Classical languages, political agendas

June 28, 2010 at 11:42 pm 9 comments

Semozhi Aana Tamizhmozhiyam” blazes off the A R Rahman theme number composed to celebrate the conferment of classical status to Tamil. This ancient south Indian language, is now placed in equal extolled pedestal with Greek, Latin and Sanskrit languages. A recent conference showcasing the antiquity, refinement and maturing of the language in the cultural, social, political and religious backdrops of its evolution was held in the city of Coimbatore. The conference captured the essential richness of language’s heritage and its vast literary traditions while scholars debated, dissected and endlessly devoured the sweetness of the innumerable works created in it. As the theme music played on every lips and reverberated on every hearts, Connoisseurs and commoners alike basked upon the fathomless beauty and glory of their tongue to their soul’s content.

To be called classical, a language should satisfy a set of most exacting criteria to which only a handful of the world’s languages qualify. First, it should be ancient, even dating back to antiquity and second, it should have an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own and not as an offshoot of another one. Thirdly, it should possess a vast and extremely rich ancient literature that is unique to it conforming to complex grammatical and literary patterns. And Tamil lives up to each of these benchmarks in ample measure and much beyond. The earliest stone inscriptions in the language dates back to 300 BC and judging by the maturity of the language used therein, it can be safely  said that its existence preceded these inscriptions by at least a thousand years. The language arose purely as an independent tradition not influenced by any other language streams and its literary repertoire is indescribably vast and rich. From the Tollkappiyam,  the Thirukkural and the Manimekalli to the modern works, Tamil literature exhibits a profound subtlety, complexity  and immense variety with underplaying universality in its themes. These characteristics make it all the more suitable to be called a classical language.

While Tamil flourished over the last few millenniums, another Indian classical language also achieved great literary advancement in the very same geographical region of southern India. Right from the beginning of the first century AD, Sanskrit achieved remarkable progress and made immeasurable contributions towards enriching the philosophy, culture, literature and music of the region through the works of the likes of Sayana, Vedanta Desika and Govinda Dikshita. Also, all the three proponents of the three main Indian philosophical streams of Dvaita, Visistadvaita and Advaita, namely Madhavacharya, Ramanujacharya and Adi Sankara have their great volumes of work composed in Sanskrit language and all of them flourished in South India. Their commentaries or Bhashyas on Vedas and Upanishads are today the treasure chest of great Indian heritage as they stand unparalleled, both for the beauty of their compositions as well as for their profound philosophical thoughts. This contribution of the Sanskrit language in South India also extended to fields like mathematics, astrology and astronomy as the works of the stature of Baskaracharya illustrate.

When two great languages vibrantly thrive in close proximity, it’s but natural that they influence and get influenced by one another resulting in the evolution of a composite and highly refined literary traditions that paved the way for the emergence of the most sublime philosophical ideas expressed in flawless language. The Shivaite and Vaishnavite literature propagated by the Nayanars and Alwars   stand testimony to this confluence of thoughts. What is more, the origin and development of the language of Malayalam is the result of this happy and joyous inter-mingling of two great classical languages.

But when political considerations overtake historical truths, when narrow chauvinistic agendas indulge in mindless glorification of the one to the suppression and strangulation of the other, what we get is a truncated and often disfigured replica of an otherwise glorious past. The misplaced enthusiasm of some of the so-called custodians of the Tamil language and their intolerance to an equally vibrant Sanskrit literary tradition has caused immense agony to a large section who pride in their composite and highly refined cultural traditions.

“The mark of wisdom is to discern the truth, from whatever source it is heard” wrote Thiruvalluvar, the great Tamil poet (Tirukkural – 423) and the hardcore Tamil enthusiasts would do well to revisit his works before they indulge in rampant denouncements of the other classical traditions to which they also are the rightful heirs.



P.S. To view the A R Rahman theme song click at the link given below


Entry filed under: Literary. Tags: , , , , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kalyan  |  June 29, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    very well written.

  • 2. kgovindan  |  June 29, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    It is a pity that sanskrit, the classical language about which every Indian is proud of, has declined. It is worth undertaking research to apportion the blame for the decline of sanskrit. Several languages and cultures appear to have disappeared with the rise of christianity and islam.

