Gandhi and Thirukkural

[The revised and expanded English version of the Tamil essay published in Gandhi Today website.]

Is it possible for a huge mass of people to shower immense love on a work of literature? The emotional attachment of Tamils to Thirukkural is a case in point. It is astonishing that a book which is largely perceived to be a moral treatise (though, it is, in fact, not only a book of moral codes) has become such an object of love for the Tamils. If we make a list of those who lived a life that was close to the moral code of Thirukkural, the name of Gandhi, though he was not a Tamil, has to come on top. There are a lot of myths concerning Gandhi, Tolstoy and Thirukkural. We cannot ascertain the direct impact of Kural on Gandhi. But, we can see that Gandhi was quite aware of Thirukkural through his writings.         

It is unlikely that Gandhi would have heard about Thirukkural before his acquaintance with the Tamils in South Africa. There can be no doubt that he would have been drawn towards it, had he heard about it. He cites two precepts as his guiding principles during his childhood – truth and returning good for evil. (1) Both are key tenets of Thirukkural. He mentions a Gujarati didactic stanza in his Autobiography, which ‘gripped his mind and heart’, when he was a boy. He recollects the same song by Shamal Bhatt, when he was in London too, and was reading the New Testament, ‘especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to his heart.’ 

For a bowl of water give a goodly meal: 

For a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal: 

For a simple penny pay thou back with gold: 

If thy life be rescued, life do not withhold. 

Thus the words and actions of the wise regard;

Every little service tenfold they reward. 

But the truly noble know all men as one, 

And return with gladness good for evil done.

We can see parallels between this song and many Kurals. (2)

Those who know the true value of a favour, will see

for the quantum of the favour, a tree, where there was a grain. [104]

A timely favour, however trivial

its material value is, is invaluable. [102]

Of what use is being noble

If one can’t do good unto those who did evil. [987]

Though there are traces of Kural imprinted in many works of Gandhi and those that impacted him, this song which attracted Gandhi during his growing years is significant. 

Gandhi’s first formal brush with Thirukkural may have been through G.U.Pope(3). He writes in his Autobiography, “I had undertaken to teach Tamil and Urdu. The little Tamil I knew was acquired during voyages and in jail. I had not got beyond Pope’s excellent Tamil handbook.” (4) G.U.Pope had translated, among other works, Thirukkural into English in 1886,  which remains popular to this day. In the introduction to the Handbook, Pope says of ‘The Kurral of Tiruvalluvar’, “This work was intended by its author to be a compendium of all wisdom, and to stand in the place of the Vedas to the Tamil people.”  While giving an outline of the work, the Anglican Christian missionary is dismissive of the third part on Love, “The third part treats of sensual pleasure, and much of it is not fit to be read.” (5) Additionally, there is a another detailed introduction to Thirukkural in the Part II of the handbook, and Pope had also given an English translation of the first four chapters of Thirukkural. Pope presents Kural as the ‘the best introduction to Tamil poetry’ and ‘Thiruvalluvar’s poem is thus by no means a long one; though in value it far outweighs the whole of the remaining Tamil literature, and is one of the select number of great works which have entered into the very soul of a whole people, and which can never die.’ Of Valluvar, he says ‘tradition makes him the son of a Brahmin father and a low-caste woman’, and though he admits there was no foundation to this story, he concludes that  Valluvar ‘certainly was a Pariah’. He had no hesitation in saying that ‘Christian Scriptures were among the sources from which the poet derived his inspiration’. He adds, and this must have further aroused the interest of Gandhi, “There is no trace in the Kurral of many ideas and things current in South India at different periods, because, I suppose, they had been eliminated from the sage’s own eclectic system of faith and practice, and because his work is didactic, and not controversial. What philosophy he teaches seems to be of the eclectic school as represented by the Bhagavadgita.” (6)

There are no references in Gandhi’s writings to Pope’s translation of Thirukkural.  However, it wouldn’t be far fetched to speculate based on his future utterances that he may have read Pope’s translation. 

