Avvaiyar (or Avvai in brief) is a household name in Tamil Nadu. Every child that is put to school learns her moral aphorisms. She was a gifted poetess and her company was sought by prince and peasant alike. Through her sage advice, political acumen, moral wisdom, and spiritual strength she had helped princes to rule wisely and in peace. Because of such a grand combination of great qualities she is hailed as the queen of poetesses. She lived in the first century B. C., ranking first among the 30 poetesses who flourished during the Last Sangam Period. Nothing is known of her birth, parentage or upbringing from authentic sources, what is known about these being from some traditional accounts.
In Tamil Avvai means I mother’. In Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil, the word is used to mean old woman, grand-mother. Tamilians refer to her as Avvai, the grand mother. She well deserves the popularity because of the wisdom and experience matching her old appearance which she got even in her youth by her prayer to God. She has traveled all over Tamil Nadu on foot elevating the common folk through her spiritual exhortations.
Last Sangam Period Verses
To Avvaiyar is attributed 59 verses, the larges number by any poetess of the time - 7 in Nattrinai, 15 in Kurunthogai, 4 in Ahananooru, and 33 in Purananooru these deal with divers topics such as love, valour and kindness, and bear no connection To one anothe bach having been composd on a different occasion. Of the 59 verses, 23 are in the nature of detailing the fame, valour, charity and other good qu tlities of Adiarnan Neiluman Anji, of Tagadur a vassal Chera Prince.
Apart from the Sangam Period verses, abut a hundred stray verses are extant in her name. They fall in two groups - one of moral aphorisms and the other dealing with events connected with her. These verses are far simpler in content and construction than the Sangam Period verses. For this reason some critics opine that these are not Avvaivar’s but of some later poetess going by that name. But this rejection seems to be far too sweeping. For instance, the verses sung by her during the feast given to her by Sangavai and Anagavai, daughters of Pari, the great giver, when the two girls gave lien presents of fine clothes, refer specifically to events that occurred in the Sangam period and lend credence to the belief that they were indeed Avvaiyar’s.
Traditional Accounts of Birth and Life
Some of the stray verses give details of Avvaiyar’s life hich are quite popular. For instance the verse that tells of a shepherd buy giving a feast of jambo fruits, the verse that narrates how one Koraikkal Azhvar promised a gift and made Avvaiyar go to him several times for it, the verse that describes how a peasant’s wife treated her to a disrespectful feast. ‘These verses betray a lack of poetic style and substance. Hence many critics discount the authenticity of the verses though the details given in them are popularly
In Kapilar Ahaval a poem of 138 lines, poet Kapilar mentions that his mother was an outcaste called Adi and his father was a braLmin by name Bagavan and that be had six brothers and sisters viz. Avvai, Adiarnan, Valluvar, Uppai, Uruvai and Velli, and that Avvai was deserted by the parents and was brought up by a family of banas (out. castes). Pointing out the inferior style of this poem as compared to that of Sangam poetry, some critics conclude that the Kapilar who wrote the Kapilar Ahaval was not the Sangam period poet but another later one. There are critic who are prepared to concede that it is possible that th same poet might have composed poems of differing style to suit the times and therefore argue that the poem indeed that of Kapilar of the Sangam period.
Later works such as Gnanamritham, Tiruvalluvar Kathi, Pulavar Puranam, Vinoda Rasa Manjari follow Kapilar AIaval in their accounts of Avvaiyar’s birth. None of the poems of the Sangam period of Avvaiyar’s time mention any detail regarding Avvaiyar’s birth or parentage. Hence the acceptance by scholars of our country and the west of the traditional believe that Avvaiyar was the elder sister of Thiruvalluvar.
In the Sangam Period there lived a vassal prince name Adiaman Neduman Anji. On account of his great esteem to Avvaiyar he gave her a Nellikkani (Gooseberry which would bestow a long life on the eater that he procured with great difficulty from a forest, as an offering to her (Purananooru 91 of Avvaiyar). This fact has been mentioned in Sirupanatiuppadai, a work of the Sangam period by its author Nathathanar. Later commentators like Nachinarkiniyar and Parime1azhagar have mentioned this fact.
In the 89th verse of Purananooru, telling of the invitation of a king Avvaiyar discloses that in her youth she was expert in song and dance.
