Tamil Nadu’s ancient scriptural heritage has always included both Sanskrit and Tamil
Does the movement in Tamil Nadu that seeks to replace Sanskrit with Tamil for the temple liturgy have support in Tamil lore or in broader Indian history? Does the Tamil heritage contain any concept of imposition by a fictional “non-Dravidian” or “Aryan” people from the north? We bring you two views on these issues—one from a Tamil Saivite scholar and priest and another from an American Vedic scholar, translator and historian.
THE SAIVA AGAMAS, SAIVISM’S REVEALED SCRIPTURES and the foundation of Tamil culture, describe Tamil and Sanskrit as sister languages. The 14th chapter of the knowledge-section of the Chandrajnana Agama states that Lord Siva, manifesting as Dakshinamurti under a banyan tree, revealed the Agamas and Vedas to the sages on the summit of the Mahendra Mountains just as He revealed them on Mount Kailasa to Anantesvara in the previous kalpa (age).
The sages recorded this Sanskrit transmission using the Grantha alphabet, as instructed by the Lord. The great Tamil Saint Manikkavasagar also sings, in Tamil, of this revelation by Lord Siva to the sages in the “Kirti Tiruvagaval” of his Tiruvasagam.
The Grantha script is akin to Tamil. One can see the similarity in letters, such as u, o, ka, ta, tha, na, pa, va, ya and ra, etc., in the two scripts. There are also hundreds of common words found in both Tamil and Sanskrit. Many words appear in their pure Tamil form in the Sanskrit Agamas, Silpa Sastras and related scriptures.
Grantha means “the scripture of systematic rules and directions” and also denotes “sentence/verse.” It embodied and safeguarded the construction tenets for temples, palaces and forts and many other subjects using words which could not be written in Tamil. Subsequently, the silpis who carved images and constructed temples and other buildings documented their science in the Silpa Shastras using Grantha. Prominent among them were Manasara Rishi, Maya Rishi and Kasyapa. Even today, the oldest manuscripts of the Vedas, Agamas and Silpa Shastras are only available in the Grantha script. The influence of Grantha can be seen in all South Indian languages.
In his Tirumantiram, Rishi Tirumular talks of an ancient time of cold climate in India, which some conclude points to an indigenous Indian civilization extant as far back as the last ice age, 11,000 years ago, in areas that may now be submerged. It was then, he writes, that Lord Siva revealed the essential scriptures in Sanskrit and Tamil simultaneously to the body of learned scholars (verse 109). The term used by Tirumular to denote Sanskrit is ariyam (arya). The ancient indigenous people who were using this arya language to communicate among themselves were called the aryas. They never migrated into India from outside, nor to the South from the northwest.
In the classical Tamil works of the Sangam period, such as Purananuru, Paripadal, Patitruppattu, Tirumurugatruppadai, Mullaippaattu and Malaipatukatam, we can see hundreds of Grantha, or Sanskrit, words. Panini, the son of sage Panana, wrote his inimitable grammatical work, Vyakarana Shastra, based on 14 sutras (aphorisms) that emerged from the drum held held by the dancing Lord Nataraja at Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu—not in North India, where Panini is usually placed. My diksha guru at Chidambaram told me many times that the native place of Panini was Thiruvotriyur, in Chennai.
These facts show that Tamil and Sanskrit (in Grantha script) are interrelated. To express certain details or concepts, Sanskrit depends on Tamil. Similarly, to express certain details and concepts, Tamil requires Sanskrit.
The recent attitude of the alienation of Sanskrit was absolutely absent in the literary works written in Tamil during the Sangam and medieval periods. The Tamil kings viewed Tamil and Sanskrit as equally important. Royal inscriptions certifying grants made by the kings to the temples in Tamil Nadu used both Sanskrit (in Grantha script) and Tamil words.
Our Tamil saints frequently sing of Lord Murugan and Lord Siva revealing the Vedas to Sage Agastya and other sages living in Tamil Nadu. Tirujnana Sambandar goes to the extent of saying that those who do not benefit from the study of both Sanskrit and Tamil are blind and that both Tamil and Sanskrit are capable of reaching the feet of the Lord. St. Tirunavukkarasar declares that Lord Siva manifests Himself as Sanskrit and Tamil. Saint Pamban Kumaragurudasa Swamigal, who received instruction on “Dahara Upasana” directly from Lord Murugan in a village near Ramesvaram, composed 6,666 Tamil verses on Lord Murugan. He categorically stated: “Both Sanskrit and Tamil are essential for any devotee if he wants the grace of the Lord. He who abhors Tamil or Sanskrit incurs the displeasure of Lord Murugan.” And he further emphasized that for all the ritualistic activities of the temples, only Sanskrit should be used.
The Tamil-Sanskrit divide is clearly unwarranted and unfortunate. Aversion or enmity towards Sanskrit is harmful to the harmonious life of the people and understanding their true cultural and spiritual heritage. Those who hate Sanskrit should understand that they face the heavy loss of not benefiting from the knowledge of many rich and elegant dimensions of Tamil culture and civilization which can only be seen in Sanskrit works and not in Tamil works.
As late as the end of 19th century, Tamil scholars wrote without any spirit of antagonism between Tamil and Sanskrit. This unfortunate, alienated and antagonistic attitude only erupted in the 20th century, adopted by Dravidian political movements for their own agenda, which derived from new ideas of Western scholars, like the Aryan invasion theory.
Neglect of Grantha script in favor of the Devanagari script for writing Sanskrit has added fuel to this unwanted aversion towards Sanskrit. Sanskrit should not be identified exclusively with the Devanagari script, a modern script for North Indian languages. Sanskrit was connected to the old Grantha script of South India long before Devanagari came into use.
