The Sport of Renunciation

This article is part 4 of 5 in the series Bhartrhari's Vairagya-shataka

भोगे रोगभयं कुले च्युतिभयं वित्ते नृपालाद्भयं

माने दैन्यभयं बले रिपुभयं रूपे जराया भयम्।

शास्त्रे वादभयं गुणे खलभयं काये कृतान्ताद्भयं

सर्वं वस्तु भयान्वितं भुवि नृणां वैराग्यमेवाभयम्॥

In unchecked indulgence, there is the fear of diseases; in family’s pride, there is the fear of ill-reputation; in wealth, there is the fear of kings; in preserving our honour, there is the fear of humiliation; in power, there is the fear of adversaries; in beauty, there is the fear of old age; in erudition, there is the fear of losing to the opponents’ arguments; in being virtuous, there is the fear of wicked people; in body, there is the fear of death. All facets of human life evoke fear. Detachment alone ensures fearlessness.

While truth is difficult to describe, untruth is not. A sound knowledge of untruth, therefore, helps appreciate truth better. Let us, with this background, analyze the present verse: the word ‘bhaya’ is used ten times in different contexts in order to impress upon the readers the rarity, profundity, and singularity of ‘abhaya.’ Every object in the world, says our poet, comes not with a price tag, but a fear tag! By proclaiming “Vairāgyam evābhayam” Bhartṛhari goes a step beyond stating “detachment alone ensures fearlessness;” he means detachment is itself fearlessness. This is surely a lesson for life.

Let us now savour a few non-Śārdūlavikrīḍita verses:

अशीमहि वयं भिक्षामाशावासो वसीमहि।

शयीमहि महीपृष्ठे कुर्वीमहि किमीश्वरैः॥

Let us consume food gotten by begging, cover ourselves with garments that are the directions, and sleep on the earth. What have we to do with Kings?

Set to the Anuṣṭubh meter, this verse describes in powerful words Bhartṛhari’s insolence towards people of power. More so, it describes his awe-inspiring self-reliance. An uncompromising pedant would disapprovingly frown at the word ‘aśīmahi.But, seriously, who cares?      

The next verse is a grand illustration of Bhartṛhari’s attitude that advocates the binary, which we noted at the beginning of the article. It is set to the meter Mandākrāntā:

अग्रे गीतं सरसकवयः पार्श्वयोर्दाक्षिणात्याः

पश्चाल्लीलावलयरणितं चामरग्राहिणीनाम्।

यद्यस्त्येवं कुरु भवरसास्वादने लम्पटत्वं

नो चेच्चेतः प्रविश सहसा निर्विकल्पे समाधौ॥

If there be music playing in front of you, by your side tasteful poets from the South, and behind you girls whose graceful bracelets tinkle as they wave the chowrie, only then you may unhesitatingly indulge in worldly pleasures. If not, O Mind, waste no time—dissolve into the highest Brahma. 

यदासीदज्ञानं स्मरतिमिरसंस्कारजनितं

तदा दृष्टं नारीमयमिदमशेषं जगदपि।

इदानीमस्माकं पटुतरविवेकाञ्जनजुषां

समीभूता दृष्टिस्त्रिभुवनमपि ब्रह्म मनुते॥

When I lived in ignorance born of darkness that lust brings with it, I thought a woman was the world. But now that I have used the salve of the highest wisdom, my sight is straight and sees the whole world as Brahma.

This verse is set to the Śikhariṇī meter and speaks of the ill-effect of lust. No one need reprimand our poet for describing woman as a negative influence. Since a man wrote the verse and his object of attraction was a woman, the feminine nature has become the subject of this verse. If a woman were to write it, the subject would be a man. The point to ponder over is the compound ‘smara-timira-saṃskāra-janita.’ Bhartṛhari describes the darkness of lust as a saṃskāra, something that refines. This shows his unparalleled magnanimity. In this sense, he is indeed an āstika.  

The poet puts on a very different hat in the next verse that expresses the hard reality of the world in as non-reassuring a tone as possible:

न संसारोत्पन्नं चरितमनुपश्यामि कुशलं

विपाकः पुण्यानां जनयति भयं मे विमृशतः।

महद्भिः पुण्यौघैश्चिरपरिगृहीताश्च विषया

महान्तो जायन्ते व्यसनमिव दातुं विषयिणाम्॥

I don’t think worldly activities do good to anyone. I’m scared to bits when I think of the consequences of virtuous deeds. Righteous actions observed for a long time multiply pleasures, only to cause distress to pleasure-mongers.

निवृत्ता भोगेच्छा पुरुषबहुमानो विगलितः

समानाः स्वर्याताः सपदि सुहृदो जीवितसमाः।

शनैर्यष्ट्युत्थानं घनतिमिररुद्धे च नयने

अहो धृष्टः कायस्तदपि मरणापायचकितः॥

The desire to enjoy bodily pleasures is gone, self-respect has waned, friends who were as dear as life itself are no more, standing up is difficult and is possible only with the help of a stick, eyesight is almost lost—despite all this, this obnoxious body is afraid of death.

The second line is perhaps the refrain of most elderly people. No amount of physical and mental distress can make one embrace death with open arms. Not everyone is Nachiketa to say “atidīrghe jīvite ko rameta,” “Who delights in long life?” Fear of death is fear of impermanence in disguise. It is only the knowledge of the ultimate reality that can ward off this fear. But such knowledge is rare. The fear of death is therefore ubiquitous. The word ‘puruṣa-bahumāna’ can be interpreted in multiple ways and is an idiom in its own right.    

यूयं वयं वयं यूयमित्यासीन्मतिरावयोः।

किं जातमधुना येन यूयं यूयं वयं वयम् ॥

In former days we’d both agree
That you were me, and I was you.
What has now happened to us two,
That you are you, and I am me?
(Translated by John Brough)

This is a wonderful verse not only because of its profound content, but also creative structure. A discerning reader would notice fifty percent of the verse being occupied by the words ‘yūyam’ and ‘vayam.’ Rest of the space is dedicated for describing the inexplicability of all relationships—those that were once as strong as covalent bonds turn hopelessly feeble in the next moment. Nobody explains this better than Bhagavān Vyāsa:

यथा काष्ठं च काष्ठं च समेयातां महोदधौ।

समेत्य च व्यपेयातां तद्वद्भूतसमागमः॥

Human relationships are just like two logs of wood that drift apart having come together in the mighty sea.

To be continued.



Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature and philosophy.

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