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Sengonnmai: The Tenets of a Fair and Just Reign in the Thirukkural

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 —‑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.


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