Sengol: A pan-India symbol of righteousness
by Jayasree Saranathan on 28 May 2023 7 Comments

The Tamil word Sengol has gained national attention following the decision of the Centre to establish it ceremoniously in the newly built Parliament. Lots of information is going around on its symbolism in the transfer of power to Independent India, the meaning of the word, and its origin from a mutt in Tamilnadu. Without touching upon information already circulated on the social media, this article attempts to look into the issues not known to the general public.


First of all, it is not right to attribute the concept of Sengol to the Chola empire alone. Sengol was the symbol of the other two Tamil dynasties too, namely Chera and Pandya. To be more accurate, it had pan-Indian presence as a symbol associated with kings. This does not mean that it signified monarchy; rather it was a representation of the Rule of Law or Righteousness. The text of the Mahabharata is replete with references to the ‘Rod of chastisement’ – known as ‘Danda’ – that was held high by the rulers.


The earliest talk about it was between Vasuhoma and the Ikshvaku king, Mandhatri, who wanted to know the origin of chastisement. A murkier scene of chaos in which there was robbery and the strong ones tormenting the weak was described to show that it resulted in Vishnu creating His own self as chastisement with a Shula (a weapon) in his hand. From that form, having Dharma for its legs, Saraswati, the goddess of speech, created Danda-niti (Science of Chastisement) to restore order and for protection. This is symbolic of saying that rules of do-s and don’t-s for good conduct were laid down and also the punishment for non-adherence of those rules. A weapon (shula) was assigned to signify the same.


Chastisement is again described by the Mahabharata in the words of Bhishma, originally told by Matariswan to Pururavas. In his dialogue with Puraravas, Matariswan clearly stated that Kshatriyas were created for ruling the earth and for wielding ‘Danda’ - the Rod of chastisement.


This purpose was emphasised in too many ways by Vyasa to Yudhishthira when he was hesitant to take up rulership after the war was over.  Vyasa listed out 12 things for kshatriyas namely, yajna, learning, exertion, ambition, wielding ‘the rod of punishment,’ fierceness, protection of subjects, knowledge of the Vedas, practise of all kinds of penances, goodness of conduct, acquisition of wealth, and gifts to deserving persons. “Amongst these, O son of Kunti, wielding the rod of chastisement (Danda-dharanam) has been said to be the foremost,” said he. “Strength must always reside in a Kshatriya, and upon strength depends chastisement.”


In the same scenario, we find Draupadi speaking about the need for Danda – the Rod of chastisement and Arjuna elaborating on that with three objectives for Danda, namely protection of wealth, to desist people from committing sinful activities, and fear from society on losing reputation. Arjuna also said, “The rod of chastisement (danda) has been so named by the wise because it restrains the ungovernable and punishes the wicked.”


These views are repeated in several contexts in the Mahabharata, stating additionally that the king must wield the Dharma-danda in his hand. The Danda is basically a staff or rod or mace or some stick that is held upright to signify the delivery of what is just and right to everyone without any discrimination. Bhishma has given a very detailed account on Dharma-Danda (Ch. 12-121) by stating its form in many ways such as sword, the punisher, the Eternal, the Scriptures, the judge, the Undecaying, Rudra, Vishnu, Narayana etc, and concludes by saying that it assumes the form of the Kshatriya among men.


Kshatriya was chosen due to the strength he possesses to rule and to enforce the rule of law. One may ask why not others, but only a kshatriya. This was asked by Yudhishthira and Bhishma answered in the affirmative. It was perfectly agreeable if someone from the other orders takes up the role and restores the rule of law for the protection of the oppressed, said Bhishma (Mbh: 12-79). It is here we find the crux of the issue that wielding the Danda was for upholding the law of the land – be it in monarchy or democracy. This is the very basic idea of Sengol, making it relevant for our times too.


