Part-1: Introduction and Sangam Era
In Part-2, we discuss the chapter on Tolkappiyam in Dr. Nagaswamy’s recent book ‘Tamil Nadu: The Land of Vedas‘, and share some broader points regarding the preservation of Indian languages along their deep roots in dharma.
Tolkappiyar’s work on Tamizh grammar is the earliest extant one. We have extensively discussed as part of an earlier two-part series, Dr. Nagaswamy’s findings about the common foundation of dharma that supports Bharata’s Natyasastra, Ilango Adigal’s Silapathikaram, and Tolkappiyam.
- Part-1 (massive evidence that demolishes the very idea of a Tamizh culture and tradition that is separate from those followed in the rest of India)
- Part-2 (Natyasastra – a common thread in Tolkappiyam and Silapathikaram)
What does Tolkappiyam contain?
Tolkappiyam, authored by Tolkappiyar, is divided into three chapters:
- Ezhutthu (varnah) – phonetics, including script
- Sol (pada) – word formations
- Porul (artha) – content and meanings
Dr. Nagaswamy mentions that the integration of Sanskrit tradition is visible in all three chapters, and has shown that it follows Natyasastra (see ‘part-2’ above). The ancient Tamizh poet Panampaaranaar notes that this text was composed after studying the common and popular usages, poetic convention of the Indians living in the region between Venkatam (Tirupathi) and Southern Kumari. Subsequently, he made this the technique of communication. Also, he had studied earlier texts on this subject. This simple but pertinent point reveals the nature of Tolkappiyam.
Nagaswamy has noted elsewhere that Tolkappiyar was well-versed in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. However, Tolkappiyam is not a simple Tamizh translation of Panini’s astounding grammar work . Neither was the content developed in isolation as some independent and perfect linguistic theory. Either of these options would have resulted in the work being imposed, either as ‘one-size fits all’ or ‘self-evident truth’, in a top-down manner on the people of Tamizhakam. This would not be a sustainable or harmonious solution. There is a deeper idea at work here. So how did Tolkappiyam come about? As the ancient poet Panampaaranaar noted, Tolkappiyam organically arose from the ground-up, after carefully studying the reality of common spoken, recited, and written Tamizh patterns already in existence in Southern India, and after analyzing prior texts. This ground-up approach is an important marker of the Vedic method wherein the real is considered the ideal, and preferred to the ‘abstract perfect’ that is at best, an approximation of reality. The excerpt below (courtesy Indicportal.org) that discusses Patanjali’s commentary on Panini, shows that Tolkappiyar mirrors Panini in adopting this scientific Indian approach rooted in ultimate reality. In addition to the aesthetic and deep-cultural unity across Bharatvarsha due to Natyasastra, we have evidence of a methodological unity that spanned India’s vast and diverse expanse since ancient times.
This Indian approach will have a valid pramanam and naturally unifies, as well as produces a plurality of languages, each possessing a structure and beauty that is distinct, yet not separate. This impact is visible in India from the era of Mahabharata to this day because dharma teaches us to be garland-makers, not charcoal burners. In contrast, a top-down approach, e.g., seen in some Abrahamic traditions, is indifferent to any pramana and tends to produce a monoculture that annihilates and digests  all regional linguistic diversity, literature, and culture.
Speculation aside, it is highly improbable, if not impossible for Tolkappiyam to be a product of some separate non-dharmic culture. It is a quintessential Indian work; a cultural treasure of dharma civilization that every Indian must be aware of.
The poet Panampaaranaar further notes that Tolkappiyar got this grammar published in the royal court of King Nilam Taru Thiruvil Pandya. Prior to publication it was subject to review by the great scholar of Adankodu who was learned in all four Vedas and laws. This approach bears resemblance to the modern peer review process followed by scientific journals. Dr. Nagasway notes that it is indisputable that Tolkappiyar was guided by such a Chaturvedi Brahman, which accounts for the prolific use of Vedic concepts in the text. Per the famous commentary of Naccinaarkkiniyaar based on a cited Tamizh text, Tolkappiyam adopted the technical vocabulary followed by Agastya (Vedic scholars of the Agastya gotra settled by the Chola kings).
How Old is Tolkappiyam?
Dr Nagaswamy notes the chapter on phonetics to date it to no earlier than 3rd century BCE (Brahmi script adapted to Tamizh, time of Ashoka), and based on the accounts of Tolkappiyar’s contemporaries, no later than the 1st century CE. Furthermore, Nagaswamy says “The origin of Brahmi script in Tamilnadu could not be taken earlier than the first BCE. As Tolkappiyam refers specifically to the Tamil script, it could either be contemporary with first cent BCE or later. We are satisfied to note that it could be firmly placed in the first cent CE.” Refer to the book for a detailed discussion.
Vedic Tradition in the Tolkappiyam
Tolkappiyam refers to the four-fold Varnashrama dharma, and Dr. Nagaswamy notes that during that time period, it did not solidify into a rigid ‘caste’ system. The division of the poetry in the text is based on the Hindu purusharthas, and classified as Aham (kama), and Puram (dharma, artha, moksha) and mirrors Bharata Muni’s Natyasastra. The latter is regarded as the greatest work on dramaturgy in history, and is widely recognized as a fifth Veda that is easily accessible and available to all people, and contains key elements from all four Vedas incorporated within. We briefly refer to key Sutras of the Tolkappiyam (both Aham and Puram) pointed out to the reader by Dr Nagasway.
- Sutra 3 (Ahattinai): refers to the four fold division of the landscape found in the Vedas (refer to our prior posts for more details).
- Each land division is associated with a divine icon who is also a Vedic deity (Indra, Varunam Krishna, Muruga). It is worth noting that Murugan is a popular Tamizh deity but not exclusively so, since it has been shown from several Sanskrit sources that he was also a Vedic deity.
- Sutra 18 (Ahattinai): employs the word deivam which is a Sanskrit idea.
- Sutras 27-29 has discussion around Varnasharamas.
- A sutra toward the end of the Ahattinai refers to Nataka Vazhakku and Ulagiyal Vazhakku. This perfectly mirrors Natya Dharmi, and Loka Dharmi of Natyashastra, respectively. Dr. Nagaswamy concludes that “from the beginning to the end of the chapter, the Ahattinai chapter is based on Vedic concepts that are the main social concepts of the ancient Tamils.”
- In the Purattinai, we find a Sutra (74) that employs the term Vahai (type) denoting the four Varnas. The sutra describes the general functions of a vahai. Vedic chanting and recital, Yagnas, study of the six angas, etc. are discussed. The Itihasas and Puranas, tantras, darshanas, etc. were part of the final studies.
- A wealth of information about Vedic tradition followed by the Tamizh people is available in this section. For brevity, we skip details and list some examples:
- Five fold system for kings
- Six fold system for Vanigas, Vellalars, Yogins, etc.
- Role of Dharma Sastras, impact of Purusharthas
- Kalaviyal and Karpiyal. Eight forms of marriages given in the Vedas are listed.
- Vedic tradition was followed by the Tamizhs with respect to their pre-marital life and marital customs.
What Earlier Works Does Tolkappiyam Follow?
Dr Nagaswamy notes that the chapter on Marabiyal deals with the translation of other language texts into Tamizh. A key definition specified in this chapter is Vazhinul, a derivative work created from an original text. Commentator Peraachiriyar states that Tolkappiyam is a derivative text that followed the Aggatiyam, carefully preserving the science of this prior text, and that this gives Tolkappiyam the position of an authoritative text. Per Nagaswamy, Peraachiriyar also showed that Kaakaipaatiniyaar created her text as a derivative of Tolkappiyar’s work, and questioned the attitude of a few Tamizhs who were opposed to following such derivative works because Tamizh language would be affected. The book notes that “the translation is an abridgment and elaboration and further enlargement [and] there need not be any fear for both the Tamils and the Aryas. As this process is called translation [Mozhi Peyarttal], the meaning will not be twisted or faulted“. In fact, Nagaswamy says is it evident from the chapter on word formation (Sol athikaram) that historically, “the Tamils were never against using northern words [Vada-Sol] and translations of Sanskrit texts like Vedas, aagamas, and logical texts..”, and that the Tamizhs remained forward looking for more than 2000 years until the 1950s (which coincides with a period of intense political agitation and the emergence of a more virulent Hinduphobic demagoguery in Tamil Nadu rooted in the racist Dravadian theory fabricated by Catholic Bishop Robert Caldwell). We delve deeper into the issue of translation and derivative texts.
When do Translations work well?
A translation of foundational Indian works from Indic to European languages is not as simple and transparent as Indic-to-Indic (e.g. Sanskrit to Tamizh). This is due to the presence of a large number of important non-translatables within Sanskrit and Indian languages that are not part of the western vocabulary, tradition, or psyche. These non-translatables end up getting mangled in the attempted translation, resulting in distorted output text filled with misleading interpretations that are biased in favor of the dominant cultural (western) perspective.
Refer to ‘Being Different(BD)‘ for a detailed discussion on the importance of non-translatables. For example, we can observe the mistranslations in the Murty classical library translation project in the US, which is part of a bigger battle for Sanskrit. This seemingly noble project is funded by an Indian billionaire’s money but operates without an insider voice or authority overseeing the quality, and is turning into a vehicle for brazen cultural appropriation. Such an enterprise precipitates a steady and sure shift in adhikaram away from native practitioners, scholars, and speakers, and into the hands of outsiders to the Indian traditions . Lest Tamizhs think myopically that this is “someone else’s problem”, note that தமிழ் too will not be spared by such anti-Indian Indologists. These Indologists have been aware of the strategic importance of Tamil Nadu as the land of Vedas for a long time.
