Shilappadikaram In Indian Folklore
How the Shilappadikaram demonstrates certain aspects of Indian culture and folklore during the first millenium of the Common Era.
The last two books of the Shilappadikaram, a Jain folktale of medieval India, illustrate the changing times of the mid-first millennium, common era. Through his use of political and religious upheaval, the author is able to show the reader (listener) that the Shilappadikaram is about a time of change. New religious figures are developing at the same time as a "changing of the guard" in the southern political structure. The political change is accompanied by, or perhaps instigated by a reversal of cultural domination of northern India. The south is characterized as a region of creation-a cultural creation that would no longer take the submissive role to northern civilization.
Through the combined actions of all of the characters, Kannaki becomes a goddess at the end of the second book. Though it may be common for new gods and goddesses to be added to a pantheon, such divinities rarely receive special attention as individuals. Unlike other deities added to Indian religion, Kannaki is not represented as the avatar of a current goddess. Rather, she becomes divine in her own right, and ascends to heaven to sit with the others. In the third book, the peoples of all nearby kingdoms begin to worship her only shortly after her death. The Chera king even forces to conquered foes to the north to accept her divinity.
Although the worship of Kannaki, or another goddess of similar nature may never have occurred, the creation of this myth demonstrates a cultural concern with newfound religious figures. Since the traditional pantheon is altering, it was necessary to write a story relating such an event. The story makes it easier to continue adding gods without the need for an explanation regarding how they suddenly become worthy of worship. A precedent makes the following easier "to swallow." Interest in a changing pantheon displays a cultural need to identify itself. In the midst of this changing religion, a people must strive to maintain its integrity-this is the cause for stories of justification. When the priestly and ruler classes see that culture is changed, they must change the cultural identity to coincide with these newfound ideas. To fail in that is to self-destruct for the cultural elite.
Religious change aside, political power structures in the south of India were evolving to create new power dynasties. The fall of Tennavan, the Pandya king symbolically represents the changing levels of power. Some Indian dynasties were gaining strength (necessarily at the expense of others), and they had a definite need for self-justification. The dynasty which falls is one in which just rule has been lost, while the marvelous Chera king demonstrates a ready willingness to idolize the wronged civilians (now gods). The metaphor here is obvious: dynasties which fall are unjust, while dynasties which become strong are just. This kind of literature reinforces the strength and perseverance of the ruling class in their own land and in relation to nearby kingdoms.
The only reason why a need for such self-justification could exist would be because the dominant power structure was falling. No ruling class would design a story about the rise and fall of dynasties if it were firmly rooted and had nothing to fear. If however, a non-ruling family suddenly found itself in power, in contradiction to the current tradition, it would have need of a myth to explain how it came to power. Indian religious support (from Brahmanic tradition to the Shramana movements such as Buddhism) for an ideal king is easy to manipulate in this fashion. When religion gives the ruler a clear mandate only if he is fully just, then any ruler without justice loses that mandate. It is only because he has lost the mandate that a king loses his position. In the Shilappadikaram, Tennavan recognizes that he has failed to be just, so he and his city perish-from there a new ruler arises. The new rulers of the mid-first millennium were looking to establish their own mandate for rule, and they did so by removing it from the prior rulers.
The evolving political structure in the south accompanied a new dynamic in north-south relations. The Shilappadikaram describes the domination of the Chera king over all of northern India, in addition to his obvious supremacy in the south. To show his power, the Chera king marches his army all the way to the Himalayas and defeats every king between himself and the mountains (who did not offer immediate submission). It is clear that no southern ruler really conquered all of India with his military, but the story constructs a metaphor of southern resistance to northern dominance. Much of India's ancient history was characterized by the cultural supremacy of the Aryan people as they slowly acculturized the south. This was accompanied by military supremacy of the northern based kingdoms (such as that of Asoka). The author now presents a south India which is not only capable of standing on its own in the face of northern might, but which is even able to conquer the north. The allegory may be extrapolated to the entirety of southern culture. Since the southerners come north and defeat all of their enemies (and make them worship their new goddess!) it may be seen that they have brought their culture to a new level-one which surpasses the ancient, out-dated culture represented by the north.
It is perhaps this newfound confidence in their own cultural strength which prompted the southern Indians to construct myths like the Shilappadikaram. Along with their sense of cultural growth came the need to assert their own independence of, and superiority over the north, which had overshadowed them for so long. This cultural evolution brought about a change in religious and political structures (or was brought about thereby?). These structures are brought to significance in the tale, and given both justification and evaluation. They are called good. They are worthy of acceptance because they are what is of the south. In its break from the north, the south stopped existing completely in opposition to the north; instead, it formed its own metaphor, and presented that in opposition to the north. The south stopped being what was not the north, and became its own independent creation. It is this birth which is celebrated and described by the author of the Shilappadikaram.