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On BhartṛhariGreg Bailey

I was first introduced to Bhartṛhari about twenty-eight years ago when I saw a few specimen translations in A. L. Basham’s The Wonder That Was India.  I subsequently forgot about them completely, even though they struck me on the emotional level when I first read them.  My response was similar to my reaction upon first hearing some of Philip Glass’ music in the mid seventies, forgetting about it for another twenty years before rediscovering it in the mid nineties and listening to everything of his work I could find. 

It was in the early eighties that I rediscovered Bhartṛhari, primarily through reading Stoler-Miller’s translation.  She seemed to have successfully created poetry in translation.  Initial impressions were fundamental. Even in her rather free translations I could glimpse Bhartṛhari’s luxuriance of imagery, a strong rhetorical resonance, evidence of deep learning in Hindu and Buddhist culture and a magnificent facility in the manipulation of language.  But there was always something else, and it still remains enigmatic, even after twenty years of careful work on the poems. 

Of the few early great Sanskrit poets, Bhartṛhari is the only one who succeeds in weaving a constant sense of scepticism throughout his poetry.  When reading the poems with students I was always questioned here about his and my own scepticism.  I resolved that Bhartṛhari was not a cynic, but a man who felt alienated from all important institutions in society, knowing all the while that he was in some sense dependent upon them.  As such, this aspect of the message of his poetry is very modern, enabling the meaning of the poems to cross the centuries and to continue to be read as more than just magnificent exemplars of the manipulation of language in a manner that became increasingly conventionalised sometime after the appearance of the Nāṭyaśāstra in the 6th CE.  Thus the poems evoke as much response on the emotional and cultural level now as they must have done when they were first recited in a courtly environment.  And this response can be gleaned even through the unfavourable medium of translation, a medium inevitably compromising the aesthetic value of the appreciation.

Apart from the punch these poems have always delivered to me, I have never ceased to be astonished by the poet’s massive knowledge of ancient Indian culture and his mastery in the use of the linguistic sign.  Intertextual references  abound everywhere in the poems. The syntax of the poems and the vocabulary employed serve just as powerful creators of meaning in his poems as do the punch lines normally contained in the final pāda of each poem.  I have tried to expose some of his poetical techniques in some of the critical articles I have published on his poetry and whilst this kind of analysis helps refine knowledge of his poetic strategies, it can never replace a reading of the poetry for enjoyment and for the perception of how one man – we can never know his exact identity – struggled with the institutional contradictions of his day and of his own incapacity to accept any life-style unequivocally.

I once thought Bhartṛhari and the great Buddhist sceptic Nāgārjuna had something in common.  Both were critics of all ‘positions’ with which they were confronted.  Yet Nāgārjuna was primarily a metaphysician, Bhartṛhari a theorist of culture in its most lived expressions.  No doubt both would have had much to talk about if they had lived at the same time, because both men brilliantly capture the futility and idealism all intellectuals see in human existence, a dichotomy often turning to humour.

As an example of the mode of analysis I have applied to the poems, I include one poem from the Vairāgyaśataka, the hundred poems aiming to deconstruct asceticism as both life-style and practice.  Throughout this śataka it is clear Bhartṛhari would like to privilege asceticism, as was so often done in ancient Indian thought, but ultimately feels himself unable to do so.

In poem 187 (of Kosambi’s 1948 synoptic edition) he explicitly defines the important technical term vairāgya:

bhaktirbhave maraṇajanmabhayaṃ hṛdisthaṃ
sneho na bandhuṣu na manmathajā vikārāḥ
saṃsargadoṣarahitā vijanā vanāntā
vairāgyamasti kimataḥ paramarthanīyam

Devotion to Śiva,
Fear of death and birth in one´s heart,
No affection towards kinsmen,
No emotions born from love,
Isolated woods,
Devoid of the flaws of association with men.
This is dispassion.
What more could be asked?

