THE MOTIVATIONAL FACTORS BEHIND PERIYAR’S CRITIQUE OF BRAHMINICAL HINDUISM


CHAPTER 14


THE MOTIVATIONAL FACTORS BEHIND PERIYAR’S CRITIQUE OF BRAHMINICAL HINDUISM

The factors that motivated Periyar to rationally evaluate Brahminical Hinduism can be broadly classified in to two: direct and indirect.  Direct factors are those events and incidents which Periyar himself experienced or directly confronted and had direct bearing on the development of his religious thinking.  Indirect factors are those persons, tour and ideologies which had influenced Periyar in the process of his thinking and action in general.

14.1 Direct Factors
In the words of Visswanathan ‘Periyar’s uncompromising attitude towards the religious practice of the Hindus, their beliefs in the institutions of religion and the caste system can only be explained and understood in the light of the environment in which he grew up.[1] 

14.1.1 Family Background
Periyar E. V. Ramasami was born on September 17, 1879 in Erode in a family that could be termed as one belonging to the middle caste-class group.[2]  The “middle caste-class” can be understood only in the context of Tamil Nadu and Periyar’s family background.  In Tamil Nadu the entire society is stratified into three broad sections, namely, Brahmins, non-Brahmins and untouchables, against the traditional four-fold caste system in the rest of India.  Periyar belonged to the non-Brahmin community which comprised all non-Brahmins except the untouchables.  While writing about the caste background of Periyar, Anita Diehl maintains that, his “family belonged to the Naicker caste the upper stratum of the Sudras.[3]  The reason for placing Periyar in the middle-class section is because, his father was a well-to-do businessman when Periyar was born.

14.1.2 Childhood of Periyar
As a child, Periyar was brought up by his grandmother who was not well-to do.[4]  Though Ramasami had not much to eat at home, he was rough and wild colt in his early days.[5]  Ravindranathan remarks that, “there were all the signs of rebel in him right from his childhood.”[6]  The unpleasant life at his grand-mother’s house and his inherent rebellious nature proved as productive impetus for the development of his personality and ideology.

14.1.3 Periyar at School
Periyar’s father, concerned with the education of his son brought him back home from grand-mother’s house and admitted him in a school when he was six.[7]  As Periyar was naughty and playful, he did not heed much for school education.  Gopalakrishnan says that, “the boy attended school for six years, but learnt very little.”[8]  Of course, it was not the education, but the dehumanizing experience that he faced in the school which became one of the most important factors that motivated Periyar to be more critical about the social system and religious practice around him.
During Periyar’s school days, his parents instructed him that he should not take drinking water from anybody’s house except from his teacher’s. When he went to the teacher’s house to drink water, he had very unpleasant and unforgettable experience.  About this experience Periyar says:
The teacher was a strict vegetarian.  He belonged to a caste called ‘Oduvar’.  I went to his house once or twice to drink water.  In that house a small girl used to place a brass tumbler on the ground, and pour water in to it.  I was instructed to lift the vessel and drink without sipping it.  After that she would pour water on the vessel, lift it and wash inside and then take it in to the house. Because I am accustomed to sip water from the vessel, a part of the water would fall on my body.  Only a little water would go in to the mouth.  Some times water would enter my nose and cause trouble.  I had to spit out the water instantly.  Sometimes the girl would get angry on seeing this.[9]
Paulraj describes another, almost similar experience of younger Periyar:
Ramaswami went in to the teacher’s house and asked his wife to give him a drink.  His wife took some water in a vessel and brought it outside the house and refusing to give the vessel of water to the boy, asked the boy to cup both his palms and poured water in to his cupped palms.  The boy was shocked by this incident and found out later that the Teacher’s wife did not give him the vessel of water because of caste discrimination.  The boy made a pledge to himself that he should eradicate this demeaning and dehumanizing caste discrimination.[10]
This grave experience had formidable impact upon Periyar and his thinking. [11]
Here it should be remembered that, even though caste was a social issue, it was always applied with a tinge of religious sanction.  That is why Periyar felt that, religion was the root of all evils, and therefore should be evaluated rationally. 

