Meet the Author: Asokan Vengasseri Krishnan
Author of the biography Sree Narayana Guru- Perfect Union of Buddha and Sankara, Asokan Vengassweri Krishnan shares his experience of writing the book and more, in conversation with GS Jolly.
Asokan Vengasseri Krishnan hails from Kottayam, Kerala and after doing his BS, migrated to USA, continued his education and did his MBA from Widener University, Pennsylvania, USA. He has published numerous articles on sociopolitical issues in various magazines and newspapers in Kerala as well as in many publications of the Indian Diaspora in the United States. Asokan has written an authoritative and comprehensive biography of Sree Narayan Guru, one of the greatest philosopher-poet-saint and social reformer of Kerala (1854 -1928) who fought against discrimination based on caste, and creed, down trodden and the oppressed.
Asokan Vengasseri Krishnan (AVK), who was recently in Delhi for the launch of his book Sree Narayana Guru- Perfect Unionof Buddha and Sankara, published by K.P.R Nair of Konark Publishers in conversation with G S Jolly (GSJ), Deputy Editor AABP, shares more about the book.
GSJ: You have mentioned in your book that you had an intense desire to join Guru’s mission but was unable to pursue. What circumstances brought you to the fold of Sree Narayana Guru?
AVK: In fact, I never left the fold of Guru. What I originally hoped was to join Guru’s ascetic mission as a sanyasi after finishing high school. Even though I was not able to pursue that goal, I stayed close to Guru while pursuing other paths in life. For the last 40+ years, I spent considerable amount of time reading and re-reading Guru regardless of the circumstances.
GSJ: There are some rare persons in the history of mankind whose greatness was recognized within their very life itself. What contributed to this aspect of Guru’s life?
AVK: As we know, many great personalities who tried to change their societies often faced significant opposition during their lifetimes. Some had to pay with their lives. From Socrates to Mahatma Gandhi, we have many examples in this regard. Like Buddha, Guru was a rare exception. The universal acceptability of Guru by a complex and diverse society during a time of complete chaos appears as a mystery to many. He effected dramatic social changes and a bloodless socio-religious revolution in Kerala in a short span of time. Kerala changed drastically within the four decades between 1888 and 1928. It was in 1888 that Guru began his mission with the installation of Siva idol in Aruvippuram. Guru left his body in 1928. Even when confronting the ills of a plainly unjust society, Guru never perceived any one group as villains or victims. Guru compassionately viewed all as victims of ignorance. He was always just. His philosophy was inclusive. The solutions he implemented were creative and positive. Boundless compassion was the core of his mission. He was accepted as a great sage while living and his words carried the aura of spiritual wisdom. These all contributed to his acceptability among the masses.
GSJ: Major part of the book, you have mentioned was written in United States, How did you manage to get the source material for this monumental work?
AVK: I gathered the majority of the material for the book while in the States. I began seriously reading about Guru while a teenager and I had a basic understanding about Guru, his life, his messages, his philosophy and his impact before began the writing of this book. Over the course of time I collected numerous books and source materials. I visited India very often since I began this writing and visited many places associated with Guru, and collected information from many sources. I stayed continuously in India for about four years since 2010, and it was during that time I completed the early chapters of the book. I brought with me many books and materials on each trip from India to the United States. I have collected and referred almost all books and materials available on Guru. At least half of the material was with me in the United States and I kept the other half in my home in India.
GSJ: How do you view untouchability and inapproachability as the burning problems in Guru’s times?
AVK: The life of the vast majority of people in southern India during Guru’s time was plainly unbearable and horrible. In the book, I tried to elaborate on that aspect for the reader who is unfamiliar with the history of Kerala during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Obviously, the downtrodden who belonged to the marginalized and suppressed communities were victims of blatant dehumanization. Interestingly, there were immense inequities among the various sub-groups among the so called upper classes or privileged castes as well. The plights of Nair ladies as well as Namboodiri/Brahmin ladies come to mind. Even though there were fundamental differences between their sufferings, all were in fact victims of ignorance, superstition and intellectual stagnation.
GSJ: Both India and United States posses inherent strength and unique characteristics. After having worked for almost three decades in the USA what similarities, do you find in both the nations?
AVK: India has been a land of complex diversities since time immemorial. Yet India as a civilization is united with a powerful thread of unity. We share certain fundamental ethos that had roots in our great scriptures and in our spirituality and philosophy. But caste system still remains a stain on our national fabric. Religions often play as tools for division among our people. Religions are both our strength and weakness. Many outsiders are amazed by the profoundness of our philosophy. We cannot undermine the merit of religion or philosophy because of the manipulative interference of caste system in our society. Guru always maintained that caste had no meaning and it had to go for good. Conscious awakening is a must to eradicate this pseudo system forever in India.
