A review of past history
July 31, 2012 § 1 Comment
A few years ago Prof.Sydney Pollock of Chicago University edited an anthology of insightful essays by eminent western Indologists that I found interesting.
This learned anthology of essays on South Asian Literature edited by Prof.Sheldon Pollock is a welcome departure from many of the books which have so far been published on this subjectstarting from the colonial period to the present era.
Sanskrit came as a revelation to the Westerscholars in the nineteenth century and this led them to look at India as the repository of Europe’sanishing spirituality. Max Muller introduced the study of the Vedas, the ancient texts in Sanskrit, ‘as the dawn of the religious consciousness of man’ , while at the same time providing themissionary with a knowledge ‘as indispensable as a knowledge of the enemy’s country is to general’. Although Hinduism is not strictly a religion in the Western sense inasmuch as it does nohave scriptures as the arbitrary authority, the early Western missionary Indologists associate the Vedas with religion, which, were, in fact, social documents depicting the way of living of aprimeval tribe. Once Sanskrit was associated with religion, it became a natural tendency on the parof the later Western missionary scholars to look at literature in the vernacular languages of Indi through the same ‘religious’ lens and they confused the issue further.. Sheldon Pollock and hi fellow contributors to this remarkably- communicating book have set their aim in the rightdirection to clear many of the cobweb problems that contemporary students of the literary historiography South Asia have inherited from the early European scholars in this regard.
A history of literature in any language does not mean merely narrating the succession of books ina chronological order to claim antiquity and archival superiority for the concerned language. It has todeal with the continuity of relevance of any great book in that language not only for the period iwhich it was written but also for the succeeding eras and how each of them had responded to it in accordance with the changing values of the given period. Literature in a text is not of absolute an permanent nature but very much depends upon how the reader at a given era relates to it. Pollock illustrates this with an interesting quotation from Terry Eagleton: ‘’ Literature is like weed; one person’s pest is another’s flower and yet another’s dinner’’.
Considering every specific situation ihistorical, the literary have a functional meaning and validity and cannot claim to have an ontological existence of its own, unrelated to the changing social values. So, instead of assumin critical positions before approaching the subject and demanding answers from the texts only t justify the stand already taken, this book is oriented toward focussing on the critical processes themselves and “ listen to the questions the texts themselves raise”. Such an innovative reading practices have led the contributing authors of this book to critically appreciate and understand what the texts of South Asian literature meant to “ the people who wrote, heard ,saw or read them, and how the meanings may have changed overtime.”
This is precisely what Norman Cutler has done in his subtle and sophisticated reading of th Tamil texts under a dramatic title, ‘ Three moments in Tamil Literary Culture’. He deconstructthe genealogy of Tamil culture by focussing on (1) the autobiography of U.Ve. Swaminath Iyer,(2) histories of Tamil literature that emerged as a genre of scholarship in the twentieth Century, and (3) a fifteenth century literary anthology titled ‘Purathirattu’. U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer is forever visualised by the Tamils as the grand old man of the Tamil language,not only because he lived up to a ripe old age but also for his reclaiming the grand ol Tamil texts of a very distant past. He provided a long history for the Tamil language and also cultural politics for the Tamils, though unwittingly.
Thanks to the early British historians and missionary philologists, a dubious theory of Aryan-Brahman- Sanskrit versus Dravidia non-Brahman- Tamil conflict got so ingrained in the psyche of the many of the English-educated Tamil scholars of that period that the first history of the Tamil language(1904) is informed by a chronological obsession and an abundant zeal for establishing that Tamil antidated Sanskrit. The irony was that this culture war became only possible after Swaminatha Iyer resurrected many of the ancient literary works in Tamil belonging to the Cankam age. M.S. Purnalingam Pillai’s primer of the history of Tamil literature became the blue print for many of the histories that succeeded it in which the bottom line of discussion was the date of the literary works, marked by aggressive arguments in favour of an earlier or later date. This historicized perspective is unique to Tami and forms the essential part of the Tamil literary culture
.Summing up the essential feature of Iyer’s autobiography, Cutler says: “ Caminatha Iyer’s accountof his own life suggests that during the 19th century the cultural activities of at least some Brahmans and high-caste non-Brahmans were largely congruent, much more so than one might expect from certain modern-day politicized readings of Tamil cultural history, according to which Vellalas and members of other non-Brahman castes are true sons of the Tamil soil and Brahmans are interlopers from the North”.
Cutler refers to the fifteenth century Tamil anthology ‘Purathirattu’(Anthology of poems on the exterior world as opposed to the interior landscape i.e. ‘akam’) compiled by an anonymous editor. According to him the Purathirattu collection reveals “a much greater consciousness of a literary heritage than in the case with either the canonization of bhakti poetry or the compilation of Saiva Siddhantha Sastras”. That the spontaneous outpourings of the bhakti poets becam liturgical texts much later does not reflect that they were in any way of less of literary heritage than ‘Purathirattu’, which includes poems from the cankam ‘Purananuru’ and ‘Pathirruppaththu’ and poems from some of the later didactic works like ‘Naladiyar’ and ‘Pazhamozhi’ and also from the epics, ‘Kamba Ramayanam’ and ‘Civaka Cinthamani’. The mystical poems of the bhakti saints can claim their lineage from the cankam love poetry(‘akam’) and as such, are endowed with a rich literary heritage no less significant than the Purathirattu poems which are in the ‘puram’ stream as codified in the cankam tradition. It looks like Norman Cutler has made rather a sweeping generalization , while comparing the consciousness of literary heritage of the bhakti hymns and ‘Purathirattu’. Of course the fifteenth century anthology shows that there existed a nonsectarian culture during this period as was evident from the nature of the poems that have been compiled, which belonged to different faiths as Saivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism and Jainism and the role model for this great work was ‘Thirukural’, a transsectarian masterpiece, though surprisingly, not a single couplet from this great work has been included in ‘Purathirattu’.
Perhaps, for the first time in a book on Indology, English has also been treated as one of the South Asian languages and befittingly so. The Anglo-Indian literature has a distinctive culture of its ow that constitutes an intrinsic part of the Indian consciousness. To associate a language with a nation-state is no longer valid for much of the literatures in languages like English and Spanish have become ‘’resolutely supra-national’’, to quote Sheldon Pollock.