Vedic Roots of Early Tamil Culture, Part 3


Oct 18, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — The last in a three-part study of Vedic and Puranic influence on Tamil culture, by Michael Danino.

Historical Period

The historical period naturally takes us to the great Pallava, Chola and Pandya temples and to an overflowing of devotional literature by the Alwars, the Nayanmars and other seekers of the Divine who wandered over the length and breadth of the Tamil land, filling it with bhakti. But here let us just take a look at the rulers. An inscription records that a Pandya king led the elephant force in the Mahabharata War on behalf of the Pandavas, and that early Pandyas translated the epic into Tamil.[50]

The first named Chera king, Udiyanjeral, is said to have sumptuously fed the armies on both sides during the War at Kurukshetra ; Chola and Pandya kings also voiced such claims-of course they may be devoid of historical basis, but they show how those kings sought to enhance their glory by connecting their lineage to heroes of the Mahabharata. So too, Chola and Chera kings proudly claimed descent from Lord Rama or from kings of the Lunar dynasty-in other words, an "Aryan" descent.

As regards religious practices, the greatest Chola king, Karikala, was a patron of both the Vedic religion and Tamil literature, while the Pandya king Nedunjelyan performed many Vedic sacrifices, and the dynasty of the Pallavas made their capital Kanchi into a great centre of Sanskrit learning and culture. K. V. Raman summarizes the "religious inheritance of the Pandyas" in these words :

The Pandyan kings were great champions of the Vedic religion from very early times.... According to the Sinnamanur plates, one of the early Pandyan kings performed a thousand velvi or yagas Vedic sacrifices.... Though the majority of the Pandyan kings were Saivites, they extended equal patronage to the other faiths ... and included invocatory verses to the Hindu Trinity uniformly in all their copper-plate grants. The Pandyas patronised all the six systems or schools of Hinduism.... Their religion was not one of narrow sectarian nature but broad-based with Vedic roots. They were free from linguistic or regional bias and took pride in saying that they considered Tamil and Sanskritic studies as complementary and equally valuable.[51]

This pluralism can already be seen in the two epics Shilappadikaram and Manimekhalai, which amply testify that what we call today Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism coexisted harmoniously. "The sectarian spirit was totally absent,"[52] writes Ramachandra Dikshitar. "Either the people did not look upon religious distinctions seriously, or there were no fundamental differences between one sect and another."[53]

That is also a reason why I have not stressed Buddhism and Jainism here. Those two faiths were no doubt significant in the early stages of Tamil society, but not as dominant as certain scholars insist upon in an attempt to eclipse the Vedic and Puranic elements. Buddhism and Jainism did contribute greatly in terms of religious thought, art and science, but faded centuries later under the flood of Hindu bhakti ; their insistence on world-shunning monasticism also did not agree very well with the Tamil temperament, its cult of heroism and its zest for life.

In any case, this superficial glance at Sangam literature makes it clear at the very least that, in the words of John R. Marr, "these poems show that the synthesis between Tamil culture and what may loosely be termed Aryan culture was already far advanced.[ 54] Nilakanta Sastri goes a step further and opines, "There does not exist a single line of Tamil literature written before the Tamils came into contact with, and let us add accepted with genuine appreciation, the Indo-Aryan culture of North Indian origin."[55]

The Myth of Dravidian Culture

And yet, such statements do not go deep enough, as they still imply a North-South contrast and an unknown Dravidian substratum over which the layer of "Aryan" culture was deposited. This view is only milder than that of the proponents of a "separate" and "secular" Dravidian culture, who insist on a physical and cultural Aryan-Dravidian clash as a result of which the pure "Dravidian" culture got swamped. As we have seen, archaeology, literature and Tamil tradition all fail to come up with the slightest hint of such a conflict. Rather, as far as the eye can see into the past there is every sign of a deep cultural interaction between North and South, which blossomed not through any "imposition" but in a natural and peaceful manner, as everywhere else in the subcontinent and beyond.

