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The Word of the Guru
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THE WORD OF THE GURU
The Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru
by Nataraja Guru
The first part of this book was written when the Guru Narayana was still living. I was then on a tour of Europe and, under the general title of 'The Way of the Guru', these first nine chapters appeared originally as contributions to 'The Sufi Quarterly' of Geneva in 1928. The articles aroused much interest, and were later reprinted in book form, first in Geneva in 1931 and later in India in 1942. Sir Francis Younghusband was one of the first to welcome their publication and in a letter to the Editor of the Geneva journal he said:
'What an excellent number your January number is! I look forward to further instalments of Sri Narayana's life. There are wonderful people in this wicked world still...'
The celebrated French writer, M. Romain Rolland, also noticed the articles in his now famous work on the life of Ramakrishna, in which he admirably summed up the import and significance of the Guru's life as follows:
'Glasenapp does not say anything regarding the new religious manifestations in South India, which are not negligible: such for example is the great Guru Sri Narayana, whose beneficent spiritual activity has been exercising its influence during the past forty years in the State of Travancore on nearly two millions of his followers (he passed away in 1928). His teaching, permeated with the philosophy of Sankara, shows evidence of a striking difference of temperament compared with the mysticism of Bengal, of which the effusions of love (bhakti) inspired in him a certain mistrust. He was, one might say, a 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 in South India, and his work has been associated at certain times with that of Gandhi. (Cf. the articles of his disciple P. Natarajan in 'The Sufi Quarterly', Geneva, December 1928 and in the following months.)'1
No doubt the reader will be aware of a difference in style and method between these chapters written more than twenty years before those that follow in the remainder of this volume. These early chapters were written unpremeditatedly, with very little intellectual planning, with the sole purpose of presenting something of the personality of the Guru, fresh from the anvil while he was still living, and before the intensity of the actualities of the Guru's presence evaporated by lapse of time and the mellowing of memory. The attempt was then made to delineate in broad outline a first-distance view of the whole of the Guru's personality, stressing perhaps certain emotional and intellectual highlights, including some of his personal traits in a rather sketchy, general way, and without too much emphasis on any deeper philosophical aspects.
The Guru passed away at Varkala after the first two chapters had appeared in print, while I continued to live and teach in Switzerland. My studies in individual psychology on the one hand, and on Vedanta and philosophy in general on the other hand, taken together with preoccupation with bricks and mortar in connection with establishing two idealistic institutions called 'Gurukulas' in India, one at Fernhill, Nilgiris and the other at Varkala, Travancore, kept me occupied for nearly fifteen years thereafter.
Now that these years of necessary action have come to a natural close, I have been moved again to attempt the completion of my long-cherished ambition of presenting the teachings and theoretical aspects of the Guru Narayana's life in a form which I hope will be acceptable and understandable to seekers of truth in the West, as well as to those in the East who are trying to comprehend, in terms of Western values, their own rare heritage of wisdom in revalued and restated language. The hospitality of the Gurukula founded by my friend. Harry S.Jacobsen, at the Schooley's Mountains in New Jersey, USA, in 1949, gave me just that needed quiet retreat and access to libraries and books which has made it possible to write with some seriousness. In dealing with the present work and with future projects, I must take the reader into my confidence, so that the general aim intended here will be understood.
The personality of the Guru is of such a rare kind that it does not fit itself into the usual scheme of biography. As a personality he is elusive and enigmatic and therefore hardly capable of being appreciated with the hasty publicity which even ephemeral figures get. But on the other hand, as has always been the case with the teachers of the perennial wisdom, his deeper message with all its real values will persist, like a glowing subterranean fire which will influence thought through time.
In writing the life of a Guru it is essential for all readers, particularly those outside India, to know not only the background of the personality, but the background which is the setting for the teaching, in which the wisdom has its first meaning. To that extent, background details are relevant, enabling the reader to surmount the merely personal and rise into the region which might be described as the biography of the Word-Wisdom.
I have three volumes altogether in mind, of which this is the first and perhaps in some ways the most difficult to write. I have here retained the earlier impressions and pen-pictures which constituted my first presentation of 1928, and this, being a section by itself, can be regarded as a preliminary introduction to the second part of this volume.
In the second part, as far as possible, I have attempted a rambling treatment of the whole subject-matter, lapsing wherever possible into personal anecdote, and intentionally and consciously refusing to confine myself to any conventions of style, or what might be called an academic form. Such liberties as I have taken in these matters may be excused in the present work, which is only meant to introduce the person of the Guru together with his teachings grosso modo rather than by way of a 'close-up'.
For the ordinary reader some of the terms, phrases and ideas may at first sight appear unduly heavy. The wisdom-philosophy was so much part and parcel of the life of the Guru that such initial terminology is unavoidable if a true picture is to be presented. The loading of heavy or unfamiliar expressions has not been done on purpose. The wisdom-teaching has been lost or has been confused with much vestigial or irrelevant matter, all of which needs reasoned clearing and a fresh restatement of relevant values made before the Guru and his Word can be understood in its authentic grandeur.
In the third part of this volume, translations of some of the writings of the Guru Narayana will be found. These are only samples from the large body of writings left by the Guru. They have been selected and graded to illustrate some of the mystical yet always human values presented by the Guru. The last of the selections on 'The Science of the Absolute' or 'Brahma-Vidya' sets the limit, as it were, to this volume. This science requires deep and critical study, of which only a foretaste is provided here. The major literary works of the Guru were concerned with this science, and the two further volumes which I hope to publish later will deal with this in extenso. In connection with this present work, my indebtedness to friends is great, both directly and indirectly, and I shall not attempt to enumerate them all here. Above all it is to the Guru that I am mainly indebted, and in acknowledging his personality, conceived in general terms, I include all others who love wisdom. In this sense I incline inclusively before all in the One.
During the summer of 1949 I was in Paris, still working at my manuscripts, translating and taking notes. I availed myself of the use of the library at the Musée Guimet and also at the Institut de Civilisation Indienne at the Sorbonne. I frequented the lecture-rooms of the Collège de France and contacted thinkers such as Prof. 0. Lacombe whose recent work, 'L'Absolu Selon le Vedanta' (The Absolute according to the Vedanta), has been of considerable help to me. I have also had the benefit again of sitting in the study groups round Prof. Masson-Oursel. My indebtedness to these academic foundations of Paris has to be recorded here with gratitude.
Such subjects as physiology, Assyriology, Egyptology, atomic physics and general philosophy interested me at Paris, and to the various professors who have enlightened me I acknowledge my gratitude. The kindness, encouragement and hospitality of Madame L. Morin of Paris, who introduced me to the various intellectuals of that city, is not to be forgotten.
In April 1951 I arrived back in India and reached the Gurukula at Fernhill, Nilgiri Hills, in May. My friend and colleague John Spiers, with whom I had already established intellectual and, if I may say so, spiritual, contact for nearly five years, and who even substituted and deputised for me at the Gurukula there in my absence, was sufficiently interested and strangely well-qualified to look through the manuscripts I had brought back.
Much editorial revision, additions, including many footnotes, and ordering to make the meanings more explicit, are to be attributed to the labours of this friend who comes from that same part of the world from which originated John the Scot in the ninth century and whom I consider as a God-send in the context of the Word of the Guru. I have largely relied on him for all work requiring editorial sagacity and a sense of the public mind, from the stage of typing out the manuscripts in their final form to that of seeing them safely through the press.
To him and to all others I here express my thanks.
1 Translated from the French from: 'La Vie de Ramakrishna' par Romain Rolland, p.160. (Librairie Stock, Paris, 1980).1
Where is happiness? Where is rest from the fever of life? Where is the image of perfection? Where is the fountain-source of wisdom from which the thirsty traveler can drink? Where is that luminous something, in which we can live apart and be free - free from sense of want and suffering?
These seem to be some of the eternal questions echoing and re-echoing through the ages within the heart of humanity. Some think that the answer can be found in material comforts. Some search for the answer in books. Some sit in meditation, trying to tune their life-breath in unison with the Great Knowledge. Some others 'scorn delights and live laborious days'. All these attain degrees of success.
Once in a hundred years, solitary among a hundred thousand, there arrives at the caravanserai of life one, at the sight of whose features the seekers instinctively arise from their varied occupations and greet him and see in him and his ways a clear commentary, a silent interpretation, a radiant centre of all that they were seeking. He becomes the object of reverence and common pride. He is able to dispel age-long doubt and darkness by his words, and the hearers smile and for a moment feel a strange happiness. Literature and art and science grow round his person. Historical events find a centre round which to turn.
Narayana Guru was one such. He was one of those who followed in his life the ancient and immemorial programme of oriental saints and prophets. He left his home in search of truth. He lived in lonely hill, cave or forest for years, unknown to men, performing Tapas 1.
He emerged from seclusion, having solved some great riddle in life, and wanted to give his solution to the world at large. Therefore, without any sort of hesitation whatever, he called himself a Guru or Teacher. Penniless himself, he began to command an influence over rich and poor, educated and uneducated. People flocked to take the dust off his feet.
