Sahodaran Ayyappan: Overcoming Narayana Guru

Utharakalam Admin

J. Reghu

The Left movement in Kerala that took advantage of the progressive legacy of the Ezhava Movement, deliberately marginalized and silenced the radical trend represented by Ayyappan, despite the fact that he was one of the pioneers in disseminating the revolutionary message of the October Revolution in Kerala. What the Communist Party inherited and carried forward was the ‘religio-reformist Narayana Guru’, at the cost of rational and revolutionary trends within the Ezhava Movement. The epithet of ‘social revolutionary’ attributed to Narayana Guru by the Kerala Communists, in fact, inhibited not only a critical evaluation of his discourse, but also ‘homogenized’ the Ezhava Movement. This ‘homogenization’ or ‘Sree Narayanization’ of the movement ended up, in peripheralizing Ayyappan as a mere ‘rationalist ventriloquism’ of Narayana Guru.


The Untouchable Ezhava Movement in Kerala can be classified into two phases. The first phase, represented by Narayana Guru, is the ‘religio-reformist’ phase of Ezhava self-critique and ritual reforms aimed at de-stigmatizing their modes of worship, rites, marriage, etc. This phase, largely defined by the metaphysical core of Hinduism was, in fact, indirectly instrumental in re-linking Ezhavas with the popular devotional side of Hinduism.[1] Though Narayana Guru never consciously glorified Hinduism as such, his naive loyalty to Advaita and the ascetic way of life reinforced the popular belief that

spiritually-oriented Hinduism could be marshaled against caste injustices and Ezhavas could find a space within it. His religio-reformist mode of intervention that was all but an attempt at reclaiming the higher religio-moral world of Hinduism by building temples and installing high Gods created a feeling of moral and religious oneness among the Ezhavas with the caste Hindus.

The same metaphysical system of vedas that created and sanctified the apartheid ideology of varna/caste taxonomy, was internalized by Narayana Guru through his ascetic way of life. But as an untouchable, he came into conflict with the social realities of the Hindu apartheid system, while upholding its metaphysical core. It seems ironic that one could resist the caste system at a practical level, whilst belonging to the same theological horizon of that system. This paradox has been explained by Guru’s hagiographers as an attempt to ‘humanize’ the metaphysical system by eliminating the traces of apartheid from it. But, in fact, a ‘hinduism humanized’ is nothing but an oxymoron or a monstrosity. Narayana Guru’s resistance to the Hindu apartheid system could in no way be explained at the level of his asceticism and his adherence to advaita but needs to be construed precisely as a by-product of the impact of modernity in Kerala.

In the pre-British period, the lower castes and caste Hindus were bound together by the ‘bonds of exclusion’ and the collective proper name ‘Hindu’ had been attributed to the indigenous populations of Kerala on the basis of this ‘unity of exclusion’ pervading the entire social structure. Narayana Guru’s religio-reformist mode was a mode of reversal of this ‘bonds of exclusion’ to those of inclusion. He was under the false impression that by exorcizing the non-canonical forms of Ezhava’s religious life, their social status could be elevated. It was a great failure on his part that he could not understand the symbiotic nature of the domains of ‘religion’ and the ‘social’/‘caste’ in Hinduism. Being committed to the metaphysical core of Hinduism, Narayana Guru criticized the social aspects of caste. This paradox created the impression that the doctrinal foundation of Hinduism is incompatible with the social domain of caste. The ‘religio-reformist’ phase of the Ezhava Movement, spearheaded by Narayana Guru, relied on the presumed ‘inner incompatibility between ‘religion’ and ‘social’ within Hinduism. Emile Senart (1930:13) has observed that ‘caste is the very soul of this somewhat indeterminate fluid collection of customs and beliefs which is called Hinduism.’ One can reject the ideology of ‘varnashrama dharma’ and Brahmin superiority by upholding the metaphysical doctrinal core of Hinduism. The dissident traditions or many strands of the Bhakti movements did oppose some aspects of the caste and Brahminical authority, but never questioned the doctrinal authority of the vedas. In the perpetuation of caste, the canonical authority of the vedas was far more important than the social position of Brahmins, because the ultimate legitimacy of the caste system was drawn and derived from the vedas. Smith (1994:9) says that, “it is the process of ‘eternally returning’ to the vedas that defines Hinduism.”

