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Interpreting Tirukkural: the role of commentary in the creation of a text.

INTRODUCTION NOW, WHEN THEORIES OF TEXTUAL interpretation and interpretive practice are so much on the minds of literary scholars, it comes as no surprise that textual commentary of various kinds has become a topic of compelling interest for South Asianists. This is appropriate not only in light of current intellectual fashion, but, more importantly, because in traditional Indian culture a literary composition is rarely if ever appreciated as a self-contained "text-in-itself." To the contrary, texts are almost always embedded in contexts--for instance, as oral performance before an audience, as a component of a hereditary body of knowledge, as an accompaniment to ritual--that either explicitly or implicitly contain elements of commentary. While textual commentaries may come in many different forms, certain commentaries which appear in written form have taken on a life of their own in Indian intellectual life, without however being entirely disengaged from the "root" texts with which they are associated. Some of India's most distinguished contributions in the fields of grammar, philosophy, religious thought, poetics, and social thought, among others, come to us in the form of commentaries, many of which, in all likelihood, have their origins in oral discourses before audiences of students and disciples. Some of the most influential classic commentaries of this sort are in Sanskrit, but perhaps less well known is the fact that Tamil also has a rich commentarial literature with a long and distinguished history.(1) A particularly interesting example of a relatively early Tamil text which has frequently been the object of commentary is Tirukkural (fifth/sixth century A.D.?) whose author, according to tradition, was the legendary poet and sage Tiruvalluvar.(2) Tirukkural contains 1330 couplets that address a wide range of topics pertaining to right behavior and the human condition. The text is divided into three major portions (pal), respectively designated "virtuous conduct" (aram), "prosperity" (porul), and "pleasure" (inpam or kamam). These three, with the addition of a fourth element, "release" (vitu), are known in Tamil as urutipporul, "those things (porul) which provide a firm support (uruti) "for the world"."(3) While the semantic similarity between the four urutipporul and the four purusarthas--dharma, artha, kama, and moksa--is self-evident, the ideas expressed in Tirukkural's verses are only superficially similar to Sanskrit sastric discourse on these subjects. Irrespective of the value Tirukkural may have as an original contribution to India's "wisdom literature," what is probably most remarkable about this text is the enormous prestige it commands. This is reflected in some of the other names by which the text is known, such as tamilmarai ("Tamil Veda"), poyyamoli ("speech that does not lie"), and teyva nul ("divine text").(4) There is evidence that Tirukkural has long occupied an honored place in the Tamil literary canon. For example, quotations from or allusions to verses from Tirukkural have been identified in classic works such as Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai, and the Tamil Ramayana of Kampan.(5) Further, the prestige commanded by the text is mirrored by the reverence with which its putative author, Tiruvalluvar, is remembered in legend. But perhaps the most revealing index of Tirukkural's stature in Tamil literary culture is the great attraction it historically has held and continues to hold for commentators. It is true that other works, especially Tolkappiyam, a classic work on grammar, poetics and rhetoric, and some of the poems of the alvars, the Tamil Vaisnava saints, have also been extensively interpreted in commentaries,(6) but it is probably fair to say that more commentaries have been written on Tirukkural than on any other Tamil text. There are ten "old" commentaries on Tirukkural,(7) culminating chronologically, and many scholars would also say intellectually, in the commentary of Parimelalakar, who most likely lived during the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. Only five of these, including Parimelalakar's commentary, are extant, however.(8) But the available commentarial literature on Tirukkural is not limited to these. A recently published bibliography of Tamil commentarial literature includes 115 entries for commentaries on Tirukkural or portions of the text published between 1838 and 1976. While some of these represent editions of the text with one or more of the "old" commentaries, the majority are of "recent" authorship; that is to say, they have been written during the past 150 years, and many during the past 50 years.(9) Among these, M. Varadarajan's Tirukkural telivurai,(10) a kind of layman's guide to Tirukkural which provides a paraphrase for each verse in a comparatively modern idiom, has set what may be a record in the world of Tamil publishing. Originally published in 1949, at last count it has gone through 103 printings. Obviously, this ancient text still enjoys great popularity with the Tamil public. A TEXT IN WANT OF COMMENTARY One cannot help but wonder why Tirukkural has received such intensive and persistent attention as an object of interpretation. The answer no doubt partly lies in the text's prestige, but there are also certain formal features that render Tirukkural fertile terrain for commentary, for instance, the extreme brevity and density of its couplets.(11) Though not always, in many cases the expression of an idea in a kural verse remains ambiguous or incomplete until it is fleshed out through interpretation. By virtue of their brevity Tirukkural's verses invite two kinds of interpretive activities, both of which are well represented in the many commentaries on the text. First, commentators channel the verses' meaning by filling in "gaps"(12) and resolving ambiguities. Secondly, because Tirukkural's spare verses are largely devoid of the kinds of contextual cues that play a major role in the verbal communication of meaning, commentators take it upon themselves to supply such cues. This is an essential aspect of the commentarial enterprise, and when Tirukkural's commentators offer conflicting interpretations for a verse, the source of disagreement often can be traced to the different ways in which they contextualize the verse.(13) Also, commentators have been drawn to the challenge of elucidating the structure of the text as a whole and determining how that structure affects the meaning of individual verses. On the one hand, Tirukkural's verses are frequently treated as self-contained aphorisms. In Tamil culture Tirukkural is the quintessentially quotable text. Educated Tamils often quote verses from Tirukkural in response to real-life situations, much as they would quote a proverb,(14) and under such circumstances the "context of situation" is a major factor in specifying a verse's meaning. Verses from Tirukkural are also frequently employed as invocations at public gatherings and as epigraphs. In these and comparable circumstances individual verses are disengaged from their position in a larger textual structure. But despite the quotability of Tirukkural's verses and the seeming ease with which they may be detached from their textual moorings, one would be hard-pressed to find a Tamil scholar who would concede that Tirukkural is best described as an anthology of quotable aphorisms. Among other reasons, the arrangement of the text's 1330 verses belies such a description. The division of Tirukkural into three portions--"virtuous conduct," "prosperity," and "pleasure"--establishes a framework that has direct consequences for interpretation of the verses contained in each. While the verses contained in the portion on "pleasure" are governed by conventions unique to that portion,(15) it is not always clear why verses included in the portions on "virtuous conduct" and "prosperity" are included in the one and not the other. Further, one's apprehension of the meaning carried by a verse may depend upon whether "virtuous conduct" or "prosperity" is invoked as an interpretive frame.