Narayana Guru

By Vinaya Chaitanya

Narayana Guru / Vinaya Chaitanya

About Vinaya Chaitanya

Vinaya Chaitanya / Narayana Gurukula

Vinaya Chaitanya was born in Muvattupuzha the place of the three rivers in the foothills of the Western Ghats, before the invasion of rubber plantations, in 1952. He met and was accepted as a disciple by Dr Nataraja Guru (1895 1973), disciple and successor of Narayana Guru, the philosopher-poet of Kerala. He studied under Nataraja Guru in the gurukula, a worldwide contemplative community open to all.

While serving his guru as head of the Narayana Gurukula Institute of Aesthetic Values in rural Bangalore for forty years, Vinaya was fortunate to learn Kannada from minstrels who introduced him to the vacana, kirtanas and tatva forms of mystical poetry. Vinaya has published books in Malayalam, Kannada and English. He now continues the wisdom-sharing tradition of the gurukula without institutional affiliation, treating the whole world as his gurukula (family of the guru). Vinaya Chaitanya can be contacted through email-id:

Sree Narayana Guru

Narayana Guru

Narayana Guru is famous for the unequivocal stress he laid on the Oneness of Humanity, and we all know of his motto of "One in Kind/Caste, One in Faith/Religion and One in God is Man; Of One womb, of One form, difference herein none." This is from Guru’s jati-mimamsa, A Critique of Caste. Just as Narayana Guru emerged from years of solitary wanderings and meditation in the caves of Southern Kerala, before any of his known philosophical/mystical writings were composed, the Guru wrote a pithy verse on the wall of his first temple, at Aruvippuram:

Devoid of dividing walls of caste or race,
Or hatred of rival faith,
We all live here in brotherhood,
Such know this place to be;
This model foundation.

So, the ideas of brotherhood and a life-together beyond the separatist faiths and castes, was already in the Guru’s vision and programme, and it is at the elaboration of this nucleic ideas in his later compositions.

It is unusual in the wisdom tradition of India, at least since the decadence of Buddhism, to consider questions of apparently social relevance like caste, religion etc. After the Upanishadic blossoming of advaita, Indian philosophy itself was weighed down by mere abstractions and hair-splitting logical exercises, totally lacking in warmth of heart or fellow-feeling. This neglect has led us to many of the evils which has been plaguing India for millennia, and has taken a very high toll of human life and dignity. To condone such evils that divide humanity against itself, in the name of philosophy/contemplation goes against all wisdom and common sense even. It was Thomas Huxley who said: “All Truth, in the long run, is only common sense clarified.” It is as a disciple of the guru tradition that I approach the teachings of Narayana Guru; and that this is demanded by the very fact that the Guru appended the word 'Guru' to his name, Narayanan. He signed his name as “Narayana Guru”, thus reclaiming the 'guruhood' of humanity for all, and this epitomizes his contribution to fellow humans. It is unfortunate that misplaced and mistaken devotion, having its roots in uncritical religious fervour, has dropped the all-important suffix from his name and choose to call him ‘Sri. Narayana’, without realizing the graveness of the error and the dishonour it implies.

It’s in the context of perennial philosophy or wisdom, in the context of humanity/universality that we look upon Gurus and treat them all as representatives of the highest values that the human mind is capable of envisioning, and aspiring after. That is why any Guru worth the name is a World-Teacher, jagad-guru, and must be seen as such, and the promiscuous appellation of the word jagadguru to parochial leaders of particular castes, tribes/religious groupings is highly incorrect, and confusing. The teachings of such world-teachers are applicable universally and goes beyond the limitations of closed and static groups, they are to be used to liberate ourselves from such confinements; in fact, they are the most precious common-heritage of humanity.

While the principle of the guru –the dispeller of darkness- has continued to survive in India, as evident from the Guru Narayana himself, it must also be clearly understood that this highest of human heritage is by no means limited to India; that everywhere, regardless of time or clime, wise women and men have preserved and passed on the perennial and universal solace of wisdom and the resulting certitude regarding life-Values. Though religions have grown around such guru-figures, it must also be understood that the principle of guruhood has nothing to do with institutional pomp; they have been the simplest of humans, those unknown many more than the ones known.

Narayana Guru in very recent times (1854-1928), delved deep into those very primal sources of human inspiration and sang his visions like all mystic-poets have always done, or rather his vision burst forth as poems, in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit. The Guru never wrote commentaries of the prasthanatraya as most of our previous Teachers had done, but went back to original models of the poet-seer rishis.

In the Guru’s vision, mysticism and scientific correctness support each other, and to him no aspects of human endeavour is too lowly or mean to gain from such wisdom which adorns the crown of insightful humans-vivekacudamani. And such vision of the oneness of the human kind also implies with it a sense of equality and the principles of justice that arise from it, just like the sun that brings not only light but warmth as well with it. Hence the Guru Narayana’s concern for the plight of the humankind, and his application of the wisdom of dialectics- taking both the sides of a situation together in order to bring them to a neutrality. It is this dialectics, which Plato calls the coping stone of wisdom, which has been known in India as Yoga, since time immemorial. Again, it must be remembered that when we talk of Yoga, we do not mean what has become popular as a set of bodily exercises, but the Science of Yoking together the two poles of any given situation. It is a kind of native sense/wisdom which helps people go about their lives calmly, each person adding his own Peace and happiness to the collective well-being of life. It is in this context that age-old maxims like “the Earth is but One family,” “May the whole world (all the worlds) be happy,” make any tangible meaning. -vasudhaiva kutumbakam; lokassamastah sukhino bhavantu-.

Affirming this inner vision of unity in ‘outer,’ sociological terms is the way to realize the equality, samatvam, which thus becomes a natural corollary of non-duality. A happy human being, self-sufficient and content is the highest norm that the Guru Narayana holds up, and lauds the ‘kindly one’, who:

For the sake of fellow-man, unceasing, day and night
Unstintingly strives the kindly man;
The niggard lying prone, what frustration’s toil undertakes,
That is for his own sake alone.

In other words, this unitive vision means self-realization and world-citizenship as the two sides, inner and outer. All efforts at social harmony and equality without a corresponding basis in this inner unity are bound to fail.

The Guru attempted radical changes in the way of life of the people around him, in all aspects of social as well as personal realms. He would go to the venues where extravagant weddings, child-marriages, superstitious rituals including cruel sacrifices of animals were taking place and intervene creatively, gently persuading people to give up such practices, revealing the unlimited liability he felt towards all fellow-beings, not just the humans. In fact, his poem Anukampa Daśakam (Scriptures of Mercy) starts with a prayer asking for “...such mercy that would not brook the least harm even to an ant.” And, the God addressed is the “Mercy-maker,” karuṇākara. Also, in this short poem of just ten verses, Guru shows that Kindliness, variously understood as Grace, Love or Mercy, is the central principle underlying all the various spiritual/religious traditions of the world, and praises the founders of them all as exemplars of this one high human Value, thus unifying them all, not just intellectually, more significantly, emotionally as well. Identifying “a heart empty of Love” as the source of all sorrow; Guru goes on to give a new mantra:

“He alone Lives who Loves.”

This poem is also significant in that it lists the sources of Guru’s own inspiration, and predecessors in this path of Kindliness. It also shows how all Gurus are to be seen in their perennial, universal setting; and not to mix up the historic/geographic limitations which are only incidental to the essential teachings of all of them: kindliness. Narayana Guru’s disciple, Thampi (Nataraja Guru), relates how once on seeing a mango tree laden and bending down with fruit, Narayana Guru was moved to tears, saying: “What kindness!”

Early on in his philosophical poem Atmpopadeśaśatakam- One-hundred verses of Self-Instruction Guru goes into the way of discreet conduct-nayam. There is no unilateral happiness and any pain, suffering, anywhere in the world becomes one’s own pain to the realized person, and in him/her the wisdom manifests as compassion, kindliness, love or grace. Whatever be the name used, it refers to the highest human Value that we are capable of envisioning and appreciating, and is our directly felt and verifiable experience of the transcendence and non-duality of life. This is the background in which we must look at the Guru’s teachings/writings. We started with the A Critique of Caste, jāti-mimāmsa, where the Guru clearly states that humanity belongs to one caste or kind, just as all cows belong to the caste of bovines. The statement that the religion and God or Goal of all humans is also One should be understood as necessary corollaries to the first, of One Caste. We are familiar with the three categories of sat, cit and ānanda in the context of appreciating the Absolute. While the first statement, about caste, belongs to the existential sat aspect, the oneness of religion belongs to the cit or subsistential and the third belongs to the ānanda or Value context. As Truth or philosophical verity cannot be erected on anything that is not true or factual, it becomes important for the philosopher to deny, reject any misconceptions /prejudices first. The Guru Narayana does this masterfully in his philosophical poem Ātmopadeśa śatakam, already referred to. From verse 44 onwards, the Guru goes into the diversity of religions which can cause confusion in the minds of people, when the mechanistic way is followed, and the rest of the verses up to 50, the exact middle of the composition, is devoted to clarifying and resolving this vital problem, which has drenched the earth with human blood through the centuries and have taken a very high toll of life and peace, and continues to do so, as evidenced by a glance at any newspaper, any day, anywhere in the world now. The verse reads:

