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Periyar

David Kent
The founder of the Christian church defined a Christian as an idiot (II Corinthians 12:11). I cannot argue with this. If you mention atheism to a Christian in this country, his response will likely be essentially this: "The majority in this country are idiots, my parents were idiots their entire lives, and what was good enough for my parents is good enough for me." If you press the point, the Christian, or idiot, will try to draw you into an argument over the existence of his god, assuming naturally enough that this is the point of your atheism. Too often an atheist will fall into this idiot game.

Such theological quibbles are seen for what they are by other cultures. Atheism is a world-view, with profound implications. To explain what this means, let me show how one real atheist spent his life. Thantai Periyar E. V. Ramasami was born in the Indian state of Tamilnadu in 1879. He noticed as a young man how the inequitable caste system had permeated the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religions. The lowest, or Dalit, caste had remained "untouchable" since the Persian conquest of Gandhara more than twenty-five centuries before. Members of this caste were denied education, participation in social and governmental activity, and contact with other castes, except when their services as scavengers, hide-flayers and cattle butchers were required. From questioning, Periyar moved to rebellion from the 1920s onwards. He once attempted to take a number of Dalit people to a temple at Vaikom in Kerala, where they were not even allowed to enter the streets near the temple. This agitation was put down with a brutal hand by the Travancore police and Periyar was imprisoned. While in prison, he realized the futility of trying to reform the Hindu religion, or any religion for that matter, and decided that atheism, rationalism and free thinking were the only way forward. This meant, quite clearly, that religion would have to be consigned to the dustbin of history and that mankind would have to start afresh in a world where all men were really born equal, and lived in a genuine equality of opportunity. The rest of Periyar's life would be spent campaigning against Hinduism and attempting to reduce the privileges the Brahminical castes had given themselves.

With this in mind, he set up the Dravidar Kazhagam, the world's largest atheist organization, as a mass movement to propagate decency, to pioneer legislative changes to benefit all casteless Hindus and to provide decent education to a people who had been denied the very right to study for centuries, so that they could work to achieve all that had been denied to their ancestors. Such a simple act as Periyar's beating of an idol of Ganesa with slippers in the 1940s caused as much controversy as Diderot's call in 18th century France, "Now let us strangle the last king with the intestines of the last priest."

The implementation of his ideals soon involved him in politics. Two months after the Indian Constitution took effect on 26 January 1950, the 1947 general order prescribing reservations (affirmative action) in the Madras presidency was challenged by Brahmins and struck down by a full bench of the Madras High Court. Periyar organized a full-scale agitation against this judgment. The state government appealed to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was struck down. Faced with this massive judicial assault on the frail foundations of social justice, Periyar organized a boycott of all Union Ministers. As a result, in 1951 then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Home Minister S. V. Patel, and Law Minister P. B. R. Ambedkar brought about the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution to safeguard the rights of discriminated caste Indians, of whom there were millions.

His focus then moved from caste to gender. Periyar noticed that the Manusmriti and other Hindu scriptures ranked woman below all castes and even below animals. Her father owned her after birth, her husband after marriage, and her sons after widowhood--if she was not burned alive by then. He advocated the unthinkable: widow remarriage, education for women, even abortion and sterilization as a means of birth control. So far-reaching were his ideas that he suggested unisex dressing, common names for men and women, enlistment of women in the armed forces, even a dismantling of the institution of marriage, which put considerably more pressure on women than on men. The Dravidar Kazhagam has put its considerable weight behind working for women's empowerment. It has, besides the first women's engineering college in the world at Vallam, a polytechnic for women at Thanjavur, a teachers' training college and a college of pharmacy at Tiruchirapalli, and an advanced computer center at Madras, accessed by the education departments of several universities. Also at Madras, but not exclusively for women, is a superb free coaching center for civil service aspirants.

Part of the same family of institutions is "POWER", which provides assistance to housewives' industries to supplement their incomes, provides professional counseling to women having difficulties in their family lives, and helps divorced women to become fully self-supporting.

Since the lower castes were forced to pay for all sorts of rituals from birth to death (and beyond), Periyar devised a very simple, priestless marriage ceremony called the "self-respect marriage". This involves a simple pledge made by the bride and groom followed by an exchange of garlands before their families. Instead of a vast banquet, the guests raise a collection of money that is given the couple to help them establish themselves in life. Such simple, practical approaches were characteristic of Periyar. His view of rationalism was that it should extend to every facet of life, instead of being a mere tool for academic research.

In the 26 years since Periyar passed away in 1973, the foundations he laid have become immensely strong, and the Dravidar Kazhagam continues to grow. But as one of his biographers, Mehul Kamdar, notes: "In Tamilnadu, Periyar's home state, a government school master gouged out the eye of a 5 year old Dalit girl for drinking water out of a glass kept for privileged caste students. We have politicians who would much rather bathe in the blood of black goats or get kicked in their heads than do any positive work to get re-elected. Anyone who has seen the film 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' would have his blood boil at the depiction of Indians as savages. But are we doing anything to change the world's opinion of us? Periyar spent a life half anguished over the rituals that have come to occupy the bulk of our lives to the detriment of working for any advancement."

Periyar saw far beyond the constraints of religion and gave substance to atheism throughout his life. He is an outstanding exemplar of atheism.

A few thoughts from his writings: "He who believes in god is a fool, he who worships god is a barbarian, he who propagates god is a scoundrel!... Analyzing everything with courage and intelligence according to the occasion and need, rejecting what should be rejected, contributing what should be contributed, to reform without fearing change: these are the prime duties of rationalists.... Stating that ours is a land of enlightenment, we build tanks and temples; in other lands, men fly in space and amaze the whole world."

B. Premanand, editor of Indian Skeptic and convener of CSICOP in India, has kindly permitted me to utilize material first appearing in Indian Skeptic.

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