Gandhi and Thirukkural

August 24, 2019

[The revised and expanded English version of the Tamil essay published in Gandhi Today website.]

Is it possible for a huge mass of people to shower immense love on a work of literature? The emotional attachment of Tamils to Thirukkural is a case in point. It is astonishing that a book which is largely perceived to be a moral treatise (though, it is, in fact, not only a book of moral codes) has become such an object of love for the Tamils. If we make a list of those who lived a life that was close to the moral code of Thirukkural, the name of Gandhi, though he was not a Tamil, has to come on top. There are a lot of myths concerning Gandhi, Tolstoy and Thirukkural. We cannot ascertain the direct impact of Kural on Gandhi. But, we can see that Gandhi was quite aware of Thirukkural through his writings.         

It is unlikely that Gandhi would have heard about Thirukkural before his acquaintance with the Tamils in South Africa. There can be no doubt that he would have been drawn towards it, had he heard about it. He cites two precepts as his guiding principles during his childhood – truth and returning good for evil. (1) Both are key tenets of Thirukkural. He mentions a Gujarati didactic stanza in his Autobiography, which ‘gripped his mind and heart’, when he was a boy. He recollects the same song by Shamal Bhatt, when he was in London too, and was reading the New Testament, ‘especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to his heart.’ 

For a bowl of water give a goodly meal: 

For a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal: 

For a simple penny pay thou back with gold: 

If thy life be rescued, life do not withhold. 

Thus the words and actions of the wise regard;

Every little service tenfold they reward. 

But the truly noble know all men as one, 

And return with gladness good for evil done.

We can see parallels between this song and many Kurals. (2)

Those who know the true value of a favour, will see

for the quantum of the favour, a tree, where there was a grain. [104]

A timely favour, however trivial

its material value is, is invaluable. [102]

Of what use is being noble

If one can’t do good unto those who did evil. [987]

Though there are traces of Kural imprinted in many works of Gandhi and those that impacted him, this song which attracted Gandhi during his growing years is significant. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Thirukkural’s Kaamathupaal: The Book of Love

July 24, 2018

After another long break, I have resumed Thirukkural translation on my Thirukkural website. The first few chapters of Kaamathupaal are published in the bilingual Tamizhini e-magazine.

Dhyanavanam – A unique experience

January 1, 2017

An entirely new experience was in store for us last week. We had gone for a training workshop, organised by Dr.Raja and Kalpana, the couple who work in Gandhigram University, and have become close family friends over the last few years. This time, the training was held outside the University campus, at Dhyana Vanam, an ashram nearby.

Dhyana Vanam is run by Father Korko Moses – a saffron-clad Jesuit Priest. He manages the ashram, spread over 6.5 acres, mostly alone and with the occasional help of priests who come for training. It has been 5 years since the area has received decent rains; the adjoining dam is dry; yet, there is a bit of greenery left. The mercy of the small showers that morning had added a glow to the green.

Father Korko lives a simple, monastic life. His bedroom offered a sight that I’ve never come across. In the room, built as a pyramidal structure, there was a cot, over 4 feet tall, and a thin mattress over it; there was a makeshift bathroom at one corner. There was nothing else in that room.

“For the first time, I am seeing a room with no material objects,” I commented.
“A few of my possessions are in the office,” he clarified.

The program started after four girls lighted a lamp, and Mahirl Malar sang a song from Thirumurai.

In the large hall, where the program was held, there were pictures of Dalai Lama, Vivekananda, Francis of Assisi, Rumi, Mahavira and other spiritual leaders. He shared with the children, an outline about each of them. There was a picture of Jesus, seated in Padmasana. He said he sees Jesus as a Siddha saint.

Father Korko considers Swami Sadhananda Giri to be his Guru, and has spent many years in Bengal, learning Yoga from him. This Catholic priest has also assumed another name – Swami Saranananda. He has written a book, Yesu Nama Japam in Bengali, and has translated it into English and Tamil.

There is a separate hall for meditation, set amidst serene surroundings. The wall facing the door, has in its middle, a picture which brings together symbols of 12 different religions. On top of it is, inscribed in bold fonts, the Tamil phrase from Thirmoolar, “There is but one religion, and one god.” In the middle of the picture, the figure of a meditating saint is seen.

Founders of all religions attained an enlightened state after deep meditation, says Father Korko.

