Sri. P. R. Sreekumar is a long time associate of the Narayana Gurukula movement. At present he is working as Section Officer at the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (KUFOS) and lives at Kochi. His prime interest is in the wisdom teachings of Guru Narayana and study of the notable people who came in contact with the Great Sage.
This exceptional article is the outcome of an earnest research by Sri. P. R. Sreekumar on Swami John Dharmatheerthar. The author can be contacted through email-id: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sree Narayana Guru attracted countless people from all walks of life all through his life time and even after his Mahasamasdhi in 1928. This includes lawyers, high government officials, teachers, reputed scholars, physicians, common people with chronic ailments, and even foreigners such as Ernest Kirk. Guru was often branded as a Hindu Sanyasi, more explicitly Ezhava Sanyasi, during the period of his ascetic life as well as in the contemporary times. But masses regardless of their caste, creed, language, religion and nationality were always magnetized to his captivating charisma. This was surely an atypical phenomenon in those days of unwarranted casteism.
Many who had pulled towards Guru found the meaning and satisfaction of their lives and later transformed into devoted and committed disciples of austerity and followers of higher values and dharma. The immense contribution of these disciples and followers of Guru to the renaissance of Kerala in 20th century was marvelous. But these contributions have not yet been properly studied or documented. Swami John Dharmatheerthar, is considered to be one of the pioneering personalities among them who stands distinct by his very name itself. Advocate C. Parameswara Menon, B.A., L.L.B. became Swami Dharmatheerthar after he got initiated to sanyasa by Sree Narayana Guru. Later he become popular as Swami John Dharmatheerthar(Henceforth SJDT) on embracing Christianity.
He was born in 1893 in Chathanattu house, near Guruvayoor in the district of Thrissur, Kerala state. His father was a lawyer by profession and an ardent follower of Theosophical Society. This gave him a chance to come into the close proximity of the Indian scriptures as well as the life and works of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Annie Besant at a very early age. He learned about Christ and Christianity at C M S High School at Thrissur where he commenced his schooling. This might have helped him to mold his beliefs and influenced him in later years for the transformation of his life.
His B.A. degree was from the prestigious Presidency College in Madras. He had close association with several movements linked to India's freedom struggle during the college days. Followed by his successful graduation he secured a job with the Government of Cochin as the Head Clerk of the Maharaja's Office. It didn't take much time for him to become a misfit in the palace administration. This happened because of his peculiar nature and inimitable upbringing. Around this time he married a girl whom he knew from his childhood with the full consent of both families. The pay at the palace was too little and longing to pursue a better future he decided to become a lawyer. His role model might have been his father who had a successful profession as a lawyer and simultaneously got deeply involved in the public affairs of the country which was going through the great freedom struggle. He departed to Bombay and worked with commercial firms to earn a living and at the same time attended the law college as a part time student. He divorced his wife at this point in time merely because of personal reasons.
With a law degree from the Bombay University he started his career as a lawyer at Thrissur and continued his productive involvement with public affairs and socio-cultural activities. He was a well sought after speaker at public meetings. Being a significant foe of caste discriminations of all kinds his radical reactions through the media were lively and he himself started to violate caste rules. English monthly namely Students Own Magazine and Snehithan (The Friend,) a Malayalam fort-nightly were the two journals which he contributed regularly during that period. For a short while he also served as an editor for the weekly paper Cochinite.
Eventually the young and vibrant Advocate Parameswara Menon came under the influence of Sree Narayana Guru who was a luminary and the ultimate icon of the era. This resulting him in writing a book named Sree Narayanamatham (Sree Narayana Religion) in 1926, just after the 70th birthday of the Guru. It was published by Mangalodayam, a leading publishing firm of yester years under his real name Advocate C. Parmeswara Menon, B.A., L.L.B, Vadakanchery, Cochin State. Swami Bodhananda was of great inspiration for him to write this book in which he vehemently countered the heinous practice of proselytism. It was written as a manifesto for establishing a cult or religion in the name of Sree Narayana Guru. Guru strongly disapproved this movement as Guru had proclaimed a decade ago that he does not belong to any particular caste or religion by issuing a newspaper advertisement. It is unambiguously evident from many of Guru's works that he was very convinced about the absurdity of caste and religion. Hence this movement and its manifesto did not draw much attention. This book had been published only once and he never mentioned it in his autobiography which he wrote towards the end of his life.