Today his words are recognised as a most modern echo of the ancient wisdom of the Orient. In him we had, combined once again, a bard who sang about the aspirations of the soul of man, a philanthropist whose one aim in life, night and day, was to devise ways to minimise human suffering, and a seer whose daily food and drink was the highest form of Truth. Although out of reach of newspapermen and propagandists, this silent sage was the recognized spiritual leader of more than two million people in South India to whom his word was more imperative than law. Within a period of less than a decade he had established more than one hundred places of worship on the West Coast of India alone, which are day by day growing into centres of educational, philanthropic and economic activity. Crowded meetings are held in which his name is the unifying element. His message to the people is the subject of weekly comment on many platforms, and scores of associations have been organized in various parts of South India to spread his ideals. By the spell of his name young and old are seen to join hands in a common undertaking; rich and poor are seen to rub shoulders. It can be asserted that he has set in motion a force which is bound to spread into a new impetus for the regeneration of India and the world.
1 Tapas, meditation and self-discipline performed in retirement with a view to illumination.
THE GURU AT HOME
Kerala, where most of the Guru's life took place.
Narayana Guru at Advaita Ashram, Alwaye.
The traveller who was animated by a desire to see this leader of one of the modern religious movements in India would most probably have had to alight, as the present writer once did, at the small railway station called Alwaye, two stations to the north of the terminus of the Cochin State Railway. Alwaye is a small municipal town belonging then to the State of Travancore 1. It is associated with the name of the great Indian philosopher, Sankaracharya, who is said to have taken Sanyasa, the vow of renunciation in search of wisdom, while bathing in the broad river of crystal water winding its way through the town. If the traveller had directed his footsteps along one of the roads leading to the riverside, he would have come across a stile leading into a compound which he must cross, keeping his way along the narrow avenue until he reached the bright riverside beyond the trees. He would have found, on turning to the right, a neat little white building strewn round with pure river sand - the silence of the place broken only by birds or by the voices of occasional bathers in the river. On one side he would see below him the river boiling over with a thousand whirlpools on its broad breast, the banks overgrown with luxuriant vegetation. If the Guru was in the Ashram (hermitage) he could invariably be found on a little raised seat overlooking the river. As he turned to look at the visitor, the latter would, if he had a keen eye, discover from the expression of his face that the Guru had just been disturbed from some all-absorbing subject while he sat gazing at the river scene. There could be discovered a peculiar composure in his features revealing a peaceful other-worldly contemplation. He would ask the newcomer who he was, in the most gentle of voices; and treat him, probably, to a meal of fruits and milk.
Advaita Ashram, Alwaye.
After that, if he conversed, the topic in all probability turned on how human nature must improve; how there is no necessity for man to quarrel with man as he does at present on supposed religious, national, or racial distinctions; how, while a cow or a dog may be considered to belong to a different 'caste', it is absurd to think that one man differs from another except in trivial things like dress or language; and how it is immaterial in everyday life what school of philosophy or what creed a man professes so long as he does not transgress the bounds of common human goodness. Before the newcomer retired from the abode of the Guru, leaving him to gaze on the river scene in absorbing meditation, let him walk round the humble hermitage and he would not have failed to observe the neat little kitchen where a Brahmachari (Dedicated students who 'walk the path of Brahman' or the Absolute are called Brahmacharis, from 'char'- to move). prepared light food for the Guru, or noted how sparing the Guru's diet was. In the grounds of the hermitage he would have found trees, each one of them receiving its share of the Guru's care. Before leaving the precincts, had the visitor cast his glance on the inscription in golden letters on one of the walls of the Ashram, he would have read as follows:
'One in kind, one in faith, one in God is man,
Of one same womb, one same form,
Difference none there is at all'
l Under the Indian Union the two States of Travancore and Cochin now form the State of Kerala.
TWO RANDOM IMPRESSIONS
Narayana Guru's Birthplace.
A junior officer of the Indian Civil Service once gave the following account of how he met the Guru for the first time in his life:
'My leave was about to expire and I was travelling back to Salem in a mail train. I was seated in a second-class compartment. At about ten o'clock in the morning the train steamed up to the crowded platform of Calicut. A number of people dressed in spotless white were seen on the platform. In the centre of the group was, seated on a chair, an old gentlemen dressed also in white, who was well-nigh sixty years. He was tall, slender, and erect. The arrival of the train and the consequent bustle did not seem to produce any effect on the composed features of this person.
When the first bustle had subsided, the person slowly got up from his seat and walked into the very compartment in which I was seated. My curiosity to know who this revered man was became aroused; and I began to watch him minutely. I soon guessed that he did not belong to the class of rich people, for he wore neither gold nor silver on him. His dress was of the simplest description, consisting merely of two pieces of white cloth. He wore no sort of head-dress but, after the manner of the Sanyasi, had a clean-shaven head which showed a sparse crown of white hair. There was a sedate grandeur in his countenance, which was not suggestive on the one hand of the cold, calculating nature of a man of wealth nor, on the other, of the sternness of a fighter. Relaxed and restful, like the countenance of a child, it still revealed an undercurrent of seriousness which led the critical observer into the unfathomable depths of something inexplicable.
The supreme restfulness and leisureliness of his manners, unaffected by anything that was passing round him, the spotless purity of his personal attire, the delicately artistic perfection of every one of his movements, even the manner in which the flowing dress clung round his person - half negligently, yet in a way that the artist would have had the rumples adjusted - the silence and the gentleness of his ordinary behaviour made him carry with him, even in the busy atmosphere of a modern railway-station, a still halo of reverence. When he talked - which was only now and then - his voice which, though not loud, had still a rich mellowness in it, exercised a peculiar lulling effect which could be compared to the far-off chiming of temple bells or the noonday murmur of bumble-bees. As I was watching him I could observe that tears filled to the point of overflowing the eyes of this great man, as one by one the devotees that had gathered on the platform measured their lengths in prostration before him. Each one of them touched the foot of the strange leader and placed an offering of fruits and flowers before retiring from his presence. Age had not robbed his features of that soft freshness, rich fullness and restful relaxation so characteristic of the Indian Yogi. A pair of not-at-all large eyes which seemed to be constantly gazing at some object on the far-off fringe of the horizon; lips with the corners slightly turned down as if in open-eyed meditation - all these and many more little traits, revealed to me that the stranger was one of the Mahatmas or Holy Men of India.
The train soon left the station, and, as we stopped at the next station, I could observe that Narayana Guru - for the stranger was none other than this revered leader of whom I had heard so much - was engaged in giving away one by one to some poor children who appeared at the carriage, all the fine oranges that he had received at the previous station until not one was left of the pile beside him. A householder, I thought would have reserved some, at least, to be taken home. When I had observed him thus far in silence, I was overcome by a desire to talk to him but, having adopted the customs of the Western nations I felt some difficulty in introducing myself. I struck upon a plan. I was then carrying with me some oranges of the finest quality plucked from the orange groves of the Wynad.
I took out one of these and determined at last to break the silence. 'Swami', I said at last: 'Would you mind my offering you an orange? 'Those were the 'fitting words' with which I chose to break the silence; to which the saint replied rather pertinently, as I only realized later, 'Have you failed to find that out in spite of having watched me all this time?' Surely I had seen him receive a hundred oranges without any sort of protest, and felt for a moment how ridiculous a figure I cut in the presence of one whose manners belonged to the unalloyed past. This was how I met the Guru Narayana the first time in my life.'
To this effect, mainly, were the words of the officer. Coming from a perfect stranger to the Guru, this picture of him has its value inasmuch as it serves to show how the Guru appeared in the eyes of a casual stranger.
There is another impression of the Guru which the writer of this narrative had occasion to hear - this time from one of the representatives of the poor. Towards the small hours of the night it was - we were travelling together on the deck of a steam launch in the backwaters of Malabar. The first blush of day was just appearing at the corner of the horizon. The boat at this time passed a big church, surrounded by palm trees which moved in front of us, as we sat up in our beds, like a silhouette picture against the brightening sky. The rough hands of the fellow-passenger and his dress, which were just beginning to be visible, revealed that he was a simple labourer. After some preliminary questions about my destination and antecedents, this new friend began to narrate the following anecdote, after he had crossed himself most reverently as we passed the church. 'Sir, I have seen the Guru', he said, 'It was the year before last that one day I heard that he had arrived at the house of a landlord in the village where I live. I had heard of him long ago and wished very much to meet him and lost no time in going to see him in that house. When I saw him I could not resist the thought that he was like our Saviour Jesus Christ. He was surrounded by people who either wanted to be healed of sickness or came to seek his advice regarding some calamity that had befallen them. Some there were who were eager to take the dust of his feet and others were waiting for the water that had cleansed them. Surely this was the way in which, as we read in the Bible, Lord Jesus himself moved among the multitude. I am a poor man, without learning or wealth.