So, adhering to and upholding Advita metaphysics on the one hand and rejecting caste on the other is a seeming paradox and ultimately counterproductive. The history of Hinduism has witnessed many episodes of events and sects which tried to resist caste in terms of some illusory vedic ideals of transcendental and divine equality. Since these dissident movements did not generate any fundamental challenges to the metaphysical authority of the vedas, the movements themselves have been assimilated into Hinduism. Narayana Guru failed to realize that the apartheid system of caste is ultimately grounded in a transcendental source of signification, that is, in the metaphysical core of Hinduism, that, in turn, is upheld by him through his ascetic subjectivity. Mere opposition to the social manifestation of caste cannot undermine it, unless the metaphysical ground of Hinduism has been challenged. The social imagery of caste has been invented and elaborated upon not just on the ‘social’ or ‘political’ domains, but precisely on the ‘transcendental’ plane. Unfortunately, Narayana Guru’s asceticism and doctrinaire allegiance to the Advaita system legitimized a version of ‘pure’ Hinduism. The life of Narayana Guru can be reasonably depicted as a site of both conformity and resistance. Being an ascetic renouncer following the doctrine of Advaita, he conforms and performs the authority of the tradition. On the other hand, an untouchable taking the path of asceticism is itself an act of defiance against the tradition. In his practical encounters with the fellow members of his caste, he was able to transform himself into a militant activist resisting the caste apartheid. But at the same time, the very act of becoming a Sannyasi also involves an act of subscribing to the traditional discourse of Sannyasam. By becoming a Sannyasi, Narayana Guru was becoming part of traditional Sannyasi discourse and performing the textualized memory of that tradition. He was subscribing to an already existing tradition, rather than inventing his own ‘Sannyasam.’ Even those traditions of asceticism that have been developed in reaction to Brahmanical hegemony and caste system have been traditionalized and textualized. Any ascetic self is an embodied and internalized form of a tradition. Narayana Guru’s voluntary choice of Sannyasam presupposes an involuntary act of allowing Hinduism to inscribe its symbolic order upon his body and self. This Hindu symbolic order has always been an unnoticed substratum of his subjectivity. On the other hand, through the defiant act of reappropriating Sannyasam to his own advantage, he was also able to reverse the symbolic order and refigure himself as one who was undermining caste apartheid. But the crucial point is that this act of subversion is ultimately limited by his mapping that tradition onto himself. He is a site that reveals the limit of a critique situated within the tradition. Narayana Guru’s religio-reformist critique of caste reveals strikingly that Hindu tradition is devoid of conceptual and cultural resources for a radical internal critique to be developed into its own negations so as to allow something new to emerge. In that sense, Hinduism is an ‘awesome monstrosity’ that does not allow the dynamics of evolution and transformation to act upon it. Narayana Guru’s religio-reformist idiom is an ‘internal critique’ that does not ultimately undermine the homeostatic nature of Hinduism.

True change which was genuinely brought about by anti-caste values could only emerge from an ‘outside’ or ‘extra-space.’ It was the British rule that created that ‘extra-space’, from which a genuine anti-caste discourse could be launched against Hinduism. Sahodaran Ayyappan belonged to this rare genre of discourse that captured the revolutionary nature of the ‘extra element’ created by modernity and he turned it against Hinduism and its new political form, nationalism. By challenging both Hinduism and nationalism, Ayyappan was indirectly rejecting the religio-reformist discourse of Narayana Guru. Ayyappan is to be located not in the discoursive continuity of the religio-reformist phase, but in the ‘extra-space’ totally extrinsic to the Hindu intellectual and cultural repertoire. By the turn of the twentieth century, the newly educated Ezhava youth has come to realize the pitfalls of the religio-reformist phase. On the other hand, by that time modern European ideas and institutions had percolated down to the public sphere of Kerala society. The modern values and principles embedded in this process of Europeanization increasingly exposed the inherent limitation of Narayana Guru’s reformist idiom. The Ezhava Movement was faced with a deep crisis that the religio-reformist mode has become ineffective in articulating the demands for equality and justice, made possible by the ‘alien’ forces of modernity. The movement had to take a new shape that no longer needed religious approval. The new demands gradually started to legitimize itself in terms of modern secular and scientific values. This new turn of Ezhava Movement could be defined as the ‘modern’ phase. The intellectual resources for this phase were drawn not from the religio-reformist discourse of Narayana Guru, but mainly from the opportunities unleashed by the forces of modernity. It was Sahodaran Ayyappan who galvanized the intellectual ferment of the modern phase of Ezhava Movement.

