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.



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


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.

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!

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.

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.

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?

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?

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!

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!

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.

‘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.

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.


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.


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

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

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!

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!

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!


  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

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

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

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

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

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.


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

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

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).


The art of Executive Summary

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.
Friedrich Nietzsche

It is easy to ramble on and on to make a point (we maybe guilty of that here and there!) but it takes a lot of effort to condense the message and be to the point. An excellent management consultant is often one who has mastered this art.

Greek mythology has Gods for various professions. If we were to define a God for management consultant, Hanuman would be a shoo-in for that position. We had mentioned a few posts back on Hanuman’s consultant skills. Today we will delve into another excellent example on what we can learn from Hanuman about the art of providing a powerful executive summary!


The Scene

The scene in rAmAyana is a pivotal one. RAma has sent Hanuman to find where SIta is held captive. After many days, Hanuman gets back to where RAma and the monkey warriors are staying. He first apprises Angada – the prince of the monkey clan and the news about Hanuman’s return and him having found SIta eventually reaches rAma, but he wants to hear from the source to be sure. Now, Hanuman comes over to rAma to meet him in person and deliver the news.

Take a moment to imagine this scene. Here is a young guy who is recently married whose beautiful wife has been kidnapped by an evil person. He hires a private investigator to try to find out who has done this and try to get her back. What would be going through his mind?

  1. Where is she?
  2. Is she alive? Has she been harmed in anyway (including potentially sexually)?
  3. Does she still have good feelings towards me (or have I fallen down in her eyes because I could not protect her)?

Valmiki RAmAyana

In Valmiki RAmAyana, these are the questions that rAma asks to Hanuman.

क्व सीता वर्तते देवी कथम् च मयि वर्तते |
एतन् मे सर्वम् आख्यात वैदेहीम् प्रति वानराः ||

kva sIta vartatE dEvI katham cha mayi vartatE
Etan mE sarvam aakhyaata vaidEhim prathi vaanaraah

Where is SIta? How is she disposed towards me? Please tell me everything.

Since Hanuman was the one who actually saw SIta, the other monkeys asked him to respond, to which Hanuman replies,

समुद्रम् लन्घयित्वा अहम् शत योजनम् आयतम् ||
अगच्छम् जानकीम् सीताम् मार्गमाणो दिदृक्षया |

तत्र लन्का इति नगरी रावणस्य दुरात्मनः ||
दक्षिणस्य समुद्रस्य तीरे वसति दक्षिणे |

तत्र दृष्टा मया सीता रावण अन्तः पुरे सती ||
सम्न्यस्य त्वयि जीवन्ती रामा राम मनो रथम् |

samudram lanGhayitvaa aham shata yOjanam aayatam
aagachcham jaanakIm sItaam maargamaaNO diDhrikshayaa

tatra lankaa iti nagarI raavanaasya Duraatmanaha
Dakshinasya samuDrasya teerE vasati DakshinE

tatra Drishtaa mayaa sItaa raavana anthah purE satI
samnayasya tvayi jeevantI raamaa rama manO ratam


With a wish to see SIta, I crossed a hundred yOjanas of the ocean and reached the southern shore.
There at the southern shore of the southern ocean, there is city called Lanka of the evil-minded Ravana.
There, in RavanA’s quarters for women, your chaste wife SIta, keeping you in her heart, was seen by me.

