TAMIL RELIGIONS . The term Tamil religions denotes the religious traditions and practices of Tamil-speaking people. Most Tamils originated and continue to live in India's southernmost area, now known as the state of Tamil Nadu; however, millions of Tamils have migrated to other parts of India, especially to its large cities, as well as abroad, particularly to Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Australia, Great Britain and, more recently, to the United States and Canada. Many emigrant Tamils retain elements of a cultural, linguistic, and religious tradition that predates the Christian era and has experienced a complex interaction of influences from Dravidian, Sanskritic, and heterodox sources. At its apex between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, the Tamil region was the major center of Hindu civilization and, indeed, one of the major centers of civilization in the world. Today, while most Tamils remain essentially Hindu, some Tamils have embraced elements of Islam and Christianity.
Early Tamil Religion
A Neolithic cattle-herding culture existed in South India several millennia prior to the Christian era. By the first century, a relatively well-developed civilization had emerged, still largely pre-Hindu and only marginally sanskritized. It is described in some detail in Tamil texts such as the Tolkāppiyam (a grammar written around the start of the Christian era) and by the "Caṅkam" poets—an "academy" of poets who wrote in the first two centuries ce. This culture was essentially Dravidian in nature.
The origins of the Dravidians are still a matter of dispute, but the South Indian culture known to current researchers by the first century was probably based largely on the Neolithic cultures that developed in the area. However, these cultures were influenced in prehistoric times to varying degrees by the filtering of some remnants of a Negroid culture originating in East Africa; by migrations from the eastern Mediterranean world refracted through the Elamite and Indus civilizations; by a megalithic culture that made its way into Southwest India by the eighth century bce; and by a people sometimes called "Proto-Australoid" who came into the subcontinent by way of northeastern India from the Malay peninsula.
The religious life of the Tamil civilization of Cankam times gave evidence of no significant mythological or philosophical speculation nor of any sense of transcendence in a bifurcated universe. Rather, it was oriented by a fundamental veneration of land and a sense of the celebration of individual life. Colorful flora and fauna were extolled and ascribed a symbolic significance that bordered on the sacred; for example, peacocks, elephants, and the blossoms of various trees were used as images for the basic realities of individual and cosmos. Earth's color and fertility were affirmed. Indigenous deities were venerated in field and hill, reflecting the attributes of the people in that zone and presiding over functions typical to their respective areas; thus, the god Murukaṉ presided over hill and hunt and battled the malevolent forces of the hills, while Vēntaṉ oversaw the pastoral region and afforded it rain.
"Possession" is one of the most common ways in which the gods were believed to manifest themselves—both in their priests and in young women. Worship of the gods sometimes occurred in a special place—in the clearing of a field or the bank of a river, for example, where a small pillar or kantu was set up to represent the deity. The cult of the hero was a common feature of this period as evidenced by the erection of numerous hero stones (naṭukkal s) over the graves of fallen heroes, be they hunting warriors or tribal chieftains. Urn burial, a remnant of megalithic culture, was used occasionally, especially after the death of the chieftain or hero.
The city was not foreign to this early culture and by the third century ce, at least, religious imagery reflected an urban setting. Poets likened the urban chieftains and warriors to the gods and spoke of urban festivals. Some of the earlier gods were merged together in an urban setting, even while continuing their earlier functions in extra-urban contexts. Rituals, however, often continued to reflect a seasonal or folk character: In the hills, garlanded young women are said to have danced, intoxicated, with priests (vēlaṉ s) of Murukaṉ (Cilappatikāram 24), while in the plain, at the onset of monsoons, after harvests and transplantings, bathers gambolled in the waters, were garlanded and smeared with sandal, often astride elephants or horses, and drank intoxicating beverages (Paṟipāṭal 6, 7, 10).
The early character of Tamil religion, in sum, was celebrative and relatively "democratic." It embodied an aura of sacral immanence, sensing the sacred in the vegetation, fertility, and color of the land. The summum bonum of the religious experience was expressed in terms of possession by the god, or ecstasy. Into this milieu there immigrated a sobering influence—a growing number of Jain and Buddhist communities and an increasing influx of brahmans and other northerners.