Realizing his 'swadharma' he wanted to quit the lawyer's profession and move on to more meaningful paths of life. He had the opportunity to meet Sree Narayana Guru for the first time in 1926 when Guru came to consecrate a temple at Vadakkanchery near Thrissur. Guru spent that night at the house of Parameswara Menon and they had conversed intensely on various issues. Before leaving early next morning Guru invited him to Sivagiri as Guru sensed the commotion within his young host and advised him not to struggle in the midst of the panchagni or agonizing predicament he had.
Soon he closed his lawyer's office and at once went to Guru to live with him at Sivagiri. In 1927 Guru initiated him to the ascetic way of life, assigned the name Swami Dharmatheerthar and entrusted him the duty of the manager of all the institutions and the estates of Sivagiri Mutt. The property donations to Guru were growing in numbers and scattered all over Kerala without any proper records. Having the knowledge and experience of a lawyer SJDT introduced various effective measures for the proper management of the estates of the Mutt. SJDT also started a weekly Dharmam as a mouthpiece of the Sivagiri Mutt to propagate the teachings of the Guru. It is in this magazine the dictums of Guru, which are so popular now, were initially published. He was also instrumental in compiling and publishing the works of the Guru after regaining it from various sources at which it was scattered then.
The Guru was nearing towards the end of his life and there was explicit disharmony between his ascetic disciples and Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam popularly known as SNDP Yogam, a social movement started in 1903 under the tutelage of Guru, about the inheritance of the estate of the Guru. Being a true sanyasin, Guru had instigated an order of the monks and even pronounced the successors to his lineage. With a clear insight he had written and registered his will bequeathing legal inheritance of all the properties to the succession of lineage. Even though several initiatives have been taken by several persons to give a legitimate framework for such an organisation, it was SJDT using his impeccable expertise as an advocate drafted a constitution for such an organization. As a result, the Sree Narayana Dharma Sanghom was registered on the 9th of January 1928 at Koorkanchery, near Thrissur.
It was on 20th September 1928 Guru attained Mahasamadhi. The difference of opinions in the name of worldly wealth among his ascetic disciples and SNDP Yogam had developed to weird dimensions and following a court order the Sree Narayana Dharma Sanghom was transformed into Sree Narayana Dharma Sanghom Trust. SJDT, being a founder member of this organization, played a pivotal role in establishing it in Kerala. He was also instrumental in settling all the disputes amicably. It is interesting to know that he was undoubtedly flawless in promulgating the teachings of the Guru during these troublesome times of his life and the organization. It is also amazing to know that this was the time he authored few imperative books like A Prophet of Peace or Sree Narayana Gurudev of Malabar, The Prophet of New Order and Sree Narayanagurdeva Mahathmyam, a commentary for Kumaranasan's Gurusthawam etc.
Turbulent atmosphere at Sivagiri Mutt persisted and SJDT was deeply concerned about the unethical and unprecedented events and episodes occurring at the pious ashram of Guru. Hideous experiences and incidents in the name of caste were frequent in the premises of ashram. Thoroughly disappointed SJDT left Sivagiri Mutt and accepted Chempazhanthy, the birth place of the Guru, as his domicile.
