Bullfighting and the Meaning of Culture – M.S. Srinivasan

(Recently, the banning of Jallikkatt, an ancient sport of bullfighting in Tamil Nadu, by the Supreme Court of India evoked widespread protest in this Indian state. This article examines this issue in the light of true meaning of culture.)

The wide spread and massive protest is legitimate because imposing a ban on a cultural form is undemocratic and authoritarian and not the right way to bring change in a free society. A truly transformative and lasting change can come only through reflection and questioning, dialogue, debate and discussion, leading to understanding, synthesis and consensus. This article is an invitation to such a reflection and debate.

The Sport of Bullfighting

                Jallikkattu is a popular form of the culture of Tamil Nadu. We can find some form of bullfighting in many cultures, for example, the famous Spanish bullfighting. When we look at Jallokkattu in its present form we see a lone frightened bull chased and surrounded by a large mass of men trying to hold on to its horns, and the animal trampling on them, injuring many, some of them dying.  We don’t know exactly what is the original form of the sport or the idea behind it.

In ancient patriarchal communities, where agriculture is the main form of livelihood, this form of sports was conceived probably as a display of heroic manhood or masculine strength or in more spiritually awakened communities, some inwardly advanced leaders might have conceived it as a symbolic sport representing inner struggle and conquest over the animal impulses of our lower nature. Those who are practicing some form of spiritual discipline and making a conscious effort to overcome the ferocious impulses or the obstinate hostilities and resistances of their lower nature can feel the inner resemblance.

In the old forms of the sport, it seems to be one man wrestling with a bull. When we look at the images of the old forms of the Spanish sport, we see a man confronting the bull with a cloth, which means it was more a game of skill and tact where the man subdues the beast not by brute strength but by playing with it tactfully and exhausting it. We can see something similar in a story on how Alexander tamed a wild horse. The aggressive steed tramples down all other strong men who try to tame the beast by their muscular strength. When the young Alexander enters in to the arena, every one wonders what this young boy can do against this wild beast. But Alexander takes a different approach. He plays with the horse for a long time without even touching it, running around and in front of it, waving, laughing clapping and shouting, and all of a sudden, when the horse was least expecting it, with lightning speed mounts over it and whispers something into its ears. The young prince of Macedonia comes out of the arena triumphantly riding on the subdued horse.

The Meaning of True Culture

                Let us now move from the outer forms of the sport to the deeper issue of culture, which is the main factor of protest against the ban on Jallikkattu, which is perceived by the protesters as an affront to the Tamil culture. This brings us to the meaning and ideal of true culture. Oxford dictionary gives the following definitions of culture. “The arts and other instances of human intellectual achievement regarded as a whole and an understanding or appreciation of it.” “The art, customs, ideas etc. of a nation, people or a group.” There is the outer forms of culture made of customs and traditions or rituals of a group of people. Behind this external form there is the deeper essence of culture which has an individual and a collective dimension. In terms of individual development culture means intellectual, ethical and aesthetic development or refinement of the mind and heart and life. As Sri Aurobindo describes the meaning of true culture:

“Not to live principally in the activities of the sense-mind, but in the activities of knowledge and reason and a wide intellectual curiosity, the activities of the cultivated aesthetic being, the activities of the enlightened will which make for character and high ethical ideals and a large human action, not to be governed by our lower or average mentality but by truth and beauty and self-ruling will is the ideal of true culture.”

At the collective level, there is the outer form of culture made of its customs and tradition or rituals. But in its inner essence, culture is the expression of the unique intellectual, ethical and aesthetic genius of a community revealed in its religion, philosophy, art, literature. In brief true culture, individual or collective, leads to the refinement of our tastes and elevation of our consciousness from our lower self towards our higher nature made of our intellectual, ethical and aesthetic being and its higher faculties and values.

When we look at forms of culture in the light of this true meaning of culture, is there any culture in the present form of Jallikkattu or its Spanish counterpart where a bull is killed with spears by two men riding on horses amidst frenzied shrieks of spectators?

There are much more beautiful and magnificent creations in the true culture of Tamil Nadu, like for example the architectural and sculptural wonders in the temples of Tanjavur and Gangaikondasholapuram, beautiful Sangam poetry, and the well-known verses of Thirukkural, great epics like Shilappadikaram, Manimekalai and Kambaramayaram and above all, spiritual classics which flowed in three luminous streams; from Vaishnava mystics called as Alvars, Saivite saints, Nayanmars, and maverick yogis, Sidhas. When we come to our modern age, we have the inspiring poetic works of Subramanian Bharathi and Ramalinga Swamigal, a great yogi, expressing his spiritual experiences in mellifluous  and rhythmic Tamil.

It we cherish our culture, let us preserve and disseminate these uplifting creations in our culture. If we are attached to some specific forms of culture like Jallikkattu, let us make some creative effort to transform them into something beautiful and elevating, reflecting the spirit of true culture, for example, it could be a dance form where men and women, cows and bulls participate as partners and friends and the animals are treated with love, affection and dignity or else it could be a dramatized skit which presents the sports as a symbolic expression of our inner struggle and conquest over the animal impulses of our lower nature.

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