Sri Aurobindo’s Translation of Tirukkural

The Tirukkural (Sacred Verses) is a spiritual text authored by sage Thiruvalluvar, who is said to have lived somewhere between 300 BCE and 500 CE. Sri Aurobindo had translated a few of these verses into Tamil. In this article, Usha Mahadevan (DRBCC Hindu College, Chennai) analyzes Sri Aurobindo’s translation.

During his early years in Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo had made a study of Tamil in connection with his research into the “origins of Aryan speech”. The poet Subramania Bharati had introduced Sri Aurobindo to various works in the Tamil language.

Sri Aurobindo’s translation

Opening of the Kural – I

1) Alpha of all letters the first,
Of the worlds the original Godhead the beginning.

2) What fruit is by learning, if thou adore not
The beautiful feet of the Master of luminous wisdom?

3) When man has reached the majestic feet of him whose walk is on flowers,
Long upon earth is his living.

4) Not to the feet arriving of the one with whom none can compare,
Hard from the heart to dislodge is its sorrow.

5) Not to the feet of the Seer, to the sea of righteousness coming,
Hard to swim is this different ocean.

6) When man has come to the feet of him who has neither want nor unwanting,
Nowhere for him is affliction.

7) Night of our stumbling twixt virtue and sin not for him, is
The soul on the glorious day of God’s reality singing.

8) In the truth of his acts who has cast out the objects five from the gates of the senses,
Straight if thou stand, long shall be thy fullness of living.[p.597]

9) Some are who cross the giant ocean of birth; but he shall not cross it
Who has touched not the feet of the Godhead.

10) Lo, in a sense unillumined no virtue is, vainly is lifted
The head that fell not at the feet of the eightfold in Power, the Godhead.

Opening of the Kural – II

1) If the heavens remain dry, to the gods here in Nature
How shall be given the splendour of worship?

2) If the heavens do not their work, in this wide world
Giving is finished, austerity ended.

3) The world cannot live without its waters,
Nor conduct be at all without the rains from heaven.

4) If quite the skies refuse their gift, through this wide world
Famine shall do its worst with these creatures.

5) If one drop from heaven falls not, here
Hardly shalt thou see one head of green grass peering.[p.598]

https://incarnateword.in/cwsa/5/opening-of-the-kural (from the Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, vol. 5)

Analysis of the translation

The rest of this blog is in the words of Usha Mahadevan (DRBCC Hindu College, Chennai). This article first appeared in IRWLE VOL. 5 No. I, Jan 2009. IRWLE stands for Indian Review of World Literature in English.

Sri Aurobindo was not only a profound scholar, yogi, poet, dramatist and critic but also a translator per excellence. He has translated works from Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Bengali and Tamil. This paper seeks to study his translation of the first section of Thirukkural, Viz. ‘Kadavul Vazhthu’ along with the translation of Rev. G.U.Pope, Rev. Drew, Yogi Suddhananda Bharati and P.S.Sundaram.

Translation of any great literature offers a challenge and Kural offers one of the greatest of challenges because these illuminating aphorisms demand a language at once brief, sharp and polished so that the tone and tenor of Thiruvalluvar comes through in the translation. Sri Aurobindo’s multilingual poetic appreciation, his absorption of Indian culture, his impersonality and above all his yogic superpersonality give him a heightened consciousness which has enabled him to translate Kural with great ease. Sri Aurobindo, the translator, is only a facet of Sri Aurobindo the versatile genius. Sri Aurobindo was truly a multilingual genius. His English was not ‘near native’ but native for he spent his formative fourteen years [from age seven to twenty one] in Manchester, London and Cambridge. He was not only a brilliant scholar of Greek and Latin but was so completely at home with French, German and Italian that he could read Racine, Goethe and Dante in the original. After his return to India he learnt Sanskrit and several modern Indian languages.

One of the advantages of being a multilingual is flexibility. Clifford Sanders points out in his book “Literary Translation” that if you are a multilingual “you can avail yourself of the wide panoply of, say Hispanic literature as well as of the francophone nations”[1].  Sri Aurobindo’s multilingual background enables him to draw on a variety of material.  His multifarious works in translations provide scores of examples to establish this point, but let me confine myself to Kural which is the subject of my paper.

The Opening Kural

Agara Mudala Ezhuthellam Adi Bhagavan mudhatre ulagu.”

is translated by many using the letter ‘A’ to denote “Agara”.

