Thirukkural & Business Ethics


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This paper explores the dimension of business ethics from ancient Indian times and its contemporary relevance for business leadership. In the Indian context, during the past one decade we have witnessed an increase in number of literatures on applying ancient wisdoms especially from the Bhagavad-Gita (Mahabharata), Valmiki Ramayana and the Arthashastra in the business leadership context. However, very few works are found on business ethics from the Thirukkural and its relevance for contemporary business leadership. The Thirukkural is a well-known treatise on ethics which was authored by Thiruvallavar in the second century BC. It is considered to be the first work which covers ethics in Indian (Tamil) literature. In presenting the
business ethics from the Thirukkural, the authors employed hermeneutics, a qualitative methodology which is the interpretation of ancient or classical
literatures. The findings reveal that Thirukkural advocates a consciousness and a spirit-centered approach to the subject of business ethics based on eternal values and moral principles that should govern the conduct of business leaders. The prospect of highlighting the Thirukkural in other areas like leadership can be considered for the near future.

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Thirukkural & Business Ethics

  1. 1. Int. J. Indian Culture and Business Management, Vol. 4, No. 4, 2011 453Ethics (business ethics) from the Thirukkural and itsrelevance for contemporary business leadership inthe Indian context Balakrishnan Muniapan* School of Business and Design, Swinburne University of Technology (Sarawak Campus), Jalan Simpang Tiga, 93350 Kuching Sarawak, Malaysia Fax: +60 82 423594 E-mail: *Corresponding author M. Rajantheran Department of Indian Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Fax: +60 3 7957 1608 E-mail: Abstract: This paper explores the dimension of business ethics from ancient Indian times and its contemporary relevance for business leadership. In the Indian context, during the past one decade we have witnessed an increase in number of literatures on applying ancient wisdoms especially from the Bhagavad-Gita (Mahabharata), Valmiki Ramayana and the Arthashastra in the business leadership context. However, very few works are found on business ethics from the Thirukkural and its relevance for contemporary business leadership. The Thirukkural is a well-known treatise on ethics which was authored by Thiruvallavar in the second century BC. It is considered to be the first work which covers ethics in Indian (Tamil) literature. In presenting the business ethics from the Thirukkural, the authors employed hermeneutics, a qualitative methodology which is the interpretation of ancient or classical literatures. The findings reveal that Thirukkural advocates a consciousness and a spirit-centered approach to the subject of business ethics based on eternal values and moral principles that should govern the conduct of business leaders. The prospect of highlighting the Thirukkural in other areas like leadership can be considered for the near future. Keywords: Indian ethics; business ethics; leadership; ancient wisdom; Thirukkural; Tamil literature. Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Muniapan, B. and Rajantheran, M. (2011) ‘Ethics (business ethics) from the Thirukkural and its relevance for contemporary business leadership in the Indian context’, Int. J. Indian Culture and Business Management, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp.453–471. Biographical notes: Balakrishnan Muniapan is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management in the School of Business and Design at SwinburneCopyright © 2011 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
  2. 2. 454 B. Muniapan and M. Rajantheran University of Technology (Sarawak Campus) in Kuching (Malaysia). He is also an active HRM and Industrial Law Consultant in Malaysia and within Asia. He has more than 50 publications in journals, books and conference proceedings. He has presented on HRM at several seminars and academic conferences within Asia, Australia and Europe. M. Rajantheran is a Professor in Indian Civilisation at Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of Malaya (Malaysia). His area of expertise includes early cultural relations between India and Southeast Asia, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and culture and life of the Malaysian Indians. He has published several books, journal articles, conference proceeding and has presented papers at several international conferences worldwide.1 IntroductionOver the years, business ethics have become one of the major topics for discussionaround the world due to many of the business scandals that took place not only in theIndian context but also throughout the world. In academic literatures, research papers onvarious dimensions of business ethics have been written by several scholars. There areperhaps hundreds of research papers written on business ethics in the Indian context, andthere is also an increasing number of literature on the Indian philosophyand organisational management from authors, such as Chakraborty (1993, 1995, 1999),Chakraborty and Chakraborty (2008), Sharma (1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003), Krishnan(2001, 2003), Kejriwal and Krishnan (2004), Satpathy (2006, 2007), Muniapan (2006,2007, 2009, 2010), Muniapan and Dass (2008, 2009), Muniapan and Satpathy (2010),Satpathy and Muniapan (2008), Roka (2006), Parashar (2008) and others. These scholarshave made studies based on the Vedic literatures,1 Upanishads, Ramayana,2 theBhagavad-Gita3 (a part of Mahabharata4) and the Arthashastra of Kautilya. However,hardly any papers are found on business ethics from the Thirukkural, an ancient Indian(Tamil) literature. Therefore, in this paper, the authors attempt to fill the literature gap byhighlighting the business ethics from the Thirukkural and its relevance for contemporarybusiness leadership in the Indian context. This paper outlines some of the ethicalguidelines that should be manifested in an Indian (Tamilian) business leader like beingtrustful and honest with high level of integrity. This paper is likely to provide insightsinto Indian business ethics for Western managers and employees, enabling them to workmore effectively with Indian leaders and business partners either in India or abroad.It also has some implications for leaders in the Indian context and employees who have todeal with ethical dilemmas (dharma sankatam) in making their daily business decision.This paper is also expected to reinforce Thirukkural ethics to Indian business leaders andmake them more aware of the code of conduct in business. This paper starts with theunderstanding of the concept ethics and business ethics, which is a branch of ethics.These are followed by some of the contemporary issues in business ethics and thedescription of business ethics from the perspectives of Indian culture. In the followingparts, the Thirukkural is introduced and its importance to the Indians (especiallyTamilans) is highlighted. The final part of this paper explores the business ethics from theThirukkural and its relevance for contemporary leadership.
