Sri Narayana Guru was born to parents, Madan Asan and Kutti Amma on 26th August, 1855 at Chempzhanthi, near Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala. Narayana Guru did intense penance for six years in a cave in the Marutvan Hills in Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu and sustained himself mostly with berries and tubers and drank from the mountain brooks. He founded Narayana Gurukula in the year 1923, became the world-wide fraternity of contemplatives. “ Shri Narayana Dharma Sangham ”, registered in the year 1927, became the monastic order of Narayana Guru.
Narayana Guru was born in Kerala, the southern-most state of India. His parents, Madan Asan and Kutti Amma, lived in a village called Chempalanty hear Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala State. The family home of Narayana Guru was called “ Vayalvaram ”.
He was born on the 26th of August, 1855, and his parents called him ‘Nanu’, an abbreviated form of Narayana.
Nanu’s mother Kutti Amma was a pious woman of gentle disposition. She gave birth to two daughters also. The Guru loved and respected his mother very much. However, he never allowed her sentiments to come in the way of his renunciation. He was born on Chatayam, the third day of Onam, Kerala’s sacred harvest festival.
Narayana Guru (Nanu) was a smart, handsome and witty child who was very perceptive of all that was happening around him. Everybody felt forcefully drawn to him. Even as a child, he showed a tendency to teach and correct others. He saw elders placing fruits and sweets before the pictures of mythical Gods.
The little boy Nanu stealthily got into the sanctum and ate the sweets and fruits offered to Gods. When he was questioned he simply said, “ God will be pleased if I please myself ”.
He found the elders inconsistent in their moods. When an elderly person died, people become grief stricken and cremated the body with much fuss and lamentation. After a couple of days all were found in their usual merry mood. Seeing this, the young Nanu went away and sat in the woods nearby. When people found him and asked him why he left home, he said he was confused by the inconsistent behaviour of his elders. He saw his parents and other elders observing untouchability. They were even afraid of becoming polluted by going near a working peasant !
To break this taboo, little Nanu went and embraced the so-called untouchables and unapproachable’s and came home to touch and pollute his family members. Thus he was a reformer of the society even from the start !
Nanu was initiated into reading and writing by Cempalanti Pillai. He studied till the age of ten in a one-teacher school. Afterwards, he was asked to tend the family’s cattle. While his cows were grazing he sat under some shady tree and composed hymns in praise of God.
Nanu was no longer a child. He did not want to go through the traditional routine of studying one book after another and getting gradual promotions. His teacher allowed him to study as many books as he could !
In four years, he completed his Sanskrit literature and Vedanta studies under Kummampalli Raman Pillai Asan.
His peer group was of late teenagers and youth. Most of them were boisterous. Nanu was given a separate cottage to live in. He used his spare time to meditate and practise the discipline of Yoga.
He was especially drawn to the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He mastered these books. Whenever there was a heated discussion among his peers, he was asked to mediate and adjudicate.
During those days, he had the first spiritual experience which was the stepping stone to his enlightenment.
Nanu fell ill and contracted a dangerous virus infection of his digestive system. This brought him back home. When he was cured he started a one-teacher school of his own to teach Sanskrit in a coastal village called Anjengo. From that time on he was called ‘ Nanu Asan’.
‘ Asan ’ means teacher.
Nanu Asan became more and more drawn away from home and social gatherings. He lived like a recluse. This frightened his parents. So they decided to marry him to one of his cousins. When he was told of this decision he did not show any reaction. As he did not protest, they took it for granted that he gave his consent.
A day was fixed for his wedding. He left his home the previous night. When he was not seen even at the time to go to the bride’s home, his sister offered to go as Nanu Asan’s proxy to marry the girl on her brother’s behalf !
After a few days, Nanu Asan returned home and his relatives presented the bride to him. She brought him a plate of bananas and a cup of boiled milk. He received the gift with the attitude of a religious mendicant. He gave one of the bananas to her as a token of his blessings.
Then he said :
“ Well, now there are enough people here to occupy all the rooms. It is not imperative that I should stay here. All are born with some purpose in their lives. I have mine and you have yours. Let me go to fulfill my role. ”
With these words, he went out into the open. Once in a while he came home to see his father and mother and sister. At that time he spoke to his ‘ wife ’ also with kind and gentle words.
Once, when she had a bleeding nose, he even administered a herbal remedy by squeezing the juice of some leaves into her nostril.
