Religious Traditions of the Tamils
Prof. A. Veluppillai
The Tamils can be defined as people, having Tamil as their mother tongue.
Tamil language is a member of the Dravidian/ South Indian family of
languages. The four southernmost states of India- tamiz Nadu, kERaLa,
karNAdaka, and Andra Pradesh- are predominantly linguistically Dravidian,
each state carved out on the basis of predominance of the four major
Dravidian languages. The Dravidian languages are mother tongues of about a quarter
of the Indian population. Though about 80% of the speakers are found within the borders
of these four South Indian states, a number of Dravidian languages have been identified in
other parts of South Asia.
Among the tribal languages of Central India, almost extending to the borders of Bengal,
distinct from the Austro-Asiatic family of languages, many Dravidian languages have been
identified. The northern reaches of this family have been located in isolated settlements in
Nepal and Pakistan. The Brahui speakers are found in the hills of Baluchistan, almost on the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. So, the Dravidian family of languages is a South Asian family of languages in one sense. About 22 languages are classified as belonging to the Dravidian family and on linguisic criteria, sub-division as North, Central and South Dravidian are made. Tamils alone number about 60 million people.
South India and Sri Lanka have been homelands of the Tamils, from the
beginning of recorded history. The region, roughly covered by the modern
states of tamiz NAdu and Kerala are identified as ancient tamizakam up to
about 10th century AD. Even though some evidence exists for Tamil influence ,
and Tamil presence in Sri Lanka is noticeable from very early times, strong Tamil presence and influence in Sri Lanka, from about the 10th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tamils migrated to some British colonies in search of employment and thus there are substantial Tamil populations in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Fiji and South Africa. After the World War II, a movement of Tamil professionals to UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand
is proceeding continuously. Due to the recent civil war type situation in Sri Lanka, many thousands of Tamils in about 20 countries, with large numbers in Canada, Germany, France, and Switzerland. Within the Nordic countries, Norway and Denmark have more Tamils than Sweden.
2. Present Situation regarding religious affiliations of the Tamils.
Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are the major religions among the Tamils in that order: Hindus are counted as forming more than 80% of the population and
the other religions are reckoned to be less than 20% of the population. Some
of the other religions like Jainism, Buddhism have relatively few adherents.
The Tamil Christians include both Roman Catholics as well as the Protestants.
The Muslims are mainly Sunni. The situation is fairly stable, only Christian
missions, said to be marginally successful in making new converts. The
general atmosphere is religious toleration and harmony.
The official policy of India is secularism,,,. Overall, Hinduism is neither
a missionary nor an exclusive religion. To put it in a negative way, the
Hindus withdraw into themselves and don't react except when they feel
threatened. Many scholars have commented on the tolerant attitude of the
Hindus. Some recent developments in India challenges this view. But tamiz
Nadu and the Tamils, generally keep up the Tamil tradition of tolerance,
There is no Hindu extremism worth mentioning among the Tamils. No serious
claim is put forward that Hinduism should have special privileges, compared
to other religions.
3. The Dravidian Hypothesis about the people of the Indus valley
The Tamils have legends that their ancient history extends up to about ten
thousand years, sea swallowing up their lands twice and kings establishing
new capitals and fostering Tamil in three successive academies. The legend is
first mentioned in the commentary of kaLavijal, which is assigned to about
8th century AD. This legend is one of the reasons- one of the excuses- for
connecting up the Tamil civilization with some prehistoric ancient
civilizations, whose identity and continuity poses special problems.
The records of the Indus Valley Civilization have not been satisfactorily
deciphered. Material remains have been interpreted by archeologists. There
cannot be finality, till a satisfactory reading of the records. Material
remains are generally interpreted in the light of elements in the later
Hinduism. Siva worship in the form of pacupati and NadaRajA, Sakti worship
and some other deductions are made. In the 1950s, Father Heras argued for the
Dravidian identity of the Indus Valley people. In the 1960s, the Scandinavian
Institute of Asian Studies issued many announcements, trying to establish
this identity. This hypothesis is still defended seriously by Japanese
Professor Noboru Karashima, President of the International Association for
Tamil Research in 1994.
