“Akara Mudhala Ezhuththellaam Aadhi Bagavan Mudhatre Ulagu”
Translation: As the letter A is the first of all letters, so the eternal God is first in the world.
This timeless couplet, or ‘Kural,’ resonates widely in Tamil Nadu, finding its way into school textbooks and government buses alike. Embraced by the Tamil people, irrespective of their religious affiliations, this verse serves as a reverential homage to their chosen deity. The collection of 1330 Kurals forms the Thirukkural, the magnum opus of the saint-poet-philosopher Thiruvalluvar.
Valluvar’s profound impact echoes through the corridors of time, captivating scholars across ethical, social, economic, philosophical and spiritual realms. Though crafted exclusively in Tamil, the verses of Thirukkural transcend geographical and cultural confines, fostering relatability that resonates across centuries. This literary masterpiece has traversed linguistic barriers, finding expression in over 100 languages through translations, attesting to its enduring global appeal.
The Thirukkural’s enduring influence transcends epochs, transforming its author into a revered sage whose literary masterpieces are hailed as eternal classics, enriching the vibrant symphony of Tamil culture. Imbued with wisdom that resonates across the spectrum of human experience, Valluvar’s insights continue to beckon intellects, weaving a tapestry of inspiration that transcends boundaries and resonates with the very essence of human existence.
Within the folds of this essay lies an endeavour to unravel the intricacies of the Thirukkural and its structural nuances, shedding light on lesser-known facets of the enigmatic man behind these timeless couplets.
Valluvar’ veiled past:
Valluvar’s life remains shrouded in mystery, as there is scant authentic information about him. Even his actual name and the original title of his work, Thirukkural, cannot be definitively determined. Hence, speculations about Valluvar’s life are primarily drawn from his work and references in other Tamil literature. The earliest reference to Valluvar appears in the Shaivite Tamil text Tiruvalluvamaalai, yet its exact date remains unknown.
Thiruvalluvar is believed to have lived in Madurai and later in the town of Mylapuram or Thirumayilai (present-day Mylapore in Chennai). During the colonial era, an early 19th-century commentary described him as “Valluvan,” presenting Vedic wisdom to the world. Valluvar’s family background and occupation have sparked various claims from colonial-era literature, often inferred from selective sections of his work. One version suggests he was a Paraiyar weaver, while another theory links him to the agricultural caste of Vellalars due to his praise for agriculture. A different account suggests Valluvar was an outcast, born to a Pariah woman and Brahmin father.
Scholars have proposed diverse interpretations of Valluvar’s name, with some speculating it could be a variation of “vallabha,” a royal officer’s designation. Others connect it to “Valluvan,” a Paraiyar caste of royal drummers. Historical figures like H. A. Stuart and Robert Caldwell asserted Valluvans were a priestly class among the Paraiyars during the Pallava reign.
According to traditional accounts, Valluvar married a woman named Vasuki and resided in Mylapore. He is said to have died on the Anusham day in the Tamil month of Vaikasi. The poem Kapilar Agaval, attributed to Kapilar, claims he was Valluvar’s brother, born to a Pulaya mother named Adi and a Brahmin father named Bhagwan. However, traditional biographies are inconsistent and often present unrealistic claims about Valluvar.
Various versions of his birth circumstances include tales of meeting the legendary Agastya and other sages on a mountain. Scholars dismiss these hagiographic stories as fictional and ahistorical, common features found in folklore.
Which religion did Thiruvalluvar belong to?
Valluvar’s religious affiliation is commonly debated, with suggestions that he may have belonged to either Jainism or Hinduism, considering these were prevalent religions during his time in the Indian subcontinent. Early 19th-century writers proposed that the Thirukkural was connected to Jain philosophy, citing ethical similarities between Tirukkural and Jain moral codes, such as moral vegetarianism and ahimsa, or “abstention from killing”. Scholars also highlight Tirukkural’s expression of liberation (Moksha) from the cycle of rebirth (Samsara) through compassionate living.
While Hindu teachers correlate Valluvar’s teachings in Tirukkural with Hindu texts, Valluvar’s treatment of the concept of ahimsa aligns with both Jain and Hindu principles. The text, despite emphasizing non-violence, includes many porul couplets dedicated to statecraft and warfare, resembling aspects of Arthasastra. Notably, references to God Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi in certain couplets hint at Vaishnavite beliefs.
Interestingly, Shaivites also characterize Valluvar as a devotee of Shiva, installing his images in their temples. However, scholars and linguists affirm that Thirukkural is a non-religious, aphoristic text open to multiple interpretations, reflecting a harmonious blending of diverse philosophical influences.
