Sensational Sayings

Common sense is that which judges the things that is given to it by other senses. – Leonardo Da Vinci

Systems theory broadly classifies any system as either open or closed. An open system is one that is influenced by its environment, while a closed one is isolated from it. Scientific studies generally try to consider closed systems or at least a controlled environment for the sake of simplifying various variables involved in any system in order to develop some generalizations or reasonable approximations. While this works very well from a scientific perspective, in a societal or philosophical construct, the impact of environment cannot be ignored.

If we consider ourselves as a system, then we are defined by the components that make us (our inherent beliefs, leanings, etc.) as well as the impact that the environment in which we grow up in, has on us. From this perspective, our view of life can be thought of as being made up of three elements:

  1. Internal: Our inherent beliefs and thoughts, or “soul” – how we are wired at birth
  2. External / Environmental: Our beliefs shaped by the environment
  3. Interaction: The ways in which our “inside” interacts with the “outside”.

Many of the Thamizh literary works interestingly are aligned to this notion. The works are typically classified as அகம் (agam – self), புறம் (puRAm – external, material, or societal thoughts), and காமம் (kaamam – intimacy or relationship).

Spiritual literature in Thamizh explain the nuances of all these three – how one should understand oneself and seek self-realization, how one should understand and adapt to the environment, and how one should manage the impact the environment has on the self.

An ideal situation would be to be deterministic, i.e., a closed system, where we are not at all influenced by the external environment and we are in full control of our destiny and can act as per our own internal thinking, uninfluenced by anything else. However, that is far from reality. We are constantly influenced by external actions both positively and negatively, and in many cases, act according to the whims and fancies of such external influences than by our own will.

Maybe realizing this, various sages, including the famed Siddhars, exhort us get in touch with our inner self and avoid getting influenced by external forces.


This begs the question – what links the “closed” self with the “open” environment? They are the senses that all living beings have. Senses are the ones that allow us to interact with our environment – for good or for bad. There is common consensus in philosophy that there are totally five common senses and one extra sense.


  1. Touch – That which is felt through the skin
  2. Taste – That which is observed through the tongue
  3. Smell – That which is observed through the nose
  4. Sight – That which is observed through the eyes
  5. Hearing – That which is observed through the ears
  6. Thinking – That which is discerned and deduced by the mind

There was a question posted in Quora on whether there was any particular order for these senses. Most answers seem to indicate that there isn’t any particular order. However, one of the earliest heroes in Thamizh literature – தொல்காப்பியர் (Tholkaappiyar) – the equivalent of Patanjali in Sanskrit who defined Thamizh grammar rules in his book தொல்காப்பியம் (Tholkaappiyam), generally considered to be almost 2,000 years old – begs to differ.

ஒன்று அறிவதுவே உற்று அறிவதுவே;

இரண்டு அறிவதுவே அதனொடு நாவே;

மூன்று அறிவதுவே அவற்றொடு மூக்கே;

நான்கு அறிவதுவே அவற்றொடு கண்ணே;

ஐந்து அறிவதுவே அவற்றொடு செவியே;

ஆறு அறிவதுவே அவற்றொடு மனனே;-

நேரிதின் உணர்ந்தோர் நெறிப்படுத்தினரே

ondRu aRivadhuvE utRu aRivadhuvE;

iraNdu aRivadhuvE adhanodu naavE;
moondRu aRivadhuvE avatRodu mookkE;
naangu aRivadhuvE avatRodu kaNNE;
aindhu aRivadhuvE avatRodu seviyE;
aaRu aRivadhuvE avatRodu mananE;
neridhin uNarnthOr neRippaduthinarE

The first sense is the one of touch, which became two by adding taste, three by adding smell, four by adding sight, five by adding hearing, and six by adding thinking – so have classified those who know about these things.

He doesn’t just stop here – but goes to provide examples of why the senses are organized in this order by citing examples of various beings that fall in each category:

Touch: Grass and trees (புல்லும் மரனும்) as well as things that bend and don’t bend, such as vines, lotus, algae, etc.
Taste: Molluscs and cephalopods (நந்தும் முரளும்) such as snails, oysters, conch, etc.
Smell: Insects such as ants and termites (சிதலும் எறும்பும்) and others.
Vision: Crustaceans and flying insects (நண்டும் தும்பியும்) and others.
Hearing: Four-legged animals (மாவும் மாக்களும்), birds, reptiles, aquatic and amphibian creatures and others.
Thinking: Humans (மக்கள்) as well as a few others.

What struck as amazing at first glance is how closely related this categorization is to the Darwinian theory of evolution – almost 1,800 years before Darwin figured it out! Even though there are some deviations from the current scientific knowledge that describes the senses available in these creatures, it is a remarkably close approximation.

There are also a couple of things to note here. In the fifth sense, Tholkaappiyar adds மாக்கள் (maakkaL) – which refers to humans who do not have the capability to discern right from wrong and cannot deduce meaning – he considers them as good as not having the sixth sense! Similarly, for the sixth sense, he mentions that there are more beyond just humans who have a sixth sense. While we couldn’t find specific source, most narratives we have seen about these verses imply that Tholkaappiyar meant elephants, monkeys, and parrots to be endowed with a sixth sense – which also seems to be a good enough approximation to recent scientific studies about these creatures.

An interesting coincidence is that these three specific creatures share a prominent and revered space in Indian literature. Lord Ganesha – attributed to be the scribe for Mahabharata – has an elephant head. Suka muni – son of Sage Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata – who narrated both Mahabharata and Bhagavatam to King Parikshit, has the head of a parrot. Hanuman – the messenger to Lord rAma, is a monkey.

Uncontrolled Senses

While senses are the doors and windows to the soul allowing us to experience the environment, like any door and window they can let both the good and the bad inside. Probably having realized the vital importance of the senses to our sanity, various saints have cautioned about the inherent uncontrollability of the senses and the dangers that they pose as a result.

One of the 18 Siddhars – AzhuguNi Siddhar – has written a beautiful poem about this.

