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Remembering the guru: Chattampi Swami’s walking stick, drum and mala on display next to his statue at his samadhi shrine in Panmana
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The 19th-century Kerala saint instigated reform, inspired his disciple Narayana Guru and directly influenced Swamis Vivekananda and Chinmayananda



“ABROAD FOREHEAD SMEARED WITH HOLY ASH, eyebrows expressing undaunted courage, eyes flowing with kindness and consideration, a face that bespoke friendliness and amiability, a beautiful flowing silvery beard, a broad and muscular chest, long hands, speech that was sweet, full of meaning, soft and gentle, and murmuring with rhythm”—such was the great Kerala Saint Chattampi Swami as described by his biographer. The 19th-century teacher broke down caste inequality while reestablishing the traditional Saiva philosophy of Kerala. He argued for rights of women, equal access to education and removal of any restrictions on temple entry. It is a quirk of history that he is less well known even inside Kerala than his disciple Narayana Guru, whose influence remains strong to this day.

Early Life

Vidhyadhiraja Parama Bhattaraka Chattampi Swami, as he is formally called, was born Kunjan Pillai on August 25, 1853, in Thiruvananthapuram, then the seat of power of the Travancore Kingdom and today the capital of Kerala. His father, Vasudeva Sharma, was of the Nambudiri brahmin caste (which dominated Kerala society at the time) and his mother a lower-caste Nair. In one of the matrilineal marriage systems peculiar to Kerala, the eldest son in a brahmin family could marry a brahmin lady; but the younger sons could only take a wife from the Nair caste. The husband and wife did not live together, and the children were not admitted to the family of their father but were raised by their mother and her brothers—a practice called hypergamy. Kunjan’s family was indigent, and two of his siblings died from malnutrition.

A bright child, Kunjan was admitted to a local gurukulam where, along with Tamil, Malayalam, mathematics and music, he learned Sanskrit—despite the prohibition on low-caste people doing so. Because he was older than most of the students, he was put in charge of them and given the name Chattampi, “monitor,” which stuck with him throughout his life. He left school at 15 to earn money to support his mother, becoming a “headload worker” carrying bricks, sand, etc., at a state construction site. He soon got a better job as a title deed writer, then as a clerk. At 18 he returned to the same building he helped build as a laborer, this time as an accountant for the Diwan. He left this job in 1871 and started associating with educated religious people, including a sannyasin named Subramanhya, who taught him a mantra. After days of chanting, austerity and penance as advised by Subramanhya, he felt himself and appeared to others a different man. Henceforth he tended toward the life of a sannyasin and spent five years living and studying Saiva Siddhanta and Vedanta with Sri Subba Jadapadigal, a famed scholar of South India.

The Search for His Guru

In 1874 Chattampi became a student of Ayyavu Swami, who instructed him in yoga, Vedanta, Tamil Saivite philosophy and other South Indian schools of thought. He also studied with other saints and scholars of Kerala, even for a time with a Christian priest and later a Muslim Sufi mystic. Finally, he left Kerala to wander through South India in search of his guru.

Sometime in 1881 he arrived in the village of Vadaveesvaam in the modern Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India. There he encountered an old beggar on the side of the road picking food off banana-leaf plates which had been tossed out on the street for the cows to eat after a feast. He was sharing the leftovers with a pack of village dogs. Some boys started throwing stones at the old man, but he paid them no mind. Convinced he had encountered no ordinary beggar, Chattampi approached the man, who immediately fled into the forest outside the village. Chattampi followed him to a hilltop, where the old man disappeared. The exhausted Chattampi fell asleep on the spot.

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Flag is raised to open the 2013 Hindumatha Parishat, held yearly by the Hindumatha Maha Mandalam on the Pampa River in honor of Chattampi Swami. At the centenary event, in 2012, Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami was a guest of honor.
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When he woke in the morning, his head was in the lap of the beggar. Chattampi Swami later recalled that the man said, “My dear son, you have already traveled far along the way of truth.” They lived off what they could find in the forest while the old man taught him the way to God realization. After just a few days, the old man left Chattampi to meditate upon what he had been taught. The old man never returned; but from that short experience, Chattampi was a changed person. He had achieved nirvikalpa samadhi and become a jivanmukti, one who is liberated from rebirth. He was 28 years old.

People immediately sensed the change and started addressing him with great reverence as Chattampi Swami. Upon his return to Kerala, Nanu Asan, two years younger than he, became his disciple and was given the name Narayana Guru. Together the two set about initiating a Hindu renaissance in Kerala. Narayana Guru came from the Ezhava caste—like the Nairs, a major group in Kerala. Between them they could impact a large portion of the population.

