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:

hb_57-51-3

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

 

Sensational Sayings

Common sense is that which judges the things that is given to it by other senses. – Leonardo Da Vinci

Systems theory broadly classifies any system as either open or closed. An open system is one that is influenced by its environment, while a closed one is isolated from it. Scientific studies generally try to consider closed systems or at least a controlled environment for the sake of simplifying various variables involved in any system in order to develop some generalizations or reasonable approximations. While this works very well from a scientific perspective, in a societal or philosophical construct, the impact of environment cannot be ignored.

If we consider ourselves as a system, then we are defined by the components that make us (our inherent beliefs, leanings, etc.) as well as the impact that the environment in which we grow up in, has on us. From this perspective, our view of life can be thought of as being made up of three elements:

  1. Internal: Our inherent beliefs and thoughts, or “soul” – how we are wired at birth
  2. External / Environmental: Our beliefs shaped by the environment
  3. Interaction: The ways in which our “inside” interacts with the “outside”.

Many of the Thamizh literary works interestingly are aligned to this notion. The works are typically classified as அகம் (agam – self), புறம் (puRAm – external, material, or societal thoughts), and காமம் (kaamam – intimacy or relationship).

Spiritual literature in Thamizh explain the nuances of all these three – how one should understand oneself and seek self-realization, how one should understand and adapt to the environment, and how one should manage the impact the environment has on the self.

An ideal situation would be to be deterministic, i.e., a closed system, where we are not at all influenced by the external environment and we are in full control of our destiny and can act as per our own internal thinking, uninfluenced by anything else. However, that is far from reality. We are constantly influenced by external actions both positively and negatively, and in many cases, act according to the whims and fancies of such external influences than by our own will.

Maybe realizing this, various sages, including the famed Siddhars, exhort us get in touch with our inner self and avoid getting influenced by external forces.

Senses

This begs the question – what links the “closed” self with the “open” environment? They are the senses that all living beings have. Senses are the ones that allow us to interact with our environment – for good or for bad. There is common consensus in philosophy that there are totally five common senses and one extra sense.

Senses

  1. Touch – That which is felt through the skin
  2. Taste – That which is observed through the tongue
  3. Smell – That which is observed through the nose
  4. Sight – That which is observed through the eyes
  5. Hearing – That which is observed through the ears
  6. Thinking – That which is discerned and deduced by the mind

There was a question posted in Quora on whether there was any particular order for these senses. Most answers seem to indicate that there isn’t any particular order. However, one of the earliest heroes in Thamizh literature – தொல்காப்பியர் (Tholkaappiyar) – the equivalent of Patanjali in Sanskrit who defined Thamizh grammar rules in his book தொல்காப்பியம் (Tholkaappiyam), generally considered to be almost 2,000 years old – begs to differ.

ஒன்று அறிவதுவே உற்று அறிவதுவே;

இரண்டு அறிவதுவே அதனொடு நாவே;

மூன்று அறிவதுவே அவற்றொடு மூக்கே;

நான்கு அறிவதுவே அவற்றொடு கண்ணே;

ஐந்து அறிவதுவே அவற்றொடு செவியே;

ஆறு அறிவதுவே அவற்றொடு மனனே;-

நேரிதின் உணர்ந்தோர் நெறிப்படுத்தினரே


ondRu aRivadhuvE utRu aRivadhuvE;

iraNdu aRivadhuvE adhanodu naavE;
moondRu aRivadhuvE avatRodu mookkE;
naangu aRivadhuvE avatRodu kaNNE;
aindhu aRivadhuvE avatRodu seviyE;
aaRu aRivadhuvE avatRodu mananE;
neridhin uNarnthOr neRippaduthinarE

The first sense is the one of touch, which became two by adding taste, three by adding smell, four by adding sight, five by adding hearing, and six by adding thinking – so have classified those who know about these things.

He doesn’t just stop here – but goes to provide examples of why the senses are organized in this order by citing examples of various beings that fall in each category:

Touch: Grass and trees (புல்லும் மரனும்) as well as things that bend and don’t bend, such as vines, lotus, algae, etc.
Taste: Molluscs and cephalopods (நந்தும் முரளும்) such as snails, oysters, conch, etc.
Smell: Insects such as ants and termites (சிதலும் எறும்பும்) and others.
Vision: Crustaceans and flying insects (நண்டும் தும்பியும்) and others.
Hearing: Four-legged animals (மாவும் மாக்களும்), birds, reptiles, aquatic and amphibian creatures and others.
Thinking: Humans (மக்கள்) as well as a few others.

What struck as amazing at first glance is how closely related this categorization is to the Darwinian theory of evolution – almost 1,800 years before Darwin figured it out! Even though there are some deviations from the current scientific knowledge that describes the senses available in these creatures, it is a remarkably close approximation.

There are also a couple of things to note here. In the fifth sense, Tholkaappiyar adds மாக்கள் (maakkaL) – which refers to humans who do not have the capability to discern right from wrong and cannot deduce meaning – he considers them as good as not having the sixth sense! Similarly, for the sixth sense, he mentions that there are more beyond just humans who have a sixth sense. While we couldn’t find specific source, most narratives we have seen about these verses imply that Tholkaappiyar meant elephants, monkeys, and parrots to be endowed with a sixth sense – which also seems to be a good enough approximation to recent scientific studies about these creatures.

An interesting coincidence is that these three specific creatures share a prominent and revered space in Indian literature. Lord Ganesha – attributed to be the scribe for Mahabharata – has an elephant head. Suka muni – son of Sage Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata – who narrated both Mahabharata and Bhagavatam to King Parikshit, has the head of a parrot. Hanuman – the messenger to Lord rAma, is a monkey.

Uncontrolled Senses

While senses are the doors and windows to the soul allowing us to experience the environment, like any door and window they can let both the good and the bad inside. Probably having realized the vital importance of the senses to our sanity, various saints have cautioned about the inherent uncontrollability of the senses and the dangers that they pose as a result.

One of the 18 Siddhars – AzhuguNi Siddhar – has written a beautiful poem about this.

எண்சாண் உடம்படியோ ஏழிரண்டு வாயிலடி

பஞ்சாயக் காரரைவர் பட்டணமுந் தானிரண்டு

அஞ்சாமற் பேசுகிறாய் ஆக்கினைக்குத் தான்பயந்து

நெஞ்சார நில்லாமல் என் கண்ணம்மா

நிலைகடந்து வாடுறண்டி.


eNsaaN udambadiyO EzhiraNdu vaayiladi

panchaayakaarar aivar pattaNamum thaan iraNdu
anjaamal pEsugiraai aakkinaikku thaan bayandhu
nenjaara nillaamal en kaNNammaa nilai kidanthu vaaduRaNdi

This body measuring eight ‘saan’s by one’s own hand (one ‘saan’ is the distance between the tip of the thumb and the pinky in an outstretched and spread out hand), there are nine openings (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, one mouth, one anus, and one genital).
There are five people who govern this place day and night.
My mind is wavering relentlessly out of fear of them and I am exhausted as a result – won’t you come and save me?

The Siddhar eloquently states that our senses constantly pull us apart in different directions, exhausting us in the process and getting us to a state of mental instability.

As a side, there are a couple of reasons why the siddhar is called அழுகுணி சித்தர் (AzhuguNi siddhar) – literally meaning whiny siddhar or crying siddhar. One reasoning is that his verses are written in such a way to evoke tears to those who read it – evoking his desperation to attain salvation. Another reasoning is that he always had tears in his eyes and hence was named as such. Apparently, the siddhar himself was a wealthy merchant who traveled far and wide and in his travels, saw the vagaries of human nature and decided to renounce everything in search of a higher meaning.

Controlling the Senses

So, now that we know the cause – can’t we find a cure by controlling the senses? What if we simply get rid of all of them to become a “closed system”, which in turn, would be deterministic? That would be a fallacy. Thirumoolar states this eloquently in Thirumanthiram.

அஞ்சும் அடக்கு அடக்கு என்பர் அறிவு இலார்

அஞ்சும் அடக்கும் அமரரும் அங்கு இலை

அஞ்சும் அடக்கில் அசேதனம் ஆம் என்று இட்டு

அஞ்சும் அடக்கா அறிவு அறிந்தேனே.


anjum adakku adakku enbar aRivu ilaar

anjum adakkum amararum angu ilai
anjum adakkil asedhanam aam endRu ittu
anjum adakkaa aRivu aRinthEnE

Those who are of false (or fake) intelligence will ask people to control and suppress the five senses. There is none in this world who is capable of doing that. I have realized that it is insensible to try to control or suppress the senses and have instead learned how to channel my senses in the right direction.

The answer is not in trying to suppress something that is inherently insuppressible. The right approach would be to channel them in a better way – much like taming wild horses, the metaphor often attributed to senses.

