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Were The Chola Kings Hindus Or Not?

October 11, 2022 17:57 IST
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The aftermath of Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan has led to an argument that there was no religion as Hinduism in Chola times.
Instead, there was only Saivism, Vaishnavism, etc, and that the Cholas were Saivites, and hence not Hindus, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Jayam Ravi as Arulmozhivarman, the future Rajaraja Chola, in Mani Ratnam's film Ponniyin Selvan 1.

It had begun months before Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan-1 was scheduled for a pan-world release on September 30.

Today, when the multi-lingual film is breaking box-office records, as much in the North where Bollywood has taken one more big hit, as in native Tamil lands across the world, a post-release re-do of Tamil history lessons is dominating YouTube journalism alongside prominent individuals joining the fray through tweets, media statements and news conferences.

The irony is that none of these observations centred on perceptions of Tamil history and Hinduism's influence in the region has anything whatsoever to do with the subject matter that PS-1 deals with but within clearly defined boundaries set by novelist Kalki R Krishnamurthy as far back as the mid-fifties.

The latest debate is on whether Rajaraja Chola, the PS-1's Arulmozhi Varman or Ponniyin Selvan, was a Hindu or not, and by extension the entire Chola clan. No, the argument is not to say that he belonged to any other religion or ethnicity, though some critics claim that PS's dialogue-writer Jayamohan had said they were Telugus.

Instead, the issue is centred on a more metred argument that there was no religion as Hinduism in the Chola times. Instead, there was only Saivism, Vaishnavism, etc, and the Cholas were Saivites, and hence not Hindus.

According to the proponents of this theory, there was no 'Hinduism' per se even after Arabs reportedly called all regions this side of the river Indus as such. Instead, the British colonial rulers, in their ignorance and more so as a matter of convenience, gave the common religious identity of Hinduism to all those who were not either Christians or Muslims, they say.

Hence, the usage of the terminology is just a few hundred years old or less. The argument that the term is acknowledged by the Constitution does not hold, according to this group, which mostly comprises desperate individuals with different political ideologies and identities but whose ethno-cultural tag meets or merges in what they describe as a 'pan-Tamil' outlook and perceptions based on the same.


The latest to trigger the controversy is award-winning Tamil film-maker Vetrimaran, who has won four National film awards in a career spanning 15 years -- Aadukalam (2011), Kakka Muttai (2015), Visaranai (2016) and Asuran (2019).

Without reference to the Mani Ratnam movie, he has since triggered a controversy that the Cholas were not Hindus as understood now, but were only Saivites.

What stands out in Vetrimaran's argument is that through such misrepresentation of history (again no reference to PS-1), the true Tamil identity was being sought to be over-written many times over.

Promptly, state BJP leaders like H Raja and Narayanan Thirupathy have contested such claims. The acerbic Raja, ever ready to walk into a Hindutva-centric controversy, has pointed out how the Chola kings, and their counterparts from other Tamil royal clans from the past, like the Cheras, Pandavas and Pallavas, had built temples for every segment of the Hindu faith, like Saivism, Vaishnavism, and also for Lord Ganesa, Murugan and Shakti, or Parvati, each with an 'ism' identity of its own.

However, the counter-argument goes that the Tamil kings, whether they followed Saivism, Jainism (during the previous millennium) or Vaishnavism, they were 'secular' to be able to associate themselves with the 'religious activities' of other faiths from among their own subject-population.

Those kings, it is pointed out, had also promoted Islam, even as it landed in these parts through the Arab traders who had centuries-old trade relations, long before the arrival of Prophet Mohammed and the advent of Islam, in the land of their origin.

The same went for the Greek and Roman traders, identified as 'Yavanas' in Tamil literature, and also Chinese, who all came here as traders. They all had their settlements and also places of worship.

As if true to form, actor-turned-politician Kamal Hassan has jumped into the fray. The founder-president of the Makkal Needhi Maiyam has often identified himself as an atheist and follower of Dravidian socio-political ideologue 'Periyar' E V Ramaswamy Naicker. Often times, Kamal is on the side of pan-Tamil groups.

This time, too, he has said that the Chola kings were not Hindus -- but after praising Mani Ratnam's PS-1 for what it is worth. Incidentally, Kamal was at the audio-launch of PS-1, along with contemporary super-star Rajinikanth, and recalled, once again, how, he had wanted to film Kalki's novel but could not do so in an era before multi-part movies, which began only with the Baahubali franchise in Telugu, in 2015.

Kamal's fans and political cadre have taken exception to some Hindutva social media activists pointing to the actor owning up his Hindu identity when questioned by the American immigration authorities at New York airport, in the post-9/11 paranoia, if he was a Muslim.

In social media responses, they claim that as always, Hindutva groups were obfuscating the argument by bringing in extraneous issues.

