Vedic studies in Tamil Nadu

ABSTRACT

This paper focuses on the important issues:

  1. The caste issue in Indian society is not a racial theory founded in the Vedas; that “Aryans” were “upper caste” is a wrong notion.
  2. Brahmins as a group are excessively and unreasonably vilified; today it is important to regard Vedic thought in high esteem if society is to progress.

For the past three millennia, there has been constant migration of people into and from Tamil Nadu to other parts of not only India but also many other parts of the world. In the ancient topography and long history of Tamil Nadu, a distinct culture has developed, with the confluence of the Vedic and indigenous heritage. The earliest references in the Sangam period to yajña show the prevalence of Vedic rituals in Tamil Nadu from very early times.

MIGRATIONS IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

Since the dawn of civilization it appears that there were many pockets of human habitation, interspersed with vast tracts of dense forest in India. In the days when primitive people were still nomadic, it is easy to imagine that different groups moving in different directions would cover great distances within a few generations, so that, by the time they found advantage in a more settled life with huts, cultivated fields, domestic fowl, goats and pigs, settlements may have come up quite independently in many places at around the same time.

Human migration in the Indian subcontinent seems to go far back to prehistoric times too, and was a gradual but continuous process. This was an ongoing process in small numbers that did not merit special historical observation in those times. When we look at the map of the Indian subcontinent, we can see that there would have been east-to-west and west-to-east migrations through Afghanistan into Asia Minor by land and sea, from Madagascar on the western coast of peninsular India and from its eastern coast, to and from the Andamans, Malaysia and Java.

India and South East Asia had close ties in racial, linguistic and cultural aspects since prehistoric times. These associations and meeting of different cultures must have occurred through migration and transportation of people over land or sea routes.

   “It is well-known that India and South East Asia had intimate linguistic, cultural and racial interactions since prehistoric times. These prehistoric inter-regional contacts must have happened through migration and transportation over land or by sea. The very fact that the most primitive Negroid Andamanese islanders had sea-worthy single outrigger canoes for dugong fishing and inter-island communication in the Andaman sea show that instead of being a barrier the sea was almost an accessible highway for the Indians and Southeast Asian islanders.” (Mahapatra: 2003, 1)

Further, Coedes seeks to differentiate the colonization of America by the Europeans from the influx of Indians in Southeast Asia, as “in this part of the world the newcomers (Indians) were not strangers, discovering new lands. At some time… the sporadic influx of traders and immigrants became a steady flow that resulted in the founding of Indian kingdoms practicing the arts, customs and religions of India and using Sanskrit as their sacred language.” Coedes conceives of this process of Indianization of Further India as “the continuation, overseas of a “Brahmanization” that had its earliest focus in Northwestern India … and in fact, the most ancient Sanskrit inscriptions of Further India are not much later than the first Sanskrit inscriptions of India itself.” (ibid. 4)

Referring to the writings of  Michel Danino and David Frawley, the newest academic trend now accepted is that the Harappan civilization may be called the cradle of culture on the Saraswati river basin, the Mohenjo-daro and Harappan settlements we have found well-developed urban organization, coins, statues and pictures on pots of Pashupati and Nandi corresponding to the Rigvedic civilization. In the archeological evidence we have, fire altars are also said to be found.  But considering that most fire altars for Vedic yajna were freshly constructed according to measurements required for specific ritual, they were probably more temporary in nature and it is no wonder that large permanent structures have not been found.

The excavations at Adichanallur in Tamil Nadu date from 1000 BC to 500 BC, far earlier to the Sangam era. Items similar to these at Adichanallur such as Vel, gold pieces and head bands used in Muruga worship have been found at Cypress, Palestine and Gaza. These have been assigned a date of 1200 BC to 2000 BC.

We know that trade relations existed between Tamil Nadu and Asia Minor even in those early times. So it is very likely that some traders carried these items which were buried with them. We know that worship of Muruga or Kumara was widespread in the ancient world, as many coins from the early centuries BC attest.

DEMOGRAPHY OF ANCIENT INDIA

We can see that in its earliest history, India has seen an active and continuous mixing of different groups of indigenous peoples. We do not have any record of when these migrations took place in Tamil Nadu. None of the Sangam works indicate when the Aryan or Vedic people entered Tamilaham or who formed the first groups.