In front of the picture, Gita, Bible and Koran, are placed open. On the book shelf in the room, several copies of these scriptures were present.

On the first day evening, the 30 children, aged between 10 and 15, quietly sat through a 1-hour session of bhakti songs, the multi-religious song of Vinoba Bhave, meditation, reading of a passage from Bible (related to the couplets from Thirukkural that we saw that day). Father Korko briefed the children about the 12 religions represented in the central picture. He told stories of Buddha.

The meditation ended with an ‘arati’ for the central picture.

We assembled again, at 6am the next morning. After a few physical exercises, we had another round of meditation and singing for an hour. This time, instead of Bible, Father Korko chose a few passages from Gita, and asked me to read aloud. Dr.Raja sang the song of peace, ‘Shanti nilva vendum.’

Later, when I cited Dharmananda Kosambi, who in his well researched and reverent work on Buddha, disputes some of the popular tales as improbable, Father Korko agreed, “Yes, they are myths. Myths are built around all prophets within a few years. These myths are useful to explain their philosophies.”

In between our training sessions, he taught the children Korean dance. They were thrilled.

When Nedya took a session on birds, the children could easily appreciate the connection between people and nature.

The task of taking classes based on Thirukkural was now simplified. In a way, it seemed redundant. When children could see righteousness and love personified by a simple man, right in front of them, what is there to express through words.

The children were split into small groups and sent into the village, to visit at least 5 houses, converse and mingle with the villagers. At some houses, dogs barked at them; at a couple of houses, people did the barking; but largely, people were friendly, invited them inside and offered them something to eat. Though the drought has robbed them of all revenues and jobs, there is moisture left in their hearts.

There is nobody willing or trained, yet, to take over the Dhyana Vanam from Father Korko, and, though he is not someone to be too fussed about future, his longing for a potential successor can be sensed. He feels that this place will be more ideal for seekers than devotees. Though there is no organisational resistance to his work, there doesn’t seem to be any great support either. He travels abroad every year to conduct meditation sessions, and also conducts retreats at the ashram. He raises sufficient funds for running the ashram through these activities. He also holds alcohol de-addiction camps.

He wanted to learn the song on Shiva (Oli valar vilakke) that Mahirl had sung. He asked her to sing again, and recorded it, and noted down the lyrics. He opined that the raga of the song must be Ananda Bhairavi. We didn’t know for sure, who the author was (Thirumaaligaithevar). He took us to his library. The library had the entire collection of Thirumurai in over 20 volumes. He also had the complete collection of Max Muller’s works on Eastern sacred texts. Having left for Bengal at the age of 18, and having spent 38 years of his life there, he felt that he couldn’t gain sufficient exposure to Tamil works.

At the end of the two days, during the feedback session, one young girl mentioned, “I asked the Father if Hindus can read Bible. He said yes. I liked it very much.”

That openness and appreciation for other thoughts is one of the key insights the children would have gained in those two days.

Culture on the curriculum : Beyond Gita and Mahabharata

August 5, 2014

If teaching Indian ethos and values is the objective of the Central Government and a certain Judge, why not start with Thirukkural? It is Indian but has universal appeal; it is ancient but has contemporary relevance; it is simple enough for kids but deep enough for scholars; for the most part, it is secular and has largely been accepted by all religions; it should already be available in most of the official Indian languages and it has already been tested at all academic levels for many years.

But of course, the original is not in Sanskrit. And though Hindus claim it to be their own, so do others, especially Jains. Do these make it any less a candidate for being considered a quintessential work on Indian culture and values?

Or why not Dhammapada? It is beautiful. It is Buddhist but many portions will be acceptable to almost everybody.

I personally don’t have any objections to having Gita and Mahabharata ALso at school (in addition to selections from Bible, Koran and other important religious works), as long as age-appropriate sections are selected and are presented without any indoctrinatory motives, willful distortions and jingoistic reinterpretations. I am actually surprised that schools don’t have them already. In Tamilnadu, where the more socially progressive (pseudo or otherwise) Dravidian parties, branched from an atheistic movement, have been in power for 47 years, we have been reading Bhakthi literature and Kamba Ramayana at schools all along, along with representative works from other religious texts in Tamil.

