‘Tamil and Sanskrit: The Two Eyes of Siva’
The webinar “Tamil and Sanskrit: The Two Eyes of Siva” by Professor George L Hart was held on 31 July 2021. The event was organized by the the Center for Singapore Tamil Culture (CSTC) and supported by the NLB which provided full technial and marketing support. It was an overwhelming success with 500 people attending people from Singapore, Malaysia, India and the USA.. The Zoom infrastructure could only support a maximum of 500 and this was exceeded with many people being disappointed as they could not log in. The total number of interested persons is an unkonwn and the number of 500 is already a record for an event organized by the NLB Tamil section.
The title is inspired by a quotation from the 18th century Tamil scholar, Sivagnana Munivar from his work the Kanchi Puranam, Verse 2269. It alludes to the fact that both Tamil and Sanskrit are the 2 sources of ancient Indian culture, traditions, philosophy and religion. Prof Hart is a world reknowned scholar of both Tamil and Sanskrit. He studied Tamil under the great scholar, Prof AK Ramanujam of the University of Chicago, who introduced Clasical Tamil Literature to the West and inspired Prof Hart. Prof Hart has continued Prof AK Ramanujam’s work and has been advocating that Tamil be recognized as a ‘Classical Language” since the 1970s. He is best known for writing the letter to the Indian Government, under the auspices of the University of California, Berkeley in 2000. In 2004, the Indian government cited this letter as one of the key documents that influenced its decisiion for Tamil to be accorded the status of “Classical Language” with co-equal status to Sanskrit. He is also the co-translator of the first complete English translation of the 400 poems of the Purananuru, a Sangam age classic going back to about 300 BC. He also co-translated the Forest Book of the Kamba Ramayanam and wrote a seminal work “The Relationship between Tamil and Classical Sanskrit Literature”.
His talk was very refreshing, particularly because whilst advocating the strengths of Tamil he was able to compare it with Sanskrit in a meaningful way. He emphasized that age was not the most important criteria for evaluation of a language but the quality of its literature at an early stage. A poignant example he gave was Sumerian cuneiform script which dates back to 4,000 BC – yet it is only accounting records bereft of any known literature. Tamil whilst not being the oldest language (but it is the oldest currently spoken language), had great literary works from at least since the third Sangam age in 300BC. Tamil fulfilled the three requirements for a Classical language – Ancient, Independent and with a large bodu of ancient literature.
He showed that Tamil grew from folk idioms and with vibrant poetry vividly depicting largely secular themes celebrating life. Sanskrit grew from the Rig Vedas and the weight of its development was in mantras, spiritual texts and intellectual themes. It also developed a large literature with the Mahabharata and Kalidasa’s drams for example. But the weight of its strength was in its religious power and ability to accord power to kings. Sanskrit ceased being a spoken language very early on. As such, it tended to be a language of the elite and of an international intellectual community as opposed to one for the masses. At its peak Sanskrit was used from Japan to Afghanistan to Indonesia. Sanskrit was also used extensively in Tamil Nadu by Buddhists, Jains, Saivites and Vaishnavites. Tamil on the other hand was largely limited to South India and Sri Lanka (some Purananuru poems were sritten by Sri Lankan Tamils) and was never used North of the Deccan.
Both languages also influenced South-East Asia heavily. His view was that both were brought over by people from Tamil Nadu and South India for the most part as evidenced by the Pallava script being used from Vietnam to Indonesia. But 2 different classes of people brought the languages over to South-East Asia. Tamil merchants brought over Tamil and used it for inscriptions as well. Sanskrit was brought over by Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religious persons in the context of religious institutiions which validated the legitimacy of local kings. Thus, religious and royal inscriptions are written in Sanskrit using the Pallava script from South India. This also illustrated his view that in ancient times there was no competition between the two languages. It was a harmonious relationship with each occupying its own niche and the Tamil intellectual class speaking both languages. The Tamil/Sanskrit divide was by and large a false dichotomy in ancient Tamil Nadu.
Regardless of whether one agreed to all of Prof Hart’s views he stimulated critical thinking. His talk brought an even handed approach to viewing both languages supported by astounding scholarship and mastery of the subject matter. The feedback from the public was very encouraging with many requesting for more talks from Prof Hart and also more talks from speakers of this stature.
Mr Subbiah Lakshmanan