A key reason for these mistranslations, as Rajiv Malhotra states in a recent comment is that, “the mis-translation is not just of words but the ideas behind them. Once you require the original word to be retained, you also force people to think what the words mean more deeply. Because puja is not same as prayer, it compels the person to learn what puja is, where and why it differs, and why the difference matters a lot. The Sanskrit non-translatables initiative started in BD has far reaching implications, beyond just preserving certain words. Each word is an ecosystem of knowledge, a signpost to deep structures“. On the other hand, as discussed in an earlier TCP post, equivalent Tamizh words for crucial Sanskrit terms existed since ancient times; if not, Sanskrit terms were retained ‘as is’ along with their full range of meanings. Thus, a derivative or translation from/to Sanskrit/Tamizh, is likely to preserve satya and is a relatively straightforward procedure, as observed by the 12th century Tamizh poet, Peraachiriyar in his commentary on Tolkappiyam. This nontranslatable ecosystem is also a beautiful shield that helped protect Sanskriti for thousands of years. It is also protecting Tamizh Kalacharam and preserving the distinctiveness of India’s diverse regional cultures. We should never surrender to those outside the Indian tradition, this divine armor and earrings that Indian languages are endowed with.
It is abundantly clear to Peraachiriyar that Tolkappiyar followed the great Vedic Rishi Agastya, who not only gave us Tamizh language, but is also considered the pioneering author of Muthamizh – the trinity that comprises the deep culture of Tamizhs including Iyal, Isai, and Naatakam. Nagaswamy notes that this information is mentioned in the commentary of Peraachiriyar (chapter on Uvamaiyal) who lived in the 12th century CE during the reign of Vikrama Chola. We conclude with a brief discussion of the book subsection on the Meypaattu portion of Tolkappiyam.
Meypaattu and Rasa Theory
Dr Nagaswamy calls our attention to a section in the porul athikaram chapter called Meypaattu, which he defines as “bodily reaction as a result of inner feeling of either the actor or the spectator when he was acting or witnessing a dance. It may also be said to be the basis of aesthetic joy while witnessing a dance. This feeling might be under any of the eight categories called rasa“. The entire section is related to Naatiyam (dance), as explained by the commentary of Peraachiriyar and he has no doubt that this text follows the Natyasastra, the great Indian text on dramaturgy that contains an exposition of rasa theory. The commentator lists eight rasas in Meypaattu, omitting Krodha (Raudra, anger). Dr. Nagaswamy lists the commentator’s version:
- Viram (Heroism)
- Bhayanakam (Fear)
- Adbhutam (Wonder)
- Bibhatsam (Disgust)
- Sringaram (Love)
- Karuna (Grace)
- Hasya (Laughter)
- Shaantam (Middle State)
Nagaswamy notes that the Natyasastra does not mention Shaantam (nadu nilai, or middle state, i.e., tranquil) as a ninth rasa, which was included by the commentator Peraachiriyar in place of raudra. However, Nagaswamy notes that in the next Sutra of Tolkappiyam as well as in two others, the sthaayibhava (dominant emotion) of raudra is included as one of the eight Bhavas, and one finds no mention of the nadu nilai. Based on such evidence, Nagaswamy concludes that Tolkappiyar himself did not recognize Shaantam as a Natya rasa, and followed the eight rasas originally laid out in the Natyasastra. The interested reader can refer to the book for more technical details.
Next, Dr Nagaswamy directs our attention to the chapter of Meypaattiyal which refers to “the realisation of suvai (rasa) mentioned in Bharata’s Natyasastra….. persons who realise certain feelings in their own inner consciousness, communicate the same to outsiders, to see or visually understand it, that is called meyppatu. Nagaswamy notes that this section is related to dance and the whole chapter is related to natya and summarizes his findings as follows: “Meypaatu of Tolkappiyam is the rasa theory of Bharata’s Natya Sastra. A careful study of Tolkappiyam indicates it follows Natya Sastra of Bharata and so the whole text is a reflection of Natya Sastra and shows unmistakable role of the Vedas“.
In the next part of this series, we will study the book chapter covering two of the greatest Sangam Tamizh works, Silapathikaram and Manimekalai.
- The Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit, R. Nagaswamy 
- The Battle For Sanskrit, Rajiv Malhotra .
Acknowledgment: thanks to n.r.i.pathi for reviewing the Meypaattu section.