Leaving aside the possibility that the first two words in pāda a point to the poet being a devotee of Śiva, it is more important to focus on his habitual hermeneutical device of creating an individual whole from a set of sometimes unrelated parts.  However, it may not be stretching a point too far to suggest that śleṣa could be operative in bhave, to the extent that it represents both the object of devotion as well as denoting the broad framework,  i.e. ‘in existence’ (where it is clearly synonymical with saṃsāra) within which the rest of the poem´s meaning must be played out.

Here the poet defines vairāgya by treating it as a combination of five separate, though ideologically related, components. With the exception of the first all the rest are negative in tone, encompassing substantially the domains to be given up by the ascetic who seeks to withdraw from society.  These four can be further sub-divided into two further groups where everything else in pādas a and b should be seen as referring to emotions and feelings, and pāda c, referring to a particular location and its symbolism.  Of the first four the compound containing maraṇajanma is also encompassed by the long compound in 151c [of D.D. Kosambi’s 1948 synoptic edition] where trāsa is virtually synonymical with the bhaya of the present poem and it too could be taken as defining the temporal limits of saṃsāra placed within the frame of a single human life.  The meaning of bhaya is utterly clear as is the imperative that it should exist within the heart, presumably replacing the other emotions - sneha and vikāra, but not bhakti - one could conceivably put there.  

The poem should be read diachronically.  First of all the fear of death and birth is established, then renunciation of the other emotions follows, as exemplified in sneha and vikāra, both masculine words as distinct from the feminine bhakti and the neuter bhayaSneha should be taken here as ‘affection’ or ‘friendship’, though ‘love’ is, of course, possible and stands quite distinct from vikāra.  Its etymological derivation from snih ‘to stick, be attached, moist’ would not be missed by the sophisticated nāyaka, nor would its semantic overlap with bandh, the verbal root producing bandhu ‘kinsman’.  Attachment rather than love is appropriate here.  The message of bondage and attachment could not be stronger in these two different but semantically related words.

The fourth component of vairāgya, one still belonging to the first group of terms, differs from the third in the strength of the emotion implied by the respective words.  The noun vikāra, taken in the plural, has the primary sense of ‘transformation, alteration’, but also ‘emotion, passion’, basically referring in this context to anything destructive of equanimity.  Note yet again the use of the upasarga vi, to transform the basic sense of the root kṛ into a word meaning ‘to make different’, thereby encompassing the fundamental sense of vi itself.  But the full strength of the transformation is only elaborated in its accompanying adjective  - manmathajā, ie. ‘born from love’ - or ‘born from the god Kāma’.  Would the nāyaka perceive the mythological resonance there in Śiva´s act of destroying  Kāma, so often narrated in mythology?  By analogy, would devotion to Bhava, root out all the other emotions listed in this poem?  In being produced by a stirring up of the mind (manmathaja), vikāra is presented as a kind of love that is both intermittent and explosive, unlike the more even movement of affection towards one´s relatives.

Pāda c stands in the second group on its own and can slot perfectly well into the diachronic frame of emotional emptying that has already been described.  It establishes the forest as the spatial location for the attainment of vairāgya, a  notion of great traditionality in India.  What is significant here, however, is that the forest is vijanā, alliterating with vanā, or ‘devoid of people’ - people who are the explicit objects of emotions eradicated in pāda b.  Once more we see the prefix vi, here operative with its habitual sense of separation. In this position vi can be taken as almost the complete opposite of the prefix sam in saṃsarga, a word which in its totality is the opposite of vijana and a denial of everything recommended in pāda b.  But the meaning of vijana, with its implication of negation is further strengthened by its contiguity with rahitā, meaning ‘without, exempt from’.  Hence the forest life allows one to be free of the detrimental effects (doṣa) arising out of association with other peoples, associations inevitably characterised by sneha and vikāra

The combination of the five components is vairāgya, literally ‘absence of passion’.  Yet emotion is still present, even if it is the positive emotion of devotion to Śiva.

The levels of interpretation in Bharṭrhari’s poetry are many, the philological problems in demonstrating provenance incalculable.  Bhartṛhari the man remains as much a mystery as he ever was, yet out of this mystery flows a set of reactions to human existence that are as fresh as the day they must have been composed.  This by itself makes the poems compulsory reading in any era.