The Kural – Changing the Axis of Life
Recently, The Hindu newspaper published an article about the renowned Tamil scholar, Thiruvachagamani Balasuramaniam, and his conversation with the former President of India, Saravepalli Dr. S. Radhakrishan, during an event at the Chennai Kapali temple in 1961. Impressed by Thiru Balasubramaniam’s speech on Periyapuranam at the event, Dr. S. Radhakrishan requested him to translate the Thikkural into English. Agreeing to this request, Balasubramaniam’s Thirukkural, with a preface by the President was published in 1962. Remarkably, after 54 years since its original edition, a newer edition was released on October 5, 2016. What makes the Thirukkural so unique and worthy that even after innumerable translations into multiple languages over the years, there is still high demand and a great appetite for newer editions?
For the benefit of our younger generation, I will begin with a brief introduction to the Thirukkural. Thirukkural or Kural, as it is more popularly called, was composed by Saint Thiruvalluvar, who lived around 1 A.D. known as the Sangam period (there is no consensus on the period because of the lack of reliable historical or archaeological evidence of his birth). The Kural addresses three principal values essential for living a meaningful life – Aram (virtue), Porul (wealth), and Inbam (love or pleasure). There are 1,330 Kurals – couplets of four and three words – divided into 133 Adhikarams or sections with ten couplets included within each Adhikaram. The Kural is also known by other names. For example, because it delineates principles that appeal across religions, culture, or nationality, Kural is called Ulaga Podumarai (book of universal values) or Tamil Marai (Tamil Veda). The Kural had been translated into over eighty languages and is considered one of the most widely translated non-religious literature in the world.
Are the messages from Kural, written over two thousand years ago, relevant to today’s complex world and its circumstances?
We now live in a world of science and technology where we cannot be expected to blindly believe in dogmas and doctrines. We demand rational analyses and interpretations. Today, many are skeptical of religious and mythological narratives and consider them as nothing but fiction and unworthy of strict adherence. At the same time, the skeptics are also troubled by the direction in which the world is going. They are afraid that scientific advancements, while leading the world towards greater freedom, equality, and material prosperity, also have placed greater power in the hands of a few. If the powerful few misuse their power, they can even cause the destruction of the world. As Professor Adrian, President of the Royal Society of England expressed, “…given our ability to control nature and its forces significantly, we might be able to destroy two-thirds of the world by the push of a button.” Consequently, regardless of one’s skepticism, we cannot take the risk of abandoning subjective values that evolved from religions and mythologies – morals, ethics, compassion and more. These values are the basic foundations of our lives since they provide structure and meaning to our lives while inspiring us to do the right things to keep the world safe.
Consequently, while benefiting from the insights of science, we should also cultivate what philosophers refer to as the “science of the mind” (Quantum of the Lotus, Mathieu Ricard, and Trinh Xuan Thuan) that will help us change the “…axis of our thought and life” (Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Religion, Science, and Culture). We need to strive towards such a change because only human thought and concern can enlighten us about the path we should follow. To lead a life of plenitude, we must, therefore, find answers to subjective questions that we confront in our everyday life. How do I live my life? How do I release myself from the predicament I had caused to myself through my bloated ego and undue focus on material things? What are my responsibilities to my family, community, and society at large? And the most valuable sourcebook in the world that would provide guidance and answers to these important questions is the Kural.
The Kural, as a “literature of the spirit” delineates a system of behaviors that, when followed, will provide our fragile lives significance and meaning. Throughout history, we humans have been creatures of poor judgment and unrighteous conduct. Through the Kurals, Thiruvalluvar offers valuable advice on controlling the ‘irrational savage’ within us. Using seven simple words, he creates a map of human experiences, the consequences of right and wrong actions, and how one must overcome moral and ethical dilemmas. And, without dwelling on dogma, blind faith, or rituals, Thiruvalluvar directs us towards ethical conduct, love, compassion, understanding, and unity. The following examples culled from the three segments of the Kural will illustrate these views.
