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Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  > Tamilnation Library > History > E. V. Ramaswami Naicker-Periyar : a study of the influence of a personality in contemporary South India,Anita Diehel > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography

TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: History & Geography

[see also One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century - Periyar E.V.Ramaswamy - "நான் மனிதனே!  நான் சாதாரணமானவன், என் மனத்தில் பட்டதை எடுத்துச் சொல்லி யிருக்கிறேன். இதுதான் உறுதி.  இதை நீங்கள் நம்பித்தான் ஆகவேண்டும் என்று சொல்லவில்லை. ஏற்கக்கூடிய கருத்துக்களை உங்கள் அறிவைக் கொண்டு நன்கு ஆய்ந்து ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளுங்கள், மற்றதைத் தள்ளிவிடுங்கள்.

"I am a human. I am an ordinary human. I have said that which has touched my 'mind and heart' (manam). This is my creed. I do not say that you must necessarily believe that which I have said.  Accept only that which you find acceptable after you have used your reason to examine well what I have said. Reject the rest. "]

From the Introduction

The Subject Matter

When in 1967 a young, fairly unknown university student defeated the popular Congress leader K.K. Kamaraj in the local municipality election at Virudhunagar in Tamil Nadu, the way was paved for the victory of The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, D.M.K. over Congress Old in the state election, or rather it prevented Congress Old from winning.1This meant a decisive change in the political development in Tamil Nadu with possible consequences for the cultural and political history of India at large. This was the outcome of and the political result of the Dravidian Movement which forms a complexity of events, trends and manifestations of Tamil nationalism and anti Brahminism that had long been stirring in Tamil Nadu.

The D.M.K. presented itself as a socialist party of the masses. It had branched off the Dravida Kazhagam, D.K., both of them appearing as manifestations of the Dravidian Movement at large. Like D.K. the D.M.K. emphasised the great role of the Tamilians and their cultural heritage. Focusing the greatness of the Dravidians-Tamilians had to be at the expense of and in opposition to the North Indian influence in South India, mainly manifested by the Brahmin group. The language issue with anti-Hindi campaigns played its part here.

The anti-Brahmin issue is fundamental. The South Indian Brahmins were traditionally considered to be dominant, more so than in North India where the influence of Islam under the Moghul emperors had created a somewhat different situation.

The influence of and the integration of Brahmins in the South is incontestable in matters of religion, social life, politics and culture, the extent of which is the subject of much research and study. Thus Tamil culture is an amalgamation of original Dravidian elements and Aryan influence.2

The rigid caste system, strongly maintained in South India, formed the basis of the domination of the Brahmins as a socio-ethnical group. The Dravidian Movement played on the growing social discontent of the emerging middle class with the domination of the Brahmins which in modern times has become more difficult to accept. In opposition to the Brahmin influence Dravidian culture and heritage is brought into focus against North Indian domination exercised largely through the Brahmins. Manifestations of the Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu may be briefly outlined:

Political: The D.M.K. originated from the D.K. part of the Dravidian Movement strongly emphasising anti-Brahminism in its programme.

Social: The D.M.K. Government of Sudras, non-Brahmins, is an example of specific class mobility and of the set-back to Brahmin influence with the social uplift of other groups to higher position as a result.

Religious: Bhakti movements with non-Brahmin features have in recent years largely centered on gods of an indigenous character. Significant here is the identification of the common Hindu deity Subrahmanya with Murukan a figure with a place in ancient Tamil tradition both popular and literary. The temples of Murukan attract pilgrims and other devotees in large numbers and so does Aiyappan, the Lord at Sabarimalai in the high mountain ranges of the Western Ghats.

Cultural: There is a great revival of interest in Tamil literature language and grammar. The ethics contained in Tirukkural, often shortened Kural, dated 200-300 A.D. are so highly thought of as to merit the name 'The national Bible of the Tamils' for this remarkable classic. Poets and authors gain popularity and their statues are put up in public places. On an international level Tamil has gained reputation through World Tamil Conferences held at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1966, Madras 1968, Paris 1970 and Jaffna, Sri Lanka 1974. It has thereby assumed its place in the general subject of Indology.

