In recent years attempts have been made to cast a new look at ancient India. For too long the picture has been distorted by myopic colonial readings of India’s prehistory and early history, and more recently by ill-suited Marxist models. One such distortion was the Aryan invasion theory, now definitively on its way out, although its watered-down avatars are still struggling to survive. It will no doubt take some more time—and much more effort on the archaeological front—for a new perspective of the earliest civilization in the North of the subcontinent to take firm shape, but a beginning has been made.
We have a peculiar situation too as regards Southern India, and particularly Tamil Nadu. Take any classic account of Indian history and you will see how little space the South gets in comparison with the North.
The Background ∞
It is a fact that archaeology in the South has so far unearthed little that can compare to findings in the North in terms of ancientness, massiveness or sophistication : the emergence of urban civilization in Tamil Nadu is now fixed at the second or third century BC, about two and a half millennia after the appearance of Indus cities. Moreover, we do not have any fully or largely excavated city or even medium-sized town. All in all, the archaeological record scarcely measures up to what emerges from the Indo-Gangetic plains—which is one reason why awareness of these excavations has hardly reached the general public, even in Tamil Nadu ; it has heard more about the still superficial exploration of submerged Poompuhar than about the painstaking work done in recent decades at dozens of sites.
Political interests fuels the theory ∞
But there is a second reason for this poor awareness : scholars and politicians drawing inspiration from the Dravidian movement launched by E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker (“Periyar”)[unknown prefix: wikipedia] have very rigid ideas about the ancient history of Tamil Nadu. First, despite all evidence to the contrary, they still insist on the Aryan invasion theory in its most violent version, turning most North Indians and upper-caste Indians into descendants of the invading Aryans who overran the indigenous Dravidians, and Sanskrit into a deadly rival of Tamil. Consequently, they assert that Tamil is more ancient than Sanskrit, and civilization in the South older than in the North. Thus recently, Tamil Nadu’s Education minister decried in the State Assembly those who go “to the extent of saying that Dravidian civilization is part of Hinduism” and declared, “The Dravidian civilization is older than the Aryan.”8 It is not uncommon to hear even good Tamil scholars utter such claims.
Now, it so happens that archaeological findings in Tamil Nadu, though scanty, are nevertheless decisive. Indeed, we now have a broad convergence between literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence. Thus names of cities, kings and chieftains mentioned in Sangam literature have often been confirmed by inscriptions and coins dating back to the second and third centuries BC. Kautilya speaks in his Arthashastra (c. fourth century BC) of the “easily travelled southern land route,” with diamonds, precious stones and pearls from the Pandya country ; two Ashokan rock edicts (II and XIII) respectfully refer to Chola, Pandya and Chera kingdoms as “neighbours,” therefore placing them firmly in the third century BC ; we also have Kharavela’s cave inscription near Bhubaneswar in which the Kalinga king (c. 150 BC) boasts of having broken up a “confederacy of the Dravida countries which had lasted for 113 years.” From all these, it appears that the earliest Tamil kingdoms must have been established around the fourth century BC ; again, archaeological findings date urban developments a century or two later, but this small gap will likely be filled by more extensive excavations. But there’s the rub : beyond the fourth century BC and back to 700 or 1000 BC, all we find is a megalithic period, and going still further back, a neolithic period starting from about the third millennium BC. While those two prehistoric periods are as important as they are enigmatic, they show little sign of a complex culture, and no clear connection with the dawn of urban civilization in the South.
Therefore the good minister’s assertion as to the greater ancientness of the “Dravidian civilization” finds no support on the ground. In order to test his second assertion that that civilization is outside Hinduism, or the common claim that so-called “Dravidian culture” is wholly separate from so-called “Aryan” culture, let us take an unbiased look at the cultural backdrop of early Tamil society and try to make out some of its mainstays. That is what I propose to do briefly, using not only literary evidence, but first, material evidence from archaeological and numismatic sources as regards the dawn of the Sangam age. I may add that I have left out the Buddhist and Jain elements, already sufficiently well known, to concentrate on the Vedic and Puranic ones, which are usually underemphasized. Also, I will not deal here with the origin of South Indian people and languages, or with the nature of the process often called “Aryanization of the South” (I prefer the word “Indianization,” used in this context by an archaeologist). Those complex questions have been debated for decades, and will only reach firm conclusions, I believe, with ampler archaeological evidence.
The Myth of Dravidian Culture ∞
And yet, such statements do not go deep enough, as they still imply a North-South contrast and an unknown Dravidian substratum over which the layer of “Aryan” culture was deposited. This view is only milder than that of the proponents of a “separate” and “secular” Dravidian culture, who insist on a physical and cultural Aryan-Dravidian clash as a result of which the pure “Dravidian” culture got swamped. As we have seen, archaeology, literature and Tamil tradition all fail to come up with the slightest hint of such a conflict. Rather, as far as the eye can see into the past there is every sign of a deep cultural interaction between North and South, which blossomed not through any “imposition” but in a natural and peaceful manner, as everywhere else in the subcontinent and beyond.
