Poetry in motion

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent. – Victor Hugo

While literature is a feast for the soul through eyes, music does the job through the ears. Much like literature, music evokes emotions and feelings within the listener. When poetry is (literally) set in motion with music, the effect is a feast for the senses, complementing each other and creating emotions that are not possible by either of them alone, thereby making a sum greater than the parts.

The combination also provides abundant opportunities for those who appreciate both forms of art, allowing them to play with permutations and combinations that were not initially conceived, keeping the art alive and relevant for ages beyond its inception.

One of the most memorable songs from BhArathiyAr is பாயும் ஒளி நீ எனக்கு (paayum oLi nee enakku) that is within the கண்ணம்மா (kaNNamma) series that contains a number of romantic songs inspired by his wife chellamma.

BhArathiyAr lets his imagination soar to new heights here, describing their relationship with several metaphors that will give modern day poets as well as the logical portion of GMAT and GRE exams a run for their money! While the poem itself is a pleasure to digest even at a cursory glance, digging deeper brings additional joy. The choice of words and adjectives are exquisite.

The poem is structured in sets of relationships in the format “you are X to me as I am Y to you”, showing how inseparable they are and how they complement each other in life.

Give and Take

பாயும் ஒளி நீ எனக்கு, பார்க்கும் விழி நான் உனக்கு
தோயும் மது நீ எனக்கு, தும்பி அடி நான் உனக்கு
வாய் உரைக்க வருகுதில்லை வாழி நின்றன் மேன்மை எல்லாம்
தூய சுடர் வான் ஒளியே சூறை அமுதே கண்ணம்மா

paayum oLi nee enakku, pArkkum vizhi naan unakku
thOyum madhu nee enakku, thumbi adi naan unakku
vaai uraikka varugudhillai vaazhi nindRan mEnmai ellAm
thooya sudar vaan oLiyE sooRai amudhE kaNNamma

You are rays of light that hit me, while I am the eyes that can see (because of the light) and absorb the rays;
You are the dripping honey from flowers, while I am the bee that gets pleasure from it;
You are faultless as a flame – I don’t have words to describe (your love for me), but can only wish that your virtue shines forever.

What powerful sentences to start the poem! The adjectives (பாயும் ஒளி – bounding rays of light) and (பார்க்கும் விழி – the eyes that see) are subtle touches of brilliance and brings to the center, the notion of subjectivity in a relationship.

What is the point of abundant light when there are no eyes that are open to take the views in?! How will anyone know the pleasure of the nectar when there is no bee to convert it into honey?

Another subtle touch here is that one side of the relationship is independent and ‘giving’ while the other is dependent and ‘receiving’. Light will be there regardless of the eyes. But eyes are not helpful if they are not open or in darkness! BhArathiyAr is subtle but clear in his humility in appreciating his wife’s unconditional love to him in his own inimitable way.

In the subsequent verses, he describes their relationship in various ways, each with corresponding metaphors.

Enhancement and Embellishment

Moving on from the ‘give’ and ‘take’ pattern, BhArathiyAr elaborates on how he acts as a Decorator to his wife – helping her shine better and increasing his own value by that process.

வீணை அடி நீ எனக்கு மேவும் விரல் நான் உனக்கு
பூணும் வடம் நீ எனக்கு புது வயிரம் நான் உனக்கு
… தாரை அடி நீ எனக்கு தண் மதியம் நான் உனக்கு

You are the veena (Indian lute) to me, while I am the skilled fingers that make music (out of the veena);
You are the bangle, while I am like a new diamond that brings additional luster to the bangle.
You are the flowing stream in the night, and I am the full moon that reflects on its surface (and makes it glisten like silver)

Reacting to and channeling the untamed energy

Elsewhere, BhArathiyAr has described his strong notions on equality for women, driven both by his inherent beliefs and the prevalent social norms. His portrayal of woman as Shakti or pure energy represents his belief in the power and independence of women, a radical thought during his time. The verses in this song echo this sentiment where he sees himself as a mechanism to help channel this energy.

வான மழை நீ எனக்கு வண்ண மயில் நான் உனக்கு
… வீசு கமழ் நீ எனக்கு விரியும் மலர் நான் உனக்கு
… பானம் அடி நீ எனக்கு பாண்டம் அடி நான் உனக்கு
… பேசு பொருள் நீ எனக்கு பேணும் மொழி நான் உனக்கு
… செல்வம் அடி நீ எனக்கு சேம நிதி நான் உனக்கு

You are the rain, and I am the peacock that dances in joy (in response).
… You are the gentle breeze, and I am the flower that blossoms (in response)
… You are the quenching drink, and I am the container (that holds it).
… You are the meaning of words, and I am the linguistic construct (that helps express the words).
… You are the boundless wealth, and I am the savings fund.

The metaphors exemplify his convictions – where the female is the source of unbridled energy while he adds value to himself by reacting to and channeling that energy. This thought process is present throughout all the metaphors.

Attracted Complement

He sees him being attracted to his lover’s endless affection and thinks how best he can complement such a personality.

வெண்ணிலவு நீ எனக்கு மேவு கடல் நான் உனக்கு
பண்ணு சுதி நீ எனக்கு பாட்டு இனிமை நான் உனக்கு

You are the moon, and I am the waves of the ocean that are attracted to your pull.
You are the rhyme and rhythm, and I am the melody in the song.

Profoundly poetic metaphors that bring a bit of science without resorting to gimmicks!

Inherent bliss

Not only Bharathi sees himself as a complementary and supplementary support for his love, he sees true love as being unifying – two hearts beating as one.

காதல் அடி நீ எனக்கு காந்தம் அடி நான் உனக்கு
வேதம் அடி நீ எனக்கு வித்தை அடி நான் உனக்கு
நல்ல உயிர் நீ எனக்கு நாடி அடி நான் உனக்கு

You are the embodiment of love, and I am the attraction that is inherent in it.
You are the vedic scriptures, and I am the wisdom that is within them.
You are the life in a body, and I am the energetic pulse.

One interesting aside is the second verse. BhArathiyAr is hailed as the symbol of progressiveness and an antidote to Brahminical orthodoxy and related casteism that was prevalent during his time. True enough, he demonstrated these through his words and actions. At the same time, he was also a deep spiritualist, enjoying a close relationship with Sri Aurobindo when he was in Pondicherry and even receiving wisdom through many gurus on the Siddha lineage as well as within his own family following Vaishnavite tradition. Perhaps this gave him a unique perspective on vedic philosophy that he weaved through his songs seamlessly.

Over the last several decades and including the present time, where things are looked at in a more binary perspective, it would behoove us to take a page from BhArathiAr’s books where he had the wisdom to appreciate the value in both sides while not hesitating to raise a voice for what he felt were injustices without taking sides.

He tops off his song with a beautiful metaphor at the end:

வீரம் அடி நீ எனக்கு வெற்றி அடி நான் உனக்கு
You are bravery, and I am the victory that is its result!

This is quintessential of how we know BhArathiAr. Victory comes to those who are brave to face their fears and fight for what they believe in. While immediate victory may have eluded him in his lifetime, his bravery to raise the voice for many causes has won the hearts of millions since then, giving him everlasting fame!

In motion…

While the poem itself is dense with beauty and purpose, it is taken to new levels when combined with another art form – music, which is what inspired this post. The tune to which these words are set, the characteristics of the singer’s voice, and the accompanying music evoke varied emotions to the same lyrics.

The most popular musical version of this song is from the film ஏழாவது மனிதன் (ezhAvadhu manidhan – seventh man). The film heavily leveraged BhArathiAr’s songs and were memorably composed by Late Sri. L. Vaidyanathan (of Malgudi Days theme music fame) in a traditional carnatic music fashion. The joyous tune and the sonorous voice of K J Yesudas bring to us the love and affection shown by BhArathiAr to his muse, Chellamma.

Another popular rendition of the song is by carnatic music maestro Ms. Bombay S Jayashree. In quite a contrast to the previous rendition, the singer lets her voice do the magic, with minimal background music support. The somber setting evoke either feelings of intense affection or that of sorrowful reflection of a person in solitude remembering his love. In either case, it is bound to pull the heartstrings of the listener.

But a masterpiece is always flexible enough to leave room for reinterpretation in the right hands. Even if written a hundred years back, the words are applicable even in a modern setting without impacting its soul, when handled elegantly, as is demonstrated by the Indian Raga team in their interpretation of this classic.

Just as BhArathiAr saw himself as embellishing and enhancing the inherent energy of his love, so have these musicians who have embellished and enhanced his lyrics to even greater heights than brought out by his words alone!



Engaging Leadership: Leading the way

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
– Antoine De Saint Exupery (Author – The Little Prince, Aviator)

In the last two posts, we saw how AndAL set a vision and an action plan for her followers and how she built up a following. In the last fifteen verses of ThiruppAvai, AndAL focuses on leading the way for her followers in achieving the vision she has set out. While her quest is spiritual in nature, she provides lessons for us on various characteristics of a great leader.

Expressing intent

When a hero embarks on a quest, she typically faces various hurdles before reaching the goal. Some hurdles are more transformational and challenging than others. In most cases, there is an ‘entry’ challenge to test whether the hero is really serious about the quest and whether she has the perseverance to last the journey. In the 16th verse, AndAL and her group are faced with such an initial barrier in the form of the inner and outer temple guards.

Since the people (Krishna and others) are still sleeping, they stop her. Unfazed, she responds:

…ஆயர் சிறுமியரோமுக்கு அறை பறை
மாயன் மணி வண்ணன் நென்னலே வாய் நேர்ந்தான்
தூயோமாய் வந்தோம் துயில் எழப் பாடுவான்
வாயால் முன்னம் முன்னம் மாற்றாதே அம்மா…

We are cowmaidens of pure heart and intentions (தூயோமாய் வந்தோம்) and are here to wake Krishna up with our songs because he had promised us earlier (நென்னலே வாய் நேர்ந்தான்) that he is going to share with us the secrets for happiness (அறை பறை). So, please don’t deny us the entry and make him go back on his earlier promises (வாயால் முன்னம் முன்னம் மாற்றாதே).

AndAL – ever careful with her words – makes it more about Krishna than about her, thus forcing the hands of the guard to at least allow for an audience, lest they be considered as obstructive and bringing ill repute to Krishna!

Multi-dimensional approach (Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, and Social)

In the next verse, she wakes up three others in the household, in addition to Krishna: Nandagopan – Krishna’s father, Yashodha – his mother, Krishna himself, and Balarama – his brother, in that order. Innocuous as it may seem at first, they are tend to represent metaphorically the various dimensions one has to consider when making a case.

அம்பரமே தண்ணீரே சோறே அறம் செய்யும் எம்பெருமான்

Nandagopan – the father – is a metaphor for material or tactical needs. He is referred as the one providing shelter, water, and food in a righteous manner.

கொம்பனார்க்கு எல்லாம் கொழுந்தே குல விளக்கே எம்பெருமாட்டி

Yashodha – the mother – represents the emotional or personal needs. She is referred as the one who preserves the dignity of the clan.