The fact that Hinduism in its All-India comprehensiveness still exercises a dominating influence even in South India with social and and political implications remains indisputable.

A full understanding of the significance of the electoral victory of the D.M.K. in 1967 as well as of its origin and background in the D.K. Movement, part of the Dravidian Movement, must build on a close aquaintance with the personality and message of E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, 1879-1973, hereafter referred to as Periyar, meaning the "Great One" by which name he is known in India.3

Periyar initiated the D.K. Movement and was active on the propaganda scene in Tamil Nadu for over fifty years. In 1925 Periyar started the Self Respect Movement 4 In December 1973 shortly before his death at the age of 94 he organised and led a Self Respect Movement conference in Madras.

The attempt to evaluate Periyar's political role must cover a great span of years. For an appraisal of the influence Periyar had the last years of his life are decisive both through his intensive activity until the very last days and because the result of his life work is evident and his image in the eyes of the public is clear.

A man in his nineties with such an intensive propagandistic activity after more than half a century on the political scene raises the question of the influence of a personality. Nowhere, and least of all in India can structural and rational factors totally undo the touch, ye power of a personality with all the manifestations which can be recorded of human reactions in society.

The Indian setting, however loosely this term may be defined, demands that attention be paid to the personality and image of this man manifested in his political programme and mode of action as well as in the actual outcome of his performances.

This study does not aim at giving a full survey and analysis of Periyar's activity and thinking but is an attempt to contribute to the study of his personality and influence within the context of social-political development in Tamil Nadu.


From the Conclusions...

Periyar's propaganda in the contemporary social and political context and the Dravidian Movement.

The personality of Periyar in its effective manifestations of an active propagandist creating an image of clear contours has emerged out of experiences he had under the conditions prevailing in his specific life situation. Periyar's propaganda is the reflexion of his personality. Enumerating the main trends and events of recent history in South India will therefore give a key to his personality and at the same time answer the question of his influence on the development. The most comprehensive aspect is the Dravidian Movement which coincides with Periyar's active propagandistic endeavours and links up with the non-Brahmin movement in South India dating further back.

To attempt an analysis of the question of the mutual influence of Periyar and the Dravidian Movement in contemporary development, we shall here further amplify the structure and significance of the Dravidian Movement as they relate to Periyar's message and propaganda.

Religious elements:

A growing awareness of identity among Dravidians can be traced in the field of religion. In this century deities, with an indigenous background, have come to attract the attention and devotion of great masses of people. In this there is a tendency to bypass the Brahmin-guided temple cult and formal ritualism. The god known under the Tamil name Murukan has actually become the focal point on which millions of Tamilians centre their religious fervour not without nationalistic aspirations.

Again the deity at Sabarimalai counterbalances the well known places of pilgrimage in the Himalayas up North and gives the non-Brahmin lay people support in their independence of Brahmin influence and strengthens their national self-sufficency with a culture of their own. The pilgrimage to Sabarimalai emphasises a personal dedication to God, ethical discipline and a sense of equality and fellowship fostering a new social concern.5 Parallel to all this there has been propaganda in Tamil Nadu, supported by the D.K. and the Self Respect Movement for the use of the Tamil language instead of Sanskrit  in temple worship.6

The Bhakti movement has given the Tamilians a sense of religio-social identity rooted in their Tamil heritage which links these movements with the Dravidian Movement in general, and with Periyar, in his opposition to all-Brahmin, i.e. non-Tamil, religious tradition.

Periyar was engaged in Gandhi's campaigns against the Untouchability laws which resulted in the promulgation of the Temple Entry Act 1931/1950 opening the temples to all castes, in Madras state in 1947.7 The plea for non-Brahmins to be given the right to enter temples and also to enter the central shrine, Garbha Griha, as well as the right for Harijans to enter priesthood has been part of the programme of the Self Respect Movement since 1929 continued in the Dravida Kazhagam.8

In 1970 the D.M.K. Government passed a social equality ordinance to enable members of all castes to become priests, another D.K. claim.9 Legislation against any discrimination as regards untouchability came in 1955.10 Permission to use the Tamil language in temples was given by the D.M.K. Government in 1971.11

Self-Respect Marriages, omitting the Brahmin-performed ritual, that had been illegally practised by Periyar since 1928 were legalised by the Tamil Nadu Government in 1967 through the Marriage Act of 1967.12 All of these were to some extent the outcome of Periyar's propaganda. Although claiming social justice in the first hand Periyar did much to awake an opinion with consequences in the religious outlook.

