Hinduism Sree Narayana Guru
George Pati
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0234


Sree Narayana Guru (b. 1856?–d. 1928), a member of the Īzhava caste, a low-caste group in the fourfold caste system of Kerala, and a pioneer in socioreligious reform in early-20th-century Kerala, was born in Chempazhanthi, Kerala, possibly on August 20, 1856. A learned man, he was fluent in Malayalam, Sanskrit, and Tamil. From 1876 to 1879 he studied Sanskrit at Puthupalli in Karunagapally taluk, and was broadly trained in various traditions, including vyākarṇa (grammar), nyāya (logic), Vedānta, kāvya (poetry), nātaka (drama), and alaṁkāra (rhetoric), in addition to Ayurveda and astrology. After his formal education, he was more interested in finding the truth about the self and its relation to the Ultimate Reality. Once he had attained aṟivu (self-knowledge), he returned to his village and became an itinerant sanyāsin, recognized as a saint, and people from all strata of the caste-oriented Kerala society—Nāyars, Īzhavas, Christians, and Muslims—sought his teachings and blessings. In his teachings Guru emphasized the knowledge of self as essential to his notion of oneness. He claimed that oneness depends on consciousness of the self in relation to others and plays a significant role in spiritual and social emancipation. Guru, who at one point in life was a devotee of Viṣṇu, after attaining self-realization, emphasized the concept of “one God” and the unity of all being in a singular divinity. This oneness was not confined to his concept of God, but he considered the whole world to be of one family—vasudhaiva kudumbakam. In 1903 Guru founded the Śrī Nārāyaṇa Dharma Paripālana Yōgam (SNDP), with its manifesto, “One Caste, One Religion, One God for Mankind,” which directed the many Hindus of Kerala from belief in many gods to belief in one God. Narayana Guru had the support of Dr. Palpu, a medical doctor and social revolutionary, and Kumaran Asan, a disciple and poet, and founding secretary of the SNDP. The oneness of God and unity of all humankind became apparent when Narayana Guru propelled religious and social reforms in Kerala. More importantly, his exposure to the inhumane condition of people in the lower castes and his education in the various philosophical schools, especially Advaita Vedānta, or nondualism, served as a foundation for his literary works and social and religious reforms in Kerala. On September 20, 1928, Guru attained samādhi (liberation upon death). Since his death, the SNDP organization has continued to function, propelled by those who follow Guru’s teachings, who hold regular meetings and worship services affirming Guru as a divine being.

Kerala Context

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kerala was going through many changes. With colonial rule and the influence of English education and missionary activities, many traditional Indian customs and practices were questioned and new waves of thinking about identity were emerging. This change was also bolstered by the Indian renaissance movement, socioreligious reforms, and the rise of nationalism. The socioreligious tensions can be understood in light of the Mappila Rebellion of 1921. When the British took control of Malabar (north of Kerala) in the 1800s, the Hindus who had earlier fled to Travancore (south of Kerala), returned to their native places in the north of Kerala and the British returned their lands to them. These Hindu landlords extracted a high rent from the Mappila peasants, which caused discontent, and as a result the Mappila rebelled against the Hindu landlords, widening the divide among the Hindus and Muslims in Kerala during this time (Bhaskaranunny 2005). Another instance of othering can be understood in the temple entry prohibition and the use the roads around the temple for members of lower castes. As a result, in 1924–1925, there was the Vaikom Satyagraha that allowed people from all strata to use the roads around the temple (Bhaskaranunny 2005). Caste struggle was endemic in Kerala, and in the midst of all these movements, Sree Narayana Guru, through his life and teachings, pioneered the socioreligious reform movement in Kerala (Sanoo 1998, Bhaskaranunny 2005) and founded the Śrī Nārāyaṇa Dharma Paripālana Yōgam (SNDP), which became the vehicle for his message of “One Caste, One Religion, and One God for Mankind” (Jeffrey 1974 and Samuel 1977). Socioeconomic changes were taking place in Kerala during this time, which gave rise to the Īzhava middle class and its fight against social, religious, and political deprivation of Īzhavas (Chandramohan 2016). Along this line, education, health care, and small-scale industry provided means for social mobility for the Īzhavas (Pullapilly 1976). The caste dynamics and reasons for change can be understood through an anthropological investigation of the Īzhavas (Osella and Osella 2000). The socioreligious rethinking envisioned by Guru can be understood by mapping the historical context, with all the complex layers of culture, religions, and feudalism during his era (Gopalakrishnan 2000, Gangadharan 2003). The Īzhava movement, on one hand, promoted social mobility, but on the other, it can be seen as counter to nation-building (Reghu 2010).