I had a secret desire to invite this great man to my humble dwelling-place, in spite of its being very poor and dirty. I mustered strength to express my wish to him. What was my joy when he consented to come forthwith. Within a short while he had already started. As we were on the way the Guru asked me about all my affairs and my children and all the rest, in a voice which was full of tender regard. When we were not far from my house, I excused myself and went ahead by a short-cut in order to set things in order before the honoured guest arrived. I dressed my children up in their cleanest clothes and spread a white cloth on an easy chair, had some incense sticks lighted and with a brass vessel full of pure water, awaited his arrival at the outer entrance. Like the morning beam of light carrying the message of peace, the holy man entered. Although at first he resisted my approach to wash his feet with my own hands, I had my own way, on which, while I was bending, he gently placed his hand on my head. That solacing touch at once earned its message of blessing to the innermost recesses of my being. 'When this honest man came to that part of the narrative, the day had almost dawned and the sun made the backwaters full of orange-crested waves, and in the daylight could be seen the features of my fellow-passenger showing visible signs of emotion. His voice cracked and his honest eyes grew dim. There was a pause for a few minutes, after which he continued as follows: 'When the Guru had finally taken his seat, I called my son and asked him to take the dust of his feet, which he did. The Guru asked him which class he was studying in and advised him to be a good and diligent boy. Turning to one of his men who was standing by, he then ordered a rupee to be given to the boy and told him that he was expected to return that rupee, when he became a grown-up man, back into the public funds. Turning to me, he told me in so many words that I was not to consider myself as one who belonged to a different creed or religion: 'We are all one and the same'. His words are still echoing in my memory.
The Lagoon Country of Coastal Kerala.
It was a red-letter day in the history of the little Ashram or hermitage at Alwaye, on which was to be celebrated, by some of the enthusiastic young men of the surrounding districts, the anniversary of their association for Universal Brotherhood. The celebration was to be held in the afternoon, at the Sanskrit Patashala (School) founded by the Guru. An extensive palm-leaf roof had already been put up to accommodate the delegates. It was known - almost instinctively, for no newspaper announcements were made - that the Guru would grace the occasion with his presence. Batches of young men began to arrive at Alwaye early in the day, both by the North-bound and the South-bound trains. Before going to the Guru at the riverside hermitage they had to plunge in the river and then put on their purest raiment. The Guru himself, who rose during the small hours of the morning, was usually ready, after his morning silence, to receive the visitors and talk to them on whatever subject they raised and to clear away individual doubts that were brought before him in the considerate, witty, and convincing manner usual to him. On this particular morning it was one of the new young men who had arrived at the hermitage and who had decided to be a worker among the people, who was standing reverently, talking to him about the meeting that was to take place. The Guru turned his face, with half-wakeful eyelids, towards the optimistic young man, and asked him, his voice softened by the peaceful rest of the morning meditation: 'Do you think there is any use in holding big meetings?' 'Yes', was the decided reply of the young man, 'meetings are the best means of spreading ideas'. 'But', said the Guru, 'they do not appear to produce as much action as noise. People come in crowds very seriously to take part in meetings. They speak at the tops of their voices and seem to rouse passions.
The Guru with young followers.
The speakers propose to reform the whole world, and the audience applauds and enthusiastically raises hands in unanimous votes of support - and if, while someone is lecturing, there is heard the whistle of a train, he excuses himself to the audience quite abruptly, takes up his bag and baggage, and goes back home. Meetings frequently end in this manner. But they may not be completely useless. It is good, all the same, to have some meetings now and then to rouse the public conscience... Can you speak to the crowd?' 'I shall try to', replied the young man humbly. 'It would be a good thing', continued the Guru, 'to tell them about the excessive greed of human beings. Don't you think that the animal called man is worse than the rest of the animals in this respect? The desires of animals in the forest are safely controlled by natural instinct from all abnormal excesses. The elephant is simple and fat, and does not need tonics or treatment to keep it so. The jackal hides in the woods all day and comes out only at night when all is quiet. It does not take much food - just a few fresh crabs and the clear stream water, reflecting the moonlight, to drink - and it is content. It enjoys its life with its nightly music, and you can see that it is none the worse for this sort of life - its neck is as plump and glossy as a pillow. The animals have no exaggerated needs like man. Man trots about the earth as a veritable demon of destruction. As he marches, he carries behind him a trail of devastation. He cuts down the trees and blasts and bleeds into paleness the green beauty of Nature for the sake of the plantations and smoky towns and factories which his unbridled desires necessitate. Not content with destruction on the surface, he tampers with the crust of the earth, making it weaker and weaker day by day, and he covers the surface with miles and miles of iron and coal. Man is terribly inconsistent. The state, which calls itself interested in humanity, would, for example, vehemently forbid even a man suffering from the worst form of skin disease to quit his miserable body. On the other hand, it will madly engage itself in wholesale manslaughter, after due deliberation and in the holy name of altruism or religion.
Man does not know what he does, although he prides himself on being more intelligent than the animals. It is all a mad deluded rush. Oh, this man!' he said, lapsing into wistfulness... 'He must lay waste: his greed can be satisfied only by the taking away of life. As the Guru repeated the word Man, the youthful orator watched his composed features and could not but discover a distant tinge of sadness in his voice and in his venerable features. 'Man knows not what he does', the Guru repeated, and became silent for a moment. 'It would not have mattered so much', he continued, 'if the effect of man's misdeeds struck its blow only at mankind. But the innocent monkeys and birds in the forest have to forfeit their peaceful life because of man. The rest of Nature would be thankful if, in the process of self-destruction, man would have the good sense to destroy himself if he must, alone, leaving the rest of creation at least to the peace which is its birthright...'1
These words had their proper effect upon the young man, and by this time more young men had gathered round the Guru, and he rose and walked 'gently as a summer's cloud' to the place where the preparations were going on for the afternoon celebrations. The public were to be the guests of the Ashram for the day, and the Brahmacharis were busy preparing a dinner of rice, vegetables and buttermilk for the numerous persons who were expected. The palm-leaf lecture hall was being decorated with festoons of young green coconut leaves. The Guru walked round, interesting himself in the arrangements, and afterwards sat down on the floor of the veranda talking to the young and old who surrounded him, anxious to imbibe his words. 'It is precipitate thought', he went on, 'that makes a man try to proclaim his own opinion as the best. No one opinion, however loudly proclaimed, can justly represent the Whole. It is like the story of the blind men who went to examine the elephant. It is only waste of breath to argue vociferously to establish any one religion. It is impossible in the nature of things that only one opinion should prevail.
Without realising this simple fact, men divide themselves into rival camps and fight for the mere words that seem to divide them, forgetting the most primary of human interests. Speeches should not be made with a spirit of rivalry or hate. All speech is for knowing and letting others know. A man's religion is a matter of his personal conviction, which is bound to be at varying stages of natural evolution in different people. Each man, therefore, may be supposed to belong to a different religion, and no two people belong to the same religion. On the other hand, all the religions of the world agree in spirit, the most essential part of religion. All religions represent values of Truth or Duty. The goal is common. Why should man fight for his faith? It is an unwise act - one should not be swayed by the conflict of opinions, but should remain tranquil, knowing the unity in all human effort, which is happiness. Men differ in dress. Some people like to wear a beard; others are clean-shaven - serious people do not quarrel over these things! Again, languages differ, but it requires no proof to see that humanity is one in spite of such differences. Why then should man differ and cultivate hatred? It is in vain - men have still to learn that fighting only destroys. If man only understood the simple truth, he would not fight.'
Thus continued the Guru, talking gently and wafting home to the simple folk that stood round him the eternal principles of human conduct which burned in his heart, though his talk lacked oratorical perfection, for it was broken now and then by lapses into silence.
Another of the Guru's favourite topics on such occasions was caste or racial distinctions. He disapproved of all imaginary distinctions between man and man, in which he saw the cause of much unhappiness and unrest. The young men had already made him commit himself to a definite statement about the burning question of caste distinction in India; and the Guru's message, which they had printed in his own child-like autograph, was ready to be distributed in the afternoon. It ran as follows:
'Whatever may be the differences in men's creeds, dress, language, etc. - because they belong all to the same kind of creation, there is no harm at all in their dining together or having marital relations with one another'.
The Guru continued his conversation, contemplating man's manifold self-made troubles. As he sat and spoke, on one side of him stood fanning him an old man who disliked the youngsters and stoutly opposed, with all the influence he could command in his own village, the contagious spread of the levelling philosophy preached by these 'hot-headed young men' - and on the other side stood the leaders of the youthful reformers themselves, as tame as lambs in the presence of this strange old man who puzzlingly combined and represented the views of the hot-headed young reformers and those of the callous, conservative elders. The silent Guru stood between the two rival parties - who vied with one another in doing homage to him - as the personification of the principle of exalting synthesis. His love of men made him the most artful and just peacemaker, whilst remaining himself most obstinately uncompromising when occasion demanded.
It was nearing midday. The Guru rose and wended his way to his riverside resting place. On the way he stopped, seeing some boys giving the last touches to the decoration of a triumphal arch through which the delegates were no enter. He suggested that the mystic syllable AUM 2 might be written 'as large as the head of an elephant' to decorate the top of the arch, and under it the words 'Sahodaryam Sarvathra',
'AUM, BROTHERHOOD OMNIPRESENT FILLS !'