  3. 3. Ethics from the Thirukkural 4552 EthicsEthics are considered as an age-old discipline and one of the four branches of philosophy,along with logic, metaphysics and epistemology (Holme, 2008). The word ‘ethics’ isderived from the Greek word ethos, which means good and bad, right and wrong andshould and should not related concept (Grace and Cohen, 1998, p.3). Ethics are definedas the code of moral principles that sets standards of good or bad and right or wrongbehaviour (Schemerhorn, 2008, p.32). It is a moral principle or set of moral values heldby an individual. Morals are principles of behaviour in accordance with standards of rightand wrong. It attempts to provide a systematic and logical reason or justification for whatis right and virtuous and what is wrong and bad. Ethics also deal with values andprinciples relating to human conduct with respect to the rightness or wrongness of certainactions (Noor, 2008). Values are moral principles or accepted standards of a person or agroup, while principles are a standard or rule of personal conduct (Holme, 2008). Samsonand Daft (2009) argue that ethics can be understood as a social standard which involve aconflict between the needs of the part and the needs of the whole. Ethical behaviour iswhat is accepted as good and right as opposed to ‘bad’ or wrong in the context of thegoverning moral code. In the approach towards ethics, there are mainly four approaches, namely, utilitarianapproach, individualism approach, moral rights approach and justice approach(Longenecker et al., 1988 cited in Samson and Daft, 2009; Wiley, 1995). The utilitarianapproach holds that moral behaviour produces the greatest good for the greatest number.Under this approach, a leader is expected to consider the effect of each possible decisionon all parties and select the best that optimises the satisfaction of great number of people.The individualism approach contends that acts are moral when they promote theindividual’s best long-term interest. Individuals calculate the best long-term advantage tothemselves as a measure of decision goodness. In theory, with everyone pursuing self-direction, the greater good is ultimately achieved as people learn to accommodate eachother in their long-term interest (Tulega, 1987). The third approach, the moral rightasserts that human beings have fundamental rights and liberties that cannot be taken byan individual decision. Thus, ethically correct decision is one that best maintains therights of those people affected by it. Finally, the justice approach holds that moraldecisions must be based on standards of equity, fairness and impartiality. This approachfurther explores three types of justice, namely, distributive justice, procedural justice andcompensatory justice. The distributive justice requires that different treatment of peoplenot based on arbitrary characteristics; the procedural justice requires that rules to beadministered fairly; while the compensatory justice argues that individuals shouldbe compensated for any cost of their injuries by the responsible party and individualsshould not be held responsible for the matter over which they have no control (Caroll,1990).3 Business ethicsWith globalisation and the growth of world economy, business organisations arebecoming more dominant with less of governmental control; therefore, a greater need forethical practices arises (Crane and Matten, 2007). The leaders in organisations are facingthe problem of ethics, on the choice between good or bad, and do’s or don’ts in making
  4. 4. 456 B. Muniapan and M. Rajantherandecisions. A business leader is just one whose behaviour is considered to reflect all thoseethical qualities. The principle objective of ethics has always been to produce morallyupright individual leaders with good and acceptable behaviour (Abu-Tapanjeh, 2008). In business organisation and also in the political context, ethics involve theapplication of moral principles of the conduct in governance or good governance.The principles of ethics should be an integral part of the organisation for goodgovernance and societal welfare. Business organisations are also increasingly concernedwith ethical conduct of the duties and responsibilities, their relationship with theshareholders of the company and stakeholders’ groups (Pass, 2004 cited in Muniapan andShaikh, 2007) with the ultimate aim to provide value to shareholders and stakeholders(Ismail, 2005). Business ethics are a part of general ethics. Ethical business values are part of thebigger topic of business values in general (Holme, 2008). Business ethics as a field ofstudy examine the ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a businessenvironment (Shea, 1988; Trevino, 1990). Business ethics are a set of moral principlesfor arriving at a decision within the values of the organisation. It covers to all aspects ofbusiness conduct and management functions, such as accounting, finance, purchasing,operation, marketing and human resources which are relevant to the conduct of businessorganisations as a whole. Business ethics are becoming increasingly necessary because, if unchecked due tolack of awareness, business can go unethical as there are plenty of evidences today onunethical business practices. Therefore, increasing number of organisations are trying todesign and implement business ethics programmes to address the legal, ethical, socialresponsibility and environmental issues they face. Samson and Daft (2009) argue that byaddressing these issues in a systematic way, organisations can improve their ownbusiness performances, expand opportunities for growth, and contribute to thedevelopment of social capital in their countries and realise specific business benefits,such as enhanced reputations and goodwill reduced risks and costs protection from their own employees and agents stronger competitive positions expanded access to capital, credit and foreign investment increased profits sustained long-term growth international respect for enterprises and emerging markets.4 Contemporary issues in business ethicsNo doubt that ethical business practices are crucial to overall society’s well-being andgood ethical behaviour of the leaders must be encouraged and given emphasis byorganisations. Poor ethical behaviour can lead to business losses and embarrassingscandals (Sardy et al., 2010). In the contemporary business environment, the business
  5. 5. Ethics from the Thirukkural 457leaders throughout the world are faced daily with ethical issues at work, and sometimesthey do not know how to deal with them. Some of the issues being faced by them includebribery, nepotism, stealing, lying, fraud and deceit, conflict of interest, quality controlissues, discrimination, falsification of information, abuse of public funds andenvironmental pollution (Abuznaid, 2009). In several Asian countries, chronic disregardfor transparency, ethics and democratic principles has been cited as the cause fororganisational failures (Kanaga, 1999). In the American context, some results of public opinion studies indicate that 58% ofAmerican adults rate the ethical standards of business executives as only ‘fair’ or ‘poor’,90% believe white-collar crime is ‘very common’ or ‘somewhat common’ and 76% saythe lack of ethics in businesspeople contributes to plummeting societal moral standards(Krohe, 1997 cited in Luthy et al., 2009). One of the major assertions is that theAmerican public does not view businesspeople as unethical or immoral, but instead, asbeing amoral due to the fact that ethical considerations are often seen as inappropriate inbusiness situations. “Business is not structured to handle questions of values and ethics,and its managers have usually not been trained in business schools to do so” (DeGeorge,1999, p.7 cited in Luthy et al., 2009). In the global context, a series of corporate scandals within the organisation foreconomic cooperation and development – Enron and WorldCom in the USA, Parmalatand Vivendi in Europe and Satyam scandal in India led to the public outrage. InMalaysia, cases such as the BMF scandal in the 1980s, Perwaja Steel in 1990s, MalaysianAirlines (MAS) in mid 2000 and the recent Port Klang Free Trade Zone scandal recentlyrevealed the lack of business ethics (Muniapan, 2009). The gap between the society’s expectations of business ethics and the actual businessethics in practise has increased drastically as shown in diagram below. The publicdemands for answers, therefore there is a pressing need for organisations and leaders tobe held accountable to the communities they serve (Muniapan, 2009).