எண்சாண் உடம்படியோ ஏழிரண்டு வாயிலடி

பஞ்சாயக் காரரைவர் பட்டணமுந் தானிரண்டு

அஞ்சாமற் பேசுகிறாய் ஆக்கினைக்குத் தான்பயந்து

நெஞ்சார நில்லாமல் என் கண்ணம்மா

நிலைகடந்து வாடுறண்டி.

eNsaaN udambadiyO EzhiraNdu vaayiladi

panchaayakaarar aivar pattaNamum thaan iraNdu
anjaamal pEsugiraai aakkinaikku thaan bayandhu
nenjaara nillaamal en kaNNammaa nilai kidanthu vaaduRaNdi

This body measuring eight ‘saan’s by one’s own hand (one ‘saan’ is the distance between the tip of the thumb and the pinky in an outstretched and spread out hand), there are nine openings (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, one mouth, one anus, and one genital).
There are five people who govern this place day and night.
My mind is wavering relentlessly out of fear of them and I am exhausted as a result – won’t you come and save me?

The Siddhar eloquently states that our senses constantly pull us apart in different directions, exhausting us in the process and getting us to a state of mental instability.

As a side, there are a couple of reasons why the siddhar is called அழுகுணி சித்தர் (AzhuguNi siddhar) – literally meaning whiny siddhar or crying siddhar. One reasoning is that his verses are written in such a way to evoke tears to those who read it – evoking his desperation to attain salvation. Another reasoning is that he always had tears in his eyes and hence was named as such. Apparently, the siddhar himself was a wealthy merchant who traveled far and wide and in his travels, saw the vagaries of human nature and decided to renounce everything in search of a higher meaning.

Controlling the Senses

So, now that we know the cause – can’t we find a cure by controlling the senses? What if we simply get rid of all of them to become a “closed system”, which in turn, would be deterministic? That would be a fallacy. Thirumoolar states this eloquently in Thirumanthiram.

அஞ்சும் அடக்கு அடக்கு என்பர் அறிவு இலார்

அஞ்சும் அடக்கும் அமரரும் அங்கு இலை

அஞ்சும் அடக்கில் அசேதனம் ஆம் என்று இட்டு

அஞ்சும் அடக்கா அறிவு அறிந்தேனே.

anjum adakku adakku enbar aRivu ilaar

anjum adakkum amararum angu ilai
anjum adakkil asedhanam aam endRu ittu
anjum adakkaa aRivu aRinthEnE

Those who are of false (or fake) intelligence will ask people to control and suppress the five senses. There is none in this world who is capable of doing that. I have realized that it is insensible to try to control or suppress the senses and have instead learned how to channel my senses in the right direction.

The answer is not in trying to suppress something that is inherently insuppressible. The right approach would be to channel them in a better way – much like taming wild horses, the metaphor often attributed to senses.

Interestingly, this sensible approach is relevant to many other situations – be it trying to control free speech, satire, a creative child, a rebellious child, or a bored or unruly student / worker, and potentially even free market.

Collation of Senses

We have seen some heavy spiritual examples above. There are also some lighter moments! What would be a great example of all senses coming together in a good way? ThiruvaLLuvar gives a very interesting couplet:

கண்டு கேட்டு உண்டு உயிர்த்து உற்று அறியும் ஐம்புலனும்

ஒண்தொடி கண்ணே உள

kaNdu kEttu uNdu uyirthu utRu aRiyum aimpulanum

oNthodi kaNNE uLa

My girl (wife or lover) who is wearing shiny bangles – is a feast for all my five senses – her beautiful body, her melodious voice, her taste (lips?), her smell, and her touch!

Just so you don’t get your imagination running wild along with your senses with the sexy couplet above, let us bring you back to the spiritual realm once more before we leave!

Metaphorical Senses

In all the examples above and in many other poems, the senses are always referred directly either by their actual names or indirectly by the number 5 – referring to the five senses.

The great poet Appar (aka Thirunaavukkarasar) has a beautiful poem that implies the five senses only by metaphors:

மாசில் வீணையும் மாலை மதியமும்

வீசு தென்றலும் வீங்கில வேனிலும்

மூசு வண்டறை பொய்கையும் போன்றதே

ஈசன் எந்தை இணையடி நீழலே

maasil veeNaiyum maalai madhiyamum

veesu thendRalum veengila vEnilum
moosu vandaRai poigaiyum pOndRathE
eesan enthai iNaiyadi neezhalE

The refuge that I seek under the shadow of the feet of Lord Shiva is as pleasant as the melodious music from veenai (hearing), the cool evening moon (sight), a pleasant breeze (touch), drinking/eating a palm fruit (நுங்கு) in summer (taste), the pond covered with flowers that are buzzed by bees (smell).

There is also an interesting story behind this song. Appar was originally born in a Saivite family and then converted to Jainism. Due to a divine intervention when he was suffering from a severely upset stomach, he converted back to Saivism and became Appar. The Jain monks at that time were upset at this and levied false charges against him to King Mahendra Varman, who was a Jain, who promptly imprisoned him in a limestone quarry. The quarry was intended to cause severe pain due to the dry heat and caustic air within the quarry.

This is when Appar sings this song asking Shiva to help him, who promptly obliges. As a result, Appar’s senses are liberated and he does not feel any pain.

The five examples here are attributed slightly differently in other interpretations – with the pond referring to taste (sweet water), breeze referring to smell (spring air carrying fragrance of flowers), and வீங்கிளவேனில் (veengiLa vEnil) referring to pleasant summer heat (touch). However, we felt the explanation above was more appropriate.

Whatever the interpretation, it doesn’t degrade the beauty of the metaphors and is a feast for our sixth sense!

Sources and Resources


Expressing Experience

Not hearing is not as good as hearing, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as mentally knowing, mentally knowing is not as good as acting; true learning continues up to the point that action comes forth. – Xun Zi


How can we communicate experience? Can one learn by observing (either seeing or hearing or reading about) actions of others or must they experience (or do) it themselves in order for the learning to be meaningful?

Are there lessons that cannot be taught but only experienced?

The quote by Xun Zi (incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Franklin and sometimes simplified as “I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand”), reminds us of a similar gem in Sanskrit.

आचार्यात पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यः स्वमेधया |
सहब्रह्मचरिभ्य:पादं पादं कालक्रमेण च ||

AchAryAt pAdamOdatte pAdam sishyah swamEdhaya
sahabrahmahchAribhyah pAdam pAdam kAlakramENa cha

Learning is one part from what is taught by a teacher, one part by self-intelligence, one part by discussing with peers, and one part gained over time (by doing / experiencing).

