Images of the past

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Anthology of essays on the civilisation and spiritual culture of Tamil society

THE LIFE-WORLD OF THE TAMILS: Past and Present — Vol. I: Edited by R. Balasubramanian; Pub. by PHISPC/ Centre for Studies in Civilization, DD-24, Kalkaji (Nehru Enclave), New Delhi-110019. Rs. 2700.

Indira Parthasarathy

“If a man could say nothing against a character but what he can prove, history could never be written,” said Samuel Johnson. So it is not only the literal past, the apparently maintainable “facts” of history that seek our scholarly attention but also images of the past embodied in language which are no less important. This becomes remarkably evident as one reads this book with a well-chosen title edited by the eminent scholar R. Balasubramanian. This is the latest volume in the series, “History of Science, Philosophy and Culture”, a project under the stewardship of one of the most internationally well-known intellectuals of India, D.P. Chattopadhyaya.

Chattopadhyaya says in his General Introduction to the books in this project, “History is, therefore, partly objective or ‘real’ and largely a matter of construction; this is one of the reasons why some of the historians themselves think that it is a form of literature or art...Certainly, imagination plays an important role in it.” The past is, irrefutably, the visualised concept of the present. The history of the past is constructed consciously only in the context of the conditions and values obtained in the present or in short, it is a critical attempt to study the unity of history in its continuity that leads towards the unity of life. So Benedetto Croce may not be far wrong, when he remarked, “all history is contemporary history.” Balasubramanian in his brilliant Introduction to the book analyses in depth, the literary, cultural and metaphysical mores in the social life of the Tamils of the past and does not hesitate to juxtapose it with the fundamental unity of philosophical thinking in India that constitutes the intrinsic aspect of what we know as “Indianness”, in spite of the linguistic diversities. He, by this, justifies the aim of this project “to discover the main aspects of Indian culture and present them in an interrelated way.”


The book is divided into five sections: the Life-World of the Ancient Tamils; the Epics: the Storying of Our Lives; Philosophy, Religion, and Mysticism in the Post-Sangam period; Education, Trade, Commerce, and Administration of the Ancient and Medieval Tamils, and Traditional Building Architecture. Eighteen reputed scholars from various disciplines have contributed 25 learned articles to cover these five sections. “Life-world” is an English rendering of the German word “Lebenswelt” used by Edmund Husserl, which in English would mean “world experienced”. The “life-world” is a pre-epistemological stepping stone for phenomenological analysis in the Husserlian tradition that brings out in good measure, to quote Balasubramanian, “the full significance of the entire dimension of philosophy, religion, culture and civilization.” The philosophical, religious and literary culture in any region of India does not stand in isolation and the interrelatedness is the bottom line of their continuity from time immemorial. Indian civilisation is a synthetic fabric of many-coloured threads, each thread with its own identity, and yet, inseparable from the cloth.

The seven articles in the first section, written by distinguished scholars as T.V.Gopala Iyer, R.M.Sundaram, A. Pandurangan, V. Rathinasabapathy, Prema Nandakumar and P.S. Somasundaram, bring out the beauty of these “many-coloured threads” in their individual distinctiveness and at the same time, lay stress on the “interrelatedness” between the part and the whole. Gopala Iyer’s article regarding the Vedic influence in the Tolkappiyam is likely to invite debate, as the politically correct and popular view is that all those sutras showing traces of Sanskritic thoughts in ancient Tamil grammar are interpolations added to the original text in the succeeding centuries. Considering the pre-Vedic pantheistic deities worshipped by the pre-Vedic Tamils, as mentioned in the Sangam works, beautifully spelt out by A. Pandurangan in his article, it is possible to assign a later date in the post-Sangam era to the Tolkappiyam as R.M. Sundaram does (fifth century C.E.) in his objective piece of writing in this book, in which case, the Vedic influences in the Tolkappiyam, may not be after all, interpolations. As a matter of fact, Sundaram ventures to put out the theory that the Tolkappiyam might not have been written by one single author and that “Porulathikaram” chapter could have been added later after the Tamil country came under the sway of Vedic culture.

Ideological forum

Prema Nandakumar, a versatile writer of many dimensions, has contributed three articles to this volume, besides being its associate editor along with another scholar of repute, S. Panneerselvan, whose insightful study of the Tirukkural adds distinction to the book. “The Puranas in Tamil” by Prema puts things in their proper perspective, as most of the major Puranas in Sanskrit appear to have been written in the Tamil region and justifiably have been succeeded later by the Puranas in Tamil. Sanskrit did not belong to any specific region in India, as a spoken dialect of any particular group, but was the pan-Indian language of communication between the intellectuals of this country in the past. The veteran scholar S.N. Kandaswamy’s two articles, one on the Manimekalai and the other on Buddhism in Tamil Nadu, are highly informative and portray how the ancient Tamil region provided the ideological forum for the various Vedic and non-Vedic religions to have their say, no different from a modern seminar of intellectual warfare. Though there are two articles on Tamil kinship, one by A.Pandurangan and the other by Chitra Madhavan, a renowned scholar on South Indian temples, they are not repetitive but distinctive in their own way, dealing with different aspects of kinship.



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