The Manimekhalai is one of the great classics of Indian culture. A second-cetury Tamil verse epic, it is a sequel to the Shilappadikaram, which was also masterfully translated into prose by the acclaimed musician and scholar of Hinduism. Alain Danielou. Rich with details of the period’s arts. Customs, and religions, the Manimekhai provides an extraordinary picture of an age that suddenly comes back to life, It is the story of a beautiful young dancer who decided to forego her looming career as courtesan in order to dedicate her life (with the id of gods, demigods, and a magic bowl called the Gow of Abundance) to charity and to called the Gow of Abundane ) to charity and to attaining the ‘bright light of knowledge’.
Almost nothing is known of India, its daily life and institutions, in the troubled years of the first centuries of the Christian era. The Manimekhalai, one of the masterpieces of Tamil literature, gives us, in the form of a didactic novel full of freshness and poetry, a delightful insight into the ways of life, the pleasure, beliefs, and philosophical concepts of a refined civilization. The story relates the adventures of a dancing girl who becomes a convert to Buddhism, a rather new creed at the time in South India. Tamil is the main pre Aryan language still surviving today.
The Manimekhai calls into question many of our received ideas concerning ancient India as well as our interpretation of the sources of its present-day religion and philosophy. In its clear accounts of the philosophical concepts of pre-Aryan thought (mainly preserved by the Ajivika ascetics and Jain monks) which gradually influenced the Vedic Aryan world and became over the whole of the Far East and Central Asia.
The society in which the action of the Manimekhalai takes place has little to do with the Aryanizedcivilization of the north which we know from Sanskrit texts. Although important cultural exchanges between the Aryan and Dravidian world had already taken place by this time, the latter was still able to maintain its independence, some of its features continuing even to our own times.
The center of religion and political power is the king. As in ancient China, the gods’ favor and the country’s prosperity depend on the king’s virtue.
Spiritual and religion life is guided by sages, seers (rishis), who lead an ascetic life, living in the mountains or in secluded places. It appears that Dravidian society did not originally possess a priestly caste. However, during the Manimekhalai period, groups of Brahmans from the north had already established themselves in villages or parts of the town, forming separate communities which treated sometimes with respect and sometimes with hostility. Anti-Brahman movements still exist today.
The very important middle class is represented by the merchants who could ennobled by the king, receiving titles such as Chetty or Etthy.
The caste of courtesans, female dancers, musicians, and prostitutes plays a very important role as the city’s adornment and pleasure. Dynasties of dancers, born of celestial nymphs exiled from the paradise of Indra, the king of the gods, have taken by their abode in Tamil country, to the great joy of mankind. They have apparent ties with the temples; their dance is a profane art which has nothing sacred about it. (Trupes of female dancers attached to the temples as the gods’ slaves- Deva-dasi not yet made their appearance.)
The transvestite prostitutes also exist, whose dances are greatly appreciated by the public. They wear a short skirt, probably of Greek origin.
Male transvestite prostitutes also exist, whose dances are greatly appreciated by the public. They wear a short skirt, probably of Greek origin.
The Manimekhalai describes a wide variety of funeral rites and ways of disposing of the dead. Such customs till survive in various parts of India. Cremation appears to be an Aryan contribution. The practice requiring windows to follow their husbands in death appears to be already widespread in ancient Dravidian society. It is the continuation of a prehistoric custom: the spirits of the dead should be accompanied in the afterlife by all the comforts of their earthly existence. This practice occurs occasionally even today.
The India of this period was a great maritime nation, which had colonized Southeast Asia and Indonesia, introducing Shivaism- which still survives in Bali-and shortly afterwards, Buddhism. In the west, large number of Indian ships crossed the sea, exporting their produce to Egypt and Rome. The Greek geographer Ptolemy in the second century mentions the main ports of southern India and, in particular, Kaveris Emporium, the Kaveripumpattinam (or Puhar) of the Manimekhalai.
Religion is basically ancient Shivaism, the cult of Murungan (Skanda), Shiva’s son, being the most widespread. There are numerous divinities and spirits who are very close to man, playing a constant role in everyday life. Indra, the king of heaven, who rules the elements and upon whose benevolence the rains (sources of all prosperity) depend, is the subject of an important cult. Among the goddesses, the goddess of the sea, Manimekhala, is especially worshiped by these great seafaring peoples. The rivers also have their goddesses, spirits, and fairies, who continually take part in human adventures. A terrible and fairies, who continually take part in human adventures. A terrible genie, who dwells at the town’s main crossroads, seizes and devours miscreants.
Ancient Janism, a moralistic and atheistic religion, also appears to be transmigration taken over by Buddhism.
The religious scene is divided among a great number of sects-religious, philosophic, mystic, theistic, atheistic, ascetic, or of free morals. Theological and philosophical debates are held under the auspices of the various princes.
In such a context Buddhism, in its reformed Mahayana form, irrupted inti southern at the time of the Manimekhalai, spreading its theories on transmigration and karma, but without otherwise affecting the structure of society. There were many other sects practicing the monastic life and recommending ascesis as a means of spiritual progress. The main religious and philosophical sects and especially the Ajivika, Nirgrantha, and Lokayata, are identical to those which, five centuries later, fought the famous Shankaracharya, who codified and unified these divergent currents. Giving birth to what we now know as Hinduism.
In the Manimekhalai, vedism, the religion of the Aryans, is merely one religion among many. In a civilization of oral tradition, the Veda (from the root vid, to know) represents the seers’ (rishis’) perception of the universal laws governing the world. This notion is very close to the “natural law” (dharma) to be developed by Buddhism. The Vedic hymns were transcribed when the Aryans finally adopted writing of Semitic origin, under Persian influence, towards the sixth century before the Christian era. At this point there appeared a phenomenon which was to have considerable consequences, and which can be termed “the idolatry of the book.” The sacred texts would henceforth no longer be considered as the ancient sages’ limited perception of the universal laws, but as a manifestation of the divine word- the “Word – revealing those laws. The written the divine word-the “Word” revealing those laws. The written Veda thus became the sole source to which all must refer, as in the case of other “religion of the book” with regard to the Old Testament, the Gospel, or the Koran.
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