Tirukkural: The Book of Wisdom
Ancient Text on Virtue, Wealth & Love
The Tirukkural (திருக்குறள், literally Sacred Verses), or shortly the Kural, is a classic Tamil language text consisting of 1,330 couplets or Kurals. The text is divided into three books, each with aphoristic teachings on virtue (aram, dharma), wealth (porul, artha) and love (inbam, kama). Considered one of the greatest works on ethics and morality, it is known for its universality and secular nature. Its authorship is traditionally attributed to Valluvar, also known in full as Thiruvalluvar. The text has been dated variously from 300 BCE to 5th century CE. The traditional accounts describe it as the last work of the third Sangam, but linguistic analysis suggests a later date of 450 to 500 CE and that it was composed after the Sangam period.
Tirukkural, the great poetic work by saint Tiru Valluvar, embodies values that are ever relevant and unchanging. The greatest classic of the Tamil language, it dates back anywhere between 2 BC and 8 AD. It comprises two parts, ‘Tiru’ and ‘Kural’: ‘Tiru’ can mean sacred, as well as beautiful, and ‘Kural’ means concise. Brevity is the charm of this scriptural text with its terse and forcible verses like sutras or aphorisms.
The Kural is traditionally praised with epithets and alternate titles such as “the Tamil Veda” and “the divine book”. It emphasizes non-violence and moral vegetarianism as virtues for an individual. In addition, it highlights truthfulness, self-restraint, gratitude, hospitality, kindness, goodness of wife, duty, giving, and so forth, besides covering a wide range of social and political topics such as king, ministers, taxes, justice, forts, war, greatness of army and soldier’s honor, death sentence for the wicked, agriculture, education, abstinence from alcohol and intoxicants. It also includes chapters on friendship, love, sexual union, and domestic life.
The Kural has been widely admired by scholars and influential leaders over its history. These include Ilango Adigal, Kambar, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Constantius Joseph Beschi, Karl Graul, George Uglow Pope, Alexander Piatigorsky, and Yu Hsi. The text has been translated into at least 40 Indian and non-Indian languages. The Kural is considered a masterpiece and one of the most important texts of the Tamil Literature. The Tamil people and the government of Tamil Nadu have long celebrated and upheld the text with reverence. See also: Buddhism, Prajñā in Buddhism, Prajna or Panna in Buddhism
Etymology and nomenclature
The term Tirukkural is a compound word made of two individual terms, tiru and kural. Tiru is an honorific Tamil term that corresponds to the universally Indian, Sanskrit term sri meaning “holy, sacred, excellent, honorable, and beautiful.” The term tiru has as many as 19 different meanings. Kural means something that is “short, concise, and abridged.” Etymologically, kural is the shortened form of kural paattu, which is derived from kuruvenpaattu, one of the two Tamil poetic forms explained by Tolkappiyam, the other one being neduvenpaattu. According to Winslow, kural is used as a literary term to indicate “a metrical line of 2 feet, or a distich or couplet of short lines, the first of 4 and the second of 3 feet.” Thus, Tirukkural literally comes to mean “sacred couplets.”
The work is highly cherished in the Tamil culture, as reflected by its nine different traditional titles: Thirukkuṛaḷ (the sacred kural), Uttaravedam (the ultimate Veda), Thiruvalluvar (eponymous with the author), Poyyamoli (the falseless word), Vayurai valttu (truthful praise), Teyvanul (the divine book), Potumarai (the common Veda), Muppal (the three-fold path), and Tamilmarai (the Tamil Veda).
The Kural has been dated variously from 300 BCE to 5th century CE. According to traditional accounts, it was the last work of the third Sangam, and was subjected to a divine test (which it passed). The scholars who believe this tradition, such as Somasundara Bharathiar and M Rajamanickam, date the text to as early as 300 BCE. Historian K. K. Pillay assigned it to the early 1st century CE. According to Kamil Zvelebil, a Czech scholar of Tamil literature, these early dates such as 300 BCE to 1 BCE are unacceptable and not supported by evidence within the text. The diction and grammar of the Kural, and Valluvar’s indebtedness to some earlier Sanskrit sources, suggest that he lived after the “early Tamil bardic poets”, but before Tamil bhakti poets era.
