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Nine E. V. Ramasami's Reading of the Ramayana

I am grateful to Marguerite Barnett, Sara Dickey, Michael Fisher, Sandria Freitag, Charles Hallisey, Eugene Irschick, Pat Mathews, Susan Munkres, Sumathi Ramaswamy, James Ryan, Sandra Zagarell, Eleanor Zelliot, Abbie Ziffren, and the members of the faculty seminar on religious innovation at the University of Washington, as well as students in my 1989 and 1990 seminars, for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. I also appreciate the financial support of Oberlin College, from whom I received a faculty research grant for this project.

For convenience's sake I have referred to E. V. Ramasami [Naicker] throughout the article as E.V.R. The common Tamil abbreviation is I. Ve. Ra., but that becomes a bit cumbersome in English prose, and most English writers refer to him as E.V.R. When writing his name out in full, I have omitted diacritics because "E. V. Ramasami" was the standard English form of his name in his publications. The same is true for other important Tamil figures of his period who used English spellings of their names.

1. E.V.R. decided to burn images of Rama in order to protest the fact that All-India Radio had refused to transmit a speech he made on the occasion of celebrating the birthday of the Buddha. See the front page of the Indian Express , 2 August 1956. For a description of the burning of Ravana in the Ramlila, see Linda Hess and Richard Schechner, "The Ramlila of Ramnagar," The Drama Review 21, no. 3 (September 1977), 63. [BACK]

2. Technically, the term Dravidian refers to the family of languages spoken throughout South India. But the leaders of the Tamil separatist movement have expanded the term to encompass everything that they identify as South Indian culture. [BACK]

3. The Hindu , I August 1956; Indian Express , I August 1956; Tinamani , I August 1956. The Tamilnadu Congress was dominated by Brahmins, so Kakkan's appeal did not have much effect on E.V.R. [BACK]

4. The Hindu , I August 1956. [BACK]

5. Tinamani , 2 August 1956, provides a breakdown of the number of people arrested throughout Tamilnadn. In Madras more than 90 people were arrested, while 120 were jailed in Tiruchirappalli (Trichy). For E.V.R.'s comment after his release, see the Indian Express , 2 August 1956. [BACK]

6. In this very brief overview of E.V.R.'s life, I highlight only the events relevant to the development of his interpretation of the Ramayana . For the details of his life, see the widely consulted biography of his early years by A. Citamparanar, Tamilar Talaivar (Erode: Kuti Aracu Press, 1960; repr. Trichy: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 1979); also, E. Es. Venu, Periyar Oru Carittiram (Madras: Pumpukar Piracuram, 1980). In addition, a number of other works give some biographical information: K. M. Balasubramaniam, Periyar E. K Ramasami (Trichy: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 1973); D.G S., Periyar E. V. Ramaswamy: A Proper Perspective (Madras: Vairam Pathippagam, 1975); Ki. Viramani, Periyar Kalanciyam (Madras: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 1977); Anita Diehi, E. V. Ramaswami Naicker-Periyar: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary South India (Lund: Scandinavian University Books, 1977). [BACK]

7. For an analysis of the significance of E.V.R.'s youthful rebellions against caste, see Marguerite Ross Barnett, The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 34-36. [BACK]

8. Citamparanar, Tamilar Talaivar , 41-51. For a discussion of E.V.R.'s involvement in regional politics, see Christopher J. Baker and David A. Washbrook, South India: Political Institutions and Political Change, 1880-1940 (Delhi: Macmillan, 1975), 27; Christopher Baker, "Leading up to Periyar: The Early Career of E. V. Ramaswarni Naicker," in Leadership in South Asia , ed. B. Pandey (Bombay: Vikas, 1978), 503-34;

and Christopher Baker, The Politics of South India, 1920-1937 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 192-94. [BACK]

9. This place is also spelled Vaikom, and Vaikkom in English. For a discussion of this event, see E. Sa. Visswanathan, The Political Career of E. V. Ramasami Naicker (Madras: Ravi and Vasanth Publishers, 1983), 42-46. [BACK]

10. Over the years E.V.R. launched a number of serials including Puratci (Revolt), Pakuttarivu (Discernment), and Vitutalai (Liberty). [BACK]

11. Although E.V.R. is famous for the statement, "If you see a Brahmin and a snake on the road, kill the Brahmin first," he seems to have said such things largely to shock. In several places, he claimed he hated not individual Brahmins but brahminism as an institution. In a somewhat similar spirit, in an article for The Hindu , while maintaining that "Aryan" and "Dravidian" are two distinct groups, he commented: "My desire is not to perpetuate this difference but to unify the two opposing elements in society.'' See Barnett's analysis of his statement in Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India , 71. [BACK]