“Tolkappiyam, the ancient Tamil Grammar, precedes the Ettuttogai and the Pattuppattu. It contains no traces of Jainism and Buddhism and hence it might have been composed either in the 4th century B.C. or prior to it.” (Pillay: 191)

The earliest Tamil literary works are from the Sangam period; the word “Sangam” itself derives from the Sanskrit word referring to the period of Bauddha and Jaina sangams or viharas, i.e. the monasteries or scholarly academies.

The Aitareya Brahmana, which may be taken as belonging to 1000 BC, mentions Andhras, Pulindas, Pundras and Sabaras as people beyond the southern borders of Aryavarta. There seems to be no mention of Tamils here.

Panini, who lived in the 6th century BC does not mention the kingdoms of the south, Kalinga is the farthest that he mentions. On the other hand, Katyayana specifies the Chola kingdom. This is the earliest reference to the extreme south. It is not too much to presume that it was only about the 4th century BC that the Aryan contact with the Tamil country could have begun.  Now we must speculate as to what cultural and religious background the earliest entrants from North India may have had. We know that the Jaina religion goes back to extremely ancient period in history, perhaps on par with the Vedic civilization. So in asking whose arrival into the Tamil country was earliest, the Hindus, Jains or the Buddhists, the common view held is that it was the Hindus’. But on closer examination of the evidences we have, it appears that the reverse may have been equally possible.

“In any case, sometime between the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Buddhists, and in all probability the Jains too, came to the Tamil country in South India.”

“…generally speaking, the Brahmi inscriptions of South India also support the suggestion from about 4th century B.C., the Jains and Buddhists had begun to come and settle down in Southern India, and in all probability they preceded the Hindu Aryans.”  (ibid. 175)

We also know from history that both Mahavira and Buddha were born in aristocratic families of the kshatriya class of Vedic society.

It is an undeniable fact that Vedic thought has been absorbed into the Tamil region from the Sangam period itself. It forms a harmonious component of the local ethos and can in no way be viewd as a foreign import or even from North India. The Vedic and Puranic deities both find prominence in the Sangam works. Indra, festivals held in his honour and Mount Meru are all mentioned. Vishnu is mentioned as the supreme god in Paripadal and Tolkappiyam. All the other gods, the sun and moon, the asuras and the fire elements are said to arise from Him and He is said to recline on Adisesha. Even the avataras are mentioned in the Sangam classics, as also the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

There is much reason to believe that a more or less similar culture existed all over India even in Vedic times, allowing for regional variations.

K.A.N Sastri himself says – “The ancient, as well as modern worship of Shiva and Vishnu and Amba are forms of fireless worship and they are utterly different from and opposed to the Vedic fire-cults.”

“Those Vedic Gods, the etymology of whose names is not patent and who have no analogies in other Indo-Germanic dialects, must have been originally Dravidian deities.” (Pillay: 1971)

Under the influence of Jainism and Buddhism, animal sacrifice in temples and Yajna became less prevalent. Although these religions were very widely followed, they were still so only in the urban centres; the peasant populations continued with their traditional, local forms of worship. Buddhism and Jainism held sway for many centuries, Kanchipuram  being a great centre of learning, producing such stalwarts as Dinnaga and Dharmapala. But both faiths declined after some time for several reasons. Jainism is said to have very stringent and austere standards that were difficult for the common man to follow and the Jainas were also not fanatical about converting others into their faith. Buddhism is said to have declined due to excessive corruption, immoral behavior and excessive ritualism in Mahayana practices that earned them disfavor among the masses. Also, when the Brahminical religion lost popularity, it underwent reformation so that the people, who did not reject Vedic thought but only the ritualism, came back into its fold.

“.. It was during the time of the Pallavas that the revival of Sanskrit and Hinduism took place. Many of the Pallava inscriptions are bilingual, in Sanskrit and Tamil, …the Pallava King, Mahendravarman was himself a Sanskrit scholar and poet.” (Sundaram: 1999,1)

VARNA & CASTE : ONE GENETIC POOL

It is generally given to believe by modern writers in India and abroad, that the Vedic culture was racist, upholding the superior lineage of Brahmins, rigidly enforcing the caste divide in society. We shall examine if careful analysis does indeed indicate this.

Under the influence of the Aryan Invasion Theory, the so-called “upper castes”, corresponding to Brahmins, are blamed for propagating social hierarchy based on birth, which is cited as the sole reason for all of India’s woes. But even these votaries of the Vedas’ foreign origins do not say that the caste system is a foreign idea!

