Periyar on God: A Commentary

-Dhivya Sivaramane and Thiruppathi P

“There is no god, there is no god, there is no god at all. He who invented god is a fool. He who propagates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian.” – Periyar

This statement on god by Periyar E. V. Ramasamy is the most widely cited and popularized quote in the Tamil public realm, which is also a quote that has been subjected to extensive criticism for its denunciation of belief and devotion in god. Believers and traditionalists have referred to this quote on god, to attack Periyar for hurting godly beliefs and religious sentiments. This quote on god has been misinterpreted and sensationalized as an attack on Hindu divinities and the religious sensibilities of the Hindus particularly, which has been done so, with a motive to vilify Periyar and his message of humanity, rationalism and self-respect for establishing a humane society. In a socio-political situation where Periyar’s critique of god and religion is depicted as anti-Hindu and anti-brahmin, a comprehensive reading of Periyar’s speeches and writings informs us that, his critique of god and religion was not focused only on a single religion or on any particular community but that it also involved a criticism of godly beliefs and religious prescriptions of other religions and practices of non-brahmin communities. Periyar raised his critique against godly beliefs, social traditions or practices of any religion that imposed incontestable obedience to norms and behavior that impeded rational thinking and enslaved people to a system of disrespect, ill-treatment, inequalities, cruelties and oppression. He voiced his dissent against religious preachers and practitioners for deceiving people into such belief structures that inferiorized, subdued and humiliated them.

His quote on god does not carry an explicit attack or an exclusive condemnation of god of any particular religion and does not directly refer to religious heads or propagators of any specific religion. It has to be read and understood properly and rightly as a critique against any individual or community, any norm or behavior, any custom or practice, any organization or society that prohibits people from thinking, questioning and reasoning, thereby coercing them to blindly follow and accept life as it is given/exists and creates social stratifications of indignities whereby preventing humans from living a life of self-respect, equality, freedom and dignity. His declaration on god has to be read as a view promoting humanity and social justice. In this context, it becomes necessary to delve into the compiled writings of Periyar, focusing especially on his thoughts on god, to understand what Periyar meant by his statement on god and the message that he sought to communicate to people.

Early people, Periyar says, were afraid of any phenomenon which they could not see, know or understand. In such moments of vulnerability, people created a higher power that will protect and save them and anything that was imperceptible/ unexplainable to humankind was named as god or deemed as godly. God was mostly cited to explain the creation and the existence of universe. The thought of god, Periyar observed, had arisen in humans in the days when they had no knowledge of science, telling how humans ascribed divinity/sacrality to natural occurrences that were beyond their comprehension, perception and knowledge. Periyar explained how god was a social construction, mentioning how the feeling of god does not occur naturally or instinctively in humans, but arises through the teaching of others about god to us. Periyar elaborated how humans had to introduce god, describe tales and deeds of god, take efforts to brief on gods’ potential and create belief in the powers of god. He mentioned how the propagators of god took the prerogative of explaining of what constitutes the divine, how we are required to believe, accept and follow the all-encompassing power of god.

Periyar asked those who believed in god to think about how so many gods came into being, how different images of god came to be created and ordained with human features and how did gods come to have family, children, allies, enemies, feuds and conflicts. He called on people to think about how jewels, weapons, ceremonies came to be created for god and how did wells, ponds, tanks, lakes come to have divine powers and how did such spaces come to have differences of high and low and asked what made humans believe, worship and show devotion to god. Periyar stated how believers of god differed in their perceptions of the reasons, forms, features, powers, potentials, devotion and worship of their respective gods and to Periyar, the differences in human’s perceptions and emotions towards god existed because such beliefs and faith in gods did not occur in humans instinctively or naturally but was ingrained in the minds of the humans through the preaching, propagation and inculcation of godly beliefs and religious rules in them.

Periyar pointed out how those who preached about gods, spoke about god in terms of gods’ utility in human life, referring to claims of how worshipping gods will lead to fulfillment of our desires and demands, on how our sins and wrongs will be forgiven and on how progress and prosperity will be bestowed on us. Such preaching about god, Periyar said, associates god with enhancing self-interest and self-growth of humans, emphasizing on gaining benefits through god. Periyar also encouraged people to think how devotion to god came to be exhibited in the form of performing rituals, such as displaying religious symbols, chanting god’s names, reading religious texts, visiting temples, undertaking pilgrimages, worshipping gods, adorning temples, conducting temple feasts and festivals, participating in processions and in showing reverence to priests and gods. Periyar mentioned how people failed to understand that devotion should include aspects of good thoughts and good deeds, kindness, compassion and respect for others and belief in the equality of all living beings.

Periyar dismissed devotion as an expression of raw selfishness and as of no use to other persons, stating how only those who showed devotion benefitted from their acts of devotion and how that it did not concern the welfare of others. Periyar observed how those who preached god, portrayed god as higher and above all, but failed to see how god came to be laden with human attributes, mentioning how like humans, gods did good to those who did good and punished those who did bad and that not much difference existed between humans and gods. He stated that which is seen as god’s teachings, principles and messages actually contain human emotions and notions and that the gods are but embodiments of human thoughts.

On some people expressing their anger on Periyar for his questioning of god, creation of god and god’s role and existence, Periyar voiced how their angst was an approval to his statements that god did not appear naturally but was created and invented by someone. Periyar opined how only those who earned in the name of god, those who enjoyed the benefits of an unequal system, and those who were enshrined with high caste status and those who wanted to hide their misdeeds through god’s name, were those who got angry. He urged people to think why god’s messages were revealed to a chosen few and why such chosen people came to be god’s messengers and were tasked with teaching god’s principles, further rousing people to think whether such messages of god, were messages for the welfare of all or messages that were used to advance the privileges of few.

Preachers and propagators of god, Periyar opines, by compelling people to believe in and accept god and texts, are asking people to be in obedience to religion, act in conformity with religious tenets, threatening those who acted otherwise that evil things might happen to them. Periyar also reasoned by drawing a distinction between elements that were of natural origin and elements that were of artificial creation. Whilst factors such as eating food, feeling hunger and pain, sleeping, breathing, feelings of love and sexual desire and experiencing the five elements of nature were common and universal to all humans and were indispensable, Periyar stated how elements such as god, religion, heaven, hell, devotion, prayers, status and wealth were aspects devoid of naturalness and constructed out of imaginations and fantasies of humans to protect the vested interests, aspects where one cannot use one’s intellect to explain why we should believe and follow these.

Periyar explained how preachers of god use god as a tool of control, obedience and discipline, saying how propagators of god have condemned acts of thinking and questioning as sinful. Worshipping god and following religious principles are seen as unquestionable endeavors, where people are asked to blindly obey, follow and are forbidden from reasoning. Periyar sees these as acts duping people to keep them in a state of fear, subjugation and ignorance, to enslave them into a certain kind of system that benefits some and demean others, thus barring them from exercising their freedom. Emphasizing on rational thinking, Periyar cautioned against showing unopposed obeisance and undisputed allegiance to godly norms and religious texts and prescriptions without subjecting them to our reason, experience, reflections and analysis. Periyar apprised of how belief in god and in god’s action were kept beyond the rational sense, intelligence and knowledge of humans, coercing them to believe, worship and accept god for fear of being labelled sinners, traitors or criminals.

Importantly, Periyar drew attention to how various aspects of human life – political, economic and socio-cultural spheres – were subjected to the commandments of god and religion and attempts to challenge, reform, and change and destroy the unequal rules and unjust structures were struck down as acts contravening the prevailing order and as acts disrespecting god and endangering religion. Periyar exposed the interconnections that existed between godly/religious beliefs and the sacralization of casteiest structures of oppression, questioning how certain caste customs and religious conducts are defended and upheld in the name of god-willed structures, as divinely ordained order.

In his challenge of godly beliefs, Periyar prodded us to think how in the existing order of things, some are made to labour and suffer, whilst others enjoy and lead lives of leisure, asking when such an order is justified in the name of god, should we not question the god who created this discriminatory structure and question those who extol such gods who protects socially unequal caste system and casteiest practices. Periyar observed how in social life, where certain communities are inflicted upon with caste indignities and are denied equal living, self-respect, freedom and rights, he asks, how that the god who is portrayed as common, belonging to all, gets to be preached by the messengers of god as having created and as supporting caste divisions, asking on what basis should we then place belief in god, that which has created distinctions of low-high, inferior-superior, divine-degraded and touchable-untouchable.

Periyar stated how that the unquestioned beliefs about god is what made people to believe and accept the conditions they were in, for their low caste positions, for their hunger, for their poverty, for their sufferings and lack of opportunities, as they deemed such situations as god-willed and as being destined to undergo it. He noted how those enjoying high caste statuses, endowed with land and wealth, enshrined with religious rights and cultural privileges have used god to protect and maintain their interests and positions as god-given and divinely granted.

Periyar emphasized on the need to think, question and analyze and put statements to the test of reason and exercise our rationality before we believe or accept events and social conditions as they are. Unlike religious preachers who compelled people to believe and follow unthinkingly and threatened them of evil consequences in cases of transgressions, Periyar wherever and whenever he expressed his opinions, gave people full freedom to agree, disagree, to accept or deny, urging them to exercise their rationality while doing so, stating that no opinions, arguments and perspectives should be obeyed or practiced unquestioningly.

Periyar’s thoughts on using one’s reasoning abilities, rational thinking and scrutinizing information, facts, events and available knowledge to critical analysis holds more relevance in the contemporary times. Most importantly Periyar’s critique of god has to be read and imbibed as his emphasis on leading a life where social relations between humans are not governed by dehumanizing and superstitious socio-religious norms and practices but one where social living and conduct of relations between people should be based on a feeling of self-respect, humanity, equality and dignity. 

Author Bio

Dhivya Sivaramane is pursuing her PhD in Political Science at the University of Delhi.

Thiruppathi P is pursuing his PhD in Political Science at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the authors are their own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of their views.

Book Launch of Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism

Marie Curie Research Fellow Karthick Ram Manoharan’s book Periyar: A Study in Political Atheism (Orient BlackSwan 2022) was launched in Chennai at the Roja Muthiah Research Library on 4 June 2022. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Member of Parliament from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, released the book.

Sundar Ganesan from the RMRL gave the welcome address and introduced the speakers. Salem Dharanidharan from the Dravidian Professionals Forum spoke about the forum and the achievements of Dravidian politics. The event began with the screening of Vilasini Ramani’s short film The Icon and the Iconoclast. This was followed by a roundtable discussion with the Honorable Minister, the author and Prof. Meena Dhanda, which was chaired by A.S. Panneerselvan from the RMRL. An interactive Q & A session followed.

The event concluded with a keynote address from Kanimozhi Karunanidhi. In her address, she congratulated Manoharan for his research on Periyar, and spoke about the relevance of Periyar for contemporary Indian politics and secularism, emphasizing the need for free and critical debate.