Sengol is not just a symbol of rule of law, but it also reminds one that the rule of law is supreme. The very meaning of the word split into Sem+ Kol where Sem means Semmai referring to great, upright, well-made etc., and Kol denoting stick or staff, spear, arrow (as per Tamil dictionary), connotes the Rod of Righteousness. This is the same as the Dharma-Danda mentioned in the Mahabharata several times. More often, the contexts where the word Sengol appears in the Tamil Sangam corpus are seen with an additional expression indicating ‘Dharma’. Words such “Aram puri Sengol” in the Perumpaanaarru-p-padai or “Aram thunjum Sengol” and “Aram purindhanna Sengol” in Pura Nanuru verses 20 and 35 are expressed with the word Aram, meaning Dharma.


Poet Kapilar praised the Sengol of king Paari that it brought rainfall and prosperity to the land. It is worth mentioning in this context an old Tamil poem composed by the Sangam age poetess Auvaiyaar and quoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Chennai visit (14 February 2021), which links Sengol to raising the bund of the paddy fields.

Varappuyara neer vuyarum,

Neer vuyara nel vuyarum,

Nel vuyara kudi vuyarum,

Kudi vuyara KOL vuyarum,

Kol vuyara kon vuyarum


This poem says, “raise the bund, the water level will increase. Abundant water gives abundant produce of paddy. Abundant produce of paddy increases the prosperity of the people. Prosperous people strengthen the Sengol. The king with that Sengol will become great.”


The wealth accumulation caused by increasing the water-flow to the paddy fields brought good returns to the people and the exchequer as well (by taxes). The wealth creation to the people and to the exchequer went on smoothly by the rule of law. If the rod of chastisement had wavered, only theft, loss and agony would have resulted.


Misery may come in other ways too, as it happened for Madurai when Kannagi burnt Madurai for the murder of her husband, Kovalan, by a royal decree for an offense not committed by him. The epic composition of Silappadhikaram describes the lowering of the parasol and the Sengol of the Pandyan king, Nedum Chezhian, on seeing the evidence of Kovalan’s innocence. The king fell dead then and there, unable to bear the injustice done by him. This aspect of Sengol as Danda giving punishment to the wielder of the Sengol for miscarriage of justice shows who is supreme – the Sengol or the wielder of the Sengol.


The Sengol is supreme as it represents the supreme authority of the rule of law. The wielder of the Sengol is only a servant of the Sengol, to carry out the law of the land. This makes the fact clear that the Sengol has everlasting relevance, for all times. Such a symbol was picked out providentially at the time of our independence from colonial rule to mark the transfer of power, whereas it originally stands for the authority and rule of Dharma in our country where Dharma was under stress by the rule of foreigners until then.


Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam was chosen to undertake the making and the delivery of the Sengol, mainly because that was a leading centre of Renaissance of Tamil in pre-Independent India where many olden texts of Sangam Tamil were preserved and brought out in print by scholars such as Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer. For anything on antiquity and olden traditions, the scholars and the publications of this Adheenam were in the forefront to offer help. That is how this Adheenam’s name came to the fore and not because it was in the Chola country.


The image of bull on top of the Sengol, though designed with due allegiance to the philosophical leanings of the Adheenam, represents the foremost source of Danda Niti as told in the Mahabharata. It was originally given by Brahma deva to Lord Shiva. (Mb: 12-59)


Lord Shiva gave the sastra of Danda Niti to his consort, Uma Devi, by which it came to be known as Vaisalakasha. It had 10,000 chapters (adhyaya).


It was received by Indra who rendered it as Vahudantaka in 5,000 chapters.


Brihaspati received it from Indra and rendered it as Varhaspatya in 3,000 chapters.


Sukracharya (known as Kavi) received it from Brihaspati and rendered it in 1,000 chapters.


This niti sastra became prevalent throughout Bharat. Manu and others derived their law books from this only.


Thus, basically it was Shiva’s rule of law, fittingly represented by His bull placed on top of the Sengol. Let it keep reminding the elected leaders of all times the duty and expectation bestowed upon them by the Sengol. 

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