Neo Buddhism in Kerala: The Legacy of Mithavadi C Krishnan
// April 17th, 2011 // Cultural Politics
Buddha was the first to question caste and Brahmanism in India in BC sixth century in north India. He was also the first thinker and social reformer to challenge the authority of the Vedas the foundational texts of Hindu Brahmanism that established the Varna-caste system in the Indus and Gangetic planes soon after the devastation of the Dravidian Indus valley civilization around BC 1500.
The enlightened one included women and outcastes into his fold. The philosophy of love, non-violence and rationalism that he taught included millions in a an egalitarian way of life. But unfortunately this ethical culture of non-violence that spread to the far corners of Asia to China, Japan and Korea was violently quelled by Brahmanical revivalism of the 8th and 9th centuries led by Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhava. The persecution of Sramana Buddhists and Jains was a bloody example of Brahmanical Hindu barbarism that reinstated caste and untouchability in India.
It was Dr B R Ambedkar who radically reinterpreted the Buddha for the untouchable millions of India at the wake of the 20th century through his masterpiece Buddha and His Dhamma. At the beginning of the 21st century dalit intellectuals like Kancha Ilaiah also acknowledged the signficance of the Buddha as a political philosopher and re-inaugurated the discourse of Asian enlightenment as a liberation ethics.
In Tamil Nadu Neo Buddhism was developed by Iyothee Thass and followers in early 20th century. The recent work by Gail Omvedt Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste also enlivens this great epistemological debate in Indian history, society and politics. In Kerala that has a long history of more than 1000 years of Buddhism from BC 3rd to AD 9th century the philosophy of ethics and enlightenment was revitalized by the leading players of Kerala renaissance including Sahodaran Ayyappan, Mithavadi C Krishnan, C V Kunhiraman, Justice Ayyakutty and others.
It was Mulur S Padmanabha Panikar the first major Avarna poet in Malayalam who translated the Dharmapada of Buddha into Malayalam straight from Pali original with the encouragement of Sahodaran in 1925 itself. Sahodaran Ayyappan also prompted Justice Ayyakutty to attempt a second translation of the same later to popularize the word of Buddhism among people. Through his speeches, editorials, verse and prose Sahodaran tirelessly campaigned for the propagation of Buddhist Dharma among the untouchable Avarna people of Kerala to ethically de-link them from the hierarchical and inhuman desire of caste and Hindu Brahmanism. He radically reinterpreted his master Narayana Guru’s teaching as “No Caste, No Religion, No God for humans; But Dharma, Dharma and Dharma most appropriately and accordingly (in the enlightened way).”
Like Ambedkar, Sahodaran embraced Buddhism along with Adv. C Krishnan at the Calicut (Kozhikode) residence of Mithavadi who actually organized a Mahabodhi Society and Buddha Mission at his residence in Customs Road near the beach highway in Calicut. The place was named Paran Square and hall after his father and a legendary ancestor who was a fighter for just causes from his Changaramkumarath household at the southern margin of Malabar so close to Cochin in the old Ponnani taluk in Mullasery.
C Krishnan got the name Mithavadi after his journal. It means an argumentative person adopting a middle way (in a Neo Buddhist sense). C Krishnan was an argumentative Keralite in its most radical and emancipating sense. Sahodaran was also known after his journal which means the brother who mixed with the dalits and was thus called Pulayan Ayyappan, a term of contempt by the elites which he accepted as an honorary degree. Sahodaran from Cochin and Mithavadi from Calicut were two powerful voices of the subaltern and the untouchable struggling people in Kerala during the renaissance. The printing press and office of Sujananandini run by Paravur Kesavan Asan was burned by the Savarna henchmen of south Travancore during this early stage of anti-caste resistance in early 20th century .
The residence of Krishnan at Calicut was a meeting place for all the cultural and political activists of his time. Gandhi, Malavya, Annie Bessent and so many stalwarts had visited and spoken in Paran Hall. It included a library, women’s club and auditorium in its prime. It also housed the SNDP club of Calicut. the Calicut Bank was also founded by C Krishnan nearby. One part of the complex also housed his Empire Press.
In the first week of April 2011 I visited the former residence of Mithavadi while attending the National Theatre Festival of Kerala 2011 at Calicut. I always wanted to go and see his old residence and the historic Paran Square and the ancient Pipal which is directly propogated from the Bodhi tree from Gaya. Some biographers also say that it was from the Pipal at Anuradhapura in Srilanka that was originally implanted there in BC forth century by the missionaries of Asoka who in tern took it from the seminal tree at Gaya beneath which Gautama got enlightenment.
During the 1920s Mithavadi invited Buddhist monks from Srilanka to re-disseminate the gospel of Buddha in Kerala. He was also part of the great conversion debate that shook the foundations of Hindu majoritarianism in Kerala during the renaissance social revolutions. Sahodaran, C V and Mithavadi argued for conversion to Buddhism and it startled the orthodoxies and Brahmanical forces and persuaded them to share political power in some reluctant and compromised ways.
