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Developmental Modernity in Kerala (Narayana Guru, Sndp Yogam and Social Reform)

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Item Code: NAS530
Author: P. Chandramohan
Publisher: Tulika Books
Language: English
Edition: 2019
ISBN: 9788193926987
Pages: 276
Other Details 9.50 X 6.50 inch
Weight 460 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

This study of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP Yogam), one of the earliest social reform movements in Kerala, investigates the relationship between social reform, religion and caste. The Yogam drew inspiration from the ideas of Sree Narayana Guru, which suited the aspirations of the upwardly mobile Ezhava middle class. In both religious and social matters, the Guru was a traditionalist who adopted a rational stand and strove to create 8 modern outlook among the masses. He thought of the temple as a social space in which people could meet and exchange ideas. While pursuing his spiritual mission, he advocated education, industrialization and the abolition of caste as prerequisites for social regeneration.

This work demonstrates how the SNDP Yogam focused on issues of education, government employment, industrialization, the abolition of cyclical rituals and caste, anti-alcoholism, and the demand for a new law of inheritance. Looking at the interface between the Guru's ideas and the Yogam's efforts in the direction of socio-economic reform and political democracy, one is able to discern the onset of modernity in Kerala. However, gradually, disjunction between principles and practice led to a decline of the SNDP movement. Ironically, since it was largely centered on the interests of the privileged sections of the Ezhava community, the movement achieved Ezhava solidarity only around caste. This study is also significant, therefore, for providing an example of a social reform movement turning into a caste solidarity movement.

About the Author

P. Chandramohan did his Master's in History from Calicut University, Kerala, and pursued his research on the Social and Cultural History of Modern Travancore at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He retired as Museum Curator, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), New Delhi, in 2012, after having served in various positions in that institution for over thirty years: having joined as a researcher, he went on to head the Manuscript Division (Archives), Reprography Unit and Preservation Section. He has published research articles in books and journals such as Studies in History, Indian Historical Review, State and Society and Journal of Kerala History.


In the wake of globalization and the 'cultural turn' in social science research, the history of socio-religious movements in nineteenth-century India has received a fair amount of attention. Initially the interest was mainly confined to the history of such movements of reform which had an all-India reach. An important work of this genre is Charles H. Heimsath's Hindu Social Reform and Indian Nationalism. Since the building blocks of these all-India movements were drawn from regional historical experiences, the focus of attention slowly shifted to regional movements. Quite a few scholars were drawn towards analysing the importance of these movements and their inter-connections with nationalism. These studies have considerably enriched the understanding of the 'national' history of social and religious reform movements, and have helped to correct some of the misconceptions about the character of these movements. Susobhan Sarkar's Bengal Renaissance and Other Essays, David Kopf's Study of Orientalism and Bengal Renaissance and Kenneth Jones' Arya Dharma are pioneering efforts.

In the present volume, Chandramohan has attempted the study of a reform movement of Kerala: Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP). The Yogam drew inspiration from the ideas of Narayana Guru who believed in Advaita philosophy and maintained a universalist outlook. The relationship between the Guru and the Yogam was very close. He was the President of the Yogam for life and actively participated in all its activities particularly during the early phase of the movement, at least till 1913. Chandramohan provides a lively picture of this interplay with a meticulously detailed account of the ideas of the Guru which provided the principles around which the activities of the Yogam were organized. An umbilical connection existed between the Yogam and the Guru, which was nursed carefully by both. This was because the ideas of the Guru suited the aspirations of the upwardly mobile Ezhava middle class, who were the main benefactors of the movement.

The scheme envisioned by Narayana Guru for the regeneration of Kerala society had three important dimensions: the reformation of social and religious practices, the development of education and industrialization. In all these fields the Guru's outlook was very modern. In both religious and social matters he took a rational stand, and he was opposed to all forms of idol worship even if he was instrumental in the consecration of several temples. He conceived the temple as a social space where everybody could meet and exchange ideas. This is reminiscent of the way in which earlier movements like the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj made use of the 'temple' space. Accordingly the worship pattern also underwent change. The new pattern did away with traditional practices in which the priestly class occupied a dominant place. The elimination of the priestly class from officiating during the performance of rituals had a democratic element, inasmuch as it helped the creation of individuals as free agents.

Although of simple looks and simple living, Narayana Guru had a complex and discerning mind. He also had a holistic view of society and an organic conception of progress. As the author rightly points out, he does not fall into the tradition-modernity paradigm; he was a traditionalist who struggled to disseminate a modern outlook among the masses. The most important message of his life was his attempt to reconcile tradition with modernity. Without such reconciliation, he believed that no progress was possible. Therefore, while pursuing his spiritual endeavours, he advocated education of women, industrialization and abolition of caste as necessary for the regeneration of society. In order to contextualize the life and work of the Guru and of the movement he had helped to organize, Chandramohan has devoted a long chapter on the economic, social and cultural conditions in nineteenth-century Kerala. This is most appropriate as it helps to understand the society and its problems in which the reformers were called upon to intervene. The society was under the vicious grip of obscurantism and superstitions, which accounted for many irrational social practices. Many believed that an association with the blessings of the Guru would go a long way in finding a solution to deal with these practices. When Dr Palpu met Vivekananda the latter reportedly advised him to look for a spiritual leader for the movement. Palpu found one in Narayana Guru, and with his blessings and under his spiritual leadership, organised an association entitled Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP).

Chandramohan's work demonstrates that the SNDP was mainly an organization of the emerging middle class, which worked as both its strength and weakness. The aspirations of the middle class led them to focus on education, which was essential for social uplift. Because of caste restrictions Ezhavas were not able to get admission into government schools. The Ezhava leaders undertook a sustained agitation, both in the Sree Mulam Popular Assembly and outside. As a result all government schools for boys were thrown open in 1908 and for girls in 1910. The government order did not become fully operational, as we find that only 180 out of 352 girls' schools were open to the Ezhavas by 1919. However, this was a step with far-reaching implications for social change. The Yogam's involvement and advocacy did result in a remarkable increase in literacy. In 1875 the male literacy of Ezhavas was only 3.2 per cent, which increased to 36 per cent by 1931. A similar increase was reported for English education as well: from only 30 in 1890 to 5,202 in 1931. The Guru accorded equal importance to vernacular and English education, as he was aware of the latter's pragmatic value.

The ideas of the Guru were not limited to spiritual and religious matters. His views were organic, and therefore he believed that change should embrace all aspects of society. He was equally concerned with economic problems as he was with religious matters. Therefore, he advised his followers to invest in industries. At the annual meetings of the Yogam industrial exhibitions were organized. The Yogam floated a company, Malabaar Economic Union, of which the Guru himself was a director. Apart from the contribution of the Yogam, several companies were established in different parts of the state.

Looking back, it is not difficult to discern in the interface between the Guru's ideas and the Yogam's reaction, the onset of modernity in Kerala. However, the disjunction between principles and practice has led to a decline of the movement. Now the movement is largely focused on the interests of the privileged sections of the community and has hence lost all reforming zeal.

The empirical details and the conceptual framework of this book make it essential reading for anyone interested in the history of social movements. I have great pleasure in presenting this book to discerning readers.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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