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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > Thirukural > On the Thirukural - Swami Shivananda, Divine Life Society

On the Thirukural

Swami Shivananda, Divine Life Society, Rishikesh

"There are three holy works by which the Tamil language has been made universal and immortal. These three are the Tirukkural, the Tiruvasagam and the Tirumandiram. The Tirukkural is the life, the Tiruvasagam is the heart, and the Tirumandiram is the soul of Tamil culture."

There are three holy works by which the Tamil language has been made universal and immortal. These three are the Tirukkural, the Tiruvasagam and the Tirumandiram. The Tirukkural is the life, the Tiruvasagam is the heart, and the Tirumandiram is the soul of Tamil culture.

In this article, we focus on Tirukkural, which means "Holy Kural". It is the work of the great saint of South India, named Tiruvalluvar. It is a book for all humanity and for all times. A world that lives by its teachings shall enjoy eternal peace, harmony, health, wealth, power, grace and bliss.

The Tirukkural contains treasures that lead to peace and harmony at home as well as the country. The Tirukkural, the Gita and Kalidasa�s Shakuntala have been regarded by wise men all over the world as the cream of Indian thought and culture.

The Tirukkural is a book written in the Tamil language more than two thousand years ago. The great saints of the time were very fond of discussing ethical ideals. In the streets, in the taverns and public places, men gathered to apply their concentrated minds on the great question of what ought to be considered as good and right, and what as evil and wrong. Many religions flourished in South India during this time. Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism were the most popular. The caste system had not yet taken root. There was freedom of thought, ideas were readily and easily exchanged, and men were willing to listen patiently to points of view that differed from their own.

It was in this flourishing environment that Tiruvalluvar lived. The Tirukkural, or Kural as it is also known, contains some of the greatest truths known to man, written in a style that has rarely been surpassed. Tiruvalluvar, or Valluvar as he was popularly known, was clearly familiar with all the great religions of his time. He also had knowledge of the philosophy of the Romans and the Greeks. But his Kural was not a patchwork of ideas borrowed from different sources.

Valluvar took up the first three of the Purusharthas or the fourfold objects of life, namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha (virtue, wealth, love and liberation), as given by the Vedic Rishis. He presented them in the three sections of the Tirukkural, known respectively as Arathuppaal, Porutpaal and Kaamathuppaal. He left out Moksha or liberation, for the simple reason that when the first three are set in order, the final state of God-realisation is attained naturally. He also recognised that Moksha or liberation is to be realised, not just discussed.

The Tirukkural

The word �Kural� refers to a short verse of only two lines. Ten such verses make up a single chapter of the book called the Tirukkural. There are 133 chapters, so that there are 1330 couplets or two-lined verses that make up the Tirukkural.

Each couplet contains a single complete idea. Although poets generally find it rather difficult to write in a couplet form, Tiruvalluvar handles this medium with remarkable skill and ease. He does not waste words. The ideas come to us quietly, in a style that is both graceful and beautiful at the same time.

Each of the 133 chapters is headed by one major idea such as �Friendship�, �Wisdom�, �Justice�, and so on. The ten verses under each major idea give the poet opportunity to expand on each idea fully.

The work is divided into three sections. The first section, entitled �Aram� (virtue) deals with ingredients of an ideal family life. It also gives guidelines to spiritual aspirants. The second section, broadly entitled �Porul� (wealth) deals with various matters pertaining to government, like royalty, the parliament, politics and alliance. The third section deals with �Kamam� (love) and is concerned mostly with marriage and love. [Note: �Aram� is the Tamil equivalent of the Sanskrit word �Dharma�.]

The Tirukkural is thus a book of morals or ethics. It ranks high in the literature of Tamil Nadu. Certainly it is one of the most useful treatises on ethics ever written by man. It leads humanity to live, as it ought to live- in moral purity, in spiritual knowledge, and in perfect health, wealth and prosperity. It is a faithful friend to the family man, to the mother, to children, to workers, teachers, politicians, artists, scholars and rulers.

Part 1: On Virtue

In this section, known as the Arthuppaal, Tiruvalluvar makes comments on what is good and what is bad. He describes life and lays down a code of conduct or behaviour. The first ten verses are in praise of God.

At the very outset, Valluvar impresses on our mind the supreme aim of human life. It is the attainment of God. God is the basis of all peace, bliss and knowledge.

Likewise, God is the end of all knowledge. The goal of life, which is birthlessness and the end of all pain and suffering, can be reached only by those who have surrendered totally at His divine feet.

There are none so great as those who have renounced the world. They have knowledge of both worlds, the world of trials and hardships, which is the world we live in, as well as the world of peace and eternal bliss.

The ascetic controls the five senses, namely the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. This is the first step to God-vision. It is the seed, which eventually flowers in heaven. The fully developed Yogi who has mastered the senses is truly a king. The rest of the world, who are slaves to their senses and passions, are obliged to bow to such a sage of wisdom.

