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Some Remarks by George Hart on Herman Tieken's
Kavya in South India
Some Remarks on
George Hart, Professor of Tamil and Chair of
Recently, a book by Herman Tieken has appeared entitled Kavya in South India: Old Tamil Cankam Poetry, published by Egbert Forsten in Groningen, The Netherlands, 2001. The book is part of the prestigious Gonda Indological Studies, and so must be taken extremely seriously. I am currently reviewing the book for the Journal of the American Oriental Society, but I feel it is necessary to give some information about it here, as the book claims to overturn virtually all of our ideas about premodern Tamil literature.
Here is some information on the book, taken from the Indology forum:
I notice the message reproduced at the end of these comments in Indology in July. While I have not yet seen Prof. Tieken's book, I can certainly respond to the ideas on the back cover. There is overwhelming and indisputable evidence that the anthologies were not written as late as the ninth or tenth century. It is, moreover, quite certain that the Sangam anthologies were not patterned after Prakrit or Sanskrit. Let me make a few brief points.
This is only a cursory response -- it seems almost a waste of time to go on, as the evidence is so abundant and convincing. The fact is, the poems are quite unaware of Prakrit or Sanskrit literature -- though they do know of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which fits with their accepted date of 1st-3rd century AD). They do not resemble Prakrit or Sanskrit literature enough to be modeled upon them -- I have argued that both Tamil and Prakrit/Sanskrit use the same body of conventions, which they got through southern (Tamil and Maharastri) folk traditions. But the poems themselves are quite different and work in very different ways. Finally, there is a convincing -- and enormous -- body of coherent and mutually reinforcing historical, linguistic, cultural, religious and literary evidence that shows clearly the poems are much earlier than the 9th or 10th century.
Yes, some 9th or 10th century poets might have decided to write some "old" literature based on Prakrit and Sanskrit. But would they have invented hundreds of archaic forms and words that fit the development of Dravidian? Would they have eschewed Prakrit/Sanskrit ideas and metrical patterns? Would they have carefully gotten rid of almost all their Sanskrit words and invented hundreds of words that are not found in the other 9th century literature? Would they have made up the names of hundreds of poems and kings and woven them into a huge corpus that is chronologically consistent (and fits with inscriptional and numismatic evidence)? Tieken's argument (if it is correctly reflected in the blurb on the back cover) just does not make sense.
It is as if one were to claim the Vedas were written in the 10th century AD by a group of people who wanted to reflect an idealized past. Indeed, the Sangam works contain much more historical information than the Vedas -- it would be much easier to 'prove' that the Vedas were written in the 10th century than that the Sangam poems were.
What is it about some European Sanskritists that makes them unwilling to accept that a non Indo-European people could create a great literature on their own in South Asia? The evidence of the non-derivative nature of Sangam literature is absolutely convincing. I hope that some will read the translation of the Purananuru that Heifetz and I recently published. How these poems could be derived from the Sanskrit/Prakrit tradition utterly mystifies me -- and I have read most of the kavya literature (Kalidasa, Magha, Bharavi) in the original. And I have read the Prakrit poems with the chaayaa anuvaada. By the way, the Purananuru is one of the seminal texts of premodern India -- it is quite as important as the epics and the Vedas for understanding the development of South Asian culture.
Here are some further comments after looking over his book. One of Tieken's arguments -- in fact, his most important argument -- is statistical: he claims that the arrangement of the poems is not random (as they presumably would be if anthologized), but rather contains repeated words and phrases between contiguous poems (9 poems forward or backward), and that means the poems must have been all composed in order by one person who unconsciously -- or consciously -- reused phrases from what he had just composed. As evidence for this, he lists repeated words/phrases that recur between neighboring poems.
He writes, "Apart from the difficulties in finding a poem meeting these requirements all at the same time, we should consider the size of the corpus which the compiler was supposed to have had at his disposal. If we set the frequency of a word, rather arbitrarily, at once every tenth poem, the compiler would in theory have required ten poems to hit upon another occurrence of aNNal, ten times ten poems in order to find one which in addition contained eeRu, a thousand poems to find one which also contained punkaNmaalai, ten times thousand (sic) poems to find one which also contained peyar, and so on. It is hardly unreasonable to doubt if the compiler was ever interested in memorizing such a vast corpus of poems...... " The fact is, this is an elementary error in statistics.
Here is the proper statistical calculation: Suppose the anthologies contain a total of 8000 different words and 80 words per poem. The likelihood of word 1 in poem 1 being word 1 in poem 2 is 1/8000. The likelihood of its being any word in poem 2 is 80/8000=1/100. Likelihood of 1.2 being any word in poem 2 is also 1/100. Thus the chance of any word in poem 1 being any word in poem 2 is 80/100=80%. If you include 2 poems, chance of a word in poem 1 being any word in poem 2 or 3 is 80/100+80/100=160%. If you include 8 poems forward and backwards, chance is 80*16=1280%. That is to say, you would have to go through 13 poems before you found one that did not have any words in common. The chance of 2 words occurring are 1280/2, of 3 words are 1280/4. In fact, it is most likely that 13 words will be found to exist within the preceding and following 8 poems. (In fact, we might expect even more repetition, as the poems are based on oral models and use conventional phrases and themes).
In his work, Tieken gives a 10 page appendix in which he shows that words repeat between contiguous poems (including 9 forward and 9 backward). However, he does not do what any standard scientific study would do: he does not compare his results with the results of poems chosen at random. I did so, choosing poems from the Kuruntokai at random. Let me first give Tieken's correspondences for poems 140-149:
140 cel, koLa, maakkaL, azintu, aRintu, puu
Note that this actually should give more correspondences than mine, as it is based on using the next ten poems as well and some of the correspondences (e.g. oonku in 149) refer to later poems. Here is the result I obtained by using ten random KuRuntokai poems (referring only to one another):