What we don’t know, we don’t know.. (அவரவர் இறையவர்…)

In my early student years in US (2001-2002), I used to wonder how well Mr.Donald Rumsfield used the power of language, especially when it came to the now (in)famous defense of the Iraq war.

 Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are “known knowns”; there are things we know we know. We also know there are “known unknowns”; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also “unknown unknowns” – the ones we don’t know we don’t know

Donald Rumsfeld, 2002

If only the reporter who posed this question had watched Puriyadha Pudhir, he could have responded like Raghuvaran.

Raghuvaran responding to Donald Rumsfield

I am reminded of this excellent chart, depicting the knowledge path of a Beginner, an Intermediate and an Expert

Knowledge path:

How do we know, we know

And now to the obligatory tamizh kaviya varigal that triggered the stream of conscious writing you saw above.

My uncle got me interested in discovering the true purport and meaning of some of the most beautiful verses in Tamil language. Here’s one such verse from Nammazhavar’s Thiruvaimozhi (நம்மாழ்வார் திருவாய்மொழி)

அவரவர் தமதமது அறிவறி வகைவகை
அவரவர் இறையவர் என அடி அடைவர்கள்
அவரவர் இறையவர் குறைவிலர் இறையவர்
அவரவர் விதி வழி அடைய நின்றனரே

Avaravar thamathamadhu arivari vagaivagai
Avaravar iraiyavar ena adi adaivargal
Avaravar iraiyavar kuraivilar iraiyavar
Avaravar vidhi vazhi adaiya nindranare!

As with any  paasuram ( stanza as denoted in thamizh), there are multiple layers of meanings that one can derive/enjoy. One can enjoy the sheer literary brilliance of this verse, without having to prescribe to the religious beliefs.

I marvel at the economy of words to describe the indescribable, the ability of the author to highlight the limitations of knowledge ( “unknown unknowns!”) and the humility to accept the ignorance of one’s knowledge. what is knowledge ( “arivu”)? the realisation that ” I know nothing” :-). and therefore  take the path of surrender   ( “vidhi vazhi”, ).

Additional Commentary (Sathya):

The verse is a beautiful piece that shows the flexibility of the language. One of the challenges in a multilingual site like this is that some of the more nuanced words do not have a direct translation or has multitudes of them. In this case, அறிவு (arivu) such a word. The common translation for this word is intelligence (அறிவிருக்காயா உனக்கு? – Do you have brains?).

The root of the word comes from அறி, equivalent of “gno” in latin – to know. அறிதல் would be to know or to understand. Put in this context, the word can take other meanings such as “to know”, “to be aware”, “to realize”, “to understand”, “to get enlightened”, etc., which is likely the context used here.

Similarly, the word இறை (irai) is used beautifully. Irai has multiple connotations – it can mean God or more broadly, a higher power. A higher power can be anyone just above you in terms of either strength or wisdom or awareness. Hence it can mean a King, a Manager, or God. Irai also can mean to worship or to pray.

Going by Vasu’s chart of beginner-hazard-expert, when someone first becomes aware of Hinduism, be it a non-Indian or even an Indian attempting to rediscover his or her roots, we explain Hinduism as a polytheistic religion – religion of many Gods. This is also generally the textbook definition, likely to distinguish it from monotheistic religions like Christianity, Islam, or Buddishm, to name a few.

Later, as we dig a bit deeper and get some understanding of the philosophies, we get into the “hazard” phase and build up our அரைகுறை (araikurai – half-baked) knowledge. But then we have an issue – the notion of polytheism suddenly is challenged with strong statements made by the foremost interpretations of Hinduism – Mayavada (aka advaita), Vishishtadvaita, and Tattvavada (aka dvaita) – which all claim Hinduism to be monotheistic (the single God being Vishnu taking many forms).

So, what is correct? Here’s where Nammazhwar shines with the paasuram above and clarifies the confusion in four simple lines, simply putting it as “to each their own”:

Each person, as per their awareness (of God), will believe in their own version of God and surrender to Him (in the attempt to achieve salvation). These (personalized) God versions are no better or no less compared to each other and are flawless in their own way. Those who do ask for salvation will get what is per their individual fate.

A few interesting points to note:

  1. Nammazhvar does not say praying one version of God (such as Shiva, Vishnu, Murugan, etc.) is better or worse. In fact, having faith is a good thing to begin with.
  2. At the same time, he also does not say that just because you pray to your version of God does not mean you automatically achieve salvation. There is still the pesky thing called fate that drives how far you get to your goal of salvation.
  3. Using the word “irai”, Nammazhwar moves away from the absolute to the relative. He could’ve easily said something like “Hari”, but does not.
  4. Each person does not see a flaw in their God (he does not say one version is better than the other but just that to the person who believes in the version, that version is flawless!)

With the recent happenings as of this writing in Tamilnadu,  the words said many years back seem strangely appropriate. Seeing various ministers (அவரவர்) who were bowing (இறையவர்) before Amma (J Jayalalitha) shifting their loyalties and bowing to Chinnamma (V K Sasikala), one cannot help  but wonder what the fates (விதி வழி அடைய) of these ‘loyalists’ are that make them bow to their own versions of God!

There is also a nice explanation that can be found here – http://srikanthpdx.blogspot.com/2006/12/why-are-there-so-many-religions.html.

Lastly, I came across an interesting story a while back that seems to resonate very well with this theme – http://www.fartlab.com/view/519df7b4332c4 (ignore the name of the website and focus on the content!) – hope you find it as interesting as I did.


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