Secular Humanism

Dalit and Tamil Literature

Excerpts from a talk given by P. Dayanandan on 10 April 2012 at the Book release of the ‘Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing’ at the Oxford University Press, Chennai.

I will be quite happy if students of literature, say at the University of Wisconsin enjoy, critique and write term papers on Dalit poems, novels and fiction in this Anthology.  If I were one of them I might say “what wonderful poetry!” And I would take it for granted that human beings can write wonderful poetry. No one there will say ‘Oh, I did not know Dalits can write such good poetry or novels!”  So what I look for in this Anthology is if it offers hope. Amidst all the challenging, crying, weeping, accusing, abusing, ridiculing, laughing, celebrating, and loving utterance is there a common focus, a thrust for liberation and empowerment? Ambedkar did not write the Annihilation of Caste as an academic exercise. Or for showing the world how smart and creative he was. I believe this Anthology does reflect such seriousness of purpose.

A review of the book:

In this Anthology we have several selections that are life-affirming. “Scar” or “Vatu” is an autobiography by that master story-teller and prolific writer Prof. K. A. Gunasekaran. It is a story of many people, knit together in overflowing concern for each other, transcending caste and pouring affection to affirm life. Scar is not a story of a sobbing Dalit but of a triumphant Dalit, a symbol of dignity and humanity, telling the world that it is possible to bury caste!

L. Elayaperumal’s “The Flames of Summer”, ably translated by D. Venkataraman is a gem in this Anthology, and a must read. Elayaperumal is one of the most courageous Dalit leaders who ever walked on Tamil soil, and lived a life so that others can have a life.

Listen to what S. Sukirtharani says about my identity in her Portrait of My Village: “The thick sulphurous smell, of the fermented gruel, received with palms cupped and raised – given as wages for grass cut, bundled, borne by hands abraded by ulundu plants – still pervade the body, like a ductless gland.” Not far from Chennai is Gudiyam and Attrampakkam area, which has the largest collection of paleoliths south of the Himalayas. This is evidence that our ancestral species Homo heidelbergensis lived here nearly a million years ago. Our own Homo sapiens ancestors might have been living in this region for the past 50,000 years or so. I visited this place for several years to collect paleoliths and saw palms cupped and raised and abraded hands that no one will touch or shake. Here is a picture  of   it and that narrows my own identity!


Dr. Krishnaswamy points out in this Anthology how the society has been split for 2000 years. One group has been cruelly cheated and set apart to work from birth with no choices. For the other group religion, not money has become an easy investment for exploitation.

The origins of ‘untouchability’ and etymology

It remains a mystery why scholars who could reconstruct our pre and proto-history, and can so easily reconstruct the history of our rulers with precise dating cannot satisfactorily explain when untouchability and caste emerged in South India. How did 76 Dalit and 35 Tribal communities of Tamil Nadu come into existence? Who and what power was responsible for this, and when did this happen? We have not even solved the problem of etymology of the epithet used to describe one of the largest Dalit communities, paraiyar. However, people have not hesitated to baptize dogs and kites with this honorific name only to be so cleverly manipulated by some media.

Prejudice in Tamil context

Caste is responsible for many inhuman creations, so well recorded by many, and continue to be recorded everyday. For one thing it tried its best in every generation to effectively block the participation of nearly 1/5th of India’s humanity from making significant contribution to many fields. It continues to do so even after Independence. Those who rejoice in the eternal sanctity of caste and the power and prestige it brings would not only prevent Dalits from participation, they would also cleverly deny them any identity, any humanity. They would ensure that Dalits are preoccupied with their own misery and anger so that they do not become a challenge to them.

This very Anthology and the writings included in it are in one sense a drain on the energy, creativity and dignity of a people who at this stage in the history of humanity should be engaged with explorations and pursuits that are in consonance with our time and place in civilizational history. Instead, we are made to spend time on Dalit literature or Dalit theology that reveals anger and pathos, pity and protest and helplessness and militancy. Thenmozhi starts her essay on “Power that Transcends” with the sentence “We can say, that virtually all our present-day problems are, in some sense, problems relating to power.

Very true. Power to control, power for economic gains and material comfort, and power for privileged positions all operate to fuel caste and untouchability. Perhaps oppression caused by some aspects of power can be controlled through agitations, politics, and legal means. But is it power that makes one not clean his own dry toilet and ask for a fellow human being to do it? Is it power that generates honor killing when a girl forgets caste and marries a Dalit? What is there in caste that makes my fellow Christians discriminate against me?  We must go beyond power, hatred, jealousy, greed, elitism and religious ideologies to an enemy for which we do not even have a proper Tamil word!