Tacit Knowledge

Knowledge Management theories classify knowledge as explicit (knowledge that can be unambiguously transmitted through written media) and implicit / tacit (knowledge that is internalized by humans and has to be conveyed person-to-person).

From a business perspective, explicit knowledge is ideal, as it is tangible, brings more certainty to what’s known, and allows knowledge to be treated more as a commodity. You document operational knowledge as an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) and can send it offshore to save costs.

However, most knowledge is tacit rather than explicit – gathered over time and hidden in the recesses of human minds. While it is potentially feasible to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, it is typically imperfect and cost prohibitive. Instead, the most common form of tacit knowledge transfer tends to be in the form of ‘shadowing’ – essentially the person wanting to gain knowledge follows or ‘shadows’ the person who has said knowledge for a period of time, interspersed by meetings, interviews, and review sessions. Interestingly, this structure bears a lot of similarities to the Gurukulam mode of learning practiced in India in the early days.

Importance of a Guru

Even in our changing times where questions are being raised on the effectiveness of institutional knowledge, there is still a lot value placed on the formal way of learning and parents focus on getting their kids into the best schools with the best teachers – from kindergarten to doctorate degrees.

With a rich heritage of literary works, a question is often asked as to why the ancient seers (rishis) of India didn’t figure out a way to preserve the texts in writing and instead used oral tradition to pass on the works. The answer we have heard is that the seers felt that the written form does not do justice in providing the appropriate context to the words and hence can end up being misinterpreted over time. Hence, an oral tradition where the context would be provided by a properly learned teacher was considered more appropriate. While this sounds weird at a first glance, even modern management techniques seem to be adopting this idea in the form of “storytelling”.

Given this approach, it was considered critical for a student to find the right teacher who would pass on such knowledge. There are stories about in Indian literature where great saints went far and wide to find their guru who would teach them.

The word guru in sanskrit means ‘one who removes ignorance’. Equally interesting is the word ‘AchArya’, which also refers to a teacher. It means one who practices what he preaches. This definition is more appropriate for our context – where an AchArya is one who preaches his experience (practice). Thus, it becomes important that the teacher have the right experience so as to transfer the same to the student.


Thirumoolar (திருமூலர்), one of the more widely known Siddhars, explains this importance of finding an appropriately qualified teacher in his own unique style.

குருட்டினை நீக்கும் குருவினை கொள்ளார்
குருட்டினை நீக்கா குருவினை கொள்வர்
குருடும் குருடும் குருட்டாட்டம் ஆடி
குருடும் குருடும் குழி வீழு மாறே

kuruttinai neekkum guruvinai koLLaar
kuruttinai neekkaa guruvinai koLvar
kurudum kurudum kuruttaattam aadi
kurudum kurudum kuzhi veezhumaarE!

Those who do not take the effort to find a teacher who can remove one’s ignorance (mental blindness) will end up going behind a teacher who is blinded by the pleasures of this world. It will then be like the blind leading the blind, whereby both will end up falling in a hole, unable to get out (of this worldly bondage).

The poem is an elegant play of words (kurudu – blind, guru – teacher; Thamizh does not differentiate between ‘ga’ and ‘ka’ sounds in the written script).

Brief History of Thirumoolar

Before we go a bit deeper into this idea, let’s step aside for a minute to know the star of this post – Thirumoolar. Even though Thirumoolar has contributed significantly to Thamizh literature (he has written the 10th chapter of ThirumuRai, known as Thirumandhiram – containing around 3,000 verses), not much is known about his antecedents. Even his time period is not certain, ranging from before CE to 4th century AD to even as late as 13th century.

There is however, a common story on how he got his name. Thirumoolar was originally named Sundarar and was a disciple of Sage Agastya – the foremost of Siddhars and considered the father of Thamizh as a language and of Siddha medicine. Having learned from Agastya, he was sent to Mount Kailash for further studies in Sanskrit under the tutelage of Nandi (divine personification of Shiva’s bull).

Once the studies were thus completed, on his way back to Agastya, he sees a dead cowherd named Moolan. Apparently, Moolan was a kind soul and so, his cows were crying next to him inconsolably upon losing him. Being the kindhearted, Sundarar uses his yogic powers to shift his soul from his body to that of Moolan, safely keeping his current body inside the hole of a tree.

The cows rejoice on seeing Moolan back to life and happily accompany him back to the village. Moolan’s wife is happy to see him back from work and tries to get near him, at which point Sundarar moves away from her and says that Moolan is not really Moolan, but Sundarar. The wife gets upset and takes to court, where it is eventually decided that it is indeed a saint in the body of Moolan.

Having cleared the confusion, Sundarar (in Moolan’s body) goes back to where he left his original body but finds that it is not there anymore. He realizes that it is the will of Shiva to remain in Moolan’s body and spread spirituality. He explains this as follows:

என்னை நன்றாக இறைவன் படைத்தனன்
தன்னை நன்றாக தமிழ் செய்யுமாறே

ennai nandRaaga iRaivan padaithanan
thannai nandRaaga thamizh seyyumaaRe

I have been asked to take this birth so that I can sing the praises of Shiva in Thamizh!

The implication here is that Shiva wanted Sundarar to explain the wisdom he has gained in terms that everyone could understand and hence wishes him to remain in the body of a cowherd, thereby using the language used by a cowherd than that of a pundit.

Experiencing Self-Realization

Now back to our scheduled program!

As the quotes at the beginning of this post emphasize, learning is not complete till it is experienced. A prime example of this is spirituality itself. Science is based on the foundation of observation, while spirituality is based on experience. While seemingly contradictory, in the context above, they seem to represent a continuum.

From Siddhars to Buddha, there have been many saints who have claimed to have achieved self-realization. However, it is not something they can write about and pass on to others. Thirumoolar (திருமூலர்) explains this dilemma of the inability to explain “enlightenment” in an interesting “not safe for kids” way!

முகத்தில் கண் கொண்டு பார்க்கின்ற மூடர்காள்
அகத்தில் கண் கொண்டு காண்பதே அநந்தம்
மகளுக்கு தாய் தன் மணாளனோடு ஆடிய
சுகத்தை சொல் என்றால் சொல்லுமாறு எங்ஙனே

mugathil kaN koNdu paarkindRa moodarkaaL
agathill kaN koNdu kaaNbadhe anantham
magaLukku thaai than maNaaLanOdu aadiya
sugathai sol endRaal sollumaaRu engnganE

Fools – you claim that only seeing is believing; know that learning to see from your mind’s eye (self-realization) is the one that brings endless joy.
If you ask a mother to explain to her daughter how she enjoyed the pleasures of sex from her husband, how will she be able to do that?!

What a zinger! One wouldn’t explain such a simple but profound statement from a saint who has forgone it all! This notion of having to experience something to understand the ups and downs of the issue also comes up in the life of Adi Shankara, where he uses the same technique used by Thirumoolar to enter into the body of a villager to understand what it means to be a married person. He couldn’t get the details by just reading about marriage – he had to experience it, even if for an instant.

Perceptions and Wisdom

Our experiences tend to shape how we perceive things – reality or concept – for better or for worse. Thus gaining experiences that move us toward the goal we want to achieve becomes critical. Not all experiences are relevant and some may even be counterproductive. Helping us get the right type of experience in the appropriate trajectory would then lie in the hands of the teacher or Guru that we get. The same would apply to cultivating the right mentors in the business world – those who help us ‘see’ things properly.

Thirumoolar, in one of his famous poems, brings this concept in a very profound manner.

மரத்தை மறைத்தது மாமத யானை
மரத்தில் மறைந்தது மாமத யானை
பரத்தை மறைத்தது பார்முதல் பூதம்
பரத்தில் மறைந்தது பார்முதல் பூதமே

marathai maRaithadhu maamadha yaanai
marathil maRaindadhu maamadha yaanai
parathai maRaithadhu paarmudhal boodham
parathil maRaindadhu paarmudhal boodham

The elephant hides the wood; the elephant is hidden in the wood;
The world and its creations hide the One; the One is hidden in the world and its creations.


A child, with its innocence and mind uncluttered by the sensual distractions, looks at a wooden toy elephant and believes the toy as an elephant than just a piece of wood. But as it grows older, the elephant vanishes and becomes a piece of wood.

Alternately, when someone looks at an exquisite wooden sculpture of an elephant, they may forget that it is made of wood and only see the elephant come to life. For others who cannot appreciate or realize the beauty, it will be a piece of wood.

Similarly, for the one who does not have belief (or in other words, one who is only focuses on what is seen), world and the beings within are seen just as they are. When realization occurs, world and the beings vanish and they just see the One that drives all.

Elephant Race

This reminds us of the Illusion Art (formally known as Stereograms) that we have seen during childhood, where the picture is just made of random stuff, but when you look at it at just the right distance from the eyes, a 3D image emerges.

Whether we believe a higher being or not, the morals propounded by saints like Thirumoolar apply beyond our beliefs and it would be wise to find ourselves appropriate gurus to walk down the path to wisdom.


Moral Dilemmas

Morality is an elusive, and arguably, a relative concept. People establish religions, form governments, fight wars, and make peace – all in the quest to get to a common understanding on what is right versus wrong. Morality varies by the individual, by the environment surrounding the person, within a group, and over time.

Morality also seems to be stratified – where we are fine with some contradictions in morality at a lower level as long as there is a broader alignment at the higher level. Perhaps this interesting aspect of living with moral contradictions at different levels while claiming our morality is one that makes us stick together as a society and survive.


சிலப்பதிகாரம் (silappadikaaram – story of the anklet) – one of the great epics of Thamizh literature – provides some interesting insights into the notion of moral contradictions and how what may seem to be the social norm may not necessarily equate to the underlying reality. It was written by இளங்கோ அடிகள் (Ilango Adigal), reportedly a prince in Cheran dynasty around 1st century CE. It is held in high esteem in Thamizh literature not just for its story and length, but also because of the comprehensive nature in which it provides a vivid description of the Thamizh lifestyle of that era and its use of literature (இயல்), music (இசை), and drama (நாடகம்) – the three primary forms of entertainment and expression.

The story contains many aspects that will give current movies a run for their money.

Brief story

The story is about Kovalan – the son of a rich merchant – who was born in the city of Pukaar (now, Poompuhar) in the Chozha kingdom and his travails in life. He marries KaNNagi, the beautiful daughter of another rich merchant and they lead a happy life. Then Kovalan comes across Maadhavi, a courtesan and instantly falls for her. He leaves KaNNagi and spends his time with Maadhavi. During a conversation with Maadhavi one day, he realizes the error of his ways and gets back to KaNNagi, who forgives him. By now, Kovalan has spent all his money and is bankrupt.

Wanting to start their life anew, Kovalan and KaNNagi head for Madurai, in the Pandyan kingdom. KaNNagi gives one of the precious anklets she wears when Kovalan asks, so he can sell it in the market to get some capital for starting a new business. He promptly takes it and sells it to a Goldsmith, who happens to work for the queen. The goldsmith, seeing that the anklet is similar to the one the queen has (which he has in his possession – and wants to steal it), brings Kovalan’s anklet to the king claiming Kovalan had stolen the queen’s anklet. The king, in a fit of rage, orders that Kovalan be executed, which is promptly done. Hearing the news, Kannagi goes to the King and shows him the other anklet and proves that Kovalan is innocent. The King dies on having erred from his duties. The queen dies on seeing this. Kannagi, in her rage of losing her husband, burns down the city, and eventually dies – joining Kovalan in heaven.

Climax Scene

One of the most quoted areas of Silappadikaaram is the court scene where Kannagi gets in front of the King to prove her husband’s innocence. The conversation is etched vividly in our minds (likely because we had to learn it by rote in school!) and has great depth that would rival any climax court scene in a thriller movie.

