On this date in 1879, Indian rationalist and social reformer Periyar (“respected one” or “elder” in Tamil), né Erode Venkata Ramasamy, was born in Erode, now part of Tamil Nadu, India. He was raised in a religious family with an older brother and two sisters. His father was an affluent businessman, and Periyar left school after five years and joined the business at age 12. When he was 19, his father set up a marriage with Nagammai. The couple had one child who died during infancy. Nagammai steadfastly supported Periyar’s social and political actions.

In 1919, Periyar joined the Indian National Congress party and was eventually elected president of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee before leaving in 1925 when he learned the party was dominated by individuals from the Brahmin priestly caste who were indifferent or hostile toward his fight for equal rights. He later headed the Justice Party, which was dedicated to social and economic equity.

Periyar propagated rationalism over Hinduism, which he began to question from a young age and believed to be a major contributor to inequality in his state. He spoke out against Brahmin oppression and was a renowned advocate of caste emancipation and women’s rights. According to Periyar, self-willed reason is the only factor necessary for freeing oneself from the enslavement of religion.

He once stated, “Men today do not have self-confidence. They do not think that [it is] they who conduct [their affairs] on their own. They have made a muddle of God, God’s dictates, God’s philosophy, all of which were invented by man himself.” His Self-Respect Movement, aimed at generating pride among lower caste members, drove this point home further. He started his own political organization, Dravidar Kazhagam, to promote  rationalism and social justice and against invidious religious practices.

After Nagammai’s death in 1933, he married Maniammai, who continued his social work, leading the Dravidar Kazhagam after his death. (As of this writing in 2023, it is headed by Krishnasami Veeramani.) Periyar is recognized as the “Father of modern Tamil Nadu” and has an iconic status in the state. Both major political parties in Tamil Nadu have been spawned from his political movement Dravidar Kazhagam. (D. 1973) 

Freedom From Religion Foundation