Alam ativistareṇa. Let us delve right in.
नन्वाश्रयस्थितिरियं तव कालकूट
प्रागर्णवस्य हृदये वृषलक्ष्मणोऽथ
कण्ठेऽधुना वससि वाचि पुनः खलानाम् ॥
O Kālakūṭa poison, who taught you to ascend to newer, better heights?
First you were submerged deep in the ocean,
Then you rose to live in Śiva's throat
And now you’re everywhere, in the words of scoundrels!
Along with a sound knowledge of grammar, figures of speech, prosody, poetic conventions, idioms and other allied subjects, familiarity with the cultural heritage of India is necessary to understand classical Sanskrit poetry. This is particularly evident in the study of allegorical poems. In the present verse, the poet alludes to a famous purāṇic episode. We know from the story that when the ocean was churned, Kālakūṭa poison emerged, much to the fear of gods. Śiva saved the world by consuming it and held it in his throat. Such a quick turn of events! Bhallaṭa is fascinated by this rise of Kālakūṭa. Building on that, he describes it as having risen even higher as to occupy the tongues of wicked men. Little did Bhallaṭa know that more than a millennium after he wrote the poem, his verse would come to aptly capture India’s social scene. The poison is now being spewed out in bulk and has pervaded all sections of public discourse. Will Śiva emerge to save the world again? Or has the poison risen too high for his reach?
भूषणस्य गुणिनः समुत्थितम् ॥
A wanton woman walking surreptitiously on dark roads
Does not tolerate the tingle of ornaments
Likewise, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth,
Heeds not the words of a wise person
We can’t help thinking of Lakshmi as described by Bāṇabhaṭṭa: she’s fickle, crooked, harsh, excessively passionate, and has an inimitable knack to delude and intoxicate. That is quite an incredible list of ‘qualities!’ Bhallaṭa, in this verse, has called her viśṛṅkhala-khalābhisārikā, the very sound of which—the repeated aspirated consonant ‘kha,’ especially—conjures up all qualities listed by Bāṇa. Śleṣa, pun, has been used to great effect here. The pun is on the phrase bhūṣanasya guṇinaḥ, which literally means ‘that of a threaded ornament’ or ‘that of a cultured person.’ An unruly woman looking for her beloved, walking on the streets in the dead of night, never likes to be spotted. And so she doesn’t tolerate the jingle of ornaments. Similarly, Lakshmi, going about her business, does not like it when people speak up to her, giving words of advice. Bhallaṭa must have experienced this first hand during the reign of Śaṅkaravarma. It remains true even to this day. People drunk on wealth care little for wise counsel. Rathoddhatā, the meter of this verse, is a fine choice, for it is tailor-made to talk about Lakshmi. The same effect would be hard to generate by using a meter such as, say, Viyoginī.
माने नेच्छति वारयत्युपशमे क्ष्मामालिखन्त्यां ह्रियां
स्वातन्त्र्ये परिवृत्य तिष्ठति करौ व्याधूय धैर्ये गते ।
तृष्णे त्वामनुबध्नता फलमियत्प्राप्तं जनेनामुना
यः स्पृष्टो न पदा स एव चरणौ स्प्रष्टुं न संमन्यते ॥
My self-respect abhorred you and so did freedom
Contentment warned me against you; modesty played helpless
Courage with flailing arms abandoned me
But still, O desire, I fell into your trap. By this,
a person whom I did not deign to touch with my foot
disallows me from falling at his feet
This is a brilliant verse on the nature of desire. It uses upacāra-vakratā to give life to abstract things: embarrassment is scratching the ground, as if to write a warning sign against desire. Freedom, following its lead, has turned its back as a mark of insubordination. A rare sight indeed. Courage has completely lost it – it is escaping while flailing arms frantically. The entire description is so picturesque! Desire is a self-perpetuating entity that can never be fully gratified. Stuck in the maze of desire, a person’s happiness-quotient plummets. Its attraction is so powerful that no amount of sane voices warning against it will be heard, as understood by the sati-saptami usages in this verse. Uncompounded words used throughout indicate impediments of various kinds that show up when we attempt to fulfill desires. The concluding line reminds us of Bhartṛhari's words – tṛṣṇā na jīrṇā vayameva jīrṇāḥ. Desires don’t wear out, it is we who do.
