Why Dalits saw Colonialism and Buddhism as Antidotes to Brahminism

Licensed under CC-BY 2.0 from Anandajoti Bhikkhu

Why You Should Read This

  • Today, the colonial period is often simplified as a time of oppression of Indians by the British. But Dalit intellectuals like Iyothee Thass have argued that for dalits, the colonial period brought some freedom from the tyranny of upper castes.
  • Iyothee Thass is one of the earliest anti-caste leaders of the Madras Presidency that we know. He was also one of the first Dalit leaders to ever convert to Buddhism. In this way, he predated Ambedkar and Periyar and influenced them and their movements in small and large ways.
  • Also April is Dalit History Month!
  • This paper, written by V Geetha and SV Rajadurai in 1998, looks at the life and work of Iyothee Thass and other intellectuals – Dalit and non-Dalit – who were fighting Brahmin hegemony in the late 19th and early 20th century.
  • We have condensed the original 10,000-word paper into a 1,300-word summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture. in 6 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 2 minutes.
  1. Towards the end of the 19th century, decades before Periyar would lead the non-Brahmin movement to prominence, the Madras presidency of British India witnessed the emergence of a number of Dalit intellectuals.
    • The establishment of colonial rule had shifted power structures in India and these Dalit journalists and intellectuals were attempting to reinvent themselves and their communities by utilising those changes to their advantage.
    • These intellectuals had deep knowledge of various academic fields and – like their upper caste contemporaries – they understood the importance of rewriting or “owning” their history.
    • The challenge posed to the caste order by these dalit thinkers pre-dated and in some ways laid the foundation for the more well-known and politically successful non-Brahmin movement of the mid-20th century.
  2. One of the most important of these intellectuals was Iyothee Thass Pandithar, a Tamil Dalit who converted to Buddhism and vowed to revive the religion in India. He passionately believed that Buddhism was the original and true religion of the Dalit community.

    • Iyothee Thass was extremely well-read – he was familiar with the Tamil, English, Sanskrit, and Pali languages. He studied the religious philosophy of all the major religions around him.
    • When he was a young man, he was a follower of Advaita Vedanta and founded a Sabha in the Nilgiris.
    • Later, when he lived in the city of Madras (now Chennai), he met Henry Olcott and Annie Besant, who were both part of the Theosophical Society. They were setting up schools for Dalits in Madras.
      • Olcott seems to have played a part in Iyothee Thass renouncing Hinduism for Buddhism.
      • The two travelled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) together in 1898.
      • On their return, Iyothee Thass founded the Chakya Buddhist Sangam in Royapettah in Madras and began working on his plan to revive Buddhism in India.
  3. The Dravida Mahajana Sangam, an organisation he founded, articulated a revolutionary charter of demands which included jobs and education for Dalits as well as a law to “to severely punish those who refer to the depressed classes as ‘pariahs’ in order to degrade and insult them”. He sent these demands to the Congress and Muslim League but never heard back.

