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Forking Paths Of Sanatana And Dravidian Thought

The evolution from devotional egalitarianism to social justice

Illustration: Vikas Thakur
Photo: Illustration: Vikas Thakur
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If the concept of Sanatana Dharma embodies the worldview and social perspectives of early Vedic-Dharmashastric literature and its social manifestation is Varnashrama Dharma, then intellectual dissent against it is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, opposition to the Sanatana Dharma might have arisen from the very inception of this idea. While the codes of dharma remained noble and essential, especially for a small priestly group, its practical and social outcomes such as birth-based identity, veneration of cows, vegetarianism, inferiorisation of meat diet, untouchability of beef eaters, etc, encountered significant challenges. Resistance against them is palpable in textual and intellectual traditions across the subcontinent, but notably prominent and consistent in south India. A cursory look at the textual traditions in south India shows how opposition to the Varnashrama Dharma began as a call for devotional egalitarianism during the early medieval period and gradually evolved into movements advocating social justice.

The earliest corpus of Dravidian literature, known as Sangam literature and dated prior to the 2nd century AD, is predominantly secular in nature, focusing on the themes of love and warfare. Yet, here too, one can observe a direct conflict between two social perspectives—one is centred upon Brahmanical Vedic values and the other on those of the beef-eating Pulayar (later untouchables). Especially, these poems often make sarcastic opposition to the four Vedas and four Varnas. A Purananuru song speaks of ‘the great four’. It says that there are no flowers other than kuravam, thalavam, kuruntham and mullai; no food other than thinai, varaku and kolandavarai; and no kudi (social group) other than thudian, paanan, paraiyan and kadampan. The song ends by stating: there are no gods other than the hero-stones (the memorial stones of warriors who fell in battle). Yet another Sangam poem, composed by Nedunchezhiyan, says that knowledge, and not birth, brings social acceptance to a person. It says: A mother loves best not the first-born, but the most learned of her children, the king respects not the eldest, but the most learned of a kudi and people from higher narpals (four groups or varnas) who submit to a person from a lower narpal if the latter excels in knowledge.

This trend continued during the post-Sangam period. The didactic Tamil texts of Pathinen Keezhkanakku Noolgal (18 minor works) appear immediately after the Sangam corpus. They rejected birth-based social ranking and emphasised learning, ethical life, non-violence and vegetarianism. For instance, the renowned text, Tirukkural, rejects the notion of karma and has no reference to God or any form of ritual. Thiruvalluvar, commonly known as Valluvar, is the author of the text. Incidentally, Valluvar is also the name of a lower-caste community whose members were traditionally specialised in astrology and writing, and were treated as the ‘Brahmans of the lower castes’ till recent times. Though Tirukkural argues for non-violence and renunciation of meat (especially for ascetic life), it does not classify people on the basis of meat-eating and instead says ‘all men that live are one in circumstances of birth; diversities of works give each his special worth’. Similarly, Tirumular’s Tirumanthiram, another renowned text in Tamil dated after Tirukkural, opposes meaningless Vedic rituals and emphasises Anbe Sivam (Love is God), and, Ondre Kulam, Oruvane Devan (there is one family and only one God). Tamil epics such as Manimekalai and Silappathikaram, composed during this period, narrated Buddhist and Jain doctrines through the stories of women’s quest for justice.

Since the 6th century AD, south Indian kings adopted a Dharmic model of kingship to legitimise their power and to appropriate more agrarian surplus. It necessitated them to forcefully endorse the Vedic-Shastric notion of society. Nonetheless, it did not stop the textual dissents. For instance, the Bhakti poems of saint-poets—the Alvars and Nayanars, also called the Tamil Vedas or Marai—dated between the 6th and 9th centuries, expressed indifference to the Sanskrit Vedas. They called for devotional egalitarianism—unity and equality within the community of devotees. The individual’s social and occupational status and dietary habits were rendered irrelevant before the intensity of their personal realisation and love for the deity.

Ramanuja, the 11th century Sanskrit scholar and Sri Vaishnava theologian, played a significant role in giving a new interpretive frame to the songs of the Alvars and made their performance an essential component of the ritual routine of the temple. Basing his arguments on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, he synthesised the Sanskrit and Tamil Vaishnava traditions, bringing the devotional egalitarianism of early saint-poets and the social perspective of the Sanskrit tradition into direct conflict. The works of Ramanuja, written in Sanskrit, protested against the Varna and caste hierarchy. However, his followers (mostly Brahmans) were divided into the Vadakalai and Tenkalai sects and took different stands on determining the role of birth in accessing sacred scriptures and divine love. Following the Tamil tradition, the Tenkalai (south division) strongly emphasised irrelevance of birth and upheld devotional egalitarianism.

