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India is a country of long survivals (D.D. Kosambi). It has accumulated since about 5000 years the most diverse ideologies without really changing its basic religious structure - Hindu polytheism. It has adopted, before virtually annihilating Jainism and Buddhism, their basic principles vegetarianism and ahimsā and thus in fact it has reabsorbed the two principal heterodox movements. The strategy of the Brahmins, whether conscious or unconscious, has always been to adopt the most prestigious features of their opponents. Hinduism is thus “a product of a particular kind of mind in a particular environment”, a special kind of religion which must be met on its own terms, a phenomenon of immense, overpowering magnitude, complexity and diversity. It has baffled all attempts at defining it in simple terms or analyzing clearly its component elements (K.A. Nilakanta Sastri).

What is true about India and Hinduism in general has special relevance when we face one of its most complicated and baffling deities, Subrahmanya-Murugan of the deep South. Sanity, stupidity, sobriety and madness - all can and will be found in the immensely complex construct of human imagination, intelligence, emotional needs and, last but not least, deep and valid insights, that is the phenomenon called 'Murugan'. Let it be clear to the reader that, although I shall have to say many critical words. I believe, with Claude Levi-Strauss, that the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and that the difference lies not in the quality of the intellectual process but in the nature of the things to which it is applied: the same logical processes operate in myth as in science: "man has always been thinking equally well."

The following work does not concern itself with the validity of current religious faith or practices of Murugan worshippers. Although my commentary will be, naturally, openly critical, it should not be interpreted as involving any criticism of the faith and devotion of sincere bhaktas of Murugan.

By virtue of his complex and composite nature, Murugan is all to everyone: to children he is Bala Subrahmanya, the playful child-god; to young men the chaste Kumaran, to scholars the wise six-faced Arumukan, to soldiers Senatipati, to devotees who seek knowledge he is Jnanapandita, to householders and wives he is the bridegroom and husband of Valli and Devasenā, and to ascetics he is the severe Anti of Palani. Finally, to Western scholars such as I, he is a fascinating subject of affectionate investigation.

Before, however, I shall deal in some detail with a few of the many facets and aspects of this deity I wish to say a few words about those features of Hinduism and Hindu culture which have a direct bearing on our investigation: about the relationship of religion and society, the position of the individual in Hindu social structure, the relationship between man and nature, the nature of Hindu myth in general and Tamil Murugan myths in particular, the phenomenon of bhakti and, also, the methodology to be adopted. Last but not least, we shall throw a very brief glance on the possible historical implications of the research into Murugan.

Nowadays we are used to think of society (or a society) independent of religion. The Indian society is founded on the inter-dependence of castes and, its consequence, of individual men and women in strict hierarchy expressed through ritual separation: this, indeed, seems to be the very heart of Hindu religion. Also, our distinction between philosophy and religion is inapplicable to Hindu India. The individual person who. in our society, is unique, indivisible', an ontological entity and unity, a carrier of definite values, an agent in institutions, and a 'Universal idea' is, in India, a member in one of the jātis, of groups which have each a particular ethics and morality; a being is 'in relation'; a being is always part of a "necessary coexistence of hierarchical contrasts" (Dumont).

Furthermore, there is no rupture between man and nature. In general, the human order is realized, like in Chinese Taoism or Japanese Zen, in conformity with nature. There is almost no possibility for the conflict of man against nature since there is no absolutely autonomous human order independent of the natural order. Nothing would be more alien to traditional Indian thought than to oppose man and nature.

Thus, in India, there is not a 'universal' and 'common' man as such; there is no universal duty either. Whereas in the West, we count with -- in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and cultures derived from them -- an absolute dichotomy between god and evil, and with the resulting conflicts and struggles of the individual, in India this opposition is considered only illusory or at the most relative and temporal. The particular duties and ethics see to it that, ideally (!), there are no conflicts.

David Stacton said that Hindu mythology was "much like a plum pudding. If you do not like the plums in the slice you have, or have been deprived of a flavour, you may always cut another one." In first level of the myth is the story itself, with an immediately recognizable point on at least one plane: the narrative level. Closely related is the 'divine' level which concerns mythology as it used to be understood by the scholars of the classics: the metaphorical struggles of divine powers and personalities. Above this is the cosmic level of the myth, the expression of universal 'laws' and processes, of metaphysical principles and symbolic truths; and, below it, transforming often into folklore, is the human level, the search for meaning in individual and social human life. "No one meaning can be labeled the deepest or the truest... The best words are ambiguous, and the more richly ambiguous the more suitable for ... the myth-makers' job. Hence there is no end to the number of meanings which can be read into a good myth."

