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‘Detachment’ in Vairāgyaśataka of Bhartṛhari: Where Buddhist and Brahmanic Ideas Concord

vedas manuscript. From Wikipedia.org.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 9, September 2008. 

01. Prologue

Indicating the ved?ntic tone in the ?ataka poems and author’s devotion to ?iva and Hindu gods and goddesses which are noticeably expressed[1] , Keith refutes any proposition that suggests the poet Bhart?hari a Buddhist.[2] Such a suspicion arose depending mainly from records of I-tsing a Chinese traveler who reported of a prominent grammarian Bhart?hari who was a Buddhist and authoredv?kyapad?ya.[3] The fact that the poet’s historical and chronological traces[4] are yet in a question upholds a doubt whether Bhart?hari was actually the author of the texts. Despite these contradictory arguments here I attempt to indicate that (i) although the ?atakas (of Bhart?hari) have been regarded as religious gospels contending for Brahmanism the poet was not a conventional Brahmanic priest. There are notable verses, such as the one that rejects learning of the Vedas and sm?itis[5] in the traditional ways, which are referential to this assertion. (ii) Many verses sustain a common thread of ideas attributable to both Buddhist philosophy and also Brahmanism. Of the three texts, I center my observations on the emphasis on ‘detachment’ in Bhart?hari’s ‘vair?gya?ataka’ and Buddhist philosophy; while there is a large space open for an extensive study on this ideological commonality.

02. Vair?gya?ataka – Brief Introduction to the Text

In appreciation of the style of composing poetry Keith remarks Bhart?hari as only second to K?lid?sa.[6] Vair?gya?ataka as implied by the title is a collection of 100 (?) verses on ‘detachment’. The number of verses has been in question as most scholars are not unanimous to the verses of which Bhart?hari could be accurately credited as the text has been doubted undergone later editions with additional verses by later poets. However, most verses maintain a consistency of idea that of ‘detachment’ out of ‘distaste’ in worldly affairs in general and sensual gratification in particular. The poet’s repeated indication of the transitory illusion of attraction to women; kingly power etc. retains a deep sincerity that he had passed through most of the worldly experiences that humans delight in and he firmly seeks a way out to eternal happiness. This realization has a resemblance to Prince Siddhattha Gotama’s being unsatisfied with royal life and renouncing all the pleasures seeking the ultimate truth (sacca? gavesi). Vair?gya?ataka, in addition to the other two texts, subject-wise maintains this relationship to Buddhist emphasis on ‘detachment’. The term vair?gya[7] has other English-renderings as – absence of desires or passion, dispassionate, discontentment, indifference to the world, etc. of which I prefer ‘detachment’. In popularity, Bhart?hari has been regarded as a philosopher poet and the?atakas have been translated into many Indian and European languages; innumerable of them in English. Here I have followed the translation of J.M. Kennedy.

03. ‘Detachment’ a Better Option for Greatest Happiness

Generally human beings are pursuing after happiness. In doing so, they obsess in interpersonal relationships for social happiness and attach to power, wealth, good food and drink, fine clothes, and sensual entertainments to promote their life styles. It is rather shocking to general minds that, Indian philosophers and spiritual masters demerit these attachments as sheer illusions. Indian philosophy, despite divergent definitions of ultimate reality, commonly advocates renunciation as the best for attaining the greatest happiness. In Brahmanism unification with the Mah?brahma is the supreme attainment. Most Institutional Hindu priests known as Brahmins were not exclusively practicing the ideal of ‘detachment’ as they themselves engaged in household activities and some only renounced their homes at the third stage heading towards forest life (vanaprastha) and fourth stage living wandering life (sany?si).[8] However, it is remarkable that, Bhart?hari’s emphasis on ‘vair?gya’ and the pleasure of meditating on the Supreme Brahma has a tone that – it is not merely being indifferent to worldly activities; he emphasizes total detachment not as conventional religious practice but for eternal happiness. Detachment is indispensable and the only way to attain the ultimate reality because the pleasure we get in whatever the worldly gains are in fact insubstantial and do not exist in the ultimate sense.[9] This reminds us of the Buddhist philosophy of anicc?. One must be detached from not only enjoying material gains but also from our relationships to and poetic exaggeration of women as in reality “the beauty of women merits no praise”.[10]Bhart?hari has no regard for kingly powers. One may even be an emperor of universe at the expense of blood wars and hundreds and thousands of lives for a piece of land yet his power and delight in this ‘foolish acquirement’ is the “most minute particle, while they ought, on the contrary, to exhibit the most profound sorrow”.[11] This verse has a conspicuous similarity with a verse, in Lokavagga of P?li Dhammapada, affirming – the fruit of Stream entry is nobler than the sole sovereignty over this world.[12] 
Bhart?ihari’s emphasis on detachment, beside various issues, is mainly from pride of power (like king’s power) and indulging in women. Few verses as in Buddhism penetrate into the insubstantiality of the pride of personality.

