An introduction to Thirukkural and its author

திருக்குறளும் திருவள்ளுவரும்

© N.V.K. Ashraf

"The Kural is a book without a name, by an author without his name"

~ Ce livre sans nom, par un autre sans nom ~
(M. Ariel - French Translator )



1 Tamil, a classical language
2 Valluvar, the author


A poet and teacher


Not an ascetic


A weaver, āchārya or a king?


Other works attributed to Thiruvalluvar
3 Kural, the book


Virtue, Wealth and Love


Mandatory ethics


Not a religious text


Valluvar's definitions


A classic of international repute


A well preserved book

1. Tamil, a classical language

        According to historian Arnold Toynbee, only three people have produced and preserved a literature: The Chinese, Indians and the Jews[1]. The Indian contribution comes through three languages: the extinct Sanskrit and Pali, and the extant Tamil. Tamil existed in the Dravidian south India even before Sanskrit entered through north.[2][3] Sanskrit's entry and the impact it had on the local languages is evident from the gradual increase in the percentage of loan words of Sanskrit origin into its native languages including its literatures. Of all the Dravidian languages, however, Tamil has the longest literary history and is the least subjected to Sanskrit influence. Archaeological evidence obtained from inscriptions excavated in 2005 dates the language to around 500 BC [*]. Its grammar is said to have been fixed around 300 B.C.[3] and its contribution to the field of literature is immense. Traces of pre-Aryan Tamil poetry belonging to the Sangam Age (100 B.C. to 300 A.D.) have survived to this day.[4][5]  Further information on Tamil, Tamils and their history can be had from the following sites:

·        Prof A. Velupillai's site on "Religious Traditions of Tamils" [*] or [*]

·        Wikipedia has a good write up about Tamil language.

·        C.R. Krishnamurti's History of Tamil literature.

·        Forumhub on the History of Tamil Nadu.

    The ancient Tamil country produced  great saints, poets, poetesses, sages and reformers. Many of their principal teachings were very catholic in nature and I quote here the sayings of three great saints of ancient Tamil Nadu.


"Every country is my native and every man my kinsman"
Poonkunranar in Purananuru 192 (100 BC to 300 AD)

"By birth all men are equal. The differences in their action render their worth unequal" SM
Thiruvalluvar in Thirukkural 972 (200-800 AD)

"Mankind is one community and divinity is One Godhead"
Thirumoolar in Thirumandiram 2104 (600-900 AD)


    Easily the most famous and greatest of all Tamil classics is Thirukkural (abridged name "Kural"), written by Thiruvalluvar (or Valluvar as he is popularly known). The Kural is one of the earliest sets of aphorisms to have existed not in Sanskrit but in Tamil.[33] The prefix Thiru, meaning 'sacred,' is often added as a mark of respect. No other Tamil work has received so much importance like the Kural, and no other Tamil work has seen so many translations and commentaries into almost all major languages of the world.

2. Valluvar, the author

     Valluvar must have written the Kural sometime between the 2nd century B.C. to 8th century A.D. As is the case with most Indian works, scholars are divided in their opinion about the period of this great poet. Though the most commonly stated period is 2nd century A.D.,[6],[7],[8],[35],[36] the Tamils in Tamil Nadu have traditionally considered 31 B.C. as the year of his birth as accepted by the Tamil Academy of Madurai [*, *, *]. According to some scholars, however, he lived and wrote during Post Sangam Period (300 A.D. to 600 A.D.) [*,  *, *]. Rarely do scholars place Valluvar and his work in the 7th or 8th century AD.[37]  The Kural is considered posterior to Arthaśastra (between 250 B.C. & 150 A.D.) as the author seems to have clearly borrowed some of Kautalya's ideas into his work. The work is considered anterior to the two Tamil epics of 2nd to 5th century A.D.[3] namely Manimekhalai and Silappadikaram as they clearly contain few references to Valluvar's couplets in them.[29] Therefore it appears that the author of Tirukkural would have lived sometime between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. 

2.1. A poet and teacher
    Valluvar was a poet, thinker and teacher, all moulded into one. He was not a mystic philosopher like Lao Tzu, but a man concerned with the day to day conduct of man like Confucius. Neither was he a law giver like the prophets of Judeo-Christian tradition or for that matter like the Vedic law makers Manu and Yajnavalkya. Whenever Valluvar talks of virtue, nobility, propriety, just governance, conduct, social obligations, self control, education and knowledge, his maxims remind us very much of Confucian sayings in Lun Yu, to a great extent to the Proverbs in the Bible and to some degree to the sayings of Buddha in Dhammapada. Many scholars consider that the second division in Tirukkural "Wealth" resembles a great deal to Chanakya's Artha and Níti Sāstras.[2],[29] Besides this likely influence, many couplets in Tirukkural bear surprising resemblance to verses in Dharma sāstras like Manu Smriti, Buddhist works like Dhammapāda and Lankavatāra sutra, Tamil ethical-philosophical works like Nālatiyār and Thirumandiram, Tamil Sangam classics like Kalithogai and Natrinai, Chinese works like Lun Yu and Chuang Tzu, Sanskrit fables and tales like Hitopadésa and Panchatantra, Persian fables and tales like Gulistan and Bastan, Biblical chapters like Proverbs, Sanskrit ethical treatises like Vajjālaggam, Nitisatakam and Nitivisastika, and even to Prakrit love poems of Jayavallabha and King Hāla. These resemblances will be dealt separately in this article: Tirukkural in light of other ancient texts. The Kural also deals with some miscellaneous topics like agriculture, rain and medicine and poet Madurai Tamilnāganār was not wrong when he said that the Kural deals with everything and there is nothing that it does not deal with.

