Bodhānanda Swamikal

—Sree Narayana Guru’s ultimate paradigm of a maharshi

By Sujit Sivanand

Bhakti / Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati Sree Narayana Guru

Bodhānanda Swamikal (b:1883 - d:1928) was a respected sage who was inducted into the lineage of Sree Narayana Guru’s disciples. As the most creditable disciple and chosen spiritual successor to Narayana Guru, sage Bodhānanda did not however live long enough to inherit the great legacy and mantle bestowed upon him by Narayana Guru; as the mortal life of Bodhānanda Swamikal came to an untimely and abrupt end only three days after the ‘Maha-samadhi’ (merging with the Absolute) of his mid-life mentor Narayana Guru.

Sree Narayana Guru

"Until the readings and research for this article in 2007, it had often puzzled this author as to why the ever-intuitive Narayana Guru did not have the premonition of Bodhananda's imminent Maha-samadhi and bare existence as a successor. However, the enigma around that question has been laid open after a better understanding of the remarkable and steadfast life of Bodhananda Swamikal. He was indeed Narayana Guru's ultimate paradigm of a maharshi.

Nonetheless by this daring example of succession, Narayana Guru was telling the world that 'time' is only relative, be it 3 days or 30 years; recognition as an unblemished role-model is what triumphs in the rishis' domain."

Sree Narayana Guru

Early life

Bodhānanda Swamikal was born in 1883 (Malayalam calendar - Kollavarsham 1058, Makaram 10th under the ‘Punartham’ star) in his family’s ancestral home, Ezhuvanparampil, in Chirakkal village on the banks of Karuvannur River, in the erstwhile Kochi State of present-day Kerala. His childhood name was Velāyudhan and was also dotingly called Velukutty, until much later in life when he was conferred the name Bodhānandagiri on being ordained a sanyasi. His father’s name was Ekoaran and mother’s name was Cheroannu.

At the age of six Velāyudhan was inducted into the traditional learning curriculum under a village schoolmaster. Thenceforth he was educated in the customary texts such as ‘Amarakośam’ (Sanskrit lexicon) and subjects such as ‘Neethisaaram’ (civic laws), mathematics and poetry. After a few years into his astute performance at school, however, under pressure from his father to assist in managing the family’s farmlands, Velāyudhan was forced to discontinue studies and attend to the family’s landed holdings. Despite the assigned responsibilities, Velāyudhan wasn't able to focus on the family’s affairs or agriculture, as his mind was set on reading books with a focus on acquiring spiritual knowledge. He was often observed deeply indulging in hymns that he learnt on his own.

In the hope that Velāyudhan would duly shoulder family responsibilities, against his will and ignoring resistance, his family pressured him into marrying at the very young age of sixteen. His wife was Kothamma of the Madampikkattil family of Trichur. As the first two years of their married life went by without any detachment, they had a son by name Kesavan.

Sree Narayana Guru

Start of an ascetic life

Not too long into the young Velāyudhan’s married life, an intensifying inner spiritual inclination led to distance himself from the family and all worldly comforts; he became more and more inclined towards a life of renunciation. Torn between the shadow of family ties and his brightening urge for a spiritual path to fulfilling his life’s mission, Velāyudhan left home moving on as a wandering ascetic to the northern parts of India. There are emotionally moving stories from those days, like an incident when the mendicant Velāyudhan was refused alms at a rich household. Velāyudhan walked away with his empty begging bowl but sat on the wayside for hours on, extending to days and on a path to starving himself unto death. His weakening health condition became the talk of the village. Those that had refused him alms, now realizing his genuineness as a needy mendicant then came forth and offered him food, quite regretful of their own heartless behaviour. Velāyudhan’s journeys as a mendicant over the years took him to places like Vārāṇasī, Rishikesh, Badrinath and Haridwar, the traditional spiritual trail of the seekers of truth in India. These years of his life were spent under austere and impoverished conditions and mostly moving from place to place on foot.

Sree Narayana Guru

Ordainment, sanyas and learning

On one such journey, to a convention in Ujjain, the mendicant Velāyudhan became an acquaintance of Shri Iswarananda Mandaleshwar, the 'madathipathi' (monastic head) of the Uttarāmnāya matha, or northern monastery at Joshimath, in Uttarakhand, India, one of the four cardinal pīthas established by philosopher and saint Adi Sankara.

Over the days of their stay in Ujjain and as Velāyudhan acquaintance with Shri Iswarananda grew into appreciation and trust of the young mendicant’s potential, Shri Iswarananda accepted Velāyudhan as a disciple and ordained him into sanyas, conferring him the spiritual name ‘Bodhānandagiri’.

