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The purpose of a feast is for a large number of people to meet, exchange views, and enjoys themselves. As people of differing views meet, there are room and scope for people to air them.

periyar 34Meaningless Rituals

The pity about our public festivals is that they contain meaningless rituals in remembrance of fantastic imaginary legends. These festivals were organised centuries ago by somebody for some reason to benefit some group. And definitely not for the advancement or enlightenment of our Dravidian people. For instance, almost all of our festivals seem to have been invented for the purpose of feeding and enriching the Brahmin priests. The ritualism of the festivals has continued from time immemorial in exactly the same manner without any change, regardless of the changes that have taken place in the social and political world. There appears to be no correlation whatever between the progress of culture and the ritualism of the festivals. The only change appears to be in lighting arrangements. Instead of oil lamps or burning torches, we have now gas lights or electric lights. Nobody seems to be bothered as to whether participation in festivals of this kind is of any use to the people. Gatherings such as these should at least be utilised by our intellectuals to educate the people of their crude ideas and to improve their general knowledge of the world.

Festivals in the West 

I have taken some pains to see how festivals are organised in Western countries. I have also witnessed some festivals while on tour in the West.

Their festivals will invariably contain something to improve the people’s knowledge, some exhibition to kindle the progressive tendencies of the people will be found there. No such thing is found in our country of India. There will be nothing to stimulate the intellect. Festivals are performed there at the cost of lakhs of rupees to carry and idolatrous procession through the streets, with the sole purpose of keeping the people enveloped in ignorance, credulity and piety.

In the West, the festivals though conducted for the same role religious purposes have largely been converted into an exhibition or the education of the people. The latest advancement made in agriculture and industry will be exhibited and explained to the people. Delicate ingenious machinery obtained from different lands will find a place in the exhibition. Small fine art galleries will also be there to attract the attention of the visitors. The participant in the festivals feels as though he is passing through a university. He begins to know, in general, what a university student will learn in detail. As the exhibition are meant for the education and progressive thinking of the people, industrialists, educationists, and scientists are seen to take a great interest in them. The interest taken by the government in such an exhibition is not small. Manufacturers take the trouble and interest to sell their wares at a bare profit in order to encourage the people to adopt the latest labour-minimum saving and comfort-giving devices in their household work.

What do Indian festivals give? 

Indian festivals are devoid of such exhibitions. Beyond the same old bazaar lines, the same old street fun, and the procession of the idols, there is nothing to kindle our imagination or improve our lives. When a person returning from a festival is asked what was special in it, he would repeat the same old story of big crowds, grand decoration of the idols, the stampede of the mad rush, and perhaps the new set of buglers who were paid the highest this year. He will say nothing about the world that is progressing elsewhere. Yet we have devotees who take pride in their annual visits to Tirupati for the Purattasi Saturday or to Tiruvannamalai for the Kartigai Deepam. After expending a few hundred rupees on railway or bus travel, on temple priests and in the unhealthy hotel, the villager returns home with his family poorer in money and poorer in mind, if he does not contract some disease and die on the way.

Man and Beast 

A man endowed with the six senses is not supposed to do the same thing over again as other beings with lesser senses. Man must behave differently from the animal. He must show progress in the word, thought, and deed to justify his existence. Men who do not change are no better than animals, which do nothing beyond living and procreating.

Why do we show no progress in comparison with the Western people? Every Year they bring out, for instance, new models of motor cars, which is because research is always underway striving for progress in design, comfort and cost. In former days manufacturers used to change the models once in five years. In recent years they effect improvements every year and in some cases twice a year. This is in accordance with man’s progressive evolution.

On the political side, we are not so bad. The idea that the Congress had in 1885 is not what it has now. It has changed its ideal to suit changing political conditions. The first Congress paid allegiance to the Emperor of Britain and prayed for his long life. Later it passed resolutions praying for a share in the administration and for a share in high appointments to Indians. I would not say that the Congressmen of those days were actuated by the slave mentality. They did what they could in those days, but step by step, they changed their aims. When Indians got a share in jobs, the demand for equality in remuneration was raised, and later still the recruitment of Englishmen for the Indian services was objected to. Finally, Congress asked for self-rule. Only to modify it still later to Complete Independence. This is progress in the political field.

