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From: Harini Dasarathy (
Date: Fri Jan 30 1998 - 12:24:37 PST

In the light of the recent Sanskrit vs. Tamil discussions here, this
news item may be of interest the readers of Bhakti list!

 Om thath savithuravrenyam, Bhargo devasya dheemahi Dheeyoyonna
Om thath savithurvarenyam Can you feel the sublime magnificence of
Can the language fanatics achieve the beauty of these lines in any
other language? Of course not!" hissed a Sanskrit lover angrily.
Irrespective of the caste they belong to, irrespective of the class
they belong to, the rest of the Sanskrit bhakta (devotee) clan echoed
similar sentiments. It was a strange reaction. For the Dravidian
movement is deep-rooted in the psyche of the state of Tamil Nadu and
Tamilians, as a whole, are militantly passionate about their language
and culture. And it was expected that the Tamil people would sing
hosannas about state Tamil Development Minister Tamilkudi Magan's
instruction that all temples in Tamil Nadu would henceforth perform
archanas (prayers) in Tamil, instead of the original Sanskrit. But 99
per cent of those I spoke to (and I spoke to nearly 50 people) were
none too happy with the interference of politicians in religious
matters. And they expressed both their hostility and unhappiness in
very strong terms. It was a sentiment that had been simmering for a
while. For, the moment the DMK government came into power, they
indulged in a changing spree. And changed the names of everything --
from the name boards of the shops, to the names of the streets, to the
name of Madras itself -- from English to Tamil. Each move took place
with a vengeance; it was as if the local language was the panacea, as
if the local language would send the state rocketing into the plane of
prosperity. Once they changed the name of the city, they focused their
attention on the Hindu temples. And began by instructing the priests
to conduct the archana in Tamil so that devotees could understand what
was being conveyed to God. Suresh, a regular at his local temple, is
furious at this ham-handed political interference in religion.
"Devotion is not bound by language. What is important is the
satisfaction a devotee gets by listening to the chanting of the
mantras (hymns) in Sanskrit. No other language in the world can
imitate the resonance of this chanting or replicate its soul-stirring
effect. This decision by the government is utter nonsense. How is it
that these people, who do not believe in God, are suddenly interested
in what happens within the precincts of a temple? They should leave
these matters to those who believe in the Almighty." On a more
practical note, he strongly feels tradition should not be dishonoured
or abandoned. Besides, he believes none of the people who go to a
temple actually listen to the mantras since they are too immersed in
communicating their problems to God. Pappamma believes in God, but
does not find the time to perform poojas or visit temples. Her busy
life revolves around her tea shop, her only source of living. "Though
I am very progressive in my outlook, I feel that we have to leave
certain things as they are. Tradition, for example. Why do we follow
traditions? Because we like them. What I cannot understand is the
attitude of the DMK. They call themselves atheists. Then why should
they interfere in the affairs of those who believe in God?" Saroja, a
flower-seller, seems rather confused about the whole affair. She
started off by saying, 'Tamil is our language, so the Iyers (read
priests) should do the archana in the language we know and not in the
language that they know." She thought for a moment, then changed her
mind. "On second thoughts, nobody has the right to change tradition.
These politicians should do their work and not interfere in our
relationship with God." Panchali, who sells fruits in a residential
area, criticised the politicians severely for entering this prohibited
area. "I am against any politician deciding what is to be done in a
temple. These people do not believe in God, so why should they create
such confusion? Politics is different and religion is different,
nobody should mix the two." But she strongly believes the archana
should only be performed in a language the devotees want, know and
understand. "There is only one God and God understands all languages
including English, Hindi and Telugu. Still, I feel that the priests
should chant the mantras only in Tamil. We understand Tamil, not the
language the priests use. By the way, what is the name of the
