Classical Indian Literature: The Southern (Tamil) Tradition

tamil love poem

Like the classical Western tradition, the classical Indian tradition has two classical languages: Sanskrit and Tamil. Most histories of classical Indian civilization, however, focus on the Sanskrit literary tradition to Tamil’s neglect.

Both traditions, I argue, are integral to our understanding of classical Indian literature. The Tamil tradition is classical not only in the sense that it is ancient (dating its earliest poetry back to the 100 BCE to 200 CE), but in that it constitutes the foundation of an entire tradition that continues without a break to the present.

Early classical Tamil literature was written in a society that recalls Italy during the Renaissance. Southern India during the turn of the Christian era was a confederation of states (the Pandya, the Cheras and the Cholas) which were continually warring and trading with one another.

The Tamil states grew wealthy from sea trade routes that connected India to the West (including the Roman Empire which sought peppers, indigo, cotton and pearls from South India) and South East Asia. Classical Tamil poetry tells the stories of wealthy merchants, warehouses bulging with goods and ships from many different countries meeting at palm lined ports along the east coast.

Classical Tamil poetry is said to have been composed in academies or assembles called the Sangam during which time the principles of poetics, rhetoric and prosody were outlined in the Tolkapiyyam, the first grammar of the Tamil language.

Classical Tamil poetry can be classed broadly into poems on the interior landscape (love, emotions) and poems on the exterior landscape (war and heroic poetry).

Landscapes and emotions are carefully interwoven in classical Tamil poetry and each poem is assigned a tinai (‘place,’ ‘region,’ ‘site’) in which the five particular landscapes or regions of the Tamil country with their accompanying seasons, flowers, waters, inhabitants, wild life and time of day correspond to the emotions of the lovers in the poems:[1]

  1. Mountains: union (clandestine); kurunji flower; midnight; winter; waterfall;
  2. Forest: expectancy; jasmine; evening; late summer; rivers;
  3. Fields: irritation; marudam; before sunrise; late spring; ponds;
  4. Seashore: separation; water lily; sunset; early summer; sea;
  5. Desert: impatience; noon; summer; dry wells or stagnant water.

In classical Tamil poetry, nature and landscape symbolize the various moods and experiences of lovers. For instance, a love poem may follow the kurinici convention where the theme is the surreptitious meeting at night of an unmarried woman and her lover in the mountains.

tamil nadu mountain

The puram poems also have their thematic situations which deal with the warfare and exploits of kings as well as ethical instruction in the form of lyrics, panegyrics and hymns. The puram poems of classical Tamil poetry tell us about the kings, chieftains, battles, political and social life of ancient Tamil kingdoms.

The secular, sensual and naturalistic tone of the early Tamil poetry makes for a refreshing change to the religious and mythological tone of much of classical Sanskrit poetry. Here are some English translations of classical Tamil poetry by A.K. Ramanujan.



Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology (Volume Three), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 2000.

Encyclopedia of Indian Literature (Volume 5), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 1987-1992.

The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil (New York : Columbia University Press, 1999), Translated by George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz.

Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies, and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil (selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan).


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Indian Mythology


In a country like India, where every fact is infinitely malleable and where every interpretation is politicized, the need to distinguish between history and mythology is more important than ever.

Myths were created by human beings to explain previously inexplicable phenomena such as how the universe was created and where thunder and lightning came from. Unlike history, myths are not meant to be verified.

Myths are thus associated with the religious and cultural beliefs of a people. They do not inquire into the past the way history inquires.

They are valuable nonetheless for helping to create a sense of a common origin among people and in explaining the basis of their religious and cultural values and institutions.

Mythology is the means by which most Indians (Hindus) have sought to understand the past. The mythology of the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas, are thus as, if not more, important to the Indian than the legend of King Arthur is to the English or the Kojiki is to the Japanese.

Here are some key myths from Hindu mythology in context:

  • The origins of humanity: the first man is Manu from which the Sanskrit word for man (‘manava’) is derived. Manu saves the world’s animals from the Great Flood (Adam and Noah in one!) and is the father of the first kings and queens in Indian mythology.
  • Dynasties, Kings and Sages: ancient Indian dynasties typically claim descent through lines traced back to one of Manu’s two children (Ishvaku and Ila). The hero of the Ramayana, Rama, traces his ancestry to the line associated with Ishvaku, [1] while the Pandvas and the Kauravas of the Mahabharata trace their descent from the line associated with Ila.[2]

The Puranas contain genealogical lists of kings and sages (e.g. Kashyapa, Atri, Vishvamitra, et al) in a manner reminiscent of the list of patriarchs, prophets and progenitors in the Old Testament (e.g. from Abraham to Ham, Shem, Canaan and Rachab).

  • Bharata: The word for “India” in Sanskrit, “Bharata,” derives from the eponymous mythical emperor. Bharata is believed to have united much of what we now call India stretching from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin.

The “Bharata” were also an ancient clan mentioned in the Vedas which emerged victorious in battle over other Indo-Aryan tribes and clans.[3]

  • The Class (Caste) System: in the Vedas, the cosmic man (Puruṣa), is said to have been divided into four parts. From his head came the Brahmin class (priests and teachers), from his arms and torso came the Ksatriya (warrior), from his legs came the Vaisya (farmers and merchants) and from his feet came the Sudra (servants).

These are just some of the myths which Indians and Hindus look to in understanding themselves and the origins of India.



[1] The Sūryavaṁśa (solar dynasty).

[2] The Candravaṃśa (lunar dynasty).

[3] The Mahabharata also takes its title from this clan.



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The Aryans of India

aryan migration

During my mid-twenties, one of my aunts told me that we (ethnic Punjabis) were descended from the Aryans of ancient India.

I first learned about India’s Aryans while studying the country’s history during my undergraduate degree. I learned that that the Aryans had originally migrated to India from the north-west and that they first settled in the Punjab around 1500 BCE. I also learned that their religious beliefs and lifestyle were recorded around 1200 BCE in a literature known as the Vedas.

Like me, most peoples of the subcontinent (particularly northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) claim to be descended from Indo-Aryans. The term Indo-Aryan refers not only to an (religiously, culturally and regionally diverse) ethnic group, but also to a family of languages spoken by this group, including Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Of course, not everyone believes that the Aryans migrated to the subcontinent from the outside. Few are more outspoken in their opposition than the Hindu Nationalist who believes that the Aryans were indigenous to India.

This is, of course, really just a political claim. To claim that the ancestral religion of Hinduism (in the Vedas) is native to India is to claim that it “belongs” to India in opposition to those Indians belonging to “foreign” religions (i.e. Muslims and Christians).

Fantasizing about purity of race and origin, however, can turn deadly. We can think of Hitler’s ideas about the Aryan Race as German, the Ku Klux Klan theory of the Teutonic Race or the Japanese idea of the Yamato Race during World War II.

Over the past nearly thirty years, Hindu Nationalism has stirred up pogroms and attacks on India’s minority groups (especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits or lower-castes). The Gujarat “riots” of 2002, for instance, left thousands of Muslims dead and their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed.

Hindu Nationalism basically seeks to rationalize and politicize an emotional need: the need to belong and to know oneself. Mythology is a human institution that fulfils that need by giving us a sense of where we come from. Mythologies like those in the Vedas are Puranas, like those in the Bible or King Arthur are valuable in giving us a sense of who our ancestors might have been without needing to be factually verifiable.

To that extent, I have read the Puranas and the Mahabharata.  As someone of Indian origin, I am fascinated about where I come from. But my fascination is much the same as someone who reads old genealogies of the Bible or of a Han Chinese taking pride in his descent from the Yellow Emperor.

We can have a sense of where we come from without proclaiming it for political purposes or otherwise. Living on the land of the Coast Salish People in British Columbia, I realize that they too were like the ancient Aryans in migrating across territories rather than being bound by them.

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Music Review: “Madame X” (Madonna)


It’s no classic, but Madonna’s finally making the music she wants to make.

In Madame X, her 14th studio album, Our Lady brings together latin, reggae and disco to create her most consistently enjoyable album since 2005’s Confessions on a Dancefloor.

It’s also a prosaic, preaching and patronizing effort (in songs like ‘Killers Who Are Partying’). Indeed, Madonna’s attempts to come off as a serious political artist would have drowned Madame X had she not affirmed her most perennial message: to come to the dancefloor and live our dreams.

With the help of Mirwais (who co-crafted 2000’s techno opus Music), Madame X features tracks like “Medellin,” “Crave” and “Future” which are Madonna classics largely because of Madonna. She also resurrects the soul of Joan of Arc (again!) on the epic “Dark Ballad,” the most bizarre and beautiful four minutes on Madame X.

Like her heroine, Madonna may be burned at the stake these days, but her spirit lives on in Madame X.

Rating: 84%.

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The Moral Universe


In Buddhism, all things exist in a relationship.

In the human world, moreover, all things exist in a state of moral relationship.

We can talk about the social, economic, metaphysical and political aspects of Buddhism, But I think it makes more sense to talk about Buddhism as an ethical and moral philosophy and practice relating to all aspects of life, including the world of human affairs.

Our personal thoughts, actions, the well-being and society and the laws of nature, in this sense, are all one and the same thing:

Animals grow old and perish
Seasons come and go
Political empires pass away
Solar systems arise and collapse (S.T. Asma).

Since nothing exists in isolation, what is good for one is ultimately for the good of all. In cultivating the best qualities of our existence, we automatically benefit those around us and the society we live in.

Of course, we needn’t respect ourselves or the world around us. We can disregard or choose to ignore the fact that all things exist in a state of moral interrelationship. In doing so, we experience dukkha, that discord, dissatisfaction and dis-ease of life that Buddhism seeks to transform.






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The Social Aspects of Buddhism

The social aspects of Buddhism are basic to Buddhist philosophy and practice.

In Buddhism, all things are interrelated (not just people). In fact, according to Buddhism, nothing exists except in relation to all other things.[1] Because of this interrelationship, all things affect each other. As this arises, that becomes. As the sun rises, flowers open. As we act kindly, we benefit others. [2]

King Radical

Buddhism also stresses the importance of living in accordance with Dharma, the universal  law affecting all phenomena. [3] Dharma can be translated in many ways into English but here, I refer to it as a universal moral law.

The above Chinese character (which means ‘king’ in Chinese) is a good way to think of Dharma. The three horizontal strokes in the character represent heaven, earth and humanity. In classical Chinese thought, the “king” was thought to be the one who connected heaven, earth and humanity. Likewise, Dharma can be thought of as that which connects the universe, the world and humanity.

At the day to day level, Dharma manifests itself through one’s moral actions (karma), and, in particular, through one’s moral obligations toward others.[4] In fulfilling one’s obligations (based on non-violence, kindness etc.), one helps build a society based on love, compassion and fellowship.

In short, the ideal Buddhist society is one which nurtures each individual in progressing toward goodness and happiness, in other words, toward the end of suffering. [5]


[1] Even monks, hermits and recluses can’t escape the basic laws of nature (i.e. hunger, aging, illness or death).

[2] Sigalovada Sutta (169), Digha Nikaya, XXXI.

[3] Buddhism accepted the idea of living an ethical life in the world (as opposed to the monastery) early on in its history through its acceptance of the Indian institution of the “householder” (P. gahattha, Skr. grhastha ), i.e. the person who lives in the world and raises a family.

[4] For instance, through pancasila or the first four of the five precepts . Elsewhere, Buddhism refers to one’s obligations to one’s family, friends, co-workers and others in society. See the Sigalovada Sutta, Digha Nikaya, XXXI.

[5] Sutta Nipata (Khuddaka Nikaya), 136; Majjhima Nikaya, 2.147. Although Buddhism did not abolish the caste system in India, it emphasized the moral equality of all individuals and their capacity for attaining enlightenment.

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Buddhism and Wealth

buddhist land transaction

“For the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the world …”  (‘Bahujanahitāya bahujanasukhāya lokānukampāya’)
– Anguttara Nikaya 2. 146).

In ancient India, the good life was thought to consist of the pursuit of the “four ends of life” (Skr. purushartha). The four ends of life consisted of:

  1. “dharma” (virtue, morality and obligation);
  2. “artha” (wealth and material prosperity);
  3. “kama” (love and pleasure) and
  4. “moksha” (spiritual liberation).

Despite the orientalist perceptions of India as a land of ascetics and wandering holy men, most Indians seem to have preferred a worldly existence. Indeed, the institution of the householder (Skr. grhastha), and the associated institutions of marriage and family life,  were considered the ideal to live by.

The Buddha and the early monastic community (Skr. sangha) were forced to confront this basic social and cultural reality. In fact, they realized quickly that a community of lay followers was needed if the Sangha was to survive economically. If only tacitly then, the Buddha accepted the institution of the householder as a legitimate way of life for the Buddhist layperson.

The Buddha was accordingly forced to address questions of family life, wealth and worldly happiness or artha. In one discourse, he speaks of the following four types of worldly happiness: [1]

  1. the happiness of acquiring economic security and sufficient wealth through just proper means. (artha sukha);
  2. the happiness of spending that wealth liberally one oneself, one’s family, friends and on good deeds (bhoga-sukha);
  3. the happiness of saving so one is free of debts (anrna-sukha);
  4. the happiness of living a pure and faultless life (anavadhya-jiva).[2]

The following four factors would also help the householder attain that happiness:

  1. to work or to be skilled, efficient, earnest and energetic in whatever profession one is engaged, and to know it well (utthana-sampada);
  2. to preserve one’s income (arakhsa-sampada), viz. to save that which one has earned justly and through one’s personal efforts;
  3. to associate with good company (kalyana-mitraka);
  4. to live within one’s means (samajivika).[3]

The pursuit of arthain Buddhism, however, is always subject to the considerations of dharma. That is one’s activities in the world should conform to a moral standard including such values as tolerance, non-violence, and compassion for others.

For instance, wealth is not legitimately earned by:

  1. killing or harming others;
  2. taking from others what was not freely given;
  3. engaging some form of sexual misconduct;
  4. false or injurious speech;
  5. selling or dealing in intoxicating substances.

In Buddhism then, the pursuit of wealth or artha provides the material foundation necessary for pursuing the good life – pursuing one’s moral and spiritual development for the good of the world.


[1] Sigala Sutra (Digha Nikaya, 31); Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 232-233, 786; Jataka, I, 260, 399; II, 400; III, 274, 320; V, 119, 378 (cited in What the Buddha Taught, the Walpola Rahula, [Gordon Fraser: London, 1959], 78, 82-83, 84-85).

While the Pali Canon was directed mostly towards monastic life, the Buddhist monastic community was quick to recognize the benefits of having a well-off lay community and admitted several prominent householders into its fold while endorsing the legitimacy of the life of the householder (Skr. grhastha).

[2] Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 786 cited in Rahula, 81.

[3] Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 232-233, cited in Rahula, 82.




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