The need to just be (சும்மா இரு) – Part 2 of 2

Recently, I was having a conversation with a client. He mentioned an interesting personal story that resonated with me as I was contemplating the details for this post.

Earlier Post: The need to just be (Part 1)

The fast and the slow

His father was an intelligent man who used to work in the Finance Trading business and had done quite well – so much so that he decided to retire by 40. His mother was equally accomplished, and worked at another major financial institution, managing accounts.

Though they retired quite early, he interestingly mentioned that they got ‘old’ pretty fast. They became stressed, restless, and were itching to do something. Staying quiet was just not in their bones. Now, his brother on the other hand, owned a small food catering company, which was doing moderately well. He was not necessarily a businessman by nature and had more of a ‘take-it-easy’ personality. When things were not especially great in one of the years, his parents offered to look into the business. Soon, they turned the company around, identified new opportunities, fixed all accounting issues, and increased the business by many fold. In that process, they regained their second wind and their youth! Interestingly, it didn’t go well with the brother. He said, “I was much better off earlier even though I was not making much money! This is too much for me!”

Who was better off here – the active, successful parents who enjoyed what they did by being active or the brother who was not a super success but was content with his slower pace?

 

Getting some clues

In our current times, isn’t being fast good? Why should we slow down? What did Lord Muruga mean by சும்மா இரு (summa iru)? In colloquial terms, it means “be still / don’t do anything” (typically to kids) or “shut up” (to friends).

In his other work கந்தர் அலங்காரம் (Kandhar Alankaaram), he expands a bit more (or rather condenses a few other verses in the earlier work along with the one above) as:

சொல்லுகைக்கு இல்லை என்று எல்லாம் இழந்து சும்மா இருக்கும்
எல்லை உள் செல்ல எனை விட்டவா இகல் வேலன்

Just so that this is not one that is told (but rather experienced), you made me lose everything to get into the realm of just being…

Here, losing everything (எல்லாம் இழந்து) doesn’t refer to materialistic loss, but rather discarding all distractions in order to “just be” (சும்மா இருக்கும்) – which is a level of consciousness that is not easily achieved.

Does this imply summa iru means getting rid of material possessions and living the life of a sanyasi (ascetic)?

தாயுமானவர் (Thaayumaanavar), another prominent saint who came in a couple of hundred years after AruNagirinaathar, shared similar sentiments.

சும்மா இருக்க சுகம் சுகம் என்று சுருதி எல்லாம்
அம்மா நிரந்தரம் சொல்லவும் கேட்டும் அறிவின்றியே
பெம்மான் மௌனி மொழியையும் தப்பி என் பேதமையால்
வெம்மாய காட்டில் அலைந்தேன் அந்தோ என் விதி வசமே.

Even though my guru advised me to “just be” and that it was the way to attain bliss, I didn’t heed his words due to my ignorance and kept roaming around in this illusory forest (of material world) due to my fate.

Somewhat of a Matrix-like philosophy here! He gives a clue that “just being” requires a level of conscious realization, guidance from a proper guru, and trust in the path being taken. In another place, he gives a beautiful analogy:

ஏதுக்கு சும்மா இரு மனமே என்று உனக்கு
போதித்த உண்மை எங்கே போக விட்டாய் – வாதுக்கு
வந்து எதிர்த்த மல்லரை போல் வாதாடியே உன்
புந்தி என்ன போதம் என்ன போ.

Why did you not heed the truth that was taught to you to “just be”? You kept arguing with everyone just like a wrestler ready to fight anyone who gets into the ring – the ignorant fool that you are. What use is your intellect and the teaching (taught to you)?

We can see the connection being made here between “just being” and unnecessary speech / argument. Maybe after he had achieved this bliss, he proclaims:

சொல்லும் பொருளும் அற்று சும்மா இருப்பதற்க்கே
அல்லும் பகலும் எனக்கு ஆசை பராபரமே!

All I wish for is to “just be” day and night, without any word or wealth.

One of the famous siddhars – Bhadragiriyaar – has made a similar statement that gives us a bit more insight:

ஆங்காரம் உள்ளடக்கி ஐம்புலனை சுட்டறுத்து
தூங்காமல் தூங்கி சுகம் பெறுவது எக்காலம்?

When will the time come when I can suppress the feeling of “I” and discard the distractions induced by the five senses so that I can attain bliss by sleeping without sleeping?

Huh? We can infer here a little bit that in order to attain bliss, we have to get rid of our ego and also get rid of distractions created by our senses. But how do we “sleep without sleeping”?

नेति नेति (nEti, nEti – not this, not that)

Before we try to understand what “just being” may be, let us try to understand what it is not. Based on the behaviors exhibited by saints who have purportedly realized its meaning:

  1. It is NOT about sleeping, being idle, inactive, or being in a vegetative state: These saints were fairly active in their lives, traveling quite a bit, and composing numerous songs. They just didn’t lock themselves in a room all the time.
  2. It is NOT about isolating oneself: As above, the saints participated in various regular activities in between their quest for realization (and even after).
  3. It is NOT only about deep meditation: While the realized were known to spend time in deep meditation, that was not the only thing that they did.
  4. It is NOT about dying: While death is the ultimatum of not doing anything, the saints clearly were not proponents of simply giving away one’s life. While they all wished to join their God, they understood that it happens naturally and only after they have served their time in this world.
  5. It is NOT about not thinking anything: The saints were active thinkers. They were in constant search of what they considered to be the cosmic truth and fully understood that it is impossible for someone to just not do anything and hence exhorted gaining control over senses than relinquishing them.
  6. It is NOT about nothingness (soonya): One explanation is that “just being” means living in the present. We don’t believe this accurate, as the saints considered being in the present within the broader context of the past and the future. If they were only thinking of the present, they won’t be searching for the cosmic realization that is omnipresent.

So, what is it then?

What is “just being”?

All those mentioned above followed the path of Saivism, where Lord Shiva is considered the foremost yogi. Incidentally, the notion of “just being” also seems to have a strong correlation with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In fact, the very definition of yoga states:

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः
yoga chitta vrutti nirodhaha
Yoga is one that liberates the mind from distractions.

What distractions would they be?

वृत्तयः पञ्चतय्यः क्लिष्टाक्लिष्टाः
प्रमाणविपर्ययविकल्पनिद्रास्मृतयः
vrutyah panchatayyah klishtaaklishtaaha
pramaana viparyaya vikalpa niDraa smrtayaha

There are five types of distractions, some of which are more amenable than others. They are:

  1. Gaining knowledge from right sources
  2. Gaining knowledge from wrong sources,
  3. Imagination
  4. Deep sleep
  5. Memories

This is an interesting list – except for potentially the second one, one might at a first glance consider the rest to be virtues than vices. Hence the earlier statement that “some are more amenable than others”, but nevertheless distractions.

Like how too much of something that is seemingly good (or even potentially good in small quantities) is bad, so are these, as they distract us from “just being”.

So, how are these distractions?

Too much information from the right sources

Too much information, even if relevant and credible, can become disruptive. Management and problem solving techniques commonly recommend hypothesis-based problem solving, where we form a hypothesis first and then look for facts to strengthen or reject the hypothesis than aiming to collect all possible data before starting analysis. The latter, while theoretically better, is impractical and can lead to “analysis paralysis”.

24×7 news channels are great examples. In a potentially noble aim to provide news all the time, they get reduced to being downright silly just to fill time (like standing in a hurricane!)

Information based on wrong sources

Obvious as it may seem as a bad idea, we are voluntarily undertaking this activity every time we forward an email or a WhatsApp message or retweeting a dubious source. This has led to a snowball effect where even the news channels are now spending more time in talking about tweets sent in the spur of a moment than about credible, well researched information.

Imagination

While a healthy imagination may be good, imagination running wild leads to terrible distractions. Constantly thinking of improbably “what-if” scenarios pull us away from “just being”.

Deep sleep

Deep sleep inherently implies not being conscious or aware. “Just being” is not about shutting down our senses as we do in deep sleep, but in controlling the senses in a way that we are not influenced by the sensations. This was the essence of Bhadragiriyaar’s words earlier.

Memories

Lastly, memories are essentially the ties that bind us to our past. Good or bad, the memories pull us back to “what was” than “what is”. They also inherently influence our judgement. When evaluating the present, we make decisions – good or bad – based on our ‘experience’, which is a collection of our past memories.

Disengaged awareness

Thus, we seem to get the definition of “just being” as the process of being fully aware of our environment actively participating and following our duties, while not being impacted by its distractions, or roughly, disengaged awareness. “Measured speech” complements this definition by minimizing the distractions that may emanate from us.

Conclusion

Simple as it sounds, this concept is easier described than understood, experienced, realized, and eventually practiced. Very few have had that pleasure.

In my adolescent days, my father used to say his prayers in the morning for a few minutes. During weekends, I will be blasting the TV around that time to listen to morning film shows (chitrahaar, anyone?). When asked to keep the volume low, my flippant response was “Why should I? You are meditating – shouldn’t you have more self control to ignore me?” Thankfully, he was a patient man chose not to respond. Years later, I have been put in the same situation in reverse. I can see how difficult it is to “be aware of my environment while not getting distracted”!

While we may not (and likely never) be one of them, we hope this helps develop an appreciation for and encourages readers to explore such literary treasures on their own. These topics have been elaborated on by various scholars who have dedicated there life for such exploration. We don’t hold a candle to such experts and are bound to make mistakes. The best we can hope is that we will be corrected and guided as appropriate.

A heartfelt thanks to Vasu’s periappa for asking us to take up this topic. If this has some value, the credit goes to him. All screw-ups can be attributed to us!

Sources

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The need to just be (சும்மா இரு) – Part 1 of 2

Giri was devastated. The gentle breeze at the top of the tower didn’t do much to comfort him. What is the use? What is the point of living? His dearest sister – the one he loved more than anything in the world – offered to sell herself – to fund his greed and lust for women. What can be more shameful than this?

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It was not that Giri was not cared for. He was born in a good family and caring parents and brought up well. He did well in studies. But adolescence and inevitable hormones did a number on him. He lost his concentration. He lost sight of reality when his head was buried in women’s bosoms – blind to his parents’ death and the hardships his sister had to endure in bringing him up. The times when he kept asking her for money so he can spend on his favorite ‘pastime’ flooded his memories. His latest attempt was the last straw. There was no more money left. But his sister – out of unworthy affection for him – couldn’t think of anything else to meet his pestering than to sell herself.

