THE LIFE AND VALUES OF JOHN SPIERS

By Sri. P. R. Sreekumar, Kochi, Kerala.

Swami John Spiers / P R Sreekumar

About the Author: Sri. P. R. Sreekumar

P R Sreekumar / Swami John Spiers

Sri. P. R. Sreekumar is a long time associate of the Narayana Gurukula movement, spending several years in the service of Guru Nitya assisting with the creation of Malayalam books and articles. He is the editor of GURUDEVAN monthly in Malayalam. He worked at the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies in Kochi and lives in Kochi, India. His prime interest is in the wisdom teachings of Guru Narayana and study of the notable people who came in contact with the Great Sage.

Sreekumar is also one of the knowledge collaborators of Narayana Philosophy Society (NPHIL), Canada. This exceptional article is an abstract from the NPHIL Lecture Module - 'The Life and Values of John Spiers'. Copyright - ŠNPHIL 2014. The author can be contacted through email-id: appukkily@gmail.com

Sree Narayana Guru

The Life and Values of John Spiers


Swami John Spiers (1907-1979) was a Scotsman attracted to the life and teachings of Narayana Guru. Although the young John Spiers arrived in India in 1930, two years after the Mahasamadhi (passing away) of Narayana Guru, it was John's chance meeting with P. Natarajan1 (Nataraja Guru) in 1936 that attracted John to the Narayana Gurukula Movement and changed the course of his life. Destiny had it that John would live unto death in India for the cause of two gurus - to assist Nataraja Guru to accomplish the Gurukula Movement, and in unconditional dedication to disseminate Narayana Guru's values for the rest of his life.

John was born into a Calvinist family in Perth, Scotland in 1907. Having heard much about India from his father's accounts as a soldier on assignment in British India, since his childhood John developed an urge for knowledge about the sub-continent and its ancient civilization. Into his early teens, he was deep into reading about Middle Eastern civilizations and Indian wisdom literature and poetry. As the Theosophical Society had its interest focused on India, John joined the local branch of the Society in his hometown, Perth, and gained some of their insights on India. At the age of 23 he moved to India, with enthusiasm to join India's freedom movement, but he came under the watchful eye of the British intelligence agency in India. It appears that, in all the excitement of having arrived in the land of his dreams, John cared less for the surveillance on his movements. Though India was unbearably warm, as John recollects in his memoirs, 'it was fully compensated for by the riotous colour of flamboyant flowers - pink cassias and the brilliant red of the gulmohurs.' In his essay What India Means to Me, John best explains his euphoria for India as follows:

'Many great lovers of India have never visited this land - great Sanskrit scholars like Max Mueller, poets like Goethe, philosophers like Emerson and Schopenhauer. I would boldly say that some of them seemed to know more about India, the spirit of the land, with their insight and adoption, than many Indians seem to do. I agree with Max Mueller. In its eternal perennial aspect, India is not a geographical region in space. It is a state of mind. What is this state of mind, this mental climate which is conjured up at least overseas when the name India is spoken in the world? It is the aspect of the wonderful, the awe-inspiring, the 'ascharya' that you find in the fourth Kanda of the Kena Upanishad as well as in the Gita (ii. 2), where it refers to the Absolute and to absolutist teaching:

'As wonder one person This (Absolute) sees;
And also a Wonder another one speaks;
Of this as a Wonder another one hears;
Yet even though hearing none knows this at all!'


This transporting 'bhava' or mood or state of mind is the same as what Rudolf Otto described many years ago in his book Das Heilige as the numinous. It is the transcendental mood, the sense of the contemplative, of that deep realm of understanding which needs nothing of the external world. And that, to me is why India both as a land and as an evocative image has lived on, no matter under what external conditions she has endured, slavery or freedom in the outside sense.

And there is truth here, for all the ancient civilizations have toppled and only their ruins exist, but somehow India persists. The secret here lies in Indian Ideals.'

After reaching India, in the initial years, John Spiers seemed to have met with senior members of the Congress and many famous Indians, although little is known about his adventures and engagements. His early days in India were in the service of the Theosophical Society, besides which he definitely wandered in the mountainous area of Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet meeting unconventional and contemplative people. He loved the mountains and was an artist too. In 1936, for the first time, he met P. Natarajan at a party hosted by a Theosophist couple Earnest and Hilda Wood, in the town of Ooty set in the mountains of Nilgiris, South India. John was attracted to the guru in Natarajan, but their initial encounters were more about testing the waters of entering each other's private spaces and their compatibility for a guru-disciple relationship. Because of John's pro-independence views about India and his anti-colonist attitude, although a British subject, he declined to serve in the British army during the World War, and instead he took up rehabilitation work of war refugees in the South Indian city of Bangalore, which led to him become the editor of a journal War News.

Over the years of their acquaintance, a sort of mutual adoration gradually developed between John and Dr. P. Natarajan. In 1946, Natarajan welcomed John to Narayana Gurukula at Fernhill, Nilgiris and in two years of working together their acquaintance blossomed into a Guru-Sishya relationship. It seems John Spiers was the one who first started referring to Dr. P. Natarajan as 'Nataraja Guru', a name that he was known by from then onwards.
John Spiers / Guru Narayana Lokam
John Spiers / Sree Narayana Lokam


During this period Natarajan was finalising the draft of his book The Word of the Guru2, which later turned out to be the earliest first-hand account and scholarly English language material for the study of the life and teachings of Narayana Guru. The first nine chapters of this book were written by Natarajan in 1928 as essays under the title 'The Way of the Guru' and it appeared in The Sufi Quarterly in Geneva. After many years of continuous study and contemplation, Natarajan had elaborated his essays into the book, to serve as an essential source not only for the future students of Narayana Guru and his teachings, but also for the study of the spiritual tradition of India. Natarajan had almost finished the manuscript of this and entrusted John with the final editing and publishing tasks. The author remarks about John,'With utmost dedication and hard efforts, in his own words as a critic and literary finisher, he turned this manuscript into the present volume.' Further, Nataraja Guru notes in the preface of the book about John as follows:

'In April 1951 I arrived back in India and reached the Gurukula at Fernhill, Nilgiris Hills in May. My friend and colleague John Spiers, with whom I had already established intellectual and, if I may say so, spiritual contact, for nearly five years, and who even substituted and deputised for me at the Gurukula there in my absence, was sufficiently interested and strangely well qualified to look through the manuscripts I had brought back. Much editorial revision, additions, including many footnotes, and ordering to make the meanings more explicit are to be attributed to the labours of this friend who comes from that same part of the world from which originated John the Scot in the ninth century and whom I consider as much as God-send in the context of the 'Word of the Guru'. I have largely relied on him for all work requiring editorial sagacity and a sense of the public mind, from the stage of typing out the manuscripts in their final form to that of seeing them safely through the press.'

John Spiers himself wrote the foreword for the book. The foreword evidences the esteem and appreciation for Nataraja Guru, as his own guru, and also in John's words, "Dr. Natarajan is one of the rare living authorities on Advaita Vedanta, which is the science and heart of the wisdom tradition of India. He has devoted his life to this subject. He is a philosopher who lives his philosophy, but not a 'Professor' of Philosophy. He is too sincere to make good on a platform or to cut a charming figure in society. He himself is a Guru".

Leading on from the work on their first book together, this guru and disciple team continued their life of contemplation, with the most modest physical facilities available to them, but their teamwork brought out many valuable interpretations and translations (of Narayana Guru's original works) from Nataraja Guru like An Integrated Science of the Absolute and One hundred Verses of Self Instruction, and also commentaries on the ancient Indian wisdom text, the Bhagavad Gita. John and Nataraja Guru moved across various places and circumstances with all the required reference books, working their way through their journeys. John often took the dictation of the Guru and later made the typescripts, which after much arguments and efforts turned out to their final products, the books. With the zest of a real wisdom seeker, John often provoked his Guru and tapped out of him the core of all the topics they were dealing. The relationship where John acted as the catalyst for his Guru's output resulted in the extraordinary quality and the uniqueness of each of these works. John was also instrumental in establishing the Narayana Gurukula as a sound knowledge-based organisation and making others understand Narayana Guru as a Guru of Mankind, says John's longtime associate and friend Poothatt Narayanan.