  6. 6. 458 B. Muniapan and M. RajantheranUnethical practices like corruption and fraud are some of the root causes of all the evilwithin societies. Millions of workers worldwide have also been hit by the consequencesof unethical business practices. Falling stock markets, corporate failures, dubiousaccounting practices, abuses of corporate power, fraud, criminal investigations,mismanagement and the excessive executive compensation are all the outcome ofunethical practices. In the face of such scandals and malpractices, emphasis on ethicalprinciples is growing (Muniapan, 2009). Bribery and other forms of illegal or corrupt conduct increase costs for organisationsnot only because of the payments involved but also because it requires management timeand effort to work with officials, maintain secret accounting books and address threats ofextortion and blackmail. To reduce such obstacles, business leaders and governmentofficials should work together to establish regulatory practices that reduce administrativediscretion and promote transparency and efficiency. As a consequence, business ethics as a field of study are also increasing the relevancefor business schools. In academic, over the years, we have witnessed several businessschools offering courses in ‘Business Ethics’ and some of the schools classify the courseas compulsory for every business student. The main purpose of business ethics course isto promote ethics through education, inculcation and nurturing of values such as honesty,fairness, integrity and self-regulation among business students. Other purposes mayinclude, among others, to promote honesty and transparency in business, to createawareness on unethical practices in the marketplace and also to create an understandingon general accepted business norms, ethical percepts, human values and socialexpectations of society (BEIM, 2006). At postgraduate levels like MBAs, business ethics course helps leaders to improvetheir business performance, make profits and contribute to the economic progress of theircommunities by meeting the reasonable expectations of their stakeholders. It also aims toachieve specific expected course outcomes, such as increasing awareness of ethics issues,improving decision-making and reducing misconduct. Responsible managementrecognises that an effective business ethics courses are likely to touch every decision andactivity of an organisation, it will guide patterns of thought, choice and action that subtlyshapes the organisational culture of the enterprise. The business ethics courses shouldalso be based on the core beliefs of the organisation and should reflect an approach ororientation that will resonate with employees and other stakeholders (Varner and Varner,2004). Sardy et al. (2010) argue that there is diversity in the conceptualisation and practise ofbusiness ethics worldwide. In the international context for ethic studies, the literaturesuggests that ideologies and practices vary across countries (De Jong et al., 2007; Jacksonet al., 2000). This diversity of ethical beliefs and practices would likely require an in-depth understanding and customisation of practices in foreign locations. Even within aculture like the Indian culture, values and ideologies across regions and communities canvary. Therefore, management business ethics practices often require unique approacheswhich are culture specific. Aside from culture in general, philosophy, religion and otherbelief systems specifically can shape business ethics. According to Whitcomb et al.(1998), in his studies on business ethics in China, the Chinese business ethics are largelyinfluenced by Confucianism and Taoism philosophy. Abuznaid (2009) on the other handasserts that in Islam, the question of whether an act is ethical or otherwise is determinedin the Qur’an (Islamic law) and Sunna, literally meaning the beaten track of the Prophet,
  7. 7. Ethics from the Thirukkural 459and it is mostly derived from his sayings (Hadith) and actions; there is no two ways aboutit (Alhabshi, 1993, p.93). It is therefore important for leaders to decide what, why and how they would like toaccomplish through ethical business conduct for their organisation, society and countrybefore going forward. In the organisational context, an effective business ethics practicesshould have specific, action-oriented, relevant and timely performance measures. Theymust make sure that the organisational principles of business ethics1 are aligned with an organisation’s core beliefs2 fit well with organisation systems, policies and practices3 addresses leadership priorities as well as employee expectations for ethics4 are used by employees at all levels to guide decision-making and action5 become a central part of an organisation’s culture overtime.5 Indian culture and business ethicsProfessor Arindam Chaudhuri (one of the Indian management guru) asserted thatalthough India has some of the best management schools in the world, most Indianorganisations have not been able to do well internationally. Among the reasons cited arethe failure of Indian management to develop the indigenous business management style,which revolves around Indian cultural roots and upbringing. Professor Chaudhuri furtherasserted that an Indian grows up in a system, where family ties and sense ofbelongingness get top priority and with this type of background, he or she may not beable to adjust or fit into the job environment, practicing American philosophies ofindividualistic, direct, low power distance and contractual style of management(Chaudhuri, 2003). The same principles also apply to the education in business ethics asalthough ethical principles are universal, they are culture-bound. Sharma (2001), e.g. argues that for a management system (includes ethics) to beeffective, it has to be rooted in the cultural soil of the country, where it is practised. Manycommunities and countries in Asia have created their own system of management andethical principles. The success of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean system ofmanagement is largely attributed to Confucianism culture and ethics. In Malaysia, thefourth prime minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi tried to promote an approachcalled Islam Hadhari or civilisation Islam, in which ethic was included (Swee-Hock andKesavapany, 2006). The Islamic perspective of ethics in the context of Middle East hasalso been written extensively by scholars like Tayeb (1997) and Abuznaid (2005, 2009). In the Indian context, Chakraborty (1997) asserted that unethical business in Indiabecame a recognised phenomenon during the Second World War but the academicconcern for business ethics became visible only during the 1990s. An online feedbackreceived through the forum discussion and the analysis of business ethics curriculum bythe authors in the Indian context reveals that many of the business ethics courses arebased on western principles of ethics. Not many of the Indian business schoolcurriculums explore the eternal ethical values as presented in some of the ancient Indianliterature. The situation is also similar in Malaysia based on the authors’ experiences.Business ethics courses in both public and private universities (with an exception of few
