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The Thirukkural: the householder and the nation’s wealth

In part 1 of this introduction to the 2000 year Tamil classic on ethical living, the Kural, we outlined the structure of the work as three books: the books of virtue, wealth and love. The foundational themes that cut across the books are the primal spirit (“God Primordial”), the ecosystem and virtue. The book of virtue is split into two main parts: “the way of the householder” and the “way of the renunciate” while the book of wealth is split into “Royalty”, “Ministers”, “Qualities of a country” and a general section.

The Kural is said to be a creation of a weaver of cloth. For the Kural is a tapestry of patterns depicting the network of relationships between man and the universe. It outlines a system of ethics whose objective is harmony and balance in this network. The Kural addresses the relationships between the individual, his family, his friends, the business world, his country, other countries, nature and God, among others. The Rev. G. U Pope, one of the earliest translators of the work termed it “an integral painting of a civilization which is harmonious in itself and which possesses a clearly recognizable unity."

The book of wealth is much concerned with the wealth of nations. It is organised around the necessary group structures and leadership required for the building of “wealth”: the section on “royalty” being entirely a treatise on leadership, whereas the “qualities” of a country are the foundational characteristics of a bountiful society. Yet the personal foundations for the group relationships explored later are laid in the “way of the householder”.

The terms “Royalty” and “Ministers” must be read in historic context, the modern equivalent being leadership and advisors, experts and administrators. “Royalty” is nowhere defined to be hereditary. Equally the Kural does not presume permanence in a nation, rather it assumes these are fluid: it warns that nations may fail as a result of not following the principles and new nations may arise.

And so, in this, Part 2 of our 3 part series we will first look at how some of the personal ethics outlined in the way of the householder become institutionalised where necessary into the wealth of nations.

We take an example of the conceptual threads in the book of virtue that are woven into the book of wealth, the notion of “impartiality”.

“Impartiality” deals with justice in a personal sense and is foundational to many themes that are taken up in the book of wealth. The chapter on impartiality in the “way of the householder” starts by describing “justice” in terms of the “modern” concept of objectivity and lack of bias:

“Justice may be called good when it acts impartially
towards enemies, strangers and friends”

“To incline to neither side, like a balanced scale’s level beam,
and thus weigh impartially is the wise one’s ornament”

The Kural redefines personal integrity, including the integrity of experts (“advisors” as they will be called in the book of wealth) in terms of impartiality

“Speech uttered without bias is integrity
if no unspoken bias lurks in the heart”

And in the context of impartiality, seeks to apply to business a principle of mutual benefit to counter-parties and society:

“Those businessmen will prosper whose business
protects as their own the interests of others”

Here is also the concept that unethically acquired wealth (and investment income thereof) is forfeit:

“However prosperous it may seem, all wealth gained
By loss of rightness must be relinquished that very day”

These are modern legal concepts, but in the Kural they are treated as the foundations of personal conduct, rather than institutionalised law. And to place in context the relative importance of justice to wealth:

“Though a man is profoundly impoverished
if he remains just the world will not regard him as poor”

Whereas the above are all extracts from chapter 12, entitled “Impartiality” in “the way of the householder”, the theme of justice is taken up in a broader, more institutionalised fashion in the book of wealth.

The introduction to the section on royalty is a chapter entitled “Merits of the king”. Justice is said to be one of four key qualities:

“ He is a light among rulers who is endowed with the four merits
of generosity, graciousness, justice and care for the people”

But consistent personal virtue is a prerequisite of leadership as is the courage to maintain justice

“The noble king is unswerving in virtue, restrains wrongdoing,
and courageously maintains his honor”

“the world is protected beneath the umbrella
of an ethical leader who can endure words bitter to the ear”

The Kural, written at a time when most of the world lived under the governance of arbitrary despots whose power arose from force rather than constitutional law, spends three chapters exploring the relationship between justice as the bedrock of government. These chapters are: the just reign, the unjust reign and avoidance of tyranny.

Firstly, “the just reign” defines justice in government

“Investigate well, show favor to none, maintain impartiality
consult the law, then give judgment – this is justice”

While protection from harm is the duty of leadership and government, failure in justice leads to the fall of government:

“All the world looks to the rain clouds for sustenance
all the people look to the King’s sceptre for protection”

“An inaccessible ruler who listens and adjudicates inattentively
will plummet from power and perish ..”

It is just leadership not brutal force that is integral to victory:

“Victory is not won by the lance
but by the King’s sceptre, provided it is not crooked”

While the “just reign” tells us of the virtues of justice, the following two chapters are scathing of its failures. The “unjust reign” tells us in its very first stanza:

“More malicious than a professional murderer is the monarch
who reigns his people with injustice and oppression”

A leader who is intellectually lazy, corrupt or unjust forfeits his claim to loyalty:

“Without thinking, a King rules crookedly and thus
forfeits his subjects loyalty, together with his own fortune ..”

But for the Kural, justice is not only intrinsic to sustaining government: its failure is calamitous in ecological terms:

“If the King acts contrary to justice, contrary seasons
will befall the earth and rain laden clouds will fail to come forth ..”

Ultimately leadership that is arbitrary and unconstitutional, in short, tyrannical, is doomed to fail:

“The tyrant who causes dread in his people
will perish quickly and inevitably ..”

Other prerequisites of leadership outlined in the book of wealth are: learning and wisdom (wisdom being the practical application), the assessing and seizing of opportunities - understanding time, place and resources (a form of ancient SWOT analysis where SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), the choosing and management of men, perseverance and equanimity.

But if these are the characteristics of leadership, the objective is the building and management of a “country”. This is the third theme of the book of wealth – “the qualities of a country”.

In the Kural, a country is not rigidly defined. It seems more akin to Thomas Paine’s definition of a group structure that arises organically because of man’s intrinsic social tendencies.

Says Paine in the “Rights of Man” (1791): Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. “

Compare the Kural’s introductory definition of a country:

“Where unfailingly fertile fields, worthy men
And wealthy merchants come together – that indeed is a country “

The Kural also implicitly assumes that one is free to choose the geographical location of one’s country and hence provides guidelines:

“Rain waters, underground waters and rivers shed from well-situated mountains,
plus strong fortresses are features of a fine country”

If the Kural considers healthy commerce as the foundational quality of a country, it also explains the importance of productivity gains, foreshadowing the economic paradigm shifts and scalability of modern technology:

“A land where prosperity comes easily deserves the name country
not one where wealth entails laborious toil“

In the “qualities of a country” the Kural considers not only the proper means of building wealth, including the building of alliances, but also the defence of wealth: the nature of fortresses, military strength and the benefits of an army. We leave the further discussion of a country for Part 3, along with more from the book of virtue.
For the Kural does not limit itself to such weighty topics.

The book of love takes the familiar Sangam poetry format of quotes: “He says”, “She says”, “She says to her friend ..” etc. By way of introduction, we leave the reader with the Kural’s equivalent of the “ man-eater” pop lyric:

(He says):

“A Goddess, a peahen or a woman
bedecked with jewels ? My heart is amazed ! ..“ [PS]

“I never knew Yama before but now I know
that it is feminine and has warring eyes …” [KK]
(Yama being the angel of death)

“She may have that feminine grace
but her look sucks life out of men who gaze ..” [NV, SB]

“Ah there goes all my might which foes dread in fight
when I face her brows beaming bright! “ [KV, GU]

Unattributed quotes are from the Himalayan Academy publication “Weaver’s Wisdom” (Reference 1).

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