In 1959, S. Vaiyapuri Pillai assigned the work to around or after the 6th century CE. His proposal is based on the evidence that the Kural text contains a large proportion of Sanskrit loan words, shows awareness and indebtedness to some Sanskrit texts best dated to the first half of the 1st millennium CE, and the grammatical innovations in the language of the Kural literature. Pillai published a list of 137 Sanskrit loan words in the Kural text. Later scholars Thomas Burrow and Murray Barnson Emeneau show that 35 of these are of Dravidian origin and not Sanskrit loan words. Zvelebil states that an additional few have uncertain etymology and that future studies may prove those to be Dravidian. The 102 remaining loan words from Sanskrit are “not negligible”, and some of the teachings in the Kural text, according to Zvelebil, are “undoubtedly” based on the then extant Sanskrit works such as the Arthashastra and Manusmriti (also called the Manavadharmasastra).
In his treatise of Tamil literary history published in 1974, Zvelebil states that the Kural text does not belong to the Sangam period and dates it to somewhere between 450 and 500 CE. His estimate is based on the language of the text, its allusions to the earlier works, and its borrowing from some Sanskrit treatises. Zvelebil notes that the text features several grammatical innovations that are absent in the older Sangam literature. The text also features a higher number of Sanskrit loan words compared with these older texts. According to Zvelebil, besides being part of the ancient Tamil literary tradition, the author was also a part of the “one great Indian ethical, didactic tradition” as a few of the verses in the Kural text are “undoubtedly” translations of the verses of earlier Indian texts.
In the 19th century and the early 20th century, European writers and missionaries variously dated the text and its author to between 400 and 1000 CE. According to Blackburn, the “current scholarly consensus” dates the text and the author to approximately 500 CE.
Tiru Valluvar stands on a high moral pedestal along with Patanjali, Shankara and Buddha. He lived about 2000 years ago in Tamil Nadu, and worked as a weaver to earn his living. According to legends, he was a man of intense cognizance, enlightment, free spirit and hard work.
The Kural text was authored by Thiruvalluvar (lit. Saint Valluvar). There is negligible authentic information available about Valluvar’s life. In fact, neither his actual name nor the original title of his work can be determined with certainty. The Kural text itself does not name its author. The name Thiruvalluvar was first mentioned in the later era text Tiruvalluva Maalai, a Shaivite Hindu text also of unclear date. However, the Tiruvalluva Maalai does not mention anything about Valluvar’s birth, family, caste or background. No other authentic pre-colonial texts have been found to support any legends about the life of Valluvar. Starting around early 19th century, numerous inconsistent legends on Valluvar in various Indian languages and English were published.
The Kural text is aphoristic and non-denominational in nature and can be selectively interpreted in many ways. This has led almost every major religious group in India, including Christianity, to claim the work and its author as one of their own. In a manner similar to speculations of the author’s biography, there has been much speculation about his religion with no historical evidence. The 19th-century Christian missionary George Uglow Pope, for example, claimed that Valluvar must have lived in the 9th century CE, come in contact with Christian teachers such as Pantaenus of Alexandria, imbibed Christian ideas and peculiarities of Alexandrian teachers and then wrote the “wonderful Kurral” with an “echo of the ‘Sermon of the Mount’.” This theory is ahistorical and discredited. According to Zvelebil, the ethics and ideas in Valluvar’s work are not Christian ethics.
Valluvar is thought to have belonged to either Jainism or Hinduism. This can be observed in his treatment of the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which is the principal concept of both the religions. In the 1819 translation, Francis Whyte Ellis mentions that the Tamil community debates whether Valluvar was a Jain or Hindu. According to Zvelebil, Valluvar’s treatment of the chapters on moral vegetarianism[a] and non-killing reflects the Jain precepts. Certain epithets for God and ascetic values found in the text are found in Jainism, states Zvelebil. He theorizes that Valluvar was probably “a learned Jain with eclectic leanings”, who was well acquainted with the earlier Tamil literature and also had knowledge of the Sanskrit texts. Nevertheless, early Digambara or Svetambara Jaina texts do not mention Valluvar or the Kural text. The first claim of Valluvar as an authority appears in a 16th-century Jain text.
According to other scholars, Valluvar’s writings suggest that he belonged to Hinduism. Hindu teachers have mapped his teachings in the Kural literature to the teachings found in Hindu texts. The three parts that the Kural is divided into, namely, aṟam (virtue), poruḷ (wealth) and inbam (love), aiming at attaining veedu (ultimate salvation), follow, respectively, the four foundations of Hinduism, namely, dharma, artha, kama and moksha. While the text extols the virtue of non-violence, it also dedicates many of 700 poruḷ couplets to various aspects of statecraft and warfare in a manner similar to the Hindu text Arthasastra. An army has a duty to kill in battle, and a king must execute criminals for justice. His mentioning of God Vishnu in couplets 610 and 1103 and Goddess Lakshmi in couplets 167, 408, 519, 565, 568, 616, and 617 suggests the Vaishnavite beliefs of Valluvar. According to Purnalingam Pillai, who is known for his critique of Brahminism, a rational analysis of the Kural text suggests that Valluvar was a Hindu, and not a Jain.
The author is remembered and cherished for his universal secular values, and his treatise has been called Ulaga Podhu Marai (the universal scripture).
The Kural is structured into 133 chapters, each containing 10 couplets (or kurals), for a total of 1,330 couplets. All the couplets are in kural venba metre, and all the 133 chapters have an ethical theme and are grouped into three parts, or “books”:
- Book I – Aṟam (அறம்): Book of Virtue (Dharma), dealing with moral values of an individual and essentials of yoga philosophy (Chapters 1-38)
- Book II – Poruḷ (பொருள்): Book of Polity (Artha), dealing with socio-economic values, polity, society and administration (Chapters 39-108)
- Book III – Inbam (இன்பம்): Book of Love (Kama), dealing with psychological values and love (Chapters 109-133)
The book on aṟam (virtue) contains 380 verses, that of poruḷ (wealth) has 700 and that of inbam or kāmam (love) has 250. Each kural or couplet contains exactly seven words, known as cirs, with four cirs on the first line and three on the second, following the kural metre. A cir is a single or a combination of more than one Tamil word. For example, the term Thirukkural is a cir formed by combining the two words thiru and kuṛaḷ.
Of the 1,330 couplets in the text, 40 couplets relate to god, rain, ascetics, and virtue; 200 on domestic virtue; 140 on higher yet most fundamental virtue based on grace, benevolence and compassion; 250 on royalty; 100 on ministers of state; 220 on essential requirements of administration; 130 on morality, both positive and negative; and 250 on human love and passion.
The work largely reflects the first three of the four ancient Indian aims in life, known as purushaarthas, viz., virtue (dharma), wealth (artha) and love (kama). The fourth aim, namely, salvation (moksha) is implicit in the last five chapters of Book I. According to Sharma, dharma (aṟam) refers to ethical values for the holistic pursuit of life, artha (poruḷ) refers to wealth obtained in ethical manner guided by dharma, and kāma (Inbam) refers to pleasure and fulfilment of one’s desires, also guided by dharma. The corresponding goals of poruḷ and inbam are desirable, yet both need to be regulated by aṟam, according to Kovaimani and Nagarajan. Wealth and pleasure, according to Indian scriptures, must be pursued with an “action with renunciation” (Nishkam Karma), that is, one must act without craving.
The text is the work of a single author because it has a consistent “language, formal structure and content-structure”, states Zvelebil. Neither is the Kural an anthology nor is there any later additions to the text. The division into three parts (muppāl) is probably the author’s work. However, the subdivisions beyond these three, as found in some surviving manuscripts and commentaries, are likely later additions because there are variations between these subtitles found in manuscripts and those in historical commentaries. For example, the following subdivisions are found in Parimelalhagar’s version, which greatly varies from that of Manakkudavar’s:
- Chapters 1–4: Introduction
- Chapters 5–24: Domestic virtue
- Chapters 25–38: Ascetic virtue
- Chapters 39–63: Royalty, the qualities of the leader of men
- Chapters 64–73: The subject and the ruler
- Chapters 74–96: Essential parts of state, shrewdness in public life
- Chapters 97–108: Reaching perfection in social life
- Chapters 109–115: Concealed love
- Chapters 116–133: Wedded love
Such subdivisions are likely later additions, but the couplets themselves have been preserved in the original form and there is no evidence of later revisions or insertions into the couplets.
According to Zvelebil, the content of the Kural text is “undoubtedly patterned” and “very carefully structured”. There are no structural gaps in the text, with every couplet indispensable for the structured whole. There are two distinct meanings for every couplet, namely, a structural one and a proverbial one. In their isolated form, that is, when removed from the context of the 10-couplet chapter, the couplets lose their structural meaning but retain the “wise saying, moral maxim” sense. In isolation, a couplet is “a perfect form, possessing, in varying degree, the prosodic and rhetoric qualities of gnomic poetry.” Within the chapter-structure, the couplets acquire their structural meaning and reveal the more complete teaching of the author. This, Zvelebil states, is the higher pattern in the Kural text, and finally, in relation to the entire work, they acquire perfection in the totality of their structure. In terms of structural flow, the text journeys the reader from “the imperfect, incomplete” state of man implicit in the early chapters to the “physically, morally, intellectually and emotionally perfect” state of man living as a husband and citizen, states Zvelebil.
In poetic terms, it fuses verse and aphoristic form in diction in a “pithy, vigorous, forceful and terse” manner. It is an ethics text that expounds a universal, moral and practical approach to life. Throughout the work, Valluvar is more considerate about the substance than the linguistic appeal of his writing.
