Insightful study

Print edition : September 18, 2015


"Made snana", a ritual in which people roll on plantain leaves containing leftovers of lunch served to Brahmins, at the Kukke Subrahmanya temple near Mangalore. A file picture. Photo: H.S.MANJUNATH

The book makes a thorough examination of the issues of caste and untouchability, on the basis of grammar and in the context of Sangam age literary works.

THE slender, 77-page volume, Sangap Padalgalil Saadhi, Theendamai, inna pira... (Caste, untouchability, etc., in Sangam poetry) by Dr V.S. Rajam, the eminent Tamil grammarian and an invocative scholar in Indology, discusses in depth whether the concepts of caste and untouchability, as understood today in the context of early Sanskritic texts, existed during the Sangam period (from first century BCE to the succeeding three centuries) in Tamil Nadu.

Caste is a unique thing, an intrinsic aspect of Hinduism associated with it from time immemorial. It started as “ us” and “them” in the early Rg Vedic society—“us” indicating themselves, the Aryans, or the new settlers, and “them” referring to the natives, or the old inhabitants, presumably, Dravidians—and later, two became four by compulsions of history, laying the foundation for “varnashrama dharma”.

The Purusha-Sukta (hymn 10.90 of the Rg Veda) is about the purusha (the primeval man), the cosmic giant, getting dismembered in the Vedic sacrifice. The four classes of Hindu society, according to it, originated from his body. From his mouth was born the priest (Brahmin, master of the sacred speech), his arms became the Raja, the ruler (warrior, or the Kshatriya class), his thighs formed the Vaishya (merchants and farmers), and from his feet were born the Shudras (the servants and those who performed menial work). The fifth class, or the lowest section of the people in the social hierarchy, did not exist in early Vedic society. But as the nomadic Aryans started gradually dominating throughout India from the north to the south, indigenous tribes such as Nishadas, Chandalas and Mundas became so marginalised that they lived outside of what was known as the Vedic class. They had no social privileges and were treated as outcasts but were engaged by those socially superior to them to do all the dirty and unclean work. This led to the social practices of “pollution” and “untouchability”. Job and caste got integrated and the dharma sastras (law codes of Hinduism) later laid down that as one could not escape his destiny, his job was determined by the caste into which he was born. The obnoxious system of “untouchability” has been in existence in Hindu society for thousands of years. Though it has been legally banned, a good percentage of people in our country are yet to get over their shameful prejudices and petty sense of superiority.

Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the founding father of the Indian Constitution, who fought relentlessly against this evil practice, knew what it meant to be an untouchable because he was born into the Mahar caste, whose members were treated as untouchables. He has written a valuable dissertation about the caste system in India. His strong faith was that the caste system would not stand the test of time because caste distinctions were fictions created by the then ruling castes and that times had changed. But the legitimate question is, have the times changed? Ambedkar would not have anticipated that in post-Independence India, instead of religionists, crafty politicians would keep the caste system alive and revive it time and again in conformity with their vote-bank politics. On the basis of their good knowledge of Sanskrit and perhaps, not so well-versed in Tamil, many European and American Indologists have argued that the caste system and the ugly practice of untouchability did exist in Tamil Nadu during the Sangam period.

Tamil grammar is totally different from the grammar obtaining in other Indian languages. With logic as its strength, Tamil grammar analyses the structure of words in all its multidimensional aspects. Rajam, whose forte is grammar, probes whether caste meant the same during the Sangam period as we understand it today, and if not, at what point of time could the change have occurred. The book makes a thorough and in-depth examination, first on the basis of grammar and later in the context of literary works belonging to that era, of caste and untouchability.

According to Rajam, the earliest Tamil grammar divides the living thing on the basis of intelligence, species and habitat; and in the case of human beings, the profession to which one belongs. The commentator for Tolkappiyam, a work on Tamil grammar, uses the word “kulam”, which stands for “guild” and not “caste”. He uses the word “peyar” , which may mean name, but here it stands for identity based on his geographical belonging, family, group, job, physically identifiable factors, and his status in the family, that is, whether a father or a son. In fact, it is a sort of unique identity card, to put it in the modern context. But the important thing one should notice is that jati (caste) refers only to the species, not to one’s community as it is understood now.

Analysing the names by which one is referred to in Sangam anthologies, Rajam writes that thudiyan and paraiyan are those who beat the drums. The names do not refer to a person’s caste. Koothan is a dancer. Panan and padini are singers. There were no restrictions with regard to their social movements and they were treated as equals.

Western missionaries compiled their dictionaries without bothering to refer to early Tamil literature, and abused the words pulaiyan and pulaithi by giving them meanings that were current during their period. In Sangam poems, a pulaiyan is a drummer or one who is involved with funeral rites. But, invariably, all the Western scholars have described him as one belonging to the most despicable class of people, on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and branded him as an untouchable. Rajam quotes chapter and verse from many Sangam poems to show that all the words that came to be identified with a caste or used as a degrading” form of reference in the later years, were actually words of distinction and honour during the Sangam period.

Beef-eating was not a taboo in the Sangam period. Poets, singers and dancers enjoyed their drink and meat. The bards and those who played the different percussion instruments for various occasions, be it funeral or festival, were free to socialise with anyone, irrespective of class distinctions. The practice of untouchability was unknown.

Brahmanisation of the Tamil social culture started in the Bhakti period and brought in its wake caste divisions and untouchability, as evidenced by the devotional works of the Saiva and Vaishnava saints. Rajam quotes the Vaishnava saint Nammalvar to prove her point.

Nammalvar asks: “What though the person is lower in status, below the ordained four castes, be of lowly birth, even a C handala of the lowliest Chandalas, if he is a devotee of my discus-bearing gem-lord, his servant’s servant shall be my lord, just see.” So, it is evident that they were the “lowliest of the low” during his time and it is ironic that Nammalvar pleaded for their salvation referring to them in the most contemptuous manner. Rajam has raised several scholarly questions with regard to this issue that needs to be addressed by others engaged in Indological research, which would go a long way in sharpening our historical perceptive in the context of literary studies.