Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Caṅgam corpus and the concept of God in ancient India

(I do not know Tamil, nor do I know the Caṅgam corpus. What follows is just what I understood of a very interesting conference by Eva Wilden. I will focus only on methodological issues. Caveat lector: errors are entirely mine. Comments in [square brackets] are added by me.)

In the complex issue of dating the Caṅgam corpus, one can take into account several factors:

  1. 1. metrum: The eldest hymns are composed in a certain metrum. Added stanzas, mostly invocation ones, are in another metrum.
  2. 2. "anthologization marks": At a certain points, redactors started to create an anthology of this kind of literature and tried, thus, to make works look uniform. One of these marks is the addition of an invocation stanza (akin to the Sanskrit maṅgala) at the beginning.
  3. 3.  Deities: It seems that in the most ancient Dravidian history (and, hence, in the corresponding layer of the Caṅgam corpus), deities were conceived in a specific way, i.e., they had neither name nor form, they were linked to a specific place and were always in a group [one is reminded of spiriti loci, possibly akin to Japanese deities]. Next, their implements (weapons, the flute…) start playing a role. This is possibly linked to the fact that such implements played a role in the ritual reactualization of their worship. As a third step, a concept of a precise deity is elaborated. Last, a personal, iconic worship finds its way in the texts.
 This last point is of particular significance for me, since it provides me further food for thought for the issue of how was god conceived in South Asia before the end of the first Millennium. After that, we are confronted with theistic thinkers we can relatively identify with. But before that? Vedic deities are remote and philosophical thinkers seem not to need a personal god (they are either "atheist" or they speak of some primus movens in a way comparable to what Aristotle did).

On the workshop on Viṣṇu-Nārāyana, see this post.


andrew said...

of course literature (especially anthologies) present a variety of representations/concepts/views of divinity. but i am kind of wary of the developmental schema here (which is more salutory, i admit, than the schema of "native dravidian" versus "foreign aryan" that one used to encounter so often). i definitely don't think that literature can be dated with any degree of certainly by the stage (out of several discrete and successive stages) in which its representation of the divine falls. by that measure, stravinsky lived around the third century.

Vidya Jayaraman said...

It is true that caṅkam deities did not have a form in the sense of "iconography". The early deities were concieved the divisions of landscape or tiṇai ie mountaineous, pastoral, agricultural, seaside and desert but the deities definitely had specific names such as māyon, ceyon, ventan, koRRavai etc

However it is true that relatively later texts - one example that comes to my mind is the tirumurukarruppatai which is part of the pattu pāṭṭu anthology has verses that detail the functions of the 12 hands, six faces and references to specific sacred places are already in place. Similarly in the paripāṭal too has specific details about siva's iconography where he wears a konRai flower and has matted hair.

As for the invocation stanza in many cases for texts like puRanānūru, it is written by bharatham pādiya perunthevanaar and has a specific author's name attached, based on which one can make a reasoned guess on when it was added on even without the meter.

So one we have poems (these would not be hymns but poems or songs) composed in different time periods such as tirumurukarruppatai vs
puRanānūru which are again loosely compiled sets of songs each of which may have different time periods.

The other aspect is the writers of urai-s added the tokai (collection) number which came much later. In some senses, even the uniform application of geographies to a pre-existing orally transmitted (by wandering bards) is a later addition in terms of understanding the corpus.

There was one article I read a while back where the author says the early cankam period had no notions of mukti, liberation, other worlds etc. I will post the link when I find it again.

Phillip said...

(by that measure, stravinsky lived around the third century.)


elisa freschi said...

Thanks all of you for your interesting comments (which ---I have to admit--- go beyond my expertise).

@Andrew: I agree with your opinion against distinguishing the native from the foreign (in fact, I dislike these interpretations even when applied to Northern India, with Buddhist being "non-aryan" and, hence, probably belonging to a more ancient stratum). As for "Stravinskij's point", let me repeat that E. Wilden stressed most of all the formal elements I listed first. It is just my personal interest which made me highlight the concept of deities.

elisa freschi said...


thanks for your comment. I am not in the position to elaborate further on several of your points, but I would be grateful if you could send me a couple of answers on the following points:
–addition of geography: do you mean to say that also geographical names have been added? Thus, the deities were thought of "rivers" and not to a certain river?
–what intrigues me is this different conception of Divinity. We are used to the alternative theist/atheist, which is conceived in regard to a single (or at least: a chief) god, and often even tend to think that, e.g., Buddhism is not a religion because it is atheist (in the above sense)…

Vidya said...

One yes, geography was an integral part of cankam literature in the sense of the five landscape divisions. In the early history, the deities did have a name but no form or specific place. They were linked as you say to a generic type of landscape as in korravai the Goddess is the deity of "the desertlands". This is according to what I see from the texts themselves.

However the specific text I referred (which is part of the cankam corpus named pattupāttu - the ten idylls) is generally considered a later text precisely some of the reasons outlined). The name of the text is tirumurukāRRupatai is on muruka and there are specific references to deities like Brahma, Vishnu and Siva and the locations of sacred places where Murukan is worshipped such as tirupparankunram, āvinankuti etc and the modes of worship there. This text would mark the third step in your post.

And then among all this, there are however some references of the type which people use to draw inferences: "The creator of this world" (narrinai 240) and heroine in kalittokai telling her friend that her fear is not being united with her lover in future births etc. Sometimes, it does seem that the term 'cankam corpus' is too heterogeneous and should be done away with for the purpose of evolutionary analysis!

elisa freschi said...

do we have any alternative to the usage of "Caṅkam corpus"? And is not it in itself interesting to investigate on a heterogeneous det of texts, which have however been regarded as a corpus by the subsequent tradition? (I am really asking in order to get an answer, since my expertise in this field is nil).

Vidya said...

Cankam Corpus is the standard umbrella-term for these texts and I have not seen other alternative. That statement was more in the sense, that I felt that the term 'cankam corpus' was somewhat similar to the term 'vedic text' used for rg vedic and brahmana-s and upanishad-s.

elisa freschi said...

Yes, good point. "Vedic" is also very much disputable.

Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

What is disputable about Vedic corpus? Are they all not composed in Vedic Sanskrit?

elisa freschi said...

The problem is that a "Vedic corpus" has been reconstructed a posteriori out of texts written in very different times and milieus. The Ṛgveda, to name an example, seems quite different from a ritual-speculative Brāhmaṇalike the Śatapatha. As for the language, it also develops gradually from one layer to the next. The Saṃhitās are quite tough for a Sanskritist, who will, instead, find the language of the Brāhmaṇas overall accessible.

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