எல்லாப்பொருளும் இதன்பால் உள; இதன்பால்
இல்லாத எப்பொருளும் இல்லையால்.

    Those who are amazed with Valluvar's ability to provide poetic maxims of wide ranging subjects, consider him a Divine Poet. Umapathy Sivacharya, a Saivite poet of the 14th century, was so overpowered with contents of the Kural that he quoted a verbatim and called Valluvar the 'divine poet' and his 'words speaking the truth'.[9]

"தெய்பப்புலவர் திருவள்ளுவர் உரைத்த மெய்வைத்த சொல்லை...."
"The words of truth spoken by the Divine poet Thiruvalluvar....
" (Nenjuviduthoodu, 25)


2.2. Not an ascetic

    The very "this-worldly" or "life-affirming" nature of Thirukkural  shows that Valluvar wouldn't have lived an ascetic life. Considering the fact that he produced such a great collection of love poems in his third division "Love",  we can safely conclude that he must have led a married life, at least for most part of his life. Paintings, portraits and sculptures of Valluvar have invariably depicted him as someone with a long beard and matter hair sitting with a sample of palm leaves and 'pen' in hand. Some depict him as a Saivaite saint, while others who claim Valluvar to be a Jain, depict him sitting naked with clean shaven face and head! (see pictures below).


Familiar image of Valluvar
(Painting by K.R. Venugopal Sarma)

Saiva depiction of Valluvar
(Subramuniyaswami, 2000)24

Jaina depiction of Valluvar
(Depicted in Subramanyam, 1987)

மழித்தலும் நீட்டலும் வேண்டா உலகம்
பழித்தது ஒழித்து விடின்
No need of tonsure or long hair, if one avoids
What the world condemns.

     However, one may argue that a poet who wrote the above couplet wouldn't have believed in having long hairs or shaven head! Having said that, it has been the practice of many great cultures to depict their great sages with an illustration of their choice. No one one knows how Jesus, Confucius or Lao Tzu looked like, but they have invariably been depicted in certain forms giving them a specific physical appearance of their own. Thus we have a lean Jesus on the cross, an obese and bearded Confucius, a thin Lao Tzu riding a buffalo and so also a Valluvar sitting with palm leaves and writing 'pen'. Of course, portraying Valluvar as a naked ascetic, a depiction characteristic of life-denying Jaina monks, seems to be inappropriate as Valluvar;s teachings were life-affirming ones. His work never mentions nakedness as a prerequisite for asceticism. On the contrary he had only these to say about clothes and clothing:

A man who envies charitable deeds
Will see his folk perish - naked and starving.
* PS
(Kural 166)

As swiftly as the hand moves to seize a slipping garment,
Friendship acts to assuage a friend's distress.
(Kural 788)

Can a fool be said to be clothed 
When his faults lie exposed?
(Kural 846)

Gambling will make one lose these five:
Riches, food, fame, learning and clothes.
(Kural 939)

Food, clothing and the rest are common to all.
Distinction comes from sensitivity to shame.
* PS
(Kural 1012)
The base excel in finding faults of others
When they see them well clothed and fed.
(Kural 1079)

2.3. A weaver, āchārya or a king?

     Ariel was perhaps correct when he said "The Kural is a book without a name, by an author without his name". In fact the real name of the author is not known for many ancient Tamil classics. Thirukkural is attributed to Thiruvalluvar, Tholkppiyam to Tholkappiyar, Thirumandiram to Thirumoolar etc. Traditionally the name Valluvar has been considered to be assigned to designate the poet's profession, allegedly weaving. However, there are serious claims now coming up from some quarters attempting to disprove this long held belief. Still, nothing concrete is known about Thiruvalluvar, the author, as much we know about Thirukkural, his work. The beliefs that he was born of Brahmin-Paraiah parents, that his mother was Ādi and father Bagavan, that he was a weaver, that his wife was Vasuki, and that he carried his work to Madurai to the Pandya King for recognition are all hagiographical to say the least. We do not even know much about the lives of sages like Guru Nanak who lived during the medieval period,[31] leave alone Tiruvalluvar who lived a 1000 years before him. It took a Western scholar McLeod (1968) to show that most of the stories attributed to the founder of Sikhism, mostly found in the traditional collection called Janam Sākhis, were nothing but hagiographical.[31]

