Monday, December 31, 2012

Dalit Consciousness in South India

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar: Dalit Consciousness in South India

The present paper deals with the basic components of Dalit consciousness that emerged during the late 19th and early 20th century in South India. Without going in detail into the historical data of the said period, it describes and analyzes the features of Dalit consciousness that was represented by the Dalit thinker, Ayothee Dasa Pandithar (1845 -1914), whose writings were discovered and published very recently (Volumes I & II in 1999 and Volume III in 2003) by their editor G. Aloysious in three volumes. Interestingly, Ayothee Dasa Pandithar lived in an age just immediately prior to Ambedkar and it seems that he has come to associate the Dalit consciousness and revival of Buddhism earlier to Ambedkar. Knowledge about Ayothee Dasa Pandithar challenges the existing view that the Justice Party of the South Indian non-brahmins is the pioneer movement in popularizing the themes of anti-Brahmanism, atheism, critique of Hinduism and caste system. Ayothee Dasa’s construction of Dalit consciousness in Tamil context at the wake of 20th century is pertinent to understand the appearance of Marxist ideology in Tamil region because M. Singaravelu (1860-1946), celebrated as the first communist of South India, started his political career along with Ayothee Dasa Pandithar, too participated in the Buddhist revival in South India and entered into certain debates with Ayothee Dasa to get evolved into a communist after the demise of the latter.

The Context and Life of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar

We do not have the exact data of the birth, family and activities of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar as the Dalit memory of South India has failed to keep such data documented in their accuracy. Consequently, we move forward with the limited information available at present about Ayothee Dasa Pandithar. Ayothee Dasa Pandithar was born in a poor but traditionally educated family of Paraiah community of a north Tamil district. Ayothee Dasa’s father was a recognized Siddha doctor of the native village and the son too continued that profession with merit. The profession of Siddha doctor in a traditional village makes it an obligation to collect and cherish the rare palm leave manuscripts not only of medical interest but also of literary and historical interests. It is claimed that the father of Ayothee Dasa presented a manuscript of Thirukkural, an ancient Tamil ethical treatise to an English officer. Ayothee Dasa Pandithar too was a Siddha medical practitioner apart from collecting and working with very valuable manuscripts of ancient Tamil literarature and history.

The Tamil districts adjacent to Madras city underwent the industrializing and commercializing trends of the urban South Indian city. The traditional agriculture of the neighboring villages of Northern Tamilnadu were affected well early by the colonial policies of spreading money crops cultivation and pauperization of agricultural workers of that region. Historians inform us the impoverishment and consecutive famines in the region. However, the easy migration of agricultural workers into Madras city and westwards toward Kolar goldmines compensated the loss of the traditional modes of agricultural labor. The triangular space between Villupuram, Madras (Chennai) and Kolar appears to be the life space of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar. The proletarianization of the region and exposure to modern life introduced by the English rulers obviously enhanced the emancipatory motivations of the young Ayothee Dasa Pandithar.

The South Indian region already had a good amount of experience of cultural politics in conditions of colonization by the British. The traditional and historical contacts between Srilankan Tamils and South Indian Tamils too largely contributed to the process of linguistic and religious consolidation of the Tamils. The first wave of Tamil awareness is related with the activities of Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879), a Srilankan writer-activist of orthodox non-brahmin Saiva Vellala caste of Jaffna. The Saiva Vellalas of Tamilnadu and Jaffna were the traditional landlords of the region and they were also the custodians of the Saivite temples and mutts. Arumugam Pillai worked in close proximity with the Christian educationalists of Srilanka and himself was the translator of Bible into Tamil. The close associations of Arumugam Pillai with the Christian missionaries infused into him a confidence to reconstruct Saiva religious thought and worship. Arumugam Pillai had two pronged strategy, on the one hand, resisting the Christian conversions in the Jaffna peninsula and on the other hand, consolidating the Saivite orthodox positions. He compiled, published and popularized Saiva religious works in simple and easy Tamil prose, and he himself became the first person to install public schools to children of Saiva families in the Jaffna region. He founded a printing press in Jaffna and another one in Chidambaram in Tamilnadu to propagate Saivite literature. The orthodox Saivite Mutt of Thiruvavaduthurai decorated him with the title Navalar, meaning one who is talented in literary speech.

Arumuga Navalar’s activities were reconstructive and revival in nature of the upper caste Saivite religious practices. While adopting to certain modern moments of innovating Saivite religion imitating the Christian experience, Navalar in core revived the caste question in terms of consolidating the upper caste bargaining power in the context of colonialism in Srilanka. Navalar attempted to push outside the Kannagi worship from the Saivite temple complex on the pretext that Kannagi was a mythico-literary figure of the Jaina influence. Kannagi indeed was the main female character in the ancient Jaina epic Silappathikaram who became a goddess at the end of the epic after the unjust murder of her husband, Kovalan, and her female anger getting exhibited in burning down of the city of Madurai where the murder occurred. Arumuga Navalar also tried to clear the folklorist influences within the Saivite temples in the Jaffna region, thus representing a resurrection of pure Agama (orthodox) Saiva religion. Navalar’s attempts of purifying Saivism from the so-called alien influences became known in Indian Tamil regions too and they were highly appreciated and applauded by the orthodox mutts of Tamilnadu. In the colonial contexts, Arumuga Navalar represented a trend that desired to consolidate the Vellala Saivite caste privileges of the bygone feudal era and making the upper caste Vellalas the main bargainers of power with the British rulers. It was not merely religious consolidation but remaking of caste structure under new conditions. It is a clear episode that somewhere from the middle of 19th century the erstwhile privileged castes of feudal society opened up their negotiating attempts to bargain for more power with the colonial rulers. In terms of identity consciousness coming up during those days, Arumuga Navalar’s efforts must be characterized as creating a narrow caste and religious identity at the interest of pursuing the feudal advantages enjoyed by the vellala caste under colonial conditions.

Similar attempts were taking place in the continental lands of Indian subcontinent too that the Brahmans of Bengal region as well as north western regions of India stepped up their efforts to bargain for power with the British by organizing themselves in Sabhas such as Brahma Samaj, Arya Samaj etc. There was a moment of imitating the western forms with certain amount of reforming the orthodox practices, but Brahmanic revivalism was a sure moment. The revivalists called to go back to the most ancient layers of Brahmanic thinking namely Upanishadic monotheism or Vedic naturalism through which they could eliminate certain puranic-mythological forms of Hinduism that gave space for popular and folklorist forms of beliefs and worship. The Brahmin groups too had claims in the bargain of power with the British. The Brahmin group really succeeded in their efforts by entering into state official jobs and becoming the reliable bureaucrats of British rule in Indian subcontinent. Some scholars are of the view that the Brahmins were the visible bureaucratic face of the British power in India.

Now we come over to the complexities of the cultural politics that got developed in South India, particularly among the Tamils in the late 19th century. In the year 1856 appeared an important book by Bishop Robert Caldwell namely, A Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages that spoke about the autonomous status of Dravidian languages from the languages of Sanskrit group. Different from the traditional books about languages, the book of Caldwell was a modern scientific research work without any space for mythological or religious origin attributed to the origin and development of languages. The book challenged the widespread view about Indian languages that all of them belong to the Sanskrit linguistic family. Caldwell attributed an independent origin and existence to Dravidian languages, the oldest of them being the Tamil language. Caldwell showed that the Tamil language has a long and uninterrupted history of literature for at least 2500 years most of them are available even at present. Caldwell went further to indicate that the Tamil literature evidences a distinct anti-brahmanic content in its history. The annexure part of Caldwell’s book contains pieces of articles on the themes discussing whether the Paraiah’s were Hindus and Tamils. These articles show that the Hindu and Tamil upper castes then were hesitant to include the depressed communities in to the fold of Hindus or Tamils.

