Amidst the trying times of Covid-19, the Dalits of Tamil Nadu are gearing up to celebrate the 175th birth anniversary of Pandit Iyothee Thass on May 20. Thass is a legendary figure in classical Tamil literature and philosophy, and practitioner of the Siddha system of medicine who could also easily work in English, Sanskrit and Pali.
After organising the tribals of Nilgris in 1870s, he established Advaidananda Sabha in 1876. He launched a magazine called Dravida Pandian along with Rev John Rathinam in 1885. In 1886, Thass issued a statement, almost half-a-century before Ambedkar, saying that the so-called untouchables were not Hindus.
Thass was against sub-caste identifications. When Rettamalai Srinivasan, another prominent Dalit leader, who participated in Round Table Conference along with Ambedkar, started ‘Paraiyar Mahajana Sabai’ at Madras in 1891, Thass established ‘Dravida Mahajana Sabai’. Thass submitted a petition to the Congress Committee, with hundreds of signatures by Dalits, asking them to declare the word ‘pariah’ as contemptuous. During the time of the 1901 Census, he urged the untouchables to register themselves as casteless Dravidians. He repeated the demand during the 1911 Census. Thass also urged the British to refer to untouchables as ‘original Buddhists’ even if Dalits chose to mention their sub-caste.
Thass was a forerunner to Ambedkar in conversion to Buddhism. He met Colonel Olcott of the Theosophical Society along with a delegation of prominent Dalits in 1898 and pleaded his help in reestablishing Tamil Buddhism. With Colonel Olcott’s help, Thass visited Sri Lanka and got diksha (initiation) from Bikkhu Sumangala Nayake. On his return, he established the Sakya Buddhist Society in Chennai with branches in Burma (now Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Fiji and South Africa — gesturing to his acceptance among India’s indentured labourers in these colonies.
Thass was a pioneering Dalit intellectual who theorised the epistemology of his community and religion in his weekly Tamizhan in 1907. Thamizhan had a separate column devoted to women.
Along with contemporary politics Thass also extensively wrote on classical Tamil literature. He started serialising the biography of Buddha in the same journal. He used the question and answer section of the journal to address various social and cultural issues. He was also a pioneer prior to Ambedkar in criticising the Swarajya movement. He observed that the movement was driven by four kinds of arrogances — caste, religion, education and wealth.
Simultaneously, he also attacked the renowned poet Subramanya Bharathi for mentioning the word ‘pariah’ in one of his poem. He also criticised congress men who were shedding tears to the sufferings of people in South Africa but ignored the plight of untouchables in India.
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Thass also interpreted Tamil classics from Buddhist viewpoint as well as rewrote Indian history in an entirely different light. His book, Indirar Desa Sarithiram (History of India), can be classified as the first book of subaltern history in India. He worked with literary texts and epigraphical evidences published during that time. His technique involved using oral narratives to construct history.
Celebrating the birth anniversary of Thass is not a ritual. It is to emphasise the relevance of his ideas to understand and interpret the cultural history of contemporary Dalits. Though he received diksha from a monk in Sri Lanka, his interpretation of Buddhism was entirely different from both the schools of Buddhism. That’s why he called it ‘Tamil Buddhism’. He insisted castelessness as the founding value of Buddhism. He differed with the Maha Bodhi Society on the question of caste and never compromised with anyone lenient to caste.
His strong position on refusing sub-caste identity becomes very relevant to the contemporary Dalit movement. Sub-caste identity is the main obstacle in organising Dalits under a broader political platform. Dalits have one strength at their disposal, and that is their numerical strength. A sub-caste identity spoils it. Dalits cannot escape it if they continue in the religion which supports it. So, conversion to Buddhism is the only way out.
That is the message Thass left us.
This article first appeared in May 17, 2020, print edition under the title ‘Iyothee Thass, India’s first subaltern historian’. Ravikumar is an MP representing Viluppuram constituency in Tamil Nadu. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column
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