Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"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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Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

Reviving Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka
Northeastern Herald, 29 November 2002

Addressing a meeting in Jaffna, the leader of the Liberation Panthers, Thirumavalavan narrated an incident worthy of careful observation in terms of the religio-cultural traditions of Sri Lanka. He narrated how one of his party members expressed surprise over the fact that he (Thirumavalavan) could be critical of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. His surprise was how could a Bauddha Sahothari (Bauddha Soyuri) be so bad. The politics behind this episode apart, it amply reveals the type of estimation dedicated Tamil workers from the depressed communities of Tamil Nadu have towards Buddhism. In their opinion Buddhism is an egalitarian religion freeing people from their social shackles.

Buddhism as is known very well has a long history in Tamil Nadu. It has had indelible impact on the intellectual development and traditions of Tamil Nadu. Buddhism has contributed greatly to secular Tamil culture. Equally important is the Tamil contribution to Buddhist thought and literature.

Manimekalai, a Tamil Buddhist epic by the poet Saattanar (circa sixth century A. D) reveals the kind of intellectual discourses which Buddhism generated in Tamil Nadu.Even under the Pallava and Chola dynasties whose reigns are identified with Hindu assertiveness, Buddhism along with Jainism were very powerful intellectual forces.

It is a fact seldom highlighted that two landmarks in Tamil grammar – Veerasoliyam and Nannool- were written by a Buddhist (Buddhamithra) and a Jain (Pavanadhi) even in the heyday of the Chola empire which had brought in such vast changes in the social life of Tamil Nadu, including its language.

Incidentally, it is well known that Veerasoliyam served as a model for the 13th century Sinhala grammatical work Sidat Sangharawa.

What is perhaps more revealing of the extent to which Buddhism as a philosophy had established itself in Tamil Nadu. It is brought out very well in a theoretical work on Saiva Siddhantha – Sivagnana Siddhiyar- a work of about 13th century. The work refutes four schools of Buddhism, one of which is Sautantrika school of Buddhism. I have heard eminent Buddhist scholars stating that in spite of its repudiative tone this is the almost the only text available for reconstructing Sautantrika thought.

The increasing Sanskritisation in Tamil Nadu, discernible from the late Chola period, established itself firmly under the authority of the Vijayanagara Emperors and their Nayaks (governors). In fact these Telugu rulers had enough political reasons to accentuate the Sanskritisation process in Tamil Nadu. It may be said that at the more articulate level of society, the Buddhist influence were becoming thinner and thinner.

When Tamil Nadu came under British rule in the early nineteenth century, there began a very slow process of democratising or bringing into focus those sections of Hindu Tamil society, which were hitherto repressed. The beginnings of the Indian independence movement also encouraged this process.

Those caste groups, which came into close contact with British officialdom, especially as domestic labour and soldiery, became aware of intellectual developments in the west. This led to a sense of modernity spreading among these caste groups. And as they, becoming more and more exposed to western influences, they began to realise both the social institutions and ideologies that restrained them socially and economically.

Thus there began a movement against Brahminism and Hindu hierarchy. It was during this time that the Indian Theosophical Society was establishing itself in the then Madras. The significance of this movement in modern Indian renaissance is too well known to be recounted here. There were two discernible trends in the Indian Theosophical movement. One was symbolised by Annie Besant who became an ardent admirer of Hindu traditions and the other was Col.

Henry Steele Olcott who was keen on rediscovering Buddhism. Olcott established contact with the emerging movement for social emancipation in south India. He was a key figure in the Buddhist Theosophical society in Sri Lanka. Published and unpublished records from the Theosophical Society in Adaiyar, Madras show that Olcott played a major role in fighting against the non egalitarian trends and casteism in Hinduism. He seems to be responsible for introducing the thoughts of the American rationalist philosopher Robert Ingersoll to the activists of the movements for social emancipation in Tamil Nadu.

It was in this historical setting that one energetic youth from the Pariah caste called Kaattavarayan got exposed to the anti-Brahminic, anti-casteist traditions of Tamil Nadu through his teacher Pandit Ayothidas. The young Kaattavarayan came to know of Buddha and his teaching through this teacher. Kaattavarayan took on the name of his teacher when he launched his public life. This Ayothidas (1845-1914) was responsible for starting a movement for converting Tamils to Buddhism.