पातः पूष्णो भवति महते नोपतापाय यस्मा-
त्काले प्राप्ते क इह न ययुर्यान्ति यास्यन्ति वास्तम् ।
एतावत्तु व्यथयतितरां लोकबाह्यैस्तमोभि-
स्तस्मिन्नेव प्रकृतिमहति व्योम्नि लब्धोऽवकाशः ॥
The setting Sun is not a cause of distress
Everything vanishes with time; this is true of the past, present, and future
But it is immensely painful to see the same, vast sky
Now overpowered by all-pervading darkness
The allegory here is about the undeserving rising to positions of eminence. This was an event in Bhallaṭa’s life itself. The virtuous king Avantivarma whose glory was as brilliant as the sun was succeeded by his son Śaṅkaravarma, an unprincipled person who was darkness personified. In the first half of the verse, the poet looks like he is trying to somehow put up with the fact that his patron is no more: he’s musing about the transitory nature of human life, a truism equally applicable to the past, present, and future, “kāle prāpte ka iha na yayuryānti yāsyanti vāstam.” But immediately in the next half he turns sad. “Vyathayati-tarāṃ,” he says, emphasizing how deeply he’s hurt. Nothing saddens a sensitive mind more than incompetence replacing merit. The meter Mandākrāntā has a melancholic ring to it and so it nicely adds to the mood of the verse.
रे रे रासभ वस्त्रभारवहनात्कुग्रासमश्नासि किं
राजाश्वावसथं प्रयाहि चणकभ्यूषान्सुखं भक्षय।
सर्वान्पुच्छवतो हयानभिवदन्त्यत्राधिकारे स्थिता
राजा तैरुपदिष्टमेव मनुते सत्यं तटस्थाः परे॥
O donkey, why do you think low of yourself and graze on juiceless grass?
Is it because your job is to merely carry clothes?
Trot to the royal stable and happily binge on linseed instead
Fear not, for officers there think everything with a tail is a horse
The king takes their word as truth; the rest simply don’t care
This verse is important because it is a direct jibe at the king Śaṅkaravarma for his abysmal administration in which no sense of discernment prevailed. A donkey could pass for as a horse! No value for excellence. No wonder Bhallaṭa was resentful.
सन्ताडितोन्नतगिरिर्गज एव वेत्ति।
न क्रोष्टुकः श्वशिशुहुङ्कृतिनष्टचेष्टः॥
Only an elephant, which strikes at mountains with its lance-like tusks,
knows the pain of being smashed by thunderesque paws of the lion
How can a jackal fathom it?
The poor creature loses its will by the mere squeal of a puppy!
This verse can be readily savoured for its euphonic construction even if one does not get its meaning. The conjunct consonants ‘nta’ in the first half of the verse and ‘ṣṭa’ in the second, along with the word used to describe the jackal—‘naṣṭaceṣtah’—all make for an auditory treat. ‘Clash of titans,’ though clichéd, has a strange gravitas to it, as contrasted with petty squabbles. In such cases, losing does not equate to fall from dignity. But strangely enough, an upstart witnessing the clash never misses out on criticizing the loser. This is akin to clueless journalists dispensing judgments about a nuanced discussion on, say, geopolitics. It is particularly true in the age of social media where a dullard with a smartphone considers himself a scholar. Such people are so hollow on the inside that they disappear at the faintest display of scholarly rigour. As the adage goes, “vidvāneva vijānāti vidvajjanapariśramam.”
