Classical Indian Literature: The Southern (Tamil) Tradition

tamil love poem

Like the classical Western tradition, the classical Indian tradition has two classical languages: Sanskrit and Tamil. Most histories of classical Indian civilization, however, focus on the Sanskrit literary tradition to Tamil’s neglect.

Both traditions, I argue, are integral to our understanding of classical Indian literature. The Tamil tradition is classical not only in the sense that it is ancient (dating its earliest poetry back to the 100 BCE to 200 CE), but in that it constitutes the foundation of an entire tradition that continues without a break to the present.

Early classical Tamil literature was written in a society that recalls Italy during the Renaissance. Southern India during the turn of the Christian era was a confederation of states (the Pandya, the Cheras and the Cholas) which were continually warring and trading with one another.

The Tamil states grew wealthy from sea trade routes that connected India to the West (including the Roman Empire which sought peppers, indigo, cotton and pearls from South India) and South East Asia. Classical Tamil poetry tells the stories of wealthy merchants, warehouses bulging with goods and ships from many different countries meeting at palm lined ports along the east coast.

Classical Tamil poetry is said to have been composed in academies or assembles called the Sangam during which time the principles of poetics, rhetoric and prosody were outlined in the Tolkapiyyam, the first grammar of the Tamil language.

Classical Tamil poetry can be classed broadly into poems on the interior landscape (love, emotions) and poems on the exterior landscape (war and heroic poetry).

Landscapes and emotions are carefully interwoven in classical Tamil poetry and each poem is assigned a tinai (‘place,’ ‘region,’ ‘site’) in which the five particular landscapes or regions of the Tamil country with their accompanying seasons, flowers, waters, inhabitants, wild life and time of day correspond to the emotions of the lovers in the poems:[1]

  1. Mountains: union (clandestine); kurunji flower; midnight; winter; waterfall;
  2. Forest: expectancy; jasmine; evening; late summer; rivers;
  3. Fields: irritation; marudam; before sunrise; late spring; ponds;
  4. Seashore: separation; water lily; sunset; early summer; sea;
  5. Desert: impatience; noon; summer; dry wells or stagnant water.

In classical Tamil poetry, nature and landscape symbolize the various moods and experiences of lovers. For instance, a love poem may follow the kurinici convention where the theme is the surreptitious meeting at night of an unmarried woman and her lover in the mountains.

tamil nadu mountain.jpg

The puram poems also have their thematic situations which deal with the warfare and exploits of kings as well as ethical instruction in the form of lyrics, panegyrics and hymns. The puram poems of classical Tamil poetry tell us about the kings, chieftains, battles, political and social life of ancient Tamil kingdoms.

The secular, sensual and naturalistic tone of the early Tamil poetry makes for a refreshing change to the religious and mythological tone of much of classical Sanskrit poetry. Here are some English translations of classical Tamil poetry by A.K. Ramanujan.

 

Sources:

Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology (Volume Three), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 2000.

Encyclopedia of Indian Literature (Volume 5), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 1987-1992.

The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil (New York : Columbia University Press, 1999), Translated by George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz.

Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies, and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil (selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_landscape#Poetic_Attrib

Tomorrow in Surrey: Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes

pakistani women

What inspires me most about this program is the courage of the women it honours. Through their art, their activism, their poetry and their writing, they have dauntlessly challenged institutionalized systems of patriarchal, racial and religious authority, making the world a freer place for all of us regardless of who we are …

Tomorrow, Surrey Muse Arts Society (SMAS) presents “Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes” (Sept 28, 6 – 9 PM, Centre Stage, Surrey City Hall). It’s a groundbreaking three-hour stage show which recognizes, for the first time in Greater Vancouver, the contributions of 15 distinguished Pakistani, Punjabi, South Asian, Muslim and women of colour from Pakistan, Surrey and Vancouver to the development of our communities through literature, art, scholarship and activism.

Our distinguished guests for the evening are Sunera Thobani, Harsha Walia, Surjeet Kalsey, Darshan Maan, Indigenous scholar/historian Deanne Reder, and, Katheren Szabo. We will also recognize a Surrey Woman of Courage.

You can find out more about our program here:

https://pakistanswomenheroes.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/women-who-named-the-unnamed-pakistani-local-women-heroes-saturday-28-sept-2019-centre-stage-surrey-city-hall/

We look forward to seeing you tomorrow!

