From Ramanuja to Periyar: Re-integrating Brahmins into Dravidian narrative

By Rohit Viswanath

For nearly a hundred years, advocates of Dravidianism often deceived the people of Tamil Nadu into believing that they knew higher truths than the vedantins - or students of Vedanta. They aggrandised power at the cost of cleaving society in the name of countering Brahminism. But they are now close to conceding the truth. On 5 April this year, The Hindu reported on former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s attempts to appropriate Saint Ramanuja (or Ramanujacharya), a patron saint who is revered by the Vaishnavite Iyengar Brahmin community. (The Iyer Brahmins, more numerous in number, are smarthas who do not differentiate much between Shaivism and Vaishnavism). Ramanuja broke caste barriers, Karunanidhi acknowledged.

In the old Tamil world, Brahmins were the society’s store-keepers of knowledge. They were the equivalent of today's researchers and teachers. The only difference was they did not work - as conventionally defined then - to earn a living. They sustained themselves by either begging for alms or making ends meet with whatever dakshina they received. It enabled them to seek higher levels of truth. Their understanding of the truth influenced the sciences, arts, politics and all other aspects of the society of that age. Ramanujacharya was a product of this system.

From Ramanuja to Periyar: Re-integrating Brahmins into Dravidian narrative

Representational image. Reuters

Although Brahmins deserved criticism and condemnation for perpetuating caste discrimination, the Dravidian movement managed to alienate them completely. It is a pity that post-independence Tamil Nadu failed to accommodate Brahmins in its Dravidian narrative. The Dravidian parties succeeded in wiping out their indigenously evolved knowledge systems entirely - without documenting them. Today's Dravidian leaders owe an explanation to society for having erased the collective memory of an entire community and driving them out of their homelands to seek their fortunes outside Tamil Nadu. In many ways, the atrocities suffered by Tam-brahms - a short-form for Tamil Brahmins - are similar to those inflicted on the Kashmiri Pandits. Except there was no violence of the kind seen in Kashmir. It happened through sheer ideological discrimination.

It is in this situation that the BJP – once seen as a pro-Brahmin party, but now growing out to embrace all castes – is trying to make its mark. Can it break the anti-Brahmin Dravidian narrative without alienating the vast bulk of non-Brahmin castes in the state who have benefited from the Dravidian parties' nearly 50 years in power?

In this article I have made an attempt to bring Brahmins back into the Tamil social narrative. It is based on my understanding of the truth.

Dravida Nadu (once identified as all peoples south of the Vindhyas) is where many avatars were born. They, the great leaders of Dravida Nadu, out of compassion for the common masses, laid out a path for common people to achieve the highest human goal of self-realisation. As early as in the treta yuga, this region witnessed the advent of Vamana, a dwarf, who reined in a king whose ego had grown so grotesque that it was threatening dharma. Since then, it has been a tradition. Every time the law of nature seems subverted, a saviour rises.

Dravidian philosophers like Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, and Madhavacharya belong to the same lineage. They are renowned the world over for bringing back dharma, or rationality, to prevailing social narratives. Centuries later, sage Vidyaranya brought this philosophy to public administration and policy when he impelled Harihara and Bukkaraya to create the kingdom of Vijayanagara. In the Maratha land, Swami Ramdas played a similar role. The great achievements, in war and in peace, of the Pallavas, Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas and several others who ruled the Dravida regions stems from this solemn relationship between metaphysics and public policy.

Dharma permeates all aspects of social behavior. That is why it is a way of life. It is different from what we know today as religion. Religion has been reduced to a set of mostly irrational practices, like prayers and rituals, which form the private pursuit of individuals. History tells us that man has the tendency to lose sight of dharma, time and again, because of his penchant for avidya (ignorance or irrationality) which causes maya (delusion). The avatars who descend to earth serve to remind mankind of the supreme truth which can be understood only through enquiry and logic. Every avatar packaged and repackaged the same message using relevant contemporary social narratives and language. The message is greater than the messenger. That is why in the Indian tradition, myth and folklore dominate history.