Being a committed and true follower of Guru, SJDT could not sit idle there either. He had submerged relentlessly to establish Chempazhanthy center along with the uplift of the downtrodden in the vicinity. C.R. Kesavan Vaidyar who had a chance to live with the SJDT in those days had later mentioned several anecdotes in the life of the Swami while writing the preface of the autobiography of SJDT. He used to travel extensively and giving talks on the teachings of the Guru. He even developed a particular type of device for visual presentation of slides for effective communication. In 1936 SJDT celebrated Guru's birthday in a grand style and for a procession along with the celebration he had invited a troupe of drummers belonging to the Pulaya caste. Ezhava leaders of the locality got provoked and offended by this, carried out an act of impudence to chase the drummers away. Swami feeling awful called them back, prostrated before them and begged for forgiveness which was a veritable tribute to the Guru and the Guruhood.
After the above mentioned despicable incident he fled Chempazhanthy and started on an indefinite pilgrimage on foot as a mendicant, depending only on the grace of the God for his worldly existence. In his own words, "Though he was experiencing the mysterious protection of God in numerous ways, his faith in religion was shattered. As a saint, he had abandoned all thought of caste. But wherever he went he found the meanest and cruelest forms of caste distinctions and taboos and oppressions. He had been a staunch believer in temples. But wherever he went he found the worst superstitions, evils, vices and exploitations in and around Hindu temples. He began to loath idolatry as a huge fraud and curse." 1
1 All quotes in this essay are from SJDT's autobiography in Malayalam and also from his other works. Throughout these books SJDT mentions himself in third person as "he, his, him and Dharmatheertha", which is a rare phenomenon among autobiographers. His detachment from his own self as a Sanyasin is evident in this mode of narrative.
After months of wandering he found shelter at Edla Ramdas Mutt at Rajamundry in the state of Andhra. He utilized this opportunity for serious study and deep contemplation about the vices and cruelties he had experienced and witnessed in the name of the Hindu religion and its wretched caste system. This eventually led him to jot down his masterpiece work The Menace of Hindu Imperialism. As the title denotes, with the prudence and inquisitiveness of a scientist, he meticulously analyses how various types of vices and evils had crept into Hinduism and how it had turned out as a derogatory weapon for exploitation of the mass by Brahmanism.
In the concluding chapter he explains how the teachings of Sree Narayana Guru can be applied as a triumphant remedial measure for this wicked situation. In his own words, "The Menace of Hindu Imperialism, gave him the shock of his life and once for all destroyed his faith in popular Hinduism. He realized that Hinduism of Castes, and idolatry and Priestly domination was undiluted deception and exploitation, that it had no support in any of the great scriptures like the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita, that it had been wholly built up through the centuries of national subjection and darkness by the priestly caste for their own profit and power, and the suppression and damnation of the rest of the Hindus. It was a system of social, economic, political, religious, moral and intellectual imperialism perfected by a brilliant and crafty priesthood."
By the completion of this book, he again started the pilgrimage with the manuscript and finally reached Lahore. There he became associated with a Hindu reformist group, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Forum for Break-up of Caste). It was a radical fraction of the Arya Samaj, founded in 1922. This organization was instrumental for many revolutionary social changes in 20th century India.2 The Menace of Hindu Imperialism was first published by this organization in 1941. "The advent of Sree Swami Dharma Theerthaji Maharaj to the Punjab was therefore a God-send to me. He came with all the qualifications, experience, wisdom and inspiration necessary for giving the lead. I at once placed my services at his disposal", wrote Har Bhagwan, the then secretary of that society in his publisher's note. This book attracted several intellectuals of that time and a second edition was brought out by the Mandal. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar appreciated this work as: "This book is written from a point of view which I appreciate very much. I am myself writing a book in which I have touched many of the points which I find are dealt with in this book. The book therefore was a very welcome thing to me." For a digital edition of SJDT's book see www.panjabdigilib.org.