In a beautifully simple way, Tiruvalluvar wastes no time in talking about what is good and what is not. Goodness is purity of mind, and that which ought to be done. Vice is that which has to be avoided.

Domestic Virtue

Tiruvalluvar devotes twenty chapters to the important subject of domestic virtue. The advice given in them is useful to practically the whole of humanity. The themes, beginning with married life and the bliss of having children, continue with advice relating to hospitality, kindness, sweet words, gratitude, self-control and good conduct, and conclude with clear guidelines on how the householder can avoid being envious, how he can stop the free flow of vicious gossip and slander, and how he can relate to the society he lives in through charity and other good deeds.

Valluvar urges us to perform good action at all times. The Yoga of good action is also a path to God-realisation. Birth and consequent suffering are not for a true Karma Yogi who serves God.

The duties of a householder, who earns money and brings home an income, are just as important as those of an ascetic. It is he who supports the renunciate, the students and the needy.

He who lives virtuously as a householder, is sure to make progress Godward. A home in which love and virtue abound is truly heaven on earth.

A good wife is one who is virtuous and keeps control over the household budget. She is chaste and honourable, is the husband�s helpmate in everything that he does. Children are their parent�s greatest treasures.

Receiving guests and extending hospitality to them was given great importance during Tiruvalluvar�s time. A householder should serve guests first before partaking of meals himself. Neglect of guests is considered as something mean. On the other hand, the Goddess of Fortune smiles on one who is hospitable.

The ideal householder is courteous in speech, does not lose his self-control, and is free from envy. He is full of love and gratitude to those who have helped him in any way.

Self-control is the mark that identifies a wise man. He has perfect control of the senses, and withdraws them just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs into its body. At a rash moment it is possible to do harm which would take time to heal. The tongue is a troublemaker. Valluvar urges its control. One who controls his tongue perfectly is free from anger. Anger is your worst enemy.

Do not return evil for evil. Not even the penance of fasting can compare with the penance of refusing to respond to the hurt caused by the cruel words of others.

Do not be envious of the success of others. Do not be greedy. It is better to confront someone directly; slandering and backbiting are wrong. He who speaks ill of others will find others speaking ill of him. Take stock of yourself for a few days and count the number of times you speak ill of others. You will be amazed how guilty all are of slander.

Idle, useless talk is the mark of the unwise. Hence, refrain from it at all costs. Gossiping, faultfinding and slandering should not be indulged in.

Give, give, give. It is a strange truth that the more one gives, the more one receives. You must have heard of this riddle- "The more one takes out, the bigger it grows". What is it? The answer is- a hole! Charity is very much like that. Give to others with a loving heart, and the world will one day be at your feet. Pure, loving charity is one of the greatest purifiers of the heart.

The renunciate or Sannyasin is one who has renounced the world and its pleasures of the senses. Such a person is also called an ascetic. The saint makes a distinction between domestic virtue (good deeds practised by a householder), and ascetic virtue. Even virtues come in degrees! For this to be understood, try to work out the difference in meaning between kindness and compassion.

Tiruvalluvar devotes thirteen chapters to the subject of ascetic virtue. He dwells on such subjects as non-killing, mercy, hypocrisy, truthfulness, curbing of desires, and the renunciation of objects.

Anyone- even the basest of men- can possess money. But only those who are truly kind are wealthy.

Successful people often forget that they, too, were once weak and sought the compassion of those stronger than themselves. We remember unkind acts done to us for years and years. Those who lack compassion and love have very few friends.

Be sincere at heart, judge men by their actions, not by their looks; a straight arrow causes pain, yet a bent lute brings joy into the hearts of the listener. Even amongst Sadhus (ascetics), there are some hypocrites- men who pretend to be what they are not.

Valluvar, as we have already seen, is interested mainly in the welfare of people and the happiness of mankind. He does not want needless misery and suffering for the sake of merely upholding a moral idea. Now he talks on truthfulness. Understand the second verse well (292). It is by no means a passport to widespread untruthfulness.

"If you should ask what truth may be,
It�s speech from every evil free". (291)

"If it will yield pure, unmixed good,
Truth may be replaced by falsehood". (292)

"All virtue�s aim is not to kill,
For killing leads to every kind of ill". (321)

"You may lose your life but still,
Another being you should not kill". (327)

Saints have repeatedly spoken of the unreal nature of this world. Can you name anything that will remain exactly the same after a million years? That is why we are told not to place our faith in the objects of this world. They can never give us true happiness. Valluvar says:

"Only the base and ignorant
Hold transient as permanent". (331)

"A day seems real but it is a knife
That daily saws a portion from your life". (384)

"The soul from body any day,
Like bird from egg-shell, flies away".(338)

Tiruvalluvar deals with the subject of reincarnation. Reincarnation is one of the cardinal tenets of the Hindu religion.

