With advancing age, it seems the boundary of my comprehension about everything is closing in on me. I understand less now than ever before. It could also be that in the past too I did not understand nearly as much as I thought I did but managed to delude myself. Be that as it may, one presses on against a constricting intellectual horizon.
I mostly test my comprehension against fundamental physics and quantum mechanics. I have done so for close to 40 years now and find myself nowhere close to approaching even the beginning. I am not being glib here. I mean it with all sincerity at my command. In between I do deviate into the esoteric of the philosophical/literary kind. I have started reading about Bhartrhari again. He is regarded as one of the most original philosophers of language and religion of India. His era was between 450 and 510 C.E. That would be between 1564 and 1504 years ago. Last night, I began reading his famous “Vairagya Shatakam” (100 Verses on Renunciation). The version I am reading was published in 1976 by Advaita Ashrama or Kolkata and translation was by Swami Madhavananda.
As Madhavananda points out, the ‘Vairagya Shatakam’ is one of three series of 100 verses collectively known as Subhashita-trisati (Finely-worded or happily-worded three centuries). Who Bhartrhari was has remained unresolved among historians but the most popular view is that he was the elder brother of King Vikramaditya of Ujjain (now in Madhya Pradesh), regarded as one of the most respected kings of India. His genealogy, of course, is irrelevant to his scholarly and literary life and accomplishments.
The verses were written in high Sanskrit and particularly so because Bhartrhari then was and has been subsequently extolled even in Western scholarship as one of the world’s great grammarians. Unfortunately, I do not understand Sanskrit other than through fractured inferences. There are moments of great clarity that occur to me because many Indian languages, including my own Gujarati, came from there and still often use nearly unaltered Sanskritic constructs. For instance, one of the ten themes that Bhartrhari deals with in the 100 verses is called भोगास्थैर्यवर्णनम. It was instantly obvious to me what it meant because my mind at once broke it down into three distinct words—Bhog (pleasures of the senses) Asthairy (transitory in this context but otherwise unstable too) and Varnam (description or delineation as used by Madhavananda). Together it means delineation of the transitory nature of pleasures/sense-objects.
At one level I had to know the meaning of all those words put together, which was easy, and at the next level also know their deeper meaning, which was even easier. I know I am contradicting my starting premise that I understand less than ever before. The idea that pleasures of the senses are transitory is profound but easily understood. One was born understanding it like most people I suppose. Transiency of life experiences is at the heart of Indian philosophy—both Hinduism and Buddhism. Of course, in Buddhism impermanence is the central feature.
Madhavananda’s translation of the verses is admittedly literal and it therefore gives you a direct entry into Bhartrhari’s mind. However, my personal interest is in the language itself. Sanskrit often feels like one uninterrupted sentence strung together with several words. That is where its incantatory challenge comes in. When your incantation is correct—and it can take a fairly long training to achieve that—you feel as if your words are a great raft smoothly flowing in a literary ocean. When rightly recited it has the virtue of anchoring one’s frenzied mind.
It is not for me to critique the literary merit of Bhartrhari’s poetry other than saying that it is obvious that the man spent a long time thinking about life and beyond. In terms of the rhythm and meter of what he writes let me just cite one verse below. Those of you who can read it would automatically get into the splendid rhythm of the verse. Poetry is as much meaning as rhythm, one comes from the words and the other from the meter.
Let me conclude by citing something I wrote after reading early parts of ‘Vairagya Shatakam’. It is my short tribute to Bhartrhari. I have once again experimented by fusing three languages—Hindi, English and Gujarati. I am in no mood to translate.
अस्थैर्य ही जीवन है
स्थैर्य ही मृत्यु
Against such an idea
Who can argue?
વૈરાગ્ય આવ્યું અને