Imagining a Place for Buddhism: Literary Culture and Religious Community in Tamil-Speaking South India

Imagining a Place for Buddhism: Literary Culture and Religious Community in Tamil-Speaking South India

Imagining a Place for Buddhism: Literary Culture and Religious Community in Tamil-Speaking South India

Imagining a Place for Buddhism: Literary Culture and Religious Community in Tamil-Speaking South India

Synopsis

While Tamil-speaking South India is celebrated for its preservation of Hindu tradition, other religious communities have played a significant role in shaping the region's religious history. Among these non-Hindu communities is that of the Buddhists, who are little-understood because of the scarcity of remnants of Tamil-speaking Buddhist culture. Here, focusing on the two Buddhist texts in Tamil that are complete (a sixth-century poetic narrative and an eleventh-century treatise on grammar and poetics), Monius sheds light on the role of literature and literary culture in the formation, articulation, and evolution of religious identity and community.

Excerpt

I used to quote verses I had come across in other Tamil works as occasion arose. One of these is a lament of those who were near the Lord Buddha on his entering the Parinirvaoa. It is quoted as an illustration by the commentator on Viracoliyam:

Since we can never more see before us the Saint who destroyed Darkness with Great Enlightenment what shall we do, what shall we do?

Since we can never more hear the Dharma expounded by Him with Compassion in saintty [sic] words what shall we do, what shall we do?

Since we shall never more see the Prince whose penance led him straight to the Truth what shall we do, what shall we do?

When I read this poem I could not read on and my tongue faltered. Ralkacariyar, too, was fully overcome by its pathos, and forgot his self [sic] in a feeling of tender sympathy.

U. V. Caminataiyar, The Story of My Life

As in the case of the Manimekalai, Caminataiyar's deeply felt response to the poetic content of the Viracoliyam commentary reveals something of the depth and complexity of the text, of its literary elegance and moving poetic qualities. Far from simply providing dry explication and illustration of Puttamittiran's Tamil appropriation of northern texts, the commentary on the Viracoliyam constitutes a literary work in its own right, an anthology of verse with its own particular vision. Central to that vision in the Viracoliyam commentary is a conception of Buddhist community rooted in the technology of literary culture but embodied and enacted through the products of that culture. the commentary on the Viracoliyam, in other words, envisions Buddhist community through the gathering together of a significant body of Buddhist poetic literature composed in Tamil, most of which is no longer extant. the language of Avalokitan, in which Tamil and Sanskrit intermingle grammatically and poetically, is the language of a poetic corpus of praise and devotion to the Buddha, of ethical reflection on the nature of compassion and concern for the welfare of others.

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