Developmental Modernity in Kerala

Narayana Guru, SNDP Yogam and Social Reform

P. Chandramohan

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 raditionalist who adopted a rational stand and strove to create a 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 socioeconomic 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.


How feudal and regressive practices came in the way of change in Travancore

An idea whose time has come is unstoppable, and so was the birth of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam in the Travancore of the early 20th century, where dehumanising caste practices held a fanatical sanctity.

P. Chandramohan’s book examines the reform movement that had the Yogam at the forefront. What was spawned by the middle class into a powerful answer to the tyranny of the caste system was deflated by the same section so much so that even Narayana Guru severed ties with the Yogam.

Growing dissent
Bringing out the class character of the struggle, the study finds that the middle class of the Ezhava community attained a critical mass in the early years of the 20th century and grew restive against the daily insults inflicted on the caste members by tradition. The middle class provided the ammunition for the movement, but when it achieved its ends, steered the Yogam off the course charted out by the Guru.

As renowned historian K.N. Panikkar, who wrote the foreword to the book, said in a recent article in The Hindu, “Although politics in Kerala is notoriously religion and caste-oriented — almost all political parties have a strong caste or religious base — the different class formations within castes tended to offset the allegiance to an exclusive caste politics”.

With its abundance of data, the book’s first chapter is rich pickings for students and scholars of 19th and 20th century Travancore — a sort of Sachar committee report on the state of lower castes if you like. The chapter on the Guru is revelatory and a primer on the saint for those not familiar with his historical, political and religious roles. During the Vaikom Satyagraha, he met Gandhiji and helped end the Mahatma’s belief in the Varna system.

In Chandramohan’s view, the reformers lacked the support of the masses and because of the prevalence of old feudal relations, some not only kept away from the movement but also practised regressive customs.

–  Rajeev G.R. The Hindu