Sree Narayana Guru was born on August 22, 1856 (1032 Chingam in Malayalam calendar) in a humble cottage in the pretty hamlet of Chempazhanthi near Thiruvananthapuram. His father was Madan Asan, a farmer, and mother Kutti Amma and he had three sisters. He was named by his father as Narayanan; he affectionately called him Nanu, a short name for Narayanan. His family, Vayalvaram house and his father were much revered by the villagers as they also had a sound economic status.
Early days and education
Nanu started his education at the age of five in a neighboring school in the old “Gurukula” model. He continued his education at home with his father and uncle. His father, who was also was a teacher, was proficient in Sanskrit, Astrology and Ayurveda. His uncle Krishnana Vaidyan was a reputed Ayurvedic physician. He was taught the basics of the Tamil and Sanskrit languages and traditional subjects such as Siddharupam, Balaprobhodhanam and Amarakosam.
Right from his childhood Nanu showed great interest in the stories narrated to him by his father from the great epic Ramayana and Mahabharata. He loved solitude and always indulged himself in deep contemplation. He was intensely drawn to worship at the local temples and composed hymns and several devotional songs. Even as a child he expressed strong aversion toward the caste discrimination that existed in the society and often criticized his own relatives for showing such tendencies. At 15 he lost his mother. Nanu spent the most part of his early youth assisting his father in tutoring, and his uncle in the practice of Ayurveda, while devoting the rest of his time for devotional practices.
Transformation to a spiritual master
After this elementary education he became the disciple of Raman Pillai Asan, a great Sanskrit scholar of Puthuppally Varanappally family in Central Travancore at the age of 21. During his stay in Varanappally Nanu was called Nanu Chattampy (chattampy in those days meant "senior student' or "monitor"). At Varanapally Nanu, along with other students, was taught Sanskrit language and poetry, drama and literary criticism, and logical rhetoric. He studied the Vedas and the Upanishads.
When Nanu returned from Varanappally in 1881 his father was in his death bed. For a short period he ran a village school for the children of his neighbourhood. The villagers respectfully addressed him as "Nanu Asan". He continued to pursue his quest for the ultimate truth and spend more time in the confines of temples, writing poems and hymns and lecturing to villagers on philosophy and moral values.
Despite his marriage to a Kaliamma, daughter of a traditional doctor of his village, and the demise of his father, Nanu Asan changed his role as a teacher to that of a Parivrajaka (a spiritual wanderer). It was during one of these days that Nanu Asan met Kunjan Pillai, who later came to be known as Chattampi Swamikal. Recognizing Nanu Asan’s immense passion for yoga and his philosophical genius Chattampi Swamikal introduced him to Thycattu Ayyaavu, a 'Hatha yogi'. Under him Nanu Asan masterd various yogic practises including Hatha Yoga (a branch of Yoga, introduced by Yogi Swatmaramaas, that unites pairs of opposites referring to the positive (sun) and negative (moon) currents in the system). These scholastic experiences and exposures etched a lasting and supreme impact on the later life and philosophy of Narayana Guru.
From here Nanau Asan moved to the wilderness of Maruthwamala were he established a hermitage and lived a secluded life immersed in meditative thought and yoga. This austere life, in which he subjected himself to extreme sustenance rituals, extended for eight long years.
After an unpretentious life of over thirty years abounding in knowledge and harsh experiences, this epoch is considered the culmination of the meditative recluse; the point at which Narayana Guru is believed to have attained a state of Enlightenment. This secluded life culminated in the attaining of enlightenment by Sree Narayana Guru.
Consecration of Siva Lingam at Aruvippuram
Even after attaining enlightenment the Guru continued his life of Parivrajaka. One such wandering took him to the beautiful Aruvippuram a forest area, where nature shows herself in the best of her attire. He decided to settle there for some time and soon visitors from near and far started visiting him for spiritual as well as physical rejuvenation. The Guru felt the necessity of constructing a temple there for the regular worship of Lord Shiva. A small canopy of coconut and mango leaves was raised over an altar on a rock jutting out in the water at a beautiful spot near the river. The Guru himself later installed a Shiva linga (idol) in the temple. When asked about his right to install an idol he replied that the idol he had installed was not a Brahmin Shiva.
In 1904 the Guru gave up his life of a wanderer and decided to settle down in a place to continue his spiritual practices. He chose Sivagiri at Varkala, twenty miles north of Thiruvananthapuram. He started a Sanskrit school in Varkala and poor boys and orphans were given free education regardless of their caste Temples were built at different places – Thrissur, Kannur, Anchuthengu, Tellicherry, Calicut, and Mangalore. It was in the year 1912 he built the Sharada Devi Temple at Sivagiri.
In 1913, he founded the Advaita Ashram at Aluva. This was an important event in his spiritual quest. This Ashram was dedicated to a great principle – Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra (all men are equal in the eyes of God). This became the motto of the new Ashram. Between 1918 and 1923 he visited Sri Lanka many times. In 1921, a Conference of Universal Brotherhood was held at Aluva. Again in 1924, a conference of all religions was held there. The Guru stressed the need for a Brahma Vidyalaya for a comparative study of different religious faiths.
In 1928 the Guru’s health conditions declined drastically and he remained bedridden for some months. The Guru's birthday was celebrated in many places in that year, mostly in Kerala, Madras, Mangalore, Srilanka and Europe. On 20 September, 1928 the Guru’s soul left his body to unite with the Supreme soul.