Progress or growth connotes improvement. As civilisation advances, there is a steady increase in man’s needs. Research and rational thinking help us to drop unwanted and obsolete things and leap towards higher materials of comfort. The greater the effort for material progress, the higher is the standard of living. Higher standards in living mean less physical labour and more comfort and leisure. The Western nations have progressed this way. Compared to their standards, India is extremely backward. In some respects, we are almost living like animals without showing any signs of improvement. Are we sinners? I do not think so. Our leaders and philosophers have not thought on the right lines. They simply left our improvement to God, karma, fate, etc. It is not that we are incapable of rational thinking; it is that the opportunities given to us were utilised to multiply superstitions and exploit the innocent people. The festival gatherings, marriage groups, and society meetings have all been only so much fun for us and not occasions for self or rational improvement.

Blind Obedience 

The intellect in India was never allowed to question the past or doubt the present or plan for the future. Blind obedience to tradition and blissful resignation to karma has been the order of the day. In matters of God, religion, ritual, religious regulations (sastras), we were not allowed to affect the slightest change. Our people were asked to childishly accept as true the silly and fantastic Puranas (Mythology) relating to our wonderful gods. The threat of hell and eternal perdition was held over anybody who questioned the truth of any line in the Vedas, Sastras, and Puranas. The horrid threat of being born as insects or grass in the next birth was also there. These ideas are still present in the minds of our people. We have only to see how our magicians and priests still trade on spirits, ghosts, and dead souls. There are people who pray “God, save me from hell. I am prepared to drink cow’s urine and eat its dung if only my misery is driven away”.

If there were a few freethinkers in our land, who questioned our Sastras and Puranas, they were immediately branded as atheists, and the wrath of the people was turned on them. Hence it is that we are where several centuries ago with little hope for the future.

Think it over 

God and religion interfere in every bit of our life without limit. Though we have not tried to invent and make new things that improve our daily living conditions, we have not hesitated to adopt Western gadgets. Indeed we have not failed to carry Western inventions to our gods. Electric lights and fans today comfort our stone and metal gods. Nobody has bothered to see if electricity is consistent with our ancient idolatry still armed with spears and maces. Without much thought about God and religion, we have, however, quickly taken to Western conveniences. Whether faith in God permits railway travel to Benares and Rameswaram against the traditional locomotion in carts or by foot does not hinder our present-day devotees. We do not make things that improve man’s lot on earth but do not hesitate to use Western inventions for ourselves or our gods. Take the electric light as an example. Think of the history behind its invention. Kerosene light and gaslight, little realising that our innumerable gods, Rishis (Sages), Mahatmas (Supreme Souls), heroes (Veeras and Suras) were incapable of inventing one little thing or even bestowing on any devotee the ability to do such things. The inconsistency in our thinking and way of life must therefore be apparent to those who wish to see.

Should there be caste? 

The infamous ‘Varnasrama’ (Casteism system) dharma is still extant in India. The people, who were called Sudras (Sons of prostitutes) 2000 years ago still continue to be called such. Likewise, the people who were Brahmins 2000 years ago are still Brahmins. People born untouchable centuries ago are still in the same unfortunate condition. Colour, habits, likes and dislikes, caste rules and principles have all changed, but the basis of casteism still continues to thrive on the basis of birth. How is this just? Should the term Sudra, which means progeny of the concubine or prostitute, still continue in this 20th century? Should we still be frightened of the false Hindu codifications (Sastras) and useless traditions? Why not our people divest themselves of the subjugation imposed on the basis of birth? How are we to be men in the full sense of the word ‘Sudras’?

Can this be tolerated? 

The cause of our subjugation is Hindu religion and its supporting gods, Doctrines and Mythology that we had accepted. If these cannot be removed, they must at least be amended to suit our modern democratic conditions. We should no longer be afraid of the imaginary hell. People should have the guts to ask why this God had made the toiling worker miserable, while the lazy rich who do not so much bend their bodies should lead lives of ease. Can a religion that calls the hard-working tiller a low caste Sudra and the lazy longer a high caste Vaisya or Brahmin, be tolerated?

God is in flight 

The days of superstition are numbered. People are no longer panicky about God and religion. In many foreign countries, God is in flight, if not already gone. People who doubt God or expel God are only those who use their intellect. Such people have not been punished by God. They have not lost their eyesight nor have they become deaf. The terrors held out for the agnostic, and the atheist have been proved to be false cries. There is rain, sunshine, prosperity and plenty in atheist Russia and China.

More gods than people! 

Festivals such as Pongal in Tamil Nadu, the harvest feast, must be utilised for kindling rationalist thought. Nobody can say that the outcast or low caste condition of our people in the land of their birth is because of want of faith in god or religion. India has never been wanting in gods. There are plenty of them. They are said to exceed the population of India itself. The worship of God in all faith and sincerity has also been full and satisfactory. Why then are we in the present miserable low condition?