We now look at how social amalgamations took place in Vedic period. One was through migrations which accelerated after the Saraswati river began to dry up. The other was through battles for material gain and plunder.

Shortly after people began living in well-established settlements, it appears that battles between tribes broke out for material gain and territorial rights. It appears that people of interior regions had cattle and gold while the Rigvedic people had chariots and horses.

When these groups amalgamated either through war or through peaceful means, we would expect that socially similar groups would combine. That is, the priests or higher social categories would join the ranks of the priestly class in the new hierarchy and labourers would join the bottom level. But this was clearly not the case. Often the priests and warriors of the Vedic people were reduced to labourers and the priests of the so-called Dravidian tribes actually retained their status as the Brahmans. There seems to be complete absorption of the conqueror and the conquered in these Vedic battles. Some of the conquered chiefs obtained positions of power in the new society, participating in religious ceremonies and giving gifts to the Brahmin priests. They were well-regarded as eminent donors in society and some were said to join Indra, the King of the Vedic gods.

Another frequent accusation on the Brahmin is that the Vedas censure those who do not give gifts freely to the priests, but these seem to be directed more towards individuals within their own society, so as to prevent gross disparity in wealth, which could lead to jealousy and hatred. The wealthy man was goaded to share his riches through feasts and gifts to the community – the priests constituted only a small fraction of the beneficiaries.

“Of the passages which describe the Panis as niggards and condemn illiberal people in general, some may have been inspired by greedy priests eager for gifts, but on the whole they seem to reflect the tendency among certain Aryans to accumulate wealth at the cost of their fellow tribesman, who naturally expected some share in the acquisitions through sacrifices made to Indra and other gods, thus providing frequent occasions for the common feasts of the community. Failure to check the process was bound to give rise to economic and social inequalities.”  (Sharma: 1958, 20)

“In essence, the Rigvedic society was characterized by the absence of sharp class divisions amongst its members, a feature which is found usually in early tribal societies. It was possible to have different ranks but not social classes.” (Sharma: 1958, 10)

Tracing the lineage of several noble kings and their subjects along with that of their evil and adharmic enemies from their account in the Puranas, David Frawley makes the following observations.

“Hence three of the original five Vedic peoples had Asuric blood in them through their mother. Puru, whose group ultimately predominated, had Asuric blood, whereas the Yadus, who were most criticized in Vedic and Puranic literature, had no Asuric blood but rather that of the Brahmins. In this story we see that both groups of people – thought by the Aryan invasion theory to be the invading Aryans and the indigenous people – had the same religion and ancestry.

These five peoples were styled either Arya or Dasyu, which means something like good or bad, holy or unholy according to their behavior. These designations can shift quickly. The descendant of an Aryan king can be called Dasyu or its equivalent (Rakshasa, Dasa, Asura, etc.) if their behavior changes.”  (David Frawley: The Myth of Aryan Invasion of India, 21)

We have much evidence that inter-marriage was common. So it is beyond question that there was no racial discrimination in ancient Indian society. There is no mention of Brahmins or Kshatriyas being racially different to others in society, in the Puranas, Vedas, Sastras or poetic literature. Perhaps not enough study has been done by scholars to see how much importance was given to racial stock by the Muslim rulers and aristocracy of India after the Islamic invasions, which may have influenced Hindu society as a whole. Somehow after British rule began in India, British scholars and administrators have deftly laid the blame on Brahmin and Vedic outlook.

It is important to remember that the Hindu Aryans did not all migrate into South India at one stretch. The epigraphic evidence as well as the names of groups of Brahmins who were settled at different stages in different places indicate this. Thus the designation of groups like “Narpettennayiravar” and “Elunuruvar” clearly suggest that waves of immigrants came into Tamil country. Perhaps the village, Ennaiyaram, may be one of the places where the community had settled.

“There is no doubt that a considerable number of Aryans had come into the Tamil country some centuries prior to the Sangam age, which is believed to have ranged roughly between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D……All these indicate that there were Aryan Sudras, too, in the Tamil country of the Sangam age. …….We find certain pieces of evidence pertaining to the Sangam epoch and the succeeding ages which suggest that there appeared a gradual process of amalgamation.” (in Tamil society)