14.1.4 Orthodoxy at Home
Orthodoxy at home was another factor that motivated Periyar to rationally evaluate Brahminic Hinduism.  Periyar’s parents were very pious and religious people.  On the contrary Periyar was very critical about any form of religious practice.  He would not observe any ritual or ceremony, rather he would involve himself in all that were considered irreligious and unholy by his parents.  As a result, he was treated as an untouchable at home.[12]  When he asked his parents, why he should be treated as an untouchable, the reasons given were, custom, tradition, priest, sastras etc.[13] 

14.1.5 Caste System
Even as a school pupil, Periyar was able to infer the social inequalities practiced on the basis of caste system.  As he grew up, he was quite serious about it.[14] Johnkumar writes, “in spite of the enviable position enjoyed by this family, Periyar as a young man had encountered humiliating experiences of the caste discrimination.  This was the main impetus that made him anti Brahministic…”[15] Periyar persistently reacted to caste system. According to Rajagopalan, “from his boyhood he was questioning why his parents prohibited him from drinking water in some houses, why he was prevented from joining Muslims boys and play, why lot of Brahmins are fed by his father when lot of poor non-Brahmins are starving...”[16]
Periyar did not keep quiet by seeing the dreadful evil of caste system.  He began to reflect upon it.  This reflection helped him to understand that, religion and god are used by Brahmins to impose the caste system upon people. 

14.1.6 Dalits
As a result of his unceasing reflection on the caste system, Periyar discerned that a particular section of the society was deprived of their rights and privileges.  They were not counted as equals to others.  This attitude strongly affected the mind of Periyar. [17]
Added to the inequality of the status of a particular section of the people, was “their state of penury and squalor on the one hand and on the other the disabling social handicap so deeply moved the tender heart of the young boy.”[18]  This particular section of the people can be called as Dalits.  Periyar’s reflection on the social set up of Dalits and their life situation together helped him to think that, these discriminations were the result of religion.  However, he felt that though religion as such was not directly responsible for this, the way in which Brahmins used it to exploit others caused discrimination. 

14.1.7 Religious Knowledge
Periyar was introduced to his father’s business, when he was twelve years old.  His exposure to the business world enabled Periyar to accumulate general knowledge concerning things and happenings around him.  During his free time, Periyar used to have religious discussions with the pundits who visited his home.  This helped him to gather more knowledge about Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas etc.[19]
During the course of discussions, Periyar often raised difficult questions to the pundits.  Sometimes they had no answer to his questions.  Even if they answered, each pundit gave a different answer to the same question.[20]  When such pundits received benefits from his parents Periyar was uncomfortable.  He thought the pundits were cheating his parents; and Sastras were lies.[21]  In the words of Gopalakrishnan, “even from his boyhood Periyar had been feeling that the public discourses of Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas were employed by the pundits and other religious men only as a means of livelihood for themselves and not in order to make people really pious.”[22] In this case Periyar, probably, had expected from the pundits, more than what they could do.  That is, Periyar was unaware of the fact that, no religious question will have one answer.  Yet, to a young mind, this kind of religious knowledge which was inconsistent, was very difficult to accept.