Thirukkural: the Magnum Opus:
Thirukkural stands as Valluvar’s primary work, comprising 1330 couplets organized into 133 sections of 10 couplets each. The initial 38 sections delve into moral and cosmic order (aram, dharma), followed by 70 sections on political and economic matters (porul, artha), and concluding with 25 sections exploring pleasure (inbam, kama).
Valluvar’s second section on porul, constituting 53% of the text, extensively addresses statecraft and warfare, demonstrating a realistic and pragmatic perspective rather than a mystic or purely philosophical approach. Unlike Kautilya’s Arthasastra, Valluvar places paramount importance on the army (padai) in his theory of state. He advocates for a well-kept and well-trained army led by a capable commander, emphasizing its readiness for war as essential for a state’s security.
Valluvar articulates his theory of state using six elements: army, subjects, treasure, ministers, allies, and forts. He underscores the necessity of forts, infrastructure, supplies, and food storage for preparing against sieges.
The Thirukkural has been translated into various Indian and international languages, gaining recognition as one of the most revered works in Tamil literature. While Thirukkural is widely accepted as Valluvar’s sole work, some later-dated texts, including Gnana Vettiyan (1500 verses) and Pancharathnam (500 verses) on medicine, are attributed to him in the Tamil literary tradition. However, scholars often consider these to be creations from a later era (16th and 17th centuries) by an author sharing Valluvar’s name. Additionally, 15 other Tamil texts have been ascribed to Valluvar, contributing to various fields like science and literature, though debates exist among scholars about their true authorship.
The Poetic Alchemy of Thirukkural:
A noteworthy aspect is Thirukkural’s adept use of metaphors and similes, skillfully woven by Thiruvalluvar to create vivid imagery that captivates the reader’s imagination. For instance, in couplet 267, he likens a virtuous person to a lotus blooming in muddy water, emphasizing the idea that virtue enables one to rise above life’s challenges and maintain purity.
The Thirukkural’s poetic allure is further enhanced by the incorporation of alliteration and assonance. Thiruvalluvar strategically employs these techniques, repeating consonant and vowel sounds to infuse a rhythmic flow, adding a musical quality to the verses.
Irony and sarcasm emerge as additional elements contributing to the Thirukkural’s poetic charm. Thiruvalluvar employs these literary devices to underscore points, criticize behaviors, or highlight attitudes. In couplet 408, for instance, he ironically suggests that befriending a venomous snake is preferable to associating with a deceitful person, emphasizing the importance of honesty and trust in relationships.
Beyond its poetic beauty, the Thirukkural stands as a literary masterpiece in terms of structure and organization. The sections—Aram establishing ethical living, Porul exploring governance and economics, and Inbam delving into love and sensual pleasure—are meticulously arranged to create a cohesive narrative that comprehensively explores various facets of human life.
What makes the Thirukkural special?
Guidance for Ethical Living
The Thirukkural serves as a compass for ethical and moral living, providing valuable insights into the principles of virtue, righteousness, and compassion. Its verses encourage individuals to embrace honesty, kindness, and justice, guiding them to lead lives filled with integrity and purpose.
Enhanced Emotional Intelligence
Delving into the complexities of the human experience, the Thirukkural addresses the joys and sorrows of love, the challenges associated with wealth, and the significance of self-control. Reading the Thirukkural becomes a pathway to developing emotional intelligence and empathy, helping readers navigate and understand their own emotions as well as those of others.
A repository of profound wisdom, the Thirukkural covers a diverse range of subjects, from politics and economics to philosophy and spirituality. Engaging with the Thirukkural stimulates the intellect, broadening readers’ horizons and inspiring them to explore new ideas and perspectives.
Facilitating Spiritual Growth
Rooted in deep spirituality, the Thirukkural delves into the nature of the soul and the divine. Its verses provide insights into principles such as karma, reincarnation, and self-realization, urging readers to embark on a journey of spiritual growth, connecting with their inner selves.
Guide to Personal Advancement
Functioning as a manual for personal development, the Thirukkural imparts practical advice on leading a fulfilling and meaningful life. Its verses advocate the cultivation of positive habits and attitudes, including discipline, gratitude, and humility, motivating individuals to strive for continuous self-improvement and self-realization.
In conclusion, Thiruvalluvar, the revered poet and philosopher, leaves an indelible mark through his timeless work, the Thirukkural. A guiding light for ethical living, emotional intelligence, intellectual enrichment, spiritual growth, and personal development, the Thirukkural continues to inspire and resonate with readers across generations. Thiruvalluvar’s profound insights into the human experience, coupled with his eloquent expression and wisdom, establish him as a beacon of enlightenment, offering a lasting legacy that transcends cultural and temporal boundaries. Through the Thirukkural, Thiruvalluvar’s contributions endure as a source of guidance and inspiration for those seeking a path towards virtuous living, emotional resilience, intellectual curiosity, spiritual connection, and personal excellence.