Tirukkural: A Handbook of Moral Values

“The Kural contains much in a little compass. Such is the ingenuity of its author that he has compressed within its narrow limits all the branches of knowledge, as if he had hollowed an atom, and enclosed all the waters of the seven seas in it.”

— Auvvaiyar, Tamil Poet

The weaver of Mayilapur, known as Tiruvalluvar, was undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses of the world. The name Kural is given par excellence to this the poet’s unique work, consisting of 133 chapters each containing 10 couplets. Kural means anything short and is properly the name of the couplet, which is the shortest species of stanza in the Tamil language. By no means a long poem, Tirukkural yet surpasses in value the whole of the remaining Tamil literature, having come down to us intact, as a complete work. This because it was written in Tamil, which has remained a living language, without much variation.

Besides, these aphorisms written on palm leaves constitute essentially an ethical treatise composed in a pithy, exquisite and appealing poetic form which enhances its popularity, providing as it does concise guidelines so we can live our present life in this world in a better way. Its universal acceptability is because it does not preach. It is not a set of laws and Valluvar does not purport to be a prophet. All he lays out are basic principles of ethics. While he talks about God, he does not give him a name, but presents the divine as being pure knowledge. His subject is core values, such as love and charity, which are meant for all human beings. Tirukkural is a roadmap guiding us soundly though the essential, basic and permanent aspects of human life.

No wonder, therefore, that it is one of a select number of great works which have forever entered into the very soul of a whole people, every rival sect in the Tamil country claiming the Kural as its own, furnishing commentary and critical apparatus accordingly.

The Kural consists of three major divisions, namely Aram or Virtue, the moral values of Life; Porul or Wealth, the socio-economic values; and Kamam or Love, depicting the psychological values.

For example, chapters V-XXIV are about how an ideal householder should lead his life. Besides possessing qualities such as self-control, courtesy, strictness as regards devotion to duties he has to perform, etc., he and his wife have to honour each other and be modest and frugal as they tend to their children. His house is open to every guest, who is welcomed and fed. He is patient and forbearing, free from envy and speaks no evil of others. Thus he is one whom all unite to praise. However, one has to study the Kural in greater depth to cover the whole range of specific aspects that are dealt with, such as here the householder’s life.

Though little is known about Vacuki, Tiruvalluvar’s wife, tradition says that their conjugal life was in perfect accordance with the contents of these chapters. She was the embodiment of all that the Kural requires of the woman in the ‘help to household life’, transmitted through couplets that are enshrined in the hearts of the whole people. Dynastic changes, Muhammadan raids, and irruptions of alien races though a dozen centuries have not been able to change this, holding thus the promise of a noble future.

Tiruvalluvar’s scripture of universalism has placed him among the greatest philosophers, such as Socrates, Kant and Confucius, the illustrious moral teachers of mankind. The dynamics of the Kural has been richly commented upon by various scholars and personalities. Mahatma Gandhi called it ‘a textbook of indispensable authority on moral life. The maxims of Valluvar have touched my soul. There is no one who has given us such a treasure of wisdom like him… holy maxims described by the Tamilians as the Tamil Veda.’

Sri Aurobindo has said: ‘The Kural is gnomic poetry, the greatest in planned consumption and force of execution ever written in this kind.’ Dr AA Macdonell captures the greatness of the Tirukkural and its writer: ‘The poet Valluvar in fact, stands above all races, caste and sects, inculcating a general human morality and worldly wisdom. Not only the ethical content of the book but the skill with which the author gives his aphorisms, a poetical setting in a difficult meter, have evoked admiration.’

The Tamils have recognized in it their own inner voice speaking to them of righteousness, justice and morality. In describing human relations and in formulating laws of success and causes of failure, Tiruvalluvar was concerned only with the essential nature of human beings and disregarded forms of faith and passing fashions of social or political behaviour. That accounts for the ring which the couplets have of eternal validity, since the Kural is not a mosaic of doctrines taken from several faiths or cultures but is an integral painting of a civilization which was in harmony with itself and which possessed a clearly recognizable unity.

As Cavuniyanar rightly said, these couplets composed by Valluvar ‘in order that we know the ancient right way, are sweet to the mind to meditate on; sweet to the ear to hear; and sweet to the mouth to repeat; and they moreover form a sovereign medicine to promote good and prevent evil actions.’ The Kural should be used in everyday life, its verses committed to memory and meditated upon, quoted freely as your very own.

To my mind the core function of the Kural is to perfect and to protect our lives in the everyday world through guiding our actions and thoughts, directing our purpose, and refining our interactions with our fellowmen. Yet, there is nothing in the Kural that has to be obeyed. Each of the couplets contains such insights, however, that we are drawn to it and want to abide by them.


* Published in print edition on 16 January  2015

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