Glory of Bharath  »  Literary Giants of Bharath - Part Five

A King of Ujjain, Bhartruhari was the elder step brother of his more renowned sibling, Vikramaditya. His life presents to us a living account of a person's transformation from a pleasure-loving emperor who had everything at his disposal to a sage who gave us the immortal Shataka trilogy. Bhartruhari was fiercely enamoured of his newly-wedded wife Pingala, a fact which caused Vikramaditya considerable anguish for the elder brother neglected his kingly duties preferring to spend his life in her arms. Pingala on her part conspired and had Vikramaditya thrown out of Ujjain.

A Brahmin once gave Bhartruhari a fruit that when eaten would increase the king's lifespan. An infatuated Bhartruhari handed the fruit to his wife. Pingala in turn, preferred the intimate company of the chief horse-keeper to whom she gave the fruit. The horse-keeper was in love with a prostitute. In the end, the fruit found itself in the prostitute's hands. To me, the prostitute emerges as a stellar character in this whole episode. She sensed the importance of the fruit, and found it fit to give it to the king whom she believed was a wise and just ruler barring his wifely obsession of course.

Bhartruhari was counseling with his nobles when the prostitute praised the greatness of the fruit, told him she was unfit of such a lofty gift and gifted it to him. He ate the fruit and in a flash realized that it was the very fruit that he had lovingly gifted to Pingala. This singular incident made him realize the worthlessness of it all. He turned his back on worldly life and took to renunciation.

From King Bhartruhari, he became an ascetic, a tapasvi (the literal meaning of tapas is "to burn") and from the ashes he burnt his passions into arose the immortal Shatakatraya: the Neeti, Shringara, and Vairagya Shatakas.

Neeti Shataka can generally be understood as a teaching/exposition of morality, conduct, wisdom, behaviour, prudence, and all of these. The Neeti Shataka does exactly this: at one level, it is a treatise on a range of subjects like conduct, character, kinds of people, learning, the arts, while at another, it is sheer poetry in the sense you can choose to remain deaf to the poet's message but experience the sonorous joy his poetry evokes within you.

The Shringara Shataka deals mainly with various facets of erotic love; it goes to great lengths to describe nuances of feminine allurement, their behaviour in various stages of sensual arousal, and suchlike. The reason Bhartruhari took time and effort to pen some absolutely erotic verses has its roots in the Indian conception of asethetics. A king himself who had enjoyed every kind of sensual pleasure, Bhartruhari took care not to trivialize any aspect of life and experience including the sensual. Indian art experience viewed as a whole is all-inclusive. The end of sense-pleasure as various schools of philosophy state is self-realization, which is the end.

In the Vairagya Shataka he says there are only two ways one can live: indulge or take to asceticism. While this might seem extreme, Bhartruhari underscores the essential futility of trying simultaneously to indulge in relentless pleasure and desire eternal peace.

Bhartruhari's trilogy encompasses almost every experience known to man and pours them forth in beautiful poetry. It provides philosophy to those interested in it, metrical delight to those who revel in it, morality to those who seek itů everybody unfailingly gains from it depending on what they look for. Ultimately, Bhartruhari's name stands firm to this hour owing to this.

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