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Sri Aurobindo

Archives and Research

a biannual journal

April 1977

Volume I; No 1

Prefatory Note on Bhartrihari

This essay was written as a preface to the translation of Bhartrihari's Nitishataka which Sri Aurobindo first called "The Century of Morals", but later The Century of Life (see note to the translation on page 157 of Centenary Volume 8). The rendering was done in Baroda around the turn of the century and later revised before being brought out as a book in 1924. At this time Sri Aurobindo deliberately suppressed this elaborate prefatory note, substituting for it the brief note referred to above.

Bhartrihari's Century of Morals (Nitishataka) a series of poetical epigrams or rather sentences upon human life and conduct grouped loosely round a few central ideas, stands as the first of three similar works by one Master. Another Century touches with a heavy hand Sringara, sexual attraction; the third expresses with admirable beauty of form and intensity of feeling the sentiment of Vairagya, World-disgust, which, before and since Buddha, has figured so largely in Indian life. In a striking but quite superficial manner these brief stanzas remind us of the Greek epigram in the most masterly hands; Mimnermus, Simonides; but their spirit and the law of their internal structure relate them rather to a type of literature peculiarly Asiatic.

Classical Sanskrit literature, as a whole, is governed by an inner stress of spirit which urges it to a sort of lucid density of literary structure; in style a careful blending of curious richness with concentrated force and directness of expression, in thought and matter a crowded vividness and pregnant lucidity. The poet used one of the infinite harmonic variations of the four-lined stanza with which our classical prosody teems, or else the couplet called Arya, noble verse; and within these narrow limits he sought to give vividly some beautiful single picture, some great or apposite thought, some fine-edged sentiment. If a picture, it might be crowded with felicitous detail; if a thought, with pregnant suggestion: if a sentiment, with happy shades of feeling; but the whole must be perfectly lucid and firm in its unity. If these qualities were successfully achieved, the result was a subhāṣita. a thing well said and therefore memorable. Sometimes the subhāṣita clarified into a simple epigram, sometimes it overcharged itself with curious felicities, but the true type lay between the extremes. Similar tendencies are noticeable in the best Indian artwork in ivory, wood and metal, and even enter its architecture with that spirit which passed into the Moguls and informing new shapes of loveliness created the Taj. Many a small Hindu temple is a visible subhāṣita in stone. In India of the classical times the tendency was so strong that poems of considerable magnitude like Kalidasa's Race of Raghou or Magha's Slaying of Shisupala are for the most part built up of stanzas on this model; in others there are whole passages which are merely a succession of subhāṣitas, so that the account of a battle or a city scene affects us like a picture gallery and a great speech moves past in a pomp of high-crested armoured thoughts. A successful subhāṣita of the highest type is for all the world as if some great ironclad sailing solitary on the limitless ocean were to turn its arc-light on a passing object; in the brilliant concentrated flood of lustre a small vessel is revealed; we see the masts, funnel, rails, decks, the guns in their positions, men standing on the deck, an officer on the bridge, every detail clear in the strange artifical lustre; next moment the light is shut off and the scene, relapsing into darkness, is yet left bitten in on the brain. There is the same instantaneous concentration of vision, the same carefully-created luminousness and crowded lucidity of separate detail in the clear-cut unity of the picture.

But the subhāṣita is not peculiar to India, it pervades Asia. The most characteristic verse of China and Japan is confined to this style; it seems to have overmastered Arabian poetry; that it is common in Persian the Rubaiyat of Omar and the writings of Hafiz and Sadi would appear to indicate. In India itself we find the basis of the style in some of the Upanishads, although the structure there is more flexible and flowing, not yet trained to the armoured compactness of classic diction. Subsequently the only class of writing which the spirit of the subhāṣita did not invade, was that great mass of epic and religious literature which made its appeal to the many and not to the cultured few. In the Mahabharat, Ramayan and the Puranas we have the grand natural stream of Hindu poetry flowing abundantly through plain and valley, not embanked and bunded by the engineer.

