Ask a random student of Sanskrit to recite a poem—chances are you will hear a verse from Bhartṛhari’s Nīti-śatakam. Go to an Acharya seeking wise counsel—chances are you will hear a verse from Bhartṛhari’s Vairāgya-śatakam. Suppose you are interested in love as it is depicted in Sanskrit literature and consult a book—chances are you will come across a verse from Bhartṛhari’s Śṛṅgāra-śatakam. Such is our poet’s popularity.
Despite this, Bhartṛhari’s life is shrouded in mystery. There is no work that gives a reliable account of his life events. While some scholars identify him with Bhaṭṭi (the author of Bhaṭṭi-kāvyam / Rāvaṇa-vadhaḥ), others say he was King Vikramāditya’s brother. He is also variously described as an emperor, the author of Vākya-padīyam (the celebrated treatise on the philosophy of grammar), and a Buddhist monk. According to the records of the Chinese traveler Yijing (I-tsing), Bhartṛhari vacillated between active public life and renunciation multiple times. The following verse from Nīti-śatakam has also greatly contributed to the stories spun around him:
यां चिन्तयामि सततं मयि सा विरक्ता
साप्यन्यमिच्छति जनं स जनोऽन्यसक्तः।
अस्मत्कृते च परिशुष्यति काचिदन्या
धिक्तां च तं च मदनं च इमां च मां च॥
She who’s always in my thoughts is indifferent to me
She’s in love with another man, who seeks for another’s love
And there’s this other girl who pines for me
God damn that woman and her lover, this girl and me, and love!
Tying together all these inchoate strings of information, we can form the following picture: Bhartṛhari intensely experienced everything that life has to offer. He immersed himself in a rich variety of activities ranging from romance and rulership to poetry and penance. All these must have surely struck a chord on his heart’s string. And because of this, he developed an extreme attitude of advocating the binary—unbridled indulgence or unwavering restraint. Nothing in between.
In his verses we see neither the natural splendor of Vyāsa and Vālmīki nor the off-putting over-ornamentation of later-day poets. The majestic serenity that marks out Kālidāsa is also absent. His expression has the cold force of a violent windstorm, and in this he resembles Bhavabhūti and Bhallaṭa. Consumed by an irrepressible urge to embrace the infinite, he calls out the superficial in a tone of unconcealed irreverence. He is also extremely self-critical.
Bhartṛhari speaks with the supreme self-confidence of an ātma-jñānī who harbors no fear. This is remindful of the vedarṣikā Vāgāmbhṛṇī who proclaimed,
“अहं प्रथमा यज्ञियानाम्” (Ṛgveda, 10.125.3)
“I am the foremost of the people who merit worship”
and Bhagavatpāda Śaṅkara, who, when singled out as a monist amidst legions of dualists declared,
“एतदेव मे स्वस्त्ययनम्। अतो जेष्यामि सर्वान्, आरभे च चिन्ताम्” (Taittirīyopaniṣad-bhāṣyam, 2.8)
“I count this as a blessing. I shall win over everyone who is wedded to plurality. Here, I begin my exposition!”
Bhartṛhari’s personality shines through all his verses: we see him hopelessly plead with desire to let go of him, heave a heavy sigh thinking of lost love, muse about the purposelessness of existence, and uphold self-respect by not caring two hoots for people drunk on wealth. This being the case, it is a pity that he is often labelled as a poet who wrote tuneful verses, which are primarily the staple diet of Pratimālā (popularly known as Antyākṣarī) enthusiasts. Folks who think of him as an ‘entry level poet’ miserably fail to grasp his gravitas.
It is extremely uncommon to see Sanskrit poets speak without assuming an impersonal tone like our poet does. This is especially true in the case of Vairāgya-śatakam, for nowhere else has renunciation found such an eloquent, vibrant expression based on first-hand experience. It also happens to be the first work in this genre, eliciting numerous imitations across the centuries. In this aspect it is remarkably similar to Kālidāsa's Meghadūtam, which not only inaugurated a literary tradition, but also represents its highest watermark. Popular among other works on the same theme are Nīlakaṇṭha-dīkṣita’s Vairāgya-śatakam and Śilhaṇa’s Śānti-śatakam. Both fade in comparison with Bhartṛhari’s work: while Nīlakaṇṭha-dīkṣita’s penchant for wit has spoiled the ambiance of the former, heavily borrowed content has made the latter an average work. Though Śilhaṇa has many original phrases to his credit, he copies several ideas from Bhartṛhari and does not innovate them further. Praising him, therefore, is praising Bhartṛhari in a roundabout manner.
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The present article analyzes select verses from Vairāgya-śatakam. Bhartṛhari is an acknowledged master of Śārdūlavikrīḍitam, which is arguably the grandest meter of Sanskrit:
कल्पान्तस्थिरकल्पनाप्रदपटुं तं भर्तृपूर्वं हरिम्।
सेवे भास्वरभारतीगमकितैः शार्दूलविक्रीडितै-
I extol Bhartṛhari, the distilled essence of emotional wealth, the treasured possession of Sanskrit. He bestows us with creative ideas that last till the end of the world. Through verses set to the Śārdūlavikrīḍita meter rendered aglow by powerful words, he effortlessly demonstrated the sport of renunciation.
Śārdūlavikrīḍitam has nineteen syllables in every line and a yati (caesura) after the twelfth syllable. The seven syllables that appear after the caesura have the following metrical pattern: nā-nā-na-nā-nā-na-nā. They have given expression to many a memorable phrase in Sanskrit, such as śāntyai mano dīyatām and ślāghyo vivekodayaḥ. Bhartṛhari is particularly well known for sculpting suchlike phrases; popular among them include kālāya tasmai namaḥ, and vairāgyamevābhayam. His signature verses include a compound word that occupies the whole of the third line, which at times spills into the fourth, too.
Vidvat-kavis such as Bhāravi, Māgha, Śrīharṣa, Ratnākara, and Śivasvāmī often scare away readers by using rare and complex verb forms (bibharāmbabhūvire, for example). Bhartṛhari never does that. He prefers the kṛt verbs to the tiṅ ones, and this helps make his verses readily intelligible. He exploits the amazing compressive strength of compounds—especially that of bahuvrīhi—to his advantage, to create numerous loaded epithets (sābhiprāya-viśeṣaṇa). And this enables him to express in a single adjective what lesser poets communicate through multiple verses. Furthermore, he frequently uses sub-qualifiers (mostly adverbs) such as sphūrjat, patat, and sphurat that impart a certain terseness to the composition.
As explained by the towering scholar Sediyapu Krishna Bhat, rhythm in poetry (padya-gati) has two elements: chandaḥpada-gati (metrical rhythm) and bhāṣā-pada-gati (verbal rhythm of individual words). While a poet must strictly adhere to the former—lest his composition be metrically flawed—he can experiment with the latter. Metrical rhythm helps establish a certain degree of familiarity when we encounter a new verse. The rhythm of individual words, when optimally managed, can achieve the same. Bhartṛhari uses both to great effect.
In his verses, every word (even syllable, at times) leads to the next in terms of sound, thus creating a nice sonorous harmony. Added to this is the pleasing presence of anuprāsa (alliteration, assonance). As a result, merely reading aloud the verses results in an impression of cognition. What follows is a quest to understand the exact meaning. Since chandaḥpada-gati and bhāṣā-pada-gati have by now created a comfort zone for the reader, s/he does not feel taxed to explore the meaning, both literal and suggested.
Forceful and evocative diction, internal rhymes, straightforward word order, long but well-ordered compounds, and felicitous handling of meter are the constant features of Bhartṛhari’s verses. Despite being remarkably polished, none of them appear efforted or overdone. A person wishing to enter the beautiful world of Sanskrit literature will greatly benefit by committing to memory all his verses. This not only promises a rich vocabulary, but also lifelong enjoyment.