“In this connection, it is well worth noticing the occurrence of terms like ‘Melor’, ‘Uyarndor’ and ‘Arivar’ which occur in Tolkappiyam, the celebrated grammar. The term ‘Melor” seems to have specified all persons of high character. From Karpiyal 3, Tolkappiyam, it would appear that it included the first three classes under this designation. There is a slight difference in the denotation of the term as interpreted by the commentators of Tolkappiyam. Ilampuranar interpreted ‘Melor’ as the devas or celestial beings, Nachchinarkkaniyar provides a very wide interpretation to the term. He states that the norms of conduct prescribed for Vanigar or traders in respect of earning wealth is applicable to Brahmins (antanar), arasar (kings) and all those comprised under Velalar.  According to him, therefore ‘Melor’ denoted those members who followed a high standard of conduct. If that were so, it is a notably democratic conception. References in Tolkappiyam (Tol Karpiyal 3) and Purananuru (183) show that ‘Melor’ or men of character could be members of the higher castes.”

“As regards the ‘Arivar’ the interpretations suggested are illuminating. Tolkappiyar does not identify  Parppar (Brahmin) exclusively with Arivar…….Thus ‘Arivar’ in the orginal sense used by Tolkappiyar, applied to learned men among the people. No exclusive reference to class or community is implied by the term. This suggests that a certain measure of fluidity existed in the in the caste system in respect of the Arivar.”  (Pillay 176 – 178)

Coming to Tamil Nadu, it is mentioned in works such as Narrinai and Manimekhalai that Brahmins who had migrated from other parts of India not only married local people but also inducted them into Brahmin priesthood. Some groups who did not find livelihood as priests moved to other occupations and were absorbed into Tamil society.

While the original Tamil society did not have the four varnas that Vedic culture speaks of, works of the Sangam period do mention around ten different groups of people based on occupation and region within South India where they hailed from. Groups called Kuruvar, Vellalar, Maravar, Pradavar etc are mentioned in Purananuru. Brahmins and their high position is also mentioned. Gradually these groups became endogamous.

We shall try to understand how the caste system developed, after the earlier notion of different classes of people based on occupation and region of origin.

“…..we have so far hardly used the word which in most minds is most strongly connected with the Hindu social order. When the Portuguese came to India in the 16th century they found the Hindu community divided into many separate groups, which they called “castas”, meaning tribes, clans or families. The name stuck, and became the usual word for the Hindu social group. In attempting to account for the remarkable proliferation of castes in the 18th – 19th centuries, Indian authorities credulously accepted the traditional view that by a process of intermarriage and subdivision the 3.000 or more castes of modern India had evolved from the four primitive classes, and the term “caste” was applied indiscriminately to both varnas, or class, and jati or caste proper. This is a false terminology – castes rise and fall in the social scale and old castes die out and new ones are formed, but the four great classes are stable. They are never more or less than four, and for over 2000 years their order of precedence has not altered. All ancient Indian sources make a sharp distinction between the two terms; varna is much referred to, but jati very little, and when it does appear, in literature, it does not always imply the comparatively rigid and exclusive social groups of later times. We have no real evidence of caste groups until comparatively late times.

“Caste is the development of thousands of years, from the association of many different social and other groups in a single cultural system….early literature paid scant attention to it, but it is certain that caste did not originate from the four varnas”  (Basham: 1963, 145)

The caste issue is a much-maligned issue – let us look at what made it continue for so long. In earlier times, perhaps till recently, the economy being unstable and unpredictable, the caste provided social security after the joint family, helping destitute members and providing for widows and orphans. It was also the first umbrella outside the immediate family for activities connected with the occupation and livelihood – training in skills, procuring economic opportunities, production of goods, marketing and investment in capital. In fact, endogamy was preferred as way of keeping property and wealth within the community. With constant migration and entry of new groups in economic activity, there was much competition.   To this day, caste politics revolve around economic rivalry and the Brahmin, who is much removed from all this, is conveniently blamed!

“We have no evidence that this group was endogamous and it was certainly not craft-exclusive, but its strong corporate sense is that of a caste in the making…… To the present day the life of the lower orders is more affected by caste than by varna.. ……… and corporate feeling is centred around this caste group, whether based on region, race, profession or religion.

Indian society developed a very complex social structure, arising partly from tribal affiliations and partly from professional associations, which was continuously being elaborated by the introduction of new racial groups into the community, and by the development of new crafts. In the Middle Ages the system became more or less rigid and the social group was now a caste in the modern sense. Professor J.H. Hutton has interpreted the caste system as an adaptation of one of the most primitive of social relationships, whereby a small clan living in a comparatively isolated village, would hold itself aloof from its neighbours by a complex system of taboos, and he has found embryonic caste features in the social structure of some of the wild tribes of present-day India. The caste-system may well be the natural response of the many small and primitive peoples who were forced to come to terms with a more complex economic and social system. It did not develop out of the four varnas and the two systems have never been thoroughly harmonized.