Her tact and diplomacy helped to avert war between the two chief kings Adiaman and Tondaiman as mentioned in stanza 95 of Purananooru. She went as Adiamaan’s emissary to Tondaiman, who then showed her his war implements kept neatly arranged in a hail with the intention of overawing her. But she neatly turned the tables on him. These well-oiled and sheathed implements show that they have never been actually in use while those of my lord Adiaman have been blunted in fight and have been sent to the smithy for repair and reconditioning. Tondaiman understood the implied hint that he lacked experience in war and opted for peace. We are led to infer that court pandits of those days were not only great poets but also possessed statesmanlike qualities.
It is noteworthy that Avvaiyar, who reeled off verses of praise about poor folks who gave her gruel or a bit of cloth, sang in praise only of Adiaman whose court pandit she was and refused to praise any other king even if they showered many gifts on her. Once she happened to see the kings of the three great Tamil states, Chera, Chola and Pandya in conference. She blessed them only and never spoke a word of praise (Purananooru 367 of Avvaiyar).
Her other works can be grouped into three categories, prabandhas, ethical and religious. To the first belong Asadikkovai, Pandanandadi and Pettaham. The first is about a cowherd by name Asadi; the second is in praise of Pandan a merchant; and the third is an artful revelation of wife’s infidelity to an unsuspecting husband. In point of purport and poetic style they are of a far lower standard than the Sangam period verses and seem tc bear out the contention of the critics that these cannot b Avvaiyar’s compositions.
To this category belong Aththichoodi, Kondraiven dan, Moodural, Nalvazhi and Kalvi Ozhukkam. Of these the first four are the most famous. There is scarcely a Tamilian who is not familiar with these. These have gained the status of proverbs and are used freely b parents and elders in shaping young minds. These at used as texts for study in the early standards of t1 Primary School even to this day.
Nalvazhi has 40 stanzas in Venba style artfully using apt similes to illustrate moral principles.
These four works, using respectively short single sentence, two sentences and rising to stanzas of Venba style form an intelligent purposeful and psychological gradation capable of being retained in their minc7s by young children for whom mostly these works are intended. It is no wonder that these form the basic introduction to moral training in the primary classes for the past 300 years and more.
It is a striking fact that Moodurai telling of wordly wisdom and Nalvazhi telling of moral conduct are in the nature of commentaries to Aththichoodi and Kondraivendan.
In a way Avvaiyar’s ethical works may be considered superior to those of Valluvar. Valluvar’s Thirukkural can be understood only by those who have some knowledge of Tamil. But not so Avvaiyar’s moral precepts. They can be easily understood even by children just beginning the study of Tamil. That the study of Thirukkural begins in the sixth standard in the schools of Tamil Nadu is enough proof for this inference. What Valluvar deals within 2 lines is abbreviated in simple language in a line—nay in a very short sentence by Avvaiyar, as will be evident from sentences 7, 19, 22, 28, 74 of Kondraivendan. So to say Avvaiyar’s moral precepts form an easy and fitting introduction to the study of Thirukkural.
The importance attached by scholars to these ethical works specially to the first and the second, is borne out by the fact that several voluminous commentaries have been written on them. Two hundred years ago, the Christian Vernacular Education Society had prescribed these two works for study in their schools in the first two standards, which bespeaks the regard the Christian Missionaries have for them. Great English scholars like Dr. Rev. John and Bisset Sud John have translated the first two of these works into English. The English translations by Percival of Aththichoodi, Kondraivendan, Moodurai and Nalvazhi are available even today. Dr. P. U. Pope has eulogised the Aththichoodi in one of his works.
Though these works are studied during childhood, they contain gems of conduct in important respects for later life. To cite a few, essential matters like food, sleep, right behavior, learning and war are dealt with in Kondraivendan 33, 7 and Aththichoodi 26, 11. The importance of handicraft, trade and husbandry is depicted in Kondraivendan 29 & 39. The essential points to be borne in mind in regard to selection and use of food, sleep, place of residence, are set out in Kondraivendan45 and Aththichoodi 90. These works amply bear out intimate knowledge of economics, politics and sociology. she looked upon Saivism and Vaishnavism with equal regard, believed in virtue and sin, had faith in and practiced worship in temples, held the absolute belief that everything took place according to God’s plan, avoided blaming God for her failures, advocated Ahimsa and firmly believed in Salvation, preached amity, had unshakable faith in things and ideas ancient, preached the worship parents as equal to worship of God, exhorted people to allow household life in spite of her asceticism; these find expression in Kondrajvendan 28, 38, 3, 58 Aththichoodi 56, 60, 101, 63 and Nalvazhi 1, 17.
