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Home > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > Religious Traditions of Tamils
Religious Traditions of the Tamils
Professor A. Veluppillai
The Tamils can be defined as people, having Tamil as their mother tongue. Tamil language is a member of the Dravidian/ South Indian family of languages. The four southernmost states of India- tamiz Nadu, kERaLa, karNAdaka, and Andra Pradesh- are predominantly linguistically Dravidian, each state carved out on the basis of predominance of the four major Dravidian languages. The Dravidian languages are mother tongues of about a quarter of the Indian population. Though about 80% of the speakers are found within the borders of these four South Indian states, a number of Dravidian languages have been identified in other parts of South Asia.
Among the tribal languages of Central India, almost extending to the borders of Bengal, distinct from the Austro-Asiatic family of languages, many Dravidian languages have been identified. The northern reaches of this family have been located in isolated settlements in Nepal and Pakistan. The Brahui speakers are found in the hills of Baluchistan, almost on the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. So, the Dravidian family of languages is a South Asian family of languages in one sense. About 22 languages are classified as belonging to the Dravidian family and on linguisic criteria, sub-division as North, Central and South Dravidian are made. Tamils alone number about 70 million people.
South India and Sri Lanka have been homelands of the Tamils, from the beginning of recorded history. The region, roughly covered by the modern states of tamiz NAdu and Kerala are identified as ancient tamizakam up to about 10th century AD. Even though some evidence exists for Tamil influence, and Tamil presence in Sri Lanka from very early times, strong Tamil presence and influence in Sri Lanka, is noticeable from about the 10th century.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tamils migrated to some British colonies in search of employment and thus there are substantial Tamil populations in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Fiji and South Africa. After the World War II, a movement of Tamil professionals to UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand is proceeding continuously.
Due to the recent civil war type situation in Sri Lanka, many thousands of Tamils live in about 20 countries, with large numbers in Canada, Germany, France, and Switzerland. Within the Nordic countries, Norway and Denmark have more Tamils than Sweden.
Present Situation regarding religious affiliations of the Tamils.
Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are the major religions among the Tamils in that order: Hindus are counted as forming more than 80% of the population and the other religions are reckoned to be less than 20% of the population. Some of the other religions like Jainism, Buddhism have relatively few adherents. The Tamil Christians include both Roman Catholics as well as the Protestants. The Muslims are mainly Sunni. The situation is fairly stable, only Christian missions, said to be marginally successful in making new converts. The general atmosphere is religious toleration and harmony.
The official policy of India is secularism. Overall, Hinduism is neither a missionary nor an exclusive religion. To put it in a negative way, the Hindus withdraw into themselves and don't react except when they feel threatened. Many scholars have commented on the tolerant attitude of the Hindus. Some recent developments in India challenges this view. But tamiz Nadu and the Tamils, generally keep up the Tamil tradition of tolerance, There is no Hindu extremism worth mentioning among the Tamils. No serious claim is put forward that Hinduism should have special privileges, compared to other religions.
The Dravidian Hypothesis about the people of the Indus valley Civilization.
The Tamils have legends that their ancient history extends up to about ten thousand years, sea swallowing up their lands twice and kings establishing new capitals and fostering Tamil in three successive academies. The legend is first mentioned in the commentary of kaLavijal, which is assigned to about 8th century AD. This legend is one of the reasons - one of the excuses- for connecting up the Tamil civilization with some prehistoric ancient civilizations, whose identity and continuity poses special problems.
The records of the Indus Valley Civilization have not been satisfactorily deciphered. Material remains have been interpreted by archeologists. There cannot be finality, till a satisfactory reading of the records. Material remains are generally interpreted in the light of elements in the later Hinduism. Siva worship in the form of pacupati and NadaRajA, Sakti worship and some other deductions are made. In the 1950s, Father Heras argued for the Dravidian identity of the Indus Valley people. In the 1960s, the Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies issued many announcements, trying to establish this identity. This hypothesis is still defended seriously by Japanese Professor Noboru Karashima, President of the International Association for Tamil Research in 1994.
The Dravidian Identity of the Sumerians
This is another hypothesis that is strongly advocated by certain scholars. The Sumerian records have been deciphered and material remains have been interpreted satisfactorily. Linguistic and cultural affinities between the Sumerians and the Tamils, separated by much more than a millennia, are pointed out. The late Professor A. catAcivam (A.Sathasivam) from Sri Lanka and Dr. ulakaNAtan muttarAjan (Loganathan Muttarayan) from Malaysia are examples. Eminent historians of the caliber of K.A. Nilakanda cAttiri (Nilakantta Sastri), have pointed out similarities in temple worship. A hypothesis, connecting the ancestors of the Dravidians, if not the Tamils. to the Mediterranean area, is still advocated by certain scholars.