     While tradition attributes Valluvar as a weaver, Jains claims that he none other than the renowned Jaina Ācaharya Kundakunda. To make matters more intriguing, there are claims from some quarters that Valluvar was a king! Though traditions assert that he lived in Mylapore in Madras, recent opinion of some scholars is that he was born either in Tirunelveli or in Kanyakumari district. Some hold the view that he lived in Valliyur (ஔவை கோயில்) in Thirunelveli district during the reign of King Nanjil Valluvan, before traveling via Madurai to Mylapore where he finally died.[10] Dr. S. Padmanabhan of Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Research Centre has provided few 'evidences' to show that Valluvar actually was a king who ruled Valluvanadu in the hilly tracts of Kanyakumari disctrict of Tamil Nadu.20 He provides linguistic, literary, epigraphical and sociological 'evidences' to prove his claim. However, the internal linguistic evidences he provides from the Kural may not find the acceptance of scholars. He points out that certain words Valluvar employed in Kural (like மடி, அற்றம், ஓர்மை, செவி, மக்கள், செறுப்ப, வெயர்ப்ப, கருக்காய், ஒக்கும்) are currently in vogue only in parts of Kanyakumari and therefore Valluvar must have been born and brought up in the hilly tracts (Malai Nādu) of Kanyakumari district. However, a causal search in other ancient Tamil literatures - like Tirumandiram and Puŗanānūru for instance - will reveal that almost all these words were frequently employed by the authors of these works as well. If we go by Padmanabhan's reasoning, we will end up placing Tirumoolar and Puŗanānūru authors like Kovoor Kizhār also from Malai Nādu or parts of Kanyakumari! 

    Moreover, those who are familiar with Malayalam can easily comprehend that these ancient Tamil words have only managed to survive in Malayalam (like many other ancient Tamil words currently in use in Kannada and Telugu) and the people of Kanyakumari use them even today only because of their close proximity to Travancore region of Kerala. There are many other words employed by Valluvar that are in vogue only in spoken Malayalam today (like வளி, வலிய, ஊண், கள்ளம், களவு, களி, நோக்கு, வித்து etc.). Mr. Padmanabhan does not include these in his list, probably because they are not used by the people of Kanyakumari. Having said all these, Dr. Padmanabhan's claims based on epigraphical and sociological studies may actually be correct for other reasons though they need further investigations. A detailed discussion on this claim of  Valluvar's Kanyakumari origin can be found here: Was Kanyakumari the birthplace of Tiruvalluvar? An examination of the internal evidences.

    On the first of January 2000, the Government of Tamil Nadu, India, as a mark of respect to the great poet,  installed a 133 feet tall statue (coinciding with the 133 chapters in Kural) on a piece of rock in the Indian ocean, near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. This is reportedly the tallest statue in Asia [*], [*], [*], [*] and perhaps also the largest ever erected for any one in the field of literature. Already, a memorial "Valluvar Kottam" exists in Chennai. [*],[*],[*]. It is coincidental that both these memorials have come up in places where Valluvar is claimed to have been born (Kanyakumari) and believed to have died (Mylapore, Chennai)!

     Coming to the claims of Tiruvalluvar being a Jain, Valluvar is identified with Āchārya Kundakunda, well known in Tamil tradition as Elāchārya (Chakravarti, 1953; Subramanyam, 1987; Champakalakshmi, 1994). This claim could be far from truth. Kundukunda was a Jaina ascetic who wrote all his four works in Prākrit and it is hard to believe that a naked ascetic of his stature could have written a classic in chaste Tamil that includes 'Kāmathuppāl' containing 25 chapters on premarital and post-marital love. There is no doubt that the Kural contains more Jaina ideas than those of Saivism, Vaishnavism and Buddhism all combined, but that alone does not qualify one to equate the authorship with Kundakunda whose writings were strongly inclined towards ascetic life of life negation. The possible Jaina influence on Tirukkural has been dealt in great detail in a separate article "Jaina ideas in Tirukkural" (திருக்குறளில் சமண  தழுவல்கள்). 


2.4. Other works attributed to Tiruvalluvar

      Not many would be aware that there are few more works in Tamil attributed to Tiruvalluvar. These include jnānavettiyān (ஞானவெட்டியான்), navarattina cintāmańi (நவரத்தின சிந்தாமணி), panjarattinam (பஞ்சரத்தினம்) and uppusāttiram (உப்புசாத்திரம்) (*). Surprisingly, none of these works even find a mention by writers whenever they introduce Valluvar and his work Tirukkural to the readers. On contrary, any introduction of poets like Kālidāsa, Patanjali or Kamban would invariably contain references to all their works. The author of Tamil Rāmāyana, Kamban, has at least eight more works attributed to him (e.g. Ér ezhupatu - ஏர் எழுபது, Tirukkai vazhakkam - திருக்கை வழக்கம், Caracuvati anthathi -சரசுவதி அந்தாதி) and they all find a mention whenever the author is introduced to the readers.[3] Writers on Kālidāsa do not fail to mention that only seven of the 11 or 12 works ascribed to him are considered authentic.[26],[27] The reason for the non-mention of Thiruvalluvar's others works appears to be the very obvious spurious nature of the claims of Valluvar's authorship to these works. The fact that most of these are Siddha literatures composed during the 16th and 17th centuries with plenty of words of Sanskrit origin in them accounts for their outright rejection as the works of Tiruvalluvar (see *, *, *).

3. Tirukkural: the book


    The Thirukkural (திருக்குறள்) (or the Kural as it is popularly called) is a small collection of 1330 aphorisms, written in metrical verses of two lines. Considered as the Bible of South India[5] or the fifth Veda of Tamils,[8] the Kural is easily the most popular contribution from Tamils to the storehouse of Indian literature. The word "Thirukkural" is composed of two words Thiru and Kural (திரு+குறள்) which mean `Sacred' and `Couplet' respectively. Like the Confucian Lun Yu, which is translated as "Sacred Sayings", the common English rendering of Thiruk-Kural is Sacred Couplets.