This conflict continued to be represented in the later Tamil Bhakti literature, which are mainly hagiographies of saint-poets. They also include the life histories of ‘untouchable saints’ such as Tirupanar and Nandanar. Though these stories are said have a hidden intent to show the impossibility of devotional egalitarianism, what manifested in them is the individual (‘untouchable’) efforts to break the imposed social norms which had their base in Varnashrama Dharma, and to claim devotional egalitarianism. These stories kept providing sources for opposing the social ideals of early Sanskrit tradition. In the 19th century, Gopalakrishna Bharathi rewrote the life history of Nandanar and made him a fighter for social justice. Similarly, when B R Ambedkar wrote his The Untouchables, he dedicated his text to three medieval untouchable saints, one of them was Nandanar.

By the 12th century, one observes the discontent against Varnashrama Dharma was not just confined to Tamil-speaking regions, but also other regions of south India.

By the 12th century, one observes the discontent against Varnashrama Dharma was not just confined to Tamil-speaking regions, but also other regions of south India. For instance, Ramanuja’s influence deeply spread across the Andhra region. Similarly, a powerful intellectual dissent emerged in the Kannada-speaking region in the form of Veerashaivism. Basavanna, the founder of this school, advocated spiritual brotherhood and removal of caste distinctions in the spiritual space. Veerashaivism also contributed to the emergence of Vachana poetry, mainly composed by poets from the lower sections of society. They vehemently denounced Vedic practices, arguing against birth-based social inequalities. Further, along with caste, the engagement of female saints such as Akka Mahadevi associated with this sect brought the gender question to the forefront alongside caste.

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When the Bhakti tradition gradually loosened its radical stance, the Tamil Siddhar tradition triggered a new intellectual wave by vocally defying the Shastric rituals and social values. They opposed the caste system, ideologies of purity and pollution, meaningless Vedic rituals and idol worship. They propagated manamathu cemmaiyanal manthiram cebikka venta–the principle that if one’s mind is pure and mature, mantras are redundant. Sivavakkiyar, one of the Siddhars, organised his text under the themes of pulal (meat), yetchil (spittle), and thoomai (menstrual blood) to criticise the superstitious beliefs associated with them. He said men and women—lower caste and upper caste—all were the same when they were in the form of thoomai.

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Before the introduction of print in the 19th century, there were numerous Tamil texts which kept the ideological fight alive. For instance, the 18th century Kabilaragaval defied the birth-based social identity by saying: “A Pulaya of the south goes north and gaining perfect learning of the Vedas becomes a Brahman; a Brahman from the north coming south loses his virtuous character and turns Pulaya.” Paichalur Pathikam, by the woman poet Uttaranallur Nangai, questioned the social hierarchy of having the Antanar (Brahman) at the top and the Pulayar at the bottom and ridiculed the Vedas and agamic rituals. The 19th century saint-poet, Ramalinga Adigalar, wrote the Thiruvarutpa for a casteless society, discarding the superstitious Vedic beliefs and rituals, and advocating social equality, vegetarianism and non-violence.

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By the end of the 19th century, the hitherto fight for devotional egalitarianism gradually evolved to a fight for social justice and equality. In Kerala, spiritual leaders and social reformers such as Chattampi Swamikal, Sree Narayana Guru Swamikal, Kumaran Asan and others spearheaded the struggle and exposed the bias in the worldview of the Vedic-Shastric tradition. Though their approaches and teachings varied, they stood firmly against caste-based social distinctions and advocated self-respect, freedom and universal brotherhood. The consequent mobilisation of suppressed groups contributed to the emergence of the Pulaya, Ezhava, Dravida, Adi-dravida, Adi-andhra, Adi-kannada social movements.

With the intellectual support of 19th and 20th century modern thinkers such as Iyothi Thass, Subramania Bharati, Ayyankali, Tripuraneni Ramaswamy, E V Ramasamy and many others, the fight for spiritual and devotional equality reached the stage of practical social experiments that manifested in various forms. The temple entry movement in many places in south India echoed the struggle of medieval ‘untouchable’ Bhakti saints. Moreover, following the temple entry, the focus shifted towards demanding equal access to public spaces—transportation, hospital and schools. It is noteworthy that during colonial rule, south India instilled confidence that social justice could be achieved through political determination. And most importantly, the Christian missionaries in their educational institutions practically demonstrated that people from various castes—from Brahman to Pulayar, both the vegetarians and the beef-eaters, could stay, learn and work together.

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(Views expressed are personal)

S Gunasekaran, Kali Chittibabu the authors teach at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

This appeared in the print as Forking Paths Of Sanatana And Dravidian Thought

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