Atheists of Madras

On a small band of freethinkers of the old Madras province who provoked anxiety and dread in missionary and religious circles.

Published : Oct 16, 2013 12:30 IST

A page from Tattuva Vivesini.

A page from Tattuva Vivesini.

NARENDRA DABHOLKAR, rationalist, teacher and campaigner against superstition, was shot dead on August 20 for his commitment to challenge those who spread superstition and traded in ignorance. Those responsible for his death clearly feared the way he took on those who benefitted from fear and unknowing. Irrationality has behind it powerful vested interests that do not like being challenged or criticised. It was even so in the heyday of rationalism and atheism in old Madras and later on in Tamil Nadu: while Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s atheism was considered “commonplace” and engraved on the pedestals of all his statues, his rationalist views were continuously challenged, and not always through honourable means. In the 1920s, he was accused of promoting immorality and godlessness; in the 1930s, his self-respect/socialist ideas were seen as encouraging promiscuity; and in the 1940s and after, he was considered the very scourge of Hinduism. In the 1950s and after, popular entertainment, especially cinema, confronted his criticisms with revivified versions of bhakthi devotionalism.

It is remarkable, therefore, that nearly half a century before Periyar came to voice his views, the old Madras province was home to a group of intellectuals who called themselves “freethinkers”, “secularists” and atheists. These men were initially members of the Hindu Freethought Union, which counted amongst its members Pandita Ramabai and later on some of them set up the Madras Secular Society as well as the Hindu Malthusian Society. A Madras Freethought Tract Society was also set up to bring out timely pamphlets and tracts on subjects dear to the secularists.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Professor V. Arasu, Head of the Department of Tamil, University of Madras, we have today, within reach and access, a vast corpus of their publications. Prof. Arasu supervised an M. Phil thesis on the Madras secularists more than 15 years ago and since then has worked on identifying, acquiring and putting together a selection of writings by them. Culled almost entirely from the Tamil and English journals they edited between 1882 and 1888 ( Tattuva Vivesini and The Thinker ), this selection is today available in six large volumes ( Tattuva Vivesini and The Thinker , New Century Book House, Chennai, 2013). Grouped under different thematic categories (religion, caste, the women’s question, poverty, atheism, science, superstition), these essays tell a remarkable story about a forgotten and hitherto unknown phase in the history of ideas in modern Tamil Nadu, and one which would require us to revise existing views on the social and cultural history of the old Madras province.

The essays also tell us about the beginnings of rationalism and atheism in Madras: scattered in these volumes are several references to subscription details, both for the journals and the society, notes on books received and sold from the secularists’ office, readers’ opinions, details of polemical exchanges between secularists and their rivals, and to local, continental and global networks of free thought and atheism… In a sense, what we have here is a new geography of intellectual activity and one that extended across the British empire, and brought together men of vastly different backgrounds and nationalities. Such internationalism prefigured the more familiar socialist and communist internationalism of the early 20th century and in some crucial ways fed into it. Within the Indian subcontinent, the secularists were aware of and were in touch with like-minded souls, in Calcutta, Udaipur, Bellary, Hyderabad, and so on.

Interestingly, the Madras secularists were well-known and kindled anxiety in missionary and conservative religious circles. The missionary journal, The Harvest Field, noted rather worriedly that they were an influence that had to be taken seriously. Saivite intellectuals in the Madras province and in Sri Lanka were wary of their influence and polemicised against them. Count Goblet D’ Alviella, a Belgian liberal thinker who visited India in 1877, remarked on the small group of Madras thinkers who called themselves “secularists” and challenged time-honoured religious truths. Charles Bradlaugh, on whose National Secular Society the Madras branch was modelled, was aware of their presence and was in touch with them. On Bradlaugh’s return to England after his India visit, The New York Times warned that his influence was spreading in India and that Indians might well begin to imagine that Christianity was on the decline in England (June 30, 1880). The news article was titled “Bradlaugh the Atheist: His Address in Trafalgar Square—Atheistic Intrigues in India”.

As Arasu notes, the available literature from the Madras secularists may be from the 1880s, but they had clearly been active for several years before that. For, they had run two journals in the 1870s, Tattuva Visarini and The Philosophical Inquirer , both dating back to 1878-79, and Count D’Alviella had known of them in 1877. A review note on M. Masilamoni’s tract, Varna Beda Surukkam (the first one to be published by the Hindu Freethought Tract Society in 1885) remarked that the author was known for his critical and iconoclastic views since his youth. This was subsequently expanded and reissued as Varna Bedha Vilakkam . It was republished a quarter of a century later by Pandit Iyothee Thass’ Siddhartha Puthaga Saalai.

Leafing through these volumes, it is not difficult to understand why this small but determined band of men provoked anxiety and dread. For, here are articles that invite believers to debate the existence of God; that question the divinity of Vedic texts; that call attention to the illogical and improbable plot lines of the purana s and itihasa s. There are also several articles that question birth-based privilege and challenge the right of Brahmins to spiritual or other forms of knowledge. The caste system is viewed as an instance of both barbarity and irrationality. Tamil religious cultures are not spared either, and Saivism and Vaishnavism as they existed in the Tamil context are interrogated with much critical vigour.

Perhaps their greatest ire was reserved for the Theosophists in Madras: chagrined that Henry Olcott, who was once a freethinker, had taken to believing in spirits, phantasms and mahatmas, they were unsparing in their criticisms of theosophy and its adherents. Initially, they were warmly acclaiming of Annie Besant, who along with Bradlaugh had earned the wrath of conservatives in London, but when Annie Besant took to religion and came to endorse new and emergent forms of Hindu spirituality and identified herself with the theosophists, she was not spared either. In turn, the theosophists considered the secularists their scourge and were often uncharitable in their references to them, considering them vulgar ideologues.

