Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Letter to the Readers - Sept. 5, 2023

 Dear friends,


Thanks for all your interest in my blog  and your overwhelming support. As a result of the readers’ interest and response, I decided to publish this as a book. The book is titled, “Valluvar’s Answers to Vital Questions.” The book is a revised version of this blog, where I have corrected a few minor errors, omissions, etc. The book has forewords from Dr. Armoogum Parsuramen, former Minister of Mauritius and Director of UNESCO, and Hon’ble Justice R. Mahadevan of Madras High Court. The book is available in India in leading bookstores and from the Publisher. Contact information for the Publisher is as follows:

Emerald Publishers

15A, I Floor, CASA Major Rd

Egmore, Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600 008, India

Phone+91 98406 96574 


I have a few copies with me. Those of you who are in the USA can purchase the book from me. The price of the book, including shipping charges, is $20.00. If you send $20.00 through Zelle to my mobile phone number ((443)752 - 0238) along with your mailing address, I will be glad to send you the book.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via email (

Thank you support.


Dr. R. Prabhakaran

Wednesday, February 15, 2023



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[1]." 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[2]." 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, Thirukkural written by Thiruvalluvar 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[3].”

During the early years of my childhood, I did not attend regular school and I was mostly homeschooled 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 included the original text and commentaries on Thirukkural written by outstanding Tamil scholars over the past several centuries and 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 cover various topics such as Thiruvalluvar’s concept on virtue, management, leadership, love, compassion, humanism, humanitarianism, country, spirituality, learning, knowledge, wisdom, friendship, pre and post marital love and others. These essays are completely based on Thirukkural. The reader is expected to have no knowledge of Tamil or Thirukkural.

In this book, Thiruvalluvar is referred to as Valluvar for short. Valluvar’s book Thirukkural is referred to as the Kural (with a capital “K”) and the couplets are referred to as kural (with a lower case “k”). Whenever the idea in a kural is included, the number of the kural is included in the parenthesis. I have adopted the translations of several authors. In some places, I have taken the liberty to paraphrase the idea from a kural instead of translating it. Each essay is independent. Therefore, the reader may find some ideas and kurals are repeated in those essays.

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 via email at to offer their comments and criticisms.

Dr. R. Prabhakaran

Bel Air, Maryland, USA

[1] Zvelabil, Kamil: The Smile of Murugan Leiden 1973, p11-12

[2] Hart, George L: Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language, the University of California Berkeley Department of South Asian Studies – Tamil

[3] Schweitzer, Albert: Indian Thought and its Development, The Beacon Press, Boston, 1936

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Thiruvalluvar and Thirukkural

 Thiruvalluvar and Thirukkural


In the course of human history, there have been many philosophers, prophets, sages, and saints who have contributed to the development of religious and philosophical ideas. The Vedas are the oldest religious and philosophical text. Historians surmise that the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four Vedas, was composed during the period 1,500 BC to 1,000 BC. The monotheistic religion of Judaism, founded by Moses almost 3,500 years ago, is considered one of the oldest religions in the world. After the early Vedic period and the beginnings of Judaism, the sixth and the fifth century BC seem to have been the time when many philosophical ideas simultaneously blossomed around the world. During the sixth century BC, Mahavira[1] (540 BC – 468 BC) and the Buddha (563 BC – 483 BC) appeared in the Indian philosophical scene. Mahavira was the twenty-fourth in the lineage of saints of Jainism, one of the major religions of India. Although the Jains (the followers of Jainism) do not consider Mahavira as the founder of Jainism, he certainly established a firm foundation for the Jainism of the future. The ultimate Jain ideal is to lead an ascetic life and achieve liberation from the unending cycle of births and deaths. To this end, Mahavira preached five ethical principles. They are nonviolence towards all living beings, truthfulness, non-stealing, restraint over yearning for sensual and sexual pleasures, and complete detachment from people, places, and material property. The Jains consider Mahavira as their last and final Guru, and he is worshiped by the Jains all over the world.


Among all the philosophers and religious leaders of India, the Buddha is perhaps the most well-known in India as well as in the rest of the world. He was a contemporary of Mahavira. His enquiring mind had several questions about life and the ultimate reality. The Buddha was not satisfied with the answers to those questions provided by the Vedas and the Vedic religion of his time. As a result of his own prolonged meditation, he attained enlightenment. After his enlightenment, he formulated the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. The first Noble Truth states, “Life is suffering.” The second Noble Truth states, “Suffering is caused by desire.” The third Noble Truth says, “In order to eliminate suffering, one has to eliminate desire.” The fourth and final Noble Truth states, “In order to eliminate desire, one has to follow the Eightfold Path.” The Eightfold Path includes the right understanding, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. It is obvious that the Buddha was very systematic in his approach to explaining his ideas to his followers. Buddhism, the religion founded by the disciples of the Buddha, had a tremendous appeal throughout the eastern hemisphere.

Contemporaneous to Mahavira and the Buddha, Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC), the most renowned Chinese philosopher, preached civic humanism, morality, ethics, and social order in the Far East. Confucius was less concerned about metaphysics and the ultimate reality. However, he was an advocate of social order and rituals. The philosophy of Confucius gradually permeated Chinese politics. The Han dynasty originally adopted Confucianism as the state ideology in the second century AD, and later, the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD) revived Confucianism as the state ideology. In short, there has never been a more influential person than Confucius in Chinese philosophical thought.

Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) was the most eminent philosopher in the western hemisphere during the fifth century BC. Although Socrates did not leave any written documents behind, Plato (428 BC – 348 BC), who was his contemporary, and Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), who was Plato’s disciple, have abundantly described Socrates’ contribution to western philosophy. Based on their writings, scholars agree that the dialectical reasoning methodology proposed by Socrates is the foundation for the entire western philosophical system. Plato and Aristotle also made their own contributions to the development of western philosophy.

Although there was a significant development in philosophical thought during the sixth and fifth centuries BC, that period did not have a monopoly in that field. There have been many outstanding philosophers and religious leaders in many parts of the world subsequent to the fifth century BC. Two major religions of the world, Christianity and Islam were formed based on the teaching of Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammed during the first and the seventh century AD, respectively. Over the past two millennia, there have been several other outstanding philosophers who have made remarkable contributions to the philosophical and religious ideologies of the world.

                About two thousand years ago, in the state of Tamil Nadu (the land of Tamil-speaking people), India, there was an extraordinary man who was an outstanding philosopher who analyzed almost all aspects of human life and offered practical guidelines for a purposeful life on earth. His ideas are considered by scholars to be eternally valid and universally acceptable. His name is Thiruvalluvar[2] (hereinafter referred to as Valluvar). His legacy is his magnum opus called Thirukkural[3](hereinafter referred to as the Kural with an upper case “K,” and the individual stanzas are referred to as kural with a lower case “k,” or a couplet), and it is considered a veritable guide for the “Art of Living.”  He is very well known in the state of Tamil Nadu, where people of all ages study his book.  

About Valluvar

In spite of these adulations by eminent philosophers and the availability of numerous translations of the Kural, we have very little factual information about its author, Valluvar. Most of the biographical information available about Valluvar is anecdotal. The only information that we know for certain is that he was born in the state of Tamil Nadu, which lies in the southeastern part of India. There is a controversy about the exact place of his birth. Some people believe that he was born in Mylapore, a suburb of Chennai, which is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. Others claim that he was born in the district of Kanyakumari, which lies in the southern tip of India.


Just like the mystery surrounding his place of birth, the year of Valluvar’s birth is also an unresolved issue. There are some scholars who believe that he was born in the third century BC. Others argue, based on literary evidence, that he was born sometime between 400 AD and 500 AD. A group of renowned Tamil scholars met in 1921 and decided that Valluvar must have been born in 31 BC. The government of the state of Tamil Nadu has officially recognized that Valluvar was born in 31 BC. In spite of the uncertainty surrounding his exact year of birth, it is generally believed that Valluvar was born about 2,000 years ago. From the various stories about his personal life, we infer that Valluvar was married, and his wife’s name was Vasuki.

