The popular images of Tiruvalluvar without vibhuti or rudraksha are a post-1960 phenomenon, after the Dravidian parties came to power in Tamil Nadu.
Earlier this month, a firestorm erupted in Tamil Nadu over the BJP publishing a picture of the great Tamil saint Tiruvalluvar in a saffron robe, wearing rudraksha beads and with vibhuti (sacred ash) on his forehead and body.
MK Stalin, the DMK president responded to BJP’s tweet stating that BJP’s attempt to “appropriate Tiruvalluvar was a betrayal for Tamils...How much ever you colour, it will fade. Stop colouring and read Tirukkural and reform yourselves.”
Communist Party of India (Marxist) also accused the BJP of attempting to appropriate icons by “changing their identities.”
Such comments are actually not new, though Hindus in the past have not had access to mainstream media to address them, with the honourable exception of Thuglak Tamil magazine run by the late Cho Ramaswamy.
Only Marxist scholars and atheists got to define Tiruvalluvar. How dare Hindus seek to have a view of one of their own rishis?
No one denies that the Tamil language has a hoary history, independent of Sanskrit. If anything, Tamil has done better than Sanskrit by surviving as a robust spoken language to this day, perhaps the oldest such language with a continuous history and a voluminous literary tradition.
But the Marxist and “Dravidian” ideologies go much further. The “betrayal of Tamils” and “changing of identities” indicates underlying beliefs about “Dravidian Tamil culture” being opposed to, or at least different from, Vedic Hindu culture in its philosophy.
It is this underlying claim that needs to be addressed. Were the religious and spiritual beliefs of the Tamil people different from what is now considered Vedic Hinduism?
Is Tirukkural atheistic, as some enthusiastic DMK supporters claim? And is it inappropriate to show Tiruvalluvar wearing rudraksha beads, vibhuti and saffron robes? These are the questions that require thoughtful consideration.
First, a short note on the great rishi. Virtually nothing of certainty is known about the life of Tiruvalluvar, though other Tamil literary works mention legends about him and his wife Vasuki, famed for her virtue.
The most popular legend is that Tiruvalluvar was born to a Brahmin father and an outcaste mother and was a native of Mylapore (today in Chennai).
The work is dated from anywhere between the 3 century BCE to 5 century CE.
The latter date is pretty certain as the upper bound because a verse from the Tirukkural is cited verbatim in Manimekalai, one of the five famous works of the Tamil Sangam period.
For this reason (and some of his verses that advise against meat eating), it is sometimes speculated that Tiruvalluvar may have been Jain, given the strong Jain presence in Tamil Nadu during that era.
For the purpose of our discussion, I consider Jainism to be a part of the Dharmic family, though I will provide below direct evidence of Vedic Hindu ideas in the Tirukkural.
Also, in Kural 550, Tiruvalluvar supports capital punishment, saying that punishing criminals with death, is like ‘removing weeds that would otherwise destroy the crop’. This is perfectly consistent with Hindu philosophy but not Jain traditions.
In any case, it is amusing to see people who obsessively deny any Vedic influence, acknowledge the influence of Jainism, which is just as much a North Indian, dare I say “Aryan,” tradition.
Let me first address the smaller and more immediate issue of Tiruvalluvar’s appearance. An old poem, Nayanar Swaroopasthuthi, says he (Tiruvalluvar) sits in padmasana; has holy ash smeared on his forehead; sports a beard, holds a japamalai (rosary) in his right hand, and wears a (a yoga sash) across his body.
Right here is an explicit answer to everything, except a saffron robe, which may need to remain indeterminate given the complete lack of biographical details. The popular images of Tiruvalluvar without vibhuti or rudraksha are a post-1960 phenomenon, after the Dravidian parties came to power in Tamil Nadu.
Other reports published by Swarajya document how books published in the 19th and early 20th centuries (a period when Tiruvalluvar’s appearance was not of political significance, and hence more likely to resemble the truth) show Tiruvalluvar with vibhuti, rudraksha, and the yoga sash.
Indeed, it is the DMK that has appropriated Tiruvalluvar for political ends.
The Tirukkural consists of 1,330 couplets in 133 chapters (adhikaram), each with 10 verses.
The work is divided into three major parts (pal) namely, virtuous conduct (aram), prosperity (porul) and pleasure (kamam).
