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Musing on Vedic Culture vs. SriVaishnavism - part II

From: Mohan Sagar (
Date: Sun Jan 19 1997 - 20:14:34 PST

"A city without a temple is no city at all. So say the Tamil poets.  And, as
if to prove it the Tamils have built a multitude of magnificent structures
to their gods..."

So begins a very interesting presentation by Michael Wood of the BBC on the
subject of Tamil culture as part of his discussion on the religion of India
in the television series, Legacy.

Indeed, a short drive through any major city or small town in Tamil Nadu
would show the strong influence of temples in our society. And, with the
advent of temples, a distinct culture emerges; one in which the gods are not
perceived as being mysterious and erratic, as is the case in early Vedic
thought, but are stable deities who can relate to the human condition, and
whose presence is as close as the nearest temple and available to just about
anyone (there are examples that would show otherwise, but I think we should
take this up at another time). These gods do not require sacrifice to be
appeased, but instead, actually hear the prayers of their devotees.  Wood
takes the example of Siva of contrasting Vedic and Tamil views of the
Divine. In Vedic Culture, Siva is viewed as an ambiguous, often times
temperamental deity, the "wild yogi" of the Himalayan Mountains.  While in
the South, Siva is depicted as the artistic dancer, the god of sensuality,
and the handsome bridegroom of Uma.  

Needless to say, such deities, what to say of NamPerumal, would invoke a
sense of loving devotion in us.  And from such love emerges the devotional
outpourings of the the mystics, the Azhwars and Nayanars (It is interesting
to note here that some students of comparitive religion have evidence to
suggest that very concept of Bhakti itself was created among the temple
based societies of South India). The devotion that they expressed extended
beyond just the deity, it became part of what Dr. Narayanan refers to as
territorial theology, in which the temple, the surrounding town, and at
times even the people are praised.  Such a religion, with its more easily
understood emphasis on devotion, and the encouragement of a sense of
community, would naturally become part of mainstream popular culture. 

But, this raises the question of what role the Vedas would play in all of
this.  For the devotionalistic temple based movement has features that
differentiate it slightly from Vedic thought:

*caste rigidity plays less of a role 
*the use of the vernacular, rather than Sanskrit, allows  the philosophy to
be easily understood
*the idea of a personal Divinity who is reachable and compassionate
*a stronger sense of connection to the Deity resulting in a heightened sense
of village  community

The Vedas, in spite of it all, were, and still are, regarded to be Eternal
Truths, so there was no question of throwing them out.  But, the popular
devotion was probably so strong an influence on the culture of the people
that they, too (Thank God) could not be removed from the lives of the
people.  Thus, a hybrid religion developed, a delicate balance between Vedic
ritualism and philosophy and Tamil devotionalism: Ubhaya Vedanta.


Which leads me to the point of all this musing: I would contend that we as
Brahminical members of the Tamil communities are not of the same culture as
the Brahmins of the Period of the Brahmanas. For we are products of this
hybrid culture.  
Consequently, particulary in discussions of caste, we must recognize that
our views of ourselves, and other communities, are slightly different from
what the Sastras suggest.  We should follow the examples of our noted
predecessors in Ubhaya Vedanta, tempering Vedic rigidity with the
devotionalism of the Bhagavathas.  From this, I think we can get a better
understanding of why this debate of caste even exists, as well as ways to
understand each other's views better.

I do hope that this big picture view provided something to this group.  For
me, it put things in perspective such that the stress associated with
questioning the values of my own caste was mitigated.  

Now, much to my own relief, as well as I'm sure, many of yours, I will get
off this Anthropology lecturer's podium, and speak as a fellow devotee, again. 

An excellent example of Ubhaya Vedanta in practice, a result of my
discussions with Mani, will be shared in my next posting.

Daasanu Daasan,