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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby > Sinhala perceptions of the Dravidian movement in South India

Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

Sinhala perceptions of the Dravidian movement in South India
Northeastern Herald, 4 October  2002

There is a belief among the Sinhalese that a large movement bent on Tamil aggrandisement flourishes in Tamil Nadu in South India bent on annihilating non-Tamils in the neighbouring countries. The many references to the Dravida Kazaham (sic) by Sinhala commentators brings out the fears they have of the Dravidian movement.

It is seldom realised however that the Dravidian movement has been seeking Buddhist assistance to thwart Brahminic domination in the day-to-day life of the Tamils in Tamil Nadu. To a student of modern Tamil Nadu history, especially of the Dravidian movement, Sinhala hostility to the movement remains puzzling.  Three constituent strands go into the making of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu:

a) The Pure Tamil movement advocated by Maraimalai Adigal, a Tinnavely Saiva Vellalan, who wanted Tamil to be a language and culture free of Sanskrit – especially in matters relating to the practice of Hinduism.

b) The Justice Movement of South India, originally known as the South Indian Liberal Federation, which was a political party consisting of non-Brahmin, high caste Tamils, Telugus and Malayalis who did not want the British to give the Brahmins a dominant position in political and administrative matters.

c) The Self-Respect Movement launched by E. V. Ramasamy Nayakar (called Periyar or great elder), which aimed at doing away with Brahmin supremacy and in the social and cultural life of the Tamils.

The Brahmins of Tamil Nadu used Max Muller’s concept of the culturally superior Aryan to legitimise the their authority, thus raising a counter argument to the Dravida (those who were non-Aryans). But it should be noted though there was a tendency to think in terms of Aryans and Dravidians and in matters of cultural identification the need for being anti-Brahmin was raised early (the polarisation having taken place in 1926 after Periyar left the Indian National Congress over differences with Gandhi and other leaders of that party on the Vaikon issue) the term ‘Dravida’ did not come to refer to a political entity till much later.

Despite ample discussion about cultural Dravidianism and the Dravidian Association, it became the name of a political party only with the formation of the Dravida Kazhaham (DK) in 1944, when the almost defunct Justice Party handed over non-Brahmin political leadership to Periyar. It is from this point onwards the DK and its various proliferations – Dravida Munnetra Kazhaham (DMK – 1949) and the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhaham (AIADMK –1972) etc. came into being.

Periyar was against Brahminism, superstition and caste. He opposed all social inequalities that had been imposed by the imprest of Bramininsm such as caste, pollution etc. He called his intellectual position as ‘pahuththarrivuvadham’ or rationalism. Rationalism in Tamil Nadu has a fairly long history. Let alone in pre-modern times when the Siddhars challenged Brahminism and extreme ritualism, there was formulation of the concept of equality and the unacceptability of social hierarchies among human beings even during British rule in India.

Similarly, even if we leave aside the great tradition of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu, an appeal was made to Buddhism to avert the inequality in the modern period too. Dr. Ambedkar’s name is very famous. He challenged Maharashtra Brahmin superiority by appealing to the spiritual equality preached in Buddhism. But before him thinkers in Tamil Nadu had looked to Buddhism as an antidote to inequality and the various forms of oppression the caste system imposed.

One such was Jyotidas, an important figure in the late 19th and 20th centuries who established contacts with Henry Olcott, who was then at the Theosophical Society in Madras (Chennai). We are told that Olcott brought Jyotidas to the Vidyalankara Pirivena at Keleniya for discussions on matters relating to conversion to Buddhism. Historians speak of Vidyalankara Pirivena as referring this matter to the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters. Nothing thenceforth is heard from Tamil sources. Perhaps the caste-based Siam Nikaya had come to know of the position Jyotidas and his friends, who were from the oppressed castes, held on matters relating to caste.

