Making of a new public sphere


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THIS article argues that Dravidianism contributed to the making of a new public sphere in the Tamil country. According to Jurgen Habermas, ‘The primary characteristic of the public sphere was the formation of a "culture-debating public" which created a public debate and discussion that was "unique and without historical precedent".’1 Such a culture-debating public emerged initially in Tamil Nadu with the work of missionaries in the 19th century. Although the so-called religious tract-warfare preceded such work, the nature of the former was characteristically different from the later missionary work. Robert Caldwell’s Bharatakanta Puratanam (1893) could be considered as one of the earliest attempts in this regard. Caldwell doesn’t simply dismiss the Hindu puranas and ithihasas like the earlier tracts but offers a scholarly interpretation of the materials.2

Caldwell’s work is roughly coeval with the work of the Madras Secular Society, a group of intellectuals who wrote in two important journals, The Tattuva Vivecini and The Thinker, and were the first to launch a vehement critique of the Hindu puranas. Though the Madras Secular Society was originally founded as The Hindu Free Thought Union in 1860, it was rechristened as Madras Secular Society in 1886. Between 1878 and 1888, this society was quite active in its intellectual endeavours.

The Madras Secularists followed several different approaches in deconstructing Hindu myths, the first and foremost being the logical approach since most of the writers were familiar with both traditional Indian and western logic. The second mode through which the Madras Secularists deconstructed myths was a kind of counter-narration. By rereading the stories of asuras and rakshasas as Dravidian heroes, they projected these figures as those who opposed Aryan invasion and subsequent domination. The third significant approach at deconstructing mythology was the study of the structure of myths themselves. For instance, the lives of Jesus and Gnanasambandar, the Saivite saint, were compared and the motifs of the miracles that they performed deconstructed in a structuralist manner.

The next major approach was to visit the places where myths are practiced as rituals and festivals and then deconstruct them. Based on field research, this approach was an entirely new mode predicated on modern empiricism. The fifth approach was to highlight some events reported in the newspapers and magazines, analyze them, and then attempt to deconstruct them. When the Madras Secularists deconstructed what was considered by all as sacred and unquestionable in Vedic Hinduism, they did so not just at the level of common sense. On the contrary, their work was firmly grounded in logic.

One of the leading figures of the Madras Secular Society was Attippakkam Venkatacala Nayakar (1800-1897). He was both an intellectual and a social activist. In 1882, Venkatacala Nayakar published the book Hindumata Achara Abhasa Darshini, an incisive critique of Vedic Hinduism and the social and ritual practices associated with it. The book is in verse form and, while critiquing Hinduism, discusses several Saiva and Vaishnava myths and legends and critically unpacks them.


The next major work in deconstructing Hindu mythology and performing a totally different rereading of Tamil literary and religious texts was done by C. Iyothee Thass (1845-1914). Hailing from a Tamil Dalit community, Iyothee Thass became an erudite Tamil scholar whose work is replete with a variety of literary deconstructions. Iyothee Thass discusses the Tamil puranic epic Periya Puranam as a collection of myths of a very recent vintage.

We then enter the significant phase of intervention by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy. Paula Richman’s recent analysis of Periyar’s reading of the Ramayana attempts to demonstrate the pivotal role that EVR’s attack on the Ramayana played in fusing religious texts and political issues in Madras during the mid-20th century. Richman observes that the enthusiastic reception Tamilians gave to EVR’s ideas must be examined in a specific cultural context: the rise and fervour of Dravidian sentiment in South India, the power relationships that existed between Brahmins and elite non-Brahmins, and the role of print in the intellectual life of the region.

Richman delineates the manner in which this was accomplished in the Tamil country at that time: ‘For EVR who possessed a canny ability to make the most of the resources available to him, this mobilization of the power of print was characteristic. He founded a series of journals and fortnightly magazines, established a press in order to issue his many publications, and knew how to attract extensive newspaper coverage for his public campaigns and protests. His 1956 Rama-burning agitation, whose rationale had previously been explained in writings published by his press, brought him front page headlines.’3

Richman argues that through this mode of mobilization Periyar attempted to demythologize the Tamil texts, while admitting the continuity with the long tradition of Tamil polemicism. She locates Periyar’s reading of the Ramayana as an exhilarated literal reading of the texts that was consonant with a form of discourse that was popular in the second half of the 19th century. She states that Periyar used this technique of hyper-literal reading to discredit and desacralize the Ramayana.


