Fire is one of the five primal forces described in literature. It has been used as a metaphor to describe various ideas – both good and bad. From the initial spark to the intense flame of an inferno, fire has made its mark in literature and Thamizh literature is no exception.
There are classic stories where fire has played a major role – from Hanuman burning down Lanka in Ramayana to Kannagi burning down Madurai in Silappadikaaram. Apart from these literal blazes, the feeling of getting burned has also been used as a metaphor to represent a wide range of emotions including hurt, agony, lust, anger, rage, jealousy, envy, ego, pride, and spite, to name a few.
Correspondingly, the great poets and spiritual leaders have exhorted their followers in quenching this fire by getting control over the mind’s vagaries – primarily through meditation and devotion.
Burns from Anger
ThiruvaLLuvar says this of words said out of spite:
தீயினால் சுட்ட புண் உள்ளாறும் ஆறாதே
நாவினால் சுட்ட வடு
theeyinaal sutta puNN uLLaarum aaRaadhe
naavinaal sutta vadu
A burn caused by fire will eventually heal, but the one caused by a tongue (caustic words) will hurt forever.
There is another literary work similar to ThirukkuRaL known as நாலடியார் (naaladiyaar), which is considered as a more descriptive companion to thirukkuRaL in that it conveys similar sentiments, but elaborates more on the ideas. Said to be written by Jain monks generally accepted to be dated around 5th century CE, with no specific author to which this work is attributed, the work is composed of 400 songs with 4 lines each (hence the name – நாலு அடி – naalu adi – four lines).
Here, we find a poem that has a similar, but alternate take on the kuRaL above.
காவாது, ஒருவன் தன் வாய் திறந்து சொல்லும் சொல்
ஓவாதே தம்மைச் சுடுதலால், ஓவாதே
ஆய்ந்து அமைந்த கேள்வி அறிவுடையார், எஞ் ஞான்றும்,
காய்ந்து அமைந்த சொல்லார், கறுத்து.
kaavaadhu oruvan than vaai thiRandhu sollum sol
Ovaadhe thammai sududhalaal, Ovaadhe
aaindhu amaindha kELvi aRivudaiyaar, engnandRum
kaaindhu amaindha sollaar, kaRuthu
Words spoken hastily in anger will end up hurting the person who uttered them more than the one for whom it was meant. Those who are learned and constantly seek knowledge with humility will never speak such words borne out of hatred and haste.
So, the bottom line is to not speak out of anger, in the spur of the moment – it will ‘burn’ both the person who said it and the one to whom it was directed.
The words are timeless and could be applied even in modern situations, as explained by another blogger – Chockalingam Karuppaiah in his blog Thamizh Vaanam.
Burns from Lust
Apart from anger, the next most commonly compared emotion is lust. Even in modern times, scenes of passion are often cut in movies to pan to a burning fire, fireplace, etc. Naaladiyaar provides an apt comparison about the vice of lust:
அம்பும், அழலும், அவிர் கதிர் ஞாயிறும்,
வெம்பிச் சுடினும், புறம் சுடும்; வெம்பிக்
கவற்றி மனத்தைச் சுடுதலால், காமம்
ambum azhalum avir kadhir gnaayirum
vembi sudinum puRam sudum; vembi
kavatRi manathai suduthalaal kaamam
The a sting of an arrow, the singe from a fire, or a sunburn, even at their most intense, will only burn on the outside (the body, which eventually will heal) and can be overcome. However, lustful thinking is one that can burn the insides (the mind and the heart, which won’t heal) and is to be feared.
Similar to the sentiments of vaLLuvar above, naaladiyaar cautions against succumbing to the feelings of lust as it can overcome the rational thinking of a person and burn them from within.
Burns from ill conceived actions
Siddhars have made similar analogies to the notion of getting burned as well – more in reference to the broader context of taking on bad habits. The most famous of this is perhaps, the one from PattinathAr.
தன் வினை தன்னை சுடும்
ஓட்டப்பம் வீட்டை சுடும்
than vinai thannai sudum
Ottappam veettai sudum
One’s ill deeds will come back to burn them – much like the appam that I have thrown on the roof of the house will burn it down.
There is an interesting story that goes with these two lines. As we have mentioned elsewhere, Pattinathar was a wealthy merchant who renounced his riches when he achieved enlightenment and became a Siddhar. His sister though was keen on getting the wealth he left behind. So, in an attempt to get the riches to herself, she invites Pattinathar to his house and offers him appam (a sweet dish) that is laced with poison. Pattinathar realizes this and throws the appam on the roof of his sister’s house and walks away, singing the lines above. The house promptly burns down.
The sentiment is similar to the Biblical proverb – “as you sow, so you shall reap”.
The burn that consumes all
Siddhars are also known for singing about the impermanence of this worldly life and the desires that are gained and lost within the lifetime. As followers of Shiva, they often also refer to the ‘burn’ from a yogic fire to the final fire that consumes the body. Pattinathar has an everlasting poem about this ‘final fire’:
முன்னை யிட்டதீ முப்பு ரத்திலே
பின்னை யிட்டதீ தென்னி லங்கையிலே
அன்னை யிட்டதீ அடிவ யிற்றிலே
யானு மிட்டதீ மூள்க மூள்கவே
munnai itta thee muppurathilE
pinnai itta thee then ilangaiylE
annai itta thee adi vayitRilE
yaanum itta thee mooLga mooLgavE
The fire from the third eye of Shiva burned the Tripuraasuras. The fire lit by Hanuman’s tail burned Lanka. The fire that a mother carries is in the womb. Let the fire that I have set to my mother’s body grow and consume her.
Perhaps one of the most memorable and also the most haunting of Pattinathar’s songs, this poem conveys multiple emotions. Per his life history, Pattinathar was very attached to his mother, who was also instrumental in realizing his greatness and understanding and supporting his chosen way of life. So, as he comes back to his hometown (when he realizes his mother was nearing her end) and subsequently completes the final rituals for her, you can sense his anguish – his affection and attachment for her showing through despite his enlightened realization of life’s temporal nature.
As humans, we are at a constant fight to control and overcome the forces of nature – to bring about stability and predictability. Sometimes we win, and many times we lose – we succumb to the fires that grow uncontrolled in our minds – through the vices of anger, hate, jealousy, pride, ego, lust, and other similar ill conceived actions. As the wise sayings here have cautioned us ages back, they tend to burn us more than others – from the inside to the outside – till it consumes us as a whole. It is up to us to realize this fire within us and learn to control it better – be it through action, devotion, meditation, or any other means we find effective.