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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > Antiquity and Sacred Writing: Tamil Literary Histories in the late 19th - early 20th centuries - Srilata Müller, 1998

Antiquity and Sacred Writing: Tamil Literary Histories
in the late 19th - early 20th centuries

Srilata Müller

Corrected version of a paper presented at the 15th European Conference
on Modern South Asian Studies, Prague, August 1998

The nineteenth century, a period of growing pan-Indian as well as regional nationalism, was also the era when "antiquarian" studies came into prominence and flourished. Numerous works of Tamil literary history, dealing with the culture of the ancient Tamils, emerged in this period. They were produced by scholars from entirely different milieus and with varying perspectives which one can only broadly, and with caution, categorise as "traditionalist" and "modern", keeping in mind the vast and complex interaction between the two1

All these studies sounded one common theme: the ancient Tamil past was seen as glorious, in comparison with which the present was a sad degeneration. Further they were, to a greater or lesser extent, underpinned by the same historiographic approaches, which were themselves based on ideologies of race and its relation to language and religion, current at that time. Relying upon these, scholars of Tamil literature produced descriptions of the ancient and most authentic Tamil race, its language and religion. These historiographic approaches, as Sivathamby (1986:49) complains, have endured till present, making it difficult for scholars even today to ask new questions in the study of Tamil literature or seek other answers. The aim of this paper is to examine the evolution of one construct which was to emerge in the Tamil literary history of the late 19th - early 20th centuries: the idea of the authentic Tamil religion.

In 1856 the Rev. Robert Caldwell published his landmark comparative study of the Dravidian languages2. The introduction to the book took to task Orientalists like Wilson and Max Mueller who had attested to the "Aryan" origin of much of the subcontinental peoples, based upon the linguistic correspondences between Sanskrit and the Germanic languages. Caldwell pointed out that, by the same logic, it was possible to deduce that the peoples of peninsular India, speaking as they did an entirely different group of languages from the Indo-European ones, were racially, as a group, of non-Aryan origin (1856:1-2).

He suggested that the same "Dravidian" may be applied to these languages and, by extension, the people. Caldwell further argued that of these languages Tamil was both the oldest and the least dependent upon Sankrit (p31). But even while granting the antiquity of the language, he dismissed the antiquity of Tamil literature. The oldest of it could not be older than the 8th - 9th century C.E. Jaina literature, of which theKural was probably the oldest Tamil work in existence (p85). Caldwell further questioned ancient Tamil society's exposure to the higher forms of civilization, such as art, science or religion, prior to the arrival of Brahmins (p77); Dravidian religion, for instance, prior to their advent, had been a sort of demonolatry or primitive Shamanism (p78). Nevertheless, he concluded, even while civilization came with the Brahmins, the beneficial effects of this had been more than counter-balanced by the fossilising caste system (p79).

Though Caldwell's analysis of the antiquity of the Tamil language and the Dravidian race unleashed a socio-cultural euphoria among Tamil scholars of that period, several of his other conjectures proved problematic3. Not the least controversial was his reduction of ancient Tamil religion to primitive Shamanism. In the alternative discourses which emerged on the nature of Tamil religion, which conspicuously ignored Caldwell's views, the model held up for comparison was, inevitably, Christianity. It seemed particularly important to show that Tamil religion had the same strong ethical moorings and that it was grounded upon the same sort of monotheistic premises as Christianity. Such features were then "found" already in the earliest extant Tamil literature, in that of the "Sangam Age".

This paper suggests that these imperatives led to the early privileging in Tamil literary history, of two kinds of Tamil religious literature: one kind was that of a universal, "non-sectarian" humanism embodied best by the Kural (seen as belonging to the Sangam Age), the other was the Saiva Siddhanta corpus of scriptures, seen as representing a native monotheistic counterpart to Christianity. We shall examine, briefly, these imperatives at work, in highly differentiated ways, in the writings of G. U. Pope (1820-1907) and M. S. Purnalingam Pillai (1866-?), while contextualising their views in the light of the then contemporary Tamil historiography.

G. U. Pope (1820-1907) lived in southern India from the age of nineteen for approximately a period of thirty-five years. He
joined the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Tirunelveli (following in the footsteps of Robert Caldwell) where he first studied Tamil language and literature. Pope lived and worked in various parts of South India - Thanjavur, Ooty and Bangalore - before returning to England in 1880 and becoming the chaplain of Balliol College, Oxford. In the remaining years of his life he brought out successive translations of works of Tamil literature of which the first was his translation of the Kural in 1886.