3.1. Virtue, Wealth and Love
    Valluvar's couplets reflect the vast amount of knowledge he had in all walks of life: domestic, social, political, and even spiritual. The Kural consists of 3 cantos or books or divisions, namely Virtue, Wealth and Love. Almost all scholars are of the view that this division is based on the 4 aims of human pursuits (purukshātrā) of the Indian tradition, namely Virtue, Wealth, Love and Liberation.[2],[29] The reason why Valluvar left out the fourth "Liberation" and focused only on the first three (called Trivarga in Sanskrit and Muppāl in Tamil) is unclear. Valluvar, like Manu, Chanakya and Jayavallabha, held that the attainment of Trivarga (i.e. an aggregate of all these three) is the real objective of man.[28] We see this mentioned even in the Sangam literature Puranānūru: "Your wealth can nourish the three aims of life, Righteousness, Prosperity and Pleasure!" Thirukkural may be the first work to have been organized under these three human pursuits of Trivarga but certainly not the only one. Two of the other classics organized under these thematic divisions are Naladiyār in Tamil and Vajjalaggam in Prakrit. In Sanskrit, Bhartrihari's Śātakās also appeared under three heads, namely Dharma (Renunciation), Artha (Polity and Ethics) and Kāma (Pleasure).

 Four aims of human pursuit






aRam (அறம்)



poruL (பொருள்)



inbam (இன்பம்)



veedu (வீடு)

However, scholars are of the view that the Aram (=Virtue), Porul (=Wealth) and Inbam (=Love) as expounded by Valluvar are radically different from that found in the Dharma Sāstrās.[6,9] Indeed, Valluvar's Aram, Porul and Inbam are universal in character and secular in nature unlike those explained in the Sanskrit works like Dharma and Artha sastras. Valluvar's third book or division Inbam (Love), unlike Kama Sutra, is not an analysis of sexual methods but a poetic exposition of the love between man and woman set in different dramatic situations.[6] Nevertheless, it is obvious that the three divisions are based on the purukshātrās of Indian tradition. In "Love", Valluvar keeps himself in the background and allows his characters to speak in a dramatic monologue.[11] He is no longer a well wisher or teacher here, but a poet expressing the joy, anguish and emotions that are usually associated when two people are involved in an intimate relationship. Apart from the fact that the 25 chapters in this third book LOVE are also written in the same kural venba (couplet meter), the subject matter is quite different from what we see in the first two divisions, namely Virtue and Wealth.  
  The 3 divisions in the Kural are covered under 133 chapters, the first six chapters of these 3 divisions have been given in the following table.

First six chapters of the 3 books (Divisions) in Thirukkural

Book 1. Virtue

Book 2. Wealth

Book 3. Love

(38 chapters)

(70 chapters)

(25 chapters)

1. In Praise of God

39. The King

109. Fascination

2. Rain

40. Learning

110. Hints

3. Ascetics

41. Ignorance

111. Joys of Embracing

4. Virtue

42. Hearing

112. In Praise of his lady

5. Domestic Life

43. Wisdom

113. In Praise of beloved

6. True wife

44. Faults

114. Unbashed


     A close look at the different chapters would reveal that Valluvar composed every chapter, perhaps in response to a demand or request to produce 10 best couplets on a particular subject. He would bring together all his experience, the knowledge he has gained in mastering other texts and all the information available as folklore in order to compose 10 couplets on a particular subject, say for instance 'Ignorance'. He would then do so for another subject, say on Virtue. Given the fact that there are similarities in ideas between couplets within and between chapters, it would appear as if the poet, while producing the best 10 on a subject, did not show any concern as to what similes and superlatives he used earlier while writing on other subjects. This may perhaps be the reason for some repetitions in ideas and 'contradictions' we find in the Kural. He would write on the evils of drinking in one chapter (Chapter 93), but at the same time elsewhere say that love is sweeter than wine (Chapter 109). To cite another instance, if you ask him "What is wealth of all wealth?", he would say two different things: "the wealth of wealth is the wealth of grace" (couplet 241) and  "the wealth of wealth is the wealth of hearing" (couplet 411). Similarly, if you want to know which of the virtues should one follow dearly even at the expense of other virtues, he would say it is speaking truth in couplet 297, it is trespassing the bounds of another's wife in couplet 150 and in couplet 181 say that its the quality of not being called a slanderer! The same Valluvar who says what is natural or inborn in us cannot be ejected (Kural 376 on "Fate") would say while emphasizing the value of "Exertion" that inherent natural flaws can be overcome by getting rid of laziness (Kural 609). For a purist these may appear as contradictions but it is the style Valluvar follows while emphasizing the importance of a particular code of ethic. To know more on this, click here for the article: The unique style of Thiruvalluvar.

