Dr. Dharmaraj Adat

Vice Chancellor,

Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit,

Kalady, Kerala. 683574


Renaissance is the term used by the historians to designate various epochs in human history in which great cultural, religious and philosophical revival took place mainly during the decline of feudalism and the emergence of bourgeois society in fourteenth to early seventeenth centuries after the Industrial Revolution. Humanism, the belief in the active, rather than the contemplative life and faith in the republican ideal, is the central theme to the renaissance. Being a system of views based on respect for the dignity and rights of man, his values as a personality, concern for his welfare, his all-round development and the creation of a favorable condition for social life, it proclaims the slogans ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. The aim of renaissance was to produce the complete human being enlarging and encouraging the bounds of learning and geographical knowledge, the growth of skepticism and free thought.

            Sanskritisation is a process, which seems to have occurred throughout Indian history and continues to occur. It is a wide spread cultural and social process by which a ‘low’ Hindu caste or tribal or other group, changes its customs, rituals, ideologies and way of living in the direction of a high and frequently, ‘twice-born’ caste. 

            In India, renaissance happened only by the eighteenth century, a period marked with the birth of a number of social and cultural reformers all over the country. While the social reform movement under the leadership of Raja Ram Mohan Roy- popularly known as the father of Indian renaissance, was an upper class social phenomenon, the movement in South India, especially in Kerala under the leadership of  Narayana Guru and others was a lower class social phenomenon whose efforts paved the way for a social revolution in Kerala by creating a social awareness among both the upper and lower castes against oppression, untouchability and other social evils. In developing and fostering humanism with the concepts liberty, equality and fraternity, these social reformers used Sanskrit and its literary and philosophical traditions largely.

            Among them, the primary movement that played an important role in nourishing an anti-feudal resistance is the Bhakti Cult all over India. It proclaimed that there is no distinction based on caste or culture (education), beauty or birth, wealth or profession and the like. (Naradabhakthisuthra. 72). This standpoint greatly strengthened the philosophy of equality, liberty and brotherhood.

            Bhakti movement in Kerala began with Cirama, the author of Ramacharitha. Later, the Niranam poets with their works like Bhasabhagavadgeetha, Bharathamala, Kannassabhagavahta etc. strengthened the movement. Cerussery was their follower and he wrote Krishnagatha, based on the tenth skandha of Bhagavathapurana. Thus, many valuable stories from Sanskritic tradition with a new interpretation spread among the people. These efforts gained maximum popularity with Ezhuttacchan during sixteenth century A.D. He translated Adhyathmaramayana into Malayalam with the intention of popularizing Ramayana among the common people. He severely criticized the four-caste system- the chaturvarnya and the supremacy of Brahmanas. He proclaimed the Advaitha doctrine and stressed the oneness of Brahman: ‘Being immersed in the falls prestige of body, people often become proud of their ego and calls oneself and shouts repeatedly “I am Brahmin, I am king or I am noble…..But the fools do not know the bodies might fall prey to carnivore or burned on the funeral pyre or decayed in the mud”….Know the truth that individual soul and absolute soul are synonyms. There exists no difference, for they are one and the same. Fools are those who assume difference between them.’  Thus in Kerala, the tendency of Sanskritisation was seen from the initial stage of renaissance itself.

            Ezhuttacchan was a social reformer. Through the flow of piety, he was able to criticize many of the evil customs, which prevailed in the society. He never used his pen either to write jest or to sketch the beauty of women. He was the representative of the low castes who formed the majority. He concentrated and worked for the enlightment of such people. It was for that he adopted the path of devotion, because, at that time it was the best suitable way to attract the masses. In addition, for this purpose, he formulated a particular style of structure known as Kilippattu. It was through Ezhuttacchan that the Kilippattu style took root in Malayalam literature.

            Ezhuttacchan’s parrot expressed her indignation pitiably and rudely towards all the evil customs of the society. His pen undertook this historical task very carefully. He witnessed a deteriorated society at that time. He considered his mission to uplift that society in a way, which he thought right and just. Ezhuttacchan firmly believed that utility of fine arts is to bring well being in the society and so he used his verses to oppose the social evils.

            Puntanam Namboothiri, another great exponent of the Bhakthi movement who wrote Jnanappana and may be a contemporary of Ezhuttacchan, also severely criticized the false notion of caste hegemony.

            Thus the Bhakthi movement, which has imbibed spiritual strength mainly from Sanskritic traditions, originated by the ordinary people for the benefit of the common people, popularized the concept that all human beings are equal. It thus demolished the numerous feudalistic fences, which had arisen from caste-religion-tribe-colour and sex.

            However, Sanskritisation of Kerala society was not a new event evolved along with the Bhakti movement. Originally, people of Kerala followed the Dravidian way of life. People did not subscribe to any particular religious philosophy. A strange mixture of primitive rites and practices was prevalent among them. They worshipped a variety of local deities. It was an open society based on the principle of social freedom and equality. Dignity of labour was recognized. The practice of untouchability and caste hegemony was not known to them. here the castes were entitled as sages, farmers, herdsmen, hunters and fishermen. Many primitive ceremonies and rituals were prevalent like the sraddha  ceremony performed to propitiate the forefathers, the arattu, the ritual ceremony for pleasing durga; the human sacrifice to please kottavai, the dravdian hill goddess; tree worship etc.

Shortly Jainism and Buddhism reached here and influenced Keralites greatly. The invasion of Kadamba king Mayurasarman (345-370) caused the first Brahmin settlement in Kerala in a large measure and it paved the way for Sanskritisation in Kerala. Dr. K.N.Ezhuttacchan, a famous Sanskrit scholar and critic who wrote Keralodaya, a modern historical mahakavya in Sanskrit, describes the social and cultural changes in the period of first Sanskritisation in Kerala in his mahakavya.

