Sunday, August 10, 2008

God, Karunanidhi and pre-Brahmin glory


Karunanidhi went to a temple in Vellore for purposes of philanthropy, not worship. Even so it attracted headlines in Tamil Nadu because the DMK patriarch is a symbol of atheist politics. That he should enter the premises of a temple and share the limelight with priests in saffron was enough to raise the question: In the ageless tussle between Brahminic Hinduism and its challengers, was the balance tipping in favour of Brahminism again?

The intellectual foundations of Periyar’s Dravida movement were rejection of God and the nurturing of Self-Respect. His call for the demolition of Brahmin hegemony transformed social and political equations in Tamil country forever. And yet one half of his modern-day inheritors is led by an undisguised Brahmin. The other half, already compromised by creeping influences of such early No-Nos as astrology, now witnesses its supreme leader supping with God’s chosen representatives on earth.

Not that there would be anything surprising if Periyar’s notions of Dravida Self-Respect succumb to the persistent pressures of Vedic certainties. After all, the far more powerful Jaina-Buddhist philosophies were overwhelmed too.

These highly evolved philosophies nurtured egalitarianism while the Vedic tradition insisted on segregation. One sought to elevate common people to higher social-spiritual levels through education; the other prescribed that the lower orders should not be exposed to learning. As it happened, it was the discriminationist school that prevailed over the equality line.

Odd? There are researchers who point to Buddhist and Jain temples that were either destroyed or built over during an era of resurgent Brahminism. But significantly, the triumph of the Vedic tradition was confined to India and Nepal while the ‘suppressed’ Buddhism spread far and wide, producing a great culture with its own art, architecture and sculpture and its own literature in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. And who can beat the Buddhist masters of the East in martial arts?

Perhaps early Jaina-Buddhist influences also explain the cultural differences between northern and southern India which do not fit into the simple Aryan-Dravidian compartmentalisation. While the basic scriptures of Hinduism are from the north, the south is home to the interpreters and the challengers— from Ramanuja and Madhwa to Basava. In such a soil, the earlier challenges from Jainism and Buddhism took root easily.

A new seminal book (Kerala History’s Basic Records by Puthussery Ramachandran) quotes inscriptions in ancient caves and temples to assert that before Brahmins arrived in southern India, Jains and Buddhists had established a flourishing linguistic culture in the region. The classical literary works of the Sangam period, from Tolkapiam to Thirukkural, were products of a pre-Brahmin flowering. From 1st Century AD, there was a significant Jain presence in the West Coast. Al- Baruni, the traveller who arrived after Shankara’s Brahminic consolidation, recorded that people from Konkan to Kollam (Kerala) were followers of the Buddha. An example of what Kannada owes to Jainism is Pampa, the venerated Adi Kavi who, born to Brahmin parents, chose to become a Jain.

Dravidian politics may indeed be overwhelmed by Brahminic politics. But the literary-cultural glory of the south’s pre-Brahminic inheritance shall never fade. It’s pre-politics as well. Which makes it precious.