Some thoughts on Sanskritization or Tantrification?

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at
Thu May 8 08:36:00 UTC 1997

A late response to an interesting post, but I could not resist an
opportunity to pick at things! My apologies.

On Fri, 2 May 1997 Palaniappa at wrote:

> As I have looked at the Classical and post-Classical Tamil literature, and
> also the Indian religious history, I see something interesting. The following
> is a simplified view concentrating only on the major threads in cultural
> history.
> In the cultural interplay between Indo-European and other cultures like
> Dravidian in India, I wonder if we should not be using the word
> 'tantrification'. As I look at the cultural history, I see the following

We already have a name for the syncretic religion that resulted from such
interplay, don't we? It is called Hinduism! I'm not sure if the word
tantrification explains or describes anything better than the word
Hinduization, or Sanskritization, or any of the other terms used by those
who talk of the Great Tradition and the Little Traditions.

> taking place. Dravidian and pre-Vedic Indo-European  mix to form a 'tantric'
> culture. This 'tantric' culture co-opts the later Vedic culture and relegates
> the original Vedic gods to insignificance. After this is completed in north

What are the points of contact between Dravidian and *pre-Vedic*
Indo-European? Is the 'later Vedic culture' that of the upanishads and
AraNyakas? Were the sages of the upanishads the torch-bearers of the later
Vedic culture? If so, this later Vedic culture is itself responsible to a
significant extent for relegating the older Vedic gods to insignificance.
Already in the various AraNyakas, hari and rudra, who are both minor in
the rgveda (if number of hymns is an indication), rise into prominence,
while mitra, varuNa, indra and other rgvedic deities become less
important. The old popularity of indra is already beginning to be
described as a result of his knowing brahman (kena upanishad) and this
brahman is already beginning to be identified with rudra (SvetASvatara
upanishad) or nArAyaNa (taittirIya AraNyaka). This might be as much an
internal development within Vedic Aryan communities as due to an
interaction with non-Aryan peoples. 

However, I do not doubt that such an interaction indeed took place. What I
am bothered about is the use of the word 'tantrification'. What exactly
does one mean by the word 'tantra'? Is this word just an Indological
construct, or is it a conscious self-description by the inheritors of the
results of such interaction? When kumAriLa bhaTTa uses 'tantra-vArttikA'
as a title, he is using the word 'tantra' to mean Vedic ritual, precisely
the kind of religion that was already paling into insignificance in his
own times. Even for many contemporary mImAmsaka paNDitas, tantra can be
used exclusively with respect to Vedic ritual. On the other hand, for the
followers of tantrAyana buddhism, or Kashmir Saivism, tantra has nothing
to do with Vedic ritual. Obviously, the tantra that most Indologists talk
about nowadays does not have the mImAmsaka's sense in mind, but is closer
to a more popular understanding of 'tantra'. 

Secondly, when did this 'tantrification' process begin? In the north, it
occured presumably before the advent of the Mauryan empire. But then, the
pre-Mauryan non-Vedic movements that resulted in Jainism and Buddhism all
claim to teach the Arya dharma, although admittedly non-Vedic. There was
no admission of there being any non-Aryan element in their teachings.
Thus, north Indian sources do not seem to lend much credence to this
concept of tantrification resulting from an interplay of Aryan and
non-Aryan, unless one says that anything that is non-Vedic is non-Aryan.
This contrasts with Agamic literature from the south, where in addition to
acknowledging the Vedic religion, there is a conscious attempt to 
acknowledge the Dravidian origin of their teachings. Both Saiva siddhAnta
and SrI vaishNava literatures bear this out. 

It seems to me that the scholars who attribute any and every non-Vedic
feature of Hinduism to either a Dravidian or some other
pre-Aryan/non-Aryan source conveniently overlook the historical evidence
that Buddhism and Jainism are also "Aryan" religions in India. They are
extremely reluctant to take into account the possibility that even amongst
those who called themselves Aryas, the Vedic sacrificial religion was not
always paramount, and that non-Vedic elements need not necesarily be due
to "indigenous" non-Aryan sources. This is contrary even to rgvedic
evidence, where some Aryan tribes are depicted as hostile to the Vedic
Aryans. (As an aside, who exactly is "indigenous" in the eighth century
BCE? Is one justified in treating the later Vedic Aryan as if he were 
still an outsider in this period? The Danes and Norsemen took less time to
become Englishmen. It seems that the modern reconstruction of the Vedic
Aryan is by definition denied the possibility of transforming into a
Hindu; he has to remain frozen in the rgvedic context and its 
reconstructed history. By the way, this aspect of the Aryan 
invasion/migration theory adds significant grist to the Hindutva political

