Bhartrihari’s Maxims on Wisdom

This article presents nuggets from Bhartihari’s famous maxims on wisdom and dispassion, titled “Vairagya Shataka”.

In the previous article, we saw Bhartrihari’s maxims on Morality taken from his Niti Shataka, which he wrote, after he realized the fleeting nature of worldly pleasures. After his banished brother Vikramaditya returns from the forest, Bhartrihari resigns from his position as a King of Ujjain and in his place, installs Vikramaditya as the new King. It is said that Bhartrihari then took Sannyasa and proceeded to practice austerity and Self-enquiry into the true nature of Atman. It is during this period, he wrote his famous maxims on wisdom and dispassion, titled “Vairagya Shataka”. Here are the few nuggets of wisdom translated from Vairagya Shataka;

Learned men are eaten up with jealousy; mighty men are spoiled through pride; the minds of some men are obscured through ignorance; therefore, the eloquent teachings of wisdom are neglected.

When I look through the world, I see no profit in any action. The result of good actions makes me afraid when I reflect on them; for the great enjoyment gained after long continuance in the practice of great virtues hinder men from perfect liberation, since they are attracted to objects of sense.

I have dug up the earth to find treasure; I have smelted minerals; I have crossed the sea; I have conciliated kings with great effort; I have spent my nights in a cemetery; I have laboured to acquire religious knowledge; but my efforts are all in vain. Desire! Will you not leave me?

I have wandered over lands crossed with difficulty, but I have gained no fruit; I have put away from me my pride of family; I have performed services that have profited me nothing; I have cast off my self-respect, and have eaten like crow in a stranger’s house. But yet, desire! You are still not satisfied, ever given to evil, and are never satisfied.

I have suffered the abuse of evil men in hope of gain; I have repressed my tears and forced the laughter, though my heart was void; I have restrained my feelings; I have bowed myself before fools. O desire, foolish desire! How further you’ll let me stoop?

Day by day our life slips away from us, while the sun rises and sets; our business is so great and weighty that the flight of time escapes us. We behold birth, pain, old age, ending in death, and yet we are not afraid. We are, as it were, intoxicated; we have drunk of the wine of infatuation.

If one were to see his wife overcome by hunger, her garments, old and torn, her children hanging round her, crying with pinched, unhappy faces; though he might fear refusal and stammer in his speech, yet would he ask alms; but he would not beg to satisfy his own wants.

Our desire for pleasure fails; respect is no longer paid us by the world; our equals in age have been dead; our friends whom we love even as ourselves will soon follow; we walk slowly, supported by a stick; our eyes are dim. Alas! Our body is subdued; it trembles at the approach of death.

It has been ordained by the Creator that the serpents shall gain their livelihood on air, without effort and without injury to others; the cattle have been created eating shoots of grass and lying on the ground. The same mode of living has been appointed for men who pass over the ocean of this world with subdued senses; men who seek to live in such a way as this continually go on to perfection.

We have gained no pleasure, but pleasure has taken us captive; we have not practiced penance, but we have suffered pain in the pursuit of earthly joys. Time never grows old, but our life passes away.

We have pardoned injuries, but not for the sake of showing forgiveness; we have abandoned the pleasures of home, but not because we were willing to cast them aside; we have suffered pain from cold winds, but we have shrunk from penance because of its painfulness; we have thought night and day on the acquisition of wealth, but we have given no thought about understanding our true selves; we have performed all the acts which the sages have prescribed for us, but have gained no fruits.

My face is covered with wrinkles, my head is grey, my limbs are feeble, but desire alone is ever strong in me. Objects of senses, however long they may be with us, must one day depart; but there is this difference between separating oneself from them and not giving them up. If they forsake us, we shall suffer unequalled pain and grief; but if we forsake them of our own accord, we shall gain unending peace and happiness.

A dog, wretched, worn out, lame, deaf, without a tail, and covered with sores, overcome with hunger, and with a piece of broken pot tied round his neck, still runs after a bitch. Lust destroys even that which is already dead.  

A man may live by begging; his food may be tasteless, only enough for one meal; his bed may be the bare earth; he may have no attendant but himself; his clothes may be in a thousand pieces through age, hardly able to hold together. Alas! Even then objects of sense do not quit their hold over him!  