By the third century bce, pockets of Jains and Buddhists were settling in the deep South. Some may have migrated across the straits from Sri Lanka; others came southward during the reign of Aśoka, the Mauryan emperor. By the first century ce, both had established settlements and built small institutions and shrines known as paḻḻi s. Although both Jain and Buddhist monks tended to live outside the cities for centuries—the Jains often in rock caves and the Buddhist monks in monastic communities—their impact on Tamil country increased, enhanced by the influx and influence of lay members. The politics and literature of Tamil country were influenced by Jain and Buddhist savants, especially between the fourth and seventh centuries ce. Consequently, the dominant mood of religion in Tamil country for some three centuries reflected Jain and Buddhist values. There was little emphasis on theism or indigenous sacred places. Sobriety and self-effacement became a respected way of life, especially for the elite.
The Hinduization of Tamil Country
Beginning in the third century ce, migrating brahmans and other persons influenced by Vedic and epic traditions were also becoming a part of the Tamil landscape. In the early cities, chieftains who sought to enchance their status employed brahman priests to perform Vedic rituals as had been the case in the north during the epic period. It was in the seventh century, however, that Hindu Sanskritic culture and religion merged with the indigenous Tamil society, leading to a pervasive hinduization of Tamil country and the emergence of a new and creative Hindu civilization.
The first significant feature of the "Hindu age" in Tamil India was the rise of devotional poetry (bhakti ) in the vernacular language during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries. Poets who were followers of Śiva (Nāyaṉārs) and of Viṣṇu (Ᾱḻvārs: literally, those who are "immersed") popularized these two deities throughout Tamil country. These poets were drawn from all walks of life, though over half of them were of brahman or of royal background. At first, their attacks on Jains and Buddhists tended to be virulent, especially in the case of the Śaiva Tiruñanacambantaṉ. But by the mid-eighth century, Hindu devotionalism had taken a significant hold in Tamil country and the poets could afford to take a more accommodating attitude toward the declining Jain and Buddhist presence.
Between the years 650 and 940 the twelve Vaiṣṇava poet-saints (Ᾱḻvārs) wrote some four thousand verses, which were eventually canonized in the Nālāyira-divyaprabandham (The four thousand divine verses) edited in the tenth century by Nāthamuni, the first major ācārya, or sectarian teacher, of Vaiṣṇavism. Of the earlier Ᾱḻvārs, the most prolific was Kalikaṉṟi (800–870), also known as Tirumaṅkai, who wrote 1,227 verses combining militant, heroic, and erotic imagery with the anguish of separation from his lord. The ninth- and tenth-century Ᾱḻvārs associated primarily with western Tamil country include Viṭṭuciṭṭaṉ, known as Periyāḻvār ("great Ᾱḻvār"), who wrote 473 verses largely from the standpoint of the deity's mother expressing fondness for the child Kṛṣṇa. Periyāḻvār's daughter Kōtai, popularly known as Ᾱṇṭāḻ ("she who rules the lord"), wrote 173 verses. Often erotic, they focused on Kṛṣṇa as an adolescent from the viewpoint of a gopī who spends time with the Lord in his inner chamber. Finally, Caṭakōpaṉ or Ᾱḻvār Māṟaṉ (880–930), also known affectionately as Nammāḻvār ("our own devotee"), wrote 1,296 verses that combine passionate devotion for Kṛṣṇa with the metaphysics of Vedānta, the philosophical system of Vaiṣṇava brahmans. Nammāḻvār has come to be seen as the most authoritative of the Ᾱḻvārs for the Sri Vaiṣṇavas.
While tradition claims there were sixty-three Śaiva poet-saints (Nāyaṉārs)—perhaps in response to the traditional sixty-three saints of Jainism—there were in fact only eight who were poets of repute, while another Śaiva poet of the period, Māṇikkavācakar, who was important for the shaping of Śaiva devotionalism, was not accepted as a Nāyaṉār for several centuries. The earliest of the Nāyaṉārs was probably a woman, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār (seventh century ce), who renounced worldly pleasures for devotion to Śiva. Tirumūlar (eighth century ce) is noted for his 3,000-verse philosophical treatise, Tirumantiram, which interprets Sanskrit Agamic and Tantric material into Tamil. The best known and most prolific of the Nāyaṉār poets were the three whose poetry makes up the first seven sections of the Tēvarām, the Tamil Śaiva canon. Two of these are seventh-century figures: Tirunāvukkaracar, better known as "Appar," or "Father," and his younger contemporary, Campantar or Tiruñāṉacampantar, who is generally believed to have been a child prodigy uttering all his poetry before the age of sixteen; the third poet is the ninth-century (?) Cuntaramūrtti. However, perhaps the best of all the Śaiva poets of these three centuries was the ninth-century Māṇikkavācakar, for whom the religious experience was like ecstasy and "madness" when one was possessed by Śiva. Māṇikkavācakar's use of erotic imagery apparently was a major factor in keeping him from being accepted as a poet of the Śaiva canon until at least the twelfth century, when Cēkkiḻār included him in his Periyapurāṇam, the mythical hagiography of the Śaiva saints.
