Tuesday, May 8

Did the Jains cause casteism in Tamil Society?

I got this reference this week.

I quote:

Like any other human being, the average Tamil also functions at the intersection of many
overlapping identities. In spite of the persistence of a  linguistic identity over two
millennia, and a self-conscious Tamil nationalist political movement of the 20th century
which argued against caste differences among Tamils, for many Tamils of today, caste is
a significant, if not the primary, identity still.

One of the results of this caste identity is that many Tamils who are members of the Scheduled Castes or Dalits feel alienated from the interests of the Tamil Nationalist movement. Many Tamil nationalists like Pāvāṇar (1992: 169) held that the early Tamil society did not have a birth-based hierarchy. But Classical Tamil texts which are the earliest sources for information on the early Tamil society do employ words which are traditionally interpreted as ‘low caste person’ or
‘outcaste’. These words include ‘pulaiyaṉ’ (base or low-caste man’, ‘outcaste’), “pulaitti”
(the feminine form of ‘pulaiyaṉ’), ‘iḻiciṉaṉ’ (outcaste, low or  uncivilised person),
‘iḻipiṟappiṉōṉ’ (person of low birth, outcaste) and ‘iḻipiṟappāḷaṉ’ (synonym of
In these texts, ‘pulaiyaṉ’ is used to refer to a bard, a drummer, and a
funerary priest; ‘pulaitti’ is used to refer to a priestess, a washerwoman, and a basketmaker; ‘iḻipiṟappiṉōṉ’ is used to refer to a funerary priest; ‘iḻipiṟappāḷaṉ’ is used to refer
to a drummer; and ‘iḻiciṉaṉ’ is used to refer to a drummer and a cot-maker. These usages
seem to suggest that the above-mentioned professionals were considered to be outcastes
in the Classical Tamil society. The Tamil nationalists have not satisfactorily explained
how these usages could be reconciled with their idea of a casteless Tamil society.  On the
other hand, scholars such as K. K. Pillay (1969) and George Hart (1975a, 1975b, 1976,
and 1987) have suggested that the concept of untouchability and hence the notion of caste
were already present in the Classical Tamil society.

When the Classical Tamil texts are analyzed using information from the fields of
philology, linguistics, religion, anthropology, and epigraphy, however, we find that Tamil
social history is inextricably linked to Jainism. The notions of untouchability,
occupational pollution and caste were not indigenous to the Tamil society and the word
‘pulaiyaṉ’ which later came to mean ‘a polluted man’ originally meant ‘a man who
causes auspiciousness/prosperity’. It will be argued in this essay that, ironically, the nonviolence principle of Jainism was an inadvertent catalyst in the development of violenceridden untouchability among the speakers of Dravidian languages. 
Jains have made fundamental contributions to Tamil literature and grammar.
Zvelebil (1973: 137) considers Tolkāppiyaṉ, the author of the  core of the oldest extant
Tamil grammar, the Tolkāppiyam, to be a Jain who belonged to the pre-Christian era. 
Jains also authored major post-classical literary works such as the Cilappatikāram, and
the Cīvakacintāmaṇi as well as many didactic works. While the contributions of Jains to
Tamil literature and grammar are widely recognised, the influence of Jainism on early
Tamil society has not been understood well till now because the Classical Tamil texts
have not been studied from an inter-disciplinary perspective.

I did not know that Jainism had such a strong influence on Tamils. I always thought the influence of Jainism was more in the North of India and to learn that it extended down south was a new thing to me. One lives and learns. To the email, which I responded,

interesting research paper, although for an empirical positivist like me, the logic was lacking in some rigour. But I found it amusing that the Jain concept of 7 hells was used as a theological basis for casteism. But the author did not take the argument forward, if the concept of bad actions lead one to hell and that cycle of rebirth means you are born in a lower caste to expatiate the sins, then pretty much every other religion is the same, bad actions make you a bad man and hence a lower caste..

bit of a logical stretch there

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