Bodhānanda spent over two years widely travelling with his guru Shri Iswarananda Mandaleshwar, and during this period he engaged in learning Sanskrit grammar, literature, rhetoric and the Upanishads.

During his long journey of renunciation and spiritual quest, Bodhānanda used to go back for short visits to Chirakkal, his hometown in Kochi State. Though remaining a recluse and without much social interventions in Kochi, he returned each time to the Northern spiritual centres for a few more years of leading the lifestyle of a wandering sanyasi in search of truth through the process of observation, experiences, contemplation and self-realization.

Sree Narayana Guru

Revolt against social evils

On the occasion of his final homecoming to his native place, Chirakkal, the village folk are said to have seen a totally transformed and illuminated Bodhānanda Swamikal, who soon began interaction with the local population, often playing the role of a spiritual advisor, soothsayer and social change agent.

Having gained a wealth of experience and exposure to various cultures and social practices, Bodhānanda Swamikal was moved and disturbed by the social practices that prevailed in the erstwhile states of present-day Kerala. The practices of untouchability, inapproachability (punishable by beating), segregation and communal discrimination in a feudalistic caste-Hindu dominated social order now prompted Bodhānanda into social interventions. He began to organise a movement against these appalling social practices. For instance, he encouraged the Parayas to dine as equals with the Ezhavas. He encouraged all communities to socially interact and mingle with one another disregarding social stigmas that had divided society and corrupted social attitudes over centuries. He ‘launched several agitations against the monstrosities of caste and untouchability and he was joined by right thinking men belonging to the Nair community’.[1]

Pained by the atrocious social practices of beating and lynching of the Ezhavas and other non-caste communities in the name of enforcing caste-related social practices, Bodhānanda Swamikal made his first organisational move. He established a righteousness-seeking militant group and named it the 'Dharma Bhadta Sangam' (ധര്മ്മ ഭട സംഘം - meaning the righteousness militia). This organisation was a self defence brotherhood of dedicated, trained and armed volunteer scouts under a confidential oath not to carry out any offensive move unless first attacked. The scouts of this brotherhood took initiatives to challenge those who removed Ezhavas and other oppressed communities from public places or physically abused them in the name of the then prevailing untouchability or unapproachability.

At this moment in social history, Ezhavas in the Kochi and Trichur area had started to follow certain changes in social practices in line with Narayana Guru’s reform initiatives. For instance, when there was a death in any family, the traditional practice was to observe sixteen days of mourning and rituals aimed at purification from the presumed ‘pollution from death’—perhaps practices that have their origin in deaths from contagious diseases or epidemics. The extended post-death rituals, under normal circumstances, often led to unbearable financial burden on the poorer Ezhava families, and to remedy this, Narayana Guru recommended reducing the period from sixteen to just ten days of rituals; also ten days being the period of rituals that the Brahmins traditionally followed when death occured in any Brahmin family.

In the village of Thanissery, near Trichur, after an elder member in a prominent Ezhava family had died, the family decided to end the post-death rituals on the tenth day and conduct a usual gathering of relatives, on the eleventh day, for the closing ceremonial feast (‘Adiyanthiram’) as also advised by Bodhānanda Swamikal. While preparation for the feast was underway, the Brahmins and their Nair supporters in the neighbourhood were irked, realising that Ezhavas had shortened their rituals to a ten-day period. They began preparations to physically obstruct the event and attack the Ezhava family of the departed one. Sensing trouble, although the family sought the intervention of a magistrate, the situation worsened into a communal clash later known as the Thanissery Lahala (uprising). Although Bodhānanda and his dharma-bhata scouts, along with several prominent Ezhava social activists, had set out to Thaniserry with strict intentions only to protect the family, they unintentionally became involved in the altercation as part of the resistance to protect the family. Bodhānanda and his scouts ensured protection for the family and helped them conduct the closing ceremonial feast as originally planned for the eleventh day.

Bodhānanda’s radical actions however did not go unnoticed. The Thaniserry uprising brought Bodhānanda to the forefront of a wider resistance movement against casteism and caste-based discrimination. His scout movement soon gained popularity, on the one front, with a growing number of followers joining him in the Kochi and Malabar states, many of whom he readily ordained as sanyasis (monks), although without the traditionally required spiritual training to be ordained as monks. Whilst on another front, his actions also triggered fear and wrath of the traditionalists.

