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Updated: March 23, 2010 10:58 IST

A glowing tribute to humanity

P. MARUDANAYAGAM
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Countless are the philosophers and poets who have celebrated homo sapiens. To quote a few: “Numberless are the world's wonders, but none more wonderful than man” (Sophocles); “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties” (Shakespeare); “Earth is the chosen place of mightiest souls” (Sri Aurobindo).

There have also been glorious attempts at tracing the history of humanity from a refreshingly new perspective, as, for instance, by H.G.Wells ( Outline of History), Arnold Toynbee ( A Study of History), Will Durant ( The Story of Philosophy) and Stephen Hawking ( A Brief History of Time). But Kulottungan's masterpiece in Tamil, Maanuda Yaathirai (pilgrimage of mankind) “pursues things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” He may not be as tall as any of those scholars but has the advantage of standing on their shoulders, and this he exploits to the hilt. An intellectual with a wide range of interest and who is perfectly at home both in science and literature, Kulottungan has a natural commitment to cosmopolitanism and internationalism, and he can view the entire world as a single family and all human beings as his kith and kin.

Insight

This book of poems in three volumes — with five sections under the heads, ‘society', ‘politics', ‘science', ‘spirituality' and ‘religion' — provides a breathtaking insight into the past of man, turning the spotlight on what social and political revolutionaries, scientists, theologians, and religious leaders have thought, said and done. It takes the reader on an exciting journey from the world of insects to the infinite reaches of the universe, from the workings of the body and mind to the mystical questions that defy rational explanation, from the behaviour patterns of animals and plants to doubts, ambiguities and unresolved issues about man's destiny, and from the distant past to the here and now.

Where spirituality, religion, and theology are concerned, Kulottungan delves into the riddles of the past. He is authoritative while writing on the latest research in natural, physical and social sciences. His vision of life is quite at odds with the attitudes of many of his predecessors who have left learned disquisitions on man and earthly life. To Schopenhauer, life is evil because the higher the organism the greater the suffering and because “he that increases knowledge increases only sorrow.”

The basic paradox that runs through Alexander Pope's ‘Essay on Man' is that humanity is both a very important and a very trivial thing. Lucretius, the great Roman philosopher, waxes eloquent over the bliss experienced by the wise people who distance themselves from the sorrowing multitude. Even as recently as the 20th century, a poet like T.S. Eliot would advise the individual to focus on preparing his own soul for a future life.

In Kulottungan's view, man who, unlike others in the universe, is a magnificent being, capable of infinite individual development, placed in a world which he should not despise but explore and enjoy. In an age marked by intellectual and moral irresponsibility, he pleads for mankind's sense of responsibility — for its own and world's destiny — and for its belief in itself and hitherto unexplored potentialities. He is never tired of singing the praise of man. Witness his assertion: “No religion there is that is superior to humanism”; “The truth that life is a blessing is our Veda; Let us build our heaven here”; and “The wonder of all wonders is the matter miraculous which the world calls the human mind.”

Open mind

Objective and dispassionate to the core in his historical-critical account of what man has done to man and to the world, Kulottungan approaches religion, philosophy, and political ideology with an open mind. While giving a succinct summary (in verse) of Swami Vivekananda's San Francisco lecture, ‘Is Vedanta the future religion?', he also castigates the medieval theologians who whipped up religious frenzy and harassed scientists. Tracing briefly the fierce battle some of the scientists waged for ‘truth', he records Bruno's supreme self-sacrifice in these poignant lines: “Lit a fire and set him ablaze, they said; the great man stood firm like a bull, was burnt to death and gave a history for glory itself.”

The kind of research that has gone into this stupendous work is impeccable and the arguments advanced are forensic. For a breezy narration of epoch-making events, Kulottangan has evolved a new stanza format, with “an answerable style.” Each stanza consists of four short lines, each line having three ‘ seers'.

The language is limpid and persuasive, and the similes are simple and arresting. He has used appropriate Tamil equivalents for some contemporary sophisticated English expressions like ‘brain washing', ‘obsolete', ‘holistic medicine' and ‘transgenic plant'. But what makes the work highly valuable is that it rerpresents the successful identification of a new theme, if not a new genre, for world literature.

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