Roots and Methods of E.V.R.’s Attack on the Ramayana
Running through E.V.R.'s life is his growing disillusionment with Hindu-ism, accompanied by an ever-increasing distrust of and activism against brahmanical privilege. Accounts suggest that even as a youth E. V. Rarnasami Naicker (he later dropped the caste name) rebelled against brahmanical prescriptions for proper social behavior. Born in 1879 into a family of Baliga Naidus, a Telugu jati of traders and cultivators, he grew up in Erode, a fairly important mercantile town in the Coimbatore district of Madras.
Because E.V.R. insisted upon associating with boys of lower castes, his father removed him from school at age ten. His marriage was arranged when he was thirteen, and he entered the family business, becoming prosperous thanks to his shrewd business sense.
At the age of twenty-five, however, E.V.R. grew dissatisfied with mercantile life and became a sadhu (wandering holy man). During his journeys across India, visiting cities such as Banaras and Calcutta, he gained a broader perspective on the nature of his country and its religion. But hand in hand with his widening experience came a disgust with a Hindu priesthood that he saw as exploiting the masses under the guise of "spiritual advancement." After a short time he became disillusioned, returned home, rejoined society, and entered regional politics.
E.V.R.'s early political activities already indicate his concern with the rights of non-Brahmins. In 1920 he joined the Non-cooperation Movement and became active in the Indian National Congress party, following its Gandhian principles devoutly. His most famous exploit was his participation in a satyagraha campaign in Vikom, Kerala, undertaken to give Untouchables access to certain roads hitherto forbidden to them, his deeds earning him the title "Hero of Vikom." All these activities were well within the reform program of Gandhi and the Congress party.
Although the Tamilnadu Congress Committee elected E.V.R. its secretary, his sensitivity to the problems of non-Brahmins (especially Untouchables) began to make him unpopular among the Brahmin elite. He antagonized them further by protesting when a Congress-run school instituted segregated eating facilities for Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Later he demanded that positions on municipal councils be reserved for non-Brahmins. In 1925 he withdrew from the Congress party, henceforth attacking it as a vehicle for Brahmin domination.
Even while still involved with Congress, E.V.R. had increasingly turned his attention to the denunciation of brahmanical Hinduism. In 1922 he advocated the burning of both the Ramayana and The Laws of Manu , a famous dharmasastra text that sets out the proper conduct for different castes and, in so doing, glorifies Brahmins. By 1924: he had founded a publication called Kuti Aracu (People's government) to advocate social reform, aimed at destroying religious privilege and constraint. After abandoning the Congress in 1925, he organized the "Self-Respect Movement" for "Dravidian Uplift."
During this period E.V.R. came to view Hinduism as a web of deceit designed to maintain the supremacy of the Brahmin—whom he linked with North Indian Sanskritic (non-Tamilian) culture—and to oppress non-Brahmins. He therefore set out to reveal the insidious nature of orthodox religion. First in the line of attack were Hindu myths, which he read in a strictly literal fashion, delighting in finding seeming contradictions. Treating the myths as if they were historical accounts, he denounced the actions of the
gods as obscene, stupid, and immoral, and advocated atheism instead. Next E.V.R. excoriated Hindu rituals—which were, after all, the domain of Brahmin priests. In place of traditional Hindu rituals he substituted community-based "Self-Respect" ceremonies, the most famous of which was the "Self-Respect Marriage," at which Vedic rites were omitted and an elder of the community or one of the leaders of the Self-Respect Movement (rather than a priest) presided. Finally, he ridiculed the entire notion of caste, rejecting social separation and purity/pollution observances as entirely unnecessary. Traditional Hindu concepts of endogamous communities were to be systematically broken down through the encouragement of intercaste marriages, widow remarriage, and other acts designed to undermine the exclusiveness of jati . He also advocated a separatist Dravida Nadu (Dravidian country) in place of a community based on the varnadharma (caste duties) of pan-Indian tradition.
Political activism and opposition to brahmanical Hinduism led E.V.R. to espouse an increasingly separatist direction for Tamils. When in 1937 the Congress ministry proposed introducing Hindi—a language derived from Sanskrit and spoken chiefly in the north—as a compulsory subject in schools, E.V.R. interpreted it as an offensive attempt to impose North Indian culture upon South India. The anti-Hindi protests he organized brought him both notoriety and a jail sentence. Several years later E.V.R. aligned himself with the Justice Party, a group devoted to attacking Brahmin domination and pressuring the British for provincial autonomy. By 1944 he had taken control of the Justice Party, shaping it to his own concerns. He reorganized it and renamed it the Dravida Kazagham (Dravidian Federation), commonly known as the DK. Following Indian independence in 1947 and the ensuing social and political realignments, E.V.R.'s activities not only continued but his anti-Northern and antibrahmanical rhetoric became more strident.
In particular, E.V.R. singled out the Ramayana to censure. For E.V.R., the Ramayana story was a thinly disguised historical account of how North Indians, led by Rama, subjugated South Indians, ruled by Ravana. Although his ideas were comparatively radical—and potentially disorienting—to a population of devout Hindus, many people responded enthusiastically. Why? His "North vs. South" interpretation of the Ramayana was successful with a Tamil audience partly because of the political context in which E.V.R. was operating. To succeed, a leader must have more than personal "charisma"; that leader must articulate and legitimate a message that followers see as addressing their own situation. In order to understand the enthusiastic reception Tamilians gave to E.V.R.'s ideas we must therefore examine certain features of his time and region: the rise and fervor of Dravidian sentiment in South India, the uneasy power relationships that existed between Brahmins and elite non-Brahmins, and the role of print in the intellectual life of Madras. Let us explore each of these in turn.
