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An Historical Sketch

Part 2

The reader will perhaps have noticed that up to the career of Śaṅkara we have been concerned exclusively with northern India, and even Śaṅkara, though a native of the south, lived much in the north and it was the traditional sacred lore of the north which he desired to establish as orthodoxy. Not only the older literature, Brahmanic as well as Buddhist, but most of the Purâṇas ignore the great stretch of Dravidian country which forms the southern portion of the peninsula and if the Râmâyaṇa sings of Râma's bridge and the conquest of Laṅka this is clearly an excursion into the realms of fancy. Yet the Dravidian districts are ample in extent, their monuments are remarkable, their languages are cultivated, and Tamil literature possesses considerable interest, antiquity and originality.

Unfortunately in dealing with these countries we experience in an unusually acute form the difficulties which beset every attempt to trace the history of ideas in India, namely, the absence of chronology. Before 1000 A.D. materials for a connected history are hardly accessible. There are, however, many inscriptions and a mass of literature (itself of disputable date) containing historical allusions, and from these may be put together not so much a skeleton or framework as pictures of ancient life and thought which may be arranged in a plausible order.

It may be said that where everything is so vague, it would be better to dismiss the whole subject of southern India and its religion, pending the acquisition of more certain information, and this is what many writers have done. But such wide regions, so many centuries, such important phases of literature and thought are involved, that it is better to run the risk of presenting them in false sequence than to ignore them.

Briefly it may be regarded as certain that in the early centuries of our era Buddhism, Jainism and Brahmanism all flourished in Dravidian lands. The first two gradually decayed and made way for the last, although Jainism remained powerful until the tenth century. At a fairly early date there were influential Śivaite and Vishnuite sects, each with a devotional literature in the vernacular. Somewhat later this literature takes a more philosophic and ecclesiastical tinge and both sects produce a succession of teachers.

Tamil Śivaism, though important for the south, has not spread much beyond its own province, but the Vishnuism associated with such eminent names as Râmânuja and Râmânand has influenced all India, and the latter teacher is the spiritual ancestor of the Kabirpanthis, Sikhs and various unorthodox sects. Political circumstances too tended to increase the importance of the south in religion, for when nearly all the north was in Moslim hands the kingdom of Vijayanagar was for more than two centuries (c. 1330-1565) the bulwark of Hinduism.

But in filling up this outline the possibilities of error must be remembered. The poems of Manikka-Vaçagar have such individuality of thought and style that one would suppose them to mark a conspicuous religious movement. Yet some authorities refer them to the third century and others to the eleventh, nor has any standard been formulated for distinguishing earlier and later varieties of Tamil.

I have already mentioned the view that the worship of Śiva and the Linga is Dravidian in origin and borrowed by the Aryans. There is no proof that this worship had its first home in the south and spread northwards, for the Vedic and epic literature provides a sufficient pedigree for Śiva. But this deity always collected round himself attributes and epithets which are not those of the Vedic gods but correspond with what we know of non-Aryan Indian mythology.

It is possible that these un-Aryan cults attained in Dravidian lands fuller and more independent development than in the countries colonized by the Aryans, so that the portrait of Śiva, especially as drawn by Tamil writers, does retain the features of some old Dravidian deity, a deity who dances, who sports among men and bewilders them by his puzzling disguises and transformations.[1]

But it is not proved that Śiva was the chief god of the early Tamils. An ancient poem, the Purra-Poruḷ Veṇbâ-Mâlai,[2] which contains hardly any allusions to him mentions as the principal objects of worship the goddess Koṭṭavai (Victorious) and her son Muruvan. Popular legends[3] clearly indicate a former struggle between the old religion and Hinduism ending as usual in the recognition by the Brahmans of the ancient gods in a slightly modified form.

We have no records whatever of the introduction of Brahmanism into southern India but it may reasonably be supposed to have made its appearance there several centuries before our era, though in what form or with what strength we cannot say. Tradition credits Agastya and Paraśu-râma with having established colonies of Brahmans in the south at undated but remote epochs. But whatever colonization occurred was not on a large scale.

An inscription found in Mysore[4] states that Mukkaṇṇa Kadamba (who probably lived in the third century A.D.) imported a number of Brahman families from the north, because he could find none in the south. Though this language may be exaggerated, it is evidence that Brahmans cannot have been numerous at that time and it is probable that Buddhism and Jainism were better represented. Three of Asoka's inscriptions have been found in Mysore and in his last edict describing his missionary efforts he includes "the kings of the Pândyas and Colas in the south" among the conquests of Buddhism.

Mahinda founded a monastery in the Tanjore district and probably established Buddhism at various points of the Tamil country on his way to Ceylon.[5] There is therefore no reason to be doubtful of Buddhist activity, literary or other, if evidence for it is forthcoming. Hsüan Chuang in 640 A.D. deplores the decay of Buddhism and speaks of the ruins of many old monasteries.

According to Jain tradition, which some think is supported by inscriptions at Śravana-Beḷgoḷa,[6] Bhadrabâhu accompanied by Candra Gupta (identified with the Maurya king of that name) led a migration of Jains from the north to Mysore about 300 B.C. The authenticity of this tradition has been much criticized but it can hardly be disputed that Jainism came to southern India about the same time as Buddhism and had there an equally vigorous and even longer existence.

Most Tamil scholars are agreed in referring the oldest Tamil literature to the first three centuries of our era and I see nothing improbable in this. We know that Asoka introduced Buddhism into south India. About the time of the Christian era there are many indications that it was a civilized country[7] which maintained commercial relations with Rome and it is reasonable to suppose that it had a literature.

According to native tradition there were three successive Sanghams, or Academies, at Madura. The two earlier appear to be mythical, but the third has some historical basis, although it is probable that poems belonging to several centuries have been associated with it.

Among those which have been plausibly referred to the second century A.D. are the two narrative poems

  1. Śilappadhikaram
  2. and Manimêkhalai

as well as the celebrated collection of didactic verses known as the Kural. The first two poems, especially the Manimêkhalai, are Buddhist in tone. The Kural is ethical rather than religious, it hardly mentions the deity,[8] shows no interest in Brahmanic philosophy or ritual and extols a householder's life above an ascetic's.

The Nâladiyâr is an anthology of somewhat similar Jain poems which as a collection is said to date from the eighth century, though verses in it may be older. This Jain and Buddhist literature does not appear to have attained any religious importance or to have been regarded as even quasi-canonical, but the Dravidian Hindus produced two large collections of sacred works, one Śivaite the other Vishnuite, which in popular esteem rival the sanctity of the Vedas. Both consist of hymns, attributed to a succession of saints and still sung in the temple worship, and in both sects the saints are followed by a series of teachers and philosophers. We will take the Śivaites first.

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- Footnotes:


The old folk-lore of Bengal gives a picture of Śiva, the peasant's god, which is neither Vedic nor Dravidian. See Dinesh Chandra Sen, Bengali Lang. and Lit. pp. 68 ff. and 239 ff.


J.R.A.S. 1899, p. 242.


See some curious examples in Whitehead's Village Gods of South India.


Rice, Mysore and Coorg from the Inscriptions, pp. 27 and 204.


The early Brahmi inscriptions of southern India are said to be written in a Dravidian language with an admixture not of Sanskrit but of Pali words. See Arch. Survey India, 1911-12, Part I. p. 23.


See Rice, Mysore and Coorg, pp. 3-5 and Fleet's criticisms, I.A.. XXI. 1892, p. 287.


The various notices in European classical authors as well as in the Sinhalese chronicles prove this.


Except in the first chapter.

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