A moth may fall into the flame of a candle through ignorance; a fish may take a piece of meat fastened to a hook, not knowing what it is; but we who know perfectly the many entanglements of fortune yet do not give up our desire. Ah! In what a thicket of error do we wander!  

Lotus fibre is enough for our food; water suffices for us to drink; we may lie on the bare earth; we may be clothed in bark raiment. I approve not the evil behaviour of bad men, whose senses are led astray through the thirst for gold.

You are a king; I am of the number of spiritual teachers, honoured for wisdom by the world. Your riches are celebrated; my fame is celebrated by poets. Thus, O giver of blessings! There is not a great interval between us. You have your face averted from me, but I have no desire for your favour.

Hundreds of princes always have been, and always are, incessantly disputing for the possession of earthly enjoyments, and still kings do not abandon pride in their possessions. Owners of the earth in their folly display delight in the acquirement of even the very smallest particle, while, on the contrary, they ought to manifest sorrow.

The earth is but an atom of clay surrounded by the lines of the ocean. Kings have subdued it in hundreds of battles, and have divided it among themselves. These wicked, contemptible men might give or thy might not; there is no wonder in that! But, shame on those low minded persons who beg alms from them.

I am not an actor; I am not a courtesan; I am not a singer; I am not a buffoon; I am not a beautiful woman; what I have to do with king’s palaces?

Once wisdom was employed to gain relief from pain; afterwards it began to be used for the attainment of pleasure. Now, alas! Men who dwell on the earth plainly care nothing for the wisdom, therefore day by day it goes farther from them.

You are lord of wealth; I of speech; you are a hero in the war; my skill is shown in subduing the proud by the power of my eloquence; men bow down before thee, but they listen to me that their minds may be purified. If, O King! You have no desire for me, still less is my desire for thee.

When I was possessed of a small amount of knowledge, my mind was filled with pride, even as an elephant is blinded by passion, and I thought within myself that I knew everything. When I had learnt many things from wise men, I discovered my foolishness, and my mad excitement left me.

When honour has fled, when wealth is lost, when one’s desire has departed and one has gained nothing; when one’s relations are dead, one’s friends have vanished one’s youth has faded by degrees; then there is only one thing left for a wise man – dwelling in mountain cave.

Why, O my heart, do you attempt day by day to conciliate the favour of others, bringing forth no fruit of your toil? Surely, if a purified will were in you, all your desires would be fulfilled, and there would be no need to pay court to other men, for you would be at rest inwardly.

In health there is the fear of disease; in pride of family the fear of a fall; in wealth the fear of the king; in honour the fear of abasement; in power the fear enemies; in beauty the fear of old age; in the scriptures the fear of controversy; in virtue the fear of evil; in the body the fear of death. Everything on earth is beset by fear; the only freedom from fear is the renunciation of desire.

What have we not attempted for the sake of those lives of ours which are as unstable as the drop of water on the lotus-leaf? Even we commit sin by boasting of our own virtues shamelessly before those rich men whose minds are senseless through the intoxicating power of wealth.

Homage be to time! The delights of the city, the great king with his crowds of courtiers, the counsellors which stand before him, the women with faces beautiful as the moon, the assembly of haughty princes, the bards, the reciters – these are all borne away by the time, and become but a memory.

Those from whom we were born have long since departed; they also with whom we grew up exist only in memory; we too, through the approach of death, becomes, as it were, trees growing on the sandy bank of a river.

In the house where there were many, now there is but one; where there is but one, there were many and then again but one. So time tosses day and night backward and forward as though they were dice and play with men on the chessboard of this world as if they were chessmen.

Shall we dwell beside the divine river in a life of penance?  Or shall we desire the society of virtuous women? Or shall we study the multitude of scriptures, whose poetry is even as nectar? We know not what we shall do, seeing the life of a man endures but the twinkling of an eye.

Desire is like a river. It waters are men’s wishes, agitated by the waves of desire; love takes the place of crocodiles; the birds that fly about it are the doubts which haunt the mind. The tree of firmness growing on the bank is washed away by the flood; the whirlpools of error are very difficult to cross; the lofty banks are the cares of life. The ascetics who, pure in heart, have succeeded in crossing it successfully, are filled with joy.

As we look at the ever-changing three worlds, the desire hidden within us, violently attracted towards objects of sense, ceases to cross the path of our eyes or to enter into the way of our ears; for we have subdued the objects of sense which produce desire in us, and hold them bound by devotion, as an elephant attracted by his mate is kept from her by being tied to a post.