After the large joint family, the caste provided social security, helping destitute members and providing for widows and orphans.”  (ibid, 149)

At the social level, each group developed its own specific culture – cuisine, dress, language and customs. Hence endogamy was preferred as it offered better social security and comfort. The caste system in India is also credited with preserving Indian culture over long periods of duress, as each group preserved their own customs and traditions. Today it is less relevant and certainly the behavior pattern of people has evolved accordingly.

In this regard, Tamil Nadu seems to have been even more caste-conscious that Vedic society. The four varnas and the different castes have never been truly harmonized in ideology.

THE OPPRESSION OF BRAHMINS IN MODERN WRITING

The trend of modern studies by westerners and even Indians, is to articulate rather inordinately, on the oppression wreaked by Brahmins on the rest of society. We examine if this is justified.

In medieval Europe, we know that Kings were illiterate and carried out their orders with seals and signet rings. We know that the Roman Catholic Church was very powerful, with the Pope interfering in all political and economic issues. It was after the invention of printing press that common people became aware of what was happening, which ultimately lead to the Reformation and then Counter-Reformation of the Church. We know that England turned to Protestant religion coming out of the clutches of the Pope when King Henry VIII wanted to divorce or behead several of his wives.  Perhaps all this background influences the English scholar into reading too much ambition and greed in the Brahmin priesthood.

In our country on the other hand, from the earliest times, the kings and administrators were expected to be well-educated. The priests and rulers knew what their expectations and limits were.

The priesthood constituted a minority in a population consisting of farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, artisans, traders, administrators, musicians, performers and rulers.  Brahmin priests do not go out to conquer new lands and convert the people, but rather follow other groups in a natural search for livelihood. We do not come across a single war in ancient India waged to propagate religious belief; they were always fought for military supremacy and material gain or defending one’s faith.

From very early times, Indian society clearly respected and admired knowledge, both for the advantages it could bring as well as for its own sake. It is here that the Brahmins become relevant, their Vedic and religious studies embodying the respect that people had for spiritual progress.

When modern writers speak of the spread of Brahmanism, they take it for granted that the priestly class imposed their views to overpower all other sections of society and all other cultural entities. This is quite absurd, and quite impossible in practice. In fact, the Vedic way of thinking is far less superstitious than any other local beliefs that existed among the people of ancient and modern times. The main reason for the Brahmins’ zeal is cited to be the dakshina or fees that they are to receive!! Such writers should provide a table of how other world religions fund their activities at every step in order to present this issue in proper perspective.

If Brahmins were nurtured by society, it was out of respect for their discipline, piety and austerities that Vedic study entailed. To honour and support such activities was a considered a matter of great virtue and pride, giving direction and meaning to a prosperous life. Traditionally, Brahmins always represented the teachers of society, preserving our ancient wisdom for future generations. When we deride the institution of Brahmanism, we are today insulting all that was good and glorious in our heritage and in fact, our very identity.

The Sanskrit tradition has always striven to help people gain clarity and freedom in their thought. It is in order to mask this fact that there is an attempt to keep the vast majority of Indians in the dark about these facts that Brahmanism is vilified and kept out of public awareness by the rich and powerful forces that are inimical to Hindu thought. Without the strong intellectual support of a good education, society becomes weak and vulnerable. It is not enough that university education provide jobs, it should also help us to live happier lives.

There may have been several occasions of travesty by exploitation of power, but ideology cannot be incessantly blamed for human error against which a good ruler was to protect society. When the country came under prolonged foreign rule, when there was social and economic duress, the rulers had no intentions of setting these imbalances right but in fact sought to exploit these differences to turn one group against another in order to rule us more easily.  To blame Hindu ideology is not correct.

Rajiv Malhotra explains why Swadeshi Indology is important and speaks of 5 waves of Indology. They are :

  1. Marxism which is all about Leftist ideas and how they should be adopted at the expense of all else.
  2. Post-colonialism is a technique to understand the mind of the colonizer to understand events in history.
  3. Subalternism – where to champion the cause of the underclass, the downtrodden and the so-called oppressed people is fashionable; history is viewed from their perspective so that everybody looks like a loser.
  4. Post-modernism – every aspect of Indian life is deconstructed and reduced to political oppressor – oppressed, master – slave and similar extreme barriers. India is studied as an oppressor country.
  5. Neo – Orientalism uses our own source books to malign us.