Please tell me, what is the most suitable Tamil word of translation for prejudice? Looks like Tamils refused to acknowledge the very existence of prejudice. A young Tamil lecturer tells me that he never heard of some words that the MU English-Tamil Dictionary offers as Tamil equivalent for prejudice – murchayvu, murkol, thappennam, kedu, theengu, ooru, izhappu, pollangu, and ethircharbu.

How do you fight prejudice?

We are familiar with the oppressors blaming the Dalits for their present condition, both because of what they are supposed to have been in the previous birth and for what they are not doing right in this birth. Writing about the Dalits of Japan, knows as Buraku-min, Grier said: “Society in general thinks that the problem is in the buraku and that we must become active to change the “dreadful” conditions of the buraku-min.” The mentality was to project the outcaste as the problem and that something must be done to remedy their deplorable situation and alleviate the injustice done to them. He said: “But this kind of thinking is totally backwards. The root of the problem is the prejudice of society in general, a prejudice which is a dreadful disease…we all have it, either consciously or unconsciously…I have it”. Are the Dalits polluted? Grier would say: “Those who discriminate are polluted, not those who are discriminated against. The discriminators are the problem; they are the ones in need of liberation, salvation, and cleansing.”

Identity – A red herring

A theme that runs throughout this book, irrespective of the nature of the narrative, is identity.

Identity is truly a crisis in India, thanks to the caste system. It affects all the 50,000 or more endogamous groups, irrespective of position in caste hierarchy. But it affects Dalits and others at the bottom the most. What caste and untouchability have done is deprive people of true identity. Tricked and deceived the oppressed run around in circles or climb the Indian ladder looking for ‘respectable’ identities. So we look for Buddhist or Naga lineages, link to Pallava, Pandiya or Sakya royal families, connect with Devendran whether he is the Vedic Indra or the Buddhist Aindiran. And we all want to be Adi. So, I am an Adi Dravida, ex-untouchable, older brother of a brahmin, and my original religion was Buddhism!

Untouchability and caste are monstrous creations of an ideology that deprived me of a dignified human identity. As Ambedkar would describe it, this ideology graded me and placed me at the bottom of a hierarchical ‘ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt.”  Caste has created a unique case of ethnicity that exists no where else in the world. As a Dalit I claim an ethnic identity with 75 other Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu and about a thousand more throughoutIndia. Linguistic, religious, cultural and all other differences notwithstanding, we all are proposed to be ethnic Dalits! Naturally we are expected to express certain solidarity with each other. And wonder if there is a separate Dalit culture!

Who speaks for the Raneyars?

Another evil of our quest for identity is how Dalits have been tricked into focusing on subgroups that are relatively more empowered, educated and are larger in number to wield clout. Are Tamil Dalits Buddhists, Devendrakulathar or Adi Tamilars? We have scholars and ideologues and followers like me who have forgotten that right here in Tamil Nadu there exists 73 other Dalit groups with no spokespersons! Are they all to follow the example of the three dominant Dalit communities and start searching for identities in the rungs of the Indian ladder? Who will speak for, or affirm any solidarity with the Raneyars who number only 59? Which publisher will tell the stories of the 30 Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu, each with less than a 1000 population?  This Anthology probably contains the writings of no more than 3-4 of the 76 Dalit communities. Are the 35 Tribal communities of Tamil Nadu aliens? Who will give an empowering identity to the Mannans who number only 40 or the Kochu Velan numbering only 43?

This is the Dilemma of being a Dalit! This dilemma of each dominant Dalit community seeking its identity, a glorious past and present preoccupation with itself is a characteristic of their oppressed position. Oppression gives multiple identities, none satisfactory to their self dignity and all very pleasing to the patronizing upper castes. Others may find a hundred terms that they think fit me, but try hard as I can, I will never find a satisfactory term to describe myself. Is there a way out of this quagmire?

Dalits must embrace a Metanarrative

Charles Darwin's 'I think' tree

I feel that Dalits should be leaders in telling their children and the world a grand story that can make all people transcend the desire to tell petty stories. Such a metanarrative is now available! Evolution, that grand unification of all life is certainly one of the greatest stories ever told by science. Modern evolutionary biologists and paleoanthropologists are now providing us with a larger, inspiring story of human origins, migrations and colonization that should be told to all people for a better comprehension of our place in nature.

The essentials of this story are:

The original home of all of us is Africa. The 7 billion people who are now living, and an estimated 108 billion people who have died within the past 50,000 years, all originated in Africa. It appears that all humans may in fact be the children of one lucky woman – the African or Mitochondria Eve. A small group of our ancestors left the African continent some 70 or 80 thousand years ago. The genetic diversity now found in all non-African countries is a legacy of this early group of Homo sapiens who left Africa. After 2,000 generations the descendants have multiplied to more than 5 billion people now living in non-African countries alone. Human beings, all 7 billion now living and the billions more that will be added, are remarkably like each other with 99.9% genetic similarity. A mere 0.1% difference is responsible for the diversity we observe.We are not a highly variable species. All the skin color variations of humans appeared only during the last 60,000 years.

Image source: Wikipedia

Africa is genetically the most diverse continent in the world, which is a reflection of nearly 200,000 years of accumulation of mutations. While no other continent can match this diversity, India appears to be the second richest country in genetic diversity.India was a major route of migration for people moving out of Africa into Asia and Australia, and was colonized when the first wave of migration occurred. There had been many subsequent waves of migration into and out ofIndia, resulting in exogamy and intermixture. A typical Indian has been described as a “migrant par excellence”!  The diversity of India became the basis for a process of stratification of the society that is responsible for the existence of 4,693 major communities and more than 50,000 small endogamous groups, including more than 1000 Dalit communities.

We will continue to explore the past historical events and ideological forces that segregated and oppressed people. We must continue to write both for creating literature and for expressing solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized and promoting activism. At the same time we need to take advantage of this metanarrative which has the potential to counter religious and other ideologies that thrive on dogma and prejudice and divide people. Science offers a story that encompasses all people across the world, and a story that can exclude ideologies and wishful statements. Scientists are unraveling the details of this human saga, everyday. Like many millions of Indians, I carry a mitochondrial mutation which first occurred in my maternal ancestor 50,000 years ago when she had just left Africaand was traveling in the Middle East. I tested my Y-chromosome and found that I carry a mutation that first occurred 30,000 years ago somewhere in the Middle East. Recently I connected with a person in Pakistanwho tested and found that he carries the same mutation. My family is everywhere, and my ancestral roots are in Africa. There is nothing in this world that makes me a Dalit except the sick and prejudiced mindsets of some people who prefer to be less than human. Poet Inquilab would happily sing: Manushangada Naanga Manushangada! (Humans, We are all humans!).

About the author

P. Dayanandan

Botanist. Retired Professor. Educationist


  • Thanks professor for writing this insightful article. The meta history that you narrated and explained in ThinkFest 2011 event was wonderful to give dalits and indeed all humans to go beyond caste,religion or nationality. Sir hope you write more such articles for Nirmukta. Thank you once again!

  • I am aware that division of labour in a soceity gradually produced a system worldwide that emerged as rigorous caste system in our country. I wonder why this happened in our country only, no where else. Your article, right from African origin of Homo sapiens sapiens, gradual migration at stages into the whole world, is thought provoking. Thanks for the article.

  • First of all Tamil language or tamil people has nothing to do with the indus valley civilization whose most sites are found in Pakistan (nw india)

    The cooked up relation between Brahui and Tamil is often cited as example. Lord Shiva can often be seen in Vedas . Both words Rudra and Shiva can be seen. Baudhayana who lived in Gangetic plain and himself a Vedic scholar describes Baudhayana snan (ritual bathing) in his Grihya sutras. So building tanks and bathing there is not Tamil or so called Dravida. In fact Dravida is a word to denote south India .That’s all . It is neither a language group or a race.

    Buddhism started as an ascetic order. The fourth ashrama of life is samnyasa and Buddha entered it. Even Brahmins remove their sacred threads while entering samnyasa. The rishis were not samnyasis yet, they were mostly grihasthis. Rishi means creator of mantra or one who attained siddhi through chanting of a mantra. I keep laughing when some body recently identified 50 “pure” Tamil words in holy Vedas. As far as Dalit anti Hindu activists are concerned, majority Dalits are Hindu followers. Majority in so called upper castes and OBCs are Hindu followers. So they will fail if Dalit activism is targeting Brahmins, Hinduism, Vedas, Sanskrit etc. Today it is OBC vs Dalits in many parts of India. Brahmins are no way getting involved. so in such circumstances, it would be extremely difficult for Dalit anti Hindu activists to gather mass appeal

  • Mircoorganisms & Untouchability in Ancient India

    If anyone thinks that the ancient Indian sages did not compose any sloka mentioning the existence of germs or bacteria or viruses in Ayurveda, or that they were unaware of the microorganisms, & their effects on the human body, then something would be wrong. The ancient Indian sages were well aware of microorganisms and their character, and their evidence was found in several books of Ayurveda. Scientists revealed the presence of Bacteria in the 17th century AD, but they were recognized as minute organisms, not visible to the naked eye, but destroyed by a blink of an eyelid.
    Mircoorganisms & Untouchability in Ancient India
    You will not believe if I say, micro-organisms such as Bacteria, Virus, Fungi, etc. are mentioned in the Hindu mythology, epic history, Mahabharata (Sloka reference to Santi Parva, Mahabharata), written more than 6000 years ago.
    सूक्ष्मयॊनीनि भूतानि तर्क गम्यानि कानि चित
    पक्ष्मणॊ ऽपि निपातेन येषां सयात सकन्धपर्ययः
    Translation: There are several species that are so tiny and can not be seen by human eye that their presence can only be inferred. They are killed by the dropping of the eyelids alone.

    The Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism have guided Indian civilization for thousands of years. Very interesting and modern concepts of botany and biology, including the concepts of micro-organisms, are also encountered in these ancient texts, for example, in the Mahabharata:
    “They (trees) drink water by their roots. They catch diseases of diverse kinds. Those diseases again are cured by different operations… as one can suck up water through a bent lotus stalk, trees also, with the aid of the wind, drink thorough their roots. They are susceptible to pleasure and pain, and grow when cut or chopped… they are not inanimate…
    Vrihi and other so-called seeds of rice are all living organisms…again (men) …while walking about hither and thither kill innumerable creatures hidden in the ground by trampling on them; and even men of wisdom and enlightenment destroy animal life, even while sleeping or in repose themselves… the Earth and the air all swarm with living organisms.”

    In charaka samhita , we can see various types of Krimis mentioned there. And even in Vrksuyarveda (Ancient Indian Botany) written by Rishi Parashara. According to Charaka, “Krimis can be found in the blood vessels. They are microscopic(Anavah) in size circular or disc (Vrtta)” In relation with leprosy and brain disorders, Charaka referred to the existence of bacteria under the concept krimis. Moreover, Susruta also supports the microbial aetiology of leprosy.

    Again, we note that Madhava Kar, the 8th century writer of Ayurvedic Pathology, has codified this knowledge of bacteria in the aetiology of infections in a very detailed way in his treatise, Madhava Nidan. Therefore, in the portion on krimi Nidan (bacterial pathology) Madhava preliminary makes two specific categories of krimi according to what is contained in the body, internally and externally. Instead he makes more groupings as they originate in excreta such as Sweat (Vahirmalajah), lymphatic tissue (kapha), blood (Asrk) and, eventually, faeces. This classification of Madhava includes all twenty varieties of krimis, as defined by Charaka. In addition, Madhava Kar identified numerous pathological characteristics that occur with bacterial infections in general and indicates that there may be fever, paleness, various types of pain, chest disease, lack of sexual control, coma and food apathy.

    Next, it is interesting to notice there the awareness of communicable diseases held by the ancient Ayurvedic experts. In this sense, Susruta notes, when dealing with leprosy pathology, that several diseases may be transmitted from one sick person to another through co-occurring and other types of body contracts, through eating in association with or from the same plate, by using the same seat and from the same location, from wearing apparels.

    In ancient India, when this subject of communicable diseases was spread from house to house, the practice of untouchability began in ancient society of India, which later became a superstition. And gave rise to unpleasant mindset in society, but this practice was born, through medical discoveries of microorganism in ancient India. Animal studies and micro-organisms both pathogenic and non pathogenic, developed as science began to be practiced in ancient India China and Egypt. The ancient sages have mentioned the use of various types of herbal solutions, holy Ganga water (Antibacterial Nature of Ganga Water), goumutra, in their ancient text manuscripts, to destroy harmful micro-organisms. But with these solvents there are references to soap used in ancient times. Surprised? That soap was not made in a factory like today, but was given to people by nature. At that time people were unable to produce large quantities of soap. But the exception of soap was hidden in nature. And it is Ritha Fruit or Indian soapberry or soap nut, which was originated in India.

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