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Part 1: The Dravidian Movement

Introduction to the Series

Let a Hundred Ideologies Bloom

If we examine the political history of India starting from, say the late nineteenth century, up to the present day, one could make the case that in one sense, it has been the age of ideologies, especially nationalistic ideologies. During this period, we have had the genesis and growth of Indian, Hindu, Islamic, Khalistan (Sikh) and various regional nationalisms. With the exception of perhaps Marxist/Communist nationalism, all of these different nationalisms are deeply intertwined with some or other religious, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural identity. Thus, this age of nationalisms in Indian history has also been the age of identity politics.

On one hand, it could be argued that nationalism has had beneficial effects, whether it be uniting people from different walks of life together in the freedom struggle against the British, or galvanizing Hindus into reclaiming some of their ancient heritage sites and temples. On the other hand, nationalism and identity politics has also produced some disturbing consequences in India, such as the partition, vote bank politics, and communal violence. Why so many nationalist movements grew and blossomed during this period is a different question for a different time. For my purposes, I wish to critically examine the intellectual foundations of one such movement I have done extensive research on, namely, the Dravidian movement.

On March 6, 2018, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader H Raja tweeted that the statue of the iconic Tamil nationalist, E.V. Ramaswami Naicker (commonly known as ‘Periyar’) in Tamil Nadu would be razed to the ground, following the destruction of a statue of communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in the state of Tripura. The situation quickly escalated following that tweet: All the major political parties of Tamil Nadu, including the largest one, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progress Federation) demanded central government action against Raja. The next day, four men from an organization known as the Dravida Viduthalai Kazhagam (Dravidian Freedom Organization) cut the sacred threads of some Brahmins in Mylapore. Since the ascent of MK Stalin to power in Tamil Nadu, Dravidian politics has become more incendiary. On August 14, 2021, the DMK began a scheme of appointing new Sivachariyas from non-Brahmin communities as purohits and pujaris in Saivite temples across Tamil Nadu. Some of the Brahmin Sivachariyas responded that this move was made for political reasons, and would result in unqualified ritual performers being hired and in turn cause the Saivite temple rituals to be vitiated.  Recently on September 2, 2023, at a conference organized by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Artists Association, Udayanidhi Stalin claimed that Sanatana Dharma was against social justice and equality and needed to be eradicated.

One fascinating aspect of the Dravidian nationalist movement is that it still continues to exert its influence on the politics and the people of both Tamil Nadu and India, over a century after it began. The political parties of Tamil Nadu still emphasize Tamil national pride, and E.V. Ramaswami Naicker is still revered as an icon by a large section of the Tamil Nadu populace. During this emotionally charged time in both Tamil Nadu and Indian politics, it is worth critically examining the intellectual foundations of Tamil nationalism in order to understand it. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Dravidian movement, in both the media and among certain sections of the intellectual class, ideologically and emotionally tinged rhetoric has taken the place of reasoned dispassionate analysis. These series of articles hope to be one of the steps to remedy this situation.

Dravidian Movement: From Saiva Siddhanta revivalism to Atheism

During the course of the early twentieth century, one of the regional nationalist movements which arose in India was the Dravidian movement. It aimed to create a separate Tamil state during the first half of the twentieth century. An anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindu rhetoric would emerge as the defining feature of this movement. Brahmins, who had lived for centuries in Tamil Nadu, were considered a foreign element in the Tamil nation, corrupting it with their Hindu religion, Sanskrit language and caste system. Traditions that had been part and parcel of the fabric of Tamil society for centuries were rejected as foreign and Aryan. Incredibly, this movement resonated quite well with the masses, and caught fire quickly, within a few decades.

Although the Dravidian movement started in the beginning of the twentieth century, and is commonly known as an anti-religious movement, most closely associated with the fiery iconoclast and anti-religionist E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, the intellectual foundations of this movement were established in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was during this period that certain members of the Paraiyajati started claiming that they were the Adi Dravidas (original Dravidians) of Tamil Nadu, that Buddhism was the original religion of the Tamil people, and that the Brahmins were invaders who had imposed the Hindu religion and its caste system on them. At the same time, a few prominent members of the Saiva Vellala Jati started promoting Saiva Siddhanta as the quintessential Tamil religion.

