Tag Archives: Kerala renaissance

Neo Buddhism in Kerala: The Legacy of Mithavadi C Krishnan

"Mithavadi" Charcoal on Paper by Ajay Sekher

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.

Old Bodhi tree in ruins (left) and new one flourishing in Paran Square, Old residence of Mithavadi in Customs Road, Beach, Calicut (currently the property of Bhikshu Dharmaskand's family)

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.

Location of Paran Square and Hall: Old home of Mithavadi in Customs Road, Beach, Calicut. Now with Dharmaskand's family

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 .

Opening to other worlds: Calicut beach close to Mithavadi home

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.

Resonant with pasts: Mithavadi home today. Bhikshu Dharmaskand bought it in 1952 according to his daughters who currently posses it. Apl 2011

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.


Inspired by Sahodaranism: The New Fraternity Movement in Kerala

Sahodaran portrait at SMHS Cherayi

“All human beings are equal by birth.  All communities too are equal.  They all have the right to live, to grow and to seek welfare and greater good.  This is truth. This is ethics.  Everything against it is untruth, non-ethics and injustice.”

– Sahodaran Ayyappan

The new fraternity movement which is christened Sahodarya Prasthanam that came to existence in Cherayi in the birth place of the social revolutionary, renaissance thinker and writer Sahodaran K Ayyappan, on 20th February 2011 is a unique social  formation that proclaims to  include the socio-politically and culturally challenged sections of Kerala society.  It is a greater fraternity of dalits, backward communities, women and minorities of various denominations including religion, language and sexuality.  It is important to mark that it was here in Cherayi that Sahodaran launched his anti-caste agitations through the 1917 inter-caste dining that startled the orthodoxies and initiated social change.

People at the Fraternity Meet, SMHS Cherayi, Ernakulam

It is floated by some of the leading social activists and fighters for justice in contemporary Kerala like K K Kochu, Sunny Kapikkadu, Adv. K S Madhusudanan, P K Abdul Razak, K D Martin, K S Abdul Karim and others.  It is a democratic alliance and fraternity between the marginalized and excluded sections of Kerala society.  It is all the more significant in the contexts of  the alienation and demonization of the minor subjects and contested sections of the Kerala society under the hegemonic discourses of the patriotic and militant cultural nationalism and its various regional avatars.

Tamil dalit writer Charu Nivedita inaugurating Fraternity Meet. From Right: K K Kochu, Adv. Madhusudanan, Sunny Kapikadu...

According to the spokesmen it is also vital for the people at the bottom as a platform for affirming and articulating their fraternity when the monopoly ruling classes/castes try to divide them in terms of religion, caste, gender, class and sexual orientation and usurp their rightful share in political power.   The victims of the divide and rule strategy adopted by the internal imperialism of Brahmanism are getting aligned themselves under the banner of human brotherhood or sisterhood or cross gender fraternity here.  This kind of radical realization of the subaltern is all the more important in the contexts of hate propaganda models like “love-jihad’ and ‘talibanisation’  that split the people at the grass root level.

Sunny Kapikkadu presenting the declaration of fraternity

An installation at the venue (Sahodaran Memorial High School, Cherayi) by leading young artists Jayalal M T, Benoy P J, Baiju Neendoor and the rest enacted the spirit of Kerala renaissance and the working culture of the basic communities of Kerala.  It visually installed the philosophy and praxis of love and fraternity invoked by the life and works of Sahodaran.  An Ayyappanist in many respects like me reads the ideology of Sahodaranism in this simple, seductive and enagaging visual narrative which is spatially de-centered and aesthetically and politically plural in its signification.  The work titled “Smell of Salt” is a profound artistic critique and tribute to the people or subaltern in Kerala, their historic struggles for liberty and their organic and human instincts of equality and fraternity.

Artist Jayalal M T before the installation "Smell of Salt" at SMHS Cherai

I salute the artists and organizers and appeal them to document and preserve this political and public art which is a rare manifestation in the cultural politics of Kerala.  It again enlivens the historic memories of the burning of the caste monster by Ayyappan at the very heart of Cherayi more than a century ago which initiated the whole repertoire of symbolic protest in the public sphere of Kerala.  That kind of radical intervention in and renewal of visual sensibility of the people is involved in the present installation work as well.  It links this contemporary art/political  practice to the historic installation at Aruvipuram by Narayana Guru himself (1888) that distinctly and poetically marked the subject formation and voice consciousness of the subaltern in Kerala through its unprecedented challenge and critique of caste and Brahmanism.

K K Kochu delivering the key-note address at the public meeting, Gauriswara temple premise, Cherayi

The very meeting for the declaration of fraternity at SMHS Cherayi was conceived after Sahodaran’s historic Declaration of Human Rights(1945) at Ernakulam.  The meet was marked for its mass participation of people from all walks of life.  Women and children from minority communities were present in large numbers.  There were representatives from all sections of the society on the platform.  Even dalit feminists and lesbian feminist activists addressed the mixed gathering and shared their concerns for the development of the idea and practice of fraternity in a diverse and heterogeneous society where difference is the key word.  But the fraternity meet proved that co-existence of differences is the democratic way of life  in a diverse and plural society like us in the coming days.

K K Kochu speaking in the public meeting at Gauriswara temple. From right: Rev. Fr. Vincent Kundukulam, Holy Imam of Palayam, Adv. Madhusudanan...

The fraternity meet at SMHS and the public meet at Gauriswara temple premise (historic site of Narayana Guru’s own installation) prove that the movement ensures inclusion and representation in the true egalitarian and ethical spirit of democracy.  In its greater spirit of tolerance, co-existence and inclusion the movement is more close to the teacher of Sahodaran rather than to the rationalist himself.  While Sahodaran critiqued the religious for its anti-human aspects  his guru upheld the humanitarian and ethical role of religions across cultures and societies.  The Sahodarya movement has to address such profounder, epistemological and historic issues in its further acts and articulations.  The beginning is artful and ethical in its multiple significations.

Lesbian/Gay/Trans-gender Rights activist Deepa V of Sahayatrika articulating her concerns on fraternity

Dalit feminist Rekha Raj addressing the gathering