My days once seemed long when I used to suffer pain through asking favours from rich men, and they seemed too short for me to carry out all my aims, filled as they were with the desire of earthly objects. Now I sit on a stone in a mountain cave, and in the intervals of my mediation I am filled with laughter at the recollection of my former life.

Wisdom has not been gained free from spot; wealth has not been acquired; reverence towards our elders has not been practiced by us; we have not even dreamt of love. If this has been our existence, then have we lived a life, even like the life of a crow – that which hungers for the food of others.

When all our wealth is gone with hearts full of tenderness, recollecting how the path of action in the world leads to evil, we in a sacred grove, with the rays of the autumn moon shining on us, will pass our nights occupied alone in meditation, at the feet of Shiva.

I am satisfied with bark clothing; you take pleasure in your magnificence; there is no difference between the contentment of both of us. The man whose desires are unlimited is poor indeed; who that is satisfied with what he has can either be rich or poor?

Relaxation from toil at one’s own will, food gained without degradation, friendship with noble-minded men, a mind not agitated by contact with external things – this is the result of the highest vow of tranquillity. I know not, though I have carefully thought thereupon, by what strict penance this perfect state may be gained.

The hand serves for a cup; food is gained by beginning; the sky with its pure expanse serves for a garment; the earth is a couch. Those whose freedom from attraction to the object of sense has been brought to such perfection as this are fortunate, contended in their own minds, and they uproot action, casting away all the many forms of pain which attend upon it.

Masters are difficult to please; king change from one thing to another in their minds with the swiftness of horses; our desires are great, and our minds aim at high things. Old age consumes our bodies; death puts an end to our lives. O my friends! There is no glory in this world for a wise man, but that which he gains by penance.

Pleasure is like the lightning that flashes in the canopy of cloud; life is like the fleeting clouds that are torn asunder by the storm; the ardent desires of the young are transitory. O wise man! You who know the uncertainty of human affairs, gain wisdom by meditation on the Supreme Spirit; for perfection is easily gained by means of constant contemplation.

O my friend, fortunate are those who have cast off that many bonds of this world, and from within whose minds desire for earthly objects, like the poison of a serpent, has departed. They spend the night, bright with the clear shining of the autumn moon, in the border of the forest, thinking about nothing but the greatness of their good fortune.

Cease to wander wearily in the thicket of sense. Seek that better way which, in a moment, brings freedom from trouble. Unite yourself to the Paramatma and abandon your own state as unsteady as the waves. Take no more pleasure in things perishable. Be calm, O my heart!

O my friend! I live on fruit and nuts, lie on the bare ground; let us rise up and go into the forest clothed in new soft bark garments. In that retreat we shall not hear the voices of those rich men whose voices are troubled through the confusion of their minds.

If there are songs before you, if there are elegant poets from the southern regions on one side of you, if behind damsels bearing the fans with tinkling anklets, taste, my friend, the pleasure of sense which you may gain from these things. If you have them not, then plunge, O my mind! Into devout contemplation, freeing yourself from all thought.

Wise men! Have nothing to do with mean men/women who are only pleasing from their beauty, in whose society is a transitory delight. Rather, follow those who are compassionate, amiable and intelligent; the beautiful forms of men/women adorned with tinkling jewels will not be available to liberate you from the pains of this mortal world.

Abstinence from destroying life, keeping one’s hands off another’s wealth, speaking the truth, seasonable liberality according to one’s power; nor copulating with the wives of other men, checking the stream of covetousness, reverence towards spiritual fathers, compassion towards all creatures – this is the path of happiness, violating no ordinance, taught in all the Vedic literature.

O mother Laxmi! Grant me yet further that I may not be filled with desire. May I not be filled with the longing after pleasure! Now, purifying myself with a vessel of leaves joined together, let me gain my livelihood by means of the barley grain which I have begged.

You were to me even as myself; I was yourself to you. Such were our feelings to one another. How has it come about that we have been changed, and that we no more feel the same sympathy one for another?

O woman! Why do you shoot forth at me those beautiful glances from your half-opened eyes? Cease! Cease! Your toil will be in vain! I am as it were changed! My youth has departed from me; my dwelling is in a forest; my infatuation has left me. I look at the favours of this world only as so much grass.