Thanks to translation source: Valmiki Ramayan

Let’s take a few moments to analyze the genius of these words before we move forward:

  • Before RAma were all the monkeys including Hanuman as well as his superiors such as Sugreeva, the king, and Angada, the crown prince. However, when RAma asked a question on the specifics – they respectfully asked Hanuman to provide the details. How many times have we been in C-Suite meetings where there is the lowly developer who has slogged to develop a product not being asked to open his mouth, while the Manager or the Director babbling on as if they did all the work and trying to take credit?!
  • In his “Executive Summary” to rAma, Hanuman first states the objective, then the approach / methodology, and finally the outcome – a classic management approach
  • In the “findings”, he answers all of rAma’s questions in two short sentences, reading rAma’s intentions behind his questions:
    • SIta is chaste (she has not been harmed / assaulted by RAvana)
    • She is still thinking of you
  • The use of word “Drishtaa mayaa SItA” (SIta was seen by me) is a beautiful use of Sanskrit – He could’ve said “I saw SIta”, but doesn’t. The difference is in the humility of the statement. As a staunch disciple of RAma, Hanuman believes that he is simply an instrument in the greater scheme of things. Hence he relinquishes his ego (“I saw her”) and instead simply states that he was a mere instrument in having played his part of conveying the message to RAma of having seen SIta!

Beautiful words indeed! Now, you might be wondering why I am quoting Sanskrit in a Thamizh blog – a potential blasphemy! Fear not!

Kamban’s take

A few posts back, we talked about the guiding principles to consider in translating a masterpiece. As before, Kamban proves without doubt, his mastery in this space. As we saw above, the original text already covers so many nuances. How can one possibly make this any better?

In Kamban’s interpretation, the scene is slightly different. Here, RAma does not ask any question. Instead something else happens.

எய்தினன் அனுமனும்; எய்தி ஏந்தல் தன்
மொய் கழல் தொழுகிலன் முளரி நீங்கிய
தையலை நோக்கிய தலையன் கையினன்
வையகம் தழீஇ நெடிது இறைஞ்சி வாழ்த்தினான்.

‘கண்டனென் கற்பினுக்கு அணியைக் கண்களால்
தெள் திரை அலை கடல் இலங்கைத் தென் நகர்
அண்ட நாயக! இனித் தவிர்தி ஐயமும்
பண்டு உள துயரும் ‘என்று அனுமன் பன்னுவான்.


eiDinan anumanum; eIDi Endhal than
moi kazhal thozhugilan muLari neengiya
thaiyalai nOkkiya thalaiyan kaiyinan
vaiyagam thzhiee nediDu iRainji vaazhthinAn

“kaNdanen kaRpinukku aNiyai kaNgaLaal
theL thirai alai kadal ilangai then nagar
aNda naayaga! ini thavirDi aiyamum
paNdu uLa thuyarum” enDRu anuman pannuvaan.

Hanuman came near rAma. Instead of touching the anklet adorned feet of rAma, he turned towards the southern direction where SIta who – as if a lotus has been removed from its nourishing stem – was held in captivity, and fell to the ground and prostrated in reverence of her before he spoke.

… (there are  couple of verses we have skipped here for sake of continuity)

“I saw the chastity personified sIta with my eyes and identified her by her eyes.
She is in a city in the southern part of the island of Lanka.
So, please get rid of any doubt and worry in your mind”. Then explained further.

Many thanks to primary source of translation – Tamil Virtual University.

We will let that sink for a second. … Ready?!

There are two big deviations from the source here – first, rAma does not ask any question and Hanuman seemingly does some weird stuff and second, the philosophical beauty of Sanskrit (“was seen by me” versus “I saw her”) seems to be lost on Kamban. Or is it?

Non-verbal cues
In Kamban’s interpretation, Hanuman prefers non-verbal cues instead of verbal ones first. Before even uttering a word, he answers rAma’s questions (Is she alive / safe? How does she feel about rAma? Where is she?) by a mere action.

Prostration or sAshtAnga namaskaram (சாஷ்டாங்க நமஸ்காரம்) has a special significance in Hinduism. There are different ways in which you can bow in reverence. sAshtAnga (sa + ashta + anga = with eight limbs) means bowing in such a way that eight limbs (chest, head, hands, feet, knees, body, mind, and speech – according to one interpretation) touch the ground. This specific posture is supposed to be done only to God or those who have Godliness embodied in them by having achieved enlightenment (through devotion, knowledge, or action – broadly translated to be those more enlightened than the person such as parents, elders, and scholars) and are mature enough to know that the reverence is not to them but to the God inside them. This excludes people who are dead (since there is no soul and hence no “Godliness” in a dead person).

