Worshipping with Tamil: Language and Liturgy
In the 1950s and 1960s, more than half a century after tamiḻppaṟṟu reared its head, the state took up for legislation an issue that was dear to neo-Shaivism from at least the 1920s on. This issue, glossed as tamiḻ aruccaṉai (Tamil worship), turned around the use of Tamil and its religious texts in temples in Tamilnadu where Sanskrit was still the dominant liturgical language. Neo-Shaivism insisted that in ancient Shaiva religion, it was Tamil, rather than Sanskrit, that was used as language of worship. But then “[Brahmans] introduced the words of their northern language in which one can see very little trace of any kind of divinity, empowered them, and denigrated our great and glorious Tamil scriptures, the Tēvāram and the Tiruvācakam, as ‘songs of the Shudras’ ” (Maraimalai Adigal 1967a: 150).
Moreover, Brahmans were not just content with empowering Sanskrit in this way; they also ensured that it was only after they had chanted the Vedas, had received the deities’ blessings, and were out of earshot that Tamil hymns were even recited. They had thus displaced the divine Tamil from its own temples with the upstart Sanskrit (Kandiah Pillai 1947; K. Subramania Pillai 1940: 97-106; Swaminatha Upatiyayan 1921: 22-24). The language of liturgy therefore emerged within the practice of tamiḻppaṟṟu as a key site on which was waged the battle between Brahmanical Hinduism and Tamil Shaivism, between Sanskrit and Tamil scriptures, and above all, between Brahman and “non-Brahman” as ritual specialists and social elites.
Although the relative importance of Tamil and Sanskrit in temple worship has varied from sect to sect, the two languages have been an integral part of the region’s institutionalized scriptural Hinduism from the late first millennium C.E. (Cutler 1987:187-94; Peterson 1989: 54-56). Over the centuries, periodic doctrinal and sectarian conflict had erupted around the question of language and liturgy (A. Appadurai 1981: 77-82), but beginning in the 1920s, with neo-Shaivism taking on an increasingly radical stance, the call came for completely excising Sanskrit and its scriptures from Tamilnadu temples and replacing these with Tamil and its scriptures. Along with this also came the demand, as was voiced in 1943 by the Tamiḻ Uṇarcci Mānāṭu, the “Tamil Consciousness Conference,” for de-Sanskritizing the names of deities, temples, and temple towns and replacing them with their original or former Tamil names (Ilankumaran 1991: 175). One enthusiast even urged that throughout Tamilnadu, all temples ought to follow only one uniform Tamil liturgical text and priests should be taught to remember that they are Tamilians, should be assured that conducting worship in Tamil would bring in more remuneration, and should be granted honors if they perform good aruccaṉai in Tamil. For the loyal devotee of Tamil, devotion to the (Hindu) gods could not, and should not, be allowed to compromise devotion to Tamil.
By the 1940s and 1950s, populist organizations like K. A. P. Viswanatham’s Tamiḻar Kaḻakam (Society of Tamilians) and Sivagnanam’s Tamil Arasu Kazhagam had extended their support to the neo-Shaiva demand for Tamil aruccaṉai (Sivagnanam 1960: 53-54, 1974: 448). Paradoxically, political parties, like the DK and the DMK, also stepped into this arena of ritual and liturgical politics by the 1950s. As we have seen, the Dravidian movement and the Dravidianist idiom of tamiḻppaṟṟu poured rationalist scorn on Brahmanic Hinduism and neo-Shaivism alike. All the same, by the 1940s Dravidianism began to support the demand for tamiḻ aruccaṉai (Sundara Shanmugan 1948: 12, 30; Velu and Selvaraji 1989: 78). As the poet Bharatidasan eloquently observed in 1945, every day in temples across Tamilnadu, the Tamilian relinquished “Tamil honor” by acquiescing to the use of Sanskrit hymns in worship (1969: 27). For the DK and the DMK in the 1950s, tamiḻ aruccaṉai assumed saliency as another issue with which to contest both Brahmanical power and the Congress government. Thus at a public meeting in 1957, S. Gurusami, the editor of the DK newspaper Viṭutalai, declared that Brahmans had used Tamilian labor to build their huge temples and carve their sculptures, and had then prevented Tamilians from offering worship there. Instead of the richness of Tamil, the “filth” of Sanskrit filled these temples, and E. V. Ramasami, Tamilians were told, would soon lead a protest to help Tamil, the language of aruccaṉai.
The iconoclastic Ramasami himself, as we will see, spared no words in denouncing neo-Shaivism’s divinization of Tamil. Yet, as early as 1926 he demanded, “Why should we worship our deities in an alien language?” and in his usual irrepressible fashion, he asked in 1972, on the eve of his death, “What business has a god in Tamilnadu if he does not want Tamil?” (quoted in Diehl 1977: 71). His atheistic agenda for completely ridding all traces of religiosity from Dravidian consciousness notwithstanding, through the 1950s and 1960s Ramasami promoted the cause of Tamil as liturgical language as a means through which Tamil speakers would regain their self-respect. He argued that it would free them from servitude to Aryan Brahmanism and Sanskrit (Anaimuthu 1974: 1043-44). Indeed, for Ramasami and the DK, tamiḻ aruccaṉai was only one of several fronts on which to conduct their war against Brahmanical Sanskritic Hinduism, which included the breaking of Brahman monopoly on priesthood, the opening of the sanctum sanctorum in temples to all castes, and the public burning of Sanskrit scriptures.
Neo-Shaivism and Dravidianism, contrary ideologies though they may be, thus came together to support tamiḻ aruccaṉai, united by their common cause against Brahmans and Sanskrit. Ironically, however, the neo-Shaiva agenda for instituting Tamil as liturgical language was realized in practice not by insisting upon its divinity, but by invoking its status as “mother tongue” and hence a language intelligible to its speakers. This is the argument that was used, for instance, by Kunrakudi Adigal, one of the key spokesmen on this issue. For him, Tamil aruccaṉai was a weapon with which to counter not just Sanskritic Brahmanism’s hegemony but the Dravidian movement’s atheism as well. In 1953, at a time when Ramasami’s campaigns against religion and Hinduism were gaining momentum, he argued that it was Sanskrit’s “unintelligibility” that rendered it incomprehensible to the Tamil populace and that, not surprisingly, promoted irreligiosity among them. “If the pujaris [priests] were to cast off their superiority complex and to conduct archanais [worship] in a language understandable to the average devotee, there would be no anti-god demonstration in the street” (quoted in Presler 1987: 115-16). As if to prove this point, in 1971, when Karunanidhi was chief minister, he declared that following a nearby temple’s 1953 switch to Tamil aruccaṉai, the number of its patrons as well as the temple’s revenues had dramatically escalated.
Karunanidhi made this statement in Coimbatore, in support of the DMK government’s attempts in 1970 and 1971 to authorize the use of Tamil as primary language of worship, at a time when many temples across Tamilnadu were actually already doing so, under various guises. Although it is his government that is most closely associated with the tamiḻ aruccaṉai issue, this had been a matter of concern for the state for the past couple of decades. At least since the late nineteenth century, its avowed policy of religious neutrality notwithstanding, the colonial state had steadily increased its jurisdiction over temples. But its predominant concern continued to be regulation of temple administration and finances, and the language question did not invite legislation (A. Appadurai 1981; Mudaliar 1974). During the 1950s and 1960s, however, the Congress-led state could no longer ignore demands for Tamil aruccaṉai, and the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HRCE) “quietly promoted,” as Franklin Presler notes, the increasing use of Tamil hymns in temples. Yet during these years, there was no attempt to substitute Tamil for Sanskrit, only to “strengthen Tamil’s place alongside Sanskrit rituals” (Presler 1987: 115). This did not save the Congress government from being pressured to do away entirely with Sanskrit, replacing it with worship solely in Tamil. Responding to such demands, M. Bhaktavatsalam, the minister for the HRCE—and not a Brahman—declared in 1959 that when he listened to the aruccaṉai being offered in Tamil, he was not inspired, did not understand it, and found it “boring.” Another Congress member in the Assembly, P. S. Krishnaswami Ayyangar, a Sri Vaishnavite Brahman, insisted that if Tamil were instituted as the liturgical language, non-Tamil devotees who came to temples would find it difficult to comprehend their gods’ worship—the assumption here, of course, being that Sanskrit could be understood by one and all. The government’s position was that since religious “tradition” (campratāyam) should not be interfered with by the state, and since it did not matter which language was used to offer worship, “traditional” (i.e., Sanskritic) forms of worship ought not be abolished. So, Bhaktavatsalam declared in the Legislative Council: “Worship has to be offered according to tradition and custom. It is not proper to change that order. There is no point in raising the issue of Sanskrit or Tamil in worship. The demand for bringing in Tamil to do aruccaṉai is a meaningless agitation. Aruccaṉai means the recitation of names of the deity. What difference does it make [whether the name is in Sanskrit or Tamil]?…This is a meaningless agitation.”