14.1.8 Sanyasi Experience
Sanyasi experience is the most important motivational factor behind Periyar’s critique of Brahminical Hinduism.  When only nineteen, Ramasami married his cousin, Nagammai.[23]  At that time she was only thirteen years of age.[24]  After six years[25] of family life he became a Sanyasi.[26]  He traveled all over India as a religious mendicant.[27]  In the words of Charles Ryerson, “at twenty five he became a wandering Sanyasi, traveling with two Brahmins and performing Kalakshepams.”[28]  Periyar’s visit to Benares and being abandoned there by his two Brahmin friends developed in him distrust for Brahmins.[29] 
Being friendless and foodless, Periyar, the son of a merchant wandered about in the streets of Benaras.[30]  As Periyar was not a Brahmin, he was not allowed to enter an inn where Brahmin Sanyasis were fed.[31]  Once Periyar attempted to enter an inn but the gatekeeper pushed him out.[32]  P. Vanangamudi writes “without food he starved for days and one day, he even ate the left overs thrown out on a leaf.”[33]  Rajagopalan says, “on one occasion he had to eat the food thrown in dust bin along with dogs.”[34]
Having realized that because of his long hair and mustache people did not accept him as Sannyasi, Periyar shaved off his hair and mustache.[35]  He began to look for a job.  Finally, he found himself in Benares working for a math by collecting leaves for puja.[36]  Since the math people did not know that Periyar was not a Brahmin, he had to act as a temple servant.[37]  He lost this job when people found that Periyar was not taking his morning bath, before his daily work.[38]  Periyar earlier thought that life in Benares would be pure and perfect.  On the contrary, “even among Sannyasis he found Brahmins are honoured.”[39]  In Benares he even witnessed uncontrolled immorality and prostitution.[40]  It was unbearable for Periyar to see that, his co-beggars, both men and women, including Brahmin women indulged in drinking, meat eating, and open prostitution.  In the words of Anita Diehl “… he was disappointed with his experience in the Holy city.”[41] 
About Periyar’s entire North India experience Nambi Arooran says, “he obtained an intimate knowledge of the evils widely prevalent in Hinduism, particularly in pilgrim centers like Benares.”[42]  In the words of Paulraj, “during these visits to pilgrim centers he came to know of the evils of popular Hinduism and found out that the Brahmin priest used his priestly role to exploit the masses.”[43]
 Periyar could feel that, it was not human values but caste was given priority in Benares.  Religious centers are place of all kinds of hooliganism.  This experience accelerated Periyar’s anti-Brahminic attitude.[44]

14.1.9 Periyar and the Congress Party
Having had a very unpleasant experience in Benares, Periyar returned home and continued his business.  Simultaneously, he showed considerable interest in social work, including protesting against social evils.  In order to materialize his interest and plans, Periyar joined the Congress party in 1920.[45]  To his surprise Periyar found out that, in the name of nationalism Congress was upholding the caste system.  Also it was dominated by Brahmins.  While Periyar was with the Congress, three incidents furthered his anti-Brahminic attitude.

14.1.9.1 Vaikom Satya Graha
According to Paulraj, “in those days the people belonging to lower castes called Harijans were not allowed to enter the temples, especially in a village called Vaikom which belonged to Travancore state of South India…”[46]  More than that they were prohibited from walking along the streets around the temple.  Because of this maltreatment, the Depressed classes organized a satyagraha at Vaikom.  Periyar, as the Congress President of Tamil Nadu was also invited.  His participation had a remarkable impact on the Satyagraha and himself.  Finally the Government permitted the Depressed class people to use the streets around the temple.  And in 1936 the untouchables were allowed to enter the temple.  The satyagraha thus paved way for the subsequent Temple Entry act.[47]
About Periyar’s experience at Vaikom, Charles Ryerson writes “it was the Vaikom incident of 1924 that really excited him.”[48]  It is true because here Periyar could feel the gravity of untouchability, at social and religious realms.  Periyar got the impression that, Brahmins would oppose any kind of reform in their customs and practices.  Added to this was Gandhi’s stand, as Gandhi wanted to uphold the caste system, while fighting untouchability.

