‘Sree Narayana Guru’s Philosophy Has a Strong Relevance Today’
Below we publish excerpts of the Sree Narayana Guru Memorial Lecture delivered by Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary on October 21. He was invited by the Indian Social Club Muscat, Kerala Wing to deliver this year’s lecture.
THE Indian Social Club Muscat, Kerala Wing has, during the last fifteen years, since its founding in 2001, emerged as a unique organization that works within the socio-cultural framework of the Sultanate of Oman. Its activities have, over the years, supported and promoted the cultural, social and humanitarian needs of the Kerala expatriates living and working in Oman. It has over 500 active members and around 10,000 well-wishers.
2016 marks the 160th birth anniversary of Sree Narayana Guru.
The Guru’s slogan of `one caste, one religion, one god’ is an elevated expression of humanism which recognises the value of a human being as being supreme. A value that simultaneously recognises all human beings as being equal, irrespective of all social divisions. This universality of oneness of humanity, in a sense, crystallises the finest elements of rational thought and philosophy that emerged in the course of the advance of human civilization in these lands. As “different rivers flow through different courses to merge in the ocean”, so do different human beings through the practice of individual beliefs and faith eventually merge with humanity as a whole. This is humanism of the highest variety.
In the context of the concrete conditions in India today, the Guru’s philosophy has a very strong relevance. The recent incidents of attacks on the dalits and other marginalised sections of the Indian people highlight the need to adhere to the values propagated by the Guru – `the oneness of humanity’. Likewise, the growing communal polarisation in India which targets and attacks religious minorities requires to be combated with the Guru’s values and philosophy. In that sense, this 160th birth anniversary of Sree Narayana Guru has an important relevance to meet the current challenges that threaten the unity and integrity of India whose religious, linguistic, ethnic, cultural, regional diversity is unmatched by any country in the world today. India’s unity and integrity can only be protected and strengthened by strengthening the bonds of commonality that run through this diversity. India’s social stability and equanimity will only implode if any effort is made to impose any form of uniformity – religious, linguistic, cultural etc – upon this diversity. Unfortunately, it is precisely this that is being sought by the current campaigns of the communal forces in India.
These campaigns to sharpen communal polarisation are conducted also through unleashing violence and terror which targets some political parties like the CPI(M) apart from religious minorities and dalits. The recent developments in Kannur district, Kerala, confirm this pattern. Since the LDF victory in the recent assembly elections was declared, six CPI(M) workers have been killed and around 300 of its members injured in brutal attacks launched by the RSS. 35 offices of our Party have been attacked and destroyed and 80 houses of Party workers vandalised and damaged.
Ironically, the RSS/BJP organised a demonstration outside the CPI(M) headquarters in New Delhi alleging CPI(M) terror. At that very moment, a CPI(M) local committee member, K Mohanan, was hacked to death in the chief minister’s constituency.
The CPI(M) state secretary and the chief minister have both appealed for peace and invited the RSS for talks to end such violence. We continue to await their response.
The Guru’s philosophy is, thus, a weapon to safeguard and cherish India as we know of it today. This growth of rabid communal polarisation that we see around us today, in India, runs completely in contradiction with the body of thought and action that the Guru has bequeathed to us. This rich legacy and the philosophical activities that the Guru undertook had heralded a movement for social renaissance in Kerala. Remember, Swami Vivekananda had once described the Kerala society as a `mad house’ of casteism. The Guru, through his philosophy of oneness of humanity, spread the indomitable values of equality and humanism. Kerala was a society where caste prejudices went beyond even the obnoxious practice of untouchability. In Kerala, there was the practice of unseability. Comrade EMS Namboodiripad used to tell us that in his childhood, it was not unusual to see some `unfortunate’ human beings carrying a bell around their neck whose sound would warn the upper castes, to take a different path!
It was the social renaissance heralded by the Guru, amongst others, that has transformed this society into one with the most progressive values in the country today. In the process, Kerala society has achieved such advances in its human development indices that it matches and, in some cases, outstrips the standards existing in the developed capitalist countries today. In the field of literacy, education, gender equality, religious harmony and other social parameters, Kerala proudly stands at the top on the rest of India.
The Guru used spirituality as a propelling force for upward social mobility of the people. The Guru, thus, gave a new weapon in the struggle against caste based social oppression. In this process, he developed a unique combination of materialism and spiritualism, propagating the Buddha’s preachings of the control over the body, word, mind, food and deed. The consecration of the Shiva Lingam in 1888 – the Aruvippuram Prathishta - remains a landmark that has gone way beyond being a symbolic gesture, in this struggle against caste based social oppression.