Richman comments on Periyar’s strategies of exegesis and argues that ‘he anachronizes the text, condemning customs from centuries earlier on the basis of modern norms. He literalizes the text, subjecting mythic material to scientific analysis in order to "prove" that such events could not have occurred.’4 Finally Richman observes that ‘reassessing the traditional characters and incidents of the epic with polemical flamboyance, he created a rhetoric of political opposition that shaped public discourse for a group much larger than his relatively small band of followers.’5 This in fact is what contributed to a hitherto unprecedented culture-debating public in the Tamil country.

In traditional Tamil logic, the pramanas or the means of knowledge are many. The Sanskrit tradition would posit six to ten pramanas depending on the different authors and schools of thought. In Tamil, katci, karutal, uvamanam, agamam, aruttapatti, svabam, ulakurai, abavam, olipu and ullaneri are names of different pramanas known as alavais. Of these, Tamil Buddhism and Lokayata would accept only ‘katci’ (pratyaksha) and ‘karutal’ (anumana) as the means of knowledge. Largely materialist in persuasion, Periyar and his intellectual comrades solely depended on ‘katci’ and ‘karutal’ as the means of knowledge. It is from this standpoint that they launched a critique of the puranic materials.

Periyar was not a lone individual who fought against Vedic Hinduism in this fashion. He was accompanied by intellectual comrades like Karuvur Ilattu Atikal, Cattankulam A. Raghavan, E.V.R. Maniammai, Swami Kaivalyam, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Mayilai Sini. Venkatasamy, Sami Chidambaranar and Kuttuci Gurusamy, among others.


Ilattu Atikal wrote two seminal works deconstructing puranic materials. The first one, Intu Matam Tamilar Matama? (Is the Hindu faith a religion of the Tamils?) explores the politics of Brahminical Hinduism in suppressing the work of Tirunavukkaracar, the only non-Brahmin among the four prime acharyas (Camayak Kuravar) belonging to the class of the sixty-three Saiva saints known as Nayanmar. It also offers a critique of the story of Candesvara Nayanar, another Saiva saint who belongs to that class. Ilattu Atikal’s second work, Periyapurana Araycci is a much more detailed study of the politics of fanatic Saiva devotion found in Periya Puranam, the epic narration which portrays the life stories of the sixty-three Nayanmar.

A. Raghavan and Mayilai Sini. Venkatasamy were erudite Tamil scholars whose works are valued in the domain of Tamil academia well beyond Dravidian nationalism. In a booklet called Katuvulai Nintikkum Kayavarkal Yar? (Who are those scoundrels who denounce the God?) A. Raghavan critiques the myths associated with the deities Murugan, Brahma, Indra, Vinayaka, Vishnu and Siva. Polemical in character, the booklet critiques the manner in which the Murugan cult has been extensively mythologized.

While there were a large number of women intellectuals in Periyar’s movement like Muvalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar, Kunjitham Gurusamy, Neelavathi Ramasubramaniam, Meenambal Sivaraj, Sivakami Chidambaranar, Annapoorani Rathnasabhapati, Alarmelmangai Thayammal, Dr. Dharmambal, Manjulabai and Indirani Balasubramaniam, among others, it was E.V.R. Maniammai who engaged in deconstructing the puranas. Maniammai’s work Kandapuranamum Ramayanamum Onre! (The Kandapuranam and the Ramayana are one and the same) compares the two epics. In this work she contends that the Kandapuranam precedes Kamban’s Tamil rendition of Ramayana by providing a long list of sixty-four points in which motifs from the two epics that are parallel or closely related are compared.


