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Selected Tamil Proverbs

"Much similarity in ideas exists between the East and the West," writes S. Subramaniem at the start of a book on Tamil proverbs. We will see about that: There are deep, cultural differences too, the proverb collector Herman Jensen tells in the same work (see bottom of the page).

Some of the proverbs that follow, are commented on by Jensen for most part. He often draws in English proverbs to comment on Tamil ones.


A dancing girl [harlot] does not regard the ties of relationship.

A doctor only thinks of the profit he will get by the medicine he is preparing, the sick person only wonders whether it will cure him or not.

A man who defends a false case is a king who tolerates crime. [He must take the consequences of his crime sooner or later.]

A monkey that has drunk toddy. [It is naturally mischievous but becomes worse after drinking toddy.]

A selfish mother will not mind when her daughter is made a widow. [Close sits my shirt, but closer my skin.]

A shameless fellow will win. [As he has no shame, he does anything he likes.]

A thief's mind is on stealing.

A weeping hypocrite, a worshipping hypocrite and a ritualistic hypocrite.

A wicked child that has no respect for his parents.

After seeing a ruined wall, why should you go and knock your head against it?

All houses have an earthen fire-place, a fire-place of gold exists nowhere.

Are you so blind as to run your head against a ruined wall?

As the snake bit the man who had fallen from a tree. [Pour not water on a drowned mouse.]

By meditation on God, the spiritual wisdom in man that is unilluminated, will become radiant (Upanishad).

Children and God prefer to be where they are made much of.

Crows bewail the dead sheep and then eat them.

Does a clever prostitute lack tears?

Even when the city of the god of riches is plundered, the unlucky wretch will get nothing.

Every little man thinks himself great, because he measures himself according to his own standard.

Every man tries to secure what he has gained to himself. [ All draw water to their own mill.]

Forgotten property is no good. *

Frauds and tricks will reduce a man's greatness.

Friendship on his lips, hatred at heart.

God is the self-existing (Vishnu Purana).

(Godly justice and love) smite with one hand, and embrace with the other.

Good fortune and riches are never one man's share. [Anyone may be lucky enough to get them.]

He performs severe penance outwardly, but he is a great rogue. [All saint without, all devil within.]

He treats any woman he gets hold of as he likes. [Unprincipled tyranny.

He who breaks one's hand, may also break one's head. ---He that will steal an egg, will steal an ox.]

He who has luck in his favour will ride in a palanquin.

He who sows millet, reaps millet; he who sows deeds (good or bad) will reap accordingly.

If I speak, I am called a babbler; if I am silent, I am called a dumb fellow. [It is hard to please all.]

If it be the will of God, even the dead will rise.

If the sugar-cane tastes bitter, the fault is in the mouth of the eater. [If one dislikes a good thing or a good person, the fault lies in himself.]

If your face is ugly, what can the mirror do?

In times of degeneration people get a perverted mind.

Is the power in the grinding stone or in the woman that grinds? [Said when blame is laid not on the person who is the real sinner, but on a person who has been led into sin.]

Joy and grief are a whirling wheel.

Let me lose my respect; I am satisfied if I get fat. [Said of one who seeks profit at any cost. Cf. Kashmiri: " A fat man has no religion."]

Like a cat putting on a rosary and teaching religion. [Said of a religions teacher who makes his religion a cloak for sin. "They are not all saints that use holy water."]

Like getting piles in one's old age. [The sufferer is already weak, but the piles will make him still worse.]

Loss of sense precedes (spiritual) degradation as surely as the sound of the bells precedes the elephant.

One mother-in-law needs another mother-in-law. [ She can only be outwitted another mother-in-law.]

One's own faults are an opportunity for others.

Seeing a woman in sorrow he thrusts his hand into her arm-pit. ["While her husband was dying, her neighbour thrust his hand into the arm-pit (of the sorrowing wife). He took advantage of her unprotected state." Said about persons who take a mean advantage of another's misfortunes.]

Should one burn down one's house for fear of rats?

The deeds of each individual will follow each individual (into the next world).

The fruit falls near the tree. [The results of your deeds will come upon yourself.]

The mother after warning her daughter, played the harlot herself. [Let him that has a glass skull not take to stone throwing.]

The priest for the sake of truth, and the priest for material gain. [The former has his mind set on essential truth and seeks the spiritual benefit of his disciples. While the latter seeks only his own interest.]

The sister who blamed her elder sister became a harlot herself. [Everyone should sweep before his own door.]

Theft of mustard is theft, and theft of camphor is theft. [Camphor is used in the worship of all the gods. Compare: Sin is sin whether big or small.]

Though he has stolen the fowl he joins the others in going about searching for it.

Though you see an empty well, will you go and fall into it?

Though you stand on your head to do penance you will only succeed in your aim at the time of success.

We should know both the revealed and the unrevealed God. (Upanishad)

What is an elder or a younger sister to him who lies with his own mother?

Whatever you are able to secure from a burning house is a gain.