Assuming that Valluvar was born about 2,000 years ago, the primary religions in Tamil Nadu, as well as in India during that time, were the Vedic religion (the forerunner of modern-day Hinduism), Jainism, and Buddhism. In the Kural, we see evidence of Vedic thinking, reflections of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and the sanctity of nonviolence, as emphasized by Jainism. Based on his own work, one can only conclude that Valluvar was well aware of the three religions of his time, and he has included appropriate ideas from all three religions in his book. In fact, in addition to the influence of the Indian religions of his time, we can also hear the echoes of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, see the semblance of the Ten Commandments and even notice the rationalism of atheists in the Kural. But, in spite of all these similarities, there is no evidence to identify to which religion Valluvar belonged to, or for that matter, there is no information in his book to suggest that he really belonged to no religion at all. His book is strictly secular in nature. Yet, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and even some Christians try to argue in vain regarding the religious affiliation of Valluvar.

Appreciation of Valluvar and the Kural by scholars worldwide 

                Professor Moriz Winternitz (1863-1937), an eminent Austrian orientalist, says, “Valluvar’s Kural is one of the gems of the world literature.  He (Valluvar) stands above all races, castes, and sects, and what he teaches is general human morality and wisdom.  No wonder that the Kural has been read, studied, and highly praised in the land of its origin for centuries but also found many admirers in the west ever since it has become known.” In the words of Prof. Kamil Zvelebil, a renowned Tamil scholar from the Czech Republic, “…Thirukkural is a contribution of the Tamil creative genius to the world’s cultural treasure and should be familiar to the whole world and admired and beloved by all in the same way as the poems of Homer, the dramas of Shakespeare, the pictures of Rembrandt, the cathedrals of France and the sculptures of Greece.” Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965), the German Philosopher, physician, and Nobel laureate admired Valluvar’s positive view of the world and life as opposed to the “world and life negation” preached by the religions of India. Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), the famous Russian novelist, was very impressed with Valluvar’s ideas on nonviolence. Also, Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) was so fascinated by the Kural that he wanted to learn Tamil so that he could study the original version of the Kural. The Russians are said to have preserved important books of lasting value in the Kremlin in an indestructible Tungsten chamber so that they may outlast even a nuclear attack and be useful to posterity. The Kural is one of the books in that chamber. Many other scholars and philosophers from various parts of the world have recognized and admired Valluvar’s profound yet pragmatic view of human life and the practical guidelines he has offered for a purposeful life. The Kural has been translated into more than forty languages of the world. There are more than 55 translations of the Kural in the English language alone.  

About the Kural

The Vedic religion of Valluvar’s time considered the pursuit of virtue, wealth, love, and salvation (the liberation of the soul from the never-ending chain of births and deaths) as the four primary goals of human life. Valluvar also accepted these four goals as the foundation for his book. But his book deals with the first three of these goals in great detail. It looks like he has deliberately avoided writing a separate section for the fourth goal, which deals with the liberation of the soul. However, he briefly mentions this goal and prescribes his own approach to attain this goal in the first part of his book. It should be noted that although there have been many literary works dealing with virtue, wealth, love, and salvation, Valluvar was the first one to address all four goals in the same book.

The Vedic religion during Valluvar’s time advocated the social doctrine of four stages of life. It maintained that one should first become a chaste student, then become a married householder discharging his duties to his ancestors by begetting sons and to the gods by sacrificing; then retire with or without his wife, to the forest to devote himself to spiritual contemplation; and finally, but not mandatorily, become a homeless wandering ascetic. In reality, the last two stages were considered optional, and many people might not have pursued those options. The virtues discussed by Valluvar in the first part of the Kural are mostly applicable to people in all four stages of life, with a few exceptions. For example, virtues such as hospitality, charity, and munificence are applicable only to the householder. An ascetic would not have the wherewithal to practice these virtues. In lieu of these virtues, Valluvar outlines certain virtues that are only applicable to the ascetics.

Valluvar’s Kural contains 1,330 couplets, and it is divided into three parts. The first part is known as “Virtue,” and it contains thirty-eight chapters, with each chapter consisting of ten couplets. The second part, which is titled “Wealth,” has seventy chapters with ten couplets per chapter. The last part is titled “Love,” and it covers both premarital as well as conjugal love in twenty-five chapters, with ten couplets in each chapter.

First part of the Kural: It is truly a misnomer to refer to the contents of the first part of the Kural as “virtue.” The first part of the Kural deals with the various aspects of righteousness with respect to human conduct. In Tamil, the first part of the Kural is called araththuppaal, which means the part of the book dealing with aram. As the learned scholar Dr. V. C. Kulandaiswamy rightly points out that although many have translated the term aram as “virtue,” the term “virtue” does not convey the full meaning of the word aram and therefore it is misleading. Aram is the summum bonum of all values and virtues essential for human society. Since there is no equivalent word in the English language for the all-inclusive Tamil word aram, we will continue to use the word “virtue” as the English equivalent of aram.

Valluvar’s concept of virtue is fairly simple and straightforward. According to him, virtue consists of avoiding negative qualities and adhering to positive qualities.   Quality in an individual that might cause mental or physical harm to himself or others is considered a negative quality, and it is the result of blemishes in the person’s mind. “It is the supreme virtue not to have a harmful thought about anybody in any degree at any moment (Couplet 317).” In Couplet 318, Valluvar says, “Why does a man inflict upon other living beings those things he found harmful to himself?” Considering the implications behind these two couplets, it is clear that Valluvar warns against doing harm to any living being by thought, word, or deed. Envy[4], coveting, and anger are examples of evil thoughts that may lead to actions resulting in harm to others. Indulging in slander and idle talk are examples of the use of words that may hurt others. Finally, physically harming other living beings, killing, adultery, evil deeds, eating meat (non-vegetarianism), and committing fraud are definite acts of aggression intended to harm other people or other living beings. A harmful speech or a harmful act must have been conceived in the mind before they manifest in speech or action. Therefore, all the negative qualities mentioned above are considered blemishes of the human mind. Valluvar is very emphatic in saying, “Virtue is nothing but cultivating a mind without blemishes; everything else is an empty show (Couplet 34).”

Although for the sake of emphasis, Valluvar says that having a mind without blemishes is a virtue and discards everything else as a mere show (Couplet 34), his concept of virtue is certainly inclusive of several positive qualities that would enable an individual to overcome the negative qualities and to eliminate the blemishes. According to Valluvar, love, compassion, use of sweet words, impartiality, exercising self-control, adhering to righteous codes of conduct, having forbearance, and being truthful are the positive qualities that one should cultivate and maintain in order to erase blemishes from one’s mind. Valluvar considers truthfulness as one of the highest virtues and extols its value by saying, “Purity of body is produced by water; purity of mind comes from truthfulness (Couplet 298).”  Valluvar maintains that compassion is the outgrowth of love (Couplet 757). When love and compassion are the dominant emotions in an individual’s mind, then he/she will be kind and considerate to other living beings and will be less prone to inflict harm on others.

Valluvar is of the opinion that love and compassion are two basic emotions that motivate a person to share his food, wealth, and other resources with those who need help. He asserts, “Those who are destitute of love will keep everything to themselves, but those who possess love will give even their bones to others (Couplet 72)” and “Love is the quintessence of life; without it, a man is nothing, but a frame of bones covered with skin (Couplet 80).”  He considers that it is an individual’s duty to practice hospitality, charity, and munificence. He also reminds the one who receives the help that he should always be grateful for any help received from others. 

Finally, Valluvar says that the fame that arises from a charity is the most popular kind of fame (Couplet 232) and, therefore, “Give to the poor and live with fame gained from your charity; other than that, there is no greater gain in life (Couplet 231).”  