One could claim that any 'tantrification' of the kind you describe, really
occurs only in the extreme south of India, and is due to contact of
Dravidians with northerners. To the people of Dravida country proper, all
the people north of the Vengadam hill are northerners, either vaDugars or
Ariyars. Meanwhile, these northerners are already increasingly becoming a
mixture of various elements, including Greeks, Scythians, the Huns and
other foreign groups in addition to indigenous peoples. Now, the Greeks
and the Scythians may all be Caucasian/Indo-European peoples (and
therefore "Aryan") by our modern reckoning, but the fact remains that for
the Aryan Indians who interacted with them, these peoples were definitely
"mleccha" and therefore recognizably alien, who only slowly become
Hinduized/Aryanized. And if the 'tantrification' process really is
powerful enough or old enough, one would expect these foreign groups to
consciously promote forms of religion different from the Vedic sacrifice.
One might expect to see some Agama-based temple building activity. Yet
what do we find? We see the Saka and Yavana rulers performing aSvamedhas
to legitimate their kshatriyahood, thus firmly aligning themselves with
Srauta sacrificial religion. Any building of monuments occurs more
often in a Buddhist context than a Hindu/tantra one. And those who
patronize Buddhists and Jains proclaim they are promoting the 
"Arya-dharma". Again, it is only from much later times and from the
extreme south that the Hindu temple building activity gets a real impetus.
As far as northern India is concerned, it is therefore extremely
short-sighted to ignore the passage of history and talk only in terms of
pre-Vedic, Vedic, Aryan and Dravidian. These terms do not cover the entire
gamut of the peoples who are the ancestors of today's north Indian
population, and their cultural and religious history. Besides, the Tamil
speaking Dravidian seems to have had little impact on the north. 

Finally, the texts that consciously label themselves 'tantra' (in a
non-Vedic ritual sense), whether of a Buddhist or Hindu persuasion, all
date from much later times. Many of the tantra texts, especially those of
the kaula traditions, consciously place themselves outside the Vedic
mainstream, and far from being a syncretic development of Vedic and
non-Vedic features, revel in transgressing Vedic injunctions. 

> India, the same thing happens in South India with a phase difference of about
> several centuries. Now called the Bhakti movement, it transforms the South
> and is re-exported back to north making the religious culture there even more
> 'emotional'. The building of agamic temples which changed the cultural and
> economic landscape of Tamilnadu was part of this 'tantrification'. The

Yes, the bhakti movement originating in the south transformed the face 
of Hinduism in the north. But this is a late medieval phenomenon. As
far as tantra and tantrification are concerned, this analysis also
overlooks one of the most important sources of 'tantra' - the schools of
Kashmir Saivism. It is well-known that the Siva sUtras, abhinavagupta and
other leading lights of Kashmir Saivism are all posterior to the 9th
century CE, when this region had minimal contact with Dravida country
proper. Kashmir had many more contacts with Central Asia and Tibet, thanks
to geography and Mahayana Buddhism, than to south India. Where is the
later Saiva/SAkta tAntric religion if not for Kashmir Saivism? And if
tantra has intimate connections to music, dance and other arts, let us
also remember that it is only Kashmir Saivism that has given us anything
that can be called a well-developed Indian theory of aesthetics. 

> secular realm of music, dance, etc gives way to the religious realm.
> As a student of marketing, I see the original pre-Vedic Aryans as very
> sophisticated marketers. They used the music and dance forms in the Dravidian
> culture to design and spread the new syncretistic religion of 'tantra'. They

I doubt if any *pre-Vedic* Aryans ever came into contact with
south Indian Dravidians. The earliest Dravidian references to Aryans are
to the nandas and the mauryas. Unless one wants to take seriously the
claim that the three kings of the drAviDa land fed both the opposing
armies in the Mahabharata war, one can't find concrete evidence of any
earlier contact of Dravidians with Aryans. We can safely exclude the Indus
Valley population, as far as south Indian Dravidians are concerned, for
the simple reason that there is no recollection of ever having populated
that region in the Tamil texts. 