Yet, the government’s position to the contrary, the protest against the use of Sanskrit in temples had been launched in the first place precisely because “tradition” had been radically reinterpreted over the past few decades; because it made all the difference whether something was named in Sanskrit or Tamil; and because religion and language could not be dissociated from each other, as neo-Shaivism had repeatedly insisted from the turn of the century.
The Congress government no doubt resisted the demand for tamiḻ aruccaṉai, partly because of its reluctance to oppose Sanskritic Hinduism, but also partly because in this, as in other matters concerning Tamil in the 1950s and 1960s, it tried to counter the growth of “linguism” and regionalism (as sponsored by the Dravidian movement) that were perceived as threats to Indian nationalism (the basis for its own power). As the Congress was compelled to take a stand on Tamil in variance with large sectors of the Tamil devotional community, the language of liturgy became one of the key issues on which the party was rendered vulnerable to demonization as an enemy of Tamil.
The “quiet encouragement” of the Congress government in strengthening the place of Tamil alongside Sanskrit in temples gave way to its active promotion with the coming to power of the DMK in 1967. In mid-1971, the government formalized its informal support by issuing a series of orders which declared that “the Tamil Nadu people desire that in all temples archanais should be performed in Tamil” (quoted in Presler 1987: 116). In August 1971, Sanskrit was demoted from its status as the normative liturgical language and was declared optional. Its place was now taken by Tamil. In spite of resistance mounted against such orders by many Brahman priests as well as by organizations such as the Madras Temple Worship Protection Society, there were numerous well-publicized performances of Tamil aruccaṉai in many temples, conducted in the presence of members of the DMK government (Presler 1987: 116). Though the government nowhere overtly banned the use of Sanskrit or compelled the sole use of Tamil, at least one deputy commissioner interpreted its order in such terms. This sparked off a major uproar, resulting in the eventual staying of all Tamil aruccaṉai orders by the Supreme Court in August 1974. The Centamiḻc Celvi, which for decades had been publishing essays promoting the use of Tamil in temples, had the following comment:
In Tamilnadu, there is resistance to Tamil music; there is resistance to Tamil as official language; there is resistance to Tamil as medium of instruction in colleges; there is resistance to reconverting the names of places and towns to pure Tamil; there was resistance to naming Madras state as Tamilnadu; there is resistance to the conduct of domestic rituals in Tamil; there is resistance to pure Tamil. When we have resistance like this everywhere, it is no surprise that there is so much opposition to worship in Tamil.
What are some of the implications of the controversy over Tamil aruccaṉai for the public practice of Tamil devotion? First, neo-Shaivite claims about the illegitimacy of Sanskrit for religious practices in the Tamil-speaking region received the sanction, albeit ambiguously and fruitlessly, of the Tamilnadu state. Chief Minister Karunanidhi defended his actions thus: “If the right to perform the archanai in Tamil is denied, Sanskrit considered as Devabhasha [language of God], and along with that God and religion also, will be driven out from Tamil Nadu to north India.…If the gods in south India cannot tolerate Tamil archanais, let the gods move to north India” (quoted in Presler 1987: 130). Similarly, the minister in charge of implementing the aruccaṉai policy declared, as neo-Shaivism had from the beginning of this century, that “it was wrong to say that God could follow only Sanskrit” (quoted in Presler 1987: 116).