"Each level always refers to some other level, whichever way the myth is read... We can only choose between various degrees of enlargement: each one reveals a level of organization which has no more than a relative truth (stress mine, KVZ) and, while it lasts, excludes the perception of other levels." Expressed somewhat differently. "Was erzählt wird, ist immer wahr, ebenso wie es auch immer wahr ist." Also, Hindu myth reflects a fundamental feature of Indian thinking: contradictory views are only seemingly contradictory; their opposition is always resolved in a higher synthesis; apparently contradictory opinions are mere temporary illusions. In short, everything is everything else and everything is One.

This may be difficult for our logic, based as it still is on Aristotelian principles, to accept. However, accepted it must be; if not, Hindu myths will drive us to despair and fill us with disgust. If accepted, and applied, e.g., to one of the basic Murugan myths - the struggle against Cūr who represents the mythological perception of radical evil - it works beautifully.

In the life of the human race, the mythical is, apparently, an early and 'primitive' stage. In the life of an individual, it is a late and mature one. What is gained is an insight into the higher truth depicted in the actual: "a smiling knowledge of the schema in which and according to which the supposed individual lives." The central position of myth can be expressed by the following chart:

For those problems which cannot be solved rationally, and God knows we have plenty of such problems, myth utilizes the solution of irrational cult, and emotion achieves what intellect cannot. Thus, myth expresses the need that can never be fulfilled, that is always just out of reach, even in the world of gods (Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty).

The meanings expressed in the Skanda-Murugan myths are far too complex and multivalent to be analyzed adequately with reference to one single model - e.g. to a simple polar opposition combined with a final synthesis. To only suggest the different layers, levels and links of some aspects of the Subrahmanya-Murugan myth, cf. the following:

  1. In the field of physical geography, the myths of Murugan account for the vision of Tamilnadu as his sacred realm. Mythical, puranic space-time is as if spread over the concrete land of the Tamils in the past, present and future.
  2. In the field of social structure. Murugan's marriage to Devasenā and Valli reflects and legitimizes the cakkalatti 'co-wife' institution.
  3. On the level of historical development of religion in South India, Murugan's marriage to Devasena and Valli may have been an attempt to consolidate the unity of the Hindus irrespective of whether they were Saivites or Vaisnavites.
  4. On the level of culture, the myth of Murugan supports the claim that Tamil is of divine origin, and accounts for divine patronage of Tamil literature.
  5. On the cosmological level and in the mythological order, the myth reflects the struggle between the cosmic forces of order and chaos, creation and annihilation, good and evil - a permanent topic of Hindu mythology.
  6. On the metaphysical level. Murugan the teacher of Brahma and Siva is revealed as the expert in esoteric knowledge of the most sacred domain.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

In his classical book Language, Edward Sapir uttered a great warning: "The strong craving for a simple formula has been the undoing of linguists." This is true with regard to anthropologists, too. Reductionism is one of the great dangers of contemporary cultural anthropology. We almost spontaneously transport, while thinking of a religion or a society, our systems of references, terms, relationships - systems which are coordinated with our own thought-structures; and, once transferred into the Indian milieu, we describe Indian phenomena by referring to these very systems. However, one cannot force the Indian reality into a conceptual framework which is pre-established and based on our notions, whether they be Lévi-Straussian, classical structuralist, Marxist, Freudian, Jungian or what not. Take Marx: India has been and is different from ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Marxist orthodoxy still moves within the model of a unilinear evolution - another simplicist image. India is forced into an established historical type. Prof. Ruben tries to find (in vain) a system of slavery in India which prevailed in some early Near Eastern or Mediterranean societies and is 'classically' described by Marx. The occidental conceptions of history are necessarily ethnocentric and sociocentric. Worse, in Marxist-oriented countries, they are 'class-centric' and, I do not hesitate to use the term, racist. A 'proletarian' Leninist vision of Indian evolution is a gross and grotesque distortion of facts.

Marxism applies to India a 'Victorian' evolutionist model, and thereby is incapable or unwilling to recognize and understand another civilization than that which has given it birth.

