Written by Whitney Cox, this is a slightly expanded and revised version on an editorial that appeared in the The National newspaper, Abu Dhabi, on May 11, 2017.
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 skepticism toward 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. For those who, like myself, first studied the humanities in American universities of a few decades ago, the whole thing has a bizarre feel to it, as “truth”, “facts” and even “reality” itself now stalk the land in their protective scare quote jackets, as they once littered the pages of our undergraduate essays. 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 I like to point out just how much the cultures of premodern southern India can 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 (especially recently) in stark opposition. When plotting of the 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 or a state of affairs. Tamil possesses an equally abstract term, uṇmai, formed, like satyam, from a verb ‘to be’; uṇmai might, in fact, have long ago been coined on the model of the Sanskrit term, what linguists call a calque. But other Tamil truth-terms are more surprising, and more eloquent. Mĕy 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? Vāymŏḻi – 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. Vāymŏḻi also supplied the title to Nammāḻvār’s devotional classic, the Tiruvāymŏḻi: it summons up an altogether different understanding of truth, as something actualized, brought into being, through speech.
In his remarkable new book, Tamil: A Biography (Harvard), 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 the 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 coloring, 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 Kampaṉ’s twelfth-century retelling of the story of the god-king Rāma. The archaic world of Kampaṉ’s source, Vālmīki’s Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa, had possessed its own culture of truth. The old world was that of aristocratic kṣatriya 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 ‘oath’ and ‘curse’, śāpa and śapatha, obviously share a common root-word.
Kampaṉ’s long poem takes this epic order as its basis, but extends it remarkably. The truth of one’s word is powerfully internalized: as he exiles his son Rāma to the forest in keeping with a promise he once made to the hero’s stepmother, the old king Daśaratha is agonized by the force of his own words, by the truth they have created. As Rāma’s mother Kausalyā notes, this produces a terrible confluence of circumstances: “Our son won’t not go, and the king can’t not die”. As Shulman notes, the double negative possesses awful force: truth, created through the act of the vow, cannot be undone. Truth is – as Kampaṉ explicitly says – bound together with uyir, the breath of life: the undoing of the one means the undoing of the other. Shulman excavates from this an entire 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.”
Kampaṉ’s truth was only one of a range of possibilities available to us from classical Tamilnadu. It is in another earlier masterpiece, the Cilappatikāram, “The Tale of the Anklet”, that the poet Iḷaṅko reflects on a singular event, the transfiguration of an ordinary woman, Kaṇṇaki, into a goddess. A sheltered young woman, Kaṇṇaki had flared into godhead at the unjust killing of her husband Kovalaṉ by the Pandyan king of Madurai. Luckless Kovalaṉ had been trying to sell one of Kaṇṇaki’s anklets when he was falsely accused of stealing a piece of the queen’s jewelry, and killed at the king’s order. Devastated, Kaṇṇaki comes before the Pandyan; anklet in hand, she reveals the truth. The king dies, and Kannagi’s rage 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 Kovalaṉ.
The truth culture on display here resonates with that of Kampaṉ, who lived centuries later. There is the same life-and-death urgency, and the same power inherent to words uttered in extreme emotion. But the genius of Iḷaṅko’s poem lies in its search for a wider explanation for this astonishing event. Why did this happen to this seemingly 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: it is Jainism’s theory of karma, of actions in past lives, which ties together the fates of Kaṇṇaki, Kovalaṉ, and the king. But, with a remarkable generosity of imagination, the poet presents the truth of the Hindu goddess of Madurai, of the soothsaying women of tribal possession-cults, and of the Brahmanical norms of the later king who institutes the public worship of Kaṇṇaki, as equally valid ways to see the Tamil world, and this singular event within it.
In its powerful affective charge, Kampaṉ’s view highlights the urgent human need for truth; in its openness, Iḷaṅko’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 twenty-first century model for truth, but both merit consideration as articulations of past truth in any attempt to think through truth’s global future. As a motto for such an enterprise, I would suggest yet another voice from the Tamil tradition. This is found in the Tirukkuṟaḷ, the wonderfully condensed verses on worldly wisdom by the sage Tiruvaḷḷuvar:
ĕppŏruḷ yār yār vāy keṭpiṉum appŏruḷ
By all means, listen to the things that everyone says.
But seeing which thing is true –
That is real wisdom.