The poet delights in simplicity of life resembling to the forest dwelling recluses[13] instructing to submit oneself on the ‘foot of Siva occupied only in meditation’ advocating ‘let all our wealth depart from us.’[14]

This over-emphasis of a religion on total detachment from worldly gains may lead to a question as how much detachment is actually practicable in a society? Kennedy too remarks the point as- “It is obvious that if every unit of Indian society had become an ascetic, the magnificent hierarchy[15] in the social order would have become a chaos, there would have been no one to attend to the field or the herds, and there would have been no one even to supply the begging ascetic with the few alms he required.”[16] This might have been the reason why Hindu priests did not popularize this concept of detachment but established the systems of caturvarnas and the four ??ramas of life establishing a balance of social structure. However, it is not the total detachment or abandonment that is expected of recluses. The P?li equivalent for vair?gya is vir?ga. The commentary to D?ghanik?ya defines vir?ga as – nonexistence of desires (r?ga).[17] R?ga’ (passion) is a negative force trending to grasping to sensual pleasures and malevolence while vir?ga is its counterpart. In most occurrences in the P?li cannon the term vir?ga is used synonymous to ‘ta?hakkhaya’ (Sktkrit- t?snak?aya destruction of craving) and ‘nibb?na’.[18] In the theory of dependent genesis (pa?icaasamupp?da) ‘tanh?’ (craving) is adduced as born from ignorance (avijj?). In that relation destruction of craving is also the destruction of ignorance and perfection of wisdom. Bhart?ihari also insists on the necessity of ending desires as a requisite for the perfection of wisdom.[19] The P?li definition of the term signifies that ‘vir?ga’ is feasible even by householders and renunciation for monk-hood is not a must; while that is advised as a better option.

In fact, as ‘Man is a social animal’ it is impossible for a human being to live totally detached from the world. The Dhammapada appreciates not the total rejection of worldly affairs but restraining (sa?vara) the senses.[20] The Pañcakkhandha analysis also clarifies that the five aggregates are not harmful by themselves but grasping upon them. Vir?ga is also used for arahants who have destroyed and are able to resist negative forces like r?ga(greed or passion), dosa (hatred) and moha (illusion). The Buddha being an arahant himself was among the human beings out of compassion propagating the noble doctrine he realized. His was a dedication to help humanity although He lived fully disillusioned from sensual objects. Therefore, according to Buddhism, the detached rejoice in the dharma (truth) and engage in dharmic activities for the benefit and well being of humanity. These dharmic activities include social services and also spiritual practices leading to higher attainments.

04. Comparative Quotes:

Many verses in Vair?gya?ataka have conspicuous similarities with P?li sayings mostly in Dhammapada. Here, I indicate a few that vitalize the commonality in Brahmanism and Buddhism.

1. Insubstantiality

Vair?gya?ataka (v?): Every living thing on earth is subject to perish. … Not even divine virtues themselves are permanent… (v.104) and 
death indeed rules all things, for fate has decreed that nothing shall be permanent. (v.105) 
Dhammapada (Dhp): Nothing in the phenomenal world is eternal. (v.255)

2. Wandering Mind

V?: Cease, o my mind, from wandering hither and thither, and rest for a time!…. (v. 133) 
Dhp: They will restrain their thought, which travels far, alone, incorporeal, seated in the cave (of the heart), will be freed from the fetters of death. (v.37)

3. Desire/Passion

V?: Desires resemble a river; its waters are like men’s wishes, blown hither and thither by waves of passion. … Thus ascetics who, with purified hearts, have succeeded in crossing the river are possessed with unbounded joy. (v.45) 
Dhp: The streams flow everywhere; the creeper of passion keeps springing up. If you see that creeper sprung up, cut its root with wisdom. (v.340)

4. Simplicity and Contentment of Ascetic Life

V?: An ascetic is one who lives by begging, far from the busy haunts of men. He is self-controlled and walks in the path of indifference. It makes no difference to him whether he receives or does not receive, whether he gives or does not give. His only garment is a torn cloak made of rags cast away by other men. He has no pride and no self-consciousness: He is untroubled by desire and his only pleasure is rest and quietness. (V-86)

Note: This verse if not indicated, the source seems a Buddhist utterance explaining exactly the definition of a bhikkhu and nature of mendicant life. In comparison, I refer only one quotation from Dhammapada text while there are innumerable of them.

