Bhartṛhari begins his Vairāgya-śatakam with a verse on Śiva:
लीलादग्धविलोलकामशलभः श्रेयोदशाग्रे स्फुरन्।
श्चेतःसद्मनि योगिनां विजयते ज्ञानप्रदीपो हरः॥
Victory to Hara, the lamp of knowledge shining bright in the hearts of Yogis! It is radiant with the flickering flame of the moon that adorns his head. It effortlessly reduced to ashes the fluttering moth that is Desire. Burning with the wick of supreme well-being, it dispels the dense darkness of ignorance that engulfs our minds.
A century of verses on renunciation starts off by praising the deity who burnt Desire to ashes—how appropriate! This has all the features of a typical Bhartṛhari verse: bahuvrīhi compounds, alliteration, and a word stretching to the entire length of the third line. Śiva is here metaphorically identified with a knowledge-lamp. Since various attributes of the lamp such as the flame and wick have been duly described, the figure of speech is sāvayava-rūpaka.
The lamp’s flame being likened to the crescent moon is not only nice but also aesthetically appropriate on two counts: shape and position. Rising flame is remarkably similar to the crescent moon. While the flame burns at the top of the lamp, the moon adorns Śiva’s head. Comparing Manmatha to a fluttering moth nicely suggests the fickleness of desire.
It is a poetic convention to compare ignorance to darkness; using this Bhartṛhari adds a few qualifiers that throw light on various facets of ignorance: sphūrjat (bursting forth), apāra (boundless), and prāgbhāra (multitude). While these words may appear a tad repetitive, the power of the compound taken as a whole is uncontested.
उत्खातं निधिशङ्कया क्षितितलं ध्माता गिरेर्धातवो
निस्तीर्णः सरितां पतिर्नृपतयो यत्नेन सन्तोषिताः।
मन्त्राराधनतत्परेण मनसा नीताः श्मशाने निशाः
प्राप्तः काणवराटकोऽपि न मया तृष्णेऽधुना मुञ्च माम्॥
I dug up the earth looking for treasures, smelted rocks in search of precious metals, crossed the ocean, propitiated kings with great effort, spent several nights in the cemetery trying to master incantations—none of this fetched me even a single broken cowrie. I beg you, Desire, leave me alone now!
This verse reads like a report submitted to an overlord. It is constructed in such a way that the subject (desire) is revealed at the very end, thus keeping the readers on tenterhooks. ‘Kāṇa-varāṭaka,’ ‘broken cowrie’ forcefully conveys the laughable futility of the whole endeavor. The word ‘adhunā’ is extremely evocative in the present context, for it suggests the poet’s incapacity to bear the brunt of desire any longer. Passive voice that is used throughout indicates the poet’s eagerness to distance himself from all the acts he consciously committed while being under the thumb of desire.
आदित्यस्य गतागतैरहरहः सङ्क्षीयते जीवितं
व्यापारैर्बहुकार्यभारगुरुभिः कालो न विज्ञायते।
दृष्ट्वा जन्मजराविपत्तिमरणं त्रासश्च नोत्पद्यते
पीत्वा मोहमयीं प्रमादमदिरामुन्मत्तभूतं जगत्॥
Life ebbs away every day as the Sun rises and sets. Burdened by the pressure of various mundane activities, one does not know how time flies. Witnessing birth, misery, old age, and death induces not an ounce of anxiety, for the world is high on the wine of delusion.
Idiomatic expressions such as gatāgatam and aharahaḥ have added lustre to the profound content of this verse. Despite being devoid of striking figures of speech, it has an enduring appeal.
न ध्यातं पदमीश्वरस्य विधिवत्संसारविच्छित्तये
नारीपीनपयोधरोरुयुगलं स्वप्नेऽपि नालिङ्गितं
मातुः केवलमेव यौवनवनच्छेदे कुठारा वयम्॥
I did not meditate upon the feet of the Supreme to break away from the bondage of the world. I did not earn religious merit that can throw open the doors of heaven. I did not—not even in my dreams—enjoy the embrace of a beautiful woman. I have just been an axe to give a deathblow to the forest of my mother’s youth.
