About two years ago, an English academic and his student, both interested in Tamil literature, attended a talk at Kalakshetra, the art hub of Chennai, by an Israeli scholar who has written a biography of the Tamil language. Their impressions invoked for me the relationship between foreign scholars and their native counterparts.

They told me that the talk was attended by city elites, mostly brahmins, who conducted a Ganapati puja with a recital of Sanskrit slokas, and there were many Bharatnatyam performers, all of them students of the centre. Then the speaker, David Shulman, talked about how the south Indian universe as reflected in the vision of The Ramayana shows Tamil as another deva bhasha, they added.

Surprised by their remarks, I bought Shulman’s book and started reading. It was not smooth reading because it was not written for a Tamil reader – I was reminded of the neglect of native scholarship in Orientalist Studies on Tamil. These are my reflections on the misconceptions of the writer and the authority he has assumed.

A “substratum” of Sanskrit?

David Shulman’s book Tamil: A Biography is a significant work in the history of modern Orientalism. It seeks to challenge the Sanskrit-centric Indology prevalent among Western audiences and tries to secure a place for Tamil. Shulman states this very clearly in the opening chapter: “This book is not meant to teach the [non-native] reader how to speak Tamil; but I would like you, nonetheless, to have at least some sense of what it feels like to live inside this language and to use its particular expressive features to subtle effect.”

This shows his anticipation of fellow-Orientalists, who have no knowledge of the language and culture of the Tamils. He also makes use of this opportunity to acknowledge the Indologists who worked on Tamil over the past century. By invoking this tradition he poses a radical challenge to Sanskrit Indologists.

The book, which has seven chapters, is placed within the frame of a ragamalika, starting with an (invocatory) alapana, then moving in the direction of pallavi (rising musical voice) and anupallavi with three saranams, and ending with a (closing) ragamaliha. Beginning with an account of the classical status of Tamil through studies on epigraphy, archaeology and grammar, Shulman tries to identify the musical and spiritual vestiges of the Tamil language and culture. He traces this cultural history of Tamil to medieval ethical literature and later in bhakti literature, thus hoping to elevate Tamil as a musical language sharing the common tradition of Indian classical music.

This helps Shulman reflect the dominant view among Indologists that Tamil is a “substratum” of Sanskrit. And he extends this view to contemporary Tamil as well: “Modern Tamil is astonishingly rich in Sanskrit loan words. Indeed, there may well be more straight Sanskrit in Tamil than in the Sanskrit-derived north-Indian vernaculars. Sanskrit words tend to be Tamilised in accordance with the Tamil phonematic grid, much in the way they were already at the time of the Tolkappiam grammar.”

In the light of this observation of a derivative tradition, he concludes that Tamil is another “deva bhasha”, on par with Sanskrit. Had he, perhaps, considered this so-called “deva bhasha” a form of cultural code, it would have supported his claim to have written a cultural biography of Tamil.

David Shulman
David Shulman.

Shulman’s position and his puranic methodology

While granting Francis Whyte Ellis’ (1777-1819) identification of Tamil as a distinct language and Bishop Robert Caldwell’s (1814-1891) declaration of “Dravidian” as forming a separate language group through a comparative study of south Indian languages, Shulman condemns native scholarship parochialism for invoking a Dravidian tradition and identity. This helps him challenge the dominant trend in Indology that privileges Sanskrit while at the same time finding a place for himself within it.

So he writes: “The long and complex relation between the two languages is a major theme throughout this book.” To suit this purpose, he evolves a framework that does not in any way affect Sanskrit-centric Indology. He declares: “This is not the book a historical linguist would have written. It is more of a cultural history of Tamil with particular focus on the understandings and perceptions about the language that came to the surface over the two thousand years of its documented existence”

The “documented existence” refers mostly to the literary/religious sources available in English translations, thanks to the committed generation of scholars like AK Ramanujan (1929-93), Vaidehi Herbert, George L Hart and Ila Thangappa, whose translations of early Tamil literature and scholarly studies on early Tamil tradition by Kamil Zvelebil (1927-2009) and the like are available in English for present day Indologists.

Hence Shulman chose to ignore (untranslated) Tamil sources and generations of Tamil as well as Sanskrit scholarship, perhaps because native Tamil scholarship may not be useful for his construction of a religious history of Tamils to his anticipated Western audience, who perceive all of India within the frame of Hinduism. It is this Orientalist view of India and the perspective of Hindu nationalists that have set the tone of this book, becoming Shulman’s position vis-a-vis Tamil language and culture.