Finally, there were two important intellectuals who were both godmen turned apostates, Swami Kaivalyam and Swami Sivananda Saraswati. Swami Kaivalyam got his name from his expertise in Tamil Vedanta, particularly the text Kaivalya Navanitam. First published in 1931, his collection of articles was known as Kaivalyam Allatu Kalaikkiyanam. According to Periyar, this volume mostly contains articles published in Kudi Arasu which contain intense discussions on the Vedas, the Sastras, the Smritis and the Puranas. In the twelfth chapter of this book, Swami Kaivalyam discusses the Navaratri festival and myths associated with it. Comparing the Smartha, Madhva and other versions of the myth, he offers an incisive critique of the festive celebrations. First published in 1928, Swami Sivananda Saraswati’s Gnana Suryan had seen 16 editions till 1982. Like Swami Kaivalyam, Sivananda Saraswati exposes the fallacies of the Vedas, Upanishads, Agamas, Smritis and Puranas.


It should also be noted that besides Periyar and his close circle of intellectual comrades, a number of other writers contributing to the journals of the Dravidian movement also wrote numerous articles deconstructing Hindu puranas. There is an interesting instance in the history of the Dravidian deconstruction of the puranas which is known as Sundaramurtti Nayanar’s Criminal Case written by A.C. Subbiah, a Singapore based intellectual. It was first published in 1948. Most of the chapters in the book present the story of the Saiva saint Sundarar and others in a juridical setting, that is, as the proceedings in a legal court. The book is written in a witty and comic style and, in the pretext of discussing the story of Sundarar by examining the various aspects of his eventful life, it deconstructs the various mythic materials associated with Vedic Hinduism.

An important moment in the history of fashioning Dravidian counter-puranas is 1934 when Bharatidasan’s play, Iraniyan Allatu Inaiyarra Viran (literally, ‘Hiranya or the Inimitable Hero’) was staged. The play gives the myth of Narasimha a peculiar twist which makes it not merely a non-bhakti but an anti-bhakti text. Written during the early, radical phase of the Dravidian movement for explicitly political purposes, the play seeks to ‘historicize’ the myth. It was part of a wider body of works that sprung from the movement, ones that sought to valorize the asuras and rakshasas who were in reality noble and mighty men of the past, but who were vanquished by Aryan cunning and deceit.


The play was initially conceived by Kuttuci Gurusamy. It was Gurusamy who asked his friend and poet Bharatidasan to write the play that was later staged by him. It was banned in 1948 by the Congress government on the grounds that it sought to infuse a sense of racial hatred among the masses and defamed Aryan women by its libelous portrayals. It was only in 1971, when the DMK assumed power, that the ban was formally revoked. Bharatidasan’s Iraniyan is an attempt at an outright subversion of the myth. In contrast to the hyper-bhakti text, it returns to dharmic concerns, but examines and illustrates them from the asura’s standpoint. It inverts the puranic structure by valorizing the asura: not Prahlada, the godly asura, but Hiranya himself, the asura proper. The asura is seen as representing the once-subjugated Dravidians whereas the god and his avatara are nothing but a hoax. In this alternative vision of dharma, the socio-cosmic order of the puranas is primarily an Aryan (read Brahminical) order, the subversion of which is an essential precondition of the future Tamil nation.

Another major work in this genre is Pulavar Kulantai’s Ravana Kaviyam, a modern epic retelling the story of Ravana. It was first published in 1946, but subsequently banned by the Congress government in 1948. The ban was revoked in 1971 by the DMK government. However, the trend of depicting Ravana as a great Dravidian hero roughly begins with M.S. Purnalingam Pillai’s Ravana the Great: King of Lanka (1928). Pulavar Kulantai’s Ravana Kaviyam has five books in fifty-seven cantos comprising three thousand and hundred stanzas.

As Kamil Zvelebil puts it, ‘The basic ideology of the poem of Kulantai is rather simple: the Sanskrit Ramayana (and all current versions derived from it) is a false picture of what had actually happened, a tendentious pack of lies. The truth of the events was such as is depicted in Pulavar Kulantai’s epic of Iravanan. The entire text is permeated by the contrast and clash of "Aryan" versus "Tamil". The Aryans are despicable animal-slaughterers, meat-eaters, drunkards and fornicators, whereas the acurar, i.e. the Tamilians, are abstinent and gentle vegetarians.’6


There were other works also that dealt with such counter-puranicization. Tiruvarur K. Thangarasu’s Ramayana Natakam staged successfully by M.R. Radha is worth mentioning here. However, there are other lesser known works like Raja Shanmugadas’s Tatakai Manmiyam, Curpanakai Manmiyam, Ravaneccura Manmiyam and Mantotari Kalyanam which were plays written to be performed by Isai Natakam (musical theatre) companies.