This woman, with eyes that have stolen the beauty of the lotus, unceasingly casts her glances towards me. What does she wish? My infatuation has departed; the arrows of cruel love, producing immoderate heat and fever, have left me.

Is not a palace delightful to dwell in? Are not songs charming to hear? Is not a society of friends, who we love as our own lives, alluring? Yet wise men retire away from all these things into the forest, considering them like the light of a lamp which burns unsteadily through the wind of the wings of a wandering moth.

Are there no more roots growing in the caves; have the mountain torrents, ceased to flow; do the trees no longer bear fruit; has the bark with which you may gain your clothing withered on the trees, that you cast off your self-respect and fall down before haughty men, who have gained a little wealth with difficulty, and who regard you with supercilious contempt?

Surely the retreats of the Himalayas, the abode of the Vidyadharas, where the rocks are cooled by the spray of the Ganges, surely these must have ceased to exist, since men enjoy food which they gain from others to their own disgrace.

When Meru the magnificent mountain falls from its place, destroyed at the end of the age; when the ocean, the abode of multitudes of great monsters, is dried up; when the earth resting on her mountains comes to an end, how can there be any abiding place for the body, which is as unstable as the ear of a young elephant?

You may have gained glory and the accomplishment of all your desires; What further? Your foot may have been placed on the heck of your enemies; What further? You may have bestowed your riches of your friends; What further? You may live thousands of years; What further?

The man who has gained great power finds even the sovereignty of the universe tasteless. Do not seek pleasure in the enjoyment which comes from flattery, dress or feasting; for the only delight which is supreme is everlasting, and continually grows. Seize upon it, for, compared to the sweetness of that, all the three worlds are devoid of pleasure.

How should a wise man be anxious after a small portion of this world? Is the mighty ocean ever stirred up by the gambols of a little fish?

When the darkness of love has filled me with ignorance, women seemed the only objects for which to live. Now, since I have anointed my eyes with the ointment of discrimination, the sight of all things has become clear to me, and I behold three worlds as the Creator.

Delightful are the rays of the moon; delightful are the grassy places of the forest; delightful the society of beloved friends; delightful the tales of poets; delightful the face of one’s beloved sparkling with the teardrops of rage. But who cares any more for these delights when his mind reflects on their uncertainty?

An ascetic lives on alms, remote from men, self-controlled, walking in the path of indifference, giving or not giving, it matter not which. He is clothed in a torn cloak made from rags cast into the street; he has no pride, no self-consciousness; he is free from desire; his sole pleasure is rest and quietness.

In good men, knowledge is the destruction of pride; in others it is the cause of haughtiness; a solitary dwelling frees ascetics from attraction to objects of the senses; it is the cause of extreme attraction towards desire in those who are wounded by it.

The desires in our own minds have faded; youth has passed into old age; even the very virtues in our own bodies have become barren since they are no longer recognized as virtues. What can we do? All powerful time is hastening on, and death is coming on us to end our lives. What can we do but resort to the feet of Paramatma? There is no other means of salvation for us.

When the mouth is dry, a man drinks water, which is sweet to him; when pained with hunger, he eats rice and other vegetables. But, he is mistaken if he imagines that the removal of the pain caused by hunger and thirst is a pleasure.

Every living thing is subject to death. Youth passes into old age; contentment is destroyed by covetousness after riches; peace of mind by the glances of beautiful women; the just are slandered by envious men; forests are infested by serpents; kings are ruined by evil counsellors. Even the virtues themselves are unstable; so everything in the world suffers loss and damage.

The health of men is undermined by sickness of various kinds; when fortune has departed then disasters come in as if by the open door. Death truly brings all things under his sway. Destiny has made nothing abide firmly.

Men have dwelt in the narrow womb of their mother, suffering pain; youth, with its separation from one we love, is full of sorrow; old age, exposing men to the contempt of women, is an evil thing. Alas! When one reckons it up, what pleasure is there to be found in the world?

The life of man endures a hundred years; half is spent in night; of the remainder, half is spent in childhood and in old age. Servitude, pain, separation, sickness, fill up that which is left. What pleasure, then can there be in the life of a man, which is as uncertain as the bubbles on the stream?

Pure-minded men, possessed of right judgement, through their knowledge of the self, perform impossible feat; for they entirely cast off worldly riches, which are the source of all pleasure. As for us, neither what we had formerly nor that which we have now is really in our own power. That which we have only in wish we cannot abandon.