தேரா மன்னா! செப்புவது உடையேன்;
எள் அறு சிறப்பின் இமையவர் வியப்ப,
புள் உறு புன்கண் தீர்த்தோன்; அன்றியும்,
வாயில் கடை மணி நடு நா நடுங்க,
ஆவின் கடை மணி உகு நீர் நெஞ்சு சுட, தான் தன்
அரும்பெறல் புதல்வனை ஆழியின் மடித்தோன்
பெரும் பெயர்ப் புகார் என் பதியே; அவ் ஊர்,
ஏசாச் சிறப்பின், இசை விளங்கு பெருங்கொடி
மாசாத்து வாணிகன் மகனை ஆகி,
வாழ்தல் வேண்டி, ஊழ்வினை துரப்ப,
சூழ் கழல் மன்னா! நின் நகர்ப் புகுந்து, இங்கு
என் கால் சிலம்பு பகர்தல் வேண்டி, நின்பால்
கொலைக்களப் பட்ட கோவலன் மனைவி;
கண்ணகி என்பது என் பெயரே

theraa mannaa! seppuvadhu udaiyEn
eL aRu siRappin imayavar viyappa puL uRu punkaN theernDhon andRiyum
vaayil kadai maNi nadu naa nadunga, aavin kadai maNi ugu neer nenju suda,
thaan than arumpeRal pudalvanai aazhiyin madithon
perum peyar pukaar en padhiyE;
avvoor Esaa siRappin isai viLangu perunkodi Maasaathu vaaNigan maganai aagi,
vaazhdal vEndi, oozhvinai thurappa, soozh kazhal mannaa! nin nagar pugundu,
ingu en kaal silambu pagardal vEndi, ninpaal kolaikaLappatta Kovalan manaivi
Kannagi enbadu en peyarE

O King, who does not do proper due diligence before providing justice​ – hear me now!
The great king Sibi, who willingly gave his flesh for an eagle to protect a dove, and the great king Manuneedhi Chozhan, who killed his own son to provide justice to a calf, ruled the city of Pukaar – that is my hometown.
In there, born to the well known merchant Maasaathuvaan, the one who came to your city driven by fate for sake of starting a new life but eventually got murdered by you for selling my anklet, that Kovalan’s wife – KaNNagi – is my name.

The translation sadly doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the original structure. In a few short lines, ILango AdigaL gives a marvelous executive summary of the epic in this crucial moment! As we pause to reflect on this situation and the structure of words, a few aspects are worth noting:

  • With a heart full of sorrow and anger, KaNNagi is in no mood to be nice. Remember, she is getting her first audience with the King of the country where she has just migrated to live a life. So, no salutations or anything – just goes directly into the heart and accuses him of having committed injustice and that too due to lack of due diligence on his part – all in two words தேரா மன்னா!
  • Then she further drives home the injustice committed by pointing out that she comes from a place that is known for being righteous and is accustomed to such high standards. So, she is appalled to see the level of injustice in this new place. More subtly, she challenges the king by saying that he cannot live up to the same standards of justice from where she came from!
  • She gives one last punch by saying that she and her husband came to this city by fate (they wouldn’t have willingly come here otherwise!) and then closes by accusing the king of murder!

You would imagine that with a random lady almost at the point of insanity having the guts to come to his court and accuse him of murder, the King would’ve just gotten more angry and would’ve simply asked her head to be chopped off. Here’s were we get a glimpse of the King’s character.

He maintains his composure – cool as he can be – and simply states that he did no wrong by executing a thief. What is the proof that he is not a thief?

Now, we see something interesting – beautiful piece of detective deduction by KaNNagi! Maybe because of her sharp intellect or because she is from a merchant family, (purely our ankletsspeculation here) she realizes that in the Pandya kingdom, which is sea-faring (they have a fish as the state flag), the anklets will be filled with pearls, whereas hers, from the Chozha kingdom are filled with rubies (likely because Chozhas did a lot of trade with Burma and other places, known for rubies) and simply states that her anklets are filled with rubies (anklets are hollow and filled with something to make sound).

The King hears that and confirms that his queen’s anklets are filled with pearls, as expected. The anklet confiscated from Kovalan is then brought to the court and KaNNagi promptly proceeds to throw it in the ground, whereby it splits and the rubies scatter in the ground and a few hitting the king in his face.

Seeing this, the King realizes that Kovalan is innocent and that he indeed did commit injustice.

தாழ்ந்த குடையன், தளர்ந்த செங்கோலன்,
‘பொன் செய் கொல்லன்-தன் சொல் கேட்ட
யனோ அரசன்? யானே கள்வன்;
மன்பதை காக்கும் தென் புலம் காவல்
என் முதல் பிழைத்தது; கெடுக என் ஆயுள்!

thaazhnda kudaiyan, thaLarntha senkOlan,
“pon sei kollan – than sol kEtta yaano arasan? yaanE kaLvan”
manpadhai kaakkum then pulam kaaval en mudhal pizhaithadhu; keduga en aayuL!

With his umbrella slanted and the scepter slipping from his hands, the King lost his bearings and said “I heard the lies of the goldsmith and took them to be the truth without doing my due diligence. Am I fit to be called a King? No, I am now the thief! I have brought disrepute to this righteous Pandya Kingdom – let me die now!”

How often do we see a person of great power and responsibility realize the mistake he has made and admit that mistake publicly instead of blindly defending themselves?! Definitely not in the recent times, for sure!

Moral Dilemmas

What is interesting are the character transformations that happen throughout the story and their related moral dilemmas and contradictory positions they take over time.

KaNNagi (கண்ணகி) is portrayed as chastity personified (கற்புக்கரசி – karpukkarasi – queen of chastity). However she also seems to come across as being completely subservient to Kovalan – forgiving all of his erroneous ways.

Is it right of her to maintain her loyalty to her husband for sake of marriage and societal norms? Is it right of her to forgive him even after he deserted her for another lady?

Later on, she completely transforms herself when her husband dies – like the modern day Roja (in the eponymous Maniratnam film) displaying qualities of Thelma (of Thelma & Louise) and takes on a much different persona. In that process, she goes ahead to destroy the entire city where she was wronged.

Is it right of her to set fire to an entire city (with many families in it), just because she was wronged? Can she act as a vigilante and take justice in her own hands?

Nedunchezhiyan (நெடுஞ்செழியன்), the king in question, is portrayed as having committed injustice to KaNNagi without doing due diligence and comes across as being haughty and entitled. However, we see later that he is actually a good and just king because a) he provided audience to a seeming lunatic to listen to her grievances, b) kept his cool when he was accused of murder, and c) took his life when he finds out that he actually did commit injustice.

Is the King an incompetent, rash person whose death was justified or did he react extremely to the truth? Was it right of the King to take his own life because he committed injustice once or should he have kept his life as he was a good King in general and would’ve likely done justice in many other scenarios?