Giri decided that he didn’t want to be a burden anymore and got ready to take the plunge. But he couldn’t move. The legs refused to cooperate. The Divine was not done with him just yet.

“Giri” a voice boomed. Did anyone else hear that?

“There are better things that you need to do in this world. Taking your own life is not going to help”, the voice continued.

“Bu what can I do? Can I go any lower in my life?”, he asked. Who am I talking to by the way?

“Turn around and turn yourself around. Just be (சும்மா இரு). Cut the words (சொல் அற). You have a lot more to accomplish. Help others heal.” – the voice continued. As he stood in a trance, he could see an apparition forming – it looked like Lord Muruga, the residing deity of the temple tower where he was standing.

“Open your mouth and put out your tongue.” – Lord Muruga ordered. Giri obeyed. He felt a sensation he never experienced before. Is He writing something on my tongue?

“Go on. Spread the word.” – the voice and the apparition faded away. “Spread the word? But He just told me to cut the words? What is “just being”? What does this all mean?”. One thing was clear. He had a purpose – to understand. It was not the time to take his life.

We took a bit of a poetic liberty in explaining a turning point in Saint AruNagirinaathar’s life above. The words uttered by Lord Muruga is considered to contain the essence of ancient scriptures and is layered in many ways, which is our topic here.

அருணகிரிநாதர் (AruNagirinaathar) has eloquently phrased the thought above in his work கந்தர் அநுபூதி (Kandhar Anuboodhi):

செம்மான் மகளைத் திருடும் திருடன்
பெம்மான் முருகன், பிறவான், இறவான்
சும்மா இரு, சொல் அற என்றலுமே
அம் மா பொருள் ஒன்றும் அறிந்திலனே.

You (Murugan) who stole the heart of VaLLi and is birthless and deathless, told me to “just be, without words”. I am yet to understand the power of those great words.

These simple words are hailed by many to contain profound meaning. What is it? Before we aim attempt to answer that question, let’s digress a bit (for a reason).

Being busy

A recent New York Times article bemoaned the startup culture in Silicon Valley where entrepreneurs are encouraged to put in crazy hours to succeed in life and business. The trend driven by flashy success stories of Facebook and the like further fuel the drive and fire to succeed and lead the world with greater innovations. The trend is not just unique to Silicon Valley but is fairly pervasive. Gone are the days when getting a 9 – 5 government job was considered the pinnacle of achievement. If you don’t put 12 hours a day, you are not working hard enough (even if you are working smart).

Not coincidentally, a parallel business has developed catering to the downside of this trend. Yoga – the ancient Indian practice – has become commonplace, with hundreds of variations. True to any marketing trend, with the dilution of the “Yoga” brand, a new buzzword has emerged in its place – Mindfulness. Now, modern gurus exhort everyone, including the Silicon Valley hustlers, to practice mindfulness, which is focusing on the ‘now’ even if you are actively doing something. The difference between meditation and mindfulness seems to be the purpose – meditation being about a larger, cosmic awareness, while mindfulness is about ‘present’ awareness, and as was mentioned in one definition, a “secular” version of meditation!

We won’t delve into whether we believe in the distinction, but focus on the more common theme that the faster people go, the more aware they seem to become of the need to ‘slow down’.

Interestingly, some people who have attempted say that mindfulness exercises have made them worse than better, requiring a lot of therapy, which seems to defeat the purpose of the process. Why is that so?

The new demon in our midst

There was once a farmer who had a fairly big farmland and employed a number of laborers to do various chores. Being a bit of a miser, he was not happy in having to spend a lot of money to pay the laborers and wanted a cheaper way to get things done. He had heard about a powerful saint in a nearby forest and went to him to seek a solution.

The saint was in deep meditation and when he eventually opened his eyes, the farmer put forth his request for a cheaper labor solution. The saint then used his powers to conjure a demon and asked him to henceforth do the farmer’s bidding on one condition (there’s always a catch!): If the farmer cannot keep the demon busy, then it will destroy him instead. The farmer thought for a second, but decided to take the risk. After all, tending to a farm is a 24×7 activity.

The demon came with him and promptly did every task he gave him in minutes. The farmer soon ran out of tasks to give the demon and desperately asked his wife for help (interesting how wives are only consulted after shit his the fan and not before!). The wife, a smart and intelligent women, asked the demon to straighten the tail of a stray dog nearby. The demon scoffed and set forth with his task. But every time he left the dog’s tail after straightening it, it promptly curled back again. Eventually the dog got fed up and ran away, with the tail between its legs. Admitting defeat, the demon left the farmer.

Old as this story maybe, we seem to have this demon in our midst today – willingly summoned by us with potentially good intentions, but one that has turned out to be insatiably hungry for work. It’s the Internet and we seem to be the farmers.

What started out as a noble cause of sharing information with everyone for the betterment of the world, it seems to have taken a more heinous form, eternally hungry for information. We are bound to it 24×7 via news channels, feeds, and notifications to constantly consume what it provides and in turn, we seem to be endlessly feeding it information. We don’t absorb the beauty of a place or an event anymore. Out come multitudes of phones to immediately take pictures to feed to the demon. It seems it not satisfied with data anymore but needs ‘big data’! And has even started hiring it’s own (AI) assistants 🙂

சும்மா இரு, சொல் அற

Coming back to the advice that was given to AruNagirinaathar, what does it really mean? Is it to be taken literally – “Don’t do anything, Don’t say anything”?

As with most ancient scriptures, we believe that the meaning is more nuanced than simply a literal interpretation. When scholars attempt to expound on a sutra (and this can be considered as one), they refer to other similar occurrences and interpretations in other works to gain a better understanding of the broader context and purpose. While we are scholars by no stretch of imagination, we will attempt to at least follow the same exploratory path in the next post to the best of our abilities.

And no, the irony is NOT lost on us that it is taking us two posts for the first time to talk about “not doing anything” and “not saying anything” 🙂

Stating the stated statement

ABC has been running a hit series called “Shark Tank” for a while now. For those who have not watched it, it is a program where an entrepreneur goes in front of a panel of venture capitalists and pitches his or her product to get buy-in and investment from them to ‘go big’. The VCs proceed to grill the entrepreneur about the product, its viability, current market share, financials, and a lot more before eventually deciding whether to invest in the product or service, or not.

Top 10 Worst Shark Tank Pitches

Have you ever had the feeling when you felt like you came up with a brilliant idea all by yourself and want to proclaim your genius to the world? Then you pick your friend or confidante about this super cool idea and they stare back at you and say “there’s an app for that”?

What makes a pitch withstand intense scrutiny?

To answer this question, let’s look at something else that exhibits similar properties – namely something that withstands different perspectives and even the test of time. Sages of the past have formulated a simple mechanism that is prevalent even today to condense elaborate and profound concepts into pithy statements – they are called proverbs. We are now calling them “guiding principles” in management speak.

The efficiency of the proverbs is evident in the importance given to them during our childhood – moral stories and proverbial fables are perhaps one of the first kind of stories we learn as children and likely because they are the easiest to learn and digest. Interestingly they are also the ones that last the lifetime. Whenever we are faced with a decision or dilemma, we reach for these guiding principles to help us make a decision.

One of the books in the பதினெண்கீழ்க்கணக்கு (pathinenkeezhkaNakku – lower 18) collection is the book called பழமொழி நானூறு (pazhamozhi naanooRu – 400 Proverbs). Authored by மூன்றுறை அரையனார் (moondRuRai araiyanaar) – Jain monk – around 500CE – 600CE, the book is an eminent collection of proverbs that are a pleasure to read, remember, and follow.

One of the proverbs in this book seems to give us the answer to the question we posed earlier.

கல்லாதான் கண்ட கழி நுட்பம் கற்றார்முன்
சொல்லுங்கால், சோர்வு படுதலால், நல்லர்!
வினா முந்துறாத உரை இல்லை;-இல்லை,
கனா முந்துறாத வினை.

kallaadhaan kaNda kazhi nutpam katRaar mun sollum kaal sOrvu padudhalaal, nallar!
vinaa mundhu uRaadha urai illai; illai, kanaa mundhu uRaadha vinai.

கல்லாதான் கண்ட கழி நுட்பம் கற்றார்முன் சொல்லுங்கால், சோர்வு படுதல்
When a person who has not learned enough goes before those who are learned and shares what he feels is a unique idea, the value of his finding will get diminished as he might find that his idea has been in existence already and he was simply not aware of that.

வினா முந்துறாத உரை இல்லை
An answer does not come before a question.

கனா முந்துறாத வினை இல்லை
An action does not happen before a vision.

Let’s analyze this a bit more. First thing that grabs our attention is how concise the first two lines are (8 words), which took us much more (almost 6x) to convey in prose (50 words)! The choice of words are equally interesting and measured. சோர்வு படுதல் (sOrvu padudhal) means getting tired or getting weak. The deeper message here is that if an idea is not appropriately researched, then the power of the idea will become weak when presented in front of a larger (and likely more critical) audience.

கல்லாதான் (kallaadhaan – novice) is used relatively here compared to the other word கற்றார் (katRaar – learned). This relativity gives a wider latitude to these words and can refer to those who may be learned but are not so compared to those who are more learned than them!

Hence one must take the spark he or she might have hit upon and build it into a sustainable flame by feeding it with relevant research and analysis by considering all perspectives. Otherwise, the spark will fizzle out.

The power of a proverb or a guiding principle is its applicability across contexts, which we can also see here. Imagine the following scenarios:

  • A research student presenting a project thesis to the panel
  • A writer marketing a screenplay script to a Director
  • A management consultant presenting findings and recommendations in a project to stakeholders
  • A software entrepreneur making a pitch to a venture capitalist

So, how does one go about addressing this concern? An observation is not good enough if it doesn’t provide some guideline for taking remedial action. The next two lines provide the steps for remediation.

வினா முந்துறாத உரை இல்லை

You don’t come up with an answer before question has been asked. In other words, what is your idea trying to solve? If there is no problem to be solved, then you don’t have a solution – you just have a statement without a context! As asked so many times in Shark Tank, the first thing the VCs (Venture Capitalists) ask is “Why should someone buy your product?” The entrepreneur must be ready to answer the following questions, to name a few:

  1. Is there another product in the market that does something similar?
    • If so, why is the new product better than that one?
    • Are there compelling reasons to switch?
  2. If there is no other product out there in the market, why would someone want this product?
    • What is the unmet need?
    • How desperate is that need?

If the entrepreneur is not able to answer these probing questions, the idea becomes weak on its knees and falls flat, failing to get a buy-in.