Written by the poet known as Thiruvalluvar, the Kural is a poem of 133 sections, dealing with three themes: religious merit/duty (aram), prosperity (porul) and desire (inpam). Caldwell and Pope dated the text to the 8th-9th centuries C.E., while the majority of native scholars(4) placed it in the late Sangam period whose terminus ante quem they variously located between 100-500 C.E.5 Modern scholars like Zvelebil favour a date earlier than that of Caldwell and Pope, and nearer to the native dating.

It is no coincidence that Pope's first translation was that of the Kural. The text had attracted the attention of a series of European scholars in the Tamil region from as early as Constantin Beschi (1680-1742), who had produced an unpublished Latin translation of it. 6 Pope's work, therefore, was much indebted to that of his predecessors and constituted part of a European, Christian understanding of the text. From a Christian point of view, the defects of Brahminical religion could be summed up in three words: caste, idolatry and sectarianism (as one of the consequences of polytheism). It is these defects which Pope found to be refreshingly absent in the Kural.

Pope begins his introduction by discussing the issue of Thiruvalluvars caste. While Thiruvalluvar's biography was generally acknowledged to be legend, certain aspects of the legend were seen by most scholars as based upon historical fact. One of these was his low-caste origin. As Pope explains, the name Valluvar was an honorific, meaning teacher or priest, traditionally given by the paraiyar (the untouchables of the Tamil country) to the learned men of their community (1980:p i). Thus, Pope points out: "It is strange that the title by which alone the greatest poet of South India is known should be one indicating an origin most degrading and contemptible in the eyes of the vast multitudes of whom he has been for ten centuries the Oracle. The last has indeed become the first." (p ii)

Further, the author's low-caste origin was also clearly reflected in the "caste-free" ideology of the Kural itself. Pope quotes a French scholar, M. Ariel, on this issue:

"That which above all is wonderful in the Kural is the fact that the author addresses himself, without regard to castes, peoples or beliefs, to the whole community of mankind; [...]" (p i).

This eclecticism of the text was reinforced by its lack of reference to temples, and by extension, to idolatry. "[i]t would be impossible to gain from his writings any idea of the kind of temple in which he [Thiruvalluvar] lit the sacred lamp and presented the offerings of his people." (p ii) Thus, the universalism and the broad-based appeal of the Kural to all Tamils: "Every Hindu sect claims the great poet, and strives to interpret his verses so as to favour its own dogmas." (p v) Pope proceeds to consider what, in fact, could be the real ideology of the Kural and comes to the following conclusion:

"Remembering that its author was not fettered by caste prejudices, that his greatest friend was a sea-captain, [...] that he was evidently an `eclectic,' that Christian influences were at the time at work in the neighbourhood, and that many passages are strikingly Christian in their spirit, I cannot feel any hesitation that the Christian Scriptures were among the sources from which the poet derived his inspiration." (p iv)

In his Comparative Grammar Caldwell had already provided linguistic evidence to suggest that the Tamils had been free of
both caste and idolatry before the Aryan immigrants, the Brahmins, arrived in their land 7. One assumption to follow from this was that caste and idolatry were essentially "alien" to the Tamil culture. In Pope's analysis of the Kural, its ideology and
the high esteem in which it is held by Tamils provides additional literary evidence for this view. Pope goes even further and
suggests that it could even be a crypto-Christian text. Considering all this, the Kural represents, however unwittingly, a powerful Tamil critique of Brahminical Hinduism.

In 1900, Pope brought out his translation of the Thiruvasagam of Mannikavasagar, one of the most popular texts of the Saiva
Siddhanta corpus
. Here, in the preface, he posed the question of why there was a need to translate such books at all and proceeded to answer it at follows. Firstly, Saivism was the Tamil religion. "These poems [...] are daily sung throughout the whole Tamil country with tears of rapture." (1979: p xxxii) Hence, it was necessary for Europeans, especially Christian missionaries, to engage themselves with it, if they wished to understand the Tamil people at all (p ix-x). Appreciating the impact of this religion on the Tamils he, Pope, was undertaking this translation in a spirit of respect. Each religious system had its truth and the preface would point out the common truths between Saiva Siddhanta and Christianity. This he proceeded to do as follows:

"He [Manikkavasagar] taught the people that there was one supreme personal God, - no mere metaphysical abstraction, but the Lord of gods and men. He also taught that it was the gracious will of Siva to assume humanity, to come to earth as a Guru [...] He announced that this way of salvation was open to all classes of the community. He also taught very emphatically the immortality of the released soul [...] It will be seen how very near in some not unimportant respects the ¼aiva system approximates to Christianity; [...]" (p xxxiii-iv).