The Dravidian Movement and Periyar's propaganda have had a religious influence as far as opposition to Brahmin domination goes, linked up with the search for Dravidian, read Tamil, identity. There are signs of a break-up of traditional Brahmin religious domination: through Self-Respect Marriages, less respect for the traditional socio-religious role of the Brahmins, increased secularization in urban areas and the introduction of the Tamil language in temple worship.

When trying to evaluate the inroads of secularization one becomes more hesitant. With the changes in society, meaning industrialisation, urbanisation, technical development, etc there is an obvious challenge to the traditional structures of Hinduism. It is too early to appraise the result.

Anyone in close contact with South Indian society can witness to the hold over the masses still exercised by the Hindu religion though there are tangible signs of secularization, non-religiosity, often linked with class mobility and the shifting of population with a break of traditional religious customs as a result of the change of surroundings. Secularization does not necessarily mean the same in India as in the West.

Campaigns for the removal of Hindu images and worship from public life is an example of direct contribution of Periyar's atheistic propaganda to the secularization process in South Indian society. Subsequent to Periyar's action in this context the Madras Rationalist Conference in May 1972 urged the full implementation of the Government order dated 24th April 1968 that pictures of gods in governmental and public institutions should be removed.13 The Modern Rationalist published a circular dated 12th June 1972 ordering the cessation of the performance of Puja and other acts of worship in offices and on factory premises.14 All these matters were stressed again because of Brahmin opposition.15

The issue of Periyar's atheistic influence is controversial and the facts contradictory. It can be stated at the same time that at the religious level Periyar's ardent atheistic propaganda has been less influential. There is a flexibility in the very structure of Hinduism enabling it to absorb such propaganda or to remain untouched by it.

Periyar may also, for propagandistic reasons and as a result of his own early caste experiences, have exaggerated Brahmin influence or, paradoxically, underestimated its lasting force. Periyar has, though, introduced a sense of protest in the thinking and the attitudes of traditionally conformist Tamilians. His violent opposition against, as he saw it, false and degraded forms and customs in the religious life had a double effect. People learnt to take religious issues seriously on the one hand and no doubt many turned secular in their outlook on the other.

The cultural linguistic element

Linguistically the Dravidian Movement could be dated from 1856 when the Anglican Bishop of Tirunelveli R. Caldwell published his comprehensive work "A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages", the first modern Tamil grammar, classifying these languages as Dravidian. Together with the scholarly works of other Christian missionaries this gave an impetus to the renaissance of the rich heritage of Tamil literature and culture.

Rhetoric, a traditional pastime of Tamilians, is given increased political and cultural significance. Tiruvalluvar, the author or editor of the much-esteemed Tirukkural is greatly venerated. Quotations from the Kural have become very common in later years among the public. Devices are printed in buses and also used in films and other mass media. On the Southern wall around the "Golden Lily Tank" in the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, one of South India's most important Hindu temples, the whole of the Kural has been painted and, what is of significance, quite recently, i.e. after 1953. The 15th of January is in Tamil Nadu listed as Tiruvalluvar Day among public holidays closely linked with the typically South Indian religious festival, Ponkal.

Puristic tendencies have led to the eradication of Sanskrit words and to the revival of genuine old Tamil words and also to the construction of new words with a real change in language as a consequence.16

Geographical places, even the state itself, the former Madras state, have been renamed and given pure Tamil names, e.g. now Tamil Nadu. The anti-Hindi movements and campaigns, largely staged and carried out over the years by the D.K. Movement, have led to an anti-Hindi policy of the state resulting in the repudiation of the official use of the Hindi language in Tamil Nadu.17 As mentioned there has been a plea for the replacement of Sanskrit with Tamil as the language of temple worship.

