Chattampi Swamikal, Social Reformer of Kerala, India
Chattampi Swamikal was one of the people who managed to transform Kerala state of India and its society. He was a special social reformer, an unusual one. Without establishing any organisations he conveyed the required message among the people in Kerala. Chattampi Swamikal initiated religious and social reformation in Kerala.
During the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th century when he lived and worked the vast majority of people were helpless victims of social, economic and political exploitation. The caste hierarchy was the evil of the society in Kerala state of India and the cause of unjust treatment, which Chattampi Swamy was trying to change and guide Kerala state to a more stable and harmonious way of life.
Caste Divisions and Social Inequality in Kerala State of India
Going back to the time when he lived, the social condition of Kerala state of India was at its worst. Everything was based on a caste. In order not to underestimate the social condition of Kerala at that time, read my article “Overview of castes in Ancient Kerala, India” here: https://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/casteoverview
In the caste hierarchy the Brahmins stood at the top. The Pulayas, Parayas etc. were placed at the lowest. The Nairs were placed in the middle. Within each caste there were levels and sublevels such as “high” Nair and “low” Nair, etc.
The upper castes enjoyed life and others were deprived of joys and pleasures. Most people were helpless victims. The inhuman, caste-based political system of the 19th century made Vivekananda to call Kerala an asylum of lunatics. He described Kerala of that time in this way: “I doubt if any greater foolish thing than what I have seen in Malabar has occurred or happened anywhere in the world at any time earlier. What interference would you draw except that these Malabaries are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums, and that they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better”. He continued: “Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed; their own children are allowed to die of starvation, but as soon as they take up some other religion they are well-fed. There ought to be no more fight between the castes”.
The caste defined whether Keralites were allowed to approach each other, how much distance should be maintained, whether they should eat together, touch each other and how they should address each other. Those from higher castes believed they would be “polluted” if they touched those from lower castes. So a necessary bathing process was carried out straight after “pollution” or on returning back home.
Castes would also define whether a girl can be married only to the other caste or not. It would define whether the wife can enter husband’s kitchen and whether it is essential for one to bath if he touches his children.
This was the state Kerala operated at that time. And this caste custom helped Christian missionaries in their aim to convert Hindus to Christianity. It was almost impossible at that time to break the walls of the existing castes and change your caste. Converting to Christianity meant freedom and equality, no caste restriction. There were also promises of material benefits. So many Hindus in large groups converted to Christianity. The basic idea of Christianity is love and its missionaries did everything that was against this principle.
In Hinduism there is Ultimate Knowledge or Moksha concept (soul freedom). Everything joins God and everything is part of God. However, the caste system that existed in Kerala state of India at that time violated human rights and denied lower caste people the right to Moksha and Ultimate knowledge as Sanskrit, Vedas teaching and learning were all the monopoly of Brahmins at that time.
Sanskrit was a vital language at that time as all indigenous knowledge was recorded in it. Hearing Vedic chanting, let alone learning or teaching Vedas, was prohibited to lower castes. Hearing Vedas by low castes would result in sealing those ears with hot lead as it was thought that Vedas are polluted if somebody from a low caste hears them.
Moreover, some roads were prohibited to be used by lower caste people, temples couldn’t be approached by lower caste people. This was a contradiction according to Chattampi Swamikal views as God welcomes all people no matter what their caste is, if any.
The aim of Chattampi Swamikal was the building up of a Hindu Society joining together on equal terms different castes such as Nairs, Ezhavas, Nadars, Pulayas and Parayas. He opposed to unjust customs and Brahmin domination.
Chattampi Swamikal questioned the caste system and unfair treatment of low castes in terms of religion, education and social opportunities. He said: “The caste-based hereditary divisions are corruption of the Vedic ideal of non-hereditary varna vyavastha, which was based on merits, qualities and actions of the individuals. A few distorted this for their self-interest and introduced untouchability and denied educational and religious rights to the low castes. The failure of Hindu society was largely due to its degeneration and divisiveness.”
He himself gathered his ideas from India’s own traditions and sources. He was well versed in Tamil, Sanskrit, Malayalam, so he blended Vedic and Dravidian thoughts related to non-dualism and non-violence. He was a unifier. He wanted a casteless and equal society. Sankara philosophy gave inspiration to Chattampi Swamy as 1000 years before he reestablished Chathurvarnya in India but later that system was misinterpreted for wicked motives by high castes.
Chattampi Swamikal and Social Reformation of Kerala State of India
Through Chattampi Swamikal’s work the reformation in Kerala state of India was initiated. He and some of his disciples managed to provoke such changes in the system that the knowledge of Sanskrit and Vedas became available to all castes in Kerala and temples opened its doors to all castes too. The life of lower caste people improved a lot and it became possible for them to learn and teach Vedas, to establish and maintain their places of worship.
Chattampi Swamikal taught that only your deeds, not your birth, can define you as a person. He embarked on the idea to reform Hinduism. He believed that religion should lead to freedom of soul, spiritual happiness, guide people in moral development and it should not be used to suppress or control anyone but only to improve people’s lives. As a result he rejected the idea of a caste-based society. For him a caste did not matter.
