The 1925 dialogue between Mahatma Gandhi and Sree Narayana Guru was a pleasant precursor to the acrimonious Gandhi-Ambedkar debate of the 1930s
Gandhi and Sree Narayana Guru (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
FOR SOMEONE RENOWNED FOR HIS crisp and brief speeches, Mahatma Gandhi was destined to make one of his relatively long speeches, by his standards of course, at the Sivagiri Mutt in Varkala, which was then home to Sree Narayana Guru, one of Kerala’s foremost social reformers, on March 13th, 1925. Guru, a life-long proponent of the Advaita philosophy, was quizzed the previous day by Gandhi on a range of subjects, including salvation, untouchability and religions. The dialogue between them, which was in fact more of an interview of the soft-spoken and non-argumentative Guru by Gandhi, has inspired many doctoral theses both in India and abroad about varna, caste and social realities of pre-independent, pre-Renaissance Kerala, back then a notional state of largely Malayalam-speaking people comprising three provinces—Kochi and Travancore in the south and Malabar in the north. Varkala fell in Travancore and is now part of the Thiruvananthapuram district.
On March 12th, Guru made a big departure of sorts to receive Gandhi in person when he arrived around 3 pm at the mutt along with C Rajagopalachari, EV Ramaswami Naicker (later known as Periyar), Ramdas Gandhi, Mahadev Desai and a few others. Rajagopalachari emerged from the car first and then Gandhi, clad in his customary towel that covered him from waist to knees, walked cheerfully towards Guru. Gandhi and his entourage were coming from Vaikom where lower castes and sympathisers were up in arms against temple authorities at the Shiva temple in Vaikom, some 150-odd km from Varkala, demanding permission to walk outside the roads of the temple. The clamour wasn’t yet for the permission to enter the temple. The temple entry proclamation came much later, only in 1936.
Gandhi had stayed in Vaikom along with satyagrahis for two days prior to his visit to Sivagiri. To thrash out a solution to the standoff, Gandhi and others even had a meeting with the Namboodiris of Indathuruthu mana who were custodians of the Vaikom Mahadeva temple. Along with him were Desai, Rajagopalachari, Mannathu Padmanabhan, another noted social reformer, and a few others. Interestingly, Gandhi was not allowed inside the home of the Namboodiris because he was a Vaishya by varna and the rest of them, like Gandhi himself, according to Namboodiris, were ‘impure’ because they had confabulated with the satyagrahis who were mostly Sudras and outcastes. The Hindu orthodox leader was, reportedly, stunned by a question from Rajagopalachari, always quick on the draw, about the freedom that dogs and other animals enjoyed in walking through these “sacred” roads along the temple. Why not human beings then, he asked, as Gandhi smiled in approval.
Gandhi, for his part, told the representatives of the priestly classes that it was unjust to keep a large section of Hindus away even from the roads around the temple. He also employed his powers of persuasion, pleading the priestly family to make their position less rigid. However, the Namboodiris of Indathuruthu mana (the dwelling place of the Kerala Brahmins were called mana) stuck to their stand, saying Kerala was a region that was given to them by Lord Parashurama—according to mythology, the geographical area of what is now mostly in Kerala and partly in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (from Gokarn to Kanyakumari) was reclaimed by Parashurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, by throwing his axe into the ocean. The irony—which many, including rationalists, see as a revenge of history—is that this mana is currently the office of a toddy tappers’ trade union.
Before he arrived at Sivagiri for a two-day visit, Gandhi had gone back from the mana to address the satyagrahis at Vaikom and appealed to them to resist by non-violent means the ‘oppressors’ (some authors and historians insist that he used the word rogues) and also took part in a public prayer. He also found time to visit Regent Empress Sethulakshmibai in Thiruvananthapuram on March 11th who was all praise for Guru when she found out that Gandhi’s next stop was the Sivagiri Mutt, built in 1904 atop a hill in a scenic surrounding.
When Gandhi arrived at this ashram, thousands of people who had learned of his proposed visit had walked long distances to see him. According to biographies of Guru, including those by MK Sanu and PK Balakrishnan who had accessed ashram records to write their works, white sand was laid from the road to the mutt to a building donated by one of Guru’s disciples that was named on the occasion as ‘Gandhi ashram’. Inside were seats arranged for both Guru and Gandhi to hold their discussions. Athithi puja was offered to Gandhi inside the building and one of Guru’s disciples greeted Gandhi lying prostrate. And then the dialogue began, moderated by a lawyer and translator named N Kumaran. While Gandhi spoke in English, Guru spoke in Sanskrit. Before the conversation, Gandhi asked Guru, “Swamiji doesn’t speak English. Isn’t it?” Guru replied in the negative. “Does Mahatma speak Sanskrit?” Gandhi said no. Gandhi then started off asking Guru whether he knew of Hindu texts that prescribed untouchability. Guru answered no.