(16) There are also other aspects of Tirukkural's structure that have consequences for the interpretation of its verses. Every verse in Tirukkural belongs to a "chapter" (atikaram) of ten verses, and each chapter bears a title which putatively, and in most cases fairly obviously, identifies the topic or theme treated in its constituent verses. The division of Tirukkural into portions and chapters, as well as the order of chapters, are commonly accepted as "original" features of the text. Commentators have also grouped the chapters included in each of the three major portions of the text into "sub-sections" (iyal), and they differ on how the text is to be divided at this intermediate level of organization. Moreover, the early commentators order the verses within each chapter in a variety of ways, though most modern editions reflect Parimelalakar's order. The hierarchical and to some degree variable arrangement of verses found in all editions of Tirukkural provides commentators with a foundation for interpretation of the patterns of meaning that emerge when attention is directed to the interrelationship among verses and to ways in which individual verses are contextualized within encompassing structures of meaning. But despite the fact that some critics have described Tirukkural as a "perfect total structure" in which every verse occupies an indispensable place in a meticulously crafted whole,(17) neither the precise nature of Tirukkural's total structure of meaning nor the degree to which the text is undergirded by a coherent and consistent plan is self-evident. Tirukkural's 1330 verses neither communicate a continuous narrative nor a consecutively reasoned argument with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. Certainly there are numerous thematic connections among verses and chapters, but these criss-cross in many directions to form a complex web of associations rather than a linear sequence. Just as the compression of Tirukkural's verses engenders ambiguities which invite sorting out through commentary, so too the structure of the text as a whole entails many ambiguities which are a catalyst to commentary. If it were universally accepted that Tirukkural is simply a loosely bound collection of verse-proverbs, there would be no call for a kind of commentary which seeks patterns of meaning that transcend individual verses. Conversely, if the verses of Tirukkural communicated an argument that unfolded step by step, following a clearly traceable path of logic, textual structure would be unproblematic and offer only limited scope for commentary. However, Tirukkural resists characterization as either a loose-leaf binder of aphorisms or as a text governed by a logic of linear development in which each verse follows inevitably upon the heels of its predecessor. Anyone who is familiar with this text is likely to perceive a degree of continuity and coherence among its verses, but in Tirukkural continuity and coherence are highly problematic textual properties. Intrigued by the text's elusive structure, many commentators, rising to the challenge, have attempted to bring to light the text's implicit structural patterns. PARIMELALAKAR'S COMMENTARY ON TIRUKKURAL Historically, Parimelalakar's commentary, written in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, has by far been the most influential of the Tirukkural commentaries. Not surprisingly, Parimelalakar's commentary also receives the closest scrutiny when the issue of fidelity to Tiruvalluvar's intention is raised. Parimelalakar's admirers, of whom there are many, praise his prodigious scholarship, the subtlety of his interpretations, and the elegance of his prose. For instance, the late S. Vaiyapuri Pillai, an influential and respected scholar, has written that among the extant old commentaries on Tirukkural, only Parimelalakar's does justice to Tiruvalluvar's genius. In Vaiyapuri Pillai's estimation, the virtues of Parimelalakar's commentary are many. These include his success in making the text accessible as a systematic and consistent structure of thought and in illuminating the precise and subtle meanings embodied in its verses.(18) Formally, Parimelalakar's commentary conforms to a pattern that is ubiquitous in Tamil commentarial literature. With some important exceptions, most of the "root" texts for which commentaries were and are still being written are composed of clearly delimited verses usually not exceeding a few lines in length.(19) Consequently most commentators adopt a procedure of verse-by-verse explication. Though this may seem a minor point, the very fact that the verse is the principal organizer of most commentarial discourse is in itself highly revealing of traditional Indian conceptions of "the text."(20) By far the greater part of Parimelalakar's commentary on Tirukkural is devoted to his interpretive paraphrases (patavurai) of each verse and his "illuminations" (vilakkam) of information which, in his estimation, helps the reader to grasp clearly its meaning and implications. Although the greatest part of Parimelalakar's commentary is found in comments directed toward specific verses, the issue of textual coherence nevertheless plays an important role in his exegesis. Often Parimelalakar's gloss in the interpretive paraphrases or the particular observations he makes in the "illuminations" promotes a sense of linkage among verses or between a verse and encompassing structures of meaning, and beyond these there are also other more direct ways in which he engages the issue of textual coherence. For instance, he orders and subdivides the verses of each chapter on the basis of what he considers to be its principal themes, and perhaps even more importantly, he attempts to clarify the logic inherent in Tirukkural's divisions at various levels (portion, sub-section, and chapter) in the introductory comments he provides for each. We have seen that two features of Tirukkural allow or even require its audience to assume an active role in the construction of the text: its spare verses provide few if any contextual cues that might act as guides to interpretation, and the organization of the text in progressively more broadly encompassing units suggests but does not fully specify a meaningful structure of interrelationships among its parts. Many of Parimelalakar's interpretive strategies can be seen as responses to these two features of the text. STRATEGIES FOR COHERENCE A thorough analysis of Parimelalakar's commentary is far beyond the scope of this essay, but it is possible to get a feel for his exegetical methods by turning to his comments on the verses of just a single chapter of the text and studying the way he goes about locating these verses and the chapter as a whole within larger frames of meaning. The following discussion of specific strategies will focus upon the first of Tirukkural's 133 chapters, "salutation to God" (katavul valttu). In most editions of Tirukkural this and the following three chapters, "the preeminence of rain" (vancirappu), "the greatness of renouncers" (nittar perumai), and "affirming the power of virtuous conduct" (aranvaliyuruttal),(21) are designated the "preface" (payiram) to the text. Parimelalakar subdivides the portion on "virtuous conduct" into