So, by this mere action, Hanuman indicates four things to RAma:

  1. He is bowing to someone who is alive (hence SIta is alive)
  2. He is bowing to someone who is Godliness personified – since this action is to RAma, it can only indicate SIta, as no one else can be  more revered than rAma himself.
  3. In turn, this also implies that SIta is still “pure” (not assaulted or more specifically has not changed her mind to be adulterous and is still thinking only of rAma)
  4. SIta is somewhere down south

Having seen this rAma instantly feels relieved (இவன் கண்டதும் உண்டு; அவள் கற்பும் நன்று; எனக் கொண்டனன் குறிப்பினால்  – RAma realizes by this gesture that Hanuman has seen her and that she is chaste / has not been harmed).

Imagine walking into a C-Suite and impressing them without saying a word and making everyone erupt in amazement at the sheer genius you displayed! Reminds us of the George Costanza moment in Seinfeld!

He goes further to confirm rAma’s understanding. The approach is quite different from the classic management technique deployed by ValmIki and instead uses a “Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)” technique.

First he says that he saw SIta, then he confirms that it’s her, then he gives additional details such as location, and lastly comforts RAma.

A few key things to note here:

  • In the very first words spoken, he is direct in addressing rAma’s concern – “I’ve seen her” – and gets that out of the way – no time for eloquence here. He knows what rAma wants and delivers it right away. This answers rAma’s first question (Is she alive?)
  • Then he says she is chastity personified. This adjective he uses for SIta addresses rAma’s second question (has she been harmed in anyway?). Hanuman understands the internal discomfort of rAma that he cannot ask outright and answers it directly as a matter of fact.
  • We first didn’t understand the word கண்களால் (by eyes / through eyes). First we thought it was just further confirmation that Hanuman saw sIta. But the explanation in Tamil Virtual University is much more eloquent and plausible. The “eyes” here refer not to Hanuman’s eyes, but SIta’s!! Wait, what? What is the proof that Hanuman saw SIta? RAma had earlier described how SIta looks to Hanuman so he can spot her. However, many days had passed since SIta was abducted and so SIta was physically emaciated and mentally exhausted without proper food intake and excessive worry and so she couldn’t be identified by RAma’s physical description. So, how did Hanuman know it was SIta? He knew because he could see RAma in SIta’s eyes (because she was always thinking of RAma and no one else!) The same concept is described in ValmIki rAmAyana (SIta, who has RAmA in her heart), but Kamban has expressed all that in a single word! This answers rAma’s third question (Is she still thinking about me?)
  • Then he goes above and beyond and plants a gem – “remove any doubt and sorrow in your mind”. Like any husband who would have doubts about his wife’s status in an abduction scenario, Hanuman understands that even the mind of most righteous rAma might be gnawed by the doubt of whether RAvana has assaulted sIta and in turn, his helplessness about the situation. So, he addresses both these thoughts in one single master stroke – remove doubt and sorrow (not just sorrow)!

This once again proves the genius of Kamban! He completely re-imagines a critical scene in the original literature that is already a masterpiece and adds his unique touches to the re-imagination, all without compromising the integrity of the story-line and the thought process of the original text!

Modern day ‘scholars’ and self-proclaimed mythology gurus can learn a thing or two (and a lot more) from Kamban!

This post was inspired by an old post from an excellent Thamizh website kaRka niRka (கற்க நிற்க) that recently surfaced in their Facebook site. We do encourage you take a look at their site for some great analysis of Thamizh literature.

Visualizing expressions beyond words

Telling stories is one of the most ancient art forms. Storytelling is embedded in every ancient culture where generations of successes, failures, and knowledge learned about their surroundings is encapsulated in stories, with a designated storyteller in each tribe owning that responsibility. This makes sense, as storytelling is more memorable than any other medium of communication, preserves context, and does not require any additional paraphernalia to get started.