As regards an imaginary Dravidian "secularism" (another quite inept word to use in the Indian context), it has been posited by many scholars : Marr,[56] Zvelebil[57] and others characterize Sangam poetry as "secular" and "pre-Aryan"[58] after severing its heroic or love themes from its strong spiritual undercurrents, in a feat typical of Western scholarship whose scrutiny always depends more on the magnifying glass than on the wide-angle lens. A far more insightful view comes from the historian M. G. S. Narayanan, who finds in Sangam literature "no trace of another, indigenous, culture other than what may be designated as tribal and primitive."[ 59] He concludes :

The Aryan-Dravidian or Aryan-Tamil dichotomy envisaged by some scholars may have to be given up since we are unable to come across anything which could be designated as purely Aryan or purely Dravidian in the character of South India of the Sangam Age. In view of this, the Sangam culture has to be looked upon as expressing in a local idiom all the essential features of classical "Hindu" culture.[ 60]

However, it is not as if the Tamil land passively received this culture : in exchange it generously gave elements from its own rich temperament and spirit. In fact, all four Southern States massively added to every genre of Sanskrit literature, not to speak of the signal contributions of a Shankara, a Ramanuja or a Madhwa. Cultural kinship does not mean that there is nothing distinctive about South Indian tradition ; the Tamil land can justly be proud of its ancient language, culture and genius, which have a strong stamp and character of their own, as anyone who browses through Sangam texts can immediately see : for all the mentions of gods, more often than not they just provide a backdrop ; what occupies the mind of the poets is the human side, its heroism or delicate emotions, its bouncy vitality, refined sensualism or its sweet love of Nature. "Vivid pictures of full-blooded life exhibiting itself in all its varied moods," as Raghunathan puts it. "One cannot but be impressed by the extraordinary vitality, variety and richness of the poetic achievement of the old Tamil."[61] Ganapathy Subbiah adds, "The aesthetic quality of many of the poems is breathtakingly refined."[62] It is true also that the Tamil language developed its own literature along certain independent lines ; conventions of poetry, for instance, are strikingly original and more often than not different from those of Sanskrit literature.

More importantly, many scholars suggest that "the bhakti movement began in the Tamil country and later spread to North India."[63] Subbiah, in a profound study, not only challenges the misconceived "secular" portrayal of the Sangam texts, but also the attribution of the Tamil bhakti to a northern origin ; rather, he suggests, it was distinctly a creation of Tamil culture, and Sangam literature "a reflection of the religious culture of the Tamils."[64]

As regards the fundamental contributions of the South to temple architecture, music, dance and to the spread of Hindu culture to other South Asian countries, they are too well known to be repeated here. Besides, the region played a crucial role in preserving many important Sanskrit texts (a few Vedic recensions, Bhasa's dramas, the Arthashastra for instance) better than the North was able to do, and even today some of India's best Vedic scholars are found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.[*] As Swami Vivekananda put it, "The South had been the repository of Vedic learning."[65]

In other words, what is loosely called Hinduism would not be what it is without the South. To use the proverbial but apt image, the outflow from the Tamil land was a major tributary to the great river of Indian culture.


It should now be crystal clear that anyone claiming a "separate," "pre-Aryan" or "secular" Dravidian culture has no evidence to show for it, except his own ignorance of archaeology, numismatics and ancient Tamil literature. Not only was there never such a culture, there is in fact no meaning in the word "Dravidian" except either in the old geographical sense or in the modern linguistic sense ; racial and cultural meanings are as unscientific as they are irrational, although some scholars in India remain obstinately rooted in a colonial mindset.

The simple reality is that every region of India has developed according to its own genius, creating in its own bent, but while remaining faithful to the central Indian spirit. The Tamil land was certainly one of the most creative, and we must hope to see more of its generosity once warped notions about its ancient culture are out of the way.


* I am grateful to Dr. K. V. Raman (also to Drs. Iravatham Mahadevan, K. V. Ramesh and S. Kalyanaraman) for kindly suggesting some of the sources I have used, and for providing me with important clues ; of course I am solely responsible for my treatment of them and the conclusions I suggest. May I add that this admittedly incomplete overview is aimed mostly at the educated non-specialist Indian public, and that I am myself a student of India, not a scholar.
(In this Web version, I have removed here all diacritical marks to avoid confusions; they will be restored in the published version.)
* I use the word "culture" in its ordinary meaning, not in the technical sense used by archaeologists, i.e. the totality of material artefacts of a particular category of settlement.
[*] The word "Hindu" is as convenient as it is unsatisfactory ; I use it in a broad sense that encompasses Vedic, Epic, Puranic culture, but without being exclusive of Buddhist or Jain faiths.
* In the district of Chittoor (A.P.) near the present Tamil Nadu border ; this area was then regarded as part of Tamilaga (which extended as far north as present-day Tirupati).
* Sangam texts are notoriously hard to date and there is among scholars nearly as much divergence of views as with Sanskrit texts. Thus some date the Tolkappiyam as late as the fifth or sixth century AD.
* I dare say that many more ancient texts remain to be discovered among palm-leaf manuscripts in Tamil Nadu or Kerala (many of which are being mindlessly lost or destroyed for want of active interest). For instance, I was once shown in Kerala, among many ancient texts, a thick palm-leaf manuscript of a Ramayana by ... Vyasa. (Some traditions do mention it, but it has been regarded as lost.) Post-Independence India has been prodigiously careless in preserving its cultural heritage.