But still the Savarnas are chewing the cud of their medieval hegemony and golden past under the Brahman-Sudra nocturnal alliances (called Sambandham) in education and public service sectors. They are assaulting the constitution and its spirit of inclusion and representation as materialized in the affirmative action policies called reservation almost every day in public spaces and government offices in covert and allusive ways. It is important to remember here that Ambedkar developed his philosophy of social democracy and inclusion from Buddhism that is the gravest critique of caste and Brahmanism in India.
Even the so called university educated young Savarnas are publically questioning the spirit of democracy and social justice in the streets. In north it is visible in the form of anti Mandal fire dances and AIIMS mutinies sponsored by the Neo Brahmanic corporate lobbies against reservations. But in Kerala the Savarna – Syrian monopoly groups are adopting covert and heinous means of assault against the dalits and OBCs in government and public aided educational institutions and offices. The government aided educational institutions that run on public fund do not ensure representative inclusion of the people on whose taxes they survive.
In such contexts of growing hidden hegemony in public sphere it is vital to remember and uphold the spirit of the socio-cultural struggles and revolutions that democratized Kerala during the renaissance. Temple entry and legislative reforms and civil rights moves were direct outcomes of the great Neo Buddhist discourse in Kerala launched by the brave organic intellectuls mentioned above. Neo Buddhism in Kerala was part of the cultural and emancipating politics of the bahujan leaders who used it effectively to subvert the pseudo spiritual monopolies and power centers of Hindu Brahmanism.
The place is now with the daughter of Bhikshu Dharmaskand a friend of C Krishnan. The Paran Hall and buildings are gone. So is the Buddha Vihara built by Mithavadi. The ancient Pipal is decayed and in ruin but one more younger tree is flourishing fortunately for the occasional visitor or researcher. According to the lady the Buddha idol and other belongings of C Krishanan are taken to Changaramkumarath near Guruvayur by his sons. I remember visiting the ancient household of Mithavadi a few years back. The old mansion and small shrine of Paran the great ancestral warrior are still intact.
Mithavadi C Krishnan (1867-1938) was a High Court lawyer, a journalist, an editor, a banker, a social revolutionary, a rationalist, Neo Buddhist missionary and much much more. He bought the Mithavadi journal and press in 1913 from Sivasankaran of Thalassery which was in crisis and developed it into a news daily of Avarnas and Thiyas in purticular from Calicut. As a subject of British Malabar he got the opportunity for higher education which was then denied to Avarnas in Cochin and Travancore. The counter experience of Avarna’s like Dr Palpu in Travancore is remarkable here.
He used the breaks provided by English education and colonial legal system for the liberation of his fellow untouchables through his pen, press and platforms. Along with Manjeri Rama Iyer he broke the restriction to use the public road near Calicut Thali temple on his horse carriage in 1917. The excited people following him threw the blackened boards to the pond that prevented the entry of untouchables in public places. This historic spatial reclamation by an Avarna could be compared to the 1917 inter dining at Cherayi organized by Sahodaran and the bullock-cart ride of Ayyankali that asserted the basic right to use public roads by the subaltern and the fundamental right and freedom of movement.
Apart from Ayyappan, C V Kunhiraman and T K Madhavan; Asan and Dr Palpu visited C Krishnan at his Calicut residence. The SNDP club was inaugurated in October 1912. In 1919 Narayana Guru appointed him as the authority of all his property and institutions at Aluva ashram. He organized a huge Buddhist public meeting on 19 February 1925 at Paran Square. The Buddha Vihara and pagoda were inaugurated there on 16 May 1927.
Krishnan became one of the five editors of Yuktivadi (The Rationalist) magzine along with Sahodaran that opened up the rationalist and atheist discourse in Kerala in January 1929. It was also part of their greater cultural politics for equality and social justice. In the same year in October he also published his Buddha Tatva Pradeepam (Essays on the Theory of Buddha). He also played a vital role in passing the Malabar Tenants Bill in Madras Legislative Assembly on 18 November 1930 which proved to be highly beneficial for just land reforms.
C Krishnan was in constant touch with the leaders of Tamil Nadu like the head of Justice party Dr T M Nair. He was also a member of Justice party and became the chairman of South Indian Liberal Federation that fought Brahmanism and Savarna hegemony in public life and institutions. Mithavadi offers exquisite models and strategies for writers, media persons and cultural activists who are interested in socio cultural intervention and change.
Kaumudi: Mithavadi C Krishnan Edition. Trivandrum: Oct-Dec. 2007.
Mulur. Dharmapadam (Malayalam). Elavumthitta: Mulur Smaraka Committee, 1998.
Ilaiah. Post Hinduism. New Delhi: Sage, 2009.