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The incomparable Thirukkural on courage and love
Culture Editor Tamil Guardian 20 February 2008 Print ArticleE-mail ArticleFeedback On Article

We conclude our three part introduction to the 2000 year old Tamil classic on ethical living, the Thirukkural, by looking at two popular themes from its three books: love and courage.

We saw previously that concepts such as fairness and justice cut across one book to the other. The concepts which often appear in a personal context in the "Path of the householder" in the book of virtue reappear in a national context in considering the "wealth of nations".  Replaced much by many:  Many of the principles enunciated in the context of a country naturally lend themselves to the modern corporate world.

Whereas love in the sense of love for mankind is an important part of the book of virtue, and romantic love is the theme of the book of love, the Kural importantly places courage in the wealth of the nation.

We start first with a reprise of the foundation to the wealth of nations. As we saw in part II of this series, in the Thirukkural the wealth of nations is founded on good leadership, good advisors and expertise and on the qualities of the country: natural qualities (defensive location, a fertile land etc), good alliances (and its opposite, weak enemies) and a strong defence capability. We see this in the respective sections "merits of a king", "merits of ministers" and "qualities of a country".

Much of the principles enunciated in the context of a country naturally lend themselves to the modern corporate world. Here, the Thirukkural is similar to ancient Chinese classics such as the "Art of War" which in a modern context has been applied not just to physical war, but corporate strategy and in some American interpretations, to marketing, for example. But whereas the "Art of War" is a treatise on achieving victory, the Kural is in essence a treatise on ethics.

The approach is broad and all-encompassing. As Dr Albert Schweitzer said the Thirukkural addresses “the most varied questions concerning the conduct of man to himself and to the world"

For example the chapter called "merits of ministers" deals not only with the giving of advice but also the qualities of ambassadorship, the general ability to win over people to one's point of view, to judge and sway an audience, for example. But here again the Thirukkural is just as applicable to the modern corporate world as it is to politics and media.

The Kural considers the defensive capability of a nation in three parts: fortresses, the merits of the army, and military pride.

In the chapter entitled merits of the army in the book of wealth, the Thirukkural begins by telling us that:

"Foremost among a monarch's possessions stands
a conquering army, complete and fearless"

The Thirukkural's usual approach to a subject is to consider it from different angles. It describes the different facets of the ideal without necessarily giving instructions on how to achieve the ideal. As with the Chinese approach, the Thirukkural's aphorisms are meant to be a subject of meditation and personal interpretation.

So on the nature of the ideal army, the Kural looks first at tradition, desertion and defeat:

"Commanding a long tradition of valor, acquainted
with neither defeat nor desertion that defines an army"

It looks at unity and cohesiveness.

"That indeed is an army that stands together
even when faced with death's grim fury"

The sentiment expressed is of course open to denigration as fanaticism, but only when taken out of the military context, the context of the defence of the nation's wealth in which the Kural has carefully placed this subject. It would be difficult for a military strategist to disagree.

On the personal qualities of soldiers:

"Valor, honor, trustworthiness and a tradition
nobly upheld, these four are the army's protective armour"

On the importance of leadership:

"though courageous troops abound
there can be no army without commanders"

On size versus strike capability of an army:

"So what if a legion of rats roar like the sea?
The mere hiss of a cobra will deaden their din"

On the causes of failure:
"An army will prevail as long as there is
no desertion, no privation and no contention"

Consider how succinctly this line considers the need for absolute unity and the need for supplies and essentials, privation includes for example the starvation of a group or a country via embargos.

Interestingly the Kural tells us that even when an army is merely for decoration it may be useful:

"Even without winning offense and defence
an army of splendid appearance may still win acclaim"

But more importantly it tells us that where there is an army which is not purely for decoration, how defense may be followed by offense:

"Well trained armed forces will withstand every offense
then outflank and storm the foe"

The Thirukkural and Tamil culture are inextricably and symbiotically linked. We chose courage as the theme for the wealth of nations in this third part because it is such an important cornerstone in the hierarchy of Tamil values.

And this is echoed in the Thirukkural in the chapter called "military pride" which in a much more personal way defines the character of the soldier. Although we have considered the Kural in the context of the wealth of the nation, we must remember that the concept of duty ("dharma") is integral to Tamil culture.

So while the section on leadership is also an enunciation of the duties or ideal characteristics of the king, and we are also told the duties or ideals of ministers, ambassadors, householders, monks, here, this chapter of the thirukkural is mainly concerned with the soldier. Recognising the communal nature of the soldier's service, the ideal soldier is in fact part of the "qualities of a country". Compare for example with the householder who is in a separate book.

