Iyothee Thass – A writer, Journalist, Social reformer and Buddhist Scholar

Early life

Iyothee Thass was born on May 20, 1845 in a Paraiyar family from Coimbatore district. Thass’s original name was Kaathavarayan. He was a writer, Journalist, Social reformer, Buddhist Scholar and Siddha Physician. His grandfather worked for Lord Arlington. Soon, he became an expert on Tamil literature, philosophy and indigenous medicine and could speak Tamil, English, Sanskrit and Pali.

Iyothee Thass remains the first recognized anti-Brahmin leader of the Madras Presidency. He was also the first notable Mulnivasi leader to embrace Buddhism.

Iyothee Thass married Dhanalakshmi sister of Rettamalai, Srinivasan

In the 1870s, Iyothee Thass organized the Todas and other tribes of the Nilgiri Hills into a formidable force. In 1876, Thass established the Advaidananda Sabha and launched a magazine called Dravida Pandian in collaboration with Rev. John Rathinam.

He launched a magazine called “Dravida Pandian” along with Rev. John Rathinam in 1885

In 1886, Thass issued a revolutionary declaration that untouchables were not Hindus. Following this declaration, he established the Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1891. During the 1891 census, he urged Dalits to register themselves as “casteless Dravidians” instead of identifying themselves as Hindus. This in fact makes Tamil Dalits the true descendents of the anti-Brahmin legacy.

Conversion to Buddhism

Iyothee Thass’s meeting with Olcott was a turning point not only in his life but also for the Tamil Dalit movement. In many ways, Thass was a forerunner of Dr B.R. Ambedkar.  Iyothee Thass met Colonel H. S. Olcott with his followers and expressed a sincere desire to convert to Buddhism. According to Thass, the Paraiyars of Tamilakam were originally Buddhists and owned the land which had later been robbed from them by aryan invaders. With Olcott’s help, Thass was able to visit Ceylon and obtain diksha from the Sinhalese Buddhist monk Bikkhu Sumangala Nayake. On returning, Thass established the Sakya Buddhist Society in Madras with branches all over South India. The Sakya Buddhist Society was also known as the Indian Buddhist Association and was established in the year 1898. The contemporary Tamil Dalit movement has rediscovered its Buddhist roots through Thass.

Political activism and later life

On June 19, 1907, Iyothee Thass launched a Tamil newspaper called “Oru Paisa Tamizhan” or “One Paise Tamilian” from his Royapettah Office and printed it at the Buddhist Press of one Thiru Adimoolam. This journal was published “Oru Paisa Tamizhan” in order to teach justice, right path, and truthfulness to people who could not discriminate between the excellent, mediocre and the bad”..Oru Paisa Tamizhan came out week after week without fail for the rest of Iyothee Thass’s life, carrying a wealth of information’s on current events, interpretation of Tamil history, religion and literature and polemics, against the dominant and oppressive religious-cultural discourses of the time. The influence and significance of this modern vehicle of thought went far beyond the narrow confines of religious Buddhism. Along with the creation and nurture of a religiously united community cutting across caste barriers it undoubtedly sowed the early seeds of social revolution, cultural renaissance and political movement in colonial Tamilakam as a whole. In his later days, he was a vehement criticizer of Brahmins.

By publishing Oru Paisa Tamizhan, he devoted his energies in critiquing the Swarajya politics of the Congress. Thass was the driving force behind the establishment of several panchama schools in Chennai. He focused on education and the land issue. He interpreted Indian history in an entirely different light in the work Indirar Desa Sarithiram (History of India) which can be classified as subaltern history in a true sense. He opposed Brahminism Vedic rituals, untouchability. He championed communal representation, Women’s Rights, self-respect, Rationalism etc. It was during this period that ideas like Anti-Brahminism, Dravidian Ideology, Rationalism etc were discussed by all sections of the people in the Presidency. The Dravidian Movement gathered the stands and united them into a full fledged political ideology.

Iyothee Thass died in 1914 at the age of 69.

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