To accomplish the paradoxical task of talking about the uniqueness of Tamil and at the same time placing it on a “substratum” of Sanskrit, Shulman traces, like an ancient romantic Orientalist, the origin of Tamil to a myth relating to sage Agastya. He says: “Not everyone can take in or recognise this fragrance, but the First Sage, Agastya, did and, overcome by its power, proceeded to write a grammar of this sweet vital force after learning to speak and understand with the help of Lord Śiva.”

But Shulman fails to acknowledge the patronage given to Tamil scholars by Saivetes, who linked this antiquity of the Tamil language to Lord Siva. He also ignores the Jain-Buddhist traces in the references to sage Agastya cited by Tamil scholars like pundit Iyothee Thass and the discussion of Jain-Buddhist strains in classical Tamil literature and culture.

Talking of Sangam poetry, he accepts the “technical competence” of the poets but attributes it to the metaphysical spirit of the syllable, the spoken word that is innate to Tamil. In fact, he attributes a “metaphysical spirit” to all of south Asian literary culture, and sees this “magical power as surviving to this day in the Karnatic music!” Hence he chooses to take this “jouissance” as the template for his book: “Tamil has never lost, even to this day, the innate mantic potency of the spoken syllable, which also animates musical composition in the classical Carnatic system.”

Criticising the early missionaries’ interest in Tirukural, he said: “They liked to think that the reputed author, Tiruvaḷḷuvar, was even influenced by early Christianity, perhaps via Alexandrian or Syrian Christians who may have made their way to Mylapore.” If, as ancient Orientalists, the missionaries tried to find a Christian link to Tiruvalluvar, as a modern Orientalist Shulman affirms a Vedic link to Tiruvalluvar. He is more interested in the life “story” of the poet Tiruvalluvar as found in Tiruvalluvar Carithiram than in the non-Vedic nature of the text Tirukkural.

Shulman does the same with Cilapathikaram and Manimekalai, and also with the Bhakti poets, situating his methodology on the borders between biography and cultural history. The problem is not just with his dependence on myths (temple myths, puranic stories and myths about poets), but also with his avoidance of parallel non-Hindu myths or Jain-Buddhist interpretations of the same texts. This shows his interest in linking Tamil with a Sanskrit-Vedic culture to suit his audience.

Hence, he chooses Tiruvilaiyadarpuranam as his framework for establishing the derivative status of Tamil and presents the idea of the “Tamil Sangam” as evidence to substantiate his puranic perspective. The fact that the locale of the stories in Tiruvilaiyadarpuranam belong to Tamil land (Madurai, Kanchipuram, Rameshwaram) and that references to these stories are found even in early Tamil sources (which were later accommodated in Tiruvilaiyadarpuranam) subverts his hierarchical structure placing Sanskrit above Tamil. Thass argues that the prefix “tiru” in Tirukkural and in other Tamil texts is a modification of “tiri”, which refers to the thri-pidagams of Buddhist doctrines.

Since most of the Indologists who work on Tamil literature belong to the departments of Religious Studies, they are unable to read the resistance of Tamils and resort to a strictly Hinduised framework. This seems to determine Shulman’s attitude towards Tamil. Romanticising the word “Tamil”, he cites The Tamil Lexicon, which, he says, “suggests that the name goes back to Tamil, ‘solitude’, ‘loneliness’ – so this would be a rare case of a language calling itself lonely or, perhaps, singular... A second, homonymous root uḷ refers to whatever is inside, interior – hence, uḷḷam, ‘heart’, ‘mind’, and uḷḷu/uḷku, ‘to think’. But these two uḷs often fuse in popular understanding: in some sense, in Tamil ‘to be’ is ‘to be inside’, and truth, too, is a kind of innerness.”

In another context, Shulman writes: “In Tamil, as we shall see, in-ness and out-ness are, on principle, inextricably intertwined”. This “in-ness”, according to him, is linked with Vedic culture, perceptible only to an Indologist trained in Sanskrit, whereas the socio-historical and political factors that constitute the “out-ness” are found in biased native scholarship that must be ignored by the Indologists.

Shulman’s lengthy discussion of the Vaishnava sect within the Bhakti movement and his attempt to trace the origin of Vaishnavism to the Sangam text Kalithogai is familiar among Tamil academic circles through the work of Krishnasamy Iyenkar’s Early History of Vaishnavism in South India (1920). The book, written in English and available on the internet, is not cited by Shulman.

Since the emergence and circulation of the idea of Bhakti from Tamil land with its brilliant accommodation of the akam and puram traditions of Sangam literature has been widely discussed among Indian scholars (both in Tamil as well as in English), Shulman has given due credit to Tamil Bhakti. However, the social engineering that ran through the Bhakti movement and its radical critique of the caste and varna system discussed widely by native scholars has been swept under the carpet.