Old age menaces the body like a tiger; diseases carry it off like enemies; life slips away like water out of a broken jar; and yet man lives an evil life in the world. Truly, this is marvellous.

The creator makes a jewel of a man, a mine of virtues, and an ornament to the earth – and then in one moment destroys him. Alas! What want of knowledge does the creator display?

The body is bent with age, the steps fail, and the teeth are broken, the sight becomes dim, deafness grows on one, the mouth dribbles, servants cease to obey one’s orders, one’s wife is not submissive, one’s son is even one’s enemy – such are the evils of old age.

For a moment one is a child; for a moment a youth full of love; in one-minute wealth is abundant; in the next it has all vanished. A man comes to the end of life, and then, with his limbs worn by age and covered with wrinkles, as an actor disappears behind the curtain, so he enters the abode of death.

 

The whole world is filled with delight to the poor man, to the man whose passion are subdued, to the man who is calm, and whose mind is ever equal, who is filled with contentment.

The belly is a pot difficult to fill; it scorches up a man’s virtue, even as the moon scorches up the beds of lotuses; it is like a thief that steals one’s purse; it is even as a flashing axe cutting down the tree of virtue.

Let us eat the food we have gained by begging; let the sky be our only garment; let the earth be our couch; why should we be a slave to harsh masters?

Sometimes there is music and song, sometimes lamentations; sometimes we may listen to the conversation of the wise, sometimes only the disputes of drunken men; sometimes we may enjoy all pleasures, sometimes our bodies may be running over with disease; so the life of man is made up partly of ambrosia, partly of poison.

You, as you pay flattery to your rich patrons with your voice and limbs disguised, are, as it were, the actors in a comedy. What kind of a part will you play in time when your hair is grey with age?

Fortune is fleeting, breath is fleeting, youth is fleeting; the only thing immovable in the world is righteousness.

O my mind, do not in your solitude think upon the goddess of fortune; for she is as uncertain as a courtesan, delighting to sport in the frown or smile of princes. Rather, clothe thyself with rags, and entering city, beg from door to door the food which men will place in the vessels which you offer.

“My house is magnificent, my sons are respected by the good, my wealth is infinite, my wife is beautiful, and my life is in its prime.” Thus speaks the man whose mind is obscured in ignorance. The wise man, on the contrary, knowing that everything in the prison-house of this world is transitory, casts aside all earthly possessions.

Those who are full of curses may curse; we are righteous, and because we are devoid of evil, we cannot pour forth abusive words. That only can be given which is in the world; it would not be possible to give a hare’s horn to anyone.

Subsistence can be easily gained in this world in the path of delights. The earth is full of fruit; elephant or deer-skin will provide clothing; the same consequences result from happiness or unhappiness. Who then, casting off the three-eyed deity, would reverence one blinded by the love of a little money?

We have slain elephants by the sword, we have tortured our enemies, we have playfully sported on the couch our beloved, we have lived within the roaring sound of the falls on the Himalayas, but yet we have had no pleasure. Like the crows, we have passed our lives in eager desire after morsels of food given to us by others.

Where, O my mind do you wander? Rest for a while. Since that which has been ordained cannot come to pass in any other way, think not of the past, care nothing for the future; enjoy only those pleasures which come and go without being looked for.

You may take the fruit of the earth at your will; in every wood there is no lack of trees; in every place there is water, sweet and cool, of the sacred streams; there is a soft couch strewn for you, made up of the shoots of the delicate creepers. Why then do wretched men suffer such miseries, waiting at the doors of the rich?

You may have enjoyed a meal of good food; so what? Or you may have eaten coarse food at the close of the day; so what? Your raiment may be ragged and torn, or ample and magnificent; so what? You may have but one servant, or an endless number; so what? You have but one elephant, or you may be encircled by thousands of horses and elephants; so what?

A dwelling in a sacred forest, with the deer alone as companions; a life nourished on the fruits of the earth on the banks of every stream, the flat rock surface for a couch; such is the life of peaceful calm that the ascetic lives, who desires union with the ultimate – Paramatma; his mind fixed upon one object; the forest or the dwelling are the same to him.

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U. Mahesh Prabhu is a media, management and political consultant. He’s also Consultant & Columnist with BW Businessworld and Business Goa. He’s also a Member of International Federation of Journalists (USA) and Fellow of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). Twitter- @indiamahesh