Tamil Sangam Literature -- Herman's Tieken's book

George Hart ghart at SOCRATES.BERKELEY.EDU
Mon Aug 27 15:36:57 UTC 2001

I notice the message reproduced at the end of these comments in
Indology in July.  While I have not yet seen Prof. Tieken's book, I
can certainly respond to the ideas on the back cover.  There is
overwhelming and indisputable evidence that the anthologies were not
written as late as the ninth or tenth century.  It is, moreover,
quite certain that the Sangam anthologies were not patterned after
Prakrit or Sanskrit.  Let me make a few brief points.

1. Language.  This is absolutely indisputable.  The Sangam texts use
very different (and demonstrably much more archaic) forms and
vocabulary than later texts of the sixth century onward.  Many verb
forms that disappeared by the sixth century can be shown to be part
of an older Dravidian  verb system that is quite consistent with an
age of the second or third century.  The vocabulary is also quite
different from that of later works -- it has much less Sanskrit, and
uses words that are not attested later.  A good source for these
older forms is V. S. Rajam's A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil
Poetry : 150 B.C.-pre-fifth/sixth Century A.D. Philadelphia, Pa.,
American Philosophical Society, 1992.

2. Content.  While the akam (love) poems share some themes with
Prakrit and even Sanskrit (as I have shown), they are still radically
unlike the poems in those languages.  Prakrit has nothing like the
five tiNais, and it is not nearly as carefully worked out, with stock
speakers, stock images for each landscape, ragas (called paNs) for
each, and the like.  There is absolutely nothing like the PuRam
(heroic) poems of the PuRananuru and the Patirruppattu in Prakrit or
Sanskrit.  That is because the Puram poems are mostly written as
imitations of the productions of low-caste bards and drummers.

3. Culture.  The poems show a coherent culture that is utterly
different from the 9th or 10th century.  It is clear, if one reads
the Purananuru, that the poems are directly about events the authors
have heard of.  Many of the poems concern marginal people at the
borders of society.  This is not the case of the Sanskrit or Prakrit
traditions.  Where is there anything like the famous Kalittokai poem
of the lame man pursuing the hunchback woman?

4. History.  The poems name hundreds of poets and kings -- and string
them together in a narrative that is chronologically coherent.  The
names are quite unlike the names of the 9th and 10th century.  There
are many historical facts that have been confirmed by archeological
and other evidence -- some kings who appear on coins, or in datable
contemporary inscriptions (1st-3rd century), Roman coins, description
of trade also found in outside sources, and the like.

5. Literary theory and usage.  The Tolkappiyam describes theories and
systems that are mostly quite foreign to Sanskrit and Prakrit, but
which fit Sangam literature quite well.  Its grammar describes some
forms that are quite old (as shown by the earliest inscriptions), and
even the writing system it describes, with the puLLi, has now been
shown to be as early as the second century or even earlier.  The
Sangam poems do not use anything related to Sanskrit meter, unlike
the poems of later times.  By the ninth and tenth centuries, almost
all literature in Tamil divided its stanzas into four parts, like
Sanskrit and Prakrit (though they never actually borrowed Sanskrit

6. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina elements.  In the Sangam poems, Murugan
has not yet been identified with Kartikeya -- he is a folk spirit
that possesses people and must be propitiated.  There is not much
mention of Visnu or Siva, while it is clear that Jainism and Buddhism
are both present in Tamil Nadu.   Many of the gods are local and do
not appear in later literature.  All of this accords perfectly with
what we know of that period, and does not fit at all the later period.

This is only a cursory response -- it seems almost a waste of time to
go on, as the evidence is so abundant and convincing.  The fact is,
the poems are quite unaware of Prakrit or Sanskrit literature --
though they do know of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which fits
with their accepted date of 1st-3rd century AD).  They do not
resemble Prakrit or Sanskrit literature enough to be modeled upon
them -- I have argued that both Tamil and Prakrit/Sanskrit use the
same body of conventions, which they got through southern (Tamil and
Maharastri) folk traditions.  But the poems themselves are quite
different and work in very different ways.  Finally, there is a
convincing -- and enormous -- body of coherent and mutually
reinforcing historical, linguistic, cultural, religious and literary
evidence that shows clearly the poems are much earlier than the 9th
or 10th century.  Yes, some 9th or 10th century poets might have
decided to write some "old" literature based on Prakrit and Sanskrit.
But would they have invented hundreds of archaic forms and words that
fit the development of Dravidian?  Would they have eschewed
Prakrit/Sanskrit ideas and metrical patterns?  Would they have
carefully gotten rid of almost all their Sanskrit words and invented
hundreds of words that are not found in the other 9th century
literature?  Would they have made up the names of hundreds of poems
and kings and woven them into a huge corpus that is chronologically
consistent (and fits with inscriptional and numismatic evidence)?
Tiken's argument (if it is correctly reflected in the blurb on the
back cover) just does not make sense.  It is as if one were to claim
the Vedas were written in the 10th century AD by a group of people
who wanted to reflect an idealized past.  Indeed, the Sangam works
contain much more historical information than the Vedas -- it would
be much easier to 'prove' that the Vedas were written in the 10th
century than that the Sangam poems were. What is it about some
European Sanskritists that makes them unwilling to accept that a non
Indo-European people could create a great literature on their own in
South Asia?  The evidence of the non-derivative nature of Sangam
literature is absolutely convincing.  I hope that some will read the
translation of the Purananuru that Heifetz and I recently published.
How these poems could be derived from the Sanskrit/Prakrit tradition
utterly mystifies me -- and I have read most of the kavya literature
(Kalidasa, Magha, Bharavi) in the original.  And I have read the
Prakrit poems with the chaayaa anuvaada.  By the way, the Purananuru
is one of the seminal texts of premodern India -- it is quite as
important as the epics and the Vedas for understanding the
development of South Asian culture.

 From George Hart, Prof. of Tamil and Chair of Tamil Studies, Univ. of
California, Berkeley, USA

Here is the message from the July forum:

Did Tamil Cankam poetry describe a contemporary society, or an
idealized pure Tamil society of the past, as it was imagined in a
time already greatly influenced by North-Indian Sanskrit culture ... ?

The following recent publication is perhaps of interest to readers of
this list because of the challenging thesis on the relative
chronology of early Tamil poetry and Sanskrit Kaavya defended in it.

Title: Kaavya in South India: Old Tamil Cankam Poetry. Author: Herman
Tieken Publ.: Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 2001

 From the back cover: "Old Tamil Cankam poetry consists of eight
anthologies of short poems on love and war, and a treatise on grammar
and poetics. The main part of this corpus has generally been dated to
the first centuries AD and is believed to be the product of a native
Tamil culture. The present study argues that the poems do not
describe a contemporary society but a society from the past or one
not yet affected by North-Indian Sanskrit culture. Consequently the
main argument for the current early dating of Cankam poetry is no
longer valid. Furthermore, on the basis of a study of the historical
setting of the heroic poems and of the role of Tamil as a literary
language in the Cankam corpus, it is argued that the poetic tradition
was developed by the PaaNTiyas in the ninth or tenth century. ... ...
the identification of the various genres of Cankam poetry with
literary types from the Sanskrit Kaavya tradition ... indicates that
in Cankam poetry Tamil has been specifically assigned the role of a
Praakrit. ... "

Jan E.M. Houben Kern Institute P.O. Box 9515 NL-2300 RA Leiden
J.E.M.Houben at let.leidenuniv.nl

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