A study based on the historical times
Literary, epigraphical and archeological sources exist for the study of religious traditions of the Tamils for about 2000 years. As materials exist for such a long period of time, it is only fitting that we pay just passing attention to doubtful prehistoric connections and concentrate on the historical period. Tamil is one of the two classical languages of India, along with Sanskrit. There are Tamil literary texts and Tamil inscriptions, dated roughly, round about the beginning of the Christian era. As in most of ancient and medieval Indian texts, controversies exist on the exact dates of early Tamil records and documents.
We have to be dependent on rough calculations and the most probable dates. Some distinct historical periods: (1) 100 B.C to 300 A.D.; (2) 300 A.D. to 600 A.D.; (3) 600 A.D. to 1200 A.D.; (4) 1200 A.D. to 1800 A.D.; and (5) 1800 A.D. to today.
cangkam (Academy) period.
The general designation for the early period is cangkam period, because of the strong tradition that three academies existed in the remote past and that what we get as early literary texts were those approved by those academies. The main source for the early period is literary evidence. From a study of the literary evidence, some scholars argue that the Tamil society was secular then. It is only a relative term in the sense that when compared to early North Indian literature and later Tamil literature, a distinctiveness of relative secularism can be pointed out.
Some indigenous elements of religion, peculiar to the Tamils, have been noticed in the earliest available stratum of Tamil literature. A portion of this early Tamil poetry is identified as Heroic poetry. There were three Tamil Kingdoms - cEra, cOLa and pAnhdija - and many independent chieftaincies in the early period and there were intermittent and internecine wars and battles for violent state formation. maRam (valour) was the celebrated theme.
Nadukal (planted stone).
The worship for the fallen brave warriors is one of the popular forms of worship in early Tamil poetry. 'tolkAppijam' gives an elaborate description in six stages in the planting of stone, beginning with looking for a suitable stone and ending in the institution of formal worship. The portrait of the hero is often decorated with peacock feathers. Some poems refer to spears and shields erected around the planted stones. Offering of Naravam (toddy = alcohol) to the spirit of the fallen hero, represented in the planted stone, is mentioned in some verses.
veRijAdal (dance in ecstasy).
The dance in ecstasy is found mainly in the worship of murukan/muruku (youth, beauty, god-head). He was the god of the hilly region. The name of god or archetype was different in each landscape among the five different landscapes of the Tamil land. 'mAjOn' (dark male)/ 'mAl' (great one) was the god of the forest or pastoral landscape. 'koRRavy' (lady of victory) was the goddess of ferocious appearance for the arid or waste land. 'vEl' (spear) was the main weapon of 'murukan.' He is a warrior-hero par excellence, but is often mentioned in 'akam,' (love) poetry, the other main theme of the earliest stratum of Tamil literature.
Love-sickness of young girls in separation from their lovers seem to be generally interpreted as caused by 'murukan' who needs propitiation in worship. The organizer and chief priest of the worship was 'vElan' (man with spear). A number of verses refer to the sacrifice of the blood of ram and offering of toddy in the ritual. The 'veRijAdal' occurred in 'koRRavy' worship also, Later, 'murukan' was considered son of 'koRRavy.' A group dance of girls, known as 'kuravyjAdal,' is also associated with 'murukan' worship. Some elements of ecstasy were also involved in this dance. This dance occurred in 'mAjOn' worship also.
murukan has continued to be very popular among the Tamils and he is frequently hailed as the Tamil god. Kamil Zvelebil had chosen to name his first volume on Tamil literature, as The smile of murukan. 5.1.3. cinyc cuRAvin kOdu (pregnant Shark bone).
A solitary verse mentions this worship in the littoral region. On full moon day, fishermen and families get drunk and worship. This may be the peculiar worship of Nejtal,(littoral) landscape. 'kanhdu'(post, stone.)
This worship is often mentioned in connection with 'manRu' (public meeting place). Lighting of lamps by women is specifically referred to in some verses. Floor of the 'manRu' was smeared with cow-dung. Influence of North Indian religious traditions.
Jaina monks lived in hills around maturai, the capittal of the 'pAnhdijAs' and in a few other places. Early Tamil Brahmi inscriptions of round about the beginning of the Christian era, testify to this. Some kings and chieftains were responsive to Brahmins and Vedic sacrifices.