This verse must be etched on a thousand sapphire sheets with letters of gold, for nothing can better express the purposelessness of existence. Indian tradition identifies the goals of human life as four: dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa. Bhartṛhari muses that he has not achieved even one of this. [Since artha is an instrumental value, in the sense that it subserves dharma and kāma, it has not been specifically mentioned]. The poet is neither rueful nor abashed to state that his only achievement in life is taking away his mother’s youthful form! The force of this unadorned statement is enough to shake the very foundations of life’s meaningfulness. While the internal rhymes in kapāṭa-pāṭana-paṭu and yauvana-vana are hard to miss, there are other subtler acoustic nuances at play: the conjunct consonant ‘ccha’ in vicchittaye and cchede serves to heighten the effect, as does the retroflex ‘ṭha’ in kuṭhārā.
सा रम्या नगरी महान्स नृपतिः सामन्तचक्रं च त-
त्पार्श्वे तस्य च सा विदग्धपरिषत्ताश्चन्द्रबिम्बाननाः।
उद्वृत्तः स च राजपुत्रनिवहस्ते वन्दिनस्ताः कथाः
सर्वं यस्य वशादगात्स्मृतिपथं कालाय तस्मै नमः॥
We bow before Time that reduces everything to memory—the delightful city and its mighty king, the assembly of learned men at his side, the group of vassal rulers, the gorgeous ladies of the court, the ring of haughty princes, the minstrels, the charming stories they recounted …
This verse does not speak of any particular king or kingdom, but instead achieves a space-time neutral appeal by using eight pronominal words (sarva-nāma-śabdāḥ)—sā, tat, sā, tāḥ, sa, te, tāḥ, and sarvaṃ. Time makes memories of everything; knowing this full well, Bhartṛhari says kālāya tasmai namaḥ! Why does our poet bow before a destructive force? It is because Time inimitably lays bare the impermanence of all things, sentient and insentient, and knowing this inspires at least a modicum of modesty in us. Bhartṛhari is perhaps grateful to Time for this knowledge.
आशा नाम नदी मनोरथजला तृष्णातरङ्गाकुला
रागग्राहवती वितर्कविहगा धैर्यद्रुमध्वंसिनी।
तस्याः पारगता विशुद्धमनसो नन्दन्ति योगीश्वराः॥
Desire is a veritable river whose water is the set of all our wishes. Agitated by waves of greed, it is infested by crocodiles of passion, and birds of reasoning. It flows to uproot the tree of courage. Filled with deep eddies of infatuation, and having elevated banks of anxiety, it is difficult to cross. Having crossed it, Yogis of a pure heart enjoy lasting happiness.
While the metaphorical identification of desire with a river wonderfully suggests the unceasing flow of our wishes, other attributes of the sāvayava-rūpaka are totally appropriate: Identifying passions with crocodiles indicates how our interests seize and swallow us whole; identifying reasoning with birds indicates how logic is short-lived and flies away; identifying delusion with a whirlpool indicates how an undiscriminating mind irretrievably loses itself, in itself.
रम्यं हर्म्यतलं न किं वसतये श्राव्यं न गेयादिकं
किं वा प्राणसमासमागमसुखं नैवाधिकं प्रीतये।
च्छायाचञ्चलमाकलय्य सकलं सन्तो वनान्तं गताः॥
Is a mansion not delightful to live in? Isn’t good music pleasant to the ear? Isn’t the company of a beloved—who is as dear as life itself—lovely? Knowing full well that all this is as fickle as the shadow of a lamp flickering in the wind of a moth’s fluttering wings, wise men retreat to the forest.
The beauty of this verse largely lies in the compound that begins in the third line. K V Mohan analyses this beautifully:
“… each word is an additional layer of randomness—dizzy bee’s wing’s wind-fluttering flame’s shadow—giving a feeling of a higher and higher pitch, corresponding to more and more detail. Next, just consider how fickle it must be—first it’s a dizzy bee wandering aimlessly; its wings are tiny, and the wind they cause is tinier; a flame is so weak that it’s wavered by just this wind, but the trappings of life are not even as stable as that flame. They are as fickle as the shadows of that flame, presumably being magnified and distorted even more by external settings … Rarely can this sort of genius in the Śārdūla-vikṛīḍita be matched!”