A couplet on Education from a 2200-year-old Tamil Classic Tirukkural

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

Tirukkural (तिरुक्कुरळ, and not तिरुक्कुरल), a 2200-year-old Tamil classic authored by Tiruvalluvar, is a collection of 1330 couplets on 133 topics with ten couplets in each. Each couplet has only seven words in a 4-3-word formation. Obviously, to present concepts on different topics in just seven words, one needs to be terse, much like sutras, requiring great skills to interpret its imports. So, the interpreter’s skills and insights make a huge difference in what we understand. Over the last 10 to 15 centuries, over ten scholars have written commentaries on this literary work. Here is just one couplet in the chapter on Education:

கற்க கசடற கற்பவை கற்றபின்

நிற்க அதர்க்குத் தக.


Learn thoroughly [the subject]. After learning,

… … live by what you have learned.

On first reading, this couplet even in Tamil, appears mundane — and even more so, in my English translation. People who have gone to Tamil medium schools would have memorized this couplet routinely.  Then, about 15 years ago, I listened to a retired Tamil pandit — to this day, I regret for not jotting down his name — on YouTube who brilliantly interpreted the couplet by inserting the first word in between every word in the original thus:

கற்க கற்க!  கசடற கற்க!  கற்பவை கற்க!  கற்றபின் கற்க!

நிற்க கற்க!  அதர்க்குத் தக  கற்க!

And he elaborated this further in Tamil, the gist of which I give below in English:

கற்க கற்க!  Learn for the sake of learning — and implying that we should not pursue education with the idea of earning name, fame and money. These are, of course, important, but only useful byproducts of education. Besides, accomplishing these is not in our hands, really speaking. But whether we accomplish these are not, the purpose of education is to widen our horizon, and that is the best and only worthwhile reward we get for education. Whether we get name, fame, or wealth or not, we can still lead satisfying career as teachers, engineers, doctors… As a matter of fact, this is where most of us end up in life, and most of us have no regrets.  

Commentary:  These days we often choose college studies on the basis of job opportunities and job security.  Not just the degree programs, but also the individual subjects within the programs we choose on the basis of the nebulous idea of “scope” du jour. On this approach, Valluvar is a contrarian.  He says, when you embark on any course of study, do this to gain understanding and mastery on the subject chosen thoroughly. This is because, no doubt, the details of the specific subject we study is what we get. But what we subliminally learn is how to study the subject. For example, the approach we take to study preliminaries of organic chemistry is mostly memorizing terms and terminologies. However, when we approach the theories of organic reactions, the approach is analytical, and logical requiring abstract thinking, and entirely different. That he elaborates further:

கசடற கற்க! Learn thoroughly without leaving any loose ends, [once you select the program]. That is, stay focused on the subject, and while doing assignments, spend time as much as you can to assimilate the material thoroughly. And do this not as we often do to limit ourselves to get through the class and get decent grades. These are, of course, important, but real purpose of education widening our horizon of understanding the phenomenal world, and grades are what we collect along the way.  

This is a profound advice because the future is always unknown. And we often realize the importance of what we learnt years years ago much later in life. We can all recall instances of some long-forgotten subjects learned a long time ago coming in handy at an opportune moment and save the day for us  — and also regretting for not doing a thorough job on some of the subjects we chose, or for having stayed too narrowly focused in our choices .      

கற்பவை கற்க!  Focus only on subjects [of your choice].  With fixed durations of semesters, time is precious and is always in short supply. So, we need to focus on the topics that are contextually worthy of our time. Don’t fritter away time on extraneous topics by “taking your eyes off the ball,” if I can use a sports metaphor.  

கற்றபின் கற்க!  After the class, read and study the material again and again.  This advice may sound trite, but in any study, real understanding takes place in solitude during contemplation.  Lectures and classwork alone are inadequate. Only when we read the material again and again, can we comprehend the topics and their nuanced and expansive meanings. This is true for all subjects, but particularly in subjects like theoretical physics, thermodynamics, theoretical foundations of Indian music in terms of melody and layam, physical chemistry, philosophy, literature…    

நிற்க கற்க!  Study to live your life based on the lessons.  This emphasis on education is unique in many Asian cultures. Topics in literature and classics in all languages contain important suggestions for the students to be reflective on human follies, foibles, the need to manage one’s anger, jealousy, envy, pride, delusions, on ethics, and on hubris and nemesis.  This is the real purpose of education. That is why these days they want engineering and medical students to take one of two courses in creative arts, philosophy, literature, writing… …  

Acquiring mastery on these topics is not just for an esoteric appreciation, whetting our intellectual curiosity, and impressing others in conversations. These are only secondary. The primary objective of education, however, is to mull over these lessons, internalize their import and see if we can incorporate them in our interactions and dealings with the outside world. This is easily said than done.  But then, that is the real challenge and purpose of education. This is where repetition has a useful purpose. 

Haven’t we all seen erudite scholars who can quote from scriptures for all occasions, but who are a mess in their personal life and living their lives quite contrary to what they preach? As you read this, I am sure, images of many colorful preachers, religious leaders, clergy leading their flock, public speakers on ethics, and politicians will flash through your mind as if they are on a caravan… …   

அதர்க்குத் தக  கற்க! Develop your education program accordingly!  END


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