கனா முந்து உறாத வினை இல்லை

An action without an appropriate vision is meaningless. The choice of the word is again impressive here. கனா (kanaa) commonly refers to dream and வினை (vinai) refers to action or effect. Essentially, you have to dream big in order to take an appropriate action towards achieving that dream.  The ‘dream’ by Martin Luther King Jr. mobilized an entire community and country into action. In management parlance, dream translate into vision. CEOs and the like have to come up with a vision that is beyond their current state. The bolder the vision, the more it can motivate the team into taking action and shed their complacency.

So, if an entrepreneur needs the action of investment from the VCs, she should be able to paint her dream clearly in vivid colors. If it is hazy, then there will be no action.

Our mind constantly keeps churning what we absorb through our senses, marinates on it over time, and then regurgitates it as thoughts and ideas. If we don’t feed enough sources to our mind to try various permutations and combinations or not give enough time for the ideas to marinate or pressure test them with others, we end up with shallow concepts that are either immature or already present, which can both fall apart on further scrutiny.

Sources

Starting (is no) trouble!

The secret to getting ahead is getting started.
– Mark Twain

The clock is ticking. Joe was breaking into a sweat. He had collected enough data points that he needed to do his analysis and develop recommendations for a client. He had good story in his head on what his recommendations were going to be and how he was going to structure them. So, what’s the problem? It was all in his head and nothing had yet been written. He started anxiously at his PowerPoint screen. Where do I start? How do I start? What would be the first word?

How often have you had this feeling – staring at the screen or a blank sheet of paper, waiting for inspiration to hit you in the head so you can get going?

Over the last several posts, we have seen various poets who have written copious amounts of excellent poetry. How did they get started? What made them ‘go’? As we dig into their history, in most cases, they have had a turning point in their life that acted as the spark for their fluency.

As a case study, let us peek into the lives of four great Saivite saints of Thamizh, who together composed the majority of ThirumuRai that is made of 10,000 songs – திருஞானசம்பந்தர் (Sambandar aka Thirugnanasambandar), அப்பர் / திருநாவுக்கரசர் (Appar aka Thirunaavukkarasar), சுந்தரர் (Sundarar), and மாணிக்கவாசகர் (Maanikkavaasagar). They lived around the same time – between 600CE and 800CE, but their lives and the way they got into their path of devotion are quite different.

z_p19-brief

திருஞானசம்பந்தர் (Sambandar aka Thirugnanasambandar)

Sambandar was a child prodigy – he lived only for sixteen years and his first song (one below) was sung when he was three years old! The story goes that his parents left him alone in the temple while stepping aside to have a ritual bath in the temple tank when he was three years old. He got hungry and started crying for his mother. The presiding deity – Goddess pArvati – gave him milk, which satisfied the baby. When the parents came back, they were a bit shocked to see milk dripping from the baby’s mouth and asked him who fed him. The child promptly responded in the form of the poem below:

தோடு உடைய செவியன், விடை ஏறி, ஓர் தூ வெண்மதி சூடி,
காடு உடைய சுடலைப் பொடி பூசி, என் உள்ளம் கவர் கள்வன்-
ஏடு உடைய மலரான் முனைநாள் பணிந்து ஏத்த, அருள்செய்த,
பீடு உடைய பிரமாபுரம் மேவிய, பெம்மான்-இவன் அன்றே!

The one who has the gracious Goddess pArvati wearing beautiful earrings on her ear (which is always tuned to her devotees’ cries for help) on his left side, the one who is sitting atop a bull, the one who wears the radiant white moon in his locks, the one who adorns himself with the ashes from the graveyard (to symbolize the impermanence of life), the one who has grabbed my heart’s attention, he is the one residing here at Brahmapuram, where he blessed Lord Brahma – the Creator – who sits on a full-bloomed lotus.

While there is no direct reference to the story above, literary experts opine that the way he describes the Gods allude to how a child would see the person who would feed him when lying down on the lap (when a child is lying on the lap drinking milk, the prominent feature he would see is the ear of the parent).

அப்பர் / திருநாவுக்கரசர் (Appar aka Thirunaavukkarasar)

Appar was born into a Saivite family but converted to Jainism in his early ages. At one point, he had an acute stomach ailment that couldn’t be cured and came to his sister’s house. She asked him to pray to the presiding deity (Shiva) and lo and behold, the ache went away. Appar came back into the Saivism fold and dedicated himself for the cause.

As can be seen from his first verse, the genesis of his prolific poetry started with acute misery and need for relief.

கூற்று ஆயினவாறு விலக்கிலீர் கொடுமை பல செய்தன நான் அறியேன்
ஏற்றாய் அடிக்கே இரவும் பகலும் பிரியாது வணங்குவேன் எப்பொழுதும்
தோற்றாது என் வயிற்றின் அகம் படியே குடரோடு துடக்கி முடக்கி இட
ஆற்றேன் அடியேன் அதிகை கெடில வீரட்டான துறை அம்மானே

I am not aware of any serious sins that I have done in my life, but I still have this debilitating ulcer. If you will only cure me and grant me your grace, I will serve you night and day.

சுந்தரர் (Sundarar)

Sundarar started out with a relatively ordinary life till his teens. However, everything changed on the day of his marriage. When he was about to tie the knot, an old man burst into the marriage hall and stopped the proceedings, claiming that Sundarar was his servant forever per a deed given by his ancestors.

Needless to say, Sundarar gets angry and calls him a madman and asks him for proof, which the old man promptly provides to him.  Legal experts are called who confirm the authenticity of the documents. Reluctantly, Sundarar accepts his fate and follows the old man to his hometown. The old man takes him to the temple at ThiruveNNainallur and promptly vanishes into the sanctum sanctorum.

Sundarar realizes that the old man was none other than Lord Shiva and asks him what to do next. A voice comes out and says that since he called Him a madman, he should compose a poem starting with the word “madman”, and subsequently devote his life to spreading the tenets of Saivism. Sundarar proceeds to sing the following song:

பித்தா! பிறைசூடீ! பெருமானே! அருளாளா!
எத்தால் மறவாதே நினைக்கின்றேன்? மனத்து உன்னை
வைத்தாய்; பெண்ணைத் தென்பால் வெண்ணெய் நல்லூர் அருள்-துறையுள்
அத்தா! உனக்கு ஆள் ஆய் இனி அல்லேன் எனல் ஆமே?

O madman! One who adorns the crescent moon in his locks! O gracious one!
One who presides the temple in ThiruveNNainallur on the south of PeNNai river,
You have graced me by getting into my thoughts. Having always served you (in previous births), how can I say now that I cannot serve you? (I will be your devotee forever).

மாணிக்கவாசகர் (Maanikkavaasagar)

Maanikkavasagar was the chief minister in the kingdom where he lived a good life under the king’s patronage. Even though he was blessed with good health, family, and wealth, he felt that he was missing a spiritual guru and was in search of one, increasingly getting dissociated with life. During a quest that the King sent him to get new horses for the kingdom, he finds an old man who becomes his spiritual guru (which Maanikkavasagar believes to be Lord Shiva himself). The event leads to many other miracles and he becomes a full-fledged sanyasi. His first song is the one at the beginning of Thiruvasagam, where he praises the qualities of Lord Shiva.

நமச்சிவாய வாழ்க! நாதன் தாள் வாழ்க!
இமைப் பொழுதும் என் நெஞ்சில் நீங்காதான் தாள் வாழ்க!
கோகழி ஆண்ட குருமணி தன் தாள் வாழ்க!
ஆகமம் ஆகிநின்று அண்ணிப்பான் தாள் வாழ்க!
ஏகன், அநேகன், இறைவன், அடி வாழ்க!

Praise be to the words ‘namasivaya’. Praise be to His feet.
Praise be to the feet of the One who lives always in my heart.
Praise be to the one who is the presiding deity of Thiruvaaduthurai whose knowledge shines like a gem. Praise be to the one who is the source of and adorns the scriptures.
Praise be to the one who is One but is present in all.

Starting Points

Religious connotations aside, the scenarios above give us a glimpse of what gets someone started on their literary journey.

  • Emotional constraints: In case of Appar, it was being at an extreme end of his emotion that forced him to take the step. We have heard similar sentiments from modern-day poets – being ‘cornered’ in some sense – be it poverty, lack of freedom, competing for survival, seemingly insurmountable deadline, etc. – seems to bring out the creative best in people.
  • Inspiration: In case of Sundarar, the word given to him as the starting point opened the floodgates. Sometimes we need an initial spark or an idea that helps kickstart the process.
  • Divine Intervention: In case of Sambandar, it was divine intervention. Much as we may say that knowledge is acquired, we have seen time and again of instances where it seems to have mystical origins – call it the probability of gene combinations or the way neurons got connected somehow – in any case, it didn’t seem to have rational origins.
  • Bliss by freedom: In case of Manikkavasagar, he was already on his way to renunciation and meeting his ideal guru put the final piece of the puzzle and giving him the sudden sense of relief. Contrary to the first point, sometimes being free from shackles of worldly worries sometimes brings the best in people. Many siddhars seem to have exhibited this behavior. Even in modern times, if one gets really good in their craft, they might feel compelled to teach their knowledge to others – they find it even more liberating than what they have already achieved.

No matter what makes one start writing (or singing), what does seem to matter is the conviction or passion to what they are writing about and message they aim to convey, which subsequently shines through their words.

We may not always get the probabilistic chance to get an intervention that is divine or otherwise, but what we can do is be inspired by reading and learning from others, constraining ourselves to think creatively, or at times taking a break to come up with a fresh perspective, and most importantly, just to start writing – good or bad – to get the flow going.

However, if all else fails, maybe praying like mad for divine intervention may not be a bad idea!

Substantive Styling

Dawn was in the horizon. The whole city was asleep, resting in peace before the grand event in the morning. After all, it is not every day that the crown prince gets to become the king. Ah, the prince – handsome, just, brave – what else can the citizens ask for? Maiden women were deep in sleep, dreaming that they were wedded to him (even though he was already married). Married women were asleep next to their husbands, but silently thinking about the prince instead – such was his charisma. But all was not right.

For in the palace quarters, something far more sinister had just happened. The prince’s step-mother had forced the King to crown her son (the younger brother of the crown prince) instead and to boot, banish the prince for a number of years (just be safe so he doesn’t incite a coup).

Dawn reared its head, but the day was not the same anymore.