On the other hand, one must be careful not to succumb to the "habitual failing of the philologist whose learned candour leads him to infer that all things have their beginning from the time of their first mention in the texts." We must avoid the 'tunnel vision' (D.D. Kosambi) of armchair Indologists who avoid any disagreeable contact with fieldwork - with anthropology, sociology, folklore, or reality at large. The long and exclusive concentration of such scholars on written, particularly Sanskrit, Brahmin-produced documents seems to have impaired their ability to distinguish between myth and reality.

Our ultimate task, as those who study Indian civilization at large and the religion and myths of the Indian peoples in particular, is to "import new and alternative options of being" which have been realized in another culture.

Although - and this is our firm conviction -- Cevvēl-Murugan is, 'originally', rooted in the prehistoric civilization of the peoples of South India and Ceylon, it was the great Sanskritic-Tamil synthesis in the pre-bhakti and bhakti period that represented the fertile soil in which thrived, for the first time, a vigorous cult of the South Indian Subrahmanya as we know him today. One has necessarily to take a stand, critical and evaluative, towards the all-important emotional, psychological, religious, spiritual, social, literary and artistic movement or trend or development called bhakti. The beginnings of these attitudes may be seen in such old Tamil texts as Tirumurukārruppadai and Parpātal, and some stanzas of the early epic Cilappatikaram. Thus, when Parpāta1 8.56 sings "let us [god and worshipper] remain unseparated (piriyātu irukka-v-en curramōtutanē)", this is, indeed, an early expression of basic bhakti emotion. One could quote many similar and perhaps even more telling utterances from the texts mentioned above. The Sanskrit texts which are traditionally considered as the fundament of (Vaisnava) bhakti and its theory, and in which bhakti was systematized and supported by quotations from the scriptures, are the Nāradasūtra (10th Cent.) and the Sāndilya sūtra (? date). According to these texts, bhakti is preman 'love', expressed in thoughts, words and deeds, and having as its only object god; its substance is amrta 'immortality'; the human being who 'has' it in plenitude is perfect, and liberated. It is not identical either with knowledge (jnāna) or with faith (shraddha).

Devotional religion means dualism; if it did not, one would end up worshipping oneself, or one's self. The love of man for god and its expression usually employs erotic imagery because the range of analogy in human experience is limited; this is the sthāyī bhava which is raised to the condition of experiencing rasa. Separation is as much a part of the condition of love as is union (particularly as seen in classical Tamil literary conventions where four of the five basic situations represent various types and degrees of separation). Without separation there would be no dynamic coming together.

In the Tamil situation, bhakti is apparently not a religion of protest against secular Tamil culture (represented at certain periods to a great extent by Jains and Buddhists), but it seems to be an internal development which is based, psychologically, on the high emotionalism of the Tamil people and which employs the ancient akam conventions and traditional pre-bhakti literary genres and forms like the ārruppadai 'guide-poem'. It is also not, basically, a movement of social protest against any ruling elite. Its most important feature is 'spiritual': the outburst of unbridled emotion, a passionate devotion and surrender to god, is an attempt to solve the mystery of existence and satisfy the cravings of the human heart. Facing the enigma of the human condition at an age when the political, social and cultural situation of South India was in turmoil and when old structures collapsed, intellect was found to be impotent, and emotion took fully over. Tamil became "the language of devotion." Tamil literature became the literature of bhakti.

This trend continued as a strong and vital stream for about 1,000 years, and it had influenced greatly, perhaps conclusively, the Tamil Hindu mind -- a mind which had proven to be, prior to the 6th-7th Cent. A.D., critically probing, full of the spirit of inquiry, lucid and this-world oriented. The greatest book in Tamil culture - intellectualy speaking - is the Tolkāppiam (with some earliest commentatorial literature like Nakkīrar's or Ilampūranar's commentaries) composed by a "pre-bhakti" Jain author. Undoubtedly the greatest achievement in the field of creative literature has been attained by the Tamils in their classical ('Sangam') poetry of the pre-bhakti period.

