Tirukkural, Puzzles and Solutions- A psychological viewpoint- A Book Review

Tirukkural, Puzzles and Solutions- A psychological viewpoint

(TirukkuraL, PuthirgaLum TheervugaLum- Or uLaviyal paarvai)

A book in Tamil by Prof. R. Venkatachalam. Copies available with author at A-19, Vaswani Bella Vista, Seetharampalya Main Road, Bangalore 560 048.  E-mail id [email protected]

Paperback,548pp, Price Rs 285.

Review- Partha Desikan

Dr. R. Venkatachalam joined the Madras University Post Graduate Centre, Coimbatore, in 1977. The Centre later became the core of the Bharathiar University, which started functioning later in February 1982. Professor Venkatachalam served at the Psychology department till he retired in 2003. The Indian Council of Social Science research conducts periodical surveys of research carried out in Social Sciences in the country, and the survey published by it on psychology, called Psychology in India, refers to one aspect of the good Professor’s work in its 4th volume. The paper referred describes how the Professor found that the psychotherapy approach known as REBT, rational emotive behaviour therapy, had principles that matched very well with the philosophy enshrined in the ancient Tamil classic, Tirukkural.

This book of verses had been written sometime before or around the beginning of the Christian era, namely during the Sangam period of Tamil literature, by a weaver-poet-philosopher named Tiruvalluvar, who lived mostly in Mylapore, which has become a part of the modern city of Chennai. The Saivism sect of Hinduism and Jainism are known to have coexisted in peace in Tamil India during the period. It seems reasonable to assume either that Tiruvalluvar was a non ritualistic Hindu who subscribed to several Jain ideas, including avoiding killing of animals, or that he was a Jain. No part of his work can be cited to support a recent contention by some that he had access to thoughts from Abrahamic faiths at that time. His world renowned poetic work, Tirukkural is structured into 133 chapters, each containing 10 two liners of kural format, thus a total of 1330 verses. The 133 chapters are grouped into three sections, namely aram, righteousness, porul, wealth and inbam, joy. We find that aram contains 380 verses, porul 700 and inbam  250. While aram and inbam focus substantially on the individual and discuss ethical living mores and ethical pursuit of happiness in private life, porul focuses on leaders and functionaries and deals with public affairs.

The author states unambiguously in his acknowledgement that the work that his doctoral student Dr. Ms. Marutham carried out with him for her thesis was substantially related to Tiruvalluvar’s thoughts found in the great work Tirukkural and that was indeed the beginning of his involved interest in Tirukkural. Inspiring support came from the Tamil scholar, poet and author of over 20 books in Tamil, Professor Sirpi Balasubramanian who has been given two awards by the Sahitya Academy and who is now an active member of the same organization. Professor ‘Sirpi’ acknowledges in his foreword to Dr. Venkatachalam’s book that in the latter’s analysis Tirukkural is seen clearly to be much more than a treasure house of ethical aphorisms. It is found to be a document as well as a treatise on human relations, a repository of personality development principles, a leadership training guide, a guide too for human resources development, a treasury of ideas in management studies and a treatise on polity and diplomacy, apart from being a guide to psychological therapeutical practice.

The Bharathiar University has an active Tamilology department too and its innovative Head, Prof. Chandrasekhar (a poet in his own right whom his fans refer to affectionately as Vaanampaadik kavignar or skylark-singer-poet) had invited Prof. Venkatachalam to teach Tirukkural based psychology as a course of lessons in Tamil!

The ancient Tamil sage uses only 10 out of 1330 verses of his work for prayer to kadavul, the Infinite being who is both beyond and within (kadanthum ulleyum). The eight characteristics of the Infinite principle, which our author interprets somewhat differently from the popular norm, as clearly laid out in 8 out of those 10 verses, are common to all Indic beliefs then known, and not just to what we now understand as Hindu beliefs. These include the statements on the inevitability of a human being going through a cycle of several births unless his/her behaviour in the present life is within proper norms. Making scarcely any more references to the divine principle, Tirukkural describes the duties, opportunities and challenges of and for human beings in the three spheres, namely of doing one’s duty right, managing wealth and finding happiness in conjugal life. And Tirukkural has many authorized commentaries including the famed one from Parimelazhagar, other interpretations also in Tamil from several thinkers over the years with some variations from the accepted norm and several English and other language translations largely based on Parimelazhagar’s commentary. It is a sign of the timeless wisdom contained in these verses that people with different beliefs including religious ones are able to resonate with ideas from Tirukkural.

Our professor, well trained to deal with challenges to the mind, and with his great love of Tamil language had no difficulty in identifying 584 verses in 33 chapters from the great work, in which he had some reservations about existing popular translations and interpretations. In all these cases he found that the questions that came up in his mind found answers which had a psychologist’s viewpoint. By way of encouraging the therapist to refer to the ancient work, the professor points out in his preamble to the book that Tiruvalluvar has indeed identified through his poetic classic, no less than 13 signs to look for in mentally healthy persons. It is also in the preamble that he has asserted that the existing explanations and interpretations of Tirukkural in the case of as many as 584 verses do not deliver all they are capable of as psychological tools.  
Having seen the veracity of Dr. Venkatachalam’s above assertion in regard to several samples that I perused in his book, especially in the aram (virtue) chapters, I feel like sharing some of them with the would-be reader.

இருள்சேர் இருவினையும் சேரா இறைவன்/பொருள்சேர் புகழ்புரிந்தார் மாட்டு              5

iruL-sEr iruvinaiyum sErA iRaivan/poruL-sEr pugazh-purinthAr mATTu. 5

          In the light of Parimelazhagar’s interpretation, the above couplet points out that the two deeds that arise from darkness in the mind would not adhere to those who find joy in the true praise of God.

 Dr.Venkatachalam gives a totally different meaning for this couplet. God is the only real object, Tiruvalluvar seems to clarify. In those who understand this, the delusion that this world and its objects are real will not exist. As a result they will neither entertain evil thoughts nor indulge in evil acts.

அறத்தாறு இதுஎன வேண்டா சிவிகை/பொறுத்தானோடு ஊர்ந்தான் இடை           37

aRatthARu ithu-ena vENDA sivigai/poRutthAnOdu Urnthaan idai. 37

According to Parimelazhagar the couplet means:  there is no need to consult Sastras to find out the benefits of virtuous living, just look at the glaring difference between the rider and bearer of the palanquin.
Dr Venkatachalam gives a very different explanation. Whether an act is aramic (virtuous) or not is not as easily discernible as the difference in the status of a palanquin’s rider and bearer. It is much more subtle. Therefore do not rush to do a wrong act if it just appears right at first sight.

பெற்றால் பெறின்பெறுவர் பெண்டிர் பெருஞ்சிறப்புப்/புத்தேளிர் வாழும் உலகு                           58

peRRAl peRin-peRuvar peNDir perunchiRappup/putthELir vAzhum ulagu. 58

This verse has been interpreted by Parimelazhagar in such a way that will not make Tiruvalluvar very popular with women. His interpretation is: if a woman worships her husband she would be greatly honored by the inmates of the joyous world of Devas.
The meaning given by our author should restore Tiruvalluvar’s popularity. It goes like this: if women possess the sattuva attributes explained all over the chapter they would be most welcome at God’s world i.e., they would attain salvation.

ஆற்றுவார் ஆற்றல் பசிஆற்றல் அப்பசியை /மாற்றுவார் ஆற்றலின் பின்                  225

ARRuvAr ARRal pasi-ARRal appasiyai/mARRuvAr ARRalin pin. 225

Parimelazhagar’s meaning of this Kural is this: for a person who has achieved great strength through his tapas, the real test of his strength remains in his ability to withstand prolonged starvation. Even such a Tapasvi would be considered as a lesser being in comparison to a person who did what is needed to alleviate the hunger of a fellow human being.
Dr. Venkatachalam sees the verse in a totally different angle. He differentiates between giving alms and doing something to enable a man to stand on his own legs. According to him Thiruvalluvar has allocated two independent chapters for these concepts covering ‘giving’ under the title Egai and ‘philanthropic social help’ under Oppuravu. He has derived the impetus for such thinking from the verse itself. A notable sign of greatness or valour is the ability to give to the needy. Even that valour appears less than the valour of some one who helps another person to grow and establish himself in his life.


தோன்றின் புகழொடு தோன்றுக அஃதிலார்/தோன்றலின் தோன்றாமை நன்று         236

thOnRin pugazhoDu thOnRuga athilaar/thOnRalin thOnRAmai nanRu. 236

The above verse is a very popular one. It is widely understood as Thiruvalluvar emphasizing that at any cost one should achieve fame otherwise it is better he is dead and gone! Parimelazhagar goes to the extent of saying that one should be born on this earth with qualities needed to attain fame otherwise it is better he is born as an animal.
Dr. Venkatachalam who assumes a totally new position regarding the central theme of the chapter says if a person goes to a place where people are under distress he should undertake such activities, which alleviate their suffering otherwise he does not have to show his face at that spot. He says that the chapter is not about attaining fame or popularity but about endeavouring to help fellow human beings and earning their appreciation. Becoming popular or attaining fame involves one’s ego unlike respect or appreciation earned through helping the needy. 

தன்உயிர் தான்அறப் பெற்றானை ஏனைய/மன்னுயிர் எல்லாம் தொழும்                     268

Than-uyir than-aRap peRRAnai Enaiya/mannuyir ellAm thozhum. 268

According to Parimelazhagar this couplet means: a person will be worshiped by fellow human beings if he achieves the feat of assuming full ownership of his life and bringing it under his control. Fellow human beings would worship him in order to avoid incurring his curse or to earn his blessings.

Our author says the use of word uyir (life) by the poet in this verse meaning aanma (soul) is in line with similar use by him in a few other select places in Tirukkural. Setting aside one’s ego (thaan) and achieving living through one’s aanma is a great achievement. Therefore other people who aspire for the same would praise him.

உலகம் தழீஇயது ஒட்பம் மலர்தலும்/கூம்பலும் இல்லது அறிவு             425

Ulagam thazhI-iyathu oTpam malarthalum/kUmbalum illathu aRivu. 425

Dr. Venkatachalam says there are two independent thoughts in this couplet of rare poetic excellence. He also says there are only a few such verses in Tirukkural.  Politically correct wisdom is aligning with people around one to the extent needed to avoid hurting their sentiments. Another aspect of wisdom or intellect is pursuing a task steadily unlike a water lily which closes and opens alternatively.

The two aspects must be understood together: it is wise to go along with the world, but in a steady fashion (unlike a water lily).  

Apart from reinterpreting individual verses, the author gives psychologically more meaningful definitions and explanations of chapter titles and names of human qualities. I will restrict myself to just 4 examples.

1)      In the chapter on absence of bias, entitled ‘naduvu nilaimai’ or being right in the middle,

Professor Venkatachalam defines this bias-free characteristic in his own way, calling it the capacity to give every person his/her due rights. He then finds that four verses in the chapter create a bit of confusion. Let us look at the first of these four, namely the first verse itself. The kural is usually translated thus: “When dealing with other persons, whether they are strangers, known enemies or known friends, if a person acts without bias, his conduct will be considered largely virtuous.” The professor poses the query, “Does Tiruvalluvar expect that one should act the same way with strangers, known enemies as well as known friends? Or does he expect something more, that the dealing should lead to each of these persons getting his due as a stakeholder, and in giving it, the giver should avoid bias of any kind?” To determine what is meant by due, the professor takes us to the last kural in the chapter. This is explained by the Professor to mean that it is commercial propriety of a high order when a trader passes on the right amount of equity to every shareholder, just as he would take his own right claim from the funds of the business. The personal relationship that he may or may not have with the shareholder is not to be allowed to come into the picture.

2)      In the chapter on propriety of conduct, entitled ‘ozhukkam udaimai’, the professor does not translate ozhukkam into just good conduct. He cites the modern management terms, ‘best practices for a given profession’ and ‘standard procedures’  or their old Tamil equivalents in context as being specially implied in this chapter by Tiruvalluvar, as good behaviour and good conduct are ideas running throughout the book. He therefore takes the chapter verse by verse and demonstrates that the ozhukkam recomended in each amounts to the best contextual practice rather then just good conduct. The last verse for instance recommends a person to learn moving in close alignment with the world. The author explains that this means political correctness or diplomatic dealing rather than blind conformity.

3)      In the chapter on not coveting, entitled ‘vehkaamai’, Professor Venkatachalam takes the ten verses individually to reinforce his more comprehensive definition of vehkaamai as the avoidance of mishandling of public assets and public trust in any manner whatsoever.

4)      The Professor marvels at the variety of inputs in another chapter on acting only with appropriate knowledge entitled therinthu vinaiyaadal and comments that the chapter resembles a well written branch of Organizational Psychology and can be studied in any management syllabus. He translates therinthu vinaiyaadal as the work capacity demonstrated by a fresh manager recruit fully trained for his job after a proper selection process.

Anecdotes and examples abound in this special Tirukkural treatise. I would like to indicate a few which reflect on the author’s own high ideals, superimposed on his understanding of Tiruvalluvar’s thoughts.

·         The first verse in the chapter on the life of householders, entitled ‘ilvaazhkkai’ refers to a proper householder to be an apt support for three sets of people, without naming them. The Professor considers a household to be an establishment much like a corporate business entity. He thinks Tiruvalluvar has listed out society’s three pillars namely educators, administrators and traders as the three sets of people whose functioning and survival depend on proper householders.

·         In the next chapter entitled ‘vaazhkkaith thunainalam’, the goodness in conjugal life, the fifth kural is famous and also controversial. When literally translated it would lead to a claim that a wife who does not worship God, but bows down to her husband first thing in the morning can command Nature to do her bidding! Our professor does not take it as just a poetic hyperbole, but translates the verb thozhu and its derivatives to mean understanding, acknowledging and appreciating the merit of the object, not worshipping. He also arranges the words suitably so that the verse means ‘A wife who reflects on the lovable characteristics of her husband before even doing her morning prayers to God, feels so reassured and strengthened by these thoughts that it is as if she has total control over the day that follows.’ It is to be noted that the author is happily married to another academic, Dr Vijayalakshmi, whose gentle guidance on one or two occasions has been happily recorded by him in the book. He also acknowledges her help in the painstaking proofreading of the entire book. (It is possible that after this effort, there was not much time to take the first copy out and go through it again to remove errors which were either freshly introduced or just left back. Some avoidable spelling errors have got into the beautiful text, which, I am sure, can be removed when the next printing is carried out.)

·         Dr. Venkatachalam elaborates on an acceptable definition of the word ‘oppuravu’, roughly meaning helpful investment of one’s assets or time in the growth of a deserving person, not in the course of the chapter oppuravarithal’, but in another chapter on kannottam, which he translates to mean empathy. He gives the example of Mr. Narayanamurti of Infosys, who has used some of the company’s spare funds for the growth of other small enterpreneurs through his ‘Catamaran’ scheme. But he also hurries to add that he salutes all such magnanimous persons in Tamilnadu and neighbourhood, though he does not remember their names individually in context. The author goes on to explain every aspect of empathy and goes through every verse in the chapter with obvious enjoyment in finding varying shades in context. He explains how the king who had wrongly allowed Kannagi’s husband Kovalan to be sentenced and killed on an unproved charge of theft from the palace, permitted Kannagi to talk to him and give her view. As soon as he was convinced of the gross mistake he had committed, he fell down in shame and breathed his last. This was only because he could see Kannagi’s side of the picture when it was presented to him. (Another avoidable error had occurred in the text during the narration of this story, the name of the king in question being wrongly given. No doubt, the author will take steps to rectify this error too in the next printing.)

·         In the 38th chapter on ‘oozh’ which can be understood as fate or destiny, the professor really goes to town enjoying every variation that Tiruvalluvar employs in trying to comprehend this phenomenon, which to him did not seem to be quite related to the sum of a person’s activities during his life. The poet understands that Fate is related to Time and that it therefore seems to present a cyclic mix of goodies and suffering to the persons in its wake. He also understands that Divine Grace can give skilful compensations to worthy persons which may not be obvious to all their associates. In this context the Professor talks in an appendix to the 7th kural in the 38th chapter about the totally greed-free totally uncorrupt politician-statesman, the Indian born Governor General of India Rajaji, who was also a Governor of a state, a Central Minister and a state Chief Minister, but did not possess a transistor radio after he had retired to his Chennai residence! The recognition of this wise man worldwide, the love that the seniormost contemporary Indian leaders bore him and the fame that his sayings and writings brought him were a gift in compensation, asserts Dr. Venkatachalam!

It has been a very special treat for me to have been permitted to take in and enjoy this specially prepared Tirukkural-recipe. I enjoyed hopping back and forth among the kurals along with the author whenever he seemed to need to reinforce his understanding of some special meanings. I enjoyed the very readable Tamil language, which was always of a high order without being difficult. In fact Dr. Venkatachalam does not believe in substituting English words already in liberal use in spoken Tamil with unfamiliar Tamil equivalents found only in dictionaries.  Most of all it was a rare delight to pick up a book involving cognitive psychology in Tamil and enjoy it page after page with unflagging interest. I warmly recommend this book to all Tamil speaking people in the world, who can also read Tamil and have heard of the one and only Tirukkural. Tamil knowing psychologists in India would already have read the book. They must make non psychologists among their acquaintances also to share their enjoyment.

More posts by this author:

Please follow and like us:

Co Authors :

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.