  • 3. Suresh  |  June 29, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Sanskrit must be one of the greatest classical languages as it is praised by many great men. Unfortunately majority of the people do not understand Sanskrit. I also do not understand Sanskrit. I suppose that Hindi is the descendant of Sanskrit, may be I am wrong. I want to know how far is Hindi different from Sanskrit. I do not understand Hindi either.If Sanskrit contributed so much to mathematics, how is the knowledge disappeared. I can’t believe Islam and Christianity destroyed the knowledge because Brahmins dominated the Indian Society for several thousands of years.

  • 4. umesh jairam  |  June 29, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Good one Narayanan. How to revive our oldest classical language viz Sanskrit. From the grass-root level (that we) should encourage ourself & our children to chant vedic hymns. At the govt level, the language should be made a compulsory upto 12th Std (like the Englishman’s English).

  • 5. Nawaz  |  June 30, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Indeed I agree the richness and greatness of Sanskrit and it’s influence on other Indian languages can’t be denied. Even the European languages including French has words borrowed from Sanskrit. The issue is not about the greatness of a language, if a language is practiced and given time, any language will be great. Language forms a huge part of culture and civilisation. The issue is acceptance. French people for example, can live their whole life just with French. Is it possible with Tamil? or Sanskrit? Sadly even for a basic life – bank, post office, Internet, telephone and so on, we need English!

  • 6. rekhabaala  |  July 1, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    good post narayanan. i left CBE a day before the Tamizh frenzy took over. sanskrit, as i see it, is going through a slow revival… with many among the younger generation opting for the subject. hope it gets the due it rightly deserves.

  • 7. Destination Infinity  |  July 5, 2010 at 12:53 am

    I guess even Tamil has borrowed some words from Sanskrit (also letters). The chanting of mantras till this date is in Sanskrit and not many are complaining.

    I do not know if it died because it was preserved exclusively as an elitist language. I am equally not sure if it died at all!

    But Tamil is more of a common man’s language… And like the French people, Tamilians are proud of their language and the language plays an important role in a lot of activities in this part of the world… One reason I see for opposing other languages sternly is the will to keep Tamil going on… Perhaps that could be one of the reasons for the preservation and flourishing of the language.

    I too feel strange when people oppose Sanskrit, Hindi and other such languages in TN but silently accept English!!!

    Destination Infinity

  • 8. S. M. Sullivan  |  July 21, 2010 at 6:22 am

    Tamil, Kannada and Sanskrit are all classical languages equally worthy of study, but few in the west have ever heard of Tamil or Kannada.

    It is not necessary to neglect or disparage either Sanskrit or the languages of the south.

    Recently I wrote an article with a decipherment of about 3 dozen Indus Valley seals. I’ll bet you can’t guess which languages were found on the seals:

  • 9. H.R. Laxmivenkatesh  |  September 1, 2010 at 5:38 pm


    Great to acknowledge the concern and anxiety of our folks, urban, rural, educated and illiterates are all shown equal amount of Indianness at least as for the unity of the country. This is a welcome sign, anyway !

    Atleast we forget our river water boundary disputes when the question of language comes.

    As some of our beloved friends, expressed their views that the Ancient languages like Sanskrit are losing their grounds. But if any one makes a brief study, it will come to our mind, it is not so.

    For the last fifty years or so, there are lots of universities, and Maths, have come forward and the study of Sanskrit language has reached its peak. Never we had so many pupils of different casts and creeds, have come forward to study that the Devabhasha ! Tirupathy unversity, and several maths, (Shringeri, Kanchi kamakoti maths) including Siddhaganga College, Tumkur are the testimony for the wide reach it is getting now a days. Several American temples are employing those scholars, as well. This is a good sign !

    Apart from that, foreign universities are doing very good work. So one need not worry about this. But we must see the students come out from those colleges should be properly employed.

    Television has been doing some good work as well. Geetha pravachan, and Satyadarshana programmes are being telecasted since 6 or 7 years.


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