Thirukural – Couplets To Live By That Transcend Time
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.