Maadhavi (மாதவி) is another interesting character in the story. A courtesan by profession, she was the reason for Kovalan leaving his faithful wife. While she seems to come across initially as the villain of the story, we see that she actually is a girl of good character, falling in love and staying faithful to Kovalan once he comes to her and leaving her profession. Once Kovalan leaves her to go back to KaNNagi, she leaves the profession altogether and becomes a Buddhist monk.

Was she right in luring Kovalan away from his marriage? Or was she just doing her job as a courtesan?

Lastly, there is Kovalan (கோவலன்) himself. He seems to be the wuss in this story – the hapless Devdas character who seem to complain that he is a victim of circumstances, not owning up to his ineptitude. Was it right of Kovalan to have left his wife for Maadhavi or can he say he couldn’t help it because he was a man and is inevitably drawn to beautiful women? Was it right of Kovalan to coax his wife to go to Madurai even if it would inconvenience his wife further instead of owning up to his past errors, sucking it up by going to his dad or in-laws for more money to start anew?

People are faced with similar questions in their own lives at various points – when taking a new job, when moving to a new place, when potentially committing adultery, when trying to get out of a traffic ticket, and many more.

We don’t have the answers to these questions but maybe there is some comfort in knowing that such moral dilemmas and contradictions have existed even 2,000 years back and are not that easy to solve!


  1. (Thamizh text and some explanation)
  2. (anklet picture)
  3. (KaNNagi picture)

The art of Executive Summary

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

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

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


The Scene

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

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

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

Valmiki RAmAyana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

samudram lanGhayitvaa aham shata yOjanam aayatam
aagachcham jaanakIm sItaam maargamaaNO diDhrikshayaa

tatra lankaa iti nagarI raavanaasya Duraatmanaha
Dakshinasya samuDrasya teerE vasati DakshinE

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


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

Thanks to translation source: Valmiki Ramayan

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

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

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

Kamban’s take

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few key things to note here:

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

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

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

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

How does a light bulb shine bright?

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t- till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

–  Lewis Carroll

How can we understand the intent of someone’s words? Do they really mean what they mean? Even if it means one thing, might it mean something else? How can we be sure? Is it possible for our interpretation of someone’s words to be better than what they intended? Not understanding the intention of the other person’s intent even though we understand the meaning of the words causes trouble – be it ending up in the couch for the night or waging wars between nations!

If we make an error in understanding the intent, we try to get it rectified by getting clarification. If we are more nuanced, we try to augment the verbal cues up front with nonverbal cues as Hanuman did in our previous post, and attempt to infer the intent of the words (or actions).

What if we don’t have the luxury of the person being present?

We lose both these faculties almost immediately. This is the downside of written words. It loses contextual meaning fairly quickly and one is then saddled with the heavy task of reconstructing the context in order to interpret the words accurately. Stories, it is said, goes a long way in attempting to fix this issue – but that’s for another day.

As a corollary, sometimes we are faced with another dilemma – what if we do know the intent of the words, but feel that the words themselves are applicable in another context? Do we take the liberty of appropriating the words for another intent that the author may not have intended?

Both these have ethical implications. We may come across an interesting concept in the Internet and might want to use it – be it a recipe or an idea. We may be well intentioned in leveraging past knowledge, but what steps should we take to honor and respect the original author’s intent? Or should we even bother?

These concerns tend to be a bit more obvious in music – a world of renditions and improvisations. I recall an interview with Lata Mangeshkar – the famous Hindi playback singer. She has sung numerous hit songs for R D Burman, her mentor, also incidentally her brother-in-law, and a highly accomplished musical director. In a question about the South Indian playback legend S.P.B singing to the music of R.D.Burman, her comment was that while she highly respected his talent, she didn’t agree with S.P.B taking vocal liberties on a tune that R.D.Burman had composed as she felt it compromised the integrity of the composer’s intent. The irony is that S.P.B has a huge following just for such improvisations! What one considers as sacrilege at times gets appreciated by others, making such questions more complicated to answer.

As we explored the verses from Kamban over the last couple of posts, the same thoughts ran through our minds. We pointed out that in both cases, Kamban’s narrative differs from that of the source – Valmiki RAmAyana.  Was that right of Kamban to do so? Has he blasphemed by ‘reinterpreting’ RAmAyana – an epic that is most revered? What would you do if you had write an important research report and end up finding an excellent article that contains a number of points aligned to your objectives for the paper?

  • Would you simply copy/paste it and add a few sentences around it and take credit?
  • Would you cite the source and include the details verbatim?
  • Would you attempt to understand the article, its contextual application, and then attempt to paraphrase it, while also citing the source?

And what has all this got to do with a light bulb?

When we started this blog a while back with the intent of curating and presenting interesting pieces of Thamizh literature, we had a dilemma – do we simply present the verses that interested us with some additional cleanup but leave it to the reader to do the interpretation (an act of curation), or do we attempt to provide some color commentary (an act of interpretation)?

Not everyone is a creative genius. A Kamban and a Bharathi are born once in several generations.


Our humble belief is that like how the inert gas in a light bulb preserves the light emitted by the filament, interpretations and retelling of creative works can cherish, amplify, and propagate the concepts to a broader audience. The filament itself will continue to burn and emit light even if there is no inert gas surrounding it. However, its reach would be far limited and it will burn out quickly. Likewise, the inert gas by itself is not capable of generating light but when it surrounds the filament, it protects the filament from disintegrating quickly and preventing it from internally combusting, thereby preserving the source to shine through for a longer period.

We hope that we are like the tiny inert gas particles – even if we are not capable of displaying literary genius ourselves, we benefit by getting enlightened by the photons emitted by the filament and for our part, try to spread the light a little farther.

What about the glass casing, you say? It has an extremely important role. Without the casing, the inert gas is not going to be contained and will disperse. In our analogy the casing is the intent and purpose of the author and the context in which the literary work was created. We, as the insignificant gas particles, have reasonable liberty – the space between the filament and the casing – to move about and provide a retelling or to apply the concept in a newer format, as long as we do so within the confines of the purpose intended by the author, by understanding the context, and to be discerning enough to not mix them up. If we do so, then we would have served our purpose with dignity and value.

