By S. Sivathasan –
“There hardly exists in the literature of the world, a collection of maxims in which we find so much lofty wisdom”. – Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Prize Winner.
Thirukkural written by the poet and sage Thiruvalluvar around the 2nd century AD is a literary work greatly treasured by the Tamils. With the largest number of translations including in English, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Spanish, Latin, Italian, Sinhalese, Arabic, Dutch, Burmese and next in number to Marxist literature and the Bible, it has become a valued possession of humanity. Mahatma Gandhi said “I wanted to learn Tamil, only to enable me to study Valluvar’s Thirukkural through his mother tongue itself”.
The work consists of 1330 couplets all of which are suffused with sublime thoughts. They convey lofty ethical and moral principles enabling society to anchor its life to. The subjects dwelt on are 133 and each chapter has 10 couplets. Of great contemporary relevance to Sri Lanka are the poet’s thoughts on governance. Machiavalli advises the Prince on the art of successful rule. Kautilya’s dominant thoughts are on glamorous ends whatever the means. The work of Valluvar has dharma for its core value.
Two millennia ago the Tamils had a well ordered state and the king was at the centre of governance.
The institution of kingship prevailing at that time applies today to those in vantage positions such as President, Prime Minister, Ministers, Diplomats and officials placed in authority. The poet spells out the attributes needed in the king as well as in those managing the state apparatus. In the lines that follow the current parallels in Sri Lanka may be gleaned.
A ruler is great if he is unfailing in virtue, remains wedded to valour, guards his honour zealously and eschews what is not righteous. His responsibility extends over developing the country’s resources, consolidating the riches so created into the state treasury and ensuring proper distribution of the nation’s wealth. A ruler who protects his subjects according to cannons of propriety and impartiality will be deified by them. He will be extolled by them if he is easy of access and is never given to harsh words.
When the reign is benign and seeks to meet the people’s aspirations, the people will rally round the king and be effusive in their praise.
A king should be circumspect in embarking on a venture or war. Essentially needed are proper reconnaissance and reflection. Meticulous deliberation is needed before a decision is taken. He should not scoff at his adversary as if the latter is inconsequential. The poet makes the point that all the blessings that a country is endowed with come to nought when it does not have the benefit of a stable and benevolent ruler.
Having said that, he outlines the salient attributes that a country needs to have. What are the the beneficent endowments? A country is great where there are men of learning, where wealth has been earned the righteous way and where harvests are bountiful. A nation enjoys peace and stability when it is free of feuding groups, ruinous enemy within and over mighty warlords. The unleashing of para militaries to prey on the people was never heard of. Another great poet who lived a millennium later and who was also a Prime Minister to the king said that “a king should ensure that no harm befalls the subjects either from him or his retinue”. In a nation what are the five embellishments that add zest to life? Absence of disease, wealth, resources to promote wellbeing, life of mirth and sense of security deriving from the king’s protective reign are the ornaments.
Members of the cabinet should be very discerning in the choice of their options, executing them with a sense of pragmatism and expressing their views clearly and forcefully. A minister is well qualified to counsel the king if he is of respectable lineage, is fearless, has the capacity for study and sustained effort and has a propensity to protect the people. A minister may have laudable ideas but when he is irresolute in execution, he fails in his mission and accomplishes nothing. Even though books and treatises may enhance their natural intellectual resources, with the benefit of worldly experience they have to master the art of the possible. A king lacking in wisdom may reject ministerial advice, but it is their duty to press forth relentlessly what is fair and proper.
Nurtured in the Tamilian tradition where the fount of governance was laid by Valluvar, the emperor of poets Kamban author of Ramayana, wrote 900 years later, about the cabinet of king Dasaratha – Rama’s Father – thus: “When it came to matters of state the Ministers did not care even a little bit about their personal security. When the king flew into a rage, they faced it with equanimity and persisted in asserting what was just. They had the fortitude of mind not to deviate from the path of righteousness. Decisions were made with due attention to the past, present and the future. After deliberations, the conclusion was conveyed in one voice”. In this description of Ministers’ conduct and collective responsibility may be seen the epitome of sober governance. The contrast too can be observed now.
Essential attributes of a diplomat comprise birth of high report, a loving disposition and refined conduct agreeable by the king. Capacity for deep study, verbal ability to convey ideas with precision and loyalty to the king are indispensable qualities. An ambassador setting out on a mission should possess erudition, sagacity and a commanding presence. To bring success to the kind he should make his presentation with coherence while eschewing trivia and spice his conversation with humor. To command respect he should be noted for his learning, composure, power of persuasion in speech and should have a sense for appropriateness to befit the occasion. The fittest ambassador will have an eye for time and place, well inducted in his duty and very selective in the words he uses. A diplomat will be considered consummately skilled if he is pure in heart, has fortitude of mind and is engaging in his ways. Such an ambassador will be unremitting in his pursuit and will never swerve from his mission even when his existence is under threat.
There are four armours which are necessary for an army: valour, sense of honour, chivalrous conduct and fortitude even in the midst of disarray and confusion. Before venturing out, it is necessary for the army as well as the adversary to assess carefully the strength and weakness of the enterprise, one’s own power, the enemy’s power and strength of the respective allies. When the importance of the last factor is noted, the wisdom of the kural may be discerned from the outcome in the last phase of World War II and also in the war closer home. Those who do not make a proper estimate of their strength, but who are overtaken by enthusiasm, crash midway. Such instances are many is the poet’s view. It is also emphatically asserted that even if an army may have strength in numbers, decisive leadership is crucial to victory. More importantly the poet says, it is not armaments that bring victory but the scepter and that too when it is upright.
In the Midst of the Worthy
Securing the devotion of men of worth is among the rarest of fortunes that a king or anybody in high position can seek. The world considers the learned and the wise as its eyes. Therefore a king should be very selective in the choice of his advisors. When he is surrounded by men of worth the morale of his foes will weaken. It is well known that without capital no profit can accrue. Likewise strength and repose in a state are not for those who do not have the support of the wise. It is therefore infinitely more harmful to lose the friendship of the good than to enlist the enmity of the many. Water acquires the characteristic of the earth from where it is drawn. In like manner one’s mind is conditioned by the quality of the company one keeps. The poet’s advice about those in vantage positions and even to the people at large is that they should seek after men of virtue wedded to norms of morality, are constant in righteousness and win their friendship. In Valluvar’s reckoning scholars are mighty. He advises the king, even if you incur the wrath of the army, do not enlist the displeasure of the learned.
Moving with Kings
Cannons of propriety are called for from those privileged to move with the mighty. The poet draws a very instructive analogy by taking a leaf from how one keeps oneself comfortable before a hearth. Not too close and not too far is a prudent course. As all would know, too much closeness would be scorching and a far distance will leave one in the cold. What is literally true of the hearth applies figuratively for dealings with the powers that be. A strong word of caution is struck and we are inducted to the realities of the way power works, when the poet says “do not covet what the king desires to have. This is the path to win his favour and to consolidate one’s position”. To put it plainly, if the ruler desires the kudos for a military victory, a military leader is advised not to covet the same. This particular Kural couplet was better understood after 2009.
Birth is alike to all. What distinguishes one from the other is the reputation that one builds up through a life of honour. In Valluvar’s view, rectitude and revulsion to shame come naturally to those of a respectable background. Men of such high station will not do anything disreputable even if tens of millions are thrown across their way. Even as a scale balances the weights evenly, so should a man of rectitude act with total impartiality, never leaning to one side. One who leads a life of impeccable probity will reside in the hearts of the multitude. The poet pronounces a home truth–the words that come off a person’s lips bespeak his breeding and character. Men of character anchored in a sea of rectitude will remain unmoved even in a cataclysm.
Financial probity is an ultimate value with Valluvar. With keen observation he said that ill-gotten wealth flows in at a speed to match the gathering of spectators for a recital and its disappearance is swifter than the dispersal of the crowd after the event. Even when one stands to profit, one should eschew it if uprightness has to be sacrificed in the process, is the poet’s injunction.
Even as the shadow that follows unstoppably, so also evil deeds will cause one’s inevitable destruction. Another ethical work of the Sangam period says that when a calf is unleashed among several cows, it unerringly reaches for its mother. In like manner retribution makes no mistake in meting out its judgment. An epic of the same period says “ Dharma is the terminator of evil rule. …..Retribution will unfailingly take its course”. Valluvar in his wisdom says that it is abysmal ignorance to treat the impermanent as enduring. Tears of wrath brought out by irrepressible agony is the force that will destroy the evil doer’s wealth. Sri Lanka is witness to the agony. It awaits justice.