"Death is sinking into slumbers deep
Birth again is waking out of sleep". (339)

The goal of life is the attainment of the state of permanent happiness. For this, renunciation is necessary. Renunciation means giving up all wealth, pleasures of the senses, and the fruits of all actions. It does not mean running away to a cave or to an Ashram. The senses must be subdued and the ego crushed. Birth carries with it the seeds of suffering. Happiness comes only when we realise God and overcome both birth and death.

It is desire that is the source of all pain and suffering. If one can gain mastery over desire, one experiences true freedom and enjoys lasting peace and bliss. Desires can never be satisfied by fulfilling them. Trying to satisfy them by fulfilling them will be like adding fuel to the fire to extinguish the flame. Desires make the mind restless with all kinds of thoughts whirling about.

Part 2: On Wealth

The second section is known as Porutpaal and deals with man�s urge to acquire wealth. Tiruvalluvar gives wonderful advice to those who are in power. These include kings, rulers and employers. He lays down high standards of conduct for rulers and leaders of men. Such persons must be learned and courageous, and have an ability to express themselves in public. They must have an ability to choose the right place, time and people for various activities of the State. A king must be humble and listen to the advice of wise men.

A ruler must be well read. A wise ruler is a good ruler. He must be versed in both mathematics and the arts, that is, numbers and letters. These are the true eyes through which man sees the world.

There must be no hesitation in eradicating faults. A good leader corrects his own errors first, before pointing out those of others. The head of a state cannot afford to make any errors. The spirit of perfect humility, service of the people, and complete freedom from desire are the hallmark of a great king.

It is important for a king to have worthy friends. This applies, of course, to everyone. As water gets discoloured when a little soil is put into it, so also man�s character, wisdom and reputation are all influenced by the company he keeps. Good friendship grows from strength to strength. A full moon is destined to lose its intensity, but good friendship can never weaken. A true and sincere friend is one who gently corrects your faults and helps you to improve. He is always true and frank in his relationship towards you. The face does not always reveal what lies in the heart. So, beware of false friendship.

"With soil changes the water�s taste;
With mates changes the mental state".(452)

"Good men�s friendship grows like crescent moon;
Friendship with fools, like full moon will wane soon". (782)

"Though the wicked should unbounded friendship show,
It�s better if their friendship does not grow". (811)

"Beware of men who are full of deceit,
Whose hearts are bitter but whose smile is sweet". (824)

Rulers, while exercising discipline, must be compassionate and kind, and refrain from harshness. Cruelty brings ruin.

"Harsh words and punishment beyond the right
Is a file that saws away a monarch�s might". (567)

"True modesty and kindly word combined,
He is a jewel; the rest are not refined". (595)

Never give up trying. Have a strong will. These are the secrets of success. Without effort there is no gain. Tiruvalluvar exhorts us to be energetic. When troubles come, face them. Every failure is a stepping stone to success. He who refuses to be defeated by failure will overcome all grief and pain.

Those who speak to large audiences have a responsibility. They have to choose their words carefully, and should use the time allotted to them profitably. Book knowledge is empty if one does not have the ability of transmitting it to others effectively.

There is no harm, Valluvar goes on to say, in amassing wealth. But such wealth should be earned by the individual by honest means. Money gained by a person in a deceitful manner or by causing pain and suffering to others ought to be spurned.

Despite the seriousness with which Tiruvalluvar deals with lofty themes, there is a light-hearted side to his nature. His wit overflows in the chapter entitled �Not Drinking". It is remarkable that even two thousand years ago, alcoholism and gambling were rife among the people of that time. The hilarity, with which the poet saint approaches these themes, ought to be sufficient to turn any drinker or gambler away from these vices.

"To buy with money one�s unconsciousness,
Is nothing but rank foolishness". (925)

The saint says that there is no such thing as drinking �secretly�.

"Who drink in secret and whose eyelids close,
At them the village laughs, for all the village knows". (927)

" �I do not drink�, make no such foolish claim,
For what you hide, the drink will soon proclaim". (928)

"To reason with a man who is dead tight
Is like searching under water with a light". (929)

Alcohol, drugs and gambling are addictive. A single taste of any of these vices drives one to greed, and a desire for more. A fish, attracted by the bait on a hook, will find it nearly impossible to gain release after a bite at the baited hook. Likewise, an addict cannot escape easily from an addiction. This is especially true of gambling. Avoid these vices like one avoids a king cobra. You lose your wealth and your dignity and can gain nothing but poverty.

"Dress, wealth, food, fame and learning all depart,
If on gambler�s gain he sets his heart". (939)

On Noble Birth

Tiruvalluvar has written thirteen chapters on themes other than virtue, stately wealth and love. They are described as �Miscellaneous�. The first is on �Noble Birth�.