12. Much of E. V. Ramasami's exegesis of myths was intended for shock value and involved a deliberate overly literal reading of texts. For other texts which use the same kind of rhetoric, see Visittira Tevarkal Korttu (Wonderful court of deities) (Madras: Artisan and Co., 1929), in which various Hindu gods are tried in court for their improper deeds. (I am indebted to Eugene Irschick for this reference.) The puranas also came in for criticism. The procession which culminated E.V.R.'s 1971 Superstition Eradication Conference contained painted tableaux of many scenes from the puranas in which gods are engaged in what E.V.R. perceived to be obscene behavior. I discuss this and similar events in "Smashing, Burning, and Parading: E. V. Ramasami's Anti-Religion Agitations, 1953-1971" (paper presented at the Conference on Religion in South India, Brunswick, Maine, June 1989). For an analysis of E.V.R.'s contribution to atheism, see V. Anaimuthu, Contribution of Periyar E.V.R. to the Progress of Atheism (Tiruchirappalli: Periyar Nul Veliyittakam, 1980). [BACK]

13. See Periyar E. V. Ramasami, Self-Respect Marriages (Madras: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 1983), which, according to the preface of this edition, is a translation of his Valkkai Tunai Nalam , first published in 1958. For more information about the self-respect marriage, see Nambi Arooran, Tamil Renaissance and Dravidian Nationalism (Madurai: Koodal, 1980), pp. 162-63; Lloyd Rudolph, "Urban Life and Populist Radicalism: Dravidian Politics in Madras," Journal of Asian Studies 20, no. 3 (May 1961), 289. [BACK]

14. See Eugene F. Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non-Brahman Movement and Tamil Separatism, 1916-1929 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 34. In 1939 E.V.R. organized a conference during which he called for a separate and independent Dravida Nadu, a concept that paralleled the idea of Pakistan, at that time gaining support among the Muslim community. Robert L. Hardgrave, The Dravidian Movement (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1956), comments: "Naicker gave full support to the scheme for Pakistan and tried to enlist League support for the creation of Dravidasthan.... At the time of partition, Naicker tried to secure the help of Jinnah, so that Dravidasthan might be formed simultaneously with Pakistan. Jinnah refused assistance, and the British ignored the Dravidian agitations" (27, 32). [BACK]

15. See Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia , 3d ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), ix-xxi. [BACK]

16. This brief overview of E. V. Ramasami's milieu cannot possibly do justice to the complexity of the changes occurring in South India at the time. The reader interested in discussions of other historical and political factors during this period should consult the studies of Barnett, Irschick, Visswanathan, Hardgrave, Arooran, Diehl, and Baker cited above, as well as Robert L. Hardgrave, "The Justice Party and the Tamil Renaissance." in The Justice Party Golden Jubilee Souvenir (Madras: Shanmugam Press, 1968), 73-75; P. D. Devanandan, The Dravida Kazhagam (Bangalore: Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, 1960); Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Tamilsprache als Politisches Symbol: Politische Literatur in der Tamilsprache in den Jahren 1945 bis 1967 , Beiträge zur Südasienforschung Südasien-Institut Universität Heidelberg, vol. 74 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1984). [BACK]

17. Scholars have paid a great deal of attention to this process of asserting some kind of nonnational identity, variously labeling it primordialism, nativism , or revivalism . See Hardgrave, Political Sociology , 6, for a discussion of primordialism in relation to the assertion of Dravidian identity. For a discussion of the concept of primordialism as an analytic category in anthropology, see Clifford Geertz, "The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States" in Old Societies and New States , ed. Clifford Geertz (New York: Free Press, 1963); Charles F. Keyes, "Towards a New Formulation of the Concept of Ethnic Group," Ethnicity 3, no. 3 (September 1976), 202-13. For an analysis of the Dravidian material in relation to the concept of revivalism, see Eugene F. Irschick, Tamil Revivalism m the 1930s (Madras: Cre-A, 1986), 3-37. [BACK]

18. V. Subramaniam, "Emergence and Eclipse of Tamil Brahmins," Economic and Political Weekly , Special Number (July 1969), 1133-34. Irschick provides statistical evidence of "the consistently strong domination of the Brahmans in many upper levels of government service." See his Politics and Social Conflict in South India , 13, as well as Hardgrave's discussion of Brahmin/non-Brahmin relationships ( Essays in the Political Sociology of South India , 11 ). [BACK]

19. Barnett, Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India , 25. [BACK]

20. Irschick, Tamil Revivalism , 31. [BACK]

21. Srinivasan's study of the development of periodicals in Madras shows the effectiveness of journals, pamphlets, and newssheets in shaping public opinion and bringing grievances to the attention of the government. See R. Srinivasan, "Madras Periodicals and Modernization of Values," Journal of the University of Bombay 40, no. 76 (Arts Number, October 1971), 150. [BACK]