three sections--preface,(22) "virtuous conduct of the householder" (illaram), and "virtuous conduct of the renouncer" (turavaram); and he takes pains to situate the first chapter, "salutation to God," in relation to the other chapters of the preface and also in relation to the overall design of the text. He articulates his understanding of this scheme most explicitly in his "preface to the commentary" (uraipayiram). Here Parimelalakar introduces some of the most important guiding principles of his interpretive agenda. Among these is the concept of urutipporul, which in Parimelalakar's usage is synonymous with the Sanskritic concept of purusartha. The preface to the commentary begins, There are four objects (porul) that are to be taken up by people of elevated status (uyarntor), which are known as "firm supports" (uruti) for people who are fit to know the path (neri) and to attain the condition of Indra and the other gods and "who are also fit to attain" the indestructible and endlessly blissful state of release (vitu). These four are "virtuous conduct" (aram), "prosperity" (porul), "pleasure" (inpam), and "release" (vitu), "the last" being a state that transcends the powers of speech (moli) and ideation (cintai).(23) If the four-fold urutipporul function as the conceptual bedrock of Tirukkural, why, one may legitimately ask, does the text include only three portions and not four? Anticipating this question, Parimelalakar explains that because the fourth, urutipporul, "release," cannot be captured in thought or language, it is not a subject that can be directly addressed in textual discourse. Only renunciation (turavaram), the mode of human conduct that engenders release can be dealt with directly, not release itself.(24) The remainder of the preface to the commentary is, in effect, an introduction to the first of Tirukkural's three portions, the portion on "virtuous conduct" and to the first of its two sections, "the virtuous conduct of the householder." It has been proposed that the recovery of literary meaning involves establishing a relationship between a work and a system of ideas that lies outside of it.(25) It is hard to imagine a more telling demonstration of this principle than Parimelalakar's construction of an interpretive frame for the verses contained in Tirukkural's first portion. Clearly, he arrives at his definition of "virtuous conduct" by referring to a system of ideas that lies outside the text: "Virtuous conduct" (aram) means doing what is ordained in texts such as Manu and avoiding what is forbidden "in these texts". It is three-fold, consisting of "upright behavior" (olukkam), "disputes over material things" (valakku) and "just punishment" (tantam). Parimelalakar deems the latter two divisions of "virtuous conduct" to be less important than the first because they act merely to restore order in human affairs, whereas "upright behavior" actually creates that order. Therefore he finds it fitting that in Tirukkural "virtuous conduct" is effectively synonymous with "upright behavior." Parimelalakar shapes his definition of "upright behavior" to fit an agenda that frequently surfaces in his exegesis of Tirukkural: "Upright behavior" means abiding in the life-stages of brahmacarya, etc., which are enjoined for brahmins(26) and for members of the other varnas, and unerringly acting in the manner indicated for each. Thus, "upright behavior" in Parimelalakar's usage is synonymous with varnasramadharma. But if the subject of Tirukkural's first portion is "upright behavior" and "upright behavior" is synonymous with varnasramadharma, why are Tirukkural's verses virtually devoid of direct reference to this concept as it is usually understood? According to Parimelalakar, the subject of Tirukkural's first portion is not the aspects of dharma that are different from one varna to another; it is rather those aspects--which outnumber the varna-specific aspects--that apply to everyone equally. Parimelalakar seems to believe that he can have his cake and eat it too: that even in the absence of references to the svadharma of each caste, the subject of Tirukkural's first portion nevertheless can be traced to varnasramadharma.(27) Urutipporul is a key interpretive concept in Parimelalakar's definition of the subject of the portion on "virtuous conduct" and the other major portions of Tirukkural. But it is not only at this very broad level of textual structure that Parimelalakar employs the concept of urutipporul as an interpretive tool. Note, for instance, how he defines the topic of Tirukkural's first chapter, "salutation to God" (katavul valttu). "Salutation to God" means the poet's salutation to either the god he himself worships(28) or to the god appropriate to the subject he has taken up.(29) Know that this salutation is an example of the latter. Why? There is a correspondence between the three urutipporul and the three principal gods through the agency of sattva and the other gunas,(30) and it is therefore the established custom for those who expound those three subjects "i.e., the three (urutip)porul" to make salutation to those three gods. Therefore know that he "i.e., the author" addressed this salutation to those three gods in common. Parimelalakar takes great pains to establish a connection between the chapter "salutation to God" and the interpretive framework he has set up in the preface to the commentary. One might even say that he forces the connection. Though historically minded scholars frequently cite verses from this chapter as evidence for the text's Jain affiliation,(31) Parimelalakar, the product of and spokesman for an intellectual milieu dominated by a Brahmanical Hindu ideology, identifies the god spoken of in these ten verses as the trimurti, even though the text speaks of god in the singular and contains no obvious references to any of the commonly recognized attributes of Brahma, Visnu, or Siva. Parimelalakar's interpretation appears to be driven by his commitment to Brahmanical ideas and values in general, and to the concept of purusartha in particular. In broad terms Parimelalakar's construction of Tirukkural rests upon two sets of values--one cultural, the other textual. The first is represented by concepts such as the purusarthas, varnasramadharma, the trimurti, and the three gunas, and it is here that we encounter what some modern-day critics would call Parimelalakar's Brahmanical bias. Examples of textual values may be found in the many interpretive maneuvers Parimelalakar performs in order to construct Tirukkural as a continuous and coherent text. We can begin to get a sense of just how important continuity and coherence are for Parimelalakar by studying his introductory comments for Tirukkural's first four chapters. His introductory comment for the first chapter was cited above. Following are his introductory comments for the remaining three chapters of the preface: Chapter 2: the preeminence of rain (vancirappu) "The preeminence of rain" means declaring the importance of the rain, which is the cause (etu) for the functioning of the world (which exists) by the ordination of that god "i.e., the god spoken of in the previous chapter" and "which is also the cause for the functioning of" "virtuous conduct," "prosperity," and "pleasure" which are the firm support (uruti) for that "world". Also, the principle by which the chapters are ordered (atikara muraimai) is herein elucidated. Chapter 3: the greatness of renouncers (nittir perumai) "The greatness of renouncers" means declaring the greatness of sages (munivar) who have renounced everything. Since they are the ones who make known to the world the (urutip)porul, "virtuous conduct," etc., this "chapter" is placed after "the chapter on" "the preeminence of rain." Chapter 4: affirming the power of "virtuous conduct" (aranvaliyuruttal) "Affirming the power of virtuous conduct" means saying that among those three made known by those sages "i.e., the (urutip)porul", "virtuous conduct," unlike

