Buddhist Thamil Literature


By K. S. Sivakumaran

This writer is interested in Buddhist philosophy or the way of life, particularly when Buddhism is also considered as one of the great religions of the world. Besides the majority of Lankans are Buddhists and they come from the majority community-the Sinhalas or Sinhalese.

It may be new information to many people that at least a few in numbers were and are Buddhists from the Thamilian community. This is evident from one of the oldest and rich languages of the world – Thamil or Demala. Before we see examples where Thamil literature reflects Buddhist ideals, let me register how I understand Buddhism, learning from scholars and researchers. Superstitions and irrational faith were not accepted. They preached.

The founder of the Buddhist Philosophy was a Prince belonging to the Kshatriya clan born in Kapilavasthu of the Gangetic plain in near North-East India.

The Buddha preached non-killing and injuring of even animals. The Buddhists did not believe in superstitions and unreasoned belief. They did not like priestly supremacy. They rejected the authority of the Vedas and rejected rituals and ceremonies. They condemned the caste system and advocated social equality" (Dr S N Kandaswamy). However they believed in Karma and Pali was the medium of communication. They did not admit theology.

It is believed Buddhism spread in Thamilnadu three centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. Between 400-600 A D, we learn Buddhism was very popular in Thamilnadu. When it came to literature, one of the five greater Epics- Manimekalai- believed to have been written in 500 A D by Seethali Saathanaar had elements of Mahayana Buddhism. The other four major epics in Thamil are Silappathikaaram, Seevaka Chinthaamani, Kundalakesi and Valayapathi. Kundalakesi was also Buddhist Thamil epic.

"The theory of incarnation, bhakthi cult, concept of self-surrender, construction of chaityas and creation of devotional hymn extolling the glory of Buddha earmarked the early phase of Mahayana Buddhism."

We learn from Dr S N K that worship of the Buddha was mentioned in works like the Mathurai Kaanchi, Yaaparunkkalam, and Veeracholiyam.

Manimekalai is the story of Madhavi who figures in the earlier epic Silapathikaram written by Ilango, a Chera prince turned sage and who was a Jain. In the latter epic she was a courtesan with whom Kovaln the protagonist in Silapathikaram falls in lust when his wife Kannagi was there. We shall leave the story aside for a moment and speak of Madhavi in Manimekalai. She became a Buddhist and adhered to certain Buddhist principles although the work is strictly not a text on Buddhism. The author was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism.

Dr S N K observes that "In Manimekalai, clear evidences abundantly available to the existence of theistic Buddhism, a new phase in the history of religion."

I will stop at that. My purpose had been to inform readers of the existence of Buddhist principles in Medieval Thamil Literature in a simple manner. But if you want to read more about it please consult a book like Tamil Literature and Indian Philosophy published by the International Institute of Tamil Studies at C. I. T. Campus, Taramani in Chennai (600 113)

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