Even as he endorses the myth relating to Agastya, Shulman completely ignores the existence of a tradition of grammar that acknowledges Tolkappiam. While he says that Tolkappiam has used a source from Sanskrit, he does not name it. Perhaps this is because Shulman believes that Sanskrit is the “ur-text” to all that has appeared in the Tamil (and any other Indian) tradition.

While there is no reference made to Agathiyar in Tolkappiam, but only a reference to the Ainthram tradition, Shulman attributes this tradition to one individual, Agathiyar. As he strongly believes in the existence of one Hinduism, he gives more importance to mythical evidence than textual evidence. Even within puranic history, Shulman ignores Nallapillai Bharatam (originally published in 1888), which accommodates the non-Vedic Tamil tradition and subversive stories of puranic gods found in Tamil folklore.

Responding to the attitude of caste Hindus in the “preface” to his undelivered speech, “The Annihilation of Caste”, BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) had criticised the anti-intellectual attitude of even Hindu reformists, stating that “they have belief in the words of sages”. It is this attitude that is found in Shulman’s choice of the mythical as the framework for his book. So he opts to trace the origin of Tamil speech to the dialogue between the human (sage) Agastya and the god Siva. Naturally, Shulman reads the submission of poet Nakkeeran to Siva in Tiruvilaiyadarpuranam as the failure of Nakkeeran’s claims to independent Tamil tradition and ignores the possibility of reading the poet’s resistance to another tradition.

In fact, Shulman reads myths literally along the lines of a caste Hindu, ignoring the methodology of ethnography and anthropology. But he dismisses much of Dravidian studies as unscientific and mythical: “It was once quite common to assume that the archaic Sanskrit of the Rig Veda rested on, or had somehow absorbed, a linguistic substratum that was possibly Dravidian – this assumption being ironically in line with the modern Dravidianist myth of origins, according to which all of prehistoric India was once Dravidian in speech.”

Misconceptions and limitations

Besides such deliberate avoidance of sources, Shulman’s book also displays other serious limitations, all, possibly, to suit his preferred puranic perspective of Tamil.

Ironically, though, Shulman’s choice of meaning for the word “Tamil” helps him take a mythical route, but he ends up sharing the Dravidianists’ romantic reclaiming of a Tamil history that he vehemently criticises. If the Dravidianists are criticised for romanticising ancient Tamil history, Shulman does the same by treating the puranic accounts as history.

It is this other side of history that has resulted in the definition of “Tamil” in the Tamil Lexicon as “people excluding untouchables” and in the removal of nearly 70 pages (which discussed in detail the religion of pariahs and tribes and raised question about Dravidian identity) from the 1976 edition of Robert Caldwell’s A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (1856) by the University of Madras. Scholars at different universities, research institutes in Tamil Nadu, and independent Tamil literary magazines like Manarkeni have conducted conferences on the relation between Tamil and Sanskrit in the light of this new data, followed by discoveries from the fields of archaeology and epigraphy. Shulman chooses to ignore all such efforts in order to justify his Hinduistic perspective of the Tamil.

His attempt to trace Sanskrit as “the” source for Tamil faces the following problems:

Just as Urdu literature cannot be reduced to Islamic writers (because Hindu writers also write in Urdu), Sanskrit cannot be limited to Hindu texts. Besides, Hindu texts are also available in other languages.

Since Sanskrit texts were produced in various scripts in north and south India, we cannot assume Sanskrit texts form one monolithic tradition in one language. Even a nodding acquaintance with studies on Buddhism (there is a tradition of Tibetan Buddhism which rests on Sanskrit texts) or even the puranic traditions in regional languages in India would have helped Shulman broaden his vision of language and culture in the Indian context.

We have evidence of scholars who worked on the same story in the same place and at the same time both in Tamil and Sanskrit. So, texts also travelled from Tamil to Sanskrit. The Tamil scholar A A Manavalan, an expert on the Ramayana in South Asia, has proved with evidence that the verses relating to Rama’s birth and horoscope found in the later northern versions of the Sanskrit Ramayana were taken from the Tamil epic, Kambaramayanam.

As Shulman says, just as a pure Tamil language never existed, a pure, independent Sanskrit tradition also never existed. Despite its usage within a closed scholarly circle, Sanskrit also received words, ideas, themes and texts from other languages. Sanskrit texts on temples, like the Chidambaram temple, were written also by Tamil pundits. In the Indian context the memory of social life before the formation of linguistic states quite naturally preserves a multilingual and multicultural tradition. But Shulman adopts the notion of a one language-one culture nation.

A Dalit critique of Shulman’s work is relevant, as he chooses to accommodate Dalit literature in an attempt to reflect on contemporary Tamil. It is sad, however, that Shulman limits his examination of Dalit literature to one writer, Imayam – who has been denying not just a “Dalit identity” but also the claims of a “dalit language” and “dalit dialect” for more than two decades – and calls for a broad critique of caste in the mainstream.

More religious than cultural

Shulman’s biography is not a cultural history, as he claims, but only a history of Tamil from a religious, Sanskrit and puranic perspective. He seems to reduce cultural history to religious history by, among other things, disregarding the exponents of the former in academic circles – such as Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, Michel de Certeau and Mikhail Bakhtin. His notion of “culture” has no place for folklore, where parallel myths abound, and the classical versus folk dichotomy cannot be maintained. Folk performers have often proved that they are “classical” in their training. A little familiarity with folk performing traditions would help anyone understand Tolkappiar’s insistence on ulaga vazhakku (discourse of life) and nadaga vazhakku (discourse of art). We cannot find ulaga vazhakku in Sanskrit, as it remained a language of the cultured elite.

Shulman repeatedly makes sardonic reference to the so-called “Dravidianists”, but does not specify any authors or texts. Does he mean the 19th century scholars who established the Dravidian identity, or is he referring to those who share the ideology of Dravidianism in the present time? His references to the commentaries on Sangam, post-sangam and Tamil kavya traditions are found in the studies of other foreign Indologists like Norman Cutler or Francis Gros, among others, but only two Tamil scholars, U Ve Saminatha Iyer and T P Meenakshi Sundaram, and one present-day scholar and translator, Archana Venkatesan, find mention.

In fact, Shulman’s references to the activities of the Dravidian movement are taken from scholarly works by Sumathy Ramasamy and Eugene Irshick. He writes: “Tamil Brahmins – living in Tamil, shaped by Tamil culture, entirely at home in the various interwoven and overlapping Tamil worlds – were perceived as foreign interlopers, the bearers of an alien, Sanskritic culture at odds with an imagined, autochthonous, purely Dravidian civilisation.” The fact that most of the translators of Dalit literature are Brahmins and that Brahmin scholars showed interest not just in Dalit Studies but also produced books and documentaries on the Dravidian ideologue, Periyar, shows that Shulman merely wants to accommodate the contempt of his native informants for a few so-called “Dravianists”. This anti-Dravidian position of his informants shapes the argument of his book, privileging a strict puranic methodology over the methodology of literary, ethnographic and social sciences.

The voice of native informants

Arguing that “modern spoken Tamil is astonishingly rich in Sanskrit loan words”, Shulman ridicules the Tamil scholars who attempted to establish its uniqueness : “Yet in the twentieth century there was a movement, driven by Dravidian nationalists, to de-Sanskritise spoken Tamil by replacing Sanskrit words with ‘pure’ Tamil roots…. One cannot get along in Tamil without Sanskrit words. They were there at the beginning and they are there today.” While his repeated insistence on taking a position against the autonomous existence of a Tamil tradition sounds reasonable and convincing, we need to remember that his contempt for the Dravidianists does not arise from his acquaintance with native scholarship, but is borrowed from his anti-Dravidian informants.

Shulman’s ambiguous understanding of language and dialect has resulted in a reduction of the “Dalit dialect to Imayam and the Madurai district dialect to G Nagarajan”. “Is the Madurai district dialect caste-free?” a Tamil reader will ask. “Do Dalits form a distinct linguistic entity?” any Indologist will ask.

Shulman also ignores the tradition of Indologists who worked on caste as he chooses to establish a Puranic history of Tamil language and culture. Though it is wrong to expect references to all modern Tamil writers in such a short account of Tamil language / literature by an Indologist, it is surprising to note that of the six modern writers that he refers to, four were published by the same publisher.

One can say that behind every Orientalist – both ancient and modern – there is a maze of local informants, native scholars and dedicated local hosts. The history of caste studies has made this obvious. The position taken by the Orientalists who rely on the lower caste group is radically different from those who rely on dominant caste informants. This could be clearly seen in the writings of the Calcutta-based Orientalists like William Jones (1746-94) and Max Muller (1823-1900) on the one side and that of Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719), Francis Whyte Ellis and Bishop Robert Caldwell on the other. Thass, a neo-Buddhist and a scholar in Tamil, Sanskrit and Pali, talks in his magazine Tamilan (August 12, 1908) of the influence of native informants which led to the construction of Hinduism among the Orientalists. Shulman thus remains a perfect example of a “modern Orientalist” in the sense in which Edward Said uses the term.

The author thanks Dr P R Subramanian, Lexicographer, Mozhi Trust; Dr Srinivasan, Bharatham scholar and Professor of Tamil, Presidency college; and Dr Gajendran Ayyadurai, Gottingen University, Germany, for their valuable comments and suggestions.

R Azhagarsan is a Professor of English, University of Madras.