The yoga lessons which Nanu Asan received from Thaikkattu Ayyavu increased his thirst for realization. So, he travelled from one place to another seeking guidance and disciplining himself most intensely. This ultimately led him to do intense penance for six years.
He found a cave in the Marutvan Hills which is in the ghat section of Kanyakumari District. He lived in this cave and sustained himself mostly with berries and tubers, and drank from the mountain brooks.
His solitary penance was very intense. During those days, he prayed to God ..conceiving the supreme to be Shiva. While he sat for hours in the same posture in the solitude of the cave, he was guarded by a cobra and a tiger !
He lived mostly on mountain berries and leaves. He might have come at times to the foot of the hill to get food from the people who lived in a hamlet nearby.
On one occasion, he was very hungry when he emerged from his samadhi .. total absorption. At that time he saw a leper coming to him with a begging bowl. It contained fluffed rice. The leper offered it to him. Like intimate friends they ate from the same bowl. The leper was not an apparition.
He was an actual man. Why and how did he come there, was a mystery ! After partaking of the food, he bade farewell without either of them making any attempt to know each other.
The last days of Nanu Asan in the Marutvan were very similar to the days of the enlightenment of Gautama Siddhartha.
Siddhartha became awakened under the Bodhi tree of Gaya, and became Gautama Buddha. Even so Nanu Asan became enlightened in the cave of Marutvan and became Narayana Guru.
The Guru speaks of his realization in poignant words in his “ Atmopadesa Satakam .. One Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction ”.
After his realization he bade farewell to the cobra and the tiger who befriended him in the cave and become a recluse in a thick forest on the banks of the Nayyar, a river in South Kerala. He lived for some time in the woods without being detected by anyone. His sanctuary was a cave on the banks of the river Nayyar. This place was called Aruvippuram.
There was a forest conservator called Narayana Pillai. He had no children. He came to know of a siddha purusa .. man of high attainments .. living in the woods of Aruvippuram.
With his aides, he made a trail to the guru’s cave. He sought Guru’s blessings to have a child. Subsequently a child was born to him. The Guru named the child Narayani Amma.
The trail brought many people to the Guru. Some of them took the initiative to build an ashram for the Guru. When people started coming regularly for his blessings the Guru thought of giving them a new direction. He decided to give them a temple. Until then, temples were for the exclusive use of people of certain privileged communities. He wanted to have a common place of worship where all could come and offer their worship with no restriction of caste, sex or religion.
The installation of the temple at Aruvippuram became a mile-stone in the history of India’s spiritual emancipation !
When a Nambudiri .. Kerala Brahmin .. expressed his anger and concern about such an act of ‘ sacrilege ’, the Guru simply remarked :
“ I did not install any ‘ Nambudiri Shiva ’. God is neither a priest .. nor a peasant ; He is in all .. He is all ”.
The news of this silent revolution echoed to the far flung frontiers of India.
Dr. P. Padmanabhan, the darbar physician of the Maharaja of Mysore, on hearing about Shree Narayana Guru, came to Aruvippuram to seek the Guru’s help in his campaign for establishing human rights.
Dr. Padmanabhan changed the Aruvippuram Temple Worshippers’ Association into a corporate body to propagate the ideals of Shree Narayana Guru .. Shree Narayana Dharma .. in the model of a Sangha .. the congregation that came after the Lord Buddha. This corporation was called ‘ Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam ’.
People with various kinds of talents were attracted to the Guru.They all worked as a single team with various chosen fields of function. The result was the ushering in of three parallel organizations with three different but complementary ideals.
The Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, founded in the year 1903, became the biggest single corporation of Kerala to defend the natural and constitutional rights of all socially and economically depressed people of the state.
Narayana Gurukula, founded in the year 1923, became a world-wide fraternity of contemplatives. It is the most articulating organ of the Guru’s philosophy and humanist teachings.
The Shree Narayana Dharma Sangham, registered in the year 1927, became the monastic order of Narayana Guru. The Sangham is the caretaker of most of the religious institutions sponsored or founded by the Guru. Shivagiri Mutt is its headquarters.
Narayana Guru moved to Varkala and chose for his residence a neglected hill at the side of the canal.
This place, in due course, developed into the site of the Sarada Temple and the Guru called his new residence Shivagiri. Here, he established an entirely new model of a temple for worship. Its architecture was simple and different. For the first time in India, a temple with windows and ventilation was devised.
The Guru installed a deity which was traditionally symbolic and aesthetically perfect. The highest standards of hygiene were introduced to maintain the place as a model to other temples and temple worshippers.