The second half of the 19th century was the period in which a very rich number of Tamil literary manuscripts found printing into books and eruption of publishing houses and journals and newspapers in Tamilnadu. The manuscripts of ancient Sangam literature and grammar including Thirukkural and Tholkappiyam, the ethical treatises and epics of post Sangam period and medieval Saivite and Vaishnavite literature found their printed form during this period. Variety of scholars from Tamilnadu and Srilanka, a few of them Dalits, actively involved themselves in searching out and transferring the manuscripts into printed books. This modern publishing activity created a wonderful space for a great and unending semiotic activity and construction of histories in the latter period. From the work of Caldwell and the publishing activities of the first generation of modern Tamil scholars appeared a social and cultural consciousness that is related with the phenomenon of Tamil identity.

In the second half of the 19th century there appeared a Tamil consciousness that rendered priority to the Saivite consciousness although not without challenges to it. The basic achievement of late 19th century was the formation of the Tamil linguistic and literary awareness as a virtual divide from the north Indian Sanskrit oriented constructions of Brahman or Hindu identities. The shift from religion (Saivite) to language (Tamil) may be understood as the expansion of identity and also from religion to secular realm. This has a move of broadening the Tamil identity towards secular and rational markers. Making the identity into a linguistic one and appropriating a secular and semi-rationalist ground contains the Christian contribution too. Many Christian missionary writers directly participated in the making of non-Hindu identities that coincided with secular identities. Some of the Christian thinkers wrote that the Saiva Siddhanta Philosophy was the true and original philosophy of the Tamils. It is not excluded that a Christian-Saiva Siddhanta dialogue changed the Saivite perception and description of the Saiva philosophy itself.

In terms of going into the context of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar, it is pertinent to discuss about Ramalinga Vallalar (1823-1874), particularly regarding a controversy that arose between Vallalar and Navalar in the late 19th century. As we have mentined earlier, Navalar was representing the revival and remaking of a Saivite orthodox identity among the Tamils of Srilanka and South India. However, a contemporary of Navalar, Ramalinga Vallalar in Tamil mainland, who too hailed from one among the northern districts of Tamilnadu, near Madras, represented the birth of a new reformed religion with special focus on Samarasa Sanmargam. Samarasa Sanmargam means a path of religious peace or indiscrimination of people in terms of religious, caste or gender identities. The founder of Samarasa Sanmargam, Ramalinga Vallalar hailed from one of the lower ranks of Saivite castes, however, after witnessing the killing famines spreading across the peasant population of the Northern Tamil districts in the second half of 19th century approached honestly the Saivite Mutts of the region to support the feeding of the famine affected poor people. Unfortunately, the Saivite mutts more particular about the religious identity of the type proposed by Arumuga Navalar, were not interested in saving the common people from famine deaths. They denied the requests of Ramalainga Vallalar and made him fundamentally disappointed with the mutts and the Saivite thought. Turned away from the Saivite institutions, Ramalinga curved out his own space in religion and philosophy making the fact of hunger and a responsive compassionate (Jeevakarunyam) attitude to poor. It has to be noted that Ramalainga has wide popularity among the downtrodden people of northern Tamil districts due to his humanist attitude to the poor. Ramalinga was a first class philosopher different from Arumuga Navalar who was interested only in the institutionalization of Saivism.

Ramalinga’s philosophy starts from the fact of hunger in human beings. He spreads out the idea of hunger basic to all living beings. Hunger should not be dismissed as a need or lack only of human body, according to Ramalinga, because body is related to all human sensations and as much as related to human mind and human spirit. So dismissing hunger just as a problem of human body is not justified. The simplest but essential response of human beings to the suffering of hunger, according to Ramalinga, is compassion (Karunai or Karunya) of humans to other beings. Compassion in the minds of humans in relation to other beings substantiates the social or community living of all humans. Compassion, in this sense, is the essential nature of all living beings. If human beings are defined through ‘finite or determinate compassion’ (Siru-Karunai, literally meaning small compassion), God is defined by his ‘infinite and indeterminate compassion’ (Perung Karunai, meaning bigger compassion). Every human being is measured by God by the yardstick of compassion. Starting from the concepts of hunger and compassion, the philosophy of Ramalinga Vallalar expands to human body which is taken as the suffering entity that needs to be addressed above all, at the interest of saving the spirit itself. At times, Ramalinga’s philosophy takes inspiration from the Siddha medical philosophy of medieval Tamilnadu particularly when he speaks about body, its sufferings and getting rid of those sufferings. It is worth to remember that the problems of hunger, compassion and redemption from hunger remained unspoken for more than 1500 years since the Buddhist epic Manimekalai in Tamil.

Vallalar went out of the philosophical problems constructed around the Saiva Siddhanta concepts of Pati, Pasu and Pasam meaning God, the souls and the fetters that bound the souls. As a creative philosopher, he has gone for fresh concepts and fresh perception of reality. The philosophy of compassion worked out by Ramalinga successfully elaborates further his idea of Samarasa Sanmargam that breaks all boundaries of religious institutional affiliations when the question of hunger appears. Ramalinga’s idea of Samarasa Sanmargam is secular in nature and it is a contribution to the expansion of identity. It challenges the construction of a sectarian Saivite Identity by Arumuga Navalar who had not dedicated even a single line of his writings to the topic of human suffering or hunger. Typical to the period in which Ramalainga lived, his Sanmargam expresses an universalism that goes beyond the narrow identities such as caste, religion or language.

Arumuga Navalar’s upper caste Saivism, the emergence of Brahmanic identity through various Samajams at the all India level, Caldwell’s Tamil identity, Vallalar’s Samarasa Sanmargam etc truly make the context of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar. In other words, emergence of Brahmanism at the national level, reconstruction of feudal Saivism among the Tamils and proposal for a Tamil linguistic identity are the contexts in which the thought of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar flourishes. Pandithar opts for constructing a dalit consciousness that could encounter the above said emerging trends under colonial conditions. With this purpose, he digs into Indian history including the religious history, turns into the Tamil literary heritage, its folk culture and builds a Dalit consciousness that is really an achievement in the entire history of Tamil culture. The urbanizing conditions in northern districts of Tamilnadu played a determining role in the making of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar. They exposed him to various trends of modernization and bargaining of variety of social groups to share emerging power structures, and they compellingly demanded from Ayothee Dasa a dalit response. The Dalit response of Aythee Dasa was not limited to the Dalits alone but universal in nature in the sense that first time in the history of Tamil thought he makes social liberation as the main theme of his discussions.

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar and Reconstruction of History

Like every other movement of the period, Ayothee Dasa Pandithar enters into reconstructing the cultural history of India, particularly the Tamil region. Ayothee Dasa holds the view that Buddhism is the great native and original tradition of India, also of the Tamils. Ayothee Dasa’s idea of Buddhism includes Jainism too. In a broad sense it may be the Shramanic tradition of India. According to Ayothee Dasa, Buddhism is well early to the Aryan Vedic influence and also to religious traditions such as Saivism and Vaishnavism.

In the Tamil context, Ayothee Dasa is correct in the sense that the multitude of literary works he quotes from ancient Tamil tradition do belong to the Jaina and Buddhist traditions that were chronologically well before the advent of Vedic thought or emergence of Saivite and Vaishnavite religions in Tamil soil. Although the Tamils had a substratum of native Tamil literature untouched by any outside force from the 5th century B.C, the scattered literary works were collected and compiled only after the Jains and Buddhists entered into the Tamil land and started appreciating the ancient heritage of the Tamils. The earliest literature available to us from the Tamil soil bears the name of Sangam literature distinctly informing the Buddhist hand in the collection and edition of it. A late tradition in Tamil history tells that there were altogether three Tamil Sangams in Tamil history and some of the deities such as Murugan and Siva participated in the activities of the Sangams. Tamil researchers come to a conclusion that it is an obvious attempt to erase the Buddhist influence upon the editorial works of Sangam literature, but they could not avoid the word ‘Sangam’ that is well established, but introduced the idea that the Hindu Gods participated in the first Sangams to eliminate the influence of Buddhism in the making of Sangam literature. The age of Sangam literature starts from 5th century B. C. and with the influence of Jainism and Buddhism it continues producing ethical and epic works up to 5th century A.D., and the Saivites and Vaishnavites come to produce their divine hymns only after 5th century A.D.. Of course, the late Sangam literature and the post-Sangam literature contains the influence of Vedic Brahmanic thought too, anyhow only after the Shramanic impact. That the Jains and Buddhists had an irreplaceable early hold upon ancient Tamil literature is an unchallengeable fact of Tamil literature. Apart from the early Tamil literature, the famous Thirukkural, Naladiyar, Innaa NarpaThu, Iniyavai NaarpaThu and other ethical treatises had clear and unambiguous effect of Jaina and Buddhist thoughts. The five famous epics of ancient Tamil, Silappathikaram, Manimekalai, Seevaka Sinthamani, Neelakesi and VaLaiyapathy too are under the ideological weight of Jainism and Buddhism. The Tamil Grammar work, Tholkaappiyam exhibits the influence of Shramanic philosophies. These are the clear evidences of the claim of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar that the Shramanic traditions are earlier to Vedic, Saivite and Vaishnavite religions in Tamilnadu (G. Aloysius (ed.) 1999: Vol II, 90).

In the Indian subcontinental level too, there are strong claims that the Shramanic traditions are chronologically deep in the history of India going beyond the accepted dates of Mahavira and Buddha. This is different from the text book view of history of Indian philosophy that the Vedic thought is older than the periods of living of Mahavira and Buddha. Researchers such as G.C. Pandey and L.M. Joshi argue otherwise and assert that the Shramanic tradition is older than that of Mahavira and Buddha. The Jaina concepts of Mahavira as the last of the 24 thirthankaras and the enumeration of 23 thirthankaras prior to Mahavira one before another takes us to an ancient historical period which becomes well early to the appearance of Aryan thought in India. The Jaina historiography even identifies the Rishabhadeva, one of the early Thirtankaras with the bull-faced yogic figurine discovered among the IndusValley remainings. Buddhism too says that it had earlier Buddhas in history before the appearance of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. G.C. Pandey contends that the genealogy described in Jaina and Buddhist literature cannot be dismissed so easily as it has been done by the text book historians of Indian philosophy. The reputed author maintains that Shramanic tradition is the orthodox thought system of India and the Vedic Aryans intruded into it as alien and heterodox to it.

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar, without having the academic background of modern research, somehow from his immanent reading of ancient Tamil literature comes to the conclusion that Buddhism (along with Jainism) forms the most ancient layer of philosophy and culture of India. Ayothee Dasa Pandithar’s idea of Buddhism often resembles the Marxist concept of primitive communism characteristic of the ancient tribal communities. It is a golden period of equality, compassion and mutual love among the people and a classless and casteless society. The description of Buddhist monks by Ayothee Dasa Pandithar is very much similar to the shamans or traditional leaders of ancient tribes who used to perform multiple duties such as local administration, rendering justice, leading the war, priestly affairs, medical and magical practice.

The historical sketch of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar asserts that the intrusion of Brahmans into the Buddhist dominated ancient India marginalized the Buddhists and the newly found pseudo-Brahmanic priests by deceit and crookedness replaced the Buddhist monks gradually and occupied their place of leadership. The major change they introduced into the Buddhist arrangement is transforming the occupations into professions by birth (G. Aloysiuos 1999: I, 40). In Ambedkarian words, the division of labour was converted into division of labourers. This created the caste system. The pseudo-Brahmans wrote the so-called sacred texts replacing the Buddhist texts justifying the caste system and attributing divine origin to it. The defeated Buddhist masses were pushed outside the city limits or village limits and were named as untouchables. Ayothee Dasa Pandithar places the contradiction between the Buddhists and pseudo-Brahmans at the bottom of the entire history of Indian culture. Although it appears as a religious contradiction, in Ayothee Dasa Pandithar’s rendering it is a social contradiction expressed in religious terms. It is also a contradiction between the ancient order of social equality, ethics and love versus the Brahmanic order of inequality, immorality and no-love. Gail Omvedt rightly points out, “Central to the thinking of the intellectuals of these [Non-Brahman and Dalit] movements was the concept of contradiction as a basic feature of Indian society and history” (2005: 17).

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar prominently uses the term pseudo-Brahmins, that is the Aryan Brahmins, who even picked up the term Brahmins from the early Buddhists. The Buddhists were the true priests of the ancient Indians occupying a social prestige and public approval. They were the organic intellectuals of the ancient communities and many were the kings of the ancient society. However, the truthfulness of the ancient period was spoiled by the pseudo-Brahmins who appropriated the priestly title from the Buddhists and who composed various types of spurious puranic literatures to justify their origin and leadership. Once they achieved superiority, they introduced the caste system with the particular aim of pushing the Buddhists into the social peripheries.

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar’s construction of history encloses the Tamil historical context too. He holds the view that the term Vellala is associated with the agricultural production and the Tamil caste of Vellala included the peasant castes of Tamilnadu. However, inner divisions appeared among the Vellalas of ancient Tamil land. A part of the Vellalas soon became the land owning class and they pushed the remaining toiling Vellalas into the social peripheries and made them into separate castes (G. Aloysiuos 1999: I, 390, 393). Like the pseudo-Brahmins, the land owner Vellalas too humiliated the toiling Vellalas as lower castes. The land owning Vellala caste alienated itself from direct agricultural activities and by way of it also lost the humanitarian values of the earlier agricultural community living. When Ayothee Dasa speaks about Vellalas alienating themselves from the land, he becomes the spokesperson of the toiling masses, the agricultural workers of Tamil region, the paraiyahs or the untouchable castes of the present Tamilnadu.

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar’s construction of history contains the doctrine of conspiracy in history, one people defeating another and marginalizing them for their own sake. Pandithar’s idea of history also includes the concept of an ancient golden past and a consequent fall. The fall may be associated with the political defeats of a set of people, in our case, the Buddhist republican kingdoms. The golden period can also be compared, as it has been indicated above, with the Marxist concept of primitive communism. While Marxism poses the primitive communist state of affairs in terms of classless society, Pandithar constructs it in terms of ethical purity, mutuality and compassion.

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar introduces a unique view into Indian history that the present Brahmins and the so-called Panchamas had a historical animosity from times immemorial. In other words, he holds the view that the Panchamas are the historical rivals of the present Brahmins and they continue to hold that animosity. “If those who are known as Brahmins enter the villages and streets occupied by our people, who were the original Dravidians, but now called Panchamas by the Hindu high caste men, they (Brahmins) are driven out of the place in the most disgraceful manner amidst tumult and uproar, on the ground that the spots stepped on by them have become polluted. The measure adopted to eradicate the impurity thus caused is to cleanse the places trodden by these so-called Brahmins by means of cow-dung and the pots used for such purposes are destroyed beyond the limits of such towns. This treatment is similar to the one done when a person is dead and the body removed from the house.. Such is the hatred between the two classes of people.” (G. Aloysius (ed.) 1999: Vol II, 8).

It is anti-Brahmanism that has appeared in Ayothee Dasa’s writings, possibly, the very first of its type in modern Tamil historiography. It can be noted that Periyar E.V.R’s anti-Brahmanism comes consequent to that of Ayothee Dasa. A mode of counter-untouchability is constructed by Ayothee Dasa Pandithar. The episode also informs that the Dalits are basically anti-Brahmanic. As the worst sufferers of the caste system and untouchability in Indian history, the Dalits are made into the most intensive and consistent anti-Brahmanic community.

We notice that Ayothee Dasa Pandithar constructs a history of India and Tamilnadu basing upon a contradiction at the foundation of history. The idea of placing a contradiction at the base of history is Hegelian and Marxian in content. The idea of contradiction is vital to all philosophy of Hegel and Marx. It is the idea of contradiction that led Karl Marx to the idea of class struggle. In Hegelian and Marxist thoughts, every movement in mind and history, in thought and actuality progresses through contradictions, mediated then and getting resolved. In Marxian thought, the contradiction above all is social or it is class contradiction. In the thought of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar, the contradiction is social and cultural, and it appears not exactly as the contradiction of two classes but as a contradiction between the classless and casteless society on the one hand and the caste-class society on the other hand. The casteless society is ideologically represented by Buddhism and the caste society is represented by Vedic-vedantic and Hindu thought systems.