As everyone knows, life is transient, and there is nothing that is permanent in this world. But most eastern religions posit that the human soul is immortal and that it exists even after the death of the individual. Therefore, there have always been curious seekers of the ultimate truth and the nature of the human soul. Such seekers of the truth tend to renounce worldly passions and pleasures and follow an ascetic way of life in order to concentrate on their pursuit of the ultimate truth. Also, the major religions of Valluvar’s time considered that one who seeks the ultimate truth and attains enlightenment would be able to break the chain of births and deaths. In line with the thinking of his time, Valluvar suggests,

“If you desire to be an ascetic, there are several things you must do and

  therefore, go ahead when you still have the time.”                        (Couplet 342)


Therefore, according to Valluvar, following an ascetic way of life is optional, and even if one were to follow such a lifestyle, one would still have to eliminate the blemishes of his mind and pursue the positive qualities mentioned above. Since an ascetic is devoid of material resources, he may not be able to practice hospitality, charity, and munificence and may not seek fame. Valluvar delineates a few special virtues that are applicable to those who follow the ascetic way of life. He is of the opinion that the one who chooses to be an ascetic should become aware of the impermanence of everything in this world. Once the impermanence is realized, the ascetic should control the five senses and renounce all objects of desire at the same time (Couplet 342). Then the ascetic should pursue penance which is to endure one’s own sufferings and not to injure any living being (Couplet 261). Valluvar is extremely critical of the impostors who pretend to be genuine ascetics, and he warns against such hypocrisy. Finally, the ascetic’s only goal should be to realize the ultimate truth. Valluvar advises that in order to realize the ultimate truth, the ascetic should eliminate all desires because it is the desire that is the seed that yields unceasing births to all beings at all times (Couplet 361), and once the desires are eliminated, the ascetic would be blessed with uninterrupted joy (Couplet 370).

In the case of virtue, one can find similarities between the ideas of the Kural and the ideas in religious literature like the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Torah, the Jain Agamas, Buddhism’s Dhammapada, the Quran, and other similar texts. But there is an essential difference between the Kural and the religious texts. Religions preach the need to follow the path of virtue because that will lead to a better life in the future, a place in heaven, or even salvation. Although Valluvar points to certain potential benefits that might result from following the path of virtue, he says that even if there is no benefit, virtue must be pursued for its own sake because it is the right thing to do. For example, the popular belief during Valluvar’s period was that the one who is giving charity would find a place in heaven. But in Couplet 222, Valluvar says, “Even if there is no heaven, it is still good to give.” So, as far as Valluvar is concerned, following the path of virtue (aram) is an end in itself and not a means to an end. Regarding this aspect of the Kural, Dr. Albert Schweitzer says the following:

“Ethics in the Kural are not so entirely dominated by the idea of reward as in Brahminism, Buddhism, and Bhagavad Gita. We already find here (in the Kural) the knowledge that good must be done for its sake.”


Second part of the Kural: The second part of the Kural deals with porul. Generally, the Tamil word porul is translated as “wealth” in English. But this translation does not describe the full meaning of the contents of this part of the book. According to the Tamil Lexicon of the University of Chicago, the Tamil word porul has twenty-seven different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. “Wealth” is only one of the meanings of the word porul. According to Dr. T. P. Meenakshisundaran, a highly respected Tamil scholar of the twentieth century, this part of the Kural deals with the structure of an organized society, and only in an organized society can the wealth be generated, protected, and enjoyed by all sections of the society.   Therefore, he opines that the translation of the term porul as wealth is not totally inappropriate. Although this explanation is not completely satisfactory, it seems somewhat plausible.

During the time of Valluvar, the form of the government was the monarchy. Unlike in modern-day democracies, as the head of his country, the king had all the executive, legislative and judicial powers vested in him, and there were no checks and balances. Despite the concentration of all the powers in him, the king was supposed to cherish his subjects and exercise these powers with prudence and equanimity for the welfare of his citizens. The king’s primary duties were to protect his country from foreign and domestic enemies, maintain law and order, ensure the economic prosperity of his country and create an environment in which his citizens could enjoy material prosperity. While recognizing and praising the value of the valiant defense forces, Valluvar does not advocate a war to expand the king’s territory. His idea of having a strong defense force is only for the purpose of protecting the country from wars waged by others. Regarding maintaining law and order, he is in favor of careful consideration of all aspects of a crime and dispensing punishment proportionate to the crime in a dispassionate manner. In Couplet 541, he says as follows:

“With thoughtful consideration, searching inquiry, impartiality, consultation with experts, enforce the law justly. That is the proper way to administer justice.”


This part of the Kural deals with “wealth” both at the national level as well as at the individual level. During Valluvar’s time, “Unclaimed wealth, wealth acquired by taxes and the wealth obtained from the defeated foes belonged to the king (Couplet 756).”  In those days, there was no real distinction between a country’s wealth and the king’s wealth. According to Valluvar, in the area of economic development of the country, the king’s duties included production, acquisition, conservation, and distribution of the wealth of his country (Couplet 385). At the national level, in order to generate and protect wealth, the society needs to have an effective leader, efficient administration, loyal citizenry, friendly allies, strong defense forces, and adequate fortifications. With this in mind, Valluvar says, “He who possesses an army, a people, wealth, ministers, friends and fortifications is a lion among kings (Couplet 381).”  When a king has all the six elements mentioned in Couplet 381, he can protect his country, maintain law and order and the people can generate wealth and enjoy material prosperity. 

                Valluvar mentions that a king should have courage, liberality, wisdom, energy, alertness, knowledge, learning, and bravery (Couplets 382 and 383). If he were to be considered an outstanding king, Valluvar says, the king should also have additional qualities such as beneficence, benevolence, concern for his citizens, and rule with rectitude (Couplet – 390). Also, he should be able to bear bitter criticism (Couplet– 389), should be easily accessible to his citizens, and should not use harsh words (Couplet – 386). In this part of the book, Valluvar dedicates several chapters to provide details regarding the conduct of the king, the leadership skills, and the management skills expected of a king. These topics are covered in such a general fashion that in the modern days, they are applicable to a President, Prime Minister, Governor of a state, or even the Chief Executive Officer of a Corporation who has similar management and leadership responsibilities. Also, many of the qualities described in this part of the book as essential for the king are also applicable and equally essential for an ordinary citizen, even in modern times to be successful in his/her life. The profound wisdom of Valluvar and the generality with which he deals with the topics have enabled the Kural to stand the test of time and serve as an eternal beacon of wisdom to humanity.

                Valluvar’s economic and political philosophies, as enunciated in this part of his book, are radically different from those of others of his time and those of later periods. For him, life is worth living, and gathering wealth is essential for life on earth. He says, “There is no place in this world for people without wealth (Couplet 247).”  He encourages the accumulation of wealth by saying, “Accumulate wealth; it will destroy the arrogance of your foes; there is no weapon sharper than that (Couplet 759).” Another important aspect of Valluvar’s approach to wealth and material prosperity is his distinction between the means and the end. According to Valluvar, a goal should be reached by the right means. In other words, wealth should be gathered by honest and righteous means. For example, in order to emphasize the need for purity of actions even under dire circumstances, he says, “Even if one’s mother is starving, one should not act in a way the wise men would condemn (Couplet 656).”  According to him, “Men of noble birth will avoid evil deeds even if they can gain many millions by those deeds. “ In the case of a king, he should avoid plundering and coveting others’ property by unjust rule and excessive taxation. In general, Valluvar’s advice is that one should instantaneously avoid any gain that results from unfair means (Couplet 113). This distinction between the means and the end makes Valluvar’s Kural different and highly venerable compared to other treatises before and after him.

Another noteworthy aspect of Valluvar’s thinking on wealth is his insistence on beneficence towards those who need help. The purpose of gathering wealth is to enjoy the wealth and to share it with deserving others. In Couplet 212, he says that “All the wealth gained from hard work is for the purpose of helping the deserving others.” In the case of a king, “He is the beacon among kings who has beneficence, compassion, rectitude, and care for his people (Couplet 380).” This is akin to the modern-day concept of a welfare society.

Valluvar’s Kural is often compared with Arthasasthra, written by Kautilya (379 BC – 283 BC), and “The Prince” written by Machiavelli (1469 – 1527). Arthasasthra is a book on statecraft, political economy, crime and punishments, and other topics relevant to the governance of a country. The contents in Arthasasthra are specific to the socio-economic conditions of Kautilya’s time, and as such, their relevance to the modern era is very limited. Furthermore, achieving the desired end by any means seems to be the general theme of Kautilya’s strategy. Although topics covered in The Kural are somewhat similar to those in Arthasasthra, the generality and the emphasis on virtue found in the Kural are missing in Arthasasthra. Machiavelli’s cunning and duplicitous strategies for statecraft and his total disregard for virtue and morality are clearly evident in his book, “The Prince.” Therefore, “Arthasasthra” and “The Prince” do not belong to the same class of books as the Kural, and they are not really comparable to Valluvar’s ethical masterpiece, the Kural.

