Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 4 : 6 June 2004

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
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         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.


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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai

The Unique Satakam Poetic Genre in Telugu
V. V. B. Rama Rao, Ph.D.


Human nature has been the subject of observation, introspection and analysis of many an intellectual down the ages. That the proper study of mankind is man is poet Alexander Pope's valid observation, valid for all time. This paper attempts to project the achievement the oriental mind of the Telugu sataka poets against that of the Westerners in the area of human nature related analyses. Alexander Pope, the 18th Century English poet, Francois La Rochefoulcauld of 17 th Century France are studied briefly.

2. ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744)

Pope's ESSAY ON MAN is an orchestration of his understanding of Man. He wrote in his Design, some kind of an apologia pro vita sua, his 'argument, like Milton's, to vindicate the ways of God to Man:

Having proposed to write some pieces on Human life and manners, such as (to use my Lord Bacon's expression) come home to men's Business and Bosoms, I thought it more satisfactory to begin with considering Man in the abstract, his Nature and State: since to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection or imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.

Now to a listing of his four epistles with the themes and illustrative clippings:

Epistle I is Of the Nature and State of Man with relation to the universe:

Cease, then, nor order imperfection name
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on three
Himself as an individual.

Epistle II is Of the Nature and State of Man with respect to himself as an individual:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.

Epistle III is of the Nature and State of Man, with respect to society:

Look around our world, behold the chain of love
Combining all below and all above.

Epistle IV is of the Nature and State of Man with relation to Happiness:

What's fame? a found life in others' breath
Know then this truth (enough for man to know),
Virtue alone is happiness below


La Rochefoucauld was an aristocrat and head of an ancient family. After a defeat in a battle, disillusioned, he was content with his condition and came in contact with Madame Sable and Madame Lafayette two fashionable ladies of the French salons. The French savant's moral maxims and reflective epigrams (504 in all) have superb lucidity and sculptured brilliance of epigrammatic expression.

It is very difficult to translate them but some of the best in the practice did them and here are some of them by way of a sampler:

Our virtues are usually only our vices in disguise.
The evil we do elicits less persecution and wrath than our good qualities.
We have more strength than will, and we often make excuses for ourselves imagining that they are impossible.
What we take for virtue is often only a collection of diverse acts and interests which either fortune or our own effort makes possible. It is not always valour that makes men brave, or chastity that makes women chaste.
We always love those who admire us, and we do not always love those whom we admire.
The virtues join with self-interest as the rivers join with the sea.
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
Women know not the whole of their coquetry.
The gratitude of most men is but a secret desire of receiving greater benefits.
Preserving the health by too strict a regimen is a worrisome malady.
Attention to health is life's greatest hindrance.
In jealousy there is more self-love than love.
Badness of memory everyone complains of, but nobody the want of judgement.
It is easier to know mankind in general than man individually.
A refusal of praise is a desire to be praised more.
It is easier to be wise for others than for ourselves.
Hypocrisy is the homage which vice renders to virtue.
Few persons know how to be old.
(Trs. Chandler)


The sataka poets in Telugu literature made the genre a vehicle both for propagating bhakti (devotion) and the edification of the sense of morality, moral values and dignified, righteous living. There is difference in the depth of insight of the occidental (western writers) mentioned and the oriental, Telugu sataka kartas, writers of Satakas, which forms the point of the present essay.

Sataka is a literary term signifying a hundred-verse-composition in Telugu. It is literary form with a makutam, literally a crown, a signature line coming at the end of the four-line verse. The metrical form is very simple, the rhythm and the cadence regular, aiding both understanding and mnemonic ease. The words and expressions used are the simplest in the sense that they are taken from the simple people's language as distinct from the highly Sanskritized language of the upper classes. The prosodic forms made for easy memorization. Usually the whole hundred are rote-learnt to be repeated after a preceptor to his pupils at the earliest stage of teaching. The lines are short. The idea is to make the little pupils as well as mature adults to understand ways of sensible discrimination between the good and bad and to teach the ways of the world and the various mentalities of men.