Films play a very important part in Tamil Nadu both as a political and as a religio-cultural medium. A great many films are produced and the film stars exercise a great influence socio-political as well as in party politics. An example is the formation of the party A.D.M.K. in 1972 by the film star known as M.G.R.18 Leading D.M.K. politicians are well known as authors of film manuscripts, e.g. the films "Parasakti" and "Poompunar" by the former chief minister M. Karunanidhi.19 Films by C.N. Annadurai are "Nallathambi", "Velaikaran" and "Soccha Varal".

In these films the ideas of the D.M.K. were spread. They attacked Brahmin priesthood, religious dogmas and practices and carried a national pro-Tamil socialist appeal with an anti-Brahmin high-caste bias.20 Thus the Brahmin is often the ridiculed villain of the story, and the low-caste hero wins in the end.21

The link between the Dravidian Movement and Periyar in contemporary development in Tamil Nadu is here apparent. Over the years Periyar has with his propaganda helped to foster a sense of Tamil consciousness in his ardent opposition to the Brahmins as Aryans, read non-Dravidians, who were imposing a non-Dravidian religion and culture on South India.

The Self Respect Movement formed by Periyar in 1925 had as its main objective to strengthen Tamil identity in opposition to Brahmin domination. In recasting the roles of the Ramayana Periyar places the Tamilians in opposition to the Brahmin-Aryan occupation. Periyar was an early and persistent partaker in the anti-Hindi campaigns and his life is significantly presented in the light of Tirukkural by his followers.22

Although Periyar never wrote film manuscripts, the D.M.K. films reflect the anti-Brahmin, anti-caste propaganda that originated from the D.K.

Periyar is, however, pro-Dravidian, i.e. pro-Tamil culture, because he is anti-Brahmin. On other grounds, as we have seen above, he changed his evaluation of the Tamil language and made contradictory and even degrading remarks on the issue.23

This proves that his estimation of Tamil culture is determined by its being non-Brahmin, non-Aryan. In his propaganda Periyar ignores the fact that with the participation of the Brahmins Hindu Aryan culture has over the years become amalgamated into a common Tamil Hindu culture.

The point seems to be that Periyar's anti-Brahmin propaganda spoke so much to the conditions, as it were in Tamil Nadu that his ambivalent and even contradictory stand on other relevant issues concerning Tamil consciousness did not matter.

The socio-political elements.

In the Dravidian Movement these elements are integrated: Dravidianism emphasising Tamil cultural heritage as a protest against Hindi and North Indian influence, a sense of equality as a protest against high-caste or Brahmin domination, and social involvement leading to a form of socialism as a protest against traditional Hindu society.24

Periyar is the initiator of the political movements which were crowned with success when the D.M.K. was in government in Tamil Nadu from 1967-1976. Apart from continuing the D.K. Movement Periyar led the Self Respect Movement which covered the same ideological objectives.

In his "Separatism", the demand for a separate Dravidasthan, Periyar draws the full consequences socio-politically and culturally of the opposition to Brahmin domination. On this issue the D.M.K. compromised and talked of "autonomy on state level".25

Periyar who was not the leader of a party trying to win votes could afford to be more drastic in his political demands. The D.M.K. Government represented the Sudras and was a fully non-Brahmin government of the state. Self-Respect Marriages meant encouragement of inter-caste marriages. Periyar's campaigning also aimed at removing Brahmin caste indications from public institutions.

Periyar's propaganda included pleas for women's rights.26

His aims were reached through subsequent legislation aiming at equality of the sexes, the right of widows to remarry, facilities for divorce, raising the marriage age, right of property, abortion laws. Legislative measure taken along these lines are: The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and 1967, The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill of 1969.

The 1951 Amendment to the Constitution of India provided a rule for the "special provision for Backward Classes".27 The Twenty Point Programme which the Government of India under the MISA Act put forward in 1976 contained to some extent "old" Self Respect Movement points, e.g. improved educational facilities for the Backward communities, cancellation of interest on loans for agriculturalists and labourers and social economic equality.28

Summing up, the Dravidian Movement with Periyar and his propaganda as an integral part is thus built around

a) a religio-social protest: anti-Brahminism and anti-high caste,
b) separatism: anti-North Indian influence and anti-Hindi,
c) sub nationalism: pro-Tamil culture and heritage.

