Periyar – The Great One – on Brahminism and Social Reform

As we await the results of the state assembly elections on May 2, 2021, Tamil Nadu in particular would be one to watch for various reasons. One would be to see if and how the BJP improves its score card in the state, even if in alliance with the AIADMK. The other would be to see the usual grand contest for supremacy play out between the two regional parties, AIADMK and the DMK, both of which have held sway in Tamil Nadu politics for decades.

Both parties have the Dravida Kazhagam as their raison d’etre and at the core of their policies. Both parties also have EV Ramasami, better known as Periyar or “the great one” as their spiritual leader and figurehead. The anti-Brahmin movement that he spearheaded decades ago has left its lasting impression on Tamil Nadu politics. Indeed, it is odd that the BJP, with its upper caste leanings should be in alliance with the AIADMK, but we know that politics makes strange bedfellows and it is clear that both parties think they have everything to gain from the combine.

I happened to have just finished reading Periyar’s book, which my father had ordered from Amazon some years ago. For a book called The Collected Works of Periyar, it is a rather small collection of speeches and writings, when you compare it with, say, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi which runs into several volumes. For all that, there is no denying that the man and his reformist ideas had a huge impact on politics, governance, education, reservation, language, etc. within Tamil Nadu.

The book, mainly a collection of his speeches and thoughts – compiled as “Periyarana” if you please – is published by the Self-Respect Propaganda Institution in Chennai and is poorly edited for it is full of typographical and grammatical errors. Besides, it is also poorly translated, since even someone with very rudimentary and rusty Tamil like me can tell that several parts of it have been literally translated.

That said, the main thrust of Periyar’s arguments is never in doubt. First, there is a strong Dravidian sentiment – even chauvinistic – that is expressed throughout in clear opposition to the Aryans. Second, because he equates Aryans with Brahminism and the caste system, he attacks religion and the caste system imposed by them. Third, all of this is presented in the garb of rationalism.

And this is where Periyar runs into problems. For his rationalism is not based on scholarly or scientific analysis, but on a simple – simplistic, even – world view that is based on attacking icons and symbols of Aryan culture. His reason operates at a very crude and simplistic level of “that which is not seen, does not exist.”

For example, when he speaks of superstitions that abound in India in a chapter titled Rationalist Thoughts, he ridicules such beliefs, yet thanks the British for their rule in India.

“You find people going back and sitting for a while when a cat goes across him. You ask him why. He replies that it is a bad omen. He says that he should sit down for sometime and proceed later. When the crow caws, he hesitates to proceed. He believes the crow is cawing to warn him. He says that he gets polluted when the refuse of a bird falls on him. He refuses to touch others… He believes that a particular time is auspicious. Is there any meaning in all these absurd notions? Who condemns all these idiotic practices? Who advises the people to make use of their intelligence? How many things we could gain by our knowledge and experience? We don’t use them. That is why we are living in a barbaric land. I can only say this much.

It is a good thing foreigners have come to our place. They introduced a few reforms boldly. They were accused of interfering with our religion and shastras. If the Britishers had not come here, we would still continue to be very backward.”

In the same chapter on rationalist thoughts, Periyar attacks Mahatma Gandhi for his beliefs on religion, varnashrama dharma (belief in castes), in the context of his own Self-Respect Movement.

“You just think over what the policy of the Congress Party is. Congress is wedded to the policy of safeguarding Gandhi, religion, caste and the status of Brahmins. The Brahmins sought Gandhi’s help for their selfish interest. Because Gandhi talked of reactionary ideas, they made him “Mahatma”. Gandhi responded to the call of the Brahmins.

Like a drunken mad man he always talked about god, shastras, varnashrama dharma, Hindu religion and Rama.”

He never misses an opportunity to attack Gandhi for his belief in the caste system. While it is true and well-known that Gandhi was a devout Hindu and did believe in the caste system, it is also well-known that he changed his views somewhat in later years. That was when he tried to combat the problem of untouchability, and christened untouchables, Harijans – “people of god”. Of course, that invited even greater opprobrium from people like BR Ambedkar, who too crusaded against casteism and had his own ongoing debate with Gandhi.

However, Periyar doesn’t have the intellectual capacity, or nuanced approach of Ambedkar. He even accuses Gandhi of condoning violence in the 1942 Quit India movement that he calls a “sabotage”. In a chapter titled Call to Youths, he writes:

“The Congress Party is responsible for the heavy damage caused to the public property. Yet, they deny the fact. They say they have no hand in the countrywide sabotage…

But at a few places, the volunteers have boldly said that they are responsible… Mr. MK Gandhi was aware of the sabotage all over the country. He did not issue a single statement condemning the same. In fact, he refused to do so. No one else came forward to condemn.”

Hard as it is to believe that Gandhi would have condoned violence, it is not so hard to understand Periyar’s feelings about Gandhi. He had joined the Indian National Congress and wholeheartedly participated in its activities. But he couldn’t tolerate the Congress Party’s leadership and policies being dominated by brahmins and upper castes, and so quit in 1925. He held Gandhi responsible for the party’s ambivalence towards low castes and untouchables.

Besides, Periyar had a much bigger vision for Dravida Kazhagam than the Congress could accommodate. In a chapter titled Why Communal GO (government order), he writes about his Self-Respect Movement’s frustration with the Congress, as well as other parties in abandoning the Communal Government Order that they all strove for, which would reserve jobs for certain lower castes, in order to free them from the stranglehold that Brahmins had on most well-paying jobs. In the process, he also writes of vehemently opposing Rajaji’s education policy of students training in their fathers’ occupations or professions, when he was Chief Minister. Periyar opposed it rightly on the grounds that it would further entrench the caste system and varnashrama, which walled off certain jobs and occupations based on caste, and would legitimize the centuries-old injustice.