His Influence

During his lifetime, Chattampi Swami met and influenced future leaders of India. Swami Vivekananda, ten years his junior, came to him with questions about meditation. Chattampi later recounted that Vivekananda said, “You have explained well. Now, I can understand. I have traveled from Bengal to these southernmost parts of India. I have met many sadhus and sannyasins. I asked the same to them. But till now I could not get satisfactory answers.” Vivekananda took both of Chattampi Swami’s hands and placed them on his head in an expression of respect.

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Kerala saint: In 1967, the Government of India honored Chattampi Swami’s chief disciple with this stamp
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The story of Kerala-born Swami Chinmayananda, founder of Chinmaya Mission, is far more unusual, and best related in his own words: “It must have been in the early twenties; I only have a very dim, vague memory. And yet, the flashes that rise in my bosom are unfailingly clear. They have been my silent inspiration. They have helped me more often than I dare to confess.

“It cannot be explained because it all happened when I was only three or perhaps four years old. I remember the unique smell of the long, white beard, the rough hairy chest, and the rounded soft belly. This I remember clearly of Sri Chattampi Swami, in the early 1920s. He used to be a regular visitor to our house in Ernakulam, and my mother tells me it was his usual practice to lay me on his chest and lie down on a cot and prattle away to me. Mother told me that I in my turn used to prattle back, and thus long periods of quiet communication used to be there between the great sage and me, an innocent child. As I was being rocked up and down in a vertical position, Swami was in the habit of rolling his head at the neck from right to left. All those who knew him, can remember this happy pose of the unique Master. It was this simple picture, drawn in my memory that did often return, again and again, to help me in the path of my life. It contained for me a testimony, a testament and an evergreen hope, all in one, for all times.

“One day my mother asked Swami, ‘What exactly are you telling to that baby, and what is the language you both use?’ To this Swami answered, ‘He understands it all, why do you interfere with us?’

“These are all the reminiscences that I can report. Is it all true? Is there communication possible between a silver-bearded Master and an uninitiated infant? Whatever else there might have been in my early life, there was no spirituality or religion apparently evident; and yet twenty-five years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I can look back now and declare that suddenly, from nowhere, a spiritual urge and a religious hunger took me by storm, and in one tidal-wave sustained me for ten short years in Uttara Kasi, only to leave me back, again, on the shores of the Indian Hindu metropolis, to preach, to serve and to convert the Hindus to Hinduism.”

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Legacy today: (left) map of India showing location of Kerala on India’s lush southwestern coast; (right) entry to the main Theerthapada Ashram in Vazhoor
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Scholastic Work

Chattampi Swami continued his scholastic endeavors throughout his life and wrote many books. He is remembered most for establishing, through reference to scriptures such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the eligibility of all, irrespective of caste or sex, to study the teachings of the Vedas. Up to this time, scholarship itself was considered the province only of brahmins. Study of the Vedas in particular was forbidden to sudras, the caste to which Swami himself belonged. His reasoning with regard to Vedic study was published in a book, Veda­dhi­kara Nirupanam, in 1918. It is his most important work. A later disciple of Narayana Guru commented on reading the book, “It is our luck that it was not banned [by the British], so revolutionary was its content, like a bomb placed in that era’s world of social discrimination.”

Swami’s next book, Advaita Chintha Paddha­thi, was written in simple language to teach Vedanta and practical advaita to ordinary people having no knowledge of Sanskrit. A third book, Jivakarunya Nirupanam, on nonviolence and vegetarianism, quotes not only Hindu tradition but also the opinions of Newman, Milton, Pythagoras, Isaac Newton, Robert Bell, Darwin, Christian saints and others on nonvegetarian food.

In 1913 Swami published a very different book, Pracheena Malayalam (“Ancient Malayalam”), a historical work which sought to refute the claim to supremacy of the Nambudiri brahmins. Understandably, this book was not well received by that community. A main point was that the Nair community of Kerala were originally followers of Saiva Siddhanta (still strong in Tamil Nadu), which is quite different from the Mimamsa philosophical system of the Nambudiris.

In another book, Christumata Saram and Chris­tu­mata Schethanam (“Summary and Critique of Christianity”), Swami summarized the Christian Bible and analyzed its illogical aspects and faulty statements. The book went a long ways toward curtailing the conversion efforts of the missionaries. Oddly enough, it is kept in print today by a Christian publishing house and is popular among Kerala Christians.

Swami taught that the role of women in society is important. He said it is only the foolish that believe “Na stree swa­tan­trya­marhathi” (“A woman does not deserve freedom”). It is unjust, he emphasized, and against all laws to keep her bonded, ignorant and as a machine for producing children. It is also wrong to consider that man can do any injustice he likes to a woman and that only he has the power to rule. But, Swami taught, this does not mean that men should leave their occupations and remain at home for child rearing. Both should understand the unique roles which each has to fulfill.

His Disciples

Chattampi Swami initiated a few disciples into sannyas but made no systematic effort to set up ashrams to perpetuate his work. He rarely even settled in one place, traveling constantly. Narayana Guru was the only person he spent extended periods with. He would not handle money; and when given 100 acres of valuable land in Kodanad for an ashram or school, he gifted it to a disciple to “put to good use.” The Theerthapada Ashrams established by his disciples, are, with some exceptions, relatively inactive today.

For this article HINDUISM TODAY visited two Theerthapada ashrams. One is located in Kollam district, at a place where Chattampi Swami installed a Siva Lingam. It is looked after by Swami Vageesananda Theerthapada. The second, and main, Theerthapada Ashram (pictured above), located in Vazhoor, is headed by Swami Prajnananda Theerthapada. It has 17 acres of land, with farms and a goshala with 80 cows and calves. With income from its rubber tree plantation, it sustains other Theerthapada ashrams in need of support. It has a library and reading room and is engaged in publishing the writings of Chattampi Swamigal and his disciples. Unfortunately, the Theerthapada ashrams lack the modern facilities of others in Kerala and are neglected even by the Nair community. One resident said he doubted the present generation of Nairs even know the name Chattampi Swami.

Swami Prajnananda lamented the state of today’s society. “We seldom find children having an inherent liking for spiritualism and religion. This may be because of the changed lifestyles of parents who are in the clutches of the modern Western culture of materialism. In pursuit of that, the parents have lost the spiritual and religious traditions and values. Consequently, the children born to them neither come with any inherent spiritual qualities nor learn any prudent values. In addition to this selfishness and the resultant greed for wealth to satisfy their material pleasures, the majority of the youths lack an aptitude and/or mind for serving the God by serving the fellow human beings.”

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The ashram’s famous goshala
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When asked what Chattampi Swamigal would say if he were alive today, Prajnananda Swami responded, “He would be sorrowing to see the violent and wicked nature of the people, especially the Hindus who are relegated to the lower levels of spiritualism, abandoning their culture, traditions and values. He would have made a clarion call to the mothers to come forward to educate and guide their children in the righteous path.”

Vaikom Vivekanandan, an octogenarian and staunch devotee of the Swami, said one problem is the absence of Nair leaders who understand Chattampi Swami’s exhortations to extricate the community from “the clutches of the upper-caste brahmins.” He said most of the brahmins are Vaishnavites. In order to bring the Nairs into their fold, he narrated, they first introduced the idea of seeing Siva and Vishnu together. Instead of learning Chattampi Swami’s Advaita Vedanta derived from Saiva Siddhanta, the people absorbed the message of Vaishnavism, which was spread through popularization of the Bhagavatha Purana, Bhagavad Gita, etc. Thus over a long period of time, the Nairs, who were mainly Saivites in the past, moved away from Saiva Siddhanta; though a good number of Ezhavas, following Narayana Guru, remained followers of Advaita Vedanta.


The role played by Chattampi Swami in the history of Kerala has not yet been seriously assessed. While the Ezhava community has reverently accepted his disciple Narayana Guru as their spiritual preceptor, the Nair community did not follow suit with Chattampi Swami. One reason was his sharp criticism of the Nambudiri brahmin community, which did not sit well with Nairs whose fathers were brahmins (like his own). Consequently, the rich contributions made by him for the uplift of all the oppressed communities and the women of Kerala did not reach the people as they might have.

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Chattampi Swami: All images and art of Swami appear to be derived from a single photograph
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The movements initiated by him for social and religious reforms did make some progress in weeding out the age-old caste-based hierarchical social structures in the state, where not only the brahmins, but also the Nairs and Ezhavas, played according to their own divisive rules.

After seven decades, the sage left his body at the time and place decided by him in advance and merged with Siva. This was on May 5, 1924, in the village of Panmana, while under the care of two close disciples. His samadhi shrine (burial place) is established at the Panmana Ashram.

Recently the Nair Service Society, which represents many of the state’s Nairs, has asked all their village units, numbering about 6,000, to display the picture of Chattampi Swami in their offices as their spiritual guru. Those who understand Swami’s life believe that had people more closely followed what he taught about social equality, empowerment of women, nonviolence, compassion and love for all living creatures, protection of environment and, above all, the philosophy of pure Saiva Advaita, the present generation would be the better for it.