किं वेदैः स्मृतिभिः पुराणपठनैः शास्त्रैर्महाविस्तरैः
स्वात्मानन्दपदप्रवेशकलनं शेषा वणिग्वृत्तयः॥
Why fuss over the Vedas, Smṛtis, Purāṇas, Śastras, and bewildering rituals? At best they grant access to a hut in the hamlet of heaven. Except entry into the blissful abode of one’s self, which burns away the misery of existence, everything else is mere business.
One of the greatest travesties of all time, prevalent in all spheres of human inquiry, is the peripheral governing the central. This is especially evident in spiritual endeavors where, more often than not, the tail wags the dog. Bhartṛhari must have found this extraordinarily ridiculous and deplorable. He thus minces no words in calling out its absurdity. The flurry of activities connected with rituals procced with a single objective: to secure a place in heaven (“yajeta svarga-kāmaḥ,” “svarga-kāmo jyotiṣṭomena yajeta”). Our poet ridicules this by saying heaven is but a hamlet and the rituals promise to secure for us a hut in that hamlet! Beginning the verse with an interrogative word “kim” makes the readers feel that the poet is striking up a conversation with them. The punch is however reserved for the end, when he says ‘śeṣā vaṇigvṛttayaḥ.’ This brings to mind Kālidāsa's immortal words:
“यस्यागमः केवलजीविकायै तं ज्ञानपण्यं वणिजं वदन्ति” (Mālavikāgnimitram,1.17)
“He is a mere merchant whose learning serves only as a means to secure livelihood.”
मातर्मेदिनि तात मारुत सखे तेजः सुबन्धो जल
भ्रातर्व्योम निबद्ध एष भवतामन्त्यः प्रणामाञ्जलिः।
ज्ञानापास्तसमस्तमोहमहिमा लीये परब्रह्मणि॥
Mother Earth; Wind, my Father; Fire, my friend; Water, my good relative; Sky, my Brother; for one final time I offer my respects to you with folded hands. Associated with you all, I acquired numerous merits, culminating in Absolute Knowledge, which helped me overcome the mighty influence of delusion. I now unite with the Supreme Brahma.
The poet has started off with a word in the vocative case and this makes it very clear that he’s conversing with someone. But who is it? The five elements! Bhartṛhari does not identify himself with them but instead recognizes them as his relatives who helped him gain Absolute Knowledge—that he isn’t merely a collective mass of the five elements. Gratitude, an invariable characteristic of a realized soul, also features in this verse. The mega-compound in the third and fourth lines creates an impression that the poet has distanced himself from the elements and is hollering at them from far away. The assonance in the words ‘sphāra-sphurat,’ ‘moha-mahimā’ and ‘apāsta-samasta’ has rendered the compound brighter. Everyone who knows the multifold significance of ātmanepadī roots in Sanskrit will appreciate the singularly apt use of the first-person verb ‘līye.’ Furthermore, the compound with several conjunct consonants suggests the numerous trials and tribulations that the poet underwent while being in the company of the five elements, and the word ‘līye’—which does not have even a single conjunct consonant—points at the sublime ease with which he dissolved into Brahma.
नाभ्यस्ता प्रतिवादिवृन्ददमनी विद्या विनीतोचिता
खड्गाग्रैः करिकुम्भपीठदलनैर्नाकं न नीतं यशः।
कान्ताकोमलपल्लवाधररसः पीतो न चन्द्रोदये
तारुण्यं गतमेव निष्फलमहो शून्यालये दीपवत्॥
Neither did I acquire knowledge befitting modesty, which can silence a host of debaters, nor did I earn far-reaching fame by tearing through the temples of elephants with my sword. Enjoying the beautiful background of moonrise, never did I kiss the soft lips of my beloved. And now my youth has slipped away without purpose, like a lamp burning in an empty house!