Gandhi: Does Swamiji have any differences of opinion about the Vaikom satyagraha? (Many months earlier, Gandhi had misunderstood a remark by Guru on the struggle as a call for violence. Guru, in fact, had said that volunteers could breach barriers and take beatings to enter the temple, but not return the blows.)
Gandhi: Should we make any additional programmes to strengthen this movement or make some changes to its strategy?
Guru: No. As far as I know, it is on the right track. There is no need to make any changes to its strategy.
Gandhi: Does Swamiji have any suggestions to improve the conditions of marginalised classes besides the anti-untouchability campaign?
Guru: They must acquire knowledge and education and wealth. I wouldn’t rush to insist on inter-caste marriage and inter-dining. But they need equality of opportunity to get ahead in life.
Gandhi: Doesn’t Swamiji think Hindu religion is enough to help people attain moksha?
Guru: Paths to moksha are offered by other religions as well. For spiritual salvation, Hindu religion is sufficient. People also crave for materialistic freedom.
Gandhi: That will happen.
Guru: Considering its rigidity, for that to happen in its perfection, Gandhiji may have to re-incarnate himself once again.
Gandhi: (smiling) My belief is that it will see completion in this life of mine… Among backward castes too, there is untouchability. Are all communities allowed to enter temples built by Swamiji?
Guru: Yes. All are allowed entry. Students from the Pulaya and Praya communities reside in this ashram and study alongside children from other communities. They all also take part in prayers.
Gandhi: Much delighted to hear that. (As explained in MK Sanu’s biography of Narayana Guru.)
According to Sanu, while these conversations between Gandhi and Guru were widely reported in newspapers along with Gandhi’s speech at Sivagiri the next day, some aspects of their dialogue, especially those in connection with varna and caste, were not reported until much later. “The Mahatma and Gurudevan have many similarities. Both were committed to their causes. They were enlightened souls, but they had differences of opinion over the question of varna and caste. Guru did not approve of the institution of varna and despised it while Gandhiji was not averse to the concept of varna,” Sanu told Open.
Gandhi took part in evening prayers at the Sharada Mutt and stayed overnight on premises now called Vaidika mutt where other luminaries, such as Rabindranath Tagore, BR Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vinoba Bhave, had also stayed. It was in this building that Guru had lived and the articles used by him, such as his stick, chair and cot are still kept there. During his stay, Gandhi also chatted with the students and was impressed by their knowledge of Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit. He heard them sing Daivadashakam, a prayer composed by Guru himself. Gandhi was deeply moved by the fluent recitation of the Upanishads in Sanskrit by students from the Paraya community. He was also touched to see that there was no caste discrimination against students.
WELL, THIS WAS WHEN GURU was alive. After his death, though, sections of the community he was born to, Ezhavas, appropriated him to the extent that the man who professed universal brotherhood and fought a benign revolution to improve social conditions of all marginalised classes without being vindictive towards former oppressors, became slave to a caste identity. As a result, the influence of this reformer who coined the slogan, ‘one caste, one religion, one god’ became constrained for a long time. Lately though, various political groups are out to appropriate him for what they think he was: social reformer, Hindu philosopher, a religious revivalist, and so on.
While Gandhi was at his ashram, he had given a speech that was reported on March 16th, 1925 in The Hindu newspaper which can be accessed at the Gandhi Heritage Portal. He had also exhorted people to take up spinning and weaving besides immersing themselves in the Indian freedom struggle through nonviolent means. After his speech was over, Guru told the audience to do as Gandhi asked them to do.
Interestingly, the difference of opinion between Guru and Gandhi was a precursor to the one between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Guru, unlike Ambedkar, was not combative, yet he made it a point to tell his close disciples that for all his greatness, Gandhi’s understanding of caste and varna was not an outcome of carefully thought-out study. Unlike other critics of Gandhi over caste and varna, Guru was an Advaita philosopher who had mastery over Hindu scriptures and had spent a lifetime perfecting the social emancipation of underprivileged castes without turning it into an anti-upper caste agitation or turning the oppressor into the oppressed. As evident from G Balakrishnan Nair’s elaborately annotated volumes on Sree Narayana Guru’s works (mostly poetry written in Tamil, Sanskrit and Malayalam) that dwell on a range of subjects from god, dharma, Vedanta to the Upanishads, Guru’s scholarship on Hindu philosophy and religions was too deep to be contested.
