The Kural and Ethics
Pradeep Kumar Gautam

The Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar, also known as the Kural is a powerful and compact Tamil text from South India which has survived and thrived over 2,000 years. This work of outstanding brevity consists of 1,330 couplets divided into 133 chapters of 10 couplets each. The Kural deals with three concepts which in Sanskrit relate to dharma, artha and kama. The Tamil equivalent corresponds to aram (virtue in 38 chapters), porul (wealth in 70 chapters), and kamam or inbam (love/desire in 25 chapters). There are a number of good translations of the text into English. For this commentary, the translation used is that of Rev. W.H. Drew, and Rev. John Lazarus.1

The matters of statecraft, governance and related topics lie embedded in the Kural. What is unique is that in the Kural, there is great emphasis on ethical and moral attributes called aram (virtue), both at the personal and the level of the state. The building block of this text is aram, which if theorised can be a normative text for porul. Even in modern Indian history, great thinkers who seem to follow the footsteps of Thiruvalluvar have always focused on the moral and ethical aspects like Mahatma Gandhi. It will be of interest to learn that Gandhi was not aware of the Kural till he was informed by his Russian friend, Leo Tolstoy (who had read a German translation). Gandhi’s non-violence is supposed to be drawn from the Kural. 2 Thus, in a land of so many texts, scripts, regions and languages, it is a good idea to learn something new about the Kural as it is never too late to learn, as demonstrated by Gandhi.

The Enduring Contribution of Tiruvalluvar to Morals and Virtue

Scholars of the Kural consistently point out how moral and ethics are the most vital part of the Kural. Let us take four of them - A. Appadorai, the political scientist, Y. Subbarayalu the historian and Takanobu Takahashi the Japanese Indologist and scholar of the Kural, and the scholar K. Appadurai.

A. Appadorai’s main findings on the Kural are3:

  • Unlike other ancient classical works, verses in Kural are not addressed to the king or his ministers alone. It is not a hand-book primarily meant for the king, but a treatise on the art of living equally useful to the common people. In the chapter on citizenship, the author advises the individual to put himself at the service of community and to identify his interests with those of the community. This piece of advice is very much relevant than ever as good citizenship and service to the nation is the crying need of today. 4

Subbarayalu likewise finds moral ideas as supreme:

  • Tiruvalluvar despised tyrannical rule. Obviously, his materialistic ideas were tempered with moral ideas of Jainism.5

Takahashi in the section “The Kural’s Treatment of the King and the State” shows:

  • Valluvar deals mainly with the virtues in terms of good, or even idealised citizenry, and not in terms of caste-based or asrama based svadharma and hence when he discusses subjects in politics, it appears that he does not address the king or Kshatriya, but simply a man.6

Today, we cannot ignore that human rights and democratic freedom is also part of the body politic. In the Kural, both the duties of an individual and the society are integrated. This shows the Thiruvalluvar was much ahead of his times. K. Appadurai explains the interlinkage well:

  • Tiruvalluvar solves the problems of community by sinking the interest of the individual in that of the race …. if his Aram is the duty of the Individual to Society and the Race, his Porul is the duty of Society to the Individual… A complete harmony of individual rights with those of race, is the secret of Tiruvalluvar’s surprising universalism and modernism.7
Examining Virtue in the Kural

In the first book of Aram, Chapter 4 The Power of Virtue8 sets the stage. Few indicative couplets convey a very powerful message on virtue:

  • 31 Virtue will confer heaven and wealth; what greater source of happiness can man possess?
  • 32 There can be no greater source of good than (the practice of) virtue; than the forgetfulness of it, there can be no greater source of evil.
  • 34 Whatever is done with a spotless mind is virtue; all else is vain show.
  • 35 That conduct is virtue which is free from these four things: malice, desire, anger and bitter speech.

Chapter 55 deals with Upright Government9 and Chapter 56 is on Unjust Government.10 The select couplets below are self-explanatory.

Chapter 55 On Upright Government
  • 542 When there is rain, the world enjoys prosperity; and when the king rules justly, his subjects prosper.
  • 544 The world will constantly embrace the feet of the great king who rules over his subjects with love.
  • 548 The king who gives not facile audience (to those who approach him), and who does not examine and pass judgment (on their complaints), will perish in disgrace.
Chapter 56 On Unjust Government
  • 551 More cruel than the man who lives the life of a murderer is the king who gives himself to oppress and act unjustly (towards his subjects).
  • 554 The king, who, without reflecting (on its evil consequences), perverts justice, will lose at once both his wealth and his subjects.
  • 557 As is the world without rain, so live a people whose king is without kindness.
  • Both chapters 55 and 56 lay emphasis on uprightness of the king, the rule of law and fairness. The author it seems is speaking ‘truth to power’ and is warning that ‘power and absolute power corrupts’.
Love and Fear

Chapter 57 Against Acting with Cruelty11 has a key verse 563: “The cruel-sceptred king, who acts so as to put his subjects in fear, will certainly and quickly come to ruin.” And 544: “The world will constantly embrace the feet of the great king who rules his subjects with love”. To repeat verse 544: “The world will constantly embrace the feet of the great king who rules over his subjects with love.”

These couplets convey a message opposite to that of Machiavelli’s suggestion for a king or prince where it is better to be feared than loved. Even Kautilya in his Arthashastra, in sutra 7.5.14 weighs in favour of love:

  • Impoverished and greedy subjects, when devoted to their master, remain steadfast in what is beneficial to the master or make the instigations futile, on the principle, ‘Where there is love, all qualities (are present)’.12

Thus, in Indic classical texts, the basis of human psychology is that of trust and love and not fear. This arguably is both suitable and relevant for contemporary times in a democracy.

