The conflict of languages – Tamil and Sanskrit

B. Velsamy is an independent scholar of repute in Tamil Studies. Educated in traditional scholarship earning the degree “Pulavar”, emerging from the grass roots, his incisive writings on the history of caste structure and its relationship to land holding patterns in Tamil Nadu have received wide acclaim in Tamil circles. He has three works to his credit which have gone to three editions. He was one of the founder-editors of the now extant, influential theoretical journal in Tamil – “Nirapirihai”. Truthdive is proud to introduce his writings to the English readers.

Most readers are aware of the great Tamil Studies scholar Vaiyapuri Pillai’s predisposition to drag the period of ancient Tamil texts down to the Anno Dominis, while admitting without any issues, the period of Vedas, Upanishads, Ithihasas and Yashkanruthams. But, my regards for the scholar as unwavering in scientific spirit was shaken to the core recently, on reading his article on the Mauryas, in the first volume of his collected works. His articles on the history of Sanskrit works that run over 150 pages in the fourth volume of his collected works further augmented the doubts on the credentials of his works.

Vaiyapuri Pillai

Vaiyapuri Pillai

For instance, the author of Panini notes in his work, that the Vedic language was called Sandas and the spoken language then prevalent Basha. This confirms the view that Panini was well aware of the older Vedic language and the newly evolving Sanskrit during his period. Scholars have established beyond doubt that, the new Sanskrit evolved only after the second or third century ADs. In spite of that historical fact, Vaiyapuri Pillai still takes for granted the opinion that Katyayana, the commentator on Panini, lived around 250 BC.

Vaiyapuri Pillai is not alone in such inconsistency on fixing the period of ancient grammarians belonging to both the Tamil and Sanskrit languages. For instance, Dr. K. Meenatchi who translated Panini to Tamil, comments in his preface to the work, “it is believed Panini belongs to third century BC” (pg.6). But a few pages later (pg 22) he notes Katyayana’s period as 4th century BC. Likewise P.S. Subramaniya Sashtri, a renowned scholar in both Tamil and Sanskrit, in the preface to his commentary on “Ezhuthadhikaram” of Tholkappiyam, notes that Tholkappiyar’s period should be around 2nd century AD. The same author in his “The History of Sanskrit” contradicts himself stating that, “Since the seven sutras in the “Meypattiyal” of Tholkappiyam are a translation of portions of Natya Sasthra, and since Tholkappiyam seems to belong to 2nd century BC, it would be safe to assume Natya Sasthra to have been written before 2nd century BC”. Dr. Rasamanikkanar dates Tholkappiyar around 3rd century BC; Pavanar to 7th century BC Mayilai Seeni Venkatasamy to 8th of 9th century BC, Vellai Varanar to 1500 BC.

It is a common predisposition among Tamil Studies scholars to fix the period of ancient Tamil Literature and Grammar either too back in time or too late to arrive. The reason for such discrepancy among scholars seems to be simple: either to place the Tamil texts before or later than the period of Sanskrit texts. These scholars do not take into account the history of research and publication of Sanskrit texts during the colonial period and how the period of these texts was determined in the process. It is up to our task to reinvestigate that process to arrive at a better understanding of the politics that manifests in such claims and counter claims on the historicity of these two traditions.

First a review of some well established historical facts. During the 16th century AD the European powers had established their warehouses and nodal points of trade in the sub continent. By 17th century AD they had markets and residential areas of their own. And by the18th century, they started conquering Indian states. Beginning with 1740, some parts of the sub continent came under the rule of the British. With the death of Aurangazeb, the Mughal empire began to disintegrate. Calcutta which until then was part of the Mughal empire, and the southern states became independent under regional rulers. Pune emerged as a nodal point of power under the rule of the Marathas. The north and the north east came under the sway of the Sikhs and the Rajputs. These regional powers vied among themselves to capture Delhi, and in the ensuing wars they frequently sought the assistance of the French and the British. As a result of such incessant wars these powers gradually lost their strength. The French and the British who began to recruit the locals in their armies and had superior weapons rose to power.

In 1773 the British government appointed a committee to oversee the rule of the British East India Company. The first Governor General Warren Hastings took control of the administration and the first court in the style of European governance established with Elzey Impey in charge as the first Judge.

