Verses that transcend time
Harbans Singh

Atha Vairagyashatkam
Atha Nitishatkam
Atha Shringarshatkam
by Bhartrihari. Translated by Rajendra Tandon. Rupa. Pages 126, 117, 111 respectively. Rs 295 each.

Atha VairagyashatkamTHE learned in India get acquainted with the name of Bhartrihari during the course of their study of Sanskrit, but the vast majority, irrespective of the qualifications and the status in life, is more likely to come across the great poet, grammarian and Saint through the tales narrated by the grandmother and the wise men of the village.

Said to be a prince of a state in what is now Madhya Pradesh, Bhartrihari’s is a tale that comes alive in almost all the languages and dialects of this country. Consequently, claim can legitimately be laid upon him by all and sundry. This legend has also grown due to spread of the cult of Gorakhnath all over India.

A large number of us know Bhartrihari as a profligate prince, who having been cuckolded by his wife, was so disillusioned with the world of desires and wants that he gave up everything that he had for the yogic way of Moksha. However, Bhartrihari is much more than the saga of a prince who renounces the power and pelf, the pleasures and the philandering.

In recent decades, with the interest shown by Chomsky, Wittgenstein and Austin, contemporary meaning is being given to language, thought and the reality that is reflected in his works. Bhartrihari has contributed immensely to the language and literature of his times, but the object of interest for Rajendra Tandon are the 300 or so shlokas that get neatly divided in three distinct subjects of immense human interest.

Atha NitishatkamAppropriately, the first Shatkam belongs to the Shringar or the erotica. A universal longing to master an art that had become an obsession with ancient Indians. Bhartrihari, though is radically different from Vatsayayan. His purpose, far from teaching the intricacies of love making, is to bring out the human emotion in the face of the highs and lows of love. Thus, while establishing the relationship between the changing seasons and the arousing of emotions, he also brings to the fore the blessed state of a satiated love (verse 86).

The virtue of love notwithstanding, the Shringarshatkam is deeply flawed by the cynical depiction of woman as a temptress, an embodiment of betrayal and all that is evil and vicious in life. However, these are vices not exclusive to women and it ill behooves Bhartrihari, himself not a paragon of fidelity.

The Nitishatkam is a veritable treasure of wisdom that transcends barriers of time and space. He has composed verses that help enlighten the wise and illuminate the industrious. While expressing the futility of being patient with fools, he is equally critical of a king who fails to accord the rightful place to the learned, who, in his opinion, are bouquets of flower that can become the crown of a community (verse 33).

His treatise on humility and generosity is repeated again and again and goes to demonstrate the importance it holds in making life qualitatively superior. The words of wisdom about the curse of poverty, and the wealth attributing traits that do not exist are as true today as these were when first written.

Atha ShringarshatkamNitishatkam demonstrates that Bhartrihari was not just a person who had idled away his life in the company of women. He had not only studied the ebb and flow of human fortunes, but also co-related it with the strengths and weaknesses of human character. His percepts, therefore, are a broad guideline for achieving the full expression of human goodness in the form of geniality and generosity.

Vairagyashatkam is probably as much quoted all over the country as the Nitishatkam. It relates to that stage in life which is highly desirable, when it is time to realise that not much needs to be done and that, probably, the repetitive circle of wants and desires has been not only eating away time, but also defeating the superior purpose of life.

One discerns two different strains in Bhartrihari. Why Vairagya? Is it because be has been jilted, and, therefore disillusioned with human beings? Or, is it that a person realises the futility of human desires and therefore, rises above these at a time when the human body is still responding to the fires of passion. The great poet remains ambiguous on the choice between willful renunciation and the inevitable toll of time?

The purists might contest some of the renderings of Rajendra Tandon, but his work makes the contemporary world richer, for which, he needs to be commended.