In Tamil, these three, along with a fourth element of liberation (vitu) are together called urudhiporul or “the things” (porul) that provide the “foundational basis” (urudhi) for life.
One hopefully does not need to be “communal” or an opponent of the “Idea of India” to see the obvious similarity to the four purusharthas of Vedic Hinduism, namely, dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
The 13th- or 14th-century Tamil scholar, Parimelazhagar — who wrote the most influential commentary on the Tirukkural — directly alludes to this feature in his work. It is true, however, that the Tirukkural text covers primarily and directly the first three aspects, but not vitu (moksha).
The text, however, does cover turavaram (renunciation) — as a means to attaining liberation.
Moreover, references to liberation using such classic Hindu metaphors as “crossing the ocean of births and deaths” are found in multiple couplets.
References To The Idea Of God
The best way to dispense with the idea of an atheistic Tirukkural is to begin with the very first chapter titled kadavul vazhthu (“In praise of God”).
All translations here are from the works of Parimelazhagar or M. Varadarajan, whose best selling 1949 Tirukkural Telivurai is a layman’s guide to the Tirukkural in modern Tamil and has gone through an astounding 103 prints since its original publication.
அகர முதல எழுத்தெல்லாம் ஆதி
பகவன் முதற்றே உலகு Kural 1
Just as the alphabet has the letter “a” as the first
So does the world have its origins in the primal Lord
கற்றதனால் ஆய பயனென்கொல் வாலறிவன்
நற்றாள் தொழாஅர் எனின் Kural 2
Say, of what use is all your erudition,
if you don’t worship His holy feet?
The word “His” can be interpreted as God or as “one who has knowledge of God”, i.e. a realised saint or Guru.
This second Kural, incidentally, is the one featured (along with a translation in modern Tamil) in BJP’s tweet that gave rise to the controversy.
The DMK, CPIM et cetera conveniently ignored the verse to focus on the picture. However, it must be acknowledged that the translation the BJP used would require a more tortured reading of the text: “Say, of what use is your erudition, if all you do is abuse those who worship the Lord? “
கோளில் பொறியின் குணமிலவே எண்குணத்தான்
தாளை வணங்காத் தலை Kural 9
Just as useless as a sense organ without the power of sensation (eg: an eye that cannot see)
Is the head that worships not the feet of Him who possesses the eight auspicious qualities
பிறவிப் பெருங்கடல் நீந்துவர் நீந்தார்
இறைவனடி சேரா தார் Kural 10
Only they will successfully cross the ocean of births and deaths
Who hold firmly to the feet of the Lord
The above four verses, in the very first chapter of the Tirukkural, should suffice to lay to rest any claims that DMK’s philosophy finds support in the Tirukkural. But the Tirukkural goes further and has verses that speak directly to Vedantic ideas.
நில்லாத வற்றை நிலையின என்றுணரும்
புல்லறி வாண்மை கடை Kural 331
It is ignorance, and not wisdom, to consider as real that which is impermanent
ஒருபொழுதும் வாழ்வ தறியார் கருதுப
கோடியு மல்ல பல Kural 337
Innumerable are the thoughts of the unwise,
who know not if they will live for another moment.
யான் எனது என்னும் செருக்கு அறுப்பான் வானோர்க்கு
உயர்ந்த உலகம் புகும் Kural 346
He who destroys the pride which says “I” and “mine”
will enter a world which is difficult for even the Gods to attain
பற்றுக பற்றற்றான் பற்றினை அப்பற்றைப்
பற்றுக பற்று விடற்க்கு Kural 350
Cling thou to him who is without desires; cling to that desire,
in order to end all desires
இருள்நீங்கி இன்பம் பயக்கும் மருள்நீங்கி
மாசறு காட்சி யவர்க்கு Kural 352
Darkness departs, and rapture springs to men who see,
The mystic vision pure, from all delusion free
ஓர்த்துள்ளம் உள்ள துணரின் ஒருதலையாப்
பேர்த்துள்ள வேண்டா பிறப்பு Kural 357
Realising the truth of that which is within,
there will be no more births for such a one.
These few select verses, which are among numerous others in the Tirukkural, are a classic articulation of Vedantic philosophy — from a discrimination between the permanent versus impermanent as real versus unreal; to an urging not to while away life in meaningless thoughts; to give up the ego-sense of “I” and “mine” by seeking a Guru who is himself/herself free from desires; to obtaining the inner vision of rapture, eliminating the darkness of ignorance, which leads, finally, to self-realisation and cessation of the cycle of births and deaths.
