The atheist and the saint

thinking big: “Kundrakudi Adigalar would be the most unlikely friend of Periyar.” Periyar's 137th birth anniversary is on September 17.  

In 1945, a novitiate of barely 20 years joined Dharumapuram Mutt, the renowned Saiva monastery. Soon he gained a deep knowledge of Saiva Siddhanta, Tamil literature, and Sanskrit. Kundrakudi Thiruvannamalai Mutt was in search of a junior pontiff and the pontiff’s eyes fell on the young monk. A monk switching a monastery was not common, but the reluctant Dharumapuram pontiff was persuaded to let this young monk go. Three years later, the young monk was anointed pontiff.

The new pontiff showed a strong reformist streak. Saiva monasteries, despite a formal avowal of Saiva precepts as the qualification for recruitment into the order, had in practice become the exclusive preserve of upper-caste Vellalars. He expressed his dissatisfaction, and soon became the first head of any monastery to enter an Adi Dravidar neighbourhood. A strong advocate of using Tamil for archanai (prayers and offerings), he would champion the abolition of caste restrictions for temple priests.

Earlier he had participated in the Quit India movement and would take an active part in the Bhoodan movement. Such was the respect that he commanded that he came to be called Kundrakudi Adigalar (1925-1995). This saint would be the most unlikely friend of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the great atheist and leader of the non-Brahmin party, the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK).

Pitted against each other

In the mid-1950s, Periyar had launched major agitations to publicly break the idols of Pillaiyar and burn the images of the god Rama. These agitations evoked a swift response from Kundrakudi Adigalar. Through a forum called the Arul Neri Thirukkoottam, he responded with counter pamphlets. This forum encompassed the major mutts, including the Kanchi Mutt which evidently saw the advantage of fighting Periyar through a non-Brahmin religious leader. The Kanchi Mutt was soon to be disappointed.

Around the turn of 1955, Periyar toured Malaya. Kundrakudi Adigalar followed some weeks later — evidently planned as a counter. It was unusual for pontiffs to cross the seas, and Adigalar commented that only because of the “mischief of atheists” had he ventured to take a ship. He also expressed the hope that atheistic propaganda would have the beneficial effect of drawing more pontiffs out of their cloisters.

During his tour Adigalar demonstrated tact in addressing contentious issues. At a public meeting, he asserted that Saivism gave no scope for castes and polytheism. Periyar, as was his wont, commented on Adigalar’s tour shortly after his return to Chennai: “One ‘samiyar’ came there; and when I was asked about him, I said that he is one of us. Only because of the garb that he had adopted did he have to take such public positions. I advised our men not to cause him any trouble.” This was at least a grudging acknowledgment of Adigalar.

By then many well-wishers realised that a conflict between Periyar and Adigalar would not be in the larger interests of Tamil society. A secret meeting of the two was arranged in Erode.

Periyar offered to go himself. Adigalar was housed in the first floor; wondering if the old man could take a flight of steep stairs, he offered to meet Periyar on the ground floor. Periyar insisted that it was not murai, propriety and protocol, for the Mahasannidhanam to wait at the entrance. The proper way to address a Saiva pontiff was in the third person and Periyar would use the term Mahasannidhanam to refer to Adigalar all through their long association.

Meeting of minds

When Periyar reached Adigalar’s room, he rose from his seat. In his anxiety to respond to the greeting, Periyar’s walking stick slipped, even as he insisted all the while that Adigalar should take his seat. Adigalar was seated on a two-seater couch. When invited to sit along with him, Periyar refused. Throughout the meeting Periyar would demonstrate his respect for tradition and protocol despite the fact that the pontiff was some half-a-century younger to him!

Soon the two were left alone to have a frank discussion. Periyar launched a diatribe against god and religion which sanctioned caste-based oppression and untouchability. His impassioned outburst left Adigalar speechless. What answer can I provide, he wondered. Mulling over the chasm between precept and practice, he consoled himself that if only the ideas of the great Tamil saints Appar, Ramanuja and Ramalinga Adigal had been practised, there would have been no need for a Periyar.

Finally, Periyar said: “What personal quarrel do I have with god? I have not even set my eyes on him. My objective is that the indignities heaped on men should be wiped away.” “Let’s work together,” replied Adigalar. “But will your traditions give room for such cooperation?” asked Periyar. “Traditions are meant to change!” responded an optimistic Adigalar.

Tempers cooled down after this meeting. Soon after, in September 1956, Periyar’s birthday was celebrated by DK at Golden Rock, Tiruchy. Adigalar was invited to felicitate at the meeting. Initially hesitant to accept, he soon relented. It was the first time the two appeared together on stage. Periyar was elated, and frequently exchanged words with Adigalar. Often the two broke into smiles and barely suppressed laughter. The crowd was jubilant and photographers pounced on what was undoubtedly a great photo-op. After the meeting, when a photographer requested the two to come to his studio, Periyar reprimanded him that it was not appropriate for the Mahasannidhanam to be called to the studio.

At the meeting, one speaker launched the usual DK attack on religion. A visibly annoyed Periyar tapped his walking stick, hinting that the speaker soft-pedal the differences. When invited to felicitate, Adigalar wrapped a ponnadai (shawl) around Periyar, an act that would be criticised by both believers and the atheists. Adigalar first praised the great work of Periyar in the cause of eradicating caste inequities, and then provided a point-by-point rebuttal of the atheist criticism. Periyar was once again magnanimous in his acceptance speech. “Tamils are denigrated as Shudras. What do I care if that indignity is wiped away by god or by our Mahasannidhanam, as long as it is wiped out?… The Mahasannidhanam should understand our grievances, and not be offended by how we express them.”

Soon after the meeting the two travelled together in a car to Tirunelveli. When they alighted at Tirunelveli, they reiterated their commitment to eradicating caste and give Tamil its due.

Despite their disagreements this was to be the beginning of a great friendship that would last until Periyar’s death in 1973.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy, historian, is writing a biography of Periyar. Email:

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