Balm in Troubling times – Raghavan Thirumulpad on Srinarayana Dharma

[The lockdown ought to work as a great leveler. For once, all who live in mortal bodies have been reminded of their inevitable mortality, of the absurd fragility of our existence on this planet. Even the living-gods who command a huge following have shut darshan. We have also been reminded that life on earth will not grind to a standstill if we go. Indeed, the signs are that it will thrive. 

But at the ground level, that is not happening. The better-off can see how, starkly, like never before, the privileges they enjoy, and given as they are to an amoral worship of consumption which inhibits their capacity for compassion, are more likely to shield this by resorting to any kind of ideology that justifies their privilege, probably eugenics or some kind of functionalist interpretation of caste oppressive practices. We are seeing how the poor are suffering for no fault of theirs at all. Indeed, the lockdown may help to normalize privilege even more, and render us all the more insensitive to the suffering of the working class poor. One reason why this happens is because we are already, as a society, afflicted by moral viruses — of religious bigotry, caste privilege, and ruthless capitalism. As a society, we are sick, and the pandemic is likely to exacerbate it

It must be this connection that made me turn to the work of Raghavan Thirumulpad, who was one of Kerala’s finest ayurvedic physicians, a multi-lingual scholar whose conception of individual and human wellness was inextricably related to the wellness of society and the natural world. I have long admired the ease with which he moved between theory and practice in ayurveda; but what really connected us as privileged-caste-born people who sought to become human  was that we found in Sreenarayana Guru a common refuge. For Thirumulpad, the Guru is not just a social reformer or preacher but a healer — a healer of society and individual, who drew upon Indian traditions to reinterpret a dharma adequate to the disease that afflicted society in his times.

Also, the ugliness and sheer cruelty of social inequality so crudely visible now has made me think again of the limitations of identity politics around caste — while the relevance of such assertions is evident to me, it is also clear that it cannot cure this society of the moral viruses, not even of caste privilege, simply because it does not offer a hegemonic discourse and practice that can draw everyone to it against caste privilege, religious majoritarianism, and  individualising, endlessly-greedy capitalism.  There, the Guru seems to be a beacon of hope; in his time, he drew to him people of all castes and faiths, and he gave them the courage to abandon caste privilege and heal themselves. If Kerala has been able to come together (however briefly)  in times which reveal our mortality to us, that is because the Guru’s spirit somehow lingers on even at a time when the Left moral compass seems to have been abandoned for neoliberal growth.

I believe that Thirumulpad’s reading of Sreenarayanadharma has great healing powers, and especially for those who mistake the rabid energy of the moral virus that is fast corroding the social fabric of the country for health itself – and thereby allow the virus to infect them. A hegemonic politics capable of drawing the  country’s religious majority against caste, against bigotry, hatred, and blind greed has to rest on a new metaphysics. It needs new metaphors, imagery, affect. It needs to go beyond secularism. Thirumulpad’s version is a simple, useful introduction to Sreenarayanadharmam.

Below is my translation of the first part of Thirumulpad’s essay on Sreenarayanadharma. This is from his slender volume Ente Gurudarshanam . I will be posting the other sections soon]


The works that Srinarayana Gurudevan wrote constitute the best source for those who seek to know of his teachings and his aims. I think we can divide them into two sets, one which presents theories, sidhaanthangal, and the other, practice or aachaaram. The ones which present the teachings about the truth of the individual, society, and the universe may be generally referred to as theoretical. I think that those which teach the conduct of life may be considered practical, or aachaaraparam. The word charya marks the concept of aachaaram. Aachaaryan is he who instructs through his practice of aachaaram. It is generally accepted without a doubt that unless brought into charya, or practice, theories, sidhaanthangal, will turn into mere intellectual acrobatics. One may claim that sidhaantham involves discovering the logic of charya. Advaitam is the theory that justifies action based on the conscious knowledge that everything in society, the world, the universe, and Nature, all that exists, is of an original Existence and that they differ only in an instrumental sense. But without such action, and with mere intellectual debate to justify advaitam, life does not become agreeable and positive (sukham). Humans can exist only as members of society. The microcosm of society is of course the family; society is composed of many families. So the private life of human beings affects their families too. Therefore the questions of how to live one’s life, how one lives one’s life, are of prime importance.

