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Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition

Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition

by David Dean Shulman

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South India is a land of many temples and shrines, each of which has preserved a local tradition of myth, folklore, and ritual. As one of the first Western scholars to explore this tradition in detail, David Shulman brings together the stories associated with these sacred sites and places them in the context of the greater Hindu religious tradition.



South India is a land of many temples and shrines, each of which has preserved a local tradition of myth, folklore, and ritual. As one of the first Western scholars to explore this tradition in detail, David Shulman brings together the stories associated with these sacred sites and places them in the context of the greater Hindu religious tradition.

Originally published in 1980.

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Tamil Temple Myths

Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition

By David Dean Shulman


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06415-4



On this earth circled by the sea, is there another land ruled by the three great gods? The heaven of the gods is here.

1. Tamil Mythology and the Indian Tradition

From earliest times, India has given form to many of its most vital ideas through the medium of myth. The labyrinthine world of Hindu mythology has always been known to us principally from classical texts in Sanskrit — the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the two epics, and the major puranas. It is in the works of this last category, the puranas (the name means "old," "ancient story"), that Hindu myths have crystallized in their classical forms. Yet within this vast world there exist, and no doubt have for long existed, individual traditions of mythology proper to the various historic centers of Indian civilization. One of the most extensive of such traditions is that of the Tamil region (Tamilnatu) in southern India. This area is the home of an ancient culture revealed to us by a large corpus of Tamil literary texts dating back to the first centuries of this era; these poetic texts — known as "Cankam" literature, since they are said by legend to have been submitted to an "academy," Cankam, of poets in the city of Maturai — were clearly produced by a flourishing south Indian civilization with its own distinctive character and world view. Tamilnatu is also the birthplace of two powerful devotional movements, connected with the worship of the gods Siva and Visnu, which, from approximately the seventh century onwards, left an enduring imprint on Hindu culture generally. The Tamils have thus made a major contribution to Indian civilization; yet many aspects of this contribution are still largely unknown. This study is intended to fill an important gap in our knowledge of south India — for Tamilnatu has recorded a local tradition of mythology extraordinary in its variety and imaginative range, and differing in many respects from the classical northern tradition. These Tamil myths provide us with a regional variant of Hindu mythology of peculiar interest and importance, not least because of the long tradition of continuous cultural activity in this region. Despite the enormous extent and the intrinsic importance of this Tamil literature of myth, it has so far been virtually ignored by Western scholars.

The following pages are an attempt to explore some major themes of this literature. One outstanding feature must be mentioned at once: the Tamil myths were written down in texts attached to individual shrines in the Tamil land. Tamilnatu is graced by hundreds of such shrines, some of them very old, most of them popular sites of pilgrimage. Nearly all such shrines have produced one or more works in which their traditions have been given poetic form. These works are known in Sanskrit as mahatmyas ("majesty," "greatness") or sthalapuranas ("ancient stories of a sacred site"); in Tamil they are generally referred to as talapuranam. Every work of this class records the traditions that have grown up around a shrine and its locale, and that are used to explain and to sustain the shrine's claim to sanctity. Taken together, these texts, whether composed in Sanskrit, Tamil, or in rare cases Telugu, embody a rich tradition of mythology unique to the Tamil area.

The Tamil myths are, nevertheless, a part of the wider world of Hindu mythology; however different their orientation, however local their concerns, they are by no means independent of the classical Sanskritic tradition. On the contrary, they have taken many of the most famous northern myths (and at least as many of the lesser-known stories as well) and adapted them to their own purposes, often transforming them considerably in the process. The Tamil myths share a common pantheon with the classical Sanskrit puranas and with other regional literatures — although purely local, Tamil figures, such as VaJJi, the beloved second wife of Murukan, do exist. Clearly, the Tamil tradition is complex and multilayered. Northern and indigenous elements have merged in the tradition of every major Tamil shrine. The deity of each shrine will have both a local name and mythological history, and an entire complex of names, attributes, and myths derived from the northern, classical deity with whom he is identified. For example, Siva at Maturai is known as Sundaresvara, "the beautiful lord" (Tamil Cokkalinkam or Cokkecar); his bride there is Mlnakji, "the fish-eyed" (Tamil Minatciyamman). The myths told about Sundaresvara and Minaksi are replete with local elements, some of which no doubt have prehistoric roots; the stories all take place in Maturai and the surrounding region. Yet Sundaresvara is clearly identified with Siva, and Minaksi with Parvati, Siva's consort in the classical puranas; both deities are often described in terms directly borrowed from the northern tradition. This situation is typical of the shrines we will study; the tradition of each sacred spot has developed through the fusion of local and imported elements. This is, in fact, an ancient process in this area. Already in the "Cankam" anthologies of bardic poetry, Ettuttokai and Pattuppattu, the assimilation of northern, Sanskritic elements by the Tamil tradition is readily apparent; it is yet more pronounced in the early Tamil epic, the Cilappatikaram (fifth-sixth centuries A.D.?), and by the time of the devotional movements, it has come to provide the very structure within which the mainstream of local myth and legend is subsumed. The Tamil local puranas are thus a subcategory of the puranic literature generally, as incorporated in the Sanskrit "great" puranas (the so-called mahapuranas), and a seemingly endless series of related works; our task is to delineate the characteristic features of this distinct, fairly homogeneous south Indian variant of Hindu myth.

