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January 30, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Dr Dr Viswanatha Sivacharyar in the backdrop of the Kapaleeswara templeFor whom the priests chant!
Shobha Warrier

Om thath savithuravrenyam, Bhargo devasya dheemahi
Dheeyoyonna prachodayath, Om thath savithurvarenyam

Can you feel the sublime magnificence of Samskrutham? Can the language fanatics achieve the beauty of these lines in any other language? Of course not!" hissed a Sanskrit lover angrily. Irrespective of the caste they belong to, irrespective of the class they belong to, the rest of the Sanskrit bhakta (devotee) clan echoed similar sentiments.

It was a strange reaction. For the Dravidian movement is deep-rooted in the psyche of the state of Tamil Nadu and Tamilians, as a whole, are militantly passionate about their language and culture. And it was expected that the Tamil people would sing hosannas about state Tamil Development Minister Tamilkudi Magan's instruction that all temples in Tamil Nadu would henceforth perform archanas (prayers) in Tamil, instead of the original Sanskrit.

But 99 per cent of those I spoke to (and I spoke to nearly 50 people) were none too happy with the interference of politicians in religious matters. And they expressed both their hostility and unhappiness in very strong terms.

It was a sentiment that had been simmering for a while. For, the moment the DMK government came into power, they indulged in a changing spree. And changed the names of everything -- from the name boards of the shops, to the names of the streets, to the name of Madras itself -- from English to Tamil.

Each move took place with a vengeance; it was as if the local language was the panacea, as if the local language would send the state rocketing into the plane of prosperity.

Once they changed the name of the city, they focused their attention on the Hindu temples. And began by instructing the priests to conduct the archana in Tamil so that devotees could understand what was being conveyed to God.

Suresh, a regular at his local temple, is furious at this ham-handed political interference in religion. "Devotion is not bound by language. What is important is the satisfaction a devotee gets by listening to the chanting of the mantras (hymns) in Sanskrit. No other language in the world can imitate the resonance of this chanting or replicate its soul-stirring effect. This decision by the government is utter nonsense. How is it that these people, who do not believe in God, are suddenly interested in what happens within the precincts of a temple? They should leave these matters to those who believe in the Almighty."

On a more practical note, he strongly feels tradition should not be dishonoured or abandoned. Besides, he believes none of the people who go to a temple actually listen to the mantras since they are too immersed in communicating their problems to God.

This is where the chief priest of the Kapaleeswara temple at Mylapore, one of the oldest temples in Madras, disagrees with Sunder, "I am a retired Sanskrit professor," says Dr Viswanatha Sivacharyar. "But I still feel that my great great-grandfather erred by performing the archana in Sanskrit. What I am doing now is correcting his mistake."

He cites his reasons. "You pray -- mathru devo bhava, pithru devo bhava, acharaya devo bhava… But what is your mother tongue, your mathru bhasha? Tamil. You should first pray in your mother tongue."

Not many whose mathru bhasha is Tamil agree with the chief priest. Subramaniam, for one, angrily challenged the political parties. "Yes, there is only one God and you can pray to God in any language. But why do you want to change the existing language? I don't understand why they have suddenly taken this decision.

"See, according to them, there is no God, the deity is only a stone. So why do they interfere in our beliefs and affairs? Are we harming them by praying in Sanskrit? This is because the Dravidian parties believe that Sanskrit is the language of the Brahmins. It is one of the oldest languages in the world and all over, especially in Germany, there is a renewed interest in Sanskrit.

"Let me challenge the politicians, can they interfere in the affairs of Muslims? Can they do the same thing in a mosque? Can they ask the Muslims to say their prayers to Tamil? Let them do that first and then come to a temple. There are so many things to be done in this state. Why can't they concentrate on achieving that instead?"

Jaya Subramaniam
Jaya Subramaniam
Subramaniam's wife, Jaya, joins the tirade. "The essence of the words are lost when Sanskrit is translated into Tamil because Tamil is just not as rich a language, not does it have as many alphabets. I know Sanskrit, and Tamil is my mother tongue. But when I read certain translations, I find my language lacking in many things. So, it is better to do the archana in Sanskrit itself. The truth is, neither the priests nor the devotees want Tamil. Now it is a question of what is more important -- the obstinacy of the politicians or the satisfaction of the devotees?"

Dr Sivacharyar countered the argument by saying that none of the shlokas are translated from Sanskrit. Instead, they are taken from an original source called Thirumuraithiruvasakam. "So, the question of using wrong words in place of the original does not arise at all," he said.

But the devotees were aghast to hear the names of Karunanidhi, Tamilkudi Magan and certain hymns in praise of the party in the Tamil version of the archana.

"Let me make one thing very clear," said the chief priest. "The government is not coercing or compelling us to do the archana in Tamil. We do so only at the insistence of the devotees. As for reciting the names of Karunanidhi and Tamilkudi Magan during the archana, do you know Lord Shiva is called Karunanidhi and Lord Muruga, Tamilkudi Magan? Anyway, we have removed all those names from the mantras now. The devotees must understand that we are not doing anything to please Karunanidhi. And I am, at this moment, referring to the chief minister and not Lord Siva?"

Sceptical devotees, though, were not convinced.

Photographs: Sriram Selvaraj                                           Continued...

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