A misappropriation or reimagination is like the gas or a filament particle getting outside the casing – it may have a residual flicker due to the association, but it cannot be considered as being part of that bulb anymore. It does not mean that one cannot provide a complete reimagination of another’s work – it’s just that the reimagination should be considered an ‘inspiration’ of the original work – a new filament in a new bulb having a life of its own that should be dissociated from the earlier one and stand on its own merit.

Kamban is celebrated as a genius because he did not just translate the epic. He added his own unique value by reinterpreting, rearranging, and reconfiguring the epic as required to what he believed would be appropriate for his audience and his time. But while doing all this improvisation, he stayed faithful to the original intent, preserving the tone, concept, and purpose, and therein lies his genius.

The power of observation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us observe how the observer observes!

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

Sherlock Holmes would be proud!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

கவ்வை இன்றாக, நுங்கள் வரவு
kavvai indraaga,  nungal varavu

Translation: Let your arrival be without harm.

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

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

Such is the poetic beauty of Kamban.

Additional Notes

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

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

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When should one provide refuge (அடைக்கலம்)?

There is a famous quote from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana:

Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.

In a globalized world, lessons are not just limited to a single country but across countries and cultures. Indian history gets more complicated due to its length that its various aspects are blended into what is considered as mythology. Whether history or mythology, the lessons themselves are there for all to read and reflect.

There has been a lot of talk in the last few days (and likely for days and weeks to come) about the US administration’s decision to ‘temporarily’ restrict refugees from certain parts of the world. Given the literary focus of this blog, we won’t delve into the politics of this decision, but are compelled to look back and search for similar patterns – and don’t have to go too far.

In the last post, we talked about the dangers of delay and lack of communication between Sugreeva – the monkey king – as rAma was preparing to go to war with rAvana. Fast forwarding the story, we get an incident at the beginning of the யுத்த காண்டம்  (Yudha kAndam) – War Chapter – just before rAma starts his war with rAvana to get back sIta.

The scenario is eerily similar to current events, and like many of the stories embedded in the epics, puts it in a what-if context and considers the moral dilemmas within the situation.


RAma is ready to cross over to rAvanA’s kingdom (current Sri Lanka). While resting near the shores, they see Vibheeshana, the younger brother of rAvana, come to them seeking asylum! In general, it is known that Vibheeshana is a morally upright person who is completely different in his character from his elder brother. However, it does not negate the fact that he is as close as it gets to the enemy. rAma has to decide whether to accept his asylum request and provide refuge or whether to reject him (or kill him).

While the story, as we learned as kids, cut to the chase and moved to the next chapter, we find many nuances if we stop to smell the roses! In this post, we will explore two of them:

  1. Does rAma counsel with anyone before making a decision? If so, who and why?
  2. What pros and cons are considered, if any?

RAma’s Counsel

When the sentries posted near the shore tell him the news that Vibheeshana has come seeking asylum, what does RAma do? After all, he is the King and the entire army would be ready to accept whatever he says. They know him to be learned, wise, and God-incarnate. You would imagine that in such a situation that he can simply make a decision and that’s about it.

However, that’s not the case.

இப் பொருள் கேட்ட நீ இயம்புவீர் இவன்
கைப் புகற் பாலனோ? கழியற் பாலனோ?
ஒப்புற நோக்கி நும் உணர்வினால் என்றான்.

ipporuL kEtta nee iyambuveer, ivan
kai pugal paalano? kazhiyal paalano? 
oppuRa nOkki Num uNarvinaal, endraan

Translation: Having listened to the sentries (about Vibheeshana’s request for asylum), please tell me your thoughts and feelings on whether we should include or exclude him.

Even though he could very well have made a decision unilaterally, rAma looks at his counselors and asks them to provide their opinions so that he can make an informed decision. What is as interesting is the choice of people that are selected by the author for further narration. Kamban (and essentially, in Ramayana) picks four viewpoints:

  1. Sugreeva – the monkey king, who is his ally and counterpart. Not getting his opinion would be an insult to the alliance on such an important decision and may cause dissent within ranks.
  2. JAmbvAn (SAmban) – the learned minister / advisor, who is the elder of the group. Having his input will provide credibility to the decision.
  3. Neelan – the army general. Seeking his input is critical to enforcing the authority of the decision made within the troops.
  4. Hanuman – the diplomat, who is the best judge of character due to his multi-cultural understanding. He has been to Lanka earlier and has observed Vibheeshana in action, which others have not done. He is also the most nuanced in terms of diplomacy and politics and hence can consider the ramifications of the decision.

When we conduct all-inclusive meetings – those held to bring in as many key stakeholders as possible to get consensus – we end up finding that more often than not, such meetings end up being useless, with a lot discussed but no tangible action taken or decision made.

This seems to have been carefully considered here, where the selection is very targeted. They have been made so that critical stakeholders buy into the decision, detractors are pacified, and the merits  are discussed both objectively and emotionally. The rest are optional! Simple, and to the point.

This also reminds me of the award-winning film Roshomon by the famous Director Akira Kurasawa, which looks into a single incident in multiple viewpoints, all of which have their own merits and demerits, but are different.

Sugreeva’s view

செம்மை இல் அரக்கரில் யாவர் சீரியோர்
semmai il arakkaril yaavar seeriyOr – How can someone among the demons be virtuous?

Bam! Sugreeva doesn’t mince words! We are fighting the asuras (typically translated to mean demons or evil people, but we believe it is more nuanced in that it refers to those who do not follow the righteous path, as it has been repeatedly mentioned about many of the asuras, including rAvana, that they did many things right). Even though good things may have been heard about Vibheeshana, how can we trust someone who is born in that race? Isn’t it their nature (either by birth or by circumstance), to not be righteous? How can we trust them?

விண்டுழி, ஒரு நிலை நிற்பர்; மெய்ம் முகம்
கண்டுழி, ஒரு நிலை நிற்பர்; கைப் பொருள்
கொண்டுழி, ஒரு நிலை நிற்பர்; கூழுடன்
உண்டுழி, ஒரு நிலை நிற்பர்உற்றவர்

viNduzhi oru nilai niRpar; mei mugam kaNduzhi oru nilai niRpar

kaipporuL konduzhi oru nilai niRpar; koozhudan uNduzhi oru nilai niRpar – utRavar

Translation:  These people are fickle-minded. Their loyalty will not be to us but to their own self. They will act one way if they talk to us in person, another way behind our backs, yet another when they are getting money from us or when dining with us. They are not to be trusted.