 

 

Indian Mythology

Kurukshetra

In a country like India, where every fact is infinitely malleable and where every interpretation is politicized, the need to distinguish between history and mythology is more important than ever.

Myths were created by human beings to explain previously inexplicable phenomena such as how the universe was created and where thunder and lightning came from. Unlike history, myths are not meant to be verified.

Myths are thus associated with the religious and cultural beliefs of a people. They do not inquire into the past the way history inquires.

They are valuable nonetheless for helping to create a sense of a common origin among people and in explaining the basis of their religious and cultural values and institutions.

Mythology is the means by which most Indians (Hindus) have sought to understand the past. The mythology of the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas, are thus as, if not more, important to the Indian than the legend of King Arthur is to the English or the Kojiki is to the Japanese.

Here are some key myths from Hindu mythology in context:

  • The origins of humanity: the first man is Manu from which the Sanskrit word for man (‘manava’) is derived. Manu saves the world’s animals from the Great Flood (Adam and Noah in one!) and is the father of the first kings and queens in Indian mythology.
  • Dynasties, Kings and Sages: ancient Indian dynasties typically claim descent through lines traced back to one of Manu’s two children (Ishvaku and Ila). The hero of the Ramayana, Rama, traces his ancestry to the line associated with Ishvaku, [1] while the Pandvas and the Kauravas of the Mahabharata trace their descent from the line associated with Ila.[2]

The Puranas contain genealogical lists of kings and sages (e.g. Kashyapa, Atri, Vishvamitra, et al) in a manner reminiscent of the list of patriarchs, prophets and progenitors in the Old Testament (e.g. from Abraham to Ham, Shem, Canaan and Rachab).

  • Bharata: The word for “India” in Sanskrit, “Bharata,” derives from the eponymous mythical emperor. Bharata is believed to have united much of what we now call India stretching from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin.

The “Bharata” were also an ancient clan mentioned in the Vedas which emerged victorious in battle over other Indo-Aryan tribes and clans.[3]

  • The Class (Caste) System: in the Vedas, the cosmic man (Puruṣa), is said to have been divided into four parts. From his head came the Brahmin class (priests and teachers), from his arms and torso came the Ksatriya (warrior), from his legs came the Vaisya (farmers and merchants) and from his feet came the Sudra (servants).

These are just some of the myths which Indians and Hindus look to in understanding themselves and the origins of India.

 

Notes

[1] The Sūryavaṁśa (solar dynasty).

[2] The Candravaṃśa (lunar dynasty).

[3] The Mahabharata also takes its title from this clan.

 

 

The Aryans of India

 

aryan migration

During my mid-twenties, one of my aunts told me that we (ethnic Punjabis) were descended from the Aryans of ancient India.

I first learned about these Aryans while studying Indian history during my undergraduate degree. I learned that that the Aryans had originally migrated into India from the north-west and that they first settled in the Punjab around 1500 BCE. I also learned that their religious beliefs and lifestyle were recorded around 1200 BCE in a literature known as the Vedas.

Like me, most peoples of the subcontinent (particularly northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) claim to be descended from the (Indo) Aryans. The term Indo-Aryan refers not only to an ethnic group (which is religiously, culturally and regionally diverse), but also to a family of languages spoken by this group, including Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Of course, not everyone believes that the Aryans migrated to the subcontinent from the outside. Few are more outspoken in their opposition than the Hindu Nationalist who believes that the Aryans were indigenous to India.

This is, of course, really just a political claim. To claim that the ancestral religion of Hinduism (in the Vedas) is native to India is to claim that it “belongs” to India in opposition to those Indians belonging to “foreign” religions (i.e. Muslims and Christians).

Fantasizing about purity of race and origin, however, turn deadly. We can think of Hitler’s ideas about the Aryan Race as German, the Ku Klux Klan theory of the Teutonic Race or the Japanese idea of the Yamato Race during World War II.

Over the past nearly thirty years, Hindu Nationalism has stirred up pogroms, vandalism and attacks on India’s minority groups (especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits or lower-castes). Its pogroms, including the Gujarat “riots” of 2002 against Muslims has left thousands dead and their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed.

