Sunday, 25 December 2016

Specimens of Philosophico-Religious Literature in Tamil: The Maṇimēkalai and the Nīlakēci

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

North-South Divide

The story of Agastya, a north Indian sage, crossing the Vindhya hills and visiting south India (never to return), is well known. It has given rise to a proverb, Agstya-yātrā in Bangla and maybe in other north Indian languages. Like all legends it is without date. So, it has been interpreted as an allegory of the ingress of the north to the south, or, as a recent historian has said, ‘evidence of Aryan speakers’  movement towards the south’ (Noboru Karashima,  ‘Beginnigs of south Indian history’ in: Noboru Karashima (ed.), A Concise History of South India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014, p.26). From about the third century BCE, religions that were born in north India spread to the south. Interestingly enough, two heterodox religions, Buddhism and Jainism were first to reach the Deccan and further south; the brahmanical religion (Vedist) was to reach later. There are enough archaeological findings to suggest so. The most conspicuous of the north Indian religions was Buddhism, though traditionally Jain migration is said to have started as early as the time of King Chandragupta Maurya (fourth century BCE).

The reflection of both Buddhism and Jainism is found in old Tamil literature. There are several long narrative poems that seek to establish the superiority of either Buddhism or Jainism. The brahmanical religion did not find roots in the south before the first century BCE. Consequently, in the Common Era we find specimens of works belonging to these three religions, written not in Sanskrit, but in Tamil.

Historians of Tamil literature or of Indian literature as a whole (one such ambitious work is Sisir Kumar Das’s A History of Indian Literature 500-1399, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2005) seldom, if at all, mention the fact that the polemics in the Manimēkalai (The Jewel Belt) , the Nilakēci  (The Blue-Haired), and similar works contain strong denunciation of several philosophical systems that came from the north to the south. Tolerance is now projected as the hall mark of Indian culture. Contrary to this notion, there seems to have been no love lost between the Indian philosophical systems and Jainism as well as Buddhism in the south. Apparently, Buddhism and Jainism were both imported in their northern garb. Nevertheless, in the course of time, south India produced most eminent Buddhist logicians, such as Diṅnāga (c 480-540 CE). The Jains too in their turn gave birth to such theologians and philosophers as Kundakunda (first century BCE), who earned all-India fame in the Common Era.

Tamil Literature: Its Antiquity and Variety

It is to be kept in mind that ‘Tamil can claim one of the longest unbroken literary tradition of any of the world’s living languages’ (Kamil Veith Zvelebil, Tamil Literature (A History of Indian Literature, Volume X Fascicule 1, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1974), p.2). Nota Bene (Note Well): ‘the world’s living languages’, not just India’s.

Jean Filliozat, in his essay, ‘The Jaina narrative literature in South India and its counterparts’ (Indologica Taurinensia, Vol. XI, 1983, pp.97-107), provides an account of the rich narrative tradition in Tamil. What is noteworthy is that, besides entertaining their audience with interesting stories, the narratives are also highly tendentious: they indulge in undisguised propaganda in favour of their respective religions and philosophical systems. No counterpart of these narratives is to be found in the north. Historians of Tamil literature have called them ‘epics’, although they do not conform to either the Sanskrit criteria laid down in the books of poetics and rhetoric nor judged by European standards. As Zvelebil has explained:
To express this terminologically, we may say that Tamil epic texts are not itihāsas, i.e. large narrative poems (large in character, in events, in setting, in effect) of the traditional heroic past, but rather longer or shorter mahākāvyas. . . . They are very different from each other and, strictly speaking, some of them should hardly be called epics in the narrower and more technical sense at all. But they are not as radically different from the accepted concept of the epic as, say, Dante’s Divine Comedy which has also been called an epic. (Zvelebil, 1974, p.16).

Philosophical Debates in the Epics

The Maṇimēkalai [Ilanko Ādigāl and Sattanar, Maṇimēkalai, trans. Prema Nandakumar, Thanjavur: Tamil University, 1989] (± 550 CE) is what in Tamil tradition is called an epic. So is the Nīlakēci (± 950 CE). The first is the story of the wanderings of a Buddhist lady ascetic called Maṇimēkalai. It is said to reflect ‘almost exactly the ideas of Diṅnāga, the founder of Buddhist logic’ (Zvelebil, p.141). Among other things the epic Maṇimēkalai contains the first known list of ṣaṭ-tarkī, six systems of philosophy based on argument: Lokāyata, Buddhism, Sāṃkhya, Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, and Mīmāṃsā (27.78-80). Instead of the āstika/nāstika division of the philosophical systems (based on the brahmanical criterion of adhering or not adhering to the Veda), here is a secular division of systems founded, on the one hand, on argument and the other (presumably) on faith. Maṇimēkalai, the heroine, enquires of the basic tenets of all philosophical systems – Sāṃkhya, Mīmāṃsā, etc. – and finds all of them wanting in substance. In the debates, Buddhism ultimately proves to be the victor over all Veda-abiding systems as also Jainism and materialism with its two schools, Bhūtavāda and Lokāyata (27.272-73). The Maṇimēkalai then, besides its other merits, is the earliest work of doxography (collection of views of ancient philosophical schools, now lost). The earliest doxographical work in Sanskrit so far known to us is the Ṣaḍ-darśana-samuccaya by a Jain savant, Haribhadra, which was composed in the eighth century CE, long after the Maṇimēkalai. The Nīlakēci, too, is a doxographical work of some importance, for it records several doctrinal aspects of southern Buddhism, probably not to be found anywhere else. The inclusion of the Ᾱjīvikas is also significant. No other heterodox view that was current in the Buddha’s lifetime is mentioned. All of them seem to have become extinct in the Common Era.