language?" Vijaya, a young housemaid, visits temples regularly, and
asks for archanas. "Are you telling me that they do not chant the
mantras in Tamil? I never knew that. I thought it was Tamil. I never
understood what they said, but I thought that was because I could not
hear them clearly. The priests are inside the inner sanctum while we
stand outside. So, it doesn't matter to me whether they do it in Tamil
or some other language. But I like the tune of the mantras. It is like
good music. That is why I do not want anyone to change it." Though Dr
Sivacharyar claims that this is an attempt by the government to
enlighten the people, the latter do not seem to think so. The priests
themselves admit there are not many devotees who ask for the archana
to be performed in Tamil. Except for the 70-year-old Dr Sivacharyar,
none of the other priests were willing to talk to the press.
"Naturally, the priests are scared to talk," said someone, who spoke
on condition of anonymity. "Recently, a priest was quoted in a
newspaper saying that poojas should be done only in Sanskrit. Do you
know what happened to him? He was suspended. So it is question of the
poor priests' survival, you know!" This is where the chief priest of
the Kapaleeswara temple at Mylapore, one of the oldest temples in
Madras, disagrees with Sunder, "I am a retired Sanskrit professor,"
says Dr Viswanatha Sivacharyar. "But I still feel that my great
great-grandfather erred by performing the archana in Sanskrit. What I
am doing now is correcting his mistake." He cites his reasons. "You
pray -- mathru devo bhava, pithru devo bhava, acharaya devo bhava… But
what is your mother tongue, your mathru bhasha? Tamil. You should
first pray in your mother tongue." Not many whose mathru bhasha is
Tamil agree with the chief priest. Subramaniam, for one, angrily
challenged the political parties. "Yes, there is only one God and you
can pray to God in any language. But why do you want to change the
existing language? I don't understand why they have suddenly taken
this decision. "See, according to them, there is no God, the deity is
only a stone. So why do they interfere in our beliefs and affairs? Are
we harming them by praying in Sanskrit? This is because the Dravidian
parties believe that Sanskrit is the language of the Brahmins. It is
one of the oldest languages in the world and all over, especially in
Germany, there is a renewed interest in Sanskrit. "Let me challenge
the politicians, can they interfere in the affairs of Muslims? Can
they do the same thing in a mosque? Can they ask the Muslims to say
their prayers to Tamil? Let them do that first and then come to a
temple. There are so many things to be done in this state. Why can't
they concentrate on achieving that instead?" Subramaniam's wife, Jaya,
joins the tirade. "The essence of the words are lost when Sanskrit is
translated into Tamil because Tamil is just not as rich a language,
not does it have as many alphabets. I know Sanskrit, and Tamil is my
mother tongue. But when I read certain translations, I find my
language lacking in many things. So, it is better to do the archana in
Sanskrit itself. The truth is, neither the priests nor the devotees
want Tamil. Now it is a question of what is more important -- the
obstinacy of the politicians or the satisfaction of the devotees?" Dr
Sivacharyar countered the argument by saying that none of the shlokas
are translated from Sanskrit. Instead, they are taken from an original
source called Thirumuraithiruvasakam. "So, the question of using wrong
words in place of the original does not arise at all," he said. But
the devotees were aghast to hear the names of Karunanidhi, Tamilkudi
Magan and certain hymns in praise of the party in the Tamil version of
the archana. "Let me make one thing very clear," said the chief
priest. "The government is not coercing or compelling us to do the
archana in Tamil. We do so only at the insistence of the devotees. As
for reciting the names of Karunanidhi and Tamilkudi Magan during the
archana, do you know Lord Shiva is called Karunanidhi and Lord Muruga,
Tamilkudi Magan? Anyway, we have removed all those names from the
mantras now. The devotees must understand that we are not doing
anything to please Karunanidhi. And I am, at this moment, referring to
the chief minister and not Lord Siva?" Sceptical devotees, though,
were not convinced.

**In the light of this, the controversy regarding who can do
recitation of Sri Vishnu sahasranama sthothram, becomes mute! **

Belur Dasarathy

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