Sree Narayana Guru

Same goal, but on conflicting paths

Bodhānanda Swamikal was engaged in social reform initiatives against class and caste discrimination primarily in Kochi and the Malabar states in the north, when, at the same time, the more senior Narayana Guru was at the peak of his spiritual and social reform campaign, principally in the southern Travancore State.

Although the two great spiritual seers were headed towards their common goal of demolishing the fences that divided society and discriminated against the weaker sections, their paths were bound to cross and clash. Bodhānanda Swamikal professed against idolatry and encouraged the boycott of Hindu temples, whilst Narayana Guru was actively engaged in the building of new temples and encouraging the underprivileged sections of society to worship Hindu idols, thus upholding their basic right to spiritual freedom. Observers sympathetic to both these great men could foresee an impending conflict that lay in their paths to the same goal; and they feared that the good intent and efforts of both these social change agents would be watered-down by their opposing approaches to achieving the same end.

Sree Narayana Guru

Encounter with Narayana Guru

It was at this juncture that in February 1908 Narayana Guru’s entourage was camping at Thalassery to consecrate the idol at Jaggannātha Temple. Bodhānanda Swamikal decided to go to the venue at Thalassery where, as usual, he was drawn into addressing a group of young people who had gathered around him. His discussions were on the lines of discouraging them from idol worship and against building of new temples, which could potentially foster superstitious beliefs. Under persuasion from well-wishers who feared a confrontation, Bodhānanda Swamikal agreed to meet Narayana Guru face to face to engage in discussion.

At their first meeting, after Bodhānanda paid his due respects to Narayana Guru, his initial attempt to engage in discussion with the Guru turned out to be an intimidating experience for Bodhānanda. Although Narayana Guru closely observed Bodhānanda, he maintained a long spell of utter silence all through the encounter. Narayana Guru’s indifference towards Bodhānanda stemmed from the Guru’s awareness of Bodhānanda’s activities, in particular his building of an improperly ordained sanyasi organisation for the purpose of resistance.

After a long wait in front of the Guru and unable to evoke any response from the Guru, the younger seer staggered and humbly took leave for the day. The disheartened Bodhānanda remained in the temple premises until dusk and still unsure of why Narayana Guru had ignored him. Later at night, however, Narayana Guru cheerfully befriended Bodhānanda and advised him against injudiciously ordaining new sanyasis without time-tested credentials. The Guru’s wisdom and warmth instantly awestruck and transformed Bodhānanda Swamikal. He humbly fell at the feet of the Guru and submitted himself to this new Guru.

Sree Narayana Guru

On a new path to his life’s mission

The meeting with Narayana Guru was a turning point in the life and destiny of Bodhānanda Swamikal. From that point onwards he began sharing the vision of pursuing the path of upholding the fundamental right to spiritual freedom as a means to achieving social reform. Bodhānanda Swamikal fully aligned his life’s mission to the Sree Narayana movement. The outspokenness and rationale often demonstrated by Bodhānanda Swamikal differentiated him from others in the mission and won him the attention and appreciation of Narayana Guru. Circa 1911, shortly after Bodhānanda Swamikal participated in the ceremonies around the consecration of the Sharada idol at Sivagiri, Narayana Guru formally invited him to become a disciple. Bodhānanda humbly accepted.

Bodhananda Swamikal / Sree Narayana Lokam

Over the next two decades, working closely with his peer group of disciples of Narayana Guru, and in support of their shared vision, Bodhānanda Swamikal was involved in the consecration of various temples under guidance from Narayana Guru (picture inset shows Bodhānanda Swamikal on the left with Narayana Guru in Trichur circa 1920).

He was also actively involved in various social and spiritual reform initiatives as follows:

● Encouraging Ezhavas to freely allow Pulayas and other socially backward communities to worship at temples owned and operated by the Ezhava community.

● Fundraising drive for establishment of the Advaita Ashram at Alwaye.

● Establishment of an Advaita Ashram at Trichur around 1912. He was involved in offering free treatment to patients. For this he employed his skill in traditional medicine acquired during his early ascetic days.

● Establishment of an organisation called Sree Narayana Bhaktha Paripalana Yogam (forum for the propagation of Sree Narayana devotion) in Trichur.

● Establishment of the Cochin National Bank at Trichur for raising capital and encouraging entrepreneurship among the Ezhavas of the erstwhile Kochi State.

● Establishment of the Kochi Ezhava Samajam circa 1914 (which was later merged into the SNDP Yogam).