            “The king Mayurasarman, together with his son Chandrangada, invited large colonies of Brahmins and settled them in Kerala. He gave them all facilities to propagate Aryan culture. Thus started a huge army of Aryan culture equipped with the chariots of Nyaya philosophy, elephants of Vedantha, and horses strengthened by sacrificial spells. On the banks of Perar, filled with flowery trees and of Periyar, breeding excellent cows, great sacrificial altars humming with the Vedic hymns were found. Gradually there occurred the rising of the cruel dharma of twice-born, which has thirty-two villages as its nucleus, the flag staff of truth installed in the temple courtyards and the tall ramparts touching the sky that are in the form of caste system. The assembly of Brahmins called sanketa with the recitation of Vedic chanting and performance of tantric rites shone just like a beautiful nest of humming honeybees. In pathasalas, giving up the compact alphabet, the boys with their trembling tufts began to write in sand with fingers the long line of alphabet of the Sanskrit language with extreme difficulty. The students began to weave with great care the hard threads of the dry formulae of Panini etc. in the pathasalas, where they sang clearly the beautiful songs of the touching story of Kovala getting their eyes closed in ecstasy. The people heard the story of Rama containing the abduction of woman (Sitha) in the vast temple hall, where the revered Sakyas told the history of Siddhartha’s attaining of enlightenment. The sage Buddha disappeared from the shrine. He took rebirth in the form of Siva. Tara, the lucky star of the Buddhist tradition, also received worship taking the form of Durga. The viharayatra of the Buddha retinue of huge elephants in great festivals sustained with slight modification with the presence of the new deity along with attractive drums on the occasions of worship. All this is just as the same as before. But now is seen a novel sprout of imagination. This is just like the entrance of life in a dead body because of the yogic power. (Keralodaya, VIII. 38-47)

            This process of Sanskritisation developed and strengthened during the advent of Bhakti cult and its impact imparted strength and enthusiasm to the social and political organizations to organize themselves and fight against the feudalism and its allied anti- human caste rigidities  during Indian renaissance. Its impact can also be noticed in the abandonment of regional gods, who were considered uncultured and who were offered blood, meet, toddy and fowls. Instead of them, the gods from the Sanskrit tradition were consecrated and people offered the new gods milk, oils, ghee etc. Thus, in a way, it also uprooted the regional cultures and caused to end the diversities of the Indian renaissance and nationalism. The low-castes were believed that they could rise, in a generation or two, to a higher position in the hierarchy by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism, and by Sanskritising its ritual pantheon (See M.N. Srinivas, Social Change in Modern India, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2006. Pp.1-48). However, it is not merely a copying of the ideas and values from Sanskrit literature, but understanding them clearly and adopting the relevant ones. Karma, Dharma, Papa, Maya, Samsara, Advaitha, Brahman, Moksha etc. are some of the most important Sanskritic concepts prevalent among common people. These concepts came to the ordinary people through myths, legends and stories written in Sanskrit language and allied literature adopted by the scholars.

            In Kerala, the essence of Sanskritisation in its perfection is seen in Sri Narayana movement. Guru realized that the sub-conscious mind of the common people is filled with so many complexes and biases. The caste-system was practiced to its rigorous enforcement to such an extent that inter-caste relations were restricted and untouchability, unsociability was observed on a large scale. Common people, in general, thought that caste discrimination was inevitable and intrinsic to the world structure. No one considered that system illogical or wrong. People belonging to Nair caste never came near to Brahmins. Similarly, the Ezhavas kept a certain distance from the Nairs and the Pulayas and Parayas were even afraid to come near to the high-castes. Not only the upper castes but also the lower castes were also had a clear understanding that it was their prime duty to perform untouchability and other customs with out fail. This inhuman custom of untouchability was observed as a sacred obligation for centuries. People neither thought of that as evil nor wanted a change. They accepted it as a god-given mandate. They were living in a dense jungle of superstitions where wild animals roamed freely everywhere. Narayanaguru wanted to dislodge such evils from their minds. For that, he made use of the consecration of temples as the chief means. He declared the dark gods and goddesses like Madan, Marutha, Chamundi, Ottamulacchi, etc., who were consecrated in the hearts of ordinary people as well as in the temples, as evil spirits and tried to abolish them. The worshipers of those dark gods offered fowls, goats, flesh, toddy, fish and blood as oblations to them. Narayanaguru again abolished such evil customs from the temples. He also discouraged the uncivilized names of the low castes such as Ityati, Kandan, Konnan, Makkotha, Chakki, Kunnitthy, Kurumba, Kali etc. for they symbolized slavery. In order to mobilize people against casteism Guru preached and brought the upanisadic Advaita philosophy to the social level of practice. Guru proved that Advaitha is significant in the relations between man and man, man and nature and man and other organisms. He showed that Advaitha is a warning to casteist forces, because it dissolves all kinds of inequalities. He proved that Advaitha could be used as an effective tool to build a new brave world based on equality. He transformed Advaita philosophy to suit the great principles: ‘all are equal; everything equal for all.’ Guru aimed at a model society where all men live in brotherhood without any caste distinction or religious animosities. Thus, the Sanskritic tradition helped Sri Narayana to fulfill the historical mission to subvert the structure of feudal dominance and to help the capitalist forces to grow. It was the philosophical streams of capitalist revolution that activated the philosophies of Renaissance.