Kamban’s mastery in Thamizh is reflected in rhyming passages like this. In a few verses, he masterfully describes the opportunistic nature of the asuras and why one cannot just take one incident to trust them.

வஞ்சனை இயற்றிட வந்தவாறு அலால்,
தஞ்சுஎன நம்வயின் சார்ந்துளான் அலன்;
நஞ்சினின் கொடியனை நயந்து கோடியோ?-

vanjanai iyatRida vandha vaaRu allaal

thanju ena nam vayin saarnthuLaan alan

nanjin kodiyanai nayanthu kOdiyO?

Translation: Even if he has come here for asylum, his intentions are not pure and would only be to deceive us. Such people are deadlier than poison. We cannot willingly accept them into our fold.

As a King, Sugreeva’s viewpoint is focused on ensuring safety of the kingdom / army and so is suspicious of Vibheeshana.

JAmbavAn’s view

JAmbavAn is the learned minister. His approach is more nuanced and he looks at the past to learn lessons for the future. He also uses the same lens to theorize how history will judge them if they were to be wrong in making this decision.

கைப் புகுந்து, உறு சரண் அருளிக் காத்துமேல்,
பொய்க் கொடு வஞ்சனை புணர்த்த போதினும்,
மெய்க் கொள விளியினும், “விடுதும்என்னினும்,
திக்கு உறும், நெடும் பழி; அறமும் சீறுமால்

Kai pugundhu, uRu saraN aruLi kaathu mEl

poikkodu vanjanai puNartha pOdhinum

meikkoLa viLiyinum, “viduthm” eNNinum

thikku uRum nedum pazhi aRamum seeRumaal

Translation: Even if we give asylum, if they deceive us in future, or do injustice to us, or even if we deport them later, we will still be blamed for our initial actions (of giving them asylum). Rings a bell?!

He goes on to ask, “He may bring us victory, give strategic advice, and might get the job done. But we know that group is evil. Would it behoove use to associate ourselves with someone from that group?”

Neelan’s view

Neelan, the general of the army, approaches RAma’s question from the angle of warfare, and quotes the rules of engagement to provide his opinion.

I am still trying to understand some of the terms here and will try to get this clarified, but a few that are mentioned as being eligible for asylum are:

  • Those who are unable to defend themselves
  • Those who have lost their wealth because the enemy coveted it forcefully
  • Those who have lost their kith and kin in a war with the enemy
  • Those who have lost in a war and have escaped the war zone
  • Those who have lost their money in business and are looking for a fresh start

He then points out that Vibheeshana does not fall into any of these categories and hence is not qualified to provide asylum.

Hanuman’s view

So far, all the views are unsurprisingly against Vibheeshana’s asylum application. Hanuman takes a different tactic. Knowing very well that he is going to say something that will be against the general sentiment, he provides a brilliant start – he ain’t called the best orator for nothing!

First, he appeals to RAma’s generosity:
Will it befit you as a gracious king for turning away someone who has come here with nothing, seeking your grace?

An emotional jolt is much more powerful than a logical jolt! Even though Hanuman knows that his arguments are powerful, he first conditions RAma to listen to him by appealing to his emotions so that even if RAma had made up his mind, he would now be forced to listen to Hanuman’s arguments.

Second, he states that he does not mean to disrespect other opinions:
Those who have spoken before me are wise and learned and have provided great advice. What else can I say? Their intentions are pure and they mean well. That said, I will still provide my thoughts.

Third, he uses the classic Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) management strategy:
I don’t believe Vibeeshana means ill. I will explain why I feel that way.

He is going last in the conversation and when doing so, there is no point in building up an argument, as arguments have been made already – so better to cut to the chase.

Lastly, he provides his reasons:

  • Just looking at someone, one can infer whether they mean well or not. What’s inside cannot be masked easily.
  • The last thing an enemy would want to do is to risk surrendering – would they do such a thing in haste even if they know that they will have to bear that shame forever?
  • Vibeeshana knows that you helped the younger brother win over the older brother (Sugreeva vs. vAli) and subsequently gave him the kingdom. He wants the same (to get Lanka by having you beat rAvana). In other words, he tends to benefit by being loyal to you.
  • He knows that the rule of asuras is going to end soon because they rule by force and not by wisdom.
  • He knows that the time of decline is upon rAvana (refuting Neelan) and hence has decided wisely to leave them and get away from certain death
  • Having him will help us devise a better strategy as he knows the tricks of the enemy and can advise us accordingly. In other words, he can be an intellectual asset to us.
  • Casting doubts just because of circumstantial evidence would be doing injustice to someone who may be truly looking for asylum. Can we afford to err?
  • When I was captured earlier by rAvana and everyone goaded him to kill me, Vibeeshana stopped it and said it is not right to shoot the messenger. This implies that he is pure at heart and yearns for justice, even though circumstances may necessitate him to be associated with RAvana
  • You have provided refuge for so many. How can you not do it this time? Can an ocean be afraid of a pond?

What a beautiful narration! We won’t get into who is right and who is wrong, as circumstances and context change over time, but it would be unwise to ignore such careful analysis that was done thousands of years ago that strikingly are relevant in today’s world.

Do we go the way of Hanuman’s advice or those of the other learned ministers in RAma’s counsel?

Source of Kamba Ramayana verse and translation: Tamil Virtual University (verses 6576 – 6594)

Additional Notes

There are also some interesting deviations between Kamban’s version of RAmAyana and Valmiki’s version. While the crux of the message is the same, some attributions seem different and it looks like Kamban has provided a slightly abbreviated form, skipping a few details. One such detail that seems to have been skipped is a version of ‘extreme vetting’ proposed by the counsel:

The suggestion is to first give a few tasks to Vibheeshana and then observe him through spies to confirm his loyalty before accepting him into the fold. The claim here is that without true observation, one cannot have solid facts to make a decision.

Hanuman refutes this in two ways: One, there isn’t enough time to go through such a long process, and two, even if they were to do it, it would only sow distrust within Vibheeshana, and if he indeed had best intentions in serving RAma, it would now be tainted forever and make him suspicious going forward.

You can find some additional nuances in Valmiki Ramayana in the post Lie to me, O Vibhishana

So many parallels!!

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