More from Bhartrihari


Intense, passionate, idealistic, cynical, and uncompromising. That is how I would describe Bhartrihari, one of the masters in the galaxy of Sanskrit poetry.

Compared to Kalidasa's perfect balance and sensitivity, Bharavi's economy and dignity, and Magha's linguistic acrobatics, Bhartrihari's raw intensity gives his poems a uniquely modern appeal. His poetry survives in three collections on the three themes of love, wise conduct, and disenchantment with the world.

Bhartrihari is known especially for his mastery of the 19-syllable meter called Tiger's Play (śārdūlavikrīḍita), which scans as follows:

_ _ _ . . _ . _ . . . _ | _ _ . _ _ . _

Here is one of his most famous verses in this meter:

क्षान्तिश्चेत्कवचेन किं किमरिभिः क्रोधोऽस्ति चेद्देहिनां
ज्ञातिश्चेदनलेन किं यदि सुहृद्दिव्यौषधं किं फलम् ।
किं सर्पैर्यदि दुर्जनाः किमु धनैर्विद्याऽनवद्या यदि
व्रीडा चेत्किमु भूषणैः सुकविता यद्यस्ति राज्येन किम् ॥

kṣāntiś cet kavacena kiṃ kim aribhiḥ krodho 'sti ced dehināṃ
jñātiś ced analena kiṃ yadi suhṛd divyauṣadhaṃ kiṃ phalam ।
kiṃ sarpair yadi durjanāḥ kim u dhanair vidyā 'navadyā yadi
vrīḍā cet kim u bhūṣaṇaiḥ sukavitā yady asti rājyena kim ॥

If there's forbearance, what's the need for armor? If anger, for foes?
If a kinsman, for an inferno? If a friend, for panacea?
If the wicked, for vipers? If true knowledge, for wealth?
If bashfulness, for jewelry? If poetry, for empire?

And a non-traditional but acceptable scan of the first line:

kṣān tiś cet ka va ce na kiṃ kim a ri bhiḥ | kro dho 'sti ced de hi nāṃ

The most famous part is the beginning of the fourth line, which echoes centuries later in Tagore:

My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.

Bhartrihari doesn't suffer fools or low ambitions, which comes through in all three of the poems below. First, on what we choose to pay attention to:

कृमिकुलचित्तं लालाक्लिन्नं विगन्धिजुगुप्सितं
निरुपमरसं प्रीत्या खादन्नरास्थि निरामिषम् ।
सुरपतिमपि श्वा पार्श्वस्थं विलोक्य न शङ्कते
न हि गणयति क्षुद्रो जन्तुः परिग्रहफल्गुताम् ॥

kṛmi-kula-cittaṃ lālā-klinnaṃ vigandhi-jugupsitaṃ
nirupama-rasaṃ prītyā khādan narāsthi nirāmiṣam ।
sura-patim api śvā pārśva-sthaṃ vilokya na śaṅkate
na hi gaṇayati kṣudro jantuḥ parigraha-phalgutām ॥

A dog, gleefully gnawing a meatless, reeking bone
that writhes with worms and seeps with drool,
wouldn't stir even if he saw the lord of heaven before him.
The wretch doesn't look past his worthless obsessions.

Second, on life without art:

साक्षात् पशुः पुच्छविषाणहीनः ।
तृणं न खादन्नपि जीवमानस्-
तद् भागधेयं परमं पशूनाम् ॥

sākṣāt paśuḥ puccha-viṣāṇa-hīnaḥ ।
tṛṇaṃ na khādann api jīvamānas
tad bhāgadheyaṃ paramaṃ paśūnām ॥

Deprived of literature, music, and the arts,
they're like beasts, though with no horns or tails.
That they can live without devouring the grass
is the greatest blessing for the other animals.

And third, a similar verse on what separates humans from beasts:

येषां न विद्या न तपो न दानं
ज्ञानं न शीलं न गुणो न धर्मः ।
ते मर्त्यलोके भुवि भारभूता
मनुष्यरूपेण मृगाश्चरन्ति ॥

yeṣāṃ na vidyā na tapo na dānaṃ
jñānaṃ na śīlaṃ na guṇo na dharmaḥ ।
te martya-loke bhuvi bhāra-bhūtā
manuṣya-rūpeṇa mṛgāś caranti ॥

Those with no learning, no restraint, no charity,
no knowledge, no character, no virtue, no duty —
those burdens to the mortal plane —
wander on as beasts in the guise of men.

There are so many more I wanted to share, but this took more time than I expected.

Some notes on the translations

Sanskrit poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Here I chose verses that had few cultural references and that avoided the extensive entendre that Sanskrit poetry is known for. Even so, Sanskrit's free word order means that it is difficult to follow the literal flow of ideas in the poem.

I try here to convey the flavor of the originals even if that means sacrificing fidelity to the literal meaning. In the second verse, for example, I dropped the word nirupama-rasaṃ ("having a taste beyond metaphor," where "taste" likely also has a double meaning for aesthetic sentiment), because much of the force of this was carried by "reeking" and adding it in would disrupt the flow. It is also specifically a human bone (nara-asthi), but I dropped that for similar reasons.

For further perusal

  • An essay on Bhartrihari from Sadāsvāda, an enthusiast newsletter on Sanskrit poetry. Includes several wonderful examples of Bhartrihari's genius, especially in his majestic compounding.

  • A lecture on the Tiger's Play meter from Shatavadhani Ganesh with more examples from Bhartrihari. Includes recitations of the meter, if you don't feel the rhythm of it.

  • Greg Bailey's reflection on Bhartrihari as part of the now-defunct Clay Sanskrit Library series.