4. The Dravidian Identity of the Sumerians.
This is another hypothesis that is strongly advocated by certain scholars.
The Sumerian records have been deciphered and material remains have been
interpreted satisfactorily. Linguistic and cultural affinities between the
Sumerians and the Tamils, separated by much more than a millennia, are
pointed out. The late Professor A. catAcivam (A.Sathasivam) from Sri Lanka
and Dr. ulakaNAtan muttarAjan (Loganathan Muttarayan) from Malaysia are
examples. Eminent historians of the caliber of K.A. Nilakanda cAttiri
(Nilakantta Sastri), have pointed out similarities in temple worship. A
hypothesis, connecting the ancestors of the Dravidians, if not the Tamils. to
the Mediterranean area, is still advocated by certain scholars.
5. A study based on the historical times.
Literary, epigraphical and archeological sources existt for the study of
religious traditions of the Tamils for about 2000 years. As materials exist
for such a long period of time, it is only fitting that we pay just passing
attention to doubtful prehistoric connections and concentrate on the
historical period. Tamil is one of the two classical languages of India,
along with Sanskrit. There are Tamil literary texts and Tamil inscriptions,
dated roughly, round about the beginning of the Christian era. As in most of
ancient and medieval Indian texts, controversies exist on the exact dates of
early Tamil records and documents. We have to be dependent on rough
calculations and the most probable dates. Some distinct historical periods:
(1) 100 B.C to 300 A.D.; (2) 300 A.D. to 600 A.D.; (3) 600 A.D. to 1200 A.D.;
(4) 1200 A.D. to 1800 A.D.; and (5) 1800 A.D. to today.
5.1 cangkam (Academy) period.
The general designation for the early period is cangkam period, because of
the strong tradition that three academies existed in the remote past and that
what we get as early literary texts were those approved by those academies.
The main source for the early period is literary evidence. From a study of
the literary evidence, some scholars argue that the Tamil society was
secular then. It is only a relative term in the sense that when compared to
early North Indian literature and later Tamil literature, a distinctiveness
of relative secularism can be pointed out.
Some indigenous elements of religion, peculiar to the Tamils, have been
noticed in the earliest available stratum of Tamil literature. A portion of
this early Tamil poetry is identified as Heroic poetry. There were three
Tamil Kingdoms - cEra, cOLa and pAnhdija - and many independent
chieftaincies in the early period and there were intermittent and internecine
wars and battles for violent state formation. maRam (valour) was the
5.1.1. Nadukal (planted stone).
The worship for the fallen brave warriors is one of the popular forms of
worship in early Tamil poetry. tolkAppijam gives an elaborate description
in six stages in the planting of stone, beginning with looking for a suitable
stone and ending in the institution of formal worship. The portrait of the
hero is often decorated with peacock feathers. Some poems refer to spears and
shields erected around the planted stones. Offering of Naravam (toddy =
alcohol) to the spirit of the fallen hero, represented in the planted stone,
is mentioned in some verses.
5.1.2. veRijAdal (dance in ecstasy).
The dance in ecstasy is found mainly in the worship of murukan/muruku
(youth, beauty, god-head). He was the god of the hilly region. The name of
god or archetype was different in each landscape among the five different
landscapes of the Tamil land. mAjOn (dark male)/ mAl (great one) was the
god of the forest or pastoral landscape. koRRavy (lady of victory) was the
goddess of ferocious appearance for the arid or waste land. vEl (spear) was
the main weapon of murukan. He is a warrior-hero par excellence, but is
often mentioned in akam (love) poetry, the other main theme of the
earliest stratum of Tamil literature. Love-sickness of young girls in
separation from their lovers seem to be generally interpreted as caused by
murukan who needs propitiation in worship. The organizer and chief priest
of the worship was vElan (man with spear). A number of verses refer to the
sacrifice of the blood of ram and offering of toddy in the ritual. The
veRijAdal occurred in koRRavy worship also, Later, murukan was
considered son of koRRavy. A group dance of girls, known as kuravyjAdal,
is also associated with murukan worship. Some elements of ecstasy were also
involved in this dance. This dance occurred in mAjOn worship also.
murukan has continued to be very popular among the Tamils and he is
frequently hailed as the Tamil god. Kamil Zvelebil had chosen to name his
first volume on Tamil literature, as The smile of murukan.
