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  • Writer's pictureAslam Abdullah

A Conversation between Gandhi, an advocate of Caste System and Periyar, an Iconoclast

India's Voice for Social Justice, Periyar

Periyar and his close friend S. Ramanathan visited Mahatma Gandhi in Bangalore in 1927. Their conversation was first published in Kudiarasu in 1927 and republished in Unmai in 1970. Here is a translation of their conversation in the Periyar Kalanjiyam.)

In this conversation, Periyar, one of the most revered leaders in Tamil Nadu, said:

"Forgive me for saying this. Within the Hindu religion, even someone like you can't bring about a permanent change. The Brahmins will not allow you to go to that extent. If they feel that your stand affects their interests, they will start opposing you. So far, no great man has been able to bring a substantial change here; if anyone does try, the Brahmins will not spare them."

Periyar: Hinduism should go.

Mahatma Gandhi: Why?

Periyar: There is no Hindu religion.

Gandhi: There is.

Periyar: The Brahmins have propagated this and have duped people.

Gandhi: Aren't all religions like that?

Periyar: Not so. Other religions have a proof for their history and religious figures, and their followers generally accept their ideas.

Gandhi: But aren't there such things in Hinduism?

Periyar: What is there? One is a Brahmin. One a Sudra. Another is a Panchama. Apart from these divisions, is there a common idea or source? And what else is there besides the social belief that the Brahmin is high, while the Sudra and Panchama are low?

Gandhi: Well, at least there appears to be this idea!

Periyar: But what is the use of this? According to it, the Brahmins are higher while you and I are lower.

Gandhi: You are in error. In varnashrama dharma, there are no high and low castes.

Periyar: You say this. But it does not work that way.

Gandhi: One can make it work that way.

Periyar: As long as there is Hinduism, that is not possible.

Gandhi: It can be done only through Hinduism.

Periyar: Then what do we do with the religious texts that prove the divisions of Brahmin and Sudra?

Gandhi: But you claimed there is no proof for a Hindu religion?

Gandhi and Periyar in a conversation in 1927

Periyar: I say there is no Hindu religion and no specific proof for the same. But then, shouldn't those who accept the existence of this religion also take the explanations that come along?

Gandhi: We can accept a religion and develop our arguments.

Periyar: That is not possible. If we accept a religion as valid, we cannot change anything.

Gandhi: What you say applies to other religions, not to Hinduism. Once you accept the faith, you can make changes in its name. No one can question you.

Periyar: How can you say this? Who will agree? Wouldn't you need to provide a basis for this?

Gandhi: What you say sounds right. That is, there is no religion called Hindu religion. Fair enough. I agree. I also agree that it does not have a well-defined set of ideas. But that is precisely why we, as Hindus, have the liberty to make our ideals. Today, in this country – why – in the world itself, the Hindu religion can bring people to the right path. Other religions cannot because different religions have historical proofs and concrete ideas. Those who interfere with these (proofs) will be opposed. What Christ said, or what the Bible says that he said, is the only way for Christians to behave. Likewise, what the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran say is the only way Muslims behave. Differing interpretations are blasphemy. Those who have different opinions can state them only from the outside. That will not be permitted if they try to do so from the inside. It is the nature of the 'true' religions.

But since Hinduism is not such a religion, anyone can become a saint here and say anything. And that is how many great men and saints of Hinduism could say what they said. Thus, we, too, can stay within Hinduism and bring about several reforms.

Periyar: I am sorry. But this cannot be done.

Gandhi: Why?

Periyar: A selfish group in Hinduism will not allow this.

Gandhi: Why do you say this? Do not the Hindus agree when we say there is no untouchability in Hinduism?

Periyar: Agreeing is one thing. Practicing it is another. It does not happen in practice.

Gandhi: I practice it! Would you not agree that there has been a significant change in the last 4–5 years?

Periyar: I understand what you are saying. But there is no change at a fundamental level. Due to your public influence and because they seek to use you, these people act as if they agree with you. And you also believe them.

Gandhi: (Laughing) Who are these actors?

Periyar: Why, the Brahmins!

Gandhi: All the Brahmins?

Periyar: Yes! Why? All the Brahmins who are with you!

Gandhi: But don't you believe a single Brahmin?

Periyar: I find it difficult.

Gandhi: Don't you even believe Rajagopalachariyar?

Periyar: He is a good man. An honest man. Ready to sacrifice. Selfless. But he is sincere in pursuing the interests of his class. He will offer for the same. He is selfless in that pursuit. But I cannot hand over my class's interests to him without suspicion.

Gandhi: That is surprising! Is it your opinion that there is no honest Brahmin in the world?

Periyar: Who knows? I have not come across any!

Gandhi: Please don't say that. I have seen a Brahmin. Without a doubt, I consider him a good Brahmin. Do you know who that is? Gopal Krishna Gokhale.

Periyar: Ah! When a Mahatma like you could find only one good Brahmin in this vast world, how can an ordinary sinner like me find any?

Gandhi: (Laughing) The world is controlled by the intelligentsia. Brahmins are the learned class. They will thus always command power. There is no point in criticizing them. Instead, others should reach their level.

Periyar: Other religions are not like that. Only in Hinduism do an exclusive group like the Brahmins form the intelligentsia. Among the rest, 90/100 are illiterate and innocent. In a society where only one section of people can belong to the intelligentsia, isn't that religion detrimental to all other castes except that privileged caste? Thus, I say that such a religion is false, harmful to others, and must go.

Gandhi: Can I assume your position is that both Hinduism and the Brahmins should go?

Periyar: If Hinduism, this false religion, goes away, there will be no more Brahmins. Because there is Hinduism, there are also Brahmins. You and I, we are sudras. All power is in the hands of the Brahmins, I would say.

Gandhi: That is not so. Do they not listen to me? By being within the Hindu religion and acting in its name, we can still remove the negative aspects you pointed out.

Periyar: I humbly believe you will not be able to do this. Even if you can, some other great person like you might emerge and undo all your work after your time.

Gandhi: How?

Periyar: As you said earlier, anyone can convince the people in Hinduism's name. Similarly, a great man in the future may do anything in the name of Hinduism.

Gandhi: I don't think such a change might be easily possible.

Periyar: Forgive me for saying this. Within the Hindu religion, even someone like you can't bring about a permanent change. The Brahmins will not allow you to go to that extent. If they feel that your stand affects their interests, they will start opposing you. So far, no great man has been able to bring a substantial change here; if anyone does try, the Brahmins will not spare them.

Gandhi: You have a wrong opinion about the Brahmins. Your position is clear to me. I think we have not arrived at any conclusive agreement in our conversation. However, we should meet again 2–3 times. Later, we can decide on what we can do together.

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