However, the finest work in counter-puranicization of the Ramayana is a rather lengthy poem by Bharatidasan called Sanjivi Parvatattin Caral. It is a fabulous love story that is set in the hilly tract called Sanjivi Parvatam which, in the Ramayana, is carried in its entirety by Hanuman who comes there in search of a herb that would bring back to life the fallen Rama and Lakshmana.

In the beginning of the poem, a girl named Vanci asks her lover, Kuppan, to take her to the hill and find her two magical herbs. Of these two, one would enable a person to hear everything that other people talk about. Chewing the other one would let the person see anything and everything that happens in the world. When the man discourages her in this endeavour, she insists on getting the herbs and enjoys the experience that they provide. In fact, she adamantly insists that they would make love only after the herbal episode.


Eventually, the girl gets hold of the herbs and chews the first one, whereupon she hears people talking in Italy, USA and France. They also hear the Englishmen talking about a triumphant Raj that would never be shaken owing to the caste system and the religious bigotry prevalent in India. They then turn to listen to someone speaking in Tamil, commanding that the Sanjivi hill be uprooted and taken elsewhere. A terrified Kuppan wants to immediately flee the place. However, Vanci herself is not scared of anything and consoles an agitated Kuppan. Vanci then explains in detail, in a rational mode, that uprooting a mountain is quite impossible for a human being. In the meantime they hear that the mountain has already been uprooted, carried to Lanka, and by making use of the medicinal properties of the herb, both Rama and Lakshmana have risen to life again.

Kuppan is quite shocked about what has happened; he thinks that they are in Lanka and is clearly agitated. However, after Rama and Lakshmana are revived back to life, Hanuman takes the mountain and places it back in its original location. This relieves Kuppan of his anxiety. He then wonders about the miraculous manner in which Hanuman uprooted the mountain to carry it to Lanka, revived Rama and Lakshmana and then brought it back to its original place – all this without hurting Kuppan and Vanci.

At this point they hear a voice saying that the story stops here and that the narrator would continue it the next day. Kuppan and Vanci then realize that the entire talk about Hanuman’s uprooting, lifting and carrying the mountain was just a Kathakalakshepam, a performative mode of narrating puranic stories. Vanci now gives Kuppan the other herb and asks him to chew it to witness the Kalakshepam. They both understand that what they had heard so far was just part of a public performance. And they also realize that the puranas are nothing but an act of fanciful deception on the part of pauranikas, the purana-reciters.


Although there were religious debates between different sects and denominations in the Tamil country for a very long time, a culture-debating public that engages with questions of religious faith is a relatively modern phenomenon. As Habermas states, public opinion can only come into existence with the emergence of a reasoning public. The later part of the 19th century and the 20th century saw the emergence of such a reasoning public which engaged in public debate and discussion regarding religion. The Dravidian movement and its precursors were singularly instrumental in the shaping of this new public sphere, wherein public debate and discussion unsettled and destabilized certain firmly held notions regarding Vedic Hinduism. The opening up of the new public sphere also meant that Brahminical Hinduism was no longer on firm ground and a reasoning public had moved into the sphere of opinion making and discussion.



1. See Jurgen Habermas, ‘The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article’, New German Critique 3, Autumn 1974, pp. 49-55 and The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991 [1989].

2. Robert Caldwell, Bharatakanta Puratanam (edited by P. Velsamy). New Century Bookhouse, Chennai, 2012 [1893].

3. Paula Richman (ed.), Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991, p. 180.

4. Ibid., p. 192.

5. Ibid., p. 195.

6. Kamil V. Zvelebil, ‘Ravana the Great in Modern Tamil Fiction’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 1, 1988, p. 133.