  8. 8. 460 B. Muniapan and M. Rajantheranpublic universities which integrate the Islamic ethics in their curriculums) are based onwestern principles of ethics. This is due to the widespread use of English in manycountries and the ready availability of literature on ethics in English language, while thereis no harm in studying the literature on ethics from the west, it is important for Indians tonot to forget their own literature on ethics. Looking at ethics from an Indian perspective, it is about time Indians regardless ofwhether they are Tamilians, Telugus, Malayalis, Kannadigas, Maharashtrians, Gujaratis,Punjabis, Sindhis, Bengalis, Oriyas, Manipuris, Kashmiris and others start to exploretheir own literature and contribute its knowledge to the world not only in the field ofethics and leadership but also in other fields. The Indian civilisation is more than 5,000years and the contribution of India and Indians to this world is enormous in various fieldsof knowledge (Rosen, 2002 cited in Muniapan and Dass, 2008). There is abundance of Indian literature on ethics from numerous perspectives incontemporary business leadership. There are also several ancient wisdoms on ethics fromancient India in the Vedic literature written in Sanskrit and in various other Indianlanguages. The ancient Indian classics such as the Valmiki Ramayana (Muniapan, 2007), theMahabharata , the Upanishads5 and also the Puranas6 offers several lessons on ethics,which are useful in contemporary business leadership, although many of these literatureswere written in Sanskrit more than 50 centuries ago. From the Bhagavad-Gita, forexample, we learn that lust or desire of the leaders as the root cause of unethicalpractices. Sri Krishna said that it is the lust or desire of the leaders, latter transformed intowrath, which compels them to commit such unethical practices (kama esa krodha esa,raja guna samudbhavah; mahasana maha-papma, viddhy enam iha varirinam:Bhagavad-Gita 3.37). As the fire is covered by smoke, as the mirror is covered by dust oras the embryo is covered by the womb, the leaders are covered by different degrees oflust or desire (dhumenavriyate vahnir, yathadarso malena ca; yatholbenavrto garbhas,tatha tenedam avrtam: Bhagavad-Gita 3.38). Therefore, anyone who takes up aleadership position must from the very beginning curb this great lust or desire byregulating their senses (tasmat tvam indriyanay adau, niyamya bharatarsabha;papmanam prajahi hy enam, jnam vijnana nasanam: Bhagavad-Gita 3.41). In the Indian context, besides Sanskrit, the Tamil language is also considered bymany scholars to be one of the oldest languages, which has a rich literary traditionspanning more than 3,000 years, perhaps even earlier. Most of the ancient Tamilliterature belongs to the Sangam7 period, considered by many as the golden age ofTamil civilisation. Many of these had been lost and the available literature currently isjust a fraction of the material produced. One of the available literature and the greatestcontributions of Tamils to the world is the Thirukkural; a book on ethics authored byThiruvallavar in the second century BC. The book is considered to be a posterior to theKautilya’s Arthashastra8 by some historians and to precede two other great Tamilliteratures the Silapathikaram9 and Manimekalai.10 Another Tamil literature called theTolkkappiam11 is said to be the oldest Tamil literature and is believed to be authored ineighth century BC, but not much is known about the author of Tolkkappiam. Of all the literatures in Tamil, Thirukkural is the most popular and the most quoted bymany Tamils. Even today Tamil philosophers, sociologists, economists, political leaders,song writers, poets, teachers and others often quote verses from the Thirukkural. Thecurrent chief minister of Tamil Nadu, India, M. Karunanidhi12 is considered by many as agreat scholar of Thirukkural. The popular Tamil poet Kannadasan13 also quoted
  9. 9. Ethics from the Thirukkural 461extensively verses of Thirukkural in many of his works (Muniapan and Dass, 2009).Although the teachings of Thirukkural encompass all the aspects of life, limited literatureis found on its principles of business ethics and application in business leadership. Although several Tamil scholars have written on various dimensions of Thirukkuralin Tamil language, the studies on Thirukkural in the organisational context of leadershipin English language is indeed limited. Among the authors who have done studies on theThirukkural’s application in business leadership are Iraianbu (2005) on human resourcemanagement from the perspectives of Thirukkural, Srinivasan (2006) on managementphilosophy from the Thirukkural, Amaladass (2007) on leadership values fromThirukkural, Chendroyaperumal (2008) on management role modelling from Thirukkuraland Loganathan (2008) on ethics from the Thirukkural. As business ethics are yet to beexplored by scholars, the objective of this paper is to highlight the principles of businessethics from the Thirukkural and presents its relevance for contemporary businessleadership. As the focus of this paper is on Thirukkural and Thiruvalluvar’s wisdom onbusiness ethics, Section 6 will provide a brief overview of the Thirukkural.6 ThirukkuralLike the great Vedic literature like the Valmiki Ramayana and the Vyasa Mahabharata,Thirukkural is also an epic. The word Thirukkural is a combination of two Tamil words‘thiru’ and ‘kural’. Thiru means auspicious and ‘kural’ means short poem consisting oftwo lines, a couplet. Thirukkural consists of 1,330 couplets (kural) and divided into threeparts. The first part deals with the ethical code of conduct (aram) and the second partdeals with political governance, wealth and other topics of social and material interest(porul). The third part deals with romance and love (inbam). The author Thiruvalluvarwas a Tamil saint and he was also a weaver and believed to have lived in Mylapore, apart of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Thirukkural expounds various aspects of lifealso known as tamilmarai (Tamil Veda); poyyamozhi (speech that does not become false)and dheiva nool (divine text). It is said that at the time of its first presentation to the King’s court, the Pandyan Kingwanted to check its greatness. In the presence of all poets and the public, he put it to testby placing the palm leaves on which the Thirukkural was written along with those ofother contemporary works on a golden lotus and allowed it to float in the temple tank atthe famous temple of Madurai Meenakshi Temple in Tamil Nadu. The sanctified goldenlotus that would recognise only masterpieces is said to have rejected all other works andretained only the Thirukkural (Ragunathan, 2007). Thirukkural has also been widely translated in many of the world languages apartfrom Indian languages. One of the reasons for its wide translation in different languagesof the world is the undeniable fact that the ethics and the values it carries are applicableto all religions, all countries and all times. The following are few of the tributes in honourof Thirukkural from the world scholars of yesteryears (Krishnamurti, 2009): “I wanted to learn Tamil, only to enable me to study Valluvar’s Thirukkural through his mother tongue itself Only a few of us know the name of Thiruvalluvar. The North Indians do not know the name of the great saint. There is no one who has given such treasure of wisdom like him.” “It is a text-book of indispensable authority on moral life. The maxims of Valluvar have touched my soul.” – Mahathma Gandhi, the Father of Modern India.