1 Cf., 'Writings of Chuang Tzu', Book IX ('Sacred Books of the East' series. Vol. XXXIX, trans. by J. Legge, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1891).
2 AUM, a symbolic word made up of the elements of 'A', 'U' and 'M'; supposed to refer to three aspects of reality and together to constitute the essence of all mystical doctrines of the Upanishads. Cf., Mandukya Upanishad.
Forest Streams in South Travancore.
It is in a little-inhabited district of South Travancore on the banks of a foaming mountain stream where, roaring through rocks and pebbles it passed into the plains, that our next scene is laid. The secluded valley resounded with the noise that rose from the river, and the tall trees around looked as if imploring heaven incessantly. Except for the cowherds who followed the cattle into the woods or the goats leaping about among the rocks, there were scarcely any signs of human life in the vicinity. Such was the place in which, in the year 1886, a man of about thirty years of age emerged into public attention in the manner we are about to recount.
Leaving his home behind him, for years he had wandered from one man to another, from one centre to another, before he came to settle down, for the time being at least, at this spot. During this period of restless travelling he had sometimes walked three or four hundred miles with no better provision than that of a mere mendicant. Sometimes he had to swim across rivers or stretches of backwater on the coastline; but these barriers could not hinder the spirit of search that had awakened in him. Unknown to the millions who only later began to adore him, he passed from one village to another, sleeping at night on a cloth spread on the stone slabs of some wayside rest-house with his stick as his only companion beside him. Other vesper hours found him perchance on a wayside veranda or in some forsaken temple yard where, with the leaves rustling in the gentle evening breeze and sometimes with the moon shining, he spent his night, famished perhaps, fatigued and forlorn, but at least apparently in slumber - in reality inwardly awake with the 'light of the silent tabernacle of the mind'.
Boat transport in the backwater country.
Generally uneventful in the usual sense of the term, the life of the ascetic became more uneventful still as his search made him turn more and more within himself for consolation. That search began to depend less on outside persons or things and, as it became more pronounced, it was necessary for him to protect himself from the 'madding crowd's ignoble strife'. It was in the beautiful district we have referred to that his search reached its final stages. Now established in his forest abode he was beginning to witness within himself an event of more import than the eruption of a volcano or the conquering of a kingdom. It was thus that the villagers of Neyyattinkara had the opportunity of making continued contact with the ascetic who sat by the riverside, his face shining with inner resolution - and who was none other than Narayana Guru beginning his life as a teacher of men.
One villager after another who went past him in the forest in pursuit of his daily occupations began to wonder what the matter was with the man who was seen day after day, not specially occupied in doing anything. He seemed to be busy over nothing, anxious over nothing, attached to nothing, and no events seemed to shake his calm. While the passer-by had slept and waked and fed his hunger and mixed with his mates and passed again, there the seeker sat with his calm yet resolute face, with his gaze showing complete wakefulness but seeming to see nothing in front of him. He was absorbed in some thought, the nature of which was a mystery. Thus day after day passed by. As the villagers' curiosity became greater, they soon discovered that there were people in the neighbourhood who brought the strange man milk and fruits which they left beside him; but the birds and the squirrels were seen more often to partake of them than the man himself. A single banana and some clear water formed his sustenance from day to day as he spent his time in introspective absorption.
Scenes from village life in old Kerala.
His ways frightened some and served to keep them aloof. Others approached nearer and made bold to break the silence and try to induce him to take more food. There was one elderly dame whose maternal instincts prompted her almost to compel him to take more food by putting rice into his mouth.
To a vast majority of people who had not come near him, he remained merely an abnormal man. Some thought him an impostor trying to play on the religious sentiments of the credulous. Others thought him one whose virtue was only a cloak to hide laziness or even vice. Some of them blamed him openly, even though the young seeker had asked for no favour of them whatever and was totally unrelated to them in any way. They blamed him and hated him and without apparent cause gave vent to their aversion in strong language. Indifferent alike to praise and blame the young man sat, neither loving less nor hating more, but imploring God in the most supplicant terms to save him from his inner misery and lift him beyond blame. Some strange cosmic emotion was heaving within him and he was in the pangs of the birth of an inner life to which the life dictated by the senses was becoming more and more repulsive.
This state of self-absorption increased soon after. Human company of any sort became unbearable to him. When a curious passer-by stood and watched him as he would a curious animal in the zoo (so he himself described it), he would sometimes spring to his feet in resentment and walk off to the neighbouring hill-top, on the summit of which on a pile of stones for a seat, he would sit cross-legged, erect and silent, gazing at the vast panorama of hills that was visible from that point of vantage. He sank deeper and deeper into oblivion of the affairs of the world. The mind seemed to feed on itself and reap a strange happiness.
The emotional counterpart of this incessant search was so heavy as to make even a sturdy supporter groan under its trials. The torrential stream on the banks of which he sat was but an objective representation of the state of emotion in his heart. Nothing can describe adequately the trials he underwent. It would be vain to undertake the task.
(Note:the description that follows is not an arbitrary one. It is taken from various passages of devotional poetry which he wrote for the sake of the village worshippers who gathered round him.)
It was as if he was drunk. The red fire of knowledge was beginning to glow within him. It was as if his feelings were beginning to melt. It was as if the ambrosial essence of his being was beginning to pervade his mental horizon. This emotion made him call upon God as his only refuge - God, 'whose tender feet dripped with the honey of compassion'. God was to him the pearl of perfection, the dancing centre of his life, the lotus that sprouted in the silence of his heart, caught in the centre of which, buried among the petals, like a bumblebee having its fill of honey, his soul enjoyed uncoveted blessedness. It was as if his soul in the form of a radiant child, planting his foot in the centre of a glowing radiance, had devoured within his being the light of the sun and the moon.
It was as if this radiant form was dancing and swaying at the centre of his being, mounted on the back of a peacock with outspread feathers of green and gold. It was as if a lamp shed its steady light in the silent house of the mind...
It was an experience beyond words; and the volume and force with which images such as these surged up within his mind, richly breaking through barriers of rhyme and metre in some of his prayers written at this period, throw ample light on its nature.
This new experience was not in the nature of an event. It was an experience that changed for him the meaning and import of all events, so called. He waited no more for events that would bring him pleasure or pain. He inwardly smiled at the events that others round him attached so much importance to. The events that disturbed or frightened others round him, making them put on grave faces and speak to one another with hidden hatred, seemed to him child's play. Death had lost its bitter meaning for him and the unknown had lost its mystery. It was as if he had come into possession of a rich heritage.
A veritable ball of radiance had come into his possession. Its light seemed to heave with every breath, reaching beyond the bounds of the three worlds. Sounds seemed to fill the sky. The eye was filled with beauty. Music and rhyme burst forth unpremeditated in his voice. Tears of compassion and pity stood ready, at the least little demand, to overflow into action. He became a changed man with a strange silence in his ways - both the subject and the object of utmost compassion, undivided and uncramped with trivial events.
Time to him became richer and richer in inner meaning, while the ponderable aspect of time became of less import. Past, present and future merged into a continuous whole and he forgot weeks and months as they glided freely by without affecting him. The joy of the state into which he had fallen was luring him deeper and deeper into his own consciousness.
Controlling with an iron will the domination of one set of emotions over another, upright as a bolt, established firmly in that kind of reasoning which concerned itself with the most immediate realities of a simplified world, he soon entered into a distinct phase in his life. The hunger of a simple villager who came to visit him became a matter of greater concern to him than theological disputation or the establishment of a new religion. He began to live in a present which was the result of an endless and pure experience of the past and the most far-reaching expectation of the future. The result was that his duties became clear as daylight to him at every step. Philanthropy became a natural hobby to him. Philosophy gave his actions a detached motive, and poetry gave him the means of natural expression. His life and ambitions were simplified and the foundations of a career of benevolence and prosperity were laid in his personality.
As days passed by, the crisis of the emotion connected with the breaking-in of the new life was over. He became able once again to converse with the people who gathered around him, still keeping himself established in the state that he had made his own. While these great subjective events were taking place the villagers had put up a roof for him to sleep under when the weather happened to be bad. They had made special arrangements for his food. They had appointed office-bearers to be in charge of the different activities of the place. People arrived on foot and in bullock carts to see the Yogi. Women and children constantly gathered round him, bathed in the river, and brought simple presents of fruit or flowers which they placed as an offering before him. The crowds of such visitors had to be managed. They invariably partook of the hospitality of the place and returned to their normal business after a few days of comfort and consolation derived from ministering to the wants of a Yogi.
Fatigue, both physical and mental, was dispelled at this riverside hermitage, and the place grew into an institution, an Ashram as they call such in India. The place, however, still lacked one feature of an Ashram, and that was a place of adoration. This became specially necessary as the Yogi was beginning to move about again from this abode. On these occasions the atmosphere which his presence gave was lacking, and thus the need of a special place of worship was felt by the little community which had spontaneously established itself in connection with the new Ashram.