The roosters got up, but their sound was more a wail, as if they had been uncontrollably beating their chest with their wings out of sorrow, making them go red (காமர் துணைக் கரம் கொண்டு, தம் வயிறு எற்றி எற்றி விளிப்ப போன்றனகோழியே)

The elephants in the sheds got up with a force, as if to accompany the soon-to-be banished prince (யாமும் இம் மண் இறத்தும்’ என்பனபோல் எழுந்தனயானையே.)

The birds that normally sing melodiously like the sounds of anklets worn by pretty girls walking, instead sounded as if they fumed at the injustice meted out by the stepmother and were cursing her instead (மீது எழு புள் எலாம்மாதல் சிலம்பின் நின்று சிலம்புவ … கயத்தியை உள் கொதித்து மனத்து வைவன போன்றவே)

The starts faded away from the sky as if the ornamental tents are now unnecessary (மேல் விரித்த பந்தர் பிரித்தது ஆம் என, மீன் ஒளித்ததுவானமே)

The Lilies in the pond closed down their petals as if the garrulous women in the street who would hear the news of the treachery would become so furious to be rendered speechless (செயல்கண்டு, சீரிய நங்கையார்.  வாய் அடங்கின என்ன வந்து குவிந்த – வண் குமுதங்களே).

Imposing special meaning on normal situations
(தற்குறிப்பேற்ற அணி – thaRkuRippEtRa aNi)

One of the interesting literary styles that we came across recently is the one where the poet imposes his/her own meaning or special event on something that would normally occur otherwise. We can’t think of a similar application in other literature (not that we are experts there!).

The scene described above, as some may have guessed, is from rAmAyana and more specifically கம்ப ராமாயணம் (Kamba rAmAyanam). Kamban has very liberally used this particular form of literary style to impose his meaning on common events.

Literary Style (அணி – aNi)

As we saw in the earlier post, one of the more fun and creative aspects of Thamizh literature is அணி (aNi) – which describes literary styles or ‘decorations’ that you can put on the literary work. Perhaps because it is the ‘icing on the cake’ it is also listed last in the list of grammatical structure – after எழுத்து (ezhuthu – phonetics), சொல் (sol – words/phrases), பொருள் (poruL – meaning), and யாப்பு (yaappu – structure / form).

What good is icing anyway? Isn’t the cake that is important? You might have answered this question already in your head. Extending the silly metaphor, in many situations, the icing may be critical to the consumption of the cake. Imagine having a birthday cake without any icing on top, including the wording (or in case of kids’ cakes – their favorite characters!).

Style acts like the marketing department of an organization. Its purpose is many fold:

  1. Providing interesting teasers to entice the reader to get interested and excited in to experiencing the full thing
  2. Enabling the author to show off his or her literary mastery and establish credentials
  3. Providing an author a way to differentiate their work compared to that of others so that it stands out better
  4. Keeps the reader engaged throughout the reading experience and facilitates ‘stickiness’ of the concept in question in the reader’s mind

So, next time you curse marketing for wasting the company’s money in coming up with cockamamie schemes – think twice 🙂

Even outside marketing, styling plays an important role in our daily lives in many ways. Perhaps its critical impact is when making executive presentations. In his seminal book Presentation Zen, author Garr Reynolds describes eloquently how style can have a profound impact on stickiness of the message.

Similarly, in The Non-Designer’s Design Book, author Robin Williams provides some simple techniques that can transform boring documents into engaging ones.

Even our humble attempts in leveraging these techniques impressed us in how simply we can elevate our presentation skills from boring bullets to engaging conversations:

So, what does this all have to do with Thamizh?

Types of styles

Thamizh literature understands the value that good style can add to the substance and has codified various types of styles that can be used. There are twelve defined in total:

  1. Saying things as they are (தன்மை நவிர்ச்சி அணி – thanmai navirchchi aNi)
  2. Simile (உவமை அணி – uvamai aNi)
  3. Metaphor (உருவக அணி – uruvaga aNi)
  4. Repetitive structures (பின்வரு நிலை அணி – pinvaru nilai aNi)
  5. Using a general truth to emphasize a specific instance (வேற்றுப்பொருள் வைப்பு அணி – vEtRupporuL vaippu aNi)
  6. Providing multiple comparisons to show commonality (வேற்றுமை அணி – vEtRumai aNi)
  7. Implying meaning by quoting only a different related concept (பிறிது மொழிதல் அணி – piRidhu mozhidhal aNi)
  8. Imposing special meaning on an otherwise normal scenario (தற்குறிப்பேற்ற அணி – thaRkuRippEtRa aNi)
  9. Imposing mood (சுவை அணி – suvai aNi) – there are eight sub-classifications here
  10. Double entendres / Puns (சிலேடை அணி – silEdai aNi)
  11. Hidden metaphors (உள்ளுறை உவமை – uLLuRai uvamai)
  12. Hiding meaning within a broader metaphor (இறைச்சிப் பொருள் – iRaichchi poruL)

Hopefully we will get a chance to elaborate on other styles in future posts, but hope this was fun to read for now.

Sources

Palindrome Perfection

Writing is hard. Writing poetry is harder. Writing complicated poetry is even more so.

Artists over the years use various tricks and techniques, flexing and pushing the limits of their art form to their edges to showcase their mastery of their craft and poets are no exception.

In Indian literature, there have been many different ways in which poets have showcased their mastery, at times just by pure play of words and in other cases, even mixing in other elements such as mathematics such as the KaTaPaYadi system. The technique has been used to encode various mathematical sequences such as the value of Pi – long before Pi was even defined in the Western world.

Similarly, R Prabhu has written a couple of posts (part 1 and part 2) about a Thamizh literary work called தண்டியலங்காரம் (thandi alankaaram) that describes various forms of poetic decorations (called அணி – aNi – one of the five parts of Thamizh grammar).

Tricky and sophisticated as these are (they combine both written and visual form, arranging letters in a visual sequence), we will look at a more familiar decoration – a palindrome.

Palindromes

A palindrome is a sequence of words or letters where they are the same whether read forward or backward. A simple example is the word ‘madam’ or maybe even a phrase such as ‘A Santa at NASA’. Comedian Demetri Martin has gone as far as writing a 224 word palindrome poem and then went further with a 500 word palindrome poem.

However, as you can see from the examples, what starts out as fairly legible in short words becomes less and less meaningful and gets to be a stretch as words get added – understandably so because the complexity increases exponentially (or at least geometrically) at each added letter.

Thamizh also has its share of simple palindromes that are used commonly. Some examples are தாத்தா (thatha – grandpa), விகடகவி (vikatakavi – jester), etc. Also, being an agglutinative language, Thamizh might also lend itself well to creating palindromes.

Recently, a nice attempt was made in the Thamizh movie வினோதம் (vinodham – strangeness), where an entire song was made up of palindromes.

While definitely an interesting and impressive effort, we can see that the poet stretches a bit in the middle, opting for repeating words as fillers.

So, are there other instances where some poet has attempted such a feat in a more meaningful way? It turns out that there indeed is an example.

திரு மாலை மாற்று (Thiru Maalai MaatRu – swapping of garlands)

MaalaimaatRu is the Thamizh equivalent for the word palindrome.

In Hindu marriages, one of the gestures made in the core part of the ceremony to solemnify the marriage is the bride and groom swapping garlands with each other (typically three times) – to indicate their willingness to marry each other.

திருஞானசம்பந்தர் (Thirugnanasambandar), one of the three great Saivite saints, has composed a song called திருமாலைமாற்று (garland exchange), which is part of திருமுறை (thirumuRai).

Why the name? It is because the entire section is made up of 11 verses that are all palindromes! (incidentally, 11 is a numeric palindrome). We will look at the first one to get a flavor:

யாமாமா நீ யாமாமா யாழீகாமா காணாகா
காணாகாமா காழீயா மாமாயாநீ மாமாயா

yaamaamaa nee yaamaamaa yaazheekaamaa kaaNaakaa
kaaNaakaamaa kaazheeyaa maamaayaanee maamaayaa

A Thamizh reader may look at this and simply scratch his/her head, because it doesn’t seem to have any meaningful word in it. So, how is this any different from other palindromes that are similarly silly in their structure?

Let’s break it down in a more discernible form:

யாம் ஆமா? நீ ஆம் ஆம்; மாயாழீ! காமா! காண் நாகா!
காணா காமா! காழீயா! மா மாயா! நீ, மா மாயா!

yaam aamaa? nee aam aam; maayaazhee! kaamaa! kaaN naagaa!
kaaNaa kaamaa! kaazheeyaa! maa maayaa! nee, maa maayaa!

Though still a bit illegible, we can start recognizing some patterns here. The poet has leveraged all the grammatical conjugations available in Thamizh to condense the poem to be able to build a palindrome, while preserving the meaning within it.

So, what is the meaning?

யாம் ஆமா? – Can we think of ourselves as Gods?
நீ ஆம் ஆம் – (No.) There is only one God and that’s you. Yes!
மாயாழீ! (மாய யாழ் ஈ?) – You are the master of the harp (and are the source of music)!
காமா! – You are the most radiant!
காண் நாகா! – You wear a serpent as your belt (to show that even the most dangerous creatures will succumb to your charm and want to serve you)
காணா காமா! – You have renounced all desires (and thus have won the Lord of love)
காழீயா! – You are the one who is providing your divine grace at Seerkaazhi (சீ(ர்)காழீ), the place where this song was sung.
மா மாயா! – You come as Thirumaal (Vishnu) for devotees (you are the One though you appear in different forms for different people)
நீ, மா மாயா! – Being such an all powerful One, please remove the illusions in the form of desires from my mind and show me the way!

And of course, it’s a palindrome!

Additional Notes

Apart from being a palindrome, none of the verses use a joining letter (க், ச், ட், etc.). In addition, the verses are fully made up of long syllables (kaa, maa, yaa, nee, etc.), which is also not common. The verses have also been set in raaga kausikam to facilitate it to be sung in melody.

Sources

When is writing memorable?

I want to do something splendid…
Something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead…
I think I shall write books.
Louisa May Alcott (author of ‘Little Women’)

Across various professions and industries, we are all authors in one way or the other. In many cases, writing is part of our livelihood – be it an executive presentation, project deliverable, or source code documentation. Bad writing in many cases can mean lost business or even getting fired. Some of our literary works (in a broad sense) are personal, passionate, and may even go to win accolades, while others are routine.

Despite the digital revolution, many books are (thankfully) written each day on various topics. They come in various shapes, forms, and categories and to suit various interests. Glamorous as it sounds (at least going by hits like Harry Potter), writing a book takes a lot of time and effort as any author will tell you, and often the financial income does not match the effort put into creating it. Still we have numerous authors, hopefully driven by an inherent passion to share their views with the world, and if that message resonates with others, become an accomplished author. However, for every successful book that makes the headlines or the ‘bestseller’ list, there are numerous others that don’t make the cut, for various reasons.