These courts formulated the “Gentoo Code” which later evolved as the Hindu Law, to deal with the civil cases of the locals. In the beginning, these codes were formulated taking into account the local customs of the populace. But with the increasing complexity of issues that came for hearing in these courts the British came to realize that these codes were not sufficient in themselves to deal with the local cases. To solve the impasse it was decided to formulate a code of law from the sacred texts which the ‘natives’ held in reverence from time immemorial. In search for such texts the British ‘discovered’ that the Manu Smrithi was the principal text that dealt with laws of the land, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas coming next.

Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones

Warren Hastings, asked his friend Charles Wilkins to translate Bhagavad Gita (1784) and Geethobathesam (1787) into English. His other friend, the famous Orientalist scholar Sir William Jones translated the Manu Smrithi (1792) and Sakuntala (1798). The Manu Smrithi was published under the title “Hindu Dharmachar” in 1794. Sir William Jones began publishing the journal “The Asiatic Society” at this same period. Jones who was affluent in many languages compared Sanskrit with the European languages and invented the idea of Indo Aryan languages. His invention of Indo Aryan language group shaped the idea that Sanskrit came to India from Europe. This created an interest among European scholars to study Sanskrit and the Indian culture which was conceived as synonymous with the texts written in that language.

The Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales was instituted in the French Republic in 1795 with Alexander Amitran as Professor of Sanskrit. It was the first institution to teach Sanskrit in Europe. The East India Company founded an institute in England in 1805 to train its civil servants in India which had a course in Sanskrit. H. Wilson was appointed as Professor of Sanskrit by the institute in 1832. Chairs for teaching Sanskrit were created in universities all over Europe and US in the Universities of London, Cambridge and Edinburg.

The translation of Sanskrit texts which began with the intention of creating a civic code of rule led the Europeans to uncharted areas of research in various fields. Comparative Linguistics, which later blossomed to Linguistics and Anthropology, which extended to the study of nations and different races and their fixing in a hierarchy evolved from these studies. These early translations of Sanskrit texts soon expanded to translating Vedas, Nigandus (the dictionaries unique to Tamil and Sanskrit), and different commentaries on Vedas. In 1808 Frederick Schlegel published his “On the Language and Wisdom of India”. His brother August von Schlegel began to publish “Indishe Bibliothek”. Eugene Burnouf, tutor of Max Muller, France Bopp, and other scholars published numerous articles and books dedicating themselves to the research of Sanskrit texts. During this period, the European scholars considered texts like Sakuntala, Bhagavat Gita, Manu Smriti, Parthruhari, Geethopadesam as the most important texts in Sanskrit. Leafing through thousands of Sanskrit palm leaf texts collected in the East India House, Frederick Rosen (1805-1837) published the first “asgath” of Rig Veda. Theodor Benfey (1809 – 1881) followed publishing Sama Vedha in 1848 and the Sanskrit – English dictionary in 1866.

In 1847, The East India Company instituted an amount of 9 lakh rupees to publish Vedic texts and appointed Max Muller in

Max Muller

Max Muller

charge of the work. Max Muller published Rig Veda’s complete index with introduction in six parts (1849 – 75), and the complete text of Rig Veda with commentary in 1873. It was translated into French and German at this same period. Otto Bohtlingk with Rudolf Roth and Albrecht Weber published the massive seven – volume Sanskrit – German lexicon in Petersburg between the years 1853 – 75. This work called the “St. Petersburg Lexicon” is still admired, even above the ancient commentary of Sayanar. Professor Roth published Yashkanrutham (1848-52) with its ancient commentary along with his detailed commentary. By 1875, almost the complete corpus of Vedic texts was translated into various European languages. Based on these translations of Vedic – Sanskrit literature, European scholars published numerous commentaries on these texts and on the culture and history of the sub continent. During the same period, the Hindu Law which has seeped into our contemporary structure of civic laws was completed.

The question pertaining to the publication of ancient Tamil literary and grammatical texts needs to be investigated in the light of the above context.

Trans. vm.

Note: For a more comprehensive treatment on the study of Sanskrit by Orientalist scholars, see Bernard Cohn, “The command of language and the language of command” in Subaltern Studies, Vol. IV.