ஓங்கி உலகு அளந்த உம்பர் கோமானே உறங்காது எழுந்திராய்

Krishna himself represents the infinite and the vastness of the challenge, requiring a spiritual resolve to overcome the immensity.

செம் பொற் கழலடிச் செல்வா பலதேவா உம்பியும் நீ

Balarama – the brother – represents the societal needs, and metaphorically asks for collective support in attaining the common goal.

When elaborating on the value proposition of a product or service, it is critical to make arguments that satisfy the immediate needs of the potential buyer, how it can provide personal satisfaction, and how it can benefit his stature in the organization (for making the right decision). If the dimensions are not weighed in properly within the proposition, it may either fail to meet the needs or be emotionally unappealing, potentially endangering the sale.

Art of cajoling and providing right tools

What if nobody is inside? What if they get upset on being woken up? In verses 18 through 20, AndAL convinces Nappinnai – the consort of Krishna who is by his side to help her in waking Krishna so he can bless her. It is an interesting choice of Krishna’s consort, as among others, Nappinnai (likened to Radha in northern India) is considered the embodiment of unconditional affection and love – something that aptly reflects AndAL’s mission, and also highlights the importance of ensuring that one select the appropriate influencers when aiming to achieve the desired target!

…கந்தம் கமழும் குழலி கடை திறவாய்…
…gandham kamazhum kuzhali kadai thiRavAi…

She knows that Nappinnai is inside because of the fragrance in the air that is unmistakably from her hair (reminds us of the classic argument in ThiruvilaiyAdal which was all about whether women’s hair is naturally fragrant or not!).

…செந்தாமரை கையால் சீரார் வளை ஒலிப்ப வந்து திறவாய் மகிழ்ந்து…
…senthAmarai kaiyAl seerAr vaLai olippa vandhu thiRavAi magizhndhu…

She also implores Nappinnai to not just open the door in annoyance, but to do so with bangles jingling in her hands (which happens when someone runs towards a door in eagerness) and heart full of happiness!

…எத்தனையேலும் பிரிவு ஆற்றகில்லாயால் தத்துவம் அன்று…
…ethanaiyElum pirivu AtRakkillaiyAl thathuvam andRu…

Worried that Nappinnai may be reluctant to do so, especially with Krishna resting on her, she points out that not helping someone who has come to her asking for assistance is against her nature and appeals to her morals!

Even when a leader has built up a strong team, the morale of the team can wax and wane over time and during changes in team composition. A good leader should empathize with his followers and provide the right morale boosters where needed, be it showing faith (“I know you have it in you!”), giving a pep talk (“Let’s do this and have fun doing it!”), making course corrections (“I know you don’t compromise on quality…”), and to facilitate self-reflection (“Let’s take a step back…”).


…உக்கமும் தட்டொளியும் தந்து…
…ukkamum thattoLiyum thandhu…

This made us scratch our heads a bit. AndAL asks for a fan (உக்கம் = device which creates breeze – உகுதல்) and a mirror (தட்டொளி = தட்டு + ஒளி = plate that reflects light). Why? The rationale is that she wants Krishna to not just come out as a sleepyhead – unshaven and lazy, but someone who is smartly dressed – and she wants to do the same on their side as well! So, a mirror is important to make sure makeup is not too much and in a humid climate like southern India, fan is critical to ensure that there is no overt sweating!

Metaphorically, this can be taken as making sure that one has the right tool set to achieve one’s goals. You cannot ask a warrior to go to battle with a cotton swab, after all!

Marketing: AndAL and AIDA


Having now convinced Nappinnai to help her, AndAL finally speaks directly to Krishna in the next nine (21 – 29) verses. The approach has interesting parallels with a tried and tested marketing approach called AIDA – Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action – that has been effectively used to convince consumers to purchase products.


In our case, AndAL is effectively trying to convince Krishna to accept her love and devotion, when he might have several other devotees to choose.


…மாற்றார் உனக்கு வலி தொலைந்து உன் வாசற் கண்
ஆற்றாது வந்து உன் அடி பணியுமா போலே…
Like how your enemies surrender in your feet, so have we come to you.

While in some cases a jarring awakening maybe warranted, more often than not, the process of changing a paradigm should be gradual, to allow the person to buy in to the new idea and adopt it wholeheartedly. Stories are about in literature where when sages in deep trance were suddenly woken up by accident or intent, ended up either vaporizing the perpetrator or at least giving them with a big curse. So, AndAL takes care in waking up Krishna gradually to heed to her request.

…செங்கண் சிறுச் சிறிதே எம்மேல் விழியாவோ…
…கண் இரண்டும் கொண்டு எங்கள் மேல் நோக்குதியேல் எங்கள் மேல் சாபம் இழிந்து…
…open your eyes little by little and look at us so our sins can be removed…

Next AndAL shifts to a higher gear, asking Krishna to be rid of his slumber and bring on his dynamic personality and to focus his attention on them. She is careful however, to balance any hastiness in being dynamic by adding that he should also calmly and compassionately analyze her plan and not make any rash judgments!

…சீரிய சிங்கம் அறிவுற்றுத் தீ விழித்து
வேரி மயிர் பொங்க எப்பாடும் பேர்ந்து உதறி…
…யாம் வந்த காரியம் ஆராய்ந்து அருள்…
…like a majestic lion that bristles its mane and gives out a roar when it comes out of the den, please rise from your bed, get active, and listen to our plea with compassion…


Having raised awareness about her arrival and having woken him up, AndAL moves to the next phase of her plan – which is to pique his interest so as to provide his attention to the matter. She starts with a bit of a flattery – recapping his past achievements and how he has always been kind to his devotees.

…என்றென்றும் உன் சேவகமே ஏத்திப் பறை கொள்வான்
இன்று யாம் வந்தோம் இரங்கு…

…your devotees are forever in your service as you have been their protector and fulfilled their wishes, and so we have come here to sing your praises. Please bestow your grace on us…

She continues by concisely stating his glorious past from birth to current times, clarifying that she is well aware of his antecedents, valor, and benevolence and thus asks that she be of service to him and for him to provide appropriate wealth to her devotees so they can be happy.

…உன்னை அருத்தித்து வந்தோம் பறை தருதியாகில்
திருத்தக்க செல்வமும் சேவகமும்…

…we have come seeking your blessings. We will work for it by spreading your fame through songs. Please bless us with appropriate wealth so we are happy…

An interesting note here is the adjective திருத்தக்க, which can mean appropriate (திருத்த + தக்க) or wealth that stays by grace of Lakshmi (திரு + தக்க). In either case, she drives the point that excessive wealth can be destructive and hence asks for wealth that is appropriate enough for the person to bring happiness!


AndAL next moves to stating her wishes and hopefully convincing Krishna to be desirous of granting her wish. She provides a fairly interesting laundry list of what she wants.

…வேண்டுவன கேட்டியேல்…
…சங்கங்கள்…சாலப் பெரும் பறை…பல்லாண்டு இசைப்பார்…
…கோல விளக்கு…கொடி…விதானம்…
…if you ask me for what I want (having now the desire to fulfill my wishes)… I want conchs, a big drum, musicians, a light, a flag, and and a tent / umbrella…

While seemingly odd, in the broader context of AndAL’s desire to spread the glory of Krishna through songs, the instruments that are used to raise awareness (conch), make announcements (drum), and singers make sense. Moreover, since her plans is to make rounds singing songs early in the morning, she asks for a good lamp and some shade to protect her people from morning dew, and also a distinct flag to make sure everyone can know her group and their purpose (you can see this act even now with tourist groups!).

Mundane as these requests may sound, it also showcases that she wants what’s needed to achieve her goals – nothing more, nothing less.

…யாம் பெறும் சம்மானம் நாடு புகழும் பரிசினால்…
…thus if we receive what we have desired from you, we will be praised by the world and will be happy…

Having stated her needs to Krishna on what she wants to meet her objective, she finally ends by stating that if she and her group receives what they requested, they will be blessed and will end their fast.


Having been fairly bold in stating what she wants, she ends with humility.

…அறிவு ஒன்றும் இல்லாத ஆய்க் குலத்து…
…அறியாத பிள்ளைகளோம் அன்பினால் உந்தன்னை
சிறு பேர் அழைத்தனவும் சீறி அருளாதே
இறைவா நீ தாராய் பறை…

…we are but ignorant cow-maidens who don’t know the ways of the world. If we have said something out of love for you that’s not appropriate, please don’t get upset and fulfill our wishes…

…இற்றைப் பறை கொள்வான் அன்று காண் கோவிந்தா
எற்றைக்கும் ஏழ் ஏழ் பிறவிக்கும் உன் தன்னோடு
உற்றோமே ஆவோம் உனக்கே நாம் ஆட்செய்வோம்…
…மற்றை நம் காமங்கள் மாற்று…

Having asked for gifts the whole time, AndAL puts a twist at the end and essentially says that she is not there really for the gifts but rather to have his grace forever, which matters more than any materialistic item and just wants the opportunity to serve – essentially that the journey to leadership is more valuable than getting somewhere.

She further emphasizes this by asking Krishna to get rid of every other desire except serving him so she can remain focused on that one activity, ending her garland of poems.


The last verse of ThiruppAvai is a classic example of Indian literature and a lesson by itself in presentation. After a long session, it is critical to briefly summarize the key points to improve stickiness and to provide some biographical details for any follow-ups. AndAL does this and much more in the last verse. Let’s break it down:

Credibility confirmation

First she makes a point that what she is proposing is not vaporware and has been tried and tested.

வங்கக் கடல் கடைந்த மாதவனை கேசவனை
திங்கள் திருமுகத்து சேய் இழையார் சென்று இறைஞ்சி
அங்கு அப்பறை கொண்ட…

vangak kadal kadaindha mAdhavanai kEsavanai
thingal thirumugathu sEi izhaiyAr sendru iRainji
angu appaRai koNda

The beautiful maidens have gotten their heart’s desire having performed the fast as prescribed and thus receiving the grace of Krishna.

Credentials / Contact Info

Then she provides her details, establishing her credentials and her antecedents.

…ஆற்றை அணி புதுவை பைங்கமல தண் தெரியல் பட்டர் பிரான் கோதை…

…AtRai aNi pudhuvai painkamala thaN theriyal bhattar pirAn gOdhai sonna…

This is the work of Godha – the daughter of the Bhattar (பெரியாழவார் – periyAzwAr) from SrivilliputhUr.

Next steps and anticipated benefits

Lastly she mentions the next steps / actions to take and the benefits one can expect to achieve as a result. She also throws in details of the format of the actions and assumptions made around the benefit statement.

…சங்க தமிழ் மாலை முப்பதும் தப்பாமே
இங்கு இப்பரிசு உரைப்பார்…

…sanga thamizh maalai muppadhum thappAmE ingu ipparisu uraippAr…

For those who recite these 30 verses without any errors (and with the right intentions)…

…ஈ இரண்டு மால் வரை தோள் செங்கண் திருமுகத்து செல்வ திருமாலால்
எங்கும் திருவருள் பெற்று இன்புறுவர் எம்பாவாய்

…E irandu maal varai thoL senkaN thirumugathu selva thirumAlAl
engum thiruvaruL petRu inbuRuvar empAvAi.