In 1952, Nataraja Guru initiated John into the ascetic way of life and thereafter he was known as Swami John Spiers. Thenceforth, John's attire was the ochre dhothi, jubba and loin cloth like any Indian sanyassin, while in his personal life he maintained a blend of virtues of both the East and the West in a befitting manner.
John Spiers / Guru Narayana Lokam
John Spiers / Sree Narayana Lokam
In 1955, as a sounding organ of Narayana Gurukula, under his editorship John started publishing the monthly journal Values, which became a unique collection and method of dissemination of essays. In his own words 'Values is the voice of unitive wisdom for all humanity.' In the very first issue of Values Nataraja Guru wrote:

'Wisdom is the highest of human values. The Absolute, whose mystery it is that Wisdom will unravel, is not a thing, an entity or even a mere reality. Neither by logical reasoning nor mere philosophical speculation, however systematic, methodical, or correct, can that be reach. If the Absolute is not conceived as a human value, it would remain a mere abstraction. It could never quench the eternal thirst for knowledge abiding at the core of human nature.'

How John's journal was both the cause and effect of the heydays of intellectual activity at Narayana Gurukula is evidenced by Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati's later observations about John as follows:

'John Spiers started publishing Values to provide the Gurukula with an official outlet, and at the same time he used it as a ploy to induce Nataraja Guru to write an article for each issue, month after month. The Guru's habit of writing for Values continued even after the magazine became extinct in the year 1971. All his major books, except 'The Word of the Guru' and 'The Integrated Science of the Absolute', came in the form of articles in Values. Although he was writing with the intention of giving the Gurukula students a systematized series of lesson covering every aspect of Eastern and Western philosophy, he was rather reluctant to write about himself. Nataraja Guru was very assertive and even vehement in expressing his candid opinions with the intention of weaning off Wisdom from the sloppy or shady overgrowth of relativism with which many scholars, Eastern and Western, were distorting the teachings of true Masters, but he never thought of putting his own intimate thoughts in black and white. Seeing this subdued withdrawal from the public gaze, John Spiers made another ploy. First, he pleaded with the Guru to write his autobiography. When Nataraja Guru saw John's seriousness in wanting to write his biography, he (the Guru) decided to do it himself. He did not want his inner life to be guessed by another person. So the Guru started to write his autobiography to be serialised in the Values.'
Daivadasakam / Guru Narayana Lokam
Daivadasakam / Sree Narayana Lokam


Although Nataraja Guru had established a lineage of successors (called parampara in India) for the Narayana Gurukula Movement, in April 1971 John Spiers resigned from the Gurukula parampara and started leading a solitary life at Kaggalipura, near Bangalore and publishing Values till June 1974. At the time John resigned from the Gurukula Movement, his editorial in the April 1971 issue of Values said that his growing differences of opinion with Nataraja Guru have made it impossible for him in fairness to his Guru and others to continue his association with the Movement, but at the same he reiterated his continuing commitment to the Narayana Guru legacy as follows:

"My love and reverence for Narayana Guru and his global wisdom as a Jagat-Guru must be beyond question after a quarter of a century of dedicated service.
My loyalty and loyalty to Guruhood itself wherever represented by Nataraja Guru also remains at the vertical level."

Nataraja Guru in his new year message dtd 1st January 1972 commented about John's decision to disaffiliate from the Gurukula as follows:

"In respect of the wish of John Spiers to disaffiliate himself from the Gurukula movement, as clearly expressed with reasons in 'Values' of April 1971, and by letter to the Guru, leaves no more choice than for the Guru to say Amen or Aum to it. To regularize the revised relationship in the succession, the correct legal form has been attended to by a codicil modifying the Will of the present Guru, registered at Varkala on 24th February 1959."