The Third part of the Kural: The third and final part of the Kural is on “Love.” The first seven chapters of this part deal with premarital love, and the next eighteen chapters are about post-marital love. A young man meets a beautiful young lady, and they both fall in love. After their initial meeting and subsequent rendezvous, they consummate their love. Gossip about their secret love affair starts to circulate in their community. The young lovers get married. The husband has to leave his wife and go out of town to partake in a war on behalf of his king. The wife patiently waits for her husband’s return. But she is unable to bear the pain of separation from her beloved, and she is often in tears. She does not eat or sleep and becomes very weak, and her health deteriorates. She longs for her husband’s immediate return. Finally, he returns from the battlefield. She feigns to be angry with him and pretends to be in a bad mood. However, she is unable to control herself and embraces him, and they make love and enjoy their intimacy. Valluvar describes all these scenes in exquisite poetry in the third part of the Kural.

One would think that this is a typical tale of lovers and, therefore, there is nothing new in it. But then, why did Valluvar include this love story in his book, and what is special about this part of the book? As mentioned before, according to the philosophical thinking of Valluvar’s time, “virtue, wealth, love, and salvation” are the four goals of life. Since he has already covered virtue and salvation in the first part and wealth in the second part, for the sake of completeness, he might have included “love” in the third part of his book. This part has its own special significance.

                Valluvar considers virtue as the basis of all human endeavors. In other words, all aspects of day-to-day life, including the acquisition of wealth and sexual relationships, should be based on righteous conduct. In this part on “Love,” we see that premarital as well as conjugal love are based on the principles of virtue. Almost twenty percent of ancient Tamil literature of the Sangam period (300 BC - 300 AD) deals with lovers’ quarrels, and invariably the reason for their quarrels is the promiscuous behavior of the male partner. In the Kural, there is no mention of promiscuity on the part of the male partner. The wife quarrels with her husband when he returns from war to simply tease him and to make him wait before she begins to be intimate with him. This is radically different from the literature before Valluvar’s period. Valluvar considers “Sexual delight is more delicate than a flower; only a few understand its real nature (Couplet 1289).” Dr. S.M. Diaz, an Indian commentator, elaborates on this Couplet as follows:

“The concept of true love is really tender, like the softest of the floral blossoms of this world. And therefore,

the lover who truly understands and appreciates it will proceed to enjoy the bliss of joy that arises from it,

with the merited delicacy and gentleness in all its aspects, spiritual, intellectual, and physical.”


Some scholars compare Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra (3rd Century AD) to the third part of the Kural. In reality, there is nothing in common between the Kural and Kamasutra. Kamasutra is a veritable warehouse of information on sensual pleasures and sexual intercourse. The third part of the Kural presents a poetic exposition of the love between a man and a woman in dramatic situations. If this part of The Kural can be compared to a modern movie with a rating of “Parental Guidance Suggested (PG),” Kamasutra is comparable to a movie with a rating of “X.”

In the three parts of the Kural, we see three different aspects of Valluvar. In the first part, we see him as an outstanding ethicist who enumerates moral and righteous codes of conduct. In the second part, we see him as a multidisciplinary scholar well-versed in statecraft, economics, defense, psychology, and other related disciplines. In the third part, we find him as a poet extraordinaire expressing the subtle emotions of lovers with exquisite lyrical excellence.

Special features of the Kural

Uniqueness of the Kural: As mentioned before, during the days of Valluvar, the three major religions were the Vedic religion, Buddhism, and Jainism. The primary focus of these three religions was the liberation of the human soul from the never-ending chain of births and deaths (salvation). These religions considered life on earth as a preparatory stage for a better life after death and also as an opportunity to pursue the ultimate goal of attaining salvation. Although Valluvar concurs with the idea of salvation as the goal, he considers it as an option rather than the absolute goal for everyone. Valluvar is more concerned with living a good life on earth. For him, the world is real, and life is worth living. His book is all about the world and life affirmation. According to Valluvar, “A man who leads an ideal life in this world will be ranked among the gods in heaven (Couplet – 50).”  He says, “If you want to pursue the goal of salvation, renounce the worldly pleasures. Once you renounce the worldly pleasures, there are many things that need to happen before you attain your goal (Couplet 342).” Compared to the prevailing philosophical ideas of his time, Valluvar’s book is really unique in that it reinforces world and life affirmation and treats the pursuit of salvation as an option.


As noted earlier, Valluvar has covered the four primary goals of life (virtue, wealth, love, and salvation) in one and the same book. In fact, he was the first author to do so. This is another example of the uniqueness of Valluvar’s book.

Classical Tamil literature is divided into two main categories: akam, “interior” and puram, “exterior.”  The poems belonging to akam are love poems dealing with different situations in the development of love between a man and a woman. These poems are about life “inside” family, especially about sexual relations between men and women. The “exterior” poems concern life outside the family, that is, the king, the king’s wars, greatness and generosity, ethics, and death and dying. During the days of Tholkaappiyar and in the following few centuries, all books in Tamil literature either dealt with akam or puram genres. The Kural was the first book that contained poems in both genres in the same book. Lastly, the Kural was the first book with only two-line poems.

                The Kural is revolutionary: In addition to being unique, the Kural is also revolutionary in many respects. In Couplet 972, Valluvar declares,” All human beings are equal by birth, but distinctions arise only because of the different qualities of their actions.” Considering the fact that Valluvar made his declaration of human equality about two thousand years ago is indeed remarkable. During his time, the Vedic idea that people in the world belong to four distinct hierarchies of classes, the priestly class, the warrior class, the business class, and the class of laborers, has already begun to have its roots in Indian society. The class of an individual is determined by the family in which he is born, and there was no provision for migration from one class to another. In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says that he himself created this hierarchical class structure, and even he cannot change it[5]. In such a class-based society, it was indeed revolutionary on the part of Valluvar to proclaim that “All are equal by birth.”  The elitist document, “the Declaration of Independence,” which was adopted by the Continental Congress of the USA in 1776, declares that “All men are created equal.” It is obvious that women were not considered equal to men, and people of color were not considered equal to white men. Women and people of color had to fight for their equality and obtained equal rights only in the 20th century. Even in the 21st century, we find that in many countries, women do not enjoy equality with men. Therefore, Valluvar’s declaration regarding equality by birth is undoubtedly revolutionary.

                Rationalism in the Kural: Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines rationalism as a theory that reason is in itself a source of knowledge superior to and independent of sense perceptions. Based on this definition, we see that Valluvar’s ideas are in total agreement with that of rationalism. For example, in Couplet 355, he says, “Whatever be the apparent nature of things, it is wise to investigate their true nature.”             It is this type of free inquiry that forms the foundation of science. If Isaac Newton had ignored to investigate why an apple fell towards the ground instead of going up in the air, we would not have the laws of Newton. If Thomas Alva Edison did not pursue his investigations relentlessly, he would not have invented the incandescent electric bulb. He would not have developed many devices in fields such as electric power generationmass communicationsound recording,  motion pictures, etc. Valluvar’s idea that one should investigate the true nature of things is entirely compatible with rational thinking and scientific methodologies.

In Couplet 423, Valluvar advises his readers, “True wisdom is to discern the truth in whatever is said by whomsoever.” Questioning and verifying the statements made by others is a mark of critical thinking, and critical thinking leads to increased knowledge. For example, if Charles Darwin had not thought critically and simply accepted religious teachings on creationism, he would not have developed his theory of evolution. If Nicholas Copernicus had not doubted Ptolemy’s theory of egocentricity, he would not have come up with his theory of heliocentricity which is regarded as the launching point of modern astronomy and the scientific revolution. A typical religious person would not be open to questioning his own religious dogmas. The Buddha, the original rationalist, is supposed to have said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”  Valluvar does not endorse any religion as the ultimate truth and is open to the inquiry of all statements made by anyone. He echoes the Buddha when he says that individuals should investigate and believe whatever they feel comfortable with and should not blindly follow anyone. The Couplets 355 and 423 are proof of Valluvar’s support for rationalism.

