An Anti-Slavery Spiritual Revolution in Kerala — Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha

This post was written for Dalit History Month by Tharun T. Tharun is originally from Kottayam in Kerala. He is working as a Navigational Officer in the Merchant Navy. Tharun was formerly the Chief Editor of AcharyaJyothis Magazine and is a co-founder of the Ignite Educational Trust. Tharun is a present-day PRDS member. You can reach him at tharungreat@gmail.com. We would also like to extend a special thanks to artist and PRDS member Aravind Raju, whose artwork is featured in this piece.

Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha or PRDS was a unique religious movement that arose in Kerala in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rich, vibrant and complex history of PRDS has long been ignored. With the rising trend of ‘subaltern studies’, there were some efforts to chart and understand PRDS. Unfortunately, most interpretations remained reductive. They mistakenly claimed that a person called Poikayil Appachan founded an alternate evangelical sect because of the caste discriminations he faced within Christianity. These interpretations restrict PRDS to a mere anti-caste movement and refuse to acknowledge the vastness and fullness of spiritual ideology it possesses.

When looking at PRDS as a whole, we must remember that the anti-caste standpoint of PRDS might have been a premier objective but it wasn’t the primary objective.

Vishuda Mandapam during a PRDS Celebration. Photo: Tharun T

The Life of Poikayil Appachan

PRDS was not founded out of the blue, on one fine day by Poikayil Appachan. It has been a movement long in the making. However, the formation of PRDS does lie in concurrence with the life of Poikayil Appachan himself.

Poikayil Appachan was born on 17th February 1879 to Kandan and Lechi, a pair who were slaves to the Shankaramangalam family in Eraviperoor in Pathanamthitta district of modern Kerala.

In those times feudalism was in its full oppressive force and even though slave trade had been officially abolished, most Dalits were still kept as slaves under landlords for their benefits.

The hut where Appachan was born has been preserved by PRDS members today. Photo: Tharun T

Poikayil Appachan was originally named Komaran (slave castes were not allowed to use proper names. Komaran is the ‘impure’ version of Kumaran). During his childhood days Kumaran, like the other slave kids, had to work for his landlords. They used to do cattle-rearing, ploughing in the field and other hard physical labour.

But Kumaran was a bright, curious, and upright young man who was always asking questions and analysing realities around him.

As a feature of the graded inequality of caste, the ‘lower’ castes too practised untouchability and excommunication among themselves. This Kumaran opposed and refuted even at that young age. Kumaran’s friends were all from various castes and seeing this, Kumaran’s mother tried to ‘purify’ him through a ritual in which water was to be poured into ears — one at a time. Kumaran, while being subjected to this ritual, questioned this practice. He asked his mother

“Would the pollution not drain into the first ear anyway when water is poured through the second? How could you get rid of this pollution then?”

This made his mother speechless.

This kind of rationality was a feature of Kumaran’s pursuits. He questioned many superstitions and looked for practical answers. He once questioned the ability or power of black magic which used to be strongly followed among ‘lower’ castes. Kumaran along with his friends stole conch and bell from a sorcerer. These were his main instruments to do black magic. Subsequently, when the sorcerer came to do the sorcery, he found his instruments missing. At that point, Kumaran and his friends showed up and Kumaran challenged the sorcerer — “ If your black magic really has some power, find your items through them!”. The sorcerer failed to do so. Kumaran used this to show his friends that that black magic has no powers. He is known to have said,

“If black magic worked the way they say it does, we wouldn’t have been slaves for centuries.”

In another incident, while ploughing Kumaran was removing clay from the field and found pieces of a skeleton. A heartbroken Kumaran then told his friends that the skeleton pieces might have been any of their forefathers who could have died while ploughing along with the bull and were probably just been trampled down into the clay by the landlord. That day, Kumaran and friends mourned for their forefathers and later buried the skeleton pieces with respect.

Painting by PRDS Member entitled Slavery. Art by Aravind Raju . Source: https://navamalayali.com/2019/02/17/art-gallery-poykayil-appachan-prds-aravind-raju/

There were many similar events which depict that at a very young age, Kumaran was already sensitive, self-enlightened person who held a clear notion of equality.

Even during this period of childhood, the knowledge he had gained from these experiences he tried to pass this to his friends. He began an enlightened assemblage that with time grew into a much larger group which was known as Poika Koottar (the assemblage of Poika — from the name Kumaran self-chose — Poikayil). It was this small gathering that ultimately formed into PRDS.

