King Narasimha (Mahabalipuram), photo O. Barot, Auroville
Pursuit of Goodness
(A Selection from Nitishatakam of Bhartrihari)
Harmony, balance and equilibrium marked the ethos of Indian culture in ancient times, and indeed in varying degrees throughout the long and continuous history of India. From time to time, we see India returning to the theme of synthesis, and in every succeeding age the new synthesis assimilated larger and larger numbers of component elements. It is true that there have been pursuits of exclusive claims and counterclaims, there have also been trenchant oppositions between various schools of thought, and there have also been periods of intolerance and persecutions. But the dominant tendency towards mutual understanding, tolerance and comprehensiveness reasserted itself at the end of every period of conflict and battle. First, we see the earliest synthesis in the Veda. This was followed by the synthesis of the Upanishad. At a later stage, the Bhagavad Gita provided a new synthesis. The conflict that arose in Indian thought as a result of the growth and development of Buddhism was sought to be resolved by the composite philosophy that we find embedded in the Puranas and Tantras. Still later, when the conflict between the various schools of Vedanta became acute, we find in Sri Chaitanya a profound and subtle synthesis. At the same time, the coming of Islam in India provided a ground for the emergence of new trends of synthesis, represented by Guru Nanak, Akbar, and a number of Sufi saints and philosophers. Even today, as we stand at the head of a new age, we have in India an imperative drive towards an unprecedented synthesis, in which both East and West can meet in a symphonic harmony.
This turn and tendency towards synthesis requires to be understood if we are not to be baffled by the complex system of ethics that grew and tended to prevail in the Indian society. Dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, these four commonly understood words in the Indian aim of life have rich connotations, indicating that Indian ethics assigned due place to the pursuit of pleasure, kama, and of wealth or prosperity, artha, provided that they were adequately controlled and governed by the pursuit of the ideal law of the truth and the right and of the harmonic balance of the individual and collective development, dharma. At a still higher level, dharma was allowed to be surpassed by an unconditional imperative emerging from unfettered search for spiritual freedom and liberation, moksha. It is against the background of this synthetic aim of life that we can understand how the great representatives of Indian culture came to embody and manifest tendencies towards richness of material life, on the one hand, and overarching detachment and renunciation, on the other:
Bhartrihari, some of the extracts from whose writing we are presenting here, is one such representative of Indian culture. He was a king and yet a great lover and a consummate poet. The three groups of verses which have been attributed to him and devoted to three fundamental moods and motives of life. Each group consists of hundred verses, and all the three combined together have been called shatakatraya, three centuries. The first century of verses is devoted to the theme of human love and romance, the beauty and joy of sensuous pleasure and ecstasy. The Sanskrit word, shringara, expresses more meaningfully the opulence of ornament, restrained dignity, beauty and delight of love and romance. This century of verses is therefore aptly entitled, shringara shatakam. The second group of hundred verses is sometimes called "the century of morals ", since the Sanskrit title is niti shatakam. But the Sanskrit word niti has a more complex sense; it includes not only morals but also policy and worldly wisdom, the rule of successful as well as the law of ideal conduct. In other words, the word niti includes in its scope observations of all the turns and forces determining the movements of human character and action. Niti shatakam can, therefore, be best translated as "the century of life ". The third group of hundred verses attributed to Bhartrihari is entitled vairagya shatakam. It deals with the theme of disillusionment, detachment and renunciation, which are considered to be necessary pre-requisites of the pursuit of liberation, moksha
The few verses which are presented in the following text have been taken from, niti shatakam. Their main theme is the supremacy of learning and character. Readers will find in them the familiar ideas which are deeply interwoven with the
ethos of the Indian people. It is an acknowledged fact that India has laid a greater stress on the pursuit of knowledge rather than on the pursuit of power or wealth. The Indian mind considers purity to be worthier of reverence than anything else. That character is of supreme importance requires no debate in India. This value-system has grown up and developed from the life and teachings of numberless sages, seers, saints, thinkers, poets and writers. Today, when this value-system is passing through a difficult stage of transition, it would seem worthwhile to go back to some of the original texts in which this value-system has been described or discussed. This would enable us to ensure that the value-system relevant to the new age which must emerge, assimilates from the past all that is of fundamental importance to the growth of human personality towards excellence and perfection. It is in this context that a study of Bhartrihari may be considered to be directly relevant.
Of Bhartrihari's life, we do not know anything with definiteness. We do not even know when exactly he lived and flourished. There are conflicting opinions; someplace him in the 1st century AD, while some others place him in the 6th or 7th century AD. According to some, he was a grammarian; according to some others, he was a king. According to one tradition, Bhartrihari was a brother of Vikramaditya. The famous Chinese traveller, Itsing, who came to India in the 7th century AD, speaks of Bhartrihari and his works of grammar. According to his account, Bhartrihari must have lived in the first half of the 7th century AD. But there are evidence to show that the grammarian Bhartrihari lived a few centuries earlier. According to some, Bhartrihari was a Shaiva Brahmana; according to some others, he was a Buddhist. There are also interesting tales that make Bhartrihari a disciple of Gorakhnatha, a Shaiva saint, whose dates, too, are quite uncertain.
According to a famous legend, Bhartrihari was a great king who loved his queen Pingala intensely. One day a visiting yogin offered to him a fruit which had special quality of eliminating old age and death. The king offered it to his beloved queen. The queen was, however, in love with somebody else, and she gave the fruit to him. He was, however, in love with another woman. He, therefore, gave the fruit to her. She thought that the best person who deserved that fruit was the king. She, therefore, offered that fruit to the king. When he received the fruit, the king was shocked, and when he came to know the full details of the story, he felt greatly disillusioned and renounced his worldly life to become a sannyasin. There might be some truth in this legend, and there seems to be a reference to this truth in one of the opening verses of niti shatakam, where Bhartrihari says:
She with whom all my thoughts dwell, is averse
She loves another. He whom she desires
Turns to a fairer face. Another worse
For me afflicted is with deeper fires.
Fie on my love and me and him and her!
Fie most on love, this madness ' minister!
Niti shatakam is extremely readable, and it is replete with smiles and epigrams. There are a number of translations of all the three shatakas in Hindi and English from the original Sanskrit. The original Sanskrit is relatively simple, although full of poetic beauty. Those who have some acquaintance with Sanskrit can be advised to read them in the original.
Bodies without mind
One who is devoid of poetry, music, and art is verily a beast, even though he does not grow horns and is without tail. He lives without eating grass, and that is the good fortune for the other beasts.
The praises of knowledge
Learning is verily the highest beauty for man; it is a treasure concealed and well protected; it places within his reach enjoyment, honour and happiness; it is an object of reverence even for those who are worthy of reverence; while journeying in strange lands it is a friend; and it is the highest deity; learning is honoured by kings, but not wealth; one destitute of learning is a beast.
Great and meaner spirits
For fear of obstacles, nothing is begun at all by persons who are low- spirited: ordinary people begin and stop when thwarted by difficulties; but the best of men, though repeatedly repelled by adverse circumstances, do not give up what they have undertaken.
The hand is laudable when it gives in charity, the head when it submits at the feet of elders, the mouth when it utters the truth, arms when victorious with incomparable valour, heart, when it is quiescent with purity, ears when they listen to Vedic knowledge; these are the ornaments of high- souled persons, even though they have no wealth.
The ways of the good
Who would not adore and revere good men who rise by bending low with humility, evidence their own merits by extolling those of others, gain their ends by projecting extensive schemes for others, and censure with sweet patience and calm fortitude the calumniators, whose tongues are noisy with harsh syllables of accusation? Such are their marvellous moods, their noble ways, whom men delight to honour and praise.
Of benevolent persons
Trees become bent with the harvest of fruits; with newly-formed waters the clouds hang very low; good men with wealth become gentle; this is the nature of benevolent persons.
Wealth of kindness
The ear is graced by Vedic knowledge alone, and not by an ear-ring; the hand by charity, not by a bracelet; the body of beneficent people by kindness towards others, and not by sandal-paint.
The good friend
Wise people thus describe the characteristics of a true friend: he dissuades you from sin, urges you to good action, keeps your secrets, publishes your merits, does not forsake you in distress, and helps you in time of need.
The nature of beneficence
The sun causes sun-lotuses to expand without solicitation; the moon, though unasked, causes the moon-lotuses to bloom; the clouds yields water without being solicited; good people direct their efforts towards the good of others of their own accord.
The abomination of wickedness
Those are the noblest persons who, giving up self-interest, bring about the good of others; those that undertake a business for the sake of others, not inconsistent with their own good, are men of the middle order; those that stand in the way of the good of others for their own benefit are demons in a human form; but we know not what to call them that oppose the good of others without any advantage to themselves.
The Aryan ethic
Cut down desire, have recourse to patience, give up pride, fix not attachment on sinful deeds, speak the truth, follow the footsteps of the good, serve the learned, reverence those that deserve respect, conciliate enemies, do not parade your good qualities, preserve fame and sympathise with those in distress; this is the characteristic of the good.
Courtesy is the ornament of the great, temperate speech of the hero, peace and content of the learned, wrathlessness in hermits, noble expense of the rich, forgiveness of the strong, modesty of the righteous; but good character, which is the root of all these, is the highest ornament of all.
The immutable courage
Those of high soul remain immutable and do not deviate even by one step from the right, whether they are praised or condemned, whether fortune smiles on them or retreats from them, whether death is imminent or is still to come after thousands of years. The virtue of courage of a heroic person cannot be obliterated though he be worried; though pointed downwards, the flame of fire does not point to the ground.
Saraswati (Halebid), photo Olivier Barot, Auroville
Character above all
Better if this body falls from the lofty peak of a high mountain against some rugged surface and is shattered to pieces in the midst of rough rocks;
better is the hand thrust into the fangs of a huge serpent of deadly bite;
better falling into the fire; but not the wrecking of one's character.
Suggestions for further reading
A. Berriedale Keith. A History of Sanskrit Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. Bhartrihari. The Niti and Vairagya Satakas. Translation and Notes by M . R. Kale. New Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass, 7th Edn., 1971.
Vairagya-Satakam. Translation and Notes by Swami Madhavananda. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1981.
In Hindi (Sanskrit text with translations, notes in Hindi):
Dr. Shrikrishnamani Tripathi & Jagannath Shastri Hoshing. Bhartrihari Shatakatrayam. Varanasi:
Chowkhamba Vidya Bhavan, 1982. Vankata RaoRayasam. Shri Bhartrihari Shatakatraya. New Delhi: 33 Baba Khadag Singh Marg, 1977.