The Tamil society to which Valluvar belonged considered chastity as highly desirable and a mandatory virtue for all women and, at the same time, condoned the promiscuous behavior of men instead of condemning it. There is ample evidence in the Tamil literature belonging to the Sangam period (300 BC – 300 AD) to indicate that men having relationships with prostitutes was not unusual. But Valluvar condemns the promiscuous behavior of men in no uncertain terms by expressing his strong disapproval of their relationships with prostitutes and involvement in adultery. In fact, he says, “A man’s greatness will be intact only if he guards himself like a chaste woman (Couplet 974).”  In Valluvar’s code of conduct, there is no tolerance for promiscuity. This is another example of Valluvar’s revolutionary thinking.

Also, the fact that consumption of indigenously brewed and imported alcoholic beverages was widely prevalent in Tamil society is well documented in the Tamil literature. Valluvar was the first poet and philosopher to disapprove of the use of inebriating intoxicants. This is yet another example of his revolutionary thinking.

Valluvar does not succumb to the fatalistic tendencies prevalent with the religious zealots of his time. Some religions have a tendency to overemphasize the role of God in the affairs of men and underestimate the role of hard work and effort. Valluvar says, “Even if God cannot help you to attain your goal, you will be rewarded in proportion to your efforts and hard work (Couplet 619).”  There are always unpredictable random events that happen in life and interfere with the planned activities of people. While recognizing the possibility of unpredictable random events, Valluvar says, “People who work hard with ceaseless industry will overcome the obstacles created by the unpredictable random events (Couplet 620).” Valluvar’s emphasis on effort instead of fate bears testimony to his revolutionary thinking.

Immortality of the Kural: In addition to being unique and revolutionary in many aspects, the Kural is also an immortal masterpiece created by Valluvar. The best-known and most visited portrait of Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 AD – 1519 AD), the impressive sculpture of David by Michelangelo (1475 AD – 1564 AD), the enchanting compositions of the musical virtuosos Bach and Beethoven, the famous religious books like the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other outstanding literature in major languages are examples of masterpieces which have stood the test of time. The reason for their apparent immortality is that they have an intrinsic value or beauty that appeals to their viewers, listeners, readers, and followers. The Kural belongs to the same category of immortal masterpieces. The two factors that contribute to the Kural’s immortality are its subject matter and the generality with which Valluvar has presented the subject matter.  

In his book, Valluvar deals with subjects that are associated with wisdom instead of knowledge. Knowledge and wisdom are two different things. Knowledge is the result of learning information which is based on data and the relationships among them. Whereas wisdom is the ability to think and act using knowledgeexperienceunderstandingcommon sense, and insight. Today’s knowledge may become obsolete tomorrow. For example, scientific knowledge often becomes obsolete due to new information based on advances in research. But the wisdom which is based on the collective experience of a community or the human race, in general, will remain valid forever. In the Kural, Valluvar deals with subjects like right conduct, education, morality, generosity, hospitality, thankfulness, truthfulness, persistence, friendship, efficiency in management, effective leadership, familial and conjugal love, etc., which have always been considered desirable qualities having permanent appeal to humanity. If Valluvar had attempted to discuss scientific topics in his book, it is quite likely that his conclusions would have been proved wrong due to advances in science over the past two millennia.

 Another factor that has contributed to the immortality of his book is the generality with which he has approached the subject matter of his book. For example, when he talks about education, in Couplet 391, he says, “Learn flawlessly whatever should be learnt. After having learnt, live accordingly.“ If Valluvar had listed the subjects to be learnt or the books to be read, such a list would be outdated and may not have any relevance at the present time. Since he did not specifically say what has to be learnt, his statement is still valid and will be valid at all times. Similarly, when he discusses the appropriate time for action, he asks, “Is there any task that is impossible to accomplish for the one who chooses the right moment and the right tool (Couplet 483)?“ Here again, it would have been fallacious on his part if he had mentioned the details regarding the right time and the right tool. But he has made his point about the need for choosing the right moment and right tool to be successful in any chosen task without being specific. This type of generalization in Valluvar’s approach contributes to the eternal validity of his book.

Universal applicability of the Kural: In addition to immortality, the wisdom-based subject matter and the generality with which Valluvar has treated them also contribute to the universal applicability of his book. There is no mention of anything about his mother tongue (Tamil) or his native land (Tamil Nadu) in his book. Except for a few Couplets where he mentions the names of certain gods of Hindu mythology, there is no mention of his religion. When he discusses good conduct, he realizes that it has to depend upon society and the time period in which one lives. Therefore, in Couplet 140, he says, “Those who fail to conduct themselves in harmony with the world are ignorant despite their vast knowledge.”

In Tamil literary tradition, the term “world“ denotes “the wise of the time.” Therefore, in the above Couplet, Valluvar has made a very general statement that is applicable in any part of the world at any given time. There is no worldwide standard for good conduct. For example, divorce and remarriage are perfectly valid and considered acceptable conduct for women in the western world. Whereas divorce and remarriage may not be considered good conduct for women in some Asian countries. By stating that one should “live in harmony with the world," Valluvar maintains his generality, and that contributes to the universal applicability of his statements.

Current Status of the Kural

                Until the 20th century, the Kural was studied and discussed only by Tamil scholars, and the awareness of the Kural among the general public was very limited. The credit goes to Dravidar Kazhagam, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagam, and their leaders like Thanthai Periyar, Arignar Anna, and Dr. Kalaignar Karunanidhi for bringing the Kural from the pundits’ parlor to the public arena. Today, every educated person in Tamil Nadu is aware of the Kural and at least some of its contents. At least part of the Kural is included in the Tamil Nadu school curricula. Tamil Nadu government and many private organizations encourage school children to memorize all the 1,330 Couplets, and many children do so and win prizes for their accomplishments. Due to the initiatives of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Dr. Kalaignar Karunanithi, a beautiful chariotlike structure known as Valluvar Kottam in Chennai and a colossal statue of Thiruvalluvar at the tip of the Indian peninsula have been erected. Tamil Nadu Universities and the Central Institute of Classical Tamil hold literary conferences to encourage research on the Kural. To further increase the awareness and knowledge of the Kural, the Hon’ble Justice of the Madras High Court, Mr. R. Mahadevan, has issued an order through his landmark judgment in 2015 to the Tamil Nadu Government to include the first 1080 couplets of the Kural in the curricula of students in the 6th through 12th grades[6]. Recently, in 2022, he reissued a similar judgment reminding the government to comply with the court order. All these public and private sources' efforts to promote the Kural are indeed commendable.


                The Hon’ble Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi of India and some of the ministers in his cabinet often quote from the Kural.  Thiruvalluvar’s statues have been installed in a few cities in India. But the Kural is not included in the curricula of students in any state of India other than Tamil Nadu. Even educated people in India outside of Tamil Nadu are ignorant of the Kural. Statues of Thiruvalluvar have been installed in many countries, and several conferences on the Kural have been held in the USA, the UK, and many other countries. Yet, most of the world is still unaware of the Kural. The famous Tamil poet, Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathiyar of the twentieth century, says, “The land of the Tamil-speaking people has attained great glory by giving Valluvar to the whole world.” It is true that the Tamil-speaking people have indeed made a unique and remarkable gift to the world, but unfortunately, the world has not yet recognized this gift.

                 Dr. Armoogum Parsuramen, former Minister of Education and Science of Mauritius and former Director of the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is working with several Tamil organizations in the world to get Thirukkural recognized by UNESCO as a “Book of Universal Literature.” If his attempts are successful, Kural’s recognition in the world will exponentially increase. In addition to these efforts, we, in the Tamil diaspora, have the responsibility to promote Thirukkural in all possible ways so that people all over the world will be benefitted from the immortal and universal wisdom of Thiruvalluvar.


[1] . There are contradicting reports about Mahavira’s year of birth and the year of his death.

[2] There is no clear evidence to indicate that Thiruvalluvar was his real name. The term Valluvan refers to one whose job it was to announce the royal proclamations to the public by beating a drum. It might also mean one who served as a minister to a king. Valluvar is a respectful version of the word Valluvan. The term “Thiru” is an honorific prefix to anything that is considered sacred or divine. So, it is quite possible that Thiruvalluvar might not have been his real name, but that is how he has been referred to by others.

[3] In Tamil, the word “kural” means a twoline verse (couplet). Valluvar’s book consists of 1330 kurals. As in the case of his name, the term “Thiru” is an honorific prefix to the book of kurals and hence his book is called Thirukkural.