Siva was reinterpreted as the primary Tamil deity, making Saiva Siddhanta a sort of Tamil monotheism in the hands of these Saivite nationalists. In the process, many of the guru traditions in Tamil Nadu, such as the Kanchi Paramacharya tradition were rejected as foreign, Aryan elements in Tamil Nadu society. In addition, the entire corpus of the Puranas and the Itihasas, as well as Sanskrit rituals, were derided as Aryan/Brahmanical and false. In contrast, Tamil bhakti poetry and songs directed toward Siva and Murugan were considered part of Tamil culture. Within the Tamil religion of the Saivite nationalists, Visnu and his avatars become Aryan gods who have no place in Saiva Siddhanta. By the second decade of the twentieth century, this neo-Saivite revivalism had given way to a politicized, rationalist Dravidian movement that sought to completely remove Brahmin influence on Tamil culture and Hinduism (which it saw as a Brahmanical religion) from Tamil Nadu. By the late 1930s, the Dravidian nationalists began demanding a separate, sovereign state for Tamil speaking people. One common thread that united both the neo-Saivites and the Tamil rationalists was their opposition to what they saw as Brahmanical traditions and Brahmin influence in Tamil Nadu.

Probably the most famous and prominent among these Saivite intellectuals was a man named Maraimalai Adigal (1876-1950). A Saiva Vellala born in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, and educated in Christian missionary schools, he has written numerous works expounding at length about the greatness of Saiva Siddhanta and Tamil culture. Adigal regarded Saiva Siddhanta not only as the original Dravidian religion, but as the foundation for Tamil civilization. Because of this, he rejected any matha or sampradaya other than Saiva Siddhanta as Aryan. Adigal was also one of the first intellectuals who expressed that the Tamil language can stand-alone without Sanskrit loan words (a common feature of all Indian languages) and wanted to create a stand-alone Tamil divested of Sanskrit influence. In order to achieve this goal, he began writing all his books and essays in Tanitamil (stand-alone Tamil), using the least number of Sanskrit-based Tamil words as possible. In Adigal’s mind, getting rid of Sanskrit based words in Tamil meant purifying Tamil of any Brahmanical/Aryan taint. One of the articles in this series will examine and analyze the ideas and assumptions behind the Saiva Siddhanta based Tamil nationalism, with a special focus on the writings of Maraimalai Adigal.

Overview of the Series

In this section, I will give a brief overview of the articles in the upcoming series.

First, the series begins with an analysis of the historical development of the Aryan/Dravidian hypothesis among European intellectuals, the underlying ideas that went into structuring this hypothesis, as well as the conceptual problems and anomalies confronting this hypothesis.

The next topic taken up is a series of heated polemics between the Sri Lankan Tamil Saivite intellectual Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879), and some Protestant missionaries in his native region of Jaffna[1]. Navalar was born to an orthodox Saivite family of the Saiva Vellalajati, and at a young age was enrolled in a Protestant mission school, so that he could learn English and secure an economically viable job. It was at this time that Arumuga Navalar was exposed to the writings and speeches of the Protestant missionaries in Jaffna, who were engaging in aggressive proselytization and vigorously attacked (in verbal and written form) the local Saivite traditions.   It is here that the reader might ask, what does this have to do with the Dravidian movement?  In his response to the Christian missionaries, Arumuga Navalar wrote a series of books and essays in which he not only defends Saivism but also counter attacks Christianity. These polemics eventually lead to Navalar becoming an activist, seeking to reform the local Saivite practices in Jaffna, and grounding it in the Agamas. Navalar’s Saiva Siddhanta reformism would serve as a prelude to the Saiva Siddhanta based Tamil nationalism and revivalism that would take place in Tamil Nadu years later. I explore the nature of these polemics (the missionaries and Arumuga Navalar) given that the two parties come from different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Subsequently, the series will turn its attention to the ideological roots of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. Both the Adi Dravida activists, as well as the Saiva Siddhanta revivalists had a major role to play in this, as discussed before. This article primarily focuses on the writings of Maraimalai Adigal and raises research questions that help us understand his ideas and thought processes better. In the course of analyzing these questions I also critically examine some of the claims and assumptions that have become part and parcel of the Dravidian ideology up to this day.

The final topic of the series revolves around the ”self-respect” phase of the Dravidian movement and the anti-religious form it took in the twentieth century. The prominent figure in this movement is one E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, who is often respectfully addressed as ”Periyar”. It addresses the question of what the self-respect was about? Namely, how was the self respect of the Tamil people linked to rejecting all Hindu traditions? How was anti-Brahmanism an integral part of the self-respect movement? Naicker also propagated Tamil separatism. What was his vision of the Tamil nation-state as a political entity?

I hope this series will be a contribution (however small) in understanding a controversial but important ideological movement, whose ideas have had and continue to have important ramifications for India as a nation, and Indic culture.

(Author’s Note: This is an introduction to a series of articles, critically examining the intellectual and ideological basis of the Dravidian movement, based on the research I did during my doctoral studies).

Feature Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

[1] Jaffna in Sri Lanka continues to be a region with a high concentration of Tamil speaking people

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