Tamil literature is a vast subject that has hardly been properly dealt with and explored into by the world. If only we take a peek at the immense amount of knowledge and wisdom that is present in the Tamil literary works, we would be able to grasp the true potential of this untapped gold mine. In that attempt, we explore into the ancient, more than 2000-years old literature called Thirukkural, which is a product of the Sangam period of the Tamil history.
The Sangam period (300 BC to 200 AD) constitutes an important chapter in the history of Southern India. During this period of time, Sangams (Academy or Association of Tamil poets) existed and flourished under the royal patronage of the Pandiyan Empire. The literary works compiled and presented during the first two Sangams were mostly lost and the only remaining work was the ancient literature known as Tolkappiyam. The third Sangam took place in Madurai and was attended by numerous Tamil poets, however, much of the works did not survive, except for a handful. These were compiled and categorized based on functionality and length. Thirukkural belonged to one of the compilation called Pathinenkizhkanakku (or 18 minor works), which mostly dealt with literature related to ethics and morality.
The Thirukkural (or the Kural) is a collection of 1330 couplets organized into 133 chapters. There are three broad sections presented in the Kural, namely Aram (righteousness or dharma), Porul (wealth or artha) and Inbam (love or kama). The Kural encompasses the totality of human life via these three sections, providing a comprehensive guideline to the art of living. The values, wisdom, knowledge and emotions embedded in the Kural are truly unparalleled, which begs the question of the true identity of its author. Truly the author, Thiruvalluvar, must have been a master of all sorts; dutiful son, faithful husband, disciplining father, spiritual guru, political strategist, true friend, exemplary philanthropist, excellent orator, and extremely knowledgeable.
The first part of the Kural, Aram (dharma), deals with various aspects of leading a righteous domestic life and ascetic life (if one chooses to do so). According to Valluvar, dharma is a simple and straightforward concept:
“Righteousness is all about removing the four flaws – envy, desire, anger and harsh words.”
Removing the negativity within oneself and imbibing the positive values in one’s life is what dharma is all about. Love, compassion, use of pleasant words, having good conduct, forbearance and honesty are the positive qualities that one should cultivate and maintain in order to erase blemishes from one’s mind. Aside from providing us with the virtues associated with living a happy domestic life, Valluvar also describes the qualities to cultivate if one was to choose to take up asceticism. According to Valluvar, following an ascetic way of life is optional and even if one were to follow such a life style, one would still have to eliminate the blemishes of his mind and pursue the positive qualities mentioned above. Therefore, this section is testament to the position that Valluvar was most likely a Hindu, following the values and principles prescribed by the scriptures of Sanatana Dharma.
The Organisation of the Kural
The second part of the Kural deals with Porul, or “wealth” as translated in English. During Valluvar’s time period, the type of government that was prevalent was monarchy. Therefore, the context of this section is to be considered as suitable for an emperor. For example, the first couplet of this section describes the qualities of a ruler:
“The military, citizenry, resources, advisers, friends and fortresses: who owns these six is a lion amongst kings.”
Valluvar’s economic and political views are applicable even in the modern context today, probably in the form of management training, leadership workshops, human resource management training and so on. According to Valluvar, life is worth living and gathering wealth is essential for life:
“Accumulate wealth; it will destroy the arrogance of your foes; there is no weapon sharper than that.”
Gathering wealth through honest and righteous means is strongly emphasized by Valluvar. In fact, Valluvar is very strong in his position regarding unrighteousness or adharma:
“One should not act in a way the wise men would condemn even if one’s mother is starving.”
According to Valluvar, gathering a vast amount of wealth is not an end in itself. It is only the means to achieve a noble purpose; sharing your wealth with the deserving and the needy. Beneficence is the purposing of earning and amassing money, and those who fail to share their food (or wealth) despite having more than enough are worse than beggars in Valluvar’s view:
“Amassing a lot of wealth and eating alone without sharing, is worse than the act of asking for alms.”
The third and final part of the Kural deals with the subject matter of love or Inbam, including pre-marital love and post-marital love. It is presented in a story form as dialogues between a man and a woman who have fallen in love with each other. Upon the news of their love story spreading through clamour and gossip, the lovers get married. Immediately after the marriage, the husband leaves his newly wedded bride to fight a war, leading to the wife’s monologue on the pangs of separation from her husband. After the husband’s return, the lady feigns anger and pouts in order to induce a raise in her husband for leaving her to suffer alone from separation. Through pouting and feigning anger, both husband and wife enjoy conjugal union. Valluvar brilliantly expresses all the emotions of love, anxiety, separation, excitement and even pouting through exquisite poetry. Even in the section about “love”, Valluvar has based it on the principles of righteousness.
Some scholars posit that the final section of the Kural is a later day addition and that it was not really authored by Thiruvalluvar himself. If we were to remove the last part, then the Kural is left with exactly 108 chapters. Since the number “108” has certain auspicious significance, it does make sense to posit that the final section was only added on later. However, if we look into Tamil literature that arose during the Sangam Age, we will observe that there are significant number of works encompassing poetry and stories on the subject matter of love. Valluvar himself praises love in the following manner:
“Love is the quintessence of life; without it, a man is but a frame of bones covered with skin.”
Therefore, it would not be surprising if Valluvar himself has authored the final section of the Kural. Furthermore, if someone were to take up the Kural to read, especially a youngster, they might find the final section interesting. Having realized how beautifully Valluvar expresses the enjoyment of love and other emotions, might not one be interested enough to read the other sections within the Kural as well? If one wants to enjoy love in his life, he first needs to accumulate wealth. But if he wants the wealth to last, he needs to accumulate wealth in a righteous manner. By way of presenting dharma, artha and kama, the Kural has very diligently and brilliantly embodied the pursuit of human goals.
If one were to compare the Kural to Manu Smriti or other similar scriptures on ethics and morality, it would not be justifiable. The Kural is over 2000 years old and it exhibits the unique traits and cultural values of the Tamil people during the Sangam period under the rule of the Pandiyans. Therefore, the Kural should not be compared to other scriptures, since it is not at all a scripture to begin with. If the Bhagavad Gita is a scripture presented by the God for man, and if the Thiruvasagam is a hymn written by man for the God, then the Thirukkural is a “scripture” written by man for man. In this sense, despite the Kural being referred to as “Divine” or “Thiru”, it is a literary masterpiece on morality composed by a man, Thiruvalluvar, for the betterment and happiness of all mankind, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, nationality and language.