5.1.3. cinyc cuRAvin kOdu (pregnant Shark bone).
A solitary verse mentions this worship in the littoral region. On full moon
day, fishermen and families get drunk and worship. This may be the peculiar
worship of Nejtal, (littoral) landscape.
5.1.4. kanhdu (post, stone.)
This worship is often mentioned in connection with manRu (public meeting
place). Lighting of lamps by women is specifically referred to in some
verses. Floor of the manRu was smeared with cow-dung.
5.1.5. Influence of North Indian religious traditions.
Jaina monks lived in hills around maturai, the capittal of the pAnhdijAs
and in a few other places. Early Tamil Brahmi inscriptions of round about the
beginning of the Christian era, testify to this. Some kings and chieftains
were responsive to Brahmins and Vedic sacrifices.
Many instances can be quoted to show that beliefs in the existence of the
ujir (soul), maRu piRappu (rebirth) and vAnOr ulaku (world of celestial
beings) existed among the Tamils even in that early period.
5.2. Post-cangkam Period 300 A.D. to 600 A.D.
Politically in this period, the Tamils were under foreign kalabhra
domination. Their political history is characterized by many historians as a
dark period. Buddhism and Jainism appear to have prospered during this
period. Some notable literary works are assigned to this period. The early
Tamil kAppijangkaL, (epics) are assigned to this age, as for examples,
cilappatikAram, a Jaina epic and manhimEkaly, a Buddhist epic. aRam,
the equivalent of Sanskrit dharma , becomes the main theme of literary
works. Eleven didactic works were written in this period. Their main purpose
seems to be reformation of the society - bringing back values which were
reversed during the Heroic Age.
tirukkuRaL the most outstanding work in Tamil, belongs to this period.
This sets the tone of didactic works. According to Albert Schweitzer's
evaluation in his book, Indian Thoughts and its Development, tirukkuRaL
represents a synthesis of much of the best in Indian thought up to that time
with a positive approach to life. The positive approach to life , also called
life-affirmation, seems to owe its influence to the literary traditions of
the Academy period. varnAcirama dharma, the central concept of the
Brahminical religion, prescribing different rules for the four-fold castes
and for the four stages of human life, has not even been mentioned in this
work. This work is of universal appeal. The Tamil society never had the
varnha system. There was no cattiryjAs, and the vycijAs. The ruling
kings and their ancestors, were sometimes eulogized and flattered as the
cattirijAs, but there was no consequent development from this position. The
non-Brahmin high caste Tamils resented the term - cUttirAs, the name of the
fourth caste. So, what we get in the Tamil works, equivalent to the Sanskrit
dharmasastras, is sAmAnija dharma applicable to every human being.
Religious affiliation of the author is not known.
ThiruvaLLuvar, the author, has kept himself clear of external trappings of
different religions. The Hindus, the Jains, and the Buddhists have claimed
this work as their own. Many Christian missionaries and British
administrators have praised this work, even tracing Christian influence in
the work. This work, consisting of 1330 verses, has been translated into many
languages. Other didactic works, follow the lead by tirukkuRaL. The authors
are identified as Jaina or Brahminical, mainly by their invocation verses.
Otherwise, there are no deep differences in the contents of these works.
NAladijAr the second most important work with 400 verses, ascribed to
Jaina authorship and with a noticeable slant to life-negation, had been
translated into English by G.U. Pope almost a century ago. tirukkuRaL and
NAladijAr can be said to constitute the ethical core of the religious
traditions of the Tamils. It is important to note here that varnAcirama
dharma had not been brought into Tamil literature. Though the Tamils also
developed an evil and pernicious caste system, in certain respects, quite
distinct from the varnha system, in subsequent periods, that system had no
sanction either in Tamil or in Sanskrit texts.
5.3. Bhakti Period 600 A.D. to 1200 A. D.
The Tamils were under the Pallava and the pAnhdija kingdoms during the
earlier half of this period and under the cOLa Empire during the latter
half of the same. The Tamil power reached its zenith under the cOLa Empire,
which also ruled many non- Tamil communities in South India and Sri Lanka. In
the history of religion and literature, this period is referred to as the
bhakti period. Bhakti is a Sanskrit word, meaning devotion. This Sanskrit
word and the Tamilicised form patti became popular quite late. The bhaktti
poetry seems to be a curious transformation of literary traditions of the
Academy period. Both akam tradition, dealing with love between man and
woman and puRam tradition, dealing with heroism and generosity of warriors
are combined in a strange manner and the position of man as well as hero goes
to god, while the position of woman and hero-worshipper go to the devotee.
A. K. Ramanujan has recently brought out a good
translation into English of some of these early poems. Though the origins of
the concept of bhakti are traceable in Sanskrit sources, bhakti movement as
such originated in the Tamil land. Personal relationship between the devotee
and the god was its main characteristic, and worship became a fervent
personal experience in response to divine grace. Religion for the devotees is
no longer a matter of contemplation of a transcendent, impersonal absolute,
but of ecstatic response to an intensely personal experience. This leads to a
profound sense of the devotees own shortcomings and to a trustful recourse
to the gods forgiveness, with the whole personality being surrendered to the
deity. It is this position which inspired the scholar - missionary G. U.
Pope's evaluation - which seems to be somewhat superficial - of this religion
as the religion, closest to Christianity, among Indian religions. Norman
Cutler has worked on the poetics of Tamil devotion.
The vedic religion - the Brahminical religion - becomes a popular religion
of the Tamils, through the bhakti movement. The Sanskrit sources contributed
another important element for this religion. This religion owes a massive
debt to the Sanskrit purAnhAs and epics. The temple rituals, prescribed in
the Sanskrit AkamAs, became very important. From the very beginning,
sectarian differences are noticeable, may be because of the influence of
purAnhAs. Saiva and Vaishnava movements were presented to the Tamil people
as Tamil religions This was made possible by religious synchronism. murukan
becomes identified with Skanda and kArttikEja and related to Siva as a son,
koRRavy becomes identified with umA, Siva's consort and as murukans
mother, and mAjOn becomes identified with Vishnu. Saivism is the form of
Hinduism, very popular among the Tamils.
The Saiva movement was relatively more involved in religious conflicts and
controversies. Saint Appar, a convert from Jainism to Saivism, converted the
Pallava ruler from Jainism to Saivism. His poetry seems to be a strange
mixture of Jaina world-view and Siva bhakti. Even though he expresses his
regret for having wasted much of his life as a Jaina monk, his poetry seems
to be a form of synchronism between Jainism and Saivism. The Jaina world-view
and Jaina didactic works become acceptable to the Saivites. Saint Campanthar,
a younger contemporary of saint Appar, converted the pAnhdija ruler from
Jainism to Saivism.. He defeated the Buddhists in another controversy. As a
Brahmin, he was a champion of Vedic religion against the Jains and the
Buddhists. There are plenty of polemical references about the Jains and the
Buddhists in his bhakti poetry. Saint Manikkavasagar was also said to have
defeated the Lankan Buddhists in a controversy, but there is no trace of
polemics in his compositions.
For about a millennium, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism were the three
important religions among the Tamils. The triangular contest for the loyalty
of the Tamils led to the growth of polemical literature to which adherents of
all religions contributed. The Buddhist contribution is seen in the
manhimEkaly and the kunhdalakEci, the Jaina contribution in the NIlakEci
and the Saiva contribution in the civagnAnacittijAr. But overall, conflicts
are rare, especially after Hinduism consolidated its position. The Saiva or
Vaishnava rulers, were generally generous to all the Hindus, irrespective of
their personal inclinations and also patronized the Jaina and Buddhist
religious establishments of their subjects.