Adi Sankaracharya re-established dharma in his times by crusading against prevalent irrationality and injustice. By falling at the feet of an (untouchable) Chandala, he underscored the fact that all humans deserve respect and that even a person of the lowest caste could be a king among jnanis. The importance he gave to the rational enquiry of the truth cannot be overstated. He has written an entire treatise, Vivekachudamani (crest jewel of rationality), on the subject. The philosophy he propounded, that of advaita, is the epitome of logic and rational thought. It establishes man’s supreme identity.

Centuries later, Ramanujacharya was so moved by the same adharma in society that he decided to defy the then contemporary social norms and made it his life’s mission to show the downtrodden the path to salvation. He may perhaps have well been the first person to use a variant of the Harijan, Thiru Kullathar, for the oppressed castes.

More recently, in the 20th century, when our land was again plunged in the dark ages, when man became reduced to the level of a leech living off the blood of fellow human beings, rose another great saint. His name was Periyar E Ramasamy Naicker and he was no less than the Shankaracharya. His teachings are a perfect synthesis of Shankara’s non-duality and Charvaka principles. It is, therefore, best suited for our times.

Periyar espoused the same message of rationality and human dignity that the avatars of previous ages did before him. He saw that religion was being exploited to deceive innocent people and, therefore, he fought against superstitions till his last breath. Through his participation in the Vaikom Satyagraha and through his self-respect movement he crusaded for the truth that all men are equal.

If Periyar was Aristotle, Annadurai, the first DMK Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was his Alexander. Annadurai interpreted Dravidian philosophy to influence statecraft. It is because of him that Tamil Nadu leapfrogged into the league of the most advanced states of India. He gave clarity to Periyar’s views on god. Onre Kulam, Oruvanae Devan, he declared, mirroring the highest truth of non-duality.

Periyar’s action of breaking clay images of deities is comparable to the story of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, who was alleged to have shown disrespect to the Kaaba in Mecca because he had his feet in the direction of the stone. The guru retorted and asked to be shown a direction which was godless.

If Periyar’s modern successors had genuinely accepted and propagated his thoughts, avidya and maya would not be wreaking havoc in Tamil society, as is the case now. It would have been far steeped in scientific temper and rationality, in humanism, and would have been far closer to nature than it is today.

At the heart of Dravidianism, fortunately, is the quest for the same truth that the Upanishads speak of. As the BJP plans its strategy for breaking into the Dravidian fortress ahead of the 2016 state elections, it may do well to reflect on the above parallels. It must take on the Dravidian parties for having bred a bunch of power-hungry politicians who used the great message of Periyar, misrepresented it and exploited it to promote their vested interests. The idea of oneness with nature was vulgarly distorted to marginalise only Brahmins. It was not an anti-caste crusade - for caste continues to rule Tamil Nadu even today. It is a pity that Dravidianism has come to be seen as a movement based on alien or antithetical principles because of power-hungry politicians. In reality, it is part of the intellectual wealth of Hinduism that is devoid of the colourful paraphernalia of bhakti traditions the religion is famous for.

The BJP could gain by reinstating Tamil Nadu’s intellectual glory by reintegrating Brahmins into the mainstream. As recently as the 19th and 20th centuries, Brahmin luminaries like mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, scientists CV Raman and his nephew S Chandrasekhar, administrators like C Rajagopalachari and CP Ramaswamy Iyer, poets like Subrahmanya Bharati and vedantins like Ramana Maharishi, S Radhakrishnan and Kanchi Mahaperiyaval, dotted the Tamil skyline.

Swami Vivekananda’s presentation in 1893 at the Parliament of World’s Religion positioned Hinduism as a solution to global challenges of that age. BJP campaign managers would want to look at a similar positioning of Dravidian dharma, as an key offshoot of Hinduism, which has the possible answers to the problems of the 21st century.

The author is a Chennai-based analyst. Twitter Handle:@srichakram

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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2015 11:12:11 IST

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