Incidentally, this is not the first time in recent weeks and months when the periodicity of the term 'Hinduism' proper is being debated in Tamil Nadu. It should not be confused with anti-god, anti-Hindu, anti-Brahmin Dravidian political ideology.

But the increasing incidence of such debates and arguments flow from a social perception that 'Sanatanis' -- a derogatory reference this, to Brahmins in particular and other Hindutva political forces otherwise -- are out to conquer the 'Tamil socio-cultural space' built up over generations and centuries, that too 'without reference to dependence on Sanskritised 'Aryan' beliefs and practices'.

In May this year, for instance, a row erupted over a local government official ordering a ban on the new head of the Saivite mutt-head in the southern temple town of Thiruvavaduthurai being carried on a palanquin by the followers and employees of the mutt.

While there was general consternation about the ban, which political rivals attributed freely to the ruling DMK's (past) ideology that does not work even among party cadres, a specific issue arose when the head of the Madurai Aadheenam, Harihara Sri Gnanasambanda Desika Swamigal, heading the oldest of the Tamil Saivite mutts, jumped onto the fray.

The Madurai seer defended the age-old practice and threatened to lead the palanquin tradition if the ban persisted -- that too in the name of Hinduism.

Detractors, of whom there were many, while conceding that the Aadheenam may be right in defending the cultural rites attaching to them, had forgotten that Saivism at the time of the founding of the Madurai mutt and others, was independent of Hinduism, which was a later-day coinage.

On another occasion, however, the Adheenam had argued in a television interview that Saivism was different from Hinduism and that the concept of Shan-madham, or 'six faiths', or forms of worship for Siva, Vishnu, Shakti/Devi/Durga, Ganesa and Muruga, together forming 'Hinduism' was alien to the 'Tamils' concept'.

The Tamil zealots' concept of Saivism is what they call Saiva Siddhandha, practised down South and also by almost every Sri Lankan Tamil in the island nation, with a singular difference. Staunch Saivites in southern Tamil Nadu used to be staunch vegetarians, too, but that is not true of their Sri Lankan Tamil counterparts.

What the critics of the pan-Tamil ideological identity miss out by blaming the Dravidian political culture, more especially the DMK, Periyar and Karunanidhi in that order, is that the former is actually independent of the latter, earlier and since.

Close to a hundred years ago, the pan-Tamil identity has emerged a couple of decades ago before Periyar and his anti-Hindi, anti-Hindu ideology took over and sought to subsume the other.

In its current phase, pan-Tamil politics revived itself on the basis of the Sri Lankan ethnic issue. Suffice to point out that independent of the DMK, AIADMK, MDMK and all other political identities, independent campaigns by Tamil litterateurs, film-makers and youth had begun taking over that part of the Dravidian politics.

It had died down sort of at the end of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka, which marked the end of the LTTE, especially its propaganda arm(s) in Tamil Nadu. It got an occasional revival over the Cauvery water dispute, where between them two, the Centre and the apex court, were playing ping-pong over Tamil Nadu's 'legitimate rights' for decades.

This was followed specially by the Jallikattu issue, which triggered a massive mass protest which fed on itself and kept all politicians away. It was a reflection on the Tamil perception of stepmotherly treatment by the larger Tamil identity and pride, that too when it did not involve any rights of other states as was the case with the Cauvery water dispute.

This again is being followed by punctuated imposition of Hindi over the past years, especially under the BJP-NDA government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, there is little realisation in the ruling BJP circles and their ideological support bases, both in Delhi and Chennai, that the issues are different and acting on misconceptions of their kind has only hurt the 'Tamil pride' even more.

In the midst of all this, a debate has re-ensued over the caste identity of the four men who had assassinated Chola crown prince Aditha Karikalan, which was the climax in Kalki's novel, and which scene is expected to appear in Mani Ratnam's PS Part-II.

Citing stone and copper inscriptions that are still available and have been cited by historians over the past couple of centuries, pan-Tamil adventurists now argue that Karikalan's assassins were Brahmins, but Kalki, 'being one of them' (!), had depicted them as belonging to the clan of bodyguards of a Pandya king whom the Chola prince had beheaded (another fact proved by history).

Even more, they are not ready to forgive Mani Ratnam, another Brahmin, for sticking to Kalki's version of Pandya royalty's Aabaththudhavigal, little acknowledging that the film-maker had said that his film was only an edited version of the novel without any new or additional research input.

If he had done so, the final product would have been caught between two stools, and Mani would have been blamed for not being true to the novelist, who commands a great fan-following, decades after his departure.

It is in this background that yesteryear film-maker V Gowthaman -- the last of his two movies, Maghizhchi, appeared in 2010 -- has threatened a massive protest if PS-2 'continued to falsify' Tamil history. He has, however, not said where Mani Ratnam faltered, wantonly or by oversight or whatever.

