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In a time of fake facts, can Tamil guide us to a way of looking at truth?

Tamil and Sanskrit, two of South Asia’s oldest languages, provide an intriguing way of looking at the concept of truth. And, writes Whitney Cox, they can even guide us towards an understanding of how truth works in the modern world.

An instructor teaches Tamil and English shorthand to students at the Stenographers Guild Institute in Chennai. The Tamil language contains some surprising – and eloquent – terms for truth. Pawan Singh / The National
An instructor teaches Tamil and English shorthand to students at the Stenographers Guild Institute in Chennai. The Tamil language contains some surprising – and eloquent – terms for truth. Pawan Singh / The National

Truth is on everyone’s mind. Whether in the domain of “fake news”, in the near-daily reversals of the positions of certain national governments, or in the increasingly vocal scepticism towards such scientific orthodoxies as anthropogenic climate change, truth – the anchor of the relation between human consciousness and the world outside of it – is at present beleaguered, refigured, placed in question.

At such a moment, it is worth the effort to look back over the different cultures’ past understandings of and negotiations with the concept to better fathom, perhaps, the historical truth of truth.

Those interested in the history of science or of philosophy will, of course, have a lot to say on the topic. But the cultures of premodern southern India also have much to tell us.

Tamil and Sanskrit, the two South Asian languages with the longest classical pedigrees, have existed in a complex relationship down through the centuries, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in stark opposition.

For a history of the concept of truth, both languages contribute materially to our understanding. Sanskrit’s two leading candidates for translation by the English word “truth”, satyam and tattvam, are both abstract.

The first of these – as in satyam eva jayate, “truth alone triumphs”, the official motto of the Republic of India – derives from the verbal root for “being”: truth as what actually exists. Tattvam, derived from the word tat, “that”, refers to the invariant quality, the reality, of a thing. Tamil possesses an equally abstract term, unmai, also formed from a verb “to be”; unmai might, in fact, have long ago been coined on the model of the Sanskrit term.

But other Tamil truth-terms are more surprising, and more eloquent. Mey can mean “truth” or it can mean “the body”: the direction of travel from the concrete and personal to the abstract and universal is not at all clear. Is truth what is most intimate, closest to hand? Or is the body, in the end, the only truth on which we can depend?

Vaymozhi – perhaps “the spoken word” – is the most evocative of all. It is one of the Tamil names for the Sanskrit Vedas (“The Truth”), whose oral preservation down through the centuries presents a limit case of what can be relied upon to be present and real. Vaymozhi also supplied the title to the South Indian saint Nammazhvar’s devotional classic, The Tiruvaymozhi: it summons up an altogether different understanding of truth, as something actualised, brought into being, through speech.

In his remarkable new book, Tamil: A Biography, the Indologist David Shulman alights especially on this final notion of truth as an emergent property of language. Its title notwithstanding, Shulman’s work depicts Tamil as never existing in a sort of pristine purity: Sanskrit and Tamil are for him parts of the same weave, along with Prakrit, Telugu, Malayalam, Arabic and now, of course, English.

Nevertheless, Tamil has its own special colouring, especially in its conception of truth; for Shulman this is a part of a more general claim that “the notion of truth or truthfulness is always culturally determined”. Shulman finds the most powerful articulation of a medieval Tamil conception of truth in the 12th-century Tamil poet Kamban’s retelling of the story of the god-king Rama.

The archaic world of Kamban’s source, the ancient Ramayana written by the Indian sage Valmiki, had possessed its own culture of truth.

The old world was that of aristocratic heroes, whose word was their bond and who would rather die than fail to live up to their oaths. Related to this were the magical potencies of the speech of gods and sages, whose curses, once uttered, could be mitigated but never revoked.

Once again a little etymology helps: the Sanskrit (and Tamil) words for “curse” and “oath”, shapa and shapatha, obviously share a common root-word.

 Kamban’s long poem takes this epic order as its basis, but extends it remarkably. Truth is – as he explicitly says – bound together with uyir, the breath of life: the undoing of the one means the undoing of the other.

Shulman reconstructs a medieval theory of truth-in-language. Truth is “made through speech, not merely revealed or discovered, but it is capable of being vitiated by its opposite, a lie. Existentially fragile, [truth is] dependent upon further decisions, acts and words.”

 But Kamban’s truth was only one of a range of possibilities available to us from classical Tamilnadu.

It is in another earlier masterpiece, The Cilappatikaram, “The Tale of the Anklet”, that the poet Ilango reflects on a singular event, the transfiguration of an ordinary woman, Kannagi, into a goddess. A sheltered young woman, Kannagi had flared into godhead at the unjust killing of her husband Kovalan by the Pandyan king of Madurai.

Luckless Kovalan had been trying to sell one of Kannagi’s anklets when he was falsely accused of stealing a piece of the queen’s jewellery, and killed at the king’s order. Devastated, Kannagi comes before the Pandyan; anklet in hand, she reveals the truth. The king dies, and Kannagi’s rage at the injustice turns into a fire that consumes the city. Widowed, she marches up to the western mountains before her final apotheosis and heavenly reunion with Kovalan.

 The truth culture on display here resonates with that of Kamban, who lived centuries later. But the genius of Ilango’s poem lies in its search for a wider explanation for this event.

Why did this happen to this ordinary woman, whose early life had been filled with such ordinary problems as infidelity and poverty? Ilango finds an explanation in the truth of the Jain religion: its theory of karma, of actions in past lives, tied together the fates of Kannagi, Kovalan and the king. But, with a remarkable generosity of imagination, the poet presents the truth of the Hindu goddess of Madurai, of the prophetesses of tribal possession-cults, and of the norms of the later cult of Kannagi, as equally valid ways to see the Tamil world, and this singular event within it.

 In its powerful affective charge, Kamban’s view highlights the urgent human need for truth; in its openness, Ilango’s presents a model for living with others, possessed of their own truth claims.

Neither can be simply or uncritically adopted as a guideline for a 21st-century theory of truth, but both merit consideration as articulations of past truth in any attempt to think through its global future.

As a motto for such an enterprise, I would suggest yet another voice from the Tamil tradition. This is found in The Thirukkural, the wonderfully condensed verses on worldly wisdom by the sage Thiruvalluvar: “epporul yar yar vay ketpinum apporul / meypporul kanbad’arivu.” “By all means, listen to the things that everyone says. But seeing which thing is true – that is real wisdom.”

Whitney Cox teaches in the department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago