Karthick Ram Manoharan’s Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism analyses the rationalist anti-caste leader Periyar E V Ramasamy’s emancipatory, irreverent and revolutionary critique of religion using the idea of ‘political atheism’. Drawing extensively from Periyar’s own writings, contemporary accounts of Dravidian politics and the theory of Anarchism, this groundbreaking study provides a new perspective on Periyar’s engagements with religion, caste and their collaborations with the state. Periyar is not just a new appraisal of ‘Periyarism’ but a reminder of its continuing significance in global conversations on justice, equality and liberty.
The following is an excerpt from the book.
THE NOBLE ASURA
Periyar mercilessly lampooned Hindu scriptures and myths in his speeches and articles. The newspapers he edited, most notably Kudiarasu and Viduthalai, routinely carried satires and caricatures about Hindu gods. The Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and their avatars, other smaller but popular gods like Indra, Ganesha and Karthikeya, all found themselves to be objects of critical ridicule. Besides seeking to show that the stories of these gods were fanciful and irrational, Periyar and his followers sought to portray them as upholders of a brahminical caste order. Of all major Hindu texts, three were given special attention by Periyar – the Manu Smriti, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita – since ‘all three texts attempted to transcend sectarian affiliations among Hindus and present a unified Hinduism’ (Pandian 198). It is worthy to note here that Gandhi had placed the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita at the core of his Indian national(ist) imagination, while other more conservative Hindu leaders saw the Manu Smriti and its rigid social codes as a guide book for an ideal social order. Ambedkar launched a rigorous and critical attack on these texts, especially the Manu Smriti and the Bhagavad Gita, and his work greatly complemented Periyar’s critique of Hinduism. Among other things, Ambedkar shared with Periyar an oppositional critique of the Hindu epics. To Ambedkar, Rama was not an ideal ruler: he criticises Rama’s killing of Vaali to help Sugriva, and the killing of Shambuka, a sudra engaged in ascetic exercises, to placate a brahmin (Riddles in Hinduism 215–32). The Vaali and Shambuka incidents are often referred to by Periyar to accuse Rama of being an unjust king. Likewise, several subaltern writers and poets have used Shambuka’s story to challenge brahminical narratives.
Periyar gained considerable notoriety for his radical re-reading of the Ramayana and his inversion of the narrative to posit the asura, Ravana, as a ‘lower-caste’ hero. That there were several other diverse, non-canonical, and even transgressive readings of the Ramayana, is recorded by scholars like A. K. Ramanujan, Paula Richman and Sheldon Pollock. As far as twentieth-century Tamil Nadu is concerned, as Richman notes, ‘the proponents of a separate Tamil state identified with Ravana’ and Periyar read Ravana in this political context, ‘as a paragon of South Indian virtue’ (‘Introduction: The Diversity of the Ramayana Tradition’ 14–15). My reading of Periyar and the Ramayana owes a lot to Richman’s excellent research on Periyar’s approach to the Ramayana in her ‘E. V. Ramasami’s Reading of the Ramayana’ and ‘Epic and State’. Richman notes that in his criticism of brahmin supremacy, Periyar was not unique and had precedents in South India, such as the Lingayats and the Tamil Siddhars. Likewise, there was also a rich tradition of contesting interpretations of the Ramayana, some of which have been mentioned earlier. What made Periyar novel, according to Richman, was his innovative methods of getting his message across: ‘A truly modern social critic, he publishes with a careful eye to public reception and dramatizes his interpretations through public performances’ (Richman, ‘E. V. Ramasami’s Reading of the Ramayana’ 188).
Ramraj, literally ‘the Rule of Rama’, was seen by prominent Indian–Hindu leaders as an ideal state ‘characterised by perfect justice, order, and stability’ (Richman, ‘Epic and State’ 633). Ramraj has been invoked by literal and metaphorical readings of the Ramayana, and has been used by Hindu liberals and conservatives alike as a past utopia that serves as a model for a future nation-state ideal. Naipaul argues that ‘even the Marxists’ vision of the future is not of a country undone and remade but of an India essentially returned to itself, purified: a vision of Ramraj’ (148). C. Rajagopalachari, popularly known as Rajaji, a prominent Congress leader from Tamil Nadu, ‘thought that the newly independent Republic of India should strive to recreate Ramraj, a vision of society he admired deeply’ (Richman, ‘Epic and State’ 633). Rajaji, a contemporary of Periyar, also published popular retellings of the Ramayana, in both Tamil and English, which continue to be read widely. In Tamil Nadu’s politics, especially with regards to religion, Rajaji and Periyar were seen to be in opposite camps (though they were good friends in personal life). The Times of India called their long-standing disagreement ‘a battle for religion’, with Periyar representing ‘iconoclasts relentlessly preaching godlessness’ and Rajagopalachari representing ‘god fearing people urging with great zeal the need for piety and faith’ (29 September 1954). In September 1954, Periyar said in a speech that his relentless attacks on the Ramayana was winning over brahmins as well, and thus, Rajagopalachari was on the defensive (Periyar kalanjiyam 36 187–88). The strong differences between Periyar and Rajaji on the Ramayana lasted as long as their friendship.
Periyar vocally challenged the projection of Ramraj as an ideal state. To Periyar, Ramraj was symbolic of the supremacy of brahminism over the interests of the lower castes, of North Indian Aryans over the South Indian Dravidians, of patriarchy over women’s liberation, and of hierarchy over equality. ‘Isn’t Ramraj a rule of varnashrama? Can anyone say that people would have equal liberties in Ramraj?’, Periyar questioned, alleging that Ramraj involved enforcing caste differences and violence against women (Periyar kalanjiyam 3 225– 26). Paula Richman argues that to Periyar, ‘Ramraj was a pernicious brahminic fiction designed to keep nonbrahmins from challenging the status quo’ (‘Epic and State’ 633). Challenging liberal and conservative Hindu leaders alike, Periyar read the Ramayana ‘as a fictionalized account of the historical Aryan attack upon and subjugation of Dravidians’ and ‘he sought to demythologize and discredit the epic’ (634). Venkatachalapathy complements this reading and argues that Periyar’s core argument was that ‘Ramayana was a text that narrated the defeat by deceit and stealth of the Dravidians by Aryans’ (‘Periyar E. V. Ramasamy’, Web, n. p.).
Why did Periyar engage with the Ramayana and its concepts in such depth, if he did not believe in it? Periyar argued that the Ramayana, both Valmiki’s Sanskrit version and Kamban’s Tamil version, continued to have a corrosive moral and social influence among the Tamils of his time, and hence, it was the task of the rationalists to expose the true nature of these texts (Periyar, Valmiki Ramayana sambashanai iv–v). To Periyar, ‘this examination of the Ramayana is no mere intellectual exercise; on the contrary, he has taken on the absolutely crucial task of liberating Tamilians from their feelings of cultural and racial inferiority’ (Richman, ‘E. V. Ramasami’s Reading of the Ramayana’ 182). In Periyar’s view, Ramraj represented a Hindu dystopia that benefitted the few at the expense of the many.