Thus, it was in the Saiva Siddhanta that the Tamils found a religion which defeated the atheism of the Buddhists and the Jains
and, in addition, found, "[a] personal God, an assurance of immortality and a call to prayer" (xxxvi).

In the great many studies of Tamil literature by native scholars to emerge between 1850 and 1920, Pope's thesis of the links between Christianity, on the one hand, and the Kural and Saiva Siddhanta, on the other, were ignored8. That which was repeatedly emphasised, though, were his other conclusions about this religious literature along with the claim that it represented the authentic Tamil religion.

With the publication of M. S. Purnalingam Pillai's A Primer of Tamil Literature in 1904 9 both the Kural and Saiva Siddhanta, in addition, come to be located within a clear-cut periodization of Tamil literary history which is seen, simultaneously, as the history of the Aryan-Dravidian struggle in South India.

In Tamil Literature Purnalingam Pillai assigns the Kural to the Sangam period whose terminus ante quem he gives as 100 C.E. This is a period when, in his words, Tamil literature had "[i]ts most flourishing period," was "essentially moral and religious," and independent of the influence of "Aryam" and Sanskrit (1994:p1). The Kural is seen as the greatest masterpiece of those idyllic times and, in his estimation of it, Purnalingam Pillai both quotes and echoes Pope: "The great weaver-poet was an electic [sic] in religion and philosophy, [...]" and the poem contains "[a] universal code of morals" which is "read and appreciated by the civilized world." (p 76)

The Sangam Period is followed, between 100-600 C.E., by the age of the Buddhists and the Jains. Purnalingam Pillai makes it clear that, from a Tamil point of view, Buddhists and Jains were non-Tamil outsiders as were their religious systems. Thus he explains that in this period the Tamil country is populated by three different ethnic groups: the Tamils, the Aryans and the Buddhist/Jains who also came from North India (p112). But, unlike the Aryans, the Buddhist/Jains "[l]ived peaceably with their neighbours," "[n]ever attacked the ancient, unadulterated Saivaism" and were not caste-oriented (ibid.). Thus, this too was a period conducive to the growth of Tamil literature, though not Tamil religion.

The next period, "The Age of Religious Revival" from 700-900 C.E., is when the ancient Tamil religion begins to reassert itself after several centuries of darkness, though it undergoes several shameful compromises with "Aryanism" in order to do so. Purnalingam Pillai explains:

"In the course of centuries the Tamil Saivas, who were vegetarians and who had looked upon the Aryas as mlecchas for their [habits of] meat-eating and drinking intoxicants and as untouchables came, by the force of juxtaposition, of aryan adaptability, and of political contingencies, to be reconciled to the ways and habits of their neighbours and to accept the authority of the Vedas, [...] Saivaism, accepting the Vedic rule, became metamorphosed into Vedic or Vaidika Saivaism." (p154-55)

In Tamil Literature, this compromised state of the religion is seen as continuing to prevail till the contemporary period10. Thus, in a later section entitled "A Warning Note", Purnalingam Pillai appeals to Tamils to purge the Saiva Siddhanta of all its Aryan and "puranic" influences and to return it to the pristine condition it had enjoyed in antiquity. To quote:

"The Saiva Siddhanta is the indigenous philosophy of South India and the choicest product of the Tamilian intellect. [...] This high and noble system, based on the Agamas or Saiva scriptures, was corrupted by the puranic writers, whose sole object was to reconcile the Vedas and the Agamas [...] The Tamilar, overbourne by the political ascendancy of the Aryans, accepted the system, [...] Bhakti or loving piety, the root idea of the Saiva system, ennobled the persons, whatever their caste, colour or creed [...] Such a widely tolerant, ennobling, rationalistic faith has been made to assume the garb of a thoroughly intolerant, fictitious, and meanly selfish system. The Tamilar, therefore, are in duty bound [sic] to throw off the puranic veil which dims their vision and to realise the old conception of Him as enshrined in the ancient Tamil poems based on the Tamilian Agamas." (p 254-55)

A Primer of Tamil Literature was written specifically to fulfil university examination needs, even including an appendix with sample questions for M.A. candidates. Through its widespread usage it might be truly said to have helped shape what became the majoritarian view of "Tamil religion" at this time.

