Updated: September 8, 2010 11:06 IST

Stupendous endeavour

Indira Parthasarathy
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It is a mind-boggling and hazardous task to arrive at a thematic unity, while portraying ‘the life-world' (Husserian ‘Lebenswelt') of an ancient ethnic community and one — in this case, the Tamils — whose cultural history predates the Christian era by several centuries.

R. Balasubramanian and his team of editors must be congratulated on having successfully completed this stupendous endeavour, focussing on the philosophy, religion, culture, and civilisation of the Tamils (covering a period of 2500 years) in a two-part volume running nearly to 2,000 pages. The first part was published in 2008. Now under review is the second part that deals with the period from the 13th century down to the present day. There are six sections comprising 19 articles by 16 eminent scholars, three of whom have contributed two each.


The General Editor for the Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture (PHISPC), D.P. Chattopadhyaya, says that “the aim of this Project is to discover the main aspects of Indian culture and present them in an inter-related way.” Such an objective in the Indian context could be realised only if the researcher is not excessively obsessed with the problem of “historical periodisation”, as in the West, where history is but a linear and chronological narrative of men, events, and ideas. In a country like India, where the notion of history is cyclic and non-linear and where the emphasis is on the subjective progression of thoughts not bound by time or geography, periodisation — such as ‘ancient', ‘medieval', and ‘modern' — may be a conventional and heuristic tool borrowed from the West and yet, a necessary tool to comprehend the culture in real time and to look for its geographical, linguistic, and ethnic inter-relatedness, from the dim periods of pre-history and proto-history.

In the first section, the life-world of the ‘ancient Tamils' (or should it read ‘the life-world of the medieval Tamils'?) is discussed in seven chapters in relation to religion, philosophy, and literature. V. Rathinasabapathi and V.A. Devasenapathi have written about Saivism. As for Vaishnavism, there are two articles, one by J. Parthasarathi and the other by Vedavalli Narayanan.

The worship of Siva and Vishnu has been in existence in the Tamil region even from a very early period dating from the Sangam era, although, Tolkappiyam has only referred to Seyon (Muruga) and not to Siva. But Rathinasabapathi, in his scholarly and illuminating paper, ‘From Saivism to Saiva Siddhantha and Vira Saivism' says “there are scholars who are of the view that the worship of Subramanya was the result of Rudra/Siva worship.”

Ethnic groups

The two earliest ethnic groups in India were the Indo-Aryans and the Dravidians, and their cultures got so well-integrated at the dawn of history that it is very difficult to specifically identify which part of it is Aryan and which Dravidian. The Aryans who came to India, perhaps, after 1500 BCE retained a good deal of their primitive character, as a semi-nomadic tribe, and it was in India that they found their fullest expression, as a result of their contact with the natives, presumably the Dravidians, The Hindu religion, as of now, is a fusion of these two cultures. To quote J.H. Hutton: “It is possible to believe that some of the mythological particulars of the pre-Aryan natives were transferred to the Vedic culture, but which were faintly heard in the Rg Veda.” So it may not be correct to subscribe to the view that “Subramanya worship was the result of Rudra/ Siva worship.”

The literary and philosophical importance of the Vaishnava commentaries by medieval scholars of scintillating wisdom, written in a bilingual language (Sanskrit and Tamil) is succinctly brought out by J. Parthasarathi. It is a pity that these commentaries were relegated to solitary neglect by the orthodox Tamil literary historians, perhaps, because they looked at them more as religious pieces than literary compositions.


The Ramayana and the Mahabharata might have had a pan-Indian oral tradition even before they were written, with each region adapting these stories from time immemorial to suit its own cultural needs, without offending the main story line. Prema Nandakumar analyses the Ramayana experience in Tamil from the early Sangam period till the recent past. Of course, the most brilliant rendering among them all, as she says, was Kamban's. Her in-depth study of Kamba Ramayana does full justice to the great poet.

There are two papers on the Christian and Islamic contributions to Tamil, written by Innasi and P.M. Ajmalkhan respectively.

The papers pertaining to the modern era attempt to be politically correct and, as such, are self-conscious and constrained. S.N. Kandaswamy, who has presented a valuable paper on the tradition of Advaita in Tamil works, in his second article discussing the evolution of Tamil prose, mentions the names of people given to pedagogic style of writing, but fails to make any reference to the creative prose of one of the most outstanding writers, Pudumaipithan. It's almost like discussing Sanskrit theatre without referring to Kalidasa!

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