…will be blessed with happiness through Krishna’s grace.

Notes on interpretation

Thiruppaavai is considered a profound mystical work by scholars. Though small in number of verses, each verse and each word has been analyzed in depth for its layered meaning. The words, the structure of the scenes, the choice of the names of Krishna used in different places, and the repeated use of certain words are done with explicit purpose making this joy to read over and over again and still be surprised!

ThiruppAvai is also a lesson to literary aspirants to not be simply satisfied with an outward interpretation of the verses or to review history with the lens of what’s acceptable in current times, which has been described anywhere from just bhakti to veiled eroticism, but to take time to contextualize the poetry through various interpretations and forming a more holistic understanding that respects the underlying poetry.

While we have obviously taken a few liberties in our interpretation, we have aimed to stay true to the core message, as propounded by scholars and if there is an error or deviation, we will gladly make amends.

Sources and Inspirations

Engaging Leadership: Building teams

Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” –Andrew Carnegie

A game-changing vision is by nature something that cannot be achieved by individual effort alone. It requires others to be bought into that vision and to participate in the journey for achieving the vision.

Inspiring the team

thiruppavai_6In the previous post, we looked at how AandaaL set the vision for what she wanted to do in the first five verses. From verse 6 – 15 (10 verses in all), AandaaL goes door to door in building her ‘team’ of friends to go with her to the temple. She could’ve very well done the fast by herself, but she knows that a broader awareness needs to be raised for betterment of others and so wants to get their buy-in and participation.

What is quite interesting also is that in the very first verse, AandaaL sets the ground rules for joining her team.

…நீராட போதுவீர் போதுமினோ நேர் இழையீர்…

…neeraada pOdhuveer, pOdhuminO nErizhaiyeer…

Those who are interested and willing to take on the commitment of the fast, come join me!

A mark of a good leader is someone who wins her team over without force, coercion, or threats and is willing to treat everyone in the team with equanimity, which is what AandaaL establishes right at the beginning.

Raising awareness

AandaaL first starts with a gentle wake up call – asking her friend to ease into action. It’s just the first person – so no need to give a false sense of urgency, lest they ignore her.

வெள்ளை விளி சங்கின் பேர் அரவம் கேட்டிலையோ பிள்ளாய்! எழுந்திராய்…
…மெல்ல எழுந்து அரி என்ற பேர் அரவம்
உள்ளம் புகுந்து குளிர்ந்து ஏல் ஓர் எம்பாவாய்

veLLai viLi sangin pEr aravam kEttilaiyo piLLaai! ezhundhiraai…
…mella ezhundhu ari endra pEr aravam uLLam pugundhu kuLirndhu El Or empaavaai

Don’t you hear the sound of the white conch from the temple, my child? Wake up!
Wake up slowly and let the arousing sound of ‘Hari’ enter your heart and refresh you.

In the next verse (and potentially the next person –  each verse supposedly relates to one of her friends, totaling ten in all), she makes the message a bit stronger, reminding her of her need to rise up to the times and not be left behind.

…பேச்சு அரவம் கேட்டிலையோ? பேய் பெண்ணே!…
…தயிர் அரவம் கேட்டிலையோ? …
…கேசவனை பாடவும் நீ கேட்டே கிடத்தியோ?

… pEchu aravam kEttilaiyO? pEi pennE!…
… thayir aravam kEttilaiyO? … kEsavanai paadavaum nee kEttE kidathiyO?

Don’t you hear the sound of the birds going about their day, crazy girl? Don’t you hear the cow maidens churning butter? With us singing the praise of kEsavA (Krishna), why are you still sleeping? Are these melodious sounds lulling you to sleep?

Time stands still for no one. The difference between those who rise above the crowed and those who don’t is the actions they take when they sense an opportunity and not letting themselves get overwhelmed with the present or getting into a false sense of comfort that things will remain the same.

AandaaL’s tactic resonates these thoughts, as she gently reminds her friend that everyone is already going about doing their job and that she cannot continue to sleep. She shouldn’t get lulled into the comfort provided by the present. If she has to gain the benefits laid out at the beginning, she has to get up and do the work.

It reminds us of Swami Vivekananda’s rallying cry inspired by Katha Upanishad – “Arise! Awake! Stop not till the goal is reached.”

Personal belief and encouragement

In the third verse, AandaaL changes her tactic and switches to a more personal touch.

… போவான் போகின்றாரை போகாமல் காத்து உன்னை
கூவுவான் வந்து நின்றோம் கோதுகலம் உடைய பாவாய் …

… pOvaan pOgindRaarai pOgaamal kaathu unnai
koovuvaan vandhu nindROm kOdhukalam undaiya paavaai…

…We could’ve asked others to join us, but we came specifically for you because you are the darling of Krishna…

Imagine you had a great innovative idea for a mobile app and believe it will the next big money maker. But you are not a techie. So, you find someone who is well respected for her skills and want her to be your solution architect. How do you convince her to join your team?

AandaaL shows the way! She makes it personal by stating that her friend is critical for her group and that she believes in her. Good teams last because they have complementary skills and have mutual respect and empathy for each other. If they are just professional, there will be no team dynamics and loyalty that will take them through inevitable ups and downs that are bound to happen.

Seeking support

What if the person you are seeking to join your team is already comfortable elsewhere? How do you persuade them to switch? You can try reasoning with them or enticing them with potential bigger returns, but that may not be effective if they are already in a cushy job. However, they may be persuaded if influential people from their network speak highly of your team, potentially creating enough momentum for them to consider a switch.

In the fourth verse, AandaaL seeks help from her friend’s network to convince her to wake up and join her.

… மாமீர்! அவளை எழுப்பீரோ? உன் மகள் தான்
ஊமையோ அன்றி செவிடோ அனந்தலோ
ஏம பெரும் துயில் மந்திரப் பட்டாளோ?…

… mAmeer! avaLai ezhuppeerO? un magaL thaan
oomaiyO andRi sevidO ananthalo Ema perum thuyil mandhirappattaaLo?…

Aunty, won’t you wake your daughter up? Is she dumb (that she is not responding), deaf (that she is not hearing us call her), lethargic, or in a magical trance (that she cannot act of her own will)?

AandaaL believe so strongly in her cause that she feels that her smart friend cannot pass up the opportunity. Given her friend is smart, she wonders what else could make her stay back. Is she being held against her will? The only way to know is to get to her through her network of people and thus enlists an influential person in her network to encourage her to get up.

Self Determination

What if someone is under duress and cannot switch? What if circumstances are forcing them to stay where they are even though they may be interested in joining the team?

Sensing that this could be a possible reason, AandaaL encourages her friend to be determined and to not be consumed by her current environment in the fifth verse.

… கூற்றத்தின் வாய் வீழ்ந்த கும்பகர்ணனும்
தோற்றும் உனக்கே பெரும் துயில் தான் தந்தானோ
ஆற்ற அனந்தல் உடையாய்! அருங்கலமே
தேற்றமாய் வந்து…

… kootRathin vaai veezhndha kumbakarNanum
thOtRum unakkE perum thuyil thaan thandhaanO
aatRa ananthal udaiyaai! arunkalamE thEtramaai vandhu…

When KumbakarNa died having been defeated (by rAmA), did he pass on his perennial sleep over to you? Is that why you are in such deep slumber, my precious? Be determined! Come (and open the door)!

The beautiful choice of analogy is apt for encouraging someone to take a calculated risk. She thinks may be her friend is under social / familial pressure to stay the same and so encourages her to try something new and elevate herself from her current compulsions to make her own destiny. Such a change cannot be done by simply giving someone an opportunity. It needs self-determination.

Peer Pressure

With the team now stronger, AandaaL switches her tactic in the sixth verse of the series to use the built up team as leverage.

…சுற்றத்து தோழிமார் எல்லோரும் வந்து நின்
முற்றம் புகுந்து முகில் வண்ணன் பேர் பாட …

… sutRathu thOzhimaar ellOrum vandhu nin mutRam pugundhu mugil vannan pEr paada…

With all the neighboring girls having come to the front of your door singing praises of the dark skinned Krishna, (why have you still not joined us?)

Continuing the tactic, she turns it up further with emotional and social pressure.

…பனி தலை வீழ நின் வாசல் கடை பற்றி …
…ஈதென்ன பேர் உறக்கம் அனைத்து இல்லத்தாரும் அறிந்து …

… with the morning dew drenching our head, we are standing in front of your door (and you are not responding). Why this deep sleep? All your neighbors are now aware of your deep slumber (and won’t have a favorable opinion of you). Don’t delay any longer (and come join us).

Lastly, she adds a sense of urgency to seal the deal on the peer pressure.

…பிள்ளைகள் எல்லோரும் பாவை களம் புக்கார்
வெள்ளி எழுந்து வியாழன் உறங்கிற்று …

… piLLaigaL ellOrum paavai kaLam pukkaar
veLLi ezhundhu vyazhan uRangitRu…

All the other girls have already reached the destination (the temple). Venus has set on the horizon and Jupiter has risen (it’s morning for sure). You cannot afford to delay anymore.

Keeping up promises

Next, AandaaL takes a slight jab at hypocritical or cynical ones who are all talk and no action.

… எங்களை முன்னம் எழுப்புவான் வாய் பேசும் நங்காய்!
எழுந்திராய், நாணாதாய்! நாவுடையாய்! …

… engaLai munnam ezhuppuvaan vaai pEsum nangaai! 
ezhundhiraai, naaNaadhaai! naavudaiyaai! …

You made vain statements that you will wake up first and then wakes up all up (but you are still sleeping). Aren’t you shameless? You are all fluff and can only wax eloquence without following up with action!

We have seen situations where someone says they will gladly take a risk if given an opportunity only to back away when such an opportunity materializes. AandaaL boldly calls such a bluff and dares her friend to stay true to her past statements.

Convincing conversation

Now, finally the girl is up – it’s late after all. AandaaL has a direct conversation to get her out and to join her, removing any pending doubts. As a change from the previous verses, the last one is conversational:

எல்லே! இளங்கிளியே! இன்னம் உறங்குதியோ!
சில்லென்று அழையேன்மின், நங்கைமீர்! போதருகின்றேன்;
வல்லை உன் கட்டுரைகள், பண்டே உன் வாய் அறிதும்;
வல்லீர்கள் நீங்களே; நானேதான் ஆயிடுக!
ஒல்லை நீ போதாய், உனக்கென்ன வேறு உடைய?
எல்லாரும் போந்தாரோ? போந்தார், போந்து எண்ணிக்கொள்;

AndAL: “Why are you still sleeping? Get up!”
Friend: “Don’t keep nagging. I am coming.”
AndAL: “That’s what you keep saying. All talk but no action.”
Friend: “You are the ones who are talkative, but whatever.”
AndAL: “Come on, already. Why are you dilly dallying?”
Friend: “Have everyone else come?”
AndAL: “Yes, they have. Count for yourself if you want.”

