Representative image: Bhagavata Purana
Snapshot
  • There appears to have been a Tamil Nadu-based Indic-Islamic tradition which was an integral part of wisdom seeking in South India until early and mid-twentieth century.

    Now it has either gone underground or been overtaken by the infusion of radical ideas in the state.

It was purely by accident that I came across this book. Its last publication year is 2012 and yet it has never received the attention it deserves. The book is Vedanta Baskaran. It is a Tamil treatise on Advaita. In a way it is a treatise on practical Advaita – how one can realise the truth. The original publisher’s preface and the entire text of the book exhibits a style of writing that belongs to early twentieth century. In fact, the first publication of this book was in Tamil year Pingala, which is 1917.

The original preface by the publisher, reproduced in the present edition, starts with the importance of Advaita and then tersely requests that those who are uninterested in truth and liberation should not even touch the book. Real Advaitins are clearly not very market-friendly. Further, the first publisher in his preface says that the book came to be purely with the assistance of “Adi Dravidas who call /consider themselves Hindus and by none else”.

In the book we see text defining the Advaita state as the true nature of the self, and places the experience of the divine in the non-dual context. The need for Yogic discipline is emphasised. The author criticises some trends of free sex cults that seem to have arisen by claiming that as all are Brahman, the need for ethics and morals could be discarded for a hedonist lifestyle.

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The book profusely quotes the Quran, Tirukkural, Thirumanthiram, Bhagavad Gita, Achara Kovai, Thiruvarutpa, Thayumanavar, etc. It places the Quran in the context of the Indic spiritual texts and provides a mystic interpretation to the verses. It also uses well-known Puranic anecdotes derived from both known Puranas like Srimad Bhagavatam and local traditions to explain the real nature of Yogi and the spiritual seeker. The book emphasises the need for compassion for all life forms (popularised in Tamil Nadu by Vallalar as Jeevakarunya) while arguing that the ethnic vegetarians should not judge the ethnic non-vegetarians as inferior: “When a person born in a non-vegetarian family becomes vegetarian then he may face a lot of problems in his immediate family and community. There is every possibility that a non-vegetarian despite his habit of non-vegetarian diet may have in heart compassion for all life-forms. Also those who are ethnic-vegetarians, who shun non-vegetarian food as a habit, may indulge in otherwise violent behavior with animals. So do not judge a person merely by his or her food habit. At the same time Jeevakarunya is of utmost importance for a spiritual seeker.”

The most interesting thing about the book is its attitude towards women. At one point, the book takes the typical medieval attitude that women are an obstacle to liberation. It provides advice like not to talk to women in private and never listen to their singing, particularly if the song contains amorous themes. Usually such a rant stops with warning men against women, “the enchanting devils”. But here he extends the same treatment to men. He says similarly that women should also be aware of men as men are capable of quite a lot of cunning cruelty and are cheaters.

But as he proceeds, his tone changes. He asks for complete equality of men and women in spiritual pursuits. The last chapter is titled “Women Enlightenment” . The passage is worth quoting in full:

In seeking Moksha (liberation) there is no difference between men and women. But in the society men have the ability to move freely and mix with anyone and befriend anyone they want. That way they are able to pursue their quest. However women have to depend on their parents initially and are in the control of their husbands after that. This is the only difference. Yet if a woman is determined and pursues her spiritual quest without caring about what the society says then who can stop her? The social restrictions are only for those who have filled themselves with the trash of worldly notions of honour and shame.  People can talk. When dogs bark at the full moon then ultimately their mouths are going to ache and it is not going to affect the moon.  ... We have the history of Ammakkadevi who renounced all worldly life and went out nude seeking the Truth. Allammadevar proclaimed her as the most suitable soul then alive for receiving enlightenment. Prabhulingaleela also mentions Allamadevar initiating his sister Muthaayi. We also have the tradition of Avvaiyaar the saint poetess whose ‘Avvai Kural’ shows how immersed she was in divine wisdom. Then we have the great Gyaneswari Karaikal Ammayaar.  Is not Saraswathi Herself a woman the head of all knowledge. If I am to expand on all the great women seers who have contributed to our spiritual heritage it will go on  and on. So let me limit myself saying seeking truth and liberation is common to all genders. 

The book, as stated earlier, was first published in 1917. The endorsement for it was given by Maulana Syed Shah Muhammad Inayathullah Kalphatul Kathri of Madras. The Maulana considers this book as keeping with the spirit of Islamic wisdom and a treasure chest. According to him, the book contains truths which would “destroy the inner darkness of the humans and make their lotus bud of their heart (qalp – Arabic term with mystic connotation) flower expanding its petals and make their intelligence shine ... and thus truly understand the Kalima”.

The book and the endorsement make one think whatever happened to this Tamil Nadu-based Indic-Islamic tradition which has made itself an integral part of wisdom seeking in South India for quite a few centuries until early and mid-twentieth century. This tradition has either gone underground in the Islamic society of Tamil Nadu or has been extinguished by the imported Salafi-Wahhabi radicalisation of Islam in the state.

When the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat spoke of a Hindu Rashtra being incomplete without Muslims, that includes preservation of such spiritual traditions as have emerged in the Islamic community in India, which are unique to India and which can serve as a model for spiritual evolution of diverse religious tradition through non-dualism.

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