     However, all said and done, not a single couplet appears twice in Tirukkural, unlike some other sacred texts like the book of Proverbs in the Bible which has many a verse repeated at different places (Prov 15:20, 25:24, 26:15) or some Tamil works like Tirumandiram (e.g. 122 & 1306, 448 & 3011, 406 & 414). No doubt, the same idea has been sometimes repeated in Tirukkural, especially within a chapter. Examples are 794 & 800,  978 & 979, 1096 & 1099, for repetitious ideas within chapters and 355 & 423, 871 & 995 and 962 & 1017 for between chapters. As far as repetition of ideas in Tirukkural is concerned, it is worth reading Mohanraj's work "திருக்குறளில் திருப்புரைகள்".[23]


3.2. Mandatory ethics

    As E.H. Hopkins said, the Kural stays at the level of general principles, what may be called as mandatory ethics [*]. Because Valluvar's message is general, many of his teachings can be applied to varying contexts. For instance, while talking about envoys, he says:


A truthful messenger should have these three qualities:
Goodness, friendliness and boldness.
(Kural 688)


    Though this is told in the context of the qualities of an envoy, these guidelines are even relevant to the context of a prophet! Valluvar has a rational approach in dealing with religious beliefs and practices of that time. Nothing more than this couplet signifies his down to earth sayings:


No need of tonsure or long hair, if one avoids
What the world condemns.
(Kural 280)


    Each chapter has 10 verses like 10 commandments. Each verse has two metrical lines of just seven feet, four in the first and three in the second line. The characteristic of Thirukkural is its brevity, the ability of the poet to convey his message in pithy verses. Poetess Avaiyar compares each couplet to a tiny mustard seed stuffed with seven seas of knowledge!

கடுகை துளைத்தேழு கடலைப் புகட்டி

குறுகத் தறித்த குறள்


It is also not uncommon to see attributes of this nature made to other literatures across the world. The terse and compressed work "Enclosed Garden of the Truth" of Sufi poet Hakim Abul-Majud Sana's I (death ~ 1150 A.D.) is described as having in one verse a knapsack of a hundred divāns.25


Valluvar was not a law giver for he was not a prophet. He was a generalist and not a specialist in any particular field.  Valluvar never indulged in specifics and he always emphasized the basic principles. For instance, ............

  • He talks about worship, but nothing about the way of worship.
  • He refers to God or an 'Ultimate Reality', but refrains from calling Him by any name.
  • He talks about the value of reading and reciting scriptures, but never names them.
  • He emphasizes the values of 'charity' but never lays down the rules.
  • He repeatedly speaks about the importance of 'learning', but never says what is to be learnt!
  • He refers to the taxation in governance and not about proportion of collection.
  • He talks about land, village and country, but does not refer them by any name.
  • There are couplets referring to Kings and Ministers but none of them contain any reference to particular King or Kingdom.
  • Even the very world 'Tamil' itself is missing form the text.

     It is for these reasons that the Kural is considered a book of universal application on the Art of Living and G.U. Pope called Valluvar "Bard of universal man".[32]

3.3. Not a religious text

As mentioned earlier, the Kural does not deal with the fourth Moksha (Liberation) as Valluvar's interest was primarily to help the common man with his doctrine of morality. The Kural therefore does not contain much on topics of transcendental nature. On the contrary, the theme of ancient Indian literatures by and large were centred around the objective of achieving Moksha through religious practices. Reproduced below is an interesting quote by Eliot:

"Indian literature as whole has a strong ethical and didactic flavour;

yet the great philosophic and religious systems concern themselves little with ethics........

They clearly feel a peculiar interest in defining the relation of the soul to God,

but they rarely ask why should I be good or what is the sanction of morality.

They are concerned less with sin than with ignorance"[12]

     Since the Kural concerns largely with ethics and the conduct of man in this world, it cannot be grouped along with some of the philosophical treaties like the Upanishads, Baghavad Gita or Thirumandiram. Valluvar talks about the responsibilities of individuals, community and the ruler. He talks about the relationship between a husband and wife, between king and his people and between the people of the community. Indeed he also talks a bit about the relationship between God and man, though he didn't advocate a separate division (Moksha) for it.
    Unlike some Tamil works like Thirumandiram, the Valluvr does not claim his work to be a revelation. The Kural in this sense does not belong to any religious group. Its secular outlook has in fact led some to consider it as India's National Scripture[14]. The Kural is taught in schools and colleges as part of the Tamil literary curriculum and is equally accepted by people of all faiths.  Only two chapters (1 and 3) and a few couplets scattered in other chapters, could be considered `religious' in nature. Even here, the first chapter (Praise of God) could be acceptable to people of all faiths.
    Having been brought up in a community which believed in the doctrine of Samsara (rebirth), his work naturally contains some verses on this. Even here he avoids giving Ultimate Reality any name.


Reality once searched and seized
No need to think of rebirth (357) PS

   Some consider that Valluvar insisted on the typical Christian qualities completely.[15] They are the qualities of humility, charity and forgiveness. Like the Buddha, Valluvar too denounces the nobility of a person by birth. According to him, one does not become a Brahmin by birth but by his virtues and kindness. 

By birth all men are equal. The differences in their action render their worth unequal. (Kural 972) SM

Neither by matter hair, nor ancestry, nor by birth 
Does one become a Brahmin. (Dhammapada 393)

Ascetics are called men of grace for they assume the role of mercy for all that live. (Kural 30) PS

One who does no harm to any creature,
Him I consider to be a Brahmin (Dhammapada 405)

    Valluvar never indulged in classifying people based on any faith or system of belief. There is no room for devotees and non-devotees, or believers and unbelievers in Valluvar's dictionary. According to him, there are only two categories of people: the Noble and the Base, Wise and Fools, Learned and Ignorant or Scrupulous and Unscrupulous.
    The Kural also does not refer to any scripture, messenger or a God-incarnate by name. As we see below, all his references to scriptures are general ones.