Since 1905, there are ample references to G.U.Pope in his letters to his nephews, Chhaganlal Gandhi and Maganlal Gandhi. He instructs Chhaganlal to buy a new edition of Pope’s handbook 3 copies of the three volumes of Pope’s Handbook. (7)  In March, 1908, he wrote an obituary to G.U.Pope in the Indian Opinion and also reproduced his biography published in The Times. Surprisingly, both the obituaries miss to mention Thirukkural. Gandhi wrote, “There have been few Englishmen for whom the people of Madras should bear greater reverence and deeper respect than Dr. Pope. His example is a shining light to the educated classes of Madras leading them along the path of investigation and explanation so that the world may know something of that great past which only recently was sunk in oblivion, that the treasures of literature, philology, philosophy, and theology may be brought to light, and that the people may receive some indication of their line of growth for the future.” (8)

In 1909, we see further evidence for the direct entry of Thirukkural into Gandhi’s life. Gandhi published ‘A Letter to a Hindu’ written by Leo Tolstoy in his magazine, The Indian Opinion. In that essay, Tolstoy quotes from Thirukkural, what he calls as the Hindu Kural, and Bhagavad Gita. 

“The aim of the sinless One consists in acting without causing

Sorrow to others, although he could attain to great power by ignoring their feelings. [311]

The aim of the sinless One lies in not doing evil unto those who

have done evil unto him. [312]

If a man causes suffering, even to those who hate him without

any reason, he will ultimately have grief not to be overcome. [313]

The punishment of evil doers consists in making them feel ashamed of

themselves by doing them a great kindness. [314]

Of what use is superior knowledge in the one, if he does not

endeavor to relieve his neighbour’s want as much as his own? [315]

If, in the morning, a man wishes to do evil unto another, in the

evening the evil will return to him. [317]”

Tolstoy mentions these six Kurals and remarks, “Thus it went on everywhere. The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words.” He adds, “It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life—for home use, as it were—but that in public life all forms of violence— such as imprisonment, executions, and wars—might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evil-doers, though such means were diametrically opposed to any vestige of love.”  (9)

Gandhi must have been attracted to these Kurals and Tolstoy’s views that followed. He never distinguished between private life and public life. It was on account of this essay that a letter exchange between Gandhi and Tolstoy commenced. However, there was no specific conversation regarding Thirukkural. 

In a letter to Maganlal Gandhi in 1910, he makes a reference to a popular phrase from Thirukkural, in a rather strange context. “Since Santok has given birth to a daughter, there is no worry on her account now. Karka kasadara karpavai. Please ponder over this sentence printed at the top of Pope’s [Tamil] grammar. There could hardly be a task more difficult than to conquer one’s passion in regard to one’s own wife.” (10) He alludes to the kural:

Learn, what is to be learnt, with no flaws; once learnt,

stand by what you learned. [391]

Interestingly, the actual maxim given on the first page of the Handbook was a proverb ‘கற்கக் கற்கக் கசடறும்’ [Karka karka kasadarrum], translated by Pope as ‘Difficulties will vanish as you learn on’. This fortuitous error by Gandhi, thanks to which he has actually correctly cited a phrase from Thirukkural, is a fairly clear indication that he was familiar with the work at that time. As we will see, he was to repeat this error in another letter.  

After his return to India, he writes to his friend, G.A.Natesan, “You must let me have Tamil books please. I want books for beginners and books for men like Sundaram. I want all Dr. Pope’s books. Will you please attend to this as early as you can?” (11)

In a letter to his son, Devdas Gandhi, in 1919, he again alludes again to the aforementioned phrase from Thirukkural, “Give this in Tamil as the motto: Karka Kasadara Karpavai. Beneath this, give the Hindi equivalent, which Swamiji will provide, of ”Drop by drop fills the lake”, and beneath it still, give in English:”Constant dropping wears away stones”. The Tamil saying occurs on the first page of Pope’s book. Find its equivalent in Telugu and give that too.” (12)

In a speech in 1920 delivered at Ahmedabad, he makes a reference to G.U.Pope with a poetic flourish, “No Indian in Madras has served South India so well as did Pope —not the Pope of the Iliad fame. I am ever in love with human beings and would, therefore, always want to steal people’s hearts. In order that I might steal the hearts of my brothers of the South, I had to learn their language. I cannot just now quote anything from the writings of the Rev. Pope, but this I will tell you that the poems, or rather the poetry, in Tamil which even the peasant can enjoy as he waters his field is just superb. The watering of the field begins even before the sun has risen. Bajri and wheat, everything is covered with pearly dew. The liquid drops on the tree leaves shine like pearls. This is what the men , these peasants, as they water the fields sing about.” (13) This is a clear indication that he had indeed read the poetry of Pope, and presumably Thirukkural too. 

