A text that speaks to humanity

A text that speaks to humanity

If there is a common creed that is universal and immutable, serves as the light that leads us kindly, and should be imbibed for its timeless wisdom, it is the Tirukkural

Gurucharan Gollerkeri, the former civil servant enjoys traversing the myriad spaces of ideas, thinkers, and books

If there is a common creed that is universal and immutable, serves as the light that leads us kindly, and should be imbibed for its timeless wisdom, it is the Tirukkural. In the rich and remarkably diverse literary tapestry of our country, Tamil takes a pride of place, not least because the Dravidian intellectual tradition presents a secular and progressive history. The crown jewel in this live tradition is the Tirukkural of Tiruvalluvar, also known as the Kural. This eclectic text speaks to humanity, and is in three books comprising 1,330 couplets of seven words each, divided into 133 chapters of 10 couplets each. The essence of the Kural is best expressed in three words: Aram (Virtue), Porul (Wealth) and Inbam (Desire).

The period in which this immortal work was composed is difficult to determine. Historians agree that it was written between 450-550 CE -- about 1500 years ago -- a time when the popular theistic religions were leading to sharp sectarian antagonisms. Much less is known about its author, Tiruvalluvar, and his life, except perhaps that he was a Jain by persuasion. That he was a scholar par excellence, familiar with the works of Manu, Kautilya and Vatsyayana, is unmistakable. The beauty of the Kural and the wisdom of Tiruvalluvar is in the fact that they are deeply rooted in a secular tradition; and every religious group can claim them as their own. That the great poet had a felicity with dialectics and rhetoric, and was a practical thinker and reformer, are beyond doubt.

The first book reflects on an individual’s ethical life, and his relationship with the world around: family, community, society, and the State. It seeks to provide one the basis to journey through life and play a meaningful role in society. The second book dwells on attributes that ennoble humanity -- kinship, justice, compassion -- and constitutes the basis for a common creed for our times. The third book deals with desire, and expounds on the myriad emotions associated with love, some elevating, others less so. It provides valuable insights on how desire can be an essential, even a healthy goal of human life without sacrificing the eternal human quest for self-realisation -- to overcome attachment -- as the end. Despite the passage of time, the Kural holds great significance for our own lives.

Consider just two couplets and the immediate relevance becomes clear:

‘Let those that need, partake your meal; guard everything that lives; this is the chief (virtue) and sum of lore, that hoarded wisdom gives.’ (322); ‘By rule, to dialectic art apply your mind; That in the council, fearless, you may make an apt reply.’ (725)

The modern reader will find much to reflect on, and more still to act on. Tiruvalluvar’s strictures on the tyranny of caste, the brutalisation of life from alcohol and gambling, the pretentiousness of rituals, and his unequivocal rejection of the superiority of birth, compel us to consider how and why man-made fetters still bind us down and limit the full flowering of humanity in our own times. The Kural is the kind of text that needs wide dissemination to reignite our minds, and to spread the true meaning and import of the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity; if only to open the mind’s eye to the ignorance into which we have been thrust by the narrow walls that divide, nay devour, the humanity in us. While we have made great progress in knowledge about the world around us, we have made much less progress in understanding ourselves -- who we are, where we come from, and where we are headed.

Why must we read the Kural today? The first book on virtue is doubtless the fundamental text of the Kural and holds that only an ethical person, considered cultured and civilised, is fit to enter public or political life, a lesson that, we as voters, must imbibe, and practice in our democracy. Though an ancient text, the Kural comes alive with wit, humour, and gentle irony; traversing complex, subtle, recondite or scientific ideas. It is a fascinating read because of the similes, metaphors, and innuendos that abound at every turn, drawn as they are from common objects and circumstances. A careful reader will discern the artistry of expression that permeates the Kural: Tiruvalluvar speaks like an oracle, reflecting on virtue in book I; he is the hard-nosed scholar dwelling on the material world in book II; and transforms into the gentle and tender narrator in the soliloquies on desire and love in book III. Not often does one come across a text that is timeless; resonates and comes alive with new meaning with the passage of time. The Kural is one such -- the fountainhead of simple, practical wisdom -- to live life well. Read it.

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