தமிழ்த் தேசியம்

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 


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Home > Unfolding Consciousness > Spirituality & the Tamil Nation > Development of Tamilian Religious Thought - Swami Vipulananda

Development of Tamilian Religious Thought

Swami Vipulananda
Tamil Culture, Volume 5, 1959

[see also One Hundred Tamils of 20th Century - Swami Vipulananda]

"(The Sangam Anthologies) open an entirely new world, entering into which one meets with a god-like race of men and women, strong in physique, possessed of a keen intellect, proud, valiant, active and energetic. They appear to have given little or no thought to meta­physical speculations. Life in those remote times was strenuous and the hero, who won renown by steady perseverance and indomitable courage, either in the battle-field or in the more peaceful avocations of life, was held up as the ideal to be followed. He, whose valour was sung by Bards here on earth, was sure of mounting the celestial ear, which carried the soul in its ascent to the abode of the Immortals.

 This earliest epoch in the civilisation of the Tamils is the age in which Heroism was exalted to the position of a religion. The acquisition of fame was held up as the motive for virtuous action and the performance of strenuous deeds of valour.

The War-God Muruga, ruddy-complexioned, resembling the sun at dawn, was worshipped from the earliest times as the ideal of unfailing Achievement. His mother, the great Goddess, whom the Tamilian soldiers invoked in the field of battle was known as Koravai, the Victorious One. Even in those early days, there were philosophers, Arivar, who by years of mental discipline had attained intuitive insight into the past, the present and the future; and there were also anchorites, Thapathar who performed severe austerities; the Arivar and the Thapathar having the attainment of Truth as the sole aim of life worshipped Shiva, the unborn, the embodiment of Truth. To those who shrank from the path of Truth, the God of  Truth appeared as the God of Wrath and Destruction. Mayon, the blue-complexioned, was the embodiment of Fame.’ (1)  His brother, Valiyon, whose complexion was as white as a conch-shell, was the personification of undisputed Strength.(2) Indra and Varuna ranked only as demi-gods.

Paripadal, one of the Sangam anthologies, makes mention of the Vedic pantheon (3) of gods, such as the twelve Adityas, the eight Vasus, the eleven Rudras and the twin Asvini-devas; but the worship of these deities had not yet taken root among the mass of the people. Some of the kings were persuaded to perform Vedic sacrifices, which they did more for the purpose of winning earthly renown than for the achieving of heavenly rewards. One of the Pandya kings, Muthukudumi Peru Vazhuthi, who lived before the time of the submergence of the Pahruli river, had the distinguishing epithet of Pal-yaga salai, which means the possessor of many sacrificial halls and another Chola king is known as Peru-killi who performed the Rajasuya sacrifice. Early Aryan thought appears to have been introduced into Tamilakam with Vedic ritualism.

The Tholkappiyam and the Paripadal make incidental mention of the early speculations concerning the Universe, man’s place in it and the ultimate destiny of humanity. The Sankhya system of philosophy was in vogue from very early times; attention, however, does not appear to have been centred round the study of philosophy, until the coming of the Jains and Buddhists. Within a century or two after the time of their illustrious founders, these great religions appear to have been introduced into Tamilakam. 

Somewhere about this time, there appeared on the firmament of Tamilakam a star of the first magnitude which continues to shed its lustre even to this day. Tiruvalluvar, whose name is known to all parts of the civilized world, and whose teachings have lent a unique grandeur to the language in which they were uttered, lived in an age of great intellectual activity. The ferment, introduced by the great heresies of Jainism and Buddhism, made the exponents of Vaidika Dharma revalue the traditional teachings and to formulate a course of conduct which, while remaining within the established tenets of the ancient Dharma, would also appeal to those who would not accept the authority of the Vedas. The Universal gospel of Tiruvalluvar met this demand and has ever since been acclaimed as the Uttara Veda.

When Buddhism and Jainism were first introduced, they were considered merely as systems of thought and were received with open arms. 

The disciplined life of the monk and the self-sacrifice shown by him may have appealed to the hardy Tamil warrior. 