Interestingly, this sensible approach is relevant to many other situations – be it trying to control free speech, satire, a creative child, a rebellious child, or a bored or unruly student / worker, and potentially even free market.

Collation of Senses

We have seen some heavy spiritual examples above. There are also some lighter moments! What would be a great example of all senses coming together in a good way? ThiruvaLLuvar gives a very interesting couplet:

கண்டு கேட்டு உண்டு உயிர்த்து உற்று அறியும் ஐம்புலனும்

ஒண்தொடி கண்ணே உள


kaNdu kEttu uNdu uyirthu utRu aRiyum aimpulanum

oNthodi kaNNE uLa

My girl (wife or lover) who is wearing shiny bangles – is a feast for all my five senses – her beautiful body, her melodious voice, her taste (lips?), her smell, and her touch!

Just so you don’t get your imagination running wild along with your senses with the sexy couplet above, let us bring you back to the spiritual realm once more before we leave!

Metaphorical Senses

In all the examples above and in many other poems, the senses are always referred directly either by their actual names or indirectly by the number 5 – referring to the five senses.

The great poet Appar (aka Thirunaavukkarasar) has a beautiful poem that implies the five senses only by metaphors:

மாசில் வீணையும் மாலை மதியமும்

வீசு தென்றலும் வீங்கில வேனிலும்

மூசு வண்டறை பொய்கையும் போன்றதே

ஈசன் எந்தை இணையடி நீழலே


maasil veeNaiyum maalai madhiyamum

veesu thendRalum veengila vEnilum
moosu vandaRai poigaiyum pOndRathE
eesan enthai iNaiyadi neezhalE

The refuge that I seek under the shadow of the feet of Lord Shiva is as pleasant as the melodious music from veenai (hearing), the cool evening moon (sight), a pleasant breeze (touch), drinking/eating a palm fruit (நுங்கு) in summer (taste), the pond covered with flowers that are buzzed by bees (smell).

There is also an interesting story behind this song. Appar was originally born in a Saivite family and then converted to Jainism. Due to a divine intervention when he was suffering from a severely upset stomach, he converted back to Saivism and became Appar. The Jain monks at that time were upset at this and levied false charges against him to King Mahendra Varman, who was a Jain, who promptly imprisoned him in a limestone quarry. The quarry was intended to cause severe pain due to the dry heat and caustic air within the quarry.

This is when Appar sings this song asking Shiva to help him, who promptly obliges. As a result, Appar’s senses are liberated and he does not feel any pain.

The five examples here are attributed slightly differently in other interpretations – with the pond referring to taste (sweet water), breeze referring to smell (spring air carrying fragrance of flowers), and வீங்கிளவேனில் (veengiLa vEnil) referring to pleasant summer heat (touch). However, we felt the explanation above was more appropriate.

Whatever the interpretation, it doesn’t degrade the beauty of the metaphors and is a feast for our sixth sense!

Sources and Resources

Feeding the flames

If you want to shine like a sun, first burn like a sun – A P J Abdul Kalam

In the previous post, we looked at the destructive analogies given to fire. Surely there must be good qualities as well? The quest of humans has been to control the power of fire than to conquer it. Fire is feared but also respected and revered maybe for this reason the ancient seers likely understood the destructive force that fire can unleash and hence approached it with caution, aiming to please, appease, and eventually to work with it instead of trying to fight it.

Fire is also more positively associated with creativity and creative genius, from a spark representing an idea, the glow of a flame representing knowledge, and a raging flame at times representing the intensity of the creative process.

The Spark

To explain this further, let us look at the creative genius of recent times in Thamizh literature – Bharathiyaar.

அக்னி குஞ்சொன்று கண்டேன் அதை
அங்கொரு காட்டிலோர் பொந்திடை வைத்தேன்
வெந்து தணிந்தது காடு – தழல்
வீரத்தில் குஞ்சென்றும்  மூப்பென்றும் உண்டோ

agni kunjondRu kaNdEn adhai
angoru kaattilOr pondhidai vaithEn
vendhu thanindadhu kaadu – thazhal
veerathil kunjendrum mooppendRum uNdO?

I found a spark and kept it in tree hole in the middle of a forest.
The forest burned down.
Does it matter whether a spark is young or old?

Somewhat Haiku like, this poem brings many layers of meaning. Given his time in which he wrote this, it is likely that Bharathiyaar was referring to the passion that one can bring in and the role they can play in supporting the independence struggle that India was going through, regardless of age. A spark is what it takes to bring a forest down. Regardless of whether one is young or old, they should shed doubts about their capacity to serve and join the freedom struggle, which will be a powerful opposing force against the British.

The blaze and the fizzle

While the words would apply equally to any movement against injustice – be it real or perceived – in modern times, they seem relevant even outside this immediate context. Fire is caused by a spark rising out of the inherent capabilities of certain elements. The spark, under right conditions, can become powerful enough to burn down an entire forest. But if the conditions are not conducive, the spark will either fizzle out or burn out.

There has long been a debate on whether genius is something that is inherent (God-given) or one that happens by circumstance. The words above seem to give the answer that it is both – the spark is inherent, but it needs an appropriate environment to nourish itself as well.

Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes the creative genius of a person and provides the right environmental nourishment, although it may seem obvious. Many of us are guilty with our own kids, trying to raise them in a way that we feel is right – pushing them (gently or otherwise) to become a doctor, engineer, etc. The intentions may be noble but the side effects may not be desirable.

Even in the case of Bharathiar, this seems to have been the case. His genius was not appreciated fully until well after his time. He was shunned and misunderstood. However, his was a spark that wouldn’t fizzle out but burned as an uncontrolled blaze, even if for a short while.

In an ideal world, what we need is the ability to identify the spark and nurture it so that it neither fizzles out nor burns out, but continues to grow as a  steady flame that can shine an illuminating light to those around it.

Easier said than done!

Sustaining the flame

Interestingly, the effort that is needed to nurture and sustain a flame also implies that it requires a lot of input from the surrounding environment, which may potentially rob the nourishment of other ‘less bright’ flames. We have seen a glimpse of this in an earlier interaction between Kamban and Auvaiyar. Kamban’s flame, sustained by the king, also had the side effect of not recognizing other, even if slightly less, talented poets around him, until Auvaiyar came and pointed it out. We see this happening willingly or unwillingly in both work and our family lives.

Parents, who may be creative in their own aspect, pause nurturing their own talent in preference of spending that effort on their kids in the hope that their kids will be a brighter flame than them. On the other hand, frequent resentment occurs, especially during promotion time, of talented team members being sidelined or at least not appreciated as much because of a few ‘brighter’ individuals – potentially demoralizing them a bit in the process. Would we consider them as an injustice or should we simply consider it as the price to pay for nurturing the brighter flame? The answer is not always straightforward.

What we can take solace on is in Bharathiar’s words – regardless of whether we sacrifice our own creativity for the sake of our kids or are overshadowed by others, we must take heart in that we still have the spark, a spark that has the power to unleash energy if channeled properly, and a spark that does not age with time, remaining as powerful as ever in youth or in old age, looking for the right nourishment around it to shine bright.

Feeling the burn

Fire is one of the five primal forces described in literature. It has been used as a metaphor to describe various ideas – both good and bad. From the initial spark to the intense flame of an inferno, fire has made its mark in literature and Thamizh literature is no exception.

There are classic stories where fire has played a major role – from Hanuman burning down Lanka in Ramayana to Kannagi burning down Madurai in Silappadikaaram. Apart from these literal blazes, the feeling of getting burned has also been used as a metaphor to represent a wide range of emotions including hurt, agony, lust, anger, rage, jealousy, envy, ego, pride, and spite, to name a few.

Correspondingly, the great poets and spiritual leaders have exhorted their followers in quenching this fire by getting control over the mind’s vagaries – primarily through meditation and devotion.

Burns from Anger

ThiruvaLLuvar says this of words said out of spite:

தீயினால் சுட்ட புண் உள்ளாறும் ஆறாதே
நாவினால் சுட்ட வடு

theeyinaal sutta puNN uLLaarum aaRaadhe
naavinaal sutta vadu

A burn caused by fire will eventually heal, but the one caused by a tongue (caustic words) will hurt forever.

There is another literary work similar to ThirukkuRaL known as நாலடியார் (naaladiyaar), which is considered as a more descriptive companion to thirukkuRaL in that it conveys similar sentiments, but elaborates more on the ideas. Said to be written by Jain monks generally accepted to be dated around 5th century CE, with no specific author to which this work is attributed, the work is composed of 400 songs with 4 lines each (hence the name – நாலு அடி – naalu adi – four lines).

Here, we find a poem that has a similar, but alternate take on the kuRaL above.

