that. What he wanted was to convert a flat rock on the eastern bank of the river into an altar, and pick up a stone resembling the Sivalinga (the symbolic representation of Lord Siva) from the river and install it on Sivaratri Night. People co-operated with him and made some arrangements.
On hearing that the Swami was present there, some devotees had assembled there to fast and keep awake during the night ( rituals observed on Sivaratri). The altar was sprinkled with flowers, a small thatched shed was built on the rock as a tentative roof. Some started to play the naada swaram (a musical instrument resembling the organ-pipe), and others chanted panchakshari (Om namah Sivayah). By midnight, the Swami had a bath in the river and came to the shed. He picked up the stone to be installed and stood still in meditation for nearly three hours. Tears flowed down on that brilliant face. All those who stood there recited panchakshari with intense devotion. At three O’ Clock, the Swami installed the piece of stone on the altar and performed ablutions. Those who witnessed this say that some miracles happened at that time.
The above given is the narration by Kumaran Aasaan.
How many of us have thought deeply about this and understood the meaning of what the Swami did? This was an axe set at the root of the absolute authority of priesthood, which had been the tradition of Hindus for thousands of years. According to Hindus, only a Brahmin has the authority to perform any religious rite. When Savarnas or Avarnas needed any propitiatory rites to be performed, they seek the Brahmin to do it on their behalf. All Hindus sincerely believe that such rites are effective and fruit-bearing only if performed by a Brahmin. Of all these rites authorized to be performed by Brahmins, the most important one is the consecration of a temple. The popular belief is that only the Brahmin has the eligibility to do it, because only he knows the mystery behind it. Thus the Brahmin became the agent between man and God, on earth. The Swami, through this daring action has exposed the mystery behind it and proved that all these are misconceptions. Not only that. Through this action, the Swami has illustrated that not only Vedic knowledge, but also knowledge of the Absolute (Brahma Jnanam) is not the monopoly of one caste, and it can be achieved by anyone of any caste. If this is not an axe to the power of Brahmin priesthood , what else is this?.
Without understanding the power and ability of the Swami or the objective and meaning of his action, some Ezhava chieftains had tried to dissuade him from this, by telling him that only Brahmins were allowed to install the idol of Lord Siva. But, one Brahmin who had understood all these, simply asked him “ Does anyone other than the Brahmin have the right to install Lord Siva. The Swami, who had silenced the protests of the Ezhava chieftains by his will power, put an end to the Brahmin’s doubt by the smart retort, “ What I have Installed is only an Ezhava Siva” .
Once it is well convinced that no one has the authority over another, the next step is to make that person stand on his own feet. Before we start analyzing how the Swami trained the Avarnas to be self – dependent and generated courage and self-respect in them, it is better to learn about certain experiences of the people, which added intensity to their respect , devotion and faith in him.