The plight of modern America is somewhat similar. Modern America is the land of many humanists and thinkers. Henry David Thoreau, Emerson and Thomas Paine contributed greatly to the cause of individual liberty and justice. Even though a slave owner himself, it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote that “all men are created equal” in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Even though slavery was made illegal in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, racism is still ingrained in the American character. For that matter, United States is still a divided nation. Besides, American conscience is forever haunted by the blatant injustices meted out to the native American population. Regardless of all these, America is the only country in the world that hosts people of all colors, races, nations and continents. They live here relatively peacefully sharing the prosperity of a promising nation. Both India and America share the notion of unity in regardless of diversity.
GSJ: In the book you have mentioned that Sree Narayana Guru built a large number of temples. You have called it ‘Temple Movement’. What was this phase in the life of Sree Narayana Guru?
AVK: Many biographers and commentators of Guru’s life tend to view the temple movement as a beginning phase of Guru’s initiatives. Even though there are some merits to these arguments, I do not want to categorize the movement as such as I found overlapping evidences against making such an argument. In fact, Guru started his mission with the temple movement and he continued it until the end even though with certain significant modifications in his approach. To Guru, temple was way more than a place of worship or a home of god’s abode. During the course of the temple movement, he revolutionized its scope without fundamentally altering its character. Guru never supported spending scarce resources just to worship god even though he acknowledged the role of temples as centers of faith. He preferred small temples but wanted devotees to construct schools and other creative facilities to improve the material lives of people. Guru’s novel concept of temple as a holistic center of community development still needs to materialize.
GSJ: The book contains a number of descriptions of guru’s encounters from ordinary to great like Tagore, Gandhi. Chattambi Swamikal etc. give us some insights of a few of such encounters?
AVK: While alive, many of the contemporaries came to the ashram of Guru to pay tributes to him. As an exception, Guru went to the ashram of Ramana Maharshi of Thiruvannamala to visit the revered sage. Among the galaxy of visitors, Tagore’s visits seems to be more memorable. It was the meeting of two great two mahatmas. It seemed that they understood perfectly. Tagore was a rare humanist and a citizen of the world like Guru. They both shared common concepts on nationalism, religion and individual freedom. Tagore was mesmerized by Guru’s realm as a unique spiritual personality. He admitted that he had neither seen one who was spiritually greater than nor a person who was par with him in spiritual attainment. Tagore was fascinated by Guru’s radiant face and yogic eyes. Mahatma Gandhi also came to visit Guru and had a lengthy conversation with him. Gandhiji stayed in the ashram overnight, and was amazed when dalit boys who were the inmates of the ashram recited Sanskrit verses so perfectly.
GSJ: Guru organsied a Parliament of Religions on the lines of Chicago where Swami Vivekananda mesmerized the western audience. What message Guru wanted to give to the society?
AVK: It was in 1924 Guru organized the parliament of religions, and it was the first such event in Asia. During that time Kerala was facing serious social and religious challenges. The wounds caused by Mappila Lahala, the violent riot of 1921 that ripped apart Hindus and Muslims in northern Kerala, still remained sour in the minds of many in those two communities. On the other hand, heated arguments were going on among various factions within the marginalized castes for and against religious conversions. Many lower caste Hindus were on the verge of deserting Hinduism to escape the ruthless caste system. The impact of these developments was not limited within the borders of Kerala but it was felt all over India. So, in that strained environment, Guru maintained that the need of the hour was to bring relief from competition and conflict between castes and religions. Guru stood for cultivating a culture of mutual understanding and respect among religious as a solution to bring peace and harmony. “Let everyone strive to learn and regard different religions with equal respect,” Guru proposed. With this goal in mind, Guru put forward “Not to argue and win but to know and make known” as the motto of the meet.
GSJ: Guru built a temple in Kalavancode where instead of deities; he installed a mirror for worship. What was his idea behind this?
AVK: The mirror installation has so many connotations. Guru had not explicitly stated his intention behind such a unique idol. So, many had offered their own interpretations based on their intellectual understandings. In the book, I tried to explain objectively the events that led to its installation. I also offered my own interpretation of the installation. To me, the mirror installation has genuine social implications as well as spiritual/philosophical implications. On the social plane, it was seemed as a declaration against the dehumanizing attitudes against the institutionalized temple culture that was predominant during that time. On the theological plane, one needs to delve deep into the philosophical and spiritual writings of Guru to harness its true meaning. So, in that sense, mirror also resembles the true nature of Brahman and it was Guru’s attempt to reaffirm the truth of Brahman in a novel way.
