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'Periyar was against Brahminism, not Brahmins'

Gnana Rajasekharan
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April 30, 2007

Gnana Rajasekharan is an IAS officer currently working as the director of Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development.

He is also the director of the feature film Periyar -- aka E V Ramaswamy Naicker, the social reformer and rationalist from Tamil Nadu.

Gnana Rajasekharan's first feature film Moha Mullu won him the Indira Gandhi National award for Best First Film. His second film was a short one; Oru Kan Oru Parvai. It was based on an incident of a Dalit girl being beaten up and blinded when she drank water from the glass kept reserved for higher castes. This film was shown at the Indian Panorama in 1998.

In 2000, he made Bharati, a film on the Tamil nationalist poet Subramaniya Bharati.

In this interview to Shobha Warrier in Chennai, Rajasekharan explains Periyar's relevance today.

Periyar has been described as an atheist, anti-Hindu, rationalist, and of course a social reformer too. After doing extensive research on him and making a film on him, what do you say is Periyar's relevance today?

The main reason why I decided to make a film on Periyar is because I feel he was and is misunderstood. The descriptions you gave -- atheist, anti-Hindu, etc show how misunderstood he is. Unfortunately only this image has stuck.

I am not saying he was not an atheist; he was. He was also against religious superstitions, caste, etc. One of the objectives of my films is to show the other facets of Periyar; in fact, he was a multi-faceted personality.

He lived till he was 95, and the history of Tamil Nadu moves with him. I feel his philosophy and social reforms are more relevant today than earlier.

His number one enemy was caste and today, we see only caste politics in Tamil Nadu.

The greatness of Periyar was in his humanism. He studied only up to the 4th standard but he was an original thinker and that is why we are talking about Periyar today. He was not an ordinary politician. How many politicians of his time are remembered today? He is remembered even today because he is relevant even today.

You said he was an original thinker. Can you elaborate on his original ideas?

His ideas about women, caste and communism were very original. His ideas on women were far ahead of today's feminists. He said the subordination of women was because they gave birth to babies. He said unlike the man, from the moment the baby started growing inside a woman, her thought process changed. According to him, man and woman become unequal from that point onwards. He spoke about equality even in those days but in a different way.

He also had a strong opinion on thali (mangalsutra).

He said thali should not be worn by a woman at all.

It is said he was not exposed to Western writings. What could have triggered off such opinion on everything when he had everything going right for him in life?

My film tries to find answers to questions like that. My reverence for him is because of that. He never suffered in life. Still he became a reformer, an original one at that. That is why we call him Periyar.

He was a Naikar, a royal caste and came from a very rich family in Erode. His father was a merchant. They owned around two-thirds or three-fourths of the area. But he studied only up to the 4th standard. When he was young, he was a debonair person. He had a happy married life too. So, he had no compulsion to be a reformer. But if you look at history, you will see that most of the reformers suffered.

I have read that when he was in Kashi, he was not given food because he was not a Brahmin, and that was the reason why he turned against the caste system. Is it true?

Yes, this incident happened in his life but I will not say that was the only reason why he turned against the caste system.

His life itself is quite interesting. He was a jolly good fellow who used to visit dance bars. Then he became a successful businessman. That way, he understood the government and how it functioned. At one time, he was holding 29 decorative posts in the government. So, his personal experiences, the decorative posts and his closeness to the bureaucracy helped him understand the system completely. Later on, he declared that he would not accept any government posts. That was why when he was offered the chief minister's post, he declined.

He himself said he had three lives; first, it was that of a happy go lucky young man, then as a businessman and finally as a public person.

Can we call it renunciation of power and money?

No, he did not renounce anything. He was a practical man. He told people all the time that they should save money. You will also see that all his followers are successful businessmen. I don't think you will see a person like Periyar in India. He was not only different, he was mystical also.

Was it because he was so intelligent that he could have original ideas about so many issues?

It was not because of intelligence but because of humanism that he became Periyar. The dominant factor in his life was human values. But somehow, he was misunderstood. There is a proverb in Tamil, if you want to kill a dog, you give it a bad name and then kill it. Names like atheist, anti-Hindu, anti-God, etc are used against him to ignore him. But you should know why he is anti-God.

Why is he anti-God? He said, 'There is no God. He who created God is a fool and he who spreads his message is a scoundrel'. On the other hand his family, especially his mother, was very religious.

Periyar became anti-God because he felt God was against man. He felt the single factor that was against man in India was caste, and caste came as a part of the religious system. So, he denounced religion. He said I am against caste, and whoever proposes caste. God comes with religion, so, he was against God also.

So, it was basically the human element that made him an atheist and anti-God. But he was as well read on religious texts as any other religious head. In his case, he picked up the loopholes in the texts.

So many big leaders were atheists and agnostic. Nehru was an atheist. He was not bothered about God. Kamaraj also was agnostic. He felt Hindu religion was against equality.

So, he was basically against Hinduism?

