The first atheist I came across in my life was Mr MV Somasundaram (MVS). He taught us Tamil in Grade 6, Social Studies in Grade 7, English in Grade 8, History in Grade 9 and Civics in Grade 10. He was as versatile as the subjects he taught and had good grasp of all the subjects. He was a very soft spoken man, who hardly ever raised his voice. His son Aravazhi was our classmate.
During our days at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, we always said grace before every meal, to thank God for all what we were to receive and after the meals for what we did receive. While in Grade 7, I noticed that Mr Somasundaram always remained seated when the grace was said. On enquiry, Sunder, my friend said that he was an atheist. I looked up the dictionary to find the meaning of the word as I had never heard it before.
Mr Somasundaram was a rationalist and was against all superstitions that plagued the society. He believed that undue importance was given to religion in our day-to-day lives. He neither forced his viewpoints on to anyone nor did he try to influence his students with his ideals and principles. Needless to say, I did not become an atheist, but the seeds of rationalism were sown by Mr Somasundaram.
Mr Somasundaram subscribed to Viduthalai (Freedom), a Tamil newspaper and the mouth piece of Dravida Kazhagam (DK). (As per his son that he still continues to subscribe to it.) It was delivered to him by the postman and he always brought it to our class. Once in a while he left it half open on the teacher’s table and I had the opportunity to steal a few glances at it. It had a few different letters of the Tamil alphabet, especially in its title, which stood out. I again took the help of Sundar for further details. Sundar explained to me about Viduthalai newspaper and that the great Periyar was Mr Somasundaram’s mentor and the raison d’être for his atheism.
Today Mr Somasundaram is leading a retired life and lives in Chennai with his son Aravazhi. He can be contacted at 944 293 6769. So much for the protégé. Now a bit more about his mentor.
Erode Venkata Ramasamy (1879 – 1973), affectionately called Periyar by his followers, was a social activist, politician and businessman, who started the Self-Respect Movement in South India. A rationalists who aroused the people to realise that all men are equal and it is the birthright of every individual to enjoy liberty, equality and fraternity. He propagated that the so called men of religion invented myths and superstitions to keep the innocent and ignorant people in darkness. He was an atheist, noted for his anti theistic statement, “He who created God was a fool, he who spreads his name is a scoundrel, and he who worships him is a barbarian.”
Viduthalai was started in 1935 by Periyar as a magazine. It grew into a daily newspaper by 1937. The newspaper aimed to create a rational, secular and democratic society, and also to fight superstition. The script used in the publication was in keeping with the need to cope with the developing printing technology. Periyar thought that it was sensible to change a few letters, reduce the number of letters, and alter a few signs. He further explained that the older and the more divine a language and its letters were said to be, the more they needed reform.
Soon after MG Ramachandran (MGR) became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1978, all ideas of Periyar on the changes and modification of Tamil alphabets were accepted. An act was passed in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1978, bringing the changes into effect. These modifications have made Tamil as the first Indian language to be adapted for computerisation, obviously, due to the reduced number of alphabets.
After the act was passed and the ‘Viduthalai’ font became the standard Tamil font, we had an open house forum at our school to discuss its implications. The forum was an open discussion, led by Mr Somasundaram and moderated by Squadron Leader Manickavasagam, our then Headmaster. The students in attendance were from Grades 9 to 11. During the discussion, Mr Somasundaram made a scathing attack on Hindu religion. He said that when State Bank of India opened its branch in Amaravathinagar, only our school Principal, Colonel AC Thamburaj and the school band were in attendance for the inauguration, whereas, when a branch of the Ganapathy Temple was inaugurated in the bus-stand, the public were dancing. He cited this as a reason for the country not achieving the desired progress.
Some teachers in the audience objected to Mr Somasundaram’s statement and wanted him to withdraw it, but he stood firm. Our Headmaster retrieved the situation by saying that everyone in the audience were mature enough to draw their conclusions and there was nothing objectionable in the statement. I thought that Mr Somasundaram was right and the situation and the public’s attitudes have not changed ever since.
Periyar came into national prominence with the Vaikom Sathyagraha, a nonviolent protest movement to secure temple entry rights and access to temple roads for people of all castes in Vaikom, a small principality of the then princely state of Travancore (now in Kerala). Periyar came to Vaikom in April 1924 and was arrested by the Travancore Police, but he was unrelenting and the satyagraha movement gained strength. Mahatma Gandhi, on an invitation from Rajaji, went to Vaikom and began talks with the Queen of Travancore where it was agreed that the police pickets would be removed. The styagraha resulted in Sree Chithira Thirunal, the Travancore ruler, signing the Temple Entry Proclamation in 1936, allowing everyone entry into the temples.
Periyar created Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) in 1944 from the Justice Party. DK became a non-political socio-cultural movement, which it remains till date, though comparatively inactive. The members were asked to give up the posts, positions and titles conferred by the British rulers. They were also required to drop the caste suffix of their names.
Periyar declared that 15 August 1947, when India became politically free, was a day of mourning because the event marked, in his opinion, only a transfer of power from the British to the upper castes. Though he had basic differences with Mahatma Gandhi, Periyar was terribly grieved when Gandhi fell a victim to an assassin’s bullets on January 30, 1948. He even suggested on the occasion that India should be renamed as Gandhi Nadu.
Annadurai, Karunanidhi and MGR, who were with Periyar in the DK movement, had political aspirations and wanted a share in running the government. They were looking for an opportunity to part ways with Periyar. At the ripe old age of 70, in 1948, Periyar married 30 year old Maniammai. Many led by Annadurai quit DK stating that Periyar had set a bad example by marrying a woman much younger to him in his old age. They formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949. To my mind, one can hardly fault Periyar for marrying a young woman. Perhaps, at the age of 70 he was still young at heart! He went on to live a quarter century more, continuing his social reform movement.
In 1970, UNESCO in recognition of his efforts cited him as “the Prophet of the New Age, the Socrates of South East Asia, Father of Social Reform Movement, and Arch enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs and base manners.”