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Poykayil SreeKumara Gurudevan

The Life of Poykayil SreeKumara Gurudevan

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.

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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.

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.

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.