I would say he was against any religion that is anti-human.

But was he not anti-Brahmin?

He was against Brahminism.

Was he against Brahminism because of their supremacy in Hinduism?

The Brahmin community claimed to have a hold on all the sastras and texts. Because they created such a divide, he was against it. He was against dividing humanity in the name of caste. According to him, that is the biggest crime in the world. He was not against anything blindly; he had logical reasons to everything.

He also differentiated between Brahmin and Brahminism. He had an excellent relationship with Rajaji who was a Brahmin but he was vehemently against Brahminism.

According to him, reciting of the mantras is a mercantile activity. That was why he fought to make non-Brahmins and harijans poojaris (priests). He wanted priests from all communities and said it should not be the monopoly of one community alone. If he was anti-God and anti-temple, why should he fight for this? He wanted social justice. According to him, God should be equal to everyone.

No other leader in any part of India fought for social justice like Periyar did, not even in Kerala. That is why only in Tamil Nadu, you had a non-Brahmin movement.

But didn't that one particular community in Tamil Nadu become victims of the movement?

His question was, why should 97 per cent of the people be under 3 per cent? The condition in 1925 was, out of the 23 gazetted officers from Tamil Nadu, 22 were Brahmins. Out of the 7,680 doctors and advocates, 5,452 were Brahmins. So, his question was, why should 3 per cent occupy more than 80 per cent of the posts? What was the social life of the 97 per cent?

If there is social justice in Tamil Nadu today, it is all because of Periyar and his movement. No other state can talk of such social justice. Because of him only the first constitutional amendment on reservation came.

Reservation is based on caste, and he was against caste. Why did he then support caste-based reservations?

Yes, he fought for caste-based reservations. He felt unless social equality is achieved, you can't have reservation based on economics status. His main aim was to bring about social justice where Brahmins and Dalits had equal status socially. I would say he changed the value system of Tamil Nadu. The questions he raised against caste are still relevant.

In 1928, he started a movement called self-respect movement. If you read it, you will see he had such a great vision.

At the entrance to the conference, it was written, widows and those who are branded as prostitutes are welcome. He always respected women.

When he married his second wife, a young woman, there was a lot of opposition..

Yes, it is a fact. According to him, it was a different kind of relationship and he won the battle. Many went out of the party because he married this woman but the party survived. Periyar openly said that he was not marrying her for sex. They had a platonic relationship.

She was from Vellore and was fascinated by his ideas. Her father also was a follower of Periyar. One day, she went to Periyar and declared that she would be with him. He tried to throw her out but couldn't. She was with him like an attendant. Even his enemies say that without Maniammai, he would not have lived that long.

He was quite frank when talking about even his parents. After his mother died in her nineties, he wrote, 'She should not have lived that long. Because of the backwardness of her ideas, she was not a fit person to live long'. Can you think of anyone talking like that about his own mother?

You mean he could detach himself from even his own mother and analyse her objectively?

I feel these are the things we should be highlighting about Periyar and not the tags, anti-God, anti-Brahmin, etc. Those are just peripheral things. These descriptions are highlighted because people who are affected and people who are very eloquent are at the top, and they are all Brahmins.

Even today?

Even today, to a very great extent. I am not blaming them but that is the fact of life. When he was branded as anti-God, women would despise him as they didn't like anyone who was against God. So, you could alienate and antagonise 50 per cent of the population.

Although Rajaji persuaded him to continue to be in the Congress party, he refused. Was it because the Congress was a party of Brahmins?

Yes. He wanted the Congress to accept social justice. That was why he came out of the Congress. It is very important to note that what he said in the 1920s has become very ordinary today.

He joined the Congress because of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi only. He had this very famous big argument with Gandhi and Periyar said, 'Gandhi lived in a fool's paradise and believed that men are all good'. According to Periyar, men are not good. He looked at everything from a practical point of view.

When Gandhi accepted that there were problems in our religion, he cautioned Gandhi that if he tried to change his religion, he would be killed one day. He said that in 1928. That was the kind of vision he had.

He made a visit to Russia. Did communism play an important role in his public life?

Joseph Stalin was ruling Russia when he visited it. Periyar was influenced by communism and it lead to a very important phase in the history of Tamil Nadu. It is said that if he had continued his support to the Communist Party, the history of Tamil Nadu would have been different.

You mean Tamil Nadu would have been another Kerala or West Bengal?

Yes. He moved away from the political aspect of communism and concentrated only on the social aspect of communism. He said as far as the economic policy was concerned, he was with communism.

Are you a follower of Periyar?

No, I am not a follower of Periyar. But I am a very great admirer of Periyar. You cannot make a film on him without admiring him.

I may not be following his ideas in toto but I value his contributions to society and original thinking.

Now let me go back to your first question where you gave so many descriptions to Periyar. I am making this film because he was misinterpreted. I feel the greatness of Periyar will not be gauged by such interpretations. 

Photo: Sreeram Selvaraj

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