Thiruvalluvar, commonly known as Valluvar, was a celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher. He is best known as the author of Thirukkuṛaḷ, a collection of couplets on ethics, political and economical matters, and love. The text is considered an exceptional and widely cherished work of the Tamil literature.
Almost no authentic information is available about Thiruvalluvar, states Kamil Zvelebil – a scholar of Tamil literature. His life and likely background are variously inferred from his literary works by different biographers. There are unauthentic hagiographic and legendary accounts of Thiruvalluvar life, and all major Indian religions, as well as Christian missionaries of the 19th-century, have tried to claim him as secretly inspired (crypto-) or originally belonging to their tradition. Little is known with certainty about his family background, religious affiliation, or birthplace. He is believed to have lived at least in the town of Mylapore (a neighbourhood of the present-day Chennai), and his floruit is dated variously from 4th century BCE to early 6th century CE, based on the traditional accounts and the linguistic analyses of his writings. Maraimalai Adigal gives 31 BCE as the birth year of Valluvar, while Kamil Zvelebil infers the Thirukkuṛaḷ and Thiruvalluvar are best dated to around 500 CE.
Valluvar has influenced a wide range of scholars down the ages since his time across the ethical, social, political, economical, religious, philosophical, and spiritual spheres. He has long been venerated as a great sage, and his literary works a classic of Tamil culture.
There is negligible authentic information available about Thiruvalluvar's life. In fact, neither his actual name nor the original title of his work can be determined with certainty. Tirukkural itself does not name its author. Monsieur Ariel, a French translator of his work in the 19th century, famously said it is "the book without a name by an author without a name". The name Thiruvalluvar (lit. Saint Valluvar) was first mentioned in the later text Tiruvalluva Maalai.
The speculations about Thiruvalluvar's life are largely inferred from his work Thirukkuṛaḷ and other Tamil literature that quote him. According to Zvelebil, Thiruvalluvar was "probably a learned Jain with eclectic leanings and intimate acquaintance with the early works of Tamil classical period and some knowledge of the Sanskrit legal and didactic texts (subhashita)".
The Shaivite Hindu text Tiruvalluva Maalai contains the earliest known textual reference to the legend of Thiruvalluvar, but it remains undated. This text attracted attention in the colonial era, because an early 19th-century commentary referred to him as "Valluvan" (Valluvar) whose text presented the "esoteric wisdom of the Vedas to the world". The original text relates the Kurral in the context of Sanskrit literature. The commentary includes the gloss that Valluvan was "born in a low caste", but the original text does not. According to Stuart Blackburn, this comment appears to be extra-textual and possibly based on the oral tradition. No other pre-colonial textual sources have been found to support any legends about the life of Thiruvalluvar. Starting around early 19th-century, numerous legends on Thiruvalluvar in Indian languages and English were published.
Various claims have been made regarding Valluvar's family background and occupation in the colonial era literature, all inferred from selective sections of his text or hagiographies published since the colonial era started in Tamil Nadu. One traditional version claims that he was a Paraiyar weaver. Another theory is that he must have been from the agricultural caste of Vellalars because he extols agriculture in his work. Another states he was an outcaste, born to a Pariah woman and Brahmin father. Mu Raghava Iyengar speculated that "valluva" in his name is a variation of "vallabha", the designation of a royal officer. S. Vaiyapuri Pillai derived his name from "valluvan" (a Paraiyar caste of royal drummers) and theorized that he was "the chief of the proclaiming boys analogous to a trumpet-major of an army". Thiruvalluvar was likely married to a woman named Vasuki and lived in Mylapore. According to traditional accounts, Valluvar died on the day of Anusham in the Tamil month of Vaikasi.
The poem Kapilar Agaval, purportedly written by Kapilar, describes its author as a brother of Valluvar. It states that they were children of a Pulaya mother named Adi and a Brahmin father named Bhagwan. The poem claims that the couple had seven children, including three sons (Valluvar, Kapilar, and Atikaman) and four sisters (Avvai, Uppai, Uruvai, and Velli). However, this legendary account is spurious. Kamil Zvelebil dates Kapilar Agaval to 15th century CE, based on its language. Various biographies mention the name of Valluvar's wife as Vasuki, but such details are of doubtful historicity.
