Film chronicles life of Indian humanist social reformer

PeriyarFrontline (‘India’s national magazine’) reports on the new film about Indian humanist and rationalist Periyar directed by Gnana Rajasekaran.

Periyar (Periyar E. V. Ramaswami ) was born in 1879 and became a prominent Tamil atheist (“a colossus in South Indian politics for over six decades”) who struggled for social justice and against caste-based discrimination.

From an early age Periyar questioned the content of religious lectures and discourses and began challenging rituals and irrational and unjust practices such as child marriage and the inhuman treatment of women, particularly widows, and people of the oppressed and segregated castes.

He entered public life as a temple trustee and soon became the municipal chairman of his hometown.He joined the Indian National Congress in 1919 and soon became president of its Tamil Nadu unit but eventually he left after he failed to convince the leadership to support reservation of seats for the deprived sections in the government and educational institutions.

He founded the Self-Respect Movement in 1925 to champion the cause of the deprived people and later took over the leadership of the Justice Party founded by a group of non-Brahmin leaders. After partition Periyar confined his activities to social issues and fought relentlessly against superstition, the imposition of Hindi, social injustice, and so on until his death.

The results of that struggle are apparent in today’s Tamil Nadu. Although it is one of the states worst affected by caste-based prejudice and discrimination and where around 80 per cent of the population of 62 million belongs to the socially disadvantaged castes It has the second highest literacy rate (73.47 per cent) among States whose population exceeds 50 million and accounts for the largest number of institutions of higher learning, particularly professional colleges. 

“Rajasekaran has said in an interview that his principal objective in making Periyar is to remove the misgivings about the man among a section of people, which projects him as a Brahmin-hater. The fact is that he was opposed only to what he called Brahminism and not Brahmins as individuals. The director cites Periyar’s personal friendship with, and respect for, Rajaji, a Brahmin, to stress this point. The film shows how Periyar had no reservation about helping people in distress, irrespective of their caste. Basically, Periyar was a humanist and this attitude was the driving force in his evolution into a crusader for social justice.”

“….the film is an attempt to draw attention to Periyar’s humanism and respect for fellowbeings, his dispassionate attitude to life and concern for the underprivileged, and his progressive views on women’s liberation, aspects that have not been highlighted adequately so far.”  

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9 responses to “Film chronicles life of Indian humanist social reformer

  1. I dont feek he was an atheist

  2. The frontline article I quote refers to him as a humanist. Wikipedia (certainly not to be 100% trusted) describes him as an atheist. At the very least it does seem he fought against irrational and unjust religious practice.

  3. But my point , if a person to be atheist he need to disagree to all the religions (equally ) , targeting only one among them makes him pseudo atheist isnt it ?

  4. Well I can’t claim to know much more about Periyar than these articles but just as American atheists tend to focus their attention on the Christian majority it seems reasonable for an active atheist in India at Periyar’s time, especially one who was born into a Hindu family, to be most interested in problems with Hindu practice. Although India has large non-Hindu minorities the social structure, particularly at that time was still largely driven by Hindu principles and arguable caste-based discrimination was one of the greatest injustices faced by the country. So no just because he was concerned about Hinduism in practice doesn’t mean he thought the beliefs of Indian Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians ertc. were true.

  5. I’d just point out that an atheist is simply somebody who doesn’t believe in any supernatural entities.

    It does not mean you have to be anti-religion nor does it mean you completely deny the possibility of the supernatural. It simply means that you see no evidence for it and the chances of it are so remote as to not be worth worrying about.

  6. His (EV Ramasami) intolerance towards social-injustice started after he was disrespected by few brahmins in North India. His movement was a revenge on brahmins that mistreated him. Nothing more.

    He never protested about Dargas (Muslim Churches) or priests of Christian Churches.. as it didnt seem to be God for him (may be Selective amnesia!).

  7. Pingback: Indian canal project angers Hindus « The O Project

  8. I belong to a tamil brahmin migrated to Karnataka more than 150 years ago. We still retain our culture, language and pride by birth and marriage. The docile and kind Kannadigas found no faults with us and allowed us to prosper which means a lot to me. I think it is a lack of water in Tamil nadu that makes people in TN so pricky.

  9. I don’t believe Periyar was an atheist, in its dictionary definition, either. My take on it is that other schools of Hindu thought depend largely on clearly defined rituals and ambiguous philosophical tenents to an ethereal Reality. Tamizh culture, counter to this, is more earth-centered, its deities extensions of the power of the land and the people. All Tamizh-based religions, whether Vaishnava, Saiva or Sakta seem to draw on concepts of the sanctity of the Tamizh Land and its people, and how the respective god resides there to shower His or Her blessings to these good souls.

    Ritualistically, Tamizhs are far less formal than their Sanskrit counterparts, and it would seem that their holidays are seen as opportunities for people to get together to celebrate the Divine, rather than just attempting to appease the deity.

    If Periyar grew up around these values, it would be easy to see how other Hindus and even we present-day ritualistically Hindus could consider him an atheist.

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