The art of writing has been around for ages – so surely someone must’ve written about the guidelines for good writing?

நன்னூல் (nannool)

It turns out that someone indeed has done so. For this, we turn to one of the famed grammatical texts of Thamizh language – நன்னூல் (nannool – நன்மை தரும் நூல் – nanmai tharum nool – book that provides goodness) – that is next only to Tholkaappiyam. While the primary function of the book itself is to provide the grammar for the five areas of Thamizh language – எழுத்து (ezhuthu – letters and phonology), சொல் (sol – words / phrases and syntax), பொருள் (poruL – meaning), யாப்பு (yaappu – structure or form), and அணி (aNi – method and beauty) – of which only the first two remain, the initial verses focus on the characteristics of good writing.

This book was authored by a Jain monk named பவணந்தி முனிவர் (pavaNanthi munivar) around 1200AD. As an interesting aside, although current Tamilnadu does not have a strong Jain following, Thamizh literature itself seems to have had significant contribution from Jain monks. Maybe true to the words of Louisa May Alcott above, they were prescient in sensing that their words will last a lot longer than physical structures!

Characteristics of good writing

So, what makes good writing? It’s not like all authors have a degree in literature where they may have been taught the basics. Writing about something happens either when there is perceived inequality between one’s own knowledge and that of others – the inherent belief that we have something to say to the world (either voluntarily or by duty), makes us write.

Nannool provides a fairly exhaustive description, starting with a verse that acts as the ‘executive summary’ followed by supporting verses that go into the details (poem formatted differently for sake of clarity).

நூலின் இயல்பே நுவலின்
ஓர் இரு பாயிரம் தோற்றி மும்மையின் ஒன்றாய்

நால்பொருள் பயத்தோடு எழுமதம் தழுவி ஐ இரு குற்றமும் அகற்றி
அம் மாட்சியோடு எண் நான்கு உத்தியின்
ஓத்துப் படலம் என்னும் உறுப்பினில்
சூத்திரம் காண்டிகை விருத்தி ஆகும் விகற்ப நடை பெறுமே


noolin iyalbE nuvalin
Or iru
paayiram thOtRi mummayin ondRaai
naal poruL payathodu ezhu madham thazhuvi ai iru kutRamum agatRi
am maatchiyOdu
eN naangu uthiyin
Othu padalam
ennum uRuppinil
soothiram kaandigai
viruthi aagum vigarpa nadai peRumE

The nature of a ‘book’ (more broadly, writing or literature) is that it:
contains two prefaces; is one of three types; provides four values;
supports seven interactions; removes ten errors; uses ten forms of beauty;
leverages thirty two techniques; uses two approaches; and comes in three formats.

Say what? Though we don’t understand it, it’s an executive summary alright! It provides the facts and figures right up front! Let’s break it down with the help of the remaining verses. We have skipped some details for sake of brevity.

Preface

We found this particular one fairly insightful and informative. You might vaguely remember the first few pages of a book where there is typically a foreword, preface, a short introduction, what the book is about, who should read it, and how the book is organized. Mostly we skip this section to get to the first chapter.

Nannool provides the rationale and value for providing such a preface, almost 200 years before the first book was ever printed! Accordingly, a book should contain two types of prefaces – a general preface and a specific preface.

The general preface is defined as follows:

நூலே நுவல்வோன் நுவலும் திறனே
கொள்வோன் கோடல் கூற்றாம் ஐந்தும்
எல்லா நூற்கும் இவை பொது பாயிரம்

noolE nuvalvOn nuvalum thiRanE
koLvOn kOdal kootRaam aindhum
ellaa nooRkkum ivai podhu paayiram

A general preface should describe the following:

  1. நூலே: Why the book is there (it’s purpose and reason for existence)
  2. நுவல்வோன்: Who the author is (his/her background – helps understand potential bias or credibility)
  3. கொள்வோன்: Who the book is intended for (expectations of the reader’s expertise / background)
  4. நுவலும் திறனே: How the author has structured the book (how he believes the reader should read the book)
  5. கோடல் கூற்று: What the reader can get out of the book (how the author believes the reader will benefit by reading)

Why do this? It is so an author can provide the appropriate context around the book so that there is minimal room for misinterpretation by the reader. This embeds the philosophy of modern communication theory in three simple lines.

Even if the preface is skipped by the reader, the act of going through this process can be highly beneficial to the writer. It forces the writer to think about the message to convey, how to structure the message, why he/she is doing this (which in turn, can add authenticity and passion to the writing), and be mindful of how the message may be perceived (and help tune the language based on the intended audience).

Then there is the more specific preface, which acts like the “Library of Congress” catalogue page (again, the page we skip often), which should contain the following:

  1. Author: Creator
  2. Source (if this is a derived work): Source
  3. Region of use or applicability: Coverage
  4. Title: Title
  5. Type of work: Type
  6. Purpose: Description
  7. Intended audience: N/A
  8. Intended benefit of the book: Subject
  9. Publish Date: Date
  10. Publisher (or where it was published): Publisher
  11. Why the book was created (the driver): Contributor

What is the stuff in italics next to each item, you ask? Glad you asked. It is the mapping to the entities in the International standard for content metadata called the Dublin Core, which consists of 15 elements that are used widely across industries to categorize content! The missing elements are Format, Identifier, Language, Relation (to other sources), and Rights – all of which don’t apply in the context when this was codified.

Think about that for a minute – the current business standard for content metadata was defined almost 800 years ago!

Three types

According to nannool – books can be classified into three types:

  1. முதல் நூல் (mudhal nool – first book): Original
  2. வழி நூல் (vazhi nool – following book): Supporting / sequel / commentary, and
  3. சார்பு நூல் (saarbu nool – based or derived): Derivative work

The original intent of the “original” type is that of scriptures. However, in a broader context, this can be taken as any book that is not based off of intellectual property of another book.

The key difference between the “sequel / commentary” work and “derivative” work is that the former is fully aligned with the concept of the “original” with expanded thought by the author, while the latter is conceptually associated but deviates in most other aspects (including arriving at different conclusions that the original author has not explicitly stated or implied).

As an example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is an “original”. Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets is a “sequel / extension”, and Book of Spells – a PS3 game – will be a derivative. By this principle, the mythology books by Devdutt Patnaik would be considered an ‘original’ than a commentary or derivative, as they do not align conceptually with the source books and provide concepts that are not referenced or inferred by the source books even though the books use the same context / premise as that of the originals.

Four values

The values imparted by the book are one of அறம் (aram – morals), பொருள் (poruL – economics / wealth / commerce), இன்பம் (inbam – materialism / pleasure), வீடு (veedu – spirituality / salvation), which also form the core of Thamizh philosophy structure.

Seven Interactions

When there is an exchange of ideas, one of seven things will happen:

  1. Supporting (and arguing for) an existing concept (உடன்படல்)
  2. Opposing (or arguing against) an existing concept (மறுத்தல்)
  3. Supporting an idea first but then eventually discarding it (பிறர் தம் மதம் மேல் கொண்டு களைவு)
  4. Establishing a new concept or idea and enforcing it throughout the text (தாஅன் நாட்டி தானாது நிருப்பு)
  5. Taking two opposing viewpoints and selecting one of them (இருவர் மாறுகோள் ஒரு தலை துணிவு)
  6. Pointing out the fallacy of another work (பிறர்நூல் குற்றம் காட்டல்)
  7. Expounding the superiority of one’s views against others (பிறிதொடு படாஅன் தன் மதம் கொள்ளல்)

These cover the various scenarios why we propose and exchange ideas – verbally or orally – to showcase, enforce, accept, debate, argue, stand ground, or fault ideas.

Ten Errors

An author should also ensure that their literary work is flawless. What flaws?

  1. Not explaining a concept sufficiently (குன்றக் கூறல்)
  2. Over elaborating on a concept beyond necessity (மிகைபடக் கூறல்)
  3. Being redundant (கூறியது கூறல்)
  4. Saying something contradictory to what is said earlier (மாறுகொளக் கூறல்)
  5. Using inappropriate words or inaccurate facts (வழூஉச்சொல் புணர்த்தல்)
  6. Being vague (மயங்க வைத்தல்)
  7. Adding fluff or meaningless words (வெற்றெனத் தொடுத்தல்)
  8. Being incoherent or randomly changing topics (மற்றொன்று விரித்தல்)
  9. Losing impact over due course (சென்று தேய்ந்து இறுதல்), and
  10. Having no relevance or message (நின்று பயன் இன்மை).

What is amazing is that all these can equally apply to any executive presentation in a business context – these are all great reasons why a presentation can fall flat and not make the desired impact – be it a product pitch or a project deliverable.

Ten forms of beauty

What makes a book a pleasure to read? Nannool has an answer to that as well!

  1. Being concise (சுருங்கச் சொல்லல்)
  2. Explaining without room for misinterpretation (விளங்க வைத்தல்)
  3. Making it enjoyable for the reader (நவின்றோர்க்கு இனிமை)
  4. Using the right words / words with the most impact (நல்மொழி புணர்த்தல்)
  5. Melody, or in a broader context, using an apt vocabulary (ஓசை உடைமை)
  6. Having a profound and impactful message (ஆழமுடைத்து ஆதல்)
  7. Having an appropriate structure for the message conveyed (முறையின் வைப்பு)
  8. Aligning with the context / culture (உலகம் மலையாமை)
  9. Providing value (விழுமியது பயத்தல்), and
  10. Providing appropriate examples (விளங்கு உதாரணத்தது).

Again, imagine how many of these you had in your recent presentation to make it impactful?!

Thirty two techniques

We will keep this for a separate post for sake of brevity here, but suffice to say that a fairly comprehensive list is provided covering various scenarios and is a pleasure to review all by itself.

In addition to the techniques, the author also adds an additional piece of advice to authors: A smart author is one who writes in such a way that the message to be conveyed is aligned with the culture of the writing format and that of the readers, building trust by agreeing on common ground with readers, and by using the right technique at the right place.

Surprisingly this sage advice fits perfectly not just for literature but also software development! We will let the reader make the connections 🙂

Parting Thoughts

It is astounding to see the level of depth and rational thought process used in classifying and categorizing various concepts succinctly. No wonder the author was not bashful in naming his work as nannool (the book full of goodness)!