The fifth among her ethical works viz. Kalvi Ozhuk kam contains 86 sentences, arranged in alphabetical order like Aththichoodi. This stresses the importance of right conduct, and of supporting only that type of education which leads to right conduct. This work has not so far been printed. A manuscript copy is said to exist in a library in London.
Among these the first place goes to Avvaiyar’ Grianakkural. This is also known as Avvaikkural anc Thirukkural. This deals with the fourth purushartha viz Moksha which has not been touched by Thiruvalluvar ii his Kural; this may be considered as supplying tha deficiency. She says that Moksha can be got only through Guana and hence the name Gnanakkural. This i a highly spiritual composition consisting of 3 categories 31 chapters, and 310 verses of Kural type. This patterned on the Thirukkural of Thiruvalluvar. Vinayak Ahaval, Ganapathi Asiria Virutham, and Uyargnana Sa Nool Charitam, arc other works of hers which deal wi Bhakthi and Yoga through devotional praise.
Other works, Pitaka Nigantu, Navamani Mal Naanoorkovai, Nanmanikovai are attributed to Avvaiyar they are not available in print.
The ethical works, religious works and Prabandas
Avvaiyar differ vastly in point of purport, poetic style and other relevant factors, from the works of the Sangam period, and hence the view of some that they are not those of Avvaiyar of the Sangam period. Their main contention is that the extremely simple language of Aththichoodi, Konraivendan etc. precludes their being Avvaiyar’s compositions. They opine that an Avvaiyar who lived in 10’th Century A.D. (Kamban’s period) has composed them, nd that a later Avvaiyar composed the religious works. there are others who argue that Avvaiyar who lived a long life of a thousand years as a result of eating the long life-giving Nellikkani could easily have adopted the simple language prevalent in those periods and composed them. Whatever that may be, it is clear that, because the famous commentators like Nachinarkiniar and Ilampooranar in 12 A.D. have, in their commentaries on Tholkappiam, cited for illustration verses from Konraivendan and Moodurai, the ethical works of Avvaiyar had become so prominent as to be cited by great authors.
Great works on Dharzna Sastra, Nyaya, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Sankhya yoga etc., in Sanskrit first took shape in the form of Sutras, and later got expanded through hashyas and lengthy commentaries. But there are no thica1 works in Sanskrit in Sutra form. Avvaiyar has indeed supplied that want through her ethical works. Not content with this, she has even composed in Sutra ‘form works on Vedanta, Philosophy and Worldly wisdom and has thus built a connecting bridge between Sanskrit pnd Tamil. It may be truly said that the Ubhaya Vedanta Siddhanta propagated by Sri Ramanuja and Sri Vedanta Desika has been equally well done by Avvaiyar through her works. Moral principles have been set forth in all languages, though they may differ in the mode of presentation. The great ideas in Sanskrit are all found in Avvai’s works but their beauty lies in the crisp, simple and heart- touching sentences used to convey those great ideas. This is a special mark of honour to the great poetess.
It is with the genuine desire of introducing the renowned work of Avvaiyar to non-Tamil speaking countrymen , S.N. Sriramadesikan has translated the four works, Aththichoodi, Kondraivendan, Moodurai and Nalvazhi in the form of quarter foot of a sloka, half sloka and full sloka respectively. He firmly believes that these translations will be not only useful in the early stages of the study of Sanskrit but also help in non-Tamil region the learning of Tamil through Sanskrit and of Sanskrit through Tamil; these have been his main aim in producing’ this translation.
Avvaiyar (Sanskrit Translation) was prescribed as Text Book for the Pre-University course— Advanced Sanskrit in the Madras University.
U. P. Government’s Award for Author’s work
The Avvaiyar’s Niti works in Sanskrit by Sri S. N. Srirama Desikan has been awarded a cash award of Rs. 500/ as being one of the best books in Sanskrit, by the Uttar Pradesh Government for the year 1973.
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