"prosperity" and "pleasure," produces results that pertain to all three realms--this world (immai), the next world (marumai), and release from birth (vitu)--and therefore it is more powerful than "prosperity" and "pleasure." Also, the principle by which the chapters are ordered is herein elucidated. On the basis of these passages it is evident that Parimelalakar attaches great importance to the values of textual continuity and coherence. In his introductory comments, Parimelalakar forges, or as he would put it, he sheds light on, a system of connections that relate these four topics to one another and also to the umbrella paradigm of the urutipporul. This system is visualized diagrammatically in diagram 1. The concept of urutipporul is the glue that binds together the topics treated in the first four chapters. In one instance Parimelalakar calls attention to a direct connection between the topics treated in two consecutive chapters: he says that rain (chapter two) is the cause for the functioning of the world which is created by God (chapter one). Otherwise the topics of the four chapters are related to one another in his scheme only through the mediating concept of the urutipporul. Nevertheless, one senses that when Parimelalakar speaks of the principle by which the chapters are ordered (atikara muraimai), he has in mind the linear sequence of chapters as they are found in the text. Thus perhaps the following reformulation of diagram 1 (diagram 2) more accurately represents Parimelalakar's intention. Below the chapter of ten verses, the next level of Tirukkural's hierarchical structure in Parimelalakar's scheme is composed of groups of verses within each chapter. At this level the commentator does not simply elucidate the underlying rationale of a predetermined element of textual structure as, for instance, the portion or chapter; he actively creates a structural element by determining the order of the verses within each chapter and interpreting the significance of this order. In chapter one, "salutation to God," Parimelalakar identifies five themes or assertions which are respectively expressed in verses 1, 2, 3-6, 7-9, and 10 as follows: Verse 1: The existence of the primordial God. Verse 2: The fruit of textual knowledge (akama arivu) is worshipping God's feet. Verses 3-6: People who think about the lord, praise him, and stand upon his path attain release. Verses 7-9: The misfortunes (kurram) that befall people who do not think about God. Verse 10: People who do not think of worldly things and think only about the lord's feet escape rebirth and people who think in ways contrary to this do not escape rebirth. Beyond identifying a set of core themes expressed in chapter one, collectively these statements suggest that the chapter's ten verses are sequentially related to one another. Consequently, Parimelalakar's thematic summaries encourage the reader to interpret the chapter's ten verses as a continuous "argument." The "argument" of chapter one suggested by Parimelalakar may be paraphrased as follows: Premises: (1) God exists. (2) The ultimate goal of human life and of learning is to attain freedom from rebirth. Conclusions: (3) Freedom from rebirth is achieved by worshiping God. (4) Failure to worship God results in rebirth. On the surface it would appear that Parimelalakar constructs the chapter's meaning "from the bottom up" by extracting and compiling kernel meanings expressed in each of the chapter's ten verses, and to be sure, there is an inductive side to his method. But there is also a deductive side: Parimelalakar's identification of the essential themes expressed in these verses and his sense of their interrelations is guided by an a priori agenda. In his interpretation of chapter one this agenda surfaces in his preoccupation with the themes of rebirth and release. Even though only one verse in chapter one (verse 10) contains a direct reference to rebirth, by attributing related themes to the chapter's other verses Parimelalakar both promotes a sense of textual coherence and shapes the text in conformity with his own ideological commitments.(32) STRATEGIES FOR CLARIFICATION Besides promoting a sense of textual continuity and coherence, Parimelalakar employs a number of techniques which are designed to direct the reader's understanding of individual verses along relatively narrow paths even if the original verse may allow for a wider range of possible interpretations. We have no way of knowing whether or not Parimelalakar actually thought that he was explicating Tiruvalluvar's intended meaning in his commentary, but at the very least one can say that, like many other commentators, he at least maintains the fiction that commentary is essentially a tool for recovering the meaning an author "puts into" a text.(33) Several generalizations can be made about the way Parimelalakar goes about clarifying the meaning of Tirukkural's verses. First, "meaning" in this context essentially boils down to propositional meaning. This is because the net effect of the various interpretive maneuvers Parimelalakar employs is to extract the idea-content of each verse (as he construes it) from its poetic garb and, filling in the "gaps," to articulate these ideas in prose. Other dimensions of "meaning," such as the patterns of sound that are such a striking feature of Tirukkural's verses, invariably fall by the wayside (just as such patterns are invariably lost when Tirukkural's verses are translated into another language). Occasionally Parimelalakar does explicate poetic figures, but only in the interest of recovering a verse's propositional meaning, not for the sake of furthering his audience's appreciation of Tiruvalluvar's skill as a poet. As one would expect, Parimelalakar's interpretations oftentimes fall into patterns that conform to his sense of the overall design and purpose of the text and his commitment to certain philosophical tenets, religious doctrines, or basic analytic principles such as the principle of cause and effect (karanam/kariyam). Following is a partial catalogue of some of the strategies for clarification which Parimelalakar employs in chapter one and throughout the text. Since most of these techniques are ubiquitous in Tamil commentary (and not only in Tamil commentary), examples are given only where they are especially relevant to Parimelalakar's ideological agenda. (1) Clari cation of syntax. The minimal function of most traditional Tamil commentary is to provide an unambiguous prose rendering of a root text in verse. Usually this involves at least two operations: rectifying any "anomalies" in word order and filling in whatever grammatical markers may be needed to clarify syntactic relations among words and phrases. (2) Lexical substitution. Like other commentators, when paraphrasing a passage from a root text, Parimelalakar frequently "translates" certain words and phrases. Such lexical substitutions carry varying degrees of interpretive weight. Sometimes it is merely a matter of replacing an obscure or archaic word with a more familiar one. But in some instances the commentator's choice of a word or phrase is strongly motivated by an agenda that exceeds the minimal requirements of clarification. A good example of an ideologically loaded lexical substitution is found in Parimelalakar's paraphrase of verse 4 where he translates itampai ("distress, harm") as piravittunpankal ("sorrows of birth"). The original verse contains no indication that the meaning of itampai