The enduring appeal of Tamil Nadu's moral compass, Thiruvalluvar | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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The enduring appeal of Tamil Nadu's moral compass, Thiruvalluvar

Apr 16, 2024 09:05 PM IST

BJP manifesto's promise to build Thiruvalluvar Cultural Centres reopens the debate over the Tamil poet-saint, his political beliefs and his stance on Hinduism

In the recently released Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto, one of the promises made by the party seeking a third term in power at the Centre was to establish Thiruvalluvar Cultural Centres globally “to showcase Bharat’s rich culture and offer training in yoga, ayurveda, Bharatiya languages, classical music etc.”

The Thiruvalluvar Statue, located 400 meters from the coastline of Kanyakumari(Darisi sumanth/Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
The Thiruvalluvar Statue, located 400 meters from the coastline of Kanyakumari(Darisi sumanth/Wikimedia Commons)

The promise, made under the heading, “Elevating Bharat as a global soft power” stated that these centres will help promote the country’s “rich democratic traditions going back millennia as the Mother of Democracy.”

A little over three months ago, Tamil Nadu governor R N Ravi was criticised by the state’s ruling party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for posting an image of the revered philosopher-poet Thiruvalluvar wearing saffron-coloured garments. In his post on the social media platform, X, RN Ravi referred to Thiruvalluvar as the “brightest saint of the Bharatiya Sanatan tradition.”

The defence of Sanatan Dharma has come up repeatedly in the BJP’s elections campaign in Tamil Nadu, pitching the DMK as a party that is “born out hatred” for Sanatan Dharma, as Modi recently said in an interview with news agency, ANI; the DMK and its alliance partners in INDIA bloc refute the imputation that the party is anti-Hindu.

Who is Thiruvalluvar, and why does the Narendra Modi government want to create cultural centres using his name?

The renowned cultural figure, affectionately called Valluvar by Tamils worldwide is believed to have lived no later than the 5th century B.C — though not everyone agrees.

What is universally acknowledged though is that his work, Thirukkural, comprising 1,330 philosophical couplets, is one of the most revered and renowned pieces of Tamil literature. Similar to the traditional North Indian Hindu households that adore the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, the Thirukkural continues to be an indispensable component of each Tamil household.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who is from Tamil Nadu, incorporated a quote from Valluvar in her annual budget speeches, “Pini Inmai Selvam Vilaivu Inbam Emam Ani Enba” — this phrase can be roughly translated as “possessing the five jewels, health, wealth, good crops, happiness, safety, and security, is essential for a nation to prosper.”

Thiruvalluvar Day is observed annually in Tamil Nadu on January 16 as a tribute to the sage poet's literary prowess and coincides with the state's agricultural festival, Pongal.

“The world’s oldest Tamil language is our pride. BJP will undertake every effort to enhance the global reputation of the Tamil language,” Modi said while releasing the manifesto earlier this week.

While the saffron party is certainly not the first political party to praise the language or one of its most famous classical poets, it has recognised that partaking of the poet’s legacy is crucial to establishing a strong political foothold in the state. The poet — whose 133-ft tall statue adorns the southernmost tip of the country, just off the shore at Kanniyakumari — is also crucial to their effort to challenge the ruling party’s Dravidian politics.

When the Governor posted the image of a saffron-clad poet with ash smeared across his upper arm and temples and prayer beads encircling his neck, chief minister M. K. Stalin, published images of the poet in white garments.

Both images are recent imaginations — no documented image of the poet-saint exists.

A political battle

Kanimozhi, an acclaimed Tamil writer and DMK Rajya Sabha member (and sister of the CM) said religious symbols and images have no place in the legacy of Thiruvalluvar, whose words inspired social reformation movements that advocated for tolerance, coexistence, and inclusiveness.

“No one can impose Hindutva, Sanatan symbols, or any other religious symbol upon Thiruvalluvar and his epic work. There is nothing in Thirukkural that endorses a specific religion,” she said.

“Thirukkural transcends the limited boundaries of organised religions and honours humanity in its entirety,” said Kanimozhi, quoting a stand often taken by other experts of ancient Tamil literature.

The Dravidian movements, propounded in the state by the DMK and the opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), have derived ideological and cultural inspiration from the saint-poet.

With Thiruvalluvar’s inclusion in the 2024 BJP manifesto, it is clear that the party is intent on deriving ideological validation from the saint-poet, recasting him as Hindu.

Since the Sangh Parivar convened its national council in March 2017 near Coimbatore, it has endeavoured to incorporate Tamil saints and icons into its political literature.

“The original Thiruvalluvar had vibhuti and all Hindu symbols. Dravida Kazhagam and its political incarnation, DMK, altered the saint’s appearance for their political gain,” said K Annamalai, state president of the BJP.

The saint’s life and verses propound the Sanatana Dharma, he said.

His political opponents have the opposite view.

“In the past, Narendra Modi has advised young people to read Thirukural for its profound insights into morality and ethics in various spheres of life. During the 1950s and 1960s, our leaders, C N Annadurai and M Karunanidhi, began the original movement popularising the Thirukkural among ordinary people. Tamil Nadu continues to give government jobs to individuals who can learn every couplet of Thirukkural,” Ganapathy Rajkumar, DMK candidate in Coimbatore, said.

“Tamils are instructed to memorise his couplets verbatim and to incorporate his principles into their daily lives. Thiruvalluvar is frequently referenced in the context of the rich philosophical traditions of ancient India, with an emphasis on morality and ethics, even beyond Tamil Nadu,” S Venkitesan, Tamil writer and CPI(M) MP from Madurai, who is running for a second term, said.

What we know of the poet, saint, and the work

According to Edward Jewitt Robinson, a Protestant missionary who wrote Tamil Wisdom: Traditions Concerning Hindu Sages and Selections from their Writings in 1873, and also authored an early translation of the Thirukkural, Thiruvalluvar was “Pariah” (outcast), while his mother was of “lower caste” status. His father was possibly of a higher caste. In the book, the author writes, “The wife of a high-ranking Veilalan (who engages in business) discovered him in a grove at Mayilapur near Madras.” Although she initially carried the infant to her home, she ultimately entrusted him to the care of a “Pariah family.”

Thirukkural, made up of three volumes, explores virtue, wealth and affection. The work refrains from advocating for the principles of any specific religion or deity.

Furthermore, there is no evidence of what religion Valluvar followed — in fact, some scholars say that he was likely a Jain. Other academicians claim Valluvar was non-theistic or religious adherent. Some others find Buddhist philosophy in his works.

According to scholar A.K. Perumal, no religious hue can be ascribed to the Thirukkural. Christian scholar M. Deivanayagam's attempt to propose that Thiruvalluvar drew inspiration from the teachings of St. Thomas was largely disregarded, even though the late M. Karunanidhi, a DMK icon and Stalin’s father, authored the foreword to this book.

O. K. Santhosh, a faculty member at the University of Madras, said that Thirukkural and Thiruvalluvar have withstood the appropriation endeavours of numerous religious factions, ideologues, and didactic literature throughout the years and will similarly withstand the current challenge.

S Swaminathan, a retired IIT professor who specialises in ancient Tamil history said that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Thirukkural lacks any parallel in ancient Indian history or literature.

“The alleged depiction of Thiruvalluvar in white garments was a more recent fabrication. There was no depiction or figure of Thiruvalluvar. It has been debated for centuries whether the ancient poet who authored Thirukkural was a single individual or a composite of several. Like Jesus, we created the figure of Thiruvalluvar several hundred years after his death,” he said.

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