Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Interpreting Tirukkural: The Role of Commentary in the Creation of a Text

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Interpreting Tirukkural: The Role of Commentary in the Creation of a Text

Article excerpt

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. …

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