This new need raised a whole tangle of problems. What was to be the shape of the place of worship? What form of worship was to be adopted? Was it wise to depart completely from popular tradition, or was it better to respect tradition in its harmless aspects and point the way to reform? Agreement on these various problems seemed almost impossible. Under the encouraging guidance of the Guru the villagers progressed from one form of compromise to another until they reached a point which represented the furthest progressive step they could take. Uncouth formalities and customs handed down from time immemorial were mostly cut out, there being only retained some of the simpler harmless ones like the waving of camphor lights and the offering of flowers. The difficulties that at first appeared Himalayan dwindled down into insignificance. There among the hills was to be established a temple of Shiva, the God of Renunciation. There the women and children could gather together. That would form the centre from which the children would begin to love the clean and the beautiful. The idea satisfied all concerned, and the Guru - instead of refusing to co-operate with the peasants and the villagers because he himself had risen above the need of formalities in worship - consented to consecrate the temple with his own hands. The necessary land was soon purchased and the date was fixed for the consecration of the temple.
On the appointed morning, long before the 'hunter of the east' began to throw his pink noose of light across the sky, the Guru was up to prepare himself for the duties of the day, bathing himself in the bubbling river. The spot for the installation of the stone altar had been selected and made ready. Thousands of people had gathered overnight to witness the event. The stars shone still when the young ascetic entered the enclosure. What miracle was going to happen? This was the thought engaging the minds of the thousands of villagers who had gathered in eager expectation under the starlight. There, in the centre of them, stood the silent ascetic ready to perform the installation ceremony of the central stone of the altar. The darkness was lighted only by the golden flicker of a five-petalled brass lamp set among flowers.
To some present it all seemed strange and suspicious. Was the young ascetic fitted to perform such a serious ceremony? Was he orthodox enough for it? Had they not heard him talk of Shiva as a mere historical figure, some ancient hunter who lived in the Himalayas who, because of his virtues as a leader of his people, was loved and began to be worshipped with godly attributes. Was he pretending to be a devotee? Would the wrath of God descend on the village for such breaking-away from tradition? These were the thoughts that passed
through the minds of some of the crowd as, standing nearer to him than the rest, they watched his features to find a reply to their doubt.
Village Temple in Kerala.
No answer to these separate questions seemed available. He stood in the centre, his face eloquent with expression, and with his eyes lifted in silent prayer. 'Let increased blessing come! Let the poor and needy be comforted! Let them prosper and let not their daily bread fail them from day to day! May they learn to be truthful and seek the ways of happiness, each in co-operation with the other!
May they learn to be cleaner day by day! Let all hatred and dissension vanish from among them! Let them learn to respect the feelings of the least little creature of God! Let at least a portion of the Great Truth dawn on them and bring them consolation!'
These were the wishes with which he lifted up his eyes. As he thus prepared himself for the act which was to be the living link, not only between the past and the future, but also between his deepest feelings and those of the ignorant millions for whose sake he was performing the act, in outward evidence, as it were, of his earnestness, the questioning villagers saw on his resolute features, rolling down in unceasing streams, just simple childish tears.
Silence prevailed while the crowd, moved by the same contagious emotion, looked one at another in the starlight. Soon the installation ceremony was over. The day had dawned. The clarion call of the conch rent the sky, and as the white-clad crowd began to disperse beyond the hills, each felt the petals of a new hope unfolding within; and victory seemed to reign.
GURU ROLE BEGINS
The little white-walled institution nestling among the hills soon grew out of its infant struggle. The people of the locality formed themselves into a regular association to give continuity of life to the tradition started by the Guru, and the plant showed signs of growing into a useful tree. The Guru began the role of a gardener, not of plants but of a field of institutions scattered over the West Coast of South India. Old ones he was obliged, in some cases, to uproot and establish anew. He was content to prune some, while he grafted others on the stock of ancient tradition. For the next thirty years of his life he travelled in annual cycles, watering and weeding them with the care and concern of a true husbandman. Calm as the seasonal changes the reforms took root, starting a new era for the people touched by them. Thus his role as a Guru began.
All was not smooth on the course. Three thousand years of tradition, gone to seed, had covered over and shrivelled the life of the people. They held to the thin reed of traditional life with the tenacity of a drowning race. Deprive them of the be-all of life, they would call it their fate and meekly suffer it; but touch the nerve having its root in the traditions of their ancestors, and the hungry men rose to die for what they prized more than life. Not even the king could try to change tradition. The established religions could only continue the traditions that they inherited. The people were willing to carry their popes in golden palanquins as long as they respected the least little detail of tradition, but even a departure from a baneful practice was enough to dethrone them from Guruhood. Such were the forces.
There was a safety-valve which tradition itself afforded and this consisted in the respect for renunciation. From time immemorial, the ruling kings rose from their seats to honour a holy man who entered the palace from the street. The people instinctively recognized such holiness. The books laid down the marks of such a one. It was traditional to think of a man of renunciation as a representative of God. Time and again in the story of that vast continent seething with population a simple man of renunciation had lead the people to the gates of safety. This tradition is still alive and is the silver lining of hope for the future.
The rare privilege of leadership in reform adorned the ascetic features of the Guru with a natural grace. His heroic qualities had been tested in fire. There came a night dedicated to the memory of Shiva, the ancient leader of the Himalayas, which kept a large crowd awake, hearing orators, musicians and lantern-lecturers and waiting for the elephant procession at midnight and the fireworks in the morning. They made the secluded riverside into a town for the night, and young and old gathered at the spot which was the seat of the ascetic life of the Guru. The Guru sat protected from the crowd at a distance, finding out from the bystanders all that was happening.
Elephant Procession in Kerala.
He spoke of the vulgarity of elephant processions and the waste involved in fireworks. He made no speeches, but the crowd heard his views through the speedy medium of rumour; so that, while he pronounced no judgement, the people carried out his suggestions, as if responding to their inner voices. At midnight the Guru came into the crowd. There was to be a meeting and the Guru was to preside. A deep unconcern sat on his features while he sat at the head of the crowd. Orator after orator rose to his feet and spoke on the ideals of the Guru as they understood him, as the Guru sat silent behind them. They moved the crowd, mixing their voices with the subtle emotional atmosphere of the midnight vigil.
A group of women and children, more sunburnt than the rest of the crowd, sat segregated from the others. They were poor peasants, who, after a day's hard work, had come in search of consolation to the festive scene. For ages these poor labourers and their ancestors had tilled the soil for the richer people who took advantage of their goodness. On the basis of their caste, these people had been condemned to age-long suffering, and were segregated and spurned. The Guru's watchful eyes lighted on the group. He asked the orators to wait a moment.
Low-Caste tribal people in Kerala.
He asked the crowd if these people should be segregated. Why should they not come and feel equality with the others? The Guru arranged that two of the boys from the crowd be brought onto the platform, and seated them, after kind questions, one on either side of him. 'They are God's children as much as the others', he murmured, and tears of compassion more eloquent than speeches carried home his silent message to the crowd. Even they who would have growled at such a departure from tradition, could not resist the winning power of the Guru's eyes.
They crouched, innocent of the axe which the Guru aimed at the dead root of tradition. No statesmanship or subtle diplomacy was employed. It was the simplest manifestation of humanity, welling up in the heart of the Guru, that won the case for ever. Thus the first victory of the Guru was won. The boys were later admitted as members of the hermitage; and they and many such remained near the Guru, wherever he went, until the day of his passing away. While others spoke and became excited over the past or the future, striving for hours to direct the popular mind, the Guru sat silent, and acted. His silence, when judged by its effect, marked the high-water-mark of oratory. In winding up the proceedings of this memorable day, the Guru had merely a few simple words to say. These he put in the form of a motto, which one of those present proclaimed to the crowd. It read:
'Devoid of dividing walls
Of caste or race
Or hatred of rival faith,
We all live here
Such, know this place to be,
This Model Foundation!'
Such, then, was the manner, and such the character he gave to his work. It soon overflowed the limits of the province, and spread its seeds far and wide. Let us follow him a step further in his silent task.
Village Life in Old Kerala.
Let the reader imagine a village in Travancore in or about year 1895. The sandy village lane is untreadable in the midday heat. It is more than a hundred yards long and leads to the village temple and the pond. A poor villager, a hard-working agriculturist, and his tired newly-wedded wife have traversed the hot sand on their way from afar. They meet the priest of the temple who enters the lane from the opposite direction. A newcomer to the village would have heard an angry shout raised by the priest, which was meant for the approaching couple to make way for him. He was the representative of God and had to be given the wall. The harsh traditional shout was effective in making the tired couple retrace their steps all the way backwards until the priest could pass without distance-pollution from the poor workmen. Let the visitor pass on to the temple yard, which is the centre of the village life. The white walls of the temple which once formed the canvas on which inspired artists tried to express the richness of their inner life, was now a place which the idle village urchins scratched and defiled with ghastly figures in charcoal. The temple festival had degenerated into drunken merrymaking. Instead of the spirit of heroic sacrifice, society connived at the cowardice of the ritual sacrifice of animals. The spirit had fled from the temples, leaving the shell of tradition behind. The unholy wand of degeneration had touched with its deadening touch the once-luminous spirit that radiated from the village temple. Such and a hundred other such so-called places of worship were the canker at the core of a fallen society.