Whereas the early bhakti in Tamilnadu was replete with genuine fervour and inspired a few great poets to outpourings of sincere and fiery devotion, it steadily and unfailingly declined: empty formalism, repetitiveness, hollowness, imitativeness on the one hand and, on the other, bizarre and morbid fantasy, repulsive cult of violent emotionalism, hallucinative imagery became the characteristic features of later and late medieval 'devotional' poetry until, in our days, bhakti -- whether in poetry and fiction, films, songs, dance-performances or architecture -- has reached its cheap, lower-middle-classy, vulgar, movie-influenced shapes proclaimed by screaming loud-speakers and in blinking neon-lights.

The processes of Sanskritization-Brahminization and of the development of bhakti outlined above which played such decisive role in the 'originally' pre-Brahminic, pre-Sanskritized Tamil India have, nevertheless, enriched several spheres of knowledge, philosophy, mythology, creative and performing arts, and language and literature. Not everything which is 'bhakti', and adopted and adapted from Sanskritic civilization, proved negative and debilitating; indeed not. On the whole, though, emotionally and intellectually, we cannot but feel that these developments and their resulting cumulative effects were harmful and detrimental to Tamil culture.

It is our conviction that, while discussing the phenomenon of Murugan, we have to accept as almost axiomatic two fundamental points of departure: Murugan as a composite deity is first; and, second, the components are apparently correlatable with different ethnicities. The most striking feature of Hindu society is its cultural pluralism. Peoples belonging to different grades of material and spiritual culture were received and assigned a definite place in an elastic framework and then allowed to jostle with one another in the activities and ceremonies of their daily lives. Even a scholar like Nilakanta Sastri who - in spite of his undeniable profundity and honesty -- manifested more than once a pro-Sanskritic bias, wrote about the deity we are dealing with as "the transparently indigenous Tamil deity known as Murugan or Velan." And such, indeed, was the Tamil Murugan in the earliest texts: by these 'earliest texts' dedicated to Murugan I do not mean the two very early devotional texts of Paripātal and Tirumurukārruppadai, but precisely the corpus of ancient Tamil texts composed in Early Old Tamil and anthologized later in the Ettuttokai and Pattuppātu collections minus the two devotional texts mentioned above which must be treated separately. Speaking of Murugan. Fr. Gros wrote: ''La littérature qui lui est consacrée est immense, surtout á date tardive, et il est il dieu le plus populaire en Tamilnad." However, we have several dozens of allusions to the 'pre-bhakti' Murugan of the ancient Tamils, and he seems to be somewhat different from the deity as it appears in the two early devotional texts mentioned above where he reveals himself 'already' as a composite deity manifesting a complex fusion of all important elements the genetic history of which precedes any recorded history. The affection of early Tamils for this deity was such that he figured even in grammatical illustration. There is an anonymous nēricaivenpā illustrating one Subject with multiple Verbs, and this Subject is Murugan:

Muruka vēl cūrmā mutaratintān valli
purikulanmen mālai punaintan - caranalittu
mēlaya vanor viyancenai tānkinan
vela nitakilittān verpu

"The Beloved Muruga destroyed the root of the mango-tree Cur;
He has adorned Valli's curled tresses with a garland;
Giving his protection, he led the mighty army of the excellent celestials
With a spear he sundered in the midst the mountain."

While assessing the nature of general cultural history of India, particularly in the South, and the evolution of a deity like Murugan, we must, however, beware not to be trapped in the pitfall of the simplicist view of Indian cultural development that reduces everything to the tension between autochthonous features (primarily 'Dravidian'), and imported Indo-Aryan traits. The cultures thus viewed are fixed and superimposed on the languages: cultural history is fixed to linguistic history with a presupposition of a cultural 'substratum" primarily Dravidian. However, it is hardly possible, probably virtually impossible, to restitute a 'Dravidian' protoculture. Even if it were possible, such rigid dichotomic view would be very incorrect. On the other hand we may, to some extent, agree with S.A. Tyler when he writes, somewhat incautiously, that "all of Indian civilization is built on an underlying base of Dravidian language and culture." I would replace the attribute 'all' by something like 'a great deal'. When it comes, specifically, to religious phenomena, we indeed encounter pre-Puranic pre-Sanskritic, pre-Brahminic gods who have been "silently waiting at the foot of the sacred tree of the pre-Aryan village": the snake, and the anthill which was to become a svayambhū linga in more than one South Indian temple; the monkey which was to become Hanumān, the elephant god Ganesa, the vulture which would become Garuda, the lion, the boar, the tortoise, the fish all of which were in time to be regarded as avatāras of Visnu. And Murugan, Cevvēl, Ceyyon, Vēlan, who was to be identified with the ever-youthful Kumāra, the war-lord Kārttikeya, with Skanda, and emerge ultimately as Subrahmanya.