An apocryphal story has it that Gandhi, while he was at the Mutt with Guru, pointed out at four leaves of different colours, some dry and some robust, to argue his case that varna was a natural phenomenon. Guru, it is said, replied saying if you squeeze each leaf, the juice that comes out remains the same. Some scholars dismiss such an explanation as uncharacteristic of Guru and assert that it is probably a story cooked up by hagiographers who do more harm than good to the life and works of Guru.
In fact, a conversation carried by some competent biographers of Guru, between him and one of his disciples, perhaps makes greater sense in understanding his disagreement with Gandhi on the study of chaturvarna. True, there was perhaps a context to these pronouncements by Guru as this interaction happened around the time Gandhi visited Travancore to fight untouchability. The disciple is quoted as warning Guru that Gandhi’s position on varna has emboldened Hindu
orthodoxy in Travancore.
The disciple tells Guru that the Mahatma contends that varna and caste are unrelated. Promptly comes the answer from Guru: “(He) must have made that argument based on the aptitude-and-action principle. But those qualities are not permanent. They are ever-changing. How can you then determine one’s varna? … Why is Gandhi saying this? (He) may not have thought thoroughly about it. According to me, there are no caste differences. In fact, there is no caste. What are the gains of thinking there is caste other than it is counter-productive? Disappointing! How is it that such beliefs still persist?”
Disciple: Some people say that there are many benefits, thanks to the caste system. If you accept a job as a traditional job, more experts are created, they aver…
Guru: There are no benefits. The caste system hobbled man’s freedom and destroys intelligence. How will your work improve if there is no freedom and intelligence? Our carpenters, blacksmiths are wallowing in ignorance. They have lost their intellectual acumen as well. Caste generates sloppy work. Monotony of a job makes a person unaware of the rest of the world. Caste restricts a person’s liberty to do a work that suits his aptitude. When you are forced to do some work just because you are born to a particular caste means your work suffers.
Disciple: Scientists are of the view that children tend to have an aptitude in their parents’ profession.
Guru: If that is so, what is the need for the caste system? Even without caste, the son would opt for the father’s profession without being compelled to do so… nothing is achieved by reducing man’s freedom and letting his or her intelligence go unused. People should have the freedom to choose a profession of his or her choice. (Translated from PK Balakrishnan’s biography of Narayana Guru.)
ON HIS SECOND AND FINAL DAY, at Sivagiri, Gandhi addressed a large gathering on the campus. He spoke, “I was looking forward to this visit. I wanted to know who were the different communities that were barred entrance to roads that are public or semi-public in Vykom (now Vaikom) and it has, therefore, been a matter of study, to come here and make your acquaintance personally (addressing Guru). I have now a demonstration of what is in store for His Holiness (Guru), if he went to Vykom and tried to cross the barrier.”
Gandhi went on: “The position that is taken up by orthodoxy is wrong, unsound, immoral and sinful, but that is my viewpoint, that is your viewpoint, not that of orthodoxy. There was a time when our ancestors offered human sacrifice. We know that it was diabolical, that it was irreligion, but not so thought our ancestors. They knew no better and they had made vice a virtue.” He summed up his rather long speech by thanking Guru, “I tender my thanks publicly to His Holiness (Guru) for the extreme kindness that he has shown to me and the hospitality that he has extended to me.” He then appealed to the crowds, “I thank you once more for the address that you have presented to me and for the patience with which you have listened to me, but the best reward that I ask you to give me, I expect, is the translation of what you have listened to in action.”
After Gandhi left Sivagiri, he continued to speak about Guru. On March 14th, he said at a public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, “I deem it my great fortune to have been able to visit the beautiful state of Travancore and to have met the holy soul, Sree Narayana Guru…. The Regent Empress also spoke to me about the greatness of Guru” (from The Hindu).
Scholars who have analysed the work of both these great men have often said that they both had huge similarities in that they understood that no political project was possible in isolation and separate from social and economic projects to ameliorate the human condition, especially in a society as complex as India’s—and more so in a place like Kerala (then a collection of three provinces)—that the peripatetic Swami Vivekananda had called a lunatic asylum, thanks to its caste-related practices and conversions. Both Guru and Gandhi converge in comprehending that confrontation is different from unleashing anarchy, and that they had to tread carefully in making big changes benign.
Their divergence is that Guru comprehended the concept of ‘caste’ better than Gandhi. He also knew Gandhi’s shortcoming in understanding ‘humiliation’. According to renowned Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud, Gandhi understood it only in the racial context until he began to engage with Ambedkar. In that sense, the Guru-Gandhi engagement was a milder precursor to the famous and, what Suhrud refers to as, the ennobling Ambedkar-Gandhi debate. In the case of the former, Gandhi perhaps did not sense the confrontation because it was an honourable wise man who disagreed without making him feel it. On the second occasion, Gandhi was pitted against a towering intellectual who wanted to show him his place.