Sree Narayana Gurudevan is the greatest social reformist Kerala had ever seen. Kerala, described by Swamy Vivekananda as “the mad house of India”, was having at that time a caste-ridden society characterised by oppression of the members of lower castes, inequality in social freedom and dominance of upper castes. In short, all the Hindu castes from Eazhavas downwards were alone victims of social disabilities. The great contributions and influence of Gurudevan helped Kerala, as compared to the rest of the country, to attain impressive developments in education, political enlightenment, communal harmony and religious tolerance,.
Gurudevan, by name Nanu in childhood days, was born to Sree Maatanaasan and Kuttiamma at Chembazhanthi ( a viilage at the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram) on 14th Chingam 1031 Malyalam era corresponding to 28th August 1855 A.D. The social scenario in those days was Eahavas were prohibited to enter temples, denied permission to study in Government schools, forbidden to enter Government service and disallowed to walk in public roads. Though Eazhavas suffered from these discriminations, some of them behaved with discrimination towards lower castes of Parayas, Pulayas, Kuravas etc. Nanu even during his childhood days disobeyed advices of elders and used to keep company with children of lower castes and visit their houses.
His educated father and uncle taught him primers in Malayalam and Sanskrit. He also acquired essential knowledge on indigenous medicine before joining the Gurukulam at Karunagappalli run by Kummambilli Raman Pilla Aasan. At that period he stayed at Varanaapilli taravaat and got himself involved in writing poems and participating in noble and spiritual activities. Greatly impressed by his capabilities his Guru directed him to impart his knowledge to his fellow pupils.
On his return to Chembazanthi he engaged himself in teaching children, which made him known as Nanu Aasan. Though he was keen to lead a life as teacher and ascetic his relatives forced him for a marriage. As he was reluctant to continue the married life he left the place after a short period.
He then wandered as an Avadhoota and lived in forests, caves, seacoasts, sparsely populated habitats etc. These travels kindled his spiritual pursuits and enabled him to understand the intricacies of human miseries. He was also fortunate to meet Shanmukhdas, who was known later as Chattambi Swamikal. His acquaintance with him helped to meet Ayyaswaamy, one of the great Siddhayogis, who taught Nanu Aasan the basic tenets of yoga-vidya.
While he was staying in a cave, called Pillattatam, in Marutva mala for tapass he was attracted by many because of his yogic power. But he did not stay there for long and visited many holy places and spiritual men in the Southern India. When he was fully enlightened he realised that his own mission in the world is based on the dictum that ‘acts that one perform for one’s own sake should aim the good of other men’. He put in practice this dictum in his later life.
Gurudevan could easily understand that the society of his time had riddled with social evils like untouchability, unapproachability, unseeability, illiteracy, alcoholism etc. He, therefore, launched measures to understand the problems of common man and took steps to eradicate these evils and uplift them. He tried to dispense with the hitherto followed system of mode of worship imbibed in untouchability and evil rituals and decided to substitute with satvic mode of worship. In 1888 A.D. he established a temple dedicated to Lord Siva at Aruvippuram in Neyyattinkara taluk. This consecration was an eye opener to many downtrodden people and he guided them to have similar satvic places of worship in the length and breadth of Kerala. The second temple he consecrated was that of Goddess at Mannanthala and the third dedicated to Lord Siva at Kolattukara. He also apprised them of the necessity of cleanliness, changes in caste-ridden rituals and acquiring proper education.
In 1903 A.D Gurudevan established Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam with himas President, Dr.Palpu as Vice-President and Kumaranaasan as Secretary. The activities of the Yogam paved the way for the renaissance of depressed classes.
The major aims of the Yogam are imparting education, occupational-training, industrialization, eradication of untouchability, and prohibition of liquors. The notable workers who propagated these ideals were Kumaran Aasan, Dr.Palppu, Moorkkoth Kumaran, C.V. Kunjiraman, Swamy Satyavratan, K. Ayyappan, C. Kesavan, T.K. Madhavan et.al.
Though Gurudevan had installed Hindu Gods in temples, which have been consecrated by him, he made it clear even at the time of the first installation that such places of worship shall be places of congregation for all believers of all religions, creeds and castes. As and when he felt that his lofty ideal on temple was not followed he tried to discontinue such consecration of idols. This change in attitude resulted in the establishment of symbolic motifs like the installation of Sree Sarada representing Vidya-devata at Sivagiri, without any idol at Aaluva Advaita Asrama and only a Prabha motif with inscription of truth, mercy and ethics written on it at Murukkumpuzha. At Kalavamkode he consecrated a mirror idol (kannati pratishtha).
All these actions had far-reaching implications and the fame of Gurudevan spread beyond the frontiers of Kerala. The devotees living in Madras (Chennai) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) invited Gurudevan for getting his blessings. He used to have regular correspondences with Sanyasins, religious reformers and other knowledgeable persons and devotees living in other States of India. He dedicated his famous saying, ‘liquor is poison, make it not, sell it not, drink it not’, to the people of the world on one of his birthdays. In 1921 he gave a note to K. Ayyappan that inter-caste marriage and inter-dining in feasts are not taboo but to be followed. Three years later an All Religious Conference was held at Aaluva under his leadership.
Attracted by his saintly actions many renowned persons of India visited him to pay their respects, which included Mahakavi Rabindranatha Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. In1928 he established Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham for his disciples. Gurudevanentered mahasamaadhi at Sivagiri on 5th Kanni 1103 K.E. corresponding to 20th September 1928 A.D.