It should be emphasized that the modern phase of Ezhava Movement was contemporaneous with neo-hinduism and its political form, nationalism. So, the main challenge before Ayyappam was not the ritual reform of Ezhavas, but the nationalist strategy of marginalizing the lower caste movement in the name of the ‘nation.’ Ayyappan understood that, ‘nationalism was the mode of transmission of the culture and values, traditionally held by the upper caste as the apparatus of social domination…’ (Reghu, J., 2010: pp. 40-53) The British rule was seen by him not as a ground on which Ezhavas and caste hindus could jointly think that they were ‘one’ people and ‘one’ nation. Ayyappan had no qualms in aligning with the British in his attempt to problematize the ‘anti-colonial nation’ and openly proclaimed that he was ashamed of being a nationalist, because nationalism was deceptive and it was a strategy to maintain caste hindu hegemony. In 1908, in an editorial on Swaraj in Vivekodayam, the mouthpiece of Ezhava Movement, he had already expressed his apprehension about nationalism that “… caste which had suffered caste oppression for thousands of years would join the nationalists” (cited in Reghu, J.2010: p.40).

Ayyappan’s modern discourse which Ajay Sekher calls ‘Ayyappanism’ or ‘Sahodaranism’ could be deployed to expose the pseudo-rhetorical apparatus of post-colonial theory. The ‘native’ and the ‘nation’ represented as the colonized figure in the post-colonialist discourse was shown to be ‘fractured’ by arguing that the low castes had already been enslaved by the caste Hindu element of the ‘colonized’. It is not an exaggeration to say that Ayyappan might have anticipated the post-colonialist idealization of the ‘colonized’. His opposition to nationalism unequivocally shows that the ‘agony’ and ‘trauma’ of the post-colonial intellectuals are the product of the ‘shameless nostalgia’ for the ‘paradise lost’ of the caste hindus. British rule in India was traumatic only for those who traditionally held the reign of domination. The nationalist/post-colonialist melancholy is the melancholy of those indigenous masters of caste apartheid, who had been deprived of their power by the politico-legal apparatus inaugurated by the British. It was the universal values and principles enshrined in the ‘colonial’ politico-legal machinery that granted ‘human rights’ at least in theory to the low castes for the first time in Indian history. The low castes who had traditionally been treated as polluting subhuman substance, had absolutely no reason to feel ‘shame’ and ‘enslavement’ under colonialism. The post-colonial critique of the intrusion of colonialism into the ‘nation’ is a tacit way of critiquing intervention in the traditionally sanctified right of the caste-Hindus to rule over the low castes.

The subaltern and post colonialist focus on ‘colonial difference’ to the exclusion of indigenous forms of differences ends up in providing an alibi against radical critique of Indian society and Hinduism. This line of argument relegates the internal inequalities and structures of power to invisibility. The attack on European Enlightenment and modernity in the name of colonialism legitimizes and insulates the traditional Hindu social order and also postpones indefinitely any kind of internal critique. What is conveniently forgotten in the rhetoric of post-colonialism is the fact that the ‘nation’ that has been invoked against colonialism has always been incapable of generating any kind of resources for an internal critique. It is only with the arrival of the ‘colonizer’ that the ‘dominated majority’ of the ‘colonized’ are endowed with resources to challenge the ‘dominant minority’ of the ‘colonized’. Unlike European societies, Indian society has never generated its own critique, despite some weak theological plights. The post-colonialist complicity with the internal structures of power and apartheid amounts to nothing less than a conspiratorial attempt to perpetuate the caste system in the name of  exorcizing the ‘evil’ of colonialism.

Ajay Sekher

Before the British rule, there was not even a single institution or realm of life in Kerala which is free of caste. British rule was instrumental in creating institutions, ideas and spheres of public life that functioned, at least in principle, independently of caste. But the Hindu social organization tried to impose its casteism even on the institutions and services introduced under the British rule. The greatest problem faced by Ezhavas and other untouchables in Kerala was the gap between the opportunities provided by the British rule and social impediments caused by the Hindu society. The British rule appeared to these people as a plethora of opportunities and rights previously unimaginable. It was in this historical juncture that the radical Ezhava youth started demanding the implementation and enforcement of the rights offered by the British. On the other hand, the caste Hindus had organized themselves under the banner of the anti-colonial struggle, seeking to overthrow the British rule. The ‘private liberties’ embodied in the British institutions and ideas came into conflict with the indigenous social organization. The modern phase of Ezhava Movement was, in fact, made possible by this historical disjuncture and Ayyappan who championed this phase realized the egalitarian potentialities of the context and openly allied with it.

