20 November 2010

Thirukkural & Worldwide Wisdom

Thirukkural is a wisdom literature expressed in concise aphorisms on subjects of varying nature concerning worldly life. To achieve this, no doubt the author has employed the most difficult and terse meters of all, called the 'kural' venba which has to be in only seven metrical feet of less than two lines. As Berriendale Keith (1993) would say: "India has always delighted in the expression in verse of pithy observations on life and morals". Globally, such pithy maxims of words of wisdom are not necessarily limited to literary works of aphoristic nature, but also appear in the midst of works of prosodic nature (e.g. Panchatantra, Gulistan), kāvya nature (e.g. Works of Shakespeare & Kālidāsa), epics (e.g. Mahabharatha, Cilappadikāram), sayings (e.g. Analects, Hadith) and even religious scriptures (e.g. Bible, Guru Grant Sahib, Bhagavad Gita).

During my 12 years of acquaintance with various literary works of the world, I would every now and then come across verses or sayings that strikingly resemble the Kural. Sometimes this would be in content of the message, or at times in style and even wordplay. The objective here is to bring together all such parallels and present them serially for every possible couplet in Thirukkural.

While we expect to find striking parallels between Thirukkural and literary works of the Tamil country and other Indian works in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali, there is also surprisingly a high percentage of Kural-like verses in literary works in Persian (e.g. Sa'di's Gulistan), Chinese (e.g. Confucian Analects), Hebrew (e.g. Biblical Proverbs), Latin (e.g. Moral Sayings of Syrus) and other languages. Since Kural is an ethical work, it is only natural to find similarities with all these classical wisdom literatures of the world.  We have to bear in mind that these distant parallels are definitely not borrowings. The objective here is to present the list of similar verses without trying to interpret the nature of borrowings or the influence one upon the other.
There are also proverbs in different languages which are nothing but centuries of accumulated words of wit and wisdom. Though the Kural is not an anthology of proverbs, we do find some striking parallels with different proverbs of the world. These also have been taken into consideration here, though the list still incomplete and many more proverbs are yet to be considered for inclusion here. While writing about the didactical works of India, Berriendale Keith (1993) wrote: "They are not to be compared to proverbs racy of the soil preserved in their primitive form; they are, as in the maxims of Phokylides in Greece, the turning of the raw material by poets into finished products". The raw material Valluvar has employed for composing his couplets might well have been the words of wisdom already in circulation in his native land or the ideas he got from reading other literary works that were available to him during his period. It is evident that he had access to some of the Indian classics on polity (Niti Shastras) when he says "Books declare that a fort should have these four: Height, breadth, strength and difficult access" (Kural 743). There are also other evidences to support this view within the Kural itself as we see the author intermittently referring to the views or statements of earlier times by stating "they say" or "it is said". Just cite two couplets here:

Desire, they say, is the seed of ceaseless birth for all things living at all times. (PS) (Kural 361)
They say: Numbers and other one called Letters are the two eyes to live with. * (VC) (Kural 392)

This is not only true with the Kural but also many other literary classics. Kautilya refers to works on Polity that existed before his Arthasastra, Vatsyayana mentions about works on Kama before his Kamasutra, Kalhana who wrote Rajatarangini tells us that he was not the first to write on the chronicle on kings. This is just like the Tamils who believe in the existence of Agathiyar's grammar before the advent of Tholkappiyar's grammar. Vast majority of the couplets in Thirukkural are the author's own creations as I have managed to find out parallels for only about 50% of the 1330 couplets. And even within these 700 odd verses, the parallels are found in literary works of non-Indian origin. This goes on to show that many of them are mere coincidences which is only expected when comparing two ethical works no matter of which distant land they belong to. Otherwise, how else would one explain the presence of Kural-like verses in Biblical Proverbs, sayings of Publilius Syrus and Shaik Sa'di's works? There are scholars who have tried to attribute Valluvar's teachings to the influence of one sage or another. Reacting to those who think that sentiments like forgiveness and love in Thirukkural are a result of Valluvar's leanings to the preachings of the followers of St. Thomas, Sundaram (1989) says "It is not necessary to attribute whatever is best in the Kural to foreign influence". The ideas of compassion and love were very much there in this holy land even before the advent of Christianity and religions like Buddhism have only inculcated these values.

P.S. Sundaram says there is evidence in the Kural of Valluvar's indebtedness to Manu's Dharmasastra, Kamandaka's Nitisara, Kautilya's Arthasastra and certain Ayurvedic treatises all written in Sanskrit. Except the case of Nitisara, this opinion appears to be true as we see many verses of similar content and nature between Kural and Manu Smiriti or Arthasastra. Nitisara is dated 700 AD (Keith, 1993) and if we are to consider Valluvar to have been influenced by this work, the Kural will have to be dated much later than this work. Interestingly there are a few couplets that are strikingly similar to those found in Nitisara (Couplet 384 with Nitisara, IV.24; couplet 386 & 387 with Nitisara, XV.49; couplet 498 with Nitisara, XIII.79; couplet 561 with Nitisara, II.37; couplet 733 with Nitisara, IV.55). Since Kamandakya himself expresses his gratitude to Chanakya or Kautilya in his opening verses, it remains to be seen if parallels for these verses on polity are found in Arthasastra itself. Only then can we come to a conclusion on the possible influence of one over the other.