But there are others, who have used a microscope to dissect Mani Ratnam's production, going as far as to say that not once in PS-1 was the Cholas' Tiger' flag shown in its full glory. The insinuation is unmistakable, the 'Tiger' standard being the identity of the pan-Tamil LTTE terror outfit in neighbouring Sri Lanka -- which incidentally is a part of the PS-1 scene of play.

There are others who go all out to argue that Mani Ratnam did not shoot even a single shot in Thanjavur, the seat of the Chola throne, especially in the story-line that the PS-1 franchise tell. The reasons are obvious. Apart from Covid lockdowns, present-day Thanjavur with all the electric poles, wires and other modern-day paraphernalia could not have provided the apt background.

More importantly, the symbols of the Chola empire, like the Big Temple, Thanjavur, were built by Arulmozhi Varman aka Rajaraja, as his later-day creations, and his son, Rajendra. The PS series stops way before those days. Hence, even while shooting on the temple grounds, say, for instance, the film team would have to just show sand, not even the temple walls, and not certainly the majestic Big Temple Tower!

The problem, as is said, is that like Kalki's fans, Mani Ratnam's fans and more so self-styled defenders of the great Chola past, as different from pan-Tamil loyalists, have imposed their own interpretations and expectations on PS-1 the movie, and have criticised the film-maker for not projecting episodes and instances as 'authentic' as they had wanted.

In this background deriving mainly from Tamil Nadu's film-centric discourse, it is anybody's guess why a gentleman-politician of yesteryear like Dr Karan Singh, once the yuvraj of Kashmir, should have got embroiled in a pedestrian controversy that is not his. Patently ill-advised, his entry into the arena would only be used by GenX Tamil fanatics to argue/accuse how deep the 'Aryan conspiracy' ran.

For, Karan Singh's argument that multiple forms of worshipping different gods is what Hinduism is all about is also the argument that some BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu have posited now, to distinguish between forms of worship and a religious collective. They all may have a point as Hinduism, unlike the Abrahamic faiths, believed in multiplicity of a single divine form, in Adi Parasakthi.

But then this is precisely what the Tamil chauvinists have been contesting for long. According to them, the 'Aryan-Brahmins' had super-imposed their Shiva, Rudra, Karthikeya and Shakti/Durga on Tamil gods like Irayanar, Murugan and Parvati. The Aryans, according to them, did not even leave out village deities like Sudalai, Mari Amman, etc.

They also point to how there is a revival of stand-alone Saivism by a vocal section of the northern Lingayat community in neighbouring Karnataka. To them, the continued presence and dominance of hundreds of village-level deities across south India, in the daily life of native residents matter.

It is this that the 'Sanatanis' want to upturn and early on, they argue forcibly, and at times convincingly, on mushrooming number of YouTube channels, claiming that the Hindutva brigade is out to achieve this goal faster than in the past -- and hence have to be opposed, tooth and nail.

Yet, from the believer's perception, there is a difference, still. These are not old school Peiyarites, who disowned gods, especially of the Hindu pantheon. They instead acknowledge the presence of gods, but claim that there is not a Hindu god in the conventional sense, just as they are not Christian or Muslim.

But the distinction ends there. Once the subject traverses to social justice, they are all for social justice of the Dravidian kind, anti-Brahmin in particular.

In contemporary political terms, it translates as anti-NEET, anti-NEP and anti-EWS quota, concepts that the Dravidian polity, from the ruling DMK to rival AIADMK, the PMK, MDMK, VCK and Seeman's NTK, not to leave out Kamal Hassan's MNM propagate.

But their common approach also ends there, as otherwise they do not have to have a multiplicity of electoral identities, after all.

Yet, PS-1's dialogue-writer Jeyamohan has joined issues over 'Hindu gods', possibly after he was being constantly referred to as a Keralite who had not imbibed 'Tamil values' in his script.

Joining the ranks of Hindutva defenders, without possibly meaning it, he has said that all self-styled Tamil zealots were on the payroll of Christian and Muslim missionaries. A point that the other camp stoutly contests, even while charging the likes of him with 'conferring respectability' on what they say is a 'Hindutva agenda'.

To this camp in particular, saint-poet Thiruvalluvar was just a Tamil, not a Brahmin, as the Hindutva brigade had attired him in saffron (colour of the saints) and cast a scared thread across his chest in recent pictures. That is not true, says the other side, which claims that pre-Independence, that was how even the British rulers had shown the composer of the 1,330 couplets on life and living -- where, of course, there is no reference to God, religion and the like.

The later-day Dravidian leaders interpolated Thiruvalluvar pictures in white attire, with Karunanidhi claiming that the former might have been a Tamil-Jain, and so were other litterateurs up to even the 15th century or thereabouts. According to them, the Sangam literature, too, did not have any mention of god or religion, two thousand years ago, say the Tamil zealots!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.

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