Was Southern India Sanatana Dharma's Opponent Or Its Cradle? Here Are The Facts

Aravindan Neelakandan

Sep 07, 2023, 06:52 PM | Updated 06:52 PM IST

A sculpture of Ilango Adigal (Wikimedia Commons)
A sculpture of Ilango Adigal (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Apologias and justifications for Udhayanidhi Stalin's comments have started coming in.
  • Here's a rebuttal to one of the more popular ones.
  • A Tamil writer, known for his ever-changing viewpoints, has recently come forward to support DMK minister Udhayanidhi Stalin’s statement on the eradication of Sanatana Dharma. He has provided a justification for the contentious speech, adding to the fabricated north-south divide.

    This apologia is now being highlighted, as it provides the best intellectual- and spiritual-sounding justification for the Udhayanidhi's comments.

    Ullekh NP, a political writer, has produced this entire apologia on his website. He also shared it on X (Twitter) :

    Let’s take a closer look at the main assertions presented and see if the Tamil writer's claims are a sturdy mansion or a fragile sandcastle.


    … the way Sanatana Dharma has been under attack in South India for more than 2000 years is evident from literature such as the Purananuru, the classical Tamil poetic work as old as Jesus Christ or older.


    The poems of Purananuru repeatedly show a society based on Vedic values. In the poems, Vedic sacrifice is a symbol and metaphor in many positive ways.

    In the very second song of Purananuru, the poet explains how the subjects of Chera king live without fear and in that context, describes a scene that culturally and spiritually unites India. He mentions how the deer populations of both the Himalayas and Western Ghats , without fear, abide, in the places where the Brahmins perform evening fire rituals.

    The song numbered 166 was sung by a poet named Avur Mulam Kizhar. It was sung to a Brahmin of Kaundinya Gotra, who belonged to Chola territory.

    This poem can even be considered as alluding to the term Sanatana Dharma - Dharma that never ceases to exist. Because this song describes the Vedas as never leaving the tongue of that primordial Divinity Siva and that these Vedas are rooted in the One - which is Dharma.

    These Vedas, which have one basis (Dharma) and which never depart from the tongue of Siva (and hence eternal) are four in number and they have six limbs.

    Based on this one can even argue that the conception of Vedic Dharma as eternal is validated in ancient, classical Tamil tradition.

    Let us consider the song numbered 367.

    It was written by a poetess Avvaiyar. She sees the three main Tamil kings who usually have mutual animosity, together in friendship and harmony and she compares this scene of the three kings to the ‘the three fires of the twice born’.

    This is the only song in which such a scene of peace and serenity between the three Tamil kings is described in the entire body of Purananuru.

    The examples keep on coming verse after verse. But one hopes this shows the utter falsity of the statement that 'Sanatana Dharma was under attack in the Sangam literature'.


    In South India, Hindu Dharma and Sanatana Dharma are understood as two separate phenomena. Sanatana Dharma means Vedic tradition only. Sanatana is considered only a small part of the Hindu Dharma; there are many other important schools in it and they are not unified. They are naturally against Sanatana Dharma. In North India, they were taught Sanatana Dharma is Hindu Dharma itself,


    In reality, the vision of all traditions that arose in India being Hindu, whether they are Vedic or non-Vedic, was emphatically put forward by Veer Savarkar in his Essentials of Hindutva (1923).

    In the Tamil tradition, from the Sangam age onward, the vision of both the tribal and non-tribal societies was to experience the Divine as a sacred consciousness that stands on the Vedic pedestal.

    Ilango Adigal, the author of Chilapathikaram (circa 3rd century CE), speaks of tribal worship as culturally tribal and philosophically Vedic.

    The ability of the Vedic ethos to incorporate unity in diversity has been used to the hilt by Tamil literary genius. This beautiful blending of cultures and philosophies is a testament to the rich and diverse Sanatana heritage of Tamil tradition which forms its very heart.


    ... Sanatana Dharma in the South is associated with the Vedic tradition, which has for many centuries been opposed by Tamil Shaivites as well as others, including nastika, Jain and Buddhist traditions that dominated the south for centuries until the Bhakti movement happened ... The Bhakti movement, too, was an anti-Vedic tradition and therefore against the teaching of Sanatana Dharma, states the 61-year-old writer who adds that the Vedic tradition had historically been looked down upon by Siddhas and Tamil saints over centuries. Sanatana Dharma is associated with a certain hegemony of Brahminism in the South.


    All the great Tamil Saivite saints, whether they were the primal three—Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar—or the eldest of the Nayanmars—Karaikal Ammaiyar, who gave a new life to music tradition in southern India—they have all spoken highly of the Vedic tradition and the rituals associated with it.

    Let us take Appar or Thirunavukarasar (circa 6th century CE). He belonged to so-called fourth varna. During his time, those of the fourth varna were being employed by chieftains as ministers, army generals etc. His to-be brother-in-law was an army official who died in a battle. Traumatized by the death of his parents, as well as of his would-be brother-in-law, Appar started following Jainism and later due to the efforts of his sister, came back to Saivism.

    Often, his verse ‘even if a person were an out-caste who skins the cow and eats its flesh, him I consider as my God worthy of worship, if he is a devotee of Siva’, is cited to project him as anti-Vedic. However, as one can see, this emphasizes the importance and centrality of bhakti over social divisions.

    Such emphasis of bhakti or shraddha over social divisions can be seen in Vedic literature itself. The Rig Veda has verses where the divine bards were born to parents of different castes. Also in the Vedic incident of Kavasaka, the Vedic stand against birth-based social discrimination is demonstrated.

    One should remember that the Vedic values are different from the Vedic society itself. Values stressed in the Vedas decry discriminations and stratifications that existed in society.

    The verse of Appar, quoted above, shows the same Vedic values.

    Similarly, the emphasis on the spiritual evolution to move from the outer rituals to inner purity and not to cling on just the form, is emphasized in all Dharmic traditions. This often is misrepresented as anti-ritual rhetoric, like the one indulged in by pseudo-rationalists today.

    This distortion is either intentional or out of ignorance. On the other hand, the worldview of Appar is holistic and takes into account both the need to be rooted in, and yet transcend, the Vedic rituals, as is shown in his outpourings.

    He calls Siva Himself as the One becoming the Vedas at innumerable instances. Here are a few instances:

    • Siva becomes the Rig Veda and He is its inner meaning (4:48:3)

    • Siva blessed us with the Dharma of six-limbed Vedas Four (4:51:3)

    • Wears the Chandra our Sankara the Sama-Vedi (4:77:4)

    • Siva blessedly uttered the six-limbed Vedas four (6:21:2)

    • Sive became the five Yajnas and the four Vedas (6:53:4)

    Karaikal Ammaiyar, a non-Brahmin, woman-mystic of 5th century CE, sings of Siva as ‘Vedas personified and Essence of Vedas; verily also the Source of Vedas’ (11.4.8).

    In fact, it is in this context that Vedic Dharma gets construed as eternal; because it is the very loving emanation of Siva, who is Himself eternal. Thus the term 'Sanatana Dharma' gets a strong conceptual foundation in in Saiva Dharma itself.


    ‘The anti-Sanatana Dharma sentiment is part of the Shaiva culture of the South,’ he stresses, adding that Advaitis were also opponents of the Vedic tradition. ‘Sree Narayana Guru (the great Kerala social reformer) and several such Advaitis were against Sanatana Dharma and the Vedic tradition,” he avers.


    Such depictions are quite far from reality. In fact, Sri Narayana Guru initiated a social transformation which had as its core a spiritual kernel derived from Vedanta.

    He was never against the Vedas. Far from that, he restated the traditional conviction that the essence of Vedas and what Thiruvalluvar wrote were one and the same.

    In his extraordinarily melodious and mystic composition on Siva, he said this:

    The four invaluable Vedas,

    Once were revealed,

    And then imparted

    In their classified form

    To the one of rain-cloud darkness.

    And there after the same

    Was divulged to the tongue

    Of the Great Valluvar

    All by the fragrant Bharathi

    May She protect as eternally.

    This was composed around early 1880s at Marthuvazhmala of Kanyakumari district, where Gurudeva was in prolonged tapas. He later commented that this was written for the benefit of all humanity.

    Here, what one should note is the juxtaposition of the Vedas and Thirukkural and the description of them as being born of the grace of Bharathi -who is both Goddess Saraswati and of course Ma Bharati.

    In the section on Sree Narayana Guru, Ullekh NP's post quotes from a book, One Caste One Religion One God – A Study of Sree Narayana Guru (V.Thomas Samuel, Sterling Publication, 1977). What the post does not say is that in the very same book are the following words:

    "Religion should allow freedom of all faiths and should lead man to higher goals and values in life. This is the Sanatana Dharma of 'One Caste, One Religion and One God for man.' "(p.166)

    Clearly the apologia for Udhayanidhi Stalin's statement is even worse than the original utterance. Udhayanithi's statement can at least be attributed to his ignorance and cultural unfamiliarity, which are the hallmarks of Dravidianist politicians. However, the Tamil writer, who positions himself as an expert on Indian philosophy, offering such a flawed defence for a novice politician, is rather dismal.

    Beyond the Mischievous Confusion of Terms

    'Sanatana Dharma' has been a term that was used both by the Buddhist and Vedic traditions. Even the much despised Manu Smriti connects the term to speaking Truth and speaking it in a pleasant and benign way.

    During the colonial period, one of the earliest seers to use the term was Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who was also a fierce opponent of the caste system and birth-based discriminations.

    At the same time, those who supported caste system also started using the term. They associated themselves with the colonial essentializing of caste system with Sanatana Dharma.

    In the same epoch, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, and Mahatma Gandhi used the term to convey exactly the opposite.

    In the case of Sree Narayana Guru, he even expanded the scope of the term to include all traditions which seek truth in a non-expansionist, non-exclusivist way.

    Swami Chidbhavananda, who was one of Tamil Nadu's greatest Advaitin saints and educationists, had used the term 'Sanatana Dharma' to mean the highest Vedantic essence of the Indian civilization.

    Right in the district where the writer quoted in Ullekh NP's post lives, Swami Mathurananda, another great saint, established the 'Hindu Dharma Vidhya Peetham'. He had used 'Sanatana Dharma' to mean neither caste discriminations nor untouchability, but a Vedic spiritual egalitarianism.

    Pretending to be unaware of such usages and connotations of the term, and asserting that 'Sanatana Dharma' solely denotes birth-based discrimination, and then reinforcing such a flawed stance with pseudo-history, is once more a sad manifestation of a decline in either intelligence, ethics, or perhaps both.

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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