David Shulman: Truth and Words

We tend to think that truth is a universal, independent of cultural inflections; but this can hardly be the case. In Greece, for example, truth is understood as an unveiling, or a non-inattention (inattention being seen as the human default). Shulman argues that in the south Indian world beautifully articulated by the 12th-century poet Kamban, truth (mey, unmai) is only tangentially linked with knowledge. It's primary source lies in the spoken word, which has a life of its own and exacts an existential cost from both speaker and listener. In addition to this strong linguistic aspect, itself close to a Bhartrharian view of language and meaning, true statements have an iconic structure; they can be distinguished from mantric speech, on the one hand, and from false speech, on the other, by the ellipses and gaps, with their emotional burdens, that are always built into truth. He shows how Kamban thematizes these issues in his Ayodhyakandam.

David Shulman was trained at the School of Oriental and African Studies by the great Tamilist John Marr. Since completing his Ph.D. there in 1976 he has been teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies. He has worked closely with Velcheru Narayana Rao, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Don Handelman in the areas of Telugu literature and history, the history of the Nayaka period, south Indian historiography, and south Indian Saivism. His main interests lie in the cultural history southern India, in particular in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Sanskrit. In recent years he has been captivated by Kudiyattam, the classical theater of Kerala, and is working on a book about this remarkable tradition. His true passion is Carnatic music. He is active in the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement and has written a book about this work, Dark Hope (Chicago, 2007).