Against Aachaaram: Srinarayana Guru

The excerpt below is translated by DARSHAN SUBRAMANIAM. The note that follows is by J Devika.


Followers and disciples of Sree Narayana Guru make a pilgrimage to Sivagiri every year on the first of January. The first pilgrimage took place on January 1, 1933. Only five people took part then.

On January 19, 1928, the Guru was resting at the foot of a mango tree near the Nagampadam Temple in Kottayam. The eminent personages Vallabhasseri Govindan Vaidyar and T.K. Kittan Writer approached him and requested for permission to conduct a pilgrimage to Sivagiri. That conversation is attached below.
VAIDYAR. Writer needs to place a certain matter at Your Revered feet and receive Your consent and command on it.
GURU. What is it? Do say.
VAIDYAR. The proposals have been written out in the form of numbered questions. Writer will read them at your command.
WRITER [reading aloud] Sivigiri Pilgrimage.
GURU. A pilgrimage? At Sivagiri? Good. Bathing in Our pipe water is possible. Sharadadevi may also be prayed to. A good proposal. Do read. Let me listen.
WRITER. I request Your Reverence to command and allow the declaration of Sivagiri as a holy place for Ezhavas in Kerala.
GURU. Varkala Janardhanam is a holy place. Will Sivagiri also become a holy place alongside it?
WRITER. There is no admittance for any of us into the holy places of Hindus. Those who go anyhow are met with violent repression, dishonor, and financial loss. If Your Reverence wills it, Sivagiri will become a holy place. Your command will do.
GURU. Writer and Vaidyar believe that, if I say so, Sivagiri will become a holy place, is it not?
VAIDYAR. We believe it completely.
GURU. In that case, if I say so, and the two of you believe it, totally we are three. Will that be enough?
VAIDYAR. If there is a command, the twenty lakh of us, and those like us belonging to other lower castes, will accept and believe Sivagiri to be a holy place.
GURU. You have faith. Good. Permission granted.
WRITER. The pilgrims wish to come to Sivagiri once a year. Kindly command us on when that should be, which month, date, week and nakshatram.
GURU [after thinking a little] Let the gathering of pilgrims at Sivagiri be on the birth of the European year. The first day of January. That will be the sixteenth or seventeenth day in the month of Dhanu by our system. A good time. That is fine.
WRITER. Should the pilgrims observe any vrtham? Kindly command us about the necessary observances.
GURU. Not everyone in these times is likely to observe long penance and severe austerities. Ten days’ vrtham abiding by The Buddha’s panchashuddhi should be enough. Vaidyar, what do you say?
VAIDYAR. What has been willed is more than enough.
GURU. Good. That will do. . . That will be good.
WRITER. Should there be any uniqueness in the pilgrims’ manner of dressing?
GURU. White cloth is of the family men. Saffron for the ascetics, black cloth and blanket for Sabarimala pilgrims. Let it be yellow cloth for Sivagiri pilgrims. It is Sri Krishna’s mundu, and The Buddha’s as well. Good. That will do.

[That moment, a person from the crowd] Should pilgrims wear the rudraksham?

Not needed. One might drink some water with ground rudraksham. It cannot be but beneficial. [The questions that visitors had prepared the night before concluded here. But the Guru continued.] Are there any more questions to be asked?
WRITER. Nothing further.
GURU. Does Vaidyar know The Buddha’s panchashuddhi?
GURU. Do say, let me listen.
VAIDYAR. Shuddhi of body, of food, of mind, of word, of action.
GURU. Alright, observing it is enough. [A little later] Let nobody venture to buy yellow silk because yellow cloth has been decided upon. It is not even necessary that the cloth must be new. It is enough if white cloth, already in use, is dipped in turmeric. This can be washed and used again afterwards. The journey must be without pomp. It should be humble. Reciting hymns of god with devotion will be good. Do not blemish this movement by creating pomp, ostentation and clamor in the name of a pilgrimage. Do not spend a single coin unnecessarily. Let us see what the expenditure will be for a person to go to Sivagiri from Kottayam, stay there for two days, and then return. [Thinking as if calculating and adding for some time] If there are three rupees, some coins will be left over. That will be quite sufficient. Ezhavas make money, but they spend all of it. Some even incur debts. That must not happen. They must learn to save. A lot of backwardness in the education, economic condition and hygiene of society. This manner must change. Must be changed. [To the visitors who had noted everything down and kept it folded under their arms] No further questions to be asked?

GURU [after two-three minutes, pointing a finger at the main person] What is the purpose behind conducting this pilgrimage? Is is that there isn’t one?
WRITER. The purposes have been issued before as Your command.
GURU. Weren’t those its practices? Are the practices the purpose? [Nobody replies.]

Vaidyar, what do you say? Is it that there is no purpose behind this pilgrimage? [No reply.]

