Every town’s our home town; every man, our kinsman;
good and evil happen not because of others;
pain and relief happen on their own;
dying isn’t something unknown;
neither do we rejoice that life is a joy,
nor in disgust, do we call it a misery;
since we know from words of the wise
‘Our precious lives follow their destined course,
like rafts following the course of a mighty river
clattering over rocks after a downpour
from lightning slashed skies’,
we are not impressed by the mighty;
more importantly, we do not scorn the lowly.
யாதும் ஊரே; யாவரும் கேளிர்;
தீதும் நன்றும் பிறர் தர வாரா;
நோதலும் தணிதலும் அவற்றோரன்ன;
சாதலும் புதுவது அன்றே; வாழ்தல்
இனிது என மகிழ்ந்தன்றும் இலமே; முனிவின்,
இன்னாது என்றலும் இலமே; ‘மின்னொடு
வானம் தண் துளி தலை இ, ஆனாது
கல் பொருது இரங்கும் மல்லல் பேர் யாற்று
நீர் வழிப்படூஉம் புணை போல், ஆர் உயிர்
முறை வழிப்படூஉம்’ என்பது திறவோர்
காட்சியின் தெளிந்தனம் ஆகலின், மாட்சியின்
பெரியோரை வியத்தலும் இலமே;
சிறியோரை இகழ்தல் அதனினும் இலமே.
This poem by Kanian Poonkundranar (Astrologer from Poonkundram) is one of the most famous poems of Sangam Literature. He lived in the village of Mahibalanpatti (in Sivaganga district today). He was a wise man, but never wrote in praise of kings or benefactors as was the practice then. When he was asked why he didn’t do so, this poem was his answer. You can either read this poem as surrendering to the inevitability of life or as a proclamation of independence from man made boundaries. This poem is that of a global citizen, who doesn’t reduce himself to an identity.
There are no boundaries for humans. Every town that we go is our home town. Every person we interact with is our kin (like Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, whole world is one family). Good and evil in our lives occurs not because of others, they come by themselves. (This can also be read as Good and evil are inherent in us, and not dependent on external factors). Pain and its relief happen on their own. Dying isn’t something new, it has been happening since ages. So we do not rejoice that life is blissful. At the same time we aren’t bitter about life being a misery. Wise men have already written down that our lives, though precious to us, follow their predetermined course. Just like rafts following the course of a great river that flows noisily over rocks after a downpour from the skies. Life happens on its own with hardly any control by the individual. So we do not wonder at those who are superior to us. Neither do we scorn those who are inferior to us.
It is with trepidation that I set out to translate this poem. AK Ramanujan’s translation of this poem is well known and well received. I have borrowed heavily from him. However I differ from AKR on the following points.
1. ‘Rafts drifting in the rapids of a great river’ is good imagery. However the original poem says rafts following the course of the river, not drifting. A friend pointed out that rafts don’t drift in rapids but are hurtled forward. Literal meaning of those lines in the original is ‘Rain drops from lightning streaked skies fall down and gush over the rocks noisily and flow as a mighty river. Like a raft following the course of the river, our precious lives too follow a predetermined course’. Here the river is equated to fate and our lives to rafts. So rafts follow the course of the river, they do not drift.
2. He translates திறவோர் காட்சி as ‘vision of men who see’. The commentaries by U.Ve.Saa. and Avvai Duraisami Pillai interpret it as “நன்மைக் கூறுபாடு அறிவோர் கூறிய நூல்” literally “books of those who know good and evil”. I have decided to go by their commentaries.
3. For the word முனிவின் he uses ‘anger’. U.Ve.Saa. interprets it as வெறுப்பு – loathing. So I have followed U.Ve.Saa.’s commentary and used disgust.
4. He skips the word அதனினும் – ‘more than that’ in the last line. That is crucial to this line. “We do not look at the mighty people with wonder. More importantly, we do not scorn those who are lower than us”.