Pay as you perceive

January 28, 2013

I was known to be a good negotiator (with vendors), when I was at my previous company (my boss thought so  but my wife disagrees).  The key was my patience – I was prepared to wait, for longer than most others, till the vendors brought down their price within our budget. A willingness to explore alternatives and compromise on the peripheral items also helped. Despite my so-called negotiation skills, I always had the grudge that we were paying our vendors a lot more than the value that we got. There is a huge premium paid for the brand name, most often, defying rational thinking.

When I started my own venture, offering leadership training based on Thirukkural, I decided to do away with this endless cycle of negotiation. I did not want to put a price tag on myself. I did not want to get paid only for my brand and pedigree – my college; my past experience; the positions that I held earlier.  Of course, the brand and pedigree help to establish my credibility with strangers; but I did not want those to dictate how much I was worth NOW. I felt that the only thing that mattered was what I was offering now and what value is seen by the customer.

I decided to go with a ‘pay as you perceive’ model of pricing. I asked my customers, to pay me based on their affordability and the value that they perceived. I, naively, thought that customers will feel most comfortable with such an approach. On the contrary, most of them felt uneasy at the beginning; some of them doubted if it was yet another fake sales ploy, similar to that of a friendly neighborhood plumber or an electrician who initially leaves the amount to our choice, and later, scratches his head expecting more; some of them insisted on a quote from me; a sympathetic customer even said he will help me find some smart MBA who will work out a pricing model for me.  I gave in the first time and submitted a quote but accepted the price offered without a debate;  started giving a benchmark later on; and nowadays, mostly, avoid giving any price.

It is not an entirely original thought. While there are numerous precedents in the ancient world and is in line with the thoughts of Thirukkural, there are those who have done it in the modern business environment too. I had been to Hotel Annalakshmi at Coimbatore, 10 years ago. They had done away with standard pricing and gave a blank book without a bill at the end of the meal. I paid the market price plus tips. There is also a wonderful short story in Tamil by Jeyamohan (சோற்றுக்கணக்கு), which narrates the tale of Kethel Saheb, and his restaurant at Trivandrum, where the hospitality remained the same irrespective of whether the customer paid nothing or a stash of money.

My early lessons, from my limited experience so far : people will not pay a premium but are always looking to pay a fair price (in their view). This approach has removed the price equation from the negotiations. Now it is all about whether they see value in the training that I am offering, whether they have the bandwidth to run a training program at that point of time, how much value they perceive and how much they can afford.

I do not view this as a smart marketing strategy. It does not open doors for me that would otherwise have been shut. I have to work as hard as other business ventures to get opportunities to train. But I know for sure that I will never lose a customer because they can’t afford me.


The warm touch of great kindness

September 24, 2012

She was sitting alone. Her head was shaking involuntarily, every now and then. She was reading a biography of Aurobindo.

I went and sat next to her and started talking. I was there at that conference, especially to hear her speak. And what a great opportunity I got to meet her personally. When she occasionally held my hands while talking, the chill-warmth was so energizing.

She talked to me about her tale of how she joined Vinoba. She mentioned about her son, who went to Cambodia to treat children affected by war crimes and has refused to come back, because he just couldn’t leave. She was thrilled about my work and told me, “You should include Bharathi along with Thirukkural”.

Krishnammal Jagannathan – follower of Gandhi; close associate of Vinoba; a fighter for the landless dalits, and against the powerful and destructive prawn industry.She is 87 years old; she spends 3 days a week looking after her equally illustrious 98-year-old husband at Chengalpet and goes to Nagappatinam for 4 days to take care of the various social activities she is still pursuing. (like trying to convince the District Collector to build 100 brick-houses).The way she talked on stage about their struggle against the prawn MNCs was inspiring – ” Our livelihoods, water and land were being destroyed for the sake of someone in Japan and Australia to eat prawns. My husband lamented, ‘Is it for this that we ate worm-infested food in British prisons?’ We decided to fight this through Satyagraha.”.

I could see a few people in the room sobbing many a time during her speech.

What a lady!
PS :   I am very late in posting this from my Facebook…this was written in July. Wanted to do a more detailed essay, which hasn’t happened, yet.

Compassion, Thirukkural and Gandhi

May 9, 2012

This is one of my favourites from Thirukkural. I had the joy of immersing myself in it while translating it on Facebook (here).

Even after seeing poison being poured, they will consume it
and converse cordially,
they who seek to be captivatingly civilized and compassionate. [580]

[பெயக்கண்டும் நஞ்சுண் டமைவர் நயத்தக்க
நாகரிகம் வேண்டு பவர்.]