Modern presentation techniques have put renewed emphasis on the art of storytelling, with the likes of TED Talks being coveted for its communication style. We have heard that the ancient Indian texts such as vedas were communicated verbally than through writing because of the ability to preserve the tone, context, and purpose that would be very hard to convey through writing.

Expressing through words

So, how can poets and authors, who rely primarily in a written form, push the limits of providing context beyond what is possible through mere words?

For this, we recollect the works of great authors like R K Narayanan of Malgudi Days fame, who excelled in not just conveying the context but in creating an entire microcosm with his artful writing. One can visualize the early 19th century India in his words – playing out in front of our eyes, feel the emotions that Swami and other lead characters go through during various situations, and can even feel the patriotism that was nearing its peak. Same goes for other accomplished authors like Sujatha Ranganthan in his classic Srirangathu Devadaigal (ஸ்ரீரங்கத்து தேவதைகள்) and Western authors – a more recent one being the Harry Potter Series by J K Rowling.

Perhaps the one that we enjoyed the most was the epic novel Ponniyin Selvan (பொன்னியின் செல்வன்) by Kalki R Krishnamurthy. It is an epic (6 volumes with over 4,000 pages together) that riveted multiple generations in its ability to bring the 11th century Chozha Kingdom in front of our eyes. A quasi-historic novel (primary mix of facts embellished with some fiction), we have immersed ourselves in the books during our school vacation, engrossed in the story. It would sometimes take a few days or even a week to get our heads out of the 11th century – such was the power of his pen.

Now, we can say that writers have more space to play with to portray their universe – they can go to a number of pages and no one will complain. What about poets? They don’t have that luxury and often have to be concise in their use of words. So how would they be able to express emotions, context, and maybe even movement, without a picture or long prose to help them?

We have seen many instances where the notion of time or even emotion is brought about in poetry (we say that we are ‘moved’ by the words). However, movement is a slightly tricky component that we haven’t seen being brought about in poems. This is where our good friend Kamban comes to our rescue.

Graceful motion

In the last post, we shined a somewhat unfavorable light on Kamban as a proud, egocentric poet, who was put in his place by Auvaiyar. But that should not say any less about his genius. In his masterpiece the rAmAyana, Kamban uses words masterfully to express movement.

Normally beauty and grace are reserved to heroines – we always project heroines in good light – they are mostly graceful, beautiful, radiant, and so on. The villains (or villis – female version of villain) don’t get any such favorable treatment. They are most often portrayed as evil personified and ugly.

When describing Soorpanakai (சூர்ப்பனகை) – the sister of  rAvana – the villain of the story, Kamban departs from this stereotype. Story goes that when rAma, lakshmana, and sIta are resting in the forest, Soorpanakai happens to see rAma and instantly falls in love. Wishing to make him hers, she transforms herself into a beautiful woman (through a boon received earlier) and comes in front of rAma with the intent to entice him.

Kamban describes her walking towards rAma as follows:

பஞ்சிஒளிர் விஞ்சுகுளிர் பல்லவம் அனுங்கச்

செஞ்செவிய கஞ்சம் நிகர் சீறடியள் ஆகி

அஞ்சொலிள மஞ்ஞை என அன்னம் என மின்னும்

வஞ்சி என நஞ்சம் என வஞ்சமகள் வந்தாள்

panji oLir vinju kuLir pallavam anunga
sencheviya kanjam nigar seeRadiyal aagi
anjoliLa mangnai ena annam ena minnum
vanji ena nanjam ena vanja magaL vandhaaL

With the softness that would even put wisps of cotton and delicate petals to shame,
With her feet that can be compared to blossomed lotuses,
With grace of a young peacock or a swan,
With the thin, curvy structure like a jasmine creeper,
With poison in her heart,
The devious Soorpanakai came before rAma.

