A Cry in the Wilderness is the fruit of translator Vinaya Chaitanya’s meditations on the work of Sree Narayana Guru—Kerala’s renowned philosopher, poet and social reformer who famously declared: “oru jaathi oru matham oru daivam manushyanu (one caste, one religion, one god for humans)”—over the last 35 years. Sree Narayana Guru’s efforts, along with those of Mahatma Ayyankali and Sahodaran Ayyappan, fostered the social levelling that took place in Kerala in the early 20th century and paved the way for the egalitarian society it seems to be enjoying today.
A Cry in the Wilderness: The Works of Sree Narayana Guru
Vinaya Chaitanya is the direct disciple of Nataraja Guru, the most prominent disciple of, and successor, to Sree Narayana Guru. Nataraja Guru’s genius, tempered with both Eastern and Western academic training, made him internationally famous, and he is primarily responsible for the spread of the Guru’s thoughts in the Western world. Nitya Chaitanya Yati, the most famous disciple of Nataraja Guru, and another internationally renowned writer and spiritual master, is thus a Guru-brother to Vinaya Chaitanya.
Vinaya’s book carries a profound Foreword by Scott Teitsworth, a long-time disciple of Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati, and a Translator’s Introduction by Vinaya. Together, these two pieces give readers a broad and simultaneously deep insight into the mystic world of Sree Narayana Guru’s poetry.
Scott Teitsworth notes the importance of Vinaya’s training, sensitivity to shades of language and familiarity and exploration of the Guru’s philosophical universe in revealing his “true intent”. Vinaya states in his Translator’s Introduction that diverging from common classifications, he has followed a structural gradation suggested long back by Nataraja Guru, who had observed that the Guru’s poems are “full of a fourfold dynamic structure, such as the same and the other, making a vertical-horizontal framework for clarity of thought”.
Not a Hindu revivalist
Vinaya also throws light on the two main criticisms of the Guru’s works: first, that he was a Hindu revivalist (notably, some revivalist groups are attaching themselves to Sree Narayana institutions currently) and, second, that some of his works are anti-women. Vinaya explains that the Guru grew up in a culture of temples and ritualistic worship and that his early poems, which were addressed to certain divinities and written during his spiritual quest, reflect that phase. Further, traditional male ascetic practices involved a rejection of the body and avoidance of contact with women to uphold celibacy. However, Vinaya notes that the Guru’s progress on his individual spiritual path saw him sublimating and updating himself, especially his views on women, following his own later spiritual experiences and epiphanies, as revealed in his several poems addressed to Devi.
Vinaya has also clarified how the Guru was far from being a Hindu revivalist, based on his own public statements such as “We do not belong to any particular caste or religion” (May 1916). The Guru clarified his stance further by emphasising his non-attachment to any existing religion, his lack of interest in establishing a religion, the individual’s choice in practising religion and, most importantly, the importance of human goodness, irrespective of what religion he/she professed.
In the first poem in the collection, “Embryo’s gratitude” (PindiNandi), the spiritual seeker is represented in a primal form. In the mother’s womb, the embryo gives form to the body and “the self” is attributed to it, which seeks an absolute power outside, which may be called the self, providence, god, the absolute, and so on. Thus, an axis is established through the embryo’s birth: the child forming one end of the axis and the absolute forming the other end. The search for truth takes place in the time-space that the human thus gets to act at a pole of the axis with attributes such as empathy, love, brotherhood, and so on. The other pole, that is the absolute, is dealt with in poems such as “Thoughts on God”, “The Luminous Play of the Self” and “Ten Verses to God”.
In many of the Guru’s poems, it is Siva who stands for the absolute. In the poems addressed to Siva’s offspring, Ganesa and Subramanya, or the Goddess, you find the attributes of Siva such as the crescent moon. The Guru’s installations of idols in temples progress from the primordial Siva to Devi and their offspring to mirrors (the self-reflection appearing in it is meant to be signify the tenet of Aham Brahmasmi, ‘I am Brahman’), lamps or inscriptions of words such as “Truth” and “Kindness” on plaques. Finally, he exhorted followers to do away with the idea of a temple and said that temples should thereafter be “temples of learning” or schools.