रारोपितो मृगपतेः पदवीं यदि श्वा ।
नादं करिष्यति कथं हरिणाधिपस्य ॥
A dog may appear like a lion by putting on artificial manes
It might even pass as the king of the jungle
Can it ever roar like the lion, which tears through
The temples of intoxicated elephants?
This verse, along with the previous one, easily feature among the finest verses written in the Vasantatilakā meter in the whole of Sanskrit literature. It talks about the incompetent occupying positions of power. Though this does not come as a surprise in a time when important portfolios in the Government are auctioned to the highest bidder, not caring to look into the educational qualification of the applicant, it is distressing nonetheless. Such people holler, bribe, manipulate, maim, and even kill to rise to power. And to do all this, they are in constant need of support. A fiercely competent person, however, does not care for support. Nobody need confer titles upon him. As Garuḍapurāṇa says, “vikramārjita-sattvasya svayameva mṛgendratā.”
वस्तु सुन्दरमगुप्तिमत्कुतः ।
रक्षितुं वद किमात्मगौरवं
कण्टकाः खदिर सञ्चितास्त्वया ॥
A beautiful object deserves to be protected, and so
we put up with snakes on the sandalwood tree
But O Khadira tree, why have you collected these thorns?
Is it to protect your pride?
It is a poetic convention to describe sandalwood trees as infested with snakes. Bhallaṭa tell us the reason for this: it is to protect a thing as precious as sandalwood. Khadira (Acacia Catechu), however, as compared to the sandalwood tree, is neither beautiful nor has utility value. It is full of thorns. Chiding the tree, the poet asks what the thorns are for. ‘Vada,’ he says, asking the tree to speak up. Striking a conversation with a tree is perhaps possible to a poet alone! Blockheads surround themselves with all sorts of paraphernalia in order to appear important. Be it in the case of good-for-nothing thugs with Z-plus security, or modern ‘gurus’ covered with gold-embedded rosaries – this verse rings true.
त्वन्मूले पुरुषायुषं गतमिदं देहेन संशुष्यता
क्षोदीयांसमपि क्षणं परमतः शक्तिः कुतः प्राणितुम् ।
तत्स्वस्त्यस्तु विवृद्धिमेहि महतीमद्यापि का नस्त्वरा
कल्याणिन्फलितासि तालविटपिन्पुत्रेषु पौत्रेषु वा ॥
O palm tree, I spent my whole life vegetating under you
Now I have not the strength to live on even for a moment
Farewell! May you reach greater heights. There’s no need to rush
You may bear fruit during the time of my children or grandchildren
This verse is a classic example of atyanta-tiraskṛta-vācya-dhvani, where suggestion completely overrides the literal import. The words ‘svastyastu,’ ‘vivṛddhim ehi,’ ‘kā nastvarā,’ and ‘kalyāṇin’ exemplify this phenomenon. The bitterness in this verse reminds us of countless case-files piled up on the desks of courts, awaiting perusal. It so happens that many a time, after waiting for decades for a judgment to their case, people give up and pass on the baton to their children. Multiple generations spend a good part of their lives just shuttling between government offices. And to no avail. In this verse, a person, having spent his entire lifetime under a tree waiting for it to bear fruit, says “There’s no need to rush” at the end of it. Such biting satire!
किं जातोऽसि चतुष्पथे घनतरच्छायोऽसि किं छायया
सन्नद्धः फलितोऽसि किं फलभरैः पूर्णोऽसि किं सन्नतः ।
हे सद्वृक्ष सहस्व सम्प्रति सखे शाखाशिखाकर्षण-
क्षोभामोटनभञ्जनानि जनतः स्वैरेव दुष्चेष्टितैः ॥
Good tree, why were you born at this juncture?
Why did you have to provide such good shade?
On top of this you’re full of fruit – You must be mad to bend down!
