Vairamuthu’s article fails to use any authoritative source, let alone multiple ones, in support of its thesis on Andal.
A single line in an article published four decades ago turns out to be Tamil writer Vairamuthu’s main evidence for making his controversial ‘devadasi’ statement on the Vaishanavite poet Andal.
The sentence under serious debate is part of a compound statement, written by history professors M.G.S. Narayanan and Veluthat Kesavan in the chapter ‘Bhakti Movement in South India’, which is part of a 1978 book Indian Movements: Some Aspects of Dissent Protest and Reform, edited by S.C. Malik.
In his speech, Vairamuthu indicated that the book was published by an American University, which is a citation error. The book was actually published by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The author issued a clarification regarding the source reference in his public oration and subsequently, on January 20, made an emotional video statement seeking to put the issue to rest.
What went wrong?
In writing a scholarly article, the normal practice among historians is to use primary sources that are contemporaneous to the subject matter, archeological evidence, authoritative books or well adopted peer-reviewed scholarly papers. The Andal-related statement presented in the 1978 book chapter was not backed by any archaeological evidence, Narayanan said in a recent interview with a media outlet. It turns out that the sentence under question was merely a personal interpretation of the authors.
Of course, it is perfectly fine for scholars to express their opinion or interpretation. However, in academic writing, any inference based on contextual interpretation not backed by primary research needs to be explicitly stated. Narayanan and Kesavan ought to have explicitly noted that the specific sentence on Andal was their interpretation or entered a caveat – “to the best of our knowledge” or “in our opinion”. Sadly, this wasn’t done. Vairamuthu was ill-advised to use the book chapter to support his statement on Andal as it fails to meet the standards of a primary source. In Between Two Cultures: An Introduction to Economic History, Carlo M. Cipolla describes what a primary source entails: “Historians who rely exclusively on secondary sources might be compared to surgeons who have read textbooks on surgery but have never been near an operating theater.”
When analysing historical situations – as Vairamuthu was trying to do in his January 8, 2018, article on Andal – it is best to bear in mind that words which convey a particular meaning at one time may strike a different tone at another. For example, certain terms that were once used to describe a particular race or sect are rightly condemned these days as racist. In Andal’s Thiruppavi, the word “naatram,” which she uses to describe the fragrance of the thulasi garland adorned by the Lord, is now used to refer to bad odour.
Coming to the controversial term ‘devadasi’, a clarification on what this word meant would have been beneficial, though Narayanan and Kesavan rather vaguely render it as “handmaids to god”. As Vairamuthu’s January 7 oration, which was followed by his article, was meant for a mass audience, he should have realised that the word conveys a totally different meaning today.
Historically, in the Chola period, this word was used in a sense that is very different from what it is now, as devadasis had a very respectful place in society. Slowly, since the days of the Vijayanagar empire, society started perceiving devadasis differently; the devadasi tradition was seen as an undesirable institution and was eventually abolished.
Professor Leslie Orr of Concordia University, Canada – an authority on the subject of the Hindu temple woman and author of a PhD dissertation on this subject – has referred to Andal as a Vaishnava poet-saint and consort of Vishnu. To my best understanding, there is no mention of Andal as a devadasi in this dissertation, which discusses the matter of devadasis during the Chola period. This text should be taken as authoritative on the subject of devadasis, as it has been written based on researching many primary and secondary sources. As Orr says in her dissertation, “I located and collected the texts of inscriptions referring to temple women by surveying a wide variety of secondary sources, by examining all the published Chola period inscriptions, and by going over as many of the relevant unpublished inscriptions as possible at the Office of the Chief Epigraphist in Mysore.” This is indeed solid research backed by primary, secondary and authoritative sources.
Vairamuthu’s January 8 article fails to use any authoritative source, let alone multiple ones, in support of its thesis on Andal. And, of course, he failed to realise that the word devadasi is derogatory in the present age. An unwritten cardinal rule in journalism is that one should communicate a complicated subject as if one is writing for a high school student. If what ‘devadasi’ meant had been clearly stated by Narayan and Kesavan (and Vairamuthu), who knows, the situation would have been different.
Hindsight is 20-20. The lack of solid primary evidence, the reliance on personal interpretation and the lack of clarity in the use of word(s), has led to unnecessary complications. Unfortunate as it is, the recent incident reminds us of the need for a careful review of sources, separating opinion from authoritative evidence and using words and phrases judiciously keeping in mind their changing meaning over time.
Who knew that an article written 40 years ago would bring these aspects to the fore, a much-needed lesson for writers and academics.
Seshadri Ramkumar is a professor at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA.