Colonial administrators and evangelists were able to divide and rule the peoples of the Bhartiya subcontinent, based on imaginary histories and racial myths – to the extent of manufacturing an entire race called “Dravidians”. This application of Race-Caste Science to India included many conflicting concepts and contradictions that are too numerous and preposterous to explore in great detail here. Instead, this chapter traces how evangelical and colonial interests worked in tandem with an ethnolinguistic scholarship to fabricate the Dravidian identity.
British Colonial administrators, such as Francis Whyte Ellis and Alexander Campbell, studied the grammar of Tamil and Telugu and proposed that these languages might belong to a different language family from other Indian languages. Another British administrator, Brian Houghton Hodgson, invented the term ‘Tamilians’ to refer to what he considered to be the non-Aryan indigenous population of India. While Ellis and Campbell proposed a linguistic theory, Hodgson had a race-based perspective.
The catalyst who is credited with the construction of the ‘Dravidian race’ was a missionary scholar from the Anglican Church, His name was Bishop Robert Caldwell, an evangelist for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, who combined the linguistic theory of Ellis with a strong racial narrative. He proposed the existence of the Dravidian race in his Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Race, which enjoys extreme popularity with Dravidianists to this day. Bishop Caldwell proposed that the Dravidians were in India before the Aryans, but got cheated by the Brahmins, who were the cunning agents of the Aryans. He argued that the simple-minded Dravidians were kept in shackles by Aryans through the exploitation of religion. Thus, the Dravidians needed to be liberated by Europeans like him. He proposed the complete removal of Sanskrit words from Tamil. Once the Dravidian mind would be free of the superstitions imposed by Aryans, Christian evangelization would recap the souls of Dravidians. These evangelists of that time and even today, think in the very same manner. Either by hook or crook, get the person to convert to Christianity, so to materialize that they had to evolve all such garbage theories to place a doubt inside the Bhartiya mind.
Ellis claimed that Tamil is connected with Hebrew and also with ancient Arabic. Their logic was that since William Jones considered Sanskrit descended from Noah’s oldest son, Japheth, by the process of elimination the remaining son of Noah, Shem, must be the ancestor of the Dravidian people. This made Dravidians a branch of the 0Scythians or in the same family as Jews.
Caldwell: Transforming Dravidian Linguistics into Ethnology
Bishop Caldwell became one of the pioneering missionaries in South India who shaped what now flourishes as the “Dravidian Identity”. At the age of twenty-four, he arrived in Madras with the London Missionary Society and later joined the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He divided Indians linguistically and religiously and mapped some of these religions onto Biblical frameworks. He became the Bishop of Tirunelveli, and his extensive research resulted in one of the most influential books on south Indian identity: A Political and General History of the District of Tinnevely, published by the East India Company’s Madras Presidency
His work had far-reaching consequences. It established the theological foundation for Dravidian separatism from Hinduism, backed by the Church. It was accompanied by Christian usurpation of many of the classical art forms of South India. The concept of dissociating Tamils from mainstream Hindu spirituality provided Caldwell with an ethical rationale for Christian proselytization. To everyone’s strange, eighty years after his death, a statue of Caldwell was erected in Chennai’s Marina Beach alongside the statue of another missionary scholar, G.U. Pope. It is a major landmark in that city today.
The missionary’s strategy was two-pronged: First, they intensely studied the devotional Tamil literature and praised it in glowing terms to Tamil scholars. Second, they projected the Tamil culture as being very different and totally independent from the rest of India. Their work provided theological underpinnings of later Tamil racist politics. Missionary scholarship stimulated a new local ethnic identity, which was instructed to reject its Hindu nature. It became strategic to show that Tamil religion had strong ethical underpinnings, on par with ‘civilized’ religions, and that ‘civilized’ meant monotheistic. These positive features were isolated and claimed to be indigenous to the Tamils, and shown to be in opposition to the ‘foreign’ traits that were attributed to the Aryans. Historical and philological works were produced to ‘discover’ that quasi-Christianity had already existed in the earliest Tamil literature. Among these discoveries emerged the myth that St Thomas had preached Christianity in South India shortly after the death of Christ, an idea promoted mainly by the Catholic Church to bolster its standing.
To achieve this new Christian-friendly identity, two kinds of Tamil religious literature became privileged. One kind was a universal, ‘non-sectarian’ humanism, that was best embodied in the Kural belonging to the post-Sangam Age. The other was the Saiva Siddhanta corpus of scriptures, seen as representing a native monotheistic counterpart to Christianity. Brook and Schmid identify two key steps in the way these Tamil classics were used: first, separating Brahmins and non-Brahmins using the Kural; and send, linking Dravidian ideology with Saiva Siddhanta as an interim step towards further linking it with Christianity:
Caldwell’s central argument was that Dravidian languages, peoples, and cultures had a genealogy independent of those of Brahmans. This independence and difference followed, he argued, from the fact that the Dravidians were of a completely different racial stalk, what he called a Scythian stalk. This racial distinction underpinned Caldwell’s celebration of Dravidian identity.
