Updated: Jul 31
The Thirukkural, one of the greatest works of Tamil literature written by Thiruvalluvar, offers profound insights on ethics, governance, love, and social conduct. Among its 1330 couplets, those related to Sengonnmai – a term signifying just reign under the Sengol or scepter – stand out as a profound guidance for any leader, whether ancient or modern, intending to rule with justice and fairness.
The Kural (couplets) 541 to 550 elucidate the essential tenets of just governance, drawing attention to the leadership’s responsibility to maintain impartiality, protect its people, uphold Dharma, embrace subjects with justice, establish law and order, protect the world, listen attentively to the subjects, and punish wrongdoers. This wisdom, both timeless and universal, finds echoes in the reigns of Tamil Kings, Indian Itihasas and Puranas, and even in contemporary political scenarios.
ஓர்ந்துகண் ணோடாது இறைபுரிந்து யார்மாட்டும்
தேர்ந்துசெய் வஃதே முறை.
This Kural instructs that a just ruler should carry out thorough investigations without favoritism, maintain objectivity, consult legal statutes, and then pass a fair judgment.
The classic Tamil epic Silapathikaram is a powerful story that echoes the essence of Kural 541. The Silapathikaram, or “The Tale of an Anklet”, recounts the life of a merchant named Kovalan, his wife Kannagi, and his lover, the dancer Madhavi. After Kovalan left Kannagi for Madhavi, he later returned penniless to Kannagi, who accepted him without reproach. Kannagi gave Kovalan her precious pair of anklets to sell, hoping to start their life anew in the great city of Madurai, the capital of the Pandyan Kingdom.
Upon reaching Madurai, Kovalan tried to sell one of the anklets to a goldsmith. Unfortunately, the queen had recently lost a similar anklet, and the goldsmith, who was the actual culprit, seized this opportunity to frame Kovalan for the theft. Kovalan was quickly arrested and brought before King Neduncheliyan. Without a proper investigation into the matter and blinded by the perceived evidence, the King condemned Kovalan to death.
After Kovalan’s execution, Kannagi, filled with despair and rage, came to the king’s court. She broke open the other anklet, revealing rubies inside, not pearls like the queen’s anklet. This proved Kovalan’s innocence as the anklets were not the same. The King, realizing his hasty and unjust judgement, died of shock and guilt. In her fury, Kannagi also cursed the city of Madurai, which then witnessed immense calamity.
This story perfectly illustrates Kural 541, which stresses the importance of thorough investigation and impartial judgement. If the king had investigated the case properly and shown no favoritism, Kovalan’s unjust death could have been averted, underlining the grave consequences of unfair judgement.
வானோக்கி வாழும் உலகெல்லாம் மன்னவன்
கோல்நோக்கி வாழுங் குடி.
The Kural states that just as all living beings depend on rain for survival, the people depend on the king’s rule for protection and safety.
The legend of King Shibi, or Shibi Chakravarti, a renowned character in Indian Itihasas, powerfully encapsulates the principle outlined in Kural 542. The story reverberates with the essence of a monarch’s duty to protect his subjects (no matter the being) , similar to how life relies on the rain cloud for sustenance.
King Shibi was renowned for his righteousness and commitment to protect all beings within his kingdom. One day, a pigeon, trembling with fear, sought the king’s protection, claiming it was fleeing from a hawk. Shortly afterward, the hawk arrived and demanded its prey, arguing that the pigeon was its natural food and that denying it would starve it.
King Shibi was faced with a dilemma: his duty was to protect his subject, the pigeon, but he also couldn’t ignore the hawk’s legitimate need for food. The king, determined to uphold the responsibility of his scepter, proposed a solution – he offered his own flesh equal in weight to the pigeon to the hawk.
The balance was brought, and the pigeon was placed on one side. King Shibi started cutting his flesh and placing it on the other side. Yet, no matter how much flesh he cut, the pigeon’s side always weighed heavier. Determined not to falter in his duty, the king decided to offer his entire body.
As King Shibi was about to step onto the balance scale, the pigeon and the hawk revealed their true forms. They were none other than the gods Indra and Agni. They had taken these forms to test King Shibi’s commitment to his duty and his subjects. Touched by the king’s determination and readiness to sacrifice himself for the wellbeing of his subjects, the gods blessed him.
அந்தணர் நூற்கும் அறத்திற்கும் ஆதியாய்
நின்றது மன்னவன் கோல்.
This Kural states that the sovereign’s righteous governance ensures that even the spiritual laws and virtues enshrined in the Vedas and other dharmic scriptures are upheld and respected.
To capture this idea, we can look at an episode from the life of Lord Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana. Lord Rama is revered as an embodiment of righteousness and is known for his adherence to dharma (righteousness) in his role as a king. One episode that exemplifies Lord Rama’s commitment to upholding spiritual laws and virtues is the Ashwamedha Yagna as described in the Uttara Khanda of Ramayana.
After Rama’s victorious return to Ayodhya and his coronation as the king, Rama takes the counsel of his brothers on what yajna to perform. Lakshmana advises that it is said in Puranas that Purandara, sullied by the sin consequent upon slaying a Brahmana (slaying Vritra engaged in asceticism), was again purified by offering an Ashwamedha Yagna. Rama ensures that all rituals are performed in accordance with the sacred scriptures and Vedic traditions. He pays meticulous attention to the details, ensuring that every aspect of the yagna adheres to the prescribed spiritual laws and practices.
In this episode, Lord Rama’s actions depict the ideal sovereign who not only governs the kingdom with justice and righteousness but also ensures that the spiritual laws and virtues enshrined in the Vedas and other dharmic scriptures are upheld and respected. He sets an example of a ruler who integrates worldly governance with spiritual wisdom, promoting harmony and righteousness in society.
குடிதழீஇக் கோலோச்சும் மாநில மன்னன்
அடிதழீஇ நிற்கும் உலகு.
This Kural captures that a king who rules with justice and cares for his subjects is respected and admired worldwide.
The story of King Paari Vendhan relates well to Kural 544 as it exemplifies the idea that a king who rules with justice and cares for his subjects is respected and admired worldwide. In the story, King Paari Vendhan demonstrates his compassion and concern for even the smallest and seemingly insignificant aspects of his kingdom.
King Paari Vendhan, the ruler of Parambu Nadu, was on a chariot ride around the hill when a powerful gust of wind caught his attention. Amidst the turbulence, he noticed a solitary Jasmine creeper being tossed vigorously. Curious, he instructed his charioteer to bring the chariot closer to the creeper. With great care, the king stooped down and delicately gathered the creeper, carefully entwining it around his chariot. He then released his horses to wander freely and walked alongside his charioteer back to the palace, carrying the jasmine creeper with him.
By taking the time to protect and care for the creeper, he showcases his commitment to justice and the well-being of his subjects. Just as the Kural suggests, the world embraces and admires a monarch who embraces their subjects under the scepter of justice, and King Paari Vendhan’s actions reflect this principle.
இயல்புளிக் கோலோச்சும் மன்னவன் நாட்ட
பெயலும் விளையுளும் தொக்கு.
This Kural emphasizes that when a ruler governs according to the law, the land flourishes with prosperity akin to abundant rain and bountiful harvests.
Even today, “Ramarajya” is held as the epitome of exemplary governance. Lord Rama’s reign was defined by his compassion towards his subjects and the ability to unwaveringly be truthful, evident when he chose to go to the forest to keep his father’s promise, illustrating the just ruler’s sacrifice for the truth to always prevail. Lord Rama is said to have neutralized all adi-daivika and adi-bhautika forces. Learn more about it here — https://www.anaadifoundation.org/blog/qa/q‑a-governance-in-ancient-india/
வேலன்று வென்றி தருவது மன்னவன்
கோலதூஉங் கோடா தெனின்.
This Kural poetically emphasizes that true victory is achieved not through physical might but through fair and upright governance. It is indeed a great defeat when one cannot live up to one’s principles.There is an episode in Mahabharata that shows how seriously this is taken by Arjuna.
Once a Brahmin seeks Arjuna’s help in retrieving his stolen cows. However, Arjuna finds himself in a predicament as he had left his weapons in the quarters, which were now occupied by Yudhishthira and Draupadi. The Pandavas had made a vow to go into exile in the forest if they disturbed one another while being with Draupadi.
Despite the situation, Arjuna recognizes his duty to assist the Brahmin and cannot deny him help. Therefore, he returns to the place, retrieves his Gandiva bow and arrows, and punishes the robbers, recovering the stolen cows.
Arjuna voluntarily decides to retire to the forest, even though Yudhishthira assures him that it is not necessary. By willingly accepting the consequences of his actions and honoring the vow, Arjuna demonstrates his adherence to righteousness and his understanding that victory lies not only in physical strength but also in upholding moral values and governing with integrity.
இறைகாக்கும் வையகம் எல்லாம் அவனை
முறைகாக்கும் முட்டாச் செயின்.
This Kural brings out beautifully how it is the ruler’s duty to safeguard the world, and in turn, when he rules justly, righteousness itself acts as his guardian.
Lord Krishna’s message reinforces this idea — धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः — “Dharma protects those who protect it.” Bhagavan asserts that those who protect dharma, or righteousness, will themselves be protected by it. It signifies that when individuals act in accordance with dharma, upholding moral values and principles, they not only contribute to the well-being of society but also find themselves shielded and supported by the very righteousness they champion.
Our sacred teachings emphasize the interdependence of righteousness and those who embrace and protect it. The ruler who governs justly and safeguards the world receives the protection of justice itself. Similarly, individuals who uphold dharma and act in accordance with moral values are fortified by the very principles they uphold. This is the essential teaching of Governance in all our Indian literature.