Kalidasa and Bhartrihari are the two mightiest masters of the characteristic classical style as it was at its best, before it degenerated into over-curiosity. Tradition tells us they were contemporaries. It is even said that Bhartrihari was an elder brother of Vikramaditya. Kalidasa's patron, not of course Harsha of the sixth century to whom European scholarship has transferred the distinction, but the half-mythical founder of Malava power in the first century before Christ. To account for the succession of a younger brother, the old and common story of the fruit that changed hands till it returned disastrously to the first giver, is saddled on the great moralist. King Bhartrihari understood that his beloved wife was unfaithful to him, and. overwhelmed by the shock, fell wholly under the influence of vairagya, abandoned his crown to Vikrama and sought the forest in the garb of an anchorite. The second stanza of the Century of Morals commemorates the unhappy discovery. But the epigram has no business in that place and it is doubtful whether it has a personal application; the story itself is an evident fiction. On the other hand the notion of some European scholars that Bhartrihari was a mere compiler of other people's subhāṣitas. is not much better inspired. Undoubtedly, spurious verses were introduced and a few bear the mark of their extraneous origin; but I think no one who has acquired a feeling for Sanskrit style or is readily responsive to the subtle spirit in poetry can fail to perceive that the majority are by one master-craftsman. The question is for those to decide who have learned to feel the shades of beauty and peculiarities of tinge in words (a quite different thing from shades of meaning and peculiarities of use) and to regard them not as verbal counters or grammatical formations but as living things. Without this subtle taste for Words the finer personal elements of style, those which do not depend on general principles of structure, cannot be well-appreciated. There are collections of subhāṣitas in plenty, but the style of Bhartrihari is a distinct style and the personality of Bhartrihari is a distinct personality. There is nothing of that infinite variety of tone, note, personal attitude I do not refer to mere shiftings of standpoint and inconsistencies of opinion which stamp a collection; there is one characteristic tone, a note strong and unmistakable, the persistent self-repetition of an individual manner. All is mint of a single mind.

Bhartrihari's Centuries are important to us as the finished expression of a thoroughly typical Aryan personality in the most splendid epoch of Indian culture. The most splendid, not the best; for the vigorous culture mirrored in the epics has been left behind; the nobly pure, strong and humane civilisation which produced Buddha gives way to a civilisation a little less humane, much less masculine, infinitely less pure, yet richer, more variously coloured, more delightful to the taste and senses; the millennium of philosophy and heroism yields to the millennium of luxury and art. Of the new civilisation Kalidasa is the perfect and many-sided representative; he had the receptive, alchemistic imagination of the great world-poets, Shakespeare, Homer and Valmekie, and everything that was in his world he received into that alembic with a deep creative delight and transmuted into forms and sounds of magical beauty. Bhartrihari's was a narrower mind and intenser personality. He represents his age in those aspects which powerfully touched his own individual life and character, but to others, not having catholicity of moral temper, he could not respond. He was evidently a Kshatriya; for all his poetry breathes that proud, grandiose, arrogantly noble spirit of that old magnanimous Indian aristocracy, extreme in its self-assertion, equally extreme in its self-abnegation, which made the ancient Hindu people one of the three or four great peoples of antiquity. The savour of the Kshatriya spirit in Bhartrihari is of the most personal, intimate kind, not the purely poetic and appreciative delight of Kalidasa. It is with him grain of character, not mere mental impression. It expresses itself even in his Vairagya by the fiery and ardent, almost fierce spirit which inspires his asceticism, how different from the fine quietism of the Brahmin! But the Century of World-disgust, although it contains some of his best poetry is not to us his most characteristic and interesting work; we find that rather in the Century of Morals.

This Century is an admirable, if incomplete poetic rendering of the great stock of morality which our old writers summarised in the one word ārya, Aryan, noble. The word ārya has been thought to correspond very closely to the English idea of a gentleman. inaccurately, for its conception is larger and more profound in moral content. Ārya and anārya correspond in their order of ideas partly to the totality indicated by the word, gentleman, and its opposite, partly to the conceptions knightly and unknightly, partly to the qualities suggested in an English mind by the expressions English and unEnglish as applied to conduct. The Aryan man is he who observes in spirit and letter the received code of a national morality which included the higher niceties of etiquette, the bold and chivalrous temper of a knightly and martial aristocracy, the general obligations of truth, honour and high feeling, and, crowning all, such great ideals of the Vedic and Buddhistic religion, sweetness, forbearance, forgiveness, charity, self-conquest, calm, self-forgetfulness, self-immolation as had entered deeply into the national imagination.

The ideas of the Century of Morals are not in themselves extraordinary, nor does Bhartrihari, though he had a full share of the fine culture of his age, appear to have risen in intellectual originality beyond the average level; it is the personality which appears in the Centuries that is striking. Bhartrihari is, as Matthew Arnold would have said, in the grand style. He has the true heroic turn of mind and turn of speech; he breathes a large and puissant atmosphere. High spirited, high-minded, high of temper, keen in his sympathies, admiring courage, firmness and daring aspiration above all things, thrilling to impulses of humanity, kindliness and self-sacrifice in spite of his rugged strength, dowered with a trenchant power of scorn and sombre irony, and occasionally of stern invective, but sweetening this masculine severity of character with varied culture and the old high Indian worship of knowledge, goodness and wisdom, such is the man who emerges from the one hundred and odd verses of the Shataka. The milder and more feminine shades of the Aryan ideal he does not so clearly typify. We have often occasion to ask ourselves: What manner of men did the old Aryan discipline, uniting with the new Helleno-Asiatic culture, succeed in producing? Bhartrihari is at least one type of its products.

And yet in the end a doubt breaks in. Was he altogether of his age? Was he not born in an alien time and an evil day? He would have been better at home, one fancies, with the more masculine temper depicted in the Mahabharata. Certainly he ended in disgust and fled for refuge to ascetic imaginations not wholly characteristic of his time. He had lived the life of courts, was perhaps an official of high standing and seems to have experienced fully the affronts, uncertainties, distastes to which such a career has always been exposed. From the beginning stray utterances point to a growing dissatisfaction and in the end there comes the poignant cry of a thwarted life. When we read the Century of Passion, we seem to come near the root of his malady. As in the earlier Century he has subdued to the law of poetical form the ethical aspects of life, so now will he deal with the delight of the senses; but how little of real delight there is in this misnamed Century of Passion! Bhartrihari is no real lover, certainly; but neither is he a genuine voluptuary. Of that keen-edged honey-laden delight in the joy of the senses and the emotions which thrills through every line of Kalidasa's Cloud, there is no faintest trace. Urged into voluptuous experience by fashion and habit, this high and stern nature had no real vocation for the life of the senses; in this respect, and who shall say in how many others, he was out of harmony with the moral atmosphere of his times, and at last turned from it all to cry aloud the holy name of Shiva by the waters of the pure and ancient river, the river Ganges, while he waited impatiently for the great release. . . . But this too was not his vocation. He had too much defiance, fire, self-will for the ascetic. To have fallen in the forefront of ancient heroic battle or to have consummated himself in some grandiose act of self-sacrifice, this would have been his life's fitting fulfilment, the true end of Bhartrihari.


The edition followed in the main is that of Mr. Telang in the Bombay Sanskrit Series. The accepted order of the verses, although it admits a few gross errors and misplacements, has nevertheless been preserved. All the Miscellaneous Epigrams at the end have been omitted from the rendering; and three others, the 90th, which has crept in from the Shakuntala of Kalidasa, the 104th, which is an inferior version of an earlier epigram and the 18th, which has come down to us in a hopelessly corrupt condition. The 27th epigram occurs in the Mudrarakshasa but has been admitted as it is entirely in Bhartrihari's spirit and manner and may have been copied into the play. Some other verses which do not bear internal evidence of Bhartrihari's authorship in their style and spirit, have yet been given the benefit of the doubt.

The principle of translation followed has been to preserve faithfully the thought, spirit and images of the original, but otherwise to take the full license of a poetical rendering. In translation from one European tongue into another a careful literalness may not be out of place, for the genius, sentence structure and turns of thought of European languages are not very dissimilar; they belong to one family. But the gulf between Sanskrit and English in these respects is very wide, and any attempt at close verba! rendering would be disastrous. I have made no attempt to render the distinctive features of Bhartrihari's style; on the contrary I have accepted the necessity of substituting for the severity and compact massiveness of Sanskrit diction which must necessarily vanish in translation, the greater richness and colour preferred by the English tongue. Nor have I attempted to preserve the peculiar qualities of the suhhāṣita; Bhartrihari's often crowded couplets and quatrains have been perforce dissolved into a looser and freer style and in the process have sometimes expanded to considerable dimensions. Lines of cunningly wrought gold have had to be beaten out into some tenuity. Otherwise the finer associations and suggestions of the original would have been lost or blurred. I hold it more pardonable in poetical translation to unstring the language than to dwarf the spirit and mutilate the thought. For in poetry it is not the verbal substance that we seek from the report or rendering of foreign masterpieces; we desire rather the spiritual substance, the soul of the poet and the soul of his poetry. We cannot hear the sounds and rhythms loved and admired by his countrymen and contemporaries; but we ask for as many as we can recover of the responses and echoes which that ancient music set vibrating in the heavens of their thought.