That the young Ayothidas discovered Buddhism from his teacher in Coimbatore (Kongu Nadu), in the northwestern parts of Tamil Nadu gives us reasons to believe that Buddhist traditions were alive in the Tamil country well into the 19th century. Ayothidas established contact with Col. Olcott when he (Ayothidas) began his movement for converting Tamils to Buddhism. Ayothidas was becoming increasingly active in the movement for the advancement of the lower caste groups in Tamil Nadu. He started a paper called Oru Paise Thamilan (One Penny Tamil) in 1894. His writings attracted the attention of the Tamil scholars of the day. The activities and writings of Ayothidas are taken as the beginning of the rationalist movement of Tamil Nadu. Until recently it was generally believed that the rationalist movement started with E. V Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar), the founder of the Self Respect Movement.

The efforts of Ayothidas to get official recognition for his Buddhist activities and ceremonial blessings for his own conversion to Buddhist were realised when Col. Olcott brought him to Colombo in 1898. They first visited the chief incumbent of the Vidhyodhaya Pirivena, Ven. Rahula Thero. Thereafter, Ayothidas was taken to the Vidyalankara Pirivena and finally to Kandy for an audience with the Malwatte Nayaka Thero, the chief prelate of the highest order of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Here Ayothidas and his friends were officially received into the Buddhist fold i.e. their conversion to Buddhism received official sanction from the Malwatte chapter.

Newspaper reports of Ayothidas’s conversion claim it as the official Buddhist recognition of his movement for social justice. Historians who have worked on this subject use the term Tamil Buddhism to refer the Ayothidas’s movement. What is historically important is that Ayothidas’s movement for Tamil Buddhism precedes the much-publicised activities of Dr. B. R Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. As one belonging to the underprivileged Mahar caste of Maharashtra, Dr. Ambedkar wanted downtrodden Indian castes to become Buddhists. He was not happy with Gandhi’s Harijan concept – Hari’s (God’s) Children – that sounded too patronising. Buddhism in the opinion of both Ayothidas and Ambedkar ensured social equality and assured them against Brahmin supremacy. The appeal to Buddhism was taken over by the rationalist movement and its offshoot, the Dravidian movement. Modern Tamil Nadu’s concept of Buddhism is synonymous with social equality. Thus it has gained great acceptance among the socially downtrodden Tamils. The Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu considers every Buddhist as their true friend in its fight against social inequalities.

It is a pity that the egalitarian aspect of Buddhism highly treasured by the Buddhist revivalist movements of Tamil Nadu and later of Maharashtra took no root in Sri Lanka. The answer to this lies in the fact that official Sri Lankan Buddhism is Sinhala Buddhism which focuses on its Sinhalaness and elevates it as its distinguishing characteristic, little realising that this Sinhalaness inevitably inveigled cast norms into the Sangha. These caste norms have no doubt come from Hinduism. But what is important and irrefutable is that this caste system with its own specificities is as much Sinhala as it is Hindu. For a student of Buddhism, especially of the way it was rediscovered in modern India, it is a stark fact that the Catholicity (universality and liberality) of Buddhism has been forgotten in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist revival.

One cannot hide the pain of mind a student of Tamil literature is bound to experience in the manner Buddhism was presented to the average Tamil people in Jaffna and Batticaloa. The Buddhist establishments in the Tamil towns never wanted to present Buddhism in Tamil to the Tamil people, a feature seen at least to some extent in the activities of the Maha Bodhi society of Madras. This society has published Tamil books on Buddhism. The society’s monograph Puththar Sarithtiram (History Buddha) is a brilliant introduction in Tamil to Lord Buddha and his teachings. I wonder whether any such publications have come out in Sri Lanka. On the contrary, the Buddhist temple and the Buddhist priest have been seen as Sinhalaising forces, very much like the Christian missionaries of the Portuguese and Dutch periods who were also viewed as part of state hegemony.

Lord Buddha would never have even thought of such a situation for he took his teachings to the people in their own languages.

We seek refuge in the Enlightened One


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