With the passage of time, religious and philosophical systems that had their origin in north travelled to the south. It has already been mentioned that Jainism perhaps came first with Chandragupta Maurya (fourth century BCE), followed closely by Buddhism (third century BCE); brahmanism with its emphasis on varṇāśrama-dharma  was late to arrive (first century BCE). The Ācārakkōvai  ‘belongs to the brahmanical school and is a digest of ideas from the dharmasastra’ (Y. Subbarayalu, ‘Sangam and Post-Sangam Literature’ in: Noboru Karashima (ed.), A Concise History of South India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014, p.46). There is also a Jain work called Silappatikāram,  also spelt Cilappatikāram (The Lay of the Anklet) (c.450 CE) by Ilangovadigal, supposed to be a Chera prince. ‘Unlike the Silappatikāram [a Jain kāvya], the Maṇimēkalai [a Budddhist kāvya] is quite outspoken in religious propagation and underlines the fact that there were lots of polemical disputes and discussions developing among adherence of rival religions’ (ibid., pp.46-47).

The Jains, however, were not to be left behind: the author of the Nīlakēci (Neelakesi, edited, translated into English and published by A. Chakravarti, Kumbhakonam, 1936), although Jain and hence tolerant by conviction, spares no religion or philosophical system. In the last part of the work (Section IV Chapters 1-10, pp.136-336), Nīlakēci, the Jain nun, deals with no fewer than ten doctrines: 1. Dharma Urai (Tarumavurai, exposition of the [Jaina] dharma), 2. Kuṇḍalakēci-vāda (the doctrine of Kuṇṭalakēci, i.e., the Buddhist doctrine preached by a lady Buddhist ascetic), 3. Arka-candra-vāda (another Buddhist doctrine), 4. Mokkala-vāda (the doctrine of Mokkalaṉ, Pali Moggallāna, Sanskrit Maudgalyāyana, refers to the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness, kṣaṇikavāda), 5. Buddha-vāda, 6. Ājīvika-vāda (doctrine of the Ājīvikas, a heterodox sect, now extinct), 7. Sāṃkhya-vāda, 8. Vaiśeṣika-vāda, 9. Veda-vāda (Mīmāṃsā), and 10. Bhūta-vāda (Pūtavātam, materialism).

Referring to (and apparently agreeing with) the view of Chakravarti), Filliozat writes:
It has been observed by the editor, A. Chakravarti, who contributes a detailed introduction to the work, that the major non-Jaina schools of philosophy: Śaṅkara, the Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava Saints, Nāyaṉmār and Āḻvār, are not mentioned in the work. Chakravarti thinks that this is because they did not yet exist as opponents of the Jaina doctrine, so that the polemical work Nīlakēci must belong to the period before their emergence. This may place the composition of the Nīlakēci in the 5th or 6th centuries’ (Filliozat p. 105).
Modern scholars, however, prefer to date the work much later (tenth century CE. See Zvelebil p.139).

Materialist Schools Expounded in the Epics

What is most noteworthy is the mention of bhūtavāda in both the epics. The Maṇimēkalai refers to another materialist school called Lokāyata (27.272-73). Curiously enough, the Nīlakēci does not mention Lokāyata at all; it speaks of bhūtavāda alone. [One caveat: Appaswami Chakravarti Nayanar in his translation of the Nīlakēci 4.10 often uses such expressions as ‘the Lôkâyata teacher’ (p.322)or ‘the Chârvâka teacher’ (p.335 thrice, p.336 twice). But the text (checked and confirmed by A. Mahalingam) invariably refers to Pūtavātam and Pūtavāti.  Similarly, a quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is inserted (p.336), which is obviously not in the original. Barring these, Chakravarti’s translation, I am assured, is fairly faithful to the original.]