One may claim that dharma refers to the manner in which life is lived. This manner may differ in time and place. But in expression and essence, it is universal and eternal. The difference is born from specific needs and convenience. It is said: Desakaalochitam Karmadharmamrthyabhidhiyathe. The difference in the teachings of aachaaryas about dharma is related to the circumstances of their times and places.  Any such teaching can derive its relevance only from its own time and place. Criticizing the relevance of the teachings born of a certain set of circumstances from another time and place may not be valid. It is like treating an illness. A treatment decided for a particular person in one set of circumstances may not be effective for another person in another context, and it may not be effective of the same person even, in another set of conditions. But the logic of treatment may not vary. That is why siddhaantha is often referred to as universal and eternal. Gurudeva who observed and criticized life closely, sought to renew dharma in the light of the Aarsha tradition and teach them afresh. The work titled Srinarayanadharmam collects and organizes these teachings. Atmananda Swami, the Guru’s disciple, undertook this work of collection. It was published in 1957 along with a commentary by another of the Guru’s disciples, Srinarayanateertha. In the preface, Atmanandha Swami wrote : Srinarayanadharmam was composed in the month of Chingam of M.E 1100 at the Sivagiri Matham at Varkala. The Guru composed these verses and chose Atmananda to be his scribe. He would read out the transcribed verses to the Guru each evening and make the necessary corrections every day. It took a month to complete. Atmananda Swami mentions that he was writing this note in 1173 ME, Chingam. That is, this work was originally composed seventy-three years ago (in 1924 September). But I feel that Srinarayanadharmam has not been discussed as much as many of the Guru’s other works (like the Atmopadeshasatakam and so on). It is certain that comparative research on this work and the writings of the earlier aachaarayas on the same matters will yield considerable insight not only about the growth and changes in Indian culture but also help us examine the history of the changes of course in society too. It may well be self-criticism also. It may also turn into an examination of the extent to which the Guru’s teachings have influenced the daily life of people, too. That may be quite a discomfiting inquiry; perhaps one reason why not many have ventured to do it. One may perhaps take relief in the fact that this has been the fate of the teachings of all aachaaryas who have sought to enliven society. Remembrance is not easy, unlike praise.

Srinarayanadharmam consists of 10 sargas and 296 shlokas. The first sarga describes how the disciples in the Sivagiri ashramam like Swami Bodhananda pray to Gurudevan who resided there to clear their doubts about dharmam and issues around it. In the second , caste, religious faith, and God are discussed through clarifying dharma and adharma and then the principle of One jati, One religion, One God is established. The nature of dharma in general and the panchashuddhi system to be followed in order to make oneself ready for the practice of dharma are described in the third sarga. Life stretches from birth to death, we know. In the fourth , matters related to childbirth, to the health of the infant and its mother, are taught. It also describes many matters related to the health and culturing of the body and the mind (including childcare and early education).  The fifth sarga takes up the ashramas of life – it is divided into three, brahmacharyam, garhastyam, and sanyasam. The sixth and seventh sargas describe the practice of brahmacharyam and garhastyam respectively. In the eighth sarga, the duties of the householder [grhasta] are divided into five mahayajnas and each is described in considerable detail. The manner in which post-death ceremonies must be conducted forms the content of the ninth sarga. Thus the content of the Srinarayanadharmam addressed the question of how a human being should live  a worthy life, from birth to death . Maybe because sanyasam is not necessary for all, it is mentioned only in the tenth sarga, as a kind of conclusion, meant for those who are interested in, and deserve, sanyasam. Our traditional teachers have of course mentioned four ashramams — brahmacharyam, garhastyam, vanaprastham, and sanyasam. Gurudevan has omitted vanaprastham; probably because it is neither practical nor useful in the present. Maybe also because he feels that after grahastham, in a moral life, one may be ready to renounce the world and enter sanyasam. I feel that Gurudevan’s conception of sanyasam should be understood not as renouncing the world but as a renouncing the entanglement with the world — the sense that  you and it belong to each other, that it is you. One may see it as  a ‘retired life’ [sic.] which involves the  giving  up of the sense of one-self and that which belongs to one-self, for the welfare of the world and its preservation. Gurudevan clearly favours the statement of the ancient aachaaryas: Yadahareva viraje; tadahareva pravrajel . Vanee grha vaavairaagyaat sanyasam yadyapekshathe —  Gurudevan also advises that if someone reaches the fullness of renuniciation while still a brahmachari or grhastha and wishes to enter sanyasam, the aacharyan may allow him after testing him closely.