காவாது, ஒருவன் தன் வாய் திறந்து சொல்லும் சொல்

ஓவாதே தம்மைச் சுடுதலால், ஓவாதே

ஆய்ந்து அமைந்த கேள்வி அறிவுடையார், எஞ் ஞான்றும்,

காய்ந்து அமைந்த சொல்லார், கறுத்து.

kaavaadhu oruvan than vaai thiRandhu sollum sol
Ovaadhe thammai sududhalaal, Ovaadhe
aaindhu amaindha kELvi aRivudaiyaar, engnandRum
kaaindhu amaindha sollaar, kaRuthu

Words spoken hastily in anger will end up hurting the person who uttered them more than the one for whom it was meant. Those who are learned and constantly seek knowledge with humility will never speak such words borne out of hatred and haste.

So, the bottom line is to not speak out of anger, in the spur of the moment – it will ‘burn’ both the person who said it and the one to whom it was directed.

The words are timeless and could be applied even in modern situations, as explained by another blogger – Chockalingam Karuppaiah in his blog Thamizh Vaanam.

Burns from Lust

Apart from anger, the next most commonly compared emotion is lust. Even in modern times, scenes of passion are often cut in movies to pan to a burning fire, fireplace, etc. Naaladiyaar provides an apt comparison about the vice of lust:

அம்பும், அழலும், அவிர் கதிர் ஞாயிறும்,

வெம்பிச் சுடினும், புறம் சுடும்; வெம்பிக்

கவற்றி மனத்தைச் சுடுதலால், காமம்

அவற்றினும் அஞ்சப்படும்.

ambum azhalum avir kadhir gnaayirum
vembi sudinum puRam sudum; vembi
kavatRi manathai suduthalaal kaamam
avatRinum anjappadum

The a sting of an arrow, the singe from a fire, or a sunburn, even at their most intense, will only burn on the outside (the body, which eventually will heal) and can be overcome. However, lustful thinking is one that can burn the insides (the mind and the heart, which won’t heal) and is to be feared.

Similar to the sentiments of vaLLuvar above,  naaladiyaar cautions against succumbing to the feelings of lust as it can overcome the rational thinking of a person and burn them from within.

Burns from ill conceived actions

Siddhars have made similar analogies to the notion of getting burned as well – more in reference to the broader context of taking on bad habits. The most famous of this is perhaps, the one from PattinathAr.

தன் வினை தன்னை சுடும்
ஓட்டப்பம் வீட்டை சுடும்

than vinai thannai sudum
Ottappam veettai sudum

One’s ill deeds will come back to burn them – much like the appam that I have thrown on the roof of the house will burn it down.

There is an interesting story that goes with these two lines. As we have mentioned elsewhere, Pattinathar was a wealthy merchant who renounced his riches when he achieved enlightenment and became a Siddhar. His sister though was keen on getting the wealth he left behind. So, in an attempt to get the riches to herself, she invites Pattinathar to his house and offers him appam (a sweet dish) that is laced with poison. Pattinathar realizes this and throws the appam on the roof of his sister’s house and walks away, singing the lines above. The house promptly burns down.

The sentiment is similar to the Biblical proverb – “as you sow, so you shall reap”.

The burn that consumes all

Siddhars are also known for singing about the impermanence of this worldly life and the desires that are gained and lost within the lifetime. As followers of Shiva, they often also refer to the ‘burn’ from a yogic fire to the final fire that consumes the body. Pattinathar has an everlasting poem about this ‘final fire’:

முன்னை யிட்டதீ முப்பு ரத்திலே
பின்னை யிட்டதீ தென்னி லங்கையிலே
அன்னை யிட்டதீ அடிவ யிற்றிலே
யானு மிட்டதீ மூள்க மூள்கவே

munnai itta thee muppurathilE
pinnai itta thee then ilangaiylE
annai itta thee adi vayitRilE
yaanum itta thee mooLga mooLgavE

The fire from the third eye of Shiva burned the Tripuraasuras. The fire lit by Hanuman’s tail burned Lanka. The fire that a mother carries is in the womb. Let the fire that I have set to my mother’s body grow and consume her.

Perhaps one of the most memorable and also the most haunting of Pattinathar’s songs, this poem conveys multiple emotions. Per his life history, Pattinathar was very attached to his mother, who was also instrumental in realizing his greatness and understanding and supporting his chosen way of life. So, as he comes back to his hometown (when he realizes his mother was nearing her end) and subsequently completes the final rituals for her, you can sense his anguish – his affection and attachment for her showing through despite his enlightened realization of life’s temporal nature.

As humans, we are at a constant fight to control and overcome the forces of nature – to bring about stability and predictability. Sometimes we win, and many times we lose – we succumb to the fires that grow uncontrolled in our minds – through the vices of anger, hate, jealousy, pride, ego, lust, and other similar ill conceived actions. As the wise sayings here have cautioned us ages back, they tend to burn us more than others – from the inside to the outside – till it consumes us as a whole. It is up to us to realize this fire within us and learn to control it better – be it through action, devotion, meditation, or any other means we find effective.

Sources

 

Expressing Experience

Not hearing is not as good as hearing, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as mentally knowing, mentally knowing is not as good as acting; true learning continues up to the point that action comes forth. – Xun Zi

不闻不若闻之,闻之不若见之,见之不若知之,知之不若行之;学至于行之而止矣

How can we communicate experience? Can one learn by observing (either seeing or hearing or reading about) actions of others or must they experience (or do) it themselves in order for the learning to be meaningful?

Are there lessons that cannot be taught but only experienced?

The quote by Xun Zi (incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Franklin and sometimes simplified as “I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand”), reminds us of a similar gem in Sanskrit.

आचार्यात पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यः स्वमेधया |
सहब्रह्मचरिभ्य:पादं पादं कालक्रमेण च ||

AchAryAt pAdamOdatte pAdam sishyah swamEdhaya
sahabrahmahchAribhyah pAdam pAdam kAlakramENa cha

Learning is one part from what is taught by a teacher, one part by self-intelligence, one part by discussing with peers, and one part gained over time (by doing / experiencing).

Tacit Knowledge

Knowledge Management theories classify knowledge as explicit (knowledge that can be unambiguously transmitted through written media) and implicit / tacit (knowledge that is internalized by humans and has to be conveyed person-to-person).

From a business perspective, explicit knowledge is ideal, as it is tangible, brings more certainty to what’s known, and allows knowledge to be treated more as a commodity. You document operational knowledge as an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) and can send it offshore to save costs.

However, most knowledge is tacit rather than explicit – gathered over time and hidden in the recesses of human minds. While it is potentially feasible to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, it is typically imperfect and cost prohibitive. Instead, the most common form of tacit knowledge transfer tends to be in the form of ‘shadowing’ – essentially the person wanting to gain knowledge follows or ‘shadows’ the person who has said knowledge for a period of time, interspersed by meetings, interviews, and review sessions. Interestingly, this structure bears a lot of similarities to the Gurukulam mode of learning practiced in India in the early days.

Importance of a Guru

Even in our changing times where questions are being raised on the effectiveness of institutional knowledge, there is still a lot value placed on the formal way of learning and parents focus on getting their kids into the best schools with the best teachers – from kindergarten to doctorate degrees.

With a rich heritage of literary works, a question is often asked as to why the ancient seers (rishis) of India didn’t figure out a way to preserve the texts in writing and instead used oral tradition to pass on the works. The answer we have heard is that the seers felt that the written form does not do justice in providing the appropriate context to the words and hence can end up being misinterpreted over time. Hence, an oral tradition where the context would be provided by a properly learned teacher was considered more appropriate. While this sounds weird at a first glance, even modern management techniques seem to be adopting this idea in the form of “storytelling”.

Given this approach, it was considered critical for a student to find the right teacher who would pass on such knowledge. There are stories about in Indian literature where great saints went far and wide to find their guru who would teach them.

The word guru in sanskrit means ‘one who removes ignorance’. Equally interesting is the word ‘AchArya’, which also refers to a teacher. It means one who practices what he preaches. This definition is more appropriate for our context – where an AchArya is one who preaches his experience (practice). Thus, it becomes important that the teacher have the right experience so as to transfer the same to the student.

arunagirinatha

Thirumoolar (திருமூலர்), one of the more widely known Siddhars, explains this importance of finding an appropriately qualified teacher in his own unique style.

குருட்டினை நீக்கும் குருவினை கொள்ளார்
குருட்டினை நீக்கா குருவினை கொள்வர்
குருடும் குருடும் குருட்டாட்டம் ஆடி
குருடும் குருடும் குழி வீழு மாறே

kuruttinai neekkum guruvinai koLLaar
kuruttinai neekkaa guruvinai koLvar
kurudum kurudum kuruttaattam aadi
kurudum kurudum kuzhi veezhumaarE!

Those who do not take the effort to find a teacher who can remove one’s ignorance (mental blindness) will end up going behind a teacher who is blinded by the pleasures of this world. It will then be like the blind leading the blind, whereby both will end up falling in a hole, unable to get out (of this worldly bondage).