Additional Reading

Thinking outside the box while in the box

Creativity seems to have a strong correlation with constraints imposed on either the creator or the creative medium, and impacts the resulting creation most often in a positive way.

We often hear people express their anguish like “If only I had more time to do this presentation”, “If I had better materials, I am sure I would have done a great job”, etc. Such expressions expose the maturity of the creator than the perceived injustices meted to him or her by others.

Throughout literature, we find great examples of how poets have used the constraints imposed on them in upping their level of creativity than simply being bogged down by it. Great lessons can be learned from their approach and applying to our own actions.

Constraints on the medium

A simple constraint that is often imposed is in the medium of creation – be it a piece of metal to a jeweler, a slab of rock to a sculptor, or grammatical rules to a poet. The typical first tendency in such cases is try to break free from the constraints – ask a baby and he/she will attest to that!

However, such constraints are often used by a creator as means in making them more judicious in their choice of words and the use of metal or rock, often reaching outside their repertoire or coming up with a different perspective than they normally would’ve, if adequate materials (or no rules) were given.

In the previous post, we see the beauty of the poetry in naLavenBa, which is considered a classic example of the venPa meter in Thamizh literature that defines a set of rules on how a stanza can be constructed.

Here’s a simple breakdown of one of the beautiful verses where the swan describes the beauty and character of Damayanti to naLan:

நாற்குணமும் நாற்படையா ஐம்புலனும் நல்லமைச்சர்
ஆர்க்குஞ் சிலம்பே அணிமுரசா – வேற்படையும்
வாளுமே கண்ணா வதன மதிக்குடைக்கீழ்
ஆளுமே பெண்மை யரசு.

With four feminine qualities (அச்சம், மடம், நாணம், பயிர்ப்பு) as her four armies;
Five senses as her ministers that guide her well,
Tinkling anklets as her war drums,
Her two piercing eyes as spears and swords,
Under her beautiful body as the umbrella,
Damayanti rules femininity (is the epitome of femininity)!

நாற் குண மும்

நாற் படை யா

ஐம் புல னும்

நல் லமைச் சர்

nEr nirai nEr

nEr nirai nEr

nEr nirai nEr

nirai nirai nEr

kooviLankAi

kooviLankAi

kooviLankAi

karuviLankAi

moovasai

moovasai

moovasai

moovasai

sIr

sIr

sIr

sIr

adi

ஆர்க் குஞ்

சிலம் பே

அணி முர சா

வேற் படை யும்

nEr nEr

nirai nEr

nirai nirai nEr

nEr nirai nEr

thEmA

puLimA

karuviLankAi

kooviLankAi

eerasai

eerasai

moovasai

moovasai

sIr

sIr

sIr

sIr

adi

வா ளுமே

கண் ணா

வத

மதிக் குடைக் கீழ்

nEr nirai

nEr nEr

nirai nEr

nirai nirai nEr

kooviLam

thEmA

puLimA

karuviLankAi

eerasai

eerisai

eerisai

moovisai

sIr

sIr

sIr

sIr

adi

ளுமே

பெண் மை

யர சு

nEr nirai

nEr nirai

nirai nEr

kooviLam

kooviLam

pirappu

eerasai

eerasai

sIr

sIr

eetru sIr

eetradi

Hopefully, we can go into details on the grammar in another post, but suffice to say that the verse follows the rules. The words in bold conform to the edhugai (rhythm) rules.

The poet has masterfully composed the poems with delicate and profound meaning while diligently conforming to the rules of grammar.

In modern times, TED Talks or Pecha Kucha talks are good examples of a medium-based constraint. TED Talks by definition do not last for more than 20 minutes, forcing the presenter to stick to one theme to elaborate on within that timeframe. Pecha Kucha talks are even more restrictive, where the presenter can only use 20 images for their presentation (no words) and the slides auto-advance every 20 seconds (hence commonly referred to as 20×20 presentation). These constraints force the presenter to focus on their message than relying on words as well as the pace in which they present their topic.

Constraints on the creator

Poetry (or more broadly, literature), seems to also get heavily influenced by the psyche of the poet. In the several examples we have seen in previous posts, the poet – be it a Siddhar, AzhwAr, or others, feel constrained by materialistic pursuits and are in search of liberation or salvation and express their inability to do so in the form of poetry. Such mental constraints are at times compounded with physical constraints, as we saw in the case of Appar, where he sung his song when trapped in a lime kiln.

Sometimes, the poets feel that they are ahead of their times and are constrained by the mindset of those around them. BharathiAr has expressed this anguish beautifully in this poem:

நல்லதோர் வீணைசெய்தே அதை நலங்கெடப் புழுதியில் எறிவதுண்டோ?
சொல்லடி சிவசக்தி! எனைச் சுடர்மிகும் அறிவுடன் படைத்தது விட்டாய்.
வல்லமை தாராயோ இந்த மாநிலம் பயனுற வாழ்வதற்கே
சொல்லடி சிவசக்தி! நிலச் சுமையென வாழ்ந்திடப் புரிகுவையோ
விசை உறு பந்தினைப் போல்  – உள்ளம் வேண்டிய படி செல்லும் உடல் கேட்டேன்
நசையறு மனங்கேட்டேன்; நித்தம் நவமெனச் சுடர்தரும் உயிர்கேட்டேன்
தசையினை தீ சுடினும் சிவசக்தியை  பாடும்நல் அகம் கேட்டேன்
அசைவறு மதிகேட்டேன்; இவை அருள்வதில் உனக்கெதும் தடையுளதோ?

nallathOr veenai seithE adhai nalam keda puzhudhiyil erivadundO?
solladi sivasakthi! enai sudarmigum aRivudan padaithuvittAi
vallamai thArAyO, indha maanilam payanuRa vaazhvadharkE
solladi sivasakthi! nila sumai ena vaazhndhida puriguvayO
visai uru pandhinai pOl – uLLam vEndiya padi sellum udal kEttEn
nasai aRu manam kEttEn; nitham navam ena sudar tharum uyir kEttEn
thasayinai thee sudinum sivasakthiyai paadum nal agam kEttEn
asaivaRu madhi kEttEn; ivan aruLvadhil unakkedhum thadai uLadho?

Goddess of Life and Energy:
Tell me – does anyone take the effort to make a beautiful and well-tuned veena only to throw it in the dust?
You have created me with sharp and unbridled intellect.
Won’t you give me the strength to live a life that is of use to this world?
Or will you just let me live a life that is just a burden to this world (and is of no use)?
Like a mechanical ball that speeds away when keyed up, I asked for a body that will support my mind’s wishes
I asked for a mind that is not poisoned by bad thoughts
And for energy that renews me everyday
Even if this body gets consumed in flames, I asked for a soul that sings your praise
I asked for an unwavering intellect
Do you have any issues in granting these to me?

The song is also aptly pictured in the ending sequence of the film Bharathi – the poet’s biopic.

The song is a rallying cry for every genius feeling constrained in one way or the other – be it the society, poverty, physical impediments, or materialism. Their minds are traveling at speeds where the rest of the environment, including their bodies, cannot catch up.

However, the constraints didn’t stop BharathiAr from composing poems – it just made the resulting creation more expressive.

Constraints on perception

Sometimes, there may not be a physical or mental constraint but imposed indirectly through expectations. These constraints can often be more deadly than the ones above, much like an internal wound to an external one. If the constraint is ‘out in the open’ – be it physical or mental, it is easier to handle it, much like a scrape in the knee. We know it’s there and can take steps to cure it. But if a constraint is hidden from our view, it can be much harder to detect it and fix it – much like a wood being eaten up from the inside by a termite or even an internal disease like Diabetes or Cancer.

In case of creativity, this often comes in the form of expectation – the expectation from the environment that the creator will produce something magical and the resultant pressure perceived by the creator to perform. We are often guilty of this in our everyday lives, when we expect our children to get the first rank in studies or sports all the time. While we may argue that we say it for their own good, we often ignore or miss understanding how it may be perceived by the child and whether it is putting undue pressure on them.

We looked into the story of Pugazhendhi in our last post, which also contains a great example on such a constraint.

Even though Pugazhendhi was a key poet in the Chozha kingdom, he recused himself to a smaller princely state due to an artistic rivalry with the chief poet, Ottakkoothar. He then went on to create his masterpiece when he was there.

Think about this:

We all want to get into the best schools and universities because we are told it will foster creativity, challenge us to thinking broad and big, and give us the best resources to excel (awesome lab equipment, etc.). With this logic, Pugazhendhi should’ve stayed at the Chozha kingdom – it was the best, resource rich, and had great poets with whom he could have intellectual challenges.

But he went ahead to a smaller place that had lesser resources but went on to create his masterpiece. In the smaller kingdom, Pugazhendhi had the freedom to think, full support from the king, and less peer pressure. The freedom from his perceived constraints, namely the pressure to perform, enabled him to spread his wings and be more creative than probably what he would have been.

So, at times even when it would be common sense to be in the best place with best resources, creativity may be constrained by the culture of the organization. While it may be true that creativity may be fostered in great institutions, greatness can be achieved even otherwise, as long as it is nurtured appropriately.

Parting Thoughts

It is often said that history is the best teacher and that if we do not learn from history, we are condemned to repeat them. As we ponder over the poets, their lives, and the situations in which they created their masterpieces, we see that there are many lessons we can learn, adapt, and apply to our lives, even if they happened thousands of years ago.

So, the next time you are staring at a deadline to create a client deliverable, it would be wise to think back on how a Pugazhendhi or BharathiAr would’ve handled the situation than to crib about your manager who set unreasonable expectations for you to perform and maybe even step away from the environment, even if for a few minutes, to refresh your mind.

Artistic rivalry and artful exaggeration

Art emanates from the genius of an artist – be it innate, imbibed, inspired, or inculcated. Such art seems to get taken to newer heights when it is infused with rivalry between two artists – be it friendly or not.

Art history has been the ultimate beneficiary of such rivalries, where the competing artists have pushed themselves beyond their limits, to one-up the other, at times at the cost of even a ear! In the Western world, there have been rivalries between contemporaries such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh and Gauguin (which apparently led to the loss of the aforementioned ear – that of Van Gogh’s), and Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Thamizh literature, with its long and colorful history, is no different in this case and has references to similar rivalries that have resulted in interesting anecdotes and great poetry. In a previous post, we touched upon a couple of such rivalries – one between Kamban and Auvaiyaar, and the other between Bharathiaar and Kanthimadhinaathan.