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar’s Buddhism

Ayothee Dasa’s Buddhism is not a neo-Buddhism. He prominently uses two words Purathanam and Noothanam (II, 117), meaning ancient-original and new-mysterious, and claims that his Buddhism is the original or Purathanic. He has his words of condemnation against the Noothana Buddhism or neo-Buddhism. Pandithar is very much traditional and his Buddhism is mostly constructed from the ancient Tamil and Pali texts. Pandithar had learnt the Pali language and he was able to read and write Pali. His masterly Buddhist work, Adhi Vedham, (G. Aloysius (ed.) 1999: II, 185-420) contains many Pali quotes, their Tamil translations and the Tamil equals from Thirukkural and other Tamil works. He quotes a lot from various Tamil manuscripts available only to the traditional scholars, often only to him. Modern day scholars miserably fail to identify many of the ancient Tamil texts (possibly manuscripts in palm leaves) quoted by Ayothee Dasa Pandithar. Consequently, the Buddhism Pandithar represents is very much away from the known versions of Buddhism in English or in Sanskrit. Pandithar even criticizes those who construct Buddhism from English translated sources. One can find the earliest post colonial critique of orientalist writings on Buddhism in Ayothee Dasa Pandithar’s writings (II, 186). In this sense, Buddhism of Pandithar is unique of its kind. From the Pali sources., Ayothee Dasa tries to reach the most nearest original meaning of Buddhist philosophy.

For Ayothee Dasa Pandithar, Buddhism is the biggest and highly original grand narrative of ancient Indian culture. Buddhism represents the casteless and classless social culture and ethos of ancient India which has determined the entire course of development of the religious culture of the country. The latter religions of India had either inherited or distorted the religious thought of Buddhism in the future course of development. Ayothee Dasa intelligently gleans out the original message of Buddhism even from the distorted texts of latter religions. He quotes elaborately from Tamil Saivite and Siddha texts to dig out the latent Buddhist message from those texts. Apart from this, he abundantly quotes from the Jaina literary and ethical treatises of ancient Tamil erasing the boundaries between Jainism and Buddhism, often calling them together as the Shramana texts. At times, one feels that Ayothee Dasa Pandithar is trying to construct a grand narrative of Buddhism that would include not only Jainism but also the Saivite, Vaishnavite and Siddha thoughts of Indian tradition, particularly the Tamil tradition.

Pandithar enumerates the innumerable names of Buddha such as Buddha, Baghavan, God (Kadavul and Andavan in Tamil), Vinayaka, Kumaraguru, Murugan, Mayon, Brahman, Sivan, Dhakshanamurthy, Satthan, Gopalan, Govindhan, Sankaran, Jagnnathan, Purushotthaman, Indiran etc (II, 17-18, II, 111, II, 121, II, 67). As it may be guessed, many of the names attributed here to Buddha came to be known as the names of Siva and Vishnu independently afterwards. Some of the names are of the Tamil native Gods (II, 69). However, Ayothee Dasa has his own justifications to attribute them to Lord Buddha. Pandiithar argues that many religious symbols such as Chakra or yogic postures have originally hailed from Buddhism latter to be appropriated by Vaishnaviam and Saivism. The Tamil historians have brought out innumerable episodes of Saivite and Vaishnavite appropriation of Buddhist and Jain temples. The ancient name of the country is Indira Desam and its God is Indira or Buddha himself and its religion is Buddhism (II, 116-117), according to Pandithar. Many so-called Hindu festivals such as Sankaranthi, Thirukarthikai, Deepavali, Ayutha Puja etc find rational explanations in the hands of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar and their foundations are said to be associated with Buddhism (II, 53, 45, 47). The origin of Tamil language too and composition of its grammar and standardization etc again are related to Buddhism, asserts Ayothee Dasa. Pandithar wisely associates his thoughts on Buddhism with the traditional classification of Tamil landscapes into Kurinji, Mullai, Marutham, Neythal and Palai (II, 383-388). And finally, sociologically, the ancient Buddhists were casteless Dravidians. Pandithar appealed to the British Government to register the Dalits of the region as casteless Dravidians in their census records.

Ayothee Dasa’s construction of Buddhism contains a strong moment of inclusivism in the sense that Buddhism is foundational to all religious thought of ancient India and even comprises many of the concepts and practices attributed afterwards to Saivism and Vaishnavism. The inclusive approach of Pandithar is comparable to the Vedantic or Vedic exclusivism constructed by Brahma Samaj and Arya Samaj intellectuals of the same period. The Vedic thinkers tried to emulate the monism of western philosophies or the monotheism of Christian theology and attempted to show, above all, the western world that their philosophies are in no way less abstract and rational in comparison to the western ways of doing philosophy. Internally, willingly or unwillingly, they tried to focus the Brahmanic thought as the most ancient, native and developed form of Indian thought. At the social level, it meant that the Brahmins are the elite of India. In their attempts of such an exclusiveness, they utterly neglected and disregarded the Buddhist religion and philosophy that are widespread among many Asian countries and were having the most developed conceptual and logical apparatus.

Pandithar’s construction of a Buddhist grand narrative is also comparable to Arumuga Navalar’s way of dealing with Saivism. As it has been mentioned above, Navalar’s Saivism is orthodox and narrow. It excluded so many components that were available in the practice of Saivism at the actual level. Pandithar travels in the opposite direction. He responded to the general condition of the times that demanded expansion of identity or merging of identities. In the case of Ramalinga, we noticed that the idea of Sanmargam was inclusive and expanding to casteless, religionless and genderless sphere. Although Ayothee Dasa’s attempt was different, however, he moves towards an inclusive realm where caste does not make a mark. His concept of ‘casteless Dravidians’ itself is an expansion of identity with a social demand. Ayothee Dasa appealed to the British census authorities that the dalits should be registered in the census records as casteless Dravidians. His stress upon the Buddhist ideas of compassion, dependent origination etc are characteristic of his inclusive approach. The most interesting part of Ayothee Dasa’s thought is that his inclusive approach is not weakening him from the critical spirit he above all representing. Pandithar was able to travel comfortably both with his inclusive and uncompromisingly critical approaches.

Ayothee Dasa is intensely critical of the institutionalized religions of the country for their distortion of the sociological, ethical and cultural message of the original thought of ancient India. It is the pseudo-Brahmins who above all disfigured the ancient wisdom of India. Hinduism came into existence sociologically to introduce caste system and making superstitious the festivals and other rituals of the ancient culture. The Buddhist principles of Panchashila and Karma too were distorted beyond recognition (II, 144). Pandithar prominently uses the word “religious shop-keepers or religious shoppers” (II, 151, 140) who made the religions into money making business and introduced income oriented rituals (II, 132). The habit of paying the God, then paying the priests and finally, paying for everything, have come into Hindu practice corrupting the entire social life (II, 166). Ayothee Dasa develops a wonderful argument that Buddhism being the most orthodox of Indian thoughts has not disappeared from India but only exists distorted or latent in Indian culture. It exists in Indian languages, grammars, literary theories, in the cultural practices of the people, in the native ethics of the people (II, 424). Ayothee Dasa sets himself to revive the Buddhist spirit.

Ayothee Dasa Pandithar describes the life and teachings of Lord Buddha in his monumental work “Adhi Vedham” based on Pali and Tamil sources. The book is around 250 pages closely printed in the recent edited volumes of G. Aloysious. There is a note of the son of Ayothee Dasa that in the death bed (5th May 1914) of Pandithar he maintained that it was his basic work on Buddhism that should be followed by his cohorts after his demise (II, 784). The book contains a wonderful description of the Buddhist philosophy mostly shown as a rational religion or a reasonable culture. The idea of God is not at all necessary to Ayothee Dasa to call a thought system as a religion. Neither he has any contempt to the term God. It was an epithet attributed to the liberated souls of Jainas and Buddhists, according to Pandithar. In many places of his writings, he justifies the term god.