Suffer now, my friend, for your own misdeeds
As vile people drag, twist, bend, and break your branches
K V Mohan has interpreted this verse beautifully. I quote him in extenso:
The feeling on the receiving end of ungratefulness can be one of the most disturbing of human experiences. Every step one has laid appears to be a compounding of error. The lesson of not expecting anything of anyone, especially not from an abstract, nebulous entity like ‘society’ or the ‘public,’ is almost always learnt too late. And as the old adage goes, “No good turn ever goes unpunished!”
तत्प्रत्यर्थितया वृतो न तु कृतः सम्यक्स्वतन्त्रो भया-
त्स्वस्थस्तान्न निपातयेदिति यथाकामं न सम्पोषितः ।
संशुष्यन्पृषदंश एष कुरुतां मूकस्स्थितोप्यत्र किं
गेहे किं बहुनाधुना गृहपतेश्चौराश्चरन्त्याखवः ॥
To put an end to the mice menace, a cat was brought in
But out of fear, it wasn’t given freedom. It wasn’t even fed well,
thinking a full tummy won’t help it in hunting
What can that poor, frail cat do now?
Needless to say, thieving rats strut around the master’s house
From henpecked husbands to MNC employees stripped off even primary decision-making powers, this verse captures all their stories. A cat is not so much enraged at not being fed milk regularly as it is when it sees mice moving about fearlessly!
ऊढा येन महाधुरः सुविषमे मार्गे सदैकाकिना
सोढो येन कदाचिदेव न निजे गोष्ठेऽन्यशौण्डध्वनिः ।
आसीद्यस्तु गवां गणस्य तिलकस्तस्यैव सम्प्रत्यहो
धिक्कष्टं धवलस्य जातजरसो गोः पण्यमुद्घोष्यते ॥
The bull, who bore the great burden all by himself on treacherous roads,
Who never tolerated the voice of other oxen in his pen,
The best of his breed, is now emaciated with old age, and so,
Alas, his auction is announced aloud
This verse uses viṣamālaṅkāra, poetic contrast, to describe the ungrateful nature of the competitive world. Who doesn’t know the sorry state of beef cattle? Or of aged parents mercilessly relegated to old-age homes?
वाताहारतया जगद्विषधरैराश्वास्य निःशेषितं
ते ग्रस्ताः पुनरभ्रतोयकणिकातीव्रव्रतैर्बर्हिभिः ।
तेऽपि क्रूरचमूरुचर्मवसनैर्नीताः क्षयं लुब्धकै-
र्दम्भस्य स्फुरितं विदन्नपि जनो जाल्मो गुणनीहते ॥
Snakes are supposed to live off air, but they have consumed this whole world
Peacocks claim to feed only on rainwater, but they have devoured snakes
Hunters renowned for their vow of wearing only rough garments have killed peacocks
No one is oblivious to this hypocrisy; still it is considered virtuous
It is a poetic convention in Sanskrit to describe snakes as surviving on air and peacocks on just rainwater drops. On the surfasce, many people seem like they’re practising ‘simple living.’ A slightly deeper observation, however, reveals rank hypocrisy. Day in and day out we see ‘upholders of tradition’ who reap all benefits of living in the modern world, including technology, abusing the same. It’s never right to point out the faults of others while conveniently forgetting ours.
एतत्तस्य मुखात्कियत्कमलिनीपत्रे कणं वारिणो
यन्मुक्तामणिरित्यमंस्त स जडः शृण्वन्यदस्मादपि ।
कुत्रोड्डीय गतो ममेत्यनुदिनं निद्राति नान्तःशुचा ॥
Seeing a dewdrop resting on a lotus leaf,
a person mistook it for a pearl. If this is naïve,
greater still is his senselessness: when the dewdrop disappeared
by the slightest touch of his fingertips, he was grief-stricken
and since then lies awake all night, thinking “Where did my pearl vanish?”