GSJ: Did Sree Narayana Guru perform any miracles?
AVK: Guru never wished to be known as a miracle man. But earlier biographers of Guru stated many events citing eyewitnesses that can be interpreted as miracles. As an accomplished siddha and a yogi, Guru was seemed to possess command over the forces of Nature. We can cite ample stories from credible sources in this regard. Guru appeared to have the ability to read the mind of people. On many instances, he cured seriously sick people with a touch, look or with a few drops of water. Sometimes, he offered a simple herb as a medicine for serious sickness. Often times, expert ayurvedic physicians found those remedies ineffective when prescribed by them. Guru did not attempt to do such acts to show off his miraculous capabilities.
The truth is that Guru was compelled by circumstances to perform such acts out of compassion. May be all such interventions were mere illusions by weak minds. We could also view Guru as an expert psychologist. Obviously, Guru had great knowledge in Ayurveda and he was very familiar with the medicinal properties of many plants and herbs. Since the many mysterious aspects of our vast universe still remain unresolved, we are unable to offer a definite answer to the mystic prowess of our divine personalities.
GSJ: Somewhere in the book you have mentioned that the Declaration of Independence of the US of 1776 had anticipated Guru’s vision of the ideal abode, which he outlined in 1888. What was Guru’s vision?
AVK: It was in 1776 the founding fathers of modern America envisioned a noble concept that all men were created equal. Those men were obviously far from perfect. Many continued to own slaves even after making such a novel statement. But it contained a powerful message for the future of all humanity. It was in 1888 Guru declared in Aruvippuram a world devoid of dividing walls. He envisioned the temple as a model abode for all humanity where caste or religion has no relevance. Unlike the founding fathers of America, Guru stated what he truly believed and he always practiced what he preached. Unbound compassion towards all beings was the core of his philosophy.
GSJ: What in your views prompted swami Vivekananda to call Kerala a “Lunatic asylum” as mentioned in your book?
AVK: When Swami Vivekananda came to Travancore (Kerala) in 1892 prior to his historic trip to America; the region was a mad house. The weird superstitions and caste practices resulted in the estranging of people from people. People were barred from touching and talking to each other. Many could not use common pathways as freedom of movement was prohibited. I discussed elaborately the social realities of that time in my book. People of those days considered all nonsense as the will of God. The oppressors and the victims equally believed that they are bound by fate to do what they were doing. Even though caste system was present in all over India, Vivekananda had not witnessed such utter madness in anywhere in India until then. He was puzzled by the prevailing belief of those days that as soon as the so called untouchable got converted to Christianity or Islam discarding Hinduism, such person was no longer subject of such treatments.
GSJ: What was the main thrust of Sree Narayana Guru to start Vaikom Satyagraha?
AVK: To Guru, the Vaikom Satyagraha was a humanitarian issue. Unlike Mahatma Gandhi, Guru did not view that merely as an internal religious issue of the Hindus. The core of the movement was to ensure freedom of movements on public roads to millions of marginalized people. T.K. Madhavan, one of Guru’s trusted followers, was the captain of the movement. Like Gandhiji, Guru also urged the participants to follow strictly the principle of ahimsa while agitating for their just rights, and instructed them to refrain from violence and hatred as they tried to achieve their goal. Vaikom Movement was considered as a testing ground of Gandhiji’s future struggles for freedom through non-violence.
GSJ: You have given the subtitle to the book ‘The Perfect Union of Buddha and Sankara.’ Any special reason?
AVK: It is true that my book does not explicitly offer the justifications in any one chapter for characterizing Guru as the perfect union of Buddha and Sankara. Anyway, here is my justification. There were many sages, philosophers and reformers who interfered in the course of history to clean up our civilization whenever it was corrupted.
Among them Buddha’s name stands out as the first reformer who significantly contributed to this process. Buddha was the first reformer who awakened the masses against the institution of caste. Sankara was the next notable personality who came to save our civilization as it again lost direction. After Buddha and Sankara, it was Guru who affected a similar breakthrough in our system. Guru also faced a social and religious system similar to what Buddha and Sankara faced during their times. Guru was the perfect personification of all positive and creative aspects of both Buddha and Sankara.
In brief, Guru transformed Buddha’s ethical ahimsa into spiritual ahimsa and Sankara’s abstract advaita doctrine into a living and compassionate ideology that has relevance in the contemporary society.