[1] The Oxford History of India, 4th ed. revised by Percival Spear (reprinted Delhi : OUP, 1974-1998), p. 43.
[2] R. C. Majumdar, H. C. Raychaudhuri, Kalikinkar Data, An Advanced History of India (Madras : Macmillan, 4th ed. 1978).
[3] A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (Calcutta : Rupa, 3rd ed. 1981).
[4] K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India (New Delhi : OUP, 4th edition 1975).
[5] K. V. Raman, Excavations at Uraiyur (Tiruchirapalli) 1965-69 (Madras : University of Madras, 1988).
[6] K. V. Soundara Rajan, Kaveripattinam Excavations 1963-73 (New Delhi : Archaeological Survey of India, 1994).
[7] See The Ancient Port of Arikamedu-New Excavations and Researches 1989-1992, vol. 1, ed. Vimala Begley (Pondicherry : École Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1996).
[8] As reported in The New Indian Express (Coimbatore edition), 12 April 2000. The occasion was a debate on "saffronization of the education system," and the full first part of the quotation is : "The RSS has gone to the extent of saying that Dravidian civilization is part of Hinduism...."
[9] For a good overview of the archaeological picture of ancient South India, see K. V. Raman, "Material Culture of South India as Revealed in Archaeological Excavations," in The Dawn of Indian Civilization (Up To c. 600 BC), ed. G. C. Pande (Delhi : Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 1999), p. 531-546.
[10] K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, p. 84.
[11] Uttankita Sanskrit Vidya Aranya Epigraphs vol. II, Prakrit and Sanskrit Epigraphs 257 BC to 320 AD, ed. K. G. Krishnan (Mysore : Uttankita Vidya Aranya Trust, 1989), p. 16 ff, 42 ff.
[12] Ibid., p. 151 ff.
[13] R. Nagaswamy, Art and Culture of Tamil Nadu (New Delhi : Sundeep Prakashan, 1980), p. 23.
[14] B. Narasimhaiah, Neolithic and Megalithic Cultures in Tamil Nadu (Delhi : Sundeep Prakashan, 1980), p. 211 ; also in Bridget and Raymond Allchin, The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan (New Delhi : Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 331.
[15] B. Narasimhaiah, Neolithic and Megalithic Cultures in Tamil Nadu, p. 203.
[16] I. K. Sarma, Religion in Art and Historical Archaeology of South India (Madras : University of Madras, 1987), p. 33.
[17] K. V. Raman, Sakti Cult in Tamil Nadu-a Historical Perspective (paper presented at a seminar on Sakti Cult, 9th session of the Indian Art History Congress at Hyderabad, in November 2000 ; in press).
[18] William A. Noble, "Nilgiris Prehistoric Remains" in Blue Mountains, ed. Paul Hockings (Delhi : OUP, 1989), p. 116.
[19]Bridget and Raymond Allchin, The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan, p.339-340.
[20] I. K. Sarma, Religion in Art and Historical Archaeology of South India, p. 35.
[21] Ibid. , p. 34.
[22] K. V. Raman, Excavations at Uraiyur, p. 84.
[23] K. V. Raman, Sakti Cult in Tamil Nadu.
[24] K. V. Soundara Rajan, Kaveripattinam Excavations 1963-73, p. 111-112.
[25] Iravatham Mahadevan, "Pottery Inscriptions in Brahmi and Tamil-Brahmi" in The Ancient Port of Arikamedu, p. 295-296.
[26] K. V. Raman, "A Note on the Square Copper Coin from Arikamedu" in The Ancient Port of Arikamedu, p. 391-392.
[27] R. Krishnamurthy, Sangam Age Tamil Coins (Chennai : Garnet Publications, 1997). The following examples are drawn from this book.
[28] K. V. Raman, "Archaeological Excavations in Kanchipuram", in Tamil Civilization, vol. 5, N°1 & 2, p. 70-71.
[29] R. Krishnamurthy, Sangam Age Tamil Coins, p. 26.
[30] Ibid., p. 46-47, etc.
[31] Two important studies in this respect are : Savita Sharma, Early Indian Symbols (Delhi : Agam Kala Prakashan, 1990) and H. Sarkar & B. M. Pande, Symbols and Graphic Representations in Indian Inscriptions (New Delhi : Aryan Books International, 1999).
[32] K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, p. 130.
[33] N. Raghunathan, Six Long Poems from Sanham Tamil (reprint Chennai : International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1997), p. 2, 10.