The opening of this temple was uniquely marked by the inspirational ceremony of guest poets offering their worship through the dedication of hymns in praise of the Mother Sarada. The Guru biggest single corporation of Kerala to defend the natural and constitutional rights of all socially and economically depressed people of the state.
The Guru himself wrote “ Jananinavaratna Manjari ” .. “ Nine Gems in praise of the Mother. ” .. When Shivagiri became crowded by pilgrims and young enthusiasts, he moved away, first to Tamilnadu and then to Alwaye.
He stayed in the mutts and Adhinams in these places and helped his devotees and disciples in Tamilnadu.
The Shivagiri Mutt in Varkala, where he lived, was like a centre of the new age to which social reformers, freedom fighters, educationalists, thinkers, writers, and socially persecuted people turned for guidance, light and inspiration.
The Guru took into his fold several people from the lowest stratum of society and gave them education and taught them a clean way of life.
His method of fighting social malignancies such as caste observance and segregation was through taking positive measures like fostering socially healthy and dynamic people who were fearless and who could stand on their own feet both financially and morally. He made the poorest of the poor self-confident, self-respecting and industrious.
For those who had been denied opportunities for over a millennium, he opened new temples to show them the light of life, new schools to make them articulate, and industrial houses to help them become dexterous. He created a new enlightened generation .. who could live without asking for, thinking of, or telling of caste.
Narayana Guru was extempore in his writing. His works can be mainly divided into mystical hymns of inspired exultation, simple teaching for the common folk, philosophical renditions for the elite, and translations.
Vinayaka Astakam, Vasudevistakam, Guhastakam, Shanmukha Stotram, Bahuleyastakam, Shanmukha Dasakam, Subrahmanya Kirtanam, Navamanjari, Bhadrakalastakam, Mannamtala Devi Stavam, Kali Natakam, Chidambarastakam, Sivaprasada Pancakam, Sadasiva Darsanam, Sivasatakam, Visnvastakam, Daivadasakam, Svanubhava Giti, Kundelini Pattu, etc., are some of his mystical hymns. Jiva Karunya Pancakam, Anukampa Dasakam, Jatinirnayam, Jatimimamsa, Dattapaharam, and Astamam ... were written for popular instruction.
Atmopadesa Satakam, Advaita Dipika, Brahmavidya Pancakam. Municarya Pancakam, Arivu, and Darsanamala .. were written for serious students in philosophy.
Towards the end of the year 1927, when his labours had come to a sort of finish, the Guru became unwell. His complaint was old age, which laid its hands on him.
There were with him several doctors, besides representatives of the various public and religious bodies that he had founded, from the various parts of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar.
The time was early, and the Guru had a bad night’s rest. He was resting, seated on his bed and supporting himself erect with his now emaciated arms. His breathing was difficult and he could not speak except in monosyllables. “ These ”, he said .. meaning the sounds of his obstructed breaths .. “ have come as escort ”.
The people came to visit him and expected that, being super-human as they believed him to be, he would not, feel any pain when he was ill. As if to contradict this idea, the Guru was heard to cry like a child at every pain.
While the crowd of villagers waited outside, they could hear the Guru’s voice from inside murmuring like a distressed child, “ O Mother ! O Mother ! ”, again and again conveying to them, through the tone in which it was uttered, a message that rang in their ears ever after, and containing the same attitude, the same essence of devotion and simplicity to which he had dedicated the rest of his life.
Suffering and bedridden as he was, he would argue the minutest details with his doctors and those who attended on him.
He went to Palghat and travelled about four hundred miles North-East to Madras, carried in stretchers and transported from place to place, from one doctor to another, from the care of one devotee, who loved to keep him under his care, to another.
Then he came back to Travancore from where a strong deputation had arrived to take him to Varkala.
He arrived at Varkala. For some time, the Guru seemed quite well. The radiant glow on his features had never disappeared. He still retained his good humour, and, although he was weak in body, he never yielded or compromised.
He regained a stage in which he took little walks on his own and, though highly emaciated, was still the same alert, radiant, and kind Guru.
The 73rd birthday was celebrated by a select group of friends, representatives of different nations and religions, in September, 1928, in the beautiful city of Geneva. For the first time the Guru’s message was proclaimed in the West.
On the 20th September, 1928, about a week after this event, the Guru entered Maha-Samadhi Varkala.
“ Narayana Guru ... a Brief Biographical Sketch ” by Nitya Chaitanya Yati
“ Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru ” by Nataraja Guru