Renaissance Men

The orators helping Kerala fight against religious revivalism

sameer raichur for the caravan
sameer raichur for the caravan
01 May, 2019

ON THE BRIGHT, SUNNY EVENING OF 24 OCTOBER 2018, in downtown Kochi, close to two hundred men and women, most of them employed in the banking and insurance sectors, gathered after office hours to listen to a speech. They huddled inside a Victorian-era auditorium, owned by the Young Men’s Christian Association, on the busy Chittoor road. On the two-foot stage at one end of the hall stood a slender, bespectacled man, dressed modestly in a white mundu and a faded green handloom kurta. Leaning against a wooden podium, he spoke firmly for the next hour, his teeth flashing, as he smiled with every pause.

Behind him, an ivory-coloured curtain bore the name of the organisers, and the title of his public lecture—“Sabarimala: The Court Verdict and Kerala Renaissance.” The nearly one-hour speech was recorded, and the video was uploaded on YouTube. Within the next three months, it had been viewed 1.5 million times. Short clips from the speech were shared countless times on Facebook and WhatsApp. The man on the podium, Sunil P Elayidom, is a professor of Malayalam at the state-run Sree Sankaracharya University at Kalady. In recent times, the 50-year-old Elayidom has become a household name among Malayalis around the world.

“What is the idea of religion?” Elayidom asked, many times, in his speech. “Should religion be a set of rituals? Or should religion be seen as a collection of values?” He brought up the many indignities Hinduism had imposed on the oppressed castes, who were not allowed to be seen in public, and had to crawl through bushes to get around. “This was not centuries back,” he said, “but until the first half of the twentieth century—people who were not supposed to hold their head high in daylight, people who were not allowed to wear their mundus below their knees, people who could be lynched to death if they were to walk into a shop and ask for salt.” Whatever progress that was made was not an act of anyone’s largesse, he added, but achieved through constant struggles against discriminatory practices. “And the name of that was navodhanam”—renaissance.

When dominant-caste people questioned Narayana Guru’s authority to consecrate a temple, he said he was consecrating the Ezhava Shiva, not the Brahmin Shiva.