Also, if the Aryans used the art forms of the Dravidians in the south,
they also used the art forms of the Greeks and the Romans effectively in
the north, especially in the north-west. The architecture of Gandhara is
well-known for its Greek influences. And these art forms were used more
often to propagate Buddhism than a syncretic 'tantra'. It took many
centuries for the developed tantra to influence Buddhism. 

> were very successful in the north and they were successful in the south also.

A syncretic religion drawing from Aryan and Dravidian elements was indeec
successful in the south to a large extent, but the story in the north
becomes debatable. The earliest Dravidian sources do not have any memory
of having been driven from the north to the south. Whatever the population
of the Indus Valley may have been, one cannot claim that the Gangetic
basin was populated by Dravidians before the Aryans moved in. Who then
were the non-Aryan peoples in those regions. As far as one can make out,
they must have been the tribes like the santhAls, the bhils and the goNDs.
These groups have been left alone for millenia by those who followed the
Vedas. It is only in recent times, with the spread of Islam and
Christianity among these tribes, that efforts are being made in certain
quarters to Hinduize them. Even in the south, tribes like the Todas have
been left alone, both by their immediate neighbours, the Dravidians
proper, and the incoming Aryans. 

> However, this religion seems to have elicited criticism at least from a
> subset of the Vedic Aryan as well as Dravidian. The criticism of
> tirugnAnacampantar by the relatives of the bard tirunIlakaNTar suggests this.
> (When the three Tamil kings of the Classical Tamil period, failed to defeat
> pAri,an independent chieftain, the chieftain's poet-friend advised tham that
> if they go as bards and dancers and perform before him he would give the
> kingdom along with his own life. Apparently they did that and eliminated him.
> I think the weakness of Dravidians for music and dance, etc. is still there
> if one considers the film stars' influence on Tamil political life!) 

This is overstating the issue about the syncretic religion of tantra, and
the role of the Aryans in using Dravidian music and dance forms to
propagate it. However, the deleterious influence of movie stars in Tamil
Nadu cannot be emphasized enough!

I think that from the earliest times, even before they came into any
contact with Aryans, Tamil speaking people had made a quasi-religion out
of their language, their geography and their arts. iyal and iSai are both
attributed to God Siva, and the iSai itself is classified according to the
five regions of Tamil land. The Vedic Aryan contribution to this attitude
seems to be minimal. The Saiva religion propagated by the nAyanmArs only
pays token lip-service to the Vedas. And the music and dance that was
pressed into religious service, particularly temple service, remained the
domain of non-brAhmaNa, therefore presumably non-Aryan, communities.
Finally, tirujnAnacampantar and tirunIlakaNTar are not exactly
contemporaries of pAri, are they? How is jnAnacampantar responsible for
pAri's defeat? Is there some story here? 

Of course, in recent times, Carnatic music has been overtly
devotional/religious in its context, but that is traceable only to the
16th century CE or so, when Purandaradasa and other singer-saints
consciously tried to propagate vaishNavism through music. Earlier authors,
from bharata to SArngadeva recognize music and dance as secular arts,
although not exclusively so. A case can be made that music and dance are
increasingly becoming the vehicle of or even supplanting the role of
religion among expatriate Indian communities, but that is besides the
point here. 

> I think the pre-Bhakti Tamil texts, even though they might be chronologically
> late, has recorded elements of culture which goes back to pre-Vedic times. I
> think Indologists may find it profitable to devote more to the study of Tamil
> texts from this perspective. They can see possible pre-cursors of 'tantric'
> traditions. For example, the vETTuva vari section of CilappatikAram dealing
> with the worship of the Goddess can be compared to other similar events in
> Classical Tamil. One can see secular events transforming into religious
> events similar to iRaivan the king being replaced by iRaivan the deity,
> viRali the dancer being replaced by tEvarATiyAr the dancer. 