[34] K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, p. 130.
[35] Tolkappiyam Marabus 71, 72, 77, 81, quoted by S. Vaiyapuri Pillai in Life of Ancient Tamils.
[36] Tolkappiyam,Porul 166, 176, quoted by K. V. Sarma, "Spread of Vedic Culture in Ancient South India" in The Adyar Library Bulletin, 1983, 43:1, p. 5.
[37] K. V. Raman, Sakti Cult in Tamil Nadu.
[38] Paripadal, 8.
[39] Paripadal, 3, 9, etc..
[40] Purananuru, 2, 93, etc. See also invocatory verse.
[41]The last three references are quoted by K. V. Sarma in "Spread of Vedic Culture in Ancient South India," p. 5 & 8.
[42] Quoted by K. V. Sarma in "Spread of Vedic Culture in Ancient South India," p. 8.
[43] Purananuru, 17 as translated in Tamil Poetry Through the Ages, vol. I, Ettuttokai : the Eight Anthologies, ed. Shu Hikosaka and G. John Samuel (Chennai : Institute of Asian Studies, 1997), p. 311.
44] Tiruvalluvar, The Kural, translated by P. S. Sundaram (New Delhi : Penguin, 1990), p. 19.
[45] For more details on Tiruvalluvar's indebtedness to Sanskrit texts, see V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar's study of the Kural, as quoted by P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar in History of the Tamils (Madras : reprinted Asian Educational Services, 1995), p. 589-595.
[46] V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, Cilappatikaram (Madras : 1939, reprinted Chennai : International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1997), p. 57,
[47] R. Nagaswamy, Art and Culture of Tamil Nadu, p. 7.
[48] P. S. Subrahmanya Sastri, An Enquiry into the Relationship of Sanskrit and Tamil (Trivandrum : University of Travancore, 1946), chapter 3.
[49] See for instance : K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, "Sanskrit Elements in Early Tamil Literature," in Essays in Indian Art, Religion and Society, ed. Krishna Mohan Shrimali (New Delhi : Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1987) ; K. V. Sarma, "Spread of Vedic Culture in Ancient South India" in The Adyar Library Bulletin, 1983, 43:1 ; Rangarajan, "Aryan Dravidian Racial Dispute from the Point of View of Sangam Literature," in The Aryan Problem, eds. S. B. Deo & Suryanath Kamath (Pune : Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalana Samiti, 1993), p. 81-83.
[50] K. V. Raman, "Religious Inheritance of the Pandyas," in Sree Meenakshi Koil Souvenir (Madurai, n.d.), p. 168.
[51] Ibid., p. 168-170.
[52] V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, Cilappatikaram, p. 53.
[53] Ibid., p. 58.
[54] John Ralston Marr, The Eight Anthologies - A Study in Early Tamil Literature (Madras : Institute of Asian Studies, 1985), p. vii.
[55] K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, "Sanskrit Elements in Early Tamil Literature," p. 45 (emphasis mine).
[56] John R. Marr, "The Early Dravidians," in A Cultural History of India, ed. A. L. Basham (Delhi : OUP, 1983), p. 34.
[57] Kamil Zvelebil, The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India (Leiden : E. J. Brill, 1973), p. 20, quoted in Ganapathy Subbiah, Roots of Tamil Religious Thought (Pondicherry : Pondicherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture, 1991), p.6.
[58] Ibid.
[59] M. G. S. Narayanan, "The Vedic-Puranic-Shastraic Element in Tamil Sangam Society and Culture," in Essays in Indian Art, Religion and Society, p. 128.
[60] Ibid., p. 139.
[61] N. Raghunathan, Six Long Poems from Sanham Tamil, p. 32.
[62]Ganapathy Subbiah, Roots of Tamil Religious Thought, p. 5.
[63] N. Subrahmanian, The Tamils-Their History, Culture and Civilization(Madras Institute of Asian Studies, 1996), p. 118.
[64] Ganapathy Subbiah, Roots of Tamil Religious Thought, p. 160.
[65] Swami Vivekananda, "Reply to the Madras Address," The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Advaita Ashrama, 1948), p. 278.


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