Hindu Nationalism basically seeks to rationalize and politicize an emotional need: the need to belong and to know oneself. Mythology is a human institution that fulfils that need by giving us a sense of where we come from. Mythologies like those in the Vedas are Puranas, like those in the Bible or King Arthur are valuable in giving us a sense of who our ancestors might have been without needing to be factually verifiable.

To that extent, I have read the Puranas and the Mahabharata.  I am fascinated, as someone of Indian origin, about where I come from and how my ancestors thought of themselves as a people and about my origins. But my fascination is much the same as someone who reads old genealogies of the Bible or of a Han Chinese taking pride in his descent from the Yellow Emperor.

So, I will call myself Indo-Aryan, Punjabi, Sikh, British, Canadian and Buddhist. I can have a sense of where I come from in terms of mythology without proclaiming it as history for political purposes or otherwise. Living on the land of the Coast Salish People in British Columbia, I realize that they too were like the ancient Aryans in migrating across territories rather than being bound by them.

The Hindu Pakistan

Modi with petals

India finally has the dictator it always wanted.

Narendra Modi has won a majority of seats in India’s election and is set to be re-elected as the country’s Prime Minister.[1]

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s administration has effectively co-opted the Indian media, judiciary and co-opted under the banner of Hindu Supremacism. Together, they have created a New India of book burnings, student arrests and the slaughter of Muslims, Christians and low-caste Hindus.

As James Crabtree points out in The Billionaire Raj, India’s economy has grown under Modi to become one of the most unequal on earth. Much of the benefits of this growth, Crabtree argues, has accrued to India’s billionaires class and their family run conglomerates (the Ambanis, the Godrej’s and the Birlas) rather than middle-class.

Under Modi, India has become the Hindu Pakistan, an India where Brahmanism (the religious ideology sanctifying caste) and capitalism march hand in hand. The constituents of a fascist society as explained by Jason Stanley in How Fascism Works (i.e. a strong charismatic leader, a romanticized vision of the past, an imagined ‘other’ etc.) were already well underway during the Prime Minister’s first term.

Now, they will be given an opportunity to come to fruition.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48389130?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/cg41ylwvgmyt/narendra-modi&link_location=live-reporting-story

India’s Supreme Court Ruling

section-377.jpg
On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. The section – enacted in 1861 when India was still a British colony – effectively criminalized gay sex.

India’s LGBT communities erupted in euphoria. The Indian and international press joined in the jubilation with one BBC headline ringing, “India’s Supreme Court Legalizes Gay Sex … ”

The Supreme Court’s decision marks an important beginning for India’s LGBT and for the country. For India’s sexual minorities, it represents a victory in a long struggle against an inhumane and draconian law. For India, the ruling holds the promise of a new era where India starts to step out from the shadows of its colonial past.

I too was euphoric after reading the headlines only to confront a few sober realities.

First, the Supreme Court of India ruling has not legalized gay sex. It has declared that the law discriminated against LGBT sex is unconstitutional. The law is still in force and cannot be repealed or amended except by an act of Parliament.

Second, as long as it remains on the books, the section will continue to be invoked. Certainly, a better off and well-informed gay Indian will now challenge a policeman who tries to lay a charge. But those LGBT Indians who are poor, working class or villagers are less likely to contest the enforceability of the law.

Third, the ruling leaves untouched the more basic challenges facing India’s LGBT communities. In particular, the ruling does not recognize India’s LGBT communities as legal persons who can claim basic rights or freedoms as any other Indian. It has brought India’s LGBT persons out of the shadow of criminality, without making them persons under the law.

If anything, the Supreme Court ruling stands for the same principle that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made back in 1967 that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Tushar Mehta, the Assistant Solicitor-General for the Government of India, has otherwise made it clear that the Government of India will construe the ruling narrowly so as not to accord legal status to the LGBT citizens of India in terms of marriage, property rights, government benefits or inheritance.

India’s LGBT communities have just won their first battle against the state, but their war for recognition as equal citizens under the law has yet to begin.

The Gay Faqir

shahhussain.jpg
Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. His love for a young man, Madho Lal, is legendary. Shah Hussain and Madho Lal are buried side by side at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”

When I read Shah Hussain for the first time, I felt like I was looking back at myself five hundred years ago. Reading his work, as a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then recently put off to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.

According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:

  1. Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
  2. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
  3. Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).

Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.

In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.

According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.

The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.

Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:

My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)

Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:

When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).

In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:

You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.

As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.

In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.