The first and perhaps the most important segment of the Kural are the ones dealing with Aram or Dharma. The section addresses conduct, righteousness, and other attributes that are the foundations of a worthy life. Thiruvalluvar says that “There is no greater asset one can acquire in life than adhering to virtue, morals, and ethics, and there is no greater misfortune than forgetting them (Kural 32).” He emphasizes that Aram is nothing but freeing oneself from negative thoughts such as envy, anger, harsh speech, and instead striving towards truthfulness and purity of mind (Kural 35). He uses the analogy, “A body is purified by water, but a mind can be purified only by truthfulness” (Kural 298).” Elaborating further on the concept of Aram, he says that virtue is the only true source of happiness (Kural 39) and everything else – rituals or outward trappings – are nothing but sound and show (Kural 34 and 79). Thiruvalluvar also emphasizes that one must refrain from causing harm, physical or mental, at all times. He says that killing, adultery, or committing fraud must be viewed as abhorrent behaviors that must be eschewed at all times. He upholds that compassion can only arise from love (Kural 757). When love and compassion are the dominant emotions in one’s mind, one is more likely to treat others with kindness and is less likely to inflict harm (Kural 80). A distinctive contribution of Thiruvalluvar is that, when discussing profound concepts such as to conduct and character, he describes them in simple words such that anyone can understand their inherent meaning and contemplate over them.
The second segment of the Kural addresses Porul. As Tamil scholars point out, while the word Porul is translated into English as wealth, Porul also subsumes attributes such as knowledge, industriousness, overcoming poverty, administration of a state, tactics, law, and order, choosing a head of state, the army, or citizenship. Thiruvalluvar discusses all of these attributes in the Porul section. For example, while speaking of war and preparedness, Thiruvalluvar says, aggressive operations that is ill-planned would only strengthen the enemy (Kural 464). In a similar vein, he criticizes those who, driven by ambition, start an aggressive campaign without estimating the strength of the opponent (Kural 465). Discussing law and order, he says, proper justice is when there is an adequate inquiry, an impartial consideration, and punishment as prescribed by the rules (Kural 541). Thiruvalluvar was not opposed to acquisition of material wealth, but he says that wealth should not be hoarded but should be shared and benefit those who are in need. Kural even describes in vivid detail the best practices of hiring, management skills in workplace, as well as, how the publication of manuscripts/books should be handled critically by employing a thorough, objective review process.
In the third segment, Thiruvalluvar deals with relationships – love. Thirukkural scholars disagree on why Valluvar included love as one of the three segments. We can identify at least two reasons:1) during the Sangam period, it was common for Tamil authors to elaborately discuss love, including promiscuous relationships; 2) since the Kurals emphasize conduct and virtue as premier goals of life, perhaps Thiruvalluvar viewed discussion on love as appropriate. Regardless, Thiruvalluvar was careful not to sensationalize love; instead, he highlights the emotional aspects of love and relationship. For example, using his poetic brilliance, he says that when eyes with eyes lock to each other, the words serve no useful purpose (Kural, 1100). On a lighter vein, he says that love is more intoxicating than wine – the mere thought of love would be intoxicating (Kural 1201). In contrast, on a more somber tone, he says that for a woman who is yearning for the return of her husband who has gone to fight in the war, “a day is equal to a week” (Kural, 1269). In the same context, he writes, “when he said that we should never part in life, her eyes swelled with tears” (Kural, 1315).
What distinguishes the Kural from other philosophies and moral sciences of the world is that Kural expresses deep concepts through simple words and analogies. Also, unlike the traditional metaphysical treatises (e.g. the Advaitha), the Kural does not focus primarily on those who are seeking ultimate liberation and freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Instead, it reflects more on the predicament that ordinary individuals face in everyday life and how they must overcome their trials and tribulations and live a purposeful life. The guidance that Thiruvalluvar, with his deep understanding of human nature, offers is logical, practical, and simple to understand. As Dr. K. M. Munshi, founder of Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan said, Thiruvalluvar’s message, “… cuts across castes, creeds, climes, and ages and have a freshness which makes one feel as if they are meant for the present times.” This quote aptly summarizes Kural’s greatness and appeal.
For interested readers, I recommend a few the following English translation of the Kural.
Thirukkural, the Holy Scripture published by the International Tamil Language Foundation.
Kural, the great book of Tiru-Valluvar by Sir C. Rajagopalachari (Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan)
Tirukkural, English Translation, and Commentary by Rev Dr G. U. Pope, Rev W. H. Drew, Rev John Lazarus and Mr F. W. Ellis (http://www.projectmadurai.org/pm_etexts/pdf/pm0153.pdf )
About the author: Dr. Ram S. Sriram is a longtime resident of Atlanta. He is Professor-Emeritus of Georgia State University. He is also the founder and President of the Carnatic Music Association of Georgia (CAMAGA) and a well-known musician. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.