We saw this verse when browsing through the Tamil Virtual University website – an excellent effort to bring olden Thamizh literature to modern audience. The words are carefully chosen and arranged so that when sung, it produces a natural rhythm of swaying (in this case, her swaying hips!).

Kamban not only gets us to visualize the image of Soorpanakai but even her movement! Such is the mastery of Kamban.

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We may wonder if this is Kamban’s genius or if it is just a fluke that he got some nice words. Of course not! Here’s a completely different, and in some sense a contrary example.

உறங்குகின்ற கும்பகன்ன உங்கள் மாய வாழ்வெல்லாம்
இறங்குகின்றது இன்று காண் எழுந்திராய் எழுந்திராய்
கறங்குபோல வில் பிடித்த காலதூதர் கையிலே
உறங்குவாய் உறங்குவாய் இனி கிடந்து உறங்குவாய்

uRangugindRa kumbakanna ungal maaya vaazhvellaam
iRangugindRadhu indRu kaaN ezhundhiraai ezhundhiraai
kaRangupOla vil piditha kaala thoodhar kaiyile
uRanguvaai uRanguvaai ini kidandhu uRanguvaai

Sleeping Kumbakarna, your illusory life of comfort is in the decline.
Get up, face this reality.
Like a kite fluttering in the wind, the bow-wielding warriors seem to be everywhere
In their hands, you will be sleeping forever!

Kumbakarna is a giant brother of rAvanA who is known for his penchant for sleeping. In the scene rAvanA’s warriors are trying to wake up Kumbakarna by nudging him strongly (given his size, likely with crowbars!). The ominous poem spells doom for Kumbakarna and says he is going to go to sleep even if he gets up.

The words are composed in such a way that it sounds as if someone is hitting something with a hammer – an apt rhythm for someone trying to wake a person in deep slumber! This is in a rhythmic sense, the opposite of the earlier verse – grace gives way to sledgehammer.

Soft vs Strong

Kamban’s genius does not end just there. The choice of words are also worth noting here. Thamizh consonants are categorized into three sets of sounds:

Hard Sounds (வல்லினம்):
க (ka), ச (sa or cha), ட (ta or da), த (tha or dha), ப (pa or bha), ற (Ra)

Soft Sounds (மெல்லினம்): 
ங (nga), ஞ (gna), ந (na), ம (ma), ன (na)

Intermediary Sounds (இடையினம்):
ய (ya), ர (ra), ல (la), வ (va), ழ (zha), ள (La)

As the categories indicate, hard sounds require more pressure to pronounce (and more guttural – from the gut), while the soft sounds are more delicate and more from the tongue.

With this in mind, if we look back at the two verses, you can see that Kamban primarily uses words with soft sounds for the verse that portrays grace of swaying hips and hard sounds for the verse that portrays warriors nudging Kumbakarna to get out of his slumber – if this is not attention to detail, what is?!

Understanding and appreciating talent

அனைவருக்கும் எமது இனிய தமிழ் புத்தாண்டு நல்வாழ்த்துக்கள்!
(We wish you all a happy Thamizh New Year!)


Is talent natural or acquired? 

Oxford dictionary describes talent as “Natural aptitude or skill”. This implies that talent is something that is innate in a person to perform certain activities, presumably better than others.

Scientific research suggests that this may be true. A person’s ability to perform a specific activity such as art, math, etc. seems to be determined in part by a combination of the genes they are born with (some gene sequences result in the brain being able to absorb certain chemicals like seratonin more than normal, which in turn can lead to higher levels of creativity) and the natural structure of the brain (size of corpus callosum, etc.).

However, a portion of talent is also likely acquired or developed, which is influenced by upbringing. The neural connections our brains make to ‘think’ are influenced by circumstances – how we are brought up and what situations we are exposed to as we grow. So, a child who is born in a musical family for example, may have more aptitude to learn and discern music than one that is not.