Not far from the temple stands the house of a trustee of the temple. The mistress of the house has finished the duties of the day. The children have retired to rest after their evening meal. The last visitor has arrived in the village, and this happens to be none other than the Yogi of the riverside hermitage. A youthful follower is with him and conducts him through the slatey darkness beneath the palm trees with the light of a torch. They partake of the last remnants of the meal and prefer to sleep in the open under the starlight. At day-break the anxious housewife discovers that the bed on which the Guru slept is made, and the Guru departed.
He is already on the scene of action. He has called the leaders together and talks to them. Animal sacrifices must be stopped; the temple must be demolished, it is too dirty for a place of worship; drinking must be discouraged; all are equal in the sight of God so long as they are clean and moral; there is no harm in modern innovations in shaving or dressing - such was his outlook and programme. Soon the task appeared to take on serious aspects. Hydra-headed tradition raised difficulties. Age-old precedents were quoted. Bloodshed was threatened. The wrath of the gods would descend on the race. The voice of a thousand years of convictions questioned the authority of anyone on the face of the earth to touch a hair of the accepted tradition of their forefathers. Some even trembled and gave vent to hysterical outbursts, while the Guru sat on another side talking in his usual gentle way to the leaders. After hours of pitched battle, one by one the leaders yielded to reason. Demonic feelings of ancient origin danced their last dance, exhausting themselves, and fell back before the gentle tear-filled features of the Guru. His voice sounded stronger than the shouts of vested interest. One by one the diverse elements melted into harmony.
Next morning the Guru began the demolition of the old temple. The stones were to be used for a new temple. An overgrown grove, untouched for generations out of superstition, was to be cut down by the Guru's mandate. The timber available therefrom was to be used for the school building that the Guru proposed for the education of the idle village urchins.
Innumerable privations were involved in such a task of reform. Some of them were self-inflicted. Others took the form of protests, while still others were resorted to give a better example to the people. It sometimes meant that on entering the gates of a rich mansion where he was invited, he had to turn away in protest on seeing some poultry in the yard which made him mumble something about the cruelty of rearing a bird or animal with parental care until it was grown, and then on a fine morning applying the sharpened knife to its neck just to satisfy the wild desires of the palate. It meant at other times that he walked twenty miles on foot in protest against the ill-treatment of an animal drawing the vehicle in which he sat.
It meant, at other times still, that he walked all night, disgusted with the heavy snoring of some of his followers who had feasted with him on a previous night. Once he spent a whole night sitting by the riverside, refusing the requests of a rich landlord to come and sleep in a couch prepared for him in the house, just because he had seen a visitor spit on the ground within sight of his window. It meant starvation when he refused to take even milk on a day on which he had no supper, telling the bystanders that the milkmen were cruel to the calves and did not leave enough milk to satisfy their hunger. Such occurrences were constant events in his life, giving intensity and depth to his silent message which he carried with him wherever he went.
For fifteen years he travelled incessantly, attempting to bring more cleanliness and light to the poor people of the country. He helped them to clean up the houses and streets; he helped them to have cleaner habits; he introduced and set an example in better diet; he gave an impetus to right moral standards; he pointed the right road to reform and more prosperity; he helped them to see clearly through maladjusted emotions - but these were only preliminaries to the real teaching that was to follow. This he left behind in the form of verses and writings for his future followers to learn and interpret.
As the honey in a flower attracts insects, so also the natural kindness that radiated from his person made him specially interesting to intelligent young men in the places that he visited. They gathered round him and followed him and were influenced by his ideas and ideals in various degrees. He talked with them, unceasingly helping them to distinguish the higher duty from the lower and opening their inner eyes to the light of truth 'with the golden needle of knowledge'. With the care of a parent, alternately kind and harsh as the seasons of their mental unfolding demanded, the Guru guided these men from one high pinnacle of thought to another. Some dropped off; others lapsed into household life, where the training they received near the Guru made them shine in their self-chosen careers.
Others developed the Guru-qualities themselves and, filled with the spirit of the Guru's message, burst away from him as seeds burst to scatter themselves. It was a continuous task for the Guru.
After these fifteen years of wanderings, in which he was everywhere and nowhere in particular, he emerged into a more settled sort of public life again at a place forty miles north of the original Ashram. He had selected a neglected hilltop on which a poor peasant had built a shed for him out of coconut-palm leaves. The sea was visible as a silver gleam from there, and all the undulating country below. Visitors, when the more persevering of them had succeeded in discovering him in that secluded spot, found him once more absorbed in tapas.(Austere Self-discipline. Literally, 'heating up'.
He sat unconcerned. The perennial springs which gave rise to gurgling streams at the foot of the hill had water as clear as tears, and represented objectively the inner state of peace within him. As before, he wrote prayers for the people who were interested in him. This time he chose to address God as his Mother. The devotional language, instead of reminding one of the torrential stream, reflected the perennial flow of crystal water.
'0 Mother', he called, 'when will my spirit's fever be calm and mingle in the core of the radiant-petalled glory of the One Primordial Mind? When will the deceptive snare of hungry visions cease? '
Such was the strain of his music at this period.
This place also soon began to grow into an institution by the same magic touch of his presence. He protected under his care a few of the poorest children he found round him. They did odd jobs for him and lived with him. To one he taught weaving and how to earn his living thereby. Another was his personal attendant and read him books while he waited on him. He talked with each of them, directing their thoughts into purposeful channels. He simplified his philosophy for them, with the greatest consideration for their ignorance. In his attempts to explain to these poor children his religious attitude in simple language, he wrote the following verses for their daily meditation. Translated they read as follows:
'God, protect us and keep us ever from harm!
Thou art the Great Captain,
And a mighty steamship on the ocean of being
Is Thy foot.
Counting all things here,
Touching them one by one,
We come at last to where
There is no more left;
Then, lo, the quest stops
In Thee, likewise, let the inner self
Attain its rest!
Food and clothes, and all things else we need,
Thou givest us unceasingly:
Ever saving us from want,
We thrive on Thy bounty, Lord!
Our only God Thou art.
To sea, and wave and wind and depth compared,
Let us within us see the plan, respectively
Of us ourselves, of Maya, Thy Power and Thou Thyself!
Thee we find in Creation;
The Creator, too, Thou didst become, and
Creation's myriad magic;
And the very stuff of all created things.
Truth thou art,
And knowledge and bliss likewise.
The present time art Thou;
Past and future merge in unity in Thee.
Even the spoken word, a moment's thought reveals
As but of Thine own self again.
Victory to Thee, Great Master!
All-knowing, bliss-filled Sea of Kindness, Hail!
In the deep ocean of Thy Glory,
Let us all together immersed be,
For ever and forever -
There to dwell everlastingly in bliss.
PRINCIPLE AND PRACTICE
The Guru represented the principle which stands, as it were, inactive and still at the centre of practice, whose proper place is at the frontier or the circumference. Practice was concerned with particular events, while the principle was the dynamic centre which gave continuity and coherence to the separate events. The principle stood colourless and neutral in comparison to the particular act that was to be accomplished, but it was the silent and simple principle that lent support and benediction to every righteous cause. At Varkala, which was his new abode, the Guru became more and more the representative of the Principle with a capital 'P'.
The Coast at Varkala.
Varkala was not a populous place. The blackened rocks that cut into the greenness of the sloping hills looked hard and unyielding. The seekers after ease and pleasure had therefore deserted this place and lived nearer the seacoast where the abundance of fish, moisture and fertility favoured the proliferation of human life. Away from the competition and strife of daily life the Guru sat on the hilltop, removed from the highways of business. To him the neglected spot had its aspects of sublime beauty. Hidden behind the apparently unchanging fixity of the rocks, the meditative eyes of the Guru could see the principle of change and becoming. The ancient breezes that rose far away on the ocean's breast greeted him where he sat. The starlit nights were rich with the distant murmur of the waves. At the foot of the barren rocks, hidden amongst the growth of fern, crystal springs perennially formed themselves into gurgling streams. The virgin beauty of the spot could not be discovered by the vulgar eye of haste or greed. To the Guru, as he himself used to say, it was the 'Punya Bhumi' (holy land), where the signs of human pettiness and greed were not in evidence.
A stranger would have thought that the Guru was inactive, or that he was resting without much work. A longer or shorter stay at the Ashram soon changed that notion. It was true that at early dawn, before even the contour of the hills became visible, the Guru, who had finished his morning ablutions, sat still on a raised couch while one of the Brahmacharis read in musical tones parts from an elevating scripture. His long staff and lantern with half-raised wick, and his sandals which he left on the threshold of his little dwelling-room, seemed to add to the still picture of meditation; so did the morning shadows at the foot of the mango-grove. It was true that most of the day he spent talking to various kinds of visitors, young and old, on topics that made a hasty man impatient while he stood listening to him. It was true that after his midday meal he shut himself up or sat under the shade of the mango tree. It was true that he retired soon after nightfall and lay down on his couch while someone read or sang to him. But the Guru was still wakeful. His voice would come unmistakably when the reader made a mistake that had to be corrected. Grammar and pronunciation were not neglected. The style was not left uncriticised. No sublime height was left unappreciated, while still he appeared to be lazy. Separate days mingled thus their boundaries in a peace that was ever active within him. It was a state of continued Yoga. It was a life of dedication to a principle which he shared with the sun and stars. The world of actions was only an outer zone of shadow compared to the brilliance of the light that burnt within him.