This chapter (military pride) begins, as it means to go on, with an attitude:

"Dare you not, my enemies, stand against my monarch
Many who did, stand now as stone monuments"

Note how the chapter starts in the first person.

It goes on to define the ideals in terms of scope of ambition, fearlessness and clemency.

"It is more gratifying to carry a lance which missed an elephant
than to hold an arrow that hit a thicket dwelling rabbit"

"Having hurled his spear at a battlefield elephant
the hero found another piercing his side and grasped it with glee"

"Intrepid courage is what they call valor
but clemency towards the defeated is its sharp edge"

There are many couplets on the soldier's attitude towards death which echo the culture which the Thirukkural shapes and is shaped by:

"Who would dare deride as defeated
men who die fulfilling valour’s vow?"

We find echoes of Homer's Achilles:

"To fasten the warrior's anklet on one who desire glory
more than life is to decorate heroism with distinction"

And yet if the Thirukkural extols martial valour it does so in the context of the country. Whereas on the other hand it sees love and associated concepts of charity, as a personal virtue of every householder.

For the Thirukkural, if the army is the foremost of a nation’s possessions, without love, life is hardly worth living:

"With love enshrined in the heart, one truly lives,
without it the body is but bones encased in skin"

The Thirukkural's chapter "possessing love" contains the most poignant poetry in the entire work:

"They say it is to know union with love
that the soul takes union with the body"

But consider, this where love is linked to sacrifice, and perhaps even back to the soldier:

"The unloving belong only to themselves
but the loving belong to others to their very bones"

"Life without love in the heart
is like a sapless tree in the barren desert"

We end here our look at a work which is widely considered to be the world's oldest and most complete treatise on the art of ethical living. So intrinsic is the Thirukkural to Tamil culture that it is taught in schools in Tamil Nadu and Tamil Eelam, and sworn in the law courts.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “I wanted to learn Tamil, only to enable me to study Valluvar’s Thirukkural through his mother tongue itself…. There is no one who has given such treasure of wisdom like him.”

We urge the interested reader to explore the Kural on his own.

There are a number of excellent translations available online (see references below) of which we prefer the American English Himalayan Academy translation, for its closeness to the meaning of the original.

As before we leave with you an excerpt from the ever entertaining book of love from NV Ashraf's comparison of translations:

Lovers’ quarrels
I won't clasp your broad chest,
A common dish for all women's eyes to gorge! *
When I sulked, he sneezed: hoping
I would forget and say "Bless you".
If I wear a wreath, she cries enraged:
"For which woman's sake is this?" *
If I say "I love you more than any one",
She frowned asking, "Than whom, than whom?" *
The moment I said we won’t part in this life,
Her eyes were filled with tears.
"I remembered you", I said;
"After forgetting?" said she withdrawing herself! *
She blessed as I sneezed, but soon recalled it crying:
"Thinking whom did you sneeze?" *
When I suppressed my sneeze, she wept saying,
"Whom are you hiding from me?"
If I try making up with her, she would ask enraged,
"Is this how you coax others as well?" *
If I gaze at her in silence, she would fume and ask,
"Thinking of whom this comparison?" *

Attributions are as follows
GU - G U Pope
NV – NVK Ashraf
KK - K Kannan
KV – K Krishnasamy and V Ramkumar
PS - P. S Sundaram
SB - S Bharathiar 


1. Weaver’s Wisdom, Ancient Precepts for a perfect life. American English translation By Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami and the monastics of the Saiva Siddhanta Order (Kauai, Hawaii), Himalayan Academy Publications (http://www.himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/weaver/)

2. The Sacred Kural of Tiruvaluva Nayanar by Dr. G. U. Pope, Laurier Books Ltd (available at amazon.com)

3. (Internet resources) http://www.thirukkural2005.org/
International Thirukkural Conference 2005 (Washington)

4. (Internet resources) Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirukkural

5. (Internet Thirrukural Browser) http://www.cs.utk.edu/~siddhart/thirukkural/

6. (Interent resource) Comparison of translations at http://www.geocities.com/nvashraf/kur-eng/closeindex.htm 


 Related Articles
Culture & Community: The Thirukkural: the householder and the nation’s wealth
Culture & Community: The Thirukkural
 External Links
Himalayan Academy Publications : Weaver’s Wisdom, Ancient Precepts for a perfect life. American English translation By Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami and the monastics of the Saiva Siddhanta Order (Kauai, Hawaii)
: International Thirukkural Conference 2005 (Washington)
Internet Sources: Wikipedia Thirukkural
Internet Thirrukural Browser: Thirrukural
Internet Sources: Comparison of translations
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