The doctrinal aspect of materialism (of the pre-Cārvāka kind) is more or less the same in both the epics: unlike the Cārvākas, earlier materialists in India relied on one instrument of cognition only, namely, perception, while the Cārvākas admitted the validity of inference up to a certain extent (in so far as it was based on and/or was verifiable by perception). There are other differences between the pre-Cārvākas and the Cārvākas, which can be discerned from later evidence (for details see R. Bhattacharya, ‘Development of Materialism in India: the Pre-Cārvākas and the Cārvākas’, Esercizi Filosofici 8, 2013, pp.1-12. (2013a). ISSN 1970-0164. Link: http://www2.units.it/eserfilo/art813/bhattacharya813.pdf).

The Maṇimēkalai contains the first ever description of Lokāyata as a philosophical system, not a mere śāstra of disputation. In the Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist tradition disputatio is the only meaning of Lokāyata. The Maṇimēkalai refers to no book of disputation but specifically mentions Lokāyata as a separate school of materialism, different from bhūtavāda.

Predominance of Women

One word more. Tamil epics have no heroes; they have heroines. There are no scenes of bloody battles, but only battles of ideals, both religious and philosophical. The heroines, whether Buddhist or Jain, are self-confident, vocal, and always prepared to take part in a debate. They roam about the whole Tamil land, disguised as male. Social historians have detected ‘indications of matrifocal and matripedestal traditions in the sources, indicating different cultural practices within the Tamil macroregion. The post-Sangam literature (c. fourth-sixth centuries CE), marked by the didactic works and the epics, points to influences from outside the region in the form of Jainism and Buddhism. . . . However, the new ideas presented by the Sramanic traditions were eclipsed in the early medieval period with the growth of the Brahmanical religion in the region’ (R. Mahalakshmi, ‘Women in premodern south Indian society’ in: Karashima (ed.), p.115).

[‘Matrifocal societies are those that are centred on the mother as the pivotal figure in the social organization, while matripedestal refers to the idolization and worship of the mother.’ Ibid., p.115 n39.]

Appendix A


The bhūtavādī in the Maimēkalai is made to declare the basic doctrine of the system he adheres to in the following terms (as translated by Prema Nandakumar):
When aathi (?) flowers, sugar and the restAre mixed, wine is made. Life too appearsBy the mixing of elements, vanishesWhen they separate as sounds from a drum.Conscious elements produce life withinAnd unconscious one produces the bodyEach appearing through their elements.This is the truth. Words different from thisAnd other facts are from Materialists [Lokāyatas].Sense perception is valid. InferenceIs false. This birth and its effect concludeNow. Talk of other birth is falsity. (27.265-76, p. 154)
The words of the bhūtavādī have been paraphrased by a late medieval commentator in the following way:

When certain flowers and jaggery are boiled together, liquor is born which produced intoxication. Just as when elements combine, consciousness arises. Consciousness dissolves with the dissolutions of the elements composing them like the disintegration of sound. Elements combine to produce living Bhūtas and from them other living Bhūtas will be born. Life and consciousness are synonymous. From non-living Bhūtas consisting of two or more elements rise non-living Bhūtas of the same type. Lokāyata is a variant of this system that agrees in fundamental with this system. Observation is the method by knowledge is obtained. Inferential thinking is illusion. This worldly life is real. Its effect is experienced in this life only. The theory that we enjoy the fruits of our action in our next birth or in another world is false. (Quoted and translated by N. Vanamamalai)

Appendix B


There are at least two recent translations of the Maṇimēkalai  in English, one in prose and other in verse:

Maimēkalai (The Dancer with the Magic Bowl), trans. Alain Danielou with the collaboration of T.V. Gopala Iyer, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1993.

Maimēkalai, trans. Prema Nandakumar, Thanjavur: Tamil University, 1989.

There is also an abridged version of the epic:

Lakshmi Holmstörm, Manimekalai/Silappattikasam, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1996.

No other edition or translation of the Nīlakēci excepting the ones by A.Chakravarti is available. The 1936 edition has ben reprinted several times. Both the text and the translation are available on the net.

The following articles are of interest:

Miyamoto Jō, Lōkāyata in Tamil, Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, Vol. 55, No.3, March 2007, pp.1131-1135.

G. Suryanaryana Sastri, The Manimekalai Account of the Sankhya, Journal of Indian History 8 (1929) pp.322-327.

G. Suryanaryana Sastri, Buddhist Logic in Manimekalai, Journal of Indian History 9 (1930) part iii.

N. Vanamamalai, Materialist Thought in Early Tamil Literature, Social Scientist, Vol.2  No.4 (November 1973), pp.25-41, also available on the net (JSPOR).


Other sources have been mentioned in the text of the lecture within parentheses.

Acknowledgements Chayan Samaddar, Prabir Gangopadhyay, Sunish Kumar Deb. The usual disclaimers apply.






Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of Pavlov Institute, Kolkata.





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