'Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions’ Review, Part II: How Have Sangam Era Texts Really Described Brahmins In Ancient Tamil Society?
Dr Upinder Singh's book on ancient India uses Sangam era literature to make some erroneous claims about ancient Tamil society.
A closer look at the Sangam texts reveals that they in fact imply the near-opposite of what this book claims.
Dr. Upinder Singh's first essay in her latest book Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions (Aleph, 2021) drives the narrative that the Vedic tradition imposed social hierarchy as an ideology. The first part of this review showed how crucial dimensions of Indian culture have been overlooked to support that view. Now this second part looks at another artificial fault-line that the essay opens.
When it comes to ancient Tamil territory, the essay makes the following observations:
Sangam poems mention Brahmanas but the four-fold varna system does not seem to have made any deep impression.(p. 32).
Varna and jati are not features of Sangam society, that is, the time when the Sangam poems were composed.(p. 36).
Against the varna-jati, the Tamil land had kutis she writes. She also speaks of the ancient kutis and states that ‘some of the groups who were considered ‘untouchable’ in later times (e.g., the Paraiya, Panan, Tutiyan, and Katampan) have a fairly respectable status in Sangam poems.’ (p.40)
Then she states:
The ideas of caste and untouchability are even more visible in South India during the Pallava period (sixth to ninth centuries)… Pallava kings, who claimed to be Brahmanas of the Bharadvaja gotra, patronized Brahmanas by giving them land grants and announced themselves as upholders of the order of varnas and ashramas in their inscriptions. The spread of caste and untouchability in South India seems to be directly connected with royal patronage of Brahmanas. This not only led to an increasing Brahmana influence in royal courts but also to the emergence of Brahmanas as authoritative mediators of social and religious values and practices at the village level.(pp. 40-41)
This is a typical academic sleight of hand and one wishes a scholar like Dr. Singh did not have to indulge in it. Sangam literature does not just ‘mention’ Brahmins.
Rather, it portrays Brahmins as part and parcel of Tamil life – inseparable, organic and major part of the Sangam cultural and spiritual life. They coexist effortlessly with the minstrels and bards. The Sangam kings performed Vedic rituals and the Sangam poets employed Vedic and Puranic imagery in their poetry.
Mankudi Kizhar (also Mankudi Maruthanar) was the Sangam poet whose lines mention ‘Paraiya, Panan, Tutiyan, and Katampan’ as the exclusive kutis. Dr. Singh refers to these four groups too. The poet had also written another work which is also part of Sangam corpus – Madurai Kaanchi. Here he mentions in detail about the Vedic recital of Brahmins – not as one-among-many phenomena but as a defining character of Madurai city and as a mark of glory of the king. He writes:
Singing splendidly the Vedas glorious
living a life of exemplary character
Yearning in this world and
Attaining the realm higher
From Dharma they never deviate
And ever their hearts filled with love
living in houses resembling carved in hillocks
such are the Brahmin residences. (Madurai Kaanchi: lines 468-74)
It further states that the reciting of the Vedas by the Brahmins like bees humming around the honey-laden flowers was one of the marks of the dawn scenes of Madurai.
Paripaadal, another Sangam work boasts that in Madurai people get up listening to the recital of Vedas and not to the sound of rooster crowing, as in other towns. The poem also speaks of the purity concerns of the Brahmins. When youthful couples, frolicking in the river, poured wine, and the scented powder they wore got mixed in the river, the Brahmins who came to the river for bathing left without taking a bath.
Purananooru, the most cited of the Sangam work, contains a poem by a poetess Auvaiyaar. She sees the ever-quarrelling Chera-Chola-Pandya kins together in peace and friendship. She is overwhelmed. She bursts into a poem. The poem speaks of the importance of doing good deeds in life:
Temporal power is ethereal. A powerful alien can oust the king. You who enjoy the fine filtered liquor that the adorned maidens pour into the golden chalices, give hand full gold to the worthy Brahmins along with flowers and water. Ultimately these good deeds one does always come with them. These good deeds form the boat by which one crosses this world. You three together as the three fires of the Brahmin household, may the days you live be as innumerable as the stars of the sky and drops in the rain.
Another Puranaanooru verse praises a Chera king. His subjects were safe and peaceful under his rule as the deer who abide by the three-fire the Brahmins venerate at dusk. And where do the Brahmins do that? In the golden Himalayas and Pothiyam (southern part of Western Ghats) (verse 2).
In Vedic convention, Brahmins have a sixfold duty – reciting the Vedas, teaching the Vedas, conducting Yajnas, facilitating Yajnas to be conducted, giving charity and receiving charity.
Puranaanooru calls Brahmins as ‘six-duty Brahmins’.
Pathittupathu expands and says what these six duties are. Pathittupathu also states that the Brahmins should be venerated by kings. The same text hailing a king says he never bowed down before anyone except the Brahmins. When a Chola king threw a dice in anger at a Brahmin who was playing with him he pointed out that his ancestors would never insult a Brahmin.
Puranaanooru speaks of how donating land to Brahmins was a virtuous act for Sangam kings. Brahmins who were closer to the kings also became their emissaries and their lifestyles differed from the Brahmins who were wedded to only conducting Vedic rituals. The formers ate meat and drank wine. But this is stated in the verse without any value judgement.
There were communities of Brahmins who left their Vedic vocation for other occupations – like cutting the conches and selling them (Ahanaanooru: 24:1-3). Again, the poem shows no value judgment. A poet, Nakeerar, from such a community, would become a great poet-seer in Tamil literary tradition. Sangam poetry even describes a lecherous old Brahmin.