John Spiers has authored some of the finest essays on Narayana Guru in the English language. His earlier essay A Warrior Rishi first published in 1947, (which he himself revised in 1954) and the later The Unconditioned Man - Thoughts on Narayana Guru are remarkable outpourings of precise judgments of both Guruhood and the perennial wisdom that flowed from Narayana Guru. Through these essays, John illuminates the different views that people take of Narayana Guru, ranging from the commonplace secular but narrow image of the Narayana Guru merely as a social reformer who liberated millions of outcasts in Kerala from the brutality of Brahmin theocracy; to the other extreme counterpart view of Narayana Guru as a godlet or religious dummy or puppet to conform with the requirements of other idols, with a number of ugly pictures and statues that are worshiped in Hindu style. John then puts forth the third approach or the correct method of appraisal in his view, of Narayana Guru as Guru and Absolutist. This he says is to have an image which is timeless, "What he did and what he said and what he wrote is as valid today as it would have been if done a thousand years ago or as far as you like to go into the future."

In Kaggalipura, John had an ashram almost made by himself where he had a large collection of fine books on a myriad of subjects ranging from philosophy, to science, to astrology, to art. His interest in art was illustrated through his own sketches on many of the cover pages of the journal he published. It is said that he took interest in, and also practiced, astrology during last years of his life. His last days were rather pathetic from an outsider's point of view, but to him his mortal life was that of a true ascetic, never affected by poverty or discomfort, living a meager existence, with less than a square meal a day. That's the way he wished to live, without regret, without self-pity, by living in the Absolute. He died on September 19, 1979 after a short period of illness. Much in line with Narayana Guru's old saying that, 'once dead, the human remains is best ground in the mill and scattered as manure for the coconut trees'; John's wish was that his body be cremated and the ashes be laid around trees of his ashram. Thus was his moral end.

After his death, some of his articles from the Values, some of them revised by the author himself, were collected and published in a small volume The Guru by Swami Sakthidhara (Fred Hass), his friend and disciple. Later Academy of Comparative Philosophy & Religion, Belgaum published Glimpses of Philosophy and Mysticism which include few other essays of Swami John Spiers. In the 1990s his friend Poothatt Narayanan, compiled and published some of his essays in two small volumes namely What Shall I Read and Guru The Unknown. None of these books are now available in print. His other works are short yet very authentic essays titled What India means to me, and What Europe means to me, an incomplete autobiography World of Memory which appeared in the last few issues of Values and the unpublished Pagan Europe.

Even in this age when lot of efforts are taken by enthusiasts to propagate the life and teachings of Narayana Guru and his disciples, by various means, the life and contributions of this true sanyassin Swami John Spiers is seldom remembered by anybody in these public forums.

Sree Narayana Guru

1 Dr. P. Natarajan (1895 - 1973) was Narayana Guru's direct disciple, later known as Nataraja Guru. He had studied under Henri Bergson at Sorbonne in Paris, where he took his Doctorate in Educational Psychology. He has translated into English and commented on all the major works of Narayana Guru and has also written widely on philosophy. Through these works he has revalued and restated Advaita Vedanta and introduced it as a new science for wisdom thought. In 1923 he founded Narayana Gurukula Foundation, a Guru-disciple foundation open to all who seek perennial wisdom.

2 The Word of the Guru by Nataraja Guru (with a foreword by John Spiers) is a full-dress biography of Narayana Guru, written in the light of the Guru's philosophy, with 100 pages dealing with comments on translation of the writings of the Guru.

Sree Narayana Guru

Abstract from the NPHIL Lecture Module - 'The Life and Values of John Spiers'. Copyright - ŠNPHIL 2014

Note: Please send your suggestions to: Sri.P.R.Sreekumar (appukkily@gmail.com)

Sree Narayana Guru
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