Achievements of this movement by means of contribution to contemporary history are:

a) a vital injection to the linguistic-cultural renaissance,
b) giving a sense of historical meaning, political and cultural, consciousness and identity to the Tamilians, non-Brahmins, mainly of the lower and middle classes,
c) thus causing a certain degree of social mobility and elevation and a broadening of the political awareness of the masses, paving the way for democracy, making possible popular democratic training.29

Periyar's propaganda contains the same elements as and coincides in time with and in certain cases initiates the issues of the Dravidian Movement. Periyar is, however, anti-Brahmin rather than pro-Dravidian. His "Separatism" was a means of abolishing Brahmin rule, his anti-casteism was aimed at removing the Brahmins rather than at elevating the Harijans, and his models for remoulding South Indian society were not only Tamil but were also influenced by Western materialism and Marxism.

Periyar has made great contributions to the Dravidian Movement and thereby to the socio-political development in contemporary Tamil Nadu, but he is nevertheless not identical with it, nor can he be contained in any one political party, which leads to an appraisal of his image and personality.


1) Ramanujam, The Big Change, p. 271.

2) Apart from general survey literature such as J. Gonda, Die Religionen Indiens, I-II, P.T. Srinivasa lyengar, History of the Tamils and Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India it is of special interest to refer to the place occupied by the philosopher Sankara in modern thinking and religious debate as in Sankara and Shanmata, published in Madras 1969, and to the importance of the Agama literature as closely connected with South India. See Helene Brunner, Importance de la litterature Agamique. In addition specific Tamil cultural contribution is claimed both locally and international. See further K Zvelebil, The Smile of Murugan.

3) Citambaranar, Tamilar Talaivar-Periyar E.V.R. 1971, p. 174. "Always 'Periyar' from 1238", Cintanaikal, p. XXIX.

4) Cp. below, p. 27.

5 Visitors to Sabarimalai Dec-Jan 1970-1971 numbered c. 2,000,000, The Hindu 16/1 1971. From a great number of books a handy reference is Pyyappan, Lord Ayyappan, Bombay 1973.

6. See Viduthalai, articles 1972.

7. Dumont, p. 293.

8. Cp. Citambaranar, 1975, p. 327.

9. Quoted by K. Viramani, Welcome Address, p. 12, Madras 1973.

10. The Untouchability Act, 1955, India, 1974, New Delhi, 1974. p. 98.

11. Introduced in temples already 1970. See The Hindu 8/12 1970.

12. Cp. Spratt, pp. 74.

13. Viduthalai, May 1972.

14. The Modern Rationalist, July 1972, p. 2.

15. Viduthalai 28/6 1972.

16. Colloquially called "D.M.K. Tamil".

17. Anti-Hindi agitation 1965 and the policy of the D.M.K. Government 1967, cp. D. Forrester.

18 Ramanujam, Challenge and Response, pp. 158.

19 For further references see Hardgrave, The Dravidian Movement and E. Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy, "Indian Films", Bombay 1963.

20 C. Ryerson, Meaning and Modernization in Tamil Nadu, p. 15 and Ramanujam, Challenge and Response, p. 158.

21 See "Parasakti" by M. Karunanidhi. Cp. Devadas Pillai in Aspects of Changing India. p. 132.

22 S. Comacuntara Paratiyar, Valluvar Curalum E.V.R. Valkkaiyum.

23 Cp. Periyar, Eluttuc Cirtiruttam, 1973 (1948) and Periyar, Moliyum Arivum. 1944 (1962).

24. Cp. Ryerson, "Meaning and Modernisation in Tamil Nadu" in Religion and Society, Vol. XVII, No. 4.

25. D.M.K. Party Election Manifesto and K.S. Ramanujam "Challenge and Response.

26. Periyar, E.V.R., Pen En Atimaiyanal, 1971 (1942).

27. Article (15), (4), Cintanaikal, p. XLVII.

28. "The Twenty Point Programme" and interview with Maniymmal, Periyar's widow and successor, Tiruchirapalli, July 1976.

29. Cp. M. Weiner, The Politics of South Asia in Almond-Coleman. Irschick, p. 357.


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