In a Harvard Business Review article on engaging leadership, the author characterizes an engaging leader as someone who steps up, energizes others, connects and stabilizes people, serves and grows the team, and remains humble. We can see they all clearly apply to AndAL’s leadership style from the verses above.

Next Steps

By now, AandaaL has defined the vision, stated the actions to be taken, the expected Return on Investment (ROI), has built a competent team that have bought into the vision, and have made their product (singing praises). Now comes the hard part – leading the way! We’ll see how she demonstrates that in the next and last post in this series.

Sources and Inspirations

Engaging Leadership: Establishing vision

Dawn was on the horizon. Shree was excited and nervous and couldn’t sleep any longer. The previous day she a great conversation with her boss, who had just entrusted her a potentially game changing and innovative project. It was not going to be easy. While she had a good handle on what was needed (it was her idea after all), she was pensive about the execution. It will require her to build a team with diverse skills, get their buy-in on the vision and to get the continued blessing from her leadership. She needed guidance and direction. “What should I do first? How should I go about doing this?”, she wondered.

andalA distant temple bell started chiming. It was the month of Maargazhi and AandaaL’s Thirupaavai was wafting in the cool morning breeze. “Maybe I should recite a couple of verses. It’s not often that I get up this early”, she thought. She picked up the Thiruppaavai book and started reading out the verses, half awake. As verses went by, they seemed to resonate with her. Something was different. “These words – they are not just about bhakti. They seem to go beyond. Somehow they seem to apply to ME, MY situation, but how?” But what does Thiruppaavai have to do with leadership and management approach?

We will aim to answer this question in this post and subsequent ones. Surprisingly, if we overcome our predisposed conceptions about devotional songs, we can infer a treasure trove of information that lies underneath.

As we delve into the topic, let’s pause to explore the role of a leader. What does a leader do? Simply, we can say leader is someone who has a vision that others don’t, mobilizes people to buy into the vision and help realize it, and in convincing the buyer (internal, external, or at times the general public) to fund the realization of the vision. Interestingly, the entire structure of Thiruppaavai is set up in a similar fashion.

Establishing Context

The first three verses of Thiruppaavai are a classic example of setting the context. AandaaL starts by establishing the purpose right at the beginning so it is clear her potential followers. She clearly describes what the timeline is, who she expects to influence, and defines her vision.

மார்கழி திங்கள் மதி நிறைந்த நன்னாள்…நீராட போதுவீர்…
…சீர் மல்கும் ஆய்ப்பாடி செல்வ சிறுமீர்காள்…
…நாராயணனே நமக்கே பறை தருவான்

maargazhi thingaL madhi niraindha nannaaL…neeraada pOdhuveer…
…seer malgum aaippaadi selva siRumeerkaaL…
…naaraayaNanE namakkE paRai tharuvaan

Starting in this full moon day of Maargazhi, O girls of the village, join me getting cleaned up and starting a fast to pray Lord Naraayana, who will fulfill our heart’s desires (if we complete the fast properly).

So, the vision of doing a fast in the month of Maargazhi has been established. So, what should be done now? What’s the effort involved? What should one do? She answers these questions in the next verse.

நாமும் நம் பாவைக்கு செய்யும் கிரிசைகள் கேளீரோ…
…பரமனடி பாடி நெய் உண்ணோம் பால் உண்ணோம்
நாட்காலே நீராடி மை இட்டு எழுதோம் மலர் இட்டு நாம் முடியோம்
செய்யாதன செய்யோம் தீக்குறளை சென்று ஓதோம்
ஐயமும் பிச்சையும் ஆந்தனையும் கை காட்டி

naamum nam paavaikku seyyum kirisaigal kELeerO…
…paramanadi paadi nei uNNOm paal uNNOm

naatkaalE neeraadi mai ittu ezhudhOm malar ittu naam mudiyOm
seyyaadhana seyyOm theekkuraLai sendru OdhOm
aiyamum pichaiyum aandhanaiyum kai kaatti…

Listen to what we have to do for the fast:

  1. Sing the praises of Krishna
  2. Shy away from indulgence (no ghee, no milk – especially for cowherds!)
  3. Be disciplined and focused (in our cleanliness by having an early bath)
  4. Resist vanity (no eyeliner, no flowers to adorn the hair)
  5. Be charitable and kind to ascetics

These are fairly clear guidelines on what to do without being too prescriptive.

Lastly, we get to the big question from the point of view of the potential followers – WIIFM: What’s in it for me?

The lofty vision is good and the actions are clear, but what do the followers get to gain from it? Naaraayanaa fulfilling our desires is all well and good, but is there anything more tangible?

Aaandaal seems to be well aware of the need to entice her followers with some “quick wins”. While she is clear in her vision of the long-term goal of Krishna’s grace, she knows that others who have a lesser level of awareness may not always see it that way and so in the next verse, she provides a simple short term goal – more money!

…நாங்கள் நம் பாவைக்கு சாற்றி நீர் ஆடினால்…
…தீங்கு இன்றி நாடெல்லாம் திங்கள் மும்மாரி பெய்து…
…நீங்காத செல்வம் நிறைந்து ஏல் ஓர் எம்பாவாய்

…naangaL nam paavaikku saatRi neer aadinaal…
…theengu indRi naadellaam thingaL mummaari peidhu…
…neengaadha selvam niraindhu El Or empaavaai

If we carry on and complete our fast as described by immersing ourselves in this initiative, then there will surely be good rains throughout the year that will bring us all great wealth.

The scene of this action is an agrarian society that depends on and values good rain for crops to grow well and for the cows to provide good milk. AandaaL taps into this context and describes the gains in the terms that are meaningful for them.

The choice of words is also very interesting here. It is not just “rains” but “rains without any adverse impact”, such as a flood – which obviously is not desirable for farmers! In the lines in between, AandaaL paints a vivid picture of the prosperity, helping her potential followers visualize the gains they can make by undertaking the fast in their own terms!

Sponsor Support

With this initial setup completed, AandaaL then moves on to requesting support from her sponsor – Lord Krishna – to carry out the fast without any glitches.

…வாழ உலகினில் பெய்திடாய்…நாங்களும் மார்கழி நீர் ஆட…
…vaazha ulaginil peidhidaai…naangaLum maargazhi neer aada…

Lord Krishna, as we immerse ourselves in your thoughts and undertake this fast, won’t you please shower us with your blessings?

It’s also a good message to the potential followers that there is sponsor support for the initiative!

Reiteration of purpose

Lastly, she reiterates the purpose once again before moving on to the next phase.

…தூயோமாய் வந்து நாம் தூமலர் தூவி தொழுது
வாயினால் பாடி மனத்தினால் சிந்திக்க
போய பிழையும் புகுதனவாம் நின்றவும்
தீயினில் தூசாகும் செப்பு…

…thooyOmaai vandhu naam thoomalar thoovi thozhudhu
vaayinaal paadi manathinaal sindhikka
pOya pizhaiyum pugudhanavaam nindranavum
theeyinil thoosaagum seppu…

If we purify ourselves and worship Krishna by offering fresh flowers, singing his praises, and meditating on Him, our past and future sins that were done without intent will get extinguished.

Again, some careful choice of words here. AandaaL simply doesn’t make sweeping promises. First she says only the sins “done without intent” will be absolved. We have to live with intentional sins (karma, after all!). She then gives clear conditions for the absolution – pure mind and body with sincere worship. She clearly states that if the fast is done without sincerity, it will not work and so is seeking commitment from her followers.

Feminine leadership

It is worth taking a pause and contemplating a bit about this context. There has been a lot of talk in the current days about gender equality, with passionate arguments on how women have been stereotyped and denied fair chances that are otherwise given to men in the same position to prove their mettle.

At the outset, திருப்பாவை (Thiruppaavai) is mainly seen as a devotional work by AandaaL, who in turn is someone having an extreme devotion and affection to Lord Krishna, akin to Meera and Radha. The explanations focus on the devotional, emotional,  and personal aspect of the verses in how she sings His glory. There are even some alternate arguments that AandaaL was not even a woman but rather a fictional character and that the actual person was someone else.

We see parallels to these perceptions to current ones about women leadership. A recent article raised arguments that a bias is justified against women due to their physiological and psychological characteristics. However, if we take enough interest and care to delve a little deeper into the choice of words, structure of the poem, and the selection of scenarios, we are astounded by the clarity of thought and purpose in the verses. It reminds us of the famous ThiruvaLLuvar couplet எப்பொருள் யார் யார் வாய் கேட்பினும் அப்பொருள் மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்பது அறிவு (Wisdom is focusing on what is said than who said it), which incidentally applies to the whole ‘fake news’ movement.

As we get into the month of Marghazhi shortly (roughly December 15 – January 15), it would behoove us to remember this and respect people for their words and actions than by who or what they are.

What’s next

In the next post, we will look into the next step of AandaaL’s engaging leadership style that focus on the tactics she uses in convincing her friends to follow her in realizing the vision she has set.


Sleepless nights and blissful sleep

As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.
– Leonardo Da Vinci

OLrlwnJSleep is an interesting biological and emotional phenomenon. Medical specialists speak highly of having a good night’s sleep and the role it plays in rejuvenating the body. The emotional attachment to sleep however, seems to change over time. As we age, we take for granted, covet, loathe, enjoy, fear, and await sleep.

Sleep is the ‘white space’ equivalent of our physical being. Powerful presentation styles and graphic designs are often characterized by having liberal amount of white space, allowing the message to ‘breathe’. We can see this progression in our own styles at work. As a novice, we are eager to please and impress the audience and try to cram as much information as we can in each slide. As we mature, we learn that an ‘executive summary’ or an ‘elevator pitch’ should be concise and to the point. Learning to let our thoughts ‘breathe’ in the slide becomes a key factor in how the message is understood by the receiver.

We see similar parallels in poems. Among other things, the beauty of a poem lies in its ability to be concise but providing enough space for the reader to let their creativity fill in the intentional gaps. They become suggestions for the reader to explore and have an experience than being prescriptive in how the poem should be experienced.

Sleepless nights

நான்மணிக்கடிகை (naanmaNikkadigai) – part of the பதினெண்கீழ்க்கணக்கு (pathinenkeezhkaNakku, lower or post-sangam 18) set of literary works in Thamizh – is an interesting work that provides some memorable verses. It is named as such because it contains four concepts within a theme, like four pieces of gem stones combined as one. The structure is similar to other numerically-inspired works such as

திரிகடுகம் (thirikadugam)
Three concepts within a theme, similar to how Black pepper, Long pepper, and dry ginger is considered a cure for common cold.

சிறுபஞ்சமூலம் (sirupanchamoolam)
Five concepts within a theme, like its namesake medicine that is made of five roots.

ஏலாதி (Elaadhi)
Six concepts within a theme, like its namesake medicinal paste made of six ingredients.

naanmaNikkadigai was written by a poet named விளம்பி நாகனார் (viLambi naaganaar) around the post-sangam period.

