TamBrahms and their curse

August 30, 2016 § 5 Comments

The Tamil language has this distinction of being not only the oldest spoken language in India with a long literary continuity ,but also this uniqueness of not having the aspirated sounds in its phonetic scheme as in all other major Indian idioms.

Tamil has been the only language among the  South Indian  dialects  that  stood against the overwhelming influence of Sanskrit and throughout the long history of literary and cultural interactions between these two languages, Tamil managed to keep its linguistic identity with the help of its own distinctive traditional ,grammar  that had laid down the rules  of dos and don’ts, while assimilating the Sanskrit words.  It was not because of hostility towards Sanskrit, but because of   a desire to maintain the singularity of their mother tongue,  as a distinctive language not overwhelmed by Sanskrit.

Here is the rub. This, what was once a distinction, when the cultural priorities were different,  has now  become an embarrassment.. In a federal political set-up, in which most of the languages have almost common phonetic identity, to exist in splendid linguistic isolation means, a situation of opting out of the cultural and social mainstream, though unwittingly.

In the pre-colonial period, as in the medieval or earlier eras, Sanskrit was the intellectual lingua franca for the whole country. Since language was not an emotional and as such, a political issue during those periods,, there was an  uninhibited, unself-conscious free interaction among the different linguistic sections of the people of this country, Sanskrit/Prakrit providing the common forum..

During the colonial period, in Tamilnadu, many,  of the Tamil brahmins, influenced by the pseudo-ethnic theories as Dravidian and Aryan, projected  by the agenda-driven western missionaries and historians, began to associate themselves with Sanskrit language and its linguistic culture, deserting their mother tongue, which was Tamil. .  And also, since they were on the top of the ladder of social hierarchy,  they had the advantage of opting for the English education to earn their bread.

Nowhere in the other parts of India, a bulk of English-educated, Sanskrit knowing intellectuals ,who were, by and large the brahmins, distanced themselves from the literary heritage of their own mother tongue, as in Tamilnadu .Of course, there were a few rare exceptions .

I remember, when I was reading in what was known  then as II Form (now 7th class), during the colonial rule, the pupils were to opt for Sanskrit or Tamil ,as the vernacular language of their choice. Most of the Brahmin boys chose Sanskrit, following the dictum of their parents.. From this time on, the two images that became the settled political theme of Tamilnadu was, Sanskrit-Aryan- Brahmin –pan-Indian nationalism and in contrast to this was Dravidian- non-brahmin – Tamil –regional nationalism.  This kind of thinking is what that decides the political attitudes of the people of Tamilnadu even today!





§ 5 Responses to TamBrahms and their curse

  • Dear Sir

    Your rendition has some elements of myth-making.Tamil as a spoken language has been changing just like any other language – Telugu or English. Because Tamil grammarians , the linguistic culture and the political movements like Thaniththamiz based on that linguistic culture, focus only on the written language and black out the spoken language, it gives rise to a myth that it has been the “same” spoken language in Tamilnadu over 2000 years or more. This has no basis. Even in the present day , there are so many deep fault lines in spoken Tamil so as to consider them separate languages. Tamil as it is known , is not a single language but a family of languages. Under right political conditions, what we know as Tamil can easily split into daughter languages.

    That many people, including brahmins , took optional Sanskrit, can also be explained by the desire to maintain their Sanskrit heritage, while Tamil was their mother tongue and the family language, . In other words Sanskrit needed learning, while (spoken) Tamil did not since they were already speaking it. I did my schooling in the 1960s, and it was all Tamil medium, with sanskrit as optional .

    The false contrast you have given is a throwback to the 19th century European race theories, which was swallowed hook, line and sinker by the Dravidian movement which is imposing it’s particular racist ideology in Tamilnadu for nearly 60 years. That is not the fault of Tamil brahmins; it is unfortunate for them , but not a curse.

    For Dravidian movement specializes in the politics of scapegoat, the scapegoat being Tamil Brahmans, so it has a vested interest in maintaining the false opposition outlined by you. I don’t see anything wrong if someone wants to maintain their Sanskrit heritage by learning it, even if they are brahmins.