Not seeing that the various religions in the world
Are essentially the same, advancing various arguments
Like the blind men and the elephant, roam not like fools,
But stop wandering, and calmly settle down.

The blind men who went to see the elephant and how they could not come to any agreement about the animal as none of them could have a clear enough or total enough view of the animal, is a well known fable. Each insisted on his own partial view. This makes perfect sense when we see how, though lacking full understanding of issues, religious or otherwise, we keep arguing, fighting to uphold our own view, forgetting that however right, it is still only partial. Applied to life in general, this kind of realization that no single point of view can contain the whole, makes us stop clinging and fighting to force our own views on others. Even when the partial view may be correct, as it applies to one part of the elephant; it still does not take the whole animal into view. The reference to the need to settle down calmly is of great significance, because the lack of this inner or contemplative view is what causes all suffering in life, and that wisdom has to be cultivated, through a positive re-orientation of the spirit, so that one comes to appreciate unitive or synthetic Values, resolving conflict and coming to enjoy peace, instead of arguing to establish one’s own view-point.

With regard to religion especially, such partial views are often in opposition to the spirit of the original founder, whose clarity and totality of vision often result from intense contemplative discipline, practiced for long periods, as well as a resultant of the insights and experience of generations of practitioners of such sustained self-inquiry, may not be so readily available to a follower who is often following the outer forms or rituals, without any direct understanding or insightful sympathy with the original vision which inspired the founder! Also the tendency to get carried away by mob sentiments that make people act in ways detrimental to life seems natural to man, may be a leftover from the ‘struggle for existence’ in the Darwinian sense, and to that extent, a reversal of such fissiparous tendencies requires conscious effort from the side of the seeker of liberation.

One faith in another’s view is low, and the doctrine
Cardinal as taught in one, in another’s measure, lacks;
Know, confusion in the world shall prevail so long
As the unitive secret herein remains unknown.

There is a secret here as the Guru says, not a secret because someone is hiding it, but because it requires the special effort to know the essential oneness, as distinct from the superficial differences. The usual, mechanistic ways of thinking come more natural to us, and we require help from Gurus or people who have gained such insights into essential matters where the unity is revealed. The pluralistic ways can never bring us peace, as there will be no end to arguments that can justify every possible point of view, either for or against any other, whether in religion or in other matters of opinion and experience, unique to each person.

If we take a general or overall view of the interests or aspirations that motivate human life, we find that the aim of all human effort, at any time, any where, is happiness, and that this is the one fundamental criterion that unites all faiths, and that it applies to humanity as a whole.

Every person at every time makes effort in every way
Aiming at Self-happiness; therefore in this world
Know faith as one; understanding thus,
Shunning evil, the inner self into calmness merge.

Here the basic interest that regulates human life, anywhere in the world is asserted as the high value of Happiness of the Self, of which whatever other values may be involved can be seen to be only secondary. This is stated by the Guru in his Yoga darśanam, in the Darśanamala (A Garland of Visions of the Absolute), also where he says:

“It is ānanda - happiness - alone that all do meditate upon, no one at all meditates on suffering…”

Thus we arrive at a Universal Value that ever remains the basis of all human aspiration and effort, giving unity to all human purposes, all the different faiths, creeds or religions. Even when austerities or other forms of sacrifices are undertaken, the suffering or pain endured is with Happiness as the goal, not for the sake of the pain itself. When this is clearly understood, we realize that there is only one religion of Happiness, regardless of past, present or future religions.

We conclude with a mantra given by Narayana Guru:
May Brotherhood Omnipresent Prevail- om sahodaryam sarvatra.

Sree Narayana Guru