What do we do when our town is struck by cholera or plague? The authorities no longer call upon the people to propitiate the deities like Mariamma and Muneeswaran. They go out instead to close down the stinking water pools, clean up the drinking water system, and inoculate the people against the disease. In the same way, people must realise that the cause of their servility and misery is the Hindu religion. They must no longer propitiate the same old gods that have proved to be deaf and blind and dumb but seek them out in every nook and corner and destroy them.

Why God is always silent? 

If the pickpocket says that he could not help doing it because it is God’s action and nothing moves without HIS sanction, do we accept his word and let him go? Do we not hand him over to the police? Will any devotee leave his box unlocked in the conviction that God will look after everything? Do we not see every man exerting himself to find the means of his livelihood? Who sits still in the hope of God, putting food in his mouth? Therefore it is wrong to expect God to take action to eradicate the diabolical caste system with all its evils. It is the duty of the people to take action. God and his priests will never come to their aid. God has always been silent, and the priest has used his name to exploit and fool the people. This must be told to the people to urge them to throw off the shackles of religion.

Serve a notice on God 

Why should there be Sudras meaning descendants of prostitute or concubines? Are the people who build the temples, pay for its maintenance, feed the priests, wash and worship the idols, be called low caste Sudras? Are the people who do nothing but wave lamps before the idols and fool the people to be called high caste Brahmins? If God is responsible for these unjust differences, is it not time to serve a notice on God asking him either to publicly declare that there are no high and low persons before him or that he is not responsible for the discrimination, and that if he does not make the declaration within a stipulated time, steps would be taken to demolish the temples?

If God is enclosed in the phallic stone, let him speak out. If he does not, throw the stone on to the dung heap. Self-Respecters who speak the truth are being subjected to persecution in order to preserve the old order – the vested interests – interests – in the name of peace. Self-Respecters have to brave all difficulties and go forward with their noble, democratic, rationalist mission.

Nautch girls for the pleasure of gods 

If God can be anything, it can be only by truth and wisdom. Everything said and done in the name of God must be examined on this basis. There is no sense in installing a piece of stone and calling it god and then getting it married every year. Till recently, these gods were given the pleasure of nautch girls dancing before them accompanied by music. The brass gods are taken out in procession in huge chariots or on the shoulders of Sudras of Dravidian race. After all this royal honour, the idols are locked up in small rooms like prisoners. Can there be any sense in this mimicry? Are we really honouring God or actually insulting him?

Why worship cow dung? 

Education is being lost on our people. Learned pundits, graduate scholars, titled plutocrats do not seem to have gained anything by their education or wealth. Like any illiterate peasant, these men do not hesitate to worship cow dung and sprinkle cow’s urine on their heads. To wash themselves of their sins, they stoop to drink dirty water as “theertham”. They stand like mummies, while the stinking priest mutters something in the dead language, Sanskrit. Look at the people going to Tirupathi at great expense and trouble to get themselves tonsured. Why is that necessary?

Politicians and superstition 

It is true that nearly 90% of our people are illiterates. Government is seen to take steps to improve this situation. But in doing so, I find the politicians intent upon spreading and strengthening superstition. Teachers are being warned not to ridicule the silly Puranas or disparage religion. How are the young pupils to get at the truth? I wonder why our politicians do not realise that it is this same old religion that has made them Sudras. They are still Sudras though Ministers. Their ignorance and slavery to tradition are so great that they seem to be unaware of the insult and shame that the Hindu religion openly bestows on them.

Where do educationists fail? 

Our educationists do not seem to have expended a little thought on the need to change the educational methods even after independence. The fantastic stories, born out of the imagination of ancient poets, like the Ramayana and Mahabharata are still being regarded as historical truths and put into our history books. The events of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are stated to have taken place in the Tretha and Dwapara yugas (eras), i.e. millenniums ago. There is absolutely no historical evidence, documentary or otherwise, for these epics. Yet our educationists would have them in the history books. How can we hope to make our children use their brain to seek the truth if fairy tales and fantasies are told as history? When is our government to become rational and scientific?

The thing I call God 

The God that is without a name and a form, the God that makes all people equal and free, the God that speaks for high thinking and plain living, the God that does not stop free thinking and research, the God that does not ask for food, money, flattery, and temples can certainly be an object of worship. The religion that stands for justice, truth, equality, and wisdom may be followed. For saying this much, I have been called an atheist, a term that has no meaning. Nevertheless, atheism does not frighten me and need to threaten none.

- Periyar E.V.R.

(From 'Collected Works of Periyar E.V.R.', compiled by Dr. K. Veeramani, published by 'The Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution')

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