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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:
"It is my ambition that old people should be able to live in peace, all friends should be loyal and young people should love their elders."

"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:
Thandhai makarkAtrum nandri avaiathu

"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:
Mahan thandhaikku atrum udhavi ivan thabdhai
EnnotrAn kol enum sol

"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:
Udukkai izhandavan kai pol Ange
Idukkai kaLaivadAm nadpu

"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."

Mother's duty:
Yeendra pozhudir peruvakkum than mahanai
SAndrOn ena kEtta thAi

"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."

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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 king:
Cultivating his personal conduct.
Honoring worthy men.
Cherishing affection for, and doing his duty, towards his kindred.
Showing respect to the high ministers of the state.
Identifying himself with the interests and welfare of the whole body of public officers.
Showing himself as a father to the common people.
Encouraging the introduction of all useful arts.
Showing tenderness to strangers from far countries.
Taking interest in the welfare of the princes of the empire.

"People must have sufficient to eat, there must be a sufficient army; there must be confidence of the people in the ruler. If I have to give up one, I will give up the army; if I have to give up one more, I will give up the food; a nation cannot exist without confidence in its ruler."

"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.
Urupasiyum OvAppiNium sem pahaiyum
SEradhu iyalvadhu nAdu

"A king will make sure that his country is free from poverty, disease and attack from outside."

Thammin periyArai thamrAha ozhugudhal
VanmaiyuL ellAm thalai

"To keep the company of wise men is the greatest strength."

VAn nOkki vAzhum ulaghellAm
Mannavan kOl nOkki vAzhum kudi

"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.
"Wisdom, compassion and courage-these are the universally recognized moral qualities of man. Love of knowledge is akin to wisdom; strenuous attention to conduct is akin to compassion; sensitiveness to shame is akin to courage."

"The gentleman broadens himself by scholarship or learning and then regulates himself by li(proper conduct or moral discipline)"

Thiruvalluvar echoes these ideas.
Ozhukkam vizhuppam tharalAl
Ozhukkam uyirinum ombappadum

"Since living by ethical principles leads to peaceful and prosperous life, one should follow ethical principles."

Karka kasadara karpavai katrapin
Nirka adharku thaha

"Learn thoroughly. Then live according to what you have learnt."

Confucius wrote
"Don't criticize other people's faults. Criticize your own."

"If a man would be severe towards himself and generous towards others, he would never arouse resentment."

Thiruvalluvar wrote:
Than kutram neekkip pirar kutram kANbirpin
En kutramahum yiraikku

"If one first finds fault with himself and removes his faults, before finding faults with others, there will be no problems."

"A gentleman does not praise a man on the basis of what he says nor does he deny the truth of what one says because he dislikes the person who says it."

EpporuL yAryAr vAi kEtkinum
Apporul meipporuL kANbadharivu

"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.
NankaN kudikAtthal katraridhal AlvinaiyOdu Eindudan mAndhadu amaichu

"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.
Thohaicholli thoovAdha neekki nahaicholli Nandri payappadhAm thoodhy

"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):
Idanai idanAl ivan mudikkum endru Ayndu Adanai avan kaN vidal

"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.
"The only profession worth pursuing is farming. All other professions pale before that"

Today nobody will say that the services of engineers and scientists are less useful than those of farmers. Thiruvalluval says about the duty of a wife:
"A wife, who worships her husband, has so much power that it rains just on her command."

Women 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:
AaNghalodu peNgaLum sarinigar samAnamAha vazhvOm indha nAttilE
"Men and women will live with equal rights"

Madhar thammai izhivupaduthum madamaiyaik koLuthuvOm
"We will get rid of the stupidity of insulting women"

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
Pazhaiyana kazhidalum, pudhiyana puhudalum

"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'."


About the Author
Dr. M. Rajagopalan is a retired Nuclear Chemist. He did research on cancer. His hobby is writing essays both humorous and serious, about politics, science, philosophy and social issues.

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©  Copyright Information 2001-2003 M. Rajagopalan
All rights reserved. The copyright of this article solely rests with the author. The author is also solely responsible for the content of the article.

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Jan 5 - Feb 4, 2005
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The extended deadline for script submissions is January, 14th 2004. Applicants will be notified about selections by May 10, 2005.

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Jan 17, 2005, 5:30-6pm Pacific Time in Victoria at 102FM, 104.3 cable and on the internet at:

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