The text was written for its time, for the then contemporary society. It is marked by pragmatic idealism, focused on “man in the totality of his relationships”. According to Zvelebil, the Kural text does not feature “true and great poetry” throughout the work, except, notably, in the third book, which deals with love and pleasure. This emphasis on substance rather than poetry suggests that Valluvar’s main aim was not to produce a work of art, but rather an instructive text focused on wisdom, justice, and ethics.
The Kural text begins with an invocation of God and then praises the rain for being the vitalizer of all life forms on earth. It proceeds to describe the qualities of a righteous person, before concluding the introduction by emphasizing the value of aṟam or virtue. Valluvar extols rain next only to God for it provides food and serves as the basis of a stable economic life by aiding in agriculture, which Valluvar asserts as the most important economic activity later in Book II of the Kural text.
The three books of the Kural base aṟam or dharma (virtue) as its cornerstone. The text is a comprehensive pragmatic work that presents philosophy in the first part, political science in the second and poetics in the third. Of the three books of the Kural literature, the second one on politics and kingdom (poruḷ) is about twice the size of the first, and three times that of the third. In the 700 couplets on poruḷ (53 percent of the text), Valluvar mostly discusses statecraft and warfare.
The greatest of personal virtues according to the Kural text is non-killing, followed by veracity, and the two greatest sins that Valluvar feels very strongly are ingratitude and meat-eating. In the words of Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Valluvar maintains his views on personal morality even in the Book of Love, where one can normally expect greater poetic leniency, by describing the hero as “a one-woman man” without concubines. In a social and political context, the Kural text glorifies valour and victory during war and recommends a death sentence for the wicked only as a means of justice.
According to Kaushik Roy, the Kural text in substance is a classic on realism and pragmatism, and it is not a mystic, purely philosophical document. Valluvar presents his theory of state using six elements: army (patai), subjects (kuti), treasure (kul), ministers (amaiccu), allies (natpu), and forts (aran). Valluvar also recommends forts and other infrastructure, supplies and food storage in preparation for siege. A king and his army must always be ready for war, and should launch a violent offensive, at the right place and right time, when the situation so demands and particularly against weak and corrupt kingdoms. A good and strong kingdom must be protected with forts made of thick, high and impenetrable walls. The text recommends a hierarchical military organization staffed with fearless soldiers who are willing to die in war.
The Kural text does not recommend democracy; rather it accepts a royalty with ministers bound to a code of ethics and a system of justice. The king in the text, states K. V. Nagarajan, is assigned the “role of producing, acquiring, conserving, and dispensing wealth”. The king’s duty is to provide a just rule, be impartial and have courage in protecting his subjects and in meting out justice and punishment. The text supports death penalty for the wicked, though in the aṟam book it also emphasizes the personal virtue of non-killing. The Kural cautions against tyranny, appeasement and oppression, with the suggestion that such royal behavior causes natural disasters, depletes the state’s wealth and ultimately results in the loss of power and prosperity.
Universal Ethical Content
The greatest value of Kural is its universal ethical content. The scripture is divided into three books: Virtue, Wealth and Love – consisting of 1330 couplets clustered in 133 chapters elucidating different aspects of human virtues or vices. In the first chapter of Virtue, God is portrayed as Universal in content transcending the marginal line of God being Hindu, Jain, Muslim or Christian. Kural‘s primary concern is with the whole world and according to Tiru Valluvar a man’s prosperity and adversity, heaven and hell, and his present and his future are products of his own actions.
“Rage, Envy, Greed and Harsh words
Avoided is virtue.” ~ Kural: 35
Tiru Valluvar sing the praises of affability, gratitude, self-control, right conduct and faithfulness in the first section of Virtue. Extolling the significance of vegetarianism Valluvar explains:
“How can one be kindly?
If he fattens on other’s fat?” ~ Kural: 251
On the Importance of Wealth
Tiru Valluvar knew that even though virtue is supremely important, without wealth it was seldom practicable:
“Will that hunger return?
Which nearly killed me yesterday?” ~ Kural: 1048
At the same time, Tiruvalluvar criticizes useless wealth:
“He is poor though a millionaire
Who neither gives nor spends.” ~ Kural: 1005
On Politics & Governance
Valluvar has spoken words of wisdom on state administration by lucidly explaining the relationship between the king, his ministers and subjects. He has subtly put forward the importance of learning, friends, agriculture and social service, while condemning corruption and nepotism, the scourge of modern day politics as evil and unwise.