The Theology of PRDS

During these periods, missionaries largely propagated Christianity among the slave castes and encouraged them to embrace it. They built numerous schools for slave castes where they were taught Biblical texts and subjects related to Christianity. Children in those schools were given Christian names while enrollment, even when many of them weren’t actually officially baptised. This practice of changing the name without baptising was also widely accepted among the slave castes because it helped them to present defiance in the face of the fact that they hadn’t been allowed to have ‘good’ names before.

Appachan too was exposed to the Bible and other Biblical texts after Thevarkkattu Kochukunju, a Dalit teacher who was running a school for Dalit children, taught him to learn to read and write. And after a particular point in the exposure, Appachan, realized that the Bible doesn’t depict the history or reality of the slave castes of India. His Biblical criticisms and rational interpretations had begun long before he even adopted the name Yohannan.

And there was a reason why Appachan adopted this name Yohannan. By taking the name Yohannan Appachan then used this new “Christian identity” as a cover to create a space and opportunity to address a larger group of slave castes who belonged to various evangelical sects at that time. He found the Biblical theme as an easy medium to convey his ideology among them.

Here was a large mass of his people who understood this particular language of Christianity. And because he had felt that Christianity was insufficient for the range of spiritual and existential problems they faced, he began to use the Abrahamic framework almost as a disguise to present a theology of a newer religion — PRDS.

Even the term PRDS — Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha is not easily explicable because it is not to be taken literally. For example, ‘Prathyaksha’ can be taken to mean Visibility and ‘Raksha’ implies Salvation. However, the notion of salvation here is different from the salvation of the Bible, or moksha mentioned in other religious theologies. Instead, it refers to salvation which promises deliverance from the four last things- Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Appachan never even considered Adam and Eve as first humans. Therefore, he also denied the sins of Adam’s family as their own. As a result, Adam and his family’s salvation was also not applicable to his people. PRDS denies any afterlife and believes that salvation has to be attained during the life you were living. In these ways, Biblical salvation was used merely as a model to explain the PRDS explain Appachan’s concept of salvation.

The salvation proposed by Appachan dealt with the notion of slavery. In fact, this is the core subject of PRDS*.

Appachan explained that in all religious theology, there were outcasts who were denied salvation. Appachan considered them as his own “race”. For them, salvation or justice had been invisible. That’s why the Visibility (Prathyaksha) of Salvation becomes important in PRDS.

Painting by PRDS Member entitled ‘With his Disciples’. Art by Aravind Raju . Source: https://navamalayali.com/2019/02/17/art-gallery-poykayil-appachan-prds-aravind-raju/

PRDS questions the classical concept of God. It denies God’s existence by stating that if there were an almighty kind of figure how could it allow people to suffer for centuries. On the other hand, followers felt the same parental and divine experience that they had lacked for centuries from Appachan. There was no one who loved, cared, guided and enlightened them the way Appachan did. He himself did not proclaim himself God but his followers found a whole new notion of God itself in Appachan. They accepted Appachan as their God (Daivam).

However, the Christian names of the founder and his followers were all that was required to perpetuate this false labelling of PRDS as a Christian sect. This in the face of the fact that Appachan wasn’t baptised or had even ever accepted Christian belief.

Retaliation Against PRDS

Appachan often congregated separately for Dalits and asked them to realize that the Bible is not for them and enlightened them with a new notion of spirituality which offered salvation from slavery*.

Convinced, and in acts of protest, many of his followers burnt their Bibles during a congregation. Syrian Christians, who are largely an ‘upper’ caste sect of Christians, came to know about these secret gatherings. They labelled Appachan as the anti-Christ and attacked PRDS gatherings. Appachan’s followers, including the women, fought back and many times it was those brave women who protected Appachan from ‘upper’ caste rioters.

To prevent religious persecution, PRDS members co-opted certain ways. A kind of shroud was created during public discourses by establishing a unique world of parallel narration and nomenclature. Biblical symbols, events, and terms were used during discourses and within PRDS songs. But this was all a disguise used to protect themselves.

PDRS as an anti-caste movement

One of the major evils India had and still possesses is the caste system. It tiered the social structure into different layers hierarchically on the basis of this system and was graded on the basis of birth. Knowledge, power, wealth etc were precisely allocated to specific ‘upper’ castes and this system was strictly followed through various testaments such as Manusmriti which adjudicates those who violate the laws stated in them. Christian missionaries propagated an equal and dignified space in society through Christianity. Unfortunately, the caste system was so strongly deep-rooted into this society that it infiltrated into Christianity right from the beginning. There were separate churches for lower castes which were known according to their respective sub-caste eg; Pula pally (Church for Pulayas), Para Pally (Church for Parayas) and so on.