Many instances can be quoted to show that beliefs in the existence of the 'ujir' (soul), 'maRu piRappu' (rebirth) and 'vAnOr ulaku' (world of celestial beings) existed among the Tamils even in that early period.
Post cangkam Period 300 A.D. to 600 A.D.
Politically in this period, the Tamils were under foreign kalabhra domination. Their political history is characterized by many historians as a dark period. Buddhism and Jainism appear to have prospered during this period. Some notable literary works are assigned to this period. The early Tamil 'kAppijangkaL,' (epics) are assigned to this age, as for examples, 'cilappatikAram,' a Jaina epic and 'manhimEkaly,' a Buddhist epic. 'aRam,' the equivalent of Sanskrit 'dharma', becomes the main theme of literary works. Eleven didactic works were written in this period. Their main purpose seems to be reformation of the society - bringing back values which were reversed during the Heroic Age.
"tirukkuRaL" the most outstanding work in Tamil, belongs to this period. This sets the tone of didactic works. According to Albert Schweitzer's evaluation in his book, Indian Thoughts and its Development, ' tirukkuRaL' represents a synthesis of much of the best in Indian thought up to that time with a positive approach to life. The positive approach to life , also called life-affirmation, seems to owe its influence to the literary traditions of the Academy period. 'varnAcirama dharma,' the central concept of the Brahminical religion, prescribing different rules for the four-fold castes and for the four stages of human life, has not even been mentioned in this work. This work is of universal appeal.
The Tamil society never had the 'varnha' system. There was no 'cattiryjAs,' and the 'vycijAs.' The ruling kings and their ancestors, were sometimes eulogized and flattered as the 'cattirijAs,' but there was no consequent development from this position. The non-Brahmin high caste Tamils resented the term - 'cUttirAs,' the name of the fourth caste. So, what we get in the Tamil works, equivalent to the Sanskrit 'dharmasastras, is 'sAmAnija dharma' applicable to every human being. Religious affiliation of the author is not known.
'tiruvaLLuvar,' the author, has kept himself clear of external trappings of different religions. The Hindus, the Jains, and the Buddhists have claimed this work as their own. Many Christian missionaries and British administrators have praised this work, even tracing Christian influence in the work. This work, consisting of 1330 verses, has been translated into many languages. Other didactic works, follow the lead by 'tirukkuRaL.' The authors are identified as Jaina or Brahminical, mainly by their invocation verses. Otherwise, there are no deep differences in the contents of these works.
'NAladijAr,' the second most important work with 400 verses, ascribed to Jaina authorship and with a noticeable slant to life-negation, had been translated into English by G.U. Pope almost a century ago. 'tirukkuRaL' and 'NAladijAr' can be said to constitute the ethical core of the religious traditions of the Tamils. It is important to note here that 'varnAcirama dharma' had not been brought into Tamil literature. Though the Tamils also developed an evil and pernicious caste system, in certain respects, quite distinct from the 'varnha' system, in subsequent periods, that system had no sanction either in Tamil or in Sanskrit texts.
Bhakti Period 600 A.D. to 1200 A. D.
The Tamils were under the Pallava and the 'pAnhdija' kingdoms during the earlier half of this period and under the 'cOLa' Empire during the latter half of the same. The Tamil power reached its zenith under the 'cOLa' Empire, which also ruled many non- Tamil communities in South India and Sri Lanka. In the history of religion and literature, this period is referred to as the bhakti period.
Bhakti is a Sanskrit word, meaning devotion. This Sanskrit word and the Tamilicised form 'patti' became popular quite late. The bhaktti poetry seems to be a curious transformation of literary traditions of the Academy period. Both 'akam' tradition, dealing with love between man and woman and 'puRam' tradition, dealing with heroism and generosity of warriors are combined in a strange manner and the position of man as well as hero goes to god, while the position of woman and hero-worshipper go to the devotee.
A. ki. irAmanucan (A. K. Ramanujan) has recently brought out a good translation into English of some of these early poems. Though the origins of the concept of bhakti are traceable in Sanskrit sources, bhakti movement as such originated in the Tamil land. Personal relationship between the devotee and the god was its main characteristic, and worship became a fervent personal experience in response to divine grace.
Religion for the devotees is no longer a matter of contemplation of a transcendent, impersonal absolute, but of ecstatic response to an intensely personal experience. This leads to a profound sense of the devotee's own shortcomings and to a trustful recourse to the god's forgiveness, with the whole personality being surrendered to the deity. It is this position which inspired the scholar - missionary G. U. Pope's evaluation - which seems to be somewhat superficial - of this religion as the religion, closest to Christianity, among Indian religions. Norman Cutler has worked on the poetics of Tamil devotion.