[4]. In the first part of the Kural, Valluvar has dedicated a chapter to each of the negative and positive qualities that are identified in bold letters.

[5]. The fourfold caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of Guna and Karma; though I am the author thereof, know Me as a nondoer and immutable. (Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 4, Stanza 13)


[6] . “Children whose quest for knowledge is unlimited should be drawn into principles at an early age so that they do not deviate. The future of every country lies at the hands of the younger generation. It is the duty of the state to show them the rightful path, and there is no better philosophy than what is preached in Thirukkural.” (W.P (MD) No.11999 of 2015) Hon Justice R. Mahadevan, Madras High Court.


Thursday, January 6, 2022

Valluvar on Leadership

Valluvar on Leadership

Dr. R. Prabhakaran



History is full of examples of remarkable achievements by outstanding individuals. The conquerors like Cyrus the Great (580 BC – 529 BC), Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC), Emperor Asoka (304 BC – 232 BC), Attila the Hun (406 AD – 453 AD), Genghis Khan (1162 AD – 1227 AD), Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 AD – 1821 AD) and others like them are remembered for their extraordinary military victories. The entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates are examples of men who relentlessly pursued their vision and are admired for their phenomenal success in their business endeavors. Dedicated freedom fighters and civil rights activists like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King are revered for their selfless sacrifice and pursuit of their vision with great determination. The conquerors could not have achieved their victories without the help of the brave warriors who fought for them. The entrepreneurs could not have been successful without the assistance of men and women who worked for them. The freedom fighters could not have achieved their goals without the support of their enthusiastic followers. In addition to the conquerors, entrepreneurs, and freedom fighters, others like them have successfully achieved their goals and visions in their various ventures. Despite the differences in their visions and goals, there is one thing in common with all these people and others like them. Undoubtedly, they are all considered leaders in their chosen fields of activity.


Who is a leader? With the advent of the political parties during the late 1600s and the industrial revolution during the 18th century, human society has undergone significant changes, and consequently, more leadership opportunities have emerged. Today, we have hierarchies of leaders in government, the military, politics, labor unions, corporations, non-profit organizations, religious groups, and other organized groups. The role of a leader varies from one group to another. Do all these leaders have anything in common? What exactly is leadership? Warren Bennis, an American scholar, organizational consultant, author, and expert in Leadership Studies, defines leadership as the capacity to translate vision into reality. Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant and author, defines leadership as the ability to do the right thing. Others define leadership as the ability to organize a group of people to achieve a common goal. Although the definitions vary, it is generally accepted that leaders achieve the right goals by organizing and motivating other people to accomplish those goals.


What are the essential qualities of a leader? Is leadership an inborn quality, or is it something that anyone can learn? These questions have received the attention of researchers only during the past two centuries. However, there is no consensus among the researchers regarding the answers to these questions. For example, John C. Maxwell, an American author who has written many books on leadership, contends that charisma is an essential quality of a leader. Generally, charisma is defined as a special charm or appeal that causes people to feel attracted by others. Peter Drucker claims that charisma is not an essential quality of a leader. He cites the examples of US presidents Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Harry Truman, who, according to him, had no charisma whatsoever. Despite this disagreement between John Maxwell and Peter Drucker on the need for charisma as an essential quality of a leader, there is no disagreement that a leader must have several distinguishing qualities that make him a leader. The controversy is only about the set of qualities that are really essential for a leader. What one researcher considers an essential quality is not regarded as essential by others.


During the days of Valluvar, other than a king, there were no others who could be considered a leader of any significance. Valluvar deals with many topics in the Kural. Of all the topics, the one that gets the most of his attention is Kingship. Out of the 133 chapters in the Kural, twenty-five of them deal with the qualities necessary for a king and how he should govern his country. While Valluvar considers some of the qualities essential, he treats a few other qualities as desirable for a king to be recognized as an outstanding king. These ideas of Valluvar are very similar to those of many modern-day researchers regarding the qualities of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a corporation or leader of an organization.


Valluvar’s ideas on the essential qualities of a king

In the section on Kingship, Valluvar lists several qualities as essential for a king to be an effective ruler. The following three kurals contain a total of ten qualities that Valluvar considers essential for a king:


The kingly character never fails in these four things, namely courage,

liberality, wisdom, and energy.                                                                            (kural 382)

Alertness, learning, and bravery are the three virtues that should

never be absent from the ruler of a country.                                                       (kural 383)

A king should not swerve from virtue; he should eschew vice and

maintain his honor without sacrificing courage.                                                 (Kural 384)


In addition to the above three kurals, some of Valluvar’s other ideas on the essential qualities of a king can also be found in several chapters in the section on Kingship. In the following paragraphs, related qualities are grouped to present a coherent summary of Valluvar’s ideas. Also, the concepts of modern researchers on leadership are presented so that the reader can appreciate the ageless wisdom of Valluvar and its relevance to the contemporary period.


Courage:  Courage is the ability to face fear, pain, danger, and uncertainty and take action despite them. Nelson Mandela, the South African revolutionary who fought against apartheid and later became the president of his nation, said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”  It was not uncommon in the past for a king to be involved in combats and confrontations with enemies, foreign and domestic. Therefore, a king should always be alert and courageous to confront his enemies. Valluvar considers courage an essential quality for a ruler (kural 382). As seen from the following kural, Valluvar favors courage tempered by discretion. For Valluvar, valor without discretion is foolishness.


Not to fear what ought to be feared is foolishness; the truly wise will fear

what should be feared.                                                                                              (kural 428)


Like a king, a present-day leader could face ideological clashes, differences of opinions, rivalry, and jealousy from within the ranks of his organization or from his competition. The leader should anticipate these situations and carry out his plans despite the unfavorable situations and uncertainties that confront him. There is always a possibility that he may fail in his attempts to face adverse situations. There is always a chance of failure. Those who can overcome their fear of failure and are not afraid to take calculated risks have a better chance of succeeding in adverse situations. Eddie Rickenbacker was a famous fighter pilot during World War I, and he later became the CEO of a major airline (Eastern Airlines). When he was asked about his courage in combat, he admitted that he had been scared. “Courage,” he said, “‘is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared.”


 Modern writers like John C. Maxwell and Peter Drucker insist that leaders see leadership as a responsibility rather than a rank or a privilege. According to Peter Drucker, “Effective leaders are rarely permissive. But when things go wrong – and they always do – they do not blame others.”  They take responsibility for their failures. A leader needs to have the courage to accept his failures and take responsibility for them. It is interesting to note that the leaders like Nelson Mandela, John Maxwell, and Peter Drucker agree with Valluvar that courage is one of the essential qualities of a leader.


Bravery: Although sometimes courage and bravery are used interchangeably, they are indeed two different things. Courage involves the presence of fear and acting despite the presence of fear. Courage requires fear, while bravery does not. Courage is a means to achieve an end. On the other hand, bravery is the end as well as the means. When a mother jumps into a burning house to save her child, she is aware of the consequences and afraid of being burnt alive along with her child. Her act is despite her fear. It is an example of a courageous act. In the biblical story, where David fought against Goliath and won despite Goliath’s size advantage, David was merely motivated to fight, and there was no fear involved. That is an example of bravery. Courage entails a cause such as love, passion, compassion, concern, etc. Bravery maintains its essence even without a cause.


From the point of view of Valluvar, bravery refers to the ability of the leader to carry out and implement his decision fearlessly once it was made after due considerations of the pros and cons of the issues involved.


Liberality: Valluvar lists liberality (kural 382) as one of the essential characteristics of a king. Liberality is the quality of being generous. According to Valluvar, liberality is a virtue that everyone should practice. In particular, helping the poor without expecting anything in return is the true hallmark of liberality. A king has virtually unlimited resources, and his liberality would be immensely beneficial to the destitute and the people in need. In his book “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader”, John C. Maxwell says, “Nothing speaks to others loudly or serves them better than generosity from a leader. True generosity isn’t an occasional event. It comes from the heart and permeates every aspect of a leader’s life, touching his time, money, talents, and possessions”. Another well-known author, Steven Covey refers to liberality as “abundance mentality” in his book on “Principle-Centered Leadership” and considers liberality one of the three essential qualities of a leader along with integrity and maturity. The habit of being generous reflects a leader’s concern for others and his ability to add value to others. That is why liberality is considered an essential quality for a leader. Here again, we notice the striking similarity between Valluvar and modern writers in their thinking about liberality as an essential quality for a leader.