14.1.9.2 Gurukulam Affair
Gurukulam was a school in the Brahmin village of Kallidaikurichi, Tirnelveli district, supported by the Congress for the training of national heroes.[49]  It was also not free from caste discrimination.  Here, non-Brahmin students were served food separately, and that too only after the Brahmin students had taken their meals.[50]  Rajagopalan states that the non-Brahmin students “… were served food outside the dining hall of the Gurukulam, whereas Brahmin boys were served food neatly inside the hall.”[51]
Periyar got himself involved in the Gurukulam affairs in 1925.[52]  Seeing the dread of caste in the Gurukulam, Periyar as a treasurer in Tamil Nadu Congress stopped the Congress contribution to Gurukulam.  There was a lot of opposition to him in this regard from the party.  But Periyar, as a man for others, did not mind them at all.  At the same time, he was very much affected by the caste tyranny in Gurukulam.[53]

14.1.9.3 Communal Representation
Periyar as a Congress man had the feeling that, he should work for the betterment of non-Brahmins.  He felt communal representation is the right way to do it.  This plan included reservation of seats for the non-Brahmin communities in the legislature and in the services.[54]  Periyar insisted on this plan in all the Congress committee meetings.  But from the beginning it was neglected and finally rejected.  The main reason for the rejection was due to the domination of Brahmins in the Congress. 

14.1.10 Inhuman Treatment by Brahmins
Mangala Murugesan quotes an incident from Kudi Arasu, 12th July, 1931, to show the Brahmin arrogance. According to it, “once when E. V. R. went with Srinivasa Iyengar to a Brahmin’s house for dining, he was supplied food in a separate place and when he went again for lunch to the same place, the leaves used for serving morning tiffin were not even removed and in the same place he was again served meals.  The leaves in which he ate both in the morning and afternoon were there till a night meal was served.[55]
The social, religious, political and economic degradations imposed on the people in the name of gods and religion, through the “structure” called Hinduism, by the Brahmins, led Periyar to his anti-Brahminical attitude.

14.2 Indirect Factors
Apart from the above direct factors or personal experiences, there were some indirect factors, which some authors think, had influenced the thoughts of Periyar.  Although indirect factors had some influence upon Periyar’s political and economic thinking, they did not influence his religious thinking.

14.2.1 Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell
Anita Diehl assumes the influence of Ingersoll an American atheist and Bertrand Russell, on Periyar.  To substantiate her position she quotes that “at an interview Periyar stated: My disciples read Ingersoll to me and I accepted many of his ideas and used them in my propaganda.”[56] Paulraj also is of the opinion that “his religious thinking was influenced by Robert Ingersoll whose writings he translated in to Tamil.”[57]  The reason for the availability of Ingersoll’s writing in Tamil Nadu is clearly brought out by Charles Ryerson that, “this is due to his being popularized by the D. K., although Periyar denied any direct influence.”[58]  Further Ryerson quotes his interview with Periyar that “my disciples read Ingersoll to me, but my ideas are my own.”[59] No doubt, Ingersoll’s idea has some similarities with that of Periyar.  But the fact is that Periyar’s was the result of direct confrontation with the evils of society which were practiced under the banner of religion. 
For the same reason Bertrand Russel’s writings were also published, particularly in the Modern Rationalist.  Even Russel’s thinking was different. He writes “three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearably pity for the suffering of mankind.”[60]  It seems thus to be more philosophical, whereas, Periyar’s program was more realistic and action- oriented.

14.2.2 Christianity
Diehl has suggested that, Periyar was influenced by Christianity.[61]  It is doubtful because he always preferred Buddhism and Islam, although in some places he praises the monotheistic character of Christianity.  Yet he argues that since Islam came later than Christianity it can be more relevant than Christianity.  He, however seems to have  advocated Buddhism because there is no idea of God in it.[62]  Because of its rationalist character, Periyar would have preferred Buddhism.  Still it should not be forgotten that, during his later years, he denounced all religions.

14.2.3 European Tour
In 1931[63] Periyar went on a long European tour.  During his tour he was very much influenced by Russian Communism.  Because, soon after his return from tour, Periyar was very eager to propagate communist ideas in Tamil Nadu.  He also advocated materialism as the means to solve India’s problems. 

14.2.4 Siddhars
Charles Ryerson compares the work of Periyar with that of Siddhars, saying that Siddhars and Periyar were iconoclasts.  Siddhars date mainly from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries.  Theirs was a protest movement against the Brahminic ritualistic religion.  They opposed temple worship, casteism and Brahmin priesthood.  They practiced asceticism and were distrustful of women.[64] 
  Whether Periyar was an atheist is a debatable question. However, Periyar always had a very negative attitude toward religion, particularly towards Brahminic Hinduism.  At the same time, the Siddhars were worshippers of Shiva and were a very religious people.  Therefore, how far Siddhars influenced Periyar is questionable.  All the more Periyar never mentioned them in any of his talks or writings.
Periyar was convinced that, the Hindu religion and Brahmins were the cause of all oppression and bondage.[65]  This anti-Brahminic attitude is very essential in India. This kind of personal experience played a predominant role in the life of Ambedkar also.  It was the same with Mahatma Jotirao Phooley.  Thus it may be said that, Periyar’s personal experiences were the major motivating factors which influenced him to the extent of rationally evaluating Brahminical/Priestly Hinduism.


[1] E. Sa. Visswanathan, The Political career of E. V. Ramasami Naicker (Madras:Ravi & Vasanth
Publishers, 1983), p.17.
[2] JohnKumar, S.J., “A Secular Response:Periyar E. V. Ramasamy Naicker”, Emerging Dalit
Theology, ed. By Xavier Irudayaraj, S.J. (Madras: Jesuit Theological Secretariat, 1990), p.70.
[3] Anita Diehl, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary
South India (New Delhi: B. J. Publications, 54. Janpath, 1978), p.19.
[4] An Admirer, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Pen Portrait, 3rd Revised ed., (Madras: The Periyar Self-
Respect Propaganda Institution, 50. E.V.K. Sampath Salai, 1992), p.1.
[5] M.D. Gopalakrishnan, Periyar Father of Tamil Race, (Madras: Emerald Publishers, 135.
Annasalai, 1991), p.1.
[6] Dr. Rvanindranathan, “The Significant Role of Periyar EVR In the Social Justice Movement”,
The Modern Rationalist, Vol.XVII, No.10, (September 1991), p.22.
[7]M.D. Gopalakrishnan, Periyar Father of Tamil Race, p.1.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Collected Works of Periyar EVR., 2nd revised ed., Vol.1( Madras:The Periyar Self-Respect
Propaganda Institution, “Periyar Thidal”, 50, EVK Sampath Salai), pp, 2-3.  Hence forth this book will be cited as Collected Works, Vol.1.
[10] R. Paulraj, Salvation and Secular Humanists in India (Madras: The Christian Literature Society,
Post Box – 501, Park Town, 1988), p.111.
[11] C.J. Anantha Krishnan, “The early years of Periyar”, The Rationalist, Vol.XVIII, No.9,
(September 1992): p.24.
[12] A. Arivoli, Periyar Sethathum Seiya Thavariyathum, (Sikkal: Anbarasi Veliyeetaham, North
Street Porulvai, 1979), p.13.
[13] Ibid.
[14] E. Sa. Visswanathan, The Political career of E. V. Ramasami Naicker, p.17.
[15] JohnKumar, S.J., “A Secular Response:Periyar E. V. Ramasamy Naicker”, Emerging Dalit
Theology, ed. By Xavier Irudayaraj, S.J., p.71.
[16] E.M. Rajagopalan, My Memories About thanthai Periyar Prior to 1930,(Madras:  “Periyarism”,
G-6, Lloyds Estate, 1985), p.28.
[17] An Admirer, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Pen Portrait, 3rd Revised ed., p.1
[18] Ibid.
[19] E. Sa. Visswanathan, The Political career of E. V. Ramasami Naicker, p.20.
[20] Collected works, Vol. 1, p.5.
[21] A. Arivoli, Periyar Sethathum Seiya Thavariyathum, p.16.
[22] M.D. Gopalakrishnan, Periyar Father of Tamil Race, p. 43.
[23] An Admirer, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Pen Portrait, 3rd Revised ed., p.5.
[24] Ibid.
[25] R. Paulraj, Salvation and Secular Humanists in India, p.91.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Charles Ryerson, Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular Hinuism,
(Madras: The Christian Literature Society, Post Box-501, Park Town, 1988), p.86.
[29] A. Arivoli, Periyar Sethathum Seiya Thavariyathum, p.17.
[30] K.M. Balasubramaniam, Periyar E.V. Ramasami, (Trichy: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda
Institution Publications, 1973), p.17.
[31] E.M. Rajagopalan, My Memories About thanthai Periyar Prior to 1930, p.28.
[32] Sami Chitambaranar, Tamil Talivar Periyar E.V.K. Valkkai Varalaru, 7th ed. , p. 44.
[33] P. Vanangamudi, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s Approach to Modernization, Thesis submitted in
partial fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History, Department of History, Annamalai University, Annamalai Nagar, 1986, p.67.
[34] E.M. Rajagopalan, My Memories About thanthai Periyar Prior to 1930, p.28.
[35] Sami Chitambaranar, Tamil Talivar Periyar E.V.K. Valkkai Varalaru, 7th ed. ,p.45.
[36] Charles Ryerson, Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular
Hinuism,p.45.
[37]E.M. Rajagopalan, My Memories About thanthai Periyar Prior to 1930, p.28.
[38] Charles Ryerson, Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular
                Hinuism,p.86.
[39] E.M. Rajagopalan, My Memories About thanthai Periyar Prior to 1930, p.28.
[40] Sami Chitambaranar, Tamil Talivar Periyar E.V.K. Valkkai Varalaru, 7th ed. ,p.46.
[41] Anita Diehl, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary
                South India, p.8.
[42] K. Nambi Aroonan, Tamil Renaissance and Dravidian Nationalism 1905 – 1944, (Madurai:
Koodal Publishers, 1980), p. 153.
[43] R. Paulraj, Salvation and Secular Humanists in India, p.91.
[44] E. Sa. Visswanathan, The Political career of E. V. Ramasami Naicker,p.7
[45] M.D. Gopalakrishnan, Periyar Father of Tamil Race,  p.7.
[46] R. Paulraj, Salvation and Secular Humanists in India, p.112.
[47] Anita Diehl, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary
                South India, p.12.
[48] Charles Ryerson, Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular
                Hinuism, p. 95.
[49] Anita Diehl, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary
                South India, p.14.
[50] Choudhary Brahm Perkash, ‘Periyar’s Relevance Today’, The Modern Rationalist, Vol. XVII,
No.10 (September 1991), p. 4.
[51] E.M. Rajagopalan, My Memories About thanthai Periyar Prior to 1930, p.30.
[52]Charles Ryerson, Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular
                Hinuism,, p.87.
[53] M.K. Mangala Murugesan, Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu 1920 – 1940, (Madurai:
Koodal Publishers, 121. West Masi Street, p.38. (year of publication is not given.)
[54] An Admirer, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Pen Portrait, 3rd Revised ed., p.30.
[55] M.K. Mangala Murugesan, Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu 1920 – 1940, p.53.
[56] Anita Diehl, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary
                South India, p.76.
[57] R. Paulraj, Salvation and Secular Humanists in India, pp.92-93.
[58] Charles Ryerson, Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular
                Hinuism,, p. 92.
[59] Ibid.
[60] Bertrand Russel, ‘What I have Lived for’, The Modern Rationalist, Vol. XVIII, No.1, (January
1992), p.4.
[61] Anita Diehl, Periyar E. V. Ramasami: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary
                South India, p.80.
[62] Charles Ryerson, Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular
                Hinuism,, p.71.
[63] Ibid., p.87.
[64] Ibid., pp.39-42.
[65] JohnKumar, S.J., “A Secular Response:Periyar E. V. Ramasamy Naicker”, Emerging Dalit
                Theology, ed. By Xavier Irudayaraj, S.J., p.71.

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