The scriptures of the world proclaim
The potent utterances of the great. (Kural 28) PS

In all gospels we have read, we have found
Nothing held higher than truthfulness. (Kural 300) PS

Scriptures forgot can be recapitulated; bad conduct
Debases a Brahmin and his birth.
(Kural 134) * PS


    In short, Valluvar is in no mood to teach his readers any particular Way for salvation after death. He was more concerned about life in this world, without being atheistic at the same time. The following Confucian sayings reflect his views:

"While you are not able to serve man, how can you serve their spirits?"
"While you do not understand life, how can you understand death?"

(Analects, 11:11)

3.4. Valluvar's definitions

     Valluvar says clearly in couplet 323 that non-killing is the unique virtue and not-lying comes next. We can therefore say that two of the foremost teachings of Valluvar are ahimsā and sathyā. The Kural being an ethical treatise on the art of living, its author has left us with some maxims defining what he believed is real virtue, truthfulness, disgrace, folly etc. At least in 11 places in the Kural does Valluvar provide us the answer for these important ethical terms. All these couplets contain the word “யாதெனின்" (yaathenin) which means "what does that mean?" Let us see them one by one.

1) அஃகாமை செல்வத்திற் கியாதெனின்: வெஃகாமை வேண்டும் பிறன்கைப் பொருள் (178).

The best way to keep your wealth unshrunk? Not to covet another's.

2) அருளல்ல தியாதெனின்: கொல்லாமை கோறல் பொருளல்ல தவ்வூன் றினல் (254).

What is disgraceful? Killing. And to eat a thing killed, profitless sin.

3) வாய்மை யெனப்படுவ தியாதெனின்: யாதொன்றுந் தீமை யிலாத சொலல் (291)

What is truthfulness? Utterances wholly devoid of ill.

4) அறவினை யாதெனின்: கொல்லாமை கோறல் பிறவினை யெல்லாந் தரும் (321)

What is virtue? Non-killing, because all sins come from killing.

5) நல்லா றெனப்படுவ தியாதெனின்: யாதொன்றுங் கொல்லாமை சூழும் நெறி (324)

What is right conduct? Creed of not killing.

6) நட்பிற்கு வீற்றிருக்கை யாதெனின்: கொட்பின்றி யொல்லும்வா யூன்று நிலை (789)

What is the mark of genuine friendship? One which is deep rooted & gives support on all occasions.

7) பழைமை யெனப்படுவ தியாதெனின்: யாதுங் கிழமையைக் கீழ்ந்திடா நட்பு (801)

What is old friendship? Where liberties are not resented.

8) பேதைமை யென்பதொன் றியாதெனின்: ஏங்கொண் டூதியம் போக விடல் (831)

What is folly? Seizing what brings ill and letting the good slip.

9) வெண்மை யெனப்படுவ தியாதெனின்: ஒண்மை யுடையம்யா மென்னுஞ் செருக்கு (844)

What is ignorance? The conceit that one is wise.

10) சால்பிற்குக் கட்டளை யாதெனில்: தோல்வி துலையல்லார் கண்ணுங் கொளல் (986)

What is the touchstone of goodness? To own one's defeat even to inferiors.

11) இன்மையி னின்னாத தியாதெனின்: ன்மையி னின்மையே யின்னா தது (1041)

What is more painful than poverty? The pain of poverty itself.

3.5. A Classic of international repute

    Ironically, the literary merits of the Kural were brought to the notice of the West by the Christian missionaries. It was Ariel, Beschi, G.U. Pope and others who were pioneers in translating the Kural into Western languages. Because of its immense popularity, it has been translated into all major languages of the world!
   I am not a Tamil scholar to comment on the poetical and ethical merits of the Kural, and I leave that to some of the Western scholars of the past:

The poet (Thiruvalluvar) 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 metre have evoked admiration.
- Dr. A. A. Macdonell[16]
The KURAL's sentences are as binding as the TEN commandments on the Jews.
KURAL is as important and influential on the Tamil mind
as Dante's great work on the language and thought of Italy.
- Mr Charles E. Gover[14]

    Nothing more than the following words, reproduced here from the Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, would suffice to highlight the value of Kural as a classic of international repute.

"Sacred Couplets is considered a masterpiece of human thought,
compared in India and abroad to the Bible, John Milton's Paradise Lost,
and the works of Plato.  .........The Thirukkural is an all inclusive moral guide
whose foremost moral imperatives are not to kill and to tell the truth"
(Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature)


3.6. A well preserved book

    There is an old saying in Tamil:  

