Translated by Karthick Ram Manoharan and Vilasini Ramani
(Periyar along with 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. We have translated their conversation as it appears in the Periyar Kalanjiyam.)
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 proof for their history and their religious figures, and their ideas are generally accepted by their followers.
Gandhi: But aren’t there such things in Hinduism?
Periyar: What is there? One is a Brahmin. One a Sudra. Another a Panchama. Apart from these divisions, is there a common idea, or a common source? And apart from the social belief that the Brahmin is high, while the Sudra and Panchama are low, what else is there?
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: It can be made to 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 are proof for the divisions of Brahmin and Sudra?
Gandhi: But you yourself claimed that there is no proof for a Hindu religion?
Periyar: I say that there is no Hindu religion, and that there is no specific proof for the same. But then, shouldn’t those who accept the existence of this religion also accept the proofs that come along?
Gandhi: We can accept a religion and develop our own arguments.
Periyar: That is not possible. If we accept a religion as valid, we cannot change anything.
Gandhi: What you say is applicable for other religions. Not for Hinduism. Once you accept the religion, 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 exactly why we, as Hindus, have the liberty to make our own ideals. Today, in this country – why – in the world itself, the Hindu religion can be used to bring people to the right path. Other religions cannot. Because other 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, that is the only way for Christians to behave. Likewise, what the Prophet Muhammad said and what the Koran says, that is the only way for the Muslims to behave. Differing interpretations will be seen as blasphemy. Those who have different opinions can state them only from the outside. If they try to do so from the inside, that will not be permitted. This 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 were able to say the things that they said. Thus, we too can stay within Hinduism and bring about several reforms.
Periyar: I am sorry. But this cannot be done.
Periyar: A selfish group in Hinduism will not allow this.
Gandhi: Why do you say this? Do not the Hindus agree when we say that 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 make use of 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 honest in pursuing the interests of his class. Will sacrifice for the same. Is selfless in that pursuit. But I am unable to hand over the interests of my class 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 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 wide 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. Rather, others should reach their level.
Periyar: Other religions are not like that. It is only in Hinduism that an exclusive group like the Brahmins form the intelligentsia. Among the rest, 90/100 are illiterate and innocent. In a society, when only one section of people can belong to the intelligentsia, isn’t that religion detrimental for 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 that 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 that you have pointed out.
Periyar: It is my humble opinion that you will not be able to do this. Even if you can, after your time, some other great person like you might emerge and undo all your work.
Periyar: As you said earlier, in Hinduism’s name, anything can be said to convince the people. 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 in the future.
Periyar: Forgive me for saying this. Within the Hindu religion, it is not possible for even someone like you to 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.
Kudiarasu 1927, Unmai 14-9-1970
Source: Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. 2011. Periyar Kalanjiyam 7: Jaathi-Theendaamai, Paagam (1). [Periyar Repository 7: Caste-Untouchability Part (1)]. Second Edition. Chennai: Periyar Suyamariyathai Prachaara Niruvanam, pp. 48-53.
Periyar’s words turned out to be quite prophetic.