The history of Indian nationalism is a history of the denial of voice and agency to the low caste majority of the population. The discourse of nationalism and its positing of ‘nation’ vis-a-vis colonialism, enabled those who spoke for and on behalf of the nation to re-present themselves as the agent of the whole society and also to de-present those whom they sought to represent. By de-presenting the majority of the masses, the nationalist discourse made them a people without history and encompassed them into the macro narrative of the nation. The post-colonialist verbosity is only a pretext to cover up the nationalist expropriation of history from the low caste masses of India. Modifying Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the philosophy of history, it could be stated that document of Indian nationalism…… is only at the same time a document of expropriating history from the low caste majority of India’. The post-colonialist reading of modern India in terms of the categories of ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’, is committing two conceptual errors. The first one is the de-recognition of the already fissured and internally antagonistic structure of the ‘colonized’., This error culminates in legitimizing the injustice and oppression constitutive of the ‘colonized’. This conceptual error throws into oblivion the pertinent question as to ‘why those who were subject to the apartheid system of caste, meticulously and ruthlessly maintained and enforced by the dominant minority, should identify themselves with the ‘colonized’. If colonialism involves economic, social and cultural domination, then the majority of the ‘colonized’ had already been dominated by the dominant minority of the ‘colonized’. Therefore, the new phenomenon of colonialism by an alien force could no longer be able to produce any qualitatively different effect on the life of the already colonized people.

The second error is that of presupposing an already constituted ‘colonizer’ in its relationship with the ‘colonized’. It is a fact that originally the European trading companies were motivated by commercial interests, rather than by any colonial interest. It was only in the process of interaction with the ‘colonies’ that the commercial interests gradually evolved into colonial power. It is not the question of an ‘imperial colonizer’ already formed in the metropolis and expanding outwards with a mission of colonization. The ‘colonizers’ have also been subject to the domestic transformations in their homelands. In short, the post-colonialist construction of an internally homogenous experience of being ‘colonized’ creates an ‘equivalence’ of interests and social positions among all those who inhabited the territory of the ‘colonized’.

As far as the dominated majority of the Kerala society was concerned, whoever sits on the throne of the ruler would not make much difference in their lives. If any real change has occurred in their socio-economic and cultural condition, that was certainly because of the impact of administrative, economic and legal reforms introduced by the British. The ‘colonial’ interventions in the Kerala society actually impacted upon the lives of Ezhavas and other untouchable sections not by ‘enslaving’, but by ‘empowering’ them in their relationship with the ‘dominant minority’ of the ‘colonized’. The subversive impact of colonialism was such that it made the internalized beliefs of Ezhavas incompatible with the modern nations of ‘human’ and ‘equality’. Colonialism in a way enabled Ezhavas to reflect upon their own lives and their relationships with the ‘dominant minority’ from a distance. What this reflection entailed was not a feeling of unity with the ‘dominant minority’ of the ‘colonized’, but rather a ‘distancing’ themselves from the ‘menace of nationalism’. Ayyappan represented the subversive edge of this distancing and at no point of time in his life was he carried away by the deceptive image of Indian nation. According to him, the figure of nation which was deployed to diffuse the actual antagonisms within the ‘colonized’ epitomized the caste-Hindu strategy. He was aware of the inseparability of caste and Hindusim and he wrote categorically that a Hindu religion without caste is an absolute impossibility. Ayyappan’s unrelenting opposition to the nationalist euphoria exposes the conceptual errors of the categories of ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, many realms of Kerala society had been transformed by modern institutions and services like public schools, hospitals, public road, public transport, post offices, police stations, judicial courts, legislative bodies, bureaucracy, census, land registration, revenue offices, electricity, public sanitation, public recruitment to government jobs, journals and newspapers, markets, banks, railways, factories, wages, workers and missionaries and preachings etc. There emerged an irreconcilability between the egalitarian and inclusionary principles epitomized by the new material culture and the tradition. No one could remain away from the reach of the new material entailments and those who came into contact with them realized the predatory nature of the prevailing social system. Narayana Guru was reported to have stated that ‘it was the British who gave us Sannyasam’. This clearly shows how the new material culture impacted upon Nrayana Guru, though in an empirical way. His practical opposition to the caste needs to be construed as entwined with modernity’s resistance against the traditional Hindu social system. When he rejects varna/caste based taxonomy and endorses sex-based taxonomy, he was just acting out as a vehicle of modernity, of which he was unaware of.

