University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life has recently been making waves as a bestseller. His book inspired many others to publish their own lists of 12 rules for good living. Books like 12 Rules and Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans are part of the much larger lifehacker and self-improvement culture that we live in today. However, the idea of publishing advice and principles to live by is nothing new: for Tamils, it started nearly 1900 years ago with Thiruvalluvar’s 1330 verses in the Thirukkural.
For many in the Tamil diaspora, the Thirukkural brings memories of being in Tamil class memorizing the first ten or more verses (kurals). The kurals span virtually every aspect of life from eating meat to fighting wars. Between witty analogies on hunting elephants with spears and being one with God, the Thirukkural gives a wealth of advice on how to live a meaningful life.
One word can summarize the theme of the kurals: control. Control, specifically self-control is Thiruvalluvar’s key tenet for a good life. An entire section is dedicated to it (kurals 121-130) and his 121st verse stating that “self-control places one among the gods; lack of it leads one to the darkness of hell” places self-restraint among the highest virtues to have. Aside from this, self-control is discussed in his other verses on gambling, alcohol, and prostitution. For most, these vices already show a lack of self-control. But the Thirukkural takes self-control a step further: control of how we speak. Two sections are dedicated to this: one on speaking kindly and another on frivolous talk. The kurals on frivolous speech are more relevant today than ever in a world where the Internet lets us say anything and everything that comes to the top of our minds. Kural 194 says “uttering empty words before all deprives one of one’s sense of justice and mars one’s noble qualities”. It reminds us that our voice is the most important tool to navigate this world with and that overusing it diminishes its value.
The most important type of control talked about in the Thirukkural is internal: emotional control. Much of what the kurals say on this is analogous to the values of the Roman Stoics. The verse “it is better you show no wrath even against one who inflicts on you harm scorching you like a thousand-tongued flame” (kural 308) is exactly how the emperor Cato responded “I don’t even remember being hit” when the person who punched him apologized. Another kural (628) reminds us of the frequency of human emotions and to not be anxious about them for “he who never gives way to sorrow, will not long for pleasure; he will regard trouble as quite natural”.
Some verses don’t seem as relevant today as they would have before. Right after the first section praising God, Thiruvalluvar’s next show of gratitude is to the rain. With modern irrigation, praising the rain isn’t as necessary as it was in in the 1st century. But what about his many sections on being a king or being an ambassador? For the modern reader, the kurals’ values transcend whoever they were prescribed for. Thiruvalluvar advises ambassadors to speak kindly even in disagreement (kural 685): a reminder many could use today when talking politics, and he advises kings not to rule out of commanding fear for he may perish (kural 564), a lesson for overbearing managers at the office. The rich and powerful were no exceptions from the necessity of self-control either. The kurals advise leaders to control urges of nepotism and cronyism when picking servants (kurals 511-520) and to exercise patience in picking the right time and place to strike an enemy (kurals 481-500).
If I asked one hundred people to visualize the word control, here are the responses I would expect: police in SWAT gear patrolling the streets, an angry and abusive parent, and a helpless employee at the whims of his or her boss. But control is much more than that. Controlling the notes that a musician can play using key and time signatures begets beautiful music. Controlling the types of moves that a player can make in chess creates an elegant and challenging game. And controlling one’s own actions, words, and emotions brings about a meaningful life. The Thirukkural offers sound advice to anybody who wants to build that self-control and seek the timeless values that have built great men from the beginning of time.