The poem is an elegant play of words (kurudu – blind, guru – teacher; Thamizh does not differentiate between ‘ga’ and ‘ka’ sounds in the written script).

Brief History of Thirumoolar

Before we go a bit deeper into this idea, let’s step aside for a minute to know the star of this post – Thirumoolar. Even though Thirumoolar has contributed significantly to Thamizh literature (he has written the 10th chapter of ThirumuRai, known as Thirumandhiram – containing around 3,000 verses), not much is known about his antecedents. Even his time period is not certain, ranging from before CE to 4th century AD to even as late as 13th century.

There is however, a common story on how he got his name. Thirumoolar was originally named Sundarar and was a disciple of Sage Agastya – the foremost of Siddhars and considered the father of Thamizh as a language and of Siddha medicine. Having learned from Agastya, he was sent to Mount Kailash for further studies in Sanskrit under the tutelage of Nandi (divine personification of Shiva’s bull).

Once the studies were thus completed, on his way back to Agastya, he sees a dead cowherd named Moolan. Apparently, Moolan was a kind soul and so, his cows were crying next to him inconsolably upon losing him. Being the kindhearted, Sundarar uses his yogic powers to shift his soul from his body to that of Moolan, safely keeping his current body inside the hole of a tree.

The cows rejoice on seeing Moolan back to life and happily accompany him back to the village. Moolan’s wife is happy to see him back from work and tries to get near him, at which point Sundarar moves away from her and says that Moolan is not really Moolan, but Sundarar. The wife gets upset and takes to court, where it is eventually decided that it is indeed a saint in the body of Moolan.

Having cleared the confusion, Sundarar (in Moolan’s body) goes back to where he left his original body but finds that it is not there anymore. He realizes that it is the will of Shiva to remain in Moolan’s body and spread spirituality. He explains this as follows:

என்னை நன்றாக இறைவன் படைத்தனன்
தன்னை நன்றாக தமிழ் செய்யுமாறே

ennai nandRaaga iRaivan padaithanan
thannai nandRaaga thamizh seyyumaaRe

I have been asked to take this birth so that I can sing the praises of Shiva in Thamizh!

The implication here is that Shiva wanted Sundarar to explain the wisdom he has gained in terms that everyone could understand and hence wishes him to remain in the body of a cowherd, thereby using the language used by a cowherd than that of a pundit.

Experiencing Self-Realization

Now back to our scheduled program!

As the quotes at the beginning of this post emphasize, learning is not complete till it is experienced. A prime example of this is spirituality itself. Science is based on the foundation of observation, while spirituality is based on experience. While seemingly contradictory, in the context above, they seem to represent a continuum.

From Siddhars to Buddha, there have been many saints who have claimed to have achieved self-realization. However, it is not something they can write about and pass on to others. Thirumoolar (திருமூலர்) explains this dilemma of the inability to explain “enlightenment” in an interesting “not safe for kids” way!

முகத்தில் கண் கொண்டு பார்க்கின்ற மூடர்காள்
அகத்தில் கண் கொண்டு காண்பதே அநந்தம்
மகளுக்கு தாய் தன் மணாளனோடு ஆடிய
சுகத்தை சொல் என்றால் சொல்லுமாறு எங்ஙனே

mugathil kaN koNdu paarkindRa moodarkaaL
agathill kaN koNdu kaaNbadhe anantham
magaLukku thaai than maNaaLanOdu aadiya
sugathai sol endRaal sollumaaRu engnganE

Fools – you claim that only seeing is believing; know that learning to see from your mind’s eye (self-realization) is the one that brings endless joy.
If you ask a mother to explain to her daughter how she enjoyed the pleasures of sex from her husband, how will she be able to do that?!

What a zinger! One wouldn’t explain such a simple but profound statement from a saint who has forgone it all! This notion of having to experience something to understand the ups and downs of the issue also comes up in the life of Adi Shankara, where he uses the same technique used by Thirumoolar to enter into the body of a villager to understand what it means to be a married person. He couldn’t get the details by just reading about marriage – he had to experience it, even if for an instant.

Perceptions and Wisdom

Our experiences tend to shape how we perceive things – reality or concept – for better or for worse. Thus gaining experiences that move us toward the goal we want to achieve becomes critical. Not all experiences are relevant and some may even be counterproductive. Helping us get the right type of experience in the appropriate trajectory would then lie in the hands of the teacher or Guru that we get. The same would apply to cultivating the right mentors in the business world – those who help us ‘see’ things properly.

Thirumoolar, in one of his famous poems, brings this concept in a very profound manner.

மரத்தை மறைத்தது மாமத யானை
மரத்தில் மறைந்தது மாமத யானை
பரத்தை மறைத்தது பார்முதல் பூதம்
பரத்தில் மறைந்தது பார்முதல் பூதமே

marathai maRaithadhu maamadha yaanai
marathil maRaindadhu maamadha yaanai
parathai maRaithadhu paarmudhal boodham
parathil maRaindadhu paarmudhal boodham

The elephant hides the wood; the elephant is hidden in the wood;
The world and its creations hide the One; the One is hidden in the world and its creations.

Huh?

A child, with its innocence and mind uncluttered by the sensual distractions, looks at a wooden toy elephant and believes the toy as an elephant than just a piece of wood. But as it grows older, the elephant vanishes and becomes a piece of wood.

Alternately, when someone looks at an exquisite wooden sculpture of an elephant, they may forget that it is made of wood and only see the elephant come to life. For others who cannot appreciate or realize the beauty, it will be a piece of wood.

Similarly, for the one who does not have belief (or in other words, one who is only focuses on what is seen), world and the beings within are seen just as they are. When realization occurs, world and the beings vanish and they just see the One that drives all.

Elephant Race

This reminds us of the Illusion Art (formally known as Stereograms) that we have seen during childhood, where the picture is just made of random stuff, but when you look at it at just the right distance from the eyes, a 3D image emerges.

Whether we believe a higher being or not, the morals propounded by saints like Thirumoolar apply beyond our beliefs and it would be wise to find ourselves appropriate gurus to walk down the path to wisdom.

Sources

Peace or War?

Force is all conquering, but its victories are short lived.
Abraham Lincoln

When two sides do not see eye-to-eye, how far must one go to look for a compromise, especially if one side is seemingly weaker than the other? What is the tipping point when diplomacy should give way to ego and pride? Is there even a possibility of peace when the underlying mental anguishes, rage, and perceived injustices are not addressed?

What is the effect and impact of succumbing to mind’s desires (arishadvarga – lust (kAma), anger/rage (krodha), greed (lObha), undue desire/attachment (mOha), pride (madha), jealousy/envy (mAtsarya)?

These are heavy questions that occur time and again over the course of history and will continue to do so. The nature of these questions are such that even if there is a clear answer, the implementation is near impossible due to inherent deficiencies within human emotions and we are destined to keep repeating them.

That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn about them and try to understand them, and maybe, just maybe, try to detach ourselves from them. Perhaps the greatest source of such analysis lies within the magnum opus of Indian Literature – the Mahabharata (or Jaya, as it was originally called).

disrobing_of_draupadi

Mahabharata says of itself:

धर्मे चार्थे च कामे च मोक्षे च भरतर्षभ
यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र यन्नेहास्ति न तत् क्कचित्

dharmey ca artey ca kaamey ca mokshey ca bharatarshabha

yadihaasti tadanyatra yanneyhaasti na tat kkachit

For everything that is related to the objectives of human life (purushaartha) dharma (righteous way of living / moral goals), artha (gaining wealth / economic goals), kAma (art of love / emotional goals), and mOksha (path to salvation / spiritual goals), whatever can be found here can also be found elsewhere. However, whatever is not here, won’t be found anywhere else.

This is often quoted to imply the breadth and depth of coverage provided by this epic of more than 100,000 verses – a no mean feat. People spend their lifetime trying to decipher the various meanings and values embedded in each verse.

Even with such a monumental work, people have attempted over time, driven by their passion to pass the message to a broader audience, to translate this epic into various languages. As we have seen in Kamba RamAyana, same guiding principles apply to such translations, where the author walks the fine line between providing an appropriate and selective summarization of the text without compromising the integrity of the source – a feat not many have succeeded in doing, especially not in the recent times.

In Thamizh, Villbharatham (வில்லிபாரதம்) is considered the authoritative translation of Mahabharata. It is said to be written around the 14th century by a poet named Villiputhooraar (the poet from Srivilliputhur), who also goes by the name Villiputhur Azhawar, due to his affinity to Vaishnavism. Hence the name (short form of  வில்லிபுத்தூரார் அருளிய பாரதம்   – the MahabhAratha provided by Villiputhooraar)

While we are not qualified to compare and contrast the talents of Villiputhorraar and Kamban for their translation abilities, it does not prevent us from enjoying the literary beauty of the work. We can imagine that the author would arguably have had a tougher time in summarizing the work due to the comparative size and complexity of the source. Even so, we can see the dedication and artistry in the work in many places.

The scene

Let’s now zoom in on one of the critical points in the story to further our original thought process.

After having lost everything in a gambling game against their step-brothers – the Kauravas – Pandavas complete their exile for 12 years plus an extra year in hiding as per the bet. The implicit understanding (but not contractually agreed upon) is that they will share the kingdom in some form once they come back. Of course, having enjoyed years of power, Duryodhana – the current king and the eldest of the Kauravas – is in no mood to part with any of that.

So, there are two options in front of Yudhishtra – the eldest of the Pandavas and the rightful heir to the throne – either fight the Kauravas, which is sure to be a bloody battle, or go for a compromise. Yudhistira’s inclination is to avoid war, which is sure to result in the death of a lot of his friends and relatives, and seek a compromise instead. However, his brothers are in no mood for such niceties. After all, they have been roundly humiliated in the palace during the game, an attempt was made to molest their wife Draupadi, they were sent to exile for many years, and on top of it, the other side has refused to bring back status quo after they have completed their dues.

It is said that time heals. But time can also harden emotions. Most conflicts in our society start off with an injustice perceived by one group by another. Some take the path of healing – either emotionally forgiving the deed or rationalizing it away, but many take the path of hardening. Years upon years, the feelings of resentment keep growing, like drops in a cave that slowly harden to form stalactites and stalagmites – eventually becoming hard, rigid, inflexible, powerful, and at the same time increasingly brittle and heavy that it breaks and shatters to pieces when it reaches a tipping point.

Yudhishtra’s Thought

Yudhishtra asks Krishna to be their ambassador for Duryodhana and ask for a compromise. He states his four negotiation positions: First, half the kingdom, if not one of the countries that are part of the kingdom, if not 5 villages, and if not 5 houses. If all of these fail, then declare war.

He then proceeds to ask his brothers for their feedback on his decision.

Bheema’s Anger

Bheema – the next eldest – and arguably, the more hot-tempered of the lot, is disgusted by Yudhishtra’s suggestion. He is in no mood for a compromise. He scolds Yudhishtra for even thinking of compromise and implores that he be sent instead as the messenger so that he can see Duryodhana and beat him black and blue!

மலை கண்டதென என் கைம் மறத் தண்டின் வலி கண்டும், மகவான் மைந்தன்
சிலை கண்டும், இருவர் பொரும் திறல் கண்டும், எமக்காகத் திருமால் நின்ற
நிலை கண்டும், இவள் விரித்த குழல் கண்டும், இமைப்பொழுதில் நேரார்தம்மைக்
கொலைகண்டு மகிழாமல், அவன் குடைக் கீழ் உயிர் வாழக் குறிக்கின்றாயே.

Transliteration
malai kaNdadhena en kai marathaNdin vali kaNdum, magavaan maindan
silai kaNdum, iruvar porum thiRal kaNdum, emakkaaga thirumaal nindRa
nilai kaNdum, ival viritha kuzhal kaNdum, imai pozhuthil nEraar thammai
kolai kaNdu magizhaamal, avan kudai keezh uyir vaazha kuRikkindRaayE!

Translation
Even after knowing the power of my mace and my ability to wield it, knowing Arjuna’s skill in wielding his bow, knowing Nakula and Sahadeva’s skills in warfare, having comfort that divinity personified Krishna is on our side, and seeing Draupadi’s open hair and her vow not to tie it till she got justice, instead of wanting to get the satisfaction of seeing us killing those who did us wrong in a heartbeat, why the heck would you want to beg them to live in their shadow?

Bheema doesn’t mince words here! You would think anyone with some சொரணை (soranai – pride/ego) will bristle at these words and get ready for war! However, Yudhishtra maintains his calm and says he would rather live humbly than be the cause for carnage. Krishna also interjects and says it doesn’t behoove Bheema to go against his elder brother’s words.

Arjuna’s Frustration

அக் காலம் பொறுத்த எலாம் அமையாமல், இன்னம் இருந்து அறமே சொன்னால்,
எக்காலம் பகை முடித்து, திரௌபதியும் குழல் முடிக்க, இருக்கின்றாளே?

சொன்னாலும், அவன் கேளான்; விதி வலியால் கெடு மதி கண் தோன்றாது அன்றே!
எந் நாளும் உவர் நிலத்தின் என் முளை வித்திடினும் விளைவு எய்திடாது;
பன்னாகம் தனக்கு அமிர்தம் கொடுத்தாலும் விடம் ஒழியப் பயன் கொடாதே.

Transliteration
akkaalam poRutha ellaam amayaamal, innam irundhu aRamE sonnaal
ekkaalam pagai mudithu, Draupadiyum kuzhal mudikka irukkindRaaLE?

sonnaalum avan kELaan; vidhi valiyaal kedu madhi kaN thondRaadhu andRE!
ennaaLum uvar nilathin en muLai vithidinum viLaivu eididaadhu;
pannaagam thanakku amirdham koduthaalum vidam ozhiya payan kodaathe.

Translation
We have tolerated the injustices meted to us in the palace and have kept on suffering. If we still continue to keep talking about dharma, when will we ever fight back and avenge the assault on Draupadi?

Even if we talk conciliatory words to Duryodhana, he is in no mood to listen. His rage has blinded his sensibilities. You cannot grow crops in a wasteland. You cannot give nectar to a snake and expect it to stop giving poison in return.

Arjuna invokes similar sentiments of Bheema about Draupadi’s insult and is frustrated that even with all their prowess, they iare being constrained from going to war.

Nakula’s Reasoning

அன்ன நடை அரம்பைதனை அவுணர் கவர்ந்திட, இமையோர் அரசுக்காக,
முன்னம் அவருடன் பொருது, சிறை மீட்டான், நம் குலத்து முதல்வன் அன்றோ?

மா நகரும் வள நாடும் உரிமையும் தன் மொழிப்படியே வழங்கான்ஆகில்,
தான் அறியாதவன் பிறர் போய்க் கற்பித்தால், அறிவனோ?

Transliteration
anna nadai arambai thanai avuNar kavarndhida, imayor arasukkaaga
munnam avarudan porudhu, siRai meettaan, nam kulathu mudhalvan andRO?

maa nagarum vaLa naadum urimayum than mozhippadiyE vazhangaan aagil
thaan aRiyaadhavan piRar pOi kaRpithaal aRivaanO?

Translation
Our ancestor (a king called Purooravan) waged war on asuras when they tried to assault Urvasi – one of Indra’s divine ladies. Having come from such an ancestry where we can’t even bear the assault on someone who is not even related to us, how can we continue to tolerate the injustice meted to our own wife and not avenge it?

Interestingly, when we read it initially, we thought this referred to rAama – the similarities are striking (although rAma was from a different clan). When rAma destroyed rAvana and his kingdom to get back sIta and is being hailed for his actions, why shouldn’t they do the same for Draupadi?

Duryodhana should know by himself that it is only right for him to share his land with us. If he doesn’t listen to his own conscience, how we can expect him to listen to someone else? (meaning, morality is realized and not taught)

While the sentiments are similar to Bheema and Arjuna, Nakula’s approach is different – seeing that the emotional tactic by his brothers have failed, he takes a logical approach and argues that they will be ridiculed as being impotent and spineless by everyone if they go for compromise.

Sahadeva’s Foresight

Now, we see an interesting twist in the story. Of the five brothers, Sahadeva is considered to be highly skilled in astrology and is thought to have the gift / skill to predict the future. At the same time he is an extremely honest and virtuous person and knows that “with great power, comes great responsibility”!

Instead of towing  the same line as his brothers, he says something quite different:

சிந்தித்தபடி நீயும் சென்றால் என்? ஒழிந்தால் என்? செறிந்த நூறு
மைந்தர்க்குள் முதல்வன் நிலம் வழங்காமல் இருந்தால் என்? வழங்கினால் என்?
கொந்துற்ற குழல் இவளும் முடித்தால் என்? விரித்தால் என்? குறித்த செய்கை
அந்தத்தில் முடியும்வகை அடியேற்குத் தெரியுமோ?-ஆதி மூர்த்தி!

ஒருவருக்கும் தெரியாது இங்கு உன் மாயை; யான் அறிவேன், உண்மையாக;
திருவுளத்துக் கருத்து எதுவோ, அது எனக்கும் கருத்து!

Transliteration
sindithapadi neeyum sendRaal en? ozhindaal en? seRindha nooRu
maintharkkuL mudhalvan nilam vazhangaamal irunthaal en? vazhanginaal en?
kondhutRa kuzhal ivaLum mudithaal en? virindhaal en? kuRitha seigai
andhathil mudiyum vagai adiyERkku theriyumO? aadhi moorthi!

oruvarukkum theriyaadhu ingu un maayai; yaan aRivEn, uNmaiyaaga
thiruvuLathu karuthu edhuvO, athu enakkum karuthu!