Appachan used to use songs as a tool to convey his ideology among his followers. In these songs, he was critical of both Christianity and Brahmanism. He philosophically criticized the caste discrimination in Christianity using Christian concepts and Biblical symbolism. He articulated that all human beings are children of the same parent which broke the concept of Brahma-based Varna system. He asked whether anyone could identify the caste of their psyche. He didn’t merely criticise caste-based discrimination but criticised the foundational concepts of caste itself.

As a result, Dalits from different sub-castes followed Appachan and continue to live as siblings from the same parent for generations.

PRDS as a Socio-Economic Movement

People collectively worked the land they owned. Art by Aravind Raju . Source: https://navamalayali.com/2019/02/17/art-gallery-poykayil-appachan-prds-aravind-raju/

PRDS members never limited themselves to a religious sect. Under the leadership of Poikayil Appachan, PRDS collectively owned more than 200 acres of land in different parts of Kerala. It was not an easy feat to own these lands. Appachan and his followers worked in several plantations and estates to gather the resources needed to own land. Wherever they had land, they built schools, small scale industries like matchbox factories and weaving industries along with Mandirams (PRDS places of worship). In all, PRDS had 9 schools including an English medium residential school. PRDS knew the importance of resource, wealth, education and land.

Appachan was also nominated to the Sree Mulam Popular Assembly, the first elected legislative body in Travancore at that time. He represented PRDS twice in 1921 and in 1931, where he raised issues been faced by all lower caste people. He was the only leader to be elected by various different castes. During his time at the assembly, he demanded various exceptions and consolations for slave caste students so that they could compete on a level playing field with others. He also sought government aid to establish small-scale industries among lower castes.

The Status of Women in PRDS

Women holding PRDS Meetings. Art by Aravind Raju . Source: https://navamalayali.com/2019/02/17/art-gallery-poykayil-appachan-prds-aravind-raju/

PRDS gave importance to the status of women in all sectors. PRDS had women priests and leaders who themselves conducted various congregations. This is a radical practice not only for that time but even for today.

Appachan advised that men and women have the same divine vigour, therefore, women must never be considered as inferior.

In 1930, PRDS submitted a memorandum to the Travancore government demanding women representation in the Sree Mulam Popular Assembly.

Legacy Being Carried Forward

After the demise of Poikayil Appachan in 1939, it was V.Janamma, also known as Ammachi*, wife of Poikayil Appachan, who manoeuvred PRDS through very difficult situations at such a young age. With two children of only 11 and 9 years by her side, she accepted the burden and continued the legacy of Poikayil Appachan.

There are no other Dalit women in the history of Kerala, and perhaps only the extremely few in all of India, who exemplify the being of the prime leader of a socio-religious organisation for more than four decades.

Under her leadership, PRDS evolved into a centralised organisation with many branches across Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

V. Janamma or Ammachi. Photo: Tharun T

She built a 5-floor mausoleum for Appachan. This space is considered as the centre of solace to all Dalits whose forefathers were sold and scattered across the globe (The five-floor has a specific meaning in PRDS theosophy). It was during her tenure PRDS established youth and a women’s wing and various other sub-divisions. PRDS also started its own mouthpiece named Adiyardeepam in 1961 which ensured to encourage talents.

Vishuda Mandapam. Art by Aravind Raju. Source: https://navamalayali.com/2019/02/17/art-gallery-poykayil-appachan-prds-aravind-raju/

During the agitations against Mandal Commission, riots were taking place across the nation, but PRDS supported the Mandal Commission report and participated in various supporting movements. The ideology that was given by Poikayil Appachan and later by Ammachi is being carried forward by their followers and remains deeply empowering and relevant to this day.

*Slavery : PRDS define slavery by dividing it into seven different types. This is explained in Raksha Nirnaya Yogam which is 6 days congregation given prior joining as a member of PRDS.

*Ammachi : This name was given to her by the followers in the same way they gave it to Appachan.

References

  1. Swami.VV & Anil E.V : Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha : Orma, Pattu, Charithra rekhakal, Adiyardeepam Publication
  2. Cohn Norman : The Persuit of the Millenium , Pimlico Publication
  3. Sanal Mohan. P : Modernity of Slavery, Oxford University Press New York
  4. Sarinbaboo & T.Tharun : Divyamathavu : Vyakthy, Sabha, Charitram, Acharyajyothis Magazine
  5. Jeevacharithra Punarakhyana Samithi : Vyavasthayude Nadappathakal, Slate Publication

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