  10. 10. 462 B. Muniapan and M. Rajantheran “In its essence, Thirukkural is a treatise par excellence on the art of living. Tiruvalluvar, the author, diagnoses the intricacies of human nature with such penetrating insight, perfect mastery and consummate skill absorbing the most subtle concepts of love and modern psychology, that one is left wondering at his sweep and depth. His prescriptions, leavened by godliness, ethics, morality and humanness are sagacious and practical to the core. They cut across castes, creeds, climes and ages and have freshness which makes one fuel as if they are meant for the present times.” – Dr K.M. Munshi (1887–1971), Indian Educationist and Freedom Fighter, Founder of Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan. “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 work which have entered into the very soul of a whole people, and which can never die”. “ Complete in itself, the sole work of its author has come down the esteem of ages absolutely uninjured, hardly a single various reading of any importance being found.” – Rev. Dr G.U. Pope, Christian Missionary and Educationist, first to translate complete Thirukkural into English, 1886. “World and Life Negation are found in the thought of Jesus in so far as he did not assume that the Kingdom of God would be realized in this natural world. He expected that this natural world would very speedily come to an end and be superseded by a super-natural world in which all that is imperfect and evil would be overcome by the power of God”. On the contrary, Valluvar believed that in this very natural world, the liberated man can find his heaven and said that perfect bliss could be attained by an individual in this natural world itself and it is unnecessary to wait indefinitely for the transformation of the world in order to transform oneself. Thus he took life and world affirmation to a loftier plane than Christ did.” – Dr Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Laureate.There are three most important features which make the Thirukkural unique, and theyare:1 It is secular in nature2 It is universal and applicable to people living everywhere3 It is everlasting and its messages transcend time.This secular, universal and immortal nature of Thirukkural, combined with itsconciseness and literary charm, has been the pride of Tamil people for the past manycenturies. Therefore, it is imperative for the Indians (Tamils) to dive into the ocean ofThirukkural to learn the principles of ethics for business leadership.7 Business ethics from the ThirukkuralAncient literature is always a source of wisdom. It inspires those who are open to it allthe time and it is never exhausted by any one generation of interpreters, no one has saidthe last word on it. Thirukkural is an example of one such ancient literature (Amaladass,2007). The Thirukkural is pregnant with lessons in several fields related to wealth,economics, politics, duty, pleasure, etc., besides ethics. For some Indians it may lookstrange that an ancient literature like the Thirukkural can say some things about businessethics in the modern context of leadership, but it is expected that after reading this paper
  11. 11. Ethics from the Thirukkural 463they will be convinced of the contribution made by Thiruvalluvar on ethical principlesand its relevance today. Amaladass (2007) argues that the ethical tradition displayed and formulated in thewisdom literature like the Thirukkural is unfortunately overlooked by the present-dayleaders in the Indian context, due to two main reasons: firstly, because the leaders are noteven aware of their own tradition as most of them received western-based education, forexample, from the authors’ experience, not many Indians in Malaysia have a goodknowledge of the ancient texts, such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata (include theBhagavad-Gita) and Thirukkural although many have came across or heard about thesetexts (Muniapan and Dass, 2009); secondly, these ethical texts do not offer any attractivesuggestions to those who are involved or interested in the process of quick acquisition ofwealth (Amaladass, 2007). After all, wisdom itself cannot be obtained by academicdegrees alone, but rather, by practicing a patient and meaningful way of living. Even toappreciate this wisdom literature, one needs a certain level of maturity, which comesgradually as life experiences unfold themselves. But it is the task of the elders in everygeneration to transmit these values in an intelligible and easily accessible manner to theyounger generation. The strength or maturity of a tradition depends on the continuity ofsuch wisdom pointers at all times. Sometimes the ancient values of a particular culturemay not appear to influence the current thinking of people, yet simultaneously they neverare completely eroded (Amaladass, 2007). Therefore, it is imperative that the principlesof ethics from ancient text like the Thirukkural need to be reinforced to the Indianbusiness leaders to be aware of code of business and to deal effectively with ethicaldilemmas (dharma sankatam) in making their daily business decision. This might looklike a sermon but the lessons are likely to have a deep impact on business leadership andon those in the leadership position.7.1 Ethics is the road to wealth and goodwillThe Thirukkural considers ethics as a road to wealth and goodwill (Kural 31 –Thiruvalluvar highlighted Cirappu eenum celvamum eenum arattinuunku cakkam evanouyirkku). There is nothing in this world except ethics which would bring both reputationand wealth together; therefore, ethical principle in business is essential. The Bible, forexample, also says that the righteous shall ‘flourish’ and be ‘filled’ They shall bringforth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” (The Bible: Psalm 92:12–15). Theimplication is not merely earthly but heavenly fulfillment as well. In business, the leadersmust work hard and make it successful by not diverting their effort and concentration.The leaders must be honest, truthful, abide by the law and respect others and theirproperties. They should also live harmoniously with others to have a long-lastingbusiness. In their business, leaders are required to treat others information, drawings andproperties and confidential agreements with total respect and care and protection. Theyshould not even attempt a small and simple cheat and fraud in their business, as this willdestroy their big reputation and huge wealth. They must also not attempt to steal othersproducts, or properties, or patent rights or commit any illegality and fraud in yourbusiness operations. They must also honour all their commitments and confidentialagreements in their business. The Thirukkural also highlights the importance oftransparency and truthfulness in all business transactions as it will bring respectableposition in business. The business leaders are required not to do anything in yourbusiness which is of health hazard, environmental hazard, highly toxin, causing pollution