Dhp: This is the beginning here to a wise mendicant, control of the senses, contentment, restraint under the law (according to the precepts of P?timokkha), cultivation of friends who are noble, of pure life, not zealous (slothful). (V-375)

05. Bhart?hari: Buddhist or Brahmanic Priest?

Regarding the religion of Bhart?hari, as mentioned above, we have no historically conclusive evidence. The confusion whether the Buddhist grammarian Bhart?hari was the poet of ?atakas is refutable as the poet emphasizes the unification with the Mah?brahma according to Brahmanism.

On the other hand, although Bhart?hari’s devotion and full submission to ?iva are transparent[21] , he denies the traditional rigid authority of Vedas, Sm?tis, and Pur?nas.[22] Amazing though, his definitions of the Supreme spirits sound like he is referring to human mind as the almighty power. “How does it come about that thou dost not even accidentally meditate at any time on the supreme Spirit, stainless, dwelling within himself? For in this way thou mightest become tranquil.”[23] This appears as if re-articulation of what the Buddha said in 6th century B.C. that – one is the lord of his own self; diligently striving we can shape our goals not relying on outside authority. Conceptual similarities with both religions are obvious in ?atakas; hence, we see a different kind of literature which has a tone of its own although influences of contemporary religious thoughts are undeniable.

06. Conclusion

Bhart?hari’s vair?gya?ataka discerns an explicit realization of the sorrows that human beings encounter being tangled in worldly relationships. Yet, there is an incompleteness as the poet does not explain how the detached recluses ought to practice meditation for attaining salvation. Question remains whether he was referring to the Brahmanic yogas or the Buddhist system of meditation. This suspicion becomes a vital issue if we prioritize, as most scholars have done, the question of the poet’s religion. However, the congruent ideas divulge Bhart?hari himself as an independent authority in whom the Brahmanic and Buddhist ideas have been strained and speak in one tone. Therefore, not invoking Bhart?hari into any particular religious tradition, it is worth expecting that the text be studied by students of Buddhist studies and Brahmanism as a bridge of ideological unity.

Works Cited

1.     Kosambi, D.D. ?atakatrayam, Bh?rat´ya Vidya Bhavana, Bombay, 1946 – (in Sanskrit)

2.    Kennedy, J.M. The Satakas or Wise Sayings of Bhartrihari, T. Werner Laurie Ltd., London,

3.    Kale, M.R. N´ti and Vair?gya ?atakas, 1913

4.    Gopi Nath, Purohit, M.A. The N?ti?ataka. ??ng?ra?ataka and Vair?gya?ataka of Bhart?hari; Shemraj Srikrisnadass Publication, Bombay, 1914

5.    Keith, B. A., A History of Sanskrit Literature; Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1928

6.    Radhakrisnan, S. The Dhammapada, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1950

7.    Apte, V.S. Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 1896

8.    Lokuliyana, L. Catubh??av?rap?li – The Text of the Four Recitals or Maha Pirith Potha – The Great Book of Protections, Mrs, H.M. Gunasekara Trust.

1. Verse 64 – “O, Lakshmi, vouchsafe that I may not be filled with longing or the desire of pleasure…” 
Verse 121 – …Let us cry in supplication, “O spouse of Gouri, Tripurahara, Sambhu,Trinayana, shower thy mercies upon us,”…

2. Keith, p.176

3. Kale. xii

4. The story generally related to Bhart?hari, with its various versions, is that – being the elder son of a king named Gandharvasen he was too much attached to women neglecting the kingly responsibilities even being censured by his father, country-men and his younger brother who, in fact, left the kingdom to establish himself another kingdom named after him as Vikrampur (the place is still traced by same name in east Bengal). This addiction and obstinacy caused severe repentance in Bhart?hari; later, dolefully shuns in the tri-?ataka poems. Realizations being same to Prince Siddhattha Bhart?hari renounced kingship and sought spiritual bliss from a sage named Goraksan?tha. Unlike ascetic Siddhattha Bhart?hari expressed his sincere devotion to the ?iva. Yet, it is probable that Bhart?hari un-unanimously dated to 8th/9th century A.D., had acquaintance with Buddhism although Brahmanism had been his mainstream.

5. Verse 81

6. Keith, 175

7. Derived from vir?ga but has the same meaning with a subtle difference in usage.

8. Hinduism classifies life of a person into four stages: i. brahmac?ri – student life being chaste, ii. g¨hastha-household life, iii. Vanaprastha-heading to forest to live as a static hermit life, and iv. sany?sin-living as wandering ascetic.

9. Bhart¨ihari’s usage of similes too has striking similarities with Buddhism like “Life is uncertain as the wave of the sea” and “all the pleasure that world can afford endures no longer than a gleam of lightening…” Verse, 82.

10. Verse, 20.

11. Verse, 25

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