Explained: Tamil Nadu’s anti-caste movement and Udhayanidhi Stalin’s 'Sanatan dharma' remarks

Sanskrit and the Brahmin hegemony have always been criticised in Tamil Nadu

Udhayanidhi Stalin Udhayanidhi Stalin

Tamil Nadu Sports Minister and DMK scion Udhayanidhi Stalin’s comments on sanatana dharma had stoked a huge controversy. The ruling BJP and the Hindutva forces across the country have accused DMK of being “anti-Hindu.” The remarks have turned out to be an irritant in the INDIA alliance. Multiple complaints have been filed against the DMK scion, and security outside his house has been increased. BJP MPs have asked for his prosecution. However, Udhayanidhi’s comments have only added strength to the deep-rooted anti-caste movement in Tamil Nadu. 

Tamil Nadu and Tamil culture, according to Tamil literary experts and social critiques, is always opposed to sanatan dharma and the rigid caste system. Though caste continues to be practised in every nook and corner of the state, when it comes to politics, and voting, the Tamil mindset has been against the views propagated by sanatan dharma. 

Tamil literature and the various movements for centuries have always weaved together politics, people’s issues, and Tamil's way of life. Ancient poet Kaniyan Poongunranar’s popular quote from Purananuru, Yaadhum Oorey Yaavarum Kelir,” (meaning all places in the universe are our place) defines the idea of equality and universal friendship. Incidentally, this has been one of the favourite verses quoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

“Sanskrit and Brahmin hegemony have always been criticised in the Tamil space. ‘Yadhum oorey yavarum kelir’ - this verse is against varnasarma dharma and sanatana dharma. The anti-caste movement did not begin with Periyar. It dates back to centuries. Our literary books and poems, written even before 15th century talk against caste,” author Perumal Murugan told THE WEEK.

Murugan recalls how the literary texts, even the Ramayanam written in Tamil by Kambar, are anti-caste. “The Bakthi literature period is the most important to be noted here. The followers of Lord Shiva were considered equals then. The only criteria was being a Shaivaite,” Murugan recalls. After the era of the Shaivaites came the philosophy of the Siddhas. The bakthi literature, mostly penned by Siddhas who were part of the Siddhar movement, were anti-caste.

Paichalur Pathigam, a 15th-century text is an incriminating indictment of caste structure in the society. It is a set of ten protest poems written by a woman poet named Uthiranallur Nangai, a Dalit. She is said to have written the poems when a Brahmin village tried to intimidate her for her amorous relationship with a Brahmin boy. “It makes apparent that Tamil literature was radical and anti-caste. Can you imagine a woman poet writing against caste centuries before?” asks Perumal Murugan.

Apparently, Thiruvalluvar in Thirukkural says Pirappokkum ella uyirkkum (meaning everyone is equal by birth). Murugan says, “Thirukkural is anti-caste and calls everyone as equals.” Incidentally, Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman never fail to quote a couplet from Thirukkural whenever they are in Tamil Nadu or talk about Tamil culture. Sitaraman is often seen quoting the couplets when she presents her budget speech. 

While the Siddhar movement, Kamba Ramayanam, Pacihalur Pathigam or Thirukkural are just seen as literary texts, in the 19th century, Ramalinga Adigalar, popularly known as Vallalar in Tamil Nadu, preached equality and made people follow it. Vallalar is still considered as the holy figure of Tamil Shaivaites and his followers still practice his ideologies. Vallalar was a proponent of rationalist ideologies.

 Vallalar’s popular saying, “Arutperum jothi, thaniperum karunai”, advocates compassion towards all living things. Later, Iyothee Dasar, between 1845 and 1914, talked against the caste differences in Hinduism and argued for caste neutrality. His movement radicalised the Dalits, even two generations before Dr B.R. Ambedkar. He said Dalits were originally Buddhists at a time when they were stigmatised as ‘untouchables’ by the Brahmins.

In fact, it was after all these movements Periyar politicised the preachings in Tamil literature and weaved it into an anti-caste movement, which is deep-rooted in Tamil Nadu, influencing the people and their emotions. It is in this background, Udhayanidhi’s remarks against Sanatana dharma saying, “it has to be eradicated like dengue, malaria or Covid-19,” has received widespread support across Tamil Nadu. Apparently, his comments have only helped the DMK to tap the anti-BJP sentiments in the state. 

Though his talk against sanatan dharma is relished and celebrated within the DMK and by people in Tamil Nadu, it has turned into an irritant in the INDIA alliance. The INDIA alliance partners, including the Congress, have distanced from the DMK with regard to Udhayanidhi’s remarks. Though Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has been an important leader in the INDIA alliance, highly placed sources in the DMK say that he not may enjoy the same prominence during the next alliance meeting scheduled to be held in Delhi. “This is a huge embarrassment for the alliance,” says a DMK MP, on conditions of anonymity. 

Long ago, the then DMK leader M. Karunanidhi said, “Hindu means thief.” But the very next day he clarified saying, “Hindu means a thief who steals the hearts of people.” And then once he asked, “Was Lord Rama a qualified engineer to construct the Ram Setu bridge.” But, he was the one to suggest the name “Ram Setu” for the bridge. Being a statesman, Karunanidhi was able to wriggle out of the controversies against Hinduism or Hindutva. But it remains to be seen if Udhayanidhi can also wriggle out of the sanatan dharma controversy. 

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