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Karunanidhi wrong, Ram an ancient Tamil icon

Karunanidhi wrong, Ram an ancient Tamil icon

Author: P Ananthakrishnan
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: September 20, 2007

One of the most celebrated quotations of Marx is the one about historyrepeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Had he beenwatching the television debates on the controversy regarding Ram Setu,he would have concluded that the real tragedy is that history hasfinally attained the steady-state of farce. The nonsense that is bandiedin these discussions is staggering even when one takes into account thefact that so-called specialists are barely allowed to speak and, whenthey are, they are commanded to give their answers in binary, yes/no terms.

A case in point is the discussion on Ram in Tamil tradition. Onehistorian said Ram had never been a popular god in Tamil Nadu and he wasmore a literary figure than a religious one. He went on to add thaticonographic evidence of Ram in Tamil country was scarce and people evenfeared that if they worshipped Ram, tragedy would strike them. Anotherworthy stated that Ram was worshipped by a small group of Vaishnavites.Inevitably, the Aryan-Dravidian divide came up. The Great PoliticalThespian of India, M Karunanidhi, had the last word. He asked,rhetorically, "Who is this Ram? From which engineering college did hegraduate?"

I am not sure, but certainly not from one of the "self-financing"colleges of Tamil Nadu. If he had, he would not have been able to make aplank to cross a brook, leave alone build a bridge to span a gulf.

Is it really that Ram was scarcely known in Tamil country?

Before answering this question, let me make my position very clear onthis issue. I am not exactly a believer. And I am of the view that theSethusamudram project must go ahead, if it has no serious ecological,geological, technological and, what is more, bribe-related implications.

The Ramayan finds a mention in at least two places in the Sangamcorpus, which is traditionally dated between 200 BC and 200 AD. In onereference, Ram orders chirping birds to silence. In another, the monkeyswear, in a monkey-like manner, the jewels discarded by Sita while shewas being abducted by Ravan. It is worthwhile to note here that boththese incidents find no mention in the Valmiki Ramayan. The ease withwhich these incidents have been woven into the poems indicates that theRamayan story was well known in the Tamil country during the Sangam period.

The next reference to Ram occurs in the epic Silappadikaram - "TheTale of an Anklet". It was written in the Second Century AD by IlangoAdigal, a prince who became a Jain monk. It is an unforgettable literarymasterpiece that was made into an eminently forgettable Tamil film byKarunanidhi himself. In this epic, shepherdesses sing ballads in praiseof both Ram and Krishna, clearly identifying them as avatar s of Vishnu.

The works of the Vaishnava saints the Alwars, collectively known as"The Sacred Four Thousand," have innumerable allusions to Ram and theRamayan. The Alwars prospered between the Sixth and the Tenth CenturiesAD. As Vasudha Narayanan points out in her excellent essay on theRamayan (available at www.ramanuja.org), in the work of one Alwar alonethere are 106 allusions to Ram and the Ramayan and there are six "sets"of poems (about 63 verses) where the words are spoken by the Alwar inthe guise of a character form the Ramayan. This Alwar, it must be noted,is not a Brahmin.

The Saiva saints, the Nayanmars, most of whom are contemporaries ofthe Alwars, also stud their verses with episodes from the Ramayan. Thenwe have the greatest Tamil poet of them all, Kamban.

His Ramayan is correctly considered the acme of Tamil literaryachievement. In about 10,000 verses Kamban, who, again, is not a Brahminand is a grand scholar of Sanskrit and an unabashed admirer of Valmiki,establishes that, for his bhakta s, Rama is the One who is the origin ofall. This, it must be remembered, is a sure departure from Valmiki, forwhom Rama was only a Maryada Purushottam.

Thus, it is clear that the Tamil country has an uninterruptedtradition of worshipping Ram at least right from the Second Century AD.

The iconographic evidence of Ram in Tamil Nadu is too numerous tonarrate here. There are temples to Ram that date back at least to theNinth Century AD. Some of the greatest Chola bronzes are of Ram - a fewof them are on display at the National Museum in Delhi. Some of themasterpieces are worshipped to this day, without interruption, from theday they were consecrated. Today, there is hardly any major city inTamil Nadu that doesn't have a Ram shrine. Hanuman, of course, pervadeseverywhere. One of the biggest statues of Hanuman is enshrined in aChennai suburb, where festival days result in horrendous traffic snarls.

Curiously, this hoary tradition of Ram worship in the Tamil countryhas led to historian Suvira Jaiswal claiming in March 2007 that (in thewords of The Hindu) the Ram cult took birth and evolved in the South,the "Dravida" country, and later got assimilated into the religiouspsyche of the North! This has evoked a testy response from, of allpeople, a Tamil, Dr Nagaswamy, a respected art historian andarchaeologist, who says that the Ram cult must have originated in theNorth, perhaps as early as the Second Century BC.

There is nothing more ridiculous than calling Ravan a Dravidian hero.Ravan is in fact a top-of-the drawer Brahmin. He is the great grandsonof Brahma himself, the grandson of Pulastya Maharishi and the son ofVisravas, another rishi. There is another point to be made here. Thebeautiful temple at Rameswaram is dedicated to Shiva. According to theSthalapurana the Shivalinga in the temple is supposed to have beeninstalled by Ram himself for worship. Why did he want to worship Shiva?It was to expiate the sin of Brahmahatya (killing a Brahmin).

There is indeed another great, real divide. This is between the Tamilsand the Tam Brahms of Delhi, who are generally seen in these infernal TVdiscussions. The Tam Brahms of Delhi has lost their Tamil roots longago. I doubt many of them will be able to read Tamil with some degree ofcomfort. They have absolutely no clue about the Tamil traditions,culture or literature. So long as they dominate the TV scene, there willonly be sound and fury - sound from the Tam Brahms and fury from theDefenders of Dravidian Faith - signifying nothing.-- The writer , a retired civil servant is an author and novelist.

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