Thirukkural, composed by Thiruvalluvar, some 2,000 years ago, in classical Tamil, has acquired over the ages the status of scriptural authority as a canon informing the behaviour of Tamils in their day-to- day interpersonal relations all over the world. Every Tamil can recite from memory at least few Kural-couplets appropriate to his/her situation. The Tamils do not dispute the pride of place Thiruvalluvar occupies in their heart and esteem. Despite his humble origins, Thiruvalluvar reigns supreme as the foremost poet and philosopher of the Tamils.

Thiruvalluvar’s epigrammatic sayings relate a person’s social, political and domestic life and duties. In this regard, it ranks equal to Confucius’ Analects or Seneca’s Epistulae Morales. Thiruvalluvar drew his insights on human behavior from the prevailing contexts of his society. Today it represents the collective consciousness of the Tamil at that time and, to a great extent, to our present day. Hence, it still occupies among the didactic literature of the Tamils the most eminent place. It is rightfully hailed as a universal book of wisdom par excellence. It continues to offer ethical precepts for the development of character of all Tamils. Therefore, it transcends claims by a particular religious group (e.g., Jains, Buddhists, Saivites, Vaishnavites, Christians and the like) and promotes peaceful co-existence.

Scholars have compared the nature and teachings of Thirukkural with the biblical book on Proverbs, the ethical corpus of Greek traditions, the rich Confucian gnomic heritage and the holy texts of Buddhism and Jainism. The Thirukkural is almost in its entirety secular in nature, and it is not otherwise biased. It is noteworthy that this monumental legacy of humankind does not name any god or goddess. Nevertheless, its author Thiruvalluvar was religious in his own way. He weaves his entire text around Cāṉṟōṉ, a conceptual realisation of an ideal superman, who embodies five noble qualities such as love, truth, compassion, good judgment and the upholding of character devoid of blame. The god or goddess in the Thirukkural is the paragon of Virtue or Righteousness, popularly designated by the Tamil term Aram. Aram is the presiding deity in this great work and Cāṉṟōṉ the sought-after être, the Jünzi of the classical Chinese Canon of Change. As such, Thirukkural enjoys the reputation of being the only book on moral precepts expressed in felicitous words. When quoted in Tamil, its euphonic cadences and alliterative mnemonics stand out. Its tenets transcend ethnic, linguistic, religious, and national boundaries, and radiate a global appeal.

This enduring Tamil classical writing comprises 1330 couplets that are divided into 133 themes, each of which contains ten couplets and shows at least ten ways of elaborating the same theme. This work treats three major topics: the Aṟatthuppāl (On Virtue, 380 couplets), Poruṭpāl (On Wealth Management in a Princely State, 700 couplets), and Kāmatthuppāl (On Pre-and-Post Marital Carnal Love, 250 couplets). Each couplet is composed in strict agreement with the classical Tamil prosodical meter known as kuṟaṭpā.

Thirukkural deals with the typical internal and external (akam and puṟam) aspects and modes of life in Tamil classical poetry, conventions especially en vigueur during the early Sangam Period. The first section on aṟam concerns itself with the lives and duties of the householder and the ascetic. Its second section treats responsibilities of human beings in their societal life, particularly in a princely kingdom. This realm belongs to the puṟam category. Its third section engages with kāmam and presents the emotional and/or sexual relationship between a man and a woman during their premarital and wedded phases. This section is an example for the akam type.

The universal appeal of the Thirukkural has attracted Asian scholars and numerous European missionaries to our shores, and they have translated it into almost all the major languages of the world. While the German Lutheran missionary Ziegenbalg introduced this great classic to his patrons in Germany in 1708, the Italian Jesuit missionary Beschi has translated it into Latin in 1730. Scholars of international repute, including the Nobel laureate Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi have showered praise on this unique masterpiece. Dr. Albert Schweitzer wrote: “ There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find so much of lofty wisdom”.

Mahatma Gandhi described it as “a text book of indispensable authority on moral life…… the maxims of Valluvar have touched my soul. There is none who has given such a treasure of wisdom like him”. Gandhiji, it might be worthwhile recalling, came to know about Thirukkural from Leo Tolstoy, who had said that the concept of “non-violence” was taken by him from a German version of the Kural. Monsieur Ariel calls it “ a masterpiece of Tamil literature, one of the highest and purest of expressions of human thought”. Subramaniya Bharathi, the gifted Tamil poet of Indian Independence struggle repute, considered the Kural as the foremost gift of the Tamil population to humanity at large.