This is not the first time an attempt has been made to compare the Kural with other works for similarities. Many scholars have compared the Kural with ethical works in Sanskrit, Chinese, Greek, Latin , Tamil (Thirunavukkarasu, 1977), Hebrew (Kamatchi Srinivasan, 1979) and so on. Probably the first work to compare the Kural with all ethical literatures of India was that of Thirunavukkarasu (1978). Such works continue to be produced but they all restrict their comparisons to one or two particular work. S.M. Diaz in his two volumes of elaborate commentary on Thirukkural compared the couplets with verses from various sources. Though he promised a lot, it only contained parallel quotes from the Bible, Gita, Qur'an, few European works and Tamil literatures. Even this was not exhaustive. To the best of my knowledge, this it the first time an attempt has been made to produce parallels from all known literary works of the world, including proverbs and popular quotes of the world for every couplet in Thirukkural. A fraction of this comparison had already appeared in "Forumhub" discussion forum under the thread "A kural a day" wherein parallels for about 171 couplets were presented. That was in 2001 and in eight years times, not only the number of couplets have increased nearly to 700 but also fresh additions made to those 171 already identified.
Major literary works taken up for comparison and presentation here are:

1) Works in Sanskrit:
  • Didactic works: Sringarasatakam, Nitisatakam, Vairagyasatakam, Nitidvisastika
  • Scriptures of Hinduism: Bhagavad Gita, Rig-Yajur-Artharva vedas, Upanishads, Brahmana
  • Kāvyās: Works of Kālidāsa
  • Sastras: Arthasastra, Nitisastra, Nitisara, Manu Smriti
  • Fables: Panchatantra, Hitopadesa
2) Works in Tamil:
  • Didactic works: Naladiyar, Four works of Avvaiyar, Innā Nārpathu, Iniyavai Nārpathu, Kalavazhi Nārpathu, Kār Narpathu, Thirikadukam, Nanmanikkadikai, Sirupanjamoolam, eladi,
  • Sangam literature: Kalithogai, Kurunthogai, Ainkurunuru, Purananuru, Akananuru, Natrinai, Paripadal, Pathitruppathu, Pathuppattu.
  • Bhakti literature: Panniru Thirumarai (Devāram, Thiruvāsagam, Thirumandiram etc.), Nālāyira Divyaprabandam (Thiruvāimozhi etc.)
  • Epics: Cilappadikāram, Manimekalai, Ceevakacinthāmani, Kambarāmāyanam,
3) Works in Prakrit:
  • Hala's Gathasaptasati, Jayavallabha's Vajjalaggam
  • Kundakunda's Ashta Pahuda
4) European works:
  • English: Works Shakespeare, HW Longfellow, Wordsworth, William Penn, Goethe, Thomas Fuller, Bonaparte,
  • Ethical works: Maxims of Rochenfaucauld, Sayings of Publilius Syrus, Baltasar Gracian, Hesiod, Heracles of Euripides,
  • Plays, epics: Plato
5) Chinese classics:
  • Confucian Analects, Great Learning, Doctrine of Mean
  • Tao Te Ching, Mencius, Sun Tzu, Chuang Tzu
6) Islamic sources:
  • Persian: Works of Jalaluddin Rumi (e.g. Masnavi), works of Shaik Sa'di (e.g. Bustan, Gulistan)
  • Arabic: Qur'an, Hadith
7) Buddhist works:
  • Pali: Dhammapada, Udanavarga, Sutta Nipata, Udana, Itivuttaka, Kuddakapada, Samyutta Nikaya
  • Sanskrit: Buddhacharita, Works of Nagarjuna, Lankavatarasutra
  • Tibetan: Tibetan Dhammapada (Udanavarga), Works of Milarepa, Percepts of the Gurus, Saskya Pandita
  • Others: Charyapada
8) Other religious scriptures and anthologies
  • Guru Grant Sahib, Zend Avesta
  • Holy Bible, Bahai writings
  • Sama Suttam, Pearls of Jaina Wisdom
9) Other Dravidian languages:
  • Kannada: Works of Ponna, Sarvajna,
  • Telugu: Verses of Vemana,
10) Works in Hindi and other languages.:
  • Hindi: Dohas, Bijaks and Sakis of Kabir Das, Bihari Sattasai, Poems of Ghananand
  • Assamese: Dakar Bashan
11) Proverbs:
  • Tamil proverbs, Assamese proverbs,
  • Myanmar, Malay proverbs
  • English, Italian proverbs
  • African, Arabian, Russian, Chinese proverbs
12) Miscellaneous:
  • Works of Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Acharya Vinoba Bhave
  • Works of Kalil Gibran (The prophet, Sand and Foam)
  1. Diaz, S.M. 2000. Tirukkural. Volume 1 and 2. Ramalinga Adigalar Foundation, Coimbatore.
  2. Keith, A.B. 1993. Gnomic and didactic poetry. In: A History of Sanskrit Literature. Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, New Delhi. page 227
  3. Kamatchi Srinivasan, 1979. திருக்குறளும் விவிலியமும். Madurai Kamaraj University. 346 pages
  4. Sundaram, P.S. 1989. Tiruvalluvar: The Kural. Penguin Classics. 168 pages
  5. Thirunavukkarasu, K.D. 1977. Tirukkural: A Didactic Literature. University of Madras.423 pages
  6. Thirunavukkarasu, K.D. 1978. திருக்குறளும் இந்திய அறநூல்களும்மணியகம், சென்னை

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