Review of the contributions of a major thinker
This issue of SAMYUKTA highlights the contributions of Sree Narayana Guru, a great thinker and social reformer of Kerala (1856-1928). Romain Rolland says of the Guru, “He was one might say, jnanin of action, a grand religious intellectual, who had a keen living sense of the people and of social necessities. He has contributed greatly to the elevation of the oppressed classes of South India and his work has been associated at certain times with that of Mahatma Gandhi.”
In any discussion of women’s issues, the relevance of Sree Narayana Guru is significant. It was the Guru who awakened millions of downtrodden, deprived masses who were steeped in the darkness of ignorance and superstition for centuries, and opened before them the path for emancipation. The path he adopted was simple, silent, and straight. Confrontation, agitation and noisy battles against the dominating groups were not the policy of the Guru. It was one of enlightened liberation, ensuring the dignity of all concerned. It was a silent revolution effecting a qualitative change in the spiritual and material lives of millions of subaltern people.
We, in the dawn of the twenty-first century, may not be in a position even to imagine the magnitude of the inhuman customs that existed in the social life of Kerala in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was by a royal proclamation of 1859 that the channattis (women of the so-called low caste Nadar community) of Travancore (an erstwhile princely state now part of Kerala) were permitted to cover the upper part of their bodies. The relevant portion of the proclamation said that the government was giving permission to the channattis of Travancore to cover their breasts with coarse cloth in a manner not similar to that worn by women of higher castes. It has to be remembered that this proclamation was the result of a long drawn out struggle , the channarlahala (revolt of the channars), and was issued on the instructions of the then British Governor of Madras.
The Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vysyas and Sudras rank in descending order in the caste hierarchy according to Chaturvarnya (division into four castes) and are considered the upper castes, the savarnas and the people belonging to other sections were considered the lower castes, the avarnas. The lower castes were not supposed to touch, not even be in the view of the upper castes. Distances were prescribed according to the ranking of castes and if this was transgressed it was believed to cause theendal (pollution). If the prescribed distance was crossed the one who was polluted had to take bath to remove the impurity before entering the house. While discussing the social life of those days Rev. Mateer (1883. rpt. Native Life in Travancore. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1991) has observed that the lower caste people had no right to use public roads. They were denied admission to temples also. They were not permitted to study in government schools. Neither were they given representation in government service.
A silent social revolution of the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth paved the way for liberating the suppressed classes who were in an accursed state till then. The man who steered the way out was Sree Narayana Guru. At the age of thirty-two, he installed and consecrated a Siva temple at a place called Aruvippuram, which acted as the inspiration for a silent revolution. Most of the people of the backward communities had believed that their cursed state of affairs was willed by God and that the people of forward communities had to be respected without any question. The aim of the Guru was to raise the status of these downtrodden people and make them spiritually and materially enriched. In his view, the means to achieve this was through education and acquiring knowledge. His clarion call was to gain enlightenment through knowledge and strength by unified action. This was his mantra for liberation. He installed deities in over a hundred temples. His idea was to liberate the downtrodden from the clutches of evil customs and superstitions. Also to relieve them from their inferiority complex by gaining control of their own temples and educational institutions. He was sure that this would instil in them a spirit of independence and a feeling of self confidence. But it was not an easy task to correct the slavish mentality of the avarnas or the feeling of superiority of the savarnas. But the Guru had a conciliatory approach and his efforts were directed towards changing ageold customs without bloodshed, force or compulsion.
The Guru’s call to stop practices like child marriage and similar arcahaic customs, abandon cruel modes of worship like animal sacrifice, created a new awareness in society. Efforts to bring about financial soundness and stability for the individual and society brought about constructive changes. Advice and encouragement of the Guru for industrial and commercial enterprises inspired a lot. It was the view of the Guru that once internal bickering in society is solved and financial stability and educational standards bettered, no one will be able to deny the under previleged his rightful place. An organisation named Sree Narayana Dharma ParipalanaYogam (S.N.D.P.) was registered to translate the Guru’s teachings into action. It was clear that representations or moves by organisations would be several times more powerful than that of individuals. Be it entry into educational institutions, civil services or temples, the strength of the organisation was an invincible force. The Nair Service Society, the NamboothiriYogakshema Sabha, and SadhujanaParipalanaYogam, all of which made remarkable progressive transformations in the social life of Kerala followed the example set by the S.N.D.P. Wiping out the evil practices in the social life of the people formed part of the activities of these organisations. Compared to other parts of India, the people of Kerala including the subaltern masses thereby became more conscious of their civil rights and duties and thereby more progressive and liberal minded.
In the domestic sphere, in political and social life, the status of the majority of women , particularly in countries like India, was not much different from that of the downtrodden masses a century ago. It is true that there is no untouchability or social discrimination as such in the present times; there is no demonstrable denial of rights either. However she is confined within a protective cover of respectability and love. She is enslaved by notions regarding an ideal woman ; that she is responsible for conducting household affairs, that service to husband and family is her solemn duty. Humility and meekness are considered the desirable qualities of a woman. Her movements are curtailed to beaten tracks. Her place in the house is the kitchen and the inner rooms ; that of the man the portico or the verandah. Women are deliberately and cunningly excluded from the public space . The retrograde ideas and degenerate beliefs of society which do not change from time to time are the real causes which keep women backward. To change these deep rooted ideas immense effort is needed. The advice of the Guru to the repressed classes a century ago has great relevance in this context.
The axiom “Educate, Unite and be Strong” is most relevant in any attempt in addressing issues faced by women. Power is the key to gaining freedom. It should be possible for women to achieve power through education and unified action. Through extensive reading and contemplation the woman would be able to see through the veil of ignorance that blinds her view. Economic selfreliance should enable her to take care of her needs and not depend on anyone else. Unified action is definite to bring like–minded people together and lend force to their efforts. As opposed to the attitude of confrontation generally adopted by Western feminists, it should be possible to evolve a unique Indian response to the problems faced by women, rooted in the cultural ethos of their lives . The path shown by Sree Narayana Guru in his attempts to ameliorate the conditions of the downtrodden masses a century ago can be adapted for this purpose. That the Guru achieved a remarkable social revolution through peaceful means is what merits attention most.
K. RETNAMMA. Retired professor of Malayalam. She has done considerable work on Dravidian Linguistics. Has published many scholarly books and articles.