Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Shree Narayana Guru - 1856 - 1928

August 1856 when a child was born in a humble cottage in the pretty hamlet of Chempazhanthi near Trivandrum, no one knew it marked the dawn of the most remarkable epoch in the social evolution of Kerala. This child was to blossom forth as the great sage Sree Narayana, the most revolutionary social reformer Kerala has produced. To have proper appreciation of the magnitude of Sree Narayana’s achievements, it is necessary to understand the background of the social conditions in which he was born and brought up. Kerala, reputed for its natural beauty and richness of life, was alas, the accursed land of caste tyranny at that time; to such an extent that it was really a "lunatic asylum" as Swami Vivekananda branded it.

Numerically Ezhavas or Thiyyas are the largest non-caste Hindu community in Kerala. Sree Narayana was born into a middle family of this community. His parents, ‘Madan Asan’ and ‘Kutty Amma’ endearingly called him ‘Nanu’. At the age of five, he began his education in the neighboring school in the old "Gurukula" model. After his elementary education in this school, he became the disciple of a great Sanskrit scholar ‘Raman Pillai Asan’ of Puthuppally in Central Travancore. Under his master’s tutelage, he became well versed in Sanskrit classics. For some time he too functioned as an ‘Asan’, a teacher of infant pupils. Thus he came to be known as ‘Nanu Asan’. Nanu, even from his boyhood had an ascetic bent of mind. When he was on the threshold of his youth, he had to undergo the ceremonial of a marriage due to parental pressure. But he never led a married life. Sree Narayana’s mind was always agitated by a spiritual urge that induced him along with a fellow-spiritualist renowned as ‘Chattampi Swami’, to become the disciple of a man named Ayyavu, the then Superintendent of the British Residency in Trivandrum from whom he learned Yoga.

At the age of twenty-three he left his family, renounced the pleasures of his world and wandered about as an "avadhutha" or mendicant, keeping his body and soul together by the alms he received from all sorts of people. Soon he went into seclusion and immersed himself in meditation, absolutely isolating himself from contact with the human world. The caves of "Maruthwamala" and "Aruvippuram" hills in South Travancore were his abode during this period.

Soon human eyes detected the "Sanyasin" and devotees began to gather around him at Aruvippurm, the seat of his meditation. They participated in his prayers and spiritual learning. In due course the sage emerged from his retreat and like Buddha, came out to shed light onto a world of darkness. Thus began his crusade to re-spiritualise the degraded society and fight against social inequality.

In those days, the foundation and consecration of a Hindu temple was the exclusive monopoly of Brahmins. Sree Narayana’s first revolutionary act was the consecration of temples. The first in this line was the temple dedicated to Shiva in Aruvippuram in 1888 A.D.

The people of the Ezhava community were the first to be awakened by the teachings of Sree Narayana and to be inspired into a spirit of mass militancy to eradicate their social disabilities. This was partly because the great Guru was born in that community and partly because the Ezhavas constituted the largest single community among the downtrodden masses in Kerala. Thanks to Sree Narayana, the Ezhavas came to have their own Hindu temples whereas they were previously denied even entry. Shree Narayana Guru also ensured that his own community, the Ezhavas themselves did not discriminate against others. It should be noted that it was not only "high castes" that discriminated against "low" but various low castes treated each other extremely badly as well. Shree Narayana Guru stopped this totally. Within a few years Sree Narayana established a multitude of temples all over Kerala.

It is significant that the history of founding of Temples by Sree Narayana was a process of evolution through which he slowly prepared the minds of the masses in the progressive realization of more and more revolutionary ideas. First he founded the temples dedicated to Shiva in the caste-Hindu pattern. Then in 1912 he made a temple dedicated to ‘Sharada’, the goddess of learning was founded at Varkala, thereby including the ideal of the worship of knowledge. Revolutionary changes were also introduced in the traditional rituals and ceremonials to be observed in temples. The next milestone in the path of his reform was the foundation of a temple in Murikkumpuzha near Trivandrum in 1922, where, in the place of a deity a bright light revealing the words "Truth, Duty, Kindness, Love" was installed. The climax of his temple reform was the installation of a mirror for worship in the temple founded at Kalavancode in Sherthallai. The mirror is symbolic of Sree Narayana’s teachings that man should find his salvation not in lifeless deities but in himself by the development and utilization of his inner self (atman) which is tremendously powerful and always pure and blissful. We have a portion of the Eternal Being within us, and we should learn to worship it in ourselves and others, and surrender to it. With such thoughts and practice, who can keep us down?