E.V.R.'s championing of fervent Dravidian separatism must be understood in its pan-Indian context. During this period various groups—both regional and religious—were choosing to define themselves as separate and demanding some sort of official, usually political, recognition of their uniqueness. E.V.R.'s assertion of Dravidian identity, which postulated a golden age of Dravidian society in the distant past (before the coming of Rama) that could be reestablished if South Indians would only throw off the yoke of North Indian domination, to some extent conformed to this trend. In much the same way that other South Asians sought, for example, the creation of a separate Islamic state (Pakistan), E.V.R. desired a separate Tamil state and identity for South Indians, linking the articulation of that identity with a critique of the Ramayana .
Moving from a pan-Indian to a regional context, one finds that Brahmins—the target of E.V.R.'s most vitriolic criticism—had become exceptionally successful in Madras toward the end of the nineteenth century. Subramaniam argues that Brahmins were in an excellent position to enter the middle class as mediators between the British and those they ruled in Madras, because, owing in part to British respect for high-status groups, they had not fared as badly under British rule as other more dominant land-owning groups ("clean" Sudras, such as Vellalas). In addition, their tradition of learning enabled them to take advantage of educational opportunities and thus to enter the British-run civil service.
In contrast, members of dominant non-Brahmin jatis who moved from their villages to urban areas experienced considerable social disorientation. In pre-British society, many land-holding non-Brahmins enjoyed a relatively high and clearly defined status, articulated in their ritual interaction with those around them in the local community. But as large numbers moved to the comparative anonymity of urban areas, where land-holding dominance was not a decisive factor, they had to negotiate their place in a new urban hierarchy that tended to favor the educated Brahmins. In E.V.R.'s view, these non-Brahmins were the indigenous, authentic Dravidians, now oppressed by the foreign rule of the "Aryan" Brahmins, whose conquest of the South was described mythically—and more important, legitimated—by the Ramayana .
In this situation, non-Brahmins sought not only to secure access to government positions previously dominated by Brahmins but to reform society. As Irschick argues, "Though the Government of Madras instituted quotas in job recruitment, education and other areas for those it considered backward, these quotas could have no real effect unless both egalitarian strands within Indian tradition and Western ideas could be used to claim parity for all groups in society and politics." The rejection of caste hierarchy (as defined by brahmanical Hinduism and epitomized, in E.V.R.'s eyes, by Rama's rule) was one way of claiming such parity. According to E.V.R., South Indian life
before arrival of the Aryans (his term for North Indians) had been free of such societal divisions, and he demanded a return to such a society.
The fact that E.V.R. could disseminate his demands so widely reflects in part the unprecedented growth and power of print at this time. Although full-length books were too expensive for most people to purchase and too time-consuming for most members of the professional class to read, inexpensive pamphlets reached a wide audience. E.V.R.'s brief articles on topics such as the Ramayana , with their simple prose style and bombastic but witty rhetoric, made his message readily accessible to anyone interested in hearing it. He was in fact a prolific writer of short, aggressive journalistic pieces, designed to arouse popular passions and amplify social, political, and religious grievances. His writings on the Ramayana were just such pieces.
For E.V.R., who possessed a canny ability to make the most of the resources available to him, this mobilization of the power of print was characteristic. He founded a series of journals and fortnightly magazines, established a press in order to issue his many publications, and knew how to attract extensive newspaper coverage for his public campaigns and protests. His 1956 Rama-burning agitation, whose rationale had previously been explained in writings published by his press, brought him front-page headlines.
E.V.R.'s reading of the Ramayana is most fully developed in two works: Iramayanappatirankal (Characters in the Ramayana ) and Iramayanakkurippukal (Points about the Ramayana ). Although the latter is a sophisticated and thorough textual study of the Ramayana , the less scholarly Iramayanappatirankal has done the most to shape E.V.R.'s followers' perceptions of the Ramayana . Since this text is one of his earliest, most comprehensive, most popular, and most frequently reprinted works on the Ramayana , it will be the focus of the discussion below.
The extensive publication and translation history of Characters in the Ramayana indicates both its centrality in E.V.R.'s writings on the Ramayana and the enthusiastic reception it has continued to receive from readers. First published in 1930, the work was in its tenth printing in 1972. The first English translation appeared in 1959, a second edition came out in 1972, and a third in 1980. With the appearance of this translation, as well as a Hindi translation, the text's audience was no longer limited to Tamil readers. While the work's Tamil title suggests that E.V.R. will consider the actions of each character, the English version's title, The Ramayana (A True Reading )—though not an exact translation of the original title—is in some ways more illuminating, for it indicates E.V.R.'s goal of revealing to the reader the "correct" interpretation of the Ramayana .
The format and price of the book ensured its availability to readers. Less a book than a long pamphlet, Characters in the Ramayana measures approximately 8½ by 5½ inches, contains a little under one hundred and twenty pages of
large type, and—thanks to its flimsy binding—falls apart after a few readings. Fortunately, it also sells for a price that most people can easily afford: the 1972 edition, for example, cost only a single rupee (at that time, about fifteen cents).
An entire business developed out of the publication of such works, a business which gave high priority to polemical texts. Characters in the Ramayana was published by the Periyar Cuyamariyatai Piracara Niruvana Veliyitu or (as it calls itself in its English publications) Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution Publications. This institution, whose headquarters are in Trichy, the city whence issued the 1956 announcement that images of Rama should be burned on the first of August, conceives of its mission in a disarmingly straightforward way: to produce propaganda, namely, material self-consciously designed to change people's opinions. The printers, Tiravitan Accakam (Dravidian Printers), are also committed to the proliferation of works extolling Dravidian culture.