The next time we see Thirukkural in the records on Gandhi’s life was in 1927, when ‘A friend sends from Rangoon rupees twenty-five as donation for the propaganda of the spinning-wheel and writes’ a letter. He starts the letter with his misgivings about doing the sixteenth-day ceremony for his deceased father, ‘a slavish, meaningless imitation of shraddha’.  He considered it ‘to be a hoax designed to be practised on the religious susceptibilities of the people’. He went on to use Thirukkural to establish how he can believe in ‘shraddha as a thing offered in piety and devotion with a charitable intention.’

“As you say in Young India dated 24-2- 1927, ‘only two classes of people are entitled to charity and none else—the Brahmin who possesses nothing and whose business it is to spread holy learning, and the cripple and the blind.’ Our great immortal sage, Thiruvalluvar has said : 

‘A Brahmin is that sannyasi who has an overflowing love towards all living creatures.’ [30] 

Because I could not conceive of a man who has a better claim than you and a more charitable purpose than that of the spinning-wheel, I have sent you this amount. There is also another way of commemorating the memory of one’s own parents. The same sage Thiruvalluvar has again said : 

‘The gratitude of a son to his father must consist in the son conducting himself in the world in such a way as to excite from the world the approbation that his father must have performed a great tapasya to beget this son.’ [70] I may add that I have this ideal at my heart.” (14)

Gandhi published this letter approvingly, with his own diatribe against meaningless ceremonies, and commending ‘the example of the correspondent to those who are anxious to do only that which is right, and free themselves from self-deception’. However, he makes no direct remarks about Thirukkural. 

The first recorded instance of Gandhi himself speaking about Thirukkural was later in 1927. While speaking at a meeting held at Tuticorin, he refuted an allegation that he was not giving much importance to Tamil. As per the news published in The Hindu, he said:

“You very rightly draw my attention to the treasures that are to be found in Tirukural. Let me inform you that some twenty years ago I began to learn Tamil with the desire and object of studying Tirukural in original. It has been a matter of deep sorrow to me that God never gave me time to finish studying the Tamil language. I am entirely in favour of the agitation for making the vernaculars as medium of instruction. We ought to learn the Tamil language and prefer it to English and place it above all other languages.” (15)

In the same year, Mahadev Desai wrote a ‘catechism’ summarising the vast array of questions faced by Gandhi during his tour of Tamilnadu, especially regarding the Brahmin-non-Brahmin question, and his responses to them. One of the questioners referred to Thirukkural.

“Q: Kural you know. Do you know that the author of that Tamil classic says there is no caste by birth? At birth, he says, all life is equal.

A. He says it as an answer to the present-day exaggerations. When superiority was claimed by any varna, he had to raise his voice against it. But that does not cut at the root of varna by birth. It is only the reformer’s attempt to cut at the root of inequality.” (16)

This discussion was making an apparent reference to this Kural:

All beings are born equal. Distinction

Comes with differences in profession. [972]

Though this conversation is clearly unplanned, it does appear that Gandhi had quickly identified the exact kural that was being referenced and was able to expound on it fairly accurately. 

Later, in 1935, Gandhi wrote a short essay on Thirukkural with the heading, ‘Tamil Holy Book’.  (17)

“Thiruvalluvar was a Tamil Saint. Tradition says that he was a Harijan weaver. He is said to have lived in the first century of the Christian era. He gave us the famous Thirukural—holy maxims described by the Tamilians as the Tamil Veda and by M. Ariel as ‘one of the highest and purest expressions of human thought’. The maxims number 1,330. These have been translated into many languages. There are several English translations. The late V.V.S. Iyer, who founded the Sharmadevi Ashram for the service of Harijans among others, produced the latest translation. He died leaving Sharmadevi and his book to the nation. Sharmadevi now belongs to the Harijan Sevak Sangh. There are about 1,000 copies still left of the second edition of the translation. The price of the book was Rs. 5 originally. It has now been reduced to Rs. 2/8. The book has a substantial preface written by the translator. The proceeds will be utilized for the Harijan service. To whet the reader’s appetite I quote two maxims at random:

Take not away from any living thing the life that is sweet unto all, 

even if it be to save thine own. [327]

Compare Goldsmith’s:

No flocks that range the valley free 

To slaughter I condemn,

Taught by the Power that pities me 

I learn to pity them.