“Punish a sinner by paling him
With a good deed, and forget.” ~ Kural: 314
Love and Emotion
The last section of Kural is entirely devoted to love and Valluvar speaks in mystic beauty about this prime emotive feeling of human beings. It is a paean to youthful love and its trials and tribulations.
“A Goddess? A peacock? Or a woman
Decked in jewels? Asks my heart amazed?” ~ Kural: 1081
Spiritual Liberation through Knowledge
Tiru Valluvar speaks in length about virtue, wealth and love with righteousness and touch the lives of many generations with his eloquent poetry and innate wisdom.
Valluvar believes that with this knowledge of virtue, wealth and love one can lead the soul to nirvana and salvation. In effect, the fourth and final objective of human existence – ‘moksha’ or spiritual liberation is left to speak for itself.
Valluvar’s valuable writings in the Tirukkural guide our actions and thoughts, with a perfect blend of personal character, social conduct and the state’s responsibility to build a prosperous and thriving society.
Similes and contradictions
The author seldom shows any concern as to what similes and superlatives he used earlier while writing on other subjects, purposely allowing for some repetition and mild contradictions in ideas one can find in the Kural text. Despite knowing its seemingly contradictory nature from a purist point of view, Valluvar employs this method to emphasise the importance of the given code of ethic. Following are some of the instances where Valluvar employs contradictions to expound the virtues.
- While in Chapter 93 Valluvar writes on the evils of intoxication, in Chapter 109 he uses the same to show the sweetness of love by saying love is sweeter than wine.
- To the question “What is wealth of all wealth?” Valluvar points out to two different things, namely, grace (Kural 241) and hearing (Kural 411).
- In regard to the virtues one should follow dearly even at the expense of other virtues, Valluvar points to veracity (Kural 297), not coveting another’s wife (Kural 150), and not being called a slanderer (Kural 181). In essence, however, in Chapter 33 he crowns non-killing as the foremost of all virtues, pushing even the virtue of veracity to the second place (Kural 323).
- Whereas he says that one can eject what is natural or inborn in him (Kural 376), he indicates that one can overcome the inherent natural flaws by getting rid of laziness (Kural 609).
- While in Chapter 7 he asserts that the greatest gain men can obtain is by their learned children (Kural 61), in Chapter 13 he says that it is that which is obtained by self-control (Kural 122).
Commentaries and translations
Dedicated commentaries on the Kural text appear about and after the 10th century CE. There were at least ten medieval commentaries of which only six have survived into the modern era. The ten medieval commentators include Manakkudavar, Dharumar, Dhamatthar, Nacchar, Paridhiyar, Thirumalaiyar, Mallar, Pari Perumal, Kaalingar, and Parimelalhagar, all of whom lived between the 10th and the 13th centuries CE. Of these, only the works of Manakkudavar, Paridhi, Kaalingar, Pari Perumal, and Parimelalhagar are available today. The works of Dharumar, Dhaamatthar, and Nacchar are only partially available. The commentaries by Thirumalaiyar and Mallar are lost completely. The best known among these are the commentaries by Parimelalhagar, Kaalingar, and Manakkudavar. Among the ten medieval commentaries, scholars have found spelling, homophonic, and other minor textual variations in a total of 900 couplets, including 217 couplets in Book I, 487 couplets in Book II, and 196 couplets in Book III.
The best known and influential historic commentary on the Kural text is the Parimelalhakiyar virutti. It was written by Parimelalhagar – a Vaishnava Brahmin, likely based in Kanchipuram, who lived about or before 1272 CE based on an inscription discovered in a Hindu temple dedicated to Varadaraja. Along with the Kural text, this commentary has been widely published and is in itself a Tamil classic. Parimelalhagar’s commentary has survived over the centuries in many folk and scholarly versions. A more scholarly version of this commentary was published by Krisnamachariyar in 1965. According to Norman Cutler, Parimelalhagar’s commentary interprets and maneuvers the Kural text within his own context, grounded in the concepts and theological premises of Hinduism. His commentary closely follows the Kural’s teachings, while reflecting both the cultural values and textual values of the 13th- and 14th-century Tamil Nadu. Valluvar’s text can be interpreted and maneuvered in other ways, states Cutler.
Besides the ten medieval commentaries, there are at least three more commentaries written by unknown authors. One of them was published under the title “Palhaiya Urai” (meaning ancient commentary), while the second one was based on Paridhiyar’s commentary. The third one was published in 1991 under the title “Jaina Urai” (meaning Jaina commentary) by Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur. Following these medieval commentaries, there are at least 21 venba commentaries to the Kural, including Somesar Mudumoli Venba, Murugesar Muduneri Venba, Sivasiva Venba, Irangesa Venba, and Vadamalai Venba, all of which are considered commentaries in verse form.