Ayothee Dasa does not use the western classifications such as ontology, epistemology or axiology in his exposition of Buddhism. Rather he prefers a comprehensive presentation of Buddhism as a culture, as an ethos or as a way of life. He elucidates the four noble truths, the ashtanga marga and other principles of Buddhism but not at all one standing apart from the other. We get a complete and inclusive exposition of Buddhism in Ayothee Dasa’s writings. The Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination is elaborately explained to indicate the fundamental interconnectedness of body, sensations, mind, desire, craving, bondage, ego, thought and finally, the feelings of pleasure and pain, suffering and rebirth. If this dependence is clockwise, it makes a person more and more enter into the earthly life and its consequent sufferings, and if the movement is in opposite direction or anti-clockwise it makes a person released from the bondage one by one and takes him/her to the state of Nirvana or Sunyata. These two movements of entering more and more into Samsara and again moving towards Nirvana are very elaborately explained by Ayothee Dasa Pandithar. Pandithar’s understanding of Buddhism is very lucid and sincere, and without any traces of scholasticism or dogmatism.

The principle of Anatma or Non-Self is vital to Ayothee Dasa. Anatma is categorically against any individuation and the related evils of individuation. Nirvana in consequence of deconstruction of the individuation is the state of community living. It is a replica of the ancient society that was without private property, classes or castes. Ayothee Dasa’s description of Buddhism names it a society of equality, compassion and one with nature. Pandithar goes to the age of non-subjectivities or community-life, moving from atma to anatma, to truth that is Nirvana (II, 268). The earlier state of entering more and more into the Samsara is egoistic or a state of clash of subjectivities every one basing on one’s ego and subjectivity. Ayothee Dasa is generous to call the state of anatma and Nirvana as Brahman, or Siva. Once the real meaning of the state is understood, there need not be any clash in naming, that is the stand of Ayothee Dasa.

Ayothee Dasa’s description of Buddhism is not world negative as usually ascetic philosophies are portrayed. Through Buddhism, a human being returns to the world with an ethical state. Body is not negated by Pandithar. He clearly states that without a body, there is no sensation and there is no mind and thought. They are all organically united or one depending upon the other. It is not at all possible to find the dualism or dichotomy of body and mind as they are used to be in western philosophy. We find a very positive attitude to life in Ayothee Dasa’s description of Buddhist thought.

There was a Buddhist revival movement in Tamil region during the period of Ayothee Dasa. Singaravelu, Lakshmi Narasu, G. Appadurai and a few others were the active participants of the Buddhist revival. Singaravelu was the founder of the Mahabodhi Society in Chennai and had his close contacts with the Buddhists of Srilanka. Lakshmi Narasu was the author of a famous book on Buddhism “The Essentials of Buddhism” that attracted Dr. Ambedkar. Lakshmi Narasu also wrote on Caste system in India. All the four activists referred although had so many common initiatives, however, differed in their understanding of Buddhism and society. Singaravelu’s understanding of Buddhism overlapped with rationalism of western type and he became a vigorous propagator of science and atheism in early 20th century. Further he shifted his interests in the Self-Respect Movement of Periyar E. V.R. and tried to turn Periyar into the leftist politics. Singaravelu and Periyar had a plan to begin a political party by the name Self-Respect Egalitarian Party (Suyamariyathai Samaththuvak katsi) and resolutions on that account were passed in the Self-Respect Conferences. However, the British and some members of the Justice Party thwarted the plans and it did not get materialized. Lakshmi Narasu’s understanding of Buddhism too was different from Ayothee Dasa’s that he too derived Buddhism mostly from western sources. For him too, Buddhism is humanism, rational and a progressive secular philosophy. Ayothee Dasa’s Buddhism is peculiarly different from the earlier scholars that he derived much of his Buddhist insights from the Tamil sources. Buddhism for Pandithar was related to Tamil Language and its culture and ethos. This way of a comprehensive cultural understanding Buddhism was uniquely Ayothee Dasa’s. From his wide reading of sources of Buddhism, he constructs a grand narrative of Buddhism. I call it a grand narrative knowing the implications of that term in post modern writings. However, my meaning of the term grand narrative is slightly different. I mean it a grand narrative in the sense that Buddhism has been identified as the master paradigm of Indian religions and culture. Ayothee Dasa himself names Buddhism as the Aadhi Vedam or Purva Bauththam taking their meaning to the term master paradigm.

Buddhism is maintained as the master paradigm of Indian culture by Ayothee Dasa for too many reasons. To enumerate them, first of all, Ayothee Dasa holds the view that chronologically it is the oldest thought system of India. He proposes the view that Buddhism was born in India along with the first earliest languages of India. According to him, Buddhism is inscribed in the linguistic patterns or grammar of Dravidian, Pali and Sanskrit languages (He calls it the linguistic Lakshana). Buddhism, according to Ayothee Dasa, is the philosophy that offered the Lakshana (another word in Tamil, Ilakkanam meaning grammar) of these languages. In this sense, Buddhism represents the orthodox or the original frame of Indian culture. It is a philosophy, religion, culture and ethos of the ancient peoples who populated the land. Sociologically, it represents also the casteless and classless age of Indian past. It preaches, according to Ayothee Dasa, the ancient community living, its organic values of practical knowledge, egalitarian sharing and communal harmony (Viththai, Bhuddhi, Eehai and Sanmargam). Viththai, a tamil word, renders the meaning that the ancient people were not much interested in the abstract conceptual knowledge but paid primary attention, as it is natural, to the practical skill or craftsmanship of an occupation. Approximately, the ancient Buddhist society stands similar to what the Marxists call the primitive communism that was classless, stateless and without private property. While the Marxists conceive the primitive communism and other consecutive social systems in terms of economy and politics, Ayothee Dasa Pandithar differs from the Marxists that the ethical values or cultural binding in their community form occupies priority.

Once Buddhism is taken as the chronologically ancient thought system of Indian culture, the entry of the Aryan Brahmanic culture is seen as the intrusion and distortion of the ancient community ethos of the Indians. Ayothee Dasa, on the basis of certain rare documents of his own, constructs the history of how the Aryans by name Purusikars entered into the ancient land of the Buddhists. The Aryan Brahmins, apart from defeating the commune leaders by military means, seeing the popularity of the Buddhists priests in ancient India, entered into the cultural arena defeating them and occupying the priestly profession. Once the Brahmin priests targeted the religion and culture, they introduced the caste bound ideology and consolidated it with the help of rituals and religious writings. The Purisika Aryans preferred to capture the culture because mere economic and political domination may not, during those days, serve their purpose of total domination. This is a period of counter revolution or reaction in Indian history to use an Ambedkarian or Marxian term. The Buddhist priests were gradually replaced by the Brahmin priests. Along with that appeared the displacement of Buddhists from the centre of social life into the peripheries or margins of settled life in India and stigmatizing them as inferior and low in caste order. Inferiorization or degradation of the native people in terms of religion and culture has become the main instrument of political and economic domination of the natives.

