Thiruvalluvar, the ancient Tamil poet-savant, who has remained common to all sections of society over the centuries, has suddenly been dragged into the hurly-burly of politics thanks to the Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP and its affiliates. By seeking to present him as a savant clad in saffron robes, they have sought to give him a religious identity.
Expectedly this has raised the hackles of many parties in Tamil Nadu, which resented the attempt to literally clothe Thiruvalluvar in a Hindu identity.
The Thirukkural , a set of 1,330 couplets thematically divided into three books and 133 chapters, is widely regarded as a secular tome. Its message is best seen in the first book on virtue, while the two others deal with wealth and love. Dated variously between the last three centuries BCE and the first five of the Common Era, the work does not venture to propound the tenets of any particular religion or godhead.
However, this has not stopped various religious sections from trying, from time to time, to appropriate him.
Tamil scholars over the years have culled out portions of the work to prove a point in support of their argument. Debates were around whether he was an adherent of religious belief, or non-theistic. Some scholars consider him as a proponent of core Jain principles. Once there was an attempt to show him a propounder of Christianity.
“While many Pathinenkeezh Kanakku ‘ nools ’ (Eighteen Literary Works), under which the Thirukkural is categorised, are works of Jains, it was not confined to any particular religion. But scholars like Vaiyapuri Pillai and K.N. Sivaraja Pillai viewed it as Jain literature,” says retired Tamil Professor A.K. Perumal.
Tamil society, however, has persistently refused to attribute any religious colour to the Thirukkural . An attempt by a Christian scholar M. Deivanayagam to suggest that Thiruvalluvar took inspiration from the preaching of St. Thomas was largely ignored. Interestingly, DMK leader M. Karunanidhi wrote a foreword for Mr. Deivanayagam’s book. However, in the foreword, he underscored that he himself believed only in the universality of Thiruvalluvar, and describes the book as the sort of work that ought to provoke deeper study.
“That various religious sects, ideologues and didactic literature seek to appropriate the Thirukkural explains the work’s unique ideas. In Tamil social history, the Thirukkural alone has seen such a tradition,” says V. Arasu, former Head of the Tamil Department, University of Madras.
He noted that all literary works prior to the 9th century had borrowed lines from the Thirukkural .
“Its impact can be seen even in Bhakti literature. In the 19th century, it was read both as a work in favour of Vedic culture and against it. Even though the commentary of Parimelazhagar (a mediaeval commentator whose reading of Thirukkural has survived) was considered great, ideologues of the Dravidian Movement and Tamil Nationalists refused to accept it,” Dr Arasu said.
And as with his works, the portrait of Thiruvalluvar, too, has been the subject of a debate. Until the 1950s, when Balu brothers, who ran a literary magazine Kalai , portrayed him without any markers of religion, Thiruvalluvar was depicted in a manner that resembled Saivite saints.
An old poem, ‘Nayanar Swaroopasthuthi’ , says he (Thiruvalluvar) sits in padmasana ; has holy ash smeared on his forehead; sports a beard, holds a jebamalai (rosary) on his right hand, wears a yogapattai (a yoga sash) across his body.
“But he is not a Saivite in a modern sense. He represents Saivite philosophy, which talks about the connection between ordinary life ( Sittarivu ) and God ( Perarivu ). Moreover, during Thiruvalluvar’s period, Vaishnavism had not evolved as a religion,” said Sivalayam J. Mohan, who has published old commentaries on the Thirukkural by many scholars.
Mr. Mohan is also clear that in Tamil tradition, saffron raiment had no place even in the life of a saint. “Even today we have heads of Saivite mutts wearing only white robes. Saffron was adopted by the mutts very late in history,” he said.
“The portrait in use today was painted by Venugopala Sarma. A stamp was released based on his portrait by former Union Minister K. Subbarayan. The same portrait was later unveiled in the Legislative Assembly. The statue at Mylapore in Chennai was also designed based on the portrait,” says K. Thirunavukkarasu, historian of the Dravidian Movement.
Whether these historical details will put an end to the present controversy, however, remains a moot question.