Several modern commentaries started appearing in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the commentaries of the 20th century include those by Iyothee Thass, V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, Thiru Vi Ka, Bharathidasan, M. Varadarajan, Namakkal Kavignar, Thirukkuralar V. Munusamy, Devaneya Pavanar, M. Karunanithi, and Solomon Pappaiah.
- Indian languages: Sanskrit, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, and Urdu
- Non-Indian languages: Burmese, Malay, Chinese, Fijian, Latin, French, German, Russian, Polish, Swedish, and English
The text was likely translated into Indian languages by Indian scholars over the centuries, but the palm leaf manuscripts of such translations have been rare. For example, S. R. Ranganathan, a librarian of University of Madras during the British rule, discovered a Malayalam translation copied in year 777 of the Malayalam calendar, a manuscript that Zvelebil dates to late 16th century. The text was translated into several European languages during the colonial era, particularly by the Christian missionaries.
The first European language translation (Latin) was published by Constantius Joseph Beschi in 1730. However, he translated only the first two books, viz., virtue and wealth, leaving out the book on love because its erotic and sexual nature was deemed by him to be inappropriate for a Christian missionary. The first French translation was brought about by an unknown author by about 1767 that went unnoticed. The first available French version was by E. S. Ariel in 1848. Again, he did not translate the whole work but only parts of it. The first German translation was made by Karl Graul, who published it in 1856 both at London and Leipzig.
The first, and incomplete, English translations were made by N. E. Kindersley in 1794 and then by Francis Whyte Ellis in 1812. While Kindersley translated a selection of the Kural text, Ellis translated 120 couplets in all—69 of them in verse and 51 in prose. E. J. Robinson’s translations of part of the Kural into English were the first to be published in 1873. W. H. Drew translated the first two parts in prose in 1840 and 1852, respectively. It contained the original Tamil text of the Kural, Parimelalhagar’s commentary, Ramanuja Kavirayar’s amplification of the commentary and Drew’s English prose translation. However, Drew translated only 630 couplets, and the remaining were translated by John Lazarus, a native missionary. Like Beschi, Drew did not translate the third book on love. The first complete English translation of the Kural was the one by the Christian missionary George Uglow Pope in 1886, which introduced the complete Kural to the western world.
The translations of the Kural in Southeast Asian and East Asian languages were published in the 20th century. A few of these relied on re-translating the earlier English translations of the work.
By the end of the 20th century, there were about 24 translations of the Kural in English alone, by both native and non-native scholars, including those by V. V. S. Aiyar, K. M. Balasubramaniam, Shuddhananda Bharati, A. Chakravarti, M. S. Purnalingam Pillai, C. Rajagopalachari, P. S. Sundaram, V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, G. Vanmikanathan, Kasturi Srinivasan, S. N. Sriramadesikan, and K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. The work has also been translated into Vaagri Booli, the language of the Narikuravas, a tribal community in Tamil Nadu, by Kittu Sironmani.
Difficulties and distortions
With a highly compressed prosodic form, the Kural text employs the intricately complex Kural venba metre, known for its eminent suitability to gnomic poetry. This form, which Zvelebil calls “a marvel of brevity and condensation,” is closely connected with the structural properties of the Tamil language and has historically presented extreme difficulties to its translators. Talking about translating the Kural into other languages, Herbert Arthur Popley observes, “it is impossible in any translation to do justice to the beauty and force of the original.” Zvelebil claims that it is impossible to truly appreciate the maxims found in the Kural couplets through a translation but rather that the Kural has to be read and understood in its original Tamil form.
Besides these inherent difficulties in translating the Kural, some scholars have attempted to either read their own ideas into the Kural couplets or deliberately misinterpret the message to make it conform to their preconceived notions. The Latin translation by the Christian missionary Father Beshi, for instance, contains several such mistranslations. According to V. Ramasamy, “Beschi is purposely distorting the message of the original when he renders பிறவாழி as ‘the sea of miserable life’ and the phrase பிறவிப்பெருங்கடல் as ‘sea of this birth’ which has been translated by others as ‘the sea of many births’. Beschi means thus ‘those who swim the vast sea of miseries’. The concept of rebirth or many births for the same soul is contrary to Christian principle and belief.”
According to Norman Cutler, both in the past and in the contemporary era, the Kural has been reinterpreted and fit to reflect the textual values in the text as well as the cultural values of the author(s). About 1300 CE, the Tamil scholar Parimelalhagar interpreted the text in Brahmanical premises and terms. Just like Christian missionaries during the colonial era cast the work in their own Christian premises, phrases and concepts, some Dravidianists of the contemporary era reinterpret and cast the work to further their own goals and socio-political values. This has produced highly divergent interpretations of the original.
