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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
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".
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:
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:
In his Comparative Grammar Caldwell had already
provided linguistic evidence to suggest that the Tamils
had been free of
Thus, it was in the Saiva Siddhanta that the Tamils
found a religion which defeated the atheism of the
Buddhists and the Jains
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
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.