It was not that he did not engage in activity. The attitude of strenuous activity was a natural counterpart of the Yoga which he practised day and night. As a result of this ever-wakeful attitude, he always did what others forgot to do, and even this kind of activity generally kept him more occupied than most people. On a rainy morning, when all the inmates liked to stay longer indoors, he was already getting the water-ways clear of the obstructing earth that the overnight flood had deposited. In the midday heat when the building overseer who volunteered to supervise the erection of the new school building was absent, he was there present himself to direct the stone-breaking and carting operations.
He was at the timber yard at night to put away valuable timber that the workmen had neglected to store away in safety. The poor boys of the Sanskrit school had helped to wash the mossy greenness off the parapet wall that surrounded the temple of Sarada, and he was there helping to make and distribute milk pudding to the children with his own hands. It was a peaceful routine of activities, some strenuous, some calm, which the continuous principle that he stood for made him engage in without ado. Life was to him a continuous day of harmonised activity. It was not that he believed that all must work hard, but it was rather that man could not remain without activity. 'What can one do?', he used to say, 'our hands and feet and fingertips are all asking for work. They are like restless horses. We should be ill if we did not give enough work to them'. He would therefore stubbornly insist, saying he would cook his own food or wash his own clothes when a devotee tried to deprive him of the chance. He would walk miles and miles to escape from some of the helpful attentions of his devotees.
Occasionally there came a visitor who was a knight-errant in some frontier cause connected with the principles that the Guru symbolised. Perhaps it was one coming from the ancient temple-city of Madura where, since the time of his breaking away from the leader in the fashion we have referred to, several years before, he fought the slow but winning battle against popular superstition and darkness. Or he came from the island of Ceylon or from the Kannarese-speaking country of Mangalore on the coast towards Bombay. Some others returned to the Master with fruits and flowers from Kashi (modern Benares) or, farther still, from Haridwar. They touched the feet of the leader and remained with him, imbibing afresh his message, before they travelled back to their chosen frontier. The spirit of reconciliation filled the atmosphere in the Ashram when any such came, and the inmates, young and old, rejoiced in the sense of life that came from the alternation of separation and return of the members of the great family of the Guru. The frontier was the real seat of activity. The Guru himself appeared inactive, and unconcerned with affairs as such.
Once came the poet Rabindranath Tagore, on one of his southern tours, to visit the Guru. In honour of the great poet of Bengal the people in the vicinity of the hermitage arranged a kingly reception. Elephants were requisitioned. He was to be brought in procession as far as the foot of the hill of the Ashram. Musical accompaniments were arranged. The Guru stood in the veranda of his rest-house and himself ordered the best carpets that the hermitage possessed to be brought out to adorn the foot of the seat of the honoured guest. The people thronged around the guest, anxious to hear the conversation between the Guru and the seer of Santiniketan. Each of the crowd thought himself the chosen follower of the Guru and, as space was limited, it took some time to establish silence for the conversation. The two veteran leaders greeted each other with joined palms and sat down facing one another. The seer of Bengal broke the deep silence that marked their meeting, and complimented the Guru on the 'great work' he was doing for the people. The Guru's reply was not delayed. 'Neither have we done anything in the past nor is it possible to do anything in the future. Powerlessness fills us with sorrow'. His words sounded an enigma to some; others thought he was just joking; still others examined the logic of the statement. A characteristic silence followed the remark. The crowd looked at one another for a meaning, but it was the Guru's face itself that gave the silent commentary to the words. Deep silence and earnestness sat on his features. Smiles of curiosity and the rival expectations of the people were drawn into the neutral depths of silence by the suggestion that was expressed on the features of the Guru. All was silent for a minute or two. The climax of the interview was reached in silence where all met in equality. Usual conversation followed and the poet and the crowd retired.
The apparently unproductive principle which the Guru stood for was all the time ripening fruitful results all round. Some were merely seasonal expressions of his message. Others had continuity beyond the limit of seasonal cycles. They began in the shape of reading-rooms in the name of the Guru which later developed into places of worship. The social and economic institutions were spontaneously aggregated round this central nucleus.
Humble individuals, trained in persistent effort, once touched by the Guru, were at the bottom of each such new sprout. They carried pictures of the Guru in procession. They arranged popular conferences in which men and women took part, and searched for the direction of progress to which the Guru pointed. Those who had special political or social disabilities answered the rallying-call of the leaders more than others. Soon, hundreds of little nuclei of institutions were scattered all over the country in Travancore, Cochin and Malabar. Later, they spread into Ceylon and the Madras Presidency.
Prominent among the permanent organisations that thus grew, as it were, in the shade of the parent principle, was one started in connection with the management of the original riverside temple of Shiva at Aruvippuram. The Guru sometimes sat at its annual deliberations, and he directed the course of its growth from year to year for more than thirty years of his life.
Sometimes he protested and would have nothing to do with it. At other times he accepted its invitation and blessed its efforts. Its membership grew from a number of two digits to one of six.
Although the Guru did not place much faith in big organisations which were obliged to work at the dull level of the popular mind, the voiceless people whose rights were trodden under the feet of special interests found a powerful organisation here to voice their rights. Beneficial results accrued from year to year. This association still flourishes, and its ponderous name signifies 'The Association for the Propagation of the Dharma 1 of Sri Narayana'.
The peripheral limits of the Guru's influence were where his principles lashed in the form of waves against the rocks of diehard conservatism and public opinion reflecting the dead formalities of traditional life. This was the region of actual conflict. This was the frontier where the cause advanced and receded in succession. This was the region where the leaders arose and became 'men of the hour'. They worked in the dust-clouds of controversy; they believed in mass meetings and demonstrations; they adopted tactics and made compromises.
Youthful enthusiasts found food for imagination in this work and joined in numbers the ranks of the older leaders. They used the name of the Guru and owed their leadership in varying degrees to his moral and intellectual guidance. He commended and ridiculed them as occasion demanded, and they visited him now and then to spend a day or two at the Ashram.
By this time the Guru had become a social force that could no more be neglected. He had the right to prescribe a deviation from customary practice. He could even alter marriage and funeral rites and enact reforms. It was accepted that he was working for the good of the people. Protests and murmurs of dissent were raised, but the vital voice of truth and justice carried all before it. After a time, even these murmurs died in the silent victory that belonged to the principle that burnt in his heart.
Once, a beautiful European girl stood by an Indian student who had not long before returned to India from his overseas studies. Intimacy had grown between them while in Europe and, true to her word, she had crossed the ocean and come to the man of her choice. The father of the young man, who was much respected in the neighbourhood, had spent many a sleepless night thinking what would happen to the family traditions if his son married an 'imported' woman from a strange shore. The atmosphere of panic prevailed. Was the family, by this mingling of blood, to break away forever from the rest of the relatives whom they loved? Debates were held in nooks and corners. The wise people shook their heads. Ill omens were imagined. The troubled father at last came to the Guru for advice. The Guru saw no harm; the wedding could take place in the Ashram itself. The public were invited. And there the couple stood: the brave girl, radiant in an Indian sari, by the bridegroom who was then a professor at a university. The Guru, who sat on a platform built at the base of a mango tree hung with jasmine festoons, surrounded by a crowd of several thousands of people of all religions, after a few simple formalities consecrated the marriage. In the absence of a proper bride's party, the Guru specially asked an Englishman who was present to say a few words as a representative of the bride's people.
Rival social and religious representatives met on that happy and significant occasion and feasted together. The clouds that seemed to threaten disaster only brought joy in all hearts as they departed from the Ashram. It was the silent principle which the Guru represented that had again won a calm victory. This was only one of many smaller victories of the same kind which were almost of weekly occurrence at the Ashram.
Meanwhile, the youthful enthusiasts were preparing the ground for a more serious clash with vested interests and conservative opinion. Events seemed to accumulate, as it were, underground for a long time before they found characteristic expression in what is now a fairly famous event known as the Vaikom Satyagraha struggle. In this, the Guru's efforts came into contact with those of Mahatma Gandhi. As the Guru's attitude in this campaign was not clearly understood 2, we shall here give a brief account of the main happenings and circumstances with a view to studying his general attitude in relief.
As in many other parts of the world, some religious institutions, instead of being consecrated by a living symbol of justice and righteousness, had degenerated and the temple walls had become the ramparts for the protection of vested interests. The traditional respect of the people for the name of God and religious duty began to be exploited by a minority.
Public benefactions were being diverted into unlawful channels. Those who could not claim holiness were reduced to the humility of waiting outside the institutions that their money supported, while those who were already not specially needy feasted within the walls. Dirt and demoralisation spread its contagion. Myth and fiction, having their justification in special circumstances in the past, overcovered simple realities beyond all recognition. Even some important roads were thus reserved for particular sections of the public, not to speak of the right to share in the advantages of the public institutions.
