18 December 2011

Thirukkural (திருக்குறள்)

The most well known literary masterpiece in Tamil is undoubtedly Thirukkural; also abridged as the Kural. Attributed to the poet Thiruvalluvar, the work is a collection consisting almost entirely of stand-alone maxims on 133 different topics. These topics are organized as chapters under three divisions, namely Virtue, Wealth and Love, all these three put together called “Trivarga” in Sanskrit or “Muppāl” (முப்பால்) in Tamil. In terms of subject matters dealt under these three divisions, we can roughly equate them to different literary classics known to us. I would say the first division "arattuppāl" with the work in Pāli, Dhammapāda, the second division "porutpāl" with Chinese Analects and the third one "inbathuppāl" to the Tamil Akam poems.

The globar popularity of Thirukkural can be judged from the fact that this didactic work is one among top five ancient classics to have been translated into many languages of the world. If the moral dictims it contains could be considered as the single most reason for its popularity, what makes the work a special classic of all times is the way the author has weaved his message in couplets that can be memorized and remembered as quotable quotes on almost all mundane subject matters. Other specialties of the work are its amazing organization and the a diversity of subjects the author has covered under one roof.

Sources of Thirukkural

The author of Thirukkural was obviously a very learned man who had mastered renowned literary works, both Sanskrit and Tamil, which were available to him during his time. Though most of the couplets are his own creations, he was indebted to many of his predecessors for some of the ideas he has either borrowed or adapted in his work. This is evident from fact that Valluvar often employs the word “enba” (என்ப which means “so they say”) in some of his couplets (e.g. 392). But one thing Valluvar has done is to improve the quality of presentation of all these known idea borrows manifold.

Message of Thirukkural

It is said that “Thirukkural is the life, Thiruvasagam is the heart and Thirumandiram is the soul of Tamil culture”. It is also said “இறைவன் மனிதனுக்கு சொன்னது கீதை, மனிதன் இறைவனுக்கு சொன்னது திருவாசகம், மனிதன் மனிதனுக்கு சொன்னது திருக்குறள். When translated, it roughly means:What God said to man is in Geeta; what man said to God is in Thiruvasagam; and what man said to man is in Thirukkural”. Indeed, nowhere does the author even remotely indicate that his couplets are divine revelations to be followed for attaining liberation. Every now and then Valluvar does relate certain ethical precepts to end the cycle of birth and death (couplets 8, 38, 249, 351, 361 etc.) but we see him hardly mixing up things meant for mundane existence with principles meant for divine deliverance. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Chapter 36 on “Truth Realization” is the only chapter the author has devoted entirely for spirituality (self realization). The author of Thirukkural was more concerned about the conduct of man in this world. He deals with man’s responsibilities to the society, to his family, to animals, to his subordinates, to his superiors and to his ruler and to God as well. 

Translating Tirukkural

To appreciate the beauty of Kural, one should read the work in Tamil. This is of course true with all literary classics of the world. However, since Kural is an ethical treaty from a man of universal ideas, the beauty and brevity of the work can be appreciated if it is properly translated. It was Kamil Zvelebil who first showed how best the couplets can be translated and it took more than a decade for someone like P.S. Sundaram to come up with a complete translation of the Kural the way Kamil recommended. No English translation, however, could be considered perfect as we come across unconvincing translations in everyone’s rendering including that of Mr. Sundaram which I regard as the best to have appeared so far.  

Dating Thirukkural 

The Kural has not been accurately dated. Like most other Indian literatures, it will never be possible to date this work with precision. Some consider it to be a work of pre-Christian era, majority regard it as a work of early Christian period, while a minority regards it as a post-Sangam work of circa 500-700 A.D. Of all the Sangam works, it is to Kalithogai that Thirukkural bears greatest resemblance, both in wordplay and ideas. The Kural was probably written shortly after Kalithogai came into existence and before Ilango Adigal wrote Silappathikaram (Agathiyalingom, 2009). This period in all likelihood fall between the 5th and 7th centuries A.D.

I can keep on writing on Thirukkural and there wouldn’t be any end to it. I need to ends this short introduction here and focus more on showcasing the best of what I read from this famous Tamil classic. To know more about about Thirukkural, I would redirect readers to read my articles and essays on “Introduction to the Kural and its author”, “Translating the Kural”, “Translations of Kural in different languages”, “Thirukkural and worldly wisdom”, “Jaina ideas in Thirukkural” and lastly one of first research work of pure academic interest “Mathematical miracle in Kural” .

The best of what I read

From a classic of international repute like the Kural, it is difficult, rather impossible, to select a few and present them as the best ones I have read. One can perhaps think of presenting one couplet from each of the 133 chapters but even here one would face a dilemma. As many chapters are studded with more than one quotable quote, it becomes extremely difficult to single out one as the best. What have I preferred to do here is to select 10 couplets from the entire work, not necessarily because they are the best but because of their unique features I have described below. Of these 10, three couplets are from the first Division “Virtue”, five from the second Division “Wealth” and two from the third Division “Love”.

Division I. VIRTUE (அறத்துப்பால்)

(1) Body, Soul and Love

Easily one of the best chapters in Thirukkural is Chapter 8 on “Possession of love” (அன்புடைமை). It . There is no equivalent English word for "anbu" (அன்பு). The word "affection" could be a better option as the word "Love" in English has other connotations as well. And again, Tamil has another apt word for "affection" which is "பாசம்". In English, "Love" could not only mean brotherly, motherly, friendly loves, but can also mean 'carnal love'. But the word "anbu" (அன்பு) means affectionate love which has no carnal or sensual connotation. The basic message Valluvar seem to convey through this chapter is that love is an indispensable attribute for a living being. Let us take this couplet:

அன்போடு இயைந்த வழக்கென்ப ஆருயிர்க்கு
என்போடு இயைந்த தொடர்பு.  (73)
They say it is to know the union with love
That the soul takes union with the body.
 (SS)

Valluvar ends Chapter 8 by saying "The throb of life is love" (அன்பின் வழியது உயிர்நிலை) (Kural 80) and it is only to get an opportunity to express this union with love that the soul has taken the union with body (Kural 73). And the external 'body' is of no use to one who lacks the internal 'love' (Kural 78). And the relationship between soul and love continues in couplet 78, when the author says that life of a loveless soul is a sapless tree in a barren desert failing shoot. Without a soul, the body may be called dead, but without love it is nothing but a skin bag of bones (Kural 80).

The words அன்பு, அருள், கண்ணோட்டம் (Love, Grace and Compassion) are one way or the other interlinked. The author says that Grace is the offspring of Love (Kural 757); and while Love is something internal (Kural 79), compassion has to do with eyes (Kural 573). We see this relationship between Love & Grace being mentioned in couplet 285. Since Grace is the offspring of Love and since Love being internal has something to do with life and soul, the author considers meat eaters (who have to first kill a living being) are always graceless.  

What was written 1500 years ago by Valluvar has been emphasized by many other saints of subsequent period. St. Francis de Sales said: “The soul cannot live without love” (Treasury of Religious Quotations, Gerald Tomlinson, p 148). French writer La Rochefoucauld wrote: “Love is to the soul of a lover what soul is to the body it animates” (Maxims, 576). 

(2) Backbiting 

In Kural184, Valluvar says it is better to say heartless words to man's face than indulging in thoughtless ones at his back. This is an attribute of people who are generally very outspoken and professional. Among backbiters, there are people who pretend to be nice to you when you are around but promptly speak ill of you the moment he gets an opportunity to be away from you. Valluvar didn’t fail to compose a couplet to denote them.


அறனழீஇ அல்லவை செய்தலின் தீதே
புறனழீஇப் பொய்த்து நகை.  (182)
Viler than violating virtue for committing vile,
Is to smile before and vilify behind.
(SS, VS) 

We need to differentiate these false smiles from whole hearted ones. This is precisely the reason why Valluvar also says that a smiling face alone makes no friendship, but the heart should also smile with the face (Kural 786).

(3) Posing ascetics 
An illustration of a wolf in sheep form (above)
a cow in tiger form (below)
வலியில் நிலைமையான் வல்லுருவம் பெற்றம்
புலியின்தோல் போர்த்துமேய்ந் தற்று. (273)
A weakling posing a giant form
Is an ox grazing in a tiger’s skin.
(PS)

Bible has this famous quote attributed to Jesus:False teachers come to you dressed like sheep, but in their hearts they are dangerous wolves” (Mathew, 7:15). Here the external manifestation is that of a harmless herbivore, and what is not expressed and concealed internally is that of a predator. The Tamil proverb “
பசுந்தோல் போர்த்திய புலி” (A tiger in cow’s garb) fits to this expression of false ascetics or prophets wandering disguised as harmless beings. Valluvar, however, has reversed the simile with the herbivore taking the interior and predator taking the external manifestation. This couplet comes from the chapter “கூடாவொழுக்கம்” dealing with conduct of false ascetics. There are similar ones attributed to Kabir:

Wearing the garb of a tiger, (the hypocrite) paces like sheep.
(The Sakhi, 19:9. Translator: Mohan Singh Karki).


Into a lion’s coat rushes a goat. 
You will recognize him by his voice. 
The word reveals.
(Sakhi, 281). In: The Bijak of Kabir.

The last one reminds us of the fable "Ass in tiger-skin" in Book IV (Loss of Gains) of Panchatantra. A washer-man lets loose his donkey at night, disguised under a tigers-skin, to graze in others' crop fields. The farmers were afraid of driving off the 'tiger'. But soon the donkey revealed its nature when the time came for it to respond to she-donkey's braying. In all these cases of cow, goat, donkey and sheep, the external manifestation is that of a destructive predator (tiger, lion) superimposed over a harmless herbivore like sheep, goat or cow. What then is the difference between the Biblical verse and Thirukkural couplet? Both Valluvar and Kabir refer to the weak incapables (like sheep and cows) portraying them as mighty capables (like the tiger, lion). The message here is that the disguise wouldn't last long as the deceit would find it difficult to hide his/her true nature.

Division II. WEALTH (பொருட்பால்)

(4) Ability to simplify and grasp

Ability to summarize your study and present the crux of the findings to the audience is an invaluable trait required of a scholar. Likewise, a scholar should also be able to grasp the essentials of a presentation however complex or obscure it may look. These two qualities are illustrated by Valluvar in the following couplet:

எண்பொருள வாகச் செலச்சொல்லித் தான்பிறர்வாய்
நுண்பொருள் காண்ப தறிவு.
(424).
Wisdom lies in simplifying intricate facts
And grasping that of others, however intricate.
 
In Tamil, we often say ”சுருங்கச் சொல்லி விளங்க வைத்தல்”. The first part of the couplet refers to this attribute. And the second half to the ability of the listener to comprehend when others present intricate facts.

(5) Earn by fair means

Couplet 659 has always been one of my favourites. Surprisingly I haven’t seen this been quoted by anyone in any context. As it comes under the chapter “Honest Dealing” (வினைத்தூய்மை), it obviously refers to maintaining integrity in any kind of dealing particularly in the accumulation of wealth. We see in our daily affairs people trying to earn wealth and fame by hook or crook. They are not concerned about the means they adopt as long as the ends are achieved. Here Valluvar says fraudulent dealings might seem to produce the desired results but all will come to a naught in the end. Meanwhile a person who undertakes an enterprise honestly might seem to lose his ground, but will soon regain whatever he lost only because he was fair in his dealings. This is how Valluvar puts these two extremes together and compose this wonderful couplet:

அழக் கொண்ட எல்லாம் அழப்போம் இழப்பினும்
பிற்பயக்கும் நற்பா லவை.            (659)
What’s gained with other's tears will go in tears; 
What’s won fair, though lost, will surge again.  * (PS, SI)

(6) No blame on soldiers who fail

“Operation success but the patient died” is a popular saying of contemporary times. Though the patient died in the end, the procedures that were followed in treating the patient was as per the protocol. No one would blame the doctor in this case though he failed to fulfill the objective of saving the patient’s life. Likewise, a soldier might give up his life fighting for a cause, but no one would blame him for failing to fulfill the task he was meant to. Valluvar puts across this message in the following couplet brilliantly. 

இழைத்தது இகவாமைச் சாவாரை யாரே
பிழைத்தது ஒறுக்கிற் பவர்? (779)
Who dares to despise a man for not fulfilling
A pledge he died to fulfill?
(PS)

(7) Harlots and their false embrace

Tirukkural has one chapter completely on prostitution (Chapter 92: வரைவின்மகளிர்). This verse attracted my attention because it has an interesting reference to an age old practice which is no longer in vogue.

பொருட்பெண்டிர் பொய்ம்மை முயக்கம் இருட்டுஅறையில்
ஏதில் பிணம்தழீஇ யற்று  (913)
A harlot’s false embrace for money is like one hired
To clasp an alien corpse in a dark room
. * (PS)

There existed, according to French writer Abbe J.A. Dubois of the 18th century A.D. [Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, page 17 and Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Volume V, page 107], a practice amongst the Nambudris of Kerala to hire someone to embrace the dead corpse of girls who die as virgins [Padmanabhan, 2003]. Valluvar could be referring to this custom. Though two of the five traditional commentators of Tirukkural, namely Manakkudavar and Pariperumal, interpret this way [… பிணத்தை கூலிக்கு தழுவியது போலும்…..], they do not refer to this as a practice amongst Nambūdris.

(8) Puppets are without conscience 

Valluvar compares those who act on others instructions to puppets moved by string. We can cite many examples of such real life dummies in the present day. Our Prime Minister Shri. Manmohan Singh has been ruling the country for nearly 10 years now amidst allegations by opposition parties of being a puppet moved by strings from behind. Coincidentally, with his rigid upright walk and minimum head movement, Mr. Singhs does indeed look like a puppet!

