Your Everyday Bhartṛhari
Your Everyday Bhartṛhari
It was about seven or eight years ago that I first encountered the timeless poet Bhartṛhari. I was looking for readings to use in the Sanskrit textbook I was writing, and I needed texts that were short, interesting, and at the right language level for my students. I came across Bhartṛhari’s Nītiśataka (‘100 Poems on Conduct’) and was enchanted. Here was a voice, probably around 1,500 years old, that addressed thoroughly contemporary issues and did so with such poise, wisdom and humour that I found myself wondering: why would any of us pay attention to modern sources – TV, newspapers, internet advice columns – on issues such as fame, power, money, wisdom and foolishness, life and death, when we can just turn to Bhartṛhari?
In some poems, he talks about how everything is made easier and better when you have money; in others he extols the excellent effects of having the right values and doing the right things; only to remind us, in yet other poems, that fate, the way in which the world does things outside our control, remains most powerful. And so, his poems interact with each other, support or disagree with each other, and no single one should be looked at on its own.
Let lineage go to hell
Yet of course some speak to us more than others do and thus remain with us. For me, one of those poems is no. 31. ‘Let lineage go to hell’, Bailey’s 2005 translation goes, ‘Let good qualities go even lower. Let morality fall off the mountainside. Let good breeding be consumed in the fire. Let a thunderbolt instantly fall on valor against the enemy. Let us only have money. Without that alone, all these qualities together are worth a blade of grass.’
Bhartṛhari’s poems often take the form of brief, elegant lists: the effects of keeping good company, the things an educated, determined mind can achieve (almost everything) and not achieve (to please a fool), the many wonderful roles that vidyā, ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’, plays in our lives. Poem 31 takes that kind of list and turns it on its head. All the things commonly extolled are told to go to hell. As we still wonder what is happening here, we come to the punchline: those things aren’t worth a blade of grass – the classic Sanskrit expression for a trifle, a triviality – without money. Ah, money.
When I spent a week in Delhi a while back, talking to other Sanskrit teachers and educators about how one might best integrate Sanskrit into a modern education, I regularly heard the lament that people in India nowadays are too concerned with money. School curricula focus on skills for money-making jobs, parents want it that way, and even young students care most about material things. But this is not just ‘India nowadays’. This same lament is certainly also heard all across the rest of the world. And as Bhartṛhari just showed us, it is not limited to our time. Even ages ago, even in ‘the good old times’, this was an issue.
And of course it was. No matter how much we focus on the happiness that comes from the pursuits of the mind, from good conversation, from understanding a mathematical proof, listening to music, observing the waves of the ocean: our life requires a material basis. As the German writer Bertolt Brecht put it so succinctly almost a century ago, ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral’ (‘feeding comes first, morals second’). And indeed, when we are not fed, clothed and housed, contentment is much more difficult to achieve. Yet both the awareness that money isn’t everything and the ability to hope and strive for financial security without the fear we might after all not have ‘enough’ are things truly difficult to achieve.
With poem 31, Bhartṛhari shows us that we are not alone with those worries, that instead they are human and shared by us all. More importantly, he demonstrates this with elegance and humour. He makes fun of his own ‘list’ form of poems: here, the list is of all the things we first need to assume are irrelevant if we indeed want to think that money is everything. He reminds us of each wonderful thing that is up to us to welcome into our lives. Valour. Morality. Good company. And he does this in a mere four lines of Sanskrit text. To see not just that I am not alone with a worry but also that others have been able to reflect on that worry in a graceful and funny way: that I personally find very encouraging. If Bhartṛhari can do it, why shouldn’t we try to as well?
For an ancient text like Bhartṛhari’s poetry to survive the centuries from its composition to the present day, people have to have cared for it continuously and either copied it from manuscript to manuscript or passed it on in precise memorisation from teacher to student. Often this care comes from just the fact that I tried to describe above: that these texts are full of useful things expressed beautifully. Sure, there are such moments in modern literature, too, in texts written in languages we speak every day and that are thus more accessible. But the unique features of ancient literature – the display of thoughts from people completely unlike us that we can nevertheless easily engage with, the embodiment of centuries-long human caring for immaterial beauty – just add something that modern writing often cannot offer.
So read the ancient texts, engage with them, become part of a chain of generations of humans who have been delighted by their beauty and clever wisdom. And maybe even consider learning one of the languages they’re written in.