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On a small island off the southernmost tip of India, a statue of the poet known only as Tiruvalluvar stands staring out at the confluence of two seas and one ocean. The statue is 133 feet high, symbolic of the 133 chapters that make up the 2000-year-old Tirukkural, a meditation on ethics, government, and the art of living. Composed by Tiruvalluvar, a weaver of unknown caste and origin who was said to have lived around 30 BCE, the Tirukkural is widely considered a masterpiece of Tamil poetry and philosophy.

In the preface to The Kural, an intriguing new translation of this magnum opus, translator Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma states that his goal is to “evoke the oral and aural qualities of Tiruvalluvar’s intelligence, which cannot be captured by mere rationality.”

It feels indisputable that the Tirukkural, revered for millennia and translated more than 80 times into numerous world languages, has extant literary and aesthetic merit. Reading it is akin to reviewing the Bible or the Bhagvad Gita. Like those exalted texts, the Tirukkural reflects the social and political exigencies of the world into which it was born. This fact, taken alongside Pruiksma’s desire to remain close to the spirit and energy of the original text, and his reluctance to interfere in its core values, poses an interesting conundrum for a modern reader: if a text derives its nourishment from deeply-noded patriarchal roots, is moving away from its root meanings an ethically desired, or even an essential, intervention?


The Tirukkural is similar in tone and cultural preeminence to the stoic writings of Marcus Aurelius, Confucius’s Analects, Sadi’s Gulistan, or Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. It is divided into three books, which are further divided into thematic chapters of ten couplets each. It covers the aims prescribed by Hindu tradition: virtue, wealth, and love. Together, they build towards moksha, or liberation, which is to be attained by living the ordered life prescribed therein. The text is so revered in India that legislative assembly members in the state of Tamil Nadu have the option of taking an oath on it.

The book’s title combines the honorific “Tiru,” which means holy, beautiful, or eminent, with the traditional Tamil verse form known as kural venpā. Hoping to honor the root meanings of the Tirukkural, Pruiksma derives his inspiration from poets such as W.S. Merwin, William Carlos Williams, and Wendell Berry. His translation leans into the natural asymmetry of each couplet, and eschews any kind of punctuation, save for the em-dash and initial capitals to suggest formality of the verse. The result is clean, beautiful lines of poetry that combine wisdom, imagery, wordplay and diapason — reflected in verses such as this from “The Glory of Rain”:

(20) No being can be without water—nothing can flow
For anyone without rain

Or this spartan yet graceful couplet from “Gratitude”:

(108) Forgetting good done is not good—forgetting at once
What is not good—good

In her authoritative introduction to Pruiksma’s translation, UC Davis Professor Archana Venketesan notes: “In the world of the Kural, the primary audience is male, and the well-lived life he should aspire to includes a chaste wife and good sons […] despite its lofty and deserved status as an enduring book of wisdom, the Kural too is marked by the social conditions of its time, which define women primarily in relation to men, locates power in their chastity, and their worthiness as mothers to sons.”

In this vein, the aphorisms we encounter in “In Praise of One’s Life Companion” present as sizeable stumbling blocks in our appreciation of the wisdom of the Tirukkural, which, upon closer reading, appears to be only aimed at the betterment of cisgender men:

(51) She whose greatness suits home and her husband’s
Abundance alike—that is a life companion

(52) If a wife lacks a wife’s glory even with all other glories
The home life has none

(53) What’s lacking if a wife is great—what’s not
If a wife is not

(55) She who rises revering no god but her husband
Says rain and the rain pours down

From “Having Children”:

(67) The good of father to son—to make him
Stand forth among men

(69) A mother rejoices even more than at birth hearing
That her son commands wisdom

The language in chapters like “In Praise of One’s Life Companion” and later on, in “Yielding to Wives” interferes with, undercuts, and devalues, in this reader’s opinion, the resplendent, ascetic beauty of the chapters dealing with compassion, detachment, gratitude, and love.

The German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his seminal treatise “On the Different Methods of Translating” (“Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens”) says that every translator is faced with a choice: “Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.”


In pursuing an originalist translation of the Tirukkural (and thus leaving the writer, long dead, in peace), Pruiksma pushes the burden on to the reader to move towards him, and water down the outdated sections of the text, or, to put it in Venketesan’s words, adopt a “recuperative reading practice.”

According to author and translator Peter Cole, when translating works from the distant past, one needs to be responsible to not just the original work, but also to the body of knowledge that has accrued around it, to the would-be reader, as well as to the languages and literary traditions involved. While Pruiksma adequately fulfills his responsibility to the original text and to the two literary traditions involved in this translation, he doesn’t, in my opinion, respond fully to the body of knowledge, specifically feminist theory, that has accrued in the millenia since it was written, and thus leaves the would-be reader to fend for themselves.

In the absence of any radical amelioration of the Tirukkural’s text in The Kural, it falls upon the reader to do the work to neutralize misogynistic language that the crucible of canon has forged into a set of culturally-encoded mores: deployed for the systemic invisibilization of women and their labor, and, on the level of Indian society, internalization and acceptance of gender-based violence, such as the decriminalization of marital rape. This problem is best demonstrated in these couplets from “Yielding to Wives” :

(901) No virtue in craving one’s wife—it is something unsought
By those who crave deeds

(902) The wealth of one craving his wife without care
Brings shame on himself and all men

(903) Among good people it always brings shame—losing
Oneself to one’s wife

(907) Modesty in a woman is far more glorious
Than servility in a man

(909) For him who does only his wife’s bidding—no virtue
No wealth no pleasure

A recuperative reading of such couplets is more of a burden than this reader, given the current climate of backsliding of women’s rights in India, can bear. When read as a unified text, without a translator’s interposition, The Kural feels lighter in artistic and intellectual heft than its individual sections. One wishes that Tiruvalluvar could have heeded his own wisdom:

(119) Fairness means speech without bias—when bias
Is absent within