The religion propagated by the bhakti poets used epic and puranic mythology selectively and gave it a locus in Tamil India. A number of basic themes were stressed: (1) the supremacy, greatness, even terror of Śiva or Viṣṇu, coupled nonetheless by the deity's grace and compassion for those who were devoted to him; (2) the concrete and available presence of the god in his specific sacred places and, hence, the desirability of pilgrimage, festival, and temple ritual; (3) the affirmation of the individual in the experience of bhakti or devotion to god and the possibility of anyone's attaining the god's grace regardless of one's station; (4) the sense of community among the god's devotees and the merit in serving and being in such company; (5) the celebration of the experience of the god as the highest attainment of religion.
Tamil bhakti reflected many strands of religion at once. While it incorporated, on the one hand, certain aspects of Jain and Buddhist values (e.g., a sense of community among devotees; hospitality to fellow devotees; and the possibility of spiritual attainment irrespective of social or economic backgrounds); on the other hand, it directly confronted these heterodoxies with a vigorous theism; an affirmation of the phenomenal world as God's creation; and the importance of the devotional experience and of pilgrimage to the deity's special places. This bhakti movement reaffirmed elements of early Tamil religious perspectives: the emphasis on celebration, ecstasy, even possession by the god; the importance of the individual in religious experience; and the affirmation of the land and its special places. At the same time, Tamil bhakti illustrated the importance of a number of elements of post-Vedic orthodox, Sanskritic Hindu religion: the full-blown theism and mythology of the epics and Purāṇas, the spawning of temple-oriented ritual centered by devapūjā (worship through the icon), increased emphasis on liberation as the ultimate aim in religion, and others.
The centerpiece of Tamil bhakti, nonetheless, remained the personality of the god and his relationship with individual human beings. The god's exploits were recited selectively; his awesome and terror-inspiring character (as with Śiva) or his miracle-working one (as with Viṣṇu), was invoked. Yet at the same time, his grace (arul), love (aṉpu), and wooing of devotees was variously portrayed. The devotee, for his part, learned to attain the god's grace. The relationship was variously described as that of lover to a beloved; friend to friend; parent to child. The relationship generally differed in Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava bhakta s: For the former, a certain individuality of the devotee was thought to be retained in the devotional relationship with the god—a relationship said to be that between sun and light or flower and fragrance. In Vaiṣṇava bhakti, on the other hand, the loss of the devotee's selfhood in relation to the divine was stressed and the surrender of the one to the other celebrated.
Religion in the Medieval Period
From the eighth through the fifteenth century much of Hindu civilization was centered in Tamil India, where a prolific religious literature emerged in both Tamil and Sanskrit. In addition to the devotional literature, a number of ritual treatises were prepared in this region, including many of the Śaivāgamas, those texts used by Śaiva sects, as well as those of the Vaiṣṇava sects, the Pāñcarātrāgamas and Vaikhānasāgamas. Portions of several Purāṇas were authored by anonymous Tamil scholars and regional recensions of others prepared. Not least important of the literary corpus emerging after the twelfth century were the Tālapurāṇas, or mythological stories of temple sites throughout Tamil country.
In addition to the literature, Tamil India became the scene for an explosion of temple construction, incorporating an architecture that became characteristically Dravidian. There was also prolific sculpting in stone, and, during the years of the Cōḻa reign, in bronze. These architectural and sculpturing styles, together with the texts in which they were canonized, became the model for much of the architecture in city and temple building to be found in Southeast Asia from Burma to Cambodia. Another important achievement of the "medieval" centuries was the development of Hindu thought and of several philosophical schools. The religious history of this era is perhaps most easily divided into three periods: The Pallava (575–900); Cōḻa (900–1300); and Vijayanagar (1300–1700) periods.
The Pallava period
The Pallava period takes its name from the dynasty founded by Siṃhaviṣṇu and is best understood as a transitional or foundation era. In addition to the founding of bhakti sects devoted to Śiva and Viṣṇu, the period is characterized by the start of the South Indian tradition of temple-building in permanent stone. Canons for the building of these structures were developed and included the classical Dravidian forms of the vimāna or central tower and the maṇṭapa or main hallway. The temple assumed the symbolic character both of a microcosm and of the human form, and became the major focus for ritual events. Temple icons and the deities they represented were ascribed the attributes of kingship, while rituals addressed to the icon increasingly assumed the character of the giving of gifts to a king.