Ayothee Dasa’s Buddhist master paradigm is justifiable on another account too. If we carefully look at the conceptual structure of various school of Indian philosophy, we can notice that the Buddhist basics of Dukkha and Dukkha Nivarana really make the master paradigm for many religions of ancient India. The Dukkha is elaborated by Buddhism as the sufferings caused by death, ageing and disease that are somehow related with human birth itself. Consequently, some of the philosophies of ancient India formulated the philosophical paradigm as escape or release from birth. The Buddhist Wheel represents the cycle of existence in its dependent origination which when circles clock-wise makes the humans involved in selfish earthly life more and more whereas when circled anti-clockwise releases the humans from the tangles of self and earthly sufferings. It is at this juncture, a few philosophies added the concept of Atman at the one end and the concept of Brahman or God at the other end, keeping the problem of Dukkha or suffering at the middle, thus constructing their philosophies in theistic form which is thoroughly alien to Buddhism. When the concepts of atman and Brahman were introduced into the philosophy of ancient Indians, it meant a drastic distortion because atman came to mark the appearance of individualism, socially meaning the appearance of private property, relations of power and caste system. The Philosophy of Buddhism is the philosophy of anatman, or selflessness, celebrating the community. The ways and means of atman to reach Brahman or God were also distorted in such a manner to include the caste oppressive ideology wherever it was needed. The relations between Atman and Brahman were modeled in terms of domination and submission that reflected the then appearing slavery or feudal caste relations. With the stable establishment of feudal caste relations, the themes of atman (or Jiva) and God were made more prominent than the initial paradigm of Dukkha and Dukkha Nivaran. This way of understanding Indian philosophy would inform us that Buddhism has laid the master paradigm of Indian philosophy and in the course of history, as the needs arose for caste ideology, its theoreticians have only distorted the Buddhist paradigm as per their needs. According to Ayothee Dasa, by defeating Buddhism and introducing the caste system, the caste ideologues have distorted and falsified the linguistic lakshanas of the ancient languages. Ayothee Dasa allocates a lot of pages to explain the initial meaning of Buddhist thought with a sociological reading of that philosophy.

Now we understand why Ayothee Dasa revived Buddhism in modern times. The once defeated or distorted Buddhism has brought to the focus by Ayothee Dasa in order to replay and reenact the ancient struggle of Buddhism, a philosophy of casteless community life against the caste philosophy of atman and Brahman (or God). This re-enactment of conflict becomes a pertinent need to Ayothee Dasa Pandithar in the struggle for the annihilation of caste in modern times.

Ayothee Dasa’s Critique of the Ethos of Suyappirayosanam

Now we pass over to the modern dimension of Ayothee Dasa’s reconstruction of Buddhism. Although Ayothee Dasa’s construction of Indian history can be seen from the point of view of appearance of caste system in Indian history, his appreciation of the community life of Buddhism could also be understood as a reactive response to certain western values that were spreading across the country under colonial conditions.

Ayothee Dasa enters into the debate of modern Brahmins and non-brahmin upper castes appropriating modern English education. He brings to focus the upper castes consciously assimilating the western education and trying to enter government jobs of revenue collection, local administration etc. Ayothee Dasa indicates that the upper caste interest in education and bureaucratic jobs is related not with any genuine interest in education or knowledge, but it is related with their attempts to make use of the opportunities rendered by the British for the reconsolidation of their upper caste position existing from previous ages. Ayothee Dasa uses a phrase that says that it is nothing but an attempt to unite their caste position with government position (combining the “jati” power and “raajaanga” power) (G. Aloysius 1999: I, 357). The feudal castes try to combine their erstwhile upper caste position with the newly acquired government position. Their knowledge, education and government positions are not going to be benefited to the depressed communities, says Ayothee Dasa. On the other hand, they are all directed exclusively towards their self interest. Ayothee Dasa coins a term “suyappirayosanam” that marks the self interest of these upper caste elite (G. Aloysius, 1999: I, 43, 44). The term “Suyappirayosanam” appears very prominently in the writings of Ayothee Dasa to mean the change of value that is occurring among the local elite under colonial conditions. Suyappirayosanam literally means self interest, self centeredness, selfishness and self use. In modern European meaning, it would mean individualism. Further its meaning may also include such features as utilitarianism, consumerism, pragmatism etc. However, we have to make out the meaning of the term not necessarily from the European sources and Ayothee Dasa himself reaches the term from his own understanding of Indian history and Buddhism.

Ayothee Dasa argues that the feudal castes have long back alienated and estranged from the land, labour and practical skills of agricultural works. This alienation occurred with the introduction of caste relations into agriculture. The hard working agricultural labourers were degraded by the lazy owners of land as inferior and low castes. Along with the alienation from land and introduction of caste discriminations, the feudal castes have become lost all community ethos and values such as Viththai, Buddhi, Eehai and Sanmargam. The law of Suyappirayosanam has started working from the moment caste values were introduced into the community life of the ancient Indians (G. Aloysius 1999: I, 55, 66, 67). So, the already alienated upper castes are now using the opportunities introduced by the colonial capitalists continuing their adherence to their philosophy of Suyappirayosanam. It is astoundingly interesting to understand how the genius of Ayothee Dasa could capture the commonness between the caste exploitation of Indian history and modern capitalist forms of exploitation under the term Suyappirayosanam.

For Ayothee Dasa, Buddhism is the philosophy of non-self (anatmavada), it is a philosophy of community and it is a philosophy of equality. The philosophy of self-centeredness originated in India with its philosophy of Atman, the distinguishing pure essence of self. The philosophy of Atman, at times imitating the philosophy of Anatman in its ways of purifying the mind, got distorted ultimately to become the philosophy of the caste system. As this was the case of ancient India, presently under colonial conditions, again the philosophy of Self has started to reappear. Ayothee Dasa names the new philosophy as philosophy of Suyappirayosanam. His way of placing the term “Suyam” or self as the prefix of the word is wonderful. The new wave of individualism revived under colonial capitalist conditions seems to be equated by Ayothee Dasa to the origin condition of Buddhism in ancient India. As the philosophy of Atman appeared as the philosophy of individualism and then caste system in ancient India, the philosophy of Suyappirayosanam would logically intensify the caste system in modern conditions. In Ayothee Dasa’s understanding, which appears to us exact, the philosophies of Suyappirayosanam, Atman-Self, Caste system, Capitalism and Individualism, all stand to indicate the exploitative relations in social life and Buddhism with its Anatman etc is categorically against all of them.

Ayothee Dasa raises a very pertinent question, how could the supporters of the Swedeshi movement engage themselves without any hesitation in producing money crops or commercial crops that by destroying traditional crops have caused so many famines in the Northern districts of Tamilnadu? (G. Aloysius 1999: I, 42). It means that the swedeshi supporters are interested only against the British rule but not against the growth of capitalist relations in agriculture. It shows that they are ready to support capitalism that helps their suyappirayosanam or self interest but politically organize themselves against the formal British rule, possibly to capture the political power for continuing the same economics of suyappirayosanam. Ayothee Dasa also indicates that the swedeshi workers are not interested in conducting the local administrative works in mother tongues. Similarly, they are not for publishing newspapers and journals in vernacular languages. They openly advocate western ways wherever they are beneficial to them but make outcries of swedeshi in a hypocritical way. These self contradictions of the Swedeshi workers exhibit their non-commitment to the development of social affairs at the interest of the entire community. Ayothee Dasa comes to the conclusion that if industry, agriculture, education, administration etc are developed at the interests of the entire community, then Swarajya would logically follow. On the other hand, the pseudo swedeshis keep their suyappirayosanam intact and are just rattling swrajya (G. Aloysius 1999: I, 46).

In a sense, Ayothee Dasa Pandithar’s priority to Buddhism itself has been caused not just only by his commitment to the caste question in Indian society but it was caused, as our discussions go above, by the emerging threats of capitalist relations in Indian soil. The Buddhist society that is without castes and capitalist relations is his inspiration to enter into the future. Pandithar indeed wants to transcend the varieties of social ethos in history that stand for Suyappirayosanam. It means that in modern times one has to transcend the consumer individualist ethos of capitalism.

Ayothee Dasa uses the term “pseudo” (Vedadhari) widely in his writings. He calls the Purusika Aryans who intruded into Buddhist India as pseudo-Brahmins. He names the estranged landowners of the medieval period as pseudo Vellalas. And he labels the swedeshis who do not go for real development of the country as pseudo- swedeshis. Ayothee Dasa’s consistent usage of the term reminds us the French thinker Michael Foucault who brought out the inter space that appeared between words and things, words deviating from and distorting the meaning of things. In the work titled in English translation as “The Order of Things” (originally in French, it had the title “Words and Things”) Foucault elaborately studied how from the period of Renaissance, the European started distorting and falsifying the meanings of words, words beginning to deviate from the things. The cause or condition of words distorting and falsifying the meaning, according to Foucault, is the exploitative social and power relations. Reading Ayothee Dasa’s writings, one comes to a similar conclusion that with the introduction of caste dominance and the philosophy of Suyappirayosanam, the pseudo ethos destroying the community ethos appeared in the society. Ayothee Dasa stands to represent the revival of real or true community ethos of Viththai, Buddhi, Eehai and Sanmargam for which it must have a two pronged strategy of fighting back the caste system on the one hand and the emerging capitalist relations on the other hand.