However, in Periyar’s scheme of things, the reservation of jobs or communal order was only a stepping stone to achieving independence for the Dravidian people, who he believed needed to be freed from Aryan domination and deserved their own land. Periyar might not have had the intellectual rigour of Ambedkar, and some of his methods might have been rather crude (like demolishing idols of gods, etc.) but there’s no denying that his ideas were quite progressive and ahead of their time.

One gets a better idea of these from reading Makers of Modern India by Ram Guha, in which he features some of Periyar’s writings on Hinduism, the institution of marriage, widowhood, contraception and family planning. They have the same over-simplistic arguments, but at least these pieces are well-translated and edited. And they tell us of the great one’s vision of a modern, egalitarian and progressive India.

For a man who had little to no formal education (he was pulled out of school at the age of 12), his thoughts and world view were not just advanced, but had significant impact in that the DMK and its later rival AIADMK succeeded in freeing Tamil Nadu of the Congress Party, as well as of Brahmin dominance. One can’t help comparing the anti-casteism and anti-Brahmin movements of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, where Jyotirao Phule and his protégé, BR Ambedkar crusaded for similar rights for the lower castes. In their case, though, both seem to have benefited from Western education and were clearly influenced by Western thinkers. From The Collected Works of Periyar, one doesn’t get the sense that Periyar was influenced by any theory or thought process, other than his own.

EV Periyar Ramasami (right) with BR Ambedkar at a Buddhist Conference in Rangoon, Myanmar, December 4, 1954; Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The sections of this book that I found most disconcerting are Periyar’s views on the Hindu religion, its scriptures and its mythologies. While I am aware that there are several versions and tellings of the Ramayana, I am not aware that Kamban’s Ramayana (peculiar to South India) has Sita eloping with Ravana, as Periyar seems to suggest. His more fundamental reservation with the Ramayana is that it is an Aryan mythology, in which an Aryan god, Rama, vanquishes Ravana, said to be a Dravidian asura (demon-king). He also attacks the Puranas, Hindu mythological tales, for their silliness as well as their profanities and perversions in the form of sexual acts between humans and animals. Since I have not read the Puranas, I am none the wiser on this subject. But I find the constant reference to such sexual acts sprinkled throughout this book strange. For example, when Periyar refers to the Hindu creation story of the Ashwamedha, he writes of it as a sexual act with a horse. Whereas, I have only read about the Ashwamedha in the Upanishads, which refers to a horse sacrifice. In fact, he refers to the sexual act with a horse, even when he writes about the birth of Rama in the chapter on rationalist thoughts:

“Rama is said to be the incarnation of god. His birth is stated in detail. The Brahmins made Rama’s mother Kausalya naked. She was asked to lie on the ground. A horse was brought. Its penis was inserted into the vagina of Kausalya. This is how the Ashwametha (Horse) yagam was performed. You need not believe my words. You yourself read the Ramayana. You will find all these.”

In a chapter titled Manu Dharma – a Code of Injustice to Non-Brahmins, Periyar writes of the origin and birth of Munivars and Rishis (sages) who created the Vedas and the Shastras as having been born out of unnatural acts with animals, such as Kalaikottur Rishi being born to a deer, Jambukar to a jackal, Gauthamar to a bull, to mention only a few. He goes on to say that some of the laws prescribed in the Indian Constitution are drawn from the laws of Manu.

‘“The Privy Council has categorically stated about the Manu code thus: However obsolete and out of date it might be, judgement based on it are final.” Not only this, the Constitution of India is also laid down according to the Manu law.

The very fact that the measures taken by the Government of Tamil Nadu to enable all communities to do the job as priests in temples were nullified by the Supreme Court of India clearly demonstrated that Manu’s law is still under full sway. The Act passed by the elected representatives of the people in Tamil Nadu Assembly has been set aside as derogatory and against Manu law.”

I intend to read Laws of Manu said to have been created for Lord Brahma, the creator. I have read and heard about Manu’s unfair code of ethics and laws to do with women, particularly, and their place in society, but I wish to read it for myself.

There is plenty in Periyar’s thoughts that one is inclined to agree with, even if one cannot agree with his reasoning and how he arrives at his conclusions. As a Tamil brahmin woman from Kerala, and an atheist to boot, I am least concerned about religion, god, or indeed caste. And I am glad that my parents too are not religious, even if my mother does say her quiet little prayers every evening. We are not observant Hindus in that sense and shun rituals for the most part. Having read widely throughout my life, if there is anything that concerns me, it is we Hindus confusing our religion with mythology and even interpreting the latter as history, as having dangerous portents.

Reading Periyar might be a good idea in today’s times. I just wish it was a better book, and not something that has the tell-tale signs of an unprofessional PR agency and BBDO Chennai idiots meddling all over it. This, by the way, is a revised and enlarged third edition, issued in 2005.

On that note, I might as well mention that I am now reading a book titled Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability by Christophe Jaffrelot, also released in 2005, which my father bought a few years ago. Tell-tale sign of mischief: calls itself a biography, even though the author is quick to point out in the opening acknowledgements “For me it was not at all a natural project, even though I paid a lot of attention to Hindu nationalist ideologues and low caste leaders in my previous works.”

Like I have written before on my blog, I have nothing to do with writing or editing books, nor with publishing. But it’s increasingly hard to find anything sensible and intelligent to read nowadays because of the PR agency-BBDO Chennai combine’s mischief. And it’s a saga that has gone on for too bloody long – 16 years and they won’t give up.

The featured image at the start of this post is of EV Periyar Ramasami and BR Ambedkar meeting with MA Jinnah at the latter’s residence in Mumbai on January 6, 1940; Image Wikimedia Commons public domain.

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