With the general awakening to popular rights that followed in the wake of the nationalist movement in India, the nation was beginning to search its own conscience. Among the sore spots in the national consciousness was the question of caste privileges which had been for a long time mixed up with social and religious duties. One seemed to lend justification to the other until, in the dull background of the popular mind, one became confused with the other. Long lapses of time made them inseparable from the primitive stem of popular belief, and they came to be spoken of under the sonorous title of 'Varnashrama Dharma'. Not only did the hereditary priests reserve to themselves the right to interpret this 'Dharma' or duty but, what was more, they reserved the right to decide when they were right. Thus, by a vague sort of justification which was more felt than found reasonable, an unjust domination remained unaffected by the ebb and flow of popular opinion.
Gandhi arriving to take part in the Vaikom Satyagraha.
Dayananda, Keshab Chandra, Vivekananda and other pioneers of reform in India had for a long time protested in their own ways against this injustice; but it was Mahatma Gandhi to whom belongs the credit of inducing the nation as a whole to include items like the removal of untouchability in the national programme, and trying to clean the national conscience. It was, however, from the point of view of All-India politics that the Mahatma looked at the question.
Gandhi at the Vaikom Satyegraha.
Some of the youthful followers of the Guru were impatient for results. It was some time since they had started a movement for the throwing open of Hindu temples to all sections, irrespective of caste or birth. They linked their efforts with those of Mahatma Gandhi and the National Congress.
Gandhi and Narayana Guru.
They went to see the Mahatma, who advised them to try the special method of fighting the situation which he called 'Satyagraha'. It was a kind of passive resistance with ethical principles and a philosophy which had evolved in connection with the personal life of the Mahatma in his work in South Africa and India. 'Soul Force' was its watchword, and it sought to obtain real results by the use of weapons which belonged purely to the emotional world. Even the nearest followers of the Mahatma were liable to be mistaken in the interpretation of this method which Gandhi's mind had conceived and perfected through various stages of trial and error in his life.
According to the Mahatma's advice a Satyagraha camp was established at Vaikom, one of the ancient temple towns of Travancore state, where the injustice was keenly felt. Volunteers arrived from various parts of South India. Constant directions came from the Mahatma, who was at Ahmedabad. The Guru's land and centre at Vaikom was placed at the disposal of the Satyagraha committee, and the Guru's followers supplied much of the manpower required for the campaign. The Guru encouraged and visited the camp, but as usual took no direct part in the campaign. More men and money poured in from all parts of India, and the campaign, which was the first clear expression of the pent-up feelings of the people against a long-standing blot, soon took on grave proportions. Batches of volunteers went to the road that the Travancore government reserved for the high castes and stood facing the police constables who were posted there to obstruct them from entering the road. Without retaliation the men suffered privations month after month, standing at their post in the heat and rain, hoping to raise the right emotion in the conservatives that would bring victory to the cause. The tension of public opinion grew from day to day, and still they kept on under keen provocation from the rival camp.
At last, Mahatma Gandhi himself came to Travancore to inspect and, if possible, terminate the situation. He talked with all the parties interested in the question, and came to Varkala to speak to the Guru. It was thus that the silent Sage of Varkala met for the first time the historic figure of Sabarmati.
The Mahatma represented a wave of reform that, starting in a political ideal, tried to make the people spiritual. He believed in Satyagraha as a special weapon of self-purification of the masses. They were, therefore, called upon to believe in this doctrine. The thought of the welfare of the masses haunted him day and night. He sought to serve their cause with all the earnestness that was at the command of his frail body.
When his plans failed or produced a reaction, he took the blame on himself and confessed before the public that he had committed a Himalayan blunder and implored the mercy of God in the most supplicant terms.
To the Guru, the elements of continuity of the principle were more important than the particular extensive application of a doctrine or method to a given situation that arose. Rules served their purpose for a time and had to yield place to others. Each situation called for its own special intelligence and there was no one panacea. The mind was to be left free to thread its own way through the maze of situations that presented themselves before it, and rules were straight lines compared to the zigzags and curves of the course of right action. He emphasised only two platforms of thought. One was that of the everyday world of facts, and the other that which belonged to the reality beyond. He carefully avoided preaching or lending his assent to special philosophies or standpoints to serve temporary or temporal purposes, lest such creations should continue to haunt the minds of the ignorant after the creeds had ceased to serve an immediate cause, and thus add to the heavy load of superstitions with which the poor people confused their honest brains. Popular agreement in a course of action was not to be the result of faith in a doctrine or the appreciation of a special philosophy, but the natural outcome of tangible realities of everyday life, interpreted as simply as possible for the sake of the people.
The Mahatma saw special use in declaring himself a Hindu and a Vaishnava (Vishnu-worshipper ED), besides preaching the doctrines of Satyagraha and soul-force. He also believed in 'Varnashrama Dharma' which he elaborated and interpreted in his speeches and writings. The Guru was content to call himself a man, and to call upon man to recognize God and the simple realities of life. One tried, as it were, to reach the heart of the masses from the circumference, with variety as the starting point: while to the other, the starting point was the recognition of the One without a second. It was natural that the leader of All-India politics should differ from the solitary Guru in the point of view that he accepted as the basis of activity.
One represented the peripheral and the other the central compromise of the same abstract principle. The Mahatma emphasised and voiced the master sentiment of the nation, while the Guru stood for the neutral principle.
The Mahatma represented the rare case in which the logic of the emotions coincided in its essential aspects with the logic of pure reason. The test of both these kinds of logic was in action, and this was the sure point of contact between the Guru and the Mahatma. As with the Guru at Varkala, Gandhi had 'untouchable' children with him at Sabarmati. The Mahatma still stood for Hindu-Muslim Unity. Both of them were keenly interested in cottage industries; and the type of saintliness both represented had marks of a common lineage. Although, therefore, in the interview with the Guru the Mahatma seemed to differ from him in what concerned Hindu Dharma and Varnashrama and the dogmatic aspects of Satyagraha, theoretical differences converged until they met in practice. The Guru, for example, subscribed to the Khaddar campaign (for popularising homespun cloth). After exchanges of mutual veneration the Mahatma took leave of the Guru.
The Satyagraha struggle terminated in a partial victory for the cause of the masses. On the land which was the scene of the historic event the Guru erected a school for the poor children of the locality. It stands there to commemorate the noble efforts of many youthful souls who suffered. The Guru liked to see continuity in human endeavour and, as continuity is the essential factor in a principle, he countenanced events which were mere expressions of seasonal enthusiasm. While the waves seemed to advance and recede at the circumference, the centre remained undisturbed. At Varkala the winds wafted their message as usual and the gurgling streams interpreted the continuity of the Guru's silent hours.
The Brahmachari who read by the bedside of the Guru had his usual course of grammar and pronunciation. The inner brilliance kept the Guru self-absorbed, while his influence spread into action all round. He showed in his life that principle and practice, ends and means, were related to one another like the stem and branches of a great tree. Withdrawn into the central core of all practice, he remained silent. His life was a continuous commentary on the words of the Bhagavad Gita:
'Mentally renouncing all actions, the sovereign dweller in the body resteth serenely in the nine-gated city, neither acting nor causing to act.' (V-13).
1 The Law of Righteousness.
2 Cf. 'Young India' by Mahatma Gandhi.
FROM THE PAST TO THE FUTURE
There are two distinct orders of greatness. One of them expends itself in the region of contemporary life, while the other belongs to that order which leaves behind it 'footprints on the sands of Time'. It was to this second order that the Guru's life belonged more than the first. What such a type of greatness lost in the extent of its dominion, it gained by invading regions of Time, Thought, and Pure Reason. Surviving lightning-flashes that seem to efface it for a while, such greatness enters the horizon to stay there like a guiding star. The silent lustre of its message belongs as much to the past as to the future and links up the past and the future with one vital bond. We shall here take a short retrospective survey.
Imagine a great country, the vast continent of India, being subjected to constant waves of invasion during the course of several thousand years. The influx came mainly from the North-West. Imagine in this process a constant sifting and selecting of the population, one set of traditions giving way before another, a third gaining over a fourth, and so on, overcovering again and again the special sprouts of culture that protected leisure fostered here and there. Out of all the discordant sound which thus resulted, imagine one period when there seemed to be a pause and a rapid assimilation of the conflicting elements into one clear expression, of which the name of the great Buddha was the inner symbol. This silent epoch was followed by a great pulsation of human endeavour. India united in the religion of kindness; and art, literature, science and philosophy put forth their finest blossoms. Following the great unison that was thus attained, there arose a vast tidal wave of civilisation that swept the length of the land, carrying its seeds across to Ceylon and Siam, and along the chain of islands situated in the Indian and Pacific oceans - authorities have traced this influence as far away as the Hawaiian Islands.
The Spread of Hindu Culture in the Middle Ages.
This tidal wave receded after a time and shrank within India itself, leaving in various protected parts - on islands and in the seclusion of mountainous tracts - remnants of the days of expansion and growth. As flowers blossom in seclusion, these remnants of the past lay hidden from the public gaze.