The term suyappirayosanam has been used by Ayothee Dasa when the Madras upper caste fellows advocated separate schools for children from untouchable castes. Pandithar raises the question how could the caste adherence go with the swedeshi ideology (G. Aloysius 1999: I, 66). It is nothing but caste self centeredness that operates in the activities of swedeshis, says Ayothee Dasa. He extends his criticism to some Christian religious leaders who adhere to the caste ideology in some Christian schools. Pandithar warns them that three fourth of Brahmanism and one fourth of Christianity in their practice would spoil the entire thing. He says that those caste Christians are trying to combine the Christian interests on the one hand and the capitalist (economic) interest on the other hand, which would never go together (Ibid, P.91-92).

Ayothee Dasa’s clear vision is astounding. His Buddhism shows him the way to criticize the caste ideology of Brahmanic Hinduism as well as the growing individualism and self centeredness of colonial capitalism based on raw consumer values. He represents a philosophy of community and community values that ought to fight back Brahmanism and capitalism as latter Dr. Ambedkar ordained. The two pronged strategy of Ayothee Dasa Pandithar and Dr. Ambedkar makes their approach post colonial too.

Ayothee Dasa’s Strategies of Dalit Politics

Pandithar was adequately active in current politics. He spent much of his times to install so many branches, around 28, of Buddhist societies mostly in the northern districts of Tamilnadu including in Kolar Gold mines, a few outside India, in South Africa, among the migrant workers from north Tamilnadu. He organized Buddhist ways of worshiping or meditating, taught his comrades to Buddhist principles, structured Buddhist festivals and created a self-confident set of people who would represent themselves as Buddhists. He called upon the downtrodden people to get converted into Buddhism. He organized Buddhist cremation grounds in Chennai. He appealed to the British Government to give representation to the downtrodden people in local administration, education and government jobs. Apart from the Buddhist societies founded by him, the next most significant activity of Pandithar was his founding of a journal by name “Tamilan”. The journal was conducted by Pandithar with all his dedication till the end of his life.

The Journal “Tamilan” came out with series of articles on all aspects of Buddhist philosophy and religion written mostly by Ayothee Dasa and by others. The journal also contained regular columns of questions and answers on politics in Tamilnadu and activities of Buddhist societies. The question-answer column included descriptions of caste atrocities in and around Tamilnadu, appeals to government and other legal authorities to address the problems of the Dalits, specific discussions on caste discriminations reported by the readers, controversies with other newspapers etc.

One finds the earliest critical attitude of a Dalit intellectual towards the Congress-led national movement in Ayothee Dasa’s writings. He exposes the hypocrisy of congress demand of Swarajya while keeping silence about or even advocating caste system in the social life of India. How does the congress speak about the annihilation of British colonial rule while it does not raise its voice about the annihilation of caste system in Indian society that was, in reality, a form of internal colonialism within Indian society for ages? Ayothee Dasa uses the terms “internal colonialism” consciously all along in his writings. The controversy is discussed in many of the articles of Pandithar in Tamilan, particularly as polemics with congress newspapers published from Madras. Pandithar argues that award of Swarajya in a country where caste dominates would perpetuate the caste rule of the upper castes. Consequently, he prefers the strategic continuance of British rule that modernizes the society with education, science and industrialization. Pandithar informs that the modernization projects of the British rule somehow enhances the economic and material prospects of the downtrodden communities. How could the Swarajya modernize Indian society when caste mode persists in all its ramifications as a pre-modern institution? The congress idea of nationalism, swarajya and modernization appears to be self contradictory to Ayothee Dasa. Pandithar’s priority is for annihilation of the caste system.

The theme of pre-modernity is very prominent in Ayothee Dasa’s writings. “Pre-modern” is above all the caste reality of Indian society, however thickly associated with the Hindu religion that organically linked with the caste system. Ayothee Dasa is the first in Tamil to assert explicitly the link between religion and caste in Indian context. In a broad sense, Ayothee Dasa speaks of the inherent relationship between caste, religion and the common sense of the Hindus in favour of the caste system. Hinduism and caste system has created a system of values discrediting and inferiorising the working masses against the alienated land owners and the so-called upper castes.

Ayothee Dasa works with three historical constructs namely the ancient-original, the pre-modern-falsification and the futuristic-modern. This periodization somehow resembles the Marxist classification of primitive communism, modes of production of class societies and the future communism. Let us note here that Ayothee Dasa comes to such a categorizing when there was complete absence of any Marxist influence in this part of the country. The ancient-original social structure, according to Pandithar, coincides with the Buddhist casteless society that was ethically communitarian and egalitarian. The ethical perception of such a society is unmistakably imperative to Ayothee Dasa whom the ethical precepts are the axiological foundations of any functioning society. The great distortion appeared with the entry of the Purusika-Aryans that as a heterodox and un-indigenous phenomenon started corrupting the communitarian value system of the Purva-Bauddhas and introduced the caste system. The lazy Aryans degraded the hard working masses and named them as of lower and inferior castes. The premodern is founded upon a philosophy of Suyappirayosanam or selfishness that had consolidated the caste system with all its ramifications.

The modern, according to Ayothee Dasa, is the present stage, the historical agent of which is the British. The British with their exposure to modern European values become the unconscious tools of introducing the values of annihilating the caste system. The British are not thoroughly consistent in their efforts in this direction. At times they are misdirected by the caste intellectuals of this country regarding the caste superiority or ritual status of the upper castes. Ayothee Dasa criticizes the missionaries that often they are led by the upper caste converts into Christianity and who insist to adhere the caste rules in Christian practices too. Consequently, many Christians are Hindus in following the caste rules and Christians in worshiping Jesus. Ayothee Dasa names them half Christians and half Hindus. Ayothee Dasa wonders how much is Christian to categorise somebody as Christian Chetty or Christian Nadar when Christianity does not have any space for caste system. The British are misdirected also by giving more opportunities to the Brahmins and other upper castes in government jobs and in administration. Ayothee Dasa criticizes the British for giving free hand to the landowning classes of rural India, thus allowing them to ruthlessly exploit the poor peasants by imposing heavy land taxes and even seizing the lands of the rural poor. It appears that Ayothee Dasa was aware of the implications of the British introduction of land acts that allowed the rural rich to register the common village lands in their name. He repeatedly warns the British that despite their good will towards the downtrodden(?), the upper caste government officials are acting on their own will bending the state laws in their own favour and cheating the illiterate common masses. Ayothee Dasa warns the British not to allow the upper caste elite to combine the state power with their traditional caste power.

Ayothee Dasa’s idea of modernity surely is not limited with the British. He goes much beyond them. It is in this context, he questions the credentials of the Congress brand of nationalism or Swarajya. Possiblily, modernity appeared in Europe with very clear stands against feudalism, religious sectarianism and obscurantism, and for democracy, freedom, equality, rationalism etc. But in Indian context, swarajya had a very reduced sense of occupying the political power from the British. Nationalism does not raise its voice against the Indian mode of feudalism that is the caste system and it refuses to get rid of Hindu religion that stands by the age old forms of oppressions. Nationalism of the Indians is another brand of Selfish politics aimed only at the free hand usage of political power. Ayothee Dasa distinctly goes beyond the pseudo-nationalism of the congressists.