  12. 12. 464 B. Muniapan and M. Rajantheranproblem or affecting the nature and harmony or likely to cause temporary or permanentproblems to others.7.2 Ethical leadership by exampleBusiness leaders today are considered to be fortunate to obtain good education with manybusiness leaders with at least a Bachelors Degree or with Masters Degree or PhDs, butwhat is the use of that learning if they are not ethical in their undertaking, and thatlearning does not lead to the blessed feet of pure intelligence (Kural 2 – karratana laapayanekol; valarivan narral tolaar rennin). The purpose of education is to develop theintellect to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong and cautioned by one’sown conscience. A leader needs to be well behaved and set good examples for theirfollowers. The Thirukkural clearly highlighted that the leader can be a highly qualifiedperson. But any of leader’s unethical practices will result in irreparable damage to theirbusiness. Therefore, they must do the right things first and continue to do the right thingsonly. The leader’s glamour and showoff in business will not serve any purpose, unlessthey gain the faith and confidence in the market as the reliable business. As a leader ofreliable and reputed business, they must be always truthful, honest and follow ethics in alltheir business transaction. Even for millions of dollars of profits, they should not attemptin doing anything unethical and illegal in their business, as this will destroy the hard-builtreputation of their business. It is known that customers will throng to the business withyour established high reputation, product and service reliability in the market. Therefore,leading with sound principles of ethics is essential for every leader. These leaders will beseen to ‘walk the talk’ and also ‘talk the walk’. Poet Kannadasan in Aandavan Kattalaihad written that a leader who walks his talk and talks his walk will attain the happinesswithin (onre solvaar onre seivaar ullaththil ulladhu amaidhi) (Muniapan and Dass,2009). It is often said that a man who is full of words, but not deeds is like a garden fullof weeds. People will work ‘with’ leaders with ethical principles and not ‘for’ them. Theleaders will be considered to be honest, trustworthy and have a very high level ofintegrity, and will deliver their promises to their people or subordinates. On principles of ethics, in Thirukkural, Thiruvalluvar guides not only the businessleaders but also all humanity to live an ethical life and virtues. In the organisationalcontext today, what was said by Thiruvalluvar for a king applies to business leaders inorganisations. An organisational leader who is virtuous and acts according to theprinciples of ethics will not only bring good name and reputation but will also enrichone’s wealth. Therefore, good business ethical practices provide leaders, employees withthe guidance and information they need for effective, efficient and responsible choicesand actions. The goodness of a leader’s behaviour itself is the root cause of all othergoodness. This is clearly asserted by Thiruvalluvar as the only goodness of the leader isthat of their goodness; all other goodness is not to be included among any goodness(Kural 982 – Gunanalam saandroar nalanay piranalam yennalathu vullathoom andru).Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita (3.21) also asserts the following to Arjuna: whateveraction the leader performs, common men follow; and whatever standards the leader setsby exemplary acts, all worlds pursue (yad yad acarati sresthas tat tad evetaro janah sayat pramanam kurute lokas tad anuvartate).
  13. 13. Ethics from the Thirukkural 4657.3 Ethical leadership from within (intrinsic)Being ethical should not only be just acting or setting examples but also the ethicalconduct should originate from the heart, otherwise it cannot be considered ethical.Similar to the other Vedic literature, Thirukkural recommends intrinsic or inside outperspectives to ethical conduct. The propensity to behave ethically must come from heartand not by force or by any rules or regulations. Thirukkural says a blemishless mind isthe basis of all virtue; everything else is just an empty show (Kural 34 – Manathukkanmaacilan aadhal anaitharan aakula neera pira). The word ‘Maacil’ in Kural 34 refers tothe impurity of the mind, which has to be eschewed if one is to progress in virtue. JesusChrist also highlighted this concept of purity of heart, when he said that a man whoentertained in his mind lustful thoughts with reference to another woman is already guiltyof adultery (Matt. 5:28). Everyone of us needs to cultivate the principles of ethical living in whatever we do.Ethical living needs no time or place (Kural 33 – Ollum vakaiyan aravinai ovate cellumvayellan ceyal). Being ethical is nothing but realising the leadership task, responsibilitiesand accountabilities and act accordingly. If duty alone is to be considered while taking upany task, its fruits will follow suit. This is also consistent with Sri Krishna’s statement inthe Bhagavad-Gita (3.19) that duty needs to be done without attachment and for thosewho do their duty without attachment will attain the supreme goal (tasmad asaktahsatatam karyam karma samacara; asakto hy acaran karma param apnoti purusah). The leader should not postpone an ethical behaviour, it is now or never. They shouldnot wait for a conducive or favourable time because there is no guarantee that suchfavourable and conducive time will ever occur. If they miss the opportunity, theopportunity may not come back. Therefore, leaders should not postpone ethical deeds asthese alone will befriend them to the full, until they die and even afterwards (Kural 36 –Anrarivam ennatu aranceyaka; marratu ponrumkal ponrat tuani). The leader may die,but their name and honour remain as also mentioned in an old Malay proverb whichwhen translated meant that, when a tiger dies, it leaves its stripes; but for leaders, it istheir name and deeds that are left behind death.7.4 Ethical leadership communicationThiruvalluvar had even mentioned about the need for leaders to communicate ethically.A leader should ascertain the capacity of the receiver before speaking to one as this iscapable of bringing good results. While communicating, the leader should be clear aboutthe effectiveness of the words used and also the ability of the receiver to understand. Thechoice of words must not be harsh even in disciplining others, as using harsh wordsinstead of kind ones is like going in for raw fruits, when ripe ones are available (Kural100 – Iniya ulavaaka innaatha kooral Kaniyiruppak kaaikavarn thattru). When leadersknow that kind words bring joy and happiness to their people, why should they resort toharsh words? (Kural 99 – Insol initheenral kaanpaan evankolo vansol valanguvathu).Foul words will never come from lips of righteous men even by slip (Kural 139 –Ozhukkamudayavarkku ollaave theeya Vazhukkiyum vaayaar solal).
