Thiruvalluvar’s religion a subject of scholarly debate

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He did not mention ‘his religion, caste, place of birth or language’ in his verses

The ongoing political controversy over the origins of Tamil saint-poet Thiruvalluvar is nothing new. The religion to which he belonged has always been a subject of debate among scholars.

Even a perusal of four different works does not offer much clarity on the subject. The works are: A History of Tamil Literature, Mu. Varadarajan (Mu.Va), Sahitya Akademi, 1988; Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, Volume-V, Sahitya Akademi, 1992; A History of South India (Fourth Edition), K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, Oxford University Press, 2000; and Tamil: A biography, David Shulman, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.

In his work, Mu.Va. noted that there were many anecdotes surrounding the name of Thiruvalluvar, but literary critics gave no credence to them. The name referred to “a clan or an occupational group”.

Placing Tirukkural among the works belonging to the post-Sangam era or the period of ethical literature (100-500 CE), Mu. Va. concluded that Thiruvalluvar should have “practised religious eclecticism, maintained unshakeable faith in dharma but should have rejected religious symbols and superstitious beliefs”.

Universal appeal

Discussing the universal appeal of the Tamil saint-poet, the scholar was of the view that he “neither mentioned his religion and caste nor his place of birth and language” in any of the verses. He had not “emphasised his ideas about a particular religion or ritual”. Sastri also talked about the absence of authentic information about Thiruvalluvar’s life. As for the period, the historian felt that if the saint-poet belonged to a Sangam, “it must have been a later institution than the one which flourished in the early centuries of the Christian era: 450-550 [CE] may be suggested as the best data for the Kural”.

‘Manual of ethics’

In respect of Thiruvalluvar’s religion, Sastri, who extolled Tirukkural as a “comprehensive manual of ethics, polity and love”, was emphatic in saying that “the author was most probably a learned Jaina divine and his close acquaintance with the works of Manu, Kautilya and Vatsyayana is unmistakable”.

The Sahitya Akademi’s ‘Encyclopedia’, which called Thiruvalluvar the “author of one of the most extraordinary expressions of human thought”, referred to several versions about his origin.

Tracing origins

Noting that he lived during the 2nd Century CE, the publication said legend had it that he was born to a Brahmin — Bhagvan — and a woman from a Scheduled Caste community– Adhi.

Citing the claims of eminent historians that the poet-savant was a Saivite, a Buddhist, a Jain and even a Christian, it stated that “he should have professed one of the religions in practice in his days”.

In his book, Professor Shulman adverted to “a widespread scholarly view that Thiruvalluvar was a Jain”. Like his work, he “effectively belongs to everyone”, the scholar added.

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