The Kural and a certain beautiful verse in the Purananuru by the Pandyan Nedunjeliyan emphasize the value of learning. The civilisation of the Sangam Tamils was the product of liberal and technical education.
They knew enough science, mathematics, engineering, astronomy, logic and ethics to sustain this civilisation. Their literature is an index of their refinement in thought and expression.
There was no institutional system of education but merely an oral tradition of teacher to teach by word of mouth and from generation to generation. The Kanakkayar was the ancient Tamil teacher. Technical and craft education was imparted at home by father to son. Memory was a necessary and chief instrument of transmission of knowledge. Originality was not a conspicuous feature of their educational goals.
The educational process aimed at remembering the past and not critically analyzing it. The idea was to secure confirmism and the preservation of the tradition. The Brahmins learnt and taught the Vedas and allied studies. There were other students who were interested in Tamil studies.
The princes of the royal family learnt the art of war in military schools. The marchland princes perhaps learnt some arithmetic and accounting and calculation of interest rates. Even the illiterates stored up some knowledge by listening to literate scholars and many others had no need for any king of education.
The Sangam Tamils are rightly famous for the remarkable literature they produced. Barring Sanskrit and some kinds of Prakrit, Tamil produced the earliest literature in India. The body of literature they produced and which is called the Sangam literature belonged to the six centuries between the third century BC and the third century AD.
There is, however, difference of opinion as to what texts comprise the Sangam literature. The most orthodox view holds that the Tolkappiyam, Ettuttogai (eight anthologies), Pattupattu (an anthology of ten long verses) and most of the eighteen (minor) works known as the Padinenkilkkanakku as well as the Tagadur Yattirai and the Muttolayiram along with the two epics Silappandikaram and Manimekalai constitute the Sangam literature. A more restricted view is that only the Ettuttogai and some of the Pattuppattu belong to this age.
According to them even the Tolkappiyam, the Tirumurugarruppadai (a devotional song on Murugan by Nakkirar, the famous Sangam poet), the Paripadal and the Kural belong to later times. The Silappadikaram and Manimekalai are dated in the 8th century on grounds which serious scholarship would disdain even to look at. But it is undeniable that the Sangam Tamils produced a body of literature which is creditable by any standard of criticism. It has been computed that nearly 600 poets contributed to this literature.
Among these the more important were the Brahmin poets Kapilar and Nakkirar, the Brahmin grammarian Tolkappiar (who belonged to the Kavya gotra claiming a descent from Sukra, the famous Kavi who was the Brahmin Purohita of the Asuras of mythology) and royal poets like Nedum Seliyan, Nalluruttiran, etc., Vaisya poets like Sattanar of Madurai, poetesses like Auvaiyar, Vellividiyar and many others belonging to different castes and from either sex contributed to this literature.
It was largely secular either in the nature of praising the patron or describing a love situation or describing a battle or commemorating a benefaction; there were didactic works prescribing the canons of literary composition or there was also to some extent devotional poetry.
Epics like the Silappadikaram crowned the literary efforts of the Sangam Tamils. The Tagadur Yattirai was an unusual piece of literature which narrated the historical events pertaining to the storming and reduction of the fortress of Tagadur by the Chera king Perum Serai Irumporai. Perungadai an adaptation of Gunadya’s Brihatkatha originally written in the Paisasi Prakrit was written by Konguvel a prince. It can be classed among the greatest of Tamil epics. Perhaps it was composed during the fag end of the Sangam period or the dawn of the Pallava age.
In the Sangam age religion was in a sort of melting pot. Primitive village gods, the totemic symbols, bloody sacrifice to appease ferocious deities, the tradition of exercising ghosts, belief in deities which resided in trees, in streams and on hilltops characterised the earlier statum of Tamilian religious consciousness; the four kinds of deities mentioned by the tolkappiyam as appropriate to different landscape, Kurinji, Mullai, Marudam and Palai were Murugan, Tirumal, Vendan (Indran) and Varunan respectively are another category of classification of popular deitites.
Worship of these was organised by the people in the respective regions and the nature of the worship depended upon the culture of the locality. A third and more sophisticated aspect of their religion was worship of gods and goddesses in temples. Fallen heroes, Satis and other varieties of martyrs were deified and worshipped. Literature sang the praises of these deities.
That was also the period during which many of the old deities assumed fresh characteristics and were equated with similar deities or gods, like Muruga-Subrahmanya, Siva-Rudra, Mayon-Vishnu, Kali-Parvathi and the Perunchadukkattu Bhudam-Ganesa identifications. Krishna of Mahabharata was fuly deified while Rama was only in the stage of an admired hero.
Centres of religious importance like Tirupati, Madurai, Tiruchendur, Puhar, Vanji, Kanchi were few but significant. Hindus, Jains, the Bauddhas, primitive totem worshippers, etc., coexisted in that society without generating serious controversies. The Manimekalai gives an indication of the Hinayana system of Buddhist philosophy known to the scholars of that religion in Kanchi under the leadership of Aravana Adigal.
Some modern scholars think that Valluvar was a Jaina; that is doubtful. But that the authors of the Naladiyar, a collection of four hundred remarkable verses, were Jains is undoubted. The Bhakti age had not dawned. The age of tolerance was still on.