The traditional biographies are not only inconsistent, they contain incredulous claims about Thiruvalluvar. Along with various versions of his birth circumstances, many state he went to a mountain and met the legendary Agastya and other sages. During his return journey, he sits under a tree whose shadow sits still over Thiruvalluvar and does not move the entire day, he kills a demon, performs miracles such as causing floods and making them retreat, he touches a grounded ship which miraculously then floats and sails off, his bride Vasuki cooks sand which comes out as boiled rice, and many more. Scholars consider these and all associated aspects of these hagiographic stories to be fiction and ahistorical, a feature common to "international and Indian folklore". The alleged low birth, high birth and being a pariah in the traditional accounts are also doubtful.
By 1904, Purnalingam Pillai – an ardent Dravidianist, had analyzed and called these traditional accounts and stories as myths. Pillai's analysis and arguments are robust, according to Blackburn. These fictional accounts of Thiruvalluvar's life have become popular because aspects of the traditional accounts were selectively accepted by Christian missionaries such as George Pope and other European writers, were widely published and then became a required reading about Tamil history.
The exact date of Thiruvalluvar is unclear. His work Tirukkuṛaḷ has been dated variously from 300 BCE to about the 6th century CE. According to traditional accounts, it was the last work of the third Sangam and was subjected to a divine test (which it passed). The scholars who believe this tradition, such as Somasundara Bharathiar and M. Rajamanickam, date the text to as early as 300 BCE. Historian K. K. Pillay assigned it to the early 1st-century CE. These early dates such as 300 BCE to 1 BCE are unacceptable and not supported by evidence within the text, states Zvelebil. The diction and grammar of the Tirukkuṛaḷ, his indebtedness to some earlier Sanskrit sources, suggest that he lived after the "early Tamil bardic poets", but before Tamil bhakti poets era.
In 1959, S. Vaiyapuri Pillai assigned the work to around or after the 6th-century CE. His proposal is based on the evidence that the Tirukkuṛaḷ contains a large proportion of Sanskrit loan words, shows awareness and indebtedness to some Sanskrit texts best dated to the first half of the 1st-millennium CE, and the grammatical innovations in the language of Tirukkuṛaḷ. Pillai published a list of 137 Sanskrit loan words in Tirukkuṛaḷ. Later scholars Thomas Burrow and Murray Barnson Emeneau show that 35 of these are of Dravidian origin, and not Sanskrit loan words. Zvelebil states that an additional few have uncertain etymology and future studies may prove those to be Dravidian. The 102 remaining loan words from Sanskrit are "not negligible", and some of the teachings in the Tirukkuṛaḷ states Zvelebil are "undoubtedly" based on the then extant Sanskrit works such as the Arthashastra and Manusmriti (also called the Manavadharmasastra).
According to Kamil Zvelebil, the Tirukkuṛaḷ does not belong to the (Sangam) period. In the 1970s, Zvelebil dated the text to somewhere between 450 and 500 CE. His estimate is based on the dates of Tamil texts with similar Tamil language features, and by placing it after some of the Tamil and Sanskrit treatises that are evidenced in the Tirukkuṛaḷ. Zvelebil notes that the text features several grammatical innovations, that are absent in the older Sangam literature. The text also features a higher number of Sanskrit loan words compared with these older texts. According to Zvelebil, besides being part of the ancient Tamil literary tradition, the author was also a part of the "one great Indian ethical, didactic tradition", as a few of his verses are "undoubtedly" translations of the verses in Sanskrit classics.
In the 19th-century and early 20th-century, European writers and missionaries variously dated the text and Thiruvalluvar to between 400 and 1000 CE. According to Blackburn, the "current scholarly consensus" dates the text and the author to approximately 500 CE.
In January 1935, the Tamil Nadu government officially recognized 31 BCE as the year of Valluvar. As suggested by Maraimalai Adigal, the Valluvar Year was added to the calendar. Thus, the Valluvar year is calculated by adding 31 to any year of the common era.
As with most other details about Valluvar, the exact place of his birth remains uncertain. Valluvar is believed to have lived in Madurai and later in the town of Mayilapuram or Thirumayilai (present-day Mylapore in Chennai). There are also accounts that say he was born in Mayilapuram and later moved to Madurai in order to publish his work at the royal court. The poem Kapilar Akaval states that Valluvar was born on the top of an oil-nut or iluppai tree (Madhuca indica) in Mayilapuram, while verse 21 of the Tiruvalluva Maalai claims that he was born in Madurai.
In 2005, a three-member research team from the Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Research Centre (KHCRC) claimed that Valluvar was born in Thirunayanarkurichi, a village in present-day Kanyakumari district. Their claim was based on an old Kani tribal leader who told them that Valluvar was a king who ruled the "Valluvanadu" territory in the hilly tracts of the Kanyakumari district.
Valluvar is generally thought to have belonged to either Jainism or Hinduism. Nevertheless, owing to the Kural text's non-denominational nature, almost every religious group in India, including Christianity, has claimed the work and its author as one of their own. However, these Christian claims have cropped up only after the colonial missionaries came to India. These claims have been proven to be false. The Tamil Scholar Mu. Varadarajan suggests Valluvar must have "practised religious eclecticism, maintained unshakeable faith in dharma but should have rejected religious symbols and superstitious beliefs."
Early 19th-century writers proposed that Thiruvalluvar may have been a Jain. The 1819 translation by Ellis mentions that the Tamil community debates whether Thiruvalluvar was a Jain or Hindu. If Thiruvalluvar was indeed a Jain, it raises questions about the source of the traditional Thiruvalluvar legends and the mainstream colonial debate about his birth.
Kamil Zvelebil believes that the ethics of the Tirukkural reflects the Jain moral code, particularly vegetarianism (TK 251-260), and ahimsa, i.e. "abstention from killing" (TK 321-333). Zvelebil states that the text contains epithets for God that reflect Jain ideology:
- Malarmicaiyekinan (Couplet 3), "he who walked upon the [lotus] flower"
- Aravaliyantanan (Couplet 8), "the Brahmin [who had] the wheel of dharma"
- Enkunattan (Couplet 9), "one of the eight-fold qualities"
These, according to Zvelebil, are "very much Jaina-like" because the arhat is seen as "standing on the lotus", or where the arhat in the Jain conception is the god with the lotus as his vehicle. There are exceptions, adds Zvelebil, when Thiruvalluvar treats this God with epithets found in the Hindu text Manusmriti (1.6), i.e. "the Primeval Lord" and "the King, the Monarch". Zvelebil states that his proposal is supported by the 13th-century Hindu scholar Parimelalhagar (Parimelalakar), who wrote a commentary on the Kural text, who admitted that these epithets are "very well applicable" to a Jain Arhat. However, according to P.S. Sundaram – a scholar who has translated the text for Penguin Classics, Parimelalhagar's commentary explicitly states that there are no [Jaina] heretical beliefs in the texts either.
Some other epithets mentioned in the text also reflect a "strong ascetic flavour" of Jainism in Zvelebil's view:
- Ventutal ventamai ilan (Couplet 4), "he who has neither desire nor aversion"
- Porivayil aintavittan (Couplet 6), "he who has destroyed the gates of the five senses"
Zvelebil further states that Valluvar seems to have been "cognizant of the latest developments" in Jainism. Zvelebil theorizes that he was probably "a learned Jain with eclectic leanings", who was well-acquainted with the earlier Tamil literature and also had knowledge of the Sanskrit texts. Early Digambara or Svetambara Jaina texts do not mention Thiruvalluvar. The first claim of Thiruvalluvar as an authority appears in a 16th-century Jain text, about 1,100 years after his life.
According to other scholars, Thiruvalluvar's writings suggest that he belonged to Hinduism. Hindu teachers have mapped his teachings in Tirukkuṛaḷ to the teachings found in Hindu texts. Valluvar's treatment of the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which is the principal concept in both Jainism and Hinduism, bolsters this argument. While the text extols the virtue of non-violence, it also dedicates many of 700 porul couplets to various aspects of statecraft and warfare in a manner similar to Arthasastra: "An army has a duty to kill in battle, and a king must execute criminals for justice." This non-mystic realism and the readiness for just war teachings are similar to those found in Hinduism.
The three parts that the Kural literature is divided into, namely, aram (virtue), porul (wealth) and inbam (love), aiming at attaining vitu (ultimate salvation), follow, respectively, the four foundations of Hinduism, namely, dharma, artha, kama and moksha. According to Norman Cutler, the prodigious 13th or 14h-century Tamil scholar Parimelalakar – who wrote the most influential commentary on Tirukkuṛaḷ – interprets the layout and focus on the Thiruvalluvar to be synonymous with the Sanskritic concept of Puruṣārtha (the objectives of human life). According to Parimelalakar, the Thiruvalluvar text covers primarily and directly the first three aspects, but not vitu (moksha, release). The text, however, does cover turavaram (renunciation) – the means to attain spiritual release. Thus, vitu is indirectly discussed.
According to Tamil Hindu scholars such as Parimelalakar, other concepts and teachings found in Thriuvalluvar's text and also found in Hindu texts include Vedas, gods (Trimurti), sattva, guṇa, munis and sadhus (renouncers), rebirth, affirmation of a primordial God, among others. According to Purnalingam Pillai, who is known for his critique of Brahminism, a rational analysis of the Thiruvalluvar's work suggests that he was a Hindu, and not a Jain. Similarly, J. J. Glazov, a Tamil literature scholar and the translator of the Kural text into the Russian language, sees "Thiruvalluvar as a Hindu by faith", according to a review by Kamil Zvelebil.
His mentioning of God Vishnu in couplets 610 and 1103 and Goddess Lakshmi in couplets 167, 408, 519, 565, 568, 616, and 617 hints at the Vaishnavite beliefs of Valluvar. Shaivites have characterised Valluvar as a devotee of Shiva and have installed his images in their temples. According to Zvelebil, Thiruvalluvar sometimes uses epithets for God that are found in Hindu Dharmasastras and not in Jaina texts. Further, in some teachings about politics, economics, and love, Thiruvalluvar undoubtedly has translated into Tamil the verses found in Hindu texts such as Arthasastra.
According to Stuart Blackburn, the Thirukurral is not a bhakti text, it neither satirizes nor eulogizes Brahmins or ritualism. It is a practical, pragmatic text and "certainly not a Shaivite or Vaishnavite" text. According to Norman Cutler, Thirukkural is an aphoristic text and the influential Parimelalakar's commentary interprets it within his own context, grounded in Hindu concepts and theological agenda. His elegantly written interpretations have made his commentary a Tamil classic and maneuvered Thiruvalluvar as consistent within the framework of Parimelalakar's Hinduism. His commentary on Thiruvalluvar's teachings reflect both the cultural values and textual values in the 13th to 14th-century Tamil Nadu. Thiruvalluvar's text can be interpreted and maneuvered in other ways.
The Dalit activist Iyothee Thass, who converted to Buddhism, claimed that Valluvar was originally called "Tiruvalla Nayanar", and was a Buddhist. Thass further contended that the name "Tirukkural" is a reference to the Buddhist Tripiṭaka. He claims that Valluvar's book was originally called Tirikural ("Three Kurals"), because it adhered to the three Buddhist scriptures Dhamma Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka, and Vinaya Pitaka. According to Thass, the legend that presents Valluvar as the son of a Brahmin father and a Paraiyar mother was invented by Brahmins in 1825, who wanted to Hinduise a Buddhist text. According to Geetha, the deconstruction and reinterpetation of the history of Thiruvalluvar into a Buddhist framework by Thass shows the significance and appropriation of Thiruvalluvar's text by all sections of Tamil society.