Ajay Sekher’s critical reading of Sahodaran Ayyappan’s life and works, in a way, makes possible the ‘return of a true radical’, who has been buried under the neo-Hindu nationalist mediocrity of Kerala intelligentsia. This book also indirectly points to the limitations of the religio-reformist discourse of Narayana Guru. What is urgently needed at the present intellectual juncture of Kerala is a critical overcoming of Narayana Guru. Sahodaran Ayyappan is the ideal ‘site’ that could be employed in this act of overcoming, because he had fidelity to the ‘persona’ of Narayana Guru on the one hand, but had ‘infidelity’ towards his religio-reformist mode on the other hand. The bold act of overcoming Narayana Guru by means of Sahodaranism turns out to be a defiant sign of due honour as well. The author observes that Ayyappan is deeply influenced by the intellectual foundations of modernity. ‘The Declaration of Human rights’ proclaimed by SNDP under the leadership of Ayyappan with the inspiration of the French revolution in 1945 preceded the UN Declaration of Human Rights. ‘Sahodaranism’ reminds the low caste movement across India that any encounter with the ‘cultural empire of Hinduism’ necessitates the critical appropriation of intellectual resources from outside the empire.

The Left movement in Kerala that took advantage of the progressive legacy of the Ezhava Movement, deliberately marginalized and silenced the radical trend represented by Ayyappan, despite the fact that he was one of the pioneers in disseminating the revolutionary message of the October Revolution in Kerala. What the Communist Party inherited and carried forward was the ‘religio-reformist Narayana Guru’, at the cost of rational and revolutionary trends within the Ezhava Movement. The epithet of ‘social revolutionary’ attributed to Narayana Guru by the Kerala Communists, in fact, inhibited not only a critical evaluation of his discourse, but also ‘homogenized’ the Ezhava Movement. This ‘homogenization’ or ‘Sree Narayanization’ of the movement ended up, in peripheralizing Ayyappan as a mere ‘rationalist ventriloquism’ of Narayana Guru.  Mydeen Khan (2008:83) observes that “…..the streams represented by Sahodaran Ayyappan and C.Krishnan remained in periphery…” though Narayana Guru himself accommodated them. This ‘Sreenarayanization’ of the polyvalent trajectories of the Ezhava Movement made it possible for the Hindu fascists to appropriate it as a ‘Hindu reform movement’. Only by recovering the radical secular trajectory represented by Sahodaran Ayyappan, can the imminent threat of neo-Hindu fascism be effectively resisted. The critical repositioning of Ayyappan is also going to be an organic part of the new paradigm of modern Indian history that would pull down the ‘nation’ from the centre stage. This ‘dangerous’ paradigm would be the interpretation of the nationalist movement not as an epic struggle for freedom, but rather as a ‘struggle’ by the nationalized caste Hindus against the real social freedom of the low caste majority of India. Sahodaran Ayyappan would certainly be rehabilitated as one who had dreamt of such a paradigm yet to be written. And, here lies the timely significance of this intellectual biography.


Works Cited

1.   Senart, Emile, 1930, Caste in India: The Facts and the System, London: Methuen.

2.   Smith, Brian K., 1994, Classifying the Universe, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

3.   Reghu, J., 2010, “Community as De-imagining Nation: Relocating Sree Narayana Movement in Kerala”, in Ravi Raman (ed), Development Democracy and the State: Critiquing the Kerala Model, Routledge, London & New York.

4.   Khan, M.Mydeen, 2008, Transition of Ezhavas in Travancore: Interpreting T.K.Madhavan, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Kerala.

[1] The second modernist revolutionary phase, represented by Sahodaran Ayyappan has been foregrounded in this essay.

(This article was originally written for Dr. Ajay Sekher’s book
published by Other Books, Calicut. Foreword: Gail Omvedt, Reflections:
J Reghu. Pp 268. Rs. 395.)

Other Books
P.B.No.620, 13/776
I Floor, New Way Building, Railway Station Link Road
Calicut – 2, Kerala, India
+91 495 2306808



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