Another important development of this period was the growth of Brahmanic settlements in South India. These rural settlements, which came to be known as brahmadeya s, were granted by Tamil landowners as emblems of the alliances that had developed between the two communities. The brahmadeya s became major loci of Sanskrit learning and culture and radiated Sanskritic influence into virtually all of Tamil life even while its brahman residents were being tamilized.
It is this period also that marks the life and work of Śaṅkara (788–820) and Bhāskaran, his contemporary. The former was especially instrumental in making Advaita (monism) attractive to intellectuals, and in substantially grounding the speculative tradition in the Upaniṣads, thereby strengthening the Brahmanic option in its dispute with Buddhist thought.
The Cōḻa period
The Cōḻa period (900–1300) was characterized by the formalization and systematic Sanskritization of religion. Śaivism received special favor under the aegis of the Cōḻas; hence, there was construction and enlargement of Śaiva temples. These temples were symbols of the official state cult that overwhelmed or incorporated into themselves many of the lesser village cults. (One of the few major "folk" deities to survive and increase in strength in this period was the Goddess, whose cultus and symbols were permitted to flourish and increase in popularity.) The temples were at first characterized by the tall vimāna or central tower, but eventually by the building of several ornate gopura s or entranceways at each site. The temple, further, became a center for economic exchange, storage of land and goods, and social interaction, as well as a symbol of political liaison between kings, sectarian leaders, and landowners. A considerable literature known as Talapurāṇa s, purporting to relate to the mythic history of temple sites, began to develop.
Another religious institution emerging to prominence in the Cōḻa period was the maṭam (Skt., maṭha ) or monastic center. The maṭam became a center of spiritual learning especially for non-brahmans, though it often assumed economic and political power as well. The brahmadeya or brahman settlement continued to be the locus of much Sanskritic learning, radiating Brahmanic influence throughout the region.
Systematization in textual form continued in both Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism. This was expressed in the continued formalization of ritual texts—the Śaivāgamas for Śaiva sects and the Pāñcarātrāgamas and Vaikhānasāgamas for Vaiṣṇavism—and in philosophical treatises. Śaiva Siddhānta proved to be the philosophical systematization of the Śaiva religious experience. It was formally expressed in forty terse Tamil verses by the thirteenth-century poet Meykaṇṭār (Meykaṇṭa Tēvar), and was known as the Śivajñānabodham (Civañāṉapōtam ). A verse commentary, known as the Śivajñānasiddhiyār, was written by his disciple Aruṇanti Śivācariyar. Śaiva Siddhānta speaks of three realities—the lord (pati ), the human soul (pacu; Skt., paśu ), and the three bonds of human existence (pāca; Skt., paśa ). In Śaiva Siddhānta the soul was to be freed from the bonds of karman (the law of cause and effect), māyā (the over-valuing of the phenomenal world), and āṇava (self-orientation) in order to become permanently attached to (and hence share the quality of) the lord Śiva.
Vaiṣṇava speculation, meanwhile, reached new heights during this period thanks largely to the work and thought of Yāmuna (918–1038), Rāmānuja (1017–1137), and Madhva (1199–1278). A central concern of these ācārya s, or preceptors, was that of affording a philosophical foundation for the devotional experience and hence in describing the relationship between the deity and the devotee, primarily in the form of surrender (prapatti ). Yāmuna extolled the greatness of the lord and described the abject need of the devotee; Rāmānuja affirmed this theme but went on to argue for the "qualified" nature of supreme existence (viśiṣṭādvaita ) in contradistinction to Śaṅkara's more radical monism. Madhva, in contrast to the exponents of Śaṅkara's system, argued for the reality and plurality of the world and the difference between the self and brahman. For each of these thinkers, brahman was perceived in terms of a personal deity.
The twelfth century was the period in which perhaps the greatest Tamil poet lived. Kampaṉ, the "imperial poet," master of style and form, is best known for his transcreation of Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa. While borrowing extensively from the content and style of the Sanskrit epic, Kampaṉ's version, nonetheless, creatively adapts the finest of Tamil poetics, and locates the story in a distinctively Tamil landscape.