The similarity of the Tamil, Grantha and Devanagari scripts are evident in these glyphs for the sound ka
ACHARYA VAMADEVA SHASTRI
TAMIL AND SANSRKIT ARE VERY DIFFERENT LANGUAGES IN TERMS of structure. Yet the two have been closely related and taught together in South India for as long as we know. Tamil contains numerous Sanskrit loan words at all levels and periods of its literature. Tamil and Sanskrit culture have historically been presented as one. Today Vedic/Sanskrit culture, including temple worship, remains common throughout South India, especially Tamil Nadu.
In the nineteenth century, under the influence of Western thought at both political and religious levels, a movement arose in Tamil Nadu promoting Dravidian identity apart from or even against Sanskrit and “Aryan.” It embraced the Western idea of the Aryan invasion, that India was invaded and conquered by light-skinned groups from the northwest around 1500 bce. The new group of Dravidian nationalists identified themselves as the supposed pre-Vedic inhabitants of India, which they proposed spoke a Dravidian language and were driven south by the invading Aryans.
This “Dravidian identity” was based upon the commonality of Dravidian languages, to which was often added a Dravidian ethnicity and Dravidian culture. However, theories of both Aryan and Dravidian races have been disproved, and there is no traditional “Dravidian culture” in South India apart from the Sanskrit/Vedic culture. Traditional Dravidian culture is permeated with Vedic rituals, Sanskrit chants, temple worship and pilgrimage to holy sites throughout India, up to the Himalayas. Even today, the largest numbers of pilgrims to Mount Kailas in Tibet come from South India.
The Aryan invasion theory used to prove this Sanskrit/Tamil divide has been rejected by historians and scientists in India. Extensive work by the Geological Survey of India has mapped out the stages of the drying up of an ancient river, identical in location with the Vedic Sarasvati, on which most ancient urban ruins are located, known wrongly as the Indus Valley or Harappan civilization. The Archaeological Survey of India, notably through its former director Prof. B.B. Lal, has uncovered new evidence that this so-called Indus civilization centered on the Sarasvati River was connected to the civilization described in the Vedas in terms of culture, artifacts and symbols, though probably relating more to the late Vedic period.
The Aryan invasion/migration theory has no support from archaeology, which does not show any movements of people or culture from North to South India at the of the end of the Indus-Sarasvati culture after 1900 bce, when the Sarasvati River dried up. Nothing by way of skeletal remains, artifacts or transfer of cultural traits to South India has been proved. Nor is there any record of such a migration in ancient Sanskrit or Tamil literature.
Tamil tradition and language is rooted in the teachings of Rishi Agastya. Tamils are fond of citing him as the Father of the Tamil language. But Agastya was also at the heart of the Vedic/Sanskrit tradition. In the Rigveda he is described as the elder brother or guru of Rishi Vasishta, who composed the largest number of mantras in the Rigveda. Mantra 7.33 declares, “This, Vasishta, was your only birth when Agastya bore you forth from the people,” which suggests that Agastya took Vasishta on as a disciple. Agastya’s hymns (seer of RV 1.165-191) and those of the Vasishthas (104 hymns of the seventh mandala and others elsewhere) comprise about 150 of the 1,000 hymns of the text. Agastya is a special devotee of Vak (RV 1.167.3), the Vedic Goddess of speech. The Vedic Deity for speech is Agni, the fire God. Vedic rishis carry Agni in their mouths as the power of speech. From Agni arises the Angirasa and Bhrigu rishis, the two main lines of Vedic seers. Agni is the first or ideal Vedic priest.
Agni as Kumara, Subrahmanya or Skanda is often regarded as the first of the Vedic rishis and gurus, much as the role of Murugan in Tamil literature, who is generally identified with Skanda. In Tamil literature Kumara/Murugan, the son of Lord Siva, teaches Tamil to Agastya, following a similar idea as Agni as the origin of Vedic speech and the Vedic rishis. So, the most beloved Deity of the Tamils may be at the root of Sanskrit. We must also remember that the Sanskrit alphabet is said to arise from the drum of Siva, Kumara’s father.
Agastya bridges Vedic and Tamil traditions and appears at the origin of both. That suggests a common origin or continuity from the most ancient times. His wife Lopamudra is said to have come from Vidarbha, now Maharashtra, in between North and South. Southern connections to other Vedic rishi families also occur. Manu is a flood figure (said in the Matsya Purana to come from Kerala) with whom were the Angirasas, the largest family of Vedic rishis. The Bhrigu family, whose progenitor was Varuna, God of the Sea, gave their name to the coastal region of Gujarat called Bhrigu Kachchh.
The South of India is an integral part of Vedic and Hindu culture, and the Tamils have long been among its most staunch advocates. The Sri Vijaya empire of medieval times was the largest Hindu empire, expanding from South India to Indonesia, taking Agastya and Sanskrit along with it. I have proposed that Vedic culture originally derived from the South, from an older maritime culture that may have developed during the Ice Age. I would place that earlier culture throughout southeast Asia, of which Tamil Nadu was a part. This corresponds to the Kanya Kumari continent story of Tamil thought.
Is it possible that both Sanskrit and Tamil, two very distinct languages, are products of the same greater people or culture? As rishis are seers of cosmic sound, this cannot be rejected as a possibility.
We cannot simply identify people or cultures with a single language. Many ancient people spoke more than one language, as do many people today. Hindus use Sanskrit as a spiritual/religious language, though they may speak any number of other dialects and have their local cultures as well. In any case, Tamil and Sanskrit have no real divide between them, and both are integral parts of a greater Hindu culture.