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Review: Kural by Tiruvalluvar

Tiruvalluvar. Kural. Translated and edited with an Introduction by P. S. Sundaram. Penguin Classics India, 1990. 168 pages.


The Kural generally goes by the title Tirukural, where the “Tiru” is an honorific—the same way that in the Sanskrit tradition, the Bhagavad-Gita’s full title is often Srimad Bhagavad Gita. This is added by people afterwards. Dante just called his great poem the Commedia; it became “The Divine” well after his death. Similarly, the Bible is just “the book,” Greek, byblos—but the Gideon Bibles in your hotel room append the word “Holy.” This should give us a sense of the high esteem in which the work of Tiruvalluvar—note the same prefix for the poet’s name, too!—is held in the Tamil tradition. YouTube has plenty of videos of these couplets being chanted and commented upon in the original Tamil (this work was written in 1272 A.D.), which is closer to modern Tamil than Chaucer’s English is to ours.


That historical continuity of Tamil bespeaks two things: The Sorbonne-like preservationist spirit of the Tamil literary and priestly classes; and the relative insulation of South India from the exogenous historical shocks and stresses that the Northern half of India suffered from being on the wrong end of the Khyber Pass. In fact, the Tamil language’s main influence, literarily and linguistically, is actually Sanskrit. The Sangam poets, according to P. S. Sundaram’s excellent and cross-culturally astute introduction, used more Sanskrit-derived words in general (I’ll be reviewing an anthology of Sangam poets in a bit), but the Kural has a higher proportion of Sanskritic loan words “than in any devotional poetry of the Saivite and the Vaisnavite saints” writing in the same language.


The book of couplets is divided into three parts. They are subtitled “Dharma” (Duty), “Artha” (Wealth), and “Kama” (Love). These correspond to three of the four traditional components of the Hindu life. The fourth is Moksha—spiritual liberation. Why is it missing? One theory is that the other three, understood properly, lead naturally to the fourth.


I have a different idea: I think it has to do with the highly secular, this-worldly mind of the poet. In this, Tiruvalluvar reminds me of Confucius. You can read the Analects and look in vain for metaphysical or spiritual speculations and ecstasies. Such minds are thoroughly focused on the world in which we live our lives—the Tamil poet in particular puts me in mind of a novelist or, better yet, an aphorist sharing worldly wisdom and common-sense insights. Often he does this with excellent imagery and splendid effect. Here’s the poet on the importance of location:



A mighty chariot cannot run in the sea,

Nor a boat navigate land.



A tusker [elephant] that defies spearmen

Is killed in a bog by jackals.


Various subsections have been devised, with titles like “Rumors,” “Agriculture,” “Choosing Friends,” and “Courtesy”—



A boor’s wealth is milk gone sour

In a can unscrubbed.


To get an idea of the this-worldly mind of the poet, consider his take on the ascetic tradition:



A sinning ascetic uses his cloak

As a bird-hunter a bush.



Many spotted minds bathe in holy streams

And lead a double life.



No need of tonsure or long hair

If only but avoids what the world condemns.


This is the key: The poet advises a course of probity, prudence, shrewdness, and alertness to danger. It is a guidebook for living in the world, and as such it derives from earlier Sanskrit works of worldly wisdom like the Arthashastra—as opposed to spiritual texts for which that tradition is more famous here in the West, like Patanjali (which I reviewed here) or the Gita (which I translated here).


It is hard for me to judge the quality of the translation, having no access to Tamil, either spoken Tamil or even the script and vocabulary. I do know that the task of rendering these tight, pithy, musical couplets must have been tough. Compare the ultimate aphoristic couplet-maker in English, Alexander Pope:


A little learning is a dangerous thing.

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.


Let’s say I were to try and render this in Hindi, such as I can:


Thoda sa gyaan main khatra hai—

Khoob pi lo Pieria ka fuara se, ya uss se chakhna bhi mat.


Wow, that was painful, but I got it all in there, I think. It sounds terrible and ungainly, as you can tell when I translate it back into English:


In a little knowledge there is danger:

Drink a lot from Pieria’s fountain, or do not even taste it.


So you see, I do not envy Sundaram his task, and the readability of the work is a tribute. He occasionally uses end rhymes, but there is no attempt at metrical regularity. I would have preferred a different alcoholic drink than “toddy” in the love poetry section, but I understand, from frequent reading translations from the Tamil, that “toddy” was basically the default drink for lovers in that tradition.


I plan to investigate the Tamil tradition further in the near future, with Love Stands Alone, the anthology of early Tamil poetry of the Sangam period (300 B.C. – 300 A.D.). But before that, I will divert to Kabir, another saint-poet who lived a couple hundred years after Tiruvalluvar. Kabir, too, had a worldly-wise air to his often colloquial songs, but he didn’t shy away from subjects like Gods and moksha, transcending the religious orthodoxies in India at the time. I will let Kabir’s work stand in as the never-written fourth “Moksha” section of this book, and I’ll be writing about it soon—perhaps with a little more linguistic insight, as I have heard Kabir’s songs in the original language many times. Stay tuned!