When doing research for a topic suggested by Vasu Ramanujam, another interesting artistic rivalry came to fore – that of the poets புகழேந்தி (Pugazhendhi) and ஒட்டக்கூத்தர் (Ottakkoothar).

Pugazhendhi and Ottakoothar

The period around 1100CE seems to have been a great one for Thamizh literature. By various accounts, this time seems to have been adorned by great poets, including Kamban, Auvaiyaar, Pugazhendhi, and Ottakoothar.

The story goes that Pugazhendhi was the chief poet in the Pandyan kingdom, whereas Ottakoothar was the chief poet in the neighboring Chozha kingdom. The Chozha kingdom was transitioning from Vikarama Chozhan to his son Kulothunga Chozhan (father of Rajaraja Chozhan). Potentially to consolidate the kingdom, it was suggested that Kulothunga Chozhan be married the Pandian princess. Seeing this to be a mutually beneficial idea, Ottakoothar was sent to to the Pandyan kingdom to seek alliance.

As may be a concerned father would, the king asked Ottakoothar to elaborate why the Chozha prince deserves his daughter’s hand. Ottakoothar responded as follows, extolling the greatness of the Chozha kingdom (above the Pandya kingdom):

ஆருக்கு வேம்பு நிகராகுமோ அம்மானே
ஆதித்தனுக்கு நிகர் அம்புலியோ அம்மானே
வீரர்க்குள் வீரனொரரு மீனவனோ அம்மானே
வெற்றிப் புலிக்கொடிக்கு மீனமோ அம்மானே
ஊருக்குறந்தை நிகர் கொற்கையோ அம்மானே
ஒக்குமோ சோணாட்டைப் பாண்டி நாடம்மானே

Is the neem plant better than the banyan plant?
Does the moon shine brighter than the sun?
Can a fisherman be a warrior? Can the fish stand up to the tiger?
Does the koRkai city compare to kuRandhai?
Will the Pandyan kingdom compare to the Chozha kingdom?

The references are to the symbols and characters of the two kingdoms: Chozha kingdom used the tiger as its sign, banyan leaves for adornment, and is considered to be the “Sun” dynasty. On the other hand, Pandyan kingdom used the fish as its sign, used neem leaves for adornment, and considered themselves to be the “Lunar” dynasty. Ottakoothar smartly used these references to indicate the superiority of his kingdom.

And this is where the rivalry started off. Not ready to be belittled by the visiting poet, Pugazhendhi gave his response, twisting the same words:

ஒருமுனிவன் நேரியிலோ உரைதெளித்த தம்மானே
ஒப்பரிய திருவிளையாட் டுறந்ததையிலோ அம்மானே
திருநெடுமா லவதாரஞ் சிறுபுலியோ அம்மானே
சிவன்முடியி லேறுவதுஞ் செங்கதிரோ அம்மானே
கரையெதிரல் காவிரியோ வையையோ அம்மானே
கடிப்பகைக்குத் தாதகியங் கண்ணியோ அம்மானே
பரவைபபரந் ததுஞ்சோழன் பதந்தனையோ அம்மானே
பாண்டியனார் பராக்கிரமம் பகர்வரிதே அம்மானே

Did Agastya muni (considered the father of Thamizh literature) initiate Thamizh in mount nEri (no, it was in Podhigai – part of Pandyan kingdom)?
Did the Thiruvilaiyaadal of Shiva happen in kuRandhai (no, it was in Pandyan region)?
Did Vishnu take the form of a tiger in his avatars (no, he took the form of a fish)?
Does the Sun adorn the locks of Shiva (no, it’s the moon)?
Did the Thamizh sangam literature flourish on the banks of Cauvery (no, it was vaigai)?
If someone is possessed, do they use banyan leaves as a remedy (no, it is neem)?

So, using the same references, Pugazhendhi beats Ottakoothar and  puts him in place. Though this might have been unsettling for Ottakoothar, he goes ahead and advises the king to proceed with the marriage considering the broader alliance.

As part of the marriage, the Pandyan king requests Pugazhendhi to go with his daughter to the Chozha kingdom to serve as her counselor and as a gesture of goodwill. This obviously ticks off Ottakoothar, who promptly puts him in prison when he gets an opportunity (accounts vary here on how this happened), who is eventually freed upon the queen’s intervention. Pugazhendhi then voluntarily recuses himself and moves to a smaller princely state within the Chozha kingdom, where he goes to create one of his greatest works – நளவெண்பா (naLaveNbaa – the story of naLa)

சொல் குற்றம் (Sol kutRam) and பொருள் குற்றம் (poruL kutRam)

Poets in those days took their artistry quite seriously. Somewhat similar to current day scientific research and peer review, poets who created their magnum opus had to prove their skill in the king’s audience by defending their work. Their contemporaries, who would often be competing for the king’s goodwill and his purse, will critique the work and try to find gaps, and if the poet comes out unscathed, the work then gets immortalized.

The works were critiqued for the use of words (சொல் – sol – words), which included the structure of the poem, the grammar, and also the right choice of words for a given context (no unnecessary cussing, etc.), as well for meaning (பொருள் – poruL – meaning), which included checking if the right metaphors were used, if rationale was relevant, etc.

Of such critiques, Ottakoothar was apparently notorious and was a stickler to such things. Thus, he was looking for an opportunity when Pugazhendhi was invited by the king to recite his work at the court, which seemingly happened with this verse.

மல்லிகையே வெண் சங்கா வண்டு ஊத, வான் கருப்பு
வில்லி கணை தெரிந்து மெய் காப்ப, முல்லை மலர்
மென் மாலைத் தோள் அசைய மெல்ல நடந்ததே
புன் மாலை அந்திப் பொழுது

malligaiyE veN sangaa(i) vaNdu oodha, vaan karuppu
villi kaNai therindhu mei kaappa, mullai malar
men maalai thOL asaiya mella nadandhadhe
pun maalai andhi pozhudhu

The bees are blowing the Jasmine flower as a conch (drinking nectar);
The cupid (manmadhan) is sharpening his arrows of love to be shot at young boys and girls with his sugarcane bow;
The cool evening is coming upon people with a movement as gentle as the shoulders of a girl adorned with a Jasmine garland.

Ottakoothar interrupts the recital and argues that Pugazhendhi has a poruL kutRam (error in meaning), because bees drink nectar from the front of the flower (between the petals) and not from the back. Given that, how can the poet say that the bees are blowing the Jasmine flowers like a conch when drinking nectar from them?

Unfazed, Pugazhendhi responds with the one-liner:

“கட்குடியனுக்கு வாயென்றும் சூத்தென்றும் தெரியுமா? நீர்தான் சொல்லும்”

kaL kudiyanukku vaai endRum soothendRum theriyumaa? neerthaan sollum

“Does a drunkard know the front from the behind? You tell me!” – implying that the flowers were so rich in nectar that the bees, having drunk that nectar, are so buzzed that they don’t know the front of the flower from the back and are trying to get more nectar by blowing on the stem!

The rest is history, as naLaveNbaa is considered one of the greatest accomplishments of Pugazhendhi and also the epitome of the veNbaa song metre in Thamizh.

You can read more about other similar incidents of the rivalry in the links section below, that are equally fascinating.

Artful exaggeration

The famed neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, in his book A brief tour of human consciousness, speculates that the beauty in art has some universal principles that might raise the appeal of the art. He posits that art involves deliberate hyperbole, exaggeration, and even distortion, in order to create pleasing effects in the brain. One such principle is that of “Peak Shift”, where certain elements that are distinctive of a person or a group, is exaggerated from others to make it more memorable.

We see such examples in political caricatures, where certain notable features of the person are exaggerated beyond normal, which makes the caricature an essence of the person than even their picture – some simple modern day examples would be the hair of Donald Trump, the ears of Barack Obama, and so on. Those who are a bit older may remember the memorable caricatures that come up in the title of the Yes, Minister series, such as that of Paul Eddington:

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Beyond comedy, such exaggerations are also used to depict extreme beauty, as can be seen in Chozha sculptures:

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Such sculptures apparently appalled the Victorian Britishers who first saw them (and similarly the Kajuraho sculptures), who were used to the Renaissance and Greek style of ‘realism’, where the renderings were proportionate to real life. In contrast, the Indian sculptures where highly disproportionate, with ample bosoms, narrow waist, and broader pelvic region, and some contorted poses. However, they also demonstrate a heightened sense of femininity – which likely was the intent of the artists – exaggerating the ‘feminineness’ by highlighting characteristics that are unique to the female human species.

Now this may be fine in visual arts like caricature and sculpture, but how can the same be done in words?

Apart from the rivalry with Ottakkoothar, Pugazhendhi is also hailed for the use of metaphors, similes, and the like, in his poems. naLaveNbaa is a classic example in this regard, so much so that he is praised for his description of Damayanthi’s beauty as much as Kamban is praised for his description of rAma in his epic.

We came across this beautiful, albeit potentially a sensuous poem, where the poet describes the beauty of Damayanthi, akin to the Chozha sculptures:

மோட்டிளம் கொங்கை முடிய சுமந்தேற
மாட்டாது இடை என்று வாய்விட்டு – நாட்டேன்
அலம்புவார் கோதை அடியிணையில் வீழ்ந்து
புலம்புமாம் நூபுரங்கள் பூண்டு

mOttiLam kongai mudiya sumandhu ERa
maattadhu idai endRu vaai vittu – naattEn
alambuvaar kOdhai adi iNaiyil veezhndhu
pulambumaam noopurangal pooNdu

The sound of the anklets of Damayanthi – the one whose thick locks are adorned with fragrant flowers – sound as if they are crying out loud at her feet about the injustice meted to her thin waist which cannot bear the weight of her bosoms!

What a beautiful imagination! The poet brings the picture of the sculptures in one verse. No wonder that naLan was besotted by Damayanthi on hearing such a description, even if he hadn’t seen her yet!

Sources

 

The art of asking a favor

As kids, we have heard of genie stories where some poor chap finds a genie in a lamp who grants three wishes. The story generally then proceeds with the person doing something greedy and rash with the first two wishes only to ask for everything to get back to as they were in the last wish.

In Indian literature, there are similar stories about some God or other exalted being providing வரம் (varam – boon). Typically this is done by asuras (roughly translated as demons), who do hard penance to Shiva and ask for invincibility or immortality only for a loophole to be present that is then leveraged by Vishnu to come and get rid of them.

Imagine if you were put in a similar situation – you pray to your favorite God for something urgent – how would you phrase your request in such a way that there aren’t any loopholes in there that will make your request useless or at best, shortsighted? What will you ask for? How will you phrase it?

Recently, Vasu Srinivasan forwarded a video by Dr. G. Gnanasambandam, a Thamizh scholar, professor, and actor. In the funny clip, he also mentions in passing an interesting Thamizh poem called சகலகலாவல்லி மாலை (sakalakalaavalli maalai) sung by குமரகுருபரர் (Kumaraguruparar), a Saivite saint who founded the Koumara math in Kashi.

Why ask

There is a popular story attached to this saint on how he came to sing this particular song, which provides some interesting insights. The saint lived around 1600 AD – 1680 AD – around the time when Shah Jahan was the Emperor of India.

Once, the saint made a trip to Kashi. As he got to the area, he noticed that there weren’t any good accommodations available for those coming from the South (an arduous journey those days) and wished to establish a math (a type of Hindu monastery that is normally established to preserve a spiritual school of thought as well as provide accommodations for guests on a spiritual journey).

He promptly requested audience with the regent of that area. This was Dara Shikoh – the eldest son of Shah Jahan. Historic accounts say that Dara Shikoh – unlike his younger brother Aurangazeb – had a mindset more akin to his great-grandfather Akbar and was receptive to other religious thoughts and was also spiritually oriented. So, such an action by a hindu saint seems plausible. However, there was an issue. Kumaraguruparar did not know Urdu and Dara did not know Thamizh. Hence the saint was not able to express his request for land and money to establish the math. One version says that the king was annoyed at the saint and asked how he can ask for something when he doesn’t even know how to speak the language properly.

Saddened by this, the saint tried to think of a way to fix the issue. Since there was no way he could learn Urdu in a day by himself or get an interpreter, he decided to make a plea for divine intervention to give him the language knowledge instantly so he could go back to the King.

Who to ask

Now, there are a number of Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism with various gradations – some with a specific specialty and others who are more powerful and multi-purposed. Who should Kumaraguruparar seek for intervention?

As a short aside, there are three Gods commonly attributed in Hinduism – Brahma (creator), Vishnu (protector), and Shiva (destroyer) – to indicate the lifecycle of beings. What is interesting is also the female counterparts attributed to these three, namely Saraswati (wisdom), Laskshmi (prosperity), and Paarvati (energy). This has a nice coincidence with the common English maxim of being “healthy, wealthy, and wise”! It also provides a nice corollary to the male counterparts – creativity / creation requires knowledge / wisdom, getting through life requires wealth, and living the life requires energy (and death, the lack thereof)! Thus the Goddesses become complementing and essential counterparts to the respective Gods.

One quick answer might be Shiva or Vishnu – the two primary deities. Alternately he can beseech Goddess Saraswati – the Goddess of learning and wisdom. The saint decides to opt for the latter but gives an interesting rationale:

வெண்தாமரைக்கு அன்றி நின்பதம் தாங்க என் வெள்ளை உள்ளத்

தண்தாமரைக்குத் தகாது கொலோ? சகம் ஏழும் அளித்து

உண்டான் உறங்க ஒழித்தான் பித்தாக உண்டாக்கும் வண்ணம்

கண்டான் சுவைகொள் கரும்பே சகலகலாவல்லியே!


veNNthaamaraikku andRi nin padham thaanga en veLLai uLLam

thaNthaamaraikku thagaadhu kolO? sagam Ezhum aLithu
uNdaan uRanga ozhithaan pithaaga uNdaakkum vaNNam
kaNdaan suvai koL karumbE sakalakalaavalliyE!

 

One God is sleeping having become tired of protecting the seven worlds. The other is dancing around like a madman. The third is waiting to create new worlds. All are not in a position to listen to me. You are the Goddess of all arts. You place your feet on the pure-white lotus. My heart is as pure in making this request and so can’t you place it there instead (and grant me my wish)?

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The saint not only asks for her grace but also does it in a way by ensuring that she does not redirect him to higher Gods by providing a preemptive response!

What to ask

Now that the question of “who to ask” is settled, comes the important question of “what to ask”. Since he is asking for divine intervention, what should the saint ask for – only the ability to talk, the math itself, or anything else? We don’t have any direct evidence of the saint’s thought process and so we can make a conjecture on his behalf.

Since the aim is to establish something for the long-term than the short-term (the saint wanted the math for the benefit of all pilgrims from South India to Kashi to have a place to rest), whatever is established must stand the test of time. From this perspective, it becomes important then to ensure adequate support from the local leaders.

Imagine you are the CIO of a company and want to establish a new system or process. You have two choices; either mandate a new system / process and force everyone to follow, or understand the maturity of your team and provide a solution that is more in-line with and palatable to your team so that there is proper buy-in and adoption. The former “hammer” approach might work in the short-term, but tends to fall apart in the long-term as people will eventually find workarounds to the mandate or covertly not follow it, knowing well that it would be impossible for the CIO to keep monitoring them every day. The latter “grassroots” approach may take some initial work, but will tend to get better adoption over time and be more sustainable, even if it is not the most ideal solution.

Perhaps, this might be the thought process here – the saint could very well ask for the math itself to be built out of thin air, but the King may well raze it to the ground the moment the saint leaves the place. So, it would be a better option for the saint to involve the King in the process so that the building remains at least till his reign.

With that, we are back to the issue of communication. The aim here is to know a new language overnight. So, what should be asked so that there are no loopholes?

தூக்கும் பனுவல் துறைதோய்ந்த கல்வியும் சொற்சுவைதோய்
வாக்கும் பெருகப் பணித்தருள்வாய்! வடநூல்கடலும்
தேக்கும் செழுந்தமிழ்ச் செல்வமும் தொண்டர் செந்நாவில் நின்று
காக்கும் கருணைக் கடலே! சகலகலாவல்லியே!

thookkum panuval thuRaithOindha kalviyum sol suvai thOi
vaakkum peruga paNithu aruLvaai vadanool kadalum
thEkkum sezhunthamizh selvamum thoNdar sennaavil nindRu
kaakkum karuNai kadalE! sakalakalaavalliyE!

Goddess who protects your devotees by giving them wisdom of speech – please give me:

  1. Ability to sing poems that can be spread far and wide by those who hear them
  2. Knowledge that resides in all domains (all arts and languages)
  3. Ability to speak such that each word is kind and strong (positively assertive)
  4. Ability to sustain and grow the ocean of literature from the North and the rich literature from Thamizh that is sweet and wise

That’s quite a lot! An interesting thing to note is the last ask: வடநூல்கடலும் தேக்கும் செழுந்தமிழ்ச் செல்வமும் (point 4 above). Contrary to the bickering that is going on nowadays on whether Thamizh is better or Sanskrit is better (and it applies to both sides), this accomplished Thamizh saint seems to have shown the way 500 years back in saying that there is no need for such pettiness. Regardless of which one influenced the other, he is happy to get the knowledge of both and learn from them – only if such humility and wisdom prevailed now!

How to ask

To make sure that he not only gets the knowledge but will also be able to articulate it properly, he continues with the ask:

பாட்டும் பொருளும் பொருளால் பொருந்தும் பயனும் என்பால்
கூட்டும் படி நின் கடைக்கண் நல்காய் உளம் கொண்டு தொண்டர்
தீட்டும் கலைத்தமிழ்த் தீம்பால் அமுதம் தெளிக்கும் வண்ணம்
காட்டும் வெள் ஓதிமப் பேடே சகலகலாவல்லியே!

paattum poruLum poruLaal porundhum payanum enpaal
koottum padi nin kadaikkaN nalkaai uLam koNdu thoNdar
theettum kalaithamizh theempaal amudham theLikkum vaNNam 
kaattum veL odhimappEdE sakalakalaavaillyE!

Goddess – who can show the way of wisdom by discerning the elegant Thamizh art created by your sincere devotees who keep you in their heart from the tasteless bland ones created by those who only pay lip service – please grant me the ability to:

  1. Sing good songs
  2. Songs that have good meaning
  3. Meaning that provides value

Most Gods and Goddesses have a corresponding animal / bird as a vehicle. For Goddess Saraswati, it is the white swan. It is said that a swan has the ability to separate milk (fat) from the water. Scientific rationale is that the swan’s nose gives out a type of secretion that is acidic and so when its beak touches milk, the acid from the secretion curdles the milk, separating the milk proteins from whey (similar to how Paneer or cottage cheese is made by adding lemon or vinegar to milk).

The analogy is given here to indicate that not everyone can become a poet and not all poems are great. And so, the saint fixes a loophole that he doesn’t just want the ability to sing poems, but poems that will actually be good!

He goes further to state that he not only wants to sing good poems, but poems that also have meaning and more importantly, meaning that provides value! This is a profound statement that applies very well today – be it programming code or presenting business strategy.

It is not enough to simply spout advice / consultation / write code / develop PowerPoint presentations. Such effort should actually have meaning and not just be fluff. Even if it does have meaning, that is not enough. The meaningful advice or code must be of practical value.

In other words, a presentation having great graphics and pictures is not enough. It must have meaningful content. Then in addition to having meaningful content, it must also be relevant and of value to the reader. Otherwise, it is useless!

The saint thus plugs various potential loopholes when asking the Goddess for her grace.

The clincher

He finally closes the deal with the following verse:

மண்கொண்ட வெண்குடைக் கீழாக மேற்பட்ட மன்னரும் என்
பண்கண்ட அளவில் பணியச் செய்வாய்! படைப்போன் முதலாம்
விண்கண்ட தெய்வம் பல்கோடி உண்டேனும் விளம்பில் உன்போல்
கண்கண்ட தெய்வம் உளதோ? சகலகலாவல்லியே!

maNkoNda veNkudai keezhaaga mErpatta mannarum en
paNkaNda aLavil paNiya seivaai! padaippOn mudhalaam
viNkaNda deivam palkOdi uNdEnum viLambil unpOl
kaNkaNda deivam uLadho? sakalakalaavalliyE!

Please grant me the ability to sing poems such that the King of Kings will immediately respect my expertise and will heed to my requests (i.e., grant me wealth and land to construct the math). Who else can grant me this other than the one who is more gracious than all other Gods in heaven?!

Using a classic “sandwich” approach, the saint concludes with an effusive praise to the Goddess and by tying all his previous ask of knowledge, wisdom, and eloquence with the primary purpose – to get the King to give him the support to build the math!

No wonder this poem is hailed for its eloquence and profundity – and rightly so!

For those interested in seeing the speech by Dr. G. Gnanasambandam that inspired this post, you can see it in the YouTube video below (comes in the first few minutes):

Sources