In this scenario can we not ask why the Post-modern methods cannot be extended to studying the oppressor-oppressed relation between father and son, husband and wife, grandparent and grandchild or minister and electorate?? There should be some limits to how much a theory can be stretched defying common sense but that does not seem to apply in the criticism of the Brahmins of ancient or modern India, the critics hardly even knowing what their objections are.

Traditionally, Brahmins always represented the teachers of society, preserving our ancient wisdom for future generations. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich”. In the same way, we cannot help the uneducated by destroying the educated.  We know that in recent times, our political leaders have rather uniformly been exceedingly greedy and corrupt.  Based on this reality, would it be legal to punish them all as a class??  Or would it be permissible to fault our Constitution for these ills? When we denigrate the institution of Brahmanism, we are today insulting all that was good and glorious in our heritage and in fact, our very identity.  In modern times one of the most hated statements regarding the Brahmanic culture was that sudras could not study the Vedas.( We may remind ourselves here that not only are others unwilling to take on the rigours prescribed for the orthodox Brahmin but the Vedas also say that every human being is born a sudra, and it is with much refinement and austerities that the Vedas have to be studied.) But times have changed now, so why doesn’t everybody break those obsolete rules and actually study the Vedas to see what it actually says, to understand what all their hatred is directed towards??

Modern writing that censure the role of Brahmins does much harm, throwing the baby out with the bath water. This Westerners and foreigners will not easily tell us this, for they have little to gain from it. On the other hand, they have much to gain by our internal bickering. Within the country also, our leaders practice vote-bank politics to the hilt with little integrity guiding their ideology. Their only view seems to be towards what they have to gain, at the expense of the people and the country. As we can see, caste politics play a huge role, even leaving the Brahmins completely out of the picture. To distract attention from the real issues and avoid punishment for those who are responsible for these social and economic crimes, the Brahmins are blamed for their so-called ideology by politicians and academicians who are influenced by those in power.  Unfortunately, with weak governance and internal bickering, we as a society become victims to foreign criticism, losing our own identity and glorious heritage.

THE HOLISTIC APPEAL OF VEDIC THOUGHT

Modern criticism of the spread of Vedic thought seems to ignore its merits and innate appeal to the refined and broad-minded person. In its essence the Upanishadic philosophy teaches against superstition and speaks of every individual’s connection to the cosmos. Its philosophical or religious hierarchy does not centre about any geographical location, race or individual prophet. Its ethics and morals are based on mutual respect and universal principles.  It teaches the equality of all living creatures and advocates respect for God’s creation.

Its ethics and morals are based on universal principles such as honesty, justice, selflessness and detachment from vices. It advocates the importance of ethical behaviour as the basis of the Karma theory. At a practical level it advocates sacrifice to the gods as an expression of prayer and thanksgiving. Such religious rituals were also social and cultural in nature, as would be normal in any wholesome society. Over the centuries, devotion or bhakti and temple worship has also found a firm place in addition to rituals in the practice of religion. The colourful stories of the Puranas served to illustrate many Vedic concepts and ideals in an attractive manner to the common people. The Vedic ideal of simple living and high thinking is very attractive to those of refined thinking.

Customs and social justice of ancient times should not be compared to those of today’s world but to the conditions in other countries in the same period, for a fair and complete analysis. In its ideology, the Vedic religion lays emphasis on equal respect for all forms of life as part of the Supreme order, with no conceit regarding special privileges for the human being.  The philosophy teaches the pursuance of a full life without greed or avarice that is most likely to bring peace of mind and hence happiness.

What is stated by Mahapatra in the context of spread of Vedic culture to Indonesia may be considered relevant within the country too –  “(Coedes 1968: 24) The Indians brought the native chiefs not only a complete administration but an administrative technique capable of being adapted to new conditions in foreign countries”. He credits the Brahmana scholars and priests with the crucial role in adapting the Indian traditions and norms to the local indigenous cultural base.”  (Mahapatra: 2003, 4)