The old soldier, who might have grown world-weary of the endless number of battles he was called upon to fight, may have found a calm refuge in the seclusion of monasteries. Those who suffered great bereavements, such as the fathers of Kovalan and Kannaki, entered the monasteries to pass the last days of their lives. Princes of the royal blood, such as Ilankoadikal, embraced a life of poverty to follow the example of the noble ascetic, the scion of the Sakya clan. Along with Buddhism and Jainism, the Nyaya and Vaiseshika philosophies were introduced into Tamilakam. 

In those remote times, the Mimamsa system does not appear to have been divided into the Purva arid the Uttara Mimamsas. Lokayata (materialism), Buddhism, the Sankhya, the Nyaya, the Vaiseshika and the Mimamsa systems are known as the six systems of philosophy in the time of the Manimekhalai.(4)

 A great impetus was given to the cultivation of learning and some of the Tamilian Buddhist scholars went to China, Tibet and the island of Java carrying with them the torch of knowledge. Mention is made in the Manimekhalai of the famous Buddhist teacher, Ara-vana-adikal. The name may be translated into Sanskrit as Dharmaswarupa. He is the hero of the epic, as much as his disciple, the Bhikshuni Manünekhalai, is the heroine. The fact that he was extremely aged is mentioned in several places in the poem. The force of his personality appears to have gained many adherents to the path of Buddhism. 

Later on Buddhism and Jainism gained ground to such an extent that they gave up the spirit of toleration which characterized them at the beginning and became aggressive religions. They aimed at the conversion of the whole of Tamilakam and attempted to do this by winning over the exclusive patronage of princes and scholars. After the destruction of Pukar (Kavirippum­pattinam), which event took place somewhere about the end of the second century, the Chola capital is transferred to Uraiyur.

 Madura suffers from a severe drought and famine for twelve years. The poets of the Sangam disperse and the glories of the good old days become a mere memory of the past. Several Northern dynasties, that cast covetous eyes upon the wealth of Tamilakam, find an opportune moment to gain a foothold in the South; an Aryan expeditionary force from the North appears to have invaded Tamilakam as early as the time of the Pandya king mentioned in the Cilappadikaram. This invasion was successfully resisted and the king is, therefore, known to history as Arya-padai-kadantha Nedunchelivan. Subsequently, the Aryan hordes make a clean sweep of the country and in the next century we see Pallava kings well-established in Kanchi.

The Chola and the Pandya dynasties suffer a temporary eclipse and the whole country passes through a period of transition, at the end of which, we find that the North had achieved a cultural conquest even more pronounced than the political conquest. The very names of the Pandya and Chola kings become Sanskritized.

It was during this time, perhaps by the end of the third century or a little earlier, that the Yoga system of philosophy began to appear in Tamilakam. Tradition says that Patanjali lived at Chidambaram and wrote his commentary on Panini’s grammar, a treatise on medicine, his immortal treatise on Yoga and the Tantric rules for the worship of Nataraja. The sage is represented as a Naga and is considered as an incarnation of Sesha Naga. This seems to suggest that the theory and practice of Yoga were developed among the ancient Nagas. 

Patanjali’s name is coupled with that of Vyagrapada, another sage, who is said to have arrived at Chidambaram earlier. This sage is represented with eyes in his toes. Is he to be identified with Akshapada, the father of Nyaya Sastra? These two sages are said to be the first to witness the cosmic dance of Nataraja. The account may be symbolic of the fact that the supreme truth of the Shaiva religion can only be discerned by the combined eyes of Yoga and Nyaya. By saying so, we do not in the least deny, the historicity of the two sages mentioned above. The Agamic cult of worship, which probably existed as a secret cult from early times, was elaborated during this period. It was certainly enriched by the influx of Tantric thought from the North. The worship of Ganesha, the elephant­headed God, whose form is that of the Pranava mantra is recognised in the Yoga system.

1. Puram, LVI, 13. [puRa n^AnURu]
2. Puram, LVI, 12. [puRa n^AnURu]
3. Paripadal III. 6-8; VIII, 4-8.[paripAdal]
4. Manimekhalai XXVII.

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