In the wake of socio political changes that occurred following the Indian Independence, SJDT had revised The Menace of Hindu Imperialism. The result was the omission of three chapters which he thought irrelevant and for this reason the title of the book was changed to History of Hindu Imperialism before publishing in 1969 by N. Samuel B.A., Thiruvananthapuram a friend of Swami. This was rather an exquisite edition. The topics under scrutiny in this book had significant relevance even in the present days of Hindu extremism. Thus it has attracted the attention of the modern day Dalit groups and activists. As a result the Dalit Educational Literature Centre, Chennai republished it in 1992. For a digital edition of this book see www.archive.org. The Media House, New Delhi had brought out an edited version of this book in 2004 namely No Freedom with Caste. A digital edition of this book is available in www.books.google.co.in. Dr. K.S.Bhagavan translated and published this book in Kannada under the title Hindu Saamrajyashahiya Itihasa. Punjabi and Telugu translations came out later. SJDT himself made a revised Malayalam translation of this book as Haindava Dushprabhutwa Charitram which came out in 1969.
He stayed at Lahore few more years and subsequently moved to Delhi where he was in close association with renowned personalities like Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Har Bhagwan, Sant Ram, Pothen Joseph, Ram Gopal Mohantha etc. Under his coveted leadership they started a Hindu Missionary Society in Delhi to disseminate the wisdom and undisputed universality of Bhagavad Gita. Yoga for All is name of the commentary of Bhagavad Gita written by SJDT with this objective in mind. He also wrote several other books in this period like Yoga of the Happy Home, Secret of Happy Home Life, New Light on the Indian Problem, Enemies of Indian Freedom etc, which are now rare collectable.
On an occasion Dr. Ambedkar was eager to know that which religion he and his disciples would adopt to bypass the evils of the Hinduism and SJDT's undoubted answer was Christianity. Dr. Ambekdar was astonished by his answer as it came out from the president of the Hindu Missionary Society and a well known swami. But SJDT elaborated three reasons to substantiate his answer. First, it would take his people completely out of the vicious influence of the castes, idols and priests of Hinduism. Second, it would instill a new life in them and make them a free and bold people, and finally, it would bring enormous assistance and money from the entire Christian world to provide schools, hospitals, churches etc., which were essential for educating and uplifting them, and no other religion would do that so abundantly. Dr. Ambedkar was fully convinced about the views of the Swami. Since his followers did not have the moral strength needed for such a big leap, later he and thousands of his disciples denounced Hinduism and embraced Buddhism.
2 Annihilation of Caste, the most popular work of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar was actually prepared as his presidential address for the annual meeting of Jat-Pat Todak Mandal scheduled to be conducted in 1936. But that meeting never took place and it remained as a presidential address which was never delivered.
By 1947 SJDT returned to Kerala. At Chempazhanthy, which used to be his former domicile, he immersed in the same activities he was engaged in. In his own words, "Eventually a sort of hollowness began to engulf him due to the shattering of his deep convictions and was about to be tempted into evil ways as it inevitably happens." During this time some of his old friends invited him to convert to Christianity. He had accepted their invitation and spent a few days at Christukula Ashram at Tirupattur, Tamil Nadu.
After weeks of intense contemplation he received baptism in April 1949 from the C.S.I. order. He accepted the name Swami John Dharmatheerthar and later become popular in that name. As a consequence of this he officially resigned from the Sree Narayana Dharma Sanghom Trust in 1949. Yet he was an ardent proponent of the Guru and his wisdom teachings. It is said that he used to adorn the walls of his room with pictures of Sree Narayana Guru. His astounding justification on this was that he had changed only the religion, not the Guru. He spent about four years in the Christava Ashram with deep studies and prayers followed by his open evangelistic work in various parts of Kerala and Tamilnadu. In his later work Hinduism and Christianity and Religion of Free People which he had also written in Malayalam as Hindumathavum Christhumathavum he has given an account of his thoughts and how deeply he was influenced by Christianity and profound transformation took place within him. In his own words, "Religion was his passion from early childhood and is so today in his seventy fourth year. From Hinduism to Christ was a slow, steady growth of the mind and spirit. It did not involve any serious shock or uprooting of his inner life. But his outer life has been a succession of radical breaks with the past and new births as it were into new home, new caste, new vocation, new country, new adventure and experiment, new way of life, new struggle, and finally a new submission to the Lord of life. Throughout this long and arduous pilgrimage his one great desire was to liberate the Hindus. Till 1949 he was a Hindu missionary, today he is a missionary to the Hindus." But, strangely nowhere he cited how a sanyasin who had realized the meaninglessness of the caste and religion and had renounced all the worldly ties could convert to a particular religion.
