Sree Narayana Guru- Founder of an Intellectual Religion

  • By C. I. Issac
  • November 1 2009

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Kerala of the foregone century’s first half caught the attention of the rest of the world by effecting revolutionary changes in the socio-economic as well as spiritual framework. It is interesting to see that long before these radical changes took place, Swami Vivekananda, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, portrayed this place/society as a ‘lunatic asylum’ [1].

Anyone can understand the intrinsic value of the depth and extent of the changes brought about in a place where socio-religious and economic transactions were determined by lunatic conditions. Hence the reality is that the changes did not maintain momentum in the second half of the bygone century and later. Thus we can see a rupture in the onward progressive socio-economic and religious movements of this sort. Hence an enquiry in this direction is essential. This enquiry will be complete with the finding of the fountainhead of the said reform movements.

Kerala’s social relations were entirely different from the rest of India, and were determined on most primitive transactional concepts of pollution or irrational discriminative institution popularly known as ‘aiyatham’ (un-seeability, untouchability, un-approachability) [2]. The specific conditions of Kerala’s pollution relations, aiyatham, were not simply an affair of Brahmin versus Shudra social formations. The ruling social ideology of this land, i.e. compartmentalized jati (caste) system differed from the chaturvarna (traditional four-fold caste system) practiced by conventional Hindu society.

In short, this jati system was once the base of all social justice of the land. All the jatis who were part of the Shudra social formation practiced the dreadful social discriminative system without a sense of blemish. In the specific case of Kerala, all jatis other than Namboothiri [native Brahmin jati] are part of the Shudra social structure. In the jati hierarchical order, Nair comes next to Namboothiri in the social status ladder of status. “Nairs by virtue of their association with the Namboothiris had a high status in the society and they observed the rules of caste in all their rigidity” [3]. The same Nairs without any fear of pollution or loss of jati status usually kept concubines from Velutheda (washermen) and Chaliya (weaver) communities. The Nairs, being a warrior community, while in the battlefront, could touch persons of low caste and eat and drink in their houses without the fear of losing their caste [4]. These are some of the contradictions and paradoxes that governed pre-modern Kerala.

But the Shudra jatis [5] or subalterns of Kerala kept the pollution concepts alive between themselves during the period under study. Even within the jati framework there existed powerful and hierarchical discriminative (aiyatham) mechanism that functioned uninterruptedly for several centuries throughout Kerala.  Brahmin (Namboothiri) jati being at the apex of Kerala’s jati pecking order was not free from intra-jati anomalies. Each and every Brahmin household (tharavadu) was a hatchery of innumerable untoward social practices / relations and social notions. The very foundations of these unequal and discriminative social relations of the time were made fragile by Sree Narayana Guru, a great saint, through popularizing Sree Sankara’s monism [Advaitam]. This year is the 150th birth anniversary of such a great revolutionary that rarely glitters in the annals of history.

It is interesting to see that the women of subaltern jatis of Kerala enjoyed comparatively a good level of social freedom; the women of elite jatis - particularly Brahmin jatis - were subjected to various repressive conditions in their respective societal units. The social canons that prevailed amongst the subaltern jatis ensured a good amount of social freedom to their women, but its fruits were reduced by the general social sanctions of the day. The intra-juridical system of smarthavicharam [6] that existed amongst Brahmin jatis, based on smriti (believed to be authored by Manu, the ancient Hindu law-giver] laws, was cruel.

While considering the rotten concepts regarding marriage [7] amongst the Namboothiris, this trial has no moral fervor. This arbitrary trial under smarthavicharam resulted in the ostracism of poor women from the community; it gave sadistic pleasure to the custodians of this rotten social order. It is believed this practice crept into Brahmin society after the eighth century CE by force of Sankara smriti [8] and continued until 1918 [9]. Above all, a good number of Namboothiri women were destined to live as chronic spinsters within the four walls of their household [Illam] due to the unchanging intra-jati customary commandments [10].

The Nair jati recognized the freedom of women and accepted matrilineal system of inheritance as the mode of succession. Whether or not the womenfolk of the Nair jati really enjoyed the fruits of social freedom ensured by their jati laws of the day is a subject for further study. But no doubt the intra-jati hierarchical relations of the Nair jati subjected them to some disabilities. The mannappedi and pulappedi were swords of Damocles that hung over assertive Nair ladies prior to the eighteen century CE.

These functioned as the two strategic weapons rarely used by the Karnavar (eldest male member who acted as head administrator of the Nair household) against the hardline/self-assured Nair ladies of the day. It is the customary belief that in the night of a certain day of every year [11] a male/adult member of the subaltern/pollution creating jati can by touch or throwing a stone over a Nair lady, claim her for him. There is a suspicion that behind the operation of this dreadful custom that used to shut the mouth of the Nair lady, some malicious designs of the covetous Karnavar were hidden.

That no Mannan [12] or Pulayan [13] dared to violate hierarchical jati values unilaterally and pollute a Nair lady without the consent or silent permission from the all-powerful corners of the respective tharavadus (households) was the burning reality of the social relations of the day. All the said were stories regarding the freedom or limitation enjoyed/subjected to by the women of the non-Brahmin aristocracy of early Kerala. On the other hand, society in general until the nineteenth century gave least importance to the purity of conjugal relations. P.K. Balakrishnan’s study gives a thumbnail picture of the lucid and fragile moral stature of Kerala society of the said duration [14].

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