A very important text for Tamil Saivism is the periya purAnham,
the Saiva hagiology of 63 NajanmAr, (saint lords), all of whom lived in
South India and attained heaven through their bhakti to Siva. This work
influenced vIra Saivism of Karnataka. Saint Manikkavasagar's devotional
poems are acknowledged as the most moving in Tamil literature. G. U. Pope
brought a translation of the tiruvAcakam into English. almost a century
ago. Glenn Yocum has published a study of tiruvAcakam recently. The
devotional poems of Saint cuNtarar, numbering about a tthousand verses, had
been translated by David Shulman recently. The Twelve Sacred Books of the
Tamil Saivas were complete in the 12th century A.D. For the vast majority of
the Tamil Saivites, the basic works of their religion are these Twelve Sacred
Books. They don't look to any Sanskrit work for guidance.
The Vaishnava bhakti movement was dominated by twelve AzvArs - those who
contemplate deeply on Vishnu. They were authors of tivvijapirapaNtam
(sacred composition) of four thousand verses. Compared to the saiva
devotional poems, the Vaishnava devotional poems make greater use of akam
tradition and less of puRam tradition of the classical period. Friedhelm
Hardy had brought out a fine publication recently on the history of this
movement. Some important saints are AdAL, kulacEkarar, tirumangky and
NammAzvAr. The works of the last one are very important and are sometimes
referred to as Tamil Vedas. Though less influential in Tamil land, the
Vaishnavite bhakti movement exerted great influence throughout India, during
the later periods.
The temple worship seems to be a prominent feature from the beginning of the
bhakti movement. Temples, built of durable material, first rock-cut and then
made of stone, made their appearance from the 8th century. Huge stone temples
were built by the cOLa Emperors and their successors throughout
tamizNAdu. The temples became the centres, around which many aspects of
life of the people were organized. Architects and sculptors were needed in
the construction activities. Music, dance, and drama were patronized by the
Hindu temples. These temples were generally rich, having been owners of land
other forms of wealthy. They employed people and helped them in times of
distress. The big temples are still great pilgrim centres to which the Tamil
Hindus from all over the world yearn to visit. Most of the big temples in
tamiz Nadu have myths of their own. David Shulman has made an
interpretation of these myths recently. The big temples are the main
attraction for the modern tourists in tamiz NAdu.
5.4. Age of Religious Philosophy. 1200-1800 AD.
The beginnings of philosophical speculations in India are traced to the
Upanishads, which originated in North India and which are in Sanskrit.
Buddhism dominated the philosophical field for many centuries and South India
began to make significant contributions. The definitely identifiable
contribution from tamizNAdu can be said to start from the 8th century A.D.
Many religious philosophical doctrines of South Indian origin have been
written in Sanskrit, may be because that language was the lingua-franca
throughout the South Asian sub-continent in that age. In the eighth century,
Sanskrit the propounder of Advita (monoism) hailed from Kerala, a part of
ancient Tamil land. His Vedanta philosophy assimilated much of the world-view
of the Buddhists and gave it a new twist. He is said to have toured
throughout the sub-continent and engaged in debates with the Buddhists. What
he had taken over from Buddhism is said to have helped him to win over large
number of adherents of Buddhism which was already in decay in India at that
In the eleventh-twelfth centuries, Ramanuja, the propounder of
(Visistadvita-qalified monoism) hailed from the present tamizNAdu. He was
strongly influenced by the Vaishnava bhakti literature, based on the Puranic
religion. He was better received in Karnataka than in tamiz Nadu. Ramanuja
wrote in Sanskrit, so his impact among the Tamils is relatively limited. The
history of Vaishnavism in tamizNAdu becomes a little complicated as the
later Vijayanagar Emperors and the Nayak kings who were mainly Telugu origin
gave it sustenance. They patronized Sanskrit and gave importance to Sanskrit
sources. Soon, there was a schism in tamizNAdu Vaishnavism into vadakaly,
(northern school) and tenkaly, (southern school) sects. The southern
school, looks mainly to the Tamil Vaishnava texts for inspiration.
The thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries saw the appearance of the
fourteen works of Saiva Siddhanta philosophy in Tamil.The basic Tamil work is civagnanapOtam. There is still a big controversy on whether this work is a
translation of twelve aphorisms from an obscure or unattested portion of
(Rauravagama). Saiva Siddhanta is a South Indian religion, found among the
Tamils only. Besides the canonical fourteen works, there are subsidiary works
and commentaries in Tamil only. Agamas are accorded a special status while
the Vedas only a general status as basic works to the philosophy. The
importance given to the Agamas makes South Indian Saivism, a distinctive form
of Hinduism, in some respects. The Tamils try to derive the basic framework
of the system from their own Twelve Sacred Books.