Similar to the words “talent”, “aptitude”, and “skill” in the definition above, there are three related terms in Thamizh:

ஆர்வம் (aarvam – desire, interest, enthusiasm, aptitude, eagerness, curiosity)
ஆற்றல் (aatRal – talent, ability, potential)
திறமை (thiramai – talent, aptitude, ability, potential, skill)

The Siddhars provide an interesting case study in analyzing talent in this lens – as we review the life and times of the Siddhars (as well as in aazhwaars), we see that the “talent” of some Siddhars are acquired, while for some, it is natural.

This leads us to our conclusion that while some may be fortunate enough (maybe accumulated punniyam?!) to be born with innate talent, it can also be acquired if we build enough curiosity, which in turn, can lead to developing an aptitude to filter appropriate information sets and make connections, and finally leverage those connections to nurture talent through incessant and focused practice.

In our quest to understand and appreciate Thamizh literature, we have just stepped into this journey having built some level of curiosity. We were delighted to note recently that we were not alone in this journey and there are many more and some, like R Prabhu, seem to be well ahead of us in the path. We stumbled upon his blog when doing research on auvaiyAr and were delighted to see his 10-part series going into elaborate details and even more surprisingly, hitting very similar topics (Siddhars, Azhwars, etc.).

Talent and Ego

Much like how talent can be both natural and developed, it looks like a person’s response to talent also can be in two ways. There are various stories of those who have considered the talent they are born with as a gift from God and hence are humble about it, while others seem to consider it as a ‘birthright’ and hence are haughty. Interestingly, this mindset seems to also get influenced by how such talented people react to praise from others.

This leads us to the core topic of our post. When perusing through R Prabhu’s blog mentioned earlier, he mentions an interesting incident of the friendly (maybe) fight between auvaiyAr and Kamban, two talented poets we discussed in earlier posts.

By various historic accounts, both poets are contemporaries. As we saw from our previous posts, they both are highly talented. However, it looks like they traversed different paths in terms of humility. The story goes that Kamban was fairly proud of his work and was constantly praised by the patron king (Kulothunga Chozhan III). auvaiyAr, a contemporary in the King’s court, feels that this is unjust to other equally talented poets in the court, even if they don’t share the same level of populist support.

Chiding this boastful attitude of Kamban (and correspondingly, even the King), the ever daring auvaiyAr gives us this beauty:

வான்குருவியின் கூடு வல்லரக்கு தொல்கறையான்
தேன்சிலம்பி யாவருக்கும் செய் அரிதால் யாம் பெரிதும்
வல்லாமே என்று வலிமை சொல் வேண்டாம் காண்
எல்லார்க்கும் ஒவ்வொன்று எளிது

vaankuruviyin koodu, vallarakku, thol karayaan
thEn silambi yaavarukkum sei aridhaal yaam peridhum
vallaame endru valimai sol vEndaam kaaN
ellaarkkum ovvondRu eLidhu

Weaver birds can build elaborate nests.
The lac insect is capable of producing tough resin (used for seals).
The termite can build huge and complex sand mounds.
The honeybee builds beautiful and symmetric hives.
The spider weaves delicate and intricate webs.
Each of them have their own talent and are special in their own way. One does not think they are more special than others. Each is special in its own way.

Not only does auvaiyAr makes her point clearly, she also brings about the notion of the ‘brilliance’ of the talent being relative.

In the corporate world, we take turns in learning as well as leading. It would be wise to keep the wise words of auvaiyAr in mind when a junior comes up with a great idea and to appreciate the pride they take in having created a nice presentation even if you can do it more quickly. A true leader is one who appreciates the talents of others in their own context than comparing with oneself (or others close to them).

The wise words of AuvaiyAr also takes a whole new meaning in this day and age where we seem to be getting increasingly polarized along the lines of language, race, political affiliation, religious belief, and geography, aided by a potentially unhealthy positive feedback loop of Facebook ‘likes’ and WhatsApp ‘shares’ of like-minded thoughts. It may be wise to heed her wise words and build tolerence, understanding, and a healthy debate on viewpoints that differ from our own.

