South India’s prominent seer and revaluator of ancient wisdom, Narayana Guru (1854-1928) composed a number of mystical texts to elaborate his revaluations. The best known of these is Atmopadesa Satakam (One Hundred Verses of Self Instruction). It embodies a holistic philosophy embracing all aspects of existence, consciousness and value sense. The Guru is recognized today as one of the most important masters and catalysts for change in India’s history.
Nataraja Guru (Dr. P. Natarajan MALT, DL it (Paris), MRST) was a direct disciple of Narayana Guru. His contribution to philosophy is in his reinterpreting Brahmavidya, the ancient traditional wisdom of India, as An Integrated wisdom Science of the Absolute understandable in terms familiar to the modern science.
The present commentary tries to look at Atmopadesa Satakam more from the side of Western Philosophy than from the Eastern, while not losing sight of the sweetness and profoundity of the latter.
One Hundred philosophical verses constituting a wisdom
text of rare value written by the Guru Narayana (1854-1928) in
Malayalam, are presented here for the first time in a modern English
translation with suitable comments by one of his disciples.
The text is entitled Atma-Upadesa, which means teaching about
or of the Self. The subject of the work is contemplative Self-realization or "knowing oneself’ as better understood in the Socratic context,
as pertaining to the central problem of wisdom itself.
Instead of being in the form of a dialogue, as is more usually
the case either in India or in ancient Greece, as between a teacher
and a pupil, the two counterparts involved in the wisdom teaching
situation are brought more unitively together here by the Guru. This
is perhaps more consistent both with the matter and the method of
the unitive wisdom treated in this "century of verses" or satakam, as
it is named here.
The poet Bharthari has similar verse sequences known in the
Sanskrit tradition. Sankara’s Atma-bodha and Upadesa-Sahasri
are also kindred compositions. Highly reminiscent of this form of
writing too, are the works of Tamil poets such as Tevdram (Garland
of God) and Tiruvasagam (Holy Sentences) of the Nalvars (Four
Saints) so popular in South India. The Bhagavad Gita also, a song
and a science at once, pertaining to the Absolute, does not fall outside
the class of composition intended by the Guru in this instance. The
present composition is thus a wisdom discourse addressed to and
about one’s own Self. Further, as we shall explain presently with
reference to the text of the very first verse, the author has in mind a
work of a scriptural or canonical status wherein he seeks to present a
revaluation of the whole field of wisdom. It is meant to be both
scientifically precise and capable of being chanted as an elevating
scripture like the Vedas themselves, by the less strictly intellectual or
merely academic votary of "Self-knowledge."
The nature of the opening verse calls for some preliminary
remarks. There is a tacit Sanskrit convention which requires that the
first words should indicate the content, relation and subject-matter of
the whole work succinctly, and indicate clearly the kind of approach
and the nature of the problems envisaged. It is usual also in works of
a serious kind in India, either to bow down to the Guru or to invoke
God or some principle representing the Absolute or the Most High, in
one form or another. In Kalidasa’s Sakuntalam, the very first verse
has been subjected to a most elaborate scrutiny in the light of such a
convention. It 1s also permitted to omit addressing a definite member
of the Hindu pantheon by name, and to allude only indirectly (as in
Sakuntalam) to some hidden principle, representative of the Absolute, according to the authors’s original concept. Buddhist works refer
to "the Enlightened One" in various forms. Sankara’s
Vivekachidadmani begins by invoking his Guru’s name.
The Guru Narayana is able to conform to these tacit conventions in a manner which both conforms and bypasses its demands in a
delicate and distinctive middle way which is all his own. The first
letter with which the work begins is the vowel "A" which, according
to the Gita (X. 33) represents the Absolute. The pointed reference
to repeated prostrations to the Absolute subjectively and objectively
conceived at once in the first verse, fulfils the requirements of an
initial invocation without doing so in any closed theological or deistic
sense. The dignity of philosophy is not compromised by the demands
of any theology which might not be fully in keeping with the "‘free
critic" that a man should correctly consider himself to be.
The purpose and scope of the work, as also the central question, the problem or the doubt it confronts us with as a whole requires
to be clearly indicated, also according to classical Indian convention.
