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Issue No.: 559 | January 2014

Poverty and Humble Beginnings Are No Impediments to Success in Life

B. M. N. Murthy
‘for a great person, success in life depends on one’s inherent character and ability and not on external factors’.

In an excellent poetic composition in Sanskrit called ‘ Bhoja Prabandha’ written by poet Ballala Pandita  in the 11th century A.D., the poet makes a significant statement when he says "Kriyasiddhihi satve bhavati mahatam nopakarane” which means ‘for a great person, success in life depends on one’s inherent character and ability and not on external factors’. What the poet means is that external causes like poverty, poor lineage, poor surroundings etc. do not act as impediments for a really great person determined to climb the ladder of success and reach its top rung. The following few illustrations from the pages of history bear testimony to this statement.

Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasa Sastri [1869-1946] was one of the greatest sons of India – a legislator and an orator par-excellence and considered one of the five best speakers in English in the whole world. He was born in a poor family in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu in 1869. His stature later in public life was such that when Gandhiji went to London in 1930 for the Round Table Conference, Sastri was asked to accompany Gandhiji. The family was so poor that his mother could not even purchase common salt at times. Nostalgically recollecting his boyhood, Sastri says "For many years when I was a little boy the prospects of starvation was a familiar companion and among my sharpest and bitterest recollections today is this circumstance that one year, when money was scarce and among daily necessities of life salt was dear, my poor mother was obliged to decline a gift of mangoes because she could not purchase the salt necessary to pickle it”.

While studying in a college in Kumbakonam, Sastri once went to the class without a shirt since the only shirt he had was drenched in a sudden downpour. He was fined eight annas [old Indian currency] for indecent dressing. When he was thus fined, he went to the Principal, Prof. Bilderneck, an Englishman, and said "Sir, if I had eight annas with me, I would myself buy a shirt” Moved by the appalling poverty of the boy who was a pet of the Principal, the Principal himself paid the fine and got a new shirt for Sastri.

Michael Faraday [1791-1867] was one of the most famous British scientists who discovered the relationship between electricity and magnetism He was born to a poor village blacksmith near Surrey and his formal education was limited to the elements of reading and writing. Unable to make a living in Surrey, his father moved to London expecting better prospects but he was disappointed. The family was getting weekly ration of bread, of which only one loaf could be given to each member of the family for the entire week. Michael used to get his loaf of bread every Monday which he used to divide into 14 pieces. He used to eat one piece in the morning for breakfast and preserve the other piece for dinner. 

Srinivasa Ramanujan [1887-1920] was the mathematical genius of the 20th century. Born in Erode in Tamil Nadu in 1897, he was the eldest son in a poor family of six members. His father was a clerk in a firm earning Rs. 20 per month. Ramanujan was extremely brilliant and by sheer dint of merit he joined a college. As purchasing books for their son was beyond the capacity of the family, his mother took in a few college students as boarders who brought him the necessary books on Mathematics. Loney’s Trigonometry was one such book which Ramanujan mastered.

Marie Curie, Polish Scientist [1867-1934] is the only person to have received the Nobel Prize twice. She was born in Poland in 1867 in a poor family when Poland was ruled by the Czar of Russia – a rule known for its oppression and cruelty in addition to suppression of freedom of speech. Unable to withstand this kind of oppressive rule, the family shifted to France when Marie was 17 years old.

Marie joined the well known University of Sorbonne purely on her own merit, obtaining a scholarship. As she could not afford any comforts in life with her poor scholarship, she led the austere life of a monk, hiring a dingy sixth floor attic devoid of ventilation and light. The only light she got during the daytime was through a crevice in the slanted ceiling of the attic. Evenings and nights in winter in Paris were quite chilly since she could not afford any warm clothing. She could not afford even a room heater. There was no running water in her room. Her diet used to be only bread and tea with the luxury of having an egg for breakfast occasionally. One day during a morning class she fainted. When she recovered they found that during the previous 24 hours she had eaten nothing but a few radishes since she could not afford anything else.

On 10th December 1903 at the age of 36, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie won the Nobel Prize for Physics, she being the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize. Her work on radium got her a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in Chemistry when she was 44. 

Abraham Lincoln [1809-1865] was the 16th President of America during 1861-1865. He was born in a poor family and they lived in an ordinary hut. His father sometimes worked as a carpenter and sometimes as a cobbler.  From a cobbler’s son he rose to the position of the President of America. The famous phrase "from log cabin to White House” sums up the career of Abraham Lincoln.

