In a surprising turn of events, Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi, recognised for his dedication to the state and its cultural heritage, has ignited tension with Dravidian political factions, particularly the DMK and its allies. The uproar stems from Ravi’s social media post featuring a picture of Thiruvalluvar adorned with sacred marks on his face and body, clad in saffron robes.
This move starkly contradicts the established narrative of depicting Thiruvalluvar in a white robe free from religious symbolism. The controversial image has led to strained relations between the governor and the Dravidian parties, adding a new chapter to the ongoing political dynamics in Tamil Nadu.
During the era of DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, deliberate attempts were made to present Thiruvalluvar as a secular figure. A new image and idol were unveiled, portraying him in a white robe without traditional religious symbols, such as sacred ash on the forehead and the sacred thread (Yagnopaveetham). This transformation aimed to emphasise Thiruvalluvar’s universal appeal.
However, Governor RN Ravi’s recent social media post featuring Thiruvalluvar adorned with sacred marks and dressed in saffron robes has sparked controversy. The move diverges from the established narrative promoted during Karunanidhi’s tenure, leading to discontent among the Dravidian political factions, particularly the DMK and its allies.
This development also recalls the 2021 controversy initiated by DMK ally MP and VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan, who introduced a book speculating on Thiruvalluvar’s potential connection to Christianity. The book suggested the possibility that the saint poet may have been a baptised Christian, drawing parallels between Thirukkural and Christian teachings. Notably, an evangelist named Deivanayagam, supported by the Madras Catholic Diocese, has been championing the narrative that Thiruvalluvar was a disciple of St. Thomas, further asserting that Thirukkural’s teachings find roots in Christianity.
Deivanayagam’s claims have been controversial, with his book “TIRUVALLUVAR CHIRSITHUVARAA? M (Is Thiruvalluvar Christian?)” receiving attention. Archbishop Arulappa penned the foreword for the book, contributing to the narrative suggesting a Christian influence on Thiruvalluvar’s philosophy.
Moreover, in 2008, the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Kerala and Tamil Nadu announced plans to produce a film depicting St. Thomas and portraying Thiruvalluvar as a disciple of the revered saint. Deivanayagam, known for publishing books that interpret Thirukkural in a Christian context, later obtained a Ph.D. in Archdiocesan Christian Studies from the University of Madras, further solidifying his position as a proponent of the Christian interpretation of Thiruvalluvar’s work.
The controversy brings to light the historical context, as in 2017, the RSS national council in Coimbatore advocated for the promotion of Tamil saints and icons in its literature to enhance the visibility of Hindutva ideology in Tamil Nadu. Additionally, during the tenure of the DMK government led by Karunanidhi, a large Thiruvalluvar statue was installed in Kanyakumari, seemingly as a challenge to the popularity of the Swami Vivekananda memorial—a potent symbol of Sanatana Dharma.
In Tamil Nadu, the second day of the Thai Tamil month is celebrated as Thiruvalluvar Day (Janma Din). On this occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recognising the significance of Thirukkural, extended greetings, emphasising the guide’s role in various aspects of life. Modi, known for incorporating Tamil couplets in his speeches to showcase his love for Tamil literature, expressed admiration for Thirukkural’s teachings.
Today we celebrate Thiruvalluvar Day, commemorating the great Tamil sage whose profound wisdom in the Thirukkural guides us in several aspects of life. His timeless teachings inspire society to focus on virtue and integrity, fostering a world of harmony and understanding. We also…
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) January 16, 2024
The current controversy stems from Governor Ravi’s post, which depicted Thiruvalluvar with sacred ash on his forehead, prayer beads (rudraksha) around his neck, and dressed in saffron robes. The ruling DMK party swiftly condemned the move, alleging attempts at “saffronisation” by the Governor’s office. In contrast, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin shared a post portraying the poet in traditional white robes, expressing greetings on Thiruvalluvar’s birth anniversary.
Reacting to Governor Ravi’s message, Chief Minister Stalin defended Thiruvalluvar’s legacy, stating, “None can besmirch Valluvar in Tamil Nadu, which established a 133-foot-high statue and a kottam (memorial) for the great sage.” The incident reflects the intricate interplay between cultural, religious, and political dynamics in the state.
"On #ThiruvalluvarDay, I pay my humble tributes to the revered poet, great philosopher and brightest saint of Bharatiya Sanatan tradition, Thiruvalluvar born on the spiritual land of our Tamil Nadu. His eternal wisdom has immensely shaped and enriched the ideas and identity of… pic.twitter.com/xvccnimWsf
— RAJ BHAVAN, TAMIL NADU (@rajbhavan_tn) January 16, 2024
In a renewed clash over the representation of Tamil saint poet Thiruvalluvar, Union Minister of State L Murugan recently shared an image of the revered figure clad in saffron robes, dubbing him “Deiva Pulavar” (divine or godly poet). The move follows Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi’s similar post, sparking accusations of “saffronisation” from the ruling DMK party. DMK MP Kanimozhi criticised the governor’s portrayal, asserting that Thirukkural, authored by Thiruvalluvar, transcends religious boundaries and emphasises humanity. Kanimozhi remarked, “Calling him a saint shows that the governor does not have a basic understanding of Thirukkural and Thiruvalluvar.”
This recent controversy is not the first time that Thiruvalluvar’s representation has become a divisive issue in Tamil Nadu’s political landscape. Thirukkural, for revered work with numerous couplets referencing Hindu deities and puranic incidents, holds a significant place in Tamil culture. Regardless of religious affiliations, Tamilians consider Thiruvalluvar an ancient saint, poet, and philosopher, forming a cultural anchor that transcends religious boundaries.
In August 2022, Governor Ravi emphasised the spiritual significance of Thirukkural, stating, “Thirukkural is not just a code of ethics and morality but an epic book holding the wisdom of eternal spirituality.” He underscored Thiruvalluvar’s role as one of the brightest luminaries in the galaxy of ancient sages and critiqued colonial-era translations, alleging an attempt to trivialise India’s spiritual wisdom.
Thirukkural features a dedicated chapter titled “Praising of God” (கடவுள் வாழ்த்து), containing couplets that reference the concept of “Aadhi Bhagavan” found in Rig Veda and fundamental to Indian spirituality. However, the atheist stance of some Dravidian leaders has led to questions about their claim to Thiruvalluvar as a role model.
Political figures, including Dravidian Kazhagam founder EV Ramaswamy Naicker, known as Periyar, have expressed controversial views on Thirukkural. Periyar described the revered work as “human excreta in a golden plate” and accused Thiruvalluvar of supporting Aryan propaganda. Despite the DMK claiming to follow Periyar’s principles of social justice and casteless society, there remains a dichotomy regarding their stance on Thirukkural.
The latest clash between political figures underscores the intricate relationship between cultural, religious, and political ideologies in Tamil Nadu. The BJP’s push to promote Tamil saints and icons in its literature, as seen in the 2017 RSS national council meeting, aligns with efforts to bolster Hindutva ideology in the state.
As the controversy unfolds, the portrayal of Thiruvalluvar becomes a symbolic battleground, reflecting deeper ideological differences between political factions. While the BJP and its affiliates emphasise the spiritual and Hindu aspects of Thiruvalluvar’s legacy, the DMK and its allies assert the poet’s universal and secular appeal.
The ongoing dispute raises questions about the appropriation of cultural and literary icons for political agendas, underscoring the delicate balance between respecting cultural heritage and navigating the diverse religious and ideological landscape of Tamil Nadu. The Thiruvalluvar controversy is poised to remain a focal point in the region’s political discourse, shaping perceptions of identity, culture, and spirituality.