It was during the Cōḻa period that the influence of Hindu (and especially Śaiva) thought, which had started spreading into Southeast Asia under the Pallavas and Guptas, became more pronounced. Brahmans, now perceived as skilled and versatile advisers to kings, were to be found in such city-states as Polonnāruva (Sri Lanka), Pagan (Burma), Ayutthayā (Thailand), Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (Cambodia) and Madjapahit (Java). These brahmans and other Hindu immigrants transported notions of divine kingship and cosmology; thus the architecture of capital cities, palaces, temples, and even the biers of dead kings, as well as some of the rituals in the courts of Southeast Asia, came to reflect motifs canonized in Śaivāgama texts of the Cōḻa period.
The Vijayanagar period
With the decline of the Cōḻa line and the rise of the Vijayanagar hegemony, whose capital was in Andhra Pradesh, shifts occurred in the character of religion in Tamil India. While the Vijayanagars, through political alliances, succeeded in keeping the expanding Islamic empire from making major political inroads in the South, there were nonetheless increasing Muslim influences. From the tenth century onward pockets of Muslims settled into small communities along the Tamil and Malabar coasts and radiated influence outward from these centers, and by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries occasional military expeditions had led to brief periods of Muslim rule in several portions of Tamil country.
Another important political development of the Vijayanagar period, due in part to the increase in military capability, was the rise of local and supralocal rulers known as nāyakka s, who sustained pockets of political stability under suzerainty of the Telugu Vijayanagars. These nāyakka domains often led to the patronage of local Hindu institutions and the enhancement of local temples and festivals. The rise of the nāyakka system in Tamil country also led to change in the role of brahmans and temples in the region. The brahmadeya declined in power and brahmans were no longer given gifts to the degree that had been true in the Cōḻa period. Yet brahmans, especially Telugu brahmans, became important consultants in military and ritual affairs, and the temples, their deities, and their festivals came increasingly to express the reciprocities, including gift giving and the exchange of honors, that had been a part of the Cōḻa socio-political order.
The Cōḻa period was a time for the formalization and institutionalization of religion, especially of Śaivism, into temples and literary texts written primarily in Sanskrit. In the post-Cōḻa period the vernacular once again became the chief medium for religious expression, and thus the more popular forms of Hinduism found expression across the Tamil region. Tamil Hinduism during the Vijayanagar period thus was characterized by resurgent devotionalism and increased participation in temple rituals and festivals by a broader spectrum of people. One might speak of this new era as the "silver age" of Tamil bhakti.
The harbinger of this post-Cōḻa trend was Aruṇakirinātar (c. 1475–1550). His poetry was characterized by an ingenious use of meter and sound as an accompaniment to dance; by a skillful combination of Sanskrit and Tamil terms, albeit in a Tamil idiom that celebrated its very Tamilness; by lavish praise of Murukaṉ and that deity's consorts and sacred places; and by a call both to egalitarian issues and to a devotion to God. Aruṇakir likened the religious experience to a profound silence.
By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bhakti literature had mushroomed. Such poets as Tāyumāṉavar, Kacciyapaciva, and Kumārakurupara celebrated the mythology, sacred places, and devotionalism of Śaivism. Tamil Tālapurāṇas, or mythologies of temple sites, proliferated in the fifteen and sixteenth centuries, each purporting to describe the mythical history and grandeur of local temples by localizing and re-enforcing themes that had been part of the Tamil landscape for centuries, especially the sacrality and power of land and waters. The role of the Goddess was an important theme in these temple myths, especially her identity with the land and the necessity to channel her considerable power into the patterns of normative theism.
The late Vijayanagar period saw a resurgence of temple construction. The number of temples almost tripled in the two centuries between 1550 and 1750. While the construction of Śaiva temples was relatively moderate, particularly in eastern portions of the Tamil region, temples to Viṣṇu, the Goddess, and Śiva's sons Murukaṉ and Gaṇeśa proliferated much more rapidly than in earlier centuries, especially in western portions of the region. Further, these temples more frequently became the arena for public events, including marriages and festivals. Festivals such as the Cittarai festival (April–May) in Madurai and the Mahānavamī festival (September–October) in Vijayanagara were described by commentators in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as enormous celebrations and paradigmatic events. Such festivals came to express a wide range of social and religious realities; relationships between castes and sectarian groups; the role of the king as presiding presence, warrior par excellence, and agent of prosperity; celebration of harvest or significant seasonal transition; and the reenactment of the career of the deity and the extolling of him or her as celestial prototype of the king and cosmic ruler. Extant temples were enlarged, gopura s, or entranceways, were donated by numbers of wealthier families, and the temple environs took on the character of a miniature city.
These centuries were also a time when some Sanskrit Purāṇas and epic literature were transcreated into Tamil. In the seventeenth century, for example, the Tamil version of the Skanda Purāṇa appeared, giving to the epic deity a flavor that incorporated all his appropriate Tamil heritage.
Another form of bhakti literature that proliferated by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a form of poetry known as piḷḷaitamil, which worshiped the deity in the form of a child. While the Ᾱḻvār Ᾱṇṭāḻ was apparently the first poet to celebrate in Tamil the childhood of Kṛṣṇa, there is increased use of this form of poetry in both Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva contexts. In this type of bhakti the poet often assumes the form of the deity's parent and equates the stages of childhood to rhythms of the cosmos and of the poetic medium.
However, there was also a religious countermovement to be found in Tamil country during much of this period. Primarily between the tenth and fifteenth centuries a cryptic "antiestablishment" form of religion found its expression in the poetry and lifestyle of persons known as cittar s (Skt., siddha s). Primarily Śaiva, the cittar s were nonetheless committed to the notion that Śiva or Civan was not to be worshiped in iconic form but rather as the supreme limitless one who was virtually identifiable with individual life-forms (jīvanātman ). Theirs was a lifestyle therefore given to yoga, bodily disciplines, meditation, and healing practices. Temple cults, iconic worship, caste, and Brahmanism were criticized, and such notions as karman and reincarnation de-emphasized. Rather, the body was believed to be temple and microcosm, and internal power the noblest of virtues. In their poetry, natural objects became images of the individual's spiritual quest: The dancing snake, for example, could be seen as the individual's personhood or spirit, and the bee came to represent the life force. Pattiṉāttar II (fourteenth-fifteenth centuries) and his disciple Pattirakiriyar, on the other hand, were more pessimistic: Life is tragic, the body filthy, and the beauty of women detestable. The human is a frustrated beggar who longs to be delivered and liberated by God. This is a mood that appears, to varying extents, in the writings of Aruṇakirinātar (fifteenth century), Tayumāṉavar (1706–1744), and Rāmaliṅka Cuvāmikal (nineteenth century).
In summary, the Vijayanagar period was a time when religion subtly reaffirmed Hindu and Tamil identities in the wake of the extensive Sanskritization of the Cōḻa period and in the face of Muslim and Telugu influence throughout the period. Literary and architectural expressions of religion reflected a resurgence of devotionalism and participation. The cultus of the Goddess had become widespread and devotional Vaiṣṇavism and Śaivism were resurgent, most frequently expressing themselves in worship of the deity's childhood, the building of shrines, and the incorporation of aspects of popular religion. In the meanwhile the tradition had also produced a self-critical movement, focusing on the body as medium of worship and raising questions about the public cultus.
By the seventeenth century European influence had begun to leave its impact on Tamil culture and religion. As early as the fourth century Christians had inhabited areas along the southwest coast. Pockets of Jewish merchants settled in such western cities as Cochin where, by the eleventh century, they had negotiated extensive privileges and rights with local rulers. While these groups remained economically active in the area now known as Kerala, they tended to be socially insular and their impact on Tamil-speaking peoples was marginal. By the late sixteenth century, however, Christian missionaries had begun to influence Tamil letters and lifestyle more actively: Enrique Enriquez, a Portuguese Jesuit who was in southwestern India from 1546 to 1600, sought to prepare catechisms and grammars in Tamil in such a way as to make a permanent impact on the development of Christian Tamil theological vocabulary and to create a Catholic fishing community. Roberto de Nobili, a Jesuit who spent much of his life in Madurai after arriving in Goa in 1605, sought to present Christian scriptures and thought as extensions and fulfillments of Tamil Brahmanism. Constantine Beschi, a Jesuit who was in Madurai from 1710 to 1747, made original contributions to Tamil literature.
The first of the Protestant missionaries was Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, who arrived in Tranquebar in 1706. He wrote relatively sympathetic manuscripts on the religious life of South India and continued the process of translating the Bible and Christian ideas into Tamil. Christian Schwartz, who arrived in 1750, served an important role as mediator between local rulers and British officials. Others, such as Johann Fabricius, who died in 1791, and the nineteenth century's Bishop Caldwell, were instrumental in developing a dictionary and comparative Dravidian grammar respectively, implements that increased the exchange of ideas between the English and Tamil worlds. In the nineteenth century G. U. Pope's translation of Māṇikkavācakar and Henry Whitehead's description of Tamil village religion helped make elements of the Tamil religious landscape better known to Tamils as well as to the English-speaking world, even though the work of neither was free of the Western/Christian bias of the authors. This sort of interpretive work continued into the twentieth century with the scholarship of C. G. Diehl and others.
