Article from Passions of the Tongue by Sumathi Ramaswamy
The Polarization of Tamil and Sanskrit
From the turn of this century, neo-Shaivism engaged in a complex set of maneuvers. On the one hand, it had to counter the damaging caricatures of Dravidian religion in colonial narratives. On the other, these very texts also contained much ammunition that could be deployed for its battle against neo-Hinduism and its surrogate, Indian nationalism: the declaration that Dravidian religion far preceded Aryan arrival, not just in the Tamil-speaking country but all over India; the suggestion that Tamil-speaking Brahmans had never participated in this religion; the pronouncement of ancient Tamilian society as egalitarian, untainted by the hierarchical and oppressive caste system of the Aryans; and above all, the possibility that that most important Hindu deity, Shiva, might be Dravidian in origin (Elmore 1915: 13-14; Gover 1871: 1-15). Neo-Shaivism appropriated such colonial propositions, fused them with statements drawn from pre-colonial Shaiva narratives, and proposed the following tenets of the emergent “Tamilian religion,” tamiḻar matam (also called by some, “Dravidian religion,” tirāviṭa matam): Shaivism is the true and original religion of all Tamilians who are not Brahman. It is also the most ancient religion of India, predating Sanskritic Hinduism by many centuries. Its principles are enshrined in the devotional and philosophical texts of divine Tamil, and it would be in vain, therefore, to seek it in the demonistic rituals of the populace (as the colonials were wont to). Further, it was not the Dravidians who corrupted a pristine Hinduism (as neo-Hindus were inclined to suggest); on the contrary, it was Brahmanism and Aryanism that had debased the original Tamilian religion and diverted it from its hallowed path of monotheism, rationalism, and egalitarianism into the “gutters” of polytheism, irrational rituals, and unjust social hierarchies (Maraimalai Adigal 1930a: vii-viii; Savariroyan 1900-1901: 269). The removal of such impurities brought in by Sanskritic Brahmanism would lead to the retrieval of pristine Shaivism, the restoration of a pure Tamilian subjectivity, and the growth of self-respect and pride among speakers of Tamil. And it is for this project that Tamil was enlisted by neo-Shaivism, its divinity reemphasized and popularized in the process. Cleansed of its Sanskritic impurities, the divine language would be the beacon that would throw light on all that was originally Tamil/Dravidian. It would sift and separate the pure Tamil Shaiva texts from all those masquerading as such.
The writings and speeches generated by neo-Shaivism show that this was not an easy or consistent project, not least because there was little agreement over what constituted the original Shaivism, and because it was difficult—in certain cases impossible—to dismantle the complex linkages that had developed between Tamil and Sanskrit over the centuries of their coexistence from the early first millennium C.E. In the early decades of neo-Shaiva activity, from around the 1880s to around 1905, there were few explicit statements against Sanskritic Hinduism per se. The focus instead was on countering the negative characterizations of Dravidian religion by asserting its distinctiveness, its uniqueness, its rootedness in high philosophy, and its parity with the Sanskritic tradition. “Moderate” neo-Shaivism, therefore—as exemplified by the writings of J. Nallaswami Pillai, for instance— visioned Tamilian religion as part of a larger Hindu complex, but oriented around divine Tamil and its scriptures rather than around Sanskrit.
Gradually, however, such assertions gave way to overt antagonism towards Sanskritic-Brahmanical-Aryan-Hinduism, and even to calls for a complete break from the latter by the 1920s. This transformation took place in the context of changes in the curriculum of Madras University, which, starting in 1906, became the site of an acrimonious debate over the compulsory study of Sanskrit and the elimination of the “vernaculars” the growing demand for “Home Rule” by the Besant led factions of the Congress, beginning in 1915; the British promise of “self-government” by stages in 1917; the many attempts after that by the colonial state to play off the “non-Brahman” against the Brahman in electoral politics; and finally, the iconoclastic atheism of E. V. Ramasami (1879-1973) and his followers (Irschick 1969; Nambi Arooran 1980: 35-139; Washbrook 1976: 274-87). In the “radical” neo-Shaivism that crystallized in response to these events, and is perhaps best exemplified by the later religious writings of Maraimalai Adigal, a Tamil-speaking Dravidian “non-Brahman” Shaiva community was clearly posited against Sanskritic, Brahmanical, Aryan Hinduism (Maraimalai Adigal 1930b, 1974b; K. Subramania Pillai, 1940: 45-47). Talk of parity between Tamil and Sanskrit gave way to assertions of the superiority of the former. Legends and stories that had accumulated over the centuries about Tamil’s divine powers were recycled and embellished, and the very legitimacy of Sanskrit was questioned in this process.
One such story, based on an incident in the life of the nineteenth-century mystic Dandapanisami, is especially popular in neo-Shaiva tellings. When challenged by a Brahman who invoked the superiority of Sanskrit because the Vedas were in that language, Dandapanisami declared that unlike them, the Tamil scriptures did not advocate the sacrifice of goats and the consumption of meat. The argument between the two notables continued for a while, and it was finally decided to settle the matter by calling upon the deities. They placed in front of the spear of Lord Murugan three chits with the following messages: “Tamil alone is eminent,” “Sanskrit alone is eminent,” and “Both are eminent.” A virgin maiden was asked to choose among the chits and she picked out the one that declared, unambiguously, “Tamil alone is eminent.” Dandapanisami rejoiced, brushed his eyes reverentially with the chit, and then placed it in his mouth. Subsequently, he composed his famous verse on Murugan which praised him as the lord who himself had declared Tamil’s superiority over Sanskrit. He then went on to write the Tamiḻalanḳāram, a hundred-verse eulogy of Tamil recounting its various miraculous abilities and supernatural powers (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 124-61). In the same vein, another of Tamil’s admirers, years later, narrated a story his mother had told him about one of his ancestors who had had the power to cure the sick and the dying with the help of Tamil hymns. One day, a cobra, with its hood raised, wandered into the room where he sat, offering his prayers in Tamil. It drank some milk and slithered away, leaving him unharmed. “Is it not clear from this that Tamil has supernatural powers!” he asked rhetorically of his readers. Such stories, of which there are many, reminded Tamil speakers that the Tamil scriptures were infinitely superior in their moral and ethical content, and in their salvific potential, to the Sanskrit Vedas. It was a Brahmanical conspiracy that denied the divinity and ritual efficacy of Tamil, designated it as a “Shudra” language, and appropriated all its treasures, including the mighty Shiva himself, for Sanskrit (Maraimalai Adigal 1936a: 105-6; K. Subramania Pillai n.d.: 15-17).
