Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently spoke about the greatness of Tamizh language to a group of students in North India.
More than political posturing, this expression of admiration comes from Modi’s schooling at Sangh, who see Tamizh as an integral part of the Indic heritage.
The Tamizh chauvinists, who try to reject this undeniable link, could learn a thing or two from the Prime Minister.
Tamil should be called Tamizh. The letter ‘zha’ (ழ) is considered unique to the Tamil language. Just as we have accepted the anglicised version of the language even officially (the state’s name is Tamil Nadu and not Tamizh Nadu), leaving out its characteristic feature, the same way we, the Tamizhs, have left out the hallmark of the language – its real greatness – while nurturing a chauvinistic linguistic pride.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about the greatness of Tamizh language to a group of students in North India, he made perhaps one of the most profound statements in the history of independent India. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is an electorally inconsequential political force in Tamil Nadu and clearly does not even figure in Amit Shah’s scheme of things as a fertile growth area identified for potential electoral dividend. What then would have motivated Modi to make this statement, which, while running the danger of antagonising his party’s traditional North Indian vote bank, garners next to nothing politically?
In the answer to this question lie important points which Tamizh people should take note of.
Modi comes from the background of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Despite critics stereotyping the RSS as a pro-Hindi outfit that is culturally insensitive to South Indian exceptionalism, the morning prayer of the RSS is perhaps the only nationwide chant that speaks of Thiruvalluvar, Aazhwars, and Nayanmars.
During their previous tenure in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) regime tried to make the famous Thiruvalluvar statue in Kanyakumari (which it helped construct) the logo of Tamil Nadu. It wanted to replace the temple tower, which has been the official logo of the state (which too was chosen by an early DMK regime). But this symbolic act was not without irony.
The idea of erecting the Thiruvalluvar statue was mooted by late Eknath Ranade (1914-1982), the venerable Sangh ideologue who was then president of Vivekananda Rock Memorial Committee and Vivekananda Kendra in Kanyakumari. The first model for the statue was given to the then-Tamil Nadu government by Ranade himself. The RSS icon had persuaded M G Ramachandran (MGR), the then-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, to agree to the installation of Thiruvalluvar statue.
Ranade, who had admirers across party lines, used the good offices of Prabhudas Patwari, the then-governor of the state, to make MGR agree to this proposal. The foundation stone for the statue was laid by Morarji Desai, the prime minister of India, in a ceremony on 15 April 1979, and the invitation was published in the name of Ranade and the Tamil Nadu government.
The DMK government would have ended up making the design submitted by a veteran RSS leader the official logo of Tamil Nadu, had it replaced the temple tower with Thiruvalluvar statue.
In the Dravidian circles, another incident is narrated of how when C N Annadurai, former chief minister, had an opportunity to meet the Pope, he demanded the release of Mohan Ranade – a Savarkarite – arrested by the Portuguese government during the Goa liberation movement. Apart from the historicity of this event, which most probably is true, the narrative shows that Annadurai, who too was a staunch Dravidian racist, was coming to realise the cultural oneness of India.
It is interesting to note that to the contrary, Golwalkar of the RSS congratulated Annadurai on forming the ministry. Even before Annadurai came to power, Ranade had contacted him for his support to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, which he secured. While rejecting the Dravidian race theory, the RSS was able to see the real grievances which in turn comes from the rootedness of the Sangh in the spiritual oneness of India.
So when Modi expressed his love for Tamizh and recognised its past, it was not just political posturing. It comes from his schooling at Sangh. Having worked closely with him, Ranade’s life and ideals played a profound role in shaping Modi’s politics.
On the other hand, consider this:
On Maha Shivaratri day, Vairamuthu, a Tamil lyricist, spoke about the greatness of the Tamil language. He spoke about “Lemuria” as the place of birth of Tamizh and humanity. The outlandish and unscientific myth of Lemuria is a theosophical version of an Eastern Atlantis. It combines the racist views of the period with exotic pseudo-scientific theories of human origin – speculations that were doing the rounds in the century prior to the discovery of the continental drift.
Even worse, Seeman, a fringe Tamizh ultra-nationalist who has mastered the art of whipping up gullible audience into a frenzy with his hyped histrionics and is actively promoted by the Church, quotes Alex Collier as the linguistic authority to claim that Tamizh was the oldest language in the world, from which all other languages came about. It is like quoting Erich von Däniken, an author who claims early human culture was influenced by extraterrestrial beings, to prove the existence of ancient nuclear weapons in India. Collier is an American cultist who claims to have received the real history of earth from an extraterrestrial civilisation in Andromeda.
From the outdated “Lemuria” speculation to the Aryan-Dravidian race theory to the Andromeda cult – Tamizh chauvinists have made a fool of themselves and yet can sell themselves to the Tamizh population in Tamil Nadu, at least to a significant section of them. It is a commentary on the unnecessary inferiority complex that we Tamizh people suffer from, despite claims of grandiosity.
The sad fall for Tamizh started with the ascendancy of the Dravidian movement. Thirukkural, which was a great text of Indic insights, was secularised. The text, which is a combination of smriti and subhashita, speaks of “Havis” – the ritual offering to the Vedic fire sacrifice – speaks directly of the Vamana avatar, Lakshmi, Indra and so on. At best, it can only be construed as an Indic text common to Indic religions, though in the Tamizh mind, till the beginning of the last two centuries there was little doubt about the Hindu nature of the text.