The 19th-century Christian missionary George Uglow Pope claimed that Thiruvalluvar must have come in contact with Christian teachers such as Pantaenus of Alexandria, imbibed Christian ideas and peculiarities of Alexandrian teachers and then wrote the "wonderful Kurral" with an echo of the "Sermon of the Mount". According to Pope, Thiruvalluvar must have lived in the 9th century AD because that would fit the historical chronology to his theory.
Since the 1960s, some South Indian Christians led by M. Deivanayagam at the Madras Christian College, have presented Valluvar as a disciple of Thomas the Apostle. According to this theory, Thomas visited present-day Chennai, where Valluvar listened to his lectures on the Sermon of the Mount.
According to John Lazarus, the Kural’s chapter on "no killing" applies to both humans and animals, in stark contrast to the Bible’s concept of killing, which refers only to the taking away of human life. He observes, “None of the ten epithets by which the Deity is described in the opening chapter of the Kural have the remotest connection with Christ or God, that is to say, as they are designated in the Bible.” He also says that the chapter on love “is quite different from the Apostle’s eulogium in 1 Cor. xiii.”
According to Zvelebil, the ethics and ideas in Thiruvalluvar's work are not Christian ethics, but those found in Jainism doctrine.
Tirukkural is the primary work credited to Thiruvalluvar. It contains 1330 couplets, which are divided into 133 sections of 10 couplets each. The first 38 sections are on moral and cosmic order (Tamil: aram, Skt: dharma), the next 70 are about political and economic matters (Tamil: porul, Skt: artha), and the remaining 25 are about pleasure (Tamil: inbam, Skt: kama).
Of the three sections, Thiruvalluvar's second section (porul) is about twice the size of first section, and three times that of the third. In the 700 couplets on porul (53% of the text), Thiruvalluvar mostly discusses statecraft and warfare. Thiruvalluvar's work is a classic on realism and pragmatism, and it is not a mystic, purely philosophical document. Thiruvalluvar teachings are similar to those found in Arthasastra, but differ in some important aspects. In Thiruvalluvar's theory of state, unlike Kautilya, the army (patai) is most important element. Thiruvalluvar recommends that a well kept and well trained army (patai) led by an able commander and ready to go to war is necessary for a state. Thiruvalluvar presents his theory of state using six elements: army (patai), subjects (kuti), treasure (kul), ministers (amaiccu), allies (natpu), and forts (aran). Thiruvalluvar also recommends forts and other infrastructure, supplies and food storage in preparation for siege.
The Tirukkural text has been translated into several Indian and international languages. It was translated into Latin by Constanzo Beschi in 1730, which helped make the work known to European intellectuals. Tirukkural is one of the most revered works in the Tamil language.
Tirukkural is generally recognized as the only work by Valluvar. However, in the Tamil literary tradition, Valluvar is attributed to be the author of many other later-dated texts including two Tamil texts on medicine, Gnana Vettiyan (1500 verses) and Pancharathnam (500 verses). Many scholars state that these are much later era texts (16th and 17th centuries), possibly by an author with the same name Valluvar. These books, 'Pancharathnam' and 'Gnana Vettiyan', contribute to Tamil science, literature and other Siddha medicines. In addition to these, 15 other Tamil texts have been attributed to Valluvar, namely, Rathna Sigamani (800 verses), Karpam (300 verses), Nadhaantha Thiravukol (100 verses), Naadhaantha Saaram (100 verses), Vaithiya Suthram (100 verses), Karpaguru Nool (50 verses), Muppu Saathiram (30 verses), Vaadha Saathiram (16 verses), Muppu Guru (11 verses), Kavuna Mani (100 verses), Aeni Yettram (100 verses), Guru Nool (51 verses), Sirppa Chinthamani (a text on astrology), Tiruvalluvar Gyanam, and Tiruvalluvar Kanda Tirunadanam. Several scholars, such as Devaneya Pavanar, deny that Thiruvalluvar was the author of these texts.
George Uglow Pope called Valluvar "the greatest poet of South India", but according to Zvelebil, he does not seem to have been a poet. According to Zvelebil, while the author handles the metre very skillfully, the Tirukkuṛaḷ does not feature "true and great poetry" throughout the work, except, notably, in the third book, which deals with love and pleasure. This suggests that Valluvar's main aim was not to produce a work of art, but rather an instructive text focused on wisdom, justice, and ethics.
Thiruvalluvar is revered and highly esteemed in the Tamil culture, and this is reflected in the fact that his work has been called by nine different names: Thirukkuṛaḷ (the sacred kural), Uttaravedam (the ultimate Veda), Thiruvalluvar (eponymous with the author), Poyyamoli (the falseless word), Vayurai valttu (truthful praise), Teyvanul (the divine book), Potumarai (the common Veda), Muppal (the three-fold path), and Tamilmarai (the Tamil Veda).
Its influence and historic use is legendary. In 1708, the German missionary, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, remarked that the Malabaris "think very highly of it", they make it "their handbook" often quoting from it to prove the validity of their traditions and arguments, and such books are "not just read but learned by heart" by the learned among them. According to Blackburn, it is hard to outdo the "hyberbolic honors" heaped on Thiruvalluvar and his work by the early Europeans in colonial India. Gover, for example, praised it as "Tamil Homer, The Ten Commandments and Dante rolled into one". During the colonial era, it was the text the Hindus used to respond to the "Christian allegations of Hindu superstition and barbarity".
In the early 16th century, a temple was built within the Ekambareeswara-Kamakshi (Shiva-Parvati) temple complex in Mylapore, Chennai, in honor of Valluvar. The locals believe that this is where Valluvar was born, underneath a tree within the shrines complex. A Valluvar statue in a seated posture holding a palm leaf manuscript of Tirukurral sits under the tree. In the shrine dedicated to him, Valluvar's wife Vasuki is patterned after the Hindu deity Kamakshi inside the sanctum. The temple shikhara (spire) above the sanctum shows scenes of Hindu life and deities, along with Valluvar reading his couplets to his wife. The sthala vriksham (holy tree of the temple) is the iluppai tree under which Valluvar is believed to have been born. The temple was extensively renovated in the 1970s.
Music His works have also influenced the south Indian classical music and popular culture. Carnatic musicians and composers like Mayuram Vishwanatha Shastri and M M Dandapani Desigar tuned select couplets in 19-20th centuries. Chitravina N Ravikiran set music to the entire 1330 verses using over 169 Indian ragas Jan 2016. Tirukkurals have also been recorded by film music composers of Tamil Nadu.
A temple-like memorial to Valluvar, Valluvar Kottam, was built in Chennai in 1976. This monument complex consists of structures usually found in Dravidian temples, including a temple car carved from three blocks of granite, and a shallow, rectangular pond. The auditorium adjoining the memorial is one of the largest in Asia and can seat up to 4,000 people.
A 133-foot tall statue of Valluvar was unveiled on January 1, 2000, at Kanyakumari at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean converge. The 133 feet denote Tirukkuṛaḷ's 133 chapters or athikarams and the show of three fingers denote the three themes Aram, Porul, and Inbam, that is, the sections on morals, wealth and love. The statue was designed by V. Ganapati Sthapati, a temple architect from Tamil Nadu. On 9 August 2009, a statue was unveiled in Ulsoor, near Bengaluru, also making it the first of its kind in India for a poet of a local language to be installed in its near states other than his own home land. A 12-foot statue of Valluvar was also installed in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. There is also a statue of Valluvar outside the School of Oriental and African Studies in Russell Square, London.
The Government of Tamil Nadu celebrates the 15th (16th on leap years) of January (the 2nd of the month of 'Thai' as per Tamil Calendar) as Thiruvalluvar Day in the poet's honour, as part of the Pongal celebrations.