E.V. Ramaswami ‘Periyar’
(Relevance: General Studies Paper 1)
Born: 17-9-1879, at Erode,
to a moderately successful father.
He was a Kannada speaking Naiker.
His caste lay in the upper stratum of Shudras.
Struggled against the hegemony of Brahmins and religion.
Stint in the Congress
- He became active in the Congress party around 1920.
- Adopted the Gandhian credo of constructive work which involved promoting homespun cloth, temple entry for untouchables etc.
- In 1925, on experiencing discriminatory treatment of Non-Brahmin students in the Congress hostels and finding out the overwhelmingly Brahmin leadership of the party was not sensitive enough to the concerns of the claims of lower castes, he left Congress.
- After leaving Congress, Ramaswami turned to promoting what he called ‘Self-Respect Movement’.
- The three main ideologies that were propagated through this movement were the breaking down of the Brahminic hegemony, equal rights for the backward classes and women in the society and revitalization of the Dravidian languages.
- The movement wanted the liberation of the society from baneful social practices performed in the name of caste and religion which led to a vicious cycle of discrimination such as the practice of caste-based occupation and untouchability.
- One of the most critical and significant sociological change that occurred through the Self-Respect Movement was the enforcement of self-respect marriages in which a marriage could be officiated without a Brahmin priest.
- The movement encouraged inter-caste and inter-religious marriages and stood for widows remarrying as well.
- The movement had a deep-rooted sense of feminist values. It stood for abolishing gender hierarchy and gender roles.
- One of the primary aims of the movement was to eradicate the devadasi system.
- He believed that ancient history and current politics has consolidated the dominance of North India over South India and Brahmins over Non-Brahmins.
- The oppressed caste and regions needed to regain their self-respect and control over their own affairs.
- He took radical stands in favour of atheism, women’s rights and contraception. He criticized Hindu epics and viewed them as channels of promoting brahmin superiority and distinctions of caste and gender.
- He ran a militant campaign against imposition of Hindi in south India.
- He gave many brilliant speeches and wrote articles in widely read magazines to promote his ideas.
- In 1930s, he came to be known as ‘Periyar’ or ‘the great one’.
- In 1944, he formed the Dravida Kazgham party with the aim of establishing a separate sovereign state in south India called Dravida Nadu.
- In 1949, a group of his followers broke away and formed Dravida Munnetra Kazhgham (DMK).
‘Periyar’ thoughts on Religion
‘God does not exist at all.
The inventor of God is a fool.
The propagator of God is a Scoundrel. The worshipper of God is a barbarian’
– Inscription on Ramaswami’s statue in Tiruchirapalli
Periyar made the following points in his essays and speeches:
- Religion is a construct designed by the priestly class to weaken our unity, expropriate our hard-earned wealth, ruin our society and country, make us people without self-respect.
- He questioned the purpose of religion for a society, a country and an individual. Is it meant for disciplining and uniting a country or dividing it? Is religion for the sake of man or man for the sake of religion? He asked his audience to not trust him blindly like religion tells them to trust shastras and brahmins, but to use their reason and logic to analyse what he is preaching.
- He questioned the authority of Hindu texts, religious doctrines etc.
- He questioned the belief that the Vedas were spoken by God. He argued, if they were spoken by God then why were they revealed to some and not to others, and why were they revealed in Sanskrit language alone and not in Tamil etc. He questioned the binding authority of Vedas.
- He questioned the caste and gender discrimination sanctioned by religion (temple entry etc.).
- He argued against superstition sanctioned by religion.
- He blamed religion for dividing the country and delaying the attainment of freedom.
- He said other religions like Christianity and Islam propagate their religion by spending money on education and welfare of the socially depressed people in order to attract them to their fold. This activity, atleast make the people literate. On the other hand, huge amounts are spent in Hindu temples on ritual, superstitions and on priestly class but not on social welfare of the depresses human beings.
- He took pride in calling himself an abuser of religion and promoter of reason.
‘Periyar’ views on Women Rights
On the Rights of Widows
- He contrasted the privileges enjoyed by men- a man can marry even at the age of 90 and can have more than one wife- with the widow women, who are compelled to close their eyes to everything in the world and die broken-hearted. He called it a great injustice.
- He believed that the Hindu society needs more women centric reforms. Just like practice of Sati has been stopped completely, widows, especially young widows should also be allowed to get married, unless they want otherwise. It is unjust to take away their choice.
- He practiced what he preached. Despite coming from a very conservative family and facing numerous difficulties he made young his niece a young widow is re-married.
- He asked the parents of young widows to not treat them like untouchables.
- He believed that the permanent low position given to the widows will prove to be the reason of utter ruin of the Hindu society.
- He called out the so-called women rights activists for their hypocrisy that they talked of equality of women and rights of women but keep their women in a purdah and keep the widows in their families unmarried.
- He believed that to give equality to women i.e. one -half of the women race, male arrogance and wickedness had to be abolished first.
The case for contraception
- Ramaswami supported contraception as a means of enhancing the rights and freedoms of women, as opposed to Gandhi, who advocated celibacy as a means of birth control.
- Conception stands in the way of women becoming head of religious institutions.
- Conception of children also takes away freedom of a man as in many cases he forgoes his personal freedom and self-respect to feed his family.
- It also makes women physically weaker and reduces their life expectancy.
- Therefore, he insisted the use of contraception, in order for women to lead healthier lives and gain freedom.
The constraints of marriage
- Periyar believed marriage is nothing but a device to enslave women under the garb of a divine function.
- Periyar said that intelligent people in other countries have started relaxing marriage norms, as they have realized that if this enslavement of women continues, marriage rites and connected relationships will lose meaning. Unfortunately, our society is too obstinate to provide any kind of relaxation.
- He advocated for the right to divorce for both men and women.