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Bringing the Wisdom of the Kural into Your Practical Life, One Verse at a Time

A Q&A with Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma

Mountain and valley
Photo credit: Trey Tallent

Poetry and philosophy make a potent combination. Where can you get practical wisdom and spiritual sustenance delivered in condensed, musical language? That would be the Kural, the classical Tamil masterpiece on ethics, power, and friendship. Rich with indelible wordplay, learning, and heart, Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma’s translation into English transforms the barrier of language into a bridge, bringing the fullness of Tiruvalluvar’s poetic intensity to a new generation. For National Poetry Month, Beacon Press assistant editor Nicole-Anne Keyton caught up with him to chat about the Kural’s influence on his creative writing and practices, what makes its spiritual insights distinct, and his course that teaches how to integrate its philosophies and ethics into our everyday lives.

Nicole-Anne Keyton: I like this sentence from your course’s description about teaching from The Kural: “When you listen deeply to the voice of a great poet or teacher, you are listening not just to the voice of one individual, but to an entire lineage of thought, feeling, and action.”

We see this in your own translation of the Kural, where you recall commentaries from the past to invite new pathways of thought. How does this affect your own creative writing and practices?

Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma: That’s a wonderful question. At a conscious level, when I’m in the process of writing, I don’t necessarily think about these things at all but I certainly do when I take a step back to look at the larger piece and revise and polish it. Then all the ways I’ve learned to read and all the things I’ve read offer themselves as exemplars and guideposts as I bring the work to its final form.

Perhaps even more importantly, I’m aware that, at a much deeper level, not only my language but also my ways of perceiving the world have been shaped by my long engagement with Tamil literature as well as with the Spanish of certain Latin American writers, and indeed, with the history of the English language itself. I seek to know where the words I write or speak are coming from, to learn who have written or spoken them most memorably and how, and to allow this knowledge to inform everything I do when I write.

N-AK: Can you share the anatomy of a kural from a poet’s perspective? What are the kural’s formal elements that define it? Far from a couplet, I’m aware. 

THP: A kural consists of two lines, or rather, of a first full line and a second much shorter line. The first line has what we could call four metrical feet and the second a mere two and a half. Within the form, there is also a complex interplay of rhyming consonant sounds, sometimes at the beginning of words and sometimes in the middle of words, and a complex interplay of internally rhyming vowel sounds. These consonantal and internal rhymes can come together in a variety of patterns, but only when enough of them are there can the verse be called a kural.

Within the rigorous structure of this form, however, Tiruvulluvar works wonders. He fills those six and a half feet with entire worlds, often by pairing two apparently simple observations. Take, for instance, kural 103:

The weight of good done without weighing results—grace
Greater than oceans

I’ve tried to suggest something of the meter by the relative length of the lines, and something of the play of consonant and vowel sounds with “weight” and “weighing,” “grace” and “greater,” and “done,” “than,” and “oceans.” All these elements help the verse take us into the greater mystery of how astonishing such acts truly are.

N-AK: The ancient platitudes of living and acting ethically in our world can often feel too abstract or distant for folks to grasp and wield in their daily lives. How do you see The Kural interacting with aspects of your own daily life? 

THP: Although the Kural is often seen as didactic text, if one reads it closely, one notices how rarely it says to “do this” or “don’t do that.” Instead, the poet simply observes, with wit and good humor, how certain actions or states of mind connect to certain outcomes or possibilities. Take, for instance, kural 102:

Even if small help given in time—far
Far larger than the world

This is a verse I think of often in my daily life because it reminds me to notice the true size of even a seemingly small act of kindness or assistance, whether it’s an act I see someone else doing or an act I’m contemplating doing myself. The verse trains my attention, and by training my attention, it strengthens my heart.

N-AK: Could you share a situation, pivotal or mundane, where a kural came to mind in a moment of conflict, or a moment of joy? 

THP: A number of years ago, I attended a political event where one of the leaders involved was both very charismatic and very controversial. I hadn’t been prepared for that and was uncertain how to proceed. Afterwards, of course, I could study up and come to a better sense of where to position myself, but in the moment itself, there wasn’t space for that. Then I found kural 691 echoing in my mind:

With irascible kings move like one who warms
By a fire—neither close nor far

Even not knowing the background I’d come to know later, the verse gave me an image that helped me enormously in navigating a precarious situation. 

N-AK: What makes the spiritual insights from Tiruvalluar’s Tirukkural unique from the Buddhist-influenced mindfulness that is so prevalent in our contemporary culture? Or from the poetic spiritual insights from the Tao te Ching and Rumi’s poetry, which are more commonly known to Western readers? 

THP: Two qualities make the insights from Tiruvalluar’s Tirukkural particularly noteworthy. First, its verses are insistently focused on the nitty-gritty of daily life, unafraid to enter the complexities of our lives in families, in communities, in positions of leadership, and in love. They are meant to be lived with and practiced in the midst of life, not because of some ethical decree from above, but because they help love and good sense and compassion and harmony to flow more easily through our lives and deeds. Their very form—short, easy to carry, easy to memorize—lends itself to this practicality.

Second, the Kural doesn’t align itself with a particular religious sect or school of metaphysics. Instead, it embodies an extraordinary openness to all people so that adherents of any number of traditions can find wisdom and guidance in its words. I’ve done several interviews with Buddhist teachers and practitioners, for instance, who note how many of its verses are consonant with genuine mindfulness and awareness. At the same time, people without any religious inclination or who might call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or not even spiritual at all, can easily find hundred of verses that pertain to the complex work of being fully and joyfully human. 

N-AK: What does your course, “Taller Than a Mountain,” aim to accomplish for those who are interested in learning how to integrate the philosophies and ethics of the Kural in their daily lives? 

THP: Whether one has never heard of the Kural or has known of it for years, the prospect of actually studying it can be a little daunting. The work covers so many areas of life that one can feel at a loss for where to begin. It’s not exactly the sort of book one takes to the beach and reads in a single sitting. Though, come to think of it, that could be quite an afternoon.

My primary aim in offering the course is to share a culturally and poetically informed way to enter the work that is as respectful of different people’s lived experience as of the work itself. I want to offer a framework or guide to the work as a whole so that people can navigate its chapters knowledgeably, easily, and insightfully. Through the way I’ve structured the course and its components, I also hope to share the key insights I’ve found for integrating the wisdom of the Kural into your practical life: let your curiosity lead, dare to listen with all of yourself, and go one verse at a time. That way, you can discover your own personal Kural of 2 or 20 or 200 verses—those that speak most directly to your life circumstances now. In the paradoxical way that poetry works, they may prove to be more than enough.



About the Authors 

Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma is an author, translator, teacher, and performer. His translation of the classical Tamil masterpiece on ethics, power, and love, The Kural, was published by Beacon Press in 2022 and is the subject of his upcoming online course, Taller Than a Mountain. Other books include The Safety of Edges and Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar. He speaks and performs widely, teaches for the Cozy Grammar series of online video courses, and has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, 4Culture, Artist Trust, and the US Fulbright Program. Connect with him at

Nicole-Anne Keyton is an assistant editor at Beacon Press. Nicole serves on the Raised Voices poetry board and is Beacon Press’s liaising editor for the National Poetry Series. In their spare time, Nicole can be found writing short fiction, creating moody Spotify playlists, making zero progress with their endless TBR bookshelf, and hanging out with their dog, Sassy.