The traditions of samkhya and yoga can be found reflected in poems like “Knowing” and “Lamp of Non-Duality”. This philosophic strain reaches its zenith when the Guru composed, according to Vinaya, “the most sublime form of contemplative literature to be found anywhere in the world, laying the foundations for a full-fledged Science of the Absolute or Science of the Self”, as found in works like the Darsana Mala (A Garland of Visions), Atmopadesa satakam (A Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction) and Brhmavidya Panchakam (Five Verses on the Science of the Absolute).
What touched me deeply about Vinaya’s translation is the lightness and clarity he has brought to otherwise seemingly difficult, or even opaque, verses to the lay reader. Let me offer an example:
In Vinaya Chaitanya’s translation of “’Daiva Dasakam”, stanzas 4 and 5, read as below:
we are like the ocean, and
Maya is like the wave
the wind is your glory and
the depths, You Yourself.
You, verily, are creation and creator
And the magical web of creatures, too
are You not, O God, the very stuff
of which all creation is made?
Now, look at the translation of the same stanzas by Muni Narayana Prasad from his translation Sree Narayana Guru: Complete Works (National Book Trust, 2006):
Like ocean, waves, wind, and depth,
Are ourselves, maya, your glory and you.
Let me inwardly have
Such an awareness of this scheme.
You are the creation, the creator too,
As also the myriad of created things.
You, again, O God, are the substance
Of which all creation is made.
The reader may find that the essential meanings are similarly retained in both the translations. While a graceful poetic touch, felicity of expression and diamond-like clarity adorn Vinaya’s version, Muni Narayana Prasad’s translation retains the grandeur of the original philosophical conceits.
The volume has 66 poems written in Malayalam (mostly), Sanskrit and Tamil, mostly in Sanskrit metres while some are in Dravidian metres. However, in translation, all poems have been rendered in free verse.
Vinaya has mentioned that the title of the book is derived from the Old Testament of the Holy Bible (Isaiah, Chapter 30, Versicle 3) which reads, according to the new international version, as follows: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’, referring to the mission of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus Christ.” Vinaya further notes that the saying “Crying in the Wilderness” implies the seeming futility of an advice or message to the unprepared or the unworthy, the messages of spiritual avatars like Jesus Christ or the Guru, who were far ahead of their times, are yet to be fully understood by humanity.
There is another level of meaning here: that spirituality is what one experiences first hand and is never relatable or transmittable to others. Therefore, are Sree Narayana Guru’s poems, which are his own personal expressions of his highest levels of first-hand spiritual experiences, translatable to the full extent? Can one absolutely transmit spirituality by any means, including translation? Vinaya Chaitanya answered this unambiguously in an interview with S. Gopalakrishnan in a popular podcast series, “Dilli Dali” : Only through sishyatva (disciplehood) can one gain access to the Guru’s poetic universe and even attempt something like translating from there.
Sree Narayana Guru goes beyond social reforms, poetry, philosophy, and spirituality. Yet, for our purposes, we call him the first great poet of Malayalam who pioneered us into modernity. He was also the pioneer of education for the commoners, a great influencer of people to thrive in agriculture, industry, and commerce in the beginning of the 20th century.
It is believed that it was Sree Narayana Guru who guided the poetry writing of Kumaran Asan, the renaissance poet of Malayalam, and one of the Guru’s earliest disciples. The Guru had asked Kumaran Asan to use Sringara rasa responsibly and restore Malayalam poetry’s glory from the pit of salacious verses it had sunk into in the Venmony era. And Asan obliged, by writing one after another, his epic poems Nalini, Leela, and Karuna, which move seamlessly from Sringaram (romantic love), through Karunam (compassion) to reach Shantam (peace), ending often in Viragam, or the end of desire, which made him a Mahakavi, a great poet, without writing a Mahakavya.
Though there are Mahakavis for each community assigned by the elite of the literary establishment of Kerala, as Vinaya Chaitanya sardonically observes, there is only one true Mahakavi of Mahakavis for Malayalis—and that is Sree Narayana Guru.