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)?


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):




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