What was, in rough outlines, the nature of that early Tamil civilization which synthesized the pre-Sanskritic deities, "lurking in the pre-Aryan village", with the gods of the Vedic tradition?

Tamil regional culture has enjoyed a rather special place among the cultures of India. Tamil is one of the two longest-surviving classical languages of India. Moreover, the Tamil plains have been recognized as one of the two primary centers of Indian civilization. The Eastern peninsular coastal plane has been the seat of development of a "Hindu-Dravidian" cultural zone from prehistoric times. It is clear that the script, formal religions, dynastic traditions, and other features of the civilization of the early Tamils developed from assimilation and adaptation of the Indian 'Great Tradition' (which cannot be termed "Sanskritization" in this case since the language media were rather Prakrit and Pali). Although there is neither archaeololgical nor literary evidence of any previous "Dravidian civilization" in the far South, the Iron Age culture was widespread throughout the peninsula.

The rudiments of the ancient Tamil 'semantic algebra' seemed to contain as germinal the two notions of binarism (dichotomic opposition) and hierarchy. In addition, a conception of time in which all events were part of a single synchronic totality (hence a circular rather than a linear conception of time); and the fact that one of the basic and most all-pervading binary oppositions was the notion of 'clean' and 'auspicious' versus 'unclean' and 'inauspicious' - the idea of vital pollution. Most of the cultural messages were expressed in that code.

One of these fundamental binary oppositions was that of akam: puram which may be also demonstrated by the following chart:





temple and court


(woman, goddess)

(man, king, god-king, god)

verbal base and ideology

myth (folk version)

myth (high version)


cultus and culture

cultus and culture


communities and functional social groups (worshippers)

communities and functional social groups (priests etc.)

This is, obviously, the picture of a society which had already undergone several 'mergers', a post-Kalabhra society historically verifiable in the documents of the early Pallava period. However, the basic dichotomy of akam:puram is much older. It is within these two principal forms, the "interior" (lyrical akam-form) and the "exterior" (courtly puram-form) that a self-conscious Tamil culture is depicted in the earliest poetry in which variations are acknowledged and even poetically exploited by reference to the well-known five conventionalized physiographical contexts or poetic situations, the tinais, the external and "internal landscapes" (A.K. Ramanujan).

This indigenous framework - and the indigenous conception of love a symbol of which is, too, Murugan and his consort Valli - was invaded, partly violated and raped, partly adopted and adapted, by the attempts of later commentators to force the Tamil ideology into the Procrustean mould of the Brahminic-Sanskritic models. For the Brahmins became, even in Tamil society, especially after the disappearance of the Buddhists and the Jains, the sole repository of all worthwhile knowledge. Their opinions became authoritative since they were omniscient and almost omnicompetent and omnipotent. They were the rigid dogmatists, subservient to received authority, who were convinced that Sanskrit was "the taproot of all Indian culture as we know it in history." Thus it happened that, since the earliest times, we observe a prevalent tendency in South India, too, to eagerly connect the local, the indigenous, the autochthonous, with the 'Great' Sanskritic (Vedic) tradition. Even in the so-called Sangam poems, Tamil rulers tried to connect themselves with the Mahābhārata. Even the tribes in South Indian backwoods, racially probably Negrito-Australoid and linguistically Dravidian, try to establish 'Sanskritic' and 'Brahminic' connections to raise their prestige. However, we must not - emphatically not - see in this process a simple amalgam of two closed, contrastive, well-delimited cultural categories. On the contrary, there is no sharp division discernible, no sharp boundaries, and, in the resulting synthesis, which is not - and never will be - accomplished, no 'natural' contrast. Like with the "Little" and "Great" Traditions, there is a flux, a continuum. The mythology of the (non-Hindu?) tribes (like the Oraons, Gonds, Korkus, Todas...) almost imperceptibly and step by step transforms into the mythology of the gramadevatā and the kuladevatā of the (Hindu, non-tribal) village masses and further into the 'high' Hindu mythology of the 'Sanskritized' literati. There is a constant diffusion and fusion -- a continuum. Thus, too, with the immensely complex, and ever developing, live phenomenon of Subrahmanya-Murugan.


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