    • Some of the demands of the Dravida Mahajana Sangam included:
      • A 50% concession in school fees for children from the depressed classes.
      • Guaranteed employment in government service to any person from the depressed classes who passed their matriculation exam.
      • Abolition of prison rules that assigned dalit prisoners only to jobs such as “scavenging”.
      • The right to drink water from public tanks and wells.
      • End of the ban on entering and sitting in offices and courts where upper caste Hindus were employed.
    • Most of the demands focused on education and jobs but the goal of winning Dalits their self-respect back is also clear.
  4. Iyothee Thass was very suspicious of the Brahmin-dominated Congress and its claim of representing the whole country. He preferred the British as rulers as at least under them, Dalits were treated like human beings.
    • Iyothee Thass thought of the Congress as a party of Brahmins that would only continue the injustices of the caste system if they formed the government.
      • He wrote, “Will they make pariahs governors and the brahmins army commanders? Never. Instead they will argue that the low castes cannot govern, while the high caste brahmanas are not trained to fight.”
      • Because of this, he wasn’t a supporter of the push for self-government. To him, British rule was preferable to Brahmin rule.
    • He felt deep gratitude to the British but was also aware that they brought only partial freedom or salvation to Dalits.
      • He didn’t see them as saviours but at least, working in the homes of colonial officers and so on was an opportunity for dignified employment outside the caste order. It had drawbacks but at least, it was temporary relief.
      • However, Dalit life had fundamentally changed because of colonial rule and Iyothee Thass wanted to continue that trajectory of change.
  5. He believed that Buddhism was once the basis of an ancient Indian society that was fair and equitable. In his view, Brahmins had taken power for themselves and had pushed those who refused to give up their Buddhist ways into the category of ‘untouchables’ – the lowest of the low in the caste order.
    • In his book, Poorva Tamizhholi, he described Dalits as the original Tamils who were Buddhists. This was a period of equality and rationality, which changed with the arrival of Aryan invaders and brahminical Hinduism.
    • According to him, the name India came from ‘Indirar Desam’ or land of Indirar, which was another name for the Buddha.
    • He also argued that “Vedic culture” was a purely artificial construct and the Vedas were not a unified text. When the British had demanded the basis of Indian law, the Brahmins had cobbled together various contradictory texts in an attempt to seem like they were in charge of a coherent religion.
    • He also described a similar thing happening with the Tirukkural, one of the most famous Tamil texts that is often quoted for its moral wisdom.
      • He claimed that it was written by a Buddhist and was the first Buddhist text authored in a Dravidian language.
      • Very little is known about its author, referred to as Thiruvalluvar, and Iyothee Thass argues that theories of his parentage were used by Brahmins to empower themselves.
        • The most popular narrative around Thiruvalluvar’s origins at the time described him as the son of a Brahmin father and a Dalit mother. Iyothee Thass argued that this was a myth created by Brahmin editors when they published versions of the Tirikkural, because they didn’t want to accept that he could be of Dalit ancestry alone.
  6. To Iyothee Thass, conversion to religions like Christianity and Islam would not benefit Dalits. It would only ensure that they remained on the sidelines of Hindu society. But through Buddhism, Brahminism could be dismantled.
    • In his view, conversion would help them escape the clutches of Brahminism but it would not dismantle Brahmin hegemony.
    • But through Buddhism, Dalits’ antagonistic relationship to Brahminical Hinduism could be made clear. They could stop themselves from being co-opted into Hinduism and work towards undermining the hegemonic power of Brahmins.
      • This was good even if it meant losing government benefits.
    • To him, the future of dalits required constructing a history that showed the evils of Hinduism
      • Years later, Ambedkar would say the same thing.
  7. Maduriar, a Dalit intellectual who followed in the footsteps of Iyothee Thass, wrote an essay in the 1930s describing Brahminical Hinduism as requiring “a constant servility of the faithful before a conspiring, deceiving clergy”. He credited the British for enabling Dalits to rediscover their lost intellectual glory.
    • Maduriar’s essay, “In and Out Religions”, differentiates between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ religions.
      • External religions like Jainism and Buddhism “relied on human reason and intelligence to comprehend the world and humanity”
      • Internal religions – specifically Brahminical Hinduism – consisted of “the practice of mindless and irrational rituals, encourage superstition and, most importantly, enjoin a constant servility of the faithful before a conspiring, deceiving clergy.”
      • He also claimed that Hinduism “with its complex of lies, inventions and superstitions, possessed an infinite capacity to expand, absorb and coopt new faiths.”
      • Like Iyothee Thass, Maduriar believed that Buddhists hadn’t accepted the Brahminical caste system and therefore, were cast out of acceptable society.
    • Maduriar thought of Gandhi as serving Brahmin interests and criticized him for not accepting Dalit identity as separate during the Poona Pact.
      • He considered Gandhi’s term ‘Harijan’ as another example of a long line of words like ‘pariah’ that were used to mark Dalits as different while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that they had their own unique religious and ethical beliefs based on Buddhism.
    • He also felt that it was because of the British desire to publish forgotten old texts that these details of Dalit intellectual glory had been rediscovered. After centuries of exploitation, in his view, Dalits were now recovering their past knowledge and learning.

Source text: Dalits and Non-Brahmin Consciousness in Colonial Tamil Nadu
Publication: The Periyar Century: Themes in Caste Gender and Religion (1998)
Author: V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai

Note: This summary reflects an argument put forward by one scholar in one paper that we think would be interesting or useful to discuss. It does not represent academic consensus on the topic, which is always growing and evolving. If you would like to know how other scholars have built on or critiqued the arguments presented in this paper, click here to see some of the works that cite it.