On the other hand, Ayothee Dasa had a vivid idea of modernity in Indian context. Modernity in Indian context is ruthless criticism of all the ramifications of the caste system. Although it appears that Ayothee Dasa desires the revival of the ancient Buddhist ethos, it is not really so. He goes to the ancient past as only to a reference point. Ultimately, his designs are towards the future. The premodern distortion must be removed. Along with that, the common sense Hindu caste attitude must go away. The communitarian ethos must come back to lead the future. People must be respected as per their labour and in terms of the communitarian values they share with others. The philosophy of Suyappirayosanam must die away. The philosophy of Suyam or Self must recede. It is note worthy to mention that Ayothee Dasa’s term Suyam or Self means the source of the traditional caste system as well as the capitalist relations getting vogue under the British rule. The future must belong to a selfless community form. One can visualize a utopian communist perspective of Ayothee Dasa in his idea of Non-self. He was not influenced by any Marxism but was inspired by the Buddhist ideals of equality and community.

Pandithar is equally suspicious of the non-Brahmin movement comprised of non-brahmin upper castes and south Indian rich. He raises the question: Are the non-brahmins casteless? Pandithar understands that the non-brahmins just compete for Government posts with the Brahmins who occupy them already. Both Brahmins and Non-brahmin upper castes attempt to consolidate their erstwhile upper caste domination with the help of the newly found state bureaucratic posts. It is nothing but continuance of the traditional caste system by new means. The traditional upper castes are at their own game under colonial conditions. He, at times, is critical of the British accommodating the upper castes in Government positions, thus allowing them to continue exploiting and humiliating the humble social groups. One can find in the writings of Ayothee Dasa a few wonderful evaluations about the caste nexus in the formation and functioning of bureaucracy in Indian soil under colonial conditions. The insights of Ayothee Dasa are significant even today to understand the ways how the Indian bureaucracy functions till date.

Ayothee Dasa leaves a few interesting remarks about how Indian upper castes have appropriated the educational benefits introduced by the British. He says that the Indian feudal castes have long back got alienated from knowledge, agricultural labour and commerce at the interests of society. It has become so selfish and has become lazy in real efforts of acquiring knowledge and practicing it in terms of social welfare and on the other hand is interested only in degrading the toiling masses in terms of caste and social status. In other words, the alienation of upper castes is the result of their selfishness and inhumanness. Ayothee Dasa sees a moral degradation of the traditional ruling classes set in well before the British occupied India. It has only intensified after the British rule. Consequently, the upper caste interest in education and state administrative positions is again penetrated by selfishness and devoid of any public welfare. The moral crisis of the Indian upper castes continues and intensifies, according to Ayothee Dasa.

Ayothee Dasa associates the Dalit question with the land question. He enumerates how low the agricultural workers are paid for their labour in the rural areas of Tamilnadu. The selfish spirit of the land owning classes continues in terms of humiliating and insulting the labouring classes attributing the worst derogatory stigma upon them. Although Ayothee Dasa mostly speaks in term of castes in Tamil context, he often makes explicit the class ranking involved in the caste order. He clearly marks the occupational specifics of the downtrodden communities, particularly how are they related with land and agricultural labour. To him, agriculture as an occupation in land is a source of community life and common welfare. He does not treat agricultural land and agricultural works as merely in economic terms. There is something more in agricultural work. His attitude in this issue is moral and community oriented.

Ayothee Dasa is not against the industrialization of the country. But his idea of industrialization is mostly an artisan like approach. He does not imagine the development of industry at the cost of agriculture. On the other hand, he perceives it as development of handicrafts and skillful handiworks. In his writings, he appreciatively enumerates innumerable professions coming up like printing, binding, metal works, building works, automobile works, trains, telecommunications, transportations, textiles production etc. He is not perceiving any radical break between traditional Indian agriculture and emerging industrialization under the impact of the colonial rule. He perceives them in organic unity.

Hailing from an agricultural background, Ayothee Dasa Pandithar strongly commits himself to the dignity of agricultural labour. He indicates that the caste system prevalent in the country is above all based on humiliating and insulting the agricultural labour and labourers. The alienated and lazy landowner communities have discriminated the hard working people of the land as inferior and low, and made them into a separate caste of inferior rank. Religious and social rules were created to pursue the above purpose and the people of labour were made to live in isolated ghettos untouched and unattended.

What ultimately is the programme Ayothee Dasa offers for the Dalits and the downtrodden of his times? Can we say that he stood for a Dalit identity movement? The answer may be “yes”. Ayothee Dasa is the first to organize an identity movement for the dalits in South India, may be, in entire India. He centered all his activities upon the interests of the Dalits. His entire life was a tireless travel to construct a movement, an ideology, an organizational framework for the dalits. His major effort was to locate the interests of dalits away from the Congress nationalists, Brahma Samajists, Arya Samajists, Hindu revivalists as well as from the non-brahmin movement of Tamilnadu. It means that he was able to visualize the interests of dalits distinct from all other movements that were existing then.

Ayothee Dasa could able to look into the entire existence from the point of view of the most downtrodden and the most oppressed, namely the dalits. Social history, history of culture and religions, literary history of the Tamils, history of languages, philosophies of India, modern social and political movements – everything was viewed from the point of view of the Dalits. Their ancient past, their defeat and fall, the ways of redemption, their organizational forms etc were thoroughly and consciously studied by Ayothee Dasa. Never the Tamil thought had such a thinker of comprehensive perception with a clear partisanship with the poorest of the poor, the toiling masses of this country, the dalits. Ayothee Dasa is the most powerful beginner of dalit thought and consciousness in modern India.

Ayothee Dasa was the person who made prominent the caste question. Not only the grievances of the Dalits were addressed by him. The entire gamut of problems and issues emerging out of the caste system of India was dealt in all accurateness by Ayothee Dasa. In broad sense, the social question was brought into the discussions of modernity by Ayothee Dasa. What is it a modernity if it does not address so pertinent a question as that of caste system into its discussions? What is modern India withut the social question? India in its history has many times escaped the caste question unaddressed. It has evaded the Bhakti movement, it has evaded so many reform movements. It tried its best to avoid the nationalist movement too. It is all the ruling classes that have all the time behind the attempts to evade and avoid the caste question. At last, the question was made central by the Dalit thinkers of all Indian modernity.

Ayothee Dasa does not look at the dalit question as an isolated problem of the dalits alone. Such an approach would pose the dalit grievances alone as the problem of the dalits and would try to eradicate them by means appealing to the British or the rulers. A narrow identity movement may opt such a path. Many such movements were gaining momentum on those lines towards the beginning of 20th century. The spontaneity of identity was operative in such movements. Brahmins for the interests of the Brahmins alone, non-brahmin upper castes at the interests of themselves alone was the typical trend of the period. Interestingly, the late 19th century was the period when mushroom of caste associations and religious organizations appeared in Indian soil. It was believed to be modernity and even democracy that every single group organized itself to represent itself. Such a trend continues to exist till date.

Ayothee Dasa opted a different path. He linked the caste interests of his group with the entire caste system of India. It was in a sense inevitable. He did not study his own caste in isolation. But he located it in the system that encompasses the entire social reality of the country. A structural approach, to use a recent term, was the mode of thinking of Ayothee Dasa.

As it has been noted already, Ayothee Dasa brought to attention the linkages between the dalit question with the land question, to be exact with the landless proletarians of rural India. He could identify the organic bond between the caste question with the history of Indian religions. He was able to present a comprehensive picture of the birth and development of caste system in Indian history. He was sure that the caste question could not be solved within the emerging capitalist framework. The greatest intellectual achievement of Ayothee Dasa was that he was able to dig out a casteless social layer in the historical past of the country and make it stand as the reference point to all his discussions on dalit liberation. The theme of liberation as it figures in Ayothee Dasa is itself a universal theme of his times characteristic of modernity, enlightenment and socialist movements. Ayothee Dasa very consciously enters into that brand of thinkers and activists. The objective of casteless society takes Ayothee Dasa immeasurably to the heights of social emancipation of the most recent times. It may not be pointless to suggest Ayothee Dasa as a predecessor of Communist movement in South India.


Aloysius G., (Ed.), 1999, 2003, Ayothee Dasar Sinthanaikal in Three Volumes (in Tamil), Palayamkottai:FRRC

Omvedt, Gail, 2005, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, New Delhi: Sage