SLOCA Somebodies: Thiruvalluvar - SLO Classical Academy
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SLOCA Somebodies: Thiruvalluvar

With all that went on in the Mediterranean area during ancient times, sometimes we can forget about important thinkers outside of the Egypt-Greece-Rome area. With that in mind, we present to you THIRUVALLUVAR as our next in the #SomebodySeries. If you’ve never heard of him, you’re not alone! Even so, he and his work are celebrated throughout India and by various religions.

Portrait of Valluvar, shown with the traditional palm leaf manuscript and writing implement, late 20th century By K.R.Venugopal Sarma, Author of approved Thiruvalluvar portrait by Government of India – My fathers own property, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90955946

Thiruvalluvar, also known as Valluvar, was born sometime between 400 BC to 500 AD; for reference, Alexander the Great ruled in 336 BC and, according to traditional dating, Rome fell around 395 AD. Thiruvalluvar grew up somewhere in southern India, probably in Mylapore. He belonged to the Tamil people, who lived in that region, and became known as one of their most famous poets and philosophers.

133 feet tall stone sculpture of Thiruvalluvar  off the coast of  Kanyakumari in the Tamil region of India. By Darisi Sumanth – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28367057

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it several times now: very little is known about Thiruvalluvar’s life. Most of what we do known about him mostly comes from the Tirukkuṟaḷ, the major work attributed to him, which is a collection of aphorisms in the form of couplets. The topic of the text spans ethics, politics/economics, and love. These writings have been compared to the Bible, particularly the Book of Proverbs (see our former Somebody, Ptahhotep, for another connection to Proverbs!) and other sacred wisdom texts from the ancient world. It is from this that our quotation originates—a good reminder that character traits like kindness aren’t just valued by us today, but are kind of timeless and have been thought and written about by wise men and women throughout history.

 

The rest of Thiruvalluvar’s life comes to us through the legendary accounts of his life from biographers. All major Indian religions, as well as Christian missionaries in the 19th century, have claimed him as an adopter of or as secretly inspired by their tradition. Today, scholars think he was either Jain or Hindu, but he doesn’t neatly fit into either religion and may have tended toward idiosyncrasies within his tradition.

In addition, various biographers and later historians disagree about his family background. In a region that was largely dominated by castes and hierarchies, Thiruvalluvar has been claimed to be a weaver, a farmer, an outcast, a royal officer, a musician, or a priest. According to tradition, he was married to a woman named Vasuki, who is often venerated alongside Thiruvalluvar, but other details of his life are less certain. Stories about him abound; some say he made shadows stand still for an entire day, some claim he killed a demon and performed miracles, others claim his wife cooked sand until it transformed into rice.

Whatever factually happened in Thiruvalluvar’s life, his wisdom has continued to inspire throughout the ages. Today, let us take his words into account when choosing our own words. Let us remember that we have the ripe fruit of kindness at our disposal and let us share this fruit with others.

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