Rev. Pope translates, “As all letters have the letter ‘A’ for their first”
Yogi Suddhananda Bharati says, “A leads letters”
P.S.Sundaram says, “A begins the Alphabet”


But Sri Aurobindo says, “Alpha of all letters the first”

Clearly Sri Aurobindo is drawing on his classical scholarship here. Alpha is not only the first letter of the Greek alphabet.  It is also the first star in the constellation, the beginning in any classification.  As for the resonance, Alpha for ‘Agaram’ sounds exquisite.

As for the translation of the rest of the first Kural, each translation has come out with beautiful equivalents for ‘Adhi Bhagavan Mudatre’.

Rev. Pope says “Primal Deity”, Rev Drew says “Eternal God”; Suddhananda Bharati says, “Ancient Lord”; P.S.Sundaram says “God Primordial” and Sri Aurobindo says “Original Godhead”. It is said that Greeks have but one Homer, the English have many. So do Tamilians have but one ‘Kural’ the English so many !

It was Sri Aurobindo’s absorption of Indian culture that enabled him to translate Vedic texts, epics, Sanskrit plays, Alwar’s songs and Kural.   Let’s see how it features in his translation of the ‘Kural’.   Consider for the instance of the 10th Kural:

Piravi perungadal neendhuvar neendhar
Iraivanadi seradhar

Perunkadal’ is suggestive for ‘Samsara Sagara’ as well as the cycle of birth. ‘Neenduvar’ also suggests liberation from the cycle of birth.   ‘Neenduvar’ is translated as ‘Swim’ by Rev. Pope, Rev. Drew as well as Yogi Suddhananda Bharati.  But Sri Aurobindo uses the word ‘cross’ : He says, “Cross the giant ocean of birth” and this truly elucidates the meaning in the ‘Kural’. The idea of crossing from one state to another, from ignorance to knowledge, from the cycle of birth to liberation is the essence of the ancient Indian texts.  The Sanskrit ‘thru-tara’ which means ‘to cross’ features in books of Sri Vidya Tradition.

The “aim of the translator” says Geoffrey Samuelsson Brown, “should be to convey the meaning of the original work as opposed to producing a mere accurate rendering of words”.[2] The goal of Literary Translation is “is not to translate what the author wrote but what he or she meant”.[3]  Here we see how the word “cross” conveys what Thiruvalluvar meant though “swim” is an accurate rendering for the word ‘Neenduvar”. About freedom in attempts at translation, Sri Aurobindo says, “A translator is not necessarily bound to the exact word and letter of the original he chooses… We find that literal translation more completely betray that those that are reasonably free – turning life into death and poetic power into poverty and flatness” [4]. This is what he had written to one of his disciples who was attempting translation.

Coming to the stylistics aspect, I find that Sri Aurobindo preserves the nuances of structure while rendering his translation.  For instance, the second Kural ‘Katrathinal aana payanen …’ is in the interrogative and Sri Aurobindo translates it as “what fruit is by learning”. Rev Pope translates it as ‘no fruit have men of all their studied lore’. Yogi Suddhananda Bharati translates, ‘That lore is vain”.  Though the meaning of Kural comes through Rev Pope and Yogi Suddhananda Bharati have not used the interrogative as Sri Aurobindo has.  The interrogative, however, maintained by Rev. Drew and P.S. Sundaram.  Whereas Rev. Drew says, “What profit…”, Sundaram says, “What use…”

Consider also Valluvar’s use of the double negative, ‘Neendar Iraivanadi Seradar’. This is accomplished beautifully Sri Aurobindo’s translation: but he shall not cross it who has touched not the feet of the Godhead

This is again different from Rev. Pope’s : “They swim the sea of births the Monarch’s foot who gain  None others reach the shore of being mighty main”

Or Rev. Drew’s : “None can swim the great sea of births, but Those who are united to the feet of God”

Or Sudhananda Bharati’s, “The sea of births they alone swim; Who clench His feet and cleave to him

The double negative is not preserved by Rev. Pope or Rev. Drew or Suddhananda Bharati though it does not affect the content of what has been conveyed in the SL.

Tamil was no mother tongue for Sri Aurobindo as with Suddhananda Bharati and P.S. Sundaram.  Nor did Sri Aurobindo toil to learn it like Rev. Pope or Rev. Drew did.  How then is this feat achieved by Sri Aurobindo?   A literary translator must possess quality rather than qualification’[5] says, Samuelsson Brown.  Impersonality, it is said, is a pre-requisite quality for a translator.  A translator should have no identity – the item to be translated is the one only object before him.  All the translators strive to achieve this but in the case of Sri Aurobindo it is something more than that because he was a Yogi. He himself says, “Everything I wrote came from Yogic experience… from the heightening of my consciousness”. Being a Yogi and poet he had access to the higher levels of consciousness. If impersonality is good, superpersonality is better. He did not of course get charioted by “Bacchus and his pards” nor even on the “viewless wings of poesy”. But it was an ascent with a unified consciousness. When the mind’s will and heart’s feeling are yoked to the inner self, it becomes a self-generated rocket. The translator now becomes an integer when he translates. No fraction, No dichotomy, only an integer.

