The power of observation

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’
‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’
‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
‘That was the curious incident’, remarked Sherlock Holmes.

One of the salient characteristics of Sherlock Holmes is his astute observational skills – his ability to see things that others miss or consider as trivial. In his own words,

You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.

Management books have waxed eloquence about the importance of nonverbal cues in communication and how we should tune ourselves to noticing these cues to ensure an appropriate conversation and to even empathize with the other person.

In the earlier post on When to provide refuge, we discussed the counsel that RAma seeks before eventually deciding in favor of providing refuge to Vibheeshana. Even though his ally and other wise men made strong arguments, RAma eventually heeded the words of Hanuman. One wonders why such an importance was given to Hanuman. It is not that others lacked logic. In fact, one can even argue that Hanuman’s arguments were more emotional than logical and even lacked a rigor that others provided. RAma must really be impressed by Hanuman’s observational skills to provide such importance!

If someone says “Believe me, folks!”, we don’t necessarily believe them immediately (well, not always at least!). However, there are times when we do take someone’s word based on faith than on logic – be it one that promises hope or one that promises to regain lost glory. What compels us to believe? In order to generate such a following, it is critical to build credibility – be it through oratory skills or past perceived accomplishments.

In our case, the seeds of credibility for Hanuman’s observational powers are sown right at the beginning, when he is introduced into the epic.

When RAma and Lakshmana enter Kishkinta – the forest kingdom of the vAnaras (monkey-men or ape-men) – they get scared, including Sugreeva – their king – afraid that these well-armed, soldier-looking humans are here to kill them. Then Sugreeva asks Hanuman to do some reconnaissance to determine whether to face them or remain in hiding. Subsequently, Hanuman observes the two discreetly and as he does so, proceeds to make a judgement on whether to trust them or not. It is a “life or death” moment, not just for him, but potentially for his entire clan and so he cannot afford to err!

This is a scenario that we go through frequently in our daily lives whenever we encounter someone we don’t know but have to potentially work with them – be it a business partner, a colleague, or even a spouse and that impression can make all the difference.

Unlike earlier posts, we have skipped quoting the verses as they run across nine verses. If interested, you can read them at Tamil Virtual University (verses 3856 – 3865).

Let us observe how the observer observes!

  1. (3856) They are trained warriors and have deadly bows in their hands. Hence I have to be careful and think this through and not make a hasty judgement.
  2. (3857) They look regal and divine, but they are not the foremost Gods (Siva, Vishnu, Brahma) because they don’t have the corresponding ornamental symbolisms
  3. (3857) The don’t look anything like others I have seen (they are far more radiant). How do I assess them?
  4. (3858) It looks like they are weighed down by some grief and hence seem mentally tired. But they don’t seem like ones who can be weighed down by grief that easily
  5. (3858) They are not divine beings as they exhibit qualities of mortal beings
  6. (3858) It looks like they are determined to search for something precious that they have lost and won’t rest till then.
  7. (3859) They look righteous and ones who would uphold what is just
  8. (3859) They look like they value righteousness and self-realization more than anything else
  9. (3859) Their actions imply that they are not interested in and don’t covet others’ belongings (and hence are trustworthy)
  10. (3859) Their focus seems to be purely fixed on retrieving the precious something that they have lost.
  11. (3860) They don’t look like they have the ability to display anger (and hence have control over their emotions). Instead their face reflects endless compassion
  12. (3860) They don’t look like they have intentions to harm others
  13. (3860) They are majestic that even the leader of Devas (Indra) will bow in respect, that even the Lady of Justice would bow in reverence on seeing their righteousness, and that even the Lord of Death would be afraid of them, but look more handsome than even the God of Love
  14. (3861) (Looking at them, so feels Hanuman – who is incomparable in terms of strength and valor – as if he has known them forever)
  15. (3862) Even the wild animals are going behind them as if they are going after their cubs. Why should I doubt that they may be our enemies?
  16. (3863) Peacocks are spreading their wings as if to provide them shade from the sun. The clouds seem to get together with a gentle drizzle and are upon them as if to provide them relief from the heat
  17. (3864) The hot rocks on which they are treading seem to turn soft like nectar laden flowers (or more practically, they don’t seem to mind the hot surface!). The trees and grass seems to intentionally bend towards whichever direction they take as if bowing in reverence to them.
  18. (3865) Why do I feel such endless compassion towards them? I am not able to rationalize this.