There are also many dispersed references to ideas of classical Hinduism. This includes references to Gods, to the Vedas and to Brahmins et cetera.
மடியிலா மன்னவன் எய்தும் அடியளந்தான்
தாஅய தெல்லாம் ஒருங்கு Kural 610
The king who never gives way to idleness will obtain entire possession of (the whole earth) passed over by him who measured (the worlds) with His foot.
சிறப்பொடு பூசனை செல்லாது வானம்
வறக்குமேல் வானோர்க்கும் ஈண்டு Kural 18
If the heavens dry up, neither yearly festivals, nor daily worship will be offered in this world, to the celestials
மறப்பினும் ஒத்துக் கொளலாகும் பார்ப்பான்
பிறப்பொழுக்கங் குன்றக் கெடும் Kural 134
A Brahmin though he should forget the Vedas may recover it by reading, but if he fails in propriety of conduct even his high status will be destroyed
ஆபயன் குன்றும் அறுதொழிலோர் நூல்மரப்பர்
காவலன் காவான் எனின் Kural 560
If the guardian of the country (i.e, king) neglects to guard it, the produce of the cows will fall and the people of six duties (i.e, the Brahmins) will forget the Vedas
பிறப்பொக்கும் எல்லா உயிர்க்கும் சிறப்பொவ்வா
செய்தொழில் வேற்றுமை யான் Kural 972
All men that live are one by circumstances of birth; diversities of work give each his special character
The first of these verses is a clear reference to Vishnu’s Vamana Avatara, while the second makes indirect references to the Devas in heaven as recipients of ritual worship.
There are other verses which refer to Goddess Lakshmi, though less directly. The next two verses clearly show the reverence with which Tiruvalluvar refers to the Vedas, to the Brahmins who chant them as well as to cows.
This is especially a direct blow to the DMK’s claims of ‘Aryan invasions’ and imposition of ‘Sanskrit Vedas’ on the Tamil population.
Finally, the last verse is extremely similar to verse 4.13 of the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna says that “The four castes have been created by Me through a classification of the gunas and duties”, echoing the idea that at least at the time of the composition of these works, caste was determined not by birth but by a person’s duties and qualifications.
The Tirukkural’s extreme brevity and density (each couplet consists exactly of seven words) is similar to the sutra tradition of Sanskrit. Thus, extensive commentary can be provided to every verse.
The translations provided above generally speak to the direct meaning of the words used by Tiruvalluvar.
But when one looks at potential deeper meanings of these verses, the organisation into three sections of virtue, prosperity and pleasure falls away and the entire work can be seen as a grand treatise on spiritual sadhana and self-realisation. I will illustrate this with two verses from the section on pleasure, or kama.
வீழும் இருவர்க்கு இனிதே வளியிடை
போழப் படாஅ முயக்கு Kural 1108
For ardent lovers, sweet is the embrace that cannot be penetrated by even a breath of breeze. However, its deeper meaning is about the non-dual embrace of the all-pervading Self through divine love.
ஊடல் உணர்தல் புணர்தல் இவைகாமம்
கூடியார் பெற்ற பயன் Kural 1109
Quarrels, reconciliation and making love before sleep, these are the fruits obtained through marital relationship. If the word கூடியார் (the wedded couple) is split as கூடி + யார் (யார் meaning “who”), The same Kural can then be translated as: “Quarrels, reconciliation and making love are all desires. Who gains or loses? Who feels these desires?”, which leads to the “Who am I?” self-enquiry of Advaita.
These examples are illustrative, but by no means exhaustive. The Tirukkural is a divinely inspired masterpiece which provides guidance both in the worldly and spiritual realms.
It must be ranked as one of the greatest gems of world literature. Historically, it is respectfully called the “Tamil Veda”, once again, reflecting the regard with which the Vedas themselves were held in “Dravidian” Tamil Nadu.
Tiruvalluvar’s message is indeed universal. But that does not mean that the essential Hindu nature of his ideas should be denied and obfuscated.
Indeed, the real tragedy is the need for such an article as this one in the first place.
The author would like to thank Hari Moorthy (NJ, USA) and Rangarajan Chakkara (Chennai, India) for their assistance in identifying and translating the Kurals highlighted above.