Learning about Swami Ananda Theerthan, a little known anti-caste crusader

The 'Swami' in his name and the saffron of his robes might put in your head the image of a religious preacher, but Swami Ananda Theerthan was far from one. A crusader against all forms of discrimination, especially caste, Ananda Theerthan waged his wars in his birth land of Kerala and nearby regions in south India. He was assaulted time and again for his forays with Dalits into spaces forbidden for the lowered castes, like schools and temples. Hardly any of it is recorded, except in the memories of those he fought for. There is little left even on the internet about Swami Ananda Theerthan, a revolutionary who donned the garbs of an ascetic. The documentary on this little known reformer, Swami Anandatheerthan: Nishedhiyude Aatmashakti, made by Bindu Sajan and Abhijith Narayanan, was a revelation to its viewers, during its premiere at Bharat Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday, January 21.  The filmmakers’ quest for the man began from wondering if the life of someone who did much for Dalits and the lowered castes in Kerala has been recorded in history. There is a campus named after him in the Kannur University, and there are a few scattered academic papers on him. Yet, an internet search would throw up only a few pages. Bindu and Abhijith, with the help of their creative consultant Sajan Gopalan, were able to unearth a lot more.  Abhijith and BinduAnanda Theerthan was born in 1905 to a Konkani Brahmin family in Thalassery. In his early 20s, he was drawn to the teachings of Gandhi, turning up at Gandhi’s ashram in Gujarat, taking part in the civil disobedience movement and the Salt Satyagraha in later years, and going to jail for it. He was also influenced by the teachings of Sree Narayana Guru, another early crusader against caste, and became his last disciple.  The centre of Ananda Theerthan’s work was Payyanur in Kannur district. This decision was made after a protest, in the aftermath of the Guruvayur Satyagraha, demanding a space for Dalits in front of the Kandoth temple left prominent Communist leaders like AKG and Keraleeyan severely injured. He realised that Payyannur, where the temple is located, was steeped in casteism, and centred his work there.  He then proceeded to set up a school for Dalits in Payyannur in 1931. However, he struggled to find space for it as none of the privileged caste land owners he approached would let him have it for a school for Dalits. It was finally a Muslim man who let him build his school, which he named after Narayana Guru — Payannur Sree Narayana Vidyalayam.  Sree Narayana Vidyalayam Former students of the school share their memories of Ananda Theerthan in the documentary, who would tirelessly bring Dalit children to the school and take them to places forbidden for the lowered castes, regardless of the number of times he got assaulted for it. Former students, and children of students, say that it irked the Swami to see tea served in coconut shells for Dalits or barbers refusing to cut the hair of Dalits — he would question it every time. Two experiences in his early 20s made Ananda Theerthan realise the depths of untouchability practised in Kerala. The first, which he recorded in his memoir Smaranakal, was when he was visiting the Kallekulangara temple in Palakkad with two Dalit children in 1927 and getting slapped by privileged caste men for it. He had at the time been with the Sabari Ashram in Palakkad, working for the upliftment of Dalits, on the advice of Gandhi.  The second experience is described in a paper by Padmanabhan N, former principal of CAS College, Kannur. It says that Swami Ananda Theerthan had joined Arya Samajists (Hindu reform movement that upheld the ‘infallible’ authority of the Vedas) in their fight to open the Kalpathi road to all people irrespective of caste. Even though “caste Hindus mercilessly attacked him”, the road was opened to the Dalits, Padmanabhan writes. At the age of 23, he decided to be an ascetic and accepted Sree Narayana Guru, who preached the idea of “one caste, one religion, and one god”, as his mentor. Ananda Theerthan formed the Jathi Nashini Sabha in 1939, for the eradication of not just caste, but religion too. He did not identify as a Hindu or follow any particular religion. To further defy the stringency of the caste system, he would name his Dalit students Varma and Namboodiri, which were dominant caste surnames. He would also give them Christian and Muslim surnames, disregarding the religion of their parents, a former student says. Actor playing Swami Anandatheerthan with a child The documentary also records his stint in Tamil Nadu, where he followed similar methods to fight caste. In the 1950s, he led Dalits to use the water of a pond in Madurai, forbidden for lowered castes, and got beaten up for it on the orders of the village officer. He worked for the Harijan Sevak Sangh there, and encouraged Dalits to claim their rights to use the roads, to drink tea in glasses, and to wear proper clothes, say the villagers tha

Learning about Swami Ananda Theerthan, a little known anti-caste crusader

THE 'Swami' in his name and the saffron of his robes might put in your head the image of a religious preacher, but Swami Ananda Theerthan was far from one.

A crusader against all forms of discrimination, especially caste, Ananda Theerthan waged his wars in his birthland of Kerala and nearby regions in south India.

He was assaulted time and again for his forays with Dalits into spaces forbidden for the lowered castes, like schools and temples. Hardly any of it is recorded, except in the memories of those he fought for. There is little left even on the internet about Swami Ananda Theerthan, a revolutionary who donned the garbs of an ascetic.