The Mimamsa philosophy, in particular, focuses on the practical life that a person should lead under the Vedic tenets. It balances right knowledge of the universe, the nature of atman and moksha. It does not make false promises of rewards in the afterlife in exchange for loyalty in this lifetime, neither is the faith based on impressive and saviours to beguile the people. The Vedic culture has always understood the importance of several branches of learning such as literature, logic, religious discipline of daily life, etc, in order to progress on a spiritual path. It is a complete, holistic and comprehensive, mature system of thought and there is nothing new that foreign cultures can bring us. It is in order to mask this fact that there is an attempt to keep the vast majority of Indians in the dark about these facts that Brahmanism is vilified and kept out of public awareness by rich and powerful forces that are inimical to Hindu thought. The Sanskrit tradition has always striven to help people gain clarity in these issues, rather than confuse emotional response or superstition  with theology. So as the culture spread, it is as certain that it was welcomed by many intellectuals and common people as that it imbibed many features from the new cultures.

We quote the great American historian Will Durant (1885 – 1981): “India was the motherland of our race and Sanskrit the mother of all Europe’s languages, India was the mother of our philosophy, of much of our mathematics, of the ideal embodied in Christianity, of self-government and democracy. In many ways Mother India is the mother of us all.”  

BRIEF HISTORY OF VEDIC STUDIES IN TAMIL NADU

Sangam literature from the beginning of the Christian era has many allusions and references to the Vedic culture and to stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Asokas’s edicts show that the people were aware of South India although Tamil Nadu did not come under his empire. In some places, Chola, Pandya, Sattiyaputtra, Keralaputta and Tamraparani (Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, 1915, pp 471-75) are mentioned. In the early centuries of the Christian era, Tamil Nadu was a bastion of Jainism and Buddhism. During this period, under the influence of their philosophy of non-violence, animal sacrifice in Hindu temples came to a stop, in most places.

“Hindu religion and Sanskrit culture which came to Tamil Nadu, in the early pre-Christian era, had to face the onslaught of Jainism and Buddhism. These religious systems used Pali and Prakrit as media for the popularisation of their religion and treatises were composed in the respective languages.  Thus Sanskrit did fully develop neither as a medium of instruction nor literary works produced in it. References to this language are found in the Tolkappiyam and other Tamil works of the early Christian era. …

….It was during the time of the Pallavas the revival of Sanskrit and Hinduism took place.   Many of the Pallava inscriptions are bilingual, in Sanskrit and Tamil…..The Pallava King, Mahendra Vikrama, was himself a Sanskrit scholar, which fact is proved by his dramas. Dandin was patronized by the great Pallava King Narasimhavarman. ..

….Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu with unabated vigour for several centuries and as a result this land has produced important and valuable treatises in Sanskrit and Pali. Kancipuram, the great cultural centre of Tamil Nadu had long association with Buddhism.” (Sundaram: 1999, 1)

Dinnaga, Dharmapala and Bodhiruchi are some of the great scholars who were renowned all over India and even the whole world, were from Kancipuram.  It is said that Jainism and Buddhism waned after the first few centuries and Hinduism gained more popularity and royal support. In addition to ideological differences, it is said that while the reason for Jainism to decline was its stringent austerities that made it difficult for the common man to practice and its absence of missionary zeal to convert people into its faith, Buddhism declined due to a lot of corrupt and immoral practices that had crept into its order, as also idol worship and very complicated ritualism.

Reforms in Hindu religion. The people left Brahmanism and  accepted Buddhism not because they had lost faith in the basic principles of Brahmanism but because they condemned outward rituals and ceremonies. When the Brahmanas openly saw revolt  against them they reformed their shortcomings with the result that the people came back into their fold again.”    (Chaurasia: 2008, 70)

“Corruption in Sanghas. For some time Buddhist Sanghas were source of strength for Buddhism but after some time these sanghas became centres of corruption. At first women were not admitted to these sanghas but when they were allowed to enter the Sanghas the Bhikshus and Bhikhshinis began to live an easy and corrupt life. The Sanghas amassed large amount of wealth under the royal patronage. Under the degenerating influence of wealth the Buddhist Sanghas earned the hatred of the people due to their immorality.” (ibid, 71)

“It can be said in conclusion that Buddhism was not a new religion but just a reform movement within Hinduism. According to Dr. V.A. Smith: “Buddha may have justly been regarded as having been originally a Hindu reformer. He did not give any holy scripture to his disciples nor did he condemn any fundamental principle s of Brahmanism. He himself was a kshatriya prince and inspired by the Upanishads. He only gave his teachings in the common language of the people.”    (ibid, 63)

There are many references in early Tamil literature such a Purananuru and Padirruppattu that speak highly of the Brahmins, their way of life and high position in society. Brahmins in the royal courts encouraged their patrons in conducting yagas and yajnas for the welfare of the country. One of the earliest references we have is of the Pallava king Mahendravarman performing the Ashvamedha Yaga.