Translation
How does it matter if you go to Duryodhana per Yudhishtra’s wish? Or not?
How does it matter if Duryodhana does not give the land? Or gives it?
How does it matter if Draupadi gets to tie her hair? Or keeps it open?
How can we predict the results of your intent?

No one can figure out the illusion you create – but I do, truly.
Whatever is your wish, so is mine.

Say what?! While starting out in a seemingly defeatist / apathetic tone, Sahadeva gives hints of things to come – and even the crux of Bhagavad Gita that comes later on!

While everyone knows that Krishna is divinity personified (Bheema explicitly says so), they are so blinded by their own emotional states that they forget that they are in front of divinity. Instead of arguing among themselves, shouldn’t they simply ask Him?! That’s what Sahadeva does. He knows that he is simply participating in the play enacted by Krishna for a greater purpose and simply states that he will do whatever He wills him to do!

Sahadeva’s Solution

Krishna smiles on hearing this and takes him aside (away from others) and asks him innocently what the solution is, in that case, to avoid the war. The beauty here is the respect that Krishna – the all knowing personality – gives to the skill of Sahadeva in knowing the future!

‘பார் ஆளக் கன்னன், இகல் பார்த்தனை முன் கொன்று, அணங்கின்
கார் ஆர் குழல் களைந்து, காலில் தளை பூட்டி
நேராகக் கைப் பிடித்து, நின்னையும் யான் கட்டுவனேல்,
வாராமல் காக்கலாம் மா பாரதம்’ என்றான்.

Transliteration
‘paar aaLa kannan (Karnan), igal paarthanai mun kondRu, aNangin
kaar kuzhal kaLaindhu, kaalil thaLai pootti
nEraaga kai pidithu, ninnayum yaan kattuvanEl,
vaaraamal kaakkalaam maa bharatham’, endRaan.

Translation
To avoid the Mahabharatha war, the following have to be done:

  1. Make Karnan the king
  2. Kill Arjuna
  3. Cut off Draupadi’s hair
  4. Tie you (Krishna) up!

This demonstrates Sahadeva’s honesty to his skill – even if he knows the damage that the suggestion would cause him and his family, he does not hesitate to share it with Krishna. The verse also beautifully describes an elegant solution as well as the primary reasons for the war.

Even though Karnan didn’t stop Draupadi’s molestation attempt – he is otherwise considered a wise and just ruler. More importantly, since Karnan is the eldest of all brothers and is the closest friend of Duryodhana, no one will go against him coming to power (Karnan’s birth is explained after this point – which shows Sahadeva’s foresight).

This also means Arjuna cannot live – since he has sworn to kill Karnan or die. Cutting off Draupadi’s hair solves Bheema’s problem of tying it back.

Last but not least, this whole thing is Krishna’s illusion – so first we got to tie him up!

In all this, Villputhooraar retains the crux of the Mahabharata story, selectively brings about the a core elements of the story, accentuating the overall story, and brings about the beauty of the language through masterful rhymes and rhythms. No wonder it is revered to this day!

The answer

So, what’s the answer to our earlier questions? The answer seems to be in this interaction:

  • The devout believe that what happens is part of a broader play and they are mere actors in the play and go about playing their part and try to be detached from the emotions.
  • Those that are not devout believe they control the destiny and continue performing the actions and are emotionally attached to the actions and the results.

Who are we to say what’s right and what’s not? But maybe one leans more towards healing and the other toward hardening? Or maybe they both go either way depending on the level of self-realization?

As in this case, we are often faced with challenges in life where we know the solution – but find it impossible to implement them due to our emotional prejudices and attachments. When that happens, what seems to matter is not how powerful we are but resolute we are in implementing the solution, no matter how hard it is.

Maybe that is the answer – to look for the root cause of the emotional scars and to address them head on, however emotionally draining such acts may be – but it’s easier said than done.

Side Note

While all the brothers point out Draupadi’s vow about tying her hair only after being avenged, it is interesting to note that Yudhishtra does not directly ask Draupadi for her opinion – after all, she was wronged the most! Draupadi, the strong woman that she is, doesn’t wait for Yudhishtra to ask her and intervenes instead when everyone seem to agree to the compromise. This is a potential window to the social aspects of those times – both of women potentially not being involved in politics directly, and also of women having the liberty when needed to speak their mind.

Sources

Moral Dilemmas

Morality is an elusive, and arguably, a relative concept. People establish religions, form governments, fight wars, and make peace – all in the quest to get to a common understanding on what is right versus wrong. Morality varies by the individual, by the environment surrounding the person, within a group, and over time.

Morality also seems to be stratified – where we are fine with some contradictions in morality at a lower level as long as there is a broader alignment at the higher level. Perhaps this interesting aspect of living with moral contradictions at different levels while claiming our morality is one that makes us stick together as a society and survive.

statue_of_kannagi

சிலப்பதிகாரம் (silappadikaaram – story of the anklet) – one of the great epics of Thamizh literature – provides some interesting insights into the notion of moral contradictions and how what may seem to be the social norm may not necessarily equate to the underlying reality. It was written by இளங்கோ அடிகள் (Ilango Adigal), reportedly a prince in Cheran dynasty around 1st century CE. It is held in high esteem in Thamizh literature not just for its story and length, but also because of the comprehensive nature in which it provides a vivid description of the Thamizh lifestyle of that era and its use of literature (இயல்), music (இசை), and drama (நாடகம்) – the three primary forms of entertainment and expression.

The story contains many aspects that will give current movies a run for their money.

Brief story

The story is about Kovalan – the son of a rich merchant – who was born in the city of Pukaar (now, Poompuhar) in the Chozha kingdom and his travails in life. He marries KaNNagi, the beautiful daughter of another rich merchant and they lead a happy life. Then Kovalan comes across Maadhavi, a courtesan and instantly falls for her. He leaves KaNNagi and spends his time with Maadhavi. During a conversation with Maadhavi one day, he realizes the error of his ways and gets back to KaNNagi, who forgives him. By now, Kovalan has spent all his money and is bankrupt.

Wanting to start their life anew, Kovalan and KaNNagi head for Madurai, in the Pandyan kingdom. KaNNagi gives one of the precious anklets she wears when Kovalan asks, so he can sell it in the market to get some capital for starting a new business. He promptly takes it and sells it to a Goldsmith, who happens to work for the queen. The goldsmith, seeing that the anklet is similar to the one the queen has (which he has in his possession – and wants to steal it), brings Kovalan’s anklet to the king claiming Kovalan had stolen the queen’s anklet. The king, in a fit of rage, orders that Kovalan be executed, which is promptly done. Hearing the news, Kannagi goes to the King and shows him the other anklet and proves that Kovalan is innocent. The King dies on having erred from his duties. The queen dies on seeing this. Kannagi, in her rage of losing her husband, burns down the city, and eventually dies – joining Kovalan in heaven.

Climax Scene

One of the most quoted areas of Silappadikaaram is the court scene where Kannagi gets in front of the King to prove her husband’s innocence. The conversation is etched vividly in our minds (likely because we had to learn it by rote in school!) and has great depth that would rival any climax court scene in a thriller movie.

தேரா மன்னா! செப்புவது உடையேன்;
எள் அறு சிறப்பின் இமையவர் வியப்ப,
புள் உறு புன்கண் தீர்த்தோன்; அன்றியும்,
வாயில் கடை மணி நடு நா நடுங்க,
ஆவின் கடை மணி உகு நீர் நெஞ்சு சுட, தான் தன்
அரும்பெறல் புதல்வனை ஆழியின் மடித்தோன்
பெரும் பெயர்ப் புகார் என் பதியே; அவ் ஊர்,
ஏசாச் சிறப்பின், இசை விளங்கு பெருங்கொடி
மாசாத்து வாணிகன் மகனை ஆகி,
வாழ்தல் வேண்டி, ஊழ்வினை துரப்ப,
சூழ் கழல் மன்னா! நின் நகர்ப் புகுந்து, இங்கு
என் கால் சிலம்பு பகர்தல் வேண்டி, நின்பால்
கொலைக்களப் பட்ட கோவலன் மனைவி;
கண்ணகி என்பது என் பெயரே

Transliteration
theraa mannaa! seppuvadhu udaiyEn
eL aRu siRappin imayavar viyappa puL uRu punkaN theernDhon andRiyum
vaayil kadai maNi nadu naa nadunga, aavin kadai maNi ugu neer nenju suda,
thaan than arumpeRal pudalvanai aazhiyin madithon
perum peyar pukaar en padhiyE;
avvoor Esaa siRappin isai viLangu perunkodi Maasaathu vaaNigan maganai aagi,
vaazhdal vEndi, oozhvinai thurappa, soozh kazhal mannaa! nin nagar pugundu,
ingu en kaal silambu pagardal vEndi, ninpaal kolaikaLappatta Kovalan manaivi
Kannagi enbadu en peyarE

Translation
O King, who does not do proper due diligence before providing justice​ – hear me now!
The great king Sibi, who willingly gave his flesh for an eagle to protect a dove, and the great king Manuneedhi Chozhan, who killed his own son to provide justice to a calf, ruled the city of Pukaar – that is my hometown.
In there, born to the well known merchant Maasaathuvaan, the one who came to your city driven by fate for sake of starting a new life but eventually got murdered by you for selling my anklet, that Kovalan’s wife – KaNNagi – is my name.