The first critical edition of the Tirukkaral based on manuscripts discovered in Hindu monasteries and private collections was published in 1861 by Arumuka Navalar – the Jaffna born Tamil scholar and Shaivism activist. Navalar, states Zvelebil, was “probably the greatest and most influential among the forerunners” in studying numerous versions and bringing out an edited split-sandhi version for the scholarship of the Kurral and many other historic Tamil texts in the 19th-century.
Parimelalhagar’s commentary on the Thirukkural was published for the first time in 1840 and became the most widely published commentary ever since. In 1850, the Kural was published with commentaries by Vedagiri Mudaliar, who published a revised version later in 1853. In 1917, Manakkudavar’s commentary for the first book of the Kural text was published by V. O. Chidambaram Pillai. Manakkudavar commentary for the entire Kural text was first published in 1925 by K. Ponnusami Nadar. As of 2013, Perimelalhagar’s commentary appeared in more than 200 editions by as many as 30 publishers.
Since the 1970s, the Kural text has been transliterated into ancient Tamil scripts such as the Tamil-Brahmi script, Pallava script, Vatteluttu script and others by Gift Siromoney of the International Institute of Tamil Studies (IITS, Madras Christian College).
Comparison with other ancient literature
According to Zvelebil, the Tirukkural borrows “a great number of lines” and phrases from earlier Tamil texts. For example, phrases found in Kuruntokai (lit. “The Collection of Short [Poems]”) and many lines in Narrinai (lit. “The Excellent Love Settings”) which starts with an invocation to Vishnu, appear in the later Tirukkural. Authors who came after the composition of Tirukkural similarly extensively quoted and borrowed from the Tirukkural. For example, the Prabandhas such as Tiruvalluvamalai probably from the 10th-century are anthologies on Tirukkural, and these extensively quote and embed it verses written in meters ascribed to gods, goddesses, and revered Tamil scholars. Similarly, the love story Perunkatai (lit. “The Great Story”) probably composed in the 9th-century quotes from Tirukkural and embeds similar teachings and morals. Verse 22.59–61 the Manimekalai – a Buddhist-princess and later nun based love story epic, likely written about the 6th-century, also quotes Tirukkural. This Buddhist epic ridicules Jainism while embedding morals and ideals similar to those in the Kural.
The Thirukkural teachings are similar to those found in Arthasastra but differ in some important aspects. In Thiruvalluvar’s theory of state, unlike Kautilya, the army (patai) is the most important element. Tirukkuṛaḷ Thiruvalluvar recommends that a well kept and well-trained army (patai) led by an able commander and ready to go to war is necessary for a state.
According to Hajela, the Porul of the Kural text is based on morality and benevolence as its cornerstones. The Tirukkural teaches that the ministers and people who work in public office should lead an ethical and moral life. Unlike Manusmriti, Tirukurral does not give importance to castes or any dynasty of rulers and ministers. The text states that one should call anyone with virtue and kindness a Brahmin.
According to Thomas Manninezhath – a theology scholar who grew up in South India, the Tirukkural is believed by the natives to reflect Advaita Vedanta philosophy and teaches an “Advaitic way of life”.
Scholars compare the teachings in Tirukkural with those in other ancient thoughts such as the Confucian sayings in Lun Yu, Hitopadesa, Panchatantra, Manusmriti, Tirumandiram, Book of Proverbs in the Bible, sayings of the Buddha in Dhammapada, and the ethical works of Persian origin such as Gulistan and Bustan, in addition to the holy books of various religions.
The Kural text and the Confucian sayings recorded in the classic Analects of Chinese (called Lun Yu, meaning “Sacred Sayings”) share some similarities. Both Valluvar and Confucius focused on the behaviors and moral conducts of a common person. Similar to Valluvar, Confucius advocated legal justice embracing human principles, courtesy, and filial piety, besides the virtues of benevolence, righteousness, loyalty and trustworthiness as foundations of life. While ahimsa remains the fundamental virtue of the Valluvarean tradition, Zen remains the central theme in Confucian tradition. Incidentally, Valluvar differed from Confucius in two respects. Firstly, unlike Confucius, Valluvar was also a poet. Secondly, Confucius did not deal with the subject of conjugal love, for which Valluvar devoted an entire division in his work. Child-rearing is central to the Confucian thought of procreation of humanity and the benevolence of society. The Lun Yu says, “Therefore an enlightened ruler will regulate his people’s livelihood so as to ensure that, above they have enough to serve their parents and below they have enough to support their wives and children.”
