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Round Table Discussion on "A Study of the Kural: Concepts and Themes"

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  • July 17, 2019
    Round Table
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Venue: Room No. 005, IDSA

    Date: July 17, 2019

    The discussion was initiated by Director General, IDSA, Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy. In his welcome remarks, he observed that the Indian strategic thought in the last five years has been more anchored in India’s own strategic ethos than ever before. He highlighted the growing relevance of vernacular languages to foster out-of-box thinking which has enabled people with linguistic skills to gain meaningful employment in both public and private sectors.

    Amb. Chinoy raised a few questions, based on the history of invasions into India, for the lead discussant, Col. P.K. Gautam (Retd.), to incorporate in his presentation. These include:

    1. Has the Indian strategic thought ever been linear in terms of shaping the decision making of the dynasties that ruled India?
    2. Given the history of Mughal and British rule in India, did the local rulers and the people inculcate the traditional Indian ethos in their strategic thinking?
    3. What happened to the Indian strategic culture during these ‘long centuries’?
    4. Has any historical study been conducted ever before to examine these issues or are they only now gaining traction, given the fact that today India is in-charge of its destiny?

    The Chair of the discussion, Amb. R. Rajagopalan, highlighted the ongoing debate about India’s existing strategic culture. He argued that India’s strategic culture is often used impulsively rather than being based on an objective definition. While stressing the presence of a strong strategic culture in India, he lamented the fact that the majority of the country’s scholarly literature is focussed on Kautilya. He highlighted 10 other schools of thought which are yet to be explored. He also dwelt on the lack of enthusiasm as well as platforms for Indian scholars vis-à-vis their international peers to study India’s strategic culture. He observed that one of the best translations of Thirukural is by a British national.

    Amb. Rajagopalan further stated that India’s strategic culture is not monolithic but is rather mosaic. However, as a composite, it is more coherent than in most contemporary nation-states, including the United States.

    He argued that Thirukural (Kural in short) is not a sacred text. He observed that Thirukural is a combination of the words Thiru and Kural. The word Thiru denotes sanctity (sacredness) of Kurals, and Kural signifies short verses (couplets). Thirukural, meaning ‘sacred couplets’, is considered equivalent to the Vedas, and is one of the most important works in the Tamil language. It is also called the masterpiece of Tamil literature. However, it is not a religious text since it highlights a commoner’s way of life and offers perspective on various things. Also, the followers had bestowed the honour of Thiru on its author Valluvar, and therefore the name – Thiruvalluvar.

    Highlighting the differences and similarities between Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukural, Amb. Rajagopalan pointed out that Kautilya was a man in the king’s court responsible for advising the king, whereas Thiruvalluvar was a common weaver who spoke about everything in his text, including statecraft.

    The lead discussant of the session, Col. Gautam, began his presentation by pointing out that Thirukural is a 2,000-year-old Tamil book that compresses 133 different topics into poetry. These topics range from war (like Sun Tzu) to economics (like Kautilya), and good governance to social reforms. The text is also cognisant of the institutions of war and national interest, and the instruments of exercising state power. It has pragmatic advice for the ruler, and is, therefore, among the most complete philosophical works.

    Elaborating further on Thirukural, Col. Gautam informed that it consists of 1,330 Kurals divided into 133 chapters called Adhikaram. The entire work is divided into three sections - Aram, Porul and Inbam, meaning dharma/virtue, wealth/goods and pleasure/love respectively. Out of the four aspects of PurusharthaAram, Porul, Inbam and Veedu (Moksha) – Thirukural addresses only the first three and advocates the path to Veedu through the others, as a result of which it is called Muppal (three elements) and Muppalil Narporul (four aspects in three elements). Its uniqueness lies in its method to attain Moksha (Veedu) through the other three elements and by following a married life based on dharma.

    Col. Gautam illustrated this in the following structure:

    • 38 Adhikarams (380 Kurals) in Aram section.
    • 70 Adhikarams(700 Kurals) in Porul section.
    • 25 Adhikarams (250 Kurals) in Inbam section.

    According to Col. Gautam, “Kural is not a moral utopian sermon. It recognises political realism in a world where till date there is no world society or world government. This calls for building alliances (friends), armed forces supported by treasury, secured urban centres led by an able king who is advised by competent ministers, productive countryside and upright people. If all the above conditions blend-in with political virtue and legitimacy, a state can emerge prosperous and ensure good life for its subjects.”

    Col. Gautam also highlighted the Thirukural’s political and economic relevance that can be applied in modern times. These include:

    • King’s Qualities and Duties (Chapters 39-46): This section is a lesson on good governance. There are three sources of income for the king - unclaimed wealth, taxes, and customs collection from the foreigners. In Valluvar’s world, there were three channels of equitable distribution of wealth - defence, public works and social service. The kurals were primarily addressed to the King, but many of them applied to people in equal measure. Today, democracies have replaced kingdoms while political parties and ministers have replaced kings. The qualities that Thiruvalluvar attributes to kings are naturally expected to be found in our leaders.
    • Economic Planning (Chapters 47-50): This section is a lesson on economic governance. According to Valluvar, “the energy and effort spent on action without adequate prior planning will not produce the desired result.” Today, this is referred to as the cost-benefit analysis. Similarly, Verse 478 is an excellent principle of public finance and financial administration - “If the revenue of the State is limited, the king should keep the expenditure within bounds.” Our failure in economic development reflects our inefficient planning and implementation.
    • Qualities of Ministers (Chapters 64-68): These chapters consist of dissertations on ministers - their qualifications, characteristics and activities. This is an important section on statecraft. “A Minister is one who makes excellent consideration of time, means, place, manner and the difficulties. He excels in firmness, knowledge, preference and protection of subjects. He gives sound advice to the king and people. A Minister must possess – power of speech (because wealth and evil result from his speech), firm in action and proper consultation. Far better are the seventy crores of enemies for a king than an unfaithful minister at his side.”

      There is also a chapter on management techniques and decision-making processes. “A minister is conversant with the best methods of performance; he should avoid actions that yield no benefit or bring grief to the king. Even though he may see his mother starve, he should not act hastily.” After considerable thought, planning and analysis, one arrives at a decision. One should not back out once a decision has been made.

    • Envoy/Ambassador (Chapter 69) and King’s Advisers (Chapter 70): Chapter 69 is on diplomacy. “Envoy should have: love for the king, knowledge of his affairs, pleasing attributes; power of speech and ability to bring glory to his country. The ambassador should fearlessly seek his country’s good even though it might cost him his life.” In Chapter 70, Valluvar says that an adviser to the ruler “should give firm advice to rectify errors”. In comparison, today’s advisers (secretaries to ministers) often hesitate in giving credible advice.
    • Good Army and Soldiers (Chapters 77-78): In this section, Valluvar talks about valour and honour. He says, “the army that conquers without fear is the chief wealth of the king.” A good army is one that stands firm. It must be capable of resisting unitedly. An army cannot last long without brave generals. “What if a host of rats roar like the sea? They will perish at the mere breath of the cobra.” Valluvar also says that it is the affection of the people that maintains the morale and efficiency of the army. If people hate the army, it will dwindle. The army in garrison has to be constantly engaged, otherwise, it will lose its efficiency. “A soldier’s achievement is in his valour; on the days he has not received wounds in action are days lost to him.”

    Col. Gautam observed that Thirukural also reflects Valluvar’s outlook on social reforms. For example, kurals33 and 93 on Kollamai (non-violence) and Kallunnamai (abstinence from alcohol), respectively, highlight the anomalies found in the society during the period, which was also known as the Golden Era of Tamil Sangam, and measures to bring about changes.

    Col. Gautam concluded by arguing that the need of the hour is to be inspired by Kural’s normative and didactic philosophy. The values of aram or dharmais supreme. It is aram which regulates both porul and imbam. Col. Gautam noted that even Mahatma Gandhi had taken a similar line in his Hind Swaraj. The Kural in Tamil, therefore, adds value to the Indian heritage, and many of its ideas and concepts are relevant not only for contemporary times but also the future.

    Following points were raised during the ensuing discussion:

    • Thirukural is not an ethical or moral literature. It is an encyclopaedia of mankind, and is, therefore, a universal script.
    • There is a lack of understanding of the Tamil literature. For instance, a majority of people fail to understand the existence of male and female perspectives in the Sangam literature.
    • There is a need to explore ways in which Kural can be further interpreted in the fields of political science, defence, engineering, etc.
    • Should texts like Kural not be made mandatory in education and government services curriculum?
    • The debate revolving around Kural is ‘underrated’.
    • Is Kural and moral realism inter-linked?

    Report prepared by Ms. Nagapushpa Devendra, Research Analyst, IDSA.