K. R. Narayanan was born in his tharavaadu ancestral home, a small thatched hut at Perumthanam, Uzhavoor, as the fourth of seven children of Kocheril Raman Vaidyar. His father was a physician practicing the traditional Indian medical systems of Siddha and Ayurveda. His family belonged to the Paravan caste, whose members are assigned the job of plucking coconuts. His family was very poor, but his father was respected for his medical ability.
Narayanan had his early schooling in Uzhavoor at the Government Lower Primary School, Kurichithanam. From 1931-1935 he gained education from Our Lady of Lourdes Upper Primary School, Uzhavoor. He walked to school for about 15 kilometres daily through rice fields, and was often unable to pay the fees. He often listened to school lessons while standing outside the classroom, as he was not allowed to attend class because of the tuition fees he could not pay. His family lacked money to buy books so his elder brother K. R. Neelakantan, who was confined to home used to borrow books from other students, copy them down, and give them to Narayanan.
He passed college from St. Mary's High School, Kuravilangad in 1936. In 1938 he completed his intermediate at C. M. S. College, Kottayam aided by a merit scholarship. Narayanan obtained his B. A. and M.A. in English literature from the University of Travancore, standing first in the university and thus becoming the first Dalit to obtain this degree with first class in Travancore.
Narayanan then went to England in 1945 and studied political science under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. He obtained the honours degree of B. Sc. In Economics with a specialisation in political science, helped by a scholarship. During his years in London, he was active in the India League under V. K. Krishna Menon. He was also the London correspondent of the Social Welfare Weekly.
He worked as a diplomat in the embassies at Rangoon, Tokyo, London, Canberra, and Hanoi. He was the Indian ambassador to Thailand in1967 to 1969, Turkey from 1973 to 1975, and the People's Republic of China in 1976 to 1978. He was also the secretary to the ministry of external affairs in 1976. He retired in 1978. After his retirement, he served as the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi from 1978 to 1980. Later on he was called back from his retirement to serve as Indian ambassador to the United States of America from 1980 to 1984, under Indira Gandhi's government.
Narayanan's tenures as Indian ambassador to China, after the1962 Sino-Indian War was the first such high level Indian diplomatic posting in that country, and to the USA where he helped arrange Ms. Gandhi's landmark 1982 visit to Washington helped mend India's staiving relations with both these countries. Nehru, said that K. R. Narayanan was "the best diplomat of the country".
Narayanan and won three successive general elections to the Lok Sabha in 1984, 1989, and 1991, as a representative of the Ottapalam constituency in Palakkad, Kerala, on a Congress ticket. He was a Minister of State in the Union cabinet under Rajiv Gandhi's government, holding the portfolios of Planning, External Affairs, and Science and Technology. As a Member of Parliament, he had withstand international pressure to tighten exclusive rights in India. K. R. Narayanan was elected as the Vice-President of India on 21 August 1992, under the Presidency of Shankar Dayal Sharma. His name had been first suggested by V. P. Singh, former Prime Minister and leader of the Janata Dal. The Janata Dal and the Left Front had jointly declared him as their candidate, leading to a unanimous decision on his election. When the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992, he described the event as the "greatest tragedy India has faced since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi".
K. R. Narayanan was elected as the Presidency of India on 17 July 1997. He got 95% of the votes in the electoral college, from the Presidential poll. He was sworn in as the President of India 25 July 1997 by Chief Justice J. S. Verma. In the general elections of 1998, Narayanan became the first sitting President to vote, he casted his vote after standing in a queue like an ordinary citizen. Narayanan sought to change what was a long-standing practice of Indian presidents not voting during general elections.
President K. R. Narayanan's address to the nation on the golden jubilee of the Indian Republic Day is considered a landmark it was the first time a President attempted to examine, the growing inequality, the several ways in which the country had failed to provide economic justice to the Indian people, particularly the rural and agrarian population, he also said that there was dissatisfaction and frustrations erupting in violence among the deprived sections of society.
President Narayanan introduced the important practice of explaining to the nation the thinking behind the various decisions he took while exercising his discretionary powers; this has led to transparency in the functioning of the President. It was only during Naraynans terrain that Presidents rule was imposed on two Indian cities namely Bihar and U.P. In both cases he specified the Supreme court Judgement. These remain the only examples when a President had taken such a reconsideration. In his farewell address to the nation on 24 July 2002, K. R. Narayanan had instilled his hopes for social action and progress on the service of the nation by its youth.