At that time inter-dining was prohibited, which meant that a Brahmin would never eat with an Ezhava and a Nair would never eat with a “low” Nair, for instance. However, Chattampi Swamikal not only went inside the homes of people of different castes but he also ate with them and taught them his ideas and views regarding the society and religion that he held.
Chattampi Swamikal stood for equal rights for all people no matter what their caste was. He argued for equal political, economic and educational opportunities to all.
Unlike many other people of that time Chattamoi Swamikal didn’t organise any mass movements neither did he work with any established organisations nor did he establish any organisation himself. He instilled ideas and concepts in people just by living in their houses and talking to them. He lived what he preached.
Thanks to Chattampi Swamikal the original Hindu texts were interpreted and people were made to understand the adulterations that led to the unjust social system. Superstitions, unjust customs, inequalities were revealed. Child marriage, polygamy and other customs were stopped or reformed as Chattampi Swamikal destroyed intellectual base and authority for Brahmin domination in religious, economic and political spheres.
Caste, position and power defined what a human being was in Kerala state of India at that time. Chattampi Swamikal understood that only through Nairs and Ezhavas Kerala could be led to a future progress. The inspiration that he gave to Nairs and Ezhavas at that time was necessary for the reforms that they started. So he was the generator of the reformation which led to the social progress of Kerala.
It is surprising how Chattampi Swamikal and his disciple named Narayana Guru, both of whom came from lower castes of society, initiated such impressive changes but we must remember that they were sanyasins who have no caste in Hindu society. Narayana Guru also proclaimed the idea “One caste, One religion, One God”.
Both of them strongly believed and supported the idea that temples should be used not only for worshipping but also as cultural and educational centres of the people. Not once they asked to divert the money misused for temple festivals to support the poor. Narayana Guru often stated “Whatever the religion is a man should progress”.
Swamy reformed Hinduism and revived it from the path of degradation. At the end of the 19th century Hinduism was at its worst. Concepts and principles were misinterpreted to protect monopolies of an upper class. In Travancore Census Report 1941 it says that the inroad of other religions and the attractions they offered influenced the people for leaving Hinduism for material benefits. The other religions also had economic and political support from powerful sources and some unfair and bold methods were used to spread those religions.
As a result of work that Chattampi Swamikal carried out Guruvayur Temple was opened to Hindus of all castes in 1931. On the 12th November 1936 Maharaja of Travancore issued Temple Entry Proclamation allowing all non-caste Hindus to enter the Government temples the doors of which were closed before.
Chattampi Swamikal awakened the Hindu society. His teachings inspired others and organized people against caste-based injustices. Narayana Guru who was Swamy disciple with Neelakanta and Paramahamsa devised new norms of social and religious rites with an aim to eliminate caste differences and religious hatred.
Ayyankali who belonged to Pulaya caste drew his inspiration from Chattampi Swamikal and Narayana Guru teachings fighting for social equality and justice. He tried to make school available to all castes ibckuding the Pulayas. The Pulayas were agricultural labourers deprived of civil rights and could not use public roads and places. They had no access to public education. In 1905 Ayyankali started his serious work but only in 1914-1915 it became the reality and Pulaya children could start studying in schools without any disruptions.
Fruits of Chattampi Swamikal Work and Life
All these improvements initiated by other people were the result of Chattampi Swamikal teachings and views. During his life Swamy wrote some works which were later published by his disciples and devotees.
“Pracheena Malayalam” refutes rights and privileges held by higher castes. It also refutes the caste based economic and political authorities. Chattampi Swamikal quoted authentic sources and proved that the legend that Kerala state of India was a gift of Parasurama was false. He established that the original inhabitants of Kerala were Nayakans and they brought prosperity to Kerala and it was Brahmins who came later and enforced the unjust caste system.
Through research Chattampi Swamikal established that Nairs and Ezhavas have a common ancestral group with an advanced culture and civilization of their own.
Another work written by Swamy is “Vedadikara Nirupanam” that sets forth the right of all castes to study Vedas, establish temples and access education.
Chattampi Swamikal: End of Life
Whereever Chattampi Swamikal went, he was the source of knowledge and wisdom to others. He had his samadhi in 1924 where a Shiva temple was later constructed and Panmana ashrama was established. Every year people gather there to remember Chattampi Swamikal's life and the value of the teachings that he spread during it.
Chattampi Swamikal was an extraordinary man living a simple life and setting an example for others in accordance with his views on casteless society, fair social and educational systems. Not only did Chattampi Swamikal transformed Hinduism but thanks to his life and work Vedas and Sanskrit became available to study and teach to all castes from which enormous number of people benefited.
As a result of his work education and temples were no longer the property of Brahmins and all those exploiting other low castes in Kerala. Remarkable changes took place in Kerala due to Chattampi Swamikal teachings and the work of his followers too. Kerala was no more the land of cruel injustice and inequality.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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