A Tamil person, in the most trivial sense, is a person that has ancestors from Tamilnadu, India or Northern Ceylon and most probably other ancestral lands unknown to me. Of course, it can be greatly argued that a Tamil person is a person that is linguistically and socially inclined to exhibit and support an identity of Tamil culture a particular way. But since I don’t do any of those things and would rather watch the mediocre Last Jedi than expose myself to a Vijay movie, I tend to identify with Tamil in what the “purists” say is the most trivial way. I am proud of my brownness and I am proud to have part of me that emanates from the tip of South Asia. And no, I am not a coconut.
The Divine-an infinite vastness of wonder, it is humanities never-ending search for an answer to a question that has left our mortal minds contorted and perplexed. An understanding that can be best understood through one's emotional experiences and willingness to believe that mankind is merely a string on a harp played in a quantum verse not properly understood by mortal minds. It is an aether that lights the spark of our curiosity and further ignites disciplines of understanding that we gain wisdom from. It is a force that drives, even the non-believer, to believe in something more.
This could have been a pretty simple philosophy up until humanity found the need to put labels on everything and radicalize the divine.
However, if one has to ask a person of Tamil origin if they are Tamil, the impending yes or no answer is never that simple.
The answer is normally a yes if one is raised with a Hindu-Tamil linear and in most cases, a resounding NO if they are raised in the Christian faith.
South Africa has a strange dynamic among brown people that follow Hinduism in that some Hindi people believe the term Hindu is exclusive to them and some Tamil people believe they follow a religion called…TAMIL. Yes, you can legitimately walk up to a person and ask them what their religion is and they will say Tamil. To be fair, some Hindi and Telegu people name their religions after their ancestral linguistic identities too.
Is this a major problem for the Tamil identity?
Thus far we know that the British colonized us and took a collection of South Asian philosophies and folklore and placed it under the political umbrella that is known today as Hinduism. When I ask people why they call Tamil their religion, some don’t give me a concrete answer; others get defensive while a few simply say that it was a way of life in the ancient Tamil empire and they wish to preserve it.
I was given an insightful explanation into Tamil being a way of life. Basically, every civilization is driven by the need to survive and live in cohesion with one another and its ecosystem through a system of practices. Every early civilization created and borrowed divine reasoning based on the political climate and ecosystem they live in. And therefore distinct forms of spiritual philosophies intermarried with ancient folklore and customs to yield what some people call the Tamil religion.
And that is a fair statement; however, the problem arises when one chooses to believe that a set of their philosophies, rituals, and customs should define the Tamil identity for everybody else. When somebody learned that I wrote for TC, they asked me if I attend Kavady and do certain types of prayers, fasts, and rituals to which I answered no. And before I could explain my spiritual inclinations and why do not partake in such things, I was asked, “What kind of Tamil are you? You write for all these things but you can’t be a proper Tamil.”
That was a perfect example of a person who just like me couldn’t construct a sentence in Tamil but chose to define what Tamilness should be based on their own understanding of it. And it always sounds more bizarre when people say this to me but chooses to be called by their shortened or made up anglicized names rather than their longer Sanskrit or Tamil names.
In South Africa, Hinduism and Tamil are mirror images for some, where in most cases the measure of how religious a person perceives themselves to be is often linked to how Tamil they are. This is also the case with the Hindi, Telegu and Gujurathi diaspora.
But this mindset begs a question…
The Greeks were once a mighty civilization, that worshipped gods based on their divine understanding of politics and the environment. However, most modern-day Greeks follow Christianity, so does this mean that people are no longer proper Greeks since nobody occasionally sacrifices their daughters to the wind god anymore?
So by that logic, if a person converts to Christianity then do they cease to be Tamil?
Well take a walk in a brown suburb on a Sunday morning and ask a few Christians entering church this question and the answer would be YES!
Despite the fact that Tamilnadu has cathedrals and churches together with a sizeable portion of the Christian faith fully aware of their Tamil identity, most brown South African Christians tend to distance themselves from the Tamil label but still identify as Indian. This is due to the fact that many believe that the identity of Tamil is tied to fundamentalist forms of Hinduism and that anything associated with the label of Tamil is thus shed upon converting.
This is not practiced among all in the Christian faith since some churches still practice vernacular music, and ensure an ancestral message and cultural vibrancy of the Tamil identity (other Indian identities too) are conveyed to the congregation.
Many ancestrally inclined Christians do argue that much of the religion practiced in Africa is often subject to forms of whitewashing where one doesn’t just accept the Christian view of the divine but they are also taught to replace a form of their brown identity with a European one, one that structures whiteness on a social hierarchy higher than that of brownness.
Language is a primary identity of the Tamil language but many people don’t really speak Tamil in South Africa, so the language can be ruled out as a core aspect of their identity. People are then left to anchor themselves to what they are socialized to believe in as the Tamil identity which is their spiritual link to Hinduism or the “Tamil religion.”
There are many Tamil organizations in Durban, South Africa. Many are tolerant of other religions but they tend to be more strongly affiliated with Hinduism (I stand to be corrected). Leaders generally have a good handle and drive for the Tamil language and arts but most of them tend to be staunchly Hindu. It always comes across like a leader’s strong affiliation with Hinduism is a determining factor (nepotism aside) in them being chosen as leaders. Some organizations, however, do have their own constitutions and prerequisites when choosing leaders so it would be wrong to hold their affinity for Hinduism against them.
And now back to the titular question, do fundamentalist forms of religion really kill the Tamil identity?
There is so much of rich history associated with the Tamil identity, but in an ever-evolving time, the question of, “What is the Tamil identity?” is still an extremely gray area.
It would be naïve of me to assume that the erosion of the Tamil label lies squarely at the feet of religion since religiously driven Tamil societies have to a degree uplifted a form of the identity.
The erosion of the Tamil label could also lie at the feet of people like me who can’t learn the language and rather binge watch all seven seasons of Game of Thrones than endure the torture of Sun TV or a yawnsome eisteddfod.
And it could be possible that there should not be any blame placed on anyone or anything.
In ancient times Tamil philosophers believed that the art of entertainment was governed by three variables, literature (Iyal), music (Isai) and drama (nadagam). What they didn’t see coming was colonization, civil war, immigration, mainstream media, and globalization.
Was only a love for Tamil literature, music and drama supposed to make a person Tamil? Or were these three vectors meant to relate to our humanity and our ever-evolving cultural experiences mixed in with our faith and political atmospheres to emerge from us a new not so rigid Tamil identity?