Bharatrihari S’atakas underline the three leading motives of the mind, its reflective interest in life and turn for high and strong thinking, its preoccupation with the enjoyment of the senses and its ascetic spiritual turn.
The first man to read some specimens of this work was Khushwant Singh, who was then the editor of a famous weekly. Even today I can recall the strange thrill that went through me on receiving a copy of the issue that carried some of these verse-renderings under the title, ‘Thus spoke, Bharatrihari”
These translations, or rather transcreations from Bhartrihari were attempted by me about half a century ago in a mood of delighted youthful discovery. Earlier I had waded through a sea of Indological literature which the personal library of Jayanti Pant—a Shantiniketan scholar—had made accessible to me. The intense enthusiasm generated through this addiction propelled me towards the painful process of learning Sanskrit through its best literary exemplars—a task, which was made easy by her helpful guidance, who thus enabled me to appreciate the distinct superiority of a verse- rendering of the Gita by Charles Wilkins—the first European translator of that philosophical poem—to the prose rendering of the same text by others. I don’t remember to have read Bhartrihari under her tutelage; her boundless and infectious enthusiasm for Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti left hardly any scope for more earth- bound and aphoristic varieties of Sanskrit poetry.
It was a chance encounter in my hometown Almora with a book on Ancient Indian Culture by Gertrude Emerson Sen that roused my curiosity about Bhartrihari. Not only what she had to say about this poet, but also the specimens she had chosen to represent him must have made an unusual impact on my sensibility; for I found myself at once immersed in the three Satakas. In fact I had a sensation akin to that of making a discovery. Here was a poet, who—I told myself—must have known the extremes of pain and pleasure, despair and exultation, sophistry and conviction, indulgence and detachment. His poetry seemed to incorporate and justify these extremes in the most poignant manner: it compelled you to an automatic assent to the mists of legend even as your mind recoiled at the infuriating confusion that prevails in the historical-biographical accounts conjured up by traditional or modern scholarship. It was however the internal evidence of the poems themselves that seemed to reveal everything. This man must have been a king or courtier once upon a time; he must have seen through it all : the unabashed voluptuary, the remorseful moralist and the exultant ascetic—all did inhabit the self-same body and did share the same mechanism of sensibility:
You are so lucky fyou can admire
The lineaments of satisfied desire
In your young bride; suck at her honey ‘d mouth
And let her languor in your arms retire.
The bookful blockheads preaching self-restraint
Do not consider what really at stake.
Love play on passionate breasts and thighs once known,
Such amorous raptures who can ever forsake.
This is from ‘Sringaratak’. But there also, he can speak in an altogether different vein. This may well sound like wishful thinking or facile attitudinizing:
The joy companionship of women brings
Ends in despair and disillusionment
Self-knowledge is the only certain good
Leading to calm of mind, all passions spent.
But, are we equally sure of our judgement, when we visit the very next stanza?
You are your own girl and your God as well
When into meditation ‘s depths You ‘re sucked
Love intImacies between Man and Woman
Are no match for that self-engendered spell.
We are compelled, in spite of ourselves, to admit the presence
of authentic spiritual experience behind this utterance. This is something,
which could not have happened if the poet had not had a direct, unmediated experience
of oneness with the Universal spirit where all dualities— even the duality of
Man and Woman—dissolve and disappear. One can call it union of opposites or
just Unity of Being as the poet W. B. Yeats preferred to phrase it. “Between
extremities/Man runs his course”—says the poet in a poem called ‘Vacillation’.
Bhartrihari too can vacillate, as we have already seen, between his own models
of the pleasure-principle and the reality principle. He can suddenly confront
you with a terrifyingly stark choice:
There are two options; either love your woman
Enjoying all the riches of her youth;
Or face it all alone to come to terms
With the cold comfort of Spiritual Truth.
The ‘cold comfort’, nevertheless, is not so cold after all.
Even ascetic life is not without its rich compensations. For Bhartrihari at
least, it means something much more positive than mere passive withdrawal and
escape; it’s a peace that borders on joy, because he has actually earned it,
has strenuously ‘worked’ for it. The involvement, the illusion had been real
enough as long as it had lasted, as the internal evidence of the verses themselves
reveals t us in all their imagery and rich details. But the inevitable disgust
and disillusionment with all that he has lived through has brought its own reward
: liberty, which is obviously, the highest value for the poet turned sage. Vairagyasatak
is Bhartrihari’s own ode to this new-found ‘Resolution and independence
Blest are the saints who from all passions free
Possess their souls and live in ecstasy
With boundless space as garment and a bowl
Of rice as food and woods as company.
It’s rather difficult to visualize Bhartrihari as a ‘saint’,
because of the puritanical, body-bruising, anti-creative connotations that have
unavoidably come to cling to this term. He certainly does not belong to that
category of ‘saints’, although his poetry does confront and articulate the boredom
and the horror of human life-worlds
Drunk with delusion ‘s ever-tempting wine
We mortals fail to see the spark Divine
Caught in the vicious whirls of nights and days
Our soul ne ‘er stops to think of its decline
He has known hunger, humiliation or isolation either at first
hand, or through imaginative identification with all sorts of miseries of the
world. There is an undercurrent of irony even in his faith; moments of anxiety
and vacillation too:
My mortal moments—I know not what use
Shall they be put to; tempting is the noose
But greater far the rapture of the recluse
Or leave it all and let me serve the Muse.
Bhartrihari is the authentic insider of the ‘world’s ways’. In fact, it is precisely the knowledge of the ‘world’s ways’ as displayed in ‘NItiatakam’, that convinces us emotionally as well as intellectually of the sincerity of his ‘Vairagyaatakam’. His resignation rings true because his knowledge of the world rings true. He urgesus to avoid polished men of deformed hearts’; he shows the futility of trying to please and persuade ‘obstinate fools’; he tells you how ‘diplomacy can disguise itself in many shapes even US a harlot does’; he has a realistic assessment of what man is capable of both ways, enabling him to distinguish between false friendship and real friendship, scholarship and pseudo- scholarship. It is this unsentimental view of human nature and human relationship that compels our assent to the values he upholds in his poetry: courage, dignity, self-reliance and freedom, But wisdom born of self-knowledge and self-control is for him the highest of all values.
Great souls while thriving keep their minds serene
Nor will they wince, when fallen on evil days.
Their wit is sharp; on scriptures they are keen
Their flfe unites the Hero and the Sage.
But he is painfully aware of life’s little and big ironies and displays a tragicomic sense of the vagaries of Fate.
Bharatrihari was a sixth century Indian poet who wrote Bharatriharj Scuak a book of Sanskrit poetry comprising of three sections of a hundred verses each. The first section, the Shringar focuses on love and love-making. The second section Vairagya talks about the gradual withdrawal from worldly matters and the third section, NEd has verses on ethical conduct. His poetry displays great depth and intensity of feelings as the writings move between pleasures of the flesh and spiritual pursuits of the soul. Most of the poems have just four lines and sometimes two, but as in miniature paintings where the small size enhances the beauty of the paintings these poems through a few words convey profound meaning.
Presented in this book are selections from the original Sanskrit poems alongwith their English translations by Dr Ramesh Chandra Shah, an eminent Hindi poet, novelist and critic who has been a professor of English in the University of Bhopal.
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