  14. 14. 466 B. Muniapan and M. Rajantheran7.5 Environmental influence on ethical practicesAccording to Thiruvalluvar (Kural 455 – mananthooymai seyvinai thooymai iranduminanthooymai thoovaa varum), the level of being ethical by practice is also dependent onthe environment or the society, as the purity of mind and purity of conduct depend uponthe purity of a leader’s companions. It is imperative for leaders to be in the companion ofpure and ethical people, as Thiruvalluvar beautifully described that as water changesaccording to the soil through which it flows, so a man assimilates the character of hisassociates (Kural 452 – Nilaththiyalpaal neerththirin tharraagum maandharkkuinaththiyalpa thaagum arivu). Therefore, the selection of business partners, managers orwhen forming a strategic alliance, a careful consideration need to be made to ensure thepartners, the managers or the allies have a good record and ethical practice.7.6 Self-leadership and ethical principlesOn self-leadership and to live and practise ethical principles, Thiruvalluvar asserted thatthe leaders must avoid four unethical characters and behaviours, such as envy, greed,anger, harsh or violent words and flawless ethical life rests in avoiding the above-saidfour enemies (Kural 35 – Alukkaaru avaavekkuli innaccol naankum llukkaa iyanradhuuaram). The Tamil Poet Kannadasan also made the reference to the above said similarenemies in his Aandavan Kattalai when he wrote leaders who are possessed by lust, greedand anger are animals in human form, while men with love, mercy and compassion aregods in human forms (aasai kobam kalavu kolbavan pesa therindha mirugam; anbunanri karunai kondavan manidha vadivil dheivam) (Muniapan and Dass, 2009). Anger isconsidered to be an enemy of leaders and it is just a letter short of ‘d’anger. Sri Krishna(Bhagavad-Gita 2.63) also asserted to Arjuna that from anger delusion arises and fromdelusion bewilderment of memory; when memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost andwhen intelligence is lost, one falls down again into the material pool (krodhad bhavatisammohah sammohat smrti-vibhramah, smrtibhramsad buddhi-naso buddhi-nasatpranasyati). For some business leaders who are inclined to amass wealth, ethical practices wouldappear unethical, and unethical practices would appear ethical (Kural 375 – Nallavaiyellam theeyavaam; theevavum nallavaam selvam seyarkku). Therefore, they should becareful in segregating the good and bad in their business pursuit for profits. It is alsoessential for leaders to make right decision at right time, as perseverance and resolutionscome to a leader when during good times, but laziness prevails when it disappears (Kural371 – Aagoozhaal thorum asaivinmai; kaiporul pokoozhaal thorum madi). ForThiruvalluvar, leaders who acquire and store wealth through unethical means is likesaving water in an unfired mud pot, which easily dissolves in water. Such practises wouldlead to not only the loss of the wealth but also the pot itself will be lost (Kural 660 –Salaththaal porulseidhu yemaarththal pasumann kalaththulneer peidhire yiyattru). Farmore excellent is the extreme poverty of the wise than wealth obtained by heaping up ofsinful deeds (Kural 657 – Pazhimalaindhu yeidhiya aakkaththin saanror kazhinal kuravethalai). To those business leaders whose actions have not desisted from doing deedsforbidden or unethical business practices will, even if they succeed, cause them sorrow(Kural 658 – Kadindha kadinthoraar seidhaarkku avaidhaam mudhindhaalum peezhaitharum).