The boundaries of the regional tradition with which we are concerned may be defined as the area of Tamil speech. Tamilnatu is the home of the oldest articulate culture in south India, and the degree of cultural continuity in this region is one of south India's most outstanding features. No other Dravidian language can claim so long and uninterrupted a tradition. Nevertheless, medieval Tamil culture shares much with neighboring cultures expressed in other Dravidian languages. We must, therefore, distinguish between the specifically Tamil and the generally south Indian. For example, the goddess Minaksi is firmly rooted in the Tamil tradition of Maturai, while the Vaisnava saint Antal (Goda) is common to both Tamil and Telugu sources. Often a pattern will be general throughout south India, while its individual expressions will be specifically located: thus the idea that a deity must have a second, local bride is very widespread in the south; but the Tamil myths of Valli, the second wife of Murukan mentioned above, are fully intelligible only against the background of early Tamil literary conventions. On the level of village religion, there is an impressive similarity of practice and concepts over a wide area of south India; as we shall see, village cults often seem to preserve features known from the oldest layer of Tamil civilization.

The basic texts for this study have thus been recorded within the present boundaries of Tamil speech, although other south Indian myths have sometimes been cited in support of an argument or for purposes of comparison, and classical northern mythology is always present as a factor in our discussion. The Tamil myths themselves often emphasize the importance of the Tamil language, and in this connection they mention the Vedic sage Agastya, who is believed to have come from the north to reside on the Potiyil Mountain near the southern tip of the subcontinent. The Agastya legend is in essence an origin myth explaining the beginnings of Tamil culture: according to a widespread tradition first found in the commentary ascribed to Nakkirar on an early work of rhetoric, the Iraiyanar akapporul, Agastya was the author of the first Tamil grammar. This assertion is made in the context of the Cankam legend mentioned earlier, which describes the composition of the earliest Tamil poetry; this legend is firmly attached to Maturai, one of the historic centers of Tamil culture, and has a prominent place in the Maturai puranas. We will return to the Cankam story in connection with the Tamil flood myths, for the "academy" of poets situated in ancient times in present-day Maturai is said to have been the last of a series of three; the first two "academies" were located in cities swallowed up by the sea. Agastya is connected by the legend with the first two Cankam. The gods Siva, Murukan, and Kubera are said to have been members of the first Cankam, and Siva and Murukan appear again in popular myths about the third Cankam, in Maturai. The entire cycle, with its depiction of the gods as Tamil poets, may be seen as an expression of love for Tamil and belief in its divine nature. But it is difficult to estimate the age of the legend, or even of that part of it connected with Agastya's southward migration; the Sanskrit epics are already familiar with the sage's journey to the south, including his exploits of stunting the growth of the Vindhya Mountains and destroying the demon Vatapi (eponymous with the town of Vatapi/Badami in the western Deccan). For our purposes, it is essential to realize that in its myth of cultural origins the Tamil tradition has fastened on a Vedic seer explicitly said to have come from the north. In other words, the tradition clearly sees itself as derived in the first instance from a northern source. This orientation toward the north as a source of inspiration and prestige is quite characteristic of Tamil culture in its development after the "Cankam" period, that is, after the process of fusing local and imported elements had reached an advanced stage and a rich, composite tradition had emerged. The myths of Agastya offer us a vantage point from which to consider this process; they also demonstrate the understanding the Tamils had of their own cultural history. Let us look, for example, at one later Tamil myth that explores Agastya's association with both Tamil and Sanskrit:

Narada asked the sages who were gathered to the southwest of Sivagiri: "Who among you is best? Who has performed austerities in the Vedic Saiva path? Who has attained the truth and gained the grace of Siva? Such a one is equal to the godhead (civam), and him I praise. Now let me have freedom from rebirth." So saying, he disappeared and reached heaven. The sages agreed that Agastya fitted the description and merited the blessing of Narada, but at this Vyasa became angry: "What have you said? You must be speaking only out of politeness (mukaman urai). Your praises should go to Sarasvati (kalaivaniyannai); she will grant release (vitu)." Said Agastya: "Did not Siva (and not Sarasvati) collect the Vedas and other arts (kalai)?" Vyasa retorted, "You too once acquired a good knowledge of those Sanskrit works (vata nul) sung by me. Is there anything else (of which you can be proud)?" At this Agastya fell silent and left the sages, who were now greatly perplexed as to which of the two was greater — Agastya, who was a form of Siva, or Vyasa, a form of Visnu.

Agastya worshiped Siva until the god appeared and taught him a sacred mantra, saying, "This is sweet Tamil. Murukan will teach it all to you without leaving anything out. First worship for one year in the asramas of Adikesava and Parasara, and then return to Sivagiri." Agastya followed this command; Murukan instructed him in the Tamil syllabary and the other parts of grammar, then disappeared into his shrine.