Caldwell essentialized the Dravidians by constructing their racial ‘others’ as Brahmins. He claimed that Sanskrit was read in the South only by ‘the descendants of those Brahminical colonialists. Through this manipulation, the Brahmins were made into the colonizers like Caldwell and were projected as saviors of the Tamil people!
Conspiracy theory: Cunning Aryan Brahmins Exploited Innocent Dravidian
On the one hand, Caldwell emphasized Dravidian identity for the purpose of dividing them from the pan-Indian body of Hindus, and on the other, he considered Dravidians as inferior to the Aryans because the Aryans were seen as racially derived from the Europeans. According to him, Dravidians had derived their ‘mental culture and ‘higher civilization’ from the superior Aryans. But they did not achieve parity with Aryans, because the gifts of the Aryans were ‘more than counterbalanced by the fossilizing caste rules, the impractical pantheistic philosophy, and the cumbersome routine of inane ceremonies, which were introduced amongst them by the guides of their new social state. So, Dravidians were inferior, but they could be civilized. However, the cunning Brahmins, in the guise of civilizing them, had actually subdued them by making them unaware prisoners in the ‘new social state’.
Caldwell’s recommended solution was that south Indians should disown Sanskrit influences and rediscover their original culture through Biblical categories. Notice, how Britishers were constant with their divide and conquer strategy not only in the military or political domain but even in the socio-cultural aspect. Missionaries’ motive was to first plant a cultural divide among the religious communities, create differences, widen them and finally fill that divide with their Christianity and civilized them. Those elements in the south Indian religious life which could thus be seen as similar to Christianity were the ‘real’ Tamil religion, while those that did not fit such mapping were blamed as Brahminical influences that ought to be removed. For instance, he claimed that Tamil did not have its own words for ‘idol’ and that such words had been brought from Sanskrit, and ought to be removed.
De-Indianizing the Tamil/Dravidian Traditions
Since colonial days, there has been an ongoing attempt to construct an ethnic-religious Tamil identity separate from the rest of India, and to find Christian roots for this so-called ‘Tamil religion’. Once the Tamil language was mapped onto a non-Sanskrit framework, particularly an anti-Sanskrit framework, the same process began with the Tamil literature. This entailed manipulating the interpretations of the literary core of Tamil tradition, which consists of three main elements: (i) Thirukural, a classical Tamil text containing ethical literature that is very much a part of the Indian Smriti tradition: (ii) Saiva Siddhantha, a Vedanta branch of Saiva philosophy: and (iii) a huge body of classical devotional literature.
From Robert Caldwell’s point of view, nothing ethical could emerge from the Dravidian mind, either by itself or under the influence of Vedic religion. Consequently, he attributed the Thirukural to Jain influences. G.U. Pope, another evangelist, maintained that it was Christian influence on Thiruvalluvar that produced this literary work. Christian scholars at his time, and for decades later, rejected this theory. However, it is being revived today by evangelical movements in Tamil Nadu.
- Saiva Siddhantha
Dravidianist scholars have tried to position Saiva Siddhantha as something unique to Tamil spirituality and not linked to Hinduism. Although the traditional works on Saiva Siddhantha cite the Vedas as their authority, this is circumvented by conjuring up a separate Tamil spirituality from a distant past. For G.U. Pope and other evangelists, Saiva Siddhantha is seen as an approximation to, but not an equal of, Christianity. Thus, it is to be used as an indirect and suited form of Christianity that works as a stepping stone toward direct, pure Christianity. Once people are convinced that for many centuries, they have practiced a corrupted version of Christianity, it would be easy to upgrade them to accepted or contemporary Christianity.
- Tamil Devotional Literature
A great body of Tamil devotional and mystical literature composed by devotees and mystics over a period of centuries forms the basis of Tamil spirituality. Though written in Tamil, this literature has a pan-Indian nature. Thus, all Saivaite hymns written in Tamil speak of Siva as living in the Himalayas and even address him as ‘Arya’. Evangelists and Dravidianists fabricated the origins and distorted the interpretation of their contents to suit their agendas.
Christianizing the Thirukural and Dravidian Culture
George Uglow Pope (1820-1908) was another legendary missionary Indologist who played the lead role in claiming Tamil classical literature to be un-Indian, un-Hindu and linked to Christianity. Pope’s first translation was of the Tamil treatise on ethics and conduct, written by the great sage Thiruvalluvar. Through the ages, this has been one of the most cherished works of Tamil literature, as explained in the closing remark of the entry for Thirukural in The Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature. If a Tamil is asked to name one work in Tamil literature of 2,000 years, Thirukural would be the immediate response. Jural that encapsulates a whole universe in an atom, this tribute is more than a millennium old.
Once this decoupling of Kural from Hinduism had been established, Pope pushed the missionary case further. He declared that Thirukural was the result of Christian influence, that Thiruvalluvar was a great pioneer who learned ethics from Christianity, and that he was sharing it through his poem so that the simple-minded Tamil people could benefit from Christian ethics. In the introduction to his translation of Thirukural, Pope constructed a scenario of how Thiruvalluvar composed this work by borrowing the ‘Sermon on the Mount from Christian preachers, he unhesitatingly declared that Thirukural derived its inspiration from Christian sources:
Christian influences were at the time at work in the neighborhood, and many passages are strikingly Christian in their spirit. I cannot feel any hesitation in saying that the Christian Scriptures were among the sources from which the poet derived his inspiration.
Evangelists in nineteenth-century India encouraged such ideas. Their basic premise claimed that St Thomas, a direct disciple of Jesus Christ, preached in India starting in 52 CE. But these ideas had been rejected centuries earlier by mainstream Christianity, and even sometimes labeled as heresies. Even many pro-missionary Dravidianist scholars found it hard to accept such spurious claims. Many of those who rejected the theory of Christian influence claimed Thirukural as a Jain work because Jainism was not a threat to be overcome, whereas Hinduism was.
Caldwell was convinced that in the absence of Brahminical influence, the chief obstacle to the evangelization of Dravidian was the ‘destiny of their ignorance. Therefore, attributing Thirukural to Jain missionaries, who had been in South India since ancient times, would provide a code of ethics relatively higher than Dravidian ethics, but still inferior to Christianity.
Thus, the claim of Jain origins of Kural was an interim vehicle to counteract Hinduism, in anticipation of a full-fledged Christian takeover that was hovering on the horizon. Pope’s Christian-origin theory gradually became a cottage industry of evangelists and academicians repeating the fiction until it became the ‘established fact’. Over time, the dissenting scholarship faded away, leaving the playing field to the divisive ideologues.
Erasing the Hindu Nature of Kural
One has to understand the unmistakable Hindu ethos of Thirukural in order to appreciate the damaging effect of this distortion on the subsequent generations of scholars. For example, the Hindu dharma recognizes pleasure or ‘kama’ as an integral part of life. This is reflected in the 250 couplets of Thirukural’s third book, which are devoted to Kama Purushartha, and stands diametrically opposed to the Protestant puritanism professed by missionaries like Pope. Kamil Zvelebil explains that it was ‘the nineteenth-Century Christian-oriented morality’ that made early missionary translators declare the third book of Kural (the Kama Purushartha) as untranslatable ‘without exposing the translator to infamy’. Pope admitted that his own Christian prejudice had ‘kept him from reading the third part of the Kural for some years. Even after Pope eventually overcame his Christian narrow-mindless and translated the third book of Kural, he apologized for it in the hope that ‘I shall be regarded as having done good service in doing so.
There are many couplets in Thirukural that go directly against the cardinal concept of Jain ahimsa. For instance, there is a Jain injunction against plowing fields because it brings harm to the organisms in the soil. The Kural violates this. It also opposes the Jain doctrine of ahimsa by advising that the king should execute murders just like weeds are removed from the crop field.
Additionally, Kural refers to the Puranas and other Hindu texts in many of its couplets, including frequent references to Hindu gods. Indra is mentioned in several couplets. There is an obvious reference to the measuring of the world by Vamana, an incarnation of Vishnu. Kural states that the goddess of wealth resides in the houses of men who show hospitality. It warns against sloth as something disrespectful to Lakshmi. In the tune with the Hindu shastras, it links the prosperity and spirituality of the land to the rule of a just king. It further states that the power of the king forms the mainstay of the scriptures of Brahmins and dharma.
Christian theologians used Kural as a weapon to mobilize the Dravidians against Hinduism, by claiming that it was originally egalitarian and got later contaminated by Hinduism. But Kural’s statements on egalitarianism are mixed. It explicitly condones the social norms of Indian society prevalent at that time. It says that even if a Brahmin forgets the Vedas, he can learn them back, but that he must not lapse from the morality with which he is born. It also states that those whom a king employs as ambassadors should be from a noble family.
However, Kural does not mention the fourth purushartha of Hindu dharma, concerning moksha (liberation). Pope used this as evidence that Tamil society was morally degraded and uncultured, and hence Thiruvalluvar had left out moksha because he ‘thought his people were not prepared for the higher teaching’. Today’s Dravidian scholarship has a different strategy and interprets the absence of moksha to claim that the Kural rejected the other-worldly metaphysics of the Vedic Aryans. But there is a simple non-convoluted explanation for this. Economist Ratan Lal Bose points out that many other Indian texts such as Arthashastra, discuss only three basic motivations and that this is in tune with ‘the traditional Indian view that there should be a perfect balance of the trivarga (dharma, artha, and kama). Justice Rama Jois points out that the popular Hindu law book Manusmiriti also speaks of Trivarga. Thus, there is nothing unique about Thiruvalluvar mentioning only the three purusharthas and leaving out the fourth; this has been a pan-Indian practice in works of ethics.