On his first day in office as President, when Lincoln entered to deliver his inaugural address, one haughty and rich aristocratic senator got up and said "Mr. Lincoln, you should not forget that your father used to make shoes for my family”. And the whole senate laughed, thinking that the nobleman had made a fool of Lincoln. However, Lincoln looked at the man directly and said "Sir, I know that my father was a cobbler to your family. I am sure there are many others in this august house to whom he made shoes the way nobody else can, with total devotion and dignity of labour. He was a creator. His shoes were not just shoes; he poured his whole heart into them. I want to ask you, sir, have you any complaint? If so, I can make another set of shoes for you myself since I know cobbling. So far nobody has complained. My father was a genius, a great creator and I am proud of my father”.  The whole senate was struck dumb.

Charlie Chaplin [1889-1977] was one of the greatest British actors and film directors of the 20th century. He was one of the outstanding figures of early cinema whose career began in the days of the silent movies as early as 1915. Even today he is remembered as a comical figure with baggy trousers and moustache. 

Charlie’s grandfather was an immigrant to London and an unskilled cobbler by profession. His father was an ordinary vaudeville artist [stage singer] and his mother Hannah was also another ordinary stage singer. Sometime later, his father took to heavy drinking and deserted the mother and the child. Hannah found it extremely difficult to run the household with her meagre income from the theatre. She used to take little Charlie when she went to the theatre, unable to arrange foe babysitting. The little child used to watch her mother, with curiosity, on the stage singing. When Charlie grew up, Hannah put him up in a poor orphanage where he was ridiculed as a poor singer’s son.

Sometime later, Charlie left the orphanage and started selling newspapers and earn a few coins. With all these earnings, the family had to starve occasionally unable to afford food.

Yehudi Menuhin [1916-1999], one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century was born in 1916 to parents who were Russian Jews settled in America. His father was a school teacher in New York. As the father’s income was too meagre to maintain the family, his mother was also compelled to work. Unable to bear the cost of living in New York and having no money to buy warm clothing for New York’s winter, the family shifted to California. To meet the expenditure of travel from the East coast to the West Coast, they had to sell all their belongings with the result that they landed in California practically penniless.

It may be of interest to note that Yehudi Menuhin had a great liking for Yoga. His interest in Yoga started when he was staying with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as his guest at Delhi and observed Nehru doing Yoga regularly. He learnt Yoga under the famous Yoga Guru Prof. B. K. S. Iyengar from Bangalore.

S. H. Kapadia, Retd. Chief Justice, Supreme Court of India who retired as recently as September 2012 was born on 20th Sept 1947 in a Parsi family coming from a poor background. He served the country as a Judge for a period spanning more than 25 years. At a farewell party organized by the Supreme Court Bar Association in Delhi on the eve of his retirement on 28th September 2012, the Jurist nostalgically went down memory lane, sharing his experience of having worked as a bearer in Bombay where, by chance, his love for law was revealed to his employers who were in the legal profession. Recalling his poor circumstances, the Jurist informed the gathering how, in the early stages of his service, he used to sustain himself on roasted chana [groundnut] at Bombay’s Flora Fountain near the Bombay High Court. He was one of the few Judges of the country who tread the path of justice with integrity, inflexible rectitude and judicial reticence. 

B.  M. N. MURTHY is a retired Chief Engineer, Life Insurance Corporation of India. After his retirement Mr. Murthy has devoted his time to inform "the younger generation of the spiritual wisdom of India, reminding them of the great traditional lineage to which we all belong”. On the 14th of July he completed 700 weekly articles spread over twelve and half years. He can be contacted at





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The Good New and the Bad News



Dr. Sheryar Ookerjee

S.V. Raju


Winds of Change Presage Hope of New Political Order

H. R. Bapu Satyanarayana

Can We Legislate for a Better Society?

Rca Godbole

High Time to Abolish Governmental Awards

Kashinath A. Divecha

Elections to Parliament: Participation of Veterans

Ravindra Waman Pathak


Indictment of Justice Ganguly: To What Avail?

Keshav Rau

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting - 2013 (CHOGM)

Suresh C. Sharma


Poverty and Humble Beginnings Are No Impediments to Success in Life

B. M. N. Murthy

The Rural Perspective

Social transformation in Rural India

Sharad Joshi

Point - Counter Point : Every issue has at least two sides

26/11 Anniversary

Ashok Karnik


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Feet of Clay

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Mini general elections?

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Snoopgate: A Comedy of Errors

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Tarun Tejpal: How Have the Mighty Fallen

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Foreign Relations in the 21st Century

India and Latin America: ‘The Big Thing in the Making’ – Part Two

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National Security

Need to Move from Dvaita to Advaita

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Book Review

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Educating Adults

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A Triangle of Deceit: Onions, Gold and Black Gold

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Onion Crisis Hits India

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Onion Crisis

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Gold hits a new high

Hanspal Amandeep Kaur

Sachin - An Example to Emulate

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