Though Ramasamy [Periyar] claimed his rationalism was a product of his own mind, he was quite knowledgeable about rationalist organisations in the West and had published translations of rationalist tracts from elsewhere in Tamil. His rationalism in relation to religion can be summed up in the following slogan which he popularised throughout his post-nationalist political career: “He who created god is a fool, he who propagates god is a scoundrel, and he who worships god is a barbarian.” Given this disenchanted view of religion, he described in 1924 the idol at the Vaikkom temple as “a mere piece of stone fit only to wash dirty linen with.” Such criticism of religion continued all through his life: “Had it not been for the rationalist urge of the modern days, the milestones on the highways would have been converted into gods. It does not take much time for a Hindu to stand a mortar stone in the house and convert it into a great god by smearing red and yellow powders on it...”

Setting up rationality and religion as oppositional, he also claimed that self-willed reason alone could restore the real worth of those enslaved by religion: “Men today do not have self-confidence. They do not think that [it is] they who conduct [their affairs] on their own. They have made a muddle of god, god’s dictates, god’s philosophy, all of which were invented by man himself.” And further: “God and fate are the direct enemies of reason. Because anyone enslaved by god and fate has nothing of his own. He is a piece of wood, floating on water [without any direction].” For Ramasamy, self- respect and rationality were necessary allies: “I have...broken the idols of Pillayar and burnt pictures of Rama. If, in spite of these words and acts of mine, thousands of people throng my meetings, it only indicates that self-respect and wisdom have dawned on them.” Treating reason as the foundation, he applied his rationality to religious texts and mythologies, and read them literally to show them up as tales of fantasy.

He debunked religious practices, rituals, festivals. In short, basing himself on rationalism, Ramasamy engaged with Hinduism as a unified field of false beliefs.

The people addressed by this rational critique of religion were primarily non-Brahmins. The Self-Respect Movement wanted its followers to employ self-willed rationality as a means to gain control over their lives. This is perhaps why Ramasamy’s rationalism equally relentlessly ridiculed popular religious beliefs, practices, and festivals of non-Brahmins too, as part of this consistent rationalism.

Alongside, Ramasamy foregrounded a specific form of Hinduism as essential Hinduism. And this essential Hinduism argued a discursive unity between Hindu and Brahmin. It was in this similar to the claims advanced by Orientalists and their reappropriation by Brahmins. As Thomas R Metcalf notes, one of the strategies adopted by British Orientalists to account for the native religion’s diversity of practices was “to insist upon the centrality of “Brahmanism” as the historic core of the Hindu faith, and to regard so-called popular, or devotional, Hinduism as a “whole vegetation of cognate beliefs sprouting up in every stage of growth beneath the shadow of the great orthodox traditions and allegories of Brahmanism.”” Similarly, for Ramasamy the evolution of Hinduism began with the Vedic religion and transformed over time as the Aryan religion, the Brahmin religion, and finally as the Hindu religion. More than his rational dismissal of religion, his critique of this essential Hinduism is of key importance in understanding how he reconceptualised the figure of the Brahmin.

Three Hindu religious texts were consciously chosen by his movement in advancing the idea of an essential Hinduism – the Manusmriti, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Importantly, all three texts attempted to transcend sectarian affiliations among Hindus and present a unified Hinduism. According to Wendy Doniger and Brian K Smith, “...Manu is one of the first “orthodox” works to extricate itself from the system of competing ritual schools and affiliations...Manu is an attempt at consolidation and unity...In this respect, the text serves as a compliment to the Bhagavad Gita and, indeed, to the great epics as a whole (Mahabhatata and Ramayana), whose objectives were similar.” Significantly, the Sanatana-Dharma Catechism published by the Theosophical Society for the benefit of Hindu boys and girls, designates the Manusmriti, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (along with the Puranas) as the “chief books” from which one “learns the Sanatana-Dharma.”

Invoking the authority of Manu was standard practice among Brahmins, his authority being so pervasive that he was cited even in the most mundane situations. For example, responding to charges made against the trustees of the Triplicane temple for not keeping the temple tank clean, one V Srinivasachariar wrote with self-righteous anger thus:

The trustees are not responsible for the following but the ardent and devoted Brahmanas who are in the sphere of the tank. 1. The tank is rendered unclean and dirty mostly by the Brahmanas who live around it. At day-dawn, plantain leaves, cooked food, vegetables and other remnants of Sharadha, afloat on the water. 2. All day long clothes are washed. 3. In the evening the tank is used for cleaning the blackened cooking vessels of the people around it. 4. Again in the early hours the steps of the same are used as latrines...The Brahmanas who are well-versed in the Shastras are committing the above nuisances, in the face of Manu’s direct prohibition.

Manu’s authority continues in this manner even today. For instance, in a book published by the Government of India in 1980 and reprinted in 2000, Prasanta Bihari Mukharji, former chief justice of the Calcutta High Court, redescribed Manu’s prohibitions on the different varnas (without ever mentioning caste) thus: “The remarkable significance of Manu’s social philosophy lies in his emphasis on biology and eugenics to produce the right type of responsible members of orderly human society...Hybridisation destroys the basic material of the human being and Manu describes it as the major cause of the decline and destruction of state and society.”

Vocal criticism against the Manusmriti as legislating the degradation of non-Brahmin castes through Varnashrama Dharma, the backbone of casteism, was a daily refrain of the Self-Respect Movement. Ramasamy argued: “If there is no varnashrama dharma, there is no ground to talk about Hindu religion.” As early as 1922, when still a nationalist, he advocated burning the Manusmriti. Treating Varnashrama Dharma as the fundamental institution of Hinduism, he claimed the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana too legitimated and propagated Manu’s caste codes.

Ramasamy was well aware of the importance that the Bhagavad Gita had gained over time in the Brahminic national imagination.

Endorsing BR Ambedkar’s criticism of the Gita, he noted: “Beginning from Gandhi to Achariyar [C Rajagopalachari], it has become the task of prominent High Court judges and important men to praise the Gita. Further it is considered in this country an honour to produce commentaries on the Gita and to translate it into English.” (Rajagopalachari had in fact published his commentaries on the Gita in 1937.) One may also recall here that one of the declarations that any non-Brahmin aspirant to membership of the League of Liberal Brahmins had to make was – “I have studied the Bhagavad Gita and I believe in the philosophy and ethics of the Vedic religion as taught therein.” Contrary to such elite enthusiasm, Ramasamy treated the Gita as a text endorsing Varnashrama Dharma. Explicating how it affirmed the caste system he noted in 1934: “The words of “God” which appear in the Bhagavad Gita approve of it [caste]: “I created the four varnas. I created the dharmas (duties) to be carried out by respective castes. If anyone does not follow his duty, I will put him in hell.” Lord Krishna, the philosophical god of the Hindus, has uttered these words...Can those who believe that Krishna is a god or that the Gita is his prophecy eradicate caste?”

Excerpted with permission from Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present, MSS Pandian, Permanent Black and Ashoka University.