Yes, Indologists must devote more effort to study Tamil texts, and they 
must appreciate the richness of the Tamil sources more, but in this
particular context, I'm not sure if anything new or particularly original
will come out of it. Already, the "Dravidian" is a convenient category
into which one lumps all non-Vedic elements. A conspicuous gap will also
remain in helping the interpretation of the Indus Valley as a Dravidian
culture, because of the absolute lack of reference to it in the Tamil

Besides, from the point of view of tantra and tAntric religion, this is
slightly confusing to me. Is the Aryan-Dravidian interaction supposed to 
result in a 'tAntric' religion, by definition? Or is the general
transformation of the secular into the religious what one calls 'tAntric'?
But then, such a conversion seems very much more prevalent in south India
than in the north. kaNNagi, the faithful wife, becomes transformed into
the goddess pattini who is worshipped by kings. The pANDyan princess is
worshipped as mInAkshI, the Goddess. These remain uniquely Dravidian,
rather than being features of a syncretic tantra arising out of
Aryan-Dravidian interaction. Again, this raises the question, what about
the origins of Kashmir Saivism, and its associated tAntric literature?
Although a lot of the texts of Kashmir Saivism were written by south
Indian authors, the fact remains that the school developed in the
Himalayan foothills, centuries after the pre-Vedic Aryan had vanished, and
with little input from the south. And the Dravidian has never been
postulated to have lived in the Kashmir valley. 

> I think Kerala is a model of what could have happened in Punjab 2500 years
> earlier. Kerala, known for its tantric practices, can be studied with respect
> to hypergamy, language change, religious change and continuity as an example
> of history repeating itself.

Au contraire, Kerala always sticks out like a sore thumb (no offence
intended) as compared to the rest of India. It is known as much for its
adherence to Vedic practices as to its tAntric practices. Hypergamy
existed in Kerala because of its simultaneous practice of matriarchy and
patriarchy among different communities. It is too much of a stretch to say
that all Dravidians must have originally been matriarchical peoples, upon
whom patriarchy and patrilineal inheritance were imposed by the incoming
Aryans. Even the cankam literature does not support such a contention with
respect to the Tamil people. Language change in Kerala is a result of a
conscious medieval attempt to freely use Sanskritic forms in combination
with the koDun-tamil of the earlier cera kingdom. By its very uniqueness,
Kerala seems to be rather the exception than the rule in the interaction
between Veda followers (Aryans/Brahmins, call them what you will) and

In summary, my questions about Indian cultural history are many. 

1. Is it 'tantrification'? If so, what exactly is 'tantra'? 

2. Is such 'tantrification' mainly a result of Dravidian interaction with
Aryan? Then what about later non-Dravidian sources of 'tantra', such as
Kashmir Saivism?

3. Presumably, we know something about the Vedic Aryan. Who is his
Dravidian contemporary? Did he live in any part of north India,
specifically the Indus Valley? If yes, how come the Dravidian proper, the
south Indian, remains silent about this in his Tamil literature? Why does
he regard the Dravida land as being defined by Kumari in the south and the
Vengadam hill (Tirupati) in the north? In the absence of evidence from
Tamil literature, what positive evidence exists to say that the Dravidian
ever lived north of the vindhyas? Is there tangible connection between the
Dravidian of the Tamil land in the cankam age, and the pre-Vedic
inhabitant of the Indus Valley (call it Sarasvati valley, if you will)? 

4. If not the Dravidians, who were the non-Vedic or non-Aryan groups in
the Gangetic basin that the Vedic Aryan encountered during his migration
eastward? What evidence exists to label such a non-Aryan group as a

5. The interaction between Aryan and non-Aryan resulted in a composite
culture, called Hindu/tAntric/whatever. Which are the elements in this
composite culture that arise from non-Vedic Aryans as opposed to

6. At what period of time does the Vedic Aryan lose his Vedic Aryan
character in favor of the composite 'tAntric'/Hindu character? 

7. What about the north-east? Does the Vedic Aryan ever reach the region
of Assam before he exchanges his "Vedic" identity for a composite one?

8. Finally, what about the non-Aryan, non-Dravidian, non-indigenous
peoples like the Greeks, the Sakas and others who were absorbed into the
Indian population? Were the mechanisms of such absorption
Vedic/Buddhist/Jain/Vaishnava/Saiva/Tantric in nature? 

9. Why were some populations absorbed into a composite 'tAntric'/Hindu
identity, while others like the various muNDa tribes, the Jews and the
early Christians remained distinct?
I feel that any theory of Indian cultural history that wants to be
comprehensive must try to answer most of these questions. 

S. Vidyasankar

ps. Behind all these analyses, there seems to be an underlying assumption
that the categories "Indo-European" and "pre-Vedic/Vedic/later-Vedic
Aryan" constitute a race/tribe distinct from other Indian groups. One
cannot overemphasize the early admonition that a linguistic grouping does
not mean a racial/tribal grouping. 

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