Rediscovering Burma’s former national motto

The other day, I came across something profound. Perhaps it’s been forgotten by the vast majority now, but Burma, like its Southeast Asian neighbors, once had an Indic national motto, during its short-lived parliamentary period following independence from 1948 to 1962.

Source: OZ Outback. Apologies for the incorrect Burmese spelling above–this is the best example of the seal I could find online.

In fact, Burma’s national motto, a Pali verse, graced the banner of the state seal. It reads in Burmese/Pali as follows:

သမဂ္ဂါနံ တပေါ သုခေါ
samaggānaṃ tapo sukho

Conventionally, this motto has been rendered into English as:

“Happiness through harmony”

Other English translations include:

“Happy is the practice of those in harmony” [source]

“Blessed is the spiritual pursuit of the united truth-seeker” [source]

The motto is part of a verse from the Dhammapada (ဓမ္မပဒ), a collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha, and perhaps the most well-known of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures.

The motto itself is the last line of Verse 194 from Chapter 14: Buddhavagga (ဗုဒ္ဓဝဂ္ဂ), of the Dhammapada. In Pali, the entire verse reads as follows:

သုခေါ ဗုဒ္ဓါနမုပ္ပါဒေါ
သုခါ သဒ္ဓမ္မဒေသနာ
သုခါ သံဃဿ သာမဂ္ဂီ
သမဂ္ဂါနံ တပေါ သုခေါ
sukho buddhānamuppādo
sukhā saddhammadesanā
sukhā saṃghassa sāmaggī
samaggānaṃ tapo sukho

According to popular tradition, at the Jetavana monastery, the Buddha gave a sermon to an assembly of monks, who were discussing the nature of happiness and its many manifestations. He then recited the verse above, which has been translated into English in multiple ways. My English copy of the Dhammapada (Fronsdal, 2008), reads:

Happy is the arising of buddhas;
Happy is the teaching of the true Dharma;
Happy is the harmony of the Sangha;
Happy is the ardent practice of those in harmony.

The conventional Burmese translation of the Pali verse is below:

ဘုရားရှင်တို့ ပွင့်ထွန်းပေါ်ပေါက်လာခြင်းသည် ချမ်းသာခြင်း၏ အကြောင်းဖြစ်၏၊
သူတော်ကောင်းတရားကို ဟောကြားတော်မူခြင်းသည် ချမ်းသာခြင်း၏အကြောင်းဖြစ်၏၊
သံဃာ၏ညီညွတ်ခြင်းသည် ချမ်းသာခြင်း၏ အကြောင်းဖြစ်၏၊
စိတ်ဓာတ်ညီညွတ်သူတို့၏ အကျင့်သည် ချမ်းသာခြင်း၏အကြောင်းဖြစ်၏။

To me, it’s an evocatively moving statement, capturing the spirit of the times. As a fledgling democracy, newly independent Burma was then precariously moving forward as an imperfect union of many different ethnicities, a collective of people all sharing the burden of creating a post-colonial national identity, yet at the same time, all burdened by the consequences of the British divide-and-rule policy. Some will argue this was a sinister imposition of Burman Buddhist culture, but I would disagree.

In fact, in some ways, it reminds me of Indonesia’s national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” or “Unity in Diversity,” which is drawn from an old Javanese poem, even though the Javanese constitute only 40% of Indonesia’s population. In Burma’s case, perhaps the nation builders wanted to earnestly encapsulate the Burmese pursuit of happiness, not by standards of ethnic consciousness and identity politics, but by a shared mindset, a shared vision for the future, a sense of solidarity.

Sadly, more than five decades on, true ‘harmony,’ in the most basic sense of the word, still remains elusive. But the situation on the ground today is far more complicated to untangle, with the major players interwoven in a complex web of personal loyalties, vested financial interests, and political ambitions, all under the guise of addressing historical grievances. And that’s the incredibly sad part: there’s a real human cost to the millions who could care less about this madness, so long as they see their lives improve.

(If anyone has any historical context on how this phrase was chosen, please leave a comment below.)


3 thoughts on “Rediscovering Burma’s former national motto

  1. Wagaung says:

    If you are referring to the word thamada it used to be spelled like that until Ne Win and his pretentious minions changed it. Ta for the article a/an to tit which literally means one followed much later. If that was an omen, no wonder the country went tits up, also in Burmese ‘stuck’ (in a rut) the other meaning for tit.

    It’s a tragic irony that the spirit of Panglong (a popular school essay topic in the post-war years) was shattered by the military in the longest running civil war in the history of the world even if the outgoing colonial masters were partly responsible for it with their historic divide and rule policy which the military elite on their part inherited.

    The Manila Times ran an analytical piece at the weekend titled What Myanmar’s new President can’t fix indicating what is going to be the most difficult challenge and yet most immediately desirable goal for the country in order to move forward – peace and harmony.

    • Aung Kyaw says:

      Very interesting! I was referring to that, as well as the missing သေးသေးတင် on န in the Pali verse. I wonder if that’s why the Burmese still pronounce သမ္မတ as thamada, not thanmada (as the spelling would imply). Thanks for sharing that analysis–it was a great read.

      • Wagaung says:

        Because it never was spelled or pronounced that way until we plebs got ‘corrected’ by pedants, same as the article later which grated for ever more. Even if an awful lot of Burmese words as you know aren’t pronounced as they are spelled, neither the article nor president was ever before spelled as their diktat imposed upon us.

        Why should a/an be written as one?! Because it’s singular, it’s one? One idiot instead of an idiot? Unfortunately for Burma we’ve had a whole bunch of ill educated philistine megalomaniac kleptomaniac and murderous idiots in charge for far too long.

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