The documentary on this little-known reformer, Swami Anandatheerthan: Nishedhiyude Aatmashakti, made by Bindu Sajan and Abhijith Narayanan, was a revelation to its viewers, during its premiere at Bharat Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday, January 21. 

The filmmakers’ quest for the man began from wondering if the life of someone who did much for Dalits and the lowered castes in Kerala has been recorded in history. There is a campus named after him in Kannur University, and there are a few scattered academic papers on him. Yet, an internet search would throw up only a few pages. Bindu and Abhijith, with the help of their creative consultant Sajan Gopalan, were able to unearth a lot more. 

Abhijith and Bindu.

Ananda Theerthan was born in 1905 to a Konkani Brahmin family in Thalassery. In his early 20s, he was drawn to the teachings of Gandhi, turning up at Gandhi’s ashram in Gujarat, taking part in the civil disobedience movement and the Salt Satyagraha in later years, and going to jail for it. He was also influenced by the teachings of Sree Narayana Guru, another early crusader against caste, and became his last disciple. 

The centre of Ananda Theerthan’s work was Payyanur in Kannur district. This decision was made after a protest, in the aftermath of the Guruvayur Satyagraha, demanding a space for Dalits in front of the Kandoth temple left prominent Communist leaders like AKG and Keraleeyan severely injured. He realised that Payyannur, where the temple is located, was steeped in casteism, and centred his work there. 

He then proceeded to set up a school for Dalits in Payyannur in 1931. However, he struggled to find space for it as none of the privileged caste landowners he approached would let him have it for a school for Dalits. It was finally a Muslim man who let him build his school, which he named after Narayana Guru — Payannur Sree Narayana Vidyalayam.  

Sree Narayana Vidyalayam.

Former students of the school share their memories of Ananda Theerthan in the documentary, who would tirelessly bring Dalit children to the school and take them to places forbidden for the lowered castes, regardless of the number of times he got assaulted for it.

Former students, and children of students, say that it irked the Swami to see tea served in coconut shells for Dalits or barbers refusing to cut the hair of Dalits — he would question it every time. 

Two experiences in his early 20s made Ananda Theerthan realise the depths of untouchability practised in Kerala. The first, which he recorded in his memoir Smaranakal, was when he was visiting the Kallekulangara temple in Palakkad with two Dalit children in 1927 and getting slapped by privileged caste men for it. He had at the time been with the Sabari Ashram in Palakkad, working for the upliftment of Dalits, on the advice of Gandhi. 

The second experience is described in a paper by Padmanabhan N, former principal of CAS College, Kannur. It says that Swami Ananda Theerthan had joined Arya Samajists (a Hindu reform movement that upheld the ‘infallible’ authority of the Vedas) in their fight to open the Kalpathi road to all people irrespective of caste. Even though “caste Hindus mercilessly attacked him”, the road was opened to the Dalits, Padmanabhan writes.

At the age of 23, he decided to be an ascetic and accepted Sree Narayana Guru, who preached the idea of “one caste, one religion, and one god”, as his mentor. Ananda Theerthan formed the Jathi Nashini Sabha in 1939, for the eradication of not just caste, but religion too. He did not identify as a Hindu or follow any particular religion.

To further defy the stringency of the caste system, he would name his Dalit students Varma and Namboodiri, which were dominant caste surnames. He would also give them Christian and Muslim surnames, disregarding the religion of their parents, a former student says.

Actor playing Swami Anandatheerthan with a child.

The documentary also records his stint in Tamil Nadu, where he followed similar methods to fight caste.

In the 1950s, he led Dalits to use the water of a pond in Madurai, forbidden for lower castes and got beaten up for it on the orders of the village officer. He worked for the Harijan Sevak Sangh there, and encouraged Dalits to claim their rights to use the roads, to drink tea in glasses, and to wear proper clothes, say the villagers that Bindu and Abhijith spoke to. 

He had done similar work in Karnataka too, according to the filmmakers, but this could not be included in the documentary. Bindu, after the screening, said that her work on the great revolutionary is not yet complete.

Stalin Rajangam, a professor and writer, says in the documentary that there is mention of Swami Ananda Theerthan in the writings of Ambedkar. 

A joke about the saffron robes of Ananda Theerthan is that Sree Narayana Guru made him wear it so that he would get fewer beatings since someone in an ascetic’s clothes tends to be attacked less. Yet, his reform works in Kerala put him at the receiving end of several brutal attacks.

In 1971, he was almost killed when a few young people beat him and tried to set fire to his bruised body after another temple visit with Dalits, but he was saved in the nick of time by three Muslim men in a car. However, another brutal beating in the later years of his life had finally left him too weak and bedridden, affecting even his mental health.

Swami Ananda Theerthan passed away in November 1987.