The Guru’s humanism has a strong resonance with the Communist philosophy and worldview. The overriding concern of Marxism is humanism. In fact, Karl Marx had once said, “Nothing human is alien to me”. It is the pursuit of the simple question of what constitutes the real freedom of a human being and his consequent liberation from all forms of bondage, Marx proceeded to reject the Hegelian idea of the revolution of the mind as articulated by Feuerbach, during his time, to come to a conclusion of seminal importance. This was: consciousness of a human being is determined by the social conditions and not vice a versa.
Marxism’s focus, thus, is on changing the concrete conditions of material existence, as the basic pre-requisite for human liberation. This emerges from the understanding that without changing the material conditions of existence to eliminate human exploitation of all forms, liberation of human beings is not possible. Thus, followed Marx’s own scientific study of the real living conditions of the people and his consequent dissection of capitalism.
A great deal of controversy is always generated regarding the Marxist understanding of religion. The popular perception is the normally out of context quotation that "religion is the opium of the people". In fact, deliberately, the passage in which this statement finds place is never quoted in the full. Marx had stated :"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people".
For a human being who is oppressed, religion provides the escape for relief, it provides a "heart in a heartless world, a spirit in a spiritless situation." This is the strength and power of religion.
Marxism does not attack religion per se. Marxism’s quest is to change the real world; to transform the comforts that religion provides – “heart of a heartless world, a spirit in a spiritless situation” – into concrete reality. Therefore, as a Communist, we can assure you that the CPI(M) will be the foremost upholder of every individual’s right to his/her choice of their faith and their right to maintain their beliefs and propagate them. We will defend, till the last breath, this right of the individual choice and protect the faith of every individual. It, therefore, necessarily follows that we shall also protect everybody against any attempt to interfere into the rights of individual liberty of faith by any body of thought or action. However, this is precisely what the communal forces are doing in India today by sharpening communal polarisation. The CPI(M)’s opposition to communalism is, hence, integral to both its philosophy and practice.
Yet another resonance with Marxist philosophy is the Guru’s emphasis on “freedom through education, strength through organisation, economic independence through industry”. Guru, thus, emphasises the strengthening of the material basis of human existence as a prerequisite for the realisation of his vision of the `oneness of humanity’. The radical change in the material conditions of existence of human beings is precisely what we, Marxists, are seeking to achieve in India.
The Guru’s philosophy spread far and wide beyond the confines of Kerala. I am told that Mahatma Gandhi came to the Guru’s ashram thrice during our freedom movement. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore came to meet the Guru in 1922. This, surely, was a meeting of great minds. Tagore had by then penned the Nobel Prize winning immortal lines to awaken India: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;….”
The Guru’s teachings and personal example are, thus, not merely relevant but more necessary to meet the challenges before us in India today.
On the one hand, the material basis of existence for the vast mass of our people and the country, as a consequence of embracing the neo-liberal policy trajectory by the Indian ruling classes, is deteriorating. We have a situation in India today where, despite bombastic sloganeering like `Make in India’, `Stand up India’, `Digital India’ etc etc, industrial growth is stagnating, if not declining, unemployment is growing, the rise in prices of all essential commodities is relentless imposing greater economic burdens on the people. Hunger and malnutrition, especially among women and children, continue to place vast sections of the Indian people in poverty and misery. The Global Hunger Index, released last week, ranks India at 97 out of 118 countries. With 215 million Indians going hungry, India is behind countries like Bangladesh and Rwanda. India’s agrarian distress is intensifying leading to thousands of Indian farmers committing distress suicides.
This situation has to change. India has no dearth of resources. What India requires is pro-people economic policies whereby our resources can be used to create a better India for all Indian people. Instead, what we see today is that there are two Indias in the making – a `shining India’ for a few and a `suffering India’ for the most. This gap between the two Indias continues to widen. Unless this process is reversed by alternative policies, Indian people cannot realise their inherent potential.
Unless material needs are satisfied, the growth of spiritualism leading to social renaissance and, therefore, to cultural renaissance would be simply impossible. The economic policies followed by the current central government in India only buttresses such material regression of our people’s lives. These policies need to be resisted and reversed. This is one focus of CPI(M)’s activities today.
On the other hand, the CPI(M)’s other focus is against the growing communal polarisation and the vicious pursuit of consolidating the Hindutva communal vote bank politics which is leading to severe ruptures in our society that can well destroy the unity and integrity of India. Under the present central government, both these aspects of anti-people economic reforms and communal polarisation constitute its singular agenda. In the process, the communal forces even make an attempt to forcibly appropriate the Guru’s philosophy and legacy.
This, simply, cannot be allowed. Such efforts, in particular, have to be defeated in order to carry ourselves to higher levels of social and material existence as envisaged and propagated by the Guru. The efforts to replace the rich Indian history with Hindu mythology and the evolution of the syncretic Indian philosophy with a monolithic Hindu theology will have to be resisted and defeated.