The other selection is:

Death is like unto sleep and life is like 

the waking after that sleep. [339]

Compare Wordsworth’s:

Death is but a sleep and a forgetting.”

To Gandhi, the legends of Thiruvalluvar being a Harijan and a weaver must have been doubly appealing. Removal of untouchability and Khadi were top priorities for him then. The various tenets of Thiruvalluvar like love, righteousness, compassion towards all living beings, truth and generosity were all mirrored in Gandhi’s own beliefs. 

Gandhi’s primary spiritual disciple, Vinoba Bhave, was well-versed in Thirukkural, apart from other Tamil works. Narayan Desai, a close associate of Vinoba Bhave, mentioned to me in an interview that Vinoba would cite Thirukkural, in Tamil and other languages, in many of his speeches. When I met Narayan Desai at Sampurna Kranti Vidyalaya, which he had established at Vedchhi in Gujarat, he read out an essay on Thiruvalluvar from a newly launched Gujarati literary magazine, and translated it live for me into Hindi. It is an unforgettable experience, which, in many ways, took me closer to Gandhi. 

The former Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram Rural University, Dr.Markhandan, said during one of our conversations, when he asked for a message from Vinoba, he wrote down the following kural, in Tamil, on a bit of paper and gave it to him. 

When even words cease to exist for desire, anger and ignorance;

resultant maladies will be vanquished. [360]

As for Gandhi, apart from these notes in his Collected Works, there doesn’t seem to be any other evidence of him referring to Thirukkural. Yet, we can see the essence of Thirukkural reflected in his defining message, ‘My Life is my message.’


  1. M.K.Gandhi, An Autobiography, Navajivan Publication,, Page 44
  2. Thiruvalluvar, Thirukkual, (Translated by Kannan T)
  3. Dr. G. U. Pope (1820.1908), translator of Thirukkural and Thiruvasagam, author of First Lessons in Tamil, A Handbook of the Ordinary Dialect of the Tamil Language, A Textbook of Indian History, etc.
  4. M.K.Gandhi, An Autobiography, Navajivan Publication,, Page 406
  5. G.U. Pope, First Lessons in Tamil: A Handbook of the Ordinary Dialect of the Tamil Language, London: W.H.Allen & Co. 1883, Part I, Page 5. 
  6. ibid…Part II, Pages 52-76.
  7. LETTER TO CHHAGANLAL GANDHI, Johannesberg, May 1, 1905, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 4
  8. THE LATE DR. POPE, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 8…Indian Opinion, 14-3-1908
  9. Leo Tolstoy, ‘A Letter to a Hindu’, Dec 14th, 1908….Indian Opinion, November 26, 1910. [Translation of the kurals as given in the original. Numbering of the Kurals done for this essay]
  10. LETTER TO MAGANLAL GANDHI, Tolstoy Farm [July 25, 1910], The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 4
  11. LETTER TO G. A. NATESAN, Bombay, May 10, 1915, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 14
  12.  LETTER TO DEVDAS GANDHI, Ahmedabad, February 23, 1919, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 17
  13.  SPEECH AT GUJARATI SAHITYA PARISHAD, Ahmedabad, April 2, 1920, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 20
  14. TRUE ‘SHRADDHA’, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 39…Young India, 1-9-1927
  15. SPEECH AT PUBLIC MEETING, TUTICORIN, October 6, 1927, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 40…The Hindu, 8-10-1927.
  16. BRAHMIN-NON-BRAHMIN QUESTION, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 40…Young India, 24-11-1927
  17. TAMIL HOLY BOOK, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 67…Harijan, 6-7-1935 [Translation of the kurals as given in the original. Numbering of the Kurals done for this essay]


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