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The Sree Narayana effect

By B.R.P. Bhaskar

WHAT WAS it that enabled Kerala to race ahead of the rest of India and register human development indices comparable to those of the advanced nations of the world? Amartya Sen, attempting to answer this question, identified public action, education and health care as key elements that set Kerala on the fast track. His emphasis on public action prompted the powerful Left to claim credit for the State's social attainments. That raised the question why West Bengal, where the Left is even stronger than it is in Kerala, lagged behind. Sen responded by shifting the emphasis to education and drawing attention to the policy of enlightenment and diffusion of education, articulated as early as 1817 by Rani Gouri Parvathi Bai, the Regent of Travancore. Successive rulers of this princely State had no doubt taken a keen interest in education, but all they did was to replicate steps taken by the British elsewhere in the country.

Credit to reformers

The credit for Kerala's unique social record belongs to a host of reformers, who, in the 19th century and the early 20th century, caused deep stirrings within different caste and religious formations. They set in motion ripples that left no section untouched. The separate movements they launched eventually coalesced into a social revolution. Other regions, too, had thrown up reformers, but Kerala alone produced a galaxy of reformers who worked in unison and reinforced one another's efforts.

The first of the social revolutionaries was Vaikunta Swami (1809-1851). Sree Narayana Guru, born three years after Vaikunta Swami's passing, had illustrious contemporaries in Vakkom Abdul Khader Maulvi, Ayyankali, Poykayil Yohannan, Vidyadhiraja Chattampi Swamikal and V. T. Bhattathiripad.

A bold vision

He earned primacy in the galaxy by articulating a bold vision of society that went far beyond the reform of archaic practices. It was to be a just society where all people lived as brothers and sisters without caste differences or religious hatred. Viewing humankind as one, he rejected any distinction being made between people on the basis of caste, religion, dress or language.

Sree Narayana shook the foundations of Hindu orthodoxy by building temples that were open to all, irrespective of caste. He proposed organisation as a means to gain strength. Thus began the phase of public action. He prescribed education as a means of enlightenment. In course of time, education became a passion for the Keralite. He commended agriculture and industry as means of betterment. His followers enthusiastically took to productive activity. His chief lieutenant, a poet, set up a tile factory. A London-educated economist gave up his university job and built up a flourishing export business.

Several of his disciples became leaders of the Freedom Movement. A follower of his founded the State's first trade union. The Communist Party, which was the first political party to be elected to power in the State in 1957, acknowledged the fact that the party could strike roots in the State easily as the Sree Narayana movement had prepared the ground.

The world took note of the Sree Narayana movement. The Guru was the chief inspiration behind the Vaikom Satyagraha, launched under Congress leadership in 1924. Mahatma Gandhi travelled to Varkala the following year to meet him. Earlier, Rabindranath Tagore had visited him. Writing shortly after the Guru's demise in 1928, Romain Rolland, the French writer, noted that his "beneficent spiritual activity has been exercising its influence during the past forty years in the State of Travancore on nearly two million of his followers."

Casteism is back

Three-quarters of a century later, the movement has lost much of its vigour. Clearly the Sree Narayana effect is on the wane. The ghost of casteism has come back to haunt Kerala society. The political parties must bear much of the blame for this.

Scramble for power

Even the parties that were direct beneficiaries of the Sree Narayana movement were to jettison his ideals — for short-term political gains. Power and glory have gained precedence over justice and equality.

In a gesture that acknowledged the Guru's spiritual eminence and recognised his role in discouraging litigation, the Travancore administration had exempted the Guru from appearance in courts. But the organisations created by him to propagate his ideals have been caught up in many a legal wrangle since.

The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam had been set up with the Guru as president-for-life. But, disillusioned by its functioning, he formally dissociated himself from it in the evening of his life and founded the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham as a religious order. Neither body can be said to have fully lived up to the ideal he had encapsulated in the words: "Ask not, say not, think not, caste."

With social backwardness still gripping many parts of the country, Sree Narayana's message has relevance far beyond Kerala's borders.

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