The writer T.R.Jawahar is Group Editor of Chennai-based News Today, Maalai Sudar and Talk Media publications.
I was pretty much certain many holy feathers would be ruffled. Why drag sacred Sanskrit into an unseemly fracas? What is the connection? It is my firm opinion that the contents of the last column, that harp on how Tamil scores over Sanskrit on several counts, are most relevant, if only to highlight the perverse ironies on parade in the present. Here is an account of the travesty of linguistic history, a lethal legacy that continues to define current politics.
Today, the veneer of inclusiveness and concern for minorities has become a diplomatic compulsion for the BJP. Having successfully and successively achieved absolute majority in LS, the toning down of the cliched pseudo-secular rhetoric can be passed off as magnanimous Rajdharma. Yet the RSS, BJP and other affiliates, their key leaders and their cultivated constituency are all genetically ingrained with Hindu Nationalism. Even in recent polls it was used to great effect, but selectively and smartly. All fine!
But the core … and sore point is that this Hindu Nationalism, that traces its roots deep into the past rides on the rath of Sanskrit. BJP’s nationalism is Sanskrit nationalism. Hindi nationalism is a by-product of this mindset, but we will come to that later. In BJP’s scheme of things, Hinduism, Hindutva, Cultural Nationalism and all such ideological expressions rest on the ‘assumed’ pre-eminence of Sanskrit in the Bharatiya, read, Indian Civilisation, to the exclusion of all other tongues and traditions, within the same Bharath. Now why should the more senior and better endowed Tamil take this lying down?
Now, one could understand if the primacy of Sanskrit was an ordained or organic development. But nothing can be far from truth. Ordained, yes, but by the British. In their view, for them to understand the Indian Hindu culture, it was essential to unravel the Sanskrit texts which were then the most visible signposts and easily available low hanging fruits. Their malignant motive was to decipher Hinduism to discredit it.
But whatever, much of their efforts and expense were directed at Sanskrit and the term ‘Indologist’ was synonymous to a foreign Sanskrit student / scholar. That Sanskrit was no longer in vogue as a spoken language did not matter. In short, Sanskrit owes its primacy primarily to the official patronage of the British, a gift from the unlikeliest of benefactor.
Tamil was not so lucky, despite its credentials in terms of chronology and cultural richness. I had mentioned in passing in the last article that researches of Tamil language and its civilisation are very nascent, around late 19th century. Even this was by zealous private individuals with only their undying thirst for knowledge and love of their mother tongue driving them. U Ve Swaminatha Iyer is the undisputed pioneer in this and his contributions are legendary. His successors and subsequent archaeological discoveries opened new windows into Tamil’s past.
The British colonialists had completely ignored Tamil research, obsessed as they were with the mistaken notion that Sanskrit is the repository of all that is Bharath. Lack of official recognition, much less patronage of Tamil, a thriving language, that has stood the test time and tide, literally, (tsunamis, climate changes, population upheavals, etc.), was a foolish, fatal injustice caused by the British not just to Tamil but to the domain of history itself. After all, this living language carries in its womb the lives and times of one the earliest, mature civilisations to have inhabited the planet.
So, while a fossilised language became the representative of a colonised nation’s culture, its most vibrant and throbbing tongue was not even allowed to wag. This head start that Sanskrit had over Tamil has proved to be very costly to the latter and its speakers, till date. The day may not be far for the tortoise Tamil to overtake the Sanskrit hare to the winning post of scientific and historic ratification, but the damage of delay lingers as a decisive denial. Here’s how.
Northern parties, netas and academics have taken much advantage at the supposed superiority of Sanskrit. They waste no opportunity to wax eloquent on the greatness and godliness of this ‘supreme’ language, vis-à-vis all other Indic languages and openly promote Sanskrit based on the unfair momentum received from the British.
In time, this lingo superiority has morphed into cultural and political superiority. Speakers who display reverence for any other language in similar vein are ignored and even insulted. It is this hangover from the British-vintage cocktail of ignorance and arrogance that is costing the BJP dear in TN, a State that holds its tongue close to its heart.
The hypocrisy of the Sanskrit-based Bharathiya proponents is apparent. They routinely question the history written by the British as one by the victors and, therefore, belittling of India’s real history. Quite fair. European imperialists resorted to such distortions of history world over to justify their colonial crimes. But while availing of the certificate of the vile British, the Sanskritwadis do not want to accord the same concession and concern to the history of other cultures and civilisations that belonged to ‘their’ cherished Bharatvarsha! In this duplicity they are being more British than the British.
After all, even the history of Tamil language and its speakers has been subdued, subverted and worse, made subservient to a rank junior. It has also been distorted and only of late the mists of time are clearing to reveal the shimmering kaleidoscope of a resplendent civilisation. Should not the proud protagonists of cultural nationalism own up this hallowed culture and give Tamil its due place as parent? Aah, It would be futile to expect them to acknowledge and accept the obvious, as that would mean swallowing their practiced pride. Clearly, Tamil will be a perennial irritation on their Sanskritic skin.
In contrast, we Tamils have always been more welcoming and cosmopolitan. We have had absolutely no inhibitions in adopting Sanskrit literature as our own, accepting many of its spiritual and religious injunctions in our life and rituals. Tamil scholars and savants have made it a point to learn Sanskrit and have translated some of the finest literatures of Sanskrit into Tamil, all with an eager intellectual openness and absolute self-confidence.
Kambar’s Ramayanam, though a translation of Sanskritic Valmiki Ramayanam, is a sterling example. And its greatness lies in the fact that though imported, it has a stand-alone merit as a classic literary Tamil work of all time. Ditto with the Bashyas of Shri Ramanuja. But translations apart, the ageless Sangam literatures of Tamil, most of the earliest ones having been destroyed by floods, are forerunners of the most ancient of Sanskrit texts.
I am obliged to mention without malice that hardly any of the great ancient Tamil works on philosophy and religion have been translated into any of the north Indian languages, let alone Sanskrit, in those early times.
Tamil also challenges Sanskrit’s monopoly over the sacred. The Vaishnavite Prabandhams and Saivite Dewaram and Thiruvasagam are the equivalent of the Vedas and other Sanskritic religious treatises in spiritual content and power, and their divinity have supposedly brought the Gods down to earth. We say this on the authority of the Alwars and Nayanmars who created these hymns in the same vein we believe the words of past anonymous Sanskrit peers. While the primal ‘Om’ has its Tamil origins too, for final salvation Tamil is as much handy as Sanskrit.
The siddhars of this land had crossed impregnable frontiers in all sciences, particularly the science of the soul, independently and even ahead of the saints of north. The holy and the irreverent, the physical and meta-physical, the weird and the wild, indeed, ideas of all kinds have found free flow in versatile Tamil. Though seemingly improper to compare, it must be said that for every Sage Veda Vyasa of yore and lore there, we have a Sage Agasthya here.
Tail piece: BJP, if it is serious about seeking political moksha in TN, would do well to start chanting Tamil’s glories, in Tamil for sure, as a penance for having enjoyed and exploited the unfair push its primary vehicle Sanskrit got very early on.
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