The vedic religion - the Brahminical religion - becomes a popular religion of the Tamils, through the bhakti movement. The Sanskrit sources contributed another important element for this religion. This religion owes a massive debt to the Sanskrit 'purAnhAs' and epics. The temple rituals, prescribed in the Sanskrit 'AkamAs, became very important. From the very beginning, sectarian differences are noticeable, may be because of the influence of 'purAnhAs.
Saiva and Vaishnava movements were presented to the Tamil people as Tamil religions This was made possible by religious synchronism. 'murukan becomes identified with Skanda and 'kArttikEja' and related to Siva as a son, 'koRRavy' becomes identified with 'umA,' Siva's consort and as 'murukan's mother, and 'mAjOn' becomes identified with Vishnu. Saivism is the form of Hinduism, very popular among the Tamils.
The Saiva movement was relatively more involved in religious conflicts and controversies. Saint Appar, a convert from Jainism to Saivism, converted the Pallava ruler from Jainism to Saivism. His poetry seems to be a strange mixture of Jaina world-view and Siva bhakti. Even though he expresses his regret for having wasted much of his life as a Jaina monk, his poetry seems to be a form of synchronism between Jainism and Saivism.
The Jaina world-view and Jaina didactic works become acceptable to the Saivites. Saint Campanthar, a younger contemporary of saint Appar, converted the pAnhdija ruler from Jainism to Saivism.. He defeated the Buddhists in another controversy. As a Brahmin, he was a champion of Vedic religion against the Jains and the Buddhists. There are plenty of polemical references about the Jains and the Buddhists in his bhakti poetry. Saint Manikkavasagar was also said to have defeated the Lankan Buddhists in a controversy, but there is no trace of polemics in his compositions.
For about a millennium, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism were the three important religions among the Tamils. The triangular contest for the loyalty of the Tamils led to the growth of polemical literature to which adherents of all religions contributed. The Buddhist contribution is seen in the manhimEkaly and the kunhdalakEci, the Jaina contribution in the NIlakEci and the Saiva contribution in the civagnAnacittijAr. But overall, conflicts are rare, especially after Hinduism consolidated its position. The Saiva or Vaishnava rulers, were generally generous to all the Hindus, irrespective of their personal inclinations and also patronized the Jaina and Buddhist religious establishments of their subjects.
A very important text for Tamil Saivism is the perija purAnham, the Saiva hagiology of 63 NajanmAr, (saint lords), all of whom lived in South India and attained heaven through their bhakti to Siva. This work influenced vIra Saivism of Karnataka.
Glenn Yocum has published a study of tiruvAcakam recently. The devotional poems of Saint cuNtarar, numbering about a thousand verses, had been translated by David Shulman recently. The Twelve Sacred Books of the Tamil Saivas were complete in the 12th century A.D. For the vast majority of the Tamil Saivites, the basic works of their religion are these Twelve Sacred Books. They don't look to any Sanskrit work for guidance.
The Vaishnava bhakti movement was dominated by twelve AzvArs - those who contemplate deeply on Vishnu. They were authors of tivvijapirapaNtam (sacred composition) of four thousand verses. Compared to the saiva devotional poems, the Vaishnava devotional poems make greater use of akam tradition and less of puRam tradition of the classical period. Friedhelm Hardy had brought out a fine publication recently on the history of this movement. Some important saints are AnhdAL, kulacEkarar, tirumangky and NammAzvAr. The works of the last one are very important and are sometimes referred to as Tamil Vedas. Though less influential in Tamil land, the Vaishnavite bhakti movement exerted great influence throughout India, during the later periods.
Music, dance, and drama were patronized by the Hindu temples. These temples were generally rich, having been owners of land other forms of wealthy. They employed people and helped them in times of distress. The big temples are still great pilgrim centres to which the Tamil Hindus from all over the world yearn to visit. Most of the big temples in tamiz Nadu have myths of their own. David Shulman has made an interpretation of these myths recently. The big temples are the main attraction for the modern tourists in tamiz NAdu.
Age of Religious Philosophy. 1200-1800 AD.
The beginnings of philosophical speculations in India are traced to the Upanishads, which originated in North India and which are in Sanskrit. Buddhism dominated the philosophical field for many centuries and South India began to make significant contributions. The definitely identifiable contribution from tamizNAdu can be said to start from the 8th century A.D.