படிச்சவன் பாட்டைக் கெடுத்தான்

எழுதினவன் ஏட்டைக் கெடுத்தான்

The one who recited, spoiled the poem.
The one who wrote, spoiled the text

     The Vedas, Bible, Tipitaka and the Qur'an did not exist as Books from the beginning. They were preserved in circulation by oral recitations and written fragments before they were compiled as Books by a redactor at a later date. The Vedas were edited and compiled to the present form by Veda Vyasa; the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) by an unknown Redactor who combined all the texts into a smooth narrative; the canon of the New Testament Bible was finalized in 367 AD by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria under Constantine the Great; the Buddhist sayings were in oral circulation until they were written down during the Fourth Great Council during 89-88 B.C, centuries after the death of Buddha.[21] The story is the same with the Qur'an, the scripture of Muslims. Though it says "This is the Book, in it is guidance sure, without doubt" (2:2), it was not compiled as a Book for 20 years until Zaid and his associates under the regime of Caliphate Uthman carried out the task![17] But the Kural, like the Dao De Jing of Lao Tzu, should have existed in written form right from the day of its composition for it was not a mantra, sloka or vacana to have remained in oral circulation  for them to be compiled by a redactor at later date. Kural is not like the verses of Vemana, the couplets of Kabir or the triplets of Sarvajna, the compilations of which differ greatly from one publication to another as they were not compact works. The Kural seem to have not been subjected to any later additions to the text.[34] Unlike these popular verses of Telugu, Kannada and Hindi heartlands, the Kural is an elaborate work of one master[32] as supported by the identity in the language, structure and content evident throughout the work.[34] These are the reasons why Valluvar is invariably depicted as having the palm leaves in one hand and the writing 'pen' on the other. (Click here to view Kural written on palm leaves).
 The Kural we now have in circulation follows the chapter and couplet arrangements seen in the work of the great Kural commentator Parimelazhagar who lived during the 13th century A.D. According to an ancient Tamil verse (Perunthogai, line 1538), there were ten commentators of the Kural.[2] Five of these nine commentaries, by Manakkudavar, Pariperumaal, Parithiar, Parimelazhagar and Kalingar, have survived in full to the present. The text of the Kural used by these commentators were apparently very similar. Says P.S. Sundaram in his introduction:

"The text of the Kural with the five commentaries by the above mentioned commentators shows surprising similarity. The numbers and the arrangement of the chapters is the same, and the chapter headings are also identical"
"Except for three stanzas in Book III (Love), which in Kalingar's version are distributed differently, among the chapters in the same book as compared with the other commentaries, the stanzas are all the same in the various commentaries. However, within each chapter, there is a variation in the arrangement of the ten couplets making up the contents of that chapter".

    The textual variations of the Kural have been studied in detail by Pillai,[18] according to whom there are only about 305 variations in the whole book. These variations are minor and do not change the meaning of the couplets in any way. Some instances of these minor variations are:


1. ஒரு நாளை in 156 as ஒரு நாளே
2. வன்பாற்கண் in 78 as வன்பார்க்கண்
3. இவை மூன்றன் in 360 as இவை மூன்றில்
4. நின்றான் in 176 as நின்றார்
5. தரலான் in 131 as தரலால்


    While many of the ancient Tamil works like Valaiyapati, Perunkatai, and Kuntalakeci have been either lost entirely or available to us only in fragments, the Kural has survived to this day fully intact. Thanks to the tradition of commentators, Valluvar's work has retained its originality unlike the works of many other ancient authors. Kalidasa's works, for instance, have undoubtedly come down to us not in their original form, but in several recessions current in different regions of the country.26


"The work exists or is extant as a whole, unaltered by schismatics and unimpaired or untampered with

by copyists in the procession of ages"

 (M.S.P. Pillai, 1999).
"Complete in itself, the sole work of its author has come down the esteem of ages absolutely uninjured,

hardly a single various reading of any importance being found"

(G.U. Pope, 1886)
"The Kural cannot be improved nor its plan made more perfect. It is a perfect mosaic in itself.

A slight change in the size, shape and colour of a single stone would mar the beauty of the whole"

(Rev. J. Lazarus, 1949)


    Barring the minor variations in the arrangements of the Chapters, Couplets and Words, the Kural has remained the same since the period of these five great commentators. One cannot be sure whether the arrangement of chapters and couplets found in Parimeelazhahar's commentary, which is now followed throughout the world, was that of Valluvar himself. Or for that matter, whether the script used by Valluvar was like the ones we see now. Tamil alphabet has no doubt gradually evolved to the present form during the 7th Century A.D.[19] (Click here to see how Tirukkural script would have been during the first, seven and tenth centuries A.D.)

     More about the Kural and its author Valluvar can be had from the articles on the net:


Author/Web site






K. Ganapathy



Hinduism Today

Weaver saint Valluvar


Canadian Tamils Page






Himalayan Academy

Introduction to The Holy Kural


J. Narayanaswamy

Introduction to the Kural


C. Krishnamurti

Introduction to the Kural





Tamil Nation

Tidukkural of Thiruvalluvar



Understanding Hinduism

Introduction to Kural and Valluvar



Tivuvalluvar's economic ideas


C.R. Krishnamurthy



Note: Translations of Kural produced above belong to the following translators. More than two initials indicate that the translation has been produced by merging the translations of these two authors. The idea is to get close to the original in spirit, content and style.

Translators: SM=S. Maharajan, CR=C. Rajagopalachari, NV=NVK Ashraf, SS Sivaya Subramaniyaswami, VS VVS Iyer, VR V. Ramasamy

* Indicate that their translations have been modified or 'improved' by  NV.


Click here to view the 'best' of select translations of Thirukkural in English.

Close to the original in Spirit, Content and Style.

[1] Toynbee, A. 1976. Mankind and Mother Earth: A narrative history of the world. Oxford University Press.

[2] Sundaram, P.S. 1990. Tiruvalluvar: The Kural. Penguin Classics. 168 pages

[3] Varadarajan, Mu. 1988. A history of Tamil literature. Sahitya Academi. New Delhi. Pages 375

[4] Sharma, T.R.S. 2000. Ancient Indian Literature: An anthology. Vol. III. Tamil and Kannada. Executive editors: C.K. Seshadri and June Gaur. Sahitya Academi, New Delhi. 580 pages

[5] Schweitzer, A. 1951. Indian thought and its development, London.. Ethics in Indian popular thought: The Kural. Pages 200-205

[6] Maharajan, S. 1982. Makers of Indian Literature: Tiruvalluvar. Sahitya Academy, New Delhi. pages 93

[7] Siddhalingaiah, T.B. 1979. Origin and Development of Saiva Siddhanta upto 14th century.

[8] Machwe, P. 1994. Hinduism. Its contribution to science and civilization. Machwe Prakashan, New Delhi. 163 pages

[9] Rajasingham, C. 1987. Thiruk-Kural: The Daylight of Psyche. International Institute of Tamil Studies, Madras, India.

[10]  and Chief of Tiruvalluvar temple and Library, Trichy, personnel communication.

[11] Varadarajan, M. 1988. A History of Tamil Literature. Sahitya Academi. New Delhi. P 68

[12] Eliot, C. 1921. Introduction. In: Hinduism and Buddhism. Vol. I. London.

[13] Kulandaisamy, V.C. 1994. The immortal Kural. Sahitya Academi. New Delhi. 109 pages.

[14] "Declare the Thirukkural National Scripture". In Indian newspaper: The Hindu, dated: 05/01/2000

[15] Swamy Iraianban, 1997.  Life-sketch of Thiruvalluvar. In: Ambrosia Thirukkural. Abhinav Publications. P 15

[16] Padmanabhan, S. Thiruvalluvar. Released on the occasion of unveiling of the 133 feet high statue of the immortal bard Thiruvalluvar. Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Research Centre, Nagercoil and Dakshinaa Publishing House, Chennai.60 pages

[17] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol 6, Book 61. Virtues Of The Qur'an. Hadith 510

[18] Pillai, M.S. 1971. A study of Prosody and Various readings in Tirukkural. University of Madras. Pages 196.

[19] Siromoney, G., Govindaraju, S.C. and Chandrasekaran, M. 1980. Thirukkural in ancient scripts. Department of Statistics. Madras Christian College, Madras.

[20] S. Padmanabhan, 2003. Thiruvalluvar. Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Research Centre, Nagercoil - 629 001. pages 52
      S. Padmanabhan, 2005. A new light on Thiruvalluvar through place names and epigraphy. ஆய்வுக் களஞ்சியம். மாத

     இதழ். 8(4): 4-9.

[21] Bhikkhu Ananda, 1996. The Buddhist approach to the scriptures. In: Religious Scriptures - Approach of world religions. Journal of Dharma. Vol. 21:4. pp 364-377

[22] Subramanyan, Ka. Naa. 1987. Tiruvalluvar and His Tirukkural. Bharatiya Jnanpith Publication. 220 pages

[23] Mohan Raj, 2003. Repetitions in Thirukkural. திருக்குறளில் திருப்புரைகள். University of Madras. 123 pages

[24] Subramuiyaswami, Satguru Sivaya. 2000. Tirukkural: Ethical Masterpiece of Tamil People. Abhinav Publications, New Delhi.

[25] Falconar, A.E.I. 1991.Sufi Literature and the Journey to Immortality. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. Delhi. page 43

[26] Chandra Rajan, 1989. Kālidāsa: The Loom of Time. Penguin Books. New Delhi. 343 pages

[27] Wilson, H.H. 1843. The Megha Dūta. Orient Publications, Delhi. p. v



थाविरोधेन कामं सेवेत ।
न निस्प्त ख: स्यातू । समं वा त्रिवर्गमन्योन्यानुबन्धमू ।
एको झत्यासेवितो धर्मार्थकामानामितरौ पीडयति ॥ 
Manu: "The chief good consists .......... in the aggregate of  the three (Dharma, Artha and Kama)". (Manu Smriti, II.224)
Jayavallabha: "I shall proclaim the excellent utterances of wise people, connected with the three objects of human existence, Dharma etc." (Vajjalaggam, 1)

[29] S. Krishnaswamy Aiyankar, 1923. Some Contributions of South India to Indian Culture. The University of Calcutta. pages 122-131

[30] Rangarajan, L.N. 1992. (Translator). Katilya: The Arthashastra. Penguin Books, New Delhi.

[31] see McLeod, W.H. 1968. Guru Nānak and the Sick Religion. Oxford. At the Clarendon Press. 259 pages

[32] Pope, G.U. 1886. Sacred Kural of Tiruvalluva Nayanar. W.H. Allen & Co., London.

[33] Hindery, Roderick. 1996. Comparative Ethics in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Delhi. p 162

[34] Zvelebil, K. 1973. The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India. Leiden, E.J. Brill, Netherlands.

[35] Manavalan, A.A. 200. Ancient Tamil Literature: A historical survey. In: Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology. Vol. III. Chief Editor: TRS Sharma. Sahitya Akademi. p. 52

[36] Rajagopalachari, C. 1947. Preface to the Original (Rochouse) Edition. In: Kural, the great book of Tiru-Valluvar. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay. 1996 Edition. page xi.

[37] George Hart, 1999. The Poems Of Ancient Tamil : Their Milieu And Their Sanskrit Counterparts. Oxford University Press. p 26.

 © N.V.K. Ashraf

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