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Mainstream, VOL LX No 33, 34 New Delhi, August 6, August 13, 2022 [Independence Day Special]

Periyar’s Revolutionary Critique of Religion | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 13 August 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy



Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism
by Karthick Ram Manoharan

Orient BlackSwan
March 2022
Pages: 133; Price: Rs 225
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9354421679
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9354421679

Believe it or not, it was Periyar’s pilgrimage to one of the holiest places of Hinduism that converted him into the religion’s inveterate enemy. Another irony is that though Periyar is revered in Tamil Nadu, the appeal of gods and religion remains firmly entrenched in the state.

E.V. Ramasamy had at one time decided to try the life of a wandering mendicant. Accordingly, he travelled to Varanasi. There he faced brazen caste discrimination. He was denied lodging while Brahmin mendicants got shelter. He also saw corrupt practices of the priests. Periyar lost what little respect he might have had for religion.

Thus was born a unique revolutionary who did what few (if at all any) would have dared to do: he challenged the might of divinity. And he did this with a passion that shook the Tamil society and beyond. This gripping book is not a biography of Periyar or a positivist account of his political activities but rather a theoretical engagement with his ideas of religion. It is about the politics or political atheism in Periyar’s life.

Periyar was undoubtedly one of the most controversial figures of modern Tamil Nadu. He has been varyingly described as a rationalist, a key figure in the Self-Respect Movement, an anti-caste campaigner, a champion of the social and political rights of the subaltern castes, a proto-feminist and a fighter for greater autonomy for Tamil Nadu. His critics on the Right dubbed him anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindu and, by virtue of these, anti-Indian.

Even before he was properly politicized, Periyar led a non-conformist’s life. He would deliberately flout Hindu rituals, eat non-vegetarian food on auspicious days, and associate with boys from different castes. He even compelled his wife to remove her thali or mangalsutra. But was god the only culprit Periyar was after? What made him different and, perhaps, unique?

Periyar challenged the Brahmin as a symbol of a hierarchical social order and the cornerstone of social inequalities in India. He felt that the creation of an egalitarian society was impossible without the progressive disempowerment of brahminism; this amounted to a radical critique of Hindu religion.

What made Periyar more popular was both the message and the medium. His political influence was more than that of other social reformers who were his contemporaries or predecessors. From once supporting Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns for liquor prohibition, he later called for a prohibition of Gandhism itself. He burnt Hindu religious texts and broke idols of deities while campaigning for the rights of all castes to access temples. His discourse remained consistently anti-brahminical. He believed that Hinduism was incapable of self-reform and that only its removal could once and for all eradicate casteism. In other words, Periyar was not concerned with reforming Hindu religion. He did not think that there was any way for a Hindu to be casteless.

Periyar was not a liberal atheist who restricted his criticisms to religion alone. His was a political atheism that expressed disbelief in both god and the state, and attacked both religious and political forms of oppression. He saw freedom from God to be a fundamental step towards freedom from the state of oppression, freedom towards a rational society. The author argues that Periyar’s critique of religion was close to Anarchism than Marxism.

Whatever may have been his popularity, there was no general acceptance of Periyar’s thoughts. The majority of the public in Tamil Nadu were and are religious and many were undoubtedly shocked by Periyar’s words and actions. Not just Brahmins, even people from non-Brahmin castes took Periyar to court for offending religious sentiments. There were other issues too on which even Tamil nationalists differed from Periyar.

Periyar’s statements in favour of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his assumption that Islam was a force against caste seem imprecise. But the author points out that while Periyar gave extensive support to Buddhism, his support to Islam was qualified. He was averse to any form of Islamic state. The book says that Periyar’s strategic support for Islam was to counter brahminical political ideology, and not an unconditional endorsement for any form of Islamic political theology.

Despite Periyar’s limited global reach in his time, Periyarism has much to offer in universal conversation on secularism and social justice today, the author argues. His political atheism can inspire and inform an egalitarian thought for our times, a universal dialogue based on critically examining all forms of political theology, driven by a concern for social justice and equality. Periyar and Periyarism continue to provoke active debate in contemporary Tamil intellectual world, and the ascendency of Hindutva politics in India has ignited a greater interest in his thoughts.

While the DMK has not embraced a hardline view on religion that Periyar or the Drvadia Kazhagam took, Periyarism strengthened a public sphere where a person could be religious in private and secular in politics. This was furthered by the Dravidian parties that have been in power in Tamil Nadu since 1967. “A ‘composite Tamil identity’, which includes people of all faiths and no-faith, upheld by Dravidian politics, has to a great extent halted the growth of communalist politics in the state.”

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