Life coached by kurals

Penned over 2,000 years ago, the sacred book of wise verses have welcomed myriad interpretations over the ages. Now, when life throws lemons, there are those who turn to Thirukkural for guidance.
ILLUSTRATION: 
mandar pardikar
ILLUSTRATION: mandar pardikarExpress illustrations | Mandar Pardikar

CHENNAI: My body would just completely freeze. Then my heart would start beating fast and I’d just shiver. I couldn’t breathe…that’s how bad the stress and anxiety was. So much to do. So much competition. So much uncertainty. What if I can’t do it? My mind had become my own enemy.”

Shakti, a 22-year-old UPSC aspirant, would grapple with this every time she sat down to study. She was the “ideal” candidate, rising before the sun and slipping into slumber many hours after the moon took over the skies.

Heaps of books lay stacked on her table beside carefully arranged pens, pencils, rulers, and erasers. And while most her age slapped on their walls posters of some singer from a faraway land, Shakti chose to adorn them with sticky notes that hosted algebraic equations, to-do’s, and what-not — so, what was the problem?

Arivilaar thaandhthammaip peelikkum peelai

seruvaarkkum seithal arithu

The suffering that fools inflict upon themselves

is hardly possible even to foes.

Sangam-era poet, saint, and philosopher Thiruvalluvar wrote this kural (couplet) 2,000 years ago in his Thirukkural, the book of sacred Tamil verses.

Valluvar’s 1,330 kurals have welcomed myriad interpretations over the ages and so, it seems that Shakti is plagued with a common modern malady christened ‘self-doubt’.

“Each and every kural is relevant for all stages of life. In a way, Valluvar’s Thirukkural is the best life coach,” chuckles Niranjan Bharathi, Tamil poet, lyricist, and descendant of Subramania Bharathi, freedom fighter-cum-pioneer of modern Tamil poetry.

We live in an era that is skies and oceans apart from Valluvar’s world. Technology waits on us hand and foot while the slightest discomfort is put to sleep with some pennies, pills, and pillows. Why then are we youngsters sinking further and further into a quicksand fashioned out of our own emotional quagmires? Well, be it anger, hate, jealousy, failure, fear, health problems, and so on — the Thirukkural is a wise ol’ nanban who helps you brave it all! And speaking of nanbargals…what do the kurals say?

Choose your nanbargals wisely

Yenaiththum kurukuthal oampal manaikkeleei

manril palippaar thodarpu

Avoid befriending those who would

love you in private but ridicule you in public.

For Arya, a 20-year-old Visual Communications student, friendship has often been a collection of not-so-pally experiences. She says, “I was always very trusting of my friend circles. To my face, people would always tell me how nice and sweet I was. But when I’d turn around, they would say ‘Oh, she’s so childish and stupid’.”

But college-going Arya is not waging a lone battle against unkind people. Vidya, a 40-year-old HR professional, laments, “As long as I was the ‘ideal wife’, all was great. I was expected to earn money too. And that may sound great except that when I wasn’t bringing in money at one point, I was treated very poorly…sheer emotional abuse. I hated coming home every day.” Valluvar has a kural for them both:

Urinnatdu arinoruum oppilaar kaenmai

paerinum ilappinum yen

Of what avail is it to get or lose the friendship of those

who loves when there is gain and leaves when there is none?

“I hung around in that marriage only for my daughters. But no more. It truly feels like a weight off my shoulders,” Vidya says, heaving a sigh of relief.

Like Vidya, Arya too has mastered the art of letting go of those who do not wish her well. “I used to be a people-pleaser with no boundaries. But I have learned to push people away for my sanity,” she cheerily says.

What helped Vidya tide over tumultuous times was the Thirukkural, she notes. “I learned it long ago in school. And somehow, whenever I need guidance now, a verse or two pops up. The kurals are as relevant as they were 30 years ago.”

While there are nanbargals to hold onto and foes to say goodbye to, have you ever met the enemies inside you? Like Shakti’s self-doubt or perhaps…konjam kovam?

Kovam, the foe behind your woe

“I would sometimes say horrible things I didn’t mean to my daughter. I’d immediately regret it and apologise but the damage was done…I just couldn’t control my foolish tongue,” says 36- year-old Anita.

As a child, she would often face the wrath of her parents’ anger. So little Anita crawled into a shell…but her anger bubbled on and on. Nudged into marriage while still very young, her anger only mounted. But when Anita’s rage-capped words caused her daughter to exhibit the same forlorn demeanour as she once had, she woke up.

Yaakaavaa raayinum naakaakka kaavaakkaal

chokaappar sollilukkup patdu

Rein the tongue if nothing else

Or slips of tongue bring all the woes

You see, anger is like a python that camouflages itself with the forest floor. And springs up oh so suddenly and surrounds you, its grasp getting tighter and tighter until it consumes you completely. So when my Jerry mouse-like sister would antagonise the teenage me, I would retaliate, and how! Looking back as a 24-year-old, I fondly say ah, sisters and their petty fights. Now, I would be playing everyone for a fool if I were to boast of a Buddha-like temperament. But just when my pitch starts to get shriller, Valluvar’s innumerable two cents keep my peace in my mind-pod! Like this one, on revenge:

Inaryeri thoivanna innaa seyinum

punarin vaekulaamai nanru

Though one commits things against you as painful as if

a bundle of fire had been thrust upon you, refrain from anger.

“I am still trying to break that generational anger. If only I had a guide like the Thirukkural while growing up, I may have turned out to be a better, more self-aware person,” she bemoans. Indeed, kovam can wipe the smile off your mugam and your loved ones’ too. So what happens when we allow it to stay rent-free — and it most certainly will — in our minds? Well, it births uglier emotions that we need to feed with some delicious vices, no?

What’s for saapaadu?

“I was never one to binge but a chain of unpleasant events in my life just made me so angry and depressed, pushing me to make fried food my 24X7 companion. I just ate, ate, and ate. I gained 10 kg in six months,” says Priyanka, a 23-year-old project manager. As her weighing scale kept unveiling unflattering numbers with each passing month, Priyanka started to lose sense of who she was. Her voice becomes small when she says, “Someone told me I have become ‘gundu’.”

Atrraal aravarindhthu unka akhthudampu

paetrraan naetithuikkum aaru

Let one eat with moderation for that is the way

to prolong the life of an embodied soul.

What is truly mind-boggling is how a poet who lived aeons ago had such an innate knowledge of food and health. Remember, this was a time when fancy tummy tablets and quick-fix fizzy fluids were eras and eras away from bubbling over. But Valluvar is Valluvar, after all!

And following Valluvar’s moderation mandate to a tee is 15-year-old Vaibhav, who eats three balanced meals every day. “Yet someone once commented on my relatively thin frame, asking my father if I was really ‘strong’. But these taunts don’t bother me because I feel I’m eating right.” Valluvar nods his head in pride, Vaibhav.

Priyanka notes that some days aren’t easy. “The ‘perfect’ models on Instagram do make me feel bad at times. But then I realise that most use Photoshop and a gazillion filters. You cannot believe everything you see or hear,” she says. Oh yes, Valluvar agrees…

Yepporul yaaryaarvaaik kaetpinum apporul

maeipporul kaanpa tharivu

To discern the truth in everything,

by whomsoever spoken, is wisdom.

Anger, friendships, and emotional eating are just ripples in Thirukkural’s vast ocean of wisdom. What if you had all the answers at your fingertips — wouldn’t the test of life become so much easier?

Kurals, need of the kaalam

Valluvar’s kurals have today donned 58 linguistic avatars across Asia, Southeast Asia, the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Translations to English, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Swahili, Creole, and Spanish are just some of the jewels in the Thirukkural tiara. What really makes the heart hopeful is that in an era torn apart by bloody wars, human civilisation will finally seek refuge in the wise arms of Thirukkural.

“The Thirukkural encompasses personal and social ethics. It doesn’t impose any religion or language on its readers but instead, its values bind all,” says Dr NVK Ashraf, a Malayalam speaker who has been deeply invested in gathering Thirukkural translations since 2001 to upload them online. Dr Ashraf laments, “The education system tells students: first rank and nothing less! And then a job, money, job, money. With no other guidance, many youngsters lose their way, even acquiring money through corrupt means.”

There are some youngsters, however, who swear by the power of Thirukkural to guide them through life’s travails. “My mother started teaching me the Thirukkural for a competition when I was five. By seven, I knew all the kurals. Though I was little, the metaphors were so very palatable. Parents should teach their children the Thirukkural,” says 16-year-old Advika, who lives in Minnesota.

Dr Ashraf believes the solution is to integrate Thirukkural into moral science syllabi across the country. His wise suggestion is a passion of sorts for S Parthasarthy, coordinator of the World Thirukkural Mutrothal Iyakkam. “This movement aims to spread Valluvar’s kurals among students and youngsters across the globe,” he says. Parthasarthy is also part of a joint initiative that strives to get Thirukkural knighted as the national book of India and make it a recognised literary work under UNESCO.

Oh…just imagine if you made Thirukkural your nanban — would there be any adversity you cannot brave? Perhaps you are terribly nervous about that big test coming up. Valluvar reassures you with his sweet kurals. Then you’re older, begging God for that promotion. Valluvar sings his two cents on patience and success to you, calming you instantly. In no time you are an exhausted parent, struggling as your emotions hold you at gunpoint. Et voila, Valluvar’s kurals rejuvenate you in no time. And so it goes on…

Indeed, Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural has stood the test of the aeons, ages, and centuries. And so it shall for millennia to come. Perhaps that is why Bharathiyar declared: “Valluvar tannai ulaginukke tanthu vaanpugazh konta Tamizhnaadu…”

The Tamil land’s fame is sky high because it gifted Valluvar to the world.

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