Ancient Wisdom and Modern Values
Some values are eternal, while others change with the times. We have to study both ancient and modern writers to appreciate the difference.
Dr. M Rajagopalan
Many literary and philosophical writings from ancient India and China are still available to us. They contain advice to king and commoner alike. These authors have thought about human civilization and have given advice on its ethical foundation. On the other hand, these ancient societies were agrarian societies and had monarchies. Society has changed since then. We now have democracies all over the world. Women, who were once relegated to a second class citizenship, now enjoy equal status with men. The agrarian society changed to industrial society first and now has changed to a technological society. Is the advice given to members of an agrarian society still valid to members of modern society?
Among the ancient books from India, the Tamil book Thirukkural written by Thirivalluvar is one of the most popular books. He lived around 100 BC (according to some historians). His book marks the ethical foundation of society. His book has been described as the Bible for a universal religion. He prescribes the duties of man in his various roles as son, father, husband, friend and citizen. He also gives the characteristics of a good king, minister, royal messenger and a general leader. Although there are no kings and ministers in our society now, we can use his advice for presidents, cabinet ministers, ambassadors and CEOs. Confucius lived in China around 500 BC He also gave advice to people for living a good and ethical life. His advice parallels Thiruvalluvar's advice in many ways. We will examine their words and check which apply to the modern world.
Thiruvalluvar has written extensively about the duties of man in his various roles. Confucius also has written the following:
"The duties are these between ruler and subject, between husband and wife, between brother and younger and those in the intercourse between friends. These are the five duties of universal obligation."
"One who is a good son in his family and has a reputation for humility and respect in his village is a scholar"
Thiruvalluvar writes about the duty of a father:
"The duty of a father to his son is to make him educated so that he will be respected by society."
The duty of a son:
"The duty of a son is that he should behave in such a way that people should wonder how blessed a man his father is to have such a son."
The duty of a friend:
"Just as a man instinctively puts on his pants back, when it accidentally falls, he should immediately help when his friend is in need of help."
"A mother rejoices on two occasions: once when she gives birth to her son. The second time when she hears others say that her son is a gentleman."
The ancient writers have also talked about the qualities of a good king
and a good government. Confucius wrote about the cardinal directions of
"A sovereign, who governs by virtue, is like the North Pole Star, which remains in place and the other stars revolve around it."
Thiruvalluvar has written along these lines about a good government.
"A king will make sure that his country is free from poverty, disease and attack from outside."
Thammin periyArai thamrAha ozhugudhal
"To keep the company of wise men is the greatest strength."
VAn nOkki vAzhum ulaghellAm
"The public depends on the rain for their existence. The citizenry depends on the just rule of the king for its existence."
In addition to man's duties, Confucius has also written general guidelines for people.
"The gentleman broadens himself by scholarship or learning and then regulates himself by li(proper conduct or moral discipline)"
Thiruvalluvar echoes these ideas.
"Since living by ethical principles leads to peaceful and prosperous life, one should follow ethical principles."
Karka kasadara karpavai katrapin
"Learn thoroughly. Then live according to what you have learnt."
"If a man would be severe towards himself and generous towards others, he would never arouse resentment."
"If one first finds fault with himself and removes his faults, before finding faults with others, there will be no problems."
"Whatever you hear from whichever person, think about the truth of it and then accept it if it is the truth."
Thiruvalluvar has also written about the qualifications of a minister,
who corresponds to the cabinet members of our present government.
"Courage, character, ability to protect the land, knowledge and perseverance are the hallmarks of a minister."
He wrote about the royal messenger, which can be useful for today's ambassadors and diplomats.
"A royal messenger should be able to give his message in a cogent manner, without mixing it with unnecessary details and in a pleasant manner, so that his country benefits."
The most important quality of a leader(of any organization):
"After considering carefully which person is suitable for which job, the leader should give that job to him"
These are some of the many pieces of advice Thiruvalluvar has given.
Thiruvalluvar has also written some couplets reflecting the society in which he lived.
nobody will say that the services of engineers and scientists are less
useful than those of farmers. Thiruvalluval says about the duty of a
have gained considerable rights since those days that nobody can take
this advice (that a wife should worship her husband) seriously. In
fact, another famous poet, Bharathiyar, who lived in the 1930s, wrote
about women's rights for the first time. He wrote:
Madhar thammai izhivupaduthum madamaiyaik koLuthuvOm
Human nature has not changed in two thousand years and some truths and
messages are eternal. Thus, we can all benefit from these writings of
ancient poets and philosophers. On the otherhand, as the cliche goes,
the only constant in society is change and we have to modify our
behavior according to some changes in society. Thus, we have to reject
some of these messages, which are not in accordance with our modern
values. An old Indian proverb says
"We have to reject some outmoded approaches and embrace some good new approaches". A historian wrote, "There are only two kinds of fools. One says 'This is old. Therefore, this is good.' The other says, 'This is new. Therefore, this is better'."
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