Kalithogai – arguably a late Sangam work, shows a Brahmin seer with tri-danda. The heroine has gone with her lover. Her foster mother is agonisingly in search of her and asks the Brahmin. The Brahmin points out that though the music is born of the string instrument it does not belong to it. So also the girl who has found her love and destination and hence what she did is indeed righteous.
Perumpannaarupadai, another Sangam text describes the houses of the Brahmins. The long poem itself is in the form of guiding a minstrel and as the poem guides him through the city, various residents are described. He also passes the residences of Brahmins.
The Brahmin houses have a well-fed calf (meaning the cow milk is not completely taken for human consumption) and have floors made clean with cow dung. They have the sacred idols of Deities. Being vegetarians, they do not have hens which are grown in other households for meat. They do not have dogs either. There is always Vedic chanting in their houses. This is because the parrots in their households recite the Vedas. If one happens to reside in this area then you will get fed by the Brahmin women whose fidelity matches Arundathi. The rice variety served is the high quality rice named after the bird (which is guessed as Garuda Samba). That will be accompanied by pomegranates steamed in butter which in turn is got from red coloured cow. And on this chilli powder would be mixed along with fragrant curry leaves. They will also serve very tender mango pickles.
Centuries later one sees similar ‘parrots reciting the Veda imagery’ – not in southern India but in the north – in the description of Mandana Misra’s house.
Question is: do all these amount to just ‘Brahmins mentioned’ in Sangam texts or does Sangam literature describe Brahmins as a natural part of society and culture?
The problem here is not just that the book implies that Brahmins are merely mentioned in Sangam texts.
The problem is that Sangam poetry shows a society where citizens enjoyed liquor, non-vegetarian culinary delights, and various pleasures of life seamlessly and organically coexisted with the Brahmins who led lives of piety and who also had an influence on the entire society, so much so that even for secular aspects, the 'Brahminical' elements became simile and metaphors. Despite the notions of ritual purity, the Sangam age, with such Brahminical presence, did not look down upon minstrels and bards. Nor does it depict that the Brahmins showed any contempt towards them.
Then arises the question of the knowledge and acceptance of varna or its absence in the pre-Pallava ancient Tamil society.
The fact is ancient Tamil culture did know about the four-fold division. In Puranaanooru, a verse states that among the kuti, instead of the elder one, the one with wisdom would be favoured and among the four-fold division, the one who had fine knowledge, even if he is of inferior division would, have the upper one bow to him. (Puram: 183).
The earliest grammar work of Tamil is Tholkappiyam. The lowest limit set for the consolidation of this layered work is 5th century CE, though the scholarly consensus is from the first century BCE to third century CE. Here, we see a clear description of the four-fold division.
The Brahmins are described with the characteristic features of identification - the sacred thread, kamandal, tri-danda etc. For the kings, we have their royal symbols like their umbrella, their army, flag-mast, drum etc. Vaishyas practised trade and produced food. The Shudras worked in the fields and they also carried out assignments by the kings which earned them symbols like weapons and garlands.
Again, in Chilapathikaram, the Tamil epic (second century CE to fifth century CE), one finds not only varnas but the bhutas for each varna and settlements based on varnas.
However, there is a subsequent change.
The Pannars or the minstrels suddenly fall in their social status which they enjoyed as equal to Brahmins without any mutual rivalry. They become untouchables. Many occupational groups become untouchables. What could be the reason?
Their fall in status coincides with the spread of Buddhism and/or Jainism. Then that becomes the general social condition. It takes the Bhakti movement to fight this social stagnation.
During the period between seventh to ninth century, the religious history of the Tamil region saw conflicts between different religious traditions. These conflicts never became full-fledged religious wars. Thiruthakka Thevar, a Jain poet, wrote the Jivaka Chinthamani at this time, a Jain epic. It depicts the notion of defiled trades from the Jain point of view. Those hereditary occupational groups involved in hunting and fishing were considered as inferior clans and a birth in them were considered inferior births. (Jivaka. 2751)
If some occupations become defiled, some occupations came to be viewed as morally depraved. The rigid morality and adherence to Ahimsa created the framework for social imposition of purity. Thus, communities of minstrels, dancers and bards who vied with Brahmins for their proximity to kings as not just their entertainers but their emissaries and advisers, fell in status after the Sangam age and suffered social exclusion and stigma.
It is in this context one has to see Thirugnana Sambandar, a Saivaite born in a Brahmin house, making Neelakanda Yaazhpaanar – a minstrel with string instrument- and his wife, stay and sleep in a Brahmin household, by the sacred fire altar in the house.
But already the narrative of the historian is set – that Tamil culture is exceptional and different from Vedic culture and that caste, untouchability etc. came with the Vedic religion and Brahmins. The core statement here is this:
The spread of caste and untouchability in South India seems to be directly connected with royal patronage of Brahmanas.
But the literary (and also inscriptional) evidences show a completely different picture which can be summarised as thus: Vedic egalitarianism, as suggested in the society depicted by Sangam works, became stagnant; and the concept of defilement and depravity, associated with certain occupations by religions emphasising rigid morality and mechanistic non-violence, effected this. This was challenged by the Bhakti movement which drew strength from both the Vedic spiritual and Sangam literary traditions.
However the distorted narrative does not stop here and continues.
[Post script: Words like egalitarianism etc. are not very relevant to what existed in the ancient societies. It is kind of conceptual reverse-engineering and can often be faulty. But here the use is in relative terms.]
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