Who is Thiruvalluvar?

He’s a celebrated ancient Tamil poet and philosopher, and the author of the Thirukkural, a collection of rhyming couplets. His work has been acclaimed by philosophers, theologians and literary savants around the world. Much of India, beyond the Tamil-speaking world, learnt a few of the Thirukkural rhymes subconsciously whenever P Chidambaram gave his Budget presentations.

How so?


It is customary for finance ministers to channel a bit of philosophy on governance while winding down their budget speeches. Chidambaram’s go-to philosopher of choice on these occasions was Thiruvalluvar, whose couplets covered, among other topics, politics, economics, and governance ethics. For parliamentarians who had been listening to Chidambaram drone on for over two hours about policy minutiae, the invocation of a kural couplet signalled that the Budget speech was about to end: the ripple of excitement that this triggered would wake up even slumbering MPs!


So why are we talking about Thiruvalluvar?

Because the bearded poet, who is the pride of all Tamils and who has been elevated to the status of a sage, finds himself in the crossfire of a politico-religious tug-of-war in Tamil Nadu in recent days.

What happened?

BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu recently put out an image of Thiruvalluvar in saffron robes, and have otherwise been looking to claim exclusive ‘Hindu’ ownership of the poet’s legacy. Dravidian politicians, and those belonging to other faiths, are contesting what they call the ‘appropriation’ of Thiruvalluvar’s literary and philosophical heritage.

Can’t Thiruvalluvar’s provenance be established?

Literary ‘detectives’ have been trying for centuries to establish just that. But there is inadequate information on everything from the poet’s name to even the name of his poetic work. But it is generally believed that Thiruvalluvar, as he came to be known, lived sometime between 4th Century BCE and 6th Century CE, very likely in the Mylapore neighbourhood of current-day Chennai. As far back as in 1935, the Tamil Nadu government recognised 31 BCE as the year of Thiruvalluvar’s birth.

Doesn’t that timeline likely predate Christianity and Islam?

It possibly does. But it’s not based on what you might call clinching scientific evidence.

Don’t his writings give a clue to his identity?

Good point. Even a superficial reading of the kurals establishes that Thiruvalluvar was suffused by an Indic spiritualism that sits uncomfortably with Dravidian politicians who depict him as an atheist. And the kural’s narrative on the status of women, as subordinate to men, fits in with the traditional Hindutva view of women: the rationalist Dravidian leader EVR ‘Periyar’ even trenchantly critiqued the kurals on that count. And when Thiruvalluvar holds forth on the ‘sin’ of eating meat, he sounds more like a ‘gaurakshak’.

So, was Thiruvalluvar a closet Hindutvawadi?

That notion would be laughable, given the current-day connotations to that characterisation. If anything, as Monsieur Ariel, a 19th-Century French translator of the Thirukkural, noted, Thiruvalluvar’s exertions went beyond castes or beliefs, and embraced the “whole community of mankind”.


Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who translated the Thirukkural into English — a literary distinction he shares with his grandfather, C Rajagopalachari (‘Rajaji’) — notes that the Thirukkural has remained compelling without the backing of any denominational group, religion or sect. “The non-sectarian voice speaking to humanity as a whole makes it a book for all people everywhere and for all time. It is in its universality that the book is and shall always be a book for the future,” Gandhi adds. In other words, the attempts to pigeon-hole Thiruvalluvar as a Hindu, a Christian or an atheist reveal the petty small-mindedness of today’s politicians.

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Published on November 07, 2019