King Harishchandra, known for his commitment to truth and justice, faced a series of tests orchestrated by the Divine. Having gone through tremendous odds in life, the King’s unwavering stance had resulted in him regaining the kingdom, illustrating this ideal.
எண்பதத்தான் ஓரா முறைசெய்யா மன்னவன்
தண்பதத்தான் தானே கெடும்.
The life of Dhritarashtra, the blind king in the epic Mahabharata, aptly illustrates this tenet. Dhritarashtra, the king of Hastinapur, was blinded not only physically but also by his overwhelming love for his children, particularly his eldest son Duryodhana. His adviser, Vidura, was a man of great wisdom and was often the voice of reason in the court. He would frequently advise Dhritarashtra against favoring his sons unduly and urged him to consider the welfare of the kingdom as a whole.
When the dispute between the Pandavas and the Kauravas escalated, leading to the inevitable Kurukshetra war, Vidura counselled Dhritarashtra to act justly and not side with his sons unconditionally. He warned the king about the disastrous consequences of war and urged him to intervene and negotiate peace. He emphasized the importance of fairness and the rule of law, pointing out that a ruler’s duty was to safeguard the kingdom and its people rather than individual interests.
However, Dhritarashtra turned a deaf ear to Vidura’s wise counsel. Blinded by his affection for his sons, he allowed the war to proceed, leading to the death of all his hundred sons and eventually the downfall of his reign. The prosperous kingdom of Hastinapur was left in ruins, and Dhritarashtra was forced into a remorseful retirement.
The story of Dhritarashtra effectively brings out the essence of Kural 548. By not listening attentively to Vidura’s wise advice, Dhritarashtra showed himself to be an inattentive and inaccessible ruler, and his reign inevitably ended in tragedy. His story serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of attentive listening, judicious judgement, and accessibility in a just reign.
குடிபுறங் காத்தோம்பிக் குற்றம் கடிதல்
வடுவன்று வேந்தன் தொழில்.
This Kural says that no fault befalls a king who, in guarding and caring for his subjects, punishes wrongdoers—for that is his duty.
The story of Manu Needhi Chozhan or King Ellalan, a legendary Tamil king known for his commitment to justice, fits perfectly with the essence of Kural 549. His tale speaks volumes about how a monarch’s adherence to justice and righteousness ensures the love and respect of his subjects.
King Ellalan was titled Manu Needhi Chozhan, whose name literally translates to “the Chozhan who upheld the laws of Manu,” is remembered for an incident that proved his impartial application of justice, irrespective of who was involved.
Once the King’s son, Veedhi-Vidangan, accidentally ran over a calf with his chariot. The mother cow, seeking justice for her injured calf, rang the bell to attract the king’s attention. The king, hearing the ringing of the bell, stepped out of his courtroom to inquire about the reason behind it.
Upon learning that his own son was responsible for the calf’s injury, King Ellalan did not hesitate to serve justice. To uphold the principles of fairness and equality, he rode the chariot over his own son, ensuring that the cow and the calf received justice for the harm caused to them.
Witnessing this act of impartiality and dedication to justice, people began referring to King Ellalan as Manu Needhi Cholan, meaning “the Chola king who upheld the justice given by Manu.” This title recognized his commitment to administering justice in accordance with righteous principles.
The story of Manu Needhi Cholan continues to inspire judges and serves as a reminder of the importance of upholding justice and fairness. Even today, while delivering justice, judges in this country remember and draw inspiration from the legacy of Manu Needhi Cholan, the epitome of an ideal judge.
கொலையிற் கொடியாரை வேந்தொறுத்தல் பைங்கூழ்
களைகட் டதனொடு நேர்.
This Kural states that a just ruler eliminating ruthless criminals is akin to a gardener removing harmful weeds to protect the other plants.
This is beautifully illustrated by an episode in Ramayana. In the forest of Tadaka, the sage Vishvamitra faced torment from the wicked Tadaka and her sons. Seeking assistance, he approached King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, who reluctantly agreed to send his son Rama to protect the sage and his sacred yajna.
During the six-day yajna, Rama stood guard alongside Vishvamitra. On the final day, Maricha and his demon companions attempted to disrupt the sacred fire. In response, Rama unleashed his mighty Manavastra, obliterating Maricha and sending him into the depths of the ocean. With unwavering courage and various weapons, Rama defeated the demons and ensured the successful completion of the yajna.
Accompanied by his brother Lakshmana, Rama bravely faced Tadaka’s attack, swiftly eliminating her with a well-aimed arrow. As a result, Vishvamitra blessed Rama and bestowed upon him divine weapons.
This story beautifully exemplifies Kural 550, illustrating how a ruler’s execution of cruel criminals is akin to a gardener removing weeds from a garden. Rama’s righteous actions protected the sanctity of the yajna, reinforcing the importance of punishing wrongdoers to maintain peace and order.
In this article, we have presented many illustrations for the principles of Sengonnmai – a term signifying just reign under the Sengol or scepter. Such a Sengol now adorns the new parliament of India. May this era usher in the living embodiment of these principles as well.