  • Bhaskaranunny, P. Keralam Irupathām Nūṭṭāntinḍe Ārambhattil. Thrissur, India: Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 2005.

    A detailed overview of the history of early-20th-century Kerala. The first part discusses how low-caste people were entangled in the caste system. The second part highlights socioreligious reform movements: Sree Narayana Guru’s establishment of high-caste deity, the Mappila Rebellion, and Vaikom Satyagraha.

  • Chandramohan, P. Developmental Modernity in Kerala: Narayana Guru, SNDP Yogam, and Social Reform. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2016.

    This study of the Śrī Nārāyaṇa Dharma Paripālana Yōgam (SNDP) investigates the relationship between social reform, religion, and caste, and demonstrates that the SNDP was an organization of the Īzhava caste and how some disjunction between principles and practice led to the decline of the SNDP movement.

  • Gangadharan, T. K. Evolution of Kerala History and Culture. Calicut, India: Calicut University Press, 2003.

    A brief discussion of the evolution of Kerala history and culture, based on archaeological sources, historical relics and monuments, epigraphy, numismatics, and literary works. It also explicates religious discourses throughout the history of Kerala. One of the highlights of the book is a chronological list of important events in Kerala history.

  • Gopalakrishnan, P. K. Keralattinte Sāmskārika Caritṛam. Thiruvananthapuram, India: State Institute of Languages, 2000.

    This book (in Malayalam) presents an elaborate description of Kerala’s cultural history. It begins with ancient times and progresses through the Sangam to the feudal period (7th to 11th centuries). Chapter 7 discusses the interaction between feudalism and religion and highlights some of the Hindu philosophies that have brought about socioreligious rethinking in Kerala.

  • Jacob, George. Religious Life of the Ilavas of Kerala: Change and Continuity. Delhi: ISPCK, 1995.

    This book focuses on the Īzhavas in southern Kerala and the awakening propelled by Sree Narayana Guru and his disciples, Kumāran Āśān and Dr. Palpu. It also highlights the position of religion in the life of Īzhavas and its institutional ramifications that brought about social mobility of the Īzhavas in the caste-oriented society of Kerala.

  • Jeffrey, Robin. “The Social Origins of a Caste Association, 1875–1905: The Founding of the S.N.D.P. Yogam, South Asia.” Journal of South Asian Studies 4.1 (1974): 39–59.

    DOI: 10.1080/00856407408730687

    This article discusses at length the origins of caste association in Kerala during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the struggles of the Īzhavas, and the founding of the SNDP organization. This article is helpful in understanding the broad society of Kerala during this period.

  • Osella, Filippo, and Caroline Osella. Social Mobility in Kerala: Modernity and Identity in Conflict. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

    An excellent volume that discusses, from an anthropological perspective, the modern period of Kerala and the caste dynamics in the region, highlighting the reasons for social mobility among the lower-caste people.

  • Pullapilly, Cyriac K. “The Izhavas of Kerala and Their Historic Struggle for Acceptance in the Hindu Society.” In Religion and Social Conflict in South Asia. Edited by Bardwell L. Smith, 24–46. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1976.

    An excellent chapter that discusses the political and social struggles of Īzhavas within the historical context of Kerala to improve their situation through civil activism. It offers insight into the importance given to education, health care, banks, and small-scale industries as a way of social mobility. The article also illustrates Īzhava support of the Communist Party, which was instrumental in improving the social and economic conditions of the lower castes in Kerala.

  • Reghu, J. “‘Community’ as De-imagining Nation: Relocating Narayana Guru and Ezhava Movement in Kerala.” In Development, Democracy, and the State: Critiquing the Kerala Model of Development. Edited by K. Ravi Raman, 40–53. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    This chapter analyzes Narayana Guru and the Īzhava movement in Kerala from a development perspective, and argues that community can be seen as counter to nation, as the author critiques the egalitarian objective of the Īzhava movement pioneered by Narayana Guru.

  • Samuel, V. Thomas. One Caste, One Religion, One God: A Study of Sree Narayana Guru. New Delhi: Sterling, 1977.

    Based on the author’s PhD dissertation at Hartford Seminary; gives a good discussion of the social, religious, and political context of Guru’s time and how he pioneered change at these levels based on his motto, “One Caste, One Religion, and One God.” The book argues the relevance of Guru’s motto amid the caste-oriented struggles in the social, religious, and political realms in Kerala.

  • Sanoo, M. K. Narayana Guru. Translated by Madhavan Ayyappath. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1998.

    This is a biography of Sree Narayana Guru that discusses his life and works, as well as the socioreligious reforms he brought about in the Kerala context.

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