The translation sadly doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the original structure. In a few short lines, ILango AdigaL gives a marvelous executive summary of the epic in this crucial moment! As we pause to reflect on this situation and the structure of words, a few aspects are worth noting:

  • With a heart full of sorrow and anger, KaNNagi is in no mood to be nice. Remember, she is getting her first audience with the King of the country where she has just migrated to live a life. So, no salutations or anything – just goes directly into the heart and accuses him of having committed injustice and that too due to lack of due diligence on his part – all in two words தேரா மன்னா!
  • Then she further drives home the injustice committed by pointing out that she comes from a place that is known for being righteous and is accustomed to such high standards. So, she is appalled to see the level of injustice in this new place. More subtly, she challenges the king by saying that he cannot live up to the same standards of justice from where she came from!
  • She gives one last punch by saying that she and her husband came to this city by fate (they wouldn’t have willingly come here otherwise!) and then closes by accusing the king of murder!

You would imagine that with a random lady almost at the point of insanity having the guts to come to his court and accuse him of murder, the King would’ve just gotten more angry and would’ve simply asked her head to be chopped off. Here’s were we get a glimpse of the King’s character.

He maintains his composure – cool as he can be – and simply states that he did no wrong by executing a thief. What is the proof that he is not a thief?

Now, we see something interesting – beautiful piece of detective deduction by KaNNagi! Maybe because of her sharp intellect or because she is from a merchant family, (purely our ankletsspeculation here) she realizes that in the Pandya kingdom, which is sea-faring (they have a fish as the state flag), the anklets will be filled with pearls, whereas hers, from the Chozha kingdom are filled with rubies (likely because Chozhas did a lot of trade with Burma and other places, known for rubies) and simply states that her anklets are filled with rubies (anklets are hollow and filled with something to make sound).

The King hears that and confirms that his queen’s anklets are filled with pearls, as expected. The anklet confiscated from Kovalan is then brought to the court and KaNNagi promptly proceeds to throw it in the ground, whereby it splits and the rubies scatter in the ground and a few hitting the king in his face.

Seeing this, the King realizes that Kovalan is innocent and that he indeed did commit injustice.

தாழ்ந்த குடையன், தளர்ந்த செங்கோலன்,
‘பொன் செய் கொல்லன்-தன் சொல் கேட்ட
யனோ அரசன்? யானே கள்வன்;
மன்பதை காக்கும் தென் புலம் காவல்
என் முதல் பிழைத்தது; கெடுக என் ஆயுள்!

Transliteration
thaazhnda kudaiyan, thaLarntha senkOlan,
“pon sei kollan – than sol kEtta yaano arasan? yaanE kaLvan”
manpadhai kaakkum then pulam kaaval en mudhal pizhaithadhu; keduga en aayuL!

Translation
With his umbrella slanted and the scepter slipping from his hands, the King lost his bearings and said “I heard the lies of the goldsmith and took them to be the truth without doing my due diligence. Am I fit to be called a King? No, I am now the thief! I have brought disrepute to this righteous Pandya Kingdom – let me die now!”

How often do we see a person of great power and responsibility realize the mistake he has made and admit that mistake publicly instead of blindly defending themselves?! Definitely not in the recent times, for sure!

Moral Dilemmas

What is interesting are the character transformations that happen throughout the story and their related moral dilemmas and contradictory positions they take over time.

KaNNagi (கண்ணகி) is portrayed as chastity personified (கற்புக்கரசி – karpukkarasi – queen of chastity). However she also seems to come across as being completely subservient to Kovalan – forgiving all of his erroneous ways.

Is it right of her to maintain her loyalty to her husband for sake of marriage and societal norms? Is it right of her to forgive him even after he deserted her for another lady?

Later on, she completely transforms herself when her husband dies – like the modern day Roja (in the eponymous Maniratnam film) displaying qualities of Thelma (of Thelma & Louise) and takes on a much different persona. In that process, she goes ahead to destroy the entire city where she was wronged.

Is it right of her to set fire to an entire city (with many families in it), just because she was wronged? Can she act as a vigilante and take justice in her own hands?

Nedunchezhiyan (நெடுஞ்செழியன்), the king in question, is portrayed as having committed injustice to KaNNagi without doing due diligence and comes across as being haughty and entitled. However, we see later that he is actually a good and just king because a) he provided audience to a seeming lunatic to listen to her grievances, b) kept his cool when he was accused of murder, and c) took his life when he finds out that he actually did commit injustice.

Is the King an incompetent, rash person whose death was justified or did he react extremely to the truth? Was it right of the King to take his own life because he committed injustice once or should he have kept his life as he was a good King in general and would’ve likely done justice in many other scenarios?

Maadhavi (மாதவி) is another interesting character in the story. A courtesan by profession, she was the reason for Kovalan leaving his faithful wife. While she seems to come across initially as the villain of the story, we see that she actually is a girl of good character, falling in love and staying faithful to Kovalan once he comes to her and leaving her profession. Once Kovalan leaves her to go back to KaNNagi, she leaves the profession altogether and becomes a Buddhist monk.

Was she right in luring Kovalan away from his marriage? Or was she just doing her job as a courtesan?

Lastly, there is Kovalan (கோவலன்) himself. He seems to be the wuss in this story – the hapless Devdas character who seem to complain that he is a victim of circumstances, not owning up to his ineptitude. Was it right of Kovalan to have left his wife for Maadhavi or can he say he couldn’t help it because he was a man and is inevitably drawn to beautiful women? Was it right of Kovalan to coax his wife to go to Madurai even if it would inconvenience his wife further instead of owning up to his past errors, sucking it up by going to his dad or in-laws for more money to start anew?

People are faced with similar questions in their own lives at various points – when taking a new job, when moving to a new place, when potentially committing adultery, when trying to get out of a traffic ticket, and many more.

We don’t have the answers to these questions but maybe there is some comfort in knowing that such moral dilemmas and contradictions have existed even 2,000 years back and are not that easy to solve!

Sources

  1. http://www.tamilvu.org/slet/l3100/l3100pd5.jsp?bookid=50&pno=22 (Thamizh text and some explanation)
  2. http://tamilnation.co/literature/cilapathikaram.htm (anklet picture)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kannagi (KaNNagi picture)

Authenticity and Hypocrisy

Many have quarreled about religion that never practised it.
– Ben Franklin

Authenticity is touted as a key leadership skill in management. True leaders are those who are authentic – humble in accepting their flaws and staying true to their roots and beliefs. But that is easier said than done – thus hypocrisy is born!

Hypocrisy is often the other side of belief; it is extremely hard to do one without the other. Belief is normally born out of insecurity – we believe in something because we want stability in the middle of uncertainty.

The sense of security we get due to our beliefs extends naturally to the thinking that our beliefs are better than those of others because we are more secure, not necessarily realizing that others maybe reaching the same conclusion. This in turn leads us to question the beliefs of others, leading to hypocrisy and strife. This fallacy in thought is most apparent in the context of religion, which at the end of the day, is primarily structured belief.

Those who attain self-realization become aware of this eventual hypocrisy brought about by blind faith in one’s adherence to their beliefs and provide caution. Of course, one may ask if that itself is not hypocritic, but let’s not go there!

சிவவாக்கியர் (Sivavaakkiar), one of the 18 famed siddhars, seemed to have lived around the time when blind faith seemed to have a upper hand than a spiritual quest in understanding the unknown.

அறிவிலே பிறந்திருந்து ஆகமங்கள் ஓது நீர்
நெறியிலே மயங்குகின்ற நேர்மை ஒன்று அறிகிலீர்
உறியிலே தயிர் இருக்க ஊர் புகுந்து வெண்ணெய் தேடும்
அறிவிலாத மாந்தரோடு அணுகுமாறதெங்ஙனே

Transliteration
aRivilE piRandhirundhu aagamangal Odhu neer
neRiyilE mayangugindRa nErmai ondru aRigileer
uRiyilE thayir irukka oor pugundhu veNNei thEdum
aRivilaadha maandharOdu aNugumaaRa thennganE

Translation
You feel you are learned by reading all the scriptures and memorizing them.
But you don’t have the tenacity to follow them in your life (you just pay lip service).
Not realizing that the butter is inside the yogurt and can come out if churned,
You instead go around looking for it elsewhere – how foolish are your deeds!

