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.


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.


  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


One thought on “Sensational Sayings

  1. Excellent grouping and approach of one of the basic building block of human evolution Madhu. But the actions of the Panchendriyas (accompanied by the five attributes referred to by you ) is often dictated by an immutable and intrinsic nature of every soul( Swabhava) Only when the swabhava – i.e the mixture of the three basic traits which is unalterable – is in sync then a closed system is possible Else it is not easy. This is not palatable but is more a practical truth as only a few siddha purushas have succeeded despite their eloquence. Thankfully no one knows what his swabhava is by the grand design!!

    Liked by 1 person

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