Author: Thai. Ra. Subbu.
Editorial Note: Thai Ra Subbu , on the “swadeshi” tradition of deep scholarship. The boundaries of insider (emic) and outsider (etic) , do not exist for a true scholar. The true scholar is one who transforms and transcends these artificial boundaries. True scholarship is one that is rooted in deep experience, not limited to textual understanding and shallow interpretive exercises.
The ancient city of Madurai is very dear to the Tamizh land and its culture. It is where Shiva cleaned his matted locks and got himself tied into wedlock with mother Meenakshi. It is where the third Tamizh Sangam was held under his divine supervision. It is where Shaiva saints won debates with scholars of other religions. In the same old city of Madurai, under the auspices of mother Meenakshi and her better half Sri Sundareshwara, a scholar sat in the temple courtyard rediscovering the millennium old corpus of sangam literature. The name of the scholar was Nachinarkkiniyar (நச்சினார்க்கினியர்), and his rediscovery, the composition of commentaries for various sangam era works, including a commentary for that of the oldest grammar treatise of Tamizh language – Tholkappiam. As a practicing shaivaite of 12-13th century CE Pandyan kingdom, he lived during a time when many sampradayams such as jainism, vaishnavism and buddhism co-existed peacefully.
While writing his commentaries for the sangam literature, he probably did not foresee that even after seven centuries, Tamizh academia would hold “Nachinarkiniyar urai” (urai – commentary) as the “go-to place” of reference for various sangam works. He also, in all probability did not expect that for his voracious commentaries, he would be held at par with authors such as Veda Vyasa and Adi Sankara. Yet, all of that happened – Nachinarkkiniyar is one of the best known commentators for sangam era works who is held in high regard even in 21st century (often marxist owned) Tamizh academia. Among his many important commentaries, two stand out – the two commentaries that he wrote for the same tamizh epic named “Seevaga Sinthamani”. Now, why would the same person write two different commentaries for the same epic during his lifetime? The answer to that is an inspiring story of academic rigour which is relevant even today.
Seevaka Sinthamani, the epic for which the two commentaries were written, is a Jaina epic. It is not just any Jaina epic, but one of the most important epics for practicing Jains. The story outlines the life of a man named Seevaka (Jivaka) who leads a promiscuous life in pursuit of power and wealth, attains everything he pursued, but ultimately gives it all up to become a Jaina ascetic. The life of Seevaka is a supposed caution tale to the reader to embrace the principles of Jainism early in life. As a discourse on morality, the story is known to be highly revered in Jaina families.
The degree of reverence for the epic is illustrated in a 20th century Tamizh scholar U Ve Swaminatha Iyer’s work “En Sarithiram”. According to U Ve Swamintha Iyer, when the palm leaf manuscripts of Seevaga Sinthamani were rediscovered by him in late 19th century, the family which possessed the palm leaf manuscript had just completed a six-month long parayanam/sathsang of the epic. Similar to the last day celebration of a Ramayan satsang, the family that hosted the Seevaka Sinthamani parayanam had also arranged for an in-house celebration complete with decorations and a feast. Such was the importance of seevaka sinthamani in the Jaina tradition and for practising jains of Tamizh region, even in the 20th century.
Going back to the times of Nachinarkkiniyar, he was a master of the language, literature and the culture of Tamizhs. He had spent a major portion of his life writing commentaries for many popular works of time. Since Seevaka Sinthamani was (and is still) a popular tamizh epic known for its beauty and elegant literary style, a study of Tamizh literature is not complete without a reading of Seevaka Sinthamani. Hence, naturally Seevaka Sinthamani was bound to find its way into Nachinarkkiniyar’s repertoire of commentaries. Unfortunately, a Shaivite that he was, Nachinarkkiniyar’s commentary on Seevaka Sinthamani was not perfect and in his interpretation of the text, he had misrepresented certain practices of the Jaina tradition. As a result, the Jaina community had almost rejected his “scholarly work”.
When Nachinarkkiniyar came to know about this, he did the only honourable thing. Nachinarkkiniyar moved from Madurai to a place called Potrambur (present day Ponnirai, around 70 km from Thanjavur, TamilNadu). There he introduced himself as a Jaina at a Jain monastery and learnt Jaina traditions first hand under the tutelage of Jaina monks. With enough familiarity and the necessary knowledge of the Jaina sampradaya, he moved back to Madurai and wrote a second, special commentary for Sivaka Sinthamani.
The special commentary (and story of his stay at the monastery) became popular among the Jainas, and this time, they readily accepted it. The first version of the commentary was already popular among other religious groups, and got stuck with them.
For today’s academia which is largely hinduphobic, this story is relevant in a number of ways. Firstly, it showcases the importance of the insider/outsider drishti while interpreting tradition.
The insider/outsider, as often incorrectly interpreted, is not divisive and xenophobic in nature.
Although an erudite scholar of Tamizh, Nachinarkkiniyar realized that expertise in a language does not guarantee expertise in the associated subject matter. In fact, by his own cross-referencing, it can be noticed that Nachinarkkiniyar had written the commentary for Tholkappiam, a complex grammar treatise before the special commentary on Seevaka Sinthamani.
Still, when a commentary on a religious text transcended language and required proper understanding of the customs associated with the text, he took steps to gain the proper sampradayik background from the practitioners of the sampradaya.
Secondly, this is a story of integrity. When Nachinarkkiniyar noticed that his interpretation of the original work did not represent the Jaina tradition accurately, far from condescending the Jaina community, he responded to their concerns with humility. He acknowledged the importance of lived experience in understanding shastra, and fulfilled his swadharma as a commentator by re-doing his commentary.
Thirdly, by being a part of the Jaina tradition and hence giving an insider drishti to his commentary, Nachinarkkiniyar’s work did not in anyway become biased or one-sided in nature; in fact given the fact that he wrote reliable commentaries for the sacred texts associated with religions other than his own, his works are celebrated for being “secular”.
Finally, the story shows that in order to gain an insider perspective the commentator/interpreter need not practice the religion. Although Nachinarkkiniyar lived in a Jaina monastery for some time, he did not convert to Jainism. He remained a practising Shaivite for his whole life. The same can be true for atheists and agnostics too. A scholar from a University can study hinduism from an insider drishti without being offensive to hindu practices and traditions all the while being an atheist/agnostic.
Kamil Zvelebil, a modern era Tamizh scholar, comments that Nachinarkkiniyar analyzed texts in a “sophisticated and impartial manner (as) seen in modern era scholarship”.
While making prejudiced statements like these, modern era scholars seldom realize that a number of their own peers suffer from inherent biases and are stuck in circular arguments. They also fail to recognize that an impartial analysis can very well be achieved through the lens of an insider, and as a matter of fact, such an analysis is more representative of the actual tradition than an outsider analysis. Nachinarkkiniyar was a scholar, commentator and most importantly an academic who went to great lengths to fulfill the purpose of his work.
Modern era scholarship has much to learn from Nachinarkkiniyar – approach, acumen and the pursuit of credibility.
But, the first step is to acknowledge that the insider drishti is valid and accurate while still providing enough avenue for an open interpretation of sampradaya.
Thai. Ra. Subramanian is a doctoral graduate trying to establish himself as an academician. He grew up witnessing conflicting portrayals of the hindu dharma in home and in books/popular culture. At one point the portrayal in books won and he spent his early/mid twenties being anti-vedic and anti-hindu. (View More)