● Travel to Colombo in 1918 as a prelude to Narayana Guru’s first visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Bodhānanda Swamikal presided over the grand convention arranged by the devotees in Ceylon on the occasion of Narayana Guru’s visit. He also visited Colombo on later occasions for fundraising in support of the social causes back in Kochi State.

Sree Narayana Guru

Move to the Nilgiris

While Bodhānanda Swamikal extended his unequivocal loyalty towards Narayana Guru, his life in the Ashram at Sivagiri and his relationship with other organised groups was not often a smooth sail. The rough edges that he came across was often a matter of personal stress. Some of the intolerance he encountered was presumably due his forthright approach and the short span of his rise as a trusted lieutenant of the Guru. In such situations it was not uncommon for Bodhānanda to take short breaks from Sivagiri.

Circa 1921 Bodhānanda Swamikal moved to live in the Nilgiri Hills. He initially set up a small hermitage in Ottupetty as his basic living facility. Through his interactions with the local community he slowly developed a following that assembled at his hermitage for prayers and sometimes in illness seeking his skills as a siddha medical practitioner. In the Nilgiris Bodhānanda established a school named Sree Narayana Gurukulam, bringing many of the first students, boys from known families of his native Trichur area of Kochi.

During Bodhānanda’s years in the Nilgiris, Narayana Guru used to take breaks to visit Nilgiris and spend time in the company of his confidant and disciple. While Narayana Guru accepted Bodhānanda’s long leave of absence from the Ashram at Sivagiri, Bodhānanda was often forewarned by the Guru that the time would come when Bodhānanda would be summoned back to take over responsibility at Sivagiri. Such a point of need arose in 1925 and the Guru sent word for Bodhānanda to return.

Sree Narayana Guru

The reluctant heir apparent

On September 26th, 1925, (Malayalam calendar – Kollavarsham 1101, Kanni 11th) the aging Narayana Guru formally honoured his chief disciple Bodhānanda Swamikal by nominating him as his successor and legal heir. The auspicious day of announcing his succession was celebrated as a momentous event at Sivagiri. A social historian observes that this nomination was the result of Sree Narayana Guru ‘realising his resilience, moral rectitude, unfailing equanimity and infinite compassion, exceptional organising abilities and spiritual attainments’.[2]

In the same year Narayana Guru executed his will and testament bequeathing all freehold properties including temples, ashrams and missionary, educational and industrial establishments to his heir Bodhānanda Swamikal. Interestingly, the will further stated that after the lifetime of Bodhānanda Swamikal these establishments would be inherited by Narayana Guru’s lineage of sanyasis represented by one sanyasi who is elected through a democratic process.

‘When he was selected as successor, Bodhānanda prophesied that he would not survive the Guru by many days, but the Guru reassured him that he would by then prove himself to be a unique model for his brethren’.[3]

Sree Narayana Guru

Renewed Vision for the SNDP Yogam

The earliest registered social organisation to be created in Travancore was the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (‘SNDP Yogam’) named after Sree Narayana Guru. The SNDP Yogam emanated from different campaigns for social equality and justice led by socially underprivileged groups as they converged and culminated in its formal creation as one unified Yogam (council) in 1903. The SNDP Yogam itself, as an operating entity, was the transformation of an already existing organisation, the Aruvippuram Kshetra Yogam, primarily run by the sanyasi disciples of Narayana Guru who were responsible for the affairs of the Aruvippuram Temple, which was setup by the Guru in 1888. The aforesaid events had taken place long before Bodhānanda Swamikal had met Narayana Guru or became the Guru’s disciple.

The SNDP Yogam was originally intended to be an open social organisation where membership and participation in management would be open to all, irrespective of religion, caste or ethnicity. However, a few years into its operations, the Yogam drifted towards becoming a predominantly Ezhava organisation steered away by influential members of the Ezhava community. The Yogam’s purposeful existence was not equally of a beneficial interest to other communities, like the Nairs, Brahmins, Pulayas and others, each of which started to form their own community organisations modelled on the SNDP Yogam. The shift in the Yogam’s direction was also its drift away from Narayana Guru and his close circle of sanyasi disciples. At one point, in May 1916, Narayana Guru formally wrote to the Yogam notifying his resignation from any involvement with the Yogam due to the Yogam’s growing ‘caste-pride’. Narayana Guru stood steadfastly on his conviction that caste was an evil to be destroyed to bring about social equality and the integration of society for the progress of mankind.

