Reviews

A great watershed of Indian culture

This book is a bilingual translation into Hindi and English of one of the most celebrated and best loved Tamil books of all times. The greatest minds of India and the world who have showered praises on this work make up a very impressive list that includes Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer. Translated into more than thirty languages, Kural is hailed as the acme of the wisdom of Tamil people. Readers and scholars with diverse religious and ideological backgrounds have seen reflected in this work the teachings of their own religion or convictions of their own ideology. GU Pope, the first translator inferred that Kural owed its ideas to the Bible. Ayothidas, on the other hand, considered Kural to be the first Buddhist text in Dravidian languages. Jains too lay claim to it. They read the first stanza:

Agaramudala ezhuttelam Adi Bhagawan mudatre ulagu

(Like A is the first among letters, the Primal Lord is the first in the world)

as referring to Adinatha the first of Jaina Tirthankara. This claim is further supported by the fact that Kural proscribes meat eating and alcohol. It recurrently emphasizes the Jain principle of Ahimsa. DMK ideologues too staked their claim. For them, Kural was the quintessence of Dravidian philosophy. Though it is difficult to prove that the author Tiruvalluvar is the quintessence of anti-Brahmin Dravidian philosophy.

Though several such claims have been made on a work authored two millenniums ago, it is difficult to identify this text with any particular religion or philosophy.

The polyvalent nature of the text, defeats any such reductionist reading. The indoctrinated admirers of the book and Tamil chauvinists who think Kural to be the book of moral injunctions for all, forever, do not see the lack of uniformity in the ideas that inspired Valluvar. Different philosophies prevalent during that time are juxtaposed in this work, as it was produced at a time when Tamil society was going through a great transition.

What was the nature of transition that the author of Tirukkural was witness to? A cursory look at the content of the book gives us the lead to understand its context.

Kural is divided into three parts: Aram (Dharma or universal truth), Porul (Artha or acquisition of power and wealth) and Anbu (Love). The first part betrays a profound influence of the two Shamanic religions that had by then taken roots in Tamil land.

The two earliest epics of Tamils Cilappadikaram and Manimekhalai are Jaina and Buddhist works respectively.

The emphasis is on restraint and abstinence-a far cry from intensity of love and war of Sangam period.

The second part, Porul, is about the domain economy and statecraft. Though non-violence is upheld in earlier section, the inevitability of efficient fortification and warfare is recommended. The virtues of heroism and nobility underscored in this section is in keeping with the heroic values of Sangam era. The king and woman’s chastity are at the centre of this ethical world, again as in Sangam poetry.

If the second section reflects Puram( domain of men: war and public affairs), the third section bears a very close affinity to Agam ( the domain of lov and households). In fact, Thiruvalluvar here doffs the didactic outfit and dons the robes of a lover. In poem after poem, like in Puram anthologies, various stages of man-woman love—anticipation, union, separation, betrayal and breakup— are captured poignantly.

In its ethical framework, Tirukkural integrates all the elements of Sangam poetry into something that cannot be called a seamless whole. The gaps between these diverse value systems show up.

They have not been integrated into a consistent whole like in Ilango Adigal’s, Cilappadikaram, which appears like the swan song of the experiential worlds of ancient Tamils.

If the grand epic scale and poetic vision of Cilappadiaram depicts the many-faceted life of contemporary Tamil world, the ethical vision of Tirukkural reflects the delicate balance between Samanic values of Buddhism and Jainism, the heroic values of Sangam ethos and nether worlds of human desire, Anbu or Kama. The only unity that can be seen is the distance it maintains from texts like Manusmriti in its rejection of caste hierarchy.

The poetic beauty of the language of these texts have been widely extolled. The great Sangam poet Avvayar observed that the great poet Tiruvalluvar has injected into an atom, oceans of wisdom.

She is of course referring to the gnomic and terse style of Tirukkural, which is striving towards the maturity of manners and language, which TS Eliot says is the hall-mark of a classic.

Further, according to T.S. Eliot, classic can appear only during the epoch of the culmination of a civilization. He accords the status of classic to only one work, Virgil’s Aeneid.

Virgil’s masterpiece was composed when the pagan civilizations of Europe had come to an end and the new Christian civilization was about to arrive.

That was the greatest moment of transition which led to a totally new culture-scape. The heroic values of Sangam era that glorified a martial heroism was being replaced by shamanic values of moral heroism and sacrifice.

A similar paradigm- shift was to happen in the context of Karnataka in Jinasenacharya’s Poorvapurana and its Kannada version, Pampa’s Adipurana in the episode of Bharata and Bahubali. When the world-conqueror Bharata goes to war with his younger brother Bahubali, the Pattar trounces the former in all stages of the dual between them. But he soon realizes the vacuity of all earthly possessions and embraces asceticism. Neither Kannagi nor Kovalan, the central characters of Cilappadikaram embody martial values.

Both Tirukkural and Cilappadigaram that came at the end of ancient Tamil world, not only reflect the above transition but they are pointing to the emergence of Bhakti culture in Tamil land, which was to transform the cultural landscape of the subcontinent for over a millennium.

The first stanza of Tirukkural in praise of Adibhagavan, who is not the god of any particular region or tinai, but of the whole universe whom Sant Jananadev was to address as Vishwatmaka Deva ( Universal Lord) at the conclusion of his Jnaneshwari.

It is this great archetypal transformation in the culture of the subcontinent that is inscribed both in Tirukkural and Cilappadikaram. This is what makes them fascinating, not some vague universalism which language fanatics glorify.


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