When she is married, her stomach will become small and her sense great. [While a girl is in her mother's house she has nothing to do but eat, but once in her husband's house she will find little time to eat and will have to be constantly on the alert.]

When the banyan is ripe he is here, and when the peepal (Ficus religiosa) is ripe he is here. [Wherever there is something to be had, there the greedy man is to be found.]

When the sacred writings, the priest, and one's own happiness are all in harmony, we have the truth.

While one man's beard was burning, another man asked him for a light for his cigar. [And Kashmiri: "My beard is on fire, and he comes to warm his hands at the blaze."]

Will beauty feed you, or will fortune feed you?

Will he be afraid of blame, who is not afraid of committing murder?

Will the man who lies with his own mother regard any ties?

Will this cat drink milk?

Will you go and fall into a well with a lamp in your hand? [Run not into ruin with your eyes open.

Final Mentions

You may wonder how this selection of Tamil proverbs came about. It is a selection of another selection by a Danish missionary.

Thousands of proverbs are found in Tamil proverb collections, and also in the collection by the Danish Herman Jensen. He ran into proverbs when reading Tamil books and conversing with Tamil people. Acquainted with more and more of the proverbs - also the obscene ones he met with in collections and in intercourse with the people and "freely used by the great majority of the common people even in their children's presence" - the Danish missionary's interest in them steadily increased.

At times he tried to have some of the proverbs explained by the common people. The kind help he got from Tamil people led him to a fuller understanding of Oriental proverbial literature.

In time he got the idea of publishing a collection of these beautiful national sayings. "He stepped into the water without knowing its depth [Tamil proverb]."

With these difficulties before him he started, hoping that "Stroke upon stroke will make even a grindstone creep."

Are Tamil proverbs all Tamil originally, and are they all proverbs? No, hardly. When comparing the Tamil proverbs with the Telugu ones, one finds a good number almost word for word the same. It is similar with some other Indian languages. They share proverbs copiously.

Disregarding origin, when once put in use among Tamil people, the proverbs can be called Tamil. It is just the same with American proverbs. No matter their origin, if used by North Americans, they are by that token alone called American. "You use it, you own it", is the lesson. [Ap ix-xii]

Aphorisms (sutras), maxims, and proverbs blend, and may at times be hard to distinguish from one another. Hence, aphorisms from the Hitipadesa are called proverbs in S. H. Blake's Fables and Proverbs from Sanskrit. Being the Hitopadesa. There are many aphorisms in Indian literature. From the Mahabharata, Hitopadesa, and other books, we could easily get a beautiful collection of aphorisms and sayings counted by thousands.

Jensens' aim in making his collection was practical, and he tried his best to avoid slight variants of one and the same the proverb theme and other repetition. He could make use of other Tamil proverb collections, and draw on Tamil story books and Sastras. There are also a good number of proverbs interspersed in the huge Sanskrit poem Mahabharata, and translated into Tamil.

These beautiful little proverbs are dear to Tamil people

A mere translation of a real proverb will not in most cases bring us into contact with its homely meaning. Percival left out the application, but in many cases a Tamil proverb without its application is to a foreigner almost like an unbroken cocoanut to a dog, as the Tamil saying is.

Jensen arranged Tamil proverbs into groups, into "families" to the end that similar proverbs were brought together.

In selecting English equivalents for the Tamil proverbs he used many English collections and also collections of proverbs in other Indian languages.

Jensen has noted that India has very few proverbs referring to the weather and the seasons. Again, in India he found no girls or young ladies, but female children and wives, as the Indian woman passed at once from being a child to being a wife. And the Indian widow was a mere widow, a contemptible thing! Also, in India a woman has no trouble in dressing up in order to look good in society, for her parents arranged her marriage for her while she was still a child. Even if she is an exceedingly ugly monkey she will be married, he informs.

Tamil proverbs almost altogether leave out criticism of superstition, ceremonies, gods and temples, in short, all that refers to religious life. Folly and laziness are regarded so differently by the Indians and the English that it is impossible to find English equivalents for the Tamil.

A further complication: The meaning of an English and a Tamil proverb may be the same, but the habits, customs and climate give them another significance or weight. For example, the English: "Better a bare foot, than no foot at all," is difficult to understand in a country where all people used to go bare-footed.

Much depends on customs.

The animals in Tamil proverbs "are but dumb figures brought in merely for the purpose of illustration". In the Panchatantra (a Sanskrit book of fables), on the other hand, "all animals are imbued with sense and characteristics: they think, talk, move and behave in every way like man. Nay, some animals in those ancient days seem even to have been reading the Vedas."

So the Aryans have given life to all their animals. The Dravidians (Tamil), on the contrary, seem "not to have seen much in animals; in their proverbs, at least, they have not attributed anything like intellect to them, except perhaps a little to the cat. The elephant represents in Tamil proverbs outward greatness only. The gentle cow gives milk. The buffalo is for ploughing. Sheep are as stupid as their shepherd. The dog's faithfulness is unknown. Dogs, pigs and crows are dirty and greedy animals. The ass is ever obstinate, but has willingly or unwillingly to submit to hard work and hard treatment; its fate is a hard and pitiful one, indeed; in the hands of the washerman it fares as badly as the monkey in the hands of the mendicant. . . . Whatever is done to an ass, it cannot become a horse; in this sense the horse is used for something great and grand." Various animals are brought in only in order to illustrate, not to "humanize".

"I have always been much struck with the complaining . . . under the tyranny of men and of fate that underlies so many of the Indian proverbs. This is also the case with the Indian songs."

"But why so much ado about nothing? Why take so much trouble about these proverbs? . . . Whether we look to the West or to the East we find that figurative speech always has great influence over the masses."

"By a good knowledge of Indian proverbs one is enabled, as it were, to feel the moral pulse of the Indian people," and perhaps to "look deeply into the recesses of the native heart." Sins abound in Tamil proverbs, to the extent that Jensen calls them a catalogue of sins. Trickery, deceit, icy positioning, and fraud abound there too.

Proverbs are designed to help us to get a hold on the moments that might be moulding the future. Proverbs aim at putting things right, Jensen also thinks. It may be true in some cases. In other cases they are used to comment on happenings, or bulwark against deteriorations. "In proverbs lies buried a store of criticism, encouragement, humour, sorrow and complaint," he says. We have in the proverbial literature material to help us with indirectly giving vent to sorrows and joys, approvals or disapprovals. By proverbs, ridicule and praise is allowed.

Extensive acquaintance with native proverbs can be of the highest importance, nay, of inestimable value, thinks Jensen. "Often a proverb aptly quoted will serve to convey a truth in the most terse and striking manner." As with the "best Puritan preachers", what is remembered of their sermonising is what is put tersely, pointedly, epigrammatically.

"Simplicity is the highest beauty," says Jensen, and "As proverbs are used in real life, so they should be quoted. Their meaning, their words and their grammar are alike practical and simple . . . we should let them go in their natural simplicity, and honour them in their natural dress."

"The proverbs being in a simple language, their translation ought also to be simple and plain. But it is very difficult to translate an Eastern proverb into English so that its meaning may be clearly understood."

Finally Jensen tells of all the help he got by named individuals too.


Words of Wisdom

The Tirukkural, variously spelled Thirukkural and Kural - is a classic of couplets or Kurals. In 133 chapters there are 1330 rhyming aphorisms in the Tamil language. A Thiruvalluvar is credited with writing it, but his faith and identity are disputed. The Kural is one of the most important forms of classical Tamil poetry. Its three parts are about virtue, realities of life, and pleasures of man and woman in the course of their relationship.


A family bound in love and virtues
Is the purpose and essence of life (45)

Family life is a bed of roses and incense
When adorned with a loving wife and gifted children. (60)

The help we can render our parents
Is for recognising their penance to beget great sons like us. (70)

In everything
Wisdom perceives Truth. (355)

Learning a man secures in one birth
Will secure his well-being in seven. (398)

Wisdom speaks well, conveying each meaning clearly, And listens for the subtlest sense in others' speech. (424)

By knowing his thoughts, a man's mind is discovered.
By knowing his associates, his character is revealed. (453)

Is there any task too difficult for the man who acts
At the right time and employs the proper means? (483)

Though tested fully under simulated conditions,
Many men function differently under working conditions. (514)

Let the king scrutinize his staff's conduct daily.
If they do not go astray, the world will not go astray. (520)

Investigate well, show favour to none, maintain impartiality,
Consult the law, then give judgment-that is the way of justice. (541)

An able spy is he who can assume an unsuspicious disguise,
Is fearless when caught and never betrays his secrets. (585)

There is nothing like wealth for lending consequence
To an inconsequential man (751)

It is not constant meeting and companionship
But mutual sensibilities that confer the alliance of friendship. (785)

Friendship is not seen on a friendly face,
But felt deep within a friendly heart. (786)

Familiar with familiarity, the wise are not annoyed
When friends do things without asking. (804)

Bound by friendship, true friends never break the bond
With an old comrade, even if he brings them loss. (806)

What is folly? It is holding on to that which is harmful
And throwing away that which is beneficial. (831)

If a fool who knows not how to act undertakes an enterprise
He will not only fail, he will shackle himself in chains. (836)

The wealth of a man who gives nothing to the needy
Is like a beautiful maiden growing old unwed. (1007)

Outwardly, vile men resemble human beings.
Never have we witnessed such a remarkable likeness. (1071)

The work reflects past and present Indian conditions and values.


Tamil proverbs, Literature  

Jensen, Herman. A Classified Collection of Tamil Proverbs. London: Trubner and Co, 1897. Online.

Popley, Herbert Arthur, tr. The Sacred Kural; or, The Tamil Veda of Tiruvalluvar. London: Oxford University Press, 1931. Online.

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