Indians have benefitted well from received wisdom

Indians have benefitted well from received wisdom

In earlier columns, I have confessed to my failing. Of never having read any of the plays, or other works, of Shakespeare’s.

In earlier columns, I have confessed to my failing. Of never having read any of the plays, or other works, of Shakespeare's. Perhaps, as my father used to say, while sympathising with my being the original philistine, when it came to reading classical English literature, public prayers must be held for me! I think it was someone like me who finally persuaded himself to go through one of Shakespeare's plays and remarked, "Shakespeare is full of quotations!"

Every language has its own sayings, and proverbs, a stream of received wisdom and experience, flowing from generation to generation, mostly by word of mouth. And all of us, at one time or other, have observed the striking manner in which they can relate to real life experiences.

As a Member of the National Disaster Management Authority, for instance, I was constantly reminded of the much worn out cliché, "a stitch in time saves nine", while canvassing the central and state governments and other stakeholders, to fall in line with the need for organising a paradigm shift, in disaster management, from rescue, relief and rehabilitation to prevention and, in the event that was not feasible, preparation.

Even from our school days, we are introduced to the rich treasure trove of sayings in our mother tongues and in the English language and taught to use them with, reference to context, in daily life.

Languages of all parts of the country, the West, the North and the Northeast, abound in sayings, rich in wisdom and robust in earthiness. Constraints of space, however have made it necessary to restrict the choice, in this piece, only to a few of them.

A Hindi proverb says that a half-filled vessel makes more noise. Coincidentally, an English proverb also says, that an empty vessel makes much noise. At the philosophical level, both of them convey the meaning that wise men tend to speak less, a sentiment also conveyed by the English saying, which says that still waters run deep.

There is another Hindu saying that an elephant has two sets of teeth, one for show and the other for eating, about a person who is double faced or hypocritical. A similar sense is conveyed, by a probably apocryphal story, about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was known to have been ugly, to put it mildly.

A detractor in a crowd once interrupted him while speaking, calling him double faced so-and-so. Lincoln promptly retorted, saying, "my dear Sir! If I had another face, would I using this?". Yet another Hindi proverb tells you that a monkey cannot appreciate the taste of ginger, the equivalent of the Biblical warning not to cast pearls before swine. A similar saying in Hindi tells you that clouds which thunder do not produce rain, meaning that those who threaten rarely act, conveying the same sense as the English counterpart, saying barking dogs seldom bite. Strangely enough, that English saying has an identical twin in Telugu!

My mother never tired of repeating to me the Telugu proverb, about the dog which promised itself it would never sleep in a dirty pool of water again and, surely enough, returned to sleep in the same place the next night. Her way of reprimanding me for failing to keep my promises to her!

She was also fed up with my habitual procrastination, and would also often tell me the Telugu saying, which a favourite with her, the one which tells the procrastinator to inscribe the word' tomorrow' on the wall, look at it every morning, and tell himself he would perform the entrusted task the next day.

And when I was stubborn, or obstinate, about doing something, she would relate to me the proverb about the mule-headed person, who says that the hare he caught only has three legs. The feeling in the Telugu saying, that distant mountains appear smooth, is also echoed by the English one, that distance lends enchantment to the view.

Tamil, the oldest of the Dravidian languages, also has its own invaluable collection. There is the one which says that gold is easy to come by but not a Wednesday. Despite the most diligent enquiry, I have not over seven decades, been able to understand why. But, strangely enough, the Anglo-Saxons named the day after the God Woden, who is paralleled with the Roman God Mercury, both Gods sharing the attributes of eloquence, the ability to travel and the guardianship of the dead.

The role of the use of oil (especially coconut oil), in matters relating to health, especially in the southern states of the country, is well known. Which is probably why the Tamil saying goes that what one gives to the doctor, one may as well give to the oil vendor.

Mustard, goes the Malayalam adage, maybe small in size, but can sting you with its pungency, the approximate Telugu equivalent being the one about a bird which is small in size, but has a loud chirp. Another Malayalam proverb tells us that taking good care of children will ensure the future development of society, a somewhat similar meaning also being conveyed by the Telugu adage, which says that "today's children are tomorrow's citizens".

Another such duo of sayings, with similar meaning, is the Malayalam one which tells you that the jasmine in your garden will have no fragrance, its twin, in Telugu, being the one which says, that the dish made by your neighbour's wife is always tastier! Another Malayalam proverb tells you that, if you eat slowly, you can even eat a whole palm tree, meaning that a step-by-step approach will help one surmount even the most daunting challenge.

Then there is the Kannada saying that a pot full of water makes no noise, the more serious version of which is that educated persons always remain calm and composed. Which in identical, again, to the Telugu proverb, so far as the pot and the water go. Somewhat close in the sense it conveys, is the Kannada saying that silence is the best conversation which, in turn, is similar to the English adage, that silence is golden.

Naturally enough, the realm of sayings, and proverbs, extends to all known tongues spoken across the globe. As a sample, we have: "Time for business, an hour for fun" - a Russian saying, equivalent to "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" then, there is "I think my pig whistles" - a German saying meaning a thing sounds ridiculous, equivalent, in sense to the passage from Alice in wonderland which goes "the time has come", the walrus said, "to speak of many things. Of ships and shoes and sealing wax and cabbages and kings. And why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings". The French proverb, "the more the change, the more things remain the same".

We have already seen, in an earlier column, the wisdom that can emanate from books and the words of great persons. Still, at the risk of being repetitive, I would like to recall what C. Narayana Reddy the famous Telugu poet (known by the acronym 'Cinare'), said. According to him, a thing, when it remains covered up, is poetry; but becomes criticism when the cover is removed!

Another gem is offered by the famous Kaloji Narayana Rao, another great Telangana poet, who says that, while it would be despair to expect the morning never to dawn, it would be avarice, once the day has begun, to expect it to last forever!

There are, thus, sayings in many languages, full of good advice and sound counsel. However, the one which really struck me as highly relevant to present times is the Malayalam one which tells you that the words of elders are like Indian gooseberry, sour at first but turning sweet later!

Sources of mature advice and wise counsel, thus, are many. The Holy books and Scriptures tell us about virtue and sin. The lives and times of great persons in the history of mankind serve to show us the path of righteousness, how to take the courage of our convictions in hand when challenged by adversity, and how to lead socially productive and useful lives.

All this received wisdom and experience, in a duly distilled, robust and earthy form, is available to guide us, in mundane as well as philosophical matters. One only needs to have the patience and, of course the will, to refer to them in times of need.

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh) 

(The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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