Sree Narayana Guru Samadhi Day, 2002 (1855-1928)

     I am neither a scholar nor a speaker but am very honored to be chosen to talk about one of the greatest yogis of recent times. Not feeling quite competent, I would do my best to have a sensible, mutually beneficial dialog with you. The purpose of a public speech is for the speaker to know about the topic and to make the listeners understand it.
     Living in the 21st century USA, we are talking about the Guruji almost a century later. What is the relevance? What do we learn from his life, his teachings? Do we read it as part of history, or can we apply that understanding to elevate our life in any way relevant and practically applicable to the present day? It would be very anachronic now since we live in a totally different world and diverse society – a world that has changed beyond the imagination of a saintly scholar, who may not have even conceptualized how life and attitude of the people would change in a hundred years. But then we certainly can try using and applying his teachings to the present and observe the relevance.
     We participate in many Gita discourses, Bhagavatha puranam, Ramayana maasam, and Naraayaneeyam saptaham. We listen to Udit Chaitanya, Sandeep Chaitanya, Vidyadhishanda, Chinmaya disciples, Dr. Gopalakrishna, Nochur Venkataraman and such scholars and swamis. Enlightening talks, spiritually uplifting, but we seldom hear much to enhance our social conscience, applicable to our day-to-day life. Their purpose is mostly of spiritual elevation. Guruji distinctly covered a much vaster sphere.
     From what I studied or looked up, the difference of Guruji from the rest is that he was perhaps the only one who touched upon the several aspects of human behavior, habits, dealings with life. He covered education, culture, spiritual awareness and social responsibilities. He was a teacher, a Vedantin, social worker, reformer, community leader, a psychologist, and a Poet; and perhaps many others.
     Jnana of action – an intellectual understanding – was his purpose as he had a lively sense of people and their social needs. Uplifting oppressed classes, a measure similar to those of Gandhiji, who accepted him as his own guru, was his mission. He instilled understanding about how to attain economic prosperity in the labor classes because they were kept depressed even in modern times. From around the turn of the 19th century, through his efforts and teachings, the idealism of a few leaders like Ram Mohan, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda, and Gandhiji, led to a religious awakening and social transformation.
     Elevation of the masses without injuring their religion, uniting people beyond class and caste differences was accomplished through the efforts of scholars like Vivekananda and Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj. Guruji’s lessons were similar to that of Guru Nanak of Sikh fraternity.
     Untouchability was a curse of our state. Vivekananda called our place ‘a lunatic asylum’. Guruji’s contribution has been of immense measure to salvage the plight of a depressed group.
     Guruji prescribed Education as a remedy. Modern education. Once you are aware of the world and all the related facts, it would pave the way for economic and social advancement. Then, culture, through learning Sanskrit. Third is, of course, Spiritual sustenance. He consecrated temples. He inspired people with self-respect and self-help, to draw out their latent talents, and channel them into constructive venues, through the many institutions like temples and ashrams that he created in Kerala.
     He was a ‘Spiritual Revolutionary with a Social influence’.
For many of us, it is not easy to see God as a formless absolute, a Brahman with no attributes. That is why we have created the personal gods to pray, request and demand. So we practice religiosity and are instructed to practice humanity and compassion among our fellow human beings. We may call our connection to God as through a vertical path and exercise our compassion to fellow humans through a Horizontal path. Sort of a dichotomy, duality. What our Guruji preached and tried to instill in us was that there is no such dichotomy. Both the paths merge, essentially inculcating the concept of Advaita. ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, you are That, the Absolute Reality.
     As we try to identify and understand the Almighty, in reality, we are trying to get over our own self, our ego, and our ignorance, the Maya. Similarly, as we try to reach out and become compassionate with the fellow creatures, we are accomplishing a similar status, getting beyond and finding the Supreme in others. That was Guruji’s message.
     Kerala is recognized as the topmost state in social and human development. How did it happen? What was the main reason for the uplifting and the progress? Guruji’s teachings played a significant role, though it may not have been quite enough. People have to understand and respond. Not out of anger and passion, even though it may not hurt if sparingly used; but ideally you have to feel the confidence that I am as good as anyone else. Not a false pretense, but a genuine understanding about ourselves, we need to convince ourselves that we are as good or better than someone else.
     My personal observation is that such an ‘awakening’ led to the fundamental installation of the communistic ideology in the mindset of a certain class, who felt the oppression and were aroused to claim their equality as instilled through Guruji’s teachings. But they fell way short of his expectations since they remained angry and rebellious, focused more on a revengeful agenda against the ‘abusers’, more intense on their rights than responsibilities, that they more than succeeded in bringing their opponents down, but without achieving the laurels they could have through knowledge, hard work and compassionate dealings with others. They won turning the tables, but sadly they got trapped under the same tables they passionately managed to turn. The present-day chaos in the state, the laziness, the unrest, the strikes, bandhs, unwillingness to work, and a lack of incentives to progress are all sequels of the above, distorted assimilation of Guruji’s profound ideologies. God’s own country, that is blessed with perfect geographic and climatic conditions, along with a bright and intelligent populace who excel everywhere else in the world except in their own backyard, is dwelling in mediocrity, surviving on financial flow from their people toiling in the deserts slaving the Arabs while depending on the workforce from Bihar, Orissa, Bangladesh, and the Northeast for the basic domestic needs. It is sad.
     What is the relevance of Guruji, here and now? For that, I must be specific. The oppressed communities in Kerala received the most attention from Sri Narayana Guru Swami in Kerala. When we look at our present situation with an introspective perception, we, as immigrants to N. America are precisely placed in a very similar situation to that group in Kerala, who at their time, benefited from his teachings. We, the Indian immigrants are educated, economically affluent and with strong moral and spiritual values. But are we socially aware of our status here? Are we as comfortable about our position in this society as we should be with all our accomplishments? If we are unsure, less than comfortable, shy, timid, or scared, then, all we have to do is to think of Guruji’s teachings. Nothing can make us more comfortable or confident. Nothing can be more instrumental to our progress and prosperity in this country, even our sustenance. His message to us as a group, here and now, has a strong significance, prudent relevance. Now, as ever before; now, more than ever before.
     Guruji has touched upon a vast array of practical points in life. He took the best out of every religion, that Hindu religion contains the principles of all religions, that as a Buddhist he was a non-dualist, followed the advice of Mohammed Nabi in the brotherhood of humans, that rituals are important to appreciate the divinity in everything surrounding us, that all human beings belong to one class and that we are extension of the Absolute Truth. He stressed that we should have control of our minds, directing it and blending it to the universal presence through Yoga and meditation. Socially, he was a reformer in correcting many of the ills that we practiced from slavery to animal sacrifice to the dowry system to alcoholism to eating flesh and adultery. He advocated agriculture and cultivation, education, and service mentality, forgiving the ignorance of opponents and compassion to fellow human beings as the only way to approaching God.
     Sri Narayana Guru was a gift to humanity and should belong to the entire humanity. His teachings transcend borders of a multitude of branded assumptions. He is beyond a teacher, a vedanthin, a reformer, a philosopher, a poet or even a saint. It will be a loss if we contain him within the shackles of any group or society. A balloon can soar higher if the string is longer and a cow can grace farther if the rope is longer.

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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