An indigenous Tamil Christianity emerged during these centuries that included not only the conversion of large groups of people from the lower strata of the social order in specific villages or districts, but also the development of such articulate Tamil spokesmen for the "new" religion as H. A. Krisna Pillai, Vedanayagar Sastriar, and A. J. Appasamy. Christian hospitals, schools, colleges, orphanages, and presses dotted the Tamil landscape and influenced the shape of Tamil Hindu responses.
Quite apart from the attempts at Christianization that accompanied the European presence were other forms of westernization that influenced the shape of religion in Tamil country. On the one hand, there were those Westerners who romanticized the Hindu tradition. Most notable of these was Annie Besant (1847–1933; active in India between 1894 and 1920), who established the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Madras and became both an active defender of Hindu values and a crusader for reform. On the other hand, there were tendencies to criticize or undermine traditional patterns of life and religion in the area. These included a range of activities from the relatively virulent "preaching missions" sponsored by missionaries to the more subtle acts of discrimination and exploitation associated with colonialism.
Still another dimension of religion evident in the pre-modern period that had an impact on current religious life was the continuing practice of indigenous village and folk forms of worship. Encouraged by the relative eclecticism of the Vijayanagar period, folk forms of religion became increasingly apparent and influential on the more literate forms of religion. Local deities designed to protect village and field and representing the social stratification of their worshipers have been an important part of the Tamil religious landscape even into the present century. These include such deities as Aiyanār, who has been a protector deity of Tamil villages since at least the eighth century; Karappacāmi, the black "servant" god, and various regional viraṉ s (hero-warriors). Such deities as these are sometimes ascribed exploits of resistance to British forces in local mythology. Local goddesses such as Mariammaṉ are considered personifications of the world's natural forces and hence are propitiated lest pestilence or national catastrophe befall. During the mid-twentieth century many such deities have become linked to the "great tradition" of Hinduism, particularly as those strata of society for whom these deities were paradigmatic have been integrated with the larger social order.
The Tamil religious response to the impact of the West has been expressed in a great variety of ways. Some of these have been characteristic of neo-Hinduism throughout India. There has been some adaptation of strategies (e.g., the use of preaching missions and the development of benevolent institutions) and of ideas from British and Christian sources. There has been the syncretistic combination of ideas drawn selectively both from within the tradition and from Christian or Western sources; most commonly, these "mosaics of religion" have been created by individuals and by certain guru s and their groups. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975) may be the best known of those southern thinkers of the twentieth century who have reaffirmed elements of the Hindu tradition in ways that interweave Western ideas.
However, the last century and a half has been characterized by a rebirth of Tamil self-consciousness. The discovery, translation, and interpretation of Tamil languages and literature by Westerners has encouraged a resurgence of regional and ethnic pride among Tamils. Classical Tamil texts have been recovered and republished. Tamil devotional literature has been memorized and is invoked as the standard of ideal religion, albeit interpreted and used selectively. Shrines have been renovated and their mythical antiquity extolled. Often, regional traditions and myths assume precedence over national ones. Thus even though brahmanization continues to occur as folk and village culti are Hinduized, and although various Anglicizations have been accepted as normative, the Tamil and non-brahman roots of religious practice are perpetuated and practiced with fervor. As Tamils, especially non brahmans, have migrated abroad in search of economic opportunities, they have taken with them to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, East Africa, Madagascar, and North America self-perceptions and religious lifestyles.
The character of much of this Tamil religion in the modern era is aptly described as neo-bhakti. Participation in festivals and pilgrimages at temple sites has increased geometrically. Renovation of some temples deemed significant began in the latter part of the nineteenth century; they began to welcome all spectra of society in the 1920s, and they have become more accessible by transportation systems since the 1930s. Deities such as Murukaṉ have attained enormous popularity throughout the region for a variety of reasons, among which are his appeal to all spectra of society; his presumed Tamil antiquity and identity; and his amalgamation of much of the religious symbolism that has been part of Tamil cultural history. In more recent decades, local goddesses such as Mariammaṉ have been increasingly brahmanized and made part of the great Hindu tradition even while retaining ties to local sites and folk culture. Aiyyappan, whose prototypical shrine is in Kerala, has nonetheless attracted increasing numbers of Tamil worshipers who see in him Tamil roots, genuine power, and an invitation to a sense of community that transcends caste. Various forms of ancient ritual continue to be practiced in the homes of the orthodox even while accommodations are made to the exigencies of commerce and contemporary life. At the same time, public pressures to "streamline" and "democratize" religion have led to the de-brahmanization of ritual in some temples and the privatization of some religious practices. Yet in many respects, religion is as much a part of the contemporary Tamil consciousness as it has ever been.
Ᾱḻvārs; Besant, Annie; Bhakti; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in India; Gaṇeśa; Goddess Worship, article on The Hindu Goddess; Hindu Tantric Literature; Indian Religions, articles on History of Study and Rural Traditions; Indus Valley Religion; Jainism; Kingship; Kṛṣṇaism; Madhva; Māṇikkavācakar; Meykaṇṭār; Murukaṉ; Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli; Rāmānuja; Rāmāyaṇa; Śaivism, articles on Nāyaṉārs and Śaiva Siddhānta; Śaṅkara; Sinhala Religion; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Mainland Cultures; Temple, article on Hindu Temples; Vaikhānasas; Vaiṣṇavism, article on Pāñcarātras; Yāmuna.
Carman, John B. The Theology of Rāmānuja. New Haven, Conn., 1974. The most thorough single study of the eleventh-century Hindu theologian, couched in discussion of the implications of studying a religious system from outside a tradition.
Clothey, Fred W. The Many Faces of Murukaṉ: The History and Meaning of a South Indian God. The Hague, 1978. A phenomenological analysis of how a god reflects the cultural history of the Tamil people.
Nilakanta Sastri, K. A. Development of Religion in South India. Bombay, 1963. Though dated and focusing on Sanskritic and Brahmanic expressions of religion, this book remains the only attempt at a comprehensive history of religion in South India.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic. Oxford, 1981. While this book makes no reference to Tamil religion, it is a structural analysis of much of the mythology of Śiva gleaned from puranic texts focusing on themes of eroticism and asceticism.
Reiniche, Marie-Louise. Les dieux et les hommes: Étude des cultes d'un village du Tirunelveli, Inde du Sud. Paris, 1979. An important study of cultic life in a Tamil village and how deities reflect social and cultural realities therein.
Shulman, David. Tamil Temple Myths. Princeton, N.J., 1980. A bold, comprehensive examination of Tamil Talapurāṇas (myths about a temple's origin), centering on the interconnecting motifs of goddess, land, power, and sacrifice.
Singer, Milton. When A Great Tradition Modernizes. New York, 1972. A sociologist's reflection, based primarily upon Tamil India, on the impact that the processes of modernization have on religion.
Smith, H. Daniel. A Descriptive Bibliography of the Printed Texts of the Pāñcarātrāgama. 2 vols. Baroda, 1975–1980. An annotated description of some of the most important ritual texts of the Pāñcarātrāgama school of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism.
Stein, Burton. Peasant State and Society in Medieval South India. Oxford, 1980. The definitive and comprehensive description of "medieval" South Indian history, including an analysis of the role of religious institutions throughout the period.
Stein, Burton, ed. South Indian Temples. New Delhi, 1978. Essays on the sociological, political, and economic role of temples in medieval Tamil country.
Tiliander, Bror. Christian and Hindu Terminology. Uppsala, 1974. A description of how, by choice of Tamil and Sanskrit words in the translation process, early missionaries created a Tamil Christian vocabulary.
Welbon, Guy, and Glenn E. Yocum, eds. Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. New Delhi, 1982. A wide-ranging and useful series of essays incorporating philological and anthropological studies in the festival experience of South Indians, primarily of Tamil-speaking peoples.
Whitehead, Henry. The Village Gods of South India. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Delhi, 1976. Though written by a missionary and first published early in this century, this book has remained a "classic" description of village religion in nineteenth-century Tamil India.
Yocum, Glenn E. Hymns to the Dancing Śiva. New Delhi and Columbia, Mo., 1982. A comprehensive study of the most important of the Tamil Śaiva poets, the ninth-century Māṇikkavācakar.
Zvelebil, Kamil V. The Smile of Murukan: On Tamil Literature of South India. Leiden, 1973. The most comprehensive survey to date of Tamil literature, including chapters on many who had a religious impact: bhakti poets, the cittar s, Kampan, and Arunakiri.
Fred W. Clothey (1987)