It is known for its poetic beauty within the set of works and at times has a good bit of humor, while being profound. One such example is the one about sleepless nights:

‘கள்வம்!’ என்பார்க்கும் துயில் இல்லை
காதலிமாட்டு உள்ளம் வைப்பார்க்கும் துயில் இல்லை
‘ஒண் பொருள் செய்வம்!’ என்பார்க்கும் துயில் இல்லை; அப் பொருள்
காப்பார்க்கும் இல்லை, துயில்

There is no sleep for the robber; nor is there any sleep for a person in love. There is no sleep for one who is in search of wealth; nor is there any sleep for the one who is protecting their wealth.

We would imagine most of us would’ve experienced three of the four forms of sleeplessness!

Hopelessly sleepless in love

In our formative ages, we take sleep for granted. It is an essential part of our lifestyle where we play through the day and take a good rest in the night to rest our muscles and to regain our energy.

However, as we mature and step into the adultish phase of our life, our relationship with sleep seems to change. Our sleep is no longer blissful! We (hopefully) fall in love, have many crushes, have ups and downs in our relationships and all of these tend to impact our ability to sleep.

காதலி மாட்டு உள்ளம் வைப்பார்க்கும் துயில் இல்லை
Sleep doesn’t come to one’s heart in love!

ThiruvaLLuvar, who is known for his brevity, apparently feels strongly about this and has devoted an entire chapter (10 verses) called கனவுநிலை உரைத்தல் (explaining dreams) about lack of sleep and the dreams that come therein.

கயல்உண்கண் யான்இரப்பத் துஞ்சின் கலந்தார்க்கு
உயல்உண்மை சாற்றுவேன் மன்

I am not able to sleep because I keep thinking about my love. However, if my eyes do heed to my mind’s wishes and close, I will be able to tell my love who will come in my dreams that I am alive and waiting for us to be together again.

On the flip side, if the loved ones are together, sleep becomes coveted! A Sangam poem from குறுந்தொகை (kuRunthogai) explains this beautifully:

குவி இணர் தோன்றி ஒள் பூ அன்ன
தொகு செந் நெற்றி கணம் கொள் சேவல்
நள் இருள் யாமத்து இல் எலி பார்க்கும்
பிள்ளை வெருகிற்கு அல்கு இரையாகி
கடுநவை படீஇயரோ நீயே நெடு நீர்
யாணர் ஊரன் தன்னொடு வதிந்து
ஏமம் இன் துயில் எடுப்பியோயே

After a long time, my love has come back from his trip having earned good wealth.
We had a passionate night and slept blissfully and didn’t want the night to end. However, you had to wake us up at the crack of dawn, not knowing how to mind your own business.
O stupid Rooster, may you be be food for the children of the wild cat that roams in the night looking for mice!

Obviously she’s not happy being woken up from her sleep!

A variant of love is devotion or bhakti – love towards God. Sleeplessness seems to play a role here as well. With Maarghazhi coming up in a few days, one just has to remember Thiruppaavai, where every verse is exhorting the ladies of the house to wake up from their slumber so they can get ready and worship Sri Ranganatha in Srirangam. A classic example:

மாமீர்! அவளை எழுப்பீரோ? உம்மகள்தான்
ஊமையோ? அன்றிச் செவிடோ அனந்தலோ?
ஏமப் பெருந்துயில் மந்திரப் பட்டாளோ?

Aunty, won’t you wake up your daughter? Does she not know to speak? Is she deaf? Is she just plain lazy? Or is she in a magical trance that she cannot get out of? Aandal cannot believe that one can be in such a deep slumber when thy can be chanting the name of Lord Krishna!

Lack of sleep due to pending actions

As we age further and get into adulthood, we don’t have time for sleep. We are driven by our ambitions and our commitments, which keep us awake constantly and prevent us from having a good rest.

Robert Frost captured this emotion beautifully in his famous poem “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening”:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

We constantly drive ourselves – either seeking wealth or protecting our wealth:

ஒண் பொருள் செய்வம்! என்பார்க்கும் துயில் இல்லை
There is no sleep for one driven to action (either by ambition or by greed)

அப் பொருள் காப்பார்க்கும் இல்லை, துயில்.
There is no sleep for one protecting their riches (either deserved or undeserved).

Fearing sleep

Finally comes the stage when we fear or await the permanent sleep. As Da Vinci says, such a sleep need not be feared if we have lived a good life, as it is natural and is to be accepted heartily than feared, and as Charlie Brown ponders above, hopefully we can make it a short conversation!


Fearing that which is to be feared (அஞ்சுவது அஞ்சல்)

Fear is an inherent emotion that is wired in our psyche, as it primarily comes out of the necessity to live (either in this life or after – whatever we believe in). In order to survive, we have been wired to fear the unknown. Will the one that we don’t know help us or hurt us? We then take appropriate defensive actions to protect ourselves from such perceived dangers. As we gain awareness and increase our knowledge about our environment, our fears start to subside.

So, what should we fear and what shouldn’t we? As always, our good teacher ThiruvaLLuvar gives a pithy kuraL as a guiding principle:

அஞ்சுவது அஞ்சாமை பேதைமை அஞ்சுவது
அஞ்சல் அறிவார் தொழில் (428)

anjuvadhu anjaamai pEdhamai anjuvadhu anjal aRivaar thozhil

Not fearing those that are to be feared is ignorance. The learned fear (are wary of) those that need to be feared (and don’t fear those that do not need to be feared).

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? However, how do we know when and when not to fear?

Why we fear

To answer the question, let us try to understand the reason why we fear something. There are many triggers that cause fear in a person but can broadly be classified into five categories. Interestingly, only the first on (carnal or physical) is involuntary fear while the rest, including materialistic, are worries that are voluntary (that is, created by ourselves), which leads to the sensation of fear:

  • Physical fear: We are afraid of known or unknown adversaries who can cause us physical harm to us or those we care about deeply.
  • Materialistic fear: We are worried about not having proper shelter, food, sleep, money, or fear losing our safety.
  • Emotional fear: We are worried about not having good friends and family, and even if we do, worry about the relationships lasting long, or about the survival of our near and dear ones.
  • Mental fear: We are worried about not having accomplished enough in our lives – be it for our progeny, our work, or even our hobbies. We worry about not being able to leave a lasting legacy that will make us live beyond our lives.
  • Spiritual fear: We are worried about not having lived a full life, not knowing who we are and why we were born, and what will happen after we die.

While there is not much we can do about externally imposed fears other than facing it or stepping away from the situation, we try to overcome our worries in various ways:

  • Work and Action: Some people try to overcome their fears by immersing themselves in various activities. They either face their fears by taking action or avoid their fears by not doing certain actions but focusing on others instead. When channeled positively, this can give physical and emotional satisfaction, but can also build greed (trying to overcompensate the physical fear) or jealousy (trying to overcompensate mental fear).
  • Knowledge: Some try by gaining knowledge. We get less afraid when we reason. With fear arising from the unknown, the more we know, the less afraid we become. However, not all fears can be addressed by reason. This approach is most commonly used to address our mental fears.
  • Devotion: A way of mitigating potentially irrational fear is through faith or ardent belief. There are many examples where people with strong belief face their fears better – both positively and negatively. Typically this is done through a religion that one subscribes to, but can be a person or an object. Like others, positive devotion can be foundational for moral actions and negative or fanatical devotion can be heavily destructive. This approach is most commonly used to address our spiritual fears.
  • Willpower: Few tend to mitigate fear is by raising their inner consciousness or willpower. They keep a calm head by transcending beyond what they face. This is of course, rarely used than the other approaches as it takes enormous discipline and practice. However, such an approach can conceivably address our spiritual as well as other fears.

You may have noticed patterns emerging in the above classifications – the categories of fear are related to the four purusha arthas (purposes of life), namely பொருள் (poruL – physical / materialistic), இன்பம் (inbam – emotional / pleasure), அறம் (aRam – mental / moral), and வீடு (veedu – spiritual / after-life).

Similarly, the ways in which we attempt to handle fear seem aligned to the four ways of yoga, namely karma (action), gnana (knowledge), bhakti (devotion), and rAja (self-awareness) yogas.

So, a wise person from the perspective of VaLLuvar will have enough knowledge to know what is to be feared, whether the time and context is appropriate enough to face the fears, and how to overcome such fears in one’s own terms.

This is all great in theory, but is there a role model that we can potentially emulate or at least use as a reference point? It turns out that there is one – if we are to listen to our other good friend – Kamban.

அனுமன் (Hanuman) – Personification of fearlessness

paper_poster_AW31_l_thumbHinduism as a religion is often characterized as polytheistic, comprising of millions of Gods – often stated as a matter-of-fact and sometimes, in mockery. While this is not the forum for us to take a side, what we see is that in most cases a particular deity is anointed for a set of beliefs – akin to ‘idolizing’ the characteristics. In that line, Hanuman is often associated with bravery and fearlessness. Given our topic for this post, it is worth exploring why that is the case.

காப்பு பாயிரம் (Kaappu paayiram – verses for protection)

It is a common practice to have a few verses as part of a broader work to request the Gods that be to protect the hard-written work from errors, criticisms, and other ills and have it shine through ages. For his epic, Kamban deems it fit to request Hanuman to be the protector via a beautiful verse:

அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று பெற்றான், அஞ்சிலே ஒன்றை தாவி
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று ஆறு ஆக, ஆரியர்க்காக ஏகி
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று பெற்ற அணங்கை கண்டு, அயலார் ஊரில்
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று வைத்தான் அவன் நம்மை அளித்து காப்பான்

He who is the son of one of the five elements (wind),
He who crossed one of the five elements (water – ocean),
He who flew in one of the five elements (sky) for the sake of the Aryan (rAma),
He who saw the one who was born in one of the five elements (sIta was found when plowing the earth),
He who unleashed one of the five elements (fire) to the foreign city (Lanka),
May he (Hanuman) be kind to us and protect us!

Hanuman – the central character

In rAmAyana, Hanuman plays a central role in the epic, arguably second only to the hero and villain characters. Even though he comes only in the middle of the story, he plays a pivotal role from the point he is introduced through the end.

In his book அண்ணல் அனுமன் (Annal Anuman), author N. Subbureddiyaar gives an interesting take on one of the verses, which happens when Hanuman crosses the sleeping quarters of rAvanA’s brother KumbakarNan.

செவிக்குத் தேன் அன்ன இராகவன் புகழினைத் திருத்தும்
கவிக்கு நாயகன், அனையவன் உறையுளைக் கடந்தான்.

The traditional meaning is “The darling of monkeys (கவி – monkey) – Hanuman – who serves (திருத்துதல் – serving) rAmA’s fame that is honey to ears, crossed the sleeping quarters”.

The alternate meaning is “The primary character of this epic (கவி – epic) – Hanuman – who adjusts the epic (திருத்துதல் – corrects) at various places so as to make rAmA’s story as pleasant as honey, crossed the sleeping quarters!

அஞ்சா நெஞ்சன் (braveheart) – Picture of fearlessness

When we visualize someone who is fearless, we conjure up images of those who are comfortable even when put in uncomfortable situations such as an intrepid explorer, adventurous traveler, a scout, a spy, an ambassador to a hostile nation, or a warrior in a battlefield against odds. Guess what – Hanuman dons all these roles in the epic with ease and hence becomes a personification of fearlessness, and rightfully so.

In addition, we also see him practicing all the four yogas mentioned above to address fear: he is a man of action, is praised for his sound mind and knowledge, has absolute devotion to rAmA, and is known for his willpower. These are highlighted by Kamban in many places – a sample of which is below:

Righteousness and Knowledge (gnAna yOga)

நெறி தரு மாருதி என்னும் நேர் இலா அறிவினை நோக்கினான், அறிவின் மேல் உளான்

Raamaa – the one above all knowledge – looked at Hanuman – the most righteous and one whose knowledge has no comparison – for his input (when making a decision on Vibheeshana’s surrender).

Mental fortitude (rAja yOga)

அஞ்செனும் புலன்கள் ஒத்தார் அவனும் நல் அறிவை ஒத்தான்

He killed the armies headed by five generals of rAvana as easily as he can control his five senses and channel them per his will.

Belief and Devotion (bhakti yOga)

ஏறுவகை ஆண்டையை இராமன் என எல்லாம் மாறும்;
அதின் மாறு பிறிது இல் என வலித்தான்

When one sincerely thinks of rAmA, there is no reason to worry about salvation.

Action (karma yOga)

Hanuman’s actions are prevalent throughout the epic, with the sole focus of providing service to rAma.

அன்னவற்கு அடிமை செய்வேன் நாமமும் அனுமன் என்பேன்

My name is Hanuman and I am here to eternally serve rAmA (when introducing himself to rAvana)

What’s more, he is portrayed as someone who never sought materialistic wealth, was a brahmachAri (celibate), always acted per the morals of the role he took, and was considered a chiranjeevi (immortal).

Perhaps recognizing this, Kamban has waxed eloquence about Hanuman in his poems.

When and when not to act

Lastly, Kamban also provides great examples of when and when not to act – through Hanuman. Though they are not due to fear, they serve as a guide for lesser mortals than Hanuman when faced with fear.

One is when Hanuman faces Indrajit – rAvanA’s son – after seeing sIta. In the preceding verses, Kamban establishes Hanuman’s bravery and fearlessness and his potential to defeat Indrajit and even rAvanA. However, sensing that such an act would not be wise for various reasons, he decides to act as a messenger instead – showing that he know what battles to fight and when to step away wisely, while still achieving his goals.

Parting thoughts

Our aim here is not to prescribe or proscribe a religious position, but rather to point out the literary beauty in the verses across literature and the invisible threads that connect them. Regardless of whether one believes in Hanuman or not, it would behoove us to learn ‘best practices’ that have been made available through him to serve as a good guiding post for overcoming our own fears.


Contextual considerations

“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.”
– Margaret MacMillan

Much as we may try, the biases we have developed over time create a predefined lens with which we see the world, what we choose to choose to keep or discard, and how we internalize those experiences.

Cognitive Bias Codex
Source: Visual Capitalist – http://www.visualcapitalist.com

A website named Visual Capitalist has mapped 188 different cognitive biases we carry that are known currently. These tend to feed into subsequent actions, thereby creating a positive feedback loop – either till the end or when reset by a compelling external force.

We often give importance – positively or negatively – to the person providing the message than the message itself. Be it a religious discourse or a forwarded WhatsApp message, we interpret the message based on the credibility of the messenger than that of the message. While we can say that we should be rational and remove our biases, it is easier said than done.

Historic literature adds a different twist to this issue. In one sense, it minimizes the ‘messenger bias’ because except for the more popular authors, we don’t tend to know much about the author’s background and hence may consider the text to be reasonably credible due to the mere fact that it has withstood the test of time. However, an opposing bias comes into effect – that of context. When reading historical literature – be it poetry, prose, or scriptures – we tend to view the texts from our current social context than that of the time when the texts were written. As a result, messages that may be jarring to our current social views tend to discredit the entire work – essentially throwing out the good with the bad.


திரிகடுகம் (Thirikadugam)

thirikadugam health benefits
Image Source: Wildturmeric.net

திரிகடுகம் (Thirikadugam) is one of the books in the பதினெண்கீழ்க்கணக்கு (pathiNeNkeezh kaNakku – lower 18) collection of post-sangam Thamizh literature, written around 4th century CE by a poet named நல்லாதனார் (Nallaadhanaar). Not much is known about the author except that he followed the Vaishnava tradition in Hinduism based on the initial prayer in the book. The verses themselves are a collection of maxims covering a variety of topics and non-spiritual in nature and focusing instead on ethics.

The book itself is named after a medicinal concoction. Thirikadugam is a potion that is made by taking equal quantities of dried ginger (சுக்கு – sukku), black pepper (மிளகு – miLagu), and long pepper (திப்பிலி – thippili), making them into a powder, mixing a teaspoon of the powder in a cup of water, and reducing it by boiling. The resultant potion – taken in like a soup – is said to ward off winter symptoms such as cold and sore throat.

Like how the three elements combined together can improve physical health, so are the verses of Thirikadugam, when followed, is claimed by the author to improve mental health.

The appropriate

The book provides a number of maxims across a variety of topics including friendship, knowledge, charity, governance, and so on. Each verse contains three maxims that are related to a common theme totaling a hundred themes (so, 300 maxims) and are either written in a positive tone (doing these will benefit you) as well as in a negative tone (doing these will harm you).

One example is provided below.

குறளையுள் நட்பு அளவு தோன்றும்; உறல் இனிய
சால் பினில் தோன்றும், குடிமையும்; பால் போலும்
தூய்மையுள் தோன்றும் பிரமாணம்; – இம் மூன்றும்
வாய்மை உடையார் வழக்கு.           37

The depth of friendship will be tested when wealth is lost;
The value of good upbringing will be known by kind deeds done;
The usefulness of a life well lived will be known when lived with a clear conscience;
These are the characteristics of those who truly follow ‘dharma‘.

The maxims are fairly easy to understand, interpret, internalize, and even evaluate over time when followed.

Another memorable theme in the text is about the futility of the dreams of a mute (துஞ்சு ஊமன் கண்ட கனா).

வாளை மீன் உள்ளல் தலைப்படலும், ஆள் அல்லான்
செல்வக் குடியுள் பிறத்தலும், பல் சபையின்
அஞ்சுவான் கற்ற அரு நூலும், – இம் மூன்றும்
துஞ்சு ஊமன் கண்ட கனா. 7

A bird trying to catch a slippery fish, an untalented (or person with no drive) person being born in an accomplished family, and a highly learned person afraid of public speaking – they are all similar to the dreams of a mute (person who has lost his voice) – they don’t have value as they are not expressed.

Keeping general arguments aside that the mute can express his dreams in other ways such as art, writing, etc., the notion is widely applicable even in modern times, where we see reckless destruction of ancient artifacts in war-torn regions, neglect of ancient artistic treasures, or apathy to our environmental degradation in general.

The inappropriate

We also see a few other maxims that clearly seem to be outdated when viewed from the current societal context.

கல்லார்க்கு இன்னா ஒழுகலும், காழ்க் கொண்ட
இல்லாளைக் கோலால் புடைத்தலும், இல்லம்
சிறியாரைக் கொண்டு புகலும், – இம் மூன்றும்
அறியாமையான் வரும் கேடு.          3

Befriending the uneducated, beating a chaste wife with a stick, and hobnobbing with those who are of lower morals – these occur due to ignorance and must be avoided.

The author has sandwiched the maxim that wife-beating is not good between two other relatively benign maxims! While the maxim by itself seems outrageous, we are not privy to the common social constructs of the time when it was written. Perhaps on seeing the plight of women the author might have attempted to break such bad behaviors by emphasizing them as bad moral values.

However, the example is so stark that if this were to be the first maxim of the text that is seen, it might make us balk at the entire text, though it may not be that far fetched given the similar marital abuse portrayed occasionally in Thamizh movies or TV dramas (even if they may contain an eventual moral similar to the verse).

There are a few other instances in the text that are similarly contentious.

  • (67) எதிர்நிற்கும் பெண் … நொந்தார் செயக் கிடந்தது இல் (a wife who speaks against the husband … is a cause of grief that does not have a remedy)
  • (50) இல் இருந்து எல்லை கடப்பாளும் … வல்லே மழை அருக்கும் கோள் (a place where women go outside their bounds … will not get good rain)

Another interesting point to note that a women is almost always described with the prerequisite of being chaste (கற்புடை மாதர்). The author could have opted to leave out the word கற்பு (chastity), but doesn’t, which again may point out the existing societal beliefs.

Looking at these instances, it can give an impression to a modern reader that the author was a misogynist with scant regard for women’s liberation. Regardless of whether that may be true inherently (which we doubt) or simply a reflection of the prevalent social structure, that by itself does not make it a reason to ignore the rest of the text that is not socially influenced.

The potentially (in)appropriate

There are other maxims that are up for debate, either due to potential for being interpreted in different ways or because it has a mix of both appropriate and potentially outdated context.

(5) ஒப்ப விழைவு இலாப் பெண்டிர் தோள் சேர்வும் … அருந் துயரம் காட்டும் நெறி

Interpreted one way, this means that going behind girls that are not admired by the public (call girls) will bring great sorrow. In another way, this means that forcibly marrying a woman who is not interested in the marriage can bring great sorrow.

(9) உரிமை இல் பெண்டிரைக் காமுற்று வாழ்தல் … முழு மக்கள் காதல் அவை

Lusting behind women who are not one’s own (wife) … is done by ignorant fools – similar to one of the commandments.

While this statement by itself seems somewhat reasonable, one might question the adjective “உரிமை இல்லா” பெண்டிர் – literally, women that one does not have ownership of, which implies a slavish mindset towards women, but in another way can more benignly be meant to imply “women with whom one does not have a marital relationship” or more simply, “don’t get into a loveless relationship”.

Contextual considerations

As can be seen from the verses in Thirukadigam with the ones above serving as samplers, historic texts often contain maxims or concepts that are timelines and some that are contextually specific. Thus, it is up to the maturity of the reader to separate the timeless from the time-bound, or even the religious from the spiritual.

Ignoring an entire work because it does not agree with our current moral standards is more likely than not a hasty decision that is emotionally driven than rational.

In ThirukkuraL, ThiruvaLLuvar has phrased the danger of this bias eloquently:

எப்பொருள் யார் யார் வாய் கேட்பினும்
அப்பொருள் மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்பது அறிவு

epporuL yaar yaar vaai kEtpinum apporuL meipporuL kaanbadhu aRivu.

Wisdom is seeking and understanding the meaning and intent of the words spoken without being biased by who said them and as an extension, in what context they were said.

An addendum to Thirikadugam

After going through the text, we were impressed with the brevity and elegance of the text and were inspired to create our own verse to suit the modern times. Maybe as years go by, if someone stumbles across this verse, they may consider our current era as being archaic and outdated – or maybe not!

ஆராயாது பகிரும் மின்மொழியும்
தீராது நோக்கும் தொடர்மொழியும்
சோராது எடுக்கும் தன்னொளியும்
தேராத வலைத்தளச் செயல்

aaraayaadhu pagirum minmozhiyum
theeraadhu nOkkum thodarmozhiyum
sOraadhu edukkum than oLiyum
thEraadha valaitthaLa seyal

Forwarding an electronic message (WhatsApp forward, Facebook share, email, etc.) without verifying its credibility, incessantly looking at or checking streaming messages (feeds), and tirelessly taking self images (selfies) are useless and unproductive activities done on the Internet (and should be avoided)!

The need to just be (சும்மா இரு) – Part 2 of 2

Recently, I was having a conversation with a client. He mentioned an interesting personal story that resonated with me as I was contemplating the details for this post.

Earlier Post: The need to just be (Part 1)

The fast and the slow

His father was an intelligent man who used to work in the Finance Trading business and had done quite well – so much so that he decided to retire by 40. His mother was equally accomplished, and worked at another major financial institution, managing accounts.

Though they retired quite early, he interestingly mentioned that they got ‘old’ pretty fast. They became stressed, restless, and were itching to do something. Staying quiet was just not in their bones. Now, his brother on the other hand, owned a small food catering company, which was doing moderately well. He was not necessarily a businessman by nature and had more of a ‘take-it-easy’ personality. When things were not especially great in one of the years, his parents offered to look into the business. Soon, they turned the company around, identified new opportunities, fixed all accounting issues, and increased the business by many fold. In that process, they regained their second wind and their youth! Interestingly, it didn’t go well with the brother. He said, “I was much better off earlier even though I was not making much money! This is too much for me!”

Who was better off here – the active, successful parents who enjoyed what they did by being active or the brother who was not a super success but was content with his slower pace?


Getting some clues

In our current times, isn’t being fast good? Why should we slow down? What did Lord Muruga mean by சும்மா இரு (summa iru)? In colloquial terms, it means “be still / don’t do anything” (typically to kids) or “shut up” (to friends).

In his other work கந்தர் அலங்காரம் (Kandhar Alankaaram), he expands a bit more (or rather condenses a few other verses in the earlier work along with the one above) as:

சொல்லுகைக்கு இல்லை என்று எல்லாம் இழந்து சும்மா இருக்கும்
எல்லை உள் செல்ல எனை விட்டவா இகல் வேலன்

Just so that this is not one that is told (but rather experienced), you made me lose everything to get into the realm of just being…

Here, losing everything (எல்லாம் இழந்து) doesn’t refer to materialistic loss, but rather discarding all distractions in order to “just be” (சும்மா இருக்கும்) – which is a level of consciousness that is not easily achieved.

Does this imply summa iru means getting rid of material possessions and living the life of a sanyasi (ascetic)?

தாயுமானவர் (Thaayumaanavar), another prominent saint who came in a couple of hundred years after AruNagirinaathar, shared similar sentiments.

சும்மா இருக்க சுகம் சுகம் என்று சுருதி எல்லாம்
அம்மா நிரந்தரம் சொல்லவும் கேட்டும் அறிவின்றியே
பெம்மான் மௌனி மொழியையும் தப்பி என் பேதமையால்
வெம்மாய காட்டில் அலைந்தேன் அந்தோ என் விதி வசமே.

Even though my guru advised me to “just be” and that it was the way to attain bliss, I didn’t heed his words due to my ignorance and kept roaming around in this illusory forest (of material world) due to my fate.

Somewhat of a Matrix-like philosophy here! He gives a clue that “just being” requires a level of conscious realization, guidance from a proper guru, and trust in the path being taken. In another place, he gives a beautiful analogy:

ஏதுக்கு சும்மா இரு மனமே என்று உனக்கு
போதித்த உண்மை எங்கே போக விட்டாய் – வாதுக்கு
வந்து எதிர்த்த மல்லரை போல் வாதாடியே உன்
புந்தி என்ன போதம் என்ன போ.

Why did you not heed the truth that was taught to you to “just be”? You kept arguing with everyone just like a wrestler ready to fight anyone who gets into the ring – the ignorant fool that you are. What use is your intellect and the teaching (taught to you)?

We can see the connection being made here between “just being” and unnecessary speech / argument. Maybe after he had achieved this bliss, he proclaims:

சொல்லும் பொருளும் அற்று சும்மா இருப்பதற்க்கே
அல்லும் பகலும் எனக்கு ஆசை பராபரமே!

All I wish for is to “just be” day and night, without any word or wealth.

One of the famous siddhars – Bhadragiriyaar – has made a similar statement that gives us a bit more insight:

ஆங்காரம் உள்ளடக்கி ஐம்புலனை சுட்டறுத்து
தூங்காமல் தூங்கி சுகம் பெறுவது எக்காலம்?

When will the time come when I can suppress the feeling of “I” and discard the distractions induced by the five senses so that I can attain bliss by sleeping without sleeping?

Huh? We can infer here a little bit that in order to attain bliss, we have to get rid of our ego and also get rid of distractions created by our senses. But how do we “sleep without sleeping”?

नेति नेति (nEti, nEti – not this, not that)

Before we try to understand what “just being” may be, let us try to understand what it is not. Based on the behaviors exhibited by saints who have purportedly realized its meaning:

  1. It is NOT about sleeping, being idle, inactive, or being in a vegetative state: These saints were fairly active in their lives, traveling quite a bit, and composing numerous songs. They just didn’t lock themselves in a room all the time.
  2. It is NOT about isolating oneself: As above, the saints participated in various regular activities in between their quest for realization (and even after).
  3. It is NOT only about deep meditation: While the realized were known to spend time in deep meditation, that was not the only thing that they did.
  4. It is NOT about dying: While death is the ultimatum of not doing anything, the saints clearly were not proponents of simply giving away one’s life. While they all wished to join their God, they understood that it happens naturally and only after they have served their time in this world.
  5. It is NOT about not thinking anything: The saints were active thinkers. They were in constant search of what they considered to be the cosmic truth and fully understood that it is impossible for someone to just not do anything and hence exhorted gaining control over senses than relinquishing them.
  6. It is NOT about nothingness (soonya): One explanation is that “just being” means living in the present. We don’t believe this accurate, as the saints considered being in the present within the broader context of the past and the future. If they were only thinking of the present, they won’t be searching for the cosmic realization that is omnipresent.

So, what is it then?

What is “just being”?

All those mentioned above followed the path of Saivism, where Lord Shiva is considered the foremost yogi. Incidentally, the notion of “just being” also seems to have a strong correlation with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In fact, the very definition of yoga states:

yoga chitta vrutti nirodhaha
Yoga is one that liberates the mind from distractions.

What distractions would they be?

वृत्तयः पञ्चतय्यः क्लिष्टाक्लिष्टाः
vrutyah panchatayyah klishtaaklishtaaha
pramaana viparyaya vikalpa niDraa smrtayaha

There are five types of distractions, some of which are more amenable than others. They are:

  1. Gaining knowledge from right sources
  2. Gaining knowledge from wrong sources,
  3. Imagination
  4. Deep sleep
  5. Memories

This is an interesting list – except for potentially the second one, one might at a first glance consider the rest to be virtues than vices. Hence the earlier statement that “some are more amenable than others”, but nevertheless distractions.

Like how too much of something that is seemingly good (or even potentially good in small quantities) is bad, so are these, as they distract us from “just being”.

So, how are these distractions?

Too much information from the right sources

Too much information, even if relevant and credible, can become disruptive. Management and problem solving techniques commonly recommend hypothesis-based problem solving, where we form a hypothesis first and then look for facts to strengthen or reject the hypothesis than aiming to collect all possible data before starting analysis. The latter, while theoretically better, is impractical and can lead to “analysis paralysis”.

24×7 news channels are great examples. In a potentially noble aim to provide news all the time, they get reduced to being downright silly just to fill time (like standing in a hurricane!)

Information based on wrong sources

Obvious as it may seem as a bad idea, we are voluntarily undertaking this activity every time we forward an email or a WhatsApp message or retweeting a dubious source. This has led to a snowball effect where even the news channels are now spending more time in talking about tweets sent in the spur of a moment than about credible, well researched information.


While a healthy imagination may be good, imagination running wild leads to terrible distractions. Constantly thinking of improbably “what-if” scenarios pull us away from “just being”.

Deep sleep

Deep sleep inherently implies not being conscious or aware. “Just being” is not about shutting down our senses as we do in deep sleep, but in controlling the senses in a way that we are not influenced by the sensations. This was the essence of Bhadragiriyaar’s words earlier.


Lastly, memories are essentially the ties that bind us to our past. Good or bad, the memories pull us back to “what was” than “what is”. They also inherently influence our judgement. When evaluating the present, we make decisions – good or bad – based on our ‘experience’, which is a collection of our past memories.

Disengaged awareness

Thus, we seem to get the definition of “just being” as the process of being fully aware of our environment actively participating and following our duties, while not being impacted by its distractions, or roughly, disengaged awareness. “Measured speech” complements this definition by minimizing the distractions that may emanate from us.


Simple as it sounds, this concept is easier described than understood, experienced, realized, and eventually practiced. Very few have had that pleasure.

In my adolescent days, my father used to say his prayers in the morning for a few minutes. During weekends, I will be blasting the TV around that time to listen to morning film shows (chitrahaar, anyone?). When asked to keep the volume low, my flippant response was “Why should I? You are meditating – shouldn’t you have more self control to ignore me?” Thankfully, he was a patient man chose not to respond. Years later, I have been put in the same situation in reverse. I can see how difficult it is to “be aware of my environment while not getting distracted”!

While we may not (and likely never) be one of them, we hope this helps develop an appreciation for and encourages readers to explore such literary treasures on their own. These topics have been elaborated on by various scholars who have dedicated there life for such exploration. We don’t hold a candle to such experts and are bound to make mistakes. The best we can hope is that we will be corrected and guided as appropriate.

A heartfelt thanks to Vasu’s periappa for asking us to take up this topic. If this has some value, the credit goes to him. All screw-ups can be attributed to us!


The need to just be (சும்மா இரு) – Part 1 of 2

Giri was devastated. The gentle breeze at the top of the tower didn’t do much to comfort him. What is the use? What is the point of living? His dearest sister – the one he loved more than anything in the world – offered to sell herself – to fund his greed and lust for women. What can be more shameful than this?


It was not that Giri was not cared for. He was born in a good family and caring parents and brought up well. He did well in studies. But adolescence and inevitable hormones did a number on him. He lost his concentration. He lost sight of reality when his head was buried in women’s bosoms – blind to his parents’ death and the hardships his sister had to endure in bringing him up. The times when he kept asking her for money so he can spend on his favorite ‘pastime’ flooded his memories. His latest attempt was the last straw. There was no more money left. But his sister – out of unworthy affection for him – couldn’t think of anything else to meet his pestering than to sell herself.

Giri decided that he didn’t want to be a burden anymore and got ready to take the plunge. But he couldn’t move. The legs refused to cooperate. The Divine was not done with him just yet.

“Giri” a voice boomed. Did anyone else hear that?

“There are better things that you need to do in this world. Taking your own life is not going to help”, the voice continued.

“Bu what can I do? Can I go any lower in my life?”, he asked. Who am I talking to by the way?

