A monument to Bhartrihari's ruminative ebullience
Three Hundred Verses
Publisher- Penguin Random House, Rs 599
This competent translation of Bhartrihari verses by AND Haksar makes the celebrated Sanskrit poet’s theories available to a much wider group of readers and thus spreads the joy that arises out of reading good poetry, writes ANUBHAV PRADHAN
The meeting of giants is always a singularity, for rarely do such conjunctions emerge from the everyday. The publication of Three Hundred Verses: Musings on Life, Love and Renunciation is just such an event. A new translation of Bhartrihari’s verses by AND Haksar, Three Hundred Verses is as much a fresh gloss on a timeless classic as a pioneering work of poetry by itself. Divided neatly into three sections, Three Hundred Verses reflects the broad thematic concerns of Bhartrihari’s Trishati. These are Niti Shataka, Shringara Shataka, and Vairagya Shataka, dealing expansively with the public, private, and introspective modes of life. Haksar’s free verse translation arranges each of these three to have ten sub-sections premised on specific motifs, such as “In Praise of Beauty”, “Making Love”, and “In Rains and Winters” for Shringara Shataka. The verses are taken for the most from DD Kosambi’s definitive critical compilation of 1948, though some of them are also from Ramachandra Budhendra’s seminal 18th century commentary on Bhartrihari.
Even though little is conclusively known about Bhartrihari, and his dates remain broad like most others in the Sanskrit canon, the key questions here seem to be more what and how instead of when and why. Too often too much is lost in pedantic quibbles of origin: what makes a text agelessly readable is not as much its provenance as its bearing. What makes Bhartrihari unchangingly pertinent is precisely this depth to the personality of his work, the fact that his oeuvre is varied enough to encompass almost all kinds of human experiences. Contemporary readers will find intense echoes of their own keenly felt tribulations in many of these verses. Take, for instance, No. 6 from Niti Shataka, a piece of lacerating self-realisation:
When I knew just a little,
my mind was full of arrogance,
thinking I knew all;
like a rutting elephant
was I blinded with pride.
Then, coming into contact
with wise men gradually,
my pomp and fever did decrease,
knowing myself a fool to be.
Or No. 43 from Shringara Shataka, a quintessentially subcontinental celebration of the sensual:
When the scent of mango blossoms
spreads, causing all things to swoon,
and their sweet nectar maddens bees,
who will not be filled with longings?
Or No. 67 from Vairagya Shataka, a brutally existential snipe at all of life:
If wealth that yields all one desires
is obtained, so what?
If the foot is placed upon the heads
of one’s foes, so what?
If loved ones are embellished with
one’s riches, so what?
If this body lasts an aeon,
even then, so what?
Admittedly, some of the metaphors in Trishati will seem stale to many readers, like the allusions to “doe-eyed” maidens. Yet, unlike many others from classical antiquity, Bhartrihari’s voice is not that of a distant sage. His wisdom, instead, is the intimate, bittersweet song of a man who lived and suffered both joy and grief. Human life is the sum of all its many parts, and the wide expanse of his oeuvre-much like classical dance-ranges seamlessly from the sensual to the divine and much that lies in between. This catholicity is what constitutes the enduring charm of Bhartrihari’s verse. That Three Hundred Verses does not appear to be the work of one man is fully to its credit. No. 16 of Shringara Shataka, succumbing to the allure of maidens, contrasts startlingly with No. 16 of Vairagya Shataka, mercilessly disparaging the female body; No. 33 of Niti Shataka, in frank praise of money, cannot sit by No. 87 of Vairagya Shataka, proclaiming wealth to be fleeting. It is in such polarities that much of human life is enacted, and the crux of Bhartrihari’s pertinence lies in its ability to distil their essence in a manner which speaks to all times and contexts.
It is to Haksar’s credit that he is able to convey this accessibly for contemporary audiences, even though a few of the verses translate loosely. For instance, No. 1 in Haksar’s Niti Shataka, wherein “but even gods cannot placate / one puffed up with a little knowledge”, lacks the deep nuance of John Brough’s “But Heaven’s own wisdom scarcely will suffice / To contradict a half-baked scholar’s pride”. Haksar’s Introduction too would have benefited from more detailing, and he could have taken the next step and provided the Sanskrit original. Moreover, notwithstanding the superior production quality, the cover design and layout of the book too leave much to be desired given the tastefully compact legacy of Penguin’s previous ventures into the classics. Nonetheless, it is difficult to not see Three Hundred Verses as yet another milestone in Haksar’s illustrious career as a versatile man of letters. It stands tall as a monument to Bhartrihari’s ruminative ebullience, and will prove to be a source of recurring joy to all those who love poetry.
The reviewer is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed here are his own
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