Satakas are composed initially by poets as a fine medium for propagation of faith, singing the praise of god. It is believed that Veerashaiva poets wanted a new genre to get their message to the common people. A particular deity is chosen and elaborate devotional descriptions are made of the deity, his or her qualities, achievements, power, glory and grace. These are enumerated in euphony, which is really transporting to the devotee who recites the satakam. The first known satakam is by Baddena, a 13th century poet who composed it to pay his devotion to Vrishadhipa, Shiva. It was believed to be an expression of Veershaiva devotion. Baddena was a great poet in the history of traditional Sanskritized poetry also.


To bring out the essence of righteous, good, noble, refined ways of living in a language that is easily understood to convey the edifying message, sataka mode came in very handy. The earliest-known such sataka is Sumati Satakam. The exact date of composition is not known and the authorship too is not established. But it is generally supposed that the great Shaiva poet Baddena composed it. Given the social milieu where tempers ran high in matters of adherence to a particular denomination of faith and a particular deity, deliberately suppressing the name could be a fair enough possibility.


By far the most popular of neeti satakas in Telugu are Sumatee Satakam and Vemana Satakam.

Of Baddena (13th century), though now supposed to be author of Sumatee Satakam, we don't have any biographical information. References to the author are simply made as sumatee sataka karta - the one who wrote sumatee sataka. Baddena Kavi is credited with Vrishadipa sataka too. Sumatee satakam is popular throughout the Telugu speaking area once extending to regions in the present Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states. The primary aim of his work is social uplift via awakening the moral sense and aiding an awareness of the ways of men, matters and manners. Though several titles of satakas are listed in books, many are not available. Even for those among those available, biographical details of the authors are not easy to find.


If a cur, at an auspicious moment,
Is enthroned on a seat of gold
Would it give up its old trait?
Listen, O you, fair-minded!
Venom, the serpent has in the head
The scorpion in the tail
But, for man isn't it all over?
Listen, O you, fair-minded!
Worthwhile it is to listen to, whoever the teller
Proper it is to weigh without haste
Only he who knows truth from falsehood is wise
Listen O you, fair-minded!
Stronger is the one who's wise on reflection
Than the one who is just corpulent
Doesn't a mahout mount an elephant the size of a hillock?
Listen, O you, fair-minded!
The joy of male offspring for the sire
Comes not at the time a son's born
Only when people around acclaim the son
Finds joy the sire, listen, O you, fair-minded!
A kinsman who doesn't lend hand to help in need
A deity who wouldn't give a boon when devoutly prayed for
A steed that doesn't run when urged in a phalanx
Should be renounced instantaneously, listen, O you, fair-minded!
Walk not the lone way
Eat not at the foe's house
Touch not other's moneyv Hurt not any by your speech, listen, O you, fair-minded!
A lender, a healer of disease,
A never stopping rivulet, a Brahmin
If around, stay in that village,
Otherwise, never live there, listen, O you, fair-minded!
For the one who does a good turn, to analyse,
It's not strange to do another in turn:
To the one who harmed, doing a good turn without blame
Is the mark of a skilful man, listen, O you, fair-minded!
The one who always goes on finding faults
One should never serve - asked how and why -
Isn't it similar to living like a frog
Under a serpent's hood, listen, O you, fair-minded!
The one who says the thing proper for the occasion
And passes on with no offence to any
Hurting none, and not getting hurt
Is ever the man blessed, listen, O you, fair-minded!
When wealth and affluence abound
Relatives come swarming around
When water tanks for irrigation fill to the brim
Wouldn't tens of thousands of frogs gather, listen, O you, fair-minded!
Pluck not fruit unripe and raw
Abuse not relatives, it's wrong
Flee not the field of battle
Violate not the order of the preceptor, listen, O you, fair-minded!
As the lotus out of water
Gets exposed to the sun and wilts -
Those who stray from resorts their own
Make friends their own enemies sure, listen, O you, fair-minded!
Anger is an enemy of one's own
His cool his protection, compassion a relative
His joy verily heaven
His grief hell, sure, they say, O you, fair-minded!
The piety and devotion of his own village
The growth of his son's learning, beauty of his wife,
The medicinal value of the plant in his backyard
None would ever praise even inwardly, O you, fair-minded!
One's own affluence is heavenly luxury
Poverty, penury of the world entire
Death, the deluge of the universe
His own ladylove, Rambha, surely, O you, fair-minded!
(Rambha is a divine damsel in Deity Indra's court)
In a spot where one's own (friends) don't exist
Where there's not even a little intimacy!
In a place of scuffle where safety is uncertain
It is not proper for a man to be, O you, fair-minded!
Water is the basis for all life
Mouth for all sayings of sweetness
Woman a diamond among humans
Sari is amorous feeling, they say, O you, fair-minded
Pledge not gold
Flee not the field of battle
Borrow not from a shop
Friendship of a stupid never cultivate, O you, fair-minded
For a promise, truthfulness is the life breaths
For a castle, an army of good guards
For a woman, her honour
For a deed the signature, truly, O you, fair-minded


Salt and camphor are alike to look
But on scrutiny, different are the ways they taste
Among men, diverse are the meritorious ones
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
The evil-minded, given power, drives away good
Knows the cur that gnaws at a leather slipper
The sweetness of sugarcane?
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
Assert not greatness in places not favourable
Not deficient it is to be in profile low
Wouldn't, in a mirror, the mountain look small?
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
In water, the alligator stretches up to catch an elephant
But on land is undone by a cur
Strength it is of the place, not one's own
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
Don't insist and be obstinate, but once so, don't let go
If obdurate, be strong to hold on
Better to die than to insist first and then let go
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
A boulder, with effort, could be broken
Mountains could be crushed into powder
But the hard-hearted one never can be melted
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
Canker at the root corrupts the tree
The pest that infests corrupts the plant
The wicked vitiates the virtuous one
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema
Neem, even nurtured with milk
Wouldn't lose its bitterness to become sweet
The vicious one remains ever so, never becoms propriety-knowing
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
Go with a pot to milk the cow gone barren
You get your teeth broken - it yields not milk
Sure, there's no use begging a miser
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
One single sapphire would do
Why a whole bag glittering stones
Wouldn't one poem spoken extempore be enough?
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
Little stone in the slipper, gadfly near the ear
Mote in the eye and thorn in the sole
Wrangles at home, truly, to suffer impossible it is
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
The city of the King of Lanka who held the goddess of wealth captive
Ravaged was by an army of mere monkeys
In times inopportune the meanest would do to spell ruin
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
Men who wouldn't feed the hungry and be charitable
What use their being born or dead
Wouldn't termites in the anthill multiply and die?
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
When hungry and emaciated, a lion
Would battered be even by a biting cur
When out of fortune, tenacity wouldn't do
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
The good that's done with dedication and piety
Though little is not small at all
Of the giant banyan how big is the seed?
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
Iron, if broken, could be melted
Twice or thrice and be tinkered in order
Manas* if broken can never be joined
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
(*Manas is mind, heart and liking all in one)
The small-minded always speaks ostentatiously
The good man speaks soft and sweet, coolly,
Would gold ring loud as bronze?
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
The little seed of pepper appears black
But if bitten it is hot to the tongue
Essence of the good ones would similar be
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
The fig apple outside has sheen wondrous
Tummy opened, inside has worms
In the coward's mind, thus would bravery be
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
One Rama born fulfilled the race of the Sun
The lord of Kurus came to corrupt the clan
Are n't merit and sin like this here on earth
Beauteous one of the universe, listen, O Vema.
The milk of the holy cow, a ladleful would do
What, if it's a potful of ass's milk
Given in devotion, even a morsel would be enough
Beauteous of the Universe, listen, O Vema!


Practicing translation is fraught with risks ranging from derision to the grave and downright damning. The safe way, in contexts like the present one, is to be content with rough and ready rendering (I call it triple 'r'). Mine are attempts at steering carefully between the Scylla of soulless machine translation - a blessing from Applied Linguisticians - and the Charybdis of unrestrained 'transcreation'.


