Bhartrihari the Poet | An Excerpt from Some Unquenchable Desire
Everything known for certain about India’s poet Bhartrihari could be engraved on a grain of rice. He steps into the wavering historical record like a ghost out of the mist in 671 c.e., when the Chinese pilgrim I-Tsing (Yijing in the newer way of spelling) jotted down his name in a travel journal. I-Tsing had left Tang Dynasty China on what proved a brave, persistent twenty-year quest for Buddhist teachings and manuscripts across Asia. His travels took him to India’s splendid center of learning, Nalanda, a crossroads of the Buddhist world in those days, part monastery, part university.
The grounds held lotus ponds, peacocks, green iridescent parakeets, an eighty-foot-tall stone Buddha layered with hammered copper, fragrant jasmine coiling over sandstone walls, shady arcades with red-tiled roofs.
Today the ruined grounds of Nalanda sit in the state of Bihar, a painfully impoverished “nation” (100 million residents) with extensive ecological damage. This damaged world is one you can almost glimpse in some of Bhartrihari’s poems, as though he could see around the bend of millennia. What we know, however, of the old Nalanda Institute conjures a spacious, biologically diverse campus filled with parkland and artificial lakes. The campus had been built during the course of several centuries by donors of enviable wealth. For scholars in I-Tsing’s day it must have looked like paradise. The grounds held lotus ponds, peacocks, green iridescent parakeets, an eighty-foot-tall stone Buddha layered with hammered copper, fragrant jasmine coiling over sandstone walls, shady arcades with red-tiled roofs. The name Nalanda may have been that of a nāga or serpent that lived in the achingly blue waters of one lotus pool.
During his stay at Nalanda, I-Tsing listened to lectures and debates punctuated by a great bell in the morning and a drumbeat that observed the passing hours. The pilgrim noted in his diary the name Bhartrihari, a figure he heard had died two decades earlier, around the year 652. I-Tsing spoke of Bhartrihari as a linguist, a poet, and a Buddhist. He may have initially met the name in a treatise by the Buddhist logician Dignaga, who cites some of Bhartrihari’s reflections on grammar. I-Tsing could have read or heard some of Bhartrihari’s poetry, too. If he did, he recorded none in his journal.
To get a glimpse of Bhartrihari’s milieu—and why Nalanda was a likely place to hear word of him—it is instructive to conjure the site. The translator Hsuan Tsang, a pilgrim whose life-story is embedded in legend, had preceded I-Tsing by several centuries. He brought this description back to China: “The whole university is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the convent from without. One gate opens into the chief college, with eight other campuses distributed about. The richly adorned towers and fairylike turrets, which look like pointed hilltops, cluster together. The observatories seem to be lost in morning mist, their upper stories above the clouds.”1 A water clock organized the daily rounds—one massive bell signaling the morning hour to bathe in the ponds. Evening had chanting and the reciting of sūtras. Hsuan Tsang gives a further description. “An azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade.”2
Nalanda housed at least four libraries, including a nine-story tower to hold the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) sūtras, foundational texts for Mahayana Buddhism. One story says Bhartrihari was the brother-in-law of Vasubandhu, who co-founded the Yogacara school of Buddhism, a notable interpretation of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. If correct, this dates Bhartrihari to the fourth or fifth century, not the seventh.
Bhartrihari's Collections: The Vākyapadīya and Śatakatrayam
What Bhartrihari left behind is a treatise on grammar, the Vākyapadīya, far in advance of its era. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, at the University of Berlin in the late nineteenth century, consulted the treatise for his doctoral dissertation, a specialized treatment of Sanskrit grammar, and used its ideas to set the stage for modern linguistics. Bhartrihari also left an indeterminate, though limited number of lyric poems. Later scribes arranged the poems into books, divided more or less thematically. For centuries the compilation has carried the bland title Śatakatrayam: it comprises three (traya) collections of a hundred (śataka) poems.
A hundred detached stanzas, not linked by narrative, not grouped into themes, but moving cyclically across a patterned terrain of emotion, was a standard collection for old India. The emblematic number one hundred fit old India’s delight in symmetry. Somewhere along the way an anthologist provided Bhartrihari’s three śatakas with descriptive titles: Nīti, Śṛngāra, and Vairāgya: the first is a book of counsel for those involved in high-class life; the second, a book of romantic love; and the third, a book of “dis-passion,” or hermit renunciation. These were not Bhartrihari’s titles, nor the way he himself arranged the poems.
There is no way, Kosambi says, to know what kind of arrangement, if any, the poet gave them. Nor is there any way to confidently determine that these are the poems Bhartrihari actually wrote.