As regards an imaginary Dravidian “secularism” (another quite inept word to use in the Indian context), it has been posited by many scholars : Marr,60 Zvelebil and others characterize Sangam poetry as “secular” and “pre-Aryan” after severing its heroic or love themes from its strong spiritual undercurrents, in a feat typical of Western scholarship whose scrutiny always depends more on the magnifying glass than on the wide-angle lens. A far more insightful view comes from the historian M. G. S. Narayanan, who finds in Sangam literature “no trace of another, indigenous, culture other than what may be designated as tribal and primitive.” He concludes :
Vedic culture flourished in Dravidian areas ∞
The Aryan-Dravidian or Aryan-Tamil dichotomy envisaged by some scholars may have to be given up since we are unable to come across anything which could be designated as purely Aryan or purely Dravidian in the character of South India of the Sangam Age. In view of this, the Sangam culture has to be looked upon as expressing in a local idiom all the essential features of classical “Hindu” culture.
Dravidian contribution to Vedic culture ∞
However, it is not as if the Tamil land passively received this culture : in exchange it generously gave elements from its own rich temperament and spirit. In fact, all four Southern States massively added to every genre of Sanskrit literature, not to speak of the signal contributions of a Shankara, a Ramanuja or a Madhwa. In addition to the writing of these medieval scholars there have numerous temples especially in Tamilnadu popularly referred as Divyadesams[unknown prefix: wikipedia] which as per the local scholars date back to 3000 B.C. The tradition of Srivaishnavism[unknown prefix: wikipedia] glorified and epitomized in the Divyaprabandha literature of the Alvars[unknown prefix: wikipedia] have practiced and propagated the worship of various of Vishnu whom the Dravidian chauvinists regard as Aryan God . The existence of Srivaishnavism in itself is the greatest challenge to the prevalent theory of origin of Dravidian culture which regards worship of Vishnu are from Aryan roots.
Origins of Bhakti Movement ∞
More importantly, many scholars suggest that “the bhakti movement began in the Tamil country [and] later spread to North India.” Subbiah, in a profound study, not only challenges the misconceived “secular” portrayal of the Sangam texts, but also the attribution of the Tamil bhakti to a northern origin ; rather, he suggests, it was distinctly a creation of Tamil culture, and Sangam literature “a reflection of the religious culture of the Tamils.”.The Bhagavatha Mahatmya of Padma Purana mentions that the Bhakti was born in the Dravida country, had her early growth in the Karnataka and flourished in the Maharashtra. And the Vedic literature is abound with references to Dravida desa especially the Bhagavatha Purana refers more than once about the rivers like Tamaraparini as a sacred river. Matsya Purana[unknown prefix: wikipedia] also mentions that Matsya Avatara one of the Vishnu’s incarnations as a fish appeared in the Dravida desha when the Dravidian King Satyavrata was ruling.
As regards the fundamental contributions of the South to temple architecture, music, dance and to the spread of Hindu culture to other South Asian countries, they are too well known to be repeated here. Besides, the region played a crucial role in preserving many important Sanskrit texts (a few Vedic recensions, Bhasa’s dramas, the Arthashastra for instance) better than the North was able to do, and even today some of India’s best Vedic scholars are found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. As Swami Vivekananda put it, “The South had been the repository of Vedic learning.” In other words, what is loosely called Hinduism would not be what it is without the South. To use the proverbial but apt image, the outflow from the Tamil land was a major tributary to the great river of Indian culture.
It should now be crystal clear that anyone claiming a “separate,” “pre-Aryan” or “secular” Dravidian culture has no evidence to show for it, except his own ignorance of archaeology, numismatics and ancient Tamil literature. Not only was there never such a culture, there is in fact no meaning in the word “Dravidian” except either in the old geographical sense or in the modern linguistic sense ; racial and cultural meanings are as unscientific as they are irrational, although some scholars in India remain obstinately rooted in a colonial mindset.
The simple reality is that every region of India has developed according to its own genius, creating in its own bent, but while remaining faithful to the central Indian spirit. The Tamil land was certainly one of the most creative, and we must hope to see more of its generosity once warped notions about its ancient culture are out of the way.
Vedic Observer ∞
The Bhagavatha Mahatmya of the Padma Purana mentions that the Bhakti culture was born in Dravida desha. There is a mention of Dravida only as a historical place not as a Dravidian race which is incongruous invention of British and further developed by some political interests of some section of people to keep a check on the growth of Vedic culture in the south. And the sad part is this prevailing concept have been fossilized in the history text books and whole country is suffering from lack of cultural integrity thereby accelerating the slow death of glorious heritage of the ancient Indians.
The falsehood spread by the Dravidian parties should be refuted and reviewed in the light of the truth and let the truth prevail over the political interests.
- Dravidian Race[doesn’t exist]
Vedic roots of early Tamil culture by Michel Danino.
Edited by LNDASA