The Madras secularists were on the side of social reform—endorsing widows’ right to remarry, opposing child marriage, supporting women’s claims to education, opposing the practice of temple dedication or the devadasi system —and some of them were inclined to believe that women and men had to be judged by a shared and common sexual morality. Their understanding of the women’s question, of their right to equality and justice, was framed by the debates around birth control and overpopulation that were currently under way in England. While arguing for smaller families, and the right of individuals to decide on how many children they would bring forth into the world, the Madras Malthusians examined and criticised existing marriage and child-rearing practices.

The secularists were severely critical of Christian missionary presence and argument and drew on the anti-Christian views voiced by English and American atheists to call attention to what they considered illogical and inconsistent ideas and beliefs on the part of the Christian faithful. They were as harsh on local catechists and preachers as they were on theist thinkers and philosophers.

The tenor and content of articles in Tattuva Vivesini and The Thinker were noticeably different. The English journals reproduced articles published by freethinkers elsewhere and though it did carry pieces on the Indian situation, its core content was framed by free thought debates elsewhere: for example, it devoted a lot of time and space to the question of Bradlaugh in the British Parliament and whether he would be disqualified for refusing to take an oath of faith. On the other hand, it did report on local news to a considerable extent, commenting on foibles of faith and caste. The Tamil articles are fascinatingly wide-ranging, covering almost all the subjects grouped under the categories I have referred to above.

Writers wrote in a range of styles, from the pedantic prose of the Tamil prose commentators of the medieval period to the more demotic modern prose style that would come into its own in the early 20th century, with the expansion of the news daily and the vernacular political press. Articles on science are particularly interesting: there are new words that are coined, old philosophical terms from the Sanskrit and old Tamil texts are granted a new lease of life, and there is definitely a new and open pedagogic tone. The Tamil articles engage with the debates that bothered the Tamil intellectual world, on matters to do with custom and faith, more than the English ones do. On matters of social reform, both English and Tamil writers share common ground, and English writers are not more or less radical than Tamil ones.

Self-respecters Significantly, several thinkers who subsequently came to be associated with Iyothee Thass’ newspaper Tamizhan (published from the first decade of the 20th century) were regular contributors to Tattuva Vivesini . Professor Lakshmi Narasu (whose writings on Buddhism were dear to Dr B.R. Ambedkar), M. Masilamoni and T.C. Narayanasami Pillay are names that link two different strains of anti-caste thought: the secularist legacy of the freethinkers and the neo-Buddhism outlined by Iyothee Thass. There were continuities with the Self-Respect Movement, too: Athipakkam Venkatachala Naicker, who wrote in Tattuva Vivesini and was the author of a volume titled Hindu Mathaacara Aabaasa Darsini (on the obscenities of the Hindu religion) was a name that self-respecters knew and his work was referred to often enough in Kudiaracu , the weekly edited by Periyar. Besides, the self-respecters continued the practice of extolling and republishing the thought of all those thinkers and non-believers whose views pepper the pages of the free-thought journals: Voltaire, Rousseau, Bradlaugh, Ingersoll… Revolt!, the only English weekly edited by the self-respecters (by S. Guruswami), is very reminiscent of The Thinker , drawing as it does on international debates on faith, atheism and science. But it is also more overtly political and polemical on social and cultural matters.

On the other hand, continuities did not mean that there were no changes. The Madras Secularists represented a very significant intellectual moment in modern Tamil history, and were defined by it. It is remarkable that they were active in precisely those years that saw the founding of the Indian National Congress and during the great famine years, both of which transformed the nature of governance in old Madras. They responded to their times, but not in familiar political ways. They were men of ideas, and it was in this sphere that their influence was startling, and today we are able to see how they stand at the beginning of an important historical shift in the social and cultural history of Madras, and which found its fruition in the Self-Respect Movement. In the decades that followed, those who took their cues from the secularists took that history forward in other ways. Iyothee Thass marked his own trajectory, while drawing on earlier ideas: he mined Tamil literary history and texts for constructing his own vision of history; he was also keenly invested in reimagining Buddhism for his times. All the time, he was also active politically, petitioning the government on matters to do with untouchability and caste disabilities, and producing detailed criticisms of militant nationalism. Periyar not only was a man of ideas, but mobilised men and women in large numbers, around issues of reason, faith, feminism, anti-caste practices and his own version of socialism. He was active in an era that saw the beginnings of mass politics, and infused a radical energy into debates around social and political justice. Historians of free thought in Britain argue that the British socialists and communists transposed debates around atheism and rationalism into another context and that the anti-metaphysics of Bradlaugh found its logical conclusion in the progressive science arguments of Julian Huxley and Bertrand Russell. The fate of free thought in India was somewhat similar but also different: on the one hand it fed into debates on science and socialism and on the other hand it remained central to criticisms of caste, religious superstitions and obscurantist thought and practices. In M. Singaravelu, Periyar and M.N. Roy, we find a coming together of both impulses.

However, we need to rethink this history of ideas and these volumes are invaluable on that account. We cannot thank enough all those who undertake the essentially thankless task of identifying and preserving primary research texts and data, the collators, anthologists and encyclopaedists whose work nurtures and feeds that of historians and theorists. In this sense, we need to acknowledge labour such as this. Arasu and his students, who worked hard to bring out these volumes, have produced work that will benefit all those working on late colonial India as well as those committed to a politics of justice and equality.

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