Normative Morals in Foreign Policy

A. Appadorai quotes a passage from the Kural verse 660 of chapter 66, “Purity of Action”, as translated by C Rajagopalachari: “To seek to further the welfare of the State by enriching it through fraud and falsehood is like storing water in an unburnt mud pot and hoping to preserve it.” 13 The Kural at no place has passages or implicit arguments such as “ends justify means.” The moral and ethical approach is an important contribution of this tradition in a normative sense and those in power need to be mindful of this.


What makes the Kural unique? The answer is simple: it shines in a moral philosophy that seems to be the right paradigm for the modern. Importantly the Kural has a general and universal approach to political subjects with no concern for country, age, or historical state of society; an excellent “‘literary’ or ‘didactic’ work.”14 Today, as in the past, the value of aram or dharma is supreme, though in practice, in the recent history of foreign policy, values/ principles( such as aram) and interests appear to be mutually exclusive (conflict at personal values with that those of the state ). However, this is not the final judgment as Indic traditions have concepts of Rajdharma (moral stance of the king) 15 which resembles the idea of the Kural. What Thirukkural is arguing is that it is aram which regulates and need to check both porul and imbam at any or all levels. This is what exactly Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had emphasised in his Hind Swaraj: “artha and kama should be pursued within the framework of dharma. In modern civilization artha and kama, according to Gandhi, assert their autonomy from dharma.”16

Clearly, the understanding of sustainable development seems to be derived from Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra. This mantra is about the moral and ethical regulatory notion of dharma for a sustainable growth to achieve a balance on kama (excess of desires as greed and not as needs) and artha (economic growth blind to ecological destructive). Similarly, K.M. Munshi in his lectures to civil service trainees in the 1960s had argued: “Dharma, righteousness, was, therefore, the most important urge and had to be developed as to regulate both kama and artha.”17 It appears that both Gandhi and K.M. Munshi were speaking in the language and spirit of the Kural.

The Kural, adds value to the Indian heritage of normative political science, democratic governance and philosophy. Many of its ideas and concepts as related to ethics and morals endure and indeed are relevant for statesmanship in the contemporary and futuristic times, not only for India but for world peace and harmony.

  1. Rev. W.H. Drew, and Rev. John Lazarus, Thirukkural with English Translation, Asian Educational Services New Delhi /Chennai, 2014. Some other high quality translations are : Tirukkural English Translation and Commentary by Rev Dr G U Pope, Rev W H Drew, Rev John Lazarus and Mr F W Ellis, first published in 1886 by W.H. Allen, & Co. Reprinted in 1962 and 1982 by The South India Saiva Siddhantha Works Publishing Society, Tinnevelly, Madras, India; C. Rajagopalachari, Kural: The Great Book of Tiru-Valluvar, 14th edition, Bharti Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 2017 (1965); Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Tiruvalluvar: The Tirukkural, Aleph Book Company , New Delhi, 2015; S.M. Diaz and N. Mahalingam (eds), Tirukkural with English Translation and Explanation, Ramanandha Adigalar Foundation, Coimbatore, 2000, reprint 2008, in two volumes; M.Rajaram, Thirukkural: Pearls of Inspiration, Rupa, New Delhi, 2009.
  2. Speech of the President, International Thirukkural Foundation, Prof. Armoogum Parsuramen, ‘Thirrukkual- A Global Book of Ethics’, reproduced in Souvenir, Third International Conference on Thirukural: Thirukkural for World Peace and Harmony 2019, Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai, India, 2019.
  3. A. Appadorai ‘Chapter 6, Tiruvalluvar’s Tiru-k-kural’ in Indian Political Thinking Through The Ages, Khama Publishers, New Delhi: 1992, pp.91-101.
  4. Ibid., p.92.
  5. Y. Subbarayalu, ‘Sangam and Post- Sangam Literature’ in Noboru Karashima (ed.), A Concise History of South India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, p.47.
  6. Takanobu Takahashi, ‘The Treatment of King and State in the Tirukkural’ in Nobru Karashima (ed.), Kingship in Indian History, Manohar, New Delhi, 1999, p.45
  7. K. Appadurai, The Mind and Thought of Tiruvalluvar, Sekar Pathippakam, Madras, 1966, pp.86-87.
  8. Thirukkural with English Translation, Rev. W.H. Drew, and Rev. John Lazarus, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi /Chennai, 2014, p.9.
  9. Ibid., p.111.
  10. Ibid., p.113.
  11. Ibid., p.115.
  12. R.P Kangle, The Kautiliya Arthashastra, Part 2: An English Translation With Critical and Explanatory Notes. Bombay University, 7th Reprint, Motilal Banarsidass, Second Edition, Delhi, 2010, pp.334-335.
  13. A. Appadorai, National Interest and India’s Foreign Policy, Kalinga Publications, Delhi, 1992, pp. 4–5.
  14. Takanobu Takahashi, No. 6, p.51.
  15. Based on insights at a book discussion at the Indian Council for Reseach on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi on December 11, 2019, viz., Krishnan Srinivasan, James Mayall and Sanjay Pulipaka, (eds.), Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideas and Interests, Knowledge World, New Delhi, 2019. It was brought out that Jared Diamond in his latest book Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, Allen Lane, 2019 argues that nations and people are the same in their behaviour. This is similar to the message in the Kural.
  16. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, edited by Anthony J. Parel, Foundation Books, New Delhi, 1997, p. 66. See editor’s note 122.
  17. K.M. Munshi, The Foundations of Indian Culture, 2nd edition, Bhavan’s Book University Rupee Series No. 36, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1965, p. 64.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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