Here too the Guru satisfies this tacit requirement masterfully. One
notices here that the central substantial core in oneself referred to in
the opening verse, lends itself to be considered both as the subject-
matter as well as the object-matter of the philosophy of the Guru at
one and the same time. Duality is thus not only avoided but unity
established by means of the neutral normative notion of the Absolute
which is adorable in, through and by oneself.
The neutral unitive Absolute, irrespective of any cosmological,
psychological or theological bias, thus occupies a central place in the
work. The task that the Guru places before himself in the ninety
eight intervening verses, is to arrive once more, after facing all relevant
problems, in the hundredth verse, at a unitive and neutral experiential
awareness of the Absolute. A close vision of the Self would be the
compensation for the strenuous effort that the study of these verses
might have cost the student when he finally is able to put down the
book and see everything in it in its perfect perspective and symmetry.
The luminous and illuminating Self conceived thus non-dually is
not merely of passing academic interest. It must hold the centre of all
human interest when all other interests have given place to better
ones in the spiritual progress of man. The adorable Absolute Value
would be represented by the Self, while it would banish philosophical
doubts of a merely intellectual order.
Such are some of the initial ideas with which we have to launch
our study of this philosophical masterpiece of our time. It lends itself
as the basis of a new world outlook which is neither Eastern nor
Western, neither ancient nor modern, neither academic nor religious,
neither pragmatic nor sentimental. Let the Guru be praised for such
an open and dynamic outlook, is the note of prayer with which we
shall ourselves enter here into the actual task of translation and comment, in a spirit of leisurely detachment. We shall adhere as near to
the original text as permissible without making readability suffer, and
we shall comment generally and textually, item by item, giving Eastern or Western references, thus bringing the discussions into line and
The one hundred verses of this book have their original in
Malayalam verses from the pen of Narayana Guru himself. Narayana
Guru’s earliest writings were clothed in a mythological language de-
pending much on the gods or goddesses of what is sometimes called
the Hindu pantheon including Siva, Vishnu, Subrahmanya or Kali. Even
in those, the case for Advaita Vedanta could be seen showing itself
from behind, as it were, the thin superficial veneer of a conventional
style adopted by him evidently for purposes of the common devotee
to whom he had necessarily to address himself in those temple-movement days. Later years gave a more positivist orientation to his writings and getting rid even of the esoteric implied in his Siva-Satakam (One Hundred Verses to Siva).
We see him in this present work attaining to a philosophical
context of Self-realization rather than that of adoration of any deity, steering clear of local or traditional colorations. He approximates
thus for the first time to the open and dynamic style of the Upanishads
themselves where the teachings centre round the absolute value called
Self or the Atman and not any god to adore as hitherto. An open
reference to the Upanishads could even be found in verse 14. This
work of the Guru thus emerges early in his writing career fully echoing
the spirit of the Upanishads, where the centre of interest or value
moves, as it were, from an outside locus into the domain of the Absolute Self. The limitations of the understanding of the devotees to
whom these verses had to cater, however, kept him within the limits
of a religious scriptural form without gaining a fuller status as an
open and critical philosophical work as revealed only later in such
works as Brahmavidya-Pancakam and the Darsana-Madld, which
are the more finalized fruits of his life of contemplation of the Absolute
from all the three perspectives of cosmology, theology and psychology. Even the voice of obligation in which a certain course of behavior,
faith or understanding, whether ethical or religious, is not transcended
here. It is in fact a confection in which the Upanishadic teaching is
treated also as a way of life. Such a way of life has a fully open and
dynamic character, instead of being closed or static as in hide-bound
religion or ethics.
The reader could profitably read the book by the present
commentator The Philosophy of a Guru* which enables him to enter
in the further implications of this work which is meant to be both a
scriptural composition recommending a way of life as well as the
clarification of the highest problems of Advaita Vedanta itself.
It would be helpful for the reader also to remember that the
cryptic language which comes to evidence in almost every natural
group of verses, inevitably yields up its secret when subjected to a
structural analysis which we have recommended many times elsewhere. Esoteric will become lit up to have a fully scientific status
when subjected to such a schematic scrutiny. If the verses or the
comments should still retain a certain strangeness from conventional
norms, the excuse could be found perhaps in the attempt to lay the
foundations of a type of literature fully emancipated from the possible
prejudices and mental conditions belonging to limited spheres of time
or clime. Conventions cannot be respected side by side with an open,
scientific or universal outlook.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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