22. In addition to pamphlets. E.V.R. used another popular medium, theater, as well (see pages 193-94). The DK sponsored performances of the Ramayana based on E.V.R.'s interpretation of the text. Baskaran has shown the tremendous political power of theatrical performances m South India for the nationalist movement, a power that E.V.R. appropriated. See Theodore Baskaran, The Message Bearers: Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Media in South India, 1880-1945 (Madras: Cre-A, 1981), 21-42. [BACK]

23. For the rationale behind actions such as the Rama burning, see, for example, articles in Kuti Aracu on 3 March 1929, 18 December 1943, 8 January and 15 January 1944, 12 February 1944, 20 September 1947, and 13 January 1951. See also Vitutalai

on 5 November 1948, 27 May 1956, 29 July 1956, 9 August, 15 August, and 17 August 1956, and 13 September 1956. These articles have been reprinted in a collection of E.V.R.'s writings titled Periyar I Ve. Ra. Cintanaikal , ed. Ve. Anaimuttu, 3 vols. (Tiruchirappalli: Thinkers' Forum, 1974), 3:1430-64. [BACK]

24. Periyar I. Ve. Ramacami, Iramayanappattirankal (1930; repr. Tirucci: Periyar Cuyamariyatai Piracara Niruvana Veliyitu, 1972); Iramayanakkurippukal (1964; repr. Tirucci: Periyar Cuyamariyatai Piracara Niruvana Veliyitu, 1972). Whenever I refer to the former text, I will do so by the title Characters in the Ramayana rather than by the Tamil title. Characters in the Ramayana thus refers to the original Tamil text with which I am working, as opposed to the later English translation entitled The Ramayana (A True Reading ). From now on, page numbers from the Tamil text will be cited in the body of this paper. I have limited my analysis to pp. 1-104: E.V.R.'s discussion of the relationship between the Ramayana and the Skanda Purana (pp. 105-16) lies beyond the scope of my inquiry here. [BACK]

25. The pamphlet's publication history has been pieced together from the fragmentary information given in the front of various editions and from the bibliography of E. V. Ramasami's writings provided in Cintanaikal , l:xcv-xcvi. [BACK]

26. See Georg Bühler, trans., The Laws of Manu (1886; repr. New York: Dover Publications, 1969), 195-96 (V. 147-158), 85 (III.55-59), 71-72 (II.225-237). For E.V.R.'s critique of The Laws of Manu , see his Manu: Code of Injustice to Non-Brahmins (1961; repr. Madras: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 1981). [BACK]

27. Some of E.V.R.'s conclusions about Kaikeyi are consonant with those presented by Sanskritist Sally Sutherland in her paper titled "Seduction, Counter-Seduction, and Sexual Role Models: Bedroom Politics in Indian Epics" (forthcoming in the Journal of Indian Philosophy ). [BACK]

28. R. K. Narayan, The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), 97. [BACK]

29. For an analysis of the ambivalent presentation of this episode in the twelfth-century rendition of the Ramayana by Kampan, see David Shulman, "Divine Order and Divine Evil in the Tamil Tale of Rama," Journal of Asian Studies 38, no. 4 (August 1979), 651-69. [BACK]

30. Kamil Zvelebil, The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 247-60. [BACK]

31. Notable among the authors cited are R. C. Dutt, R. Mukherjee, S. C. Dass, Nagendra Ghosh, Feroz Khan, James Murray, H. G. Wells, Vincent Smith, Sir William Wilson Hunter, and Sir Henry Johnson. [BACK]

32. Swami Vivekananda, Speeches and Writings of Swami Vivekananda (Madras: G. A. Natesan, 1922). The passage that E.V.R. quotes is located on p. 530, but since E.V.R. himself gives no page reference or bibliographical information, I cannot tell whether he consulted this edition. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovey of India (New York: J. Day, 1946). This is the first edition; again E.V.R. gives no indication which edition he used. [BACK]

33. Maraimalaiyatikal, Arivuraikkottu (1921; repr. Madras: Pari Nilayam, 1967). The passage E.V.R. quotes is located on pp. 150-51 in this edition. [BACK]

34. For a translation and analysis of the story of Aputtiran, see Paula Richman, Women, Branch Stories, and Religious Rhetoric in a Tamil Buddhist Text , Foreign and Comparative Studies, South Asia series no. 12 (Syracuse: Maxwell School of Citizenship

and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1988), 123-42. Although there is no solid evidence that E.V.R. drew on the Manimekalai —which is the only extant Tamil Buddhist text—he greatly admired Buddhists, considering them his intellectual precursors. [BACK]

