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Thirukural – Couplets To Live By That Transcend Time

Updated on June 20, 2014

Over two thousand years ago, a sage from South India named Thiruvalluvar wrote a collection of maxims - 133 chapters, each containing ten short, forceful couplets. He wrote in the South Indian Dravidian language of Tamil and his couplets cover a gamut of topics – from the divine to the role of a husband and wife, to gambling, liquor, medicine, politics and love. While little is known about his life, his work survives and is translated into many of the world’s languages. What is incredible is that most of it is so practical that it could well be relevant today as it was way back then.

Translated, ‘thirukural’ means sacred couplets. Each couplet has fourteen syllables and each couplet contains a thought which is stated briefly and to the point, much like a proverb or a Confucian saying. It is probably one of the very few holy texts that has survived intact till now. Written on palm leaves with a pointed instrument, these aphorisms have survived time, language evolution, kingdoms, cultures and invasions.

One of the reasons could be that the ancient Tamil language has not undergone too much of change unlike other languages in which religious texts were written and which have become extinct. Tamil is still very much a ‘living’ language. The other reason could be the fact that this work rises beyond religions – it is an ethical treatise which in a short, pithy form gives us guidelines so we can live our life in this world better.

While the divine is revered and worshipped, it is not the life or lives to come that assume importance but the life we live now. What also makes it acceptable to many is that it does not preach. These aren’t laws and he does not set himself up 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 – in fact, he refers to him as ‘pure knowledge’. He talks about love and charity but does not write down a set of rules.

True, it was written as a guide for the times he lived in but because it is not specific in nature, it rises beyond to the universal, its relevance surviving the passage of time.

What is touched upon are core values for the human race and discounting a few instances where the guidelines are for life as it was when he lived, for the most part, it contains a roadmap for the essential, basic and permanent aspects of human life.

Who was this man? There’s hardly anything that is known about him. This is the only work he seems to have written and though there have been researchers who feel other works of literature can be attributed to him, nothing can really be proved. So, apart from this ethical treatise, what we know of him are legends. Some say he was a simple weaver who wrote this thanks to divine inspiration. There was no other way a simple workman could have written something so profound over 2000 years ago without the benefit of the education that was reserved for the richer and nobler classes. Another story says that he was a Jain prophet who went South and lived among the people there. However, the Tamil he writes and the allusions he makes seem to indicate that he was a son of the soil. Yet another story says he was a king in Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India and that he renounced his kingdom, much like Buddha did, to devote his time to philosophical pursuits. (I’m prejudiced as I am from this part of India so the last story is the one I like to believe.) On the 1st of January 2000, a 133 foot statue of Thiruvalluvar (133 feet to commemorate the 133 sections of his work) was unveiled on a small island off Kanyakumari – where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

In the southern state of Tamilnadu, his treatise is mandatory as part of the school syllabus. Many Tamilians, especially the educated ones, revere this creed because it rises above the narrow teachings of most religions. It is an ethical code to live by and it is relevant to everyone. It’s been translated to at least 30 languages around the world and today, it’s grown beyond being a gospel for just the Tamilians. It’s simple, it’s succinct, it doesn’t preach or pontificate, it’s practical, it’s relevant and it’s universal. It’s for every man to live a better life with his fellow men.


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    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 4 years ago from India

      Thank you for reading, saisarannaga.

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      saisarannaga 4 years ago from Chennai in Tamilnadu, India.

      How i missed your hubs? Beautifully crafted, nicely exhibited, they steal all hearts. I have not come across such a presentation on the immortal verses of Thirukkural written by saint poet Thiruvalluvar. Hats off to you!

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 6 years ago from India

      I'm glad you liked it, cclitgirl!

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      Cynthia Calhoun 6 years ago from Western NC

      Nicely written. I did not know about this before reading. Thank you for sharing. And, I'm going to have to go work on my own moral tenets and philosophies. Hehehe. Voted up.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 6 years ago from India

      Thank you sunbeams!

    • sunbeams profile image

      sunbeams 6 years ago from Cairns , Australia

      Great hub! My fav topic !!

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 6 years ago from India

      Hi Docmo - yes, that was so much a part of my childhood too - which seems centuries ago :) Thanks for coming by and reading.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 6 years ago from UK

      I remember memorising many a Kural and it is all coming back now. This is wonderfully written hub introducing the Kural to a wider audience. Fantastically written, great info and links. Awesome really, wish I had thought of this ;-)

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

      Hi Venugopal - it is available in many of our other languages as well. Thanks for reading!

    • VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA profile image

      VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA 7 years ago from India.

      SKJayasree: "Thirukural" should be translated into Indian languages.... Is not Tamil an Indian language? Time will come for translating it into "other Indian languages".

      Thanks for Shalini for bringing out a hub on a Tamil saint and his works.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

      Glad you liked it Winsome, thanks - I enjoyed putting it together!

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 7 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Lovely Hub Shalini, I like this one of his: "It is improper to ever forget a kindness, But good to forget at once an injury received." Thank you for making this hub. =:)

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

      Yes Sriram - so it is!

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      sriram 7 years ago

      i am really inspired by the readers comments.however this is yet to be recognized and accepted world wide.i am sure soon it will be accepted world wide and will be implemented in schools as subject.This is really a treasure for the entire mankind irrespective of their country,language or race.thanks shalini for your sincere effort.God will bless all of you.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

      It has been translated, Jayashree - you can find some of them here:

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      s.k.jayashree 7 years ago

      I think it is fabulous and should be translated in "Indian" languages toooo...

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

      Thanks for coming by, hossamreffat. Finally, all truths are the same, aren't they?

    • hossamreffat profile image

      hossamreffat 7 years ago

      I have never heard of this before, but I like all the quotations you have put up here. These are all very wise. I wish they would teach these in our Western schools!

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Hi there quicksand - hope you like what you downloaded. Thanks as always for reading!

    • quicksand profile image

      quicksand 8 years ago

      Hi Shal!

      While typing I am downloading the PDF file. Words of wisdom are always most welcome and they sure do a lot of good to everyone everywhere all the time. The need to thank you once again has arisen. THANKS A LOT!

      Great, the downloads complete. :)

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Thanks for coming by and reading, Unbroken Stone.

    • Unbroken Stone profile image

      Unbroken Stone 8 years ago

      The more I discover the more understanidng is allowed to transfer onto ones soul. Very pertineant words to live by. Nice hub Shalini.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Hi Trsmd - thanks so much for reading! The picture? Just a personal thing - I prefer the statue to all the pictures that have been done of him :)

    • Trsmd profile image

      Trsmd 8 years ago from India


      you have done excellent job by publishing this page about Thirukkural.. but nice picture of Thiruvallur will give a better look..

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Tatjana - yes, we have so much to learn from, all over the world, don't we?

      Tom - how true - and we need to look!

      ST - no the essence hasn't changed and you're right, things come full circle. Wish the pendulum would stop when it says 'Virtue' though!

      Thanks all, for reading!

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      Sherri 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      I had never heard of this sage or this work. Thank you so much for sharing. Even in my cursory view of the downloaded text, I know I will find a great deal to take to heart. The essence of people hasn't changed all that much in 2,000 years, has it? We're still on the pendulum of action that swings between practicing right instead of wrong, virtue instead of vice. "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

    • Tom Cornett profile image

      Tom Cornett 8 years ago from Ohio

      Spiritual lessons and truths come from many places...all we need to do is look. Thanks you. :)

    • Tatjana-Mihaela profile image

      Tatjana-Mihaela 8 years ago from Zadar, CROATIA

      Thank you Shalini, beautiful quotations of ageless wisdom.

      It is so nice to come in touch with something so sacred and so old.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Tammy - I'm touched - thank you!

      Cris - if only we could go beyond our narrow divisive ways and see the absolute!

      BkCreative - looking backwards to look forwards? Yes, maybe we need to do that - thanks for reading!

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 8 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      So wonderfully done! Thank you so much for putting this together so beautifully - we have so much to learn from the ancients. They lived with intelligence, common sense and a respect for nature.

      I'll bookmark this for reference. Thanks again!

    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 8 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Wise men and their words of wisdom do transcend time. The maxims still hold true today. I guess truth is absolute like that. Thanks for sharing the thoughts of a wise man. Modern man needs to look back if he wants to become a better man. :D

    • Tammy Lochmann profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 8 years ago

      Yes...Well at least you have a voice (being a writer) that you can share information with the rest of the world. I really admire you for that.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Hi Tammy - thanks for coming by. Like everywhere else, we have our share of problems - poverty and corruption being two of the worst. Interesting and diverse, yes - I just wish we could do a lot more with what we have!

