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