Jesuit, Catholic and Protestant missionaries in colonial-era South India praised the text. The Protestant missionary Edward Jewitt Robinson said that the Kural contains all things and there is nothing which it does not contain. The Anglican missionary John Lazarus said, “No Tamil work can ever approach the purity of the Kural. It is a standing repute to modern Tamil.” According to the American Christian missionary Emmons E. White, “Thirukkural is a synthesis of the best moral teachings of the world.” Rajaji commented, n”It is the gospel of love and a code of soul-luminous life. The whole of human aspiration is epitomized in this immortal book, a book for all ages.”
According to K. M. Munshi, “Thirukkural is a treatise par excellence on the art of living.” The Indian nationalist and Yoga guru Sri Aurobindo stated, “Thirukkural is gnomic poetry, the greatest in planned conception and force of execution ever written in this kind.” E. S. Ariel, who translated and published the third part of the Kural to French in 1848, called it “a masterpiece of Tamil literature, one of the highest and purest expressions of human thought.” Zakir Hussain, former President of India, said, “Thirukkural is a treasure house of worldly knowledge, ethical guidance and spiritual wisdom.”
The Kural does not appear to have been set in music by Valluvar. However, a number of musicians have set it to tune and several singers have rendered it in their concerts. Modern composers who have tuned the Kural couplets include Mayuram Viswanatha Sastri and Ramani Bharadwaj. Singers who have performed full-fledged Tirukkural concerts include M. M. Dandapani Desikar and Chidambaram C. S. Jayaraman. Madurai Somasundaram and Sanjay Subramanian are other people who have given musical rendering of the Kural. Mayuram Vishwanatha Shastri set all the verses to music in the early 20th century. In January 2016, Chitravina N. Ravikiran set the entire 1330 verses to music in a record time of 16 hours.
K. Balachander’s Kavithalayaa Productions opened its films with the very first couplet of the Kural sung in the background. Kural’s couplets are found in numerous songs of Tamil movies. Several Tirukkural conferences were conducted in the twentieth century, such as those by Tirukkural V. Munusamy in 1941 and by Periyar E. V. Ramasamy in 1949. These were attended by several scholars, celebrities and politicians.
The Kural’s couplets are also found in music, dance, street shows, recitals, activities, and puzzles and riddles.
In 1818, the then Collector of Madras Francis Whyte Ellis issued a gold coin bearing Valluvar’s image. In the late 19th century, the South Indian saint Vallalar taught the Kural’s message. In 1968, the Tamil Nadu government made it mandatory to display a Kural couplet in all government buses. The train running a distance of 2,921 kilometers between Kanyakumari and New Delhi is named by the Indian Railways as the Thirukural Express.
Temples and memorials
In Chennai, the Valluvar Kottam monument is also dedicated to Valluvar. It is styled after the wooden ceremonial festival chariots of South Indian Hindu temples (ter, ratha), which typically carry Hindu gods or goddesses or both through the streets of a town. Inside the Valluvar Kottam stone chariot is a life-size image of Valluvar. Around the chariot’s perimeter are marble plates inscribed with Tirukkural couplets.
Additional Valluvar shrines in Tamil Nadu are found at Periya Kalayamputhur, Thondi, Kanjoor Thattanpady, Senapathy, and Vilvarani.
In 1976, Valluvar Kottam, a monument to honor the Kural literature and its author, was constructed in Chennai. The chief element of the monument includes a 39-m-high chariot, a replica of the chariot in the temple town of Thiruvarur, and it contains a life-size statue of Valluvar. All the 1,330 verses of the Kural text are inscribed on bas-relief in the corridors in the main hall.
Statues of Valluvar have been erected across the globe, including the ones at Kanyakumari, Chennai, Bengaluru, Haridwar, Puttalam, Singapore, and London. The tallest of these is the 133-feet (40.6 m) stone statue of Valluvarerected in 2000 atop a small island in the town of Kanyakumari on the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula, at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. This statue is currently India’s 25th tallest.
The Kural text was first included in the school syllabus by the colonial era British government.However, only select 275 couplets have been taught to the schoolchildren from Standards III to XII. Attempts to include the Kural literature as a compulsory subject in schools were ineffective in the decades following Independence. On 26 April 2016, the Madras High Court directed the state government to include all the 108 chapters of the Books of Aram and Porul of the Kural text in school syllabus for classes VI through XII from the academic year 2017–2018 “to build a nation with moral values.” The court observed, “No other philosophical or religious work has such moral and intellectual approach to problems of life.”
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