The development of many philosophical schools led to development of
sectarian conflicts and later attempts to patch them up, especially by mystic
poets like Saint tAjumAnavar in the 18th century and Saint IrAmalingkar
in the 19th century. camaracam, (harmony) becomes the main theme. The
former praises the CLEVER cittar, (poets of powers) who found harmony
between Vedanta and Siddhanta. The latter founded cutta camaraca canmArkka
cangkam, a Society for Religious Wisdom of Pure Harmony.
5.5. Modern Period.
Islam and Christianity are important minority religions in this period.
Islam came to Tamils in two ways. Arab traders intermarried with local people
and built up a community, who now speak Tamil or Malayalam. Muslim invaders
from the North had temporary success in the South and their descendants speak
Urdu. As in Vaishnavism, there is some split in the attitude of the Muslims
towards Tamil. Many of them are proud to claim Tamil as their language and
they have made substantial contributions to the development of Tamil for more
than six hundred years.
The Syrian Christian community, in the West coast, claims that they were the
descendants of native converts of the Apostle Saint Thomas, from the first
century A.D. They have preserved some copper plates, which according to them,
were received by Saint Thomas from native rulers of his time. Modern
epigraphists have dated the these plates in the ninth and the thirteenth
centuries. It is now clear that this community is enjoying certain privileges
in Kerala at least from the 9th century. Like the Christian trading
community, a small Jewish trading community also in the West coast, gained
privileges from the native Hindu rulers in the 10th century, as testified by
a copper plate in the possession of their descendants. Roman Catholicism was
introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Protestantism was
introduced by the Dutch in the 17th century. The British ruled over the
entire Tamil homeland for 11/2 centuries - roughly from 1800 to 1950.
Westernization and Modernization are going on, especially from the beginning
of British rule and they are powerful forces even now. Christian missionaries
have been very active and have considerable success in proselytisation. There
was again Tamil polemical literature, reflecting a triangular contest among
the Hindus, the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, especially between 1850
As for Jainism and Buddhism, the former continues to flicker, while the
latter disappeared completely and has taken a new birth recently. Its rebirth
is as a religion of protest, as a religion of the down-trodden. The people
who became underprivileged and untouchable in the Hindu society felt that
even Islam and Christianity could not bring them salvation and chose to
accept Buddhism, on the advice of the late Dr. Ambedkar, their leader. Only a
section of the underprivileged community called Dalits in India became
converts. Their problem of integration into the rest of the population cries
The appeals to fundamentals of Brahminical Hinduism, as it is understood in
North India, do not seem to have its echo among Tamils, because of the
character of Hinduism in tamizNAdu. A few months ago, Prof. Saraswathy
Vijayavenugopal, a folklorist from Madurai University in South India, in a
lecture in Uppsala, made the observation that there seem to be many folk
religions among the Hindu Tamils. Synchronization - continuing synchronism of
different religions - seems to be a living process within what is called
Hinduism among Tamils. The influence of political Hinduism, exemplified by
Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishva Hindu Parishad, which champion Brahminical
values, is negligible among Tamils.
The last half century in tamizNAdu is dominated by a powerful
socio-political Dravidian movement, against North Indian influences,
including Sanskrit and Hindi domination, but particularly Brahmin domination
and oppression. among the Tamils in South India. Though the movement is split
into many political groups. of which two are the two dominant political
parties of tamizNAdu, there are still no indications that parties which
don't subscribe to the ideology of the Dravidian movement can make headway in tamizNAdu. A small Brahmin community at the top is very vulnerable.
Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jains find comfort in identifying
themselves with the vast majority of the Hindus in the Dravidian movement. A
kind of secularism is fostered as the ideology of the movement. tirukkuRaL
is held up as the embodiment of Tamil Culture. The classical Cangkam period
literature is idealised as the literature of the Golden Age of the Tamils.