From East to West, the power of proverbs as a vehicle of culture is well-recognised. As small, concentrated packages of insight, proverbs allow people around the world to share the wisdom of a local community. As Francis Bacon said, “The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.”
Proverbs are the original social media. Long before Tweets, SMS messages and WhatsApp alerts, proverbs captured the wisdom of the people in short witty phrases. From oral to literate societies, the folk wisdom of proverbs reflects heritage, faith, values and history in a multitude of languages around the world.
Says Suzanne Woods Fisher: “If you want to know a people, know their proverbs.” Proverbs also serve as teaching tools and maxims for inspiration, justice and inter-faith harmony. From the simple to the profound, from the serious to the humorous, witty proverbs have been passed on through the ages.
Proverbs make us think and reflect. They tease our brains. They may make us laugh. But most of all, they tell us something about who we are and how we see the world, from millennium to millennium, from generation to generation.
While museums, architecture, costumes, dances, musical performances, festivals, rituals, published literature and occupational practices are the more visible aspects of heritage, proverbs are also vital intangible components of heritage and need to be addressed more systematically.
I began to collect proverbs in my Loyola school days in Poona as part of the annual ‘scrap book’ projects, and carried on doing so in my college days in IIT-Bombay, grad-school days in the U.S. at UMass Amherst, work postings in Brasil, Italy and Singapore, and after my return to India.
I noticed that while there were separate books about Hindi or Kannada proverbs, I could not find a single book with an integrated collection of proverbs across Indian languages, expressing togetherness and Indianness. Fuelled in part by the growing global buzz about India, the unbelievable energy that India today exudes, and the boom in media about India, I decided to give my humble scribbled quotations a more permanent home in the form of the book, “Pearls of Wisdom: Indian Proverbs and Quotes.” These proverbs are now available via Amazon (print book), Twitter (@IndianProverbs) and apps (Android and Apple).
No work on Indian proverbs and quotations can really be said to be ‘complete,’ of course, given the depth and diversity of India’s philosophical traditions and the ongoing contributions of its prolific scholars, gurus, artistes, statesmen and leaders both in India as well as the globe-spanning Indian diaspora. Here is a brief sample from my book of over 1,000 Indian proverbs and quotes, translated into English from 24 Indian languages.
Just as beauty spots and hair beautify women, proverbs beautify language.
– Bengali proverb
The worth of the shade is only known when the sun is beating down hot.
– Tamil proverb
Life is like a lamp flame; it needs a little oil now and then.
– Kashmiri proverb
Do not dig a well only after the house catches fire.
– Kannada proverb
The mouse who finds a piece of turmeric cannot claim to own a grocery store.
– Sindhi proverb
The neighbour’s curry even if sour is tasty.
– Telugu proverb
For a satiated duck fish becomes tasteless.
– Bhojpuri proverb
There will always be a ditch in front of a person in a hurry.
– Punjabi proverb
A donkey cannot appreciate the taste of jaggery.
– Marathi proverb
Wherever there is cow dung, that is where you will find your bread.
– Mewari proverb
Without the breeze blowing can the leaves tremble?
– Manipuri proverb
The right path is steep and upwards, the wrong path is easy and horizontal.
– Mizo proverb
The cloud that roars seldom pours.
– Maithili proverb
One can sense the fragrance of the tulsi even when the first two tender leaves appear.
– Oriya proverb
Knowledge is higher than power.
– Hindi proverb
To lift an elephant you need an elephant.
– Tulu proverb
A peacock’s eggs do not need to be painted.
– Gujarati proverb
All the ten fingers are used in eating. But it is the thumb that has to push the food into the mouth.
– Assamese proverb
If one is lazy, even nectar turns into poison.
– Sanskrit proverb
Whether you like it or not, I am your guest.
– Urdu proverb
Elders’ advice is like gooseberries; at first sour then sweet.
– Malayalam proverb
You can’t get drunk if you are riding a horse.
– Konkani proverb
Even a witch spares her neighbourhood.
– Marwari proverb