    • Tammy Lochmann profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 8 years ago

      Very interesting, India is so rich in history and philosophy. I always enjoy reading your articles. How interesting it must be to live there.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      You can download the English translation from the link - I'm sure you'll find it interesting reading.

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      Hamsa 8 years ago

      Your hub is more of presenting the sage and less informative.

      Devout more to his maxims and preachings which enlighten us.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Hi Pete - thanks for reading - I guess every country has its hidden treasures of wisdom :)

      Thank you ehern - it's wonderful how wisdom rises above the particular to be universal!

      Yes cgull - I think so too - but then, I'm prejudiced :)

      Thanks rebekahelle for reading - so glad you liked it!

    • rebekahELLE profile image

      rebekahELLE 8 years ago from Tampa Bay

      beautiful, I like the way you did this. so simple, I wish more could live this way. :) thank you for sharing.

    • cgull8m profile image

      cgull8m 8 years ago from North Carolina

      Shalini, thanks for sharing this work. Everyone should read it, Thiruvalluvar is one of the greatest philosophers the Westerners know little about, I hope they learn more about him starting with this Hub. He is the best.

    • ehern33 profile image

      ehern33 8 years ago

      This is a testament that wisdom is ageless. Many of us, including myself could gain considerably from these writings. Excellent!!

    • Pete Maida profile image

      Pete Maida 8 years ago

      Wow that was really cool. Westerners can be so proud of their ways that they supress the wisdom in other parts of the world.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Hi Dohn - in all probability, Thiruvalluvar was influenced by the Dhammapada which must have been compiled at least 200 years before him!

      K - how true. I do wish people would use holy texts as guides for themselves and not something with which to browbeat others.

      Hi Don - brevity seems to been the order of the day and yes, 14 syllables is remarkable!

      Thanks Jill - I guess the true test of any work is to see how universal it is!

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 8 years ago from Philippines

      What a great informative hub! These are words that we can live by no matter what our race or religion are.

      Thank you for sharing Shalini!

    • dusanotes profile image

      dusanotes 8 years ago from Windermere, FL

      Thanks, Shalini. It is, indeed, truly remarkable. He was a very wise man. It is interesting that he has discovered that you - or at least he - can use only 14 syllables and still come up with gems each time. Like most of the rest, I'd never heard of him. Don White

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      Kiruba Harris 8 years ago

      Thank you for this hub. The kurals have been a hidden treasure, revered and learned by us the Tamils for ages. As with all religious teachings and philosophies, it is a good guide. If only man would follow we might all just attain nirvana......

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      Such words of wisdom. They remind me of the teachings of the Dhammapada. Is it possible that Siddartha and he were influenced by each other? Their teachings are very similar, especially about "cravings." What a wonderful hub for a wonderful man, Shalini. Thank you!

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Isn't it impressive, Sabu? I agree with you - our country needs to return to the Buddhas and the Thiruvalluvars desperately!

      Amanda - I think we all have our great writings - the thing is, how many of us follow?

      Yes, it is, Sakari - simple yet so profound!

      I do believe you'll enjoy it, Paraglider.

      Ah, yes, Jaspal :) How wonderful that would be!

      Shamel - glad you liked it.

      Thanks for reading, Enelle!

    • Enelle Lamb profile image

      Enelle Lamb 8 years ago from Canada's 'California'

      Great hub Shalini - More of us should follow these words...

    • shamelabboush profile image

      shamelabboush 8 years ago

      Wow,cthis is very true and inspiring. They all can be applied these days. Thanks Shalini. Wonderful hub.

    • Jaspal profile image

      Jaspal 8 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Great hub Shalini, thank you so much! Like Paraglider, I too will be downloading the file from that link you have given. Wish one could download some of the wisdom straight into the brain! :)

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      I think I remember Mohit talking about this sage in the forum a while back. Fascinating hub. I'll be downloading the pdf to read more.

    • Sakari profile image

      Sakari 8 years ago from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

      Very profound. Thanks for the great Hub, Shalini =))

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 8 years ago from UK

      Shalini, I have never heard of this before, but I like all the quotations you have put up here. These are all very wise. I wish they would teach these in our Western schools!

    • sabu singh profile image

      sabu singh 8 years ago

      Wow. Thanks for this Hub Shalini. If only our leaders could follow what Thirukural wrote our country would be a better place. Especially those that preach hatred.

      I saw the impressive statue at Kanyakumari some years back. At that time I had no idea whose it was.