This is a fascinating kural, with Thiruvalluvar at his poetic best. It grows variously in the reader’s imagination and can be interpreted in many ways.

I like to interpret it this way :
The compassionate, even when they know that poison is being served (poured, not just dropped!), they understand why it is being done and go two steps ahead by drinking it and then having a friendly conversation. They understand the intention behind a hurtful deed being done to them – whether the intent is good or bad doesn’t make a difference to the way they act. They are still full of compassion. Tough indeed!

As with most other kurals that appeal to me, I am reminded of this incident in Gandhi’s life:

When Gandhi was thrashed by the angry Pathans in South Africa for agreeing for a compromise with General Smuts on registration of Indians, he lived out this kural. He understood their intentions, he was going ahead to register himself though he anticipated an assault, he bore the assault without defending, he refused to lodge a complaint against them and bore no ill-will towards them.
What did he gain by such an extreme act of non-violence and compassion? Respect of the Whites (who anyway prosecuted his assaulters on other counts) and his fellow Indians in SA. While there is no stated connection, it is no surprise that his staunchest supporter when he came back to India was a Pathan (Pashtun) – Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

We can see such incidents of personal valour (not just political leadership) throughout Gandhi’s life – when the Whites attacked him at Natal, during his many prison stints, in Rajkot when he stood firm when surrounded by a violent mob, and in Noakhali, Calcutta, Bihar and Delhi amidst immense religious violence.

Ool (karma) in Thirukkural

September 14, 2011

After translating 370 couplets from Thirukkural, I ran into a translator’s dilemma, when I encountered the chapter on Ool (ஊழ்). Should I translate this chapter, when I dont believe in it (after a superficial skimming), or shall I skip this chapter and move on to the next one? After a lot of deliberation, I decided to give it a deeper reading before coming to a conclusion. And, I am glad I did that. Instead of posting the kurals one by one of Facebook and Twitter, like I’ve done before, I am giving the entire chapter here on my blog;  since, there is a lot of scope of misinterpreting individual kurals, in this chapter, without a holistic perspective.

I am refraining from using the word fate or destiny, since there is a significant difference between ool and fate. [I am writing ool instead of oozh, since I belief zh doesnt serve the purpose for non-Tamils anyway.)  Fate, as per OED, is the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power. Ool or karma, in an Indian context as per Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions, and as rightly put in OED, is the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future.

This belief was at the core of Gandhi’s thoughts.  “I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.”

Swami Vivekananda, also, put it eloquently : “Men generally lay all the blame of life on their fellowmen, or failing that, on God, or they conjure up a ghost, and say it is fate. Where is fate and who is fate? We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. None else has the blame, none has the praise.”

The way Thiruvalluvar has dealt with Ool  is very interesting. As in most other kurals, it is more poetic than spiritual. The rationality is probably too rational that it almost sounds irrational for self-professed rationalists like me. While, I definitely still dont subscribe to the idea of previous and future births, I am viewing this as a poet’s liberty to exaggerate, and make his point.

Ool is almost a character in my other favourite Tamil classic, Chilapathikaaram.

So, here is the Chapter 38 from Thirukkural : Ool

Constructive ool causes tireless endeavor leading to prosperity;
destructive ool causes indolence. [371]

Malign ool blunts one’s intelligence;
in its turn, benign ool sharpens it. [372]

Even if knowledge comes through profound books,
one’s innate wisdom remains dominant. [373]

The world is stratified based on two factors:
wealth and wisdom; and, they are not correlated. [374]

While seeking wealth, positive aspects can turn harmful;
and negative aspects beneficial. [375]

Strive hard, we may; but what we don’t deserve doesn’t stay,
and what we deserve, we can’t dispose. [376]

One may amass wealth worth crores, but can consume
only as ordained by the Ordainer (based on ool). [377]

Even those who possess nothing to enjoy will ‘renounce’,
if only one can escape the misery that is to be suffered. [378]

Why bemoan the misery caused by ool,
when one enjoys the good without complaint. [379]

Is there anything mightier than ool? It remains dominant
despite all plans devised to counter it. [380]

It is interesting to note that Valluvar doesn’t say constructive ool causes prosperity; it causes effort. Throughout these 10 kurals, Thiruvalluvar is building up Ool as a very potent character, like in the best works of fiction,  and then deals ool a deadly blow (and answers the question he asked in kural 380), when he says later on,

