Vignettes in Indian Literature: A Tamil King on the Importance of Education

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in January 2008)

Among all Indian languages, Tamil is different: Its system of alphabets, morphology, sandhi rules, andgrammardeveloped independent of Sanskrit. The earliest literature extant now is Tol-kAppiyam (literally,  Old Literature), and is dated back to a few centuries before Christ. In this literary work itself, there are references to earlier works.  Even though in later works starting from 7th century, we see increasing usage of Sanskrit vocabulary, in the earlier works, generically called literature of the Sangam period, the Tamil used has very little Sanskrit influence. Ironically, sangam, meaning association, itself is a Sanskrit word. Serious Tamil academicians have long debated the origins of these names.

In any case, one of the oldest Tamil anthologies, well-known at least to those who have some familiarity of the history of Tamil literature, is the puRa-nAnUru, dated between 3rd century BC to 2nd century AD. With puRam meaning external, and nAnUru meaning the number 400, puRa-nAnUru is a collection of close to 400 poems authored by Tamil bards, poets, scholars, and even kings of that period.

[As an aside, today, just because people can read and write Tamil, or have Tamil as their mother tongue, does not necessarily mean they would have even heard the term puRa-nAnUru. Sadly, this is not unique to the state of the Tamil language. Given the benign neglect of India’s native languages by its elite and middle class, all the Indian languages are condemned to the same fate.The common refrain we hear all the time is, “What is the ‘scope’ in learning the Indian language?”]

These old classical poems have very little religious or philosophical  context. Often, the poets describe the valor and generosity of kings . These poets seek (sometimes even beg) gifts from their patrons to get reprieve from grinding poverty described is colorful imagery. In some poems, poets advise, and even admonish, kings for their misdeeds, a la our columnists.  More on this some other time.

But one brief poem by a king is striking in the social context of the Tamil country of his time, or for that matter, even in today’s context. His name is Ariya-p-paDai  kaDanda  neDunchezhiyan (literally, the NeDun-chezhiyan who went beyond the army of the Aryans).

The king talks on the importance of learning. It is worth noting that this is not a traditional teacher (pandit) or a barely literate community  elder telling youngsters the importance of education. Here is a king living in palaces in opulence, used to a retinue of servants and maidens waiting to do all his biddings, impressing on the importance of education. 

Only after the Industrial Revolution in the 17th century, nation-states started emphasizing education among its populace, recognizing its importance for their political, economic and military ambitions. But here we see a Tamil king centuries before the time of Christ encouraging his population to learn for very practical motivations. Here is his verse in its original:

உற்றுழி யுதவியும் உறுபொருள் கொடுத்தும்
பிற்றைநிலை முனியாது கற்றல் நன்றே
பிறப்போ ரன்ன உடன்வயிற் றுள்ளும்
சிறப்பின் பாலாறற் தாயுமனந் திரியும்
ஒருகுடிப் பிறந்த பல்லோ ருள்ளும்
மூத்தோன் வருக வென்னா தவருள்
அறிவுடை யோனா றரசுஞ் செல்லும்
வேற்றுமை தெரிந்த நாற்பா லுள்ளும்
கீழ்ப்பால் ஒருவன் கற்பில்
மேற்பா லொருவனு மவன்கட் படுமே.


Those who can read Tamil and are familiar with vocabulary of Indian languages would recognize that in this verse only three words are rooted in Sanskrit: arasu (etymologically connected to the Sanskrit rajyam), manam (meaning mind), and muni (used as a verb, meaning annoyance).

And the king gives his practical rationale at three different levels, namely, within one’s own family, within one’s own clan, and within society at large.  The free-style non-poetic translation is:

By helping [the teacher in his needs], and by giving [him] gifts,

It is good to learn without getting

annoyed for being subservient.

[For], even a mother delivering all children from the same womb,

becomes partial toward her famous, learned child.

Even among those born in the same clan (jati),

a king would not invite the eldest one,

but [only] follow the wise and learned.

And even among the differentiated four castes,

if a man from the lower caste is learned,

the person from the upper caste is obliged to listen.


This freshness and the import of this short piece of poetry written before the time of Christ are relevant for all times and for all places. 


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