Or consider the spiritual legacy of Ramalinga Swami Vallalar (1823-1874), the great enlightened Tamizh seer, who linguistic chauvinists have now appropriated as an icon of pure Tamizh identity. Recently, Pazha. Karuppaiah, a rabble-rousing pamphleteer and notorious party-hopper (who is currently aligned to the DMK, a party which he attacked unsparingly when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was in ascendancy in the run-up to the 2011 elections), gave an interview to a sleaze tabloid in Tamil Nadu. In the video interview that has since gone viral, Karuppaiah alleges that the word ‘Hindu’ was not known to Tamizhs and that it was the handiwork of legendary Tamizh poet Bharathi, whom he accused of having an ‘Aryan’ bias.
In the vituperative racist rhetoric of Karuppaiah and fringe Periyarist-Dravidianist, even Tamizh’s greatest modern poet, who lived and died in penury in his love for the language, is attacked for his Brahmin background.
However, Vallalar himself had used the term Hindu in a positive light. To him, Hindu spirituality alone provided humanity with the art of immortality and if such claims were made in other religions, they would have to be considered as approximations of Hindu spirituality. Further, in his famous mystic hymn Thiruvarutpa, Vallalar has used the word ‘Aryan’ in its traditional meaning – spiritually noble. Given that it was at a time when Dravidian racism was gaining a hold in the political rhetoric of the nation, one can say that Vallalar was in his gentle but firm way rejecting the Aryan-Dravidian race theories.
Unfortunately, the more the Tamizh chauvinists try to reject the organic, embedded link and contribution of Tamizh with the pan-Indic culture, the more the Tamizh rhetoric heads off into a crackpot direction.
Tamizh is a unique language because it is both a classic ancient language and also a language of the masses. Tamizh chauvinists again have fallen into the trap of comparing the language to Sanskrit and claim that while Sanskrit is a dead language, Tamizh as a living one. In reality, Sanskrit has always been a living language of the sacred space while Tamizh has always been making sacred all aspects of human life. In Sangam literature, the metaphor of life as a yajna can be seen. Even the war is seen as a yajna of valour. What is true of Tamizh is also true of all Indic languages, but among all Indic languages, Tamizh is both ancient, spiritual and classic and yet vibrant with the masses. If one removes this unique, sacred aspect of Tamizh, then it becomes ‘just another’ language, which is perhaps what the European Dravidianists wanted.
In popular Tamizh memory unsullied by European concepts of racism, both Thiruvalluvar and Tholkappiyar (the author of the most ancient grammar text) were Hindu in their culture and spirituality. It took decades of chauvinist propaganda to change this civilisational understanding. Because of this research, Tamizh language and society have suffered a great setback. A mixture of Dravidian racism combined with Marxist rhetoric today rules a significant section of mainstream media in Tamil Nadu. It is not only shallow, racist, and xenophobic, but runs against the very spiritual core of Tamizh language.
The most-needed advice for Tamizh now was given perhaps by a non-Tamizh 50 years ago. In 1968, the second World Tamil Conference was held in Tamil Nadu. The then president of India, Dr Zakir Husain (1897-1969), attended the conference. A scholar of Indian culture and spirituality, Husain pointed to the pan-Indic contribution made by the Tamizhs and also underlined how Tamizhs were preeminently a knowledge society.
“Kulasekara Azhwar had made great contribution not only to Tamizh literature but his Mukunda Mala is also an important and great Sanskrit literary work. He had provided in it the essence of the spiritual philosophy of Aandal and Nammalzhvar”, the president had pointed out.
Contemplating about the contribution of Tamizh savants to Sanskrit literature it makes us think about our religious and philosophiocal tradition. It makes us feel the very broad nature of Tamizh thoughts. Through Saivism, Vaishnavism they enriched Bhakthi. Through Advaita and Dvaita philosophical systems Tamizhs enriched Hinduism substantially. They also contributed through Kunthacharya to Jain literature. Both Dhignaga and Dhammabala of Vignayavada Buddhism were Tamizhs who came from Kanchi though they taught at Nalanda. There were also Islamic seers. Poet Umaru in 5000 verses wrote ‘Seera Puranam.’Former Indian president Dr Zakir Husain
Then the president pointed out that when the great poetess and seer Avvaiyar said one should not stay in a village with no temple, it should be seen also in the context of the fact that the temples were also great centres of learning. Temples in Tamil Nadu were “centres of art, literature, spirituality and social relations”, he pointed out in the spirit of Dharampal.
In the ascendancy of Nandivarman-II, a legendary king, without direct birth-based claims, the Kanchi university played an important role, he pointed out. After indicating to the universal spirit manifesting equally in the Sangam literature of the yore and in Bharathi, Husain then asked the present-day Tamizhs a soul-stirring question in conclusion:
If Bharathi is to live among us today, how he would have felt? Woul he have been hurt to tears? Would he have asked his fellow Tamizhs to forget their broad hearted universal spirit? Or would he have used the creative positive power of Tamizh lineage to remove the falsehoods and provide real hope for the future? Would he have asked Tamizhs to become narrow in their outlook or would he have asked them to work for the greatness of all Indian people without any narrow considerations? And what answer would Tamizhs give to such questions. I believe that given their great broad-hearted cultural lineage Tamizhs would have answered in a way that would be a continuation of the Tamizh heritage.*Former Indian president Dr Zakir Husain
Unfortunately, the question that scholar-president Husain asked 50 years ago still stands relevant for all thinking Tamizh people, and Modi has but rephrased the question of Husain to the Tamizh people through his statement of admiration.
*The text of Dr Zakir Husain’s address is a free translation from a Tamizh rendering of his speech published in Anantha Vikatan, dated 14 January 1968.