This verse is a fine testimony to Bhallaṭa’s keen sense of observation. The poet in him does not think insignificant even a mere dewdrop sitting on a lotus leaf! The idiomatic manner in which he has expressed it is also riveting: when the dewdrop vanished, the fool thinks, “kutra uḍḍīya gataḥ,” ‘where did my pearl fly away?’ So is the poet’s skill in describing foolishness. Initially, the person mistook a dewdrop for a pearl. Quite understandable. Next, instead of just enjoying the scene, he tried to touch it with his fingers. Not suave indeed. It slowly melted away before his very eyes. But he was grief-stricken at the loss and did not sleep for the rest of his life. This stupidity that seems comical at the surface reveals a facet of human nature: we crave for what is not truly ours and get disappointed, develop bitterness, and finally be consumed by hopeless unhappiness when we don’t attain it.
भेकेन क्वणता सरोषपरुषं यत्कृष्णसर्पानने
दातुं गण्डचपेटमुज्झितभिया हस्तं समुल्लासितः ।
यच्चाधोमुखमक्षिणी पिदधता नागेन तत्र स्थितं
तत्सर्वं विषमन्त्रिणो भगवतः कस्यापि लीलायितम् ॥
A frog, croaking nastily, fearlessly raises its hand
To slap a black cobra on its face
The snake stands still, closes its eyes, and lowers its face submissively
Surely, all this is the doing of a cunning sorcerer
Switch on the TV and you will find the story of one IAS officer or another suffering under ill-willed, ironhanded politicians. Even though everyone knows this is unjust, they still consider it quite alright. Shouldn’t one stand up to unfairness? Dante Aligheri famously remarked, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
विशालं शाल्मल्या नयनसुभगं वीक्ष्य कुसुमं
शुकस्यासीद्बुद्धिः फलमपि भवेदस्य सदृशम् ।
चिरासीनं तस्मिंश्च फलमपि दैवात्परिणतं
विपाके तूलेऽन्तः सपदि मरुता सोऽप्यपहृतः ॥
Seeing a lovely flower in a large silk cotton tree,
a parrot thought its fruit too will be as sweet
Perched atop the tree, it waited for the fruit to ripen
When it did happen, there was only cotton inside,
which was instantly blown away by breeze
Our innate insufficiency generates desires which in turn propel actions that can satisfy desires. This chain of avidyā-kāma-karma goes on endlessly. Engrossed in materialistic pursuits, we don’t realize that desires can never be fully satisfied. The challenge for a poet is to drive home this truth without getting preachy. We must admit Bhallaṭa has succeeded. The vibhāvas and anubhāvas, which play the role of cause and effect in art, are described in rich detail here. The meter Śikhariṇī is best suited to describe pathos and the same is employed in this verse. The silk cotton tree, to start with, is described as ‘capacious.’ In it is a ‘beautiful’ flower. A tempting sight indeed. No wonder the parrot gravitated towards it. Sadly, it made a wrong extrapolation by thinking the tree’s fruit too will be as sweet as its flower. Isn’t it a mistake we all commit? The parrot waited for long for the fruit to ripen; fate was favourable and it did happen. But what was inside? Thin shreds of cotton. Instantly blown away by a breeze. The parrot couldn’t even set its eyes on the cotton properly! ‘Apahṛtaḥ,’ the poet says – snatched away. Even when there was nothing worthwhile to be snatched away, the parrot was robbed and left empty-handed. Heightened disappointment. We will do well to pay heed to Bhartṛhari:
रम्याश्चन्द्रमरीचयस्तृणवती रम्या वनातःस्थली
रम्यं साधुसमागमोद्भवसुखं काव्येषु रम्याः कथाः ।
कोपोपाहितबाष्पबिन्दुतरलं रम्यं प्रियाया मुखं
सर्वं रम्यमनित्यतामुपगते चित्ते न किञ्चित्पुनः ॥
Delightful indeed is moonlight; verdant pastures are charming
Company of the wise is enjoyable; stories amuse us to no end
Gleaming with angry tears, the beloved’s face is lovely
Everything is captivating till the mind grasps the transience of it all