Why Tamil is a classical Language ? – George L Hart

I am posting here the letter sent by George L Hart,Professor of Tamil,Chair in Tamil Studies, University of California, Berkley to the Governement of India explaining why Tamil should be classified as a Classical Language. From his letter you will understand that purely due to Poltical reasons Tamil was not awarded Classical Language status. Art should be isolated form the sphere of politics.  All Tamilians should some gratitude to people like A.K.Ramanujan, Kamil Zvelebil, George L Hart for taking Tamil Language to a Global scale. If Tamil is indebted to U.V. Swaminathan Iyer and Damodara Pillai for introducing classical works to Tamilians, Tamil is also indebted to A.K. Ramanujan for introducing it to the western world.


                                                                                                                         April 11, 2000

Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language

Professor Maraimalai has asked me to write regarding the position of Tamil as a classical language, and I am delighted to respond to his request.

I have been a Professor of Tamil at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1975 and am currently  holder of the Tamil Chair at that institution.  My degree, which I received in 1970, is in Sanskrit, from Harvard, and my first employment was as a Sanskrit professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1969.  Besides Tamil and Sanskrit, I know the classical languages of Latin and Greek and have read extensively in their literatures in the original.  I am also well-acquainted with comparative linguistics and the literatures of modern Europe (I know Russian, German, and French and have read extensively in those languages) as well as the literatures of modern India, which, with the exception of Tamil and some Malayalam, I have read in translation.  I have spent much time discussing Telugu literature and its tradition with V. Narayanarao, one of the greatest living Telugu scholars, and so I know that tradition especially well.  As a long-standing member of a South Asian Studies department, I have also been exposed to the richness of both Hindi literature, and I have read in detail about Mahadevi Varma, Tulsi, and Kabir.

I have spent many years — most of my life (since 1963) — studying Sanskrit.  I have read in the original all of Kalidasa, Magha, and parts of Bharavi and Sri Harsa.  I have also read in the original the fifth book of the Rig Veda as well as many other sections, many of the Upanisads, most of the Mahabharata, the Kathasaritsagara, Adi Sankara’s works, and many other works in Sanskrit.

I say this not because I wish to show my erudition, but rather to establish my fitness for judging whether a literature is classical.  Let me state unequivocally that, by any criteria one may choose, Tamil is one of the great classical literatures and traditions of the world.

The reasons for this are many; let me consider them one by one.

First, Tamil is of considerable antiquity.  It predates the literatures of other modern Indian languages by more than a thousand years.  Its oldest work, the Tolkappiyam,, contains parts that, judging from the earliest Tamil inscriptions, date back to about 200 BCE.  The greatest works of ancient Tamil, the Sangam anthologies and the Pattuppattu, date to the first two centuries of the current era.  They are the first great secular body of poetry written in India, predating Kalidasa’s works by two hundred years.

Second, Tamil constitutes the only literary tradition indigenous to India that is not derived from Sanskrit.  Indeed, its literature arose before the influence of Sanskrit in the South became strong and so is qualitatively different from anything we have in Sanskrit or other Indian languages.  It has its own poetic theory, its own grammatical tradition, its own esthetics, and, above all, a large body of literature that is quite unique.  It shows a sort of Indian sensibility that is quite different from anything in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, and it contains its own extremely rich and vast intellectual tradition.

Third, the quality of classical Tamil literature is such that it is fit to stand beside the great literatures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Persian and Arabic.  The subtlety and profundity of its works, their varied scope (Tamil is the only premodern Indian literature to treat the subaltern extensively), and their universality qualify Tamil to stand as one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world.  Everyone knows the Tirukkural, one of the world’s greatest works on ethics; but this is merely one of a myriad of major and extremely varied works that comprise the Tamil classical tradition.  There is not a facet of human existence that is not explored and illuminated by this great literature.

Finally, Tamil is one of the primary independent sources of modern Indian culture and tradition.  I have written extensively on the influence of a Southern tradition on the Sanskrit poetic tradition.  But equally important, the great sacred works of Tamil Hinduism, beginning with the Sangam Anthologies, have undergirded the development of modern Hinduism.  Their ideas were taken into the Bhagavata Purana and other texts (in Telugu and Kannada as well as Sanskrit), hence they spread all over India.  Tamil has its own works that are considered to be as sacred as the Vedas and that are recited alongside Vedic mantras in the great Vaisnava temples of South India (such as Tirupati).  And just as Sanskrit is the source of the modern Indo-Aryan languages, classical Tamil is the source language of modern Tamil and Malayalam.  As Sanskrit is the most conservative and least changed of the Indo-Aryan languages, Tamil is the most conservative of the Dravidian languages, the touchstone that linguists must consult to understand the nature and development of Dravidian.