In his celebrated essay, “Tradition and individual Talent’” Eliot says, “Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it” [6] genius like Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British museum. A genius like Sri Aurobindo could absorb knowledge and write, interpret, translate with ease and grace thanks to his Yogic experience.

PRIMARY SOURCES

  1. Landers, E.Clifford, Literary Translation: A Practical Guide (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2001), 14
  2. Samuelsson Brown Geoffrey, A Practical Guide for Translation (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2004), 5
  3. Landers, 54
  4. Letters of Sri Aurobindo, Third series (Bombay: Sri Aurobindo Circle, 1972), 208
  5. Samuelsson Brown, 5
  6. Eliot T.S., Selected Prose (Middlesex: Penguin Books), 25

See Also

  1. Allusions in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri
  2. Allusions in Savitri – part 2
  3. Sri Aurobindo’s prose style – by Goutam Ghosal
  4. Summary of Savitri by Jyotipriya (Dr Judith Tyberg)
  5. Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 1
  6. Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 2
  7. The History of Yoga
  8. History of Yoga – part 2
  9. How to read holy books
  10. Difference between genius and mysticism

16 thoughts on “Sri Aurobindo’s Translation of Tirukkural

  1. Aroon Khonde

    Thanks Sandeep.. Reading you after a long time.

    Aroon, Nasik, Maharashtra State India

    On Fri, 20 Nov 2020, 10:35 pm Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother, wrote:

    > Sandeep posted: ” The Tirukkural (Sacred Verses) is a spiritual text > authored by sage Thiruvalluvar, who is said to have lived somewhere between > 300 BCE and 500 CE. Sri Aurobindo had translated a few of these verses into > Tamil. In this article, Usha Mahadevan (DRBCC Hi” >

    Reply
  2. Ahmd

    Many things are conflicting. Sri Aurobindo couldn’t heal himself after the accident and needed a doctor. Mother grew old. So how is it possible that they brought supramental light to the inconscient? Hard to resolve these contradictions. I mean no disrespect, just hard to reconcile.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Its fine. I am not expecting anyone to respect them.

      Frankly, any answer I give you will be insufficient because it is not the mind but the inner being which needs to be convinced.

      Personally, I don’t care about these questions anymore because I have travelled sufficiently on the spiritual path.

      If you reach a similar point in the journey, you may also find these contradictions resolved.

      Reply
      1. Sandeep Post author

        I just ignore some things they have said that I don’t understand. If I am destined to know, I will know that some day

        Best to be focused on one’s own spiritual growth

    2. Sas

      I may find something to add here. But before that, let me start with the statement by Sri Aurobindo when he said one should believe in those things which are directly verifiable by ones experience. This is in reference to question like “Did Lord Hanuman really prison the Sun in his armpit?” The problem starts when we start believing in things not experienced by us to be true because of “Oh my Guru said this, and disobedience to my Guru is the worst thing to do”.

      There are many things which I had doubts on from the beginning till now. Why SA escaped from British rule and took refuge himself in Pondy. Does Kali doesnt have the power to kill all evil? After all, the British oppression is just a dust compared to Kali’s power. SA and M said many times they are going to overcome death but they failed. After SA’s passing, M also re-iterated many times in conversations with disciples that SA wished to overcome the physical totally but that didnt happen. Some disciples started defending their actions by this or that. But truth need not be defended and SA and M themselves never tried to defend their failures. In fact , among all seers born in this holy land, I find them the most brutally truthful. In their words lie great words of Wisdom which will stand true to practical use for generations to come – more profound than any text ever written. That is what matters. We dont have to deliberately believe in something which we are not convinced of – and that doesnt make anyone any less great.

      Covid came and stayed. All living seers having lakhs of followers wore masks and gave lectures. Couldnt help anything spiritually. Millions died for no fault of theirs. Lets believe that we dont have the power against any epidemic or war or tsunami or alien attack. Can God wield power against these adverse forces? Theoretically yes. But practically speaking there is no consistent evidence to suggest any living human holds such power. But that doesnt mean practicing spirituality doesnt have benefits. It connects us with our True Self /Soul which is immortal and if one can achieve that, then there is nothing more to be achieved. But one need not believe anything for fear of disobedience to ones Guru.

      Reply
      1. Sas

        Its very difficult to find the link since I didnt feel the need to bookmark when I read but most likely it must be in the evening talks book which I read as a physical copy.

        The context was something like, some disciple asking about different legendary tales, if such and such things really can be believed, did it really happen etc. And He replied He would like to believe those which He verified personally and then gave a list of things which he had experienced and things of which he didnt have experience.

        its very much in my vivid memory. Once I find the link online, will share.

        I am sharing the other link where he talks about Lord Hanuman that I referred to:
        https://www.aurobindo.ru/workings/nirodbaran/talks/0352_e.htm

        Dr. Manilal: Of course you yourself have said somewhere that all these stories are true.

        Sri Aurobindo: Where have I said that? What I have said is that the Gita was recorded as a fact in the Mahabharata, intended to be a fact of life, not an allegory. But do you mean that Hanuman’s taking the sun under his armpit and jumping into Lanka and burning Lanka by his tail-fire were all facts?

  3. mike

    Just a few quotes from SA on this subject because, as He explains below, He wasn’t using the Supramental Force to heal:

    “Who told you we are acting from supramental consciousness? We are not and cannot until the confounded quarrel with Matter is settled”

    “As for the Force, I shall write some other time. I have told you that it is not always efficacious, but works under conditions like all forces; it is only the supramental Force that works absolutely, because it creates its own conditions. But the Force I am using is a Force that has to work under the present world conditions. It is not the less a Force for that. I have cured myself of all illnesses except three by it and those too when they come I have kept in check; the fact that I have not succeeded yet in eliminating the fact or probability of those three does not cancel the fact of my success with the others. As for the Mother, she used formerly to cure everything at once by the same Power — now she has no time to think about her body or to concentrate on it. Even so when she makes a certain inner concentration she can see, read etc. perfectly well without glasses, but she has no time to work out the possibility which that shows. The prevalence of illness just now is a fact; it is part of the struggle that is going on in the domain of Matter. But even so there are plenty of people in the Asram who get rid of their ills by reliance on the Mother. If all cannot do it, what does that prove or disprove? It only proves that the Power does not work absolutely, miraculously, impossibly, but it works by certain given means and under conditions. I have always said that, so what is there in that that is new or that annihilates the truth of the Yoga?”

    “I shall see also whether I can explain what I mean by Force (the one which I refer to being neither supramental nor omnipotent nor guaranteed to work like Beecham’s pills in every case) and how it acts and in what conditions. I have tried it in hundreds of cases besides X‘s (on my own body first and always) and I have no doubt of its reality or efficacy under these conditions. However, of that on some later date.”

    Reply
    1. P

      Thanks for this post! I have observed in myself that the force (or rather peace) cures some illnesses, but in the case of certain chronic problems, the force helps ease the condition temporarily and return me to health, but the disease is not “cured” per se, meaning it recurs at a later point. So that made me wonder why the “force” is “ineffective,” but after reading this piece, I now understand why.

      One more thing — in my case, a great part of disease recurrence is coming from fear. Usually, the very thought of an illness — say, stomach pain — triggers the illness a few moments later. During the illness, usually I, as an observer, become aware of my reactions, including the fears and thoughts that arise. In some instances, when the observer observing this condition separates totally from the mind and vital, the disease disappears instantly. The disease is not cured, but the disturbance disappears for the time being, and I feel relaxed and healthy.

      Reply
    1. Ahmd

      thanks for this, Mike. Somewhere he also talks about predator-prey consciousness becoming one, so much that the prey enjoys getting eaten. Do you know where he says that?

      Reply
      1. Sandeep Post author

        But it is also said that the first expression of love in living beings is the desire to devour. One wants to absorb, desires to devour. There is one instance which would seem to prove that this is not altogether false—that is when the tiger catches its prey or the snake its victim, it happens that both the tiger’s and the snake’s victims give themselves up in a kind of delight of being eaten. An experience is narrated of a man who was in the bush with his friends and had lagged behind and was caught by a tiger, a man-eater. The others came back when they saw that he was missing. They saw the tracks. They ran after him, just in time to prevent the tiger’s eating him. When he came to himself a little, they told him he must have had a frightful experience. He said: “No, just imagine, I don’t know what happened to me, as soon as that tiger caught me and while it was dragging me along, I felt an intense love for it and a great desire to be eaten by it!”

        https://incarnateword.in/cwm/05/8-july-1953

  4. Ahmd

    Thanks, Sandeep. It’s amazing, this passage. What really happens in such instances? The reason I am asking is because I recently came across an incident where a person was eaten by a croc. Is the ananda aspect of the divine working even in such extremely harrowing and painful cases?

    Reply

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