SV: Classical languages of India

Kumar Kumarappan kkumar80 at HOTMAIL.COM
Sun Oct 1 01:24:46 UTC 2000

This debate in this forum caught my attention. Not being a scholar in
related matters my opinions may be dismissed easily. But I would like to
share Prof.George Hart's thoughts on this issue. This was part of a
personal email exchange, that I cut and paste here. I have  his permission
to share this in public forums.
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Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language by Prof.George

Professor Maraimalai has asked me to write regarding the position of Tamil
as a classical language, and I am delighted to respond to his request.

I have been a Professor of Tamil at the University of California, Berkeley,
since 1975 and am currently holder of the Tamil Chair at that institution.
My degree, which I received in 1970, is in Sanskrit, from Harvard, and my
first employment was as a Sanskrit professor at the University of
Wisconsin, Madison, in 1969. Besides Tamil and Sanskrit, I know the
classical languages of Latin and Greek and have read extensively in their
literatures in the original. I am also well-acquainted with comparative
linguistics and the literatures of modern Europe (I know Russian, German,
and French and have read extensively in those languages) as well as the
literatures of modern India, which, with the exception of Tamil and some
Malayalam, I have read in translation. I have spent much time discussing
Telugu literature and its tradition with V. Narayanarao, one of the
greatest living Telugu scholars, and so I know that tradition especially
well. As a long-standing member of a South Asian Studies department, I have
also been exposed to the richness of both Hindi literature, and I have read
in detail about Mahadevi Varma, Tulsi, and Kabir.

I have spent many years -- most of my life (since 1963) -- studying
Sanskrit. I have read in the original all of Kalidasa, Magha, and parts of
Bharavi and Sri Harsa. I have also read in the original the fifth book of
the Rig Veda as well as many other sections, many of the Upanisads, most of
the Mahabharata, the Kathasaritsagara, Adi Sankara¹s works, and many other
works in Sanskrit.

I say this not because I wish to show my erudition, but rather to establish
my fitness for judging whether a literature is classical. Let me state
unequivocally that, by any criteria one may choose, Tamil is one of the
great classical literatures and traditions of the world.

The reasons for this are many; let me consider them one by one.

First, Tamil is of considerable antiquity. It predates the literatures of
other modern Indian languages by more than a thousand years. Its oldest
work, the Tolkappiyam,, contains parts that, judging from the earliest
Tamil inscriptions, date back to about 200 BCE. The greatest works of
ancient Tamil, the Sangam anthologies and the Pattuppattu, date to the
first two centuries of the current era. They are the first great secular
body of poetry written in India, predating Kalidasa's works by two hundred

Second, Tamil constitutes the only literary tradition indigenous to India
that is not derived from Sanskrit. Indeed, its literature arose before the
influence of Sanskrit in the South became strong and so is qualitatively
different from anything we have in Sanskrit or other Indian languages. It
has its own poetic theory, its own grammatical tradition, its own
esthetics, and, above all, a large body of literature that is quite unique.
It shows a sort of Indian sensibility that is quite different from anything
in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, and it contains its own extremely
rich and vast intellectual tradition.

Third, the quality of classical Tamil literature is such that it is fit to
stand beside the great literatures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Chinese,
Persian and Arabic. The subtlety and profundity of its works, their varied
scope (Tamil is the only premodern Indian literature to treat the subaltern
extensively), and their universality qualify Tamil to stand as one of the
great classical traditions and literatures of the world. Everyone knows the
Tirukkural, one of the world's greatest works on ethics; but this is merely
one of a myriad of major and extremely varied works that comprise the Tamil
classical tradition. There is not a facet of human existence that is not
explored and illuminated by this great literature.

Finally, Tamil is one of the primary independent sources of modern Indian
culture and tradition. I have written extensively on the influence of a
Southern tradition on the Sanskrit poetic tradition. But equally important,
the great sacred works of Tamil Hinduism, beginning with the Sangam
Anthologies, have undergirded the development of modern Hinduism. Their
ideas were taken into the Bhagavata Purana and other texts (in Telugu and
Kannada as well as Sanskrit), whence they spread all over India. Tamil has
its own works that are considered to be as sacred as the Vedas and that are
recited alongside Vedic mantras in the great Vaisnava temples of South
India (such as Tirupati). And just as Sanskrit is the source of the modern
Indo-Aryan languages, classical Tamil is the source language of modern
Tamil and Malayalam. As Sanskrit is the most conservative and least changed
of the Indo-Aryan languages, Tamil is the most conservative of the
Dravidian languages, the touchstone that linguists must consult to
understand the nature and development of Dravidian.

In trying to discern why Tamil has not been recognized as a modern
language, I can see only a political reason: there is a fear that if Tamil
is selected as a classical language, other Indian languages may claim
similar status. This is an unnecessary worry. I am well aware of the
richness of the modern Indian languages -- I know that they are among the
most fecund and productive languages on earth, each having begotten a
modern (and often medieval) literature that can stand with any of the major
literatures of the world. Yet none of them is a classical language. Like
English and the other modern languages of Europe (with the exception of
Greek), they rose on preexisting traditions rather late and developed in
the second millennium. The fact that Greek is universally recognized as a
classical language in Europe does not lead the French or the English to
claim classical status for their languages.

To qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria:
it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose
mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have
a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature. Unlike the other
modern languages of India, Tamil meets each of these requirements. It is
extremely old (as old as Latin and older than Arabic); it arose as an
entirely independent tradition, with almost no influence from Sanskrit or
other languages; and its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich.

It seems strange to me that I should have to write an essay such as this
claiming that Tamil is a classical literature -- it is akin to claiming
that India is a great country or Hinduism is one of the world's great
religions. The status of Tamil as one of the great classical languages of
the world is something that is patently obvious to anyone who knows the
subject. To deny that Tamil is a classical language is to deny a vital and
central part of the greatness and richness of Indian culture
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