The relevance of satakas is perennial, no matter the political, economic milieu. They are guidelines to human behaviour and conduct, laying down prescriptions and imposing prohibitions with caveats and words of caution which enable men to make lives righteously meaningful. Above we have seen the observations and insightful remarks of four great minds in different parts of our world separated by centuries in the efflux of time.


One of the most important aspects to be studied is the spirit of the times, which produced a particular literary text. Telugu poets wanted a literary form that could go straight into people's hearts in a language that is theirs in a form that is easy to remember. People needed some kind of a valid and worthwhile sociological refurbishing also besides the vibrant Veershaiva poetry. Social uplift appeared to be an urgent need.. Hence poets turned to compose the Neeti Sataka literature alongside bhakti satakas.


Baddenakavi belonged to the 13th century, while La Rochefoucauld and Vemana belonged to the 17th Century and Alexander Pope belonged to the later 18th Century. The climes they lived are different but they were all making observations on human life. All are relevant to all people all over the world, even today. The wisdom of Sumateesatakam goes straight into men's business and bosoms (Pope's dictum borrowed from Francis Bacon of yore), without any ostentation or feeling of superiority. La Rochefoucauld had a clinical eye for the imperfections of man and many of his observations smack of cynicism though they cannot be refuted totally. Vemana of the intervening century between the 16th and 18 Centuries, has become more practical and more enduring for the simplicity and directness (eve humour), validity of his observations and insight into the human mind.


Vemana's biographical details are available. He was the younger brother of a well-to-do landlord, brought up by a doting sister-in-law. Vema, pampered, yielded to evil company, becomes a debauchee but the sudden death of his brother's daughter, the apple of his own eye (notwithstanding his vices), brought in a total transformation in him. He was involved in some kind of alchemy for the philosopher's stone and things lead him not just to disillusionment but to become yogi, a spiritual aspirant, and show others the ways of the world and also the path of righteous, meaningful living. Alexander Pope's sincerity was never in question: but modern readers may find his epistles more homiletic than really practical. Pope has a poignant sense of God which is not seen either in the Sataka Kartas or La Rochefoucauld.


Telugu Neeti satakas continue to hold sway over the minds of both the young and old alike. Nurtured on them right from childhood both the family and at school, people easily absorb in their thinking processes. Vemana, and earlier Baddena, have been real poets of the people who brought literature to the common folk, performing a holy priest-like task. Sociological sense got infused into literature, which was made a device for moral edification. The language, the tropes and the aphoristic tightness are all succinct and sharp, stinging men into worthwhile thought.


Pope's aphorisms and La Rochefoucauld's epigrams are known the world over. But no less valuable are the statements in the satakas: In fact they appear to be the richer for the flashes of humour, sensitive realism and consummate but unostentatious craftsmanship. The verse forms are simple in terms not only of metre but also of expression. There is an element of super-sophistication in the French maxim but one must remember the motive of maxim-making in the fashionable French salon, the haunt of ladies and lords for, among other things, elegant, brilliant and sparkling conversation and striking maxim-chiselling. The statements in the satakas are correctives for excesses, for promoting discretion, goodwill, large heartedness and cultivation of noble qualities like compassion, charity and righteousness. Nothing is flashy, nothing ostentatious or self-adulatory in the sataka literature. The only motive generally is to guide, preach and lead gently into ways of thoughtful, meaningful, compassionate living.


Sataka literature has particular relevance against a backdrop of globalization threatening cultural mores of some economically not much advanced countries. Nationhood can never be ignored and a national identity is essential even in an emerging one-nation world. In any nationalist paradigm of education, cultural literacy gains utmost importance. The family is the first school and granny's wisdom, her ability to shape and mould character can never be over-estimated. The granny has to transmit her wisdom to be passed on to posterity. Adherence to tradition as reflected in sataka literature has been considered a help that comes in handy to one and all in the Telugu speaking, now all over world. Westernization, the real looming phantom behind Globalization, cannot make a dent on the basic cultural ethos of peoples as long as the citadels of home truths enshrined in literary/sociological discourses like satakas are respected by adherence.



V. V. B. Rama Rao, Ph.D.
C-7 New Township
BTPS Badarpur
New Delhi - 110 044

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