When Agastya returned to the sages, he was welcomed by Vyasa and the rest: "You have brought mountains here so that the south will flourish, and you have enabled all to taste the divine drink of Tamil." Agastya put Tamil grammar in the form of aphorisms for the benefit of the land between Vatavenkatam and Tenkumari, and he expounded his book to his twelve disciples.

The boundaries mentioned are the traditional northern and southern borders of the Tamil land: Vatavenkatam is Tirupati, the site of a major shrine to Visnu-Venkatesvara, whose myths are studied below; Tenkumari is invariably glossed by the commentators as referring to a river, apparently far to the south of the present Kanniyakumari (Cape Comorin) at the limit of a territory that was later swallowed up by the sea. Agastya, the champion of Tamil, is honored by the sages, and even his rival, Vyasa, acknowledges his superiority in the end; but it should be noted that the sage learns Tamil only after being sent to the asrama of Parasara, Vyasa's father. Vyasa, the master of Sanskrit learning, insists on the preeminence of the goddess of learning, Sarasvati; but Vyasa is himself seen as an incarnation of Visnu, and the Saiva author of our text must therefore see him defeated by Agastya, here regarded as a form of Siva. Other Tamil myths also make Agastya a hero of militant Saivism as well as the author of Tamil grammar. Yet the image of Agastya in the above myth is a complex one. Agastya's greatness appears to lie in his command of both traditions: he is well trained in the Sanskrit works of Vyasa, and he learns the science of Tamil from the god who is master and examiner of Tamil, Murukan. Agastya is thus a symbol of Tamil learning, not as independent from or opposed to Sanskrit, but rather in harmony and conjunction with it. This cultural merger represented by the Vedic sage who teaches Tamil is perfectly apparent in the Tamil puranic literature, in which Sanskrit myths, motifs, and deities are the carriers of a local, south Indian tradition with its own characteristic ideas and concerns.

How was a unified tradition created out of these different elements? The process was undoubtedly lengthy and complex. On the one hand, the classical culture of the "Cankam" period certainly did not disappear without trace; many ancient cultural traits have survived, notably in village rituals, folk poetry, popular tales, and so on. I will return to this point below. On the other hand, a major contribution to the formation of Tamil culture was undoubtedly made by the Brahmins, who became the custodians, and in some cases the creators, of the traditions of Tamil shrines. Many Tamil puranas describe the migration of a group of Brahmin priests from some site in the north to the Tamil shrine, and it is certain that such migrations were an important historical force extending over many centuries. Brahmins were often settled on lands by royal grants, for the king could gain a much-needed form of legitimization by such a gift to the Brahmins. Those Brahmins who became attached to local holy places brought with them their own traditions, which were part of the wider Brahminical culture; but they were also influenced by local factors, the most powerful of which could become central to the cult in its final, Brahminized form. In those literary sources that were either written by Brahmins or composed under significant Brahmin influence — and all Tamil sthalapuranas fall into this category — a standard, all-Indian framework could be made to absorb local themes. Here, as in other areas, we glimpse the unifying, synthesizing, fertilizing force that Brahminism has represented in the history of Tamilnatu. It is largely this force that allows us to speak of a single, distinctive system of Tamil mythology incorporated in literary texts composed over a period of some one thousand years.

Let us take a closer look at this phenomenon. It is by no means enough to divide the composite tradition with which we are dealing into northern and southern branches that have merged in the course of the crystallization of the cult. We must also notice the existence of internal processes of change accompanying the process of assimilation. Change has occurred both within individual elements of the tradition and within the mature tradition as a whole. One of the major themes of this study illustrates the complexity of the problems that confront us in this area: it appears that an early ideology of sacrifice, which strongly recalls and was perhaps assimilated to the Vedic sacrificial cult, lies at the basis of the tradition of many shrines. In Chapter III we will explore the symbols that convey this idea, especially in relation to the main god, whose blood first reveals the shrine. Perhaps from very ancient times the idea of sacrifice was associated with the worship of the goddess, who is closely identified with the sacrifice as the source both of death and of new life, and who embodies basic south Indian concepts of woman and sacred power. The marriage myths we find in nearly every shrine clearly demonstrate this connection between sacrifice and love; they are discussed at length in Chapter IV. But the marriage myths also show us a second stage in the elaboration of the cult, a stage in which the myth of sacrifice has been radically reworked so as to exclude the participation of the main god, the consort of the goddess. In the concluding chapter we will study the implications of this development for the orientation of Tamil Saivism in its most recent form. The evolution I will seek to establish is in the direction of a deity ever more removed from the realm of death and rebirth, specifically from the violent death and restoration of the sacrifice: the god becomes nirmala, without taint. In order to do so, however, he must first transcend his own mythology; for, as we shall see, the symbols that recur in the myths leave little doubt that the god himself enacts the sacrifice.


Excerpted from Tamil Temple Myths by David Dean Shulman. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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