Book Review: A Short Introduction: The Tamil Siddhars & the Siddha Medicine of Tamil Nadi

by Marion Zimmerman (ed.) et al. (GRIN Verlag, Munich; 2007)

"Medicine means the prevention of physical illness; medicine means the prevention of mental illness; prevention means to avert illness; medicine therefore is the prevention of death."

This is a quotation from Tirumular - the greatest and one of the earliest Tamil Siddhars. The Siddhars - 18 named sages and countless unnamed saints who lived, according to legend, in primordial antiquity and devised and developed Tamil culture and civilization: language, literature, science and, particularly, the Tamil medical system called Siddha medicine. These Siddhars were a class of popular thinkers in Tamilnadu in all realms of scientific, literary and artistic and cultural realms and almost all of them were stridently opposed to formalities of life and religion, the religious practices and beliefs of the ruling class and against generally accepted pan-Indian social and religious doctrines, most particularly those promoting the notion of caste. They were puritanical and - for the most part - monotheistic.

Most works by the Tamil Siddhars are not well known outside of scholarly circles, but a few are very popular among the general Tamil public. Hundreds of their works deal with alchemy, black magic, medicine, yoga and certain tantric rites. Some scholars have tended to doubt the genuineness, or at least the claimed antiquity, of these works. Patriotic Tamils tend to emphasize the antiquity of such works, pushing their origins back long before the dawn of recorded history (figures of 18 to 50 thousand years are often heard), as are claims that Siddha is the progenitor of all other healing traditions); many academics believe the oldest Tamil works to date between the first century BCE and 250 CE.

Today the traditional medical lineage established by the Siddhars exists almost totally unknown outside of southernmost India, in close proximity to the far more widely known Ayurveda medical system. Now confined to the states of Tamil Nadu and a few parts of Kerala, there are available a bulk of written works on Siddha medicine exclusively in the Tamil language (and on occasion in Malayalam), but very little in English or other Western languages. Many of these works have not yet been studied, the jealously guarded property of `medical families' because of their secretive and symbolic language, their deteriorated conditions and their difficult accessibility. Many questions about Siddha medicine cannot be answered, pending further scholarly investigation. Contemporarily, it is unknown when and where Siddha medicine originated, why or how it was developed, and why it has not become as popular as Ayurveda.

In this work Marion Zimmerman attempts to explain in a very basic fashion what the notion 'siddha' means and what kind of person Siddha practice seeks to create. She provides a short introduction to the fundamental principles of the Siddha medicine, its legendary founders and revered practitioners, its history and course of evolution, and some of the problems that Siddha medicine must contend with in securing its place in a world it shares with other medical systems such as Ayurveda and conventional biomedicine (and interestingly, her views on the reasons for its relatively non-acknowledged status as compared with the Ayurvedic system, with which she makes a comparison).

Marion Zimmerman's "A Short Introduction: The Tamil Siddhas and the Siddha Medicine of Tamil Nadu" is an excellent though very brief introduction to this little known healing tradition, but suffers from a number of grammatical and typographical errors, a victim of poor editing which sometimes impinges on its clarity. Nonetheless, I do recommend it as one of the very few English language resources for the study of Siddha medicine.

Review provided by William Courson, BVSA, D. Ayur., an Ayurvedic Practitioner, faculty member and the College Dean of Institutional Development at Sai Ayurvedic College & Ayurvedic Wellness Center.

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