    Vanbakkam C Vijayaraghavan

    • I don’t know how I missed reading this. Sorry. I am afraid you are mistaking dialects for languages. Even .if one is not familiar with literary Tamil, if he were to read Sangam poems written 2000years ago, on an average he would understand 20% of it, if his mother tongue is Tamil. That is what makes Tamil a classical and modern language because of its continuity. Can you deny the percentage of brahmins who were more emotionally associated with Sanskrit than Tamil were much more during the colonial period for the same reason you have mentioned that the western historians imposed on us a theory of Aryan-Dravidian divide? Whereas in the other Indian languages except Tamil, distinguished educated people speaking those languages irrespective of their caste knew in depth about their own mother tongue than what were obtained in Tamil Why ? The brahmins who distinguished themselves in administration and scientific education etc knew their Sanskrit and not Tamil. I am not against Sanskrit. The western orientalists know very well that if one were to know the history of the cultural heritage of India, a knowledge of Sanskrit and Tamil is a must.

  • Dear Sir

    Your point “an average he would understand 20% of it ” i.e. language 2000 before present is precisely the point. 20% is not good enough to be “same ” language. When I listen to Malayalam, I seem to understand many individual words, even though I can’t make head or tail of a single sentence. That is because Malayalam is a separate language than modern spoken Tamil . So also Telugu or Kannada.

    Lot of Old Tamil literature we understand, or we seem to understand, is becuase we have spent many years in school being drilled into it , duly aided by Konar Notes

    Dutch started as a dialect of German, but it is a different language now. The mutual comprehension between them is much more than Modern spoken Tamil and Sangam (written) Tamil .

    Afrikaans was declared a separate language in the 19th century than Dutch , the language of the settlers in South Africa. Mutual comprehension between Afrikaans and Dutch is much more than modern spoken Tamil and written Tamil.

    It is just not vocabulary which differentiates between languages. Grammar, phonology, perception and usage of consonants and vowels, nuances of words, etc

    Tamil as a “classical” language is a government announcement triggered by political pressures, doubtful the world academic community accepts it. Generally, Classical languages come by academic consensus, not by government diktats. So, Tamil as a classical language you have to take with a pinch of salt.

    You assert ” brahmins who were more emotionally associated with Sanskrit than Tamil .. ” This so called emotional attachment is very subjective and is neither here nor there. After all , for the last 100 years , there is a very big emotional attachment to Tamil and frenzy for glorifying which is politically whipped up. In the last 100 years Tamil has been taken over by English in many walks of life – so much for emotional attachment. Before 100 years, we can’t definitely say what people were “emotionally attached to”, but all their daily life , daily livelihood and entertainment they conducted in Tamil . What matters is in which we language we converse or conduct our daily business, not the verbal attitude towards a language. At a time when Mother Tamil cult has been taken to ludicrous heights, Tamil has fallen. So also, decline in Sanskrit usage was accompanied by kicking it upstairs to ‘devabhasha’ . Slogans are different from reality.



    • I do agree that the classical status of a language is not decided by a Govt notification. It is pure politics. But that Tamil was considered as a classical in the corridors of academic wisdom had its origin, when Rev.Pope was appointed as the Prof.of Tamil in the 19th century. Almost all the western Indologists had agreed and do agree even now that Sanskrit and Tamil are two classical languages of India. The status of dialects being raised to the category of separate languages is decided by various factors such as morphology, the structure etc. The dialectical variations of the Tamil language depend only on different ways of articulations, though I concede a few region specific words, spelt out by ancient Tamil grammarians. There is a world of difference between modern Dutch and German. Welsh has no separate status of an independent language though they claim for it sometime now.The post early-Rig vedic Sanskrit has been greatly influenced in its syntactic structure by the Dravidian primary language, presumably Tamil, according to Prof.David Shulman, that the antiquity of these two languages precede history.

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