Christ's Contribution to Free India, Choice Before India, Yoga of Chris, Are all Religions Same?, Christava Sarvodayam, Swathantra India Engottu?, Janadhipathyam Vijayikkanamenkil, Mathruhridayam etc. were few of the several pamphlets and books he authored both in English and Malayalam.
Hinduism and Christianity and Religion of Free People contain some of his autobiographical sketches and his inner deliberations on both religions. Most of these books were published by N. Samuel B.A., Anathara, Charachira, Thiruvananthapuram and distributed by L.M.S. Book Depot, Main Road, Thiruvananthapuram. It is surprising to notice that none of SJDT's works has copyright and any interested person can print, sell or translate it. This statement is imprinted on his books.
SJDT's autobiography in Malayalam, Atmakadha came out in 1987 even though C.R Kesavan Vaidyar, the publisher, had the manuscript with him long ago. In this autobiography SJDT gives a true account of many incidents in his life but had maintained the prudence and discretion of a true sansyasi. Very deliberately he is mute about the historical incidents like the role he played in the formation of the Sree Narayana Dharma Sanghom and the uncanny developments related to the inheritance of the estate of the Guru. He is even silent about the drummer's incident at Chempazhanthy, one of the crucial turning points in his life. We are aware of it, as mentioned earlier, only through the introduction written by Vaidyar, the publisher.
Another incredible work of SJDT is A Prophet of Peace or Sree Narayana Gurudev of Malabar, a biographical study of Sree Narayana Guru. It was written towards the end of 1920s, both in English and Malayalam. In the author's note he had explicitly stated that, "This is not a biography of events, but as explained in the first chapter, a study, a biography of ideas and ideals. Of course, a study has to be based on facts; ideas and ideals are to be sought in the works and words of the Master. The incidents of his life therefore, come within our purview in so far as they are necessary for our main purpose of understanding his mission and message." In the first chapter he continues: "To think of Gurudev merely as a reformer, as the religious leader of a community, as a great scholar and genius, or the founder of numerous institutions would be narrowing our own outlook and blurring our vision of the greater truth." This apparently is the first biographical study of Sree Narayana Guru written in English which he himself published in 1933. Sree Narayana Mandira Samithi, Mumbai had brought out a new edition for this book in 2004. For its digital edition see www.sreenarayanaguru.in.
The Prophet of New Order a brilliant work of SJDT is available at Sivagiri Mutt as a pocket edition, perhaps his only English work now available in print. Its Hindi version namely Sri Narayana Gurudev - Navayug Ke Paigamber was also published once by Sivagiri Mutt. This probably is the only homage paid by Sivagiri Mutt to its founder member Sanyasin. Swami Sachidananda of Sivagiri Mutt had made some exceptional effort to compile and publish some Malayalam works of SJDT. Recently some efforts have been taken by Mythri Books, Thiruvananthapuram to bring out modern editions of the works of SJDT.
Swami John Dharmatheerthar left his mortal body on 19th July 1976 while staying with his friend N.Samuel at Thiruvananthapuram. His body was buried at the cemetery of C.S.I. Church, Palayam, Thiruvanthapuram where the simple but elegant tomb of this gifted visionary who embraced the path of true wisdom all through his ascetic life can be seen today. Years later his friend N.Samuel built two churches named Swami John Dharmatheerthar Memorial C.S.I. churches in memory of SJDT, one at Karakulam and other at Myladumpara of Thiruvananthapuram District. Christian churches built in the memory of a Sanyasin are very unusual as well the life of this distinctive personality.