Attempts to establish connections with Sri Lankan Buddhists in the non-Brahmin quest for non-hierarchical spiritual equality does not end with Jyotidas. Periyar, on his way from the Soviet Union (1928?) met with G. P. Malalasekera on the question of reviving Buddhism in Tamil Nadu. Periyar was an atheist, but knew that at a popular level people needed religion, which is what perhaps constituted the discussion between Periyar and Malalasekera.

The non-Brahmin – Buddhist dialogue goes even further. When in 1949 C. N. Annadurai broke way from Periyar and founded the DMK, which had a much better publicised Tamil stand, the tendency to highlight Buddhism as a religion that ensures equality was emphasised in his writings. It was so in Tamil films too. It may be of interest to note that the name of a leading studio at that time was Buddha Pictures.

The Dravidian movement always admired the strands of equality and absence of excessive ritualism in Buddhism, especially its focus on meditation. But unfortunately, in the Sinhala-Buddhist psyche none of this was known. As mentioned by me in an earlier article, the word ‘Damila’ was taken to mean also ‘Buddha virodhi’ (enemy of Buddhism). This is not the place to go into the acknowledged contributions of Tamils to Buddhism, but resurgent Sinhala-Buddhism was not made aware of such a contribution. The average Sinhala-Buddhist was shut out of the knowledge of these legacies.

A discernible factor in Sinhala-Buddhist resurgence has been the over-domination of the Aryan myth. There have been efforts to equate Sinhala with Aryan and this has gone to the extent of the upper garment worn by men coming to be known as the Arya-Sinhala and the Sinhala-owned restaurant as the ‘Arya-Sinhala bhojana salawa.’

Identity with Aryan India led to looking at the Tamil-related arts with disdain and overrating the traditions of the northern India as the more suitable forms of high culture for Sri Lanka. In music, the folk tradition of the ‘vannamas,’ which has a strong counterpart in the Tamil tradition, was overlooked and North Indian traditions highlighted. It is true the role of Rabindranath Tagore, his school of music Rabindra Sangeet and the institution Shanthinketan played an important roles in enabling Sinhala artistes to opt for North Indian traditions, but that need not have gone to the extent of branding the entire Carnatic musical tradition as ‘thosai kadai music.’

Fortunately, the theatre did not fall for this. From Ediriweera Sarathchandra to A. J. Gunawardene, from Dhamma Jagoda to M. H. Gunatilleke, artists, scholars and critics have highlighted Sinhala-Tamil interactions in the Sinhala theatre. And their Tamil counterparts have accepted the importance of Sinhala theatre. More one looks into these features, the more we realise there has been the tendency to overlook and deny mutual interaction.

It should be mentioned here that some Tamil scholars had, because of the Arya-Dravida polarisation, taken Ravana to be a great anti-Sanskrit and anti-Brahmin hero. It might be a matter of great shock to the followers of the Sinhala purist movement – the Hela Hawula – that Ravana is the archetypical Tamil hero, whose greatness has been sullied by Aryan mythmakers.

The book ‘The Ravana Kavyam’ a Tamil epic on Ravana, extols the virtues of Ravana, while M. R. Radha’s theatrically provocative parody on the ‘Ramayana’ depicts Ravana as a great hero. To add to these, the Hindu Tamil psalmists of the 7th and 8th centuries called Ravana a great Saivite. Trincomalee and its environs are associated with the Ravana myth.

The tragedy is that these and other Tamil efforts to venerate Buddhism and its traditions connected with Sri Lanka have not been taken into consideration in fostering the relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Any sincere analysis of the cultural traditions of the Sinhalese will reveal that at the grassroots there has been a lot of Sinhala-Tamil interaction. But we have failed to build on those commonalities. On the contrary, history of the Sinhala-Tamil relationship has been to emphasise the differences by ignoring, if not denying, any interaction.

But the two languages are a much better index and reveal the interaction the average Sinhalese and Tamil have had in this country for so long.


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