Sherlock Holmes would be proud!

Having gone through this mental exercise, he then proceeds to introduce himself and the story goes on. No wonder RAma later trusts his observational astuteness and his ability to size up a stranger!

An interesting aspect here is that to the best we know, the events differ from how they are written in the original Valmiki RAmAyana. There, Hanuman comes in front of the two brothers in the guise of an ascetic and narrates his observations in the form of questions in order to elicit a response from them. However here, he observes them in hiding.

This change in narration seems to gel with Kamban’s thought process though. Kamban brings up Hanuman’s observational powers are repeatedly during the epic at crucial moments – be it here, for Vibheeshana, or looking for SIta Devi in Lanka. No wonder this skill of Hanuman is credentialed as soon as he is introduced!

Also consistent is the MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive) approach that Kamban takes as we had mentioned in an earlier post. The observations mentioned above fall into distinct categories:

  • Observation of outwardly appearance (style and attire)
  • Observation of facial expressions to understand their emotional state
  • Observation of facial expressions to understand their agenda / intent
  • Observation of their pedigree
  • Observation of how others react around them
  • Observation of the environmental state (context) 
  • Observation of one’s own gut reaction and feeling about them

Hanuman takes nonverbal cues to a whole new level! He not only performs a comprehensive observation about them but also checks to see his own reaction as a cross-reference (items in bold earlier).

But Kamban is not done yet. He places a literary gem right after (another aspect that is not mentioned in Valmiki RAmAyana). Once he is assured that RAma and Lakshmana are to be trusted, he welcomes them before introducing himself by saying

கவ்வை இன்றாக, நுங்கள் வரவு
kavvai indraaga,  nungal varavu

Translation: Let your arrival be without harm.

While this apparently was a typical way to welcome a stranger (per the source article), our humble opinion is that there might be more to this. In this context, even though Hanuman is confident that the visitors are to be trusted, he started with a suspicion about their intent. Moreover, based on his observation he deduces that they are weighed down by some sorrow.

So, the choice of words seem very apt (he is not called – சொல்லின் செல்வன் – master wordsmith – for nothing!). The phrase can be taken to both mean “may you cause no harm (to us)” as well as “may no harm come to you (in your quest for whatever you are looking for)”.

Such is the poetic beauty of Kamban.

Additional Notes

A few additional points were brought to our attention related to the refuge aspect:

  • When Hanuman gives his background story, he also makes it a point to extol the virtue of providing refuge to one seeking asylum and in turn, proceeds to seek refuge for him and his group who are currently in exile with RAma. While it is not explicitly stated, it can be taken that this is one of the reason why Hanuman insists that there is no greater dharma than providing refuge during the Vibheeshana episode – after all, he himself sought refuge earlier and benefited by it!
  • Incidentally in most stories related to refuge, the story arc is that the one being persecuted seeks refuge, the protector provides refuge, proceeds to eliminate the threat on behalf of the person, and subsequently restores normalcy to the person being persecuted. Example: Sugreeva seeks refuge, RAma provides, kills vAli, make Sugreeva the king (and hence is no longer a refugee). While we want to believe that this modus operandi works in modern days where the protectors want to be seen as ‘liberators’, it seems to spectacularly backfire, most times because they don’t analyze enough to determine if there is a path  to normalcy. It takes two to tango – a strong enough protector on one side, and a strong enough refugee who has the capacity to support regained normalcy. In other words, people see themselves as RAmas, but they forget to check if the other person is a true Vibheeshana!

Image Source: (


2 thoughts on “The power of observation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s