Periyar: A Man Little Understood
Nalini Rajan
THE PERIYAR CENTURY: THEMES IN CASTE, GENDER AND RELIGION by S.V. Rajadurai and V. Geetha Bharathidasan University, 2009, 320 pp., 105
April 2009, volume 33, No 4

Roughly 2500 years ago, there lived a man called Socrates, who maintained that a life not examined was a life not worth living. Tragically, for that very reason, he was put to death by being forced by the Athenian state to drink hemlock. Closer home, in the first seventy-odd years of the twentieth century, lived a Socratic figure, called Periyar E.V. Ramaswami, who suffered a fate worse than state-sponsored murder. For nearly two decades after his death in 1973, his ideas were abandoned and, if at all his name was invoked in the state of Tamil Nadu, where he lived most of his life, it was either a symbolic gesture or a political gimmick. Periyar, unsuspecting of a parallel denouement to the story of his own life, often quoted the Greek wisdom with fervour in his writings and speeches.

The book under review is to be commended for resurrecting Periyar’s most radical and thought-provoking ideas and publicizing them for a wide English-speaking audience. In a sense, this collection of essays is a sequel to the authors’ Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: from Iyothee Thass to Periyar, which was published in 1998. V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai offer these books as a tribute to the memory of Periyar, whom they describe as a ‘great Tamil iconoclast and subversive genius’.

Periyar—like M.K. Gandhi—lived through turbulent times, between 1879 and 1973. Like Gandhi, Periyar had a clear preference for the workings of civil society over the state. However, unlike Gandhi, Periyar turned to Reason and maintained that the ‘truths’ Gandhi claimed as his personal truth were not universal, and therefore not of much use. If the immediate was of paramount importance to Gandhi, the future was full of promise for Periyar. Gandhi searched within himself for the female and the untouchable; Periyar looked outwards for these categories, towards the socio-political collective. All in all, Gandhi’s satyagraha principle was too remote and abstract for the man of reason, Periyar. In 1927, Periyar parted ways with Gandhi, because of the latter’s unshakeable faith in varnashrama dharma.

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