By T P Sreenivasan
Fifty years ago I remember the then President of India, Dr. S.Radhakrishnan, saying at the centenary celebrations of my alma mater, the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, that the nation has a duty to make sure that a comprehensive story is written of every thought leader, every movement, every faith and every revolution in India. He regretted at that time that there was not yet a comprehensive study of the Indian Freedom Movement. Since then, there have been many definitive studies of various kinds, which have enriched our history and traditions. Many scholars have dedicated their efforts and energies to contribute to our understanding of our legacy. But there are still many gaps and there is scope for further research and writing on several leading lights in our ancient land. We should be grateful to Asokan Vengassery Krishnan for bridging a major gap by writing a comprehensive and definitive biography of the saint revolutionary of India, Sree Narayana Guru. To call him merely a social reformer of South India is to be unjust to his work and growing relevance. Reforms give way to new thinking, revolutions are irreversible. I consider it an honour that my friend, KPR Nair, has invited me to be here to introduce this monumental work to such a distinguished audience.
Every revolution begins with a journey. The Buddha, Adi Sankara, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and others had their journeys through the length and breadth of the country and even abroad, which have been documented even without the advantages of instant access to documents and data. Today we have an account of the extraordinary journey of Sree Narayana Guru by the author, who had his own spiritual journey to Sivagiri, before he went eventually to Philadelphia, where he did much of his research and writing to create this remarkable volume. It is indeed a labour of love and devotion. With authentic information on the Guru’s life, insights into his philosophy and translations of his devotional writings and teachings, the book will be the best memorial for the Guru to inform and inspire future generations.
Interestingly, working on this book in Philadelphia, Asokan was struck by the Declaration of Independence of the US of 1776, which had anticipated Guru’s vision of the ideal abode, which he outlined in 1888 as the place “where all men live in brotherhood without any caste distinctions or religious animosities.” The Declaration states that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Asokan sees the relevance of the Guru’s teachings equally to India, in which the caste system divides and degrades people and the US still strained by fissures of race. He thus holds up the universality of the Guru far beyond the shores of India. As a former Indian diplomat, I must acknowledge that the Guru belonged to the galaxy of Indian saints, who gave India its soft power that dazzled the world.
The narration in the book is unique in the sense that it is a seemless mix of the minute biographical details of the Guru, the evolution of his thinking, the growth of his influence on the people and his own growth as a spiritual leader to the extent of being considered an incarnation of God in the tradition of attributing my to those with superhuman accomplishments. His works have also been woven into the story for a deep understanding of his philosophy. The details of his renunciation of family life, his mediation in the wilderness, his interaction with people of different strata of society, his building of temples and fight against untouchability fit into the making of a saint revolutionary.
The author has taken care to provide Kerala’s landscape, contemporary events and history to create the backdrop of the Guru’s life story. His thoughts and actions were not in a vacuum. They were shaped by the events around him as he influenced the society by his corrective actions. There are charming stories about the way he handled issues brought before him, sometimes surprising his followers by being pragmatic and not dogmatic.
The book contains a number of descriptions of the Guru’s encounters, ranging from ordinary people to the likes of Tagore, Gandhi, Chattambi Swamikal and Kumaran Asan. These were known before, but not in as much detail. The author’s own pen portraits of these noble souls have the touch of authenticity, borne out of the author’s own research on them. The author almost unconsciously imparts the results of his own studies of spirituality and the Vedas and Upanishads even when he is telling the story of the Guru. These insights make the book stand out from other biographies.
The Guru’s great initiative to organise a Parliament of Religions on the lines of Chicago where Swami Vivekananda mesmerised his western audience has been narrated against the backdrop of the socio- religious developments of Kerala at that time. It was at this conference that the Guru called for relief from competition and conflict between castes and religions and announced his plans to build an institution for the purpose in Sivagiri. The chapter on Vaikom Satyagraha describes how the Guru encouraged the coming together of lower castes and upper castes to remove untouchability and caste discrimination. His encouragement of a marriage between an Indian and a European and his acceptance of a foreign follower without asking him to change even his western attire showed his broad and open mind.
The subtitle of the book is “The perfect union of Buddha and Sankara” (Konark Publishers). This is an apt description of the Guru. Writing of Mahatma Gandhi, Mahakavi Vallathol spoke of Christ’s sacrifice, Krishna’s sense of dharma, ahimsa of the Buddha and the intellectual brilliance of Sankara in one person. We could say the same about the Guru as he emerges from the book.
I cannot do justice to the book even if I take more of your time to describe it. The only way is to read the book, all the 365 pages of it. The reading of it is a joy because it is a story told in devotion and sincerety in simple, but impeccable English.
Some may wonder why such a voluminous work when the Guru’s teaching can be summarised in one sentence: “ One caste, one religion, one God for man.” But, without such a work, as Albert Einstein said of Mahatma Gandhi, the succeeding generations will scarcely believe that such a person in flesh and blood ever strode this earth. Thank you, Asokan, KPR Nair and all the others who made such a masterpiece possible.
(Remarks of Former Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan to introduce the book Sree Narayana Guru at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi 14 June 2018. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org/www.tpsreenivasan.com)