“Pattinapallai, Padirruppattu and Kalittogai, for instance, refer to great yagas which were conducted on a large scale. The names of kings like ‘Palyaga Mudukudumi Peruvaluti’ and ‘Ilayasuyam Vetta Perunarkkilli’ provide testimony to the enthusiasm of kings in the performance of sacred sacrifices.

The Vedic lore got currency even during the Sangam epoch. The Vedas were described in Tamil as ‘Marai’, ‘Kelvi’, ‘Vai Moli’, ‘Muda Moli’ and ‘Yeludakkarppu’. ‘Andalanar Nanmarai’ and ‘Arumarai’ were other honorific designation of the Vedas. Specific details regarding the sacrifice like the kind of posts to be erected on occasions of the Yagas, the special dress to be worn by the persons engaging in performing the rituals and ceremonies connected with the sacrifices are indicated in the Sangam works. The Paripadal states that Vishnu emerges from the sacrificial fire.”         (Pillay: 1979, 180)

There is an interesting account of the history of Sanskrit grammar that forms the concluding portion of the Vakyakanda of Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya, dating from about 450 A.D. It says that Vyakarana (grammar) studies suffered near obliteration, even texts were lost, and, found in book form only in South India, was thereafter resurrected. (V.P. II. 496). This indicates that in the dim period of history, in the early centuries, Sanskrit scholarship had advanced to great heights in the South and in fact helped preserve some aspects of the tradition when it suffered decline in the North.

There is much evidence to show that Sanskrit was in fact held in high esteem and thrived all over the country, with poets, scholars, saints, musicians, thinkers and philosophers using it as a divine means of communication at the highest levels of human knowledge. It is simply not possible to regard it as a language of any one region or group of people who may have imposed it on others.

CONCLUSION

We clearly see that Brahmins have no ideology of their own. They follow the Vedas in what is for the welfare of every individual as also society as a whole.  In today’s world, there seems to be little awareness about Vedic thought other than the caste system which is not only blown out of proportion, but wrongly considered the outcome of that refined and mature thought. There is deep anger at the obsolete notion that only the higher castes were allowed to study the Vedas. In today’s egalitarian world where information can easily be accessed and teachers easily found, why does not society strive to understand all aspects of their heritage, an important part of which is Vedic thought? Why is the average Indian citizen happy to adopt somebody else’s view that the Vedas and Brahmins are in some way to be blamed and not try to examine the issue for himself ?  In India ordinary citizens and those in government are in need of deep introspection if they have any value left for cultural heritage.

To use the Mimamsa terminology itself, there is ‘bhedabheda’, i.e. relation of ‘identity-in-difference’ between the people and heritage of Tamil Nadu and India as a whole. That is, Tamil Nadu is completely an integral part, not just geographically, but culturally also, of the Indian subcontinent. Yet it is not identical to the rest of India, retaining its own distinct characteristics.

In conclusion, we draw attention to the auspicious floor patterns in rice flour popular all over Tamil Nadu, called ‘kolam’.   The people of India are liken the dots in an elaborate pattern, linked into so many smaller groups by lines, loops and swirls; each person belongs to a vast number of overlapping groups, that it is impossible to truly bifurcate the citizens of India into separate groups! We are truly blessed in the unity in our diversity and should seek to preserve the unique legacy in the history of our planet that is our culture and our nation.

 

  1. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Basham, A.L. (1963): The Wonder that was India.  Bombay.  Orient Longmans Limited.

Chaurasia, Radhe Shyam  (2008): History of Ancient India: Earliest Times to 1200 A.D. New Delhi.  Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd.

Frawley, David (1994) The Myth of the Aryan Invason. American Institute of Vedic Studies. U.S.A.

Mahapatra, L.K. (2003): State, Society and Religion.  Chennai.  Emerald Publishers.

Pillay, K.K. (1979): Historical Heritage of the Tamils.  Chennai. MJP Publishers.

Sharma, Ram Sharan (1958): Sudras in Ancient India. Delhi. Motilal Banarsidass Pvt Ltd.

Sundaram, C.S. (1999): Contribution of Tamil Nadu to Sanskrit. Chennai. Institute of Asian Studies.

 

 

 

About the author

Dr Sharda Narayanan

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