Furthermore, neo-Shaivite assertions of the divinity of Tamil also received the blessings of an ostensibly “secular” state that was in the control of a party, the DMK, which at various times had vociferously declared its opposition to religious beliefs of any kind. In Karunanidhi’s words, “A section of the people claim that Tamil language has no divinity and hence there is nothing sacred about it. It is only to controvert this view, the Tamil Nadu Deviga Peravai and the HRCE Department have introduced Tamil archanais. The Tamil archanai only move is born more out of our love and attachment to Tamil than ill will or hatred towards any other language” (quoted in Presler 1987: 118, emphasis mine). Its detractors claimed that the DMK’s actions followed from the fact that it was a antireligious party “with no faith in God”—God and religion being identified here, of course, with Sanskrit and the Sanskritic tradition. Yet the DMK’s support of tamiḻ aruccaṉai was clearly part of its overall policy of Tamilizing the public sphere. Indeed, contrary to its detractors’ claim, it was also in line with the many accommodations that that party had made since at least the 1960s with various aspects of high Hinduism through a corresponding Tamilization of that religion, as I noted earlier.
Moreover, in many religious systems, including scriptural Hinduism, the magical power of a sacred language is predicated on its unintelligibility to the lay worshipper. Quotidian, “profane” languages that are readily comprehensible are believed to not have the same ritual efficacy (Tambiah 1985: 22-30). Indeed, Dakshinamoorthy Bhattar, a priest who challenged the government’s orders, argued that the efficacy of ritual depended on the particular sounds of Sanskrit and that there would be “disaster” if he “dared to perform the archanai in Tamil” (Presler 1987: 117; see also Harrison 1960: 130). And much to the dismay of many a Tamil devotee, it was not only a Brahman priest who argued thus, but also Gnanaprakasar Tecikar, a respected “non-Brahman” Tamil scholar. But the state’s argument was not couched in the vocabulary of ritual efficacy. For regardless of the doctrinal and metaphysical premises on which neo-Shaivism asserted the divine potency and ritual powers of Tamil, the state’s aruccaṉai orders derived their eventual legitimacy from the democratic logic that the language of worship ought to be understandable and intelligible to the people, that it ought to be the “mother tongue.” Sanskrit’s legitimacy was undermined not by questioning its divine status (as neo-Shaivism did), but by declaring its “unintelligibility” among the people. By the same token, Tamil was ordered in its place not just because it was divine, but because it had the “love and attachment” of the people and was their “mother tongue.” Here, the Tamil aruccaṉai issue appears to provide another illustration of the “demoticization” of liturgical languages—such as Hebrew or Latin or Arabic—that has inevitably accompanied the nationalization and democratization of political and social systems with modernity (Anderson 1983: 68-69). Yet Sanskrit was not threatened by an ordinary “demotic” tongue but by another “sacred” language that had also been recently empowered as “mother tongue.” This is what makes the demand for Tamil liturgy unusual.
Finally, the Tamil aruccaṉai controversy gave the lie to the state’s assertion that “language is not the essence of religion” (quoted in Mudaliar 1974: 223). The Congress government had resisted the demands to replace Sanskrit with Tamil in the 1950s on this basis. It is “meaningless,” Bhaktavatsalam had insisted, to raise the language issue in matters of worship. Interestingly, in 1974 the Madras High Court defended the DMK led state’s legislation by invoking the same principle (Mudaliar 1974: 223): “It cannot be taken that unless religious matters are expressed in a particular language they cease to be religious” (quoted in Presler 1987: 117). Yet, as neo-Shaivism had asserted again and again, was it even possible to contemplate god without divine Tamil? Even the DMK minister in charge of the state’s religious policy declared in the Legislative Assembly in 1971 that it was god himself, filled with “Tamil consciousness,” who had enabled the institution of Tamil aruccaṉai. From the point of view of many a devoted Tamilian, god and Tamil could not be separated at will or through state legislation.