  15. 15. Ethics from the Thirukkural 467 Thiruvalluvar in his Thirukkural insists on ethical living and good business practicefor leaders to realise their duties and responsibilities in earning wealth in an ethicalmanner. All wealth that has been obtained with tears (to the victims by unethicalpractices) will depart with tears (to the business leader); but what has been by fair means,though with loss at first, will afterwards yield fruit (Kural 659 – Azhakkonda yellamazhappom; izhappinum pirpayakkum narpaa lavai). Leaders who administer theirorganisation based on sound principles of ethics will be considered divine by their peopleor subordinates (Murai saithu kapatrum mannavan makkalkku iraiyentru).8 ConclusionThe Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar is pregnant with several lessons for ethical businesspractices for effective business leadership in organisations. Although numerous studieson Thirukkural have made in Tamil language especially in Tamil Nadu, studies onThirukkural in English and other languages (apart from direct translations) are limited.The teachings from the Thirukkural do not conflict with Vedanta and are of no differenceto the teachings from the Bible, the Koran, the philosophy of Buddha, Confucius andother philosophical schools of thought. The Thirukkural is a treatise on ethical businessleadership. Thirukkural advocates a consciousness and a spirit-centered approach to thesubject of business ethics based on eternal values and moral principles that should governthe conduct of business leaders. The 1,330 couplets (Kural) of the Thirukkural are richwith several lessons on business ethics and leadership; however, it is beyond the scope ofthis paper to explore the couplets (Kural). This paper is significant for both academiciansand practitioners in Indian management, as it is to provide insights into Indian (Tamil)business ethics from an ancient time and its modern relevance. The authors hope that thispaper will reinforce Thirukkural ethics to Indian (Tamil) business leaders and make themmore aware of the code of conduct on business. It is the hope of the authors that everyIndian (Tamil) business leader will be able to incorporate and apply the principles ofethics taught by Thiruvalluvar in their daily business practice. It is the hope of the authorsthat this paper will provide the groundwork for many future Thirukkural studies onbusiness ethics and leadership in the Indian context.ReferencesAbu-Tapanjeh, M.A. (2008) Corporate Governance from Islamic Perspective: a Comparative Analysis with OECD Principles. Elsevier Ltd.Abuznaid, S. (2005) ‘Islam and management: what can be learned?’, Thunderbird International Business Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp.125–139.Abuznaid, S. (2009) ‘Business ethics in Islam: the glaring gap in practice’, Int. J. Islamic and Middle Eastern Finance and Management, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp.278–288.Alhabshi, S.O. (1993) ‘Management ethics from Islamic perspective’, Proceedings: Arab Management Conference. Bradford, UK: University of Bradford.Amaladass, A. (2007) ‘Values in leadership in Tamil tradition of Thirukkural vs. present-day leadership theories’, International Management Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp.9–16.BEIM (2006) ‘Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia (BEIM): an introduction’, Available at:
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  19. 19. Ethics from the Thirukkural 471Notes:1 The Vedic literatures are vast and composed of many books. However, Sri Madhvacharya, one of the principal teachers of the Vedic philosophy, while commenting on the Vedanta-sutra (2.1.6), quotes from the Bhavishya Purana as follows: rg-yajuh-samartharvas ca bharatam pancaratrakam, mala-ramayanam caiva veda ity eva sabdita, puranani ca yaniha vaisnavani vido viduh –‘The Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, Mahabharata, Pancarata and the original Ramayana are all considered Vedic literatures…. The supplements like the Puranas are also Vedic literatures’. We may also include the Upanishads and commentaries of great teachers who have guided the course of Vedic thought for centuries.2 The Ramayana was written by Sri Valmiki Muni and contains 24,000 verses in seven Kandas (books). The Ramayana is about a Raghuvamsa prince, Rama of Ayodhya, whose wife, Sita, is abducted by demon Ravana. The Ramayana provides the essence of the Vedas.3 The Bhagavad-Gita is a philosophical dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna before the commencement of the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas in Kurukshetra, India more than 5,000 years ago. It is a part of Bhisma Parva of the Mahabharata.4 The Mahabharata is one of the two major ancient Sanskrit epics of India, the other being the Ramayana. The Bhagavad-Gita contains in Bhisma Parva of the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata was composed by Sri Vyasa Muni and written by Sri Ganesa. The full version contains more than 100,000 verses, making it around four times longer than the Bible and seven times longer than the Illiad and the Odyssey combined.5 The Upanishads are part of Vedic Shruti scriptures, which are philosophical. They are the commentaries on the Vedas.6 The Puranas are old stories and histories written in the form related by one person to another. Sri Vyasa Muni is considered to be the compiler of the Puranas. There are 18 main Puranas.7 Sangam Literature comprises some of the oldest extant Tamil literature, and deals with love, war, governance, trade and bereavement. However, many of the Tamil literature belonging to the Sangam period had been lost.8 The Arthashastra here refers to Kautilya’s (also known as Chanakya or Visnugupta) the adviser of Chandragupta Maurya in the fourth century BC. Arthashastra is a compilation of almost everything that had been written in India up to his time on artha (property, economics or material success).9 Silappatikaram is one of the five Tamil epics written by Ilango Adigal. The epic is a highly regarded literary work in Tamil. The nature of the epic is narrative and has a moralistic undertone. It contains three chapters and a total of 5,270 lines of poetry. The epic revolves around Kannagi, who having lost her husband, Kovalan, to a miscarriage of justice at the court of the Pandya King, wreaks her revenge on his kingdom.10 Manimekalai was written by Seethalai Saathanar and is one of the masterpieces of Tamil literature, and is considered as one of the five epics of Tamil literature. Manimekalai is a sequel to Silapathikaram and tells the story of the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi.11 The Tolkkappiam is a work on the grammar of the Tamil language and the earliest known extant work of Tamil literature. It is written in the form of noorpaa or short formulaic compositions and comprises three books – the Ezhuttadikaram, the Solladikaram and the Poruladikaram. Each of these books is further divided into nine chapters each. There is also no firm evidence to assign the authorship of this treatise to any one author. It is a master treatise, also gives a wealth of information about the political, social and economic life of the ancient Tamil people.12 Kalaignar Muthuvel Karunanidhi (generally referred to as M. Karunanidhi) is one of the founder members and the present leader of the DMK in Tamil Nadu, India. He is the president of the DMK party since 1969. He is the current chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He has also been the chief minister of Tamil Nadu four times (1969–1971, 1971–1976, 1989–1991 and 1996–2001).13 Poet Kannadasan, who is also known as Kavi Arasu (translated as a king of poets). He had made great impact on the life of the Tamils worldwide. To the Tamils, Poet Kannadasan is a legendary poet, writer and lyricist. He is remembered as the lyricist who created several thousand songs for the Tamil films from 1944 till his death in 1981.