should be contextualized in this very specific way. (3) Filling gaps. When paraphrasing a verse, commentators frequently add words and phrases in order to specify aspects of the verse's meaning which, in their evaluation, is implicit. Often such added words and phrases simply complete a thought which to most readers would be obvious, but sometimes this technique has the effect of narrowing a verse's potential range of meanings. (4) Exploring broader dimensions of meaning. The foregoing strategies for clarification are characteristic of the patavurai portions of commentary, a commentator's interpretive paraphrase of passages in the root text. Commentators also employ other strategies in the more free-form vilakkam passages where they sometimes attempt to recover the author's motives for employing a particular word or grammatical form or call attention to implications that go beyond the "literal" meaning of a verse. For example, in his "illumination" of verse 2 Parimelalakar informs his reader that the author refers to God's feet (here God is signified by the phrase val arivan, "the one of pure intellect") as "good feet" (nal tal) because God's feet are the remedy for the affliction of birth.(34) Not letting the matter rest there, he then engages in some rather complicated exegetical maneuvers that provide logical support for his interpretation. (5) Employing an imported ideology, theology, set of values, etc. as a context for interpretation. As we have seen, in Parimelalakar's exegesis of Tirukkural concepts such as varnasramadharma, karma, moksa and other tenets of Brahmanical Hinduism frequently function as a template for interpretation. In a majority of instances these concepts belong to the general philosophical background of Brahmanical Hinduism and would not ordinarily be identified exclusively with the doctrine of a particular sect or philosophical school. In Parimelalakar's commentary for verse 3, however, we find a comment that can best be understood in terms of Parimelalakar's Tamil Vaisnava background, and as unlikely as it may seem, this comment is offered to explain the author's motive in employing a particular grammatical form. The form in question is ekinan ("he who walked") in the phrase malarmicai ekinan ("he who walked upon the flower"), the "he" in question being God.(35) In Parimelalakar's paraphrase this becomes "he who went into the flower" (malarinkanne cenravan), and then in his "illumination" of the verse he writes, "the author says 'he who walked' in the past tense because he "i.e., God" speedily enters into the heart-lotus of a person who thinks lovingly of him and assumes the form in which that person thinks of him."(36) The point is that the past tense here suggests the speed with which God enters the heart of his devotee: the moment he begins to enter the heart of his devotee the deed is as good as done. But of even greater interest are the allusions to two tenets of Srivaisnava theology: (1) God dwells in the hearts of his devotees (in this regard God is known as antaryamin, "the one who goes inside"), and (2) God assumes many forms in accord with the imaginative powers of his devotees. TEXTUAL VALUES AND THE COMMENTARIAL ENTERPRISE The preceding discussion deals with just a tiny fragment of Parimelalakar's vast exegetical project. Nevertheless, even this small sample yields a fair idea of the kinds of interpretive maneuvers that typify his commentary. Tirukkural, being a text with certain characteristic properties, encourages certain kinds of interpretive maneuvers irrespective of the intellectual proclivities of the commentator. Nevertheless, Parimelalakar also brings certain goals and assumptions to his reading of the text that bear the stamp of his own commentarial style and ideological commitments. It is useful to think about these goals and assumptions in terms of both cultural values and textual values. The interpretive process consists largely of making connections, resolving ambiguities, and filling in gaps. The specific ways Parimelalakar goes about performing these operations is strongly influenced by his investment in cultural values, such as the desirability of release from the cycle of births, and in textual values, such as continuity and coherence. Stanley Fish has remarked that the most highly esteemed interpretations of a literary work are those which demonstrate that the work in question is rich in the qualities that, according to prevalent thinking, distinguish literature from other kinds of verbal production.(37) This remark rings true as a reflection on the high esteem in which many generations of educated Tamils have held Parimelalakar's interpretation of Tirukkural. To be sure, Parimelalakar's reputation can be attributed, to a significant degree, to the satisfaction his readers derive from his subtle and ingenious interpretations of specific words and phrases. But such local effects are not the only source of this commentary's eminent reputation. Another is the various maneuvers Parimelalakar performs with a view to promoting a vision of Tirukkural as a unified whole, both structurally and conceptually. One of the reasons Parimelalakar's commentary has acquired the status of a classic is precisely because he enables his readers to apprehend the verses of Tirukkural in light of a comprehensive textual scheme.(38) But why should Tirukkural be more highly valued as a text in which verses are bound to form a unified whole than as a "mere" anthology? Is there any reason why an anthology of discrete and unrelated verse-proverbs should be considered inherently inferior to the kind of text Parimelalakar makes of Tirukkural? The issue here, however, is not one of inherent inferiority or superiority. As Fish would remind us, readers' perceptions of a text as a text of a particular kind, and the value they attach to it and to various interpretations of the text, have their source not so much in any "objective" textual features or critical standards as in norms that are socially determined.(39) When one takes a broad view not only of traditional Tamil literature, but also of other traditional Indian literatures, one finds that texts created through a process of binding independent verses make up a major portion of the literary canon. The strategy of creating unified texts in this way may be operative either at a primary or at a secondary level of the creative process. In the area of belles lettres probably the best example of the application of this strategy at a primary level is the mahakavya, a literary form in which plot functions as a unifying contextual framework for verses that, in terms of prevailing poetic theory, are aesthetically self-sufficient. In the area of philosophical, grammatical, and other technical literatures the model is exemplified by the extensive sutra literature in these various fields, where quasi-independent verses are bound together within a didactic framework.(40) At a secondary level the strategy is operative when a compiler creates a text by bringing together verses composed by either one or several authors within a unifying framework. In Sanskrit and Prakrit literature there are a large number of collections (kosa) of independent verses (subhasita) that fit this description. These include compilations of verses attributed to a single author such as Canakya or Bhartrhari, as well as collections of verses attributed to multiple authors. Among those collections whose verses are didactic rather than descriptive, there are several that utilize the purusarthas as an organizing framework.(41) Other examples may be found among the bhakti literatures composed in India's regional languages. For example, a number of texts included in the Tamil Vaisnava and Saiva canons exemplify the pattern. Among the texts that come to mind are Tiruvacakam, a compilation of the Saiva saint Manikkavacakar's poems, and the Vaisnava saint Nammalvar's magnum opus Tiruvaymoli. The assumption that the verses included in these texts coalesce to form a unified whole is an important factor in the way the saints' poems are interpreted within their respective sectarian traditions. Yet, like the verses of Tirukkural, the verses that compose these texts can be and frequently are detached from their textual moorings. Similar collections of bhakti poems are found in north Indian sant tradition. Some of these collections are attributed to single and some to multiple authors. In her study of the doha verse form as a vehicle of sant teachings, Karine Schomer writes, "the earliest collections were simply lists ... At some point ... it became the practice to organize the dohas by thematic categories referred to as angas ('limbs')."(42) Later in the same essay she takes issue with the assumption that "these compilations have no internal logic of their own," and argues that "a doha's rhetorical impact comes from its contribution to the overall effect of a given anga and that of the compilation as a whole."(43) All this suggests that the practice of creating unified literary works through a strategy of binding independent verses was shared by a number of traditional literary communities in India. By applying this strategy, compilers, no less than authors, create texts, and these texts possess a form and rhetoric that shapes the meaning of their component verses. In this sense the act of compilation is very much a creative act. A major aim of this essay is to show that the act of interpretation is also creative and that the nature of the commentator's creativity is often closely related to that of the compiler. In some instances the commentarial enterprise may overlap with that of the compiler, as when Parimelalakar and others among Tirukkural's commentators determine the order of the verses within each of the text's 133 chapters. But even when the commentator's role is confined to elucidating a composition whose content and internal organization is a given, commentators "create" texts by calling forth one of many possible patterns of signification which may emerge when a text is engaged by an audience. In this regard one mark of a commentary's value in the eyes of its audience is its success in providing a context that highlights the forces that bind independent verses into a unified whole. CULTURAL VALUES AND THE COMMENTARIAL ENTERPRISE: PARIMELALAKAR AND MODERN DRAVIDIANIST INTERPRETATIONS OF TIRUKKURAL In addition to the long-standing prestige Tirukkural appears to have enjoyed, virtually since the time of its composition, in the political environment of twentieth-century Tamilnadu Tirukkural has become a symbol of the integrity and uniqueness of Tamil culture. As such, the appellation "Tamil Veda" (tamil marai), one of several names by which the text is known,(44) has taken on an especially charged meaning. In a climate where belief in the distinctiveness and the antiquity of Tamil civilization has become an axiom of political discourse, Tirukkural is sometimes seen as a Tamil answer to the sacred texts of Brahmanical Hinduism. Comparisons are frequently made, for instance, between Tirukkural and the Manavadharmasastra, usually to the detriment of the latter. (For instance, Tirukkural is said to be free from the casteism and sexism that mar Sanskrit dharmasastra texts.) The symbolic importance attached to Tirukkural is very much in evidence in Tamilnadu today. At the time of the international Tamil conference held in Madras in 1968 the Tamilnadu state government established endowments to support Tirukkural studies at the state's (then) three universities. The endowments, which have been used to subsidize Tirukkural-related research and publications, represent the government's investment on the academic front in Tirukkural's importance as a high-water mark in Tamil cultural history. This investment is matched in the popular realm by the Valluvar Kottam, a more physically tangible monument to the glory of Tirukkural and its author. This imposing structure, a major "place of interest" and tourist attraction in Madras, consists of a large pavilion connected to a lavishly sculpted stone chariot that house an image of Tiruvalluvar. The outer surface of the chariot is covered with relief sculptures depicting the themes treated in each of Tirukkural's 133 chapters. Patronage of Tirukkural is not limited to the government, however. A private organization called Tirukkural Peravai, which has chapters in various locations throughout Tamilnadu and which also publishes a monthly magazine, is dedicated to maintaining the vitality of Tirukkural in Tamil culture. Clearly, Tirukkural occupies a place of honor in the Tamil cultural scene, and while it would be misleading to suggest that all Tamils who claim familiarity with Tirukkural hold uniform views regarding the nature and significance of the text, there are nonetheless certain themes that tend to crop up repeatedly in the large body of literature written on Tirukkural during the past several decades. In his book Tiruvalluvar, published by the Sahitya Akademi in its "Makers of Indian Literature" series,(45) S. Maharajan, a former justice of the Madras High Court, expresses a number of widely held views concerning Tirukkural. Maharajan's discussion of Tirukkural and its author is perhaps better characterized as "appreciation" than as "criticism." He esteems Tirukkural for the universality of the values it expounds (in contrast to the casteist doctrines expounded in Sanskrit dharmasastra literature), and he celebrates Tiruvalluvar as one of the great minds in the history of mankind, on a par with Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, and Rousseau.(46) Maharajan subscribes to a theory of Tamil cultural history according to which Tiruvalluvar lived during a time of cultural ferment, a time when the Tamil country, site of an ancient, casteless, and essentially world-affirming civilization, was infiltrated by proponents of Buddhism, Jainism, and Brahmanism. Tiruvalluvar's great accomplishment, in Maharajan's estimation, was to take the best doctrines professed by these religions and blend them with indigenous Tamil ethical and spiritual thought, thereby creating a guide for human conduct that is remarkable for its comprehensiveness and for the accuracy with which it highlights what is universal in human experience. Maharajan and others who share his views therefore prize Tirukkural not only for its intrinsic merits, but also because it serves as a reminder of a past in which modern-day Tamils can justly take pride. Attempting to capture the essential qualities of the text, Maharajan also observes that "Tiruvalluvar" is a cunning technician who, by prodigious self-restraint and artistic vigilance supercharges his words with meaning and achieves an incredible terseness and an irreducible density. His commentators have, therefore, to squeeze every word and persuade it to yield its last drop of meaning. The success of each commentator has depended also upon the expertise which he has brought to bear upon the original.(47) Here Maharajan alludes to the fact that Tirukkural has a long commentarial history and offers a rationale for the great amount of time and effort that has been devoted to the interpretation of this text. But the real interest of the passage lies not so much in what it says explicitly but in what it implies--namely, that Tirukkural's verses resonate with meanings that were intended by their author, and that the commentators' most essential task is to recover and communicate Tiruvalluvar's intention. This view of the nature of textual meaning and the purpose of commentary is common-place in the community of Tamil scholarship. Parimelalakar's unmistakable leanings toward a Brahmanical ideology clearly puts him at odds with modern Dravidianist ideology, and it will come as no surprise that modern-day Tamil scholars who hail Tirukkural as the product of a uniquely Tamil cultural genius criticize Parimelalakar for distorting the "true" meaning of Tiruvalluvar's verses. One of the most outspoken and best known among Parimelalakar's detractors is Pulavar Kulantai, a staunch proponent of the view that the purity of ancient Tamil culture was seriously and regrettably compromised by the encroachment of Aryan civilization.(48) While Kulantai acknowledges the extremely important role Parimelalakar's commentary has played in furthering Tirukkural's status and reputation, at the same time he laments that precisely because this commentary has wielded such enormous influence in shaping the Tamil public's perception of Tirukkural, the text's "true" meaning has been suppressed. The crux of Kulantai's critique of Parimelalakar is that the latter imposes alien Aryan ideas on distinctively Tamil ideas and values. According to Kulantai, by interpreting Tirukkural as a translation of "Aryan" ideas and values, Parimelalakar and other early commentators, though accurately reflecting the intellectual climate of their time, have done a grave disservice to the Tamil public. Waxing metaphorical, he declares that Parimelalakar debased Tirukkural by stirring the bitter poison of his misguided interpretations with their insidious Aryan overtones into the "good cow's milk" of Tirukkural that naturally abounds with the sweetness of Tamil culture.(49) The very fact that Pulavar Kulantai and other like-minded critics feel compelled to draw attention to the flaws in Parimelalakar's interpretation of Tirukkural is itself eloquent testimony to the enormous influence of this commentary. Among Tirukkural commentaries only Parimelalakar's has been the object of subcommentaries.(50) Also, modern commentators frequently take their cue from Parimelalakar, and even when they offer new interpretations or model their interpretation after another of the "old" commentaries, they are still influenced by Parimelalakar, whom they view as a partner in a debate over the meaning of Tiruvalluvar's text.(51) Such a debate is implicit in Pulavar Kulantai's commentary on Tirukkural.(52) A few comparisons between Parimelalakar's and Kulantai's interpretations of selected passages from verses in Tirukkural's first chapter should clarify the nature of the disagreement. As mentioned previously, Parimelalakar reveals his Brahmanical Hindu orientation when he interprets the subject of Tirukkural's first chapter to be the Trimurti. Such an interpretation is directly at odds with the rationalist ideology propounded by Pulavar Kulantai and other Dravidianists of his generation.(53) In order to maintain an interpretation of Tirukkural as a reflection of an early Tamil civilization founded on reason, he must find a way to sidestep the apparent theism of Tirukkural's first chapter. He does so by interpreting the apparent references to God contained in these verses as metaphors that point not to a divine being but toward abstract virtues, what he calls "superior "human" qualities" (talaimaiyana kunankal).(54) Several verses included in the chapter speak of reaching God's(55) feet, an idiom that many readers would understand as an expression of devotion to God, but Kulantai interprets these passages as extensions of the same metaphorical representation of human virtue. It is not only Parimelalakar's theism that offends Pulavar Kulantai's rationalist sensibilities. In his interpretation of Tirukkural he similarly avoids ideas concerning karma and rebirth, moksa, varnasramadharma, in fact most of the major elements of the Brahamanical ideology to which Parimelalakar subscribes. The gist of verse 3 according to Parimelalakar's interpretation is that people who are devoted to God will attain the indestructible condition of moksa, while according to Kulantai the verse asserts that people who revere a man of superior intellect (and presumably follow his example) will be rewarded with a long trouble-free life on earth. The question immediately arises, how can the same verse generate such divergent interpretations? In the original Tamil, verse 3 reads as follows: malarmicai ekinan manati cerntar / nilamicai nituvalvar. A "literal" translation might read, "people who reach the majestic feet of the one who walked upon the flower will live long upon the land." In Parimelalakar's interpretation "he who walked upon the flower" (malarmicai ekinan) refers to the lord who speedily enters the hearts of his true devotees (see above), whereas for Kulantai this phrase refers to a person of superior intellect. Both commentators interpret "flower" (malar) as a metaphor for heart or mind (ullam). Kulantai understands the second line of the verse, "(they) will live long upon the land (nilamicai nituvalvar)" to mean simply, "they will live long, trouble-free lives on earth." Parimelalakar, however, engages in more complicated exegetical maneuvers. He inverts the order of the first two words such that "upon the land" (nilamicai) becomes "the lofty land" (micainilam) which he in turn interprets as "the world of moksa" (vittulakam). Divergences in Parimelalakar's and Kulantai's interpretation of other words and phrases fall into a pattern. Where Parimelalakar finds references to karma, rebirth, and moksa, Kulantai finds only this-worldly concerns. For Parimelalakar itumpai ("distress")(56) means "the sorrows incumbent upon birth in this world" (piravittunpankal); for Kulantai it means simply "pain, sorrow" (tunpam). For Parimelalakar iruvinaiyum(57) means "both good and bad karma" (nalvinai tivinai ennum irantuvinaiyum); for Kulantai it means "great sorrow" (periya tunpam).(58) For Parimelalakar piravi(59) ("birth") means the cycle of rebirth; for Kulantai it means "life (on earth)" (valkkai). The differences between the two commentators' interpretations highlight the degree to which the meaning one apprehends in Tirukkural's terse verses depends upon the way in which they are contextualized. As we have already seen, in Parimelalakar's commentary that context is provided by Brahmanical Hinduism. For Kulantai it can be traced to a reading of early Tamil history and culture inspired by a Dravidianist cultural and political ideology which was developed largely as a counter to many of the values that permeate Parimelalakar's commentary.(60) COMMENTARY AND INTERPRETIVE COMMUNITIES The disharmony between Parimelalakar's reading of Tirukkural and that of his modern-day critics dramatizes Fish's point that language, no less the language of literary works, is always perceived within a structure of norms that is not abstract and independent but social ... and therefore it is not a single structure with a privileged relationship to the process of communication as it occurs in any one situation but a structure that changes when one situation with its assumed background of practices, purposes, and goals, has given way to another.(61) Here Fish articulates a principle that has been expressed by many literary scholars in many different ways, though Fish does so more categorically than some others might: the meanings attributed to works of literature tend to evolve and shift with the historical circumstances of their audiences. One of the ways, and perhaps the most important way that "the classics" remain vital over long periods of time is through a process of accommodation to a changing audience. In this way classics continually generate new readings.(62) The prominence of Parimelalakar's commentary on Tirukkural can be attributed not only to the fact that it anticipates and reinforces textual values held by its audience, but also, at least during much of its history, to the fact that it reinforces dominant cultural values. As a follower of Foucault would put it, Parimelalakar spoke the language of the hegemonic discourse of his era. Further, one reason the preeminence of this commentary remained unchallenged for so long is that until relatively recently concepts such as varnasramadharma, purusartha, etc. continued to dominate Indian intellectual discourse, and this is as true of the south as it is of the north. However, the Dravidian movement has wrought radical changes in the way many Tamils perceive their intellectual heritage. Cultural values such as those that color Parimelalakar's construction of Tirukkural are perceived by many to be foreign to the true spirit of Tamil culture, and by some as positively harmful to society. From this perspective Parimelalakar's commentary is offensive because it tarnishes the "true gold" of Tiruvalluvar's native Tamil genius and because it perpetrates Aryan cultural imperialism. A commentator, or at least a commentator who wields as much influence as Parimelalakar, is a spokesman for an interpretive community,(63) and thus commentaries are windows that allow later generations of readers to observe the values and assumptions held by preceding generations.(64) But commentaries from the past do not simply bring into view the parameters that define interpretive communities of the past. In the Indian context, especially, they also provide insight into how interpretive communities in the present are constituted. This is because there is no clear break between the past and the present. Especially when a commentary acquires prestige and influence, it serves as a model to which later generations refer. This can be seen plainly in the area of sectarian discourse, where communities often define themselves in terms of their allegiance to particular interpretations of sacred texts and maintain their identity over time by holding fast in their allegiance. In such instances interpretive communities are coterminous with sectarian communities. In Tamil cultural history Parimelalakar's interpretation of Tirukkural has never been the source of identity for a sectarian community, as interpretations of sacred Hindu texts offered in commentaries by, for instance, Sankara or Ramanuja have been; but it has provided a standard of interpretation for Tirukkural's audience over many generations, and thus it defines an interpretive community that has endured for six centuries. If Parimelalakar's commentary once represented a consensus, in recent times that consensus has broken down. But even when long-standing interpretations are challenged, as Pulavar Kulantai and others have challenged Parimelalakar, the influence of the past is still felt in the present because new or dissenting interpretations frequently develop in response to earlier interpretations.(65) Thus in all probability Pulavar Kulantai's commentary on Tirukkural would not exist in its present form had there been no Parimelalakar. Whether as model or as countermodel Parimelalakar's commentary still exerts a powerful influence on the way people understand Tirukkural, a text which has come to be regarded as an icon of Tamil cultural and intellectual life, and it remains a member of the elite company of Tamil commentaries of truly classic stature.(66) 1 One of the few sources of information regarding the Tamil commentarial tradition that is available in English is Kamil Zvelebil, The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), 247-63. Sources in Tamil include the following: Mu. Vai. Aravintan, Uraiyaciriyarkal (Chidambaram: Manivacakar Nulakam, 1968); Ira. Mokan and Na. Cokkalinkam, Urai marapukal (Chidambaram: Manivacakar Patippakam, 1985); and Mu. Arunacalam, Tamil ilakkiya varalaru: patinmunram nurrantu (Mayuram: Kanti Vittiyalayam, 1970). There is a growing corpus of scholarship on the Srivaisnava commentarial tradition. Most of the Srivaisnava commentaries on the devotional poems of the alvars were written in a highly Sanskritized form of Tamil known as manipravala. Recent scholarship on the Srivaisnava manipravala commentaries includes the following: John Carman and Vasudha Narayanan, The Tamil Veda: Pillan s Interpretation of the Tiruvaymoli (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989); K. K. A. Venkatachari, The Manipravala Literature of the Srivaisnava Acaryas (Bombay: Anantacharya Research Institute, 1978); Francis X. Clooney, "Unity in Enjoyment: an Exploration into Nammalvar's Tamil Veda and its Commentaries," Sriramanujavani 6 (1983): 34-61; idem, "I Created Land and Sea: A Tamil Case of God-Consciousness and Its Srivaisnava Interpretation," Numen 35 (1988): 138-59; idem, "Nammalvar's Glorious Tiruvallaval: an Exploration in the Methods and Goals of Srivaisnava Commentary," JAOS 111 (1991): 260-76. 2 There are virtually no historical sources of information concerning the life of Tiruvalluvar, though legends concerning the poet and the virtue of his wife Vasuki, which most likely originated in oral tradition, are found in several literary works. According to prevailing legend, Valluvar (the prefix tiru is an honorific, equivalent to sri in Sanskrit), the child of a brahmin father and an outcaste mother, was a native of Mylapore (now a part of Madras) and was a weaver by occupation. Though nowadays educated Tamils, more often than not, regard such "biographical" information as legendary rather than factual, it is generally taken for granted that Tirukkural is the work of a single author. Also, many Tamil scholars look to the name Valluvar, the title of a caste whose members performed the duty of announcing publicly a ruler's proclamations, as a clue to the historical identity of Tirukkural's author. The sectarian affiliation of Tirukkural's author is a matter of debate. A number of modern-day scholars believe, on the basis of internal textual evidence, that Tiruvalluvar was a Jain (see notes 31, 35). However, because Tirukkural commands great prestige and is also virtually free of the kind of sectarian polemics that would definitely mark its author as a spokesman for a particular point of view, members of virtually every religious community in Tamilnadu claim Tiruvalluvar as one of their own. 3 In order to avoid bombarding the reader with possibly unfamiliar Tamil terminology, throughout this article, wherever feasible, I will translate technical terms and provide the original Tamil term in parentheses when the term first occurs. Usually, translated technical terms will be set off in quotation marks (e.g., "virtuous conduct") to clearly identify them as such. 4 These names for the text, along with several others, are found in Tiruvalluvamalai, a collection of 53 verses in praise of Tiruvalluvar, each attributed to a different poet. The putative authors of these verses include Old Tamil poets such as Kapilar, Paranar, and Nakkirar, as well as medieval poets. Also included in this distinguished company are "a disembodied voice" (acariri), the goddess Sarasvati, and Iraiyanar, a manifestation of Siva. For a discussion of the history and significance of these names, see S. Vaiyapuri Pillai, Tamilc cutar manikal (Madras: Pari Nilaiyam, 1959), 97-102. 5 S. Maharajan, Tiruvalluvar (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi,
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Author:Cutler, Norman
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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