Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural has been translated in most major languages of the world. There are more than thirty translations in English alone. It is so succinct that translations do not help to understand and appreciate Thiruvalluvar’s wisdom. In my humble opinion, we really don’t have a book on Thirukkural that non-Tamil people can read and appreciate Thiruvalluvar’s wisdom. So, I have taken it upon myself to write a series of articles describing Thiruvalluvar’s ideas on various topics.
Tamil is one of the oldest classical languages of the world and it has been described as "the only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past." The variety and quality of classical Tamil literature has led to its being described as "one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world." Tamil literature has existed for over 2300 years. The earliest period of Tamil literature, Sangam literature, is dated from 300 BC – 300 AD.
Among the literary classics of Tamil, Thirukkuṟaḷ enjoys a special place. Thirukkural consists of 133 chapters with each chapter containing ten couplets (kurals). ‘Thiru’ is an honorific prefix which stands for “sacred”. In spite of the uncertainty of the time period of Thiruvalluvar, it is generally believed that he wrote Thirukkural about 2000 years ago. Thirukkural’s subject matter encompasses virtue, wealth and love which were considered as the three major goals of human life in ancient India. The highly acclaimed German philosopher and Nobel laureate, Dr. Albert Schweitzer says about Thirukkural that “There hardly exists in the literature of the world, a collection of maxims in which we find so much lofty wisdom.”
During the early years of my childhood, I did not attend regular school and I was mostly home schooled by my father. My father wanted to me to memorize all the 1330 couplets of Thirukkural. Although I did not memorize all of Thirukkural, I memorized a substantial number of the couplets. At that young age, I did not understand the meaning of the couplets. I memorized them for two reasons. One was to satisfy my father’s requirements and to please him. The second reason was to compete with my elder brother Dr. R. Bhaskaran to demonstrate my ability to challenge him in reciting the couplets of Thirukkural. As I grew older, what I learnt from Thirukkural made more sense and I began to be fascinated by the depth of the profound wisdom contained in the couplets of Thirukkural.
I always wanted to do an in-depth study of Thirukkural. But, due to other priorities, I could not concentrate on Thirukkural. In 2003, I had the opportunity or I must say I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. T. Murugarathanam, who was formerly a Professor of Tamil and Thirukkural Chair at Madurai Kamarajar University, Madurai, India. I listened to his scholarly lecture on Thirukkural. At that very moment, my latent interest in Thirukkural was revived. Soon after that, I met with my friends in the Greater Washington D.C. area, and we formed a Tamil Literary Study Group in 2003. This was an informal group dedicated to the study of Tamil literature. Our first project was the study of Thirukkural. Thanks to my brother Dr. R. Bhaskaran and Dr. T. Murugarathanam, I was able to get more than forty books on Thirukkural from India. The books I received from India contained the original text and commentaries on Thirukkural written by outstanding Tamil scholars over the past several centuries and also several English translations of Thirukkural by eminent European and Indian scholars. Our study group met every two weeks in public libraries and we continued our in-depth study of Thirukkural with the help of all those books for almost five years. I served as the moderator during the study group meetings.
As a result of the on-going study, our interest in Thirukkural got more intense and we wanted to promote Thirukkural in North America and in the western world. With this objective in mind, we organized a very successful International Conference on Thirukkural in which the eminent scholar Dr. V. C. Kulandaiswami, former Vice – Chancellor of several Indian universities and the famous Tamil scholar Dr. George L. Hart, Tamil Chair, University of California, Berkeley, California delivered the Keynote addresses. I had the opportunity to serve as the Coordinator for this successful Conference. The study of Thirukkural with my friends and the International Conference on Thirukkural further rekindled my passion for promoting Thirukkural. Since 2003, I have written many articles for various Tamil organizations in USA and delivered lectures on Thirukkural in several cities in USA and India.
On several occasions, I have discussed the ideas of Thiruvalluvar with my American friends. When they hear the practical wisdom imbedded in the kurals, they admire Thiruvalluvar’s genius and invariably ask for a book in English that they can read. Most of the books I am aware of are translations of Thirukkural. Thirukkural is very compact and Thiruvalluvar has expressed profound ideas in a very succinct manner in the form of couplets. Unfortunately, most of the translators, have attempted to translate the Thirukkural couplets into two lines of poetry or prose in English. These translations do not do justice to the original and the reader fails to get the true insight into the wisdom of Thiruvalluvar as contained in Thirukkural.
So far, Thirukkural has been translated into more than 37 languages of the world and there are more than 35 translations in English alone. In spite of this many translations, Thirukkural is still not well known outside of Tamil Nadu, the state of India where Thiruvalluvar was born. For example, in the western world, even if they have never read the “Analects of Confucius”, most of the educated people would recognize that Confucius was a Chinese philosopher. But, most of the westerners have perhaps never heard the name Thiruvalluvar let alone his magnum opus Thirukkural. Therefore, it appears that we have a long way to go before Thiruvalluvar is recognized in the western world as a great philosopher who offered practical guidelines for a purposeful life.
It is my sincere belief that translations alone do not help the readers to understand and appreciate Thirukkural. Although one can grasp Thiruvalluvar’s ideas about a particular topic by reading a specific kural or a chapter, one can get a comprehensive picture of Thiruvalluvar’s ideas on specific topics only by reading the entire text with substantial explanations. By reading a single kural or a chapter, one will not get the complete picture. This is akin to “seeing the tree and missing the forest”. In my opinion, in order to promote Thirukkural, we need more books about Thirukkural written in a simple style explaining Thiruvalluvar’s ideas about various aspects of life with suitable examples, if applicable.
I want to do my part- however insignificant and limited in scope it may be - to promote Thirukkural among the people who have no knowledge of Tamil. With this goal in mind, I have ventured to write a series of essays on Thirukkural. These essays will cover various topics such as Thiruvalluvar’s concept on virtue, management, leadership, administration, love, spirituality, knowledge, friendship, and others. These essays will be completely based on Thirukkural. The reader will be expected to have no knowledge of Tamil or Thirukkural.
I hope that the readers will find these essays useful to get a basic understanding of the wisdom of Thiruvalluvar and his message. I sincerely welcome comments from the readers so that I can further improve the essays to make them more useful to the readers. I request the readers to feel free to contact me to offer their comments and criticisms.
Dr. R. Prabhakaran
Bel Air, Maryland, USA