This is yet another verse that speaks of the purposelessness of existence. It does so with an extremely efficacious simile: a lamp alit in an empty house. While the lamp’s resplendence suggests the vibrance that is usually associated with youth, the empty house indicates the number of objectives achieved by living—zilch. The words ‘eva’ and ‘aho’ underscore the poet’s gripping downheartedness. Added to these, the poet has skillfully juxtaposed seemingly opposite ideas: knowledge is spoken of as an ornament of the modest, and yet described as a tool to silence debaters. The moods of heroism and love, which have the highest sustenance among the rasas, are delineated side by side in the second and third lines respectively. Bhartṛhari is a master of filigree; he has an uncanny attention to details. This is remarkably evident in this verse: In order to picturize valor, it is enough to say a swordsman chopped off an object, but our poet is not content with this. To him, the object is the temple of wild elephants, and what shatters it is not the whole sword, but its mere tip! Doubtless, this raises the heroic sentiment to great heights. Similarly, it is enough to describe a couple’s dalliance in order to picturize love. But Bhartṛhari sets this against the background of moonlight, an unfailing uddīpana-vibhāva (excitant) of love.
धन्यानां गिरिकन्दरे निवसतां ज्योतिः परं ध्यायता-
मानन्दाश्रुजलं पिबन्ति शकुना निःशङ्कमङ्केशयाः।
अस्माकं तु मनोरथोपरचितप्रासादवापीतट-
क्रीडाकाननकेलिकौतुकजुषामायुः परं क्षीयते॥
Blessed are they who in some mountain cave sit meditating on the supreme light, fearless birds alighting in their lap to taste their tears of bliss. But here am I dreaming of a palace complete with a pleasure garden by a pool. And as I dream, life withers away.
The power of this verse lies in its description of the yawning contrast between indulgence and detachment. We are told that a few people are engaged in meditation. The object (ālambana-vibhāva) and result (anubhāva) of this activity are described using only a few words: Supreme Light (and not any specific deity) and tears of happiness respectively. To describe indulgence, however, the poet brings in palaces, gardens, and swimming pools. Indeclinables such as ca, vai, tu, and hi are usually considered filler words that have no great significance. Here however, tu plays a pivotal role in the third line: It appears like the proverbial silence before the storm, for what follows this monosyllabic word is a towering compound. We can virtually see Bhartṛhari silently smiling after writing this down. The irony in using the honorific plural (asmākam) is also noteworthy.
आयुर्वर्षशतं नृणां परिमितं रात्रौ तदर्धं गतं
तस्यार्धस्य परस्य चार्धमपरं बालत्ववृद्धत्वयोः।
शेषं व्याधिवियोगदुःखसहितं सेवादिभिर्नीयते
जीवे वारितरङ्गचञ्चलतरे सौख्यं कुतः प्राणिनाम्॥
A man lives a hundred years: he’s asleep half the time, and the other half comprises childhood and old age. For the rest, disease, separation from loved ones, and cringeworthy service torment him. How does one find abiding happiness in life, which is as tremulous as a water ripple?
The verse declares that life spans a hundred years and is tremulous and evanescent. This might seem contradictory. Reconciliation is not hard to find if we closely observe the phases and activities of life that Bhartṛhari notes: none of these allows us to consciously experience happiness. And what is life without happiness?
चेतश्चिन्तय मा रमां सकृदिमामस्थायिनीमास्थया
कन्थाकञ्चुकिनः प्रविश्य भवनद्वाराणि वाराणसी-
रथ्यापङ्क्तिषु पाणिपात्रपतितां भिक्षामपेक्षामहे॥
Do not even for a moment, O Mind, dwell on the capricious goddess of wealth. She’s a whore who is forever at the beck and call of kings’ eyebrows. Clad in rags, standing at the door of Varanasi’s streets, I look forward to alms dropped into the bowl of my hand.
This verse is throughout spiced with tuneful words that exemplify alliteration and assonance: “asthāyinīm āsthayā,” “bhrukuṭī-kuṭī,” “dvārāṇi vārāṇasī,” and “bhikṣām apekṣāmahe.” Its tone is one of absolute finality; repugnance for the riches and self-confidence undergrid it. This reminds us of Viśākhadatta’s words:
“निरीहाणामीशस्तृणमिव तिरस्कारविषयः” (Mudrārākṣasam)
“To people who have conquered desire, the king is but a blade of grass”
The word ‘imām’ that qualifies the goddess of wealth suggests that the poet is in close proximity to her—he’s perhaps conjured a mental image of her. Another word that qualifies her is the whole of the second line. It holds a mountain of details within itself and it takes a minimum of three lines to comprehensively translate it into English. A literal translation perhaps demonstrates this well: “King-eyebrow-hut-wander-activity-prostitute.”