Learning: Learning is the act of acquiring new information about various things. When we use our intelligence to understand the relationships among the various pieces of information, we gain knowledge. The more we understand the information we have learned, our knowledge increases. Learning can be accomplished through formal education, self-study, experience, observation, or listening to others. Valluvar considers that learning and improving our knowledge is necessary for everyone. In the following kurals, Valluvar emphasizes the importance of learning.


Water will flow from a well in the sand in proportion to the depth to which it is dug,

and so also knowledge grows in a man in proportion to his learning.                            (Kural 396)

Learning is the true imperishable asset of excellence for a man; all other

assets are not real assets.                                                                                                 (kural 400)

Learning is necessary, but even those who are not formally learned should

learn by listening to the wise, for such learning acquired through

listening will serve as a staff of support in times of distress.                                           (kural 414)

The wealth (of information) gained through listening is the wealth of all

wealth, and it is the greatest of all wealth.                                                                      (kural 411)

When there is no food for the ear, give a little also to the stomach.                              (kural 412)


     Wisdom: A king can indeed gain significant knowledge through formal education and learning by listening to others. But is knowledge alone sufficient for a king to make the right decisions? Valluvar believes that a king should also have wisdom in addition to knowledge. What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? As already mentioned, knowledge is the collection of information that someone is aware of. On the other hand, wisdom is thinking and acting using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight. Wisdom is the ability to make correct judgments and decisions. It is needless to say that wisdom has always been considered a sine qua non for a leader of any organization. Therefore, it is not surprising that Valluvar should include wisdom as an essential requirement for a king. He has included a chapter on the Merits of Wisdom (Chapter 43). The following kurals (from Chapter 43) highlight the significance of wisdom for a king:


Wisdom is the ultimate and impregnable defense for protection against destruction;

it is an inner fortress that enemies cannot destroy.                                                    (kural 421)        

      No terrifying calamity will happen to the wise who foresee and guard against

      potential evils.                                                                                                            (kural 429)

The wise possess everything, but the unwise possess nothing, even if they

have everything.                                                                                                           (kural 430)


     According to Plato, the Greek philosopher, philosophers are the ones who possess the cardinal virtues like wisdom, courage, temperance (discipline), and justice, and therefore, they are the only ones who should become the rulers. But Valluvar is realistic, and he knows that kingship is either inherited or, through sheer might one overthrows the prevailing king of a country and establishes a new dynasty of his own. Therefore, instead of making a philosopher a king, Valluvar prefers the king to gain knowledge and wisdom through education, training, association with wise counselors, and becoming an effective ruler. This is also true in modern-day democracies.


Energy:  Energy is the strength and vitality required for sustained physical and mental activity, and it is the energy that enables one to achieve one’s goals. In addition to mentioning energy as a prerequisite quality for a leader (in kural 382), Valluvar has a chapter (Chapter 60) on energy and its importance for one and all. According to Valluvar, energy is the ideal possession that one could possess, and all other possessions are not real possessions (kural 591). In other words, one with energy can obtain and retain his wealth and other things of value under all circumstances. He adds that success and wealth will seek their way to the one with the inflexible will and unfailing energy (kural 594). In addition to having energy, he also advises that a king (as well as others) should always think lofty thoughts.


Think lofty thoughts always; even if they fail to materialize, it is still as

good as having materialized.                                                                    (kural 596)      


In the above kural, Valluvar implies that the combination of energy and lofty thoughts will lead to persistent hard work, resulting in success.


A practical application of Valluvar’s ideas on energy can be seen in the management philosophy of Jack Welch, the legendary Chief Executive Officer of the General Electric Company (GE). He had devised a system of 4E’s and followed it meticulously to achieve phenomenal success at GE. According to Jeffrey A. Krames, the author of “Jack Welch and 4E’s of Leadership”, it all begins with energy. Leaders must have other strengths, such as intelligence and decision-making ability, but the energy converts good ideas into measurable performance. Jack Welch’s 4E system consists of the following four basic principles: 1) the leader has energy; 2) the leader energizes others; 3) the leader has a competitive edge; and 4) the leader executes. Jack Welch’s successful application of the system of 4E shows the wisdom of Valluvar in espousing energy as an essential quality for a leader.


Alertness: Alertness on the part of a king makes it possible for him to identify opportunities and look for potential threats to his country and his own authority. An effective ruler cannot afford to be idle, slothful, or forgetful. He should be ready to act without much delay. The absence of forgetfulness and laziness helps a ruler to be alert and watchful. Alertness and the lack of forgetfulness and sloth lay the foundation for a ruler’s success. To emphasize the need for alertness, Valluvar has dedicated a chapter to the Evils of Forgetfulness (Chapter 54) and another chapter on the Importance of Avoiding Sloth (Chapter 61). Valluvar’s ideas regarding the need for alertness and avoiding laziness and forgetfulness are always valid and essential qualities for a modern leader. Nowadays, it is customary for CEOs and national leaders to use sophisticated technological tools to monitor threats and opportunities and get daily or weekly briefings from their subordinates regarding issues requiring immediate attention. Of course, it is up to the leader to take advantage of the information he receives and to remain alert.


Not swerving from virtue: Here, virtue does not refer to the personal behavior of the king. It refers to the just and the right ways of ruling the country.


Eschewing vice: Here, the term vice does not refer to the evil deeds to be avoided by the king in his personal life. Eschewing vice means preventing evil and vicious activities of evil people in the country.


Maintaining honor without sacrificing courage: In this context, the king should protect his honor by maintaining high standards of courage, righteousness, and morality in warfare. Any evidence of cowardice or lack of moral values on the part of the king would not help him to maintain his honor.


Valluvar’s ideas on the desirable qualities of a king

In addition to the ten qualities listed above as essential for a king, Valluvar also mentions a few other desirable qualities for a king to have if he were to excel as a ruler. Even without these desirable qualities, one could be a king. But these qualities would help him to become an outstanding ruler. The following eight kurals contain a total of fourteen qualities that Valluvar considers desirable for a king to have a positive impact on his people and to be ranked as an outstanding king:


He is the beacon among kings who has these four qualities: beneficence,

benevolence, rectitude, and concern for the citizens.                             (kural 390)


The whole world will dwell under the umbrella of the king, who can

bear bitter criticism.                                                                                 (kural 389)


If the ruler is easily accessible and not harsh in his speech, the

world will shower high praise on him.                                                     (kural 386)

The world will praise and obey the king who speaks kind words and

generous in giving.                                                                                     (Kural 387)

If a king administers justice and protects his subjects, he will be

regarded as God.                                                                                      (kural 388)

Let the king cherish the friendship of wise and accomplished persons

(wise counselors) to solve the present problems and prevent future ones. (kural 442)

If you encounter adversities, laugh at them. There is nothing like

that to overcome them.                                                                           (Kural 621)

When a task seems impossible, do not be disheartened. Persistent

efforts will help you to achieve greatness.                                               (kural 611)


Benevolence and Beneficence: Although sometimes benevolent and beneficent are used interchangeably, they mean different things. The word “benevolent” is from the Latin word velle, which means “to wish,” and therefore, benevolent refers to the “desire to do good.” On the other hand, the word beneficent is derived from the Latin word facere, which means “to do,” and hence beneficent implies “the act of doing good.” Obviously, one has to be benevolent to be beneficent.


In the case of a king, benevolence implies helping his citizens and conducting his judiciary as well as administrative duties with compassion. According to Valluvar, “Gracious compassion is the unique great quality, because of which the world exists (Kural 571).”  The fact that Valluvar has included the chapter on Gracious Compassion (Chapter 58) in the section on Kingship implies that Gracious Compassion is really a highly desirable quality for a king.


 In the context of kural 390, beneficence also refers to the ability of a king to recognize people with knowledge and talent and reward them appropriately. The people whom he rewards may be his citizens, staff, scholars, or artists.


The modern-day CEOs are expected to be cognizant of their social responsibilities and provide support and assistance to deserving social causes. The CEOs are also responsible for establishing fair and equitable policies and enforcing them to reward employees with salary increases and other benefits based on their talent and performance. So, benevolence and beneficence are considered equally important for modern-day leaders as well as the kings during the days of Valluvar.


 Rectitude: In the Kural, Rectitude is considered a highly desirable quality for a king. Rectitude means just rule. During the days of Valluvar, or for that matter, even before and after Valluvar’s days, the kings had judiciary, legislative, and executive powers. In other words, the king had the authority to make laws and enforce them. As a result of this monopoly of power, a king might be tempted to be indiscriminate and partial in judicial matters. Valluvar lays down a very important principle of jurisprudence. He says, “A fair-minded king takes cognizance of all the offenses and does not show favors to anyone while rendering justice. Where necessary, he consults men of law and awards the penalty (kural - 541).”  This principle of fairness applies to all aspects of the king’s administration. Valluvar condemns the practice of excessive taxation or any other imposition of financial hardship on the people as a highly undesirable quality and that it will lead to the king’s ruin. He says, “The sceptered king demanding illegitimate gifts or extorting excessive taxes is like armed robbery. (kural 552).” He also warns, “The tears of the oppressed people who are unable to endure the sufferings are the sharp weapons that destroy the king’s riches (kural 555).”  Of course, history has several examples of dictators who were overthrown because they subjected their people to cruel and unusual punishments and imposed enormous tax burdens upon them.


In the modern era, governments stipulate the rules by which businesses and other enterprises should operate, and if they fail to operate according to the laws of the land, the businesses are liable for punishments. It is the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that his organization is compliant with the laws of the land. Besides being compliant with the laws, it is also the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that fair practices are followed in all aspects of the administration. 


Concern for the Citizens: It is wise for a king to have the utmost concern for his citizens. If the king is indifferent towards his citizens and if the citizens are unhappy, then he will not enjoy the loyalty of his citizens, which may result in a lack of support for him in case of aggression or war against his country by his enemies. In the case of the CEOs, they have no counterpart for the citizens of a king. However, for a CEO to be successful, he must have concern for his employees and the consumers whom his organization serves.


Although the form of government has changed over the years, Valluvar’s thesis that it is desirable for rulers and leaders to be impartial in their judgment and being fair in their administration, and have concern for their citizens, staff, and consumers seem to be another example of his ageless wisdom.


Tolerating bitter criticism: It is unusual for a king to encounter direct criticism. Kings and leaders are usually surrounded by sycophants who shower false praises and rarely offer any criticism. But listening to the sycophants and ignoring those who dare to criticize is detrimental to a king or a leader. Valluvar considers that it is very important for a king to listen to his advisors who are bold enough to offer bitter criticism. In fact, he says, “A king without the courageous counselors who can rebuke him will destroy himself even if there is no enemy to destroy him (kural 448).”  Of course, it is not enough to have counselors who can offer criticism. The king should listen to their criticism, however harsh and bitter it is and analyze the merits of such criticism and follow their advice whenever they deserve consideration. By way of encouraging the king to listen to his advisors’ criticism, Valluvar says, “Who is there strong enough to destroy the king who has counselors who would reprove him when he errs (kural 447)?”


In the modern era, in the democratic forms of governments, the role of the opposition party is to offer meaningful criticism to the rulers. In the corporate environment, the Board of Directors, and the shareholders, have the right to criticize the CEO. So, Valluvar’s idea regarding listening to bitter criticism has now become a routine practice in the organizations of the present era. Of course, it is an entirely different matter whether such criticisms are being accepted and acted upon by those in power.


Ease of access and not using harsh words: The kings have the privilege to act as they wish, and generally, they are not subjected to any punishments for their obnoxious behavior. The occasional outbursts of anger by a king may not have serious consequences. However, if a king is routinely abusive in his speech and not easily accessible to his citizens and staff, people will avoid meeting him. That will result in his not getting the right information at the right time, and the king might eventually be surrounded by sycophants who are willing to tolerate the king’s behavior in return for some anticipated benefit. In the long run, the king will suffer from isolation from and alienation by his staff and citizens. He would lose their loyalty and support in case of a war, making it easy for his enemy to win over him. The advice regarding ease of access and not using harsh words is equally applicable to the present-day rulers of nations and the leaders of business enterprises also.


Speaking kind words and being generous in giving: If one does not use harsh words, that does not mean he is using kind words. It is important for the king to be kind towards his subordinates and his citizens to get their cooperation. It also helps the king if he can show genuine empathy towards people who are in need and help them by giving money or other valuables. In the section on the essential qualities of a king, it was mentioned that liberality is one of the essential qualities.        If so, what is the difference between liberality and being generous?           Although liberality and generosity are considered synonyms, there is a slight difference between the two words. Liberality is an attitude, whereas generosity refers to giving willingly with a genuine concern for the recipient's needs.


Administers justice and protects his subjects: A king is expected to administer justice and protect his subjects. But some kings may not do so. If the king fails to administer justice and protect his subjects, there is not much that his subjects can do about that. If a king does administer justice and protects his subjects, his subjects will be very pleased and thankful. They may even consider such a king a savior or perhaps even a God.


Company of wise Counselors: Valluvar considers that it is also desirable for a king to keep the company of wise counselors who are truly interested in his welfare and who can offer him valuable advice. He discusses the merits of the company of wise counselors (Chapter 45) and complements that with a chapter (Chapter 46) on the evils of associating with mean people. The following kurals from Chapter 45 describe the importance of counselors for a king:


Let a king ponder well its value and secure the friendship of men of

virtue and mature knowledge (wise counselors).                                    (kural - 441)

It is the rarest of all rare privileges for a king to have wise and

great men as his counselors.                                                                    (kural - 443)


Throughout history, we can find several examples of counselors offering valuable advice to their kings, and the kings immensely benefitted from such advice. Akbar the Great ascended the throne of the Mogul empire of India at the young age of thirteen. It is said that Akbar could not read or write. But he had an extraordinary group of nine distinguished men who served him as his counselors, and with their help, he could rule his empire very successfully. Other examples of great emperors who came to power and depended on their advisors would include Peter the Great of Russia, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Alexander the Great of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, and so on. So, the contribution of the counselors to the kings and monarchs of the past cannot be underestimated. In modern-day democracies, ministers and various other advisors keep their leaders well-informed with up-to-date information and intelligence and offer them timely advice. So, Valluvar is giving due recognition to the vital role of wise counselors by acknowledging its importance.


Being undaunted by adversities: A king is likely to encounter any number of adversities and setbacks. He cannot afford to succumb to the thought of failure. His staff would be looking to him for leadership and guidance to overcome adverse situations. Without being undaunted by adversities, he should consult with his advisors, analyze his options and forge ahead with the courage to combat the adversities. To act with determination and courage, Valluvar suggests that one should laugh at adversity because that is the best way to overcome it. This is like the comment made by the Scottish philosopher and poet Thomas Carlyle who said, “Wondrous is the spirit of cheerfulness and its power of endurance.”  Of course, this advice by Valluvar is applicable not only to the kings and leaders but to everyone. However, in view of the grave consequences that might result from a king or a leader’s inability to triumph over adversities, this suggestion by Valluvar is undoubtedly more relevant to kings and leaders.

Never give up: According to Valluvar, one should not become disheartened and give up persistent efforts because the task at hand is daunting. Although this advice is general and applicable to everyone, in view of the importance of the responsibilities of kings and leaders, the quality of “never giving up” or tenacity is more relevant to them.



The political, social, economic, scientific, and technological developments that have occurred during the past two millennia have entirely reshaped the world. For example, monarchies have disappeared in many countries, giving room to democracies; secular governments have replaced theocracies. Societal values have changed considerably. People recognize the need to eliminate discrimination of all kinds based on caste, race, language, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, etc. Such a Utopia may never exist, but people are at least thinking along those lines. In the case of the economy, modern-day trade, commerce, and worldwide markets are a long way from the rural economy based on the barter system of the past. Science and technology are constantly evolving and reaching new heights that our forefathers could not have imagined. Despite these evolutionary and revolutionary changes undergone by the world during the past two thousand years, many ideas of Valluvar are still valid and valuable even today. Valluvar’s ideas on leadership are examples of his ageless wisdom and its universal and eternal applicability.