In the mid-1940s the Indian scholar D. D. Kosambi examined nearly four hundred manuscripts and books attributed to Bhartrihari. The collections were confounding. Though all carried the title Śatakatrayam, they diverged crazily in number of poems, which poems they included, and in what order the poems appeared. Sifting out two hundred stanzas that show up in nearly all manuscripts, Kosambi set these aside as the nucleus of an authentic collection—poems likely written by Bhartrihari. There is no way, Kosambi says, to know what kind of arrangement, if any, the poet gave them. Nor is there any way to confidently determine that these are the poems Bhartrihari actually wrote. The earliest manuscript anyone has found was written down a thousand years after the poet’s death. Poems with his name attached had been swapped for centuries. They passed from person to person, orally or in fragile handwritten collections that moldered and crumbled in India’s monsoon-punctuated climate. Some had been sloppily reproduced by indifferent scribes. There are words that make no sense and occasions of nonsensical grammar. Kosambi is clear; the poet himself could not have “promulgated any edition comparable to what we possess today.”3
Common Themes in Bhartrihari's Poems
Many of the Bhartrihari collections make an awkward attempt to stack the poems into subgroups, based on related image, repeated vocabulary, or similar opening phrases. No poet would order poems like this. It stinks of contrivance. It drains out the life force. It reduces the impact of each poem and blunts their sharp inventiveness.
My sense is that Bhartrihari was a complicated man. A thousand emotions, ideas, words, and rhythmic syllables stormed through him. He ordered the chaos by writing poems. In particular he shows himself torn between sexual desire and a hunger to be free of failed love affairs and turbulent karma. Meeting the eyes of a woman could alter his life, and from the poems, this sounds like his preeminent challenge. Placing his love poems together, as though they came from a single period of his life, makes little sense. I’d guess he felt sexual attraction throughout his years, writing poems of love from youth into old age.
To group these poems by topic is to miss the texture of life, the way the passions surge through, settle down, rise up again.
In a different mood Bhartrihari looked with undisguised fury on the show of luxury. He knew the ways of the rich, and he despised their allure. Quite possibly he never visited the campus at Nalanda that had hosted I-Tsing. Had he gone, the lavish grounds might have provoked skepticism or revulsion: seeing religious rites settled amid grand wealth would have troubled him. When political power or religious exaltation took precedence over wisdom, or brushed kindness aside, a great loathing rose up. Some of his best poems, written to sensuous, infantile warlords, coil with contempt. He was proud of being a poet.
Bhartrihari returns to familiar themes: love, sexual desire, despair, anger, fear; a tenuous brief ecstasy in the arms of a lover, an urge for spiritual peace. These drive him to make poems. To group these poems by topic is to miss the texture of life, the way the passions surge through, settle down, rise up again. It misses his wizardry with vocabulary or command of rhythm. His ability to leverage the precise grammar of the Sanskrit language and release its snaking syntax. (There is rhythm as well in the way a writer orders poems in a manuscript or for oral recital.) For his poems to ring into the twenty-first century, he had to study rain and sleet, mangy street dogs, dung-smeared mendicants, and sharply dressed ladies. He had to examine the properties of timber, flowers, medicines, and herbs. To beg and go hungry.
His mastery of Sanskrit tells me Bhartrihari the poet could indeed have been Bhartrihari the linguist, though scholars are cautious in identifying the two. I see no reason to think a mystically inclined grammarian could not have been a unique, heartbroken, barefoot, well-read, and at times caustic poet, who thought it no big deal to break the rules of grammar. If he never gathered his poetry into a book, he did produce a substantial number of poems held together by a consistent personal clarity.
Coils of burst
The ketaki pine’s fragrance
stings then vanishes.
Clouds heap up, thunder growls
and the soft mewing of
peacocks at love.
How can a long-eyelashed woman
get through the season,
drenched with eros
Prajāpati* stirred up the wind,
food for snakes
harmless and easily had.
Wild animals chew plants,
they sleep on the ground with ease.
For humans he made
a different way—
designing our spirits to cross
samsara’s stormy froth.
Go that way.
It is a matter of
*Prajāpati, “lord of creatures.” A totem figure, mythic ancestor of all living beings.
You hold the bankroll,
speed to my command
just like this!
What you want
you take through force.
I speak of the true world
and root out the malady
Mad for a few coins
people debase themselves
to you; but they come
hear me dispel
the mind’s unruly thoughts.
You don’t give a
damn for your poet, King—
less than I do for you.
Take this counsel
as I depart.
Mantras can’t dispel it,
it is way past the compass
Hundreds of exorcisms
won’t drive it out.
Love is a seizure that wrenches
the whole body
with its fury.
Your vision breaks diabolically
familiar things turn
Should I settle along
a holy river
and practice rigorous yoga?
Or squire ladies about, who favor me with
Might I drink from that torrent
of ancient books—
the many poems, brimming, deathless,
What to do—in this life?
It’ll be gone
in an eye blink.
1. Paraphrased from S. Beale, The Life of Hsuan Tsang.
2. Grousset, In the Footsteps of the Buddha, 159.
3. Kosambi, The Epigrams Attributed to Bhartṛhari, 64.
Andrew Schelling is the author of fifteen books and chapbooks, the most recent a collection of essays, Wild Form, Savage Grammar. His translations of India’s classical poetry appear in numerous anthologies. The Academy of American Poets honored him with the Harlod Morton Landon Translation Award in 1992 for his Dropping the Bow: Poems from Ancient India. Learn More.