Right to Conscience: The Clash of Values

Unearthing valuable examples from the pages of Tamil history, S Raghavan vividly illustrates the respect for plurality and right to conscience that existed in ancient India. He argues that more than 60 years of post-British statecraft have been unable to mitigate the extreme tensions in Indian society in the economic, political and spiritual spheres and calls for a nationwide renaissance that harmonises different interests and points of view.

Unearthing valuable examples from the pages of Tamil history, S Raghavan vividly illustrates the respect for plurality and right to conscience that existed in ancient India. He argues that more than 60 years of post-British statecraft have been unable to mitigate the extreme tensions in Indian society in the economic, political and spiritual spheres and calls for a nationwide renaissance that harmonises different interests and points of view.

The right to conscience, the right to express dissent if your conscience does not permit acceptance of a particular point of view, is the very soul of the modern human being. It is of such importance to the progress of mankind that it is worth laying down one’s life for, as countless martyrs have done before. Any transformation in the economic and political system of a society can have meaning only when the right to conscience is guaranteed under the new dispensation.

At the time of Partition the right to conscience of millions of people was crushed to dust by the British colonialists. Even today, the right to conscience of people is being violated with impunity by the Indian state, day in and day out. All that the present rulers of India are interested in is to make India a global economic and military power and increase the number of billionaires in the Forbes list. Whenever communal violence erupts, the government blames the people for being intolerant to each other. But is it not the rulers and their government, with all its bureaucratic and military trappings, who are intolerant towards the people’s demand for the right to conscience? This intolerance compels the authority to use whatever means possible to quell any challenge to the present order.

We can see that the present Indian political system is bursting at the seams with contradictions. The epithet “world’s largest democracy” sounds as hollow as a coffin. There is an anguished cry from millions of Indians, oppressed by the intolerant attitude of the Indian state, for a thoroughgoing renewal of the present system. But for this renewal to take place, we need the kind of resurgence that erupted from time to time in Indian society from ancient times.

For want of both space and erudition I limit myself to describing some important instances and aspects of this renaissance in Tamil society right from the time of the Sangams to the period of the last of the bhaktas around the 12th century. During this period great philosophical inquiries and debates took place, magnificent literary works were produced and compiled, and illustrious seers roamed from place to place engaging peasants, artisans, traders, officers and kings in coming to terms with the meaning of life and the way forward for society.

Let me start with the striking example of Manuneedhai chozhan, a king whose name stands as a metaphor for fairness and justice even today. He hung a giant bell (known as ‘Aaraichi mani’ in Tamil) in front of his court room. Anyone in his kingdom who was wronged could ring the bell to attract royal attention. When a cow rang the bell because its calf had been run over by the prince’s chariot, the King declared that his son who was the cause of the calf’s death should also meet the same fate under a chariot. Just when the chariot was about to crush the Prince, it is believed that Shiva himself appeared and asked the King to pardon his son since he had not committed a pre-meditated crime.

This concept of justice not as retribution or revenge but as a passionate search for the truth of the
matter contrasts sharply with the argument today of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Advani, Modi and Kalyan Singh that what has happened has happened and people should ‘move on’.

One of the greatest works in Tamil literature, the Silappathrkaram (the Jewelled Anklet), illustrates this profound idea of justice even more eloquently. In the epic story, a merchant Kovalan comes to the Madurai market to sell one of his wife Kannagi’s anklets. The queen of Nedunchezhian, the Pandya ruler of Madurai, had just lost a similar anklet. Royal guards apprehend the unfortunate Kovalan and cut him down immediately without trial. When the news is brought to Kannagi she goes out into the town, with her eyes ablaze with anger, carrying the remaining anklet as proof of her husband’s innocence. A. L. Basham presents this climactic scene in this vibrant translation below:

The people said
“Our King’s straight sceptre is bent!
What can this mean?
Lost is the glory of the King over Kings,
The Lord of the Umbrella and

When Kannagi proves that the King had acted in haste, he dies of remorse:
“When he saw it the parasol fell from
his head
and the sceptre trembled in his
“’I am no king,’ he said…
“’I am the thief. For the first time
I have failed to protect my people,
Now may I die!’

This epic poem imbues the passion of early Tamils for finding the truth and their stern respect for justice. It was the duty of the King to provide justice and protection to his people. Once he failed in this duty, he had no right to live. It is believed, that the author of this work was Ilango Adigal, the brother of the Chera King Chenguttuvan, indicating that this view of justice had royal sanction. Silappathrkaram is believed to have been compiled in the 1st century CE, though the author might have used pre-existing folklore. So, this conception of the duty of a ruler and the rights of citizens must have prevailed from very ancient times.

In the early centuries of the Christian era, several religions, sects and sub-sects thrived in the Tamil region. All citizens had a right to practice any religion and be a member of any sect. In fact, there is much many historical evidence that kings and chiefs in the Tamil land patronised saints belonging to different religions and showed reverence to temples and monasteries alike. Silappathrkaram itself is an example of Tamil literature influenced by the best of all thoughts prevailing at that time. The author of the work Ilango is believed to be a Jain monk but the main characters in the novel follow Vedic customs.

