The Atheist

MVS1(Mr MV Somasundaram – When we joined school in 1971)

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 the the 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

13 thoughts on “The Atheist

  1. wonderful insights …..men of such strong convictions ….periyar and Mr somasundaram are much needed even now…..we would have been living in much better civil society
    Thanks Reji….your teachers will be proud for the way u recollect their contribution and character for us to cherish

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  2. Good morning sir,1. Trust this letter will find you in best of your spirit and health.  2. I read the reminisces above and found it very inspiring but sir  i could not agree to the fact that you required to be an atheist to be rational. We can be rational even after  being a devout religious man. In fact all religion teaches us to be rational ,tolerant and gives us scientific base to visualise the life and universe.                                                                                                                               with warm regards,                                                                                                                                     dipangshu  

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  3. Good one Reji. Can you believe it that during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the School on 16 July 2011 , during his Address to the gathering, Mr Somasundaram, took my name and said that he can with satisfaction say, that, having been a teacher to students like M P Joseph has given meaning to his teaching career.. I who was sitting in the audience was moved by this statement and could not believe my ears. On completion of the program I ran towards him, touched his feet and said ” Sir it is me M P Joseph, you have enlightened me by your words of wisdom as my history teacher, and has shown me the meaning of life through rational thinking,and not vice versa”. Then he said, with his eyes moist, “when I read a paper written by you I was convinced that I have succeeded in my mission as a teacher” bringing me to tears.
    As I was your guru in your very young days, I shall share that paper with you.

    RELIGION BORN OF FEAR & SUSTAINED BY GREED
    By
    M P Joseph

    “Religion is the opiate of the masses” in other words it dulls their fear and gives them a ‘high’ for greed. Religious scriptures do not equal wisdom. In other words, all forms of spiritual text no matter how eloquently stated, cannot actually grant wisdom to the reader. All of the most widely followed religious texts from the Vedas, the Koran, the Bible and the sayings of Buddha, are but written attempts to convey various authors’ conceptions. It is our personal experience, application and intention toward greater wisdom that allows us to progress, regardless of what we have read. Therefore no reading about God, not even the most advanced theological studies, will provide insight into the Truth. The true benefit of humanity is not found in inflicting “authority” and ideological control over others, in the name of the spiritual Masters, religious organizations or of God. Those who claim God can only be found through their particular prophet, messiah or set of practices, are suffering from a form of spiritual egotism, which does not befit the true benefit of humanity. Only practice of love and truth can benefit humanity.
    Love, the universal binder, is not gained through the quoting of scriptural phrases with the Intention of berating or intimidating others. Love is a felt experience. It is a state of being and presence, which automatically promotes wisdom on a cumulative basis. Love is a cosmic essence that is not only universally felt, but which is one of the few things which is worthy of devotion. Rarely do we hear religion uniting the peoples of the world in good will and mutual enlightenment, rather it promotes its special interests, even convincing the gullible that, anyone who does not practice or believe in a certain way is a sinner, and unworthy of an equal measure of the graces of God.
    It is common knowledge that religions abet violence leave alone promote love. Why is it that practitioners of Chemistry do not rape and kill practitioners of Physics or practitioners of Biology do not rape and kill practitioners of Maths, where as practitioners of Islam are willing to Kill practitioners of Christianity and vice versa or practitioners of Hinduism are willing to Kill practitioners of Islam and vice versa. The reason is obvious, Chemistry, Physics, Maths etc are based on verifiable truths, on the contrary Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc are nothing but Dogmas.

    Truth is common to all people, in all places and times. Clarity, or the clear perception of Truth, cannot rise up in a person through the following of rules or blind faith. Clarity is primarily had through self-awareness and experiential knowledge. Objectivity, observation and experimentation are those attributes of the active mind, which bring about experiential knowledge. Herein lies the essence of wisdom. Such knowledge does not require belief. This is what is known as having clarity of mind. Thus when we have clarity, the need for, faith is made redundant. In reality religion abets falsehood leave alone promoting truth. Religion absolves the practitioner of falsehood of the consequences of his actions by providing pseudo pardons in exchange of blind practices such as confessions or other meaningless rituals.
    It may also be concluded that as individuals we possess the inherent capacity to feel love and to have clarity. We need not concern ourselves with the trivial details of scriptural history or doctrine. What are more important than past events or dogmatic rules are the events of the present moment. What we now create is what determines the fate of our species and ourselves. We need not concern ourselves with all the trivial particulars of who beget whom, and what nation slaughtered other nations, because they were not “Gods’ chosen people”.
    What are relevant are the decisions we now make, the lifestyle we choose, and the manner in which we now apply Universal Truth. It is important that we cultivate love and clarity within, so that we may manifest these qualities amongst each other, and the world in general.
    All of these aspects must be lived not because someone says so, (or said so thousands of years ago) and not because we would be “sinners’ to do otherwise. We must live Love and Truth, because they are real qualities of existence. They have genuine value regardless of the insistence upon rule-following by organized religions. The mindless and heartless following of rules, is not a means to gain Enlightenment. Instead of wasting time in redundant scriptural quotation year after year, our energy would be better spent.
    Religious practice is the most Selfish of all human activities. To secure a safe haven in next life precious resources are abused in this life. People throw milk over stone idols when millions of children around the world are dying of malnutrition, burn candles in broad day light when so many homes do not have a light at night, dress up clay idols in finest of silk and then sink them in water when many go without a change of clothes, keep billions of square meters of developed properties in the form of churches, temples & mosques locked up at night when thousands don’t have a roof over their head and sleep on pavements exposed to biting cold in winter, heavy down pour in monsoons and mosquito & insect bites throughout.
    If human beings spent even half the energy and focus upon embodying love and clarity, as they do promoting religious fallacies our lives would be transformed forever. Wisdom, like respect, is not merely granted. Both of these must be earned. This means we have no choice but to take responsibility for ourselves in personal self-realization. We cannot become wise so long as we are bound by the limitations of belief systems, or dogmatic practices. We must discard such obstacles to true progress, which are encountered in all of the worlds’ religions. We must go beyond the concepts of Divine favoritism, blind faith, and God as a human-like person with human-like, petty emotions. The intelligent do not let scriptural references or religions, limit this most important process of human evolution.
    As history demonstrates, religion and scriptural study are more often used as places of refuge from responsibility, than the actual embodiment of spiritual wisdom. Dogmas and the artificial divisions they contain, are the very source of wars, ethnic conflicts, misery and destruction throughout history. The blind insistence upon religious intolerance, has resulted in most of the horrors of human civilization, [such as the warfare in the Middle East, the Dark Ages, and the “conversion”, (destruction) of the Native peoples of the world throughout history]. Religious orthodoxy continues to be, as it is said, “the opiate of the masses” as a convenient distraction from the Truth. Such distraction is convenient because it always places the ultimate responsibility for ones’ actions outside of the self. Such doctrines are the very center for darkness and dis-empowerment in our world, and they have no place for an enlightened humanity.

    “I do not think we should antagonize the religious when it is not warranted, though I think we should be willing to do so whenever it is.”
    — Glen Davidson

    (This is a Short Paper written by me as part of my M S (Post Graduation) Programme, in ‘Psychotherapy & Management Sciences’ which I did from 2004-06)

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  4. Great ideas of people like Periyar is to be implemented. Even today we are ready to cursify anyone openly says these things openly ( Clear example is the practical truth said by Mt Trump, Presidential candidate of USA) We need such leaders in India rather than the stupid ” Gs & Ns ” only require self glorification.

    I fully agree with the statement made by Mr M P Joseph. Now all religions are looting centers.

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  5. Surely every human is an atheist. But using the fear factor the society changes him to fanatic person, controlled by different religious leaders who are interested in extracting money. We fools dance according to their turns.

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  6. Reji,

    Please accept my thoughts on the subject.

    A teacher should be known/remembered for his teaching skills and not for any of his personal traits. I mean no disrespect but surely Mr Somasundaram over imposed his views (rather than the subject he taught) on very young influential minds which I think was absolutely in-appropriate. Religion and beliefs etc are extremely personal and should not be discussed in public. Many times it caused pain in my heart when he tried to associate atheism with Brahminism.
    In any case, atheism is no conviction of either EVR or the DMK et al. It was just a political tool to appease the masses. It was equated with anti-brahminism and that appealed the masses. Brahmins constitute just about less than 2% of population in Tamilnadu and generally meek to raise any opposition. It was extremely convenient for the Dravidian parties to leverage political mileage on this concept. So much so even now, I observe that in every movie most comical situations are associated with Brahmins and surely they attribute almost all the ills of the society to the Brahmins. No one will ever mention anything about Chettiars, Gownders, Mudaliars, Nadars, Vanniers etc who are equal contributors in this society.

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    • Cast is different from religion / atheists When a child is born it mind is pure. The surroundings imposed different thoughts, values and the child is forced to follow these imposed things with out making a concious decision about it. None of us have the courage to follow Sartre;s views. According to him no one should influenced by the environment and it is better to commit suicide rather than influenced by the environment around us. If we follow this advise then there in no religion, cast or atheists in the world. Only humans. No one will get exploited by the agents of God.
      When we are cemented our minds with fear of any imaginary super power and its local agents, we are not ready to listen any other new ideas or thoughts. it is one of the negative aspect of human mind. through education we are getting some training to come out of it

      this is just my thoughts

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  7. I thoroughly enjoyed reading reminisces! Reji’s language is simple but has clarity and objectivity. He has excellent story telling ability which keeps the reader engrossed. I studied at Sainik School Kazhakootam and therefore relate well to his sainik school stories. I was also Reji’s fellow back bencher at NDA (61st course)!

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  8. Somasunadaram sir was a good teacher and a gentle being. The rationalist movement and people like Periyar evoke strong emotions, People either have a hearty liking or thoroughly despise him. But I feel that while his self respect movement and storming of Vaikom temple were great acts i.e. equal treatment of all fellow human beings. The subsequent DK movements of condemning Hindu gods and launching diatribe against theists were all juvenile. I call it juvenile because theism and atheism are both opposite sides of the same coin. Both are belief systems, Somebody believes in God and starts worshipping him and somebody does not believe in god and calls himself a rationalist. Both are not sincere enough to see that they don’t know and conveniently believes in something. If you straight with yourself and see that .I don’t know then the urge and the thirst to know will put you on the path of spiritual seeking. India has always been a land of seekers. Real gurus never gave any teaching, philosophy or belief system but gave you tools to seek and find the truth. Organized religion in whatever form is for people who want to slip into some belief and seek solace. Real seeking is not for solace but finding the truth of who you really are.

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