[Gurudevan looked at the crowd of important people standing around him and at the ascetics beside, then continued in a slightly grave manner]: What is achieved by so many people, from various parts of the kingdom, wearing yellow clothes, journeying to Sivagiri, walking around and, having bathed, eaten and spent money, returning to their homes? Nothing is achieved. Only expenditure and trouble. That won’t do. Any action needs a purpose.
[Gurudevan, while looking towards the main person, said, “write.”]
Purposes of the Sivagiri Pilgrimage – Things to be accomplished – Its objectives. [Counting one-by-one with the fingers on the left hand]

One: education,

two: hygiene,

three: devotion to god,

four: organization,

five: agriculture,

six: trade,

seven: handicraft,

eight: technical training;

Are these understood? Those with expertise should be invited to discourse on each of these topics. People must gather in a disciplined way and listen attentively. They should try to put to action what they have heard. Through this, they must attain success. Then the people and the kingdom will be prosperous. Not only for Ezhavas, but through them, all of society must prosper. That way, life will become exemplary. This must be the foremost purpose of the Sivagiri pilgrimage. Understand?

[the Guru ended his discourse thus.]


Nakshatram – asterism; days in the lunar month, twenty-seven in total.

vrtham – vows, penance.

pancha – five, shuddhi – purity; Five principles of purity.

grihasthanmar – alluding to one of the four ashramas or stages of life mentioned in Vedic texts.

mundu – Clothing of the lower body, fastened around the waist.

rudraksham – Seed used as prayer beads.

[ Darshan Subramaniam is a student of Humanities at Azim Premji University. He is interested in reading and translating Malayalam literature, and has been learning the language for a year.]

[The Malayalam original of this conversation is included in the volume Narayana Guru, edited and compiled by P K Balakrishnan (Kottayam, DC Books, 2012).]

Sree Narayana Guru (1855 -1928) is, to this day, the most celebrated among the icons from Kerala’s extraordinary period of socio-political transformation in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. He is credited with having triggered widespread social change through masterful interventions in revising and reformulating fundamental aspects of human life including faith, belonging, action, and mutuality among human beings. The re-visioning of the Ezhava community inspired by him set in motion significant shifts in other communities; it also enabled the opening of space for other ‘moral’ communities not held together by traditional glue – faith or caste. In this journey, the Guru met with and inspired the best minds of his generation, all of who drew from him, differently : poets like Kumaran Asan and Muthukulam Parvathy Amma, rationalist anti-caste reformers like Sahodaran K Ayyappan and Kuttipuzha Krishna Pillai, stalwarts of the Ezhava reformation like Dr Palpu, C V Kunhuraman, and T K Madhavan, explorers of Advaita like Nataraja Guru, Malayali propagandists of Buddhism like C Krishnan, and many others. The Guru wrote both prose and poetry, was proficient in Malayalam, Tamil, and Sanskrit, his intellectual sources were entirely drawn from different Indian traditions, and his discourse cut a path completely separate from those of Indian nationalism and British colonialism.
Yet, as his interventions receded in time, despite his attempts to avoid post-mortem iconization, the Guru became an object appropriated and consumed by different interest-groups, some of who cast him in the mould of the social revolutionary, and others who saw Sankara’s true successor in him.

Yet there can be little doubt that the Guru’s most important achievement was the huge blow he dealt to the strongest bolster of Brahmin-sudra power in Kerala, the aachaaram.

The two disciples beg for a pilgrimage to Sivagiri, where the avarna-born Guru had defied the wrath of the brahmins and consecrated an idol of Siva – thereby asking for an alternative to aachaaram-centred practices of worship which dehumanized the avarna. In the conversation, both the Guru’s disdain for existing aachaaram and his imagination of an alternate set of practices, geared towards a totally different end, are visible. If aacharam held up the brahmin-sudra nexus, the Guru’s suggestions for practices in a pilgrimage orient them towards the end of building unique spiritual selves and paths. If aacharam meant subservience and blind obedience, the Guru made it clear that a pilgrimage should bridge the spiritual and the material. In place of brahmanical shuddhi, the Guru recommends Buddha’s panchashuddhi to pilgrims as preparation for the pilgrimage. It is evident that the Guru’s imagination of pilgrimage is directly opposed to the present-day savarna imagination of pilgrimage, as evident in their defense of the increasingly-brahminized aachaaram at Sabarimala. He mocks gently the question whether pilgrims should wear sacred objects like the rudraksham seed, reminding the questioner that the rudraksham’s material, curative properties may outweigh its spiritual efficacy.

The Guru is sceptic of most things that his disciples want — temples, practices, pilgrimages etc. — but then he yields to their requests, only to produce a temple/practice/pilgrimage that would be a negation of brahmanical temples/practices/pilgrimages. The Guru-shishya relationship is one of great distance, and the Guru lightens it by jesting all the time. And also striking is the Guru’s refusal to demarcate ‘tradition’ away from modernity, evident in his openness to the ‘English’ calendar, values like hygiene and industrious labour, and Buddhist spiritual practices.

The BJP in Kerala has been keen to absorb the Guru into its Hindutva frame. It is the need of the hour to resist this. For the Guru is perhaps the strongest source for imagining a hegemonic vision of a convivial society that may call itself Hindu, but which does not require neither the horror of caste nor a demonized Other to survive. ]

3 thoughts on “Against Aachaaram: Srinarayana Guru”

  1. To gain a foothold in south , specially Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the hindutva forces may appropriate any one even if the person is against brahminism or manu …..whether Guru or Periyar …!


  2. Nicely eulogised version and one wishes that it is not politicised by vested interests such as the BJP vying to link Narayan Guru’s life with its narrow-minded saffron-coloured philosophy in public life….


  3. ..pardon ignorance, glossary provided doesn’t offer meaning of aacharam..thanks for help
    would also be grateful for indicating more recent writing/biographies


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