After Bodhānanda Swamikal’s formal appointment as Narayana Guru’s spiritual successor in 1925, Bodhānanda took the task on himself and made a bold attempt to bridge the distance between Narayana Guru and the SNDP Yogam. Bodhānanda was sensible enough not to underestimate the potential of the SNDP Yogam, a grassroots organisation, as capable of being transformed back as an organisation open to all communities and capable of standing true to its stated motto — One caste, One religion, One God, for all of mankind. After a long period of distancing himself from the SNDP Yogam, the Guru was persuaded by Bodhānanda to participate in the 23rd annual convention of the Yogam held on 9 May 1926. Bodhānanda and Narayana Guru attended the Yogam convention after they had, between the two of them, done extensive homework developing a revised vision for the SNDP Yogam. In Bodhānanda’s keynote address at the convention he detailed a conceptual operating ‘model-village’ for the Yogam whereby, accepting that it had become an Ezhava organisation, the organisation would gradually open-up and build its membership to include other communities in a phased manner. Bodhānanda’s speech further elaborated what the Guru truly meant by ‘one caste’ and ‘one religion’ and he laid open a practically viable implementation plan for re-aligning the operations of the SNDP Yogam with the Guru’s vision for society.

In hindsight, though the operating model proposed by Bodhānanda and Narayana Guru to SNDP Yogam in 1926 would have fallen on deaf ears at the Yogam convention, the model itself, if one studies it, demonstrates that Bodhānanda was one with remarkable visionary qualities and one that possessed a mind capable of bridging divisions for the betterment of society.

Sree Narayana Guru

Formation of Dharma Sangham

Bodhānanda Swamikal’s depth of spiritual knowledge, experiences, and above all his good natured personality apparently won him the trust and support of many spiritual men and social reform stalwarts who worked alongside Narayana Guru. He is said to have possessed good organizational skills and was also a fine poet and orator. So also, Bodhānanda’s devotion to Narayana Guru was unsurpassed to win himself a high pedestal among the disciples of Narayana Guru.

In the realization of Narayana Guru’s long-time vision of creating an independent organisation for the sanyasis, the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham was formed under the leadership of Bodhānanda Swamikal, who was first signatory to the formation agreement signed on 9th January, 1928. Narayana Guru ‘nominated Natarāja Guru to be the adviser of the Dharma Sangham’.[4]

Sree Narayana Guru

The twosome merge with the Absolute

For most of the last year of his life Narayana Guru was unwell and under treatment by the best of both allopathic and ayurvedic physicians. Equally imperative was the incessant attention and nursing provided by his devoted disciples under the leadership of Bodhānanda Swamikal. Moving along with Narayana Guru from Sivagiri, to Palakkad, to Madras and back, while spending long and late hours of those months by his Guru’s bedside, Bodhānanda Swamikal had himself turned weak and ill.

Weeks before Narayana Guru’s Maha-samadhi (on 20th September, 1928) Bodhānanda Swamikal had taken seriously ill and was hospitalised on account of fatigue and blisters on his thigh. He moved to Sivagiri before the Guru’s Maha-samadhi but was bedridden due to continuing illness and fatigue. Bodhānanda took the sad news of Narayana Guru’s passing while still in bed. The Maha-samadhi of his Guru further failed Bodhānanda’s recovery, as both his body and mind were apparently let to sink.

Having taken leave of his fellow sannyasins, the noble Bodhānanda secluded himself in a closed chamber in preparation of his own Maha-samadhi. During the early hours of 24th September, 1928, Bodhānanda Swamikal also peacefully merged with the Absolute.

By Sujit Sivanand
3 March 2008

Note: Contact the author through email to Sujit Sivanand (

Sree Narayana Guru

References and acknowledgements

● ‘Sree Bodhānanda Swamikal’ – Biographical book in Malayalam by Komathukāttil R. Bhaskaran – 1936.

● ‘A Social History of India’ by Dr. S. N. Sadasivan – 2000.

● Sree Narayana Guru’s legal will and testament – 1926.

● ‘Gurucharanangalil’ by C. R. Kesavan Vaidyar – 1984.

● ‘Philosophy of Sree Narayana Guru’ by Dr. S. Omana - 1984.

● This author’s interviews with Mrs. Chintha Ramachandran and Dr. Ramachandran Kannoly (members of Bodhānanda Swamikal’s larger family) – 2007 and 2008.

● This author’s interviews with Dr. Surendran Moothedath (member of Bodhānanda Swamikal’s larger family) – 2006 and 2007.

[1] S. N. Sadasivan, p. 579.

[2] S. N. Sadasivan, p. 579.

[3] S. N. Sadasivan, p. 579.

[4] S. Omana, p. 39 quoting Moorkoth Kumaran.

Sree Narayana Guru