Nobility is a state of mind. Although the word is often used to describe people of royal birth, nobility is within the reach of all, even beggars. What then are the signs of nobility? Amongst other things, they are good conduct, modesty, truth, humility, cheerfulness, generosity, and kind and courageous words. One must have a charitable heart even though one does not have the means. He must show excellence in speech, be humble and treat everyone, be he a servant or king, with great respect. He should always speak sweetly and lovingly.

�The high born will not stray from these things three:
Good conduct, truth and modesty". (952)

"A smile, generosity, good words and courtesy:
These are the signs, they say, of true nobility". (953)

"The high born, though they have no means for charity,
Won�t lose their ancient liberality". (955)

"Plants reveal the soil from which they grow,
And men of noble birth, their speech will show". (959)

On Honour

Shun acts that will cast doubts on your honour. Success and failure can be used to advantage; success should make one more respectful and failure strengthen one�s dignity.

On greatness

Greatness is a quality of mind, not of birth. All are equal at birth. Our actions make us different from one another.

"Living beings are all alike at birth,
The difference comes from acts of special worth". (972)

"High born, whose souls are mean, are never great;
The low, of lofty mind, are not of low estate". (973)

On Perfection

While the road to perfection is a long, slippery and very difficult one, the mastery of a few virtues will take one there by leaps and bounds. Do not kill any being or creature. Even loftier than this is not to injure anyone in thought, word and deed. Ahimsa is one of the highest of virtues. Give up the detestable faultfinding habit. Always return good for evil.

"Not killing is the essence of penance;
Not finding fault is virtue�s excellence. (984)

"The strength of the noble ones is humility;
With that, the wise disarm all enmity". (985)

On courtesy

It is wrong to belittle others. Even highly intelligent people lose respect from everyone if they are not courteous.

"Though sharp as file, their intellect is good,
Who are void of courtesy are blocks of wood". (997)

On Wasted Wealth

What is the use of money if it is not used for the common good? Imagine a fruit tree in a busy market place. If it bears tasty fruit, it brings joy to people, but if it bears poisonous fruit, it is of no use; its presence is a source of great pain. A wealthy miser is like such a tree. He has everything, but is in greater need than others, for he is not really happy and peaceful.

"Who neither spend their wealth nor give,
Amidst their millions, in want they live". (1006)

On Modesty

If you desire to attain perfection, you must not be afraid to have a genuine feeling of shame whenever you commit any mistakes. Those who have no feelings of guilt are usually unaware of their faults. Some people consider it a weakness to blush. On the contrary, blushing is not at all a weakness, but a virtue. It reveals a sense of shame and is a sign of modesty and humility.

�Food, clothing and the rest are common to the race,
But modesty is mankind�s special grace". (1012)

"Those who have no shame at heart, their stance
Is like wooden dolls; when pulled by string, dance". (1020)

Part 3 : On Love
In the third book �On Love�, the saint portrays a mood rather than a conduct. This section is of use only to householders. It is a very deep and subtle portion of the Tirukkural. The saint talks of meetings, of falling in love and the pangs of parting experienced by lovers. He portrays the blossoming of love. The quarrels and reunions of lovers are described with delicacy and humour. This third book is not as well-known as the other two.


Tiruvalluvar was one of the greatest social philosophers of the ancient world. His writings show that he was interested not only in the behaviour and conduct and bearing of a person, but also in the harmonious development of society. His advice is valuable to ascetics as well as to householders.

He roundly condemns accumulation of material wealth, but praises it if such wealth is acquired by honest means and used for the common good of society. In the same breath he encourages the growth of intellectual and spiritual development. He wants people to acquire learning and, having learnt, practise it. Yet, spirituality is superior to all else. As early as in the second verse of the Tirukkural, he says:

"Of what avail is learned scholarship,
If the Lord�s divine feet they do not worship?" (2)

The great saint has presented his thoughts in verses of extreme beauty and delicacy. The combination of ideas, language and metre is unique. The verses presented in this article are all translations from the original Tamil. Every translator, without exception, has admitted that it is not possible to capture the elegance of Tiruvalluvar's beautiful style and rhythm in a translation. It can, at best, be a pale reflection of the original work.

His teachings have had a warm place in the hearts of the Tamil people for many generations, and have become part of their culture and life. They might not have always followed the saint, but they have loved, cherished and revered him.

There are many translations of the Tirukkural. Maharishi Shuddhananda Bharati�s translation is simple to follow. In his introduction he says: "The Tirukkural is the guiding light to humanity. It leads one to live in moral purity, in eternal wisdom, in spiritual knowledge, and in perfect prosperity, wealth and health. It is a faithful friend to the family man, to the mother, to children, to teachers, artists, scholars, rulers and politicians.


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