35. Compare E.V.R.'s chapter entitled "The Hoax about Gods" in Periyarana, ed . and trans. M. Dharmalingam (Trichy: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 1975), 81-109. [BACK]

36. Irschick, Tamil Revivalism , 83. On the Siddhars, see also Kamil Zvelebil, The Poets of the Powers (London: Rider and Co., 1973). [BACK]

37. A. K. Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973). [BACK]

38 Irschick, Tamil Revivalism , 85-89; see note 6. above, for the biography. [BACK]

39. G. Devika, "The Emergence of Cultural Consciousness in Tamilnadu between 1890 and 1915: A Study of the Ideas of Maraimalai Atikal" (Master of Philosophy thesis, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 1986), 1. [BACK]

40. K. R. Chandra, A Critical Study of Paumacariyam (Muzaffarpur: Research Institute of Prakrit, Jainology and Ahimsa, 1970), 120-38. [BACK]

41. Dineshchandra Sen, The Bengali Ramayanas (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1920), 28. [BACK]

42. D. T. Suzuki, trans., The Lankavatara Sutra (Boulder, Colo.: Prajna Press, 1978), 4-6. [BACK]

43. See Clinton Seely, "The Raja's New Clothes," in this volume. Irschick notes that Madhusudan Dutt wrote his work after he returned from a trip to Madras ( Politics and Social Conflict in South India , 284, n. 23). Nandy mentions that Asit Bando-padhyay, a Bengali literary critic, traced Dutt's interpretation of the Ramayana to a Jain Ramayana : Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), 19, n. 29. [BACK]

44. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy , 20. [BACK]

45. See Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), for an analysis of this form of debate. [BACK]

46. Kenneth Jones, "Hindu-Christian Polemics in Nineteenth-Century Punjab" (paper presented for the panel "Vernacular Religious Polemics and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century India," 37th annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, Philadelphia, 1985), ms. p. 16; Dayananda Sarasvati is quoted on ms. p. 12. The passage from Revelations reads, in the King James version: "And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand; and I heard the number of them." [BACK]

47. Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in South India , 283-84. [BACK]

48. T. Ponemballem Pillai, "The Morality of the Ramayana," Malabar Quarterly Review 8, no. 2 (June 1909), 83. V. P. Subramania Mudaliar also summarizes Sundaram Pillai's ideas concerning the Ramayana and caste: see "A Critical Review of the Story of Ramayana and An Account of South Indian Castes Based on the Views of the Late Prof. P. Sundaram Pillai, M.A.," Tamil Antiquary 1, no. 2 (1908): 1-48. [BACK]

49. M. S. Purnalingam Pillai, Ravana the Great: King of Lanka (Munnirpallam: The Bibliotheca, 1928), 78. Such works were only the beginning of a set of explorations into the Ramayana from a Dravidian perspective. See, for example, Cantiracekara Palavar, Iramayana, Araycci , 5 vols. (Madras: Kuti Aracu Patippakam, 1929-49); Arinar Anna, Kamparacam (Madras: Bharati Patippakam, 1986). [BACK]

50. At times E.V.R. criticizes Rama for being cruel to Sita after she returns from Lanka, but in other places he implies that she was a wanton woman who became pregnant by Ravana ( Characters in the Ramayana , 27 and 48-49). Cf. Rudolph, who describes the way "Dravidian" interpretations of the Ramayana have focused on Sita, in this way: "Sita is no longer the devoted Hindu wife, the model for Brahmanical culture; rather she is Ravana's paramour who did not resist but 'clung like a vine' when she was abducted. Whether Sita struggled or clung has become, like many other points in this epic, a matter for bitter, even violent dispute" ("Urban Life and Populist Radicalism," 288). [BACK]

51. Periyar E. V. Ramasami, The Ramayana (A True Reading ), 3d ed. (Madras: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution, 1980). E. V. Ramasami (A Pen Portrait ) was written in 1962 by "an admirer" (repr. Madras: Dravidian Kazhagam, 1984). [BACK]

52. For an account of these riots, see Michael H. Fisher, A Clash of Cultures: Awadh, the British, and the Mughals (Riverdale: Riverdale Company, 1987), 227-34. [BACK]

53. Organiser , 1 May 1971. For a discussion of the origin of the drama, see Venu, Periyar Oru Carittiram , 19-20. [BACK]

54. For the DMK's use of film, see Robert Hardgrave, "When Stars Displace the Gods: The Folk Culture of Cinema in Tamil Nadu," in his Essays in the Political Sociology of South India , 92-100. For accounts of the relationship between the DK and the DMK, see ibid., 39-80; Barnett, Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India , 69-158; P. Spratt, D.M.K. in Power (Bombay: Nachiketa Publications, 1970), chap. 2. [BACK]

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