Idea of caste in ancient society divides scholars

Idea of caste in ancient society divides scholars

New Work On Sangam Poetry Challenges US Expert’s Position On Tamil Society

It is the perfect academic storm; a battle of ideas waged by two scholars thousands of miles away from Tamil Nadu. And given the importance history and historical ideas play in Tamil society, those in the thick of it argue that the debate has far reaching consequences.


For decades, V S Rajam, a scholar from Tamil Nadu living in the US, has tangled with academicians such as George Hart, an American professor of Tamil and Sanskrit, who hold that the caste system existed, albeit in a less rigid and structured form, in ancient Tamil society .


With her recent book, “Caste, untouchability etc. in Sangam poems“, Rajam has sought to strike a blow at these notions, reviving a debate among literary and cultural enthusiasts. Dalit activist and former MLA D Ravikumar, who is her publisher, says Rajam’s work should disabuse anyone of “wrong ideas“ that may have flowed from Hart’s research.


In his influential 1987 paper, “Early evidence for caste in India“, Hart starts with the word “Pulaiyan“ and looks at its references in Sangam works. He argues that the works use the word as a term of abuse, for those eating meat, visiting prostitutes ­ and other “lowly“ acts. He proceeds to point out various references in the literature to high and low social status as well as untouchability to paint a picture of an ancient Tamil society that was highly hierarchical. He says: “The social life of a person [in ancient Tamil society] seems to have been largely determined by the group to which he belonged, and it was not easy for someone to switch his group.“


Rajam, however, says in their quest to understand works in foreign languages, many western scholars start with a secondary source such as a dictionary or lexicon or what others have written about the same literature. She argues that those who wrote the lexicons and commentaries at a later date superimposed more recent ideas of caste to words drawn from the ancient world.


Rajam says that as a native speaker of Tamil and a grammarian and linguist her understanding is more authentic and she found no references to caste and untouchability in Sangam works. “The advantage for native speakers of Tamil engaged in scholarly research is their native intuition of understanding the language,“ she says.


Rajam also criticises Hart for relying on anthropological theories. “Anthropology is a fascinating field which gives a lot of room for imagination and speculation, and I am not comfortable with using such tools for serious research of grammar or literature,“ she says.


Hart, however, refused to be drawn into the recent contro versy though, according to him, “there is much that could be said regarding Rajam’s claims.“ He says: “As you know, discussing caste in present-day TN is like walking through a minefield.“


Hart does not underesti mate the divisive passions that such discussions evoke. For the Dravidian movement, the idea of a pristine ancient Tamil world unadulterated by caste system or elaborate rituals provided intellectual heft to the political mobilization of OBCs against brahmins. Hart, despite his position that brahmins did contribute significantly toward codifying and making the caste system a religious idea, does dent that position somewhat.


But Ravikumar’s objections are different. He holds that there is no anthropological basis to the caste system. In TN, inscriptions talk of untouchability only after 11th century AD, he says.


Quoting Ambedkar, Ravikumar says the Indian population is homogenous and defines caste as a group in which members marry within the group. There is no other defining feature of caste ­ no race, ethnicity or even economic basis. “Such concepts as Hart’s dangerous vs ordered power, and sacred vs profane are misleading.


They would tell people that the caste system is ancient and deeply embedded, and cannot be overcome,“ he adds.


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