Sree Narayana was a true "rishi" who lived with the people and for the people. He knew that without providing material comforts, it is futile to hold out the illusion of spiritual happiness to the starving and suffering millions. So he conducted a veritable campaign to eradicate the material disabilities of the downtrodden sections of Hindus. In 1903, Dr. P. Palpu, a devotee of Sree Narayana, founded a social organization called S.N.D.P Yogam (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam), the organization to promote the Dharma of Sree Narayana. This organization has done invaluable service in the epic struggle against caste system in Kerala. The organizers of S.N.D.P made Sree Narayana as its first President. The first General Secretary of S.N.D.P Yogam was Kumaran Asan, the peerless pioneer among modern Malayalam poets. He was one of the dedicated disciples of Sree Narayana. In fact the spiritual philosophy and the crusade against caste that illumine Kumaran Asan’s poetry were inspired mainly by association with and inspiration from the great Guru.

Sree Narayana never went about preaching. He was essentially a ‘Karma Yogi’, who served God and practised spirituality through works. But his ‘silence eloquent’, the inner light that emanated from his resplendent personality, inspired and enlightened all around him, wherever he went. Wherever he went, he earned disciples and devotees in large numbers. In 1928 he founded the "Dharma Sangha", an order of Sanyasins who were expected to be his true disciples. The members of this order were to propagate and perpetuate the teachings of Guru.

Early in 1921 an All Kerala Fraternity Conference was held at Alwaye, and in this conference was delivered his eternal message "One Caste, One Religion, One God for Mankind". Sree Narayana founded two famous Ashrams, one at Varkala and the other at Alwaye, with educational institutions attached to them. These Ashrams remain the centers of purity and universal fraternity, the ideals, which the Guru greatly cherished and nourished. Sree Narayana did not attempt to found a new religion, but he propounded a great creed, the creed of "Universal Goodness".

Like the great Shankaracharya (who was also from Kerala), Sree Narayana was a profound thinker, a great seer and a born poet. He was also a great scholar in Sanskrit and Tamil. He has been the author of many works in Malayalam and Sanskrit, particularlu well known of which are "Atmopadesa Sathakam" and "Darsanamala" which epitomize his great moral and spiritual precepts. He has also beautifully translated Tamil works like "Thirukkural" and "Ozhuvilotukkam" into Malayalam. In his works he has superbly expounded the ‘Advaita’ (non-dualistic) philosophy. 'Daiva Dasakam' a simple prayer written by Guru. Sree Narayana greatness was recognized even while they were alive. No better testimony is needed for this than the fact that Rabindranath Tagore (the poet who wrote what is today India’s National Anthem) and Mahatma Gandhi had visited and paid respects to him. Tagore, when he visited Kerala in 1922, interviewed the Guru and was deeply impressed that he remarked-

"Among the ‘Paramahamsas’ alive in India now, there is none who has lived such a life of purity as Swami Sree Narayana".

The great Narayana Guru attained Samadhi on September 20, 1928. Thus physically Guru disappeared, but spiritually he lives forever in the minds of millions.

Madanlal Dhingra - (1887-1909)

"I believe that a nation held down by foreign bayonets is in a perpetual state of war. Since open battle is rendered impossible to a disarmed race, I attacked by surprise. Since guns were denied to me I drew forth my pistol and fired. Poor in health and intellect, a son like myself has nothing to offer the mother but his own blood. And so I have sacrificed the same on her altar. The only lesson required in India at present is to learn how to die, and the only way to teach it is by dying ourselves."
Extract from speech in court, July 23rd 1909

Madanlal Dhingra was born in the holy city of Amritsar, the son of a well respected doctor, who was very loyal to the British. After some time as a civil servant, Dhingra went to England, to study engineering, in June 1906. In England, Dhingra enjoyed the "good life." He used to wear expensive clothes and fragrances, spend ages on his appearance and made many English friends and was very socially active. He was a charmer, but always loved his religion and Motherland as we are about to see.

There was a house in London that was known as India House, on Cromwell Street. This was set up by Shyamji Krishna Verma. The struggle for India’s freedom was under way, and at India house resided one of its great heroes, Veer Savarkar. He used to gather many Indian students, and give speeches and hold discussions to inspire them to serve the cause of the upliftment of India. Savarkar was a skilful orator and many heeded his message. Madanlal heard of India House and decided to pay it a visit. There he heard Savarkar speak, and as he listened, his blood began to boil. Strong feelings of anger and were aroused within him which were difficult for him to control. He became a great friend and devotee of Veer Savarkar, and took the oath of the Abhinava Bharat (meaning "Young India") revolutionary society founded by him.

A few incidents show Madanlal’s endurance and fiery patriotism. Savarkar organised a day in commemoration of the anniversary of India’s 1st war of Independence in 1857 (which the British dubbed as the "Indian Mutiny"). Hundreds of Indian youth went about for the day with a badge titled "1857 - Commemoration," to the annoyance of many English. An English friend of Dhingra tried to grab the badge of him. Dhingra slapped him, punched him to the ground drew a knife, saying "Don’t dare touch the symbol of my country’s honour." The Englishman apologised and fled. One day, at India House, a group was speaking of the bravery and prowess of the Japanese (who had just defeated Russia in a war), speaking of them as the pride of Asia. After a while, Dhingra got angry. "Enough of the praise of the Japanese, do you suppose we Hindus are in any way inferior to them?" In the eyes of many Dhingra was just a pretty boy and joker. Many of those present burst out laughing at his words, and taunted him. Dhingra was infuriated. This escalated, and led to a disturbing challenge being proposed to test Dhingra’s fortitude. Someone sugested in jest that a needle should be put through Dhingra’s hand. Dhingra absolutely insisted on the challenge, despite others now trying to discourage him. The needle was put all the way through the palm of his hand. Blood flowed, those present cringed, but Dhingra just smiled. The secret society started by Savarkar (Abhinava Bharat), were making bombs and procuring arms to send to India. In one bomb making session, the concentration of those present lapsed. Dhingra’s intuition and alertness prevented a serious calamity. He stopped the immanent explosion, but was burnt in the process.

Continually hearing the plight of Indians, and the increasingly oppressive measures that were being taken in the wake of the intensifying freedom movement, Dhingra was enraged, One day he appeared before Savarkar, saying he wanted to sacrifice himself, and asked if the time was right. Savarkar replied that it was nobody else’s decision, but that Dhingra himself would know when the time was right. A long discussion followed, and various plans were thought out. Dhingra’s anger against British occupation of his motherland increased day after day. To top it off, Savarkar’s elder brother was imprisoned and deported to the Andamans (a famous high security prison). Dhingra was determined to make the British taste a bit of revenge. He brought a revolver and practised shooting.

Dhingra began to look for India haters within his site. There was an association in London called the National Indian Association (NIA). Lord Curzon Wyllie was an important member of its committee. He had been a secretary of State in India, perceived to have been responsible for several ills against the Indian people, and the NIA was actively de-Indianising the Indian youth who were part of it, "turning patriotic young men into immoral useless traitors." Dhingra became friends with its secretary Emma Beck and became a member of the organisation, also getting to know Lord Curzon. Dhingra chose the night of 1st of July at a party of the NIA, at Jahangir House of the Institute of Imperial Studies, to be the date of his retaliation against the British. The music session was just over when Curzon Wyllie entered the hall with his wife. Dhingra approached him, and fired 5 shots killing Curzon. Dhingra fired a 6th bullet when Cowasji Lalkaka, a Parsi gentlemen, dashed towards and grabbed Dhingra. Lalkaka also fell dead. Dhingra stated in court that he had no intention of killing Cowasji Lalkaka. The police arrived, and Dhingra willingly allowed his arrest.

Needless to say, England was rocked by the murder of Curzon Wyllie. Dhingra had written a statement, but the police snatched it and it was never again seen. However, Savarkar had a copy in anticipation of the police action. The Indian freedom fighters were overjoyed, but many Indians openly condemned him. Unfortunately these included his anglophile father and brother, who disowned him publicly. A meeting was held in Caxton Hall in London on the 5th July 1909, as a meet up of the prominent Indians who were loyalists to the British Raj, to pass a resolution in condemnation of Madanlal Dhingra’s conduct. Word of this meeting reached Dhingra’s friends, and a band of them attended the meeting. The Aga Khan, who presiding over the meeting moved to pass a resolution unanimously condemning Dhingra. Savarkar’s voice interrupted loudly from the back of the hall. "No, the resolution is not unanimous." The whole gathering was silenced. "Who is that?" shouted the Aga Khan. "It is me Savarkar, and I condemn it" was the reply. A young British man dashed forward and punched Savarkar to the floor. Savarkar was bleeding, and his glasses smashed, but he continued, "Happen what may, I oppose the resolution." Then Thirumalacharya, a fellow revolutionary thrashed the Englishmen who hit Savarkar, forcing him to flee. The Abhinava Bharat would suffer no insult to their beloved Dhingra.

The court case, which followed, was held at the Old Bailey Court on July 23rd. The outcome was a foregone conclusion. But it was perhaps here that was Dhingra’s finest hour. He faced the ordeal calmly and gave a voice to the suffering of his beloved Mother India. Part of his statement (delivered on July the 10th) read as follows:

"I do not want to say anything in defence of myself but simply to prove the justification of my deed. As for myself I do not think any English law court has any authority to convict me or detain me in prison or to pass any sentence against me... I hold the English responsible for the murder of 8 million of my countrymen in the last 50 years."

Up to the date of his execution, many friends came to visit Dhingra. His only formal request was very simple - that his funeral should be done in the traditional Hindu manner. Savarkar was determined to do something for Dhingra. He activated his contacts in several countries. There were indeed several non-Indians, even Britishers, who believed in India’s freedom. Dhingra’s statement was sent to major newspapers across the world, all of who published it! This was a very key event in giving momentum to the freedom movement, as many foreign voices now raised their voices in India’s favour. Dhingra certainly didn’t die in vain. In Ireland and Egypt (which were both involved in a struggle against the British), Dhingra was a hero. Annie Besant rightly said of Dhingra "More Madanlal’s are the need of the time." Later on, Madanlal Dhingra’s deeds would inspire the great martyrs Bhagat Singh and Uddham Singh.

On the day of Dhingra’s martyrdom, he had the names of Ram and Krishna on his lips. His friends printed a handout and gave it out on the streets, praising Dhingra’s sacrifice and the injustices being perpetrated against India, together with a warning that the struggle will not subside. Dhingra died with the Bhagwad Geeta in his hands. His parting words were:

"My only prayer to God is that I may be re-born of the same mother and I may die in the same sacred cause till the Cause is successful. Vande Mataram!"

Ramana Maharshi - (1879-1950)

His Significance

Ramana Maharshi is universally looked upon as one of the greatest self realised sages of modern times. He lived a quiet life with no interest in publicity, yet seekers flocked to him and today many centres bearing his name exist all over the world. He was renowned for his saintly life, for the fullness of his self-realization, and for the feelings of deep peace that visitors experienced in his presence. So many people came to see him at the holy hill of Arunchala where he spent his adult life that an ashram had to be built around him. He answered questions for hours every day, but never considered himself to be anyone's guru.

Early Life

Ramana was born on 30 December 1879 in a village called Tirucculi about 30 miles south of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, India. His middle-class parents named him Venkataraman. His father died when he was twelve, and he went to live with his uncle in Madurai, where he attended American Mission High School. At age 16, he heard somebody mention "Arunachala." Although he didn't know what the word meant (it's the name of a holy hill associated with the god Shiva) he became greatly excited. At about the same time he came across a copy of Sekkilar's Periyapuranam, a book that describes the lives of Shaivite saints, and became fascinated by it. In the middle of 1896, at age 16, he was suddenly overcome by the feeling that he was about to die. He lay down on the floor, made his body stiff, and held his breath. "My body is dead now," he said to himself, "but I am still alive." In a flood of spiritual awareness he realized he was spirit, not his body.

His Guru

Ramana Maharshi didn't have a human guru (other than himself). He often said that his guru was Arunachala, a holy mountain in South India.

His Teachings

Ramana Maharshi taught a method called self-inquiry in which the seeker focuses continuous attention on the I-thought in order to find its source. In the beginning this requires effort, but eventually something deeper than the ego takes over and the mind dissolves in the heart center. The seeker then experiences the truth off their being beyond the body, and beyond time and space. The goal of realisation of the divine within us and to merge back into the sea of consciousness where there is only pure bliss and awareness is the main ultimate goal of all paths within Hinduism. Ramana Maharshi taught one of the most structured and direct paths to it. He included the aids of worship of deities, Vedic chanting, reverence for the divinty in nature, action performed surrendered fully to God all as part of the progression to pure realisation.

A brief but extremely meaningful summary of his teachings (the Upadeshasaram composed by Ramana, consisting of 30 verses together with a short commentary) can be found at the following link: