Cenkantal
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Cenkantal

Nature as a Teacher

Dr. Jothi S. Themozhi

Did poets perceive their works as inspirations of nature in ancient Tamil Nadu? This concept is best illustrated by a Sangam Classical Tamil poem from Puranānūru. Classical Sangam literature deals with love, war, governance, trade and bereavement of ancient Tamils. Learning how to approach life was also addressed in few poems; in Puranānūru, most of these musings are clustered between 182–194 songs. Few other mentions, however, can be found outside this categorical boundary. These poems fall under Thinai: ‘Pothuviyal’ (that means: the concept is global, and applicable to people everywhere) and Thurai: ‘Porunmozhi Kanji’ classification (that means: giving the essence of things of living, inspiring noble ideas, often the philosophical thoughts about life and advising on better ways to handle one’s living in ever-changing nature of life).

Of those poems one philosophical idea, one poem particularly attracts attention and is frequently quoted to portray characteristics of Tamil’s culture around the world. That poem is “Yādhum ūrē Yāvarum Kēlir” (which means: ‘To us, all villages are one, all people our kin’). This 192nd poem of Puranānūru) was written by Kaniyan Pūngundranār about some 2, 000 years ago.

This ancient poem has surprising modern day political history attached to it. This poem is oft cited at the United Nations in order to project thousands of years of vibrant Indian culture and its admirable history of the universality of all humans. G. G. Ponnambalam concluded his 1966 address to the 21st Session of the United Nations General Assembly by invoking this quote. Former President of India, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, quoted this poem during his Historical Speech at European Union, and more recently by Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi quoted it in 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Although this poem’s first line is cited to describe the broadmindedness of ancient Tamil people, the rest of the poem exposes ancient Tamil’s philosophical contribution to the society. The verses consists of 13 lines and explains that people understand life happens, and many things not under our control, which is an inherent part of nature. Since the Tamil poets understood this fact from their fore parents, they should neither judge people based on their status in life nor discriminate them. Because of their understanding, they consider all people in the world are their relatives and that all lands are their countries.

In a nutshell, the poem describes people who received enlightenment about the nature of living; neither the suffering nor the comfort can change their attitude towards the life, and they will not discriminate people or places. They are never awed by those who are great and do not despise those who are vulnerable. They understand that experiences we encounter, either evil or good, are a part of living, and they cannot attribute them to others’ act. They are aware that death is part of the life we live, and experiencing sadness and feeling rejoice also part of life. Because this attitude, they do not feel miserable or complain about the hardship of life. The reason behind this approach is due to their understanding that, whatever happens is part of living and we do not have much control over that. These are many fine traits of nobility and wisdom, and those who aware how nature leads the way and find bliss.

The essence of this poem, we can narrow it down to the following lines that explains that:

mallal pēriyāṟṟu

nīrvaḻip paṭū’um puṇaipōl āruyir

muṟai vaḻip paṭū’um

(Kaniyan Pūngundran, Puranānūru — 192)

“This much-praised life of ours a fragile raft

Borne down the waters of some mountain stream

That o’er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain

Tho’ storms with lightning’s flash from darkened skies

Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain

(Adapted from translation by G. U. Pope, 1906)

Comparing life to a journey by boat through waterways is a metaphor used in many modern Tamil literary works. People recite them without realizing that this comparison has a place in ancient scribes.

How did the poets see their work as inspiration from nature in ancient Tamil land? The basic premise lies in the concept of Nature as Teacher. In fact, Nature is a preacher and theologian. Though Nature has given us everything, human beings do not recognize its value.

“That’s life.” This familiar statement implies that the circumstances must be accepted as part of life, in which problems and inconveniences are inevitable. “That’s life” is an expression of our acceptance of a situation, however difficult it is. We may hear this statement many times, but only people say “that’s life” after an unlucky or unpleasant event or about an unpleasant fact to show that they realize such things are part of life and must be accepted. But wise people understood this fact under any circumstances, pleasant or sorrowful.

There are quite a few non-theistic (Nāstika) religions like Jainism, Buddhism, Ājīvika, Cārvāka (also known as Lokāyata) schools of the Indian philosophies that were practiced by ancient Tamils. These religious philosophies emerged in India about the same time as Buddhism. They have a common ground as they were in anti-Vedic philosophy; they reject the authority of sacred scriptures of Vedas of Brahmanism. Many of them did not survive brutal treatment of Brahmanism, but still Buddhism (0.7%) and Jainism (0.4%) practiced by a very few Indians.

Many researchers conclude that Porunmozhi Kanji Thurai songs are written by poets who were described as philosophies of non-theistic religions. Their ideas were from these non-theistic religious concepts, especially “Yādhum ūrē Yāvarum Kēlir” poem and its’ reference to way of living is from philosophies of Charvaka school of thoughts, that considers nature as the teacher. The condensed ideas stating the nature of the world, which is widely practiced in the world and how the world functions. The teaching can be narrowed simply to, sticking to moral principles, and understands that this life is to live.

Of the above-mentioned non-theistic religions, the Cārvāka school of philosophy rejects ritualism, supernatural concepts like God and soul, and metaphysical concepts like afterlife, rebirth, reincarnation, paradise and hell. The essential tenets of the philosophy were:

- Direct perception is the only means of establishing and accepting any truth

- What cannot be perceived and understood by the senses does not exist

- All that exists are the observable elements of air, earth, fire, and water

- The ultimate good in life is pleasure; the only evil is pain

- Pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain is the sole purpose of human existence

- Religion is an invention of the strong and clever who prey on the weak

We can observe that, generally, the concepts dealt with in poems of Porunmozhi Kanji Thurai are: wise people who will give up their lives for fame, but will not accept fame if it comes with dishonor and with noble virtues. They understand that the need for a measure of food to eat and two sets of clothes, thus they consider the purpose of wealth is charity. Also, noble people who consider virtue as their principle and live for that, and are wise and have self-control. The principles are constructed on the ideal of simple ethical humanity.

About the Author:

Dr. Themozhi, a native of Trichy, writes short stories, essays, translation essays, science essays, research essays and poems. She has published 9 books so far, and contributed as editor for two online magazines. She holds a PhD in Public Administration and previously worked as a Program Evaluator for a State Agency of Oklahoma. She lived in the United States for the past 35 years and is currently living in California with her family.

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Cenkantal

Cenkantal

Bulletin of the Chennai Jesuit Province