There are several references by historians to the struggle for supremacy between various religious sects in the period following the early Sangams. But, in general, a variety of philosophical systems flourished. This is reflected in the story of Manimekalai, another Tamil epic, where the heroine is advised to study in Kanchi — one of the advanced educational centres of that time — the philosophical systems of the Veda, Siva, Vishnu, Ajivika, Jaina and of the Sankhya, Vaiseshika and Lokayatas.

The Bhakti movement in the Tamil land is believed to have started much earlier than its counterpart in other parts of ancient India. As in the rest of India, the movement had a religious shell, but the content was secular, progressive and essentially materialist. The bhaktas revolted against the rigid caste system of Brahmanism. For example, the sixty three Nayanars included a woman from Karaikal and a pariah, Nandan. Many such as Tirunavukkarasu who lived in the 6th century, was a Vellala, a peasant caste. Tirunavukkarasu’s life, in a way, represented the churning that was going on in Tamil society against the Brahmanical system, against authority which tried to quell the people’s right to conscience, the right to live with dignity and harmony, the right to gain knowledge and play a role in society’s affairs. He was a contemporary of the great Pallava ruler Mahendravarman I, who reigned in the 6th century and who was himself a great builder, poet and musician. Tirunavukkarasu, also known as Appar, was born in an orthodox Saivite family, but in his early years he was attracted to Jainism, and joined the Jaina monastery at Pataliputra, present day Cuddalore, as a monk. He was equally adept in Sanskrit and Tamil.

He again embraced Saivism in later years and is believed to have convinced the king himself of the superiority of Saivism. It should be mentioned here that the change of faith by kings was accomplished not by crusades and inquisitions, but by discussion, debate, enquiry and by one’s own act of finding.

The pride with which Tirunavukkarasu defended his right to conscience is evident when he responded with a song in answer to a call by a King to report to him. The song goes like this:
“I am no slave to anyone
I neither fear Yama
Nor will I be condemned to Hell ….”

The first line of his song served as a clarion call of the anti-colonial movement in Tamilnadu. In the period between the 6th and 10th centuries two large empires, the Pallavas and the Cholas, reigned over large parts of the Tamil region. In this period huge advances were made in agriculture, land records, taxation, trade and construction. Large temples and monasteries came up as centres of learning and administration. Constant wars with the southern and northern neighbours necessitated the maintenance of a standing army. Military excursions were organized across the seas to establish control over overseas trade routes.

The new authority that was coming into being required the brahmanical system to gain credibility and compliance among its subjects. This was also the most vibrant period for the bhakti movement. The bhaktas rose against the introduction of vedic rituals in religious worship. They challenged the privileged positions of the Brahmins and their monopoly over knowledge. They composed their verses in the local dialect dealing a severe blow to Sanskrit which was increasingly becoming the language of the court. They stood up against the caste system and oppression of women. They symbolised the revolt of a new force of producers – the artisans, craftsmen and peasants.

Many of the Pallava and Chola kings allowed all faiths and sects to flourish. To illustrate, the Chinese monk Xuanzang who visited Kanchipuram during the rule of Narasimhavarman- I, reported that there were 100 Buddhist monasteries, and 80 temples in Kanchipuram.
Mahendravarman I, the father of Narasimhavarman, was initially a patron of the Jain faith before adopting Hinduism under the influence of the Saiva saint Appar. The same can be said of the Pandya and Chera kings too.

The bhakti saints – the Nayanars and Alwars – used the language of the people in their soul stirring compositions. These were set to simple tunes which the masses loved to sing. They came from all strata of society. Tirumalisai, a contemporary of Mahendravarman I, was brought up by a “sudra”. He is believed to have practised Jainism, Budhism and Saivism before settling down finally as a Vaishnavite. A popular story describes how Tiruppan Alwar, who lived at the close of the eighth century, and who belonged to a low caste called the panas (wandering bards) was not permitted to enter the temple at Srirangam. Unable to enter the Srirangam temple because of his low caste, he used to sing the praise of Ranganathar from the Kaveri River. Once he was insulted by the temple priest for blocking his way, but the latter was forced by Ranganathar himself to carry the low caste alwar on his shoulders and bring him into the temple.

Nammalwar, possibly the greatest of the 12 alwars, lived in the 9th century. He was born in a Velalla (peasant) family. Though he hailed from a lower caste, his compositions were revered as equal to the Vedas if not greater. Nammalwar’s poems are forebears of later traditions of bhakti philosophy and poetry reaching as far as Ramanuja and Chaitanya in 16th century Bengal.

The work of the bhakti saints continued from the early Pandya and Pallava periods and extended upto the Chola and Hoysala periods. The Tamil hymns of the Nayanars and Alwars came to be treated as equal to the Veda and termed as the “dravida veda”. They were collected and arranged in canonical books later. As A.K. Ramanujan observes in Hymns for the Drowning”, even today, the singers of the Tamil hymns lead the temple processions, walk in front of the God, and the Vedic chanters follow behind.

The Siddha tradition, specially native to the Tamil region, and which continues to influence Tamil literature and thought till date, has pride of place in this renaissance. It emerged, parallel to the bhakti movement, and perhaps as a part of it, as R. Rajalakshmi points out in “Tamil Polity”. Their origins are believed to be in the Sangam age, around the 2nd century CE, and they spanned many centuries. Agastiyar, Tiruvalluvar and Tirumular and later Pattinattar belong to this tradition. This was definitely an indigenous tradition which decried rituals and sacrifices and the varna divisions, and stood for egalitarianism. The Siddhas had deep compassion for their fellow human beings.

Tirumular was the one who came up with the slogan “Anbe Sivam”, that is, “love is God”. In one of the 3000 verses in his work Tirumandiram, he derides vedic sacrifices:
“One can use his bones as fuel
Cut his flesh to pieces and make
a golden fry
But it is no use
Those who have compassion for
their fellow human beings
Only they can reach the abode of

Evidently, there was a clash of values between the established brahmanical system on the one hand and the rising tide of the secularization movement on the other. The former thrived on ectarianism, absolutism, rituals and obscurantism. The wellspring of the latter was an unshakeable belief in the right to conscience, the right to seek the truth. The former trend treated with disdain all those who questioned the sanctity of the Vedas or the caste system. The latter rend accepted the relativity of knowledge as well as the partial nature of truth as perceived by anyone. It advocated an integral view including all points of view as equally probable from differing perceptions of reality, as exemplified in the tale of the blind men and the elephant. It is this fundamental epistemological position that makes the right to conscience an essential part of unraveling reality rather than just a political or civil right.

The point to be made here is that the renaissance movement in the South represented by Bhakti was not so much against Sanskrit, Buddhism and Jainism, but against prejudices, caste discrimination, erection of gatekeepers between god and man, the monopolization of knowledge, and the ritualisation of philosophic thought and enquiry. While it is true that the influence of Budhism and Jainism declined during this period, their standing in the literary field continued to be respectable. Their contribution to Tamil literature was phenomenal and to this day their works influence Tamil society. During this whole period intensive debates also raged between dualists and monists, between the metaphysical and materialist outlook, between theism and atheism.

Gradually the canons of the saivites and vaishnavites came to be regularly employed in daily worship. Their authors became manifestations of divinity and were converted to statues with their own spaces around the main deity. The emergence of empires necessitated a common deity and canon, the bringing together of local gods and bhakti saints under one iconic deity. It was in the age of the Imperial Cholas, whose empire extended across the seas right up to present-day Indonesia, that stone temples great and small were constructed in almost every town and village. The great temples of Tanjore and Gangaikondacholapuram, perhaps the tallest temple in the world at that time, were symbolic of this grandeur, the emergence of an empire, and the need for a supreme icon that could coalesce various streams of thought to serve the empire.

But even here we see a great amount of non-sectarianism and tolerance towards various streams of thought and philosophies. Rajaraja Chola for example, who led a military expedition to Lanka, made sure that Buddhist temples damaged in the war were restored.

The work of Ramanuja, the greatest of the Vaishnava acharyas, who lived in the eleventh century towards the decline of the Chola Empire and the rise of the Hoysalas in the 12th century, illustrates the continuation of the era of free unencumbered enquiry and debate. Ramanuja is supposed to have won over the Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana from Jainism. He was opposed to Sankara’s conception that the world and universe are just an illusion. He was eager to spread the doctrine of bhakti among sudras and outcastes. In fact, he fought and won the right for the outcastes to enter the temple at least on one day of the year.

The renaissance in the South was a part of the secularisation movement that raged throughout India over several centuries against oppressive authority, against the deprivation of the right to conscience. Indian society has far advanced since those days but the vision of the bhaktas for a classless and casteless society, where the right of every individual is respected, still remains a dream. Today’s conception of justice by the rulers is a far call from the conception of justice that prevailed in the times of Manuneedhi Chozhan.

Today’s monarchs are extremely intolerant to any suggestion of an alternative. For example, far from the compassion that the Siddhars talked about, there is rampant intolerance to any view or demand that is raised against the present arrangement in the Indian Union. Debate and discussion are tolerated only so long as they serve the big power ambitions of the powerful elite. All the ills of society that the bhaktas fought against – inequality, casteism and communalism – are allowed to flourish because it suits them to keep people divided and confuse them with obscurantism. The Indian army is more an occupationist army than a protector of the people in Kashmir, Manipur and other places. What is left of the canons of the bhaktas is only the shell, not the content which has long back been stripped by the British colonialists. The raging debates of the bhaktas to discover the true destiny of human beings has now been supplanted with official exhortations to secularism while carrying out in practice the most brutal suppression of dissent and the right to conscience.

More than 60 years of post-British statecraft in India has shown that the present authority is not able to provide prosperity and protection to the people. The extreme tensions in Indian society in the economic, political and spiritual spheres point to the need for renewal. But this renewal cannot happen without a nationwide renaissance that rejects the cult of authority and concretizes the modern conception of the right to conscience.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *