Tamil Buddhism & Anti-caste Consciousness

A review of Foundations of Anti-caste Consciousness: Pandit Iyothee Thass, Tamil Buddhism, and the Marginalized in South India, by Gajendran Ayyathurai.

Iyothee Thass (1845-1914) was a major Dalit leader, thinker and activist whose life, work and legacy have regrettably remained relatively neglected by historians of Tamil Nadu. In many ways a precursor to towering anti-caste figures like E.V. Ramasamy Naicker (1879-1973) and B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), Thass was also the first Dalit, specifically, Parayar, intellectual and activist to embrace and espouse Buddhism. Based predominantly on issues of Thass’s newspaper The Tamilian between the years 1907 and 1914, it is to Gajendran Ayyathurai’s immense credit that his dissertation brings an extremely detailed reconstruction of Thass’s vision of anti-caste thought and practice to Anglophone readers. Despite the growing number of contributions to the field of Dalit studies, Ayyathurai finds that what remains understudied “is the Dalit criticism of Indian culture, economy, religions and history in general” (p. 2; emphasis in original). His study is therefore explicitly positioned to redress this shortcoming.

Deploying the long-essay form, and consisting of three chapters, Ayyathurai is concerned to show in his study how Parayars successfully challenged depictions of their community as “untouchable” in both colonial and upper caste discourse. Far from being antagonistic to each other, a recurring theme is how both discourses actually shared a deep underlying resemblance in their respective positing of the Dalit Parayar as the socially inferior other of Tamil brahmins and upper castes. Taken together, each of the three chapters attend to a triad of Thass’s and other Tamil Buddhists’ discursive practices – what Ayyathurai terms the oppositional, reconstructional and respresentational – in order to demonstrate how Tamil Buddhist Dalit subject-formation rejected and reworked both the manichean binary imposed by colonial rule as well as the implicit privileging of brahminical caste hierarchies enabled by that regime.

In Chapter 1, “Anti-caste Consciousness of the Self: Pandit C. Iyothee Thass and The Tamilian,” Ayyathurai explores the myriad ways in which Thass and contributors to his newspaper revalued the entire system of signs and meanings associated with hierarchy as imagined by brahmins and other upper castes to articulate a novel critique of early twentieth century Tamil and Indian caste society. Starting with Thass’s epiphanic experience at a meeting of the Madras Mahajana Sabha in 1892 when he witnessed the brazen antipathy of the Sabha members to what was then termed the “Parayar problem,” Ayyathurai devotes the bulk of this chapter to Thass’s valorization of humanistic ideals he found in Buddhist theology and history. Indeed, Thass believed that the Parayars, who in his own time were treated as socially degraded and polluting beings, were actually Buddhists prior to the ascendancy of the brahmins. Similarly, Thass argued that the Tamil term saati (analogous to jati), was originally rooted in linguistic and/or vocational identity; the transformation in its semantic register was accomplished, once again, by the brahmin supersession of Dravidian Buddhists. Indeed, according to his researches, Buddhist defeat at the hands of brahmins was the key development which led to the emergence of demeaning connotations attached to the social category “Parayar.”  Like Jyotiba Phule before him, Thass developed a theory of brahminical conspiracy and violence towards Tamil Buddhists to explain the subjugation of the community into which he was born. Ayyathurai thus pays special attention to Thass’s and his correspondents’ rejection of the nationalism propounded by the contemporary predominantly upper caste Congress party and their demand for swadeshi.

Chapter 2, “Reconstruction of the Self: Tamil Buddhists’ Self-discovery and Authority” is a further elaboration on themes introduced in the first, specifically, with respect to Thass’s and other Tamil Buddhists’ search for a collective identity beyond caste. Ayyathurai recounts their reinterpretation of the Indian past as the unfortunate Brahminization of an originally Buddhist society and polity. Especially notable are Thass’s efforts to glean from Tamil texts of as early as the fourth century CE a Buddhist ethos untrammeled by the social distinctions of caste society. Additionally, Ayyathurai shows how Thass perceived Brahminical practices themselves to have originated through the intentional displacement of prior Buddhist ones. Thus, for instance, the sacred thread ceremony, sacred ash, fasting, sacrificial fire, the temple, idolatry and internal-light, were all Brahminical reconceptualizations of Buddhist practices which initially contained humanistic intent. Similarly, festivals in Thass’s own time, like Pongal, Deepaval and Kartikai, are revealed to have been initiated within a Buddhist milieu. Of particular note in this chapter is Ayyathurai’s examination of Thass’s struggle against the complex of both colonial and upper caste interests to declare Tamil Buddhists as lower caste Hindus and Parayars. Instead, Thass hoped that they would be identified as both non-Hindu and Buddhist in the 1911 census. Such anti-caste aspirations were met with the “… resistance of Indian officials… When people declared themselves to be Buddhists, if the officials [Indian] refused to accept such a self-identification and persist in asking for their caste instead, Thass told them that they should say that they have been Buddhists since ages past and up to the present (poorvamudal naaladuvaraiyil), and therefore, do not have castes. If they continue to persist and ask about the pre-Buddhist status, he wants them to assert that they have no right to ask such questions because they are none other than Indian Buddhists” (pp. 137-138). Readers gain a sense of the scale of Thass’s influence: 532 people in Chennai (where there were 76 in 1901), and 693 in Madras Presidency were recorded as Buddhists during the 1911 census. Ayyathurai analyzes such data as evidence of Thass’s commendable efforts, especially considering they were constrained by particularly adverse circumstances. A subsequent section develops the suggestion that the effects of Thass’s and the various Sakya Buddhist Associations’ activities exerted a greater influence than might be gauged by census data alone through a sampling of the contributions Tamil Buddhist men and women made to The Tamilian.

In the final chapter of the dissertation, “Representation of the Self: Staking Claims through Political, Economic, and Cultural Institutions,” Ayyathurai significantly broadens his narrative frame to include a wider array of historical actors than the first two. Focused on the “representational claims of anti-caste communities,” he interprets such claims as a weaving together of “political, economic, cultural and identity aspirations and assertions” (p. 150). Of particular interest to this reader were Ayyathurai’s narrations of the emergence of the Non-Caste Dravidian Industrials Limited, aspirations for a bank of the poor, advocacy of indentured labor rights against the Indian National Congress, the land to the tiller movement and the Panchama educational foundation. Such evidence appears to militate against commonly held views that Dalit politics were solely concerned with questions of identity which, in turn, have been perceived as peculiarly divorced from political-economic considerations. In addition, Ayyathurai also devotes a considerable portion of the chapter to an explication of Thass’s and The Tamilian correspondents’ sensitivity to issues of gender discrimination and patriarchy, and their imbrication with casteism. In so doing, he convinces that the marginalized of Tamil society did not meekly accept the lot to which social and political elites would have them consigned.

In this writer’s opinion, Gajendran Ayyathurai’s study will be welcomed by scholars in the following fields: Dalit Studies, Tamil Studies and South Asian history more generally. Students of anti-caste thought and practice will benefit greatly from learning about the efforts of Iyothee Thass and his associates, until now absent from the pages of English-language history-writing.

Dwaipayan Sen
Departments of History, and Asian Languages and Civilizations
Amherst College

Primary Sources

The Tamilian

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2011. 239 pp. Primary Advisor: Nicholas B. Dirks.


Image: Iyothee Thass. The Hindu.


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