“Turn around and turn yourself around. Just be (சும்மா இரு). Cut the words (சொல் அற). You have a lot more to accomplish. Help others heal.” – the voice continued. As he stood in a trance, he could see an apparition forming – it looked like Lord Muruga, the residing deity of the temple tower where he was standing.

“Open your mouth and put out your tongue.” – Lord Muruga ordered. Giri obeyed. He felt a sensation he never experienced before. Is He writing something on my tongue?

“Go on. Spread the word.” – the voice and the apparition faded away. “Spread the word? But He just told me to cut the words? What is “just being”? What does this all mean?”. One thing was clear. He had a purpose – to understand. It was not the time to take his life.

We took a bit of a poetic liberty in explaining a turning point in Saint AruNagirinaathar’s life above. The words uttered by Lord Muruga is considered to contain the essence of ancient scriptures and is layered in many ways, which is our topic here.

அருணகிரிநாதர் (AruNagirinaathar) has eloquently phrased the thought above in his work கந்தர் அநுபூதி (Kandhar Anuboodhi):

செம்மான் மகளைத் திருடும் திருடன்
பெம்மான் முருகன், பிறவான், இறவான்
சும்மா இரு, சொல் அற என்றலுமே
அம் மா பொருள் ஒன்றும் அறிந்திலனே.

You (Murugan) who stole the heart of VaLLi and is birthless and deathless, told me to “just be, without words”. I am yet to understand the power of those great words.

These simple words are hailed by many to contain profound meaning. What is it? Before we aim attempt to answer that question, let’s digress a bit (for a reason).

Being busy

A recent New York Times article bemoaned the startup culture in Silicon Valley where entrepreneurs are encouraged to put in crazy hours to succeed in life and business. The trend driven by flashy success stories of Facebook and the like further fuel the drive and fire to succeed and lead the world with greater innovations. The trend is not just unique to Silicon Valley but is fairly pervasive. Gone are the days when getting a 9 – 5 government job was considered the pinnacle of achievement. If you don’t put 12 hours a day, you are not working hard enough (even if you are working smart).

Not coincidentally, a parallel business has developed catering to the downside of this trend. Yoga – the ancient Indian practice – has become commonplace, with hundreds of variations. True to any marketing trend, with the dilution of the “Yoga” brand, a new buzzword has emerged in its place – Mindfulness. Now, modern gurus exhort everyone, including the Silicon Valley hustlers, to practice mindfulness, which is focusing on the ‘now’ even if you are actively doing something. The difference between meditation and mindfulness seems to be the purpose – meditation being about a larger, cosmic awareness, while mindfulness is about ‘present’ awareness, and as was mentioned in one definition, a “secular” version of meditation!

We won’t delve into whether we believe in the distinction, but focus on the more common theme that the faster people go, the more aware they seem to become of the need to ‘slow down’.

Interestingly, some people who have attempted say that mindfulness exercises have made them worse than better, requiring a lot of therapy, which seems to defeat the purpose of the process. Why is that so?

The new demon in our midst

There was once a farmer who had a fairly big farmland and employed a number of laborers to do various chores. Being a bit of a miser, he was not happy in having to spend a lot of money to pay the laborers and wanted a cheaper way to get things done. He had heard about a powerful saint in a nearby forest and went to him to seek a solution.

The saint was in deep meditation and when he eventually opened his eyes, the farmer put forth his request for a cheaper labor solution. The saint then used his powers to conjure a demon and asked him to henceforth do the farmer’s bidding on one condition (there’s always a catch!): If the farmer cannot keep the demon busy, then it will destroy him instead. The farmer thought for a second, but decided to take the risk. After all, tending to a farm is a 24×7 activity.

The demon came with him and promptly did every task he gave him in minutes. The farmer soon ran out of tasks to give the demon and desperately asked his wife for help (interesting how wives are only consulted after shit his the fan and not before!). The wife, a smart and intelligent women, asked the demon to straighten the tail of a stray dog nearby. The demon scoffed and set forth with his task. But every time he left the dog’s tail after straightening it, it promptly curled back again. Eventually the dog got fed up and ran away, with the tail between its legs. Admitting defeat, the demon left the farmer.

Old as this story maybe, we seem to have this demon in our midst today – willingly summoned by us with potentially good intentions, but one that has turned out to be insatiably hungry for work. It’s the Internet and we seem to be the farmers.

What started out as a noble cause of sharing information with everyone for the betterment of the world, it seems to have taken a more heinous form, eternally hungry for information. We are bound to it 24×7 via news channels, feeds, and notifications to constantly consume what it provides and in turn, we seem to be endlessly feeding it information. We don’t absorb the beauty of a place or an event anymore. Out come multitudes of phones to immediately take pictures to feed to the demon. It seems it not satisfied with data anymore but needs ‘big data’! And has even started hiring it’s own (AI) assistants 🙂

சும்மா இரு, சொல் அற

Coming back to the advice that was given to AruNagirinaathar, what does it really mean? Is it to be taken literally – “Don’t do anything, Don’t say anything”?

As with most ancient scriptures, we believe that the meaning is more nuanced than simply a literal interpretation. When scholars attempt to expound on a sutra (and this can be considered as one), they refer to other similar occurrences and interpretations in other works to gain a better understanding of the broader context and purpose. While we are scholars by no stretch of imagination, we will attempt to at least follow the same exploratory path in the next post to the best of our abilities.

And no, the irony is NOT lost on us that it is taking us two posts for the first time to talk about “not doing anything” and “not saying anything” 🙂

Stating the stated statement

ABC has been running a hit series called “Shark Tank” for a while now. For those who have not watched it, it is a program where an entrepreneur goes in front of a panel of venture capitalists and pitches his or her product to get buy-in and investment from them to ‘go big’. The VCs proceed to grill the entrepreneur about the product, its viability, current market share, financials, and a lot more before eventually deciding whether to invest in the product or service, or not.

Top 10 Worst Shark Tank Pitches

Have you ever had the feeling when you felt like you came up with a brilliant idea all by yourself and want to proclaim your genius to the world? Then you pick your friend or confidante about this super cool idea and they stare back at you and say “there’s an app for that”?

What makes a pitch withstand intense scrutiny?

To answer this question, let’s look at something else that exhibits similar properties – namely something that withstands different perspectives and even the test of time. Sages of the past have formulated a simple mechanism that is prevalent even today to condense elaborate and profound concepts into pithy statements – they are called proverbs. We are now calling them “guiding principles” in management speak.

The efficiency of the proverbs is evident in the importance given to them during our childhood – moral stories and proverbial fables are perhaps one of the first kind of stories we learn as children and likely because they are the easiest to learn and digest. Interestingly they are also the ones that last the lifetime. Whenever we are faced with a decision or dilemma, we reach for these guiding principles to help us make a decision.

One of the books in the பதினெண்கீழ்க்கணக்கு (pathinenkeezhkaNakku – lower 18) collection is the book called பழமொழி நானூறு (pazhamozhi naanooRu – 400 Proverbs). Authored by மூன்றுறை அரையனார் (moondRuRai araiyanaar) – Jain monk – around 500CE – 600CE, the book is an eminent collection of proverbs that are a pleasure to read, remember, and follow.

One of the proverbs in this book seems to give us the answer to the question we posed earlier.

கல்லாதான் கண்ட கழி நுட்பம் கற்றார்முன்
சொல்லுங்கால், சோர்வு படுதலால், நல்லர்!
வினா முந்துறாத உரை இல்லை;-இல்லை,
கனா முந்துறாத வினை.

kallaadhaan kaNda kazhi nutpam katRaar mun sollum kaal sOrvu padudhalaal, nallar!
vinaa mundhu uRaadha urai illai; illai, kanaa mundhu uRaadha vinai.

கல்லாதான் கண்ட கழி நுட்பம் கற்றார்முன் சொல்லுங்கால், சோர்வு படுதல்
When a person who has not learned enough goes before those who are learned and shares what he feels is a unique idea, the value of his finding will get diminished as he might find that his idea has been in existence already and he was simply not aware of that.

வினா முந்துறாத உரை இல்லை
An answer does not come before a question.

கனா முந்துறாத வினை இல்லை
An action does not happen before a vision.

Let’s analyze this a bit more. First thing that grabs our attention is how concise the first two lines are (8 words), which took us much more (almost 6x) to convey in prose (50 words)! The choice of words are equally interesting and measured. சோர்வு படுதல் (sOrvu padudhal) means getting tired or getting weak. The deeper message here is that if an idea is not appropriately researched, then the power of the idea will become weak when presented in front of a larger (and likely more critical) audience.

கல்லாதான் (kallaadhaan – novice) is used relatively here compared to the other word கற்றார் (katRaar – learned). This relativity gives a wider latitude to these words and can refer to those who may be learned but are not so compared to those who are more learned than them!

Hence one must take the spark he or she might have hit upon and build it into a sustainable flame by feeding it with relevant research and analysis by considering all perspectives. Otherwise, the spark will fizzle out.

The power of a proverb or a guiding principle is its applicability across contexts, which we can also see here. Imagine the following scenarios:

  • A research student presenting a project thesis to the panel
  • A writer marketing a screenplay script to a Director
  • A management consultant presenting findings and recommendations in a project to stakeholders
  • A software entrepreneur making a pitch to a venture capitalist

So, how does one go about addressing this concern? An observation is not good enough if it doesn’t provide some guideline for taking remedial action. The next two lines provide the steps for remediation.

வினா முந்துறாத உரை இல்லை

You don’t come up with an answer before question has been asked. In other words, what is your idea trying to solve? If there is no problem to be solved, then you don’t have a solution – you just have a statement without a context! As asked so many times in Shark Tank, the first thing the VCs (Venture Capitalists) ask is “Why should someone buy your product?” The entrepreneur must be ready to answer the following questions, to name a few:

  1. Is there another product in the market that does something similar?
    • If so, why is the new product better than that one?
    • Are there compelling reasons to switch?
  2. If there is no other product out there in the market, why would someone want this product?
    • What is the unmet need?
    • How desperate is that need?

If the entrepreneur is not able to answer these probing questions, the idea becomes weak on its knees and falls flat, failing to get a buy-in.

கனா முந்து உறாத வினை இல்லை

An action without an appropriate vision is meaningless. The choice of the word is again impressive here. கனா (kanaa) commonly refers to dream and வினை (vinai) refers to action or effect. Essentially, you have to dream big in order to take an appropriate action towards achieving that dream.  The ‘dream’ by Martin Luther King Jr. mobilized an entire community and country into action. In management parlance, dream translate into vision. CEOs and the like have to come up with a vision that is beyond their current state. The bolder the vision, the more it can motivate the team into taking action and shed their complacency.

So, if an entrepreneur needs the action of investment from the VCs, she should be able to paint her dream clearly in vivid colors. If it is hazy, then there will be no action.

Our mind constantly keeps churning what we absorb through our senses, marinates on it over time, and then regurgitates it as thoughts and ideas. If we don’t feed enough sources to our mind to try various permutations and combinations or not give enough time for the ideas to marinate or pressure test them with others, we end up with shallow concepts that are either immature or already present, which can both fall apart on further scrutiny.