The process, in some sense, of "creating" an authentic Tamil religion in the late 19th - early 20th centuries both parallels and inverses similar processes in other parts of the sub-continent. As Vasudha Dalmia (1997) in her work on nineteenth century Benares has pointed out, this is the very period in Benares when Vaishanava bhakti comes to be seen as the monotheistic, Aryan counterpart to Christianity and as the "only real religion" of Hindus. It is, therefore, no mere coincidence that Tamil nationalism in the same period, manifesting itself in a search for a glorious past and positioning itself against "Aryan religion," found sufficient support in contemporary Dravidologist theories to present the Kural and the Saiva Siddhanta together as the non-Aryan counterpart to Christianity.

Thus, even though the same period saw the production of several literary histories by Tamil Vaishnavas attempting also to stress the "Tamilness" of Vaishnavism and its rich lode of Tamil literature, their overwhelmingly high-caste status11 as well as the undoubtedly small population of Vaishnavas (both Brahmin and non-Brahmin) in the Tamil country ensured that this remained a minoritarian view. Thus, Vaishnavism as much as Buddhism and Jainism (with their greater claims to antiquity) and, later, Islam, as well as their religious literature (even when written in Tamil), came to be considered either as "non-Tamil" or only secondarily Tamil. The result was that this period both created and consolidated what Sivathamby (1986:95) has called "the Saivaite hegemony in the literary history of Tamil."

Further, the word "hegemony" with its inevitable association with dominant-class ideologies leads one to ask how comprehensively this construct of a Tamil religion voiced subaltern aspirations in the Tamil country. The privileging of the Kural and the Saiva Siddhanta had been done, primarily, by stressing their caste-free ethics based upon an egalitarian bhakti
theology. By doing so, Dravidian or Tamil nationalism reacting to the social and cultural hegemony of Brahminism delivered a
strong rebuke to it.

But, as Purnalingam Pillai felt compelled to admit in his warning note, contemporary Saiva Siddhanta, as it was practised, could not be called truly egalitarian and even appeared to sanction the social divide between high-caste and low-caste non-Brahmins. His solution to this was to call for the return to a purer Saiva Siddhanta, imagined as existent in an antiquarian past. But some members of the most downtrodden castes in the Tamil country in this same period had also recognised the need to seize upon the construct of "Tamil religion" and to shape it to their own needs and aspirations, which did not necessarily coincide with that of the non-Brahmin elites. In rejecting the majoritarian construct of Tamil religion in entirety and, by proclaiming Buddhism as the real religion of the Tamils, they too looked to antiquity for an authentic Tamil religion which would give them a voice in colonial Tamil India12.

Works Cited

Aloysius, G. 1998. Religion as Emancipatory Identity. A Buddhist Movement among the Tamils under Colonialism. New Delhi: New Age International (P) Limited, Publishers.

Caldwell, Robert. 1856. A Comparative Grammar Of The Dravidian or South-Indian Family Of Languages. London: Harrison, Pall Mall.

Dalmia, Vasudha. 1997. The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions. Bh¤ratendu Hari½chandra and Nineteenth-century Banaras. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Geetha, V. 1993. Re-writing History in the Brahmin's Shadow. Caste and the Modern Historical Imagination. In Journal of Arts and Ideas 25-26:127-37.

Pope, G. U. [1886] 1980. The `Sacred' Kurral of Tiruvalluva-Nayanar. New Delhi/Madras: Asian Educational Services.

- [1900] 1979. The Tiruvasakam or Sacred Utterances of the Tamil Poet, Saint and Sage Mannikavasagar. Madras: University of Madras Press.

Purnalingam Pillai, M. S. [1929] 1994. Tamil Literature. New Delhi/Madras: Asian Educational Services.

Rajadorai, S. V. and Geetha, V. 1993. Dalits and Non-Brahmin Consciousness in Colonial Tamil Nadu. In: Economic and political Weekly XXVIII 39:2091-98.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi. 1997. Passions of the Tongue. Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sivathamby, Karthigesu. 1986. Literary History in Tamil [a historiographical analysis] Thanjavur: Tamil University Offset Press.


(1) For example, a "traditionalist" scholar like Sabapathy Navalar (1844-1903) was fully aware of and took issue with the "modernist" scholarship of his times in his history of Tamil literature entitled "Tir¤vi·ap pirak¤cikai eÊÊum tamiÈ varal¤Éu" (1899).

(2) Prior to Caldwell, Alexander Campbell in his "Grammar of the Teloogoo Language" (1816) and Francis W. Ellis in his introduction to it, had already argued that Tamil and Telugu formed part of a body of languages which were non-Sanskritic in origin. Caldwell's work was the landmark one, though, in that he extended their work to draw up a map of the Dravidian" languages as a whole.

(3) Sumathi Ramaswamy (1997:40) refers to the fact of several of Caldwell's theories being controverted by subsequent scholars: his attempts to establish an affinity between the Dravidian and the "Scythian" families of languages was questioned as his suggestions that the Dravidians were early migrants to India, an idea which was rejected by those Tamil nationalists who insisted on an autochthonous origin for the Tamils.

(4) This list includes C. W. Damodaran Pillai, V. G. Subramania Shastri, M.S. Purnalingam Pillai and M. Srinivasa Aiyangar among others.

(5) The dating controversies, of which there are several in the 19th century, entailed attitudes which were best summed up in the observations of Sesha Iyer in 1908: " ... the tendency for the Indian scholar is to assign great names that have enriched his literature to an early a period as well he can ; ... The tendency ... of the European scholar is just the reverse. ... As a natural result of these conflicting tendencies the dates arrived at by Indians only serve in the eyes of the European to point the moral (sic) that the Indians are deficient in the historic sense, while the conclusions arrived at by the Europeans are regarded by the Indians as only demonstrating their inborn disabuse and intolerance of his ancient civilization." (quoted in Sivathamby 1986:65)

(6) In 1794 N. E. Kindersley, who worked for the English east India Company, brought out the first translation of the Kural into English. This was followed, in the nineteenth century, by the German and Latin translations of Dr. Graul and the English one of F. W. Ellis. Pope's edition incorporates both Beschi's and Ellis's translations.

(7) Caldwell states that old Tamil (centamil does not have a non-Sanskritic word for caste or caste-related words like sudra
(1856:71-75) and that the Tamils' religion had also been without hereditary priests or idols (78).

(8) Some important works of this period include "Some Milestones in the History of Tamil Literature" (1891) by P. Sundaram Pillai; "Tiraviap pirakacikai eÊÊum tamil varalaaru" (1899) by Sabapathy Navalar; "The Tamils 1800 Years Ago" (1901) by V. Kanakasabhai Pillai and "A Critical Review of the Ramayan and an Account of South Indian Castes" (1908) by V. P. Subramania Mudaliar (with Nallaswami Pillai's introduction to it).

(9) This was later brought out in a new edition in 1929 called Tamil Literature. It is this work which is henceforth quoted.

(10) Purnalingam Pillai gives three more period divisions: i) "The Age of Literary Revival" (800 - 1400 C.E.); ii) "The Age of the Mutts or Matams" (1350 - 1600 C. E.) and finally iii) "The Age of European Culture" (1700 - 1926 C. E. ).

(11) They were all Brahmins. Some of these authors and their works include S. Krishnaswami Iyengar and M. Raghava Iyengar with their contributions to "The Tamilian Antiquary" (1908), M. Srinivasa Iyengar's "Tamil Studies" (1914), T. R. Sesha Iyengar's "Dravidian India" ( 1925) and P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar's "Pre-Aryan Tamil Culture" (1928).

(12) I am speaking in particular of the Tamil, "dalit" Buddhist thinker Pandit Ayothee Thass (1845-1914) and the organisation associated with him, the Sakhya Buddhist Society. - It must be added that recent scholarship - "Ethics/Authority" ("Aham/Atikaram") (1977) by the Dalit writer Raj Gautaman critiquing the Kural and other post-Sangam literature , as well as K.Sivathamby's work, might be seen as recent attempts to create space for an alternative Tamil literary history to emerge.

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