Many religious philosophical doctrines of South Indian origin have been written in Sanskrit, may be because that language was the lingua-franca throughout the South Asian sub-continent in that age. In the eighth century, Sanskrit the propounder of Advita (monoism) hailed from Kerala, a part of ancient Tamil land. His Vedanta philosophy assimilated much of the world-view of the Buddhists and gave it a new twist. He is said to have toured throughout the sub-continent and engaged in debates with the Buddhists. What he had taken over from Buddhism is said to have helped him to win over large number of adherents of Buddhism which was already in decay in India at that time.
In the eleventh-twelfth centuries, Ramanuja, the propounder of (Visistadvita-qalified monoism) hailed from the present 'tamizNAdu. He was strongly influenced by the Vaishnava bhakti literature, based on the Puranic religion. He was better received in Karnataka than in tamiz Nadu. Ramanuja wrote in Sanskrit, so his impact among the Tamils is relatively limited. The history of Vaishnavism in tamizNAdu becomes a little complicated as the later Vijayanagar Emperors and the Nayak kings who were mainly Telugu origin gave it sustenance. They patronized Sanskrit and gave importance to Sanskrit sources. Soon, there was a schism in tamizNAdu Vaishnavism into vadakaly, (northern school) and tenkaly, (southern school) sects. The southern school, looks mainly to the Tamil Vaishnava texts for inspiration.
The development of many philosophical schools led to development of sectarian conflicts and later attempts to patch them up, especially by mystic poets like Saint tAjumAnavar in the 18th century and Saint IrAmalingkar in the 19th century. camaracam, (harmony) becomes the main theme. The former praises the clever cittar, (poets of powers) who found harmony between Vedanta and Siddhanta. The latter founded cutta camaraca canmArkka cangkam, a Society for Religious Wisdom of Pure Harmony.
Islam and Christianity are important minority religions in this period. Islam came to Tamils in two ways. Arab traders intermarried with local people and built up a community, who now speak Tamil or Malayalam. Muslim invaders from the North had temporary success in the South and their descendants speak Urdu. As in Vaishnavism, there is some split in the attitude of the Muslims towards Tamil. Many of them are proud to claim Tamil as their language and they have made substantial contributions to the development of Tamil for more than six hundred years.
The Syrian Christian community, in the West coast, claims that they were the descendants of native converts of the Apostle Saint Thomas, from the first century A.D. They have preserved some copper plates, which according to them, were received by Saint Thomas from native rulers of his time. Modern epigraphists have dated the these plates in the ninth and the thirteenth centuries. It is now clear that this community is enjoying certain privileges in Kerala at least from the 9th century.
Like the Christian trading community, a small Jewish trading community also in the West coast, gained privileges from the native Hindu rulers in the 10th century, as testified by a copper plate in the possession of their descendants. Roman Catholicism was introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Protestantism was introduced by the Dutch in the 17th century. The British ruled over the entire Tamil homeland for 11/2 centuries - roughly from 1800 to 1950. Westernization and Modernization are going on, especially from the beginning of British rule and they are powerful forces even now. Christian missionaries have been very active and have considerable success in proselytisation. There was again Tamil polemical literature, reflecting a triangular contest among the Hindus, the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, especially between 1850 and 1925.
As for Jainism and Buddhism, the former continues to flicker, while the latter disappeared completely and has taken a new birth recently. Its rebirth is as a religion of protest, as a religion of the down-trodden. The people who became underprivileged and untouchable in the Hindu society felt that even Islam and Christianity could not bring them salvation and chose to accept Buddhism, on the advice of the late Dr. Ambedkar, their leader. Only a section of the underprivileged community called Dalits in India became converts. Their problem of integration into the rest of the population cries for solution.
The appeals to fundamentals of Brahminical Hinduism, as it is understood in North India, do not seem to have its echo among Tamils, because of the character of Hinduism in tamizNAdu. A few months ago, Prof. Saraswathy Vijayavenugopal, a folklorist from Madurai University in South India, in a lecture in Uppsala, made the observation that there seem to be many folk religions among the Hindu Tamils.
Synchronization - continuing synchronism of different religions - seems to be a living process within what is called Hinduism among Tamils. The influence of political Hinduism, exemplified by Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishva Hindu Parishad, which champion Brahminical values, is negligible among Tamils.
A small Brahmin community at the top is very vulnerable. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jains find comfort in identifying themselves with the vast majority of the Hindus in the Dravidian movement. A kind of secularism is fostered as the ideology of the movement. tirukkuRaL is held up as the embodiment of Tamil Culture. The classical cangkam period literature is idealised as the literature of the Golden Age of the Tamils.