By the time radical neo-Shaivism was under full steam in the 1920s, it was declared unequivocally that Tamil, and not Sanskrit, was the only appropriate ritual language for all pious Tamilians. Indeed, Tamil is the world’s first divine language, and the religion it expounds the most eminent: “In the whole wide world, there is no greater god than Paramashivam [Shiva]; no religion loftier than Shaivism; no land more superior to the Tamil land; no language more divine than Tamil…and no people more auspiciously pure than Tamilians” (Swaminatha Upatiyayan 1921: 20). Taking advantage of the technologies and communication possibilities generated in the colonial milieu, neo-Shaiva associations and publications took this message of Tamil’s divinity to the public. They urged Tamil speakers to make divine Tamil the center of their renewed religious lives, the core of their (recast) beings. Prior to the neo-Shaiva revival, the cause of divine Tamil and of Shaivism had largely been the purview of religious specialists, temples, and monasteries. Now, lay intellectuals and activists—who were career bureaucrats, lawyers, academics, and even civil engineers—established societies for propagating the message of neo-Shaivism in various cities and towns across the Tamil-speaking parts of the Presidency. They published books and journals, conducted religious and Tamil classes, arranged conferences, and ran local libraries (Nambi Arooran 1980: 20-21; Ramaswamy 1992b: 84-89). Many of these societies as well as their journals were short lived, and suffered throughout their careers for want of support and subscription. Yet there are success stories as well, such as the Tirunelvēli Teṉṉintiya Caivacittānta Nūṟpatippuk Kaḻakam, founded in 1920. Both this organization and its journal Centamiḻc Celvi (founded in 1923) continue to exist today, albeit not without their share of problems. Although neo-Shaiva organizations eschewed direct participation in associational politics, they threw their influence behind many causes dear to tamiḻppaṟṟu such as the demand for education in Tamil, the numerous protests against Hindi, and the movement for renaming Madras state as Tamilnadu, the land of Tamil.
Being Religious, The Tamil Way
Movements for religious reform in colonial India have been extensively studied, and a recent volume clearly shows that spoken, rather than scriptural, languages were the sites of some of the most intense debates and discussion in this regard (K. Jones 1992). Yet, while we have a growing understanding of the recastings of religious doctrines, practices, and conceptions of community, the changes undergone by the languages through which such reconfigurations were attempted have been left largely unexamined. Tamiḻppaṟṟu’s divinization of Tamil to authenticate its project(s) reminds us that the medium itself has to be empowered in order to empower the message, to invoke an overused but nevertheless appropriate cliché. Neo-Shaivism declared that Shaivism and divine Tamil are the two “eyes” with which modern Tamil speakers would regain their lost vision and be redeemed. Divine Shiva and his divine Tamil go together, hand in hand, and cannot be separated: each lends power and authority to the other.
Neo-Shaivism emerged to counter what was perceived as the recasting of India as predominantly Aryan, Sanskritic, Brahmanical, and Hindu by both colonialism and neo-Hinduism. Such a countering was necessary because of the fear that “non-Brahman” Tamil speakers would inhabit such an India only in the fissures: ritually denigrated, socially demoted, and symbolically cast out, as “Dravidians” and “Shudras.” Yet speakers of Tamil had once been the dominant people of the subcontinent, a preeminence they had lost with the arrival of Sanskritic Aryan Brahmanism. In Maraimalai Adigal’s version of this imagined history, “the religion of the land, that is Shaivism, underwent a marked change.” Yet, he wrote, this was a change that was limited to the “outer rim,” for “in its center, it remained as pure as crystal and as impenetrable as a hard diamond. What is bound and true to its core, what is perfect and complete in itself, requires no change, requires no improvement” (Maraimalai Adigal 1930c: iii). Neo-Shaivism attempted to recover this imagined pure center and use it as the foundation on which to (re)constitute a true Tamilian religious subjectivity untouched by Brahmanism, Aryanism, Sanskrit, and Hinduism. Cleansed of its Sanskritic impurities, Tamil, the language in which its pure and original scriptures were deemed written, was the means through which this center could be reached. The language had perforce to be (re)divinized for this project, for it had to take on and counter the power of divine Sanskrit. Other religious groups in earlier times had advocated the divinity of Tamil, but not always at the expense of Sanskrit, and not in such a sustained and prolific manner using the modern technologies of print and communication (Ramaswamy 1996). In the changed circumstances of the late colonial period, when a devolving state rewarded communities that could establish their timeless distinctiveness and religious autonomy, there was much to be gained by claiming the existence of a unique Tamilian/Dravidian community, bonded together from time immemorial by its own distinctive religious traditions that were embodied in its own sacred language. Such a claim necessarily called for a delegitimization of Sanskrit and a radical distancing from its scriptures and tradition. Such a project also perforce needed the projection of Tamil as divinity, the ranking favorite of the gods themselves