In trying to discern why Tamil has not been recognized as a classical language, I can see only a political reason: there is a fear that if Tamil is selected as a classical language, other Indian languages may claim similar status.  This is an unnecessary worry.   I am well aware of the richness of the modern Indian languages — I know that they are among the most fecund and productive languages on earth, each having begotten a modern (and often medieval) literature that can stand with any of the major literatures of the world.  Yet none of them is a classical language.  Like English and the other modern languages of Europe (with the exception of Greek), they rose on preexisting traditions rather late and developed in the second millennium.  The fact that Greek is universally recognized as a classical language in Europe does not lead the French or the English to claim classical status for their languages.

To qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.  Unlike the other modern languages of India, Tamil meets each of these requirements.  It is extremely old (as old as Latin and older than Arabic); it arose as an entirely independent tradition, with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other languages; and its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich.

It seems strange to me that I should have to write an essay such as this claiming that Tamil is a classical literature — it is akin to claiming that India is a great country or Hinduism is one of the world’s great religions.  The status of Tamil as one of the great classical languages of the world is something that is patently obvious to anyone who knows the subject.  To deny that Tamil is a classical language is to deny a vital and central part of the greatness and richness of Indian culture.

George L. Hart
Professor of Tamil
Chair in Tamil Studies

Source: http://tamil.berkeley.edu/Tamil%20Chair/TamilClassicalLanguage/TamilClassicalLgeLtr.html

Further reading:




I googled to get a video of George L Hart for the readers ,



10 thoughts on “Why Tamil is a classical Language ? – George L Hart

  1. Dear Mr.Vairam

    Congrats and ur article is as precious as a ‘vairam”. The diction is Dhiravidam-Thiraviradam-Thiramizh-thamizh” It is the Tamil which is the source and mother to all Dirvadian languages including Telegu, Kannada, Thulu and even Marathi to some extent, besides Malayalam. It is the strong faith of both Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan,who wrote a beautiful poem too. ” kannadamum, kalitelungum, kavin malayalamum, thuluvum unuthirathu uthitu inge……….”.

    Secondly it is the Bakthi ilakkiyam of Tmail which took it to great strides and tehrvaram, thiruvachakam, kambaramayanam, Nalayirathivyaprabandam, to mention a few.Thirukural is great and it owes it popularity to some extent to modern politics (post 40s). m
    Mention should also be made about Maraimalai adigal, Thaninayaka Adigal and Kundrakudi Adigalar for the propagation of Tamil in the last century.

    Lot more remains to be said.

    Thanks for the presentation again

  2. Der Vairam, Although I read your post quite late, it is better late than never.
    Anyway, I am contacting you in the eve of the First World Classical Thamizh
    Conference. I hope you did participate in it. If I ever have read your’s earlier, I
    certainly would’ve Cordially Invited you to our home in Coimbatore. Sorry. Then
    EAGERLY AWAITING FOR! I stumbled on you thru the search for George L.
    Hart. Thank you dear friend. And Thanks again for the desication shown by Mr.George L. Hart – The video of his speech, you posted.
    முதலாவது உலகத் தமிழ்ச் செம்மொழி மாநாடு நடந்த ஐந்து நாட்களன்றும்
    ஆர்வமுள்ள அனைத்துத் தமிழ்கர்களும் நண்பர்களும் எவ்வித எதிர்நோக்கும்
    இன்றி உள்ளார்ந்த பாசத்துடன் பங்கேற்றதைக் கண்டு நான் மட்டற்ற
    மகிழ்ச்சியையும் பெருமையையும் உணர்ந்தேன். அனைவருக்கும் நன்றி.
    M.K.Chandra Mouleeswaran

  3. I really think that Tamil is indeed blessed by the Gods.Otherwise it would not have been possible to bring out such great treasures like Tholkappiyam, Naladiyar, Purananuru, and Agananuru amongst others.
    I am not a Tamilian but can identify with you.The glory of Tamil literature is as ancient as the Lord Murugan Himself!

  4. Dear Vairam,
    A near fatral acidnet kept me in rest for all these times.
    But many good heratede souls prayed and helped me recover fully to attend my dities.
    I will contact you more foten.
    Bye for now.
    Thanks for your efforts and sussustainance.
    M.K.Chandra Mouleeswaran. auztrapriyaa@gmail.com

  5. you idiots…
    tamil tamil…you stupid tamil people making unnecessary voices all the time. Tamil is just a language and you faggots know what the meaning of language…it just a medium to express our emotions and feelings. In that sense human symbols to be given classic status at first because those are used 10000 years before the birth of languages. You tamil idiots always make stupid fighting on your language. Its very poor and pathetic. While you stay with india you are indian and dont discriminate between it

  6. ur research failed and became meaningless because u couldnt identify that, the older tamil was not a language and it just have the meaning “language” or bahasa or basha, or lingua.. the current tamil, telugu , kannada and malayalam share equal rights of the old language. the current tamil is not superior to any other south indian language. and you can also say malayalam of current era is more sophesticated than current tamil. you can see books al over south which says like kannada tamil, malayalam, tamil , telugu tamil, but the books were not actually in tamil and were in there own languages. it make it clear that tamil just have the meaning language. most of the current claims about tamil language happened in the parts of kerala. including the so said creator of tamil and the oldest proof silapadikaram has more relation with kerala than tamil nadu.

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