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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Reading the Classics

 My generation growing up in India during the first half of the 20th century learnt about India’s own culture mostly through the writings of western scholars. Even when we came across interesting sections in Tamizh classics such as Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, the emphasis was on the language, poetry and morals. I do not remember any teacher telling me that Silappadikaram had plenty to teach about music and drama, about musical instruments and how they were made etc. I did not hear about the fact that Manimekalai had passages about foundations of knowledge such as perception, inference, and logic. The fact that these Tamizh classics were written around 500 CE means that scholars in India were already aware of and teaching these foundations of knowledge.

When you see our artisans make bronze figures in Swamimalai, you realize that long before western scientists developed metallurgy as a special branch of science, our ancestors knew how to melt a metal, how to make wax caste and even how to recycle molten, unused metal. (Please view this video from the University of California at San Diego: Masters of Fire: Hereditary Bronze Casters of South India - YouTube)

It is high time children in India are taught not only science such as metallurgy but also how metal objects were made in India long before metallurgy developed into a science.  It is high time we teach classics in Tamizh and other languages to children not just to memorize but also to learn historical facts. For example, when the teacher talks about the description of foreign traders in Kaveripoompattinam in Silappadikaram,  why not talk also about trade with the Roman empire and about sea travels in those days based on Arikamedu excavations and other sources?

Here is a section from the Tamizh classic, Manimekalai from the 6th century, which prompted these thoughts. There is an entire section in which Manimekalai goes about asking teachers from various schools of thought about their views on the origins of this cosmos. This section is a review of  systems of philosophy well-established in India by the 6th century. They include the Vedic ideas, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Ajivaka, Nigantha, Jain and Saiva Siddhanta.

Various philosophical and metaphysical views are listed also in other classics in other languages such as Mandukya Karika (Gaudapada), Sarva Darshana Sangraha (Madhvacharya, brother of Sayanacharya) and Neelakesi. I have read the first two, not the third one (Neelakesi) in Tamizh.

As I have written in the past, when we read classics in literature and in spirituality, we can learn so much about other areas such as the language itself, how the language has evolved over the years so that the same word means a different thing now, the culture and customs of the people amongst whom the classic originated, geography, history and more.

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