Bharathi’s turn

We are reminded of a another example that happened in the life of BhArathiyAr who we also saw earlier. Apparently, this happened in another similar confrontational situation when he was a young lad of 12 or 13 years old, just around the time he was conferred the honorary name of bhArathi (pundit).

Conferring this title to such a young lad apparently upset the court poet of Ettayapuram – Kanthimadhi naathan – where BhArathi lived. To humiliate bhArathi and to show the court that BhArathi is not as talented as everyone thinks him to be (and consequently that he is more talented than BhArathi), the poet puts a challenge asking him to sing a வெண்பா (veNba – a four line stanza) building on a verse that he will give him. Fearless BhArathi accepts the challenge.

The verse – பாரதி சின்னப்பயல் (BhArathi is an immature kid)!

Everyone is shocked by this act. How can one build a stanza based on this, and even if one did, how can it not humiliate BhArathi? Our naturally talented bhArathi retorts with a gem:

ஆண்டில் இளையவன் என்று அந்தோ அகந்தையினால்
ஈண்டிங்கு இகழ்ந்து என்னை ஏளனம் செய் – மானம் அற்ற
கார் அது போல் உள்ளதான் காந்திமதி நாதனை
பாரதி சின்னப்பயல்!

aaNdil iLayavan endRu andho agandhaiyinaal
eeNdingu igazhnthu ennai ELanam sei – maanam atRa
kaar adhu pOl uLLathaan kanthimadhi naadhanai
paaradhi chinnappayal!

Thinking that I am younger and thereby feeling superior, he is attempting to humiliate me.
This shows the dark-hearted and egoistic / ignoble nature of Kanthimadhi naadhan – isn’t he the one who is highly immature here?!

BhArathi plays with the verse provided to him:
பாரதி சின்னப்பயல் (bhArathi chinnappayal) would mean BhArathi is immature.

The phrase can also be split as பார் அதி சின்னப்பயல் (paar, adhi chinnappayal – look, the highly immature one!). Since Thamizh text does not distinguish between “pa” and “bha”.

The nurturally talented has been schooled by the naturally talented!

Naturally talented vs. Talented by nurture

Does this mean that naturally talented people are superior to those who nurture their talent – we may not know the answer. It may be possible that in some cases that may be true, but maybe not always. AuvaiyAr says that regardless of how the talent is formed within a person, what matters more is the humility with which a person handles it.

சித்திரமும் கைப்பழக்கம் செந்தமிழும் நாப்பழக்கம்
வைத்ததொரு கல்வி மனப்பழக்கம் நித்தம்
நடையும் நடைப்பழக்கம் நட்பும் தயையும்
கொடையும் பிறவிக் குணம்

Chitthiramum kai pazhakkam,
senthamizhum naa pazhakkam
vaithathoru kalvi mana pazhakkam,
nitham nadayum nadai pazhakkam,
natpum dhayayum kodaiyum piravi guNam.

Artistry can be mastered by practicing one’s hand
Poetry can be mastered by practicing one’s tongue
Knowledge can be gained by focusing one’s mind
Nobility can be achieved by constantly doing noble deeds
Friendliness, kindness, and generosity the ones that are innate.

Regardless of how the talent comes within oneself, it at least is irrefutable that talent should not be taken for granted and humility must prevail, however talented one maybe!

It is an irony and travesty that coming from such a rich tradition, our modern day artists – be they poets, musicians, or actors – relish in and even demand, to have a fancy title extolling their greatness whether they deserve it or not! We need a modern day auvaiyAr to put them in their place.

In this day of intense competition and the race to nurture all sorts of talent in kids right from Kindergarten, we are better served to remember AuvaiyAr’s wise words and take a step back to recognize innate talent, appreciate the talents of others, and more importantly, cultivate the right character, which may be more important than talent alone 🙂