4 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Indian and Tamil history can better be analysed if we deviate from certain standard notion: i)delink from Asokan edicts since there are pre Mauryan settlements in Andhra. While Buddhists and Jain literature speaks about lipis there are no references in Sanskrit. Tolkappiam devotes one complete chapter on ezhuthu distinguishing Vedas as Ezhutha Kilavi. Tolkappiam divides words as Prakrit(eyarchol) directional words(thisaichol) and Vadasol(words in north) He never uses the word Ariyam i.e., composed before the arrival of Jains. Actually for long period upto Bhasa only Prakrit and Ardh Magadi were prevalent. The entire Buddhistic/Jain theologies mainly relied on Two Schools of Sanskrit Grammar: based on word and meaning -Katayana and root-Datu system followed by Panini. Since Vedic language was more concerned with worship a fact most relied by Purva Mimamsakaras and also referred by Tolkappiam Prakrit was used as medium of literature. The patronage of Sanskrit as a language of literature started only during the period of Bhasa and by Guptas. If we start the history from Jain/Buddhistic literature we will find that contradictory views of Jains/Buddhist on Brahmins will emerge – Brahmins don’t form part of creation in Jainism preceptors took their role wearing of sacred thread Gayathri Manthra are all there. It corresponds with the origin of Sacred thread recited by Brahmins. On the other hand in Buddhism it is dominated by Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Viewed in this context neither Buddhism/nor Jainism nor Brahminism was antagonistic but only indulged in theological warfare. Compared to South India even now in North India becoming a Brahmin is more flexible and there is a famous saying in Tamil that even a Pulaya can become Brahmin in north and vice versa in south. Further I am still having doubts about Asokanedict on CODA, PADA AND KETHALA as referring to Chola Pandya or Kerala the words being so mutilated. Further while Tamil sources are always accurate in describing north there is no reference to Tamil as a separate language. While Pandya and Kerala are referred due to proximity with Karnataka reference to Cholas and Pallavas are completely absent. As per Buddhistic and ceylon chronicles Dravida refers to Krishna Godavari belt and certain Brahmins are referred as Dravidalu. Further as per Mahabharata Dravidas are quite distinct from Tamil Kings and Manu considered them as degraded kshatriyas i.e., as per Manual and Mahabharata they are of Aryans stock only. Similarly the classification of Brahmins as Pancha Dravida did not refer to Tamil Brahmins who have got unaltered continuous unbroken culture from Tolkappiam period. The bilingual coin of Satavahanas in Tamil clearly proves that chaste Tamil existed upto Nagpur. Thus to sum up Tamil maintained a highly grammatized form retaining Vedic wisdom while North as usual like contemporary times maintained Jain/Buddhism in Prakrit way of life losing touch with Mahabharata times and as usual the essence of Vedic wisdom remained only with certain enlightened souls who passed on to Tamils to be retained there. Thus Jainism/Buddhism/Brahminism formed part of general life of people while certain kings exceeded their limits.

  2. I am interested in knowing more about sanskrit and tamil. I eveytime land with contradicting details might be because as the author has said scholars wished to “either to place the Tamil texts before or later than the period of Sanskrit texts”

    Even this article talks about the sanskrit literature translation works during colonial period but what dates are mentioned by these scholors during colonial period have said on sanskrit date.

    I have read that Panini form of Sanskrit is the source of Tamil and some one else tried to dispute that saying Panini Tamil is the source for sanskrit but this is less convincing because of the vast deviation in both languages.

    The aryan invasion theory is the most contradicted in history and archeologists haven’t accepted it but the source of this theory is Max Muller which has been used as an important tool by british to invade India. We still teach our students in school the same theory because the Indian history was taught to us by British and we continue to follow British system of education.

    But I am happy about one thing, because Sanskrit was compared with european languages we got it translated and transformed it from palm leaves otherwise we would have lost all those valuables.

    Sir, do you have any reference about these so that I can get a better understanding of all these

  3. Nice to be introduced to traditional Tamil scholar B. Velsamy. Sometimes there has been a fraternity between Tamil and Sanskrit too…For example, the Thevaram praises Shiva as Thamizhan Kandaai Aariyan Kandaai (I am not too sure about the exact words…but this is the thrust). Tamil geniuses like Kamban drank deep at the Sanskrit fount…and of course Kamban respected his original, the Valmiki Ramayana, greatly. The Vaishnavite scholars too journeyed on the twin rails of Tamil and Sanskrit scholarship (though the Manipravalam outcome of this is not my favourite).
    Sanskrit, as the intellectual language of India of the past, also tended to take a lot from regional languages and present them systematically. There is quite a lot of knowledge that flows out of the lives of the people who speak their mother tongues…Sanskrit was enriched by all this…I am for a cool headed appreciation of the beauties of both languages…Bringing politics into the matter, and caste politics at that, doesn’t help.. Thanks for the article on a very intersting subject…

  4. Quite a lot of facts.

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