Sivavaakkiar strikes at the heart of hypocrisy with his words! A person does not gain wisdom by simply reading books and reciting them. Internalization is more critical than retention of information. If we are not able to internalize what we have learned, we will simply be buying butter in the store and pouring the yogurt we already have, down the drain!

It is often easier to fight for your principles than to live up to them.
– Adlai E Stevenson

No one is born a hypocrite – it normally comes out of convenience. It is far more convenient to preach our beliefs than to actually execute on them. It is even less convenient to live up to them constantly.

Sivavaakkiar puts this hypocrisy eloquently.

நட்ட கல்லை தெய்வம் என்று நாலு புட்பம் சாத்தியே
சுற்றி வந்து மொணமொண என்று சொல்லும் மந்திரம் ஏதடா
நட்ட கல்லும் பேசுமோ நாதன் உள் இருக்கையில்
சுட்ட சட்டி சட்டுவம் கறிச்சுவை அறியுமோ

Transliteration
natta kallai deivam endRu naalu putpam saathiyE
sutRi vandhu moNamoNa endRu sollum mandiram Edhadaa
natta kallum pEsumO naadhan uL irukkaiyil
sutta satti sattuvam kaRichuvai aRiyumO

Translation
You pray to the idol in the temple by putting four flowers and going around it while muttering some mantras.
Why go looking for God in the idol when he is already inside you?
Like how a ladle and the pot wouldn’t know the taste of the food that they handle, neither are you realizing the One who is inside you.

This is a classic from Sivavaakkiar in his inimitable style – providing profound thoughts in a way that resonates with the common man!

Self realization is a far more difficult activity to do than the more convenient action of simply repeating a bunch of slokas that one has been taught. Though his poems mainly criticize pseudo-religionists, they equally apply to many other pseudo-ists – pseudo-scholars, pseudo-patriots, pseudo-linguaphiles, and what have you!

We have seen many instances of this in recent times.

  • Politicians who complain about fake news don’t seem to have an issue in distorting truth themselves and newsmen who complain about trivial obsessions of politicians seem oblivious to their own incessant coverage of unconfirmed details.
  • We complain about imposition of Hindi and how it kills Thamizh but don’t bother to say zha (ழ), la (ல), and La (ள) correctly.
  • We are angered by promotion of fairness creams in Tamilnadu but want to import fairer Punjabi / Kerala girls as heroines in Thamizh movies.

One may protest that raising awareness is a virtue by itself – after all, not everyone may be in a position to take action for a cause, but they can at least support them, surely? We may not have the knowledge and wisdom to learn scriptures, but shouldn’t we at least do our bit in passing them onto the next generation, even if we may not understand them?

Surely, there is value in such noble thoughts, but it can be a double-edged sword. The same argument of passing something without understanding can be made by the person who does that with their WhatsApp message! We don’t appreciate those in the same capacity, do we?!

Maybe the measure lies within the words of Sivavaakkiar – what matters is not what we do but how well we attempt to realize the value of what we do. Such a quest to value realization may guide us in the right direction. The sentiment reminds us of the wise words of Thiruvalluvar.

எப்பொருள் யார் யார் வாய் கேட்பினும்
அப்பொருள் மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்பது அறிவு

epporuL yaar yaar vaai kEtpinum
apporuL meipporuL kaaNbadhu aRivu.

Wisdom is paying importance to the meaning of the words uttered than to who uttered them.

In the current context of fake news and alternate facts, these words from ages back seem to shine ever so brightly!

Cause and Effect dissociation

What compels one to write poetry? It seems like poetry is driven by three fundamental but related aspects – an object of desire, a constraint (from getting to the object of desire), and an overwhelming emotion (due to the gap between the two).

On one hand, poets of the bygone era sing praises of the ruling king (object of desire) with a potential intent to get either fame or money (constraint or need) – the emotion may vary depending on the constraint and the relationship with the king (pride, greed, fear).

On the other hand, those who are spiritually inclined become poets when they sing the praises of their God (object of desire), driven by the need to be free of worldly bondage (constraint) – the emotion is typically elation (anandam), sorrow, or abject surrender / helplessness (saranaagathi).

Recent roadside romeos and cinematic poets tend to follow the same path, singing praises of the girl they love, driven by desperation in attaining her, and the emotions varying between sorrow or dejection (if the girl spurns him) or elation (if she accepts)!

While the paths that the poets take to express their emotions vary, the impact of the poem, regardless of how eloquently or simply it is written, is as strong as our personal resonance with the three factors above.

We will see two examples to explore this thought further – in all cases, the object of desire is God (although which God varies), the constraint being that of being attached to worldly aspects, and the overwhelming emotion is to be free of them in order to attain salvation. The verses that are reflective of this need for non-attachment are known as vairaagya (non-attachment) padas (songs).

One point to note before we delve into these songs – vairaagya padas generally sound very dismal – they heighten the futility of this human birth and extol the virtue of salvation. Taken literally, this might sound as if the songs promote self-destruction or taking one’s life in order to get something that is arguably unproven.

However, things are not always what they seem and as with most songs we have seen, the words are layered with multiple levels of meanings. These songs have to be taken in the context of the broader philosophy around them, which convey the exact opposite meaning. The broader philosophy is to accept and come to terms with the flaws in the human birth and thinking as is, realize that there are aspects in this universe that are bigger than what our minds can fathom, and instead focus on leveraging this birth to its fullest, flawed it may be, for the greater good of this universe (humanity and beyond).

Such realization came to these enlightened and talented human beings and as we attempt to understand the power of their words, we marvel at their foresight and wisdom and hope that it elevates us to a greater level of thinking and resolve (which also is denoted by the word vairaagyam, incidentally!)

Thondaradippodi Azhwar

First up is Thondaradippodi Azhwar, who we saw earlier. He says this in Thrumaalai (திருமாலை) – garland to the Lord.

மறம் சுவர் மதிள் எடுத்து மறுமைக்கே வெறுமை பூண்டு
புறம் சுவர் ஓட்டை மாடம் புரளும் போது அறிய மாட்டீர்
அறம் சுவராகி நின்ற அரங்கனார்க்கு ஆட்செய்யாதே
புறம் சுவர் கோலம் செய்து புள் கவ்வக் கிடக்கின்றீரே

Transliteration
maRam suvar madhiL eduthu maRumaikkE veRumai poondu
puRam suvar Ottai maadam puraLum pOdhu aRiya maatteer
aRam suvaraagi ninDRa aranganaarkku aatseiyaade
puRam suvar kOlam seidhu puL kavva kidakkinDReerE

Translation (based on this link)
The body (wall) that we have taken in this birth is due to accumulation of sins in past lives (otherwise, we wouldn’t have taken a birth in the first place). Such a body will tempt us to commit more sins to avoid salvation.
The wall is fragile and has holes (orifices) that can let sins come in and can cause it to crumble anytime.
You don’t realize this fragility of your body even if it bites the dust, unless you focus your mind on nArAyanA, who is righteousness / dharma personified (அறம் சுவர்).
Instead, you keep decorating this fragile wall and nourishing it, only for the vultures to eventually get to it and have a feast.

Taken out of context, this is seemingly uncharacteristic of an Azhwar, who normally extols the virtue of this birth which has been given in turn to sing praises of God. However, in the broader work, we do see that this is just a preface to that broader concept.

Pattinathaar

The sentiments, however, are very similar to those we have seen earlier by Siddhars. Let us look at a song from Pattinathar:

இருப்பது பொய் போவது மெய் என்று எண்ணி நெஞ்சே
ஒருத்தருக்கும் தீங்கினை உண்ணாதே – பருத்த தொந்தி
நம்மதென்று நாமிருப்ப – நாய் நரிகள் பேய் கழுகு
தம்மதென்று தாம் இருக்கும் தான்

Transliteration
iruppadu poi pOvadu mei endRu eNNi nenjE
orutharukkum theenginai uNNaadhe – parutha thondhi
nammadhendRu naam iruppa – naai narigaL pEi kazhugu
thammadhendRu thaam irukkum thaan

Translation
This life we are living is an illusion (we feel we are in control, but are not).
What is real is that we will all die one day.
Knowing this impermanence, do not do harm to anyone else.
We feed ourselves well and build our tummies, thinking we will live forever.
But the dogs, wolves, and vultures are eagerly waiting for the same!

You can see the striking similarities in the thought process behind both the songs, even though the God worshipped by each are different (Vishnu vs. Shiva), which goes to show further the commonality in the spiritualism behind the words.

PattinathAr also goes a step further and explains eloquently what we mentioned earlier – there is no correlation between the spiritual thinking behind the futility of life and the thought of taking one’s life (because one considers it to be futile).

Perhaps well aware of the potential for misunderstanding, PattinathAr states that one should be aware of this impermanence of this life and not be lured by the worldly desires to which it entices us, including loving it too much (to the point of potentially harming others in that process, for any material gain).