Let us look at the couplet:
நாண்அகத் தில்லார் இயக்கம் மரப்பாவை
நாணால் உயிர்மருட்டி அற்று. (1020)
The moves of those devoid of conscience
Are like those of puppets moved by a string
. * (KK)

Valluvar employs puppets as a simile at another place (couplet 1058) to depict how the world will look like without beggars. At another place he compares handsome men without subtle and sharp intellect to a beautiful mud-doll (Kural 407).

Division III. LOVE (காமத்துப்பால்)

9) Elephant and Women

No animal has fascinated humans so much like the elephant. There exists hardly any literature in the world without a mention of the elephant. We find so many comparisons of different parts of the anatomy of the elephant to different things. Broad ears are compared to leaves of lotus & Colocasia, columnar legs are compared to pillars & trunks of palymyra palm, the prehensile trunk is compared to the hand (thus the name hāthi in Hindi) and snake (and so the name nāgam in Tamil), tusks are said to resemble screw-pine flowers, nails over the foot are compared to the palmyra palm fruit and so on.

Women have not been spared either. The gait of an elephant, when viewed from behind, apparently resembles their catwalk! Indeed it does!  The trunk is compared to women’s legs as they are broad at the base and taper towards the end. Poets also compare the bulging foreheads of Asian elephants to women’s buxom breasts. Let us look at this Prakrit poem from Gathasaptasathi.

With those dammed breasts
Like the two bumps on a young elephant’s forehead,
Firm full and prominent pressing against each other,
She can hardly breath, let alone move.  
(Hala’s Sattasai, 258) [Translators: P. Khoroche & H. Tieken]

Another literary work which contains a similar comparison is Jayavallabha’s Vajjalaggam where breasts are compared to the foreheads of Indra’s elephant (poem 309). Thirukkural also has a couplet referring to this, but I am yet to see a commentator or translator interpreting it this way.

கடாஅக் களிற்றின்மேற் கட்படாம் மாதர்
படாஅ முலைமேல் துகில்.  (1087)
Like the veil over the face of a rutting elephant 
Is the vest that veils her buxom breasts. (SB, NV) 
Vest over her
Veil on the elephant
Bulging forehead
Buxom breasts

Here Valluvar compares the bulging breasts covered by the sāree or blouse to the veil over the forehead of a decorated elephant. Poets also compare the half-concealed breasts to the moon appearing out of the clouds. Another poem attributed to King Hala says: “Her round breast bulging out of a dark blue blouse, looks like the moon peering from behind a cloud heavy with rain.” (Gathasaptasathi, 395).

10) Painful one-side love

The word “kaavadi” [காவடி, appearing as “கா” in Kural 1196] referring to the shoulder pole used to carry heavy articles on either side. Kāvadi Āattam is a traditional form of folk dance in Tamil Nadu performed only by men.

“There is an interesting story behind the origination of the Kavadi Aattam form of dance. It goes back to the ancient time. The Tamils had to walk a long way on their pilgrimage journey carrying the offerings to the gods. These offerings were tied on both the ends of a long stick, which was balanced on the shoulders of the pilgrims. The journey was very tiresome and it was boring as well. To lessen the pain and boredom on the long journey, they sang devotional songs. The pilgrims also danced, balancing the stick on their shoulders. This is how the dance form of Kavadi Aattam came in to its origin”

Let us see the couplet in question:

ஒருதலையான் இன்னாது காமம்காப் போல
இருதலை யானும் இனிது.   (1196)
One-sided love pains like lopsided kāvadi.
It is sweet only when shared by both sides. (NV)

In Akam poetry, Kaikkilai (கைக்கிளை) refers to one-side love. Sangam poets rarely indulged in composing songs to signify this thinai which is one among the seven Akathinais (அகத்திணை). This couplet points out that love becomes sweet only when it is equally shared from both sides (man and woman). The only literary work from which I could get a parallel for this couplet is from Jayavallabha’s Prakrit work Vajjalaggam: “Love which is one-sided is astringent like a pomegranate fruit. So long as the seed does not become red, how can it produce sweetness?” (Poem 334) 

References:

  • Agathiyalingom, S. 2009. Cankat Tamil – 1. International Institute of Tamil Studies. Chennai. Pp 133-140
  • Meenakshisundaran, T.P. 1969. Philosophy of Tiruvalluvar. Madurai Kamaraj University. Pp 94-114
  • Padmanabhan, S. 2003. Thiruvalluvar. Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Research Centre, Nagercoil. Pp 42

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