“Even if god has given up, perseverance will yield positive results. ” [619]

“Those who persevere without ever giving up, will defeat even ool”. [620]

The original couplets in Tamil :

அதிகாரம் 38 : ஊழ்

ஆகூழாற் றோன்று மசைவின்மை கைப்பொருள்
போகூழாற் றோன்று மடி.  [371]

பேதைப் படுக்கு மிழவூ ழறிவகற்று
மாகலூ ழுற்றக் கடை. [372]

நுண்ணிய நூல்பல கற்பினு மற்றுந்தன்
னுண்மை யறிவே மிகும். [373]

இருவே றுலகத் தியற்கை திருவேறு
தெள்ளிய ராதலும் வேறு. [374]

நல்லவை யெல்லாஅந் தீயவாந் தீயவு
நல்லவாஞ் செல்லவஞ் செயற்கு. [375]

பரியினு மாகாவாம் பாலல்ல வுய்த்துச்
சொரியினும் போகா தம. [376]

வகுத்தான் வகுத்த வகையல்லாற் கோடி
தொகுத்தார்க்குந் துய்த்த லரிது. [377]

துறப்பார்மற் றுப்புர வில்லா ருறற்பால
வூட்டா கழியு மெனின். [378]

நன்றாங்கா னல்லவாக் காண்பவ ரன்றாங்கால்
அல்லற் படுவ தெவன். [379]

ஊழிற் பெருவலி யாவுள மற்றொன்று
சூழினுந் தான்முந் துறும். [380]

Gandhi and Thirukkural

August 25, 2011

In his autobiography, Gandhi wrote “A Gujarati didactic stanza likewise gripped my mind and heart. Its precept ‘return good for evil’ became my guiding principle. It became such a passion with me that I began numerous experiments in it.”

For a bowl of water give a goodly meal:
For a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal:
For a simple penny pay thou back with gold:
If thy life be rescued, life do not withhold.
Thus the words and actions of the wise regard;
Every little service tenfold they reward.
But the truly noble know all men as one,
And return with gladness good for evil done.

The resemblance of this Gujarati poem to the chapters in Thirukkural on “செய்நன்றியறிதல்” (Gratitude) and “இன்னாசெய்யாமை” (refraining from harmful deeds) is striking.

Particularly these kurals :

The way to punish those who harmed us
is to shame them by doing them good.

Those who know the true value of a favour, will see
for the quantum of favour, a tree, where there was a grain.

No wonder, Gandhi later said : “I wanted to learn Tamil, only to enable me to study Valluvar’s Thirukkural through his mother tongue itself…. It is a treasure of wisdom…”

As I had written in this note, I have been doing my own version of Thirukkural translation on a public Facebook page. If you are interested in knowing more about Thirukkural, you can follow this page, or choose to read any of the numerous translations, already available.

Thirukkural meets Twitter

July 16, 2010

I have started translating Thirukkural on Twitter. I have always drawn a lot from Thirukkural – now, it is time give something back to Valluvar, in whatever limited way that I can.

Twitter seems to be tailor-made to enable crisp translations of Thirukkural – the way it was originally meant to be. Here is a 140 character medium of the modern era, waiting to host the 2000-year-old 7-word kurals, which packed wholesome wisdom in 2 lines.

There are already numerous translations available in English. But I hate literal translations, which lose their charm in an alien language.  So I will attempt to do my own interpretations of Thirukkural in a contemporary twitter-friendly, and yet, proper English.

I realize that some kurals, shorn of the poetic grace of ancient Tamil, will look banal in their naked forms. But that is the risk with any translation, particularly, of verses. However, there is enough depth in most kurals to shine bright, despite the services of an amateur translator. I will, as suits my style, not follow any particular order in choosing the kurals. I will start with what I know well and like; move on to what I know, exists, and I will like. I may stop here and not translate all 1330 kurals.

This is neither an academic exercise nor a commercial endeavour (not yet, as I see it). I am writing for the pleasure of writing, that too on phone, snatching every possible opportunity to think and tweet. More accurately, I am writing for the pleasure of reading Thirukkural, in greater depths than I have ever done before, and for, potentially, introducing Thirukkural to a new set of readers through a medium that they love.

Update: I am now posting the kurals on Facebook too – this is a public page that anyone can subscribe to: