The 2000 year old Kural is often described by classical scholars, such as Professor George Hart of the Berkeley California, as one of the world's greatest works on ethics.
Widely attributed in terms of authorship to Thiru Valluvar, a weaver of cloth, who is said to have lived circa 30 BC, this is a secular work that cuts across religion, class and race. Its earliest translators were like Rev Pope, Christian missionaries to Tamil Nadu, who fell in love with the literature of the region.
It was they who made it available to the rest of India, including to Mahatma Gandhi who later 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.”
The German-born Nobel prize winner, Dr Albert Schweitzer described the Kural thus: “On the most varied questions concerning the conduct of man to himself and to the world, Thirukural's utterances are characterised by nobility and good sense. There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find so much lofty wisdom ..”.
In Tamil the word Kural means “couplet” and also “voice”, whereas the prefix Thiru means “Sacred”. But equally in Tamil – a language which exudes courtesy - “Thiru” is the equivalent to the English “Mr”, an everyday honorific prefix.
The Kural is hence a set of 1330 couplets organised in chapters of ten, each chapter dedicated to a single concept. The concepts are wide ranging from “Possessing Love”, “Truthfulness”, “Rain” to “The Avoidance of Tyranny”. Each chapter explores different facets of the concept to which it is devoted, starting simply and becoming progressively more complex. There is often a link between chapters where concepts are related: so for example there are five consecutive chapters on friendship entitled “Friendship”, “Testing fitness for friendship”, “Old friendship”, “Harmful friendship” and “False friendship”. It is often said of the Kural that there is no aspect of life not covered by it.
The last 25 chapters are split into two parts, premarital and marital love, separately, yet because of their different style there is controversy whether these chapters were part of the original work. Nevertheless there is a line of thought that the inclusion of sensuality in works, which are otherwise philosophical is part of the tradition, the ancient Tamils being of the view that sexuality was conducive to spirituality: witness the sculptures that adorned the ancient temples.
The Kural follows a disciplined poetic structure. Signifying its comprehensive intent, the first couplet begins with the first letter of the Tamil alphabet, A and the last couplet ends with the letter N, completing the alphabet. Each couplet consists of seven cirs: a cir is a word or combination of words joined together (a compound word). And so the Kural begins, with a couplet praising “God Primordial”:
Akara muthal elluthellam aathi,
Bhagavan mutharae ulaghu
“A, as its first of letters, every speech maintains;
The "Primal Deity" is first through all the world's domains.” (Translation of G Pope)
And, perhaps unexpectedly, it concludes with the last of ten couplets on the benefits of sulking (in the chapter entitled “Wedded love”)
“Uuduthal Kamathitku inbam,
athatinbam kuudi mayanga perrin”
The joy of love lies in sulking, for that joy is realized
While embracing in union. (Translation of NVK Ashraf)
While embracing in union. (Translation of NVK Ashraf)
The structural organisation of the Kural also reveals much about the values and philosophy of Tamil society. The chapters of ten couplets are grouped into three themes or “books”, namely “Virtue”, “Wealth” and “Love”.
The introduction to the book on virtue contains 4 chapters: “Praising God”, “The Importance of Rain”, “Greatness of Renunciates”, “Asserting Virtue”. These four concepts are a foundation to the whole work and not just the book on virtue – they are the core horizontal themes, across which the weaver weaves his multitude of vertical threads, each thread being a concept.
In the first of the four introductory chapters, Valluvar, acknowledges “God Primordial” and places his values in the context of the whole. So for example he says on learning and the limits of rationalism:
“What has learning profited a man, if it has not led him to worship the good feet of him who is pure knowledge itself”
He says of the concepts of “good” versus “evil”, that these opposites are illusionary and one may transcend these opposites by meditating on that which is immutable:
“Good and bad, delusion’s dual deeds, do not cling to those who delight in praising the immutable, worshipful one”
Note the non-sectarian references to “God” refered to as “infinity, the immutable one, the gracious one “ etc.
Having set in place the limitations of reason, good, evil and so on, the weaver, focuses on the importance of the ecology and man’s relation to it:
“It is the unfailing fall of rain that sustains the world
therefore, look upon rain as the nectar of life
Rain produces man’s wholesome food;
And rain itself forms part of his food besides”
Emphasising the cyclical destructive and creative powers of nature, he says:
“It is rain that ruins and rain again
that raises up those it has ruined”
On man’s reliance on nature, and the importance of nature relative to human functions such as charity and spirituality:
“Unless the heavens grant their gifts, neither the giver’s generosity
nor the ascetic’s detachment will grace this wide world”
Following on after the importance of the primal spirit and nature, are the qualities and importance of spiritual leaders or “renunciates”. This echoes the ancient Tamil belief that the world is sustained not just by the forces of the physical plane (i.e. the force of nature such as rain) but also by spiritual forces, an imbalance in either could lead to destruction of the world. As with the rest of the Kural, which is a secular work, the chapter makes no reference to organised or institutionalised religion, merely noting by way of definition of spirituality that:
“Pious men are called the priestly ones
for they are clothed in robes of compassion for all life”
The final introductory theme is the nature of virtue, outlined in broad brush strokes, across the ten couplets in this chapter. For example the alternative interpretations of virtue include:
“Virtue is living in such a way that one does not fall into these four:
envy, anger, greed and unsavoury speech” and
“Virtue is merely that which should be done in life
and vice merely that which should be avoided ..”
The body of the book of virtue, following on from the introduction is structured into the following themes: “the way of the householder”, “the way of the renunciate” and “destiny”.
The second of the three books, the book on wealth, has the following themes:
“Royalty”, “Ministers”, “Qualities of a country” and a general section on the qualities of people and miscellaneous other aspects of wealth. The Kural concludes as mentioned above with the book on love.
While “The way of the householder” is a description of the core personal values of Tamil culture, the book on wealth addresses themes of leadership and group structures.
Thus, on what it takes to be a “householder”, the Kural says:
“He alone may be called a householder who supports
students, elders and renunciates pursuing their good paths”
By way of example, in discussing the functions of a householder, the Kural has an entire chapter on hospitality, that most familiar of Tamil values:
“The whole purpose of earning wealth and maintaining a home
is to provide hospitality to guests”
“When a guest is in the home, it is improper to hoard one’s meal,
even if it happens to be the nectar of immortality”
“Charity’s merit cannot be measured by gifts given
It is measured by the measuring the receiver’s merits”
Thus the Kural is more than a book on ethics or philosophy. It is a description of a way of life. So much so that the Rev. G. Pope, one of the early Christian missionaries to Tamil Nadu who translated the Kural to English described the work as: “ an integral painting of a civilization which is harmonious in itself and which possesses a clearly recognizable unity.”
In the second of the series, due in the next edition, Kural we will consider in more detail each of the three books: virtue, wealth and love.
1. ‘Weaver’s Wisdom: Ancient Precepts for a perfect life’. 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
3. International Thirukkural Conference 2005 (Washington) http://www.thirukkural2005.org/
4. Thirrukural Browser http://www.cs.utk.edu/~siddhart/thirukkural/
5. Comparison of translations at http://www.geocities.com/nvashraf/kur-eng/closeindex.htm
6. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirukkural