SV: Classical languages of India

RM. Krishnan poo at GIASMD01.VSNL.NET.IN
Sun Oct 1 07:22:39 UTC 2000

At 02:24 AM 10/1/00 +0100, you wrote:
>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.
>- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
>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
>- - - - - - - - - -


Finally it requires a great Professor to state the obvious. (We should 
thank Mr. Kumar Kumarappan to forward the mail from Prof.George Hart.)

With great humility and simultaneous confidence, the Professor has stated 
the above.

Even after this assertion, if some of our Indian/Indological friends are 
hesitating to acknowledge the Classical Nature of Tamil, then perhaps we 
are talking to closed minds.

Incidentally, stating the above assertion about Tamil does not in any way 
undermine Sanskrit. In this august list, I have earlier raised a rhetorical 

"What do we say to historical (cultural and linguistic) matters related to 
tamil and others? Dravidology perhaps?"

If we don't want exclusivity, then we have to boldly state that
Indology is not equal to Sanskritology;  it should be much more. To state 
differently, Indology does not start from Kyber Pass alone. It also starts 
from Kumari down south, including the submerged land. It is not only Jumbu 
Dweep; it is also Navalam thaNpoZil.

With regards,

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