Love’s Labour Lost

A fictional account of the life, love and lyrics of Sanskrit poet Bhartrihari.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published:July 7, 2015 5:37 pm

Book: The Devil Take Love
Author: Sudhir Kakar
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books
Pages: 247
Price: Rs 499

This isn’t  Sudhir Kakar’s first foray into fiction, nor is it his first novel about someone who wrote in Sanskrit. Before this, there was The Ascetic of Desire (1998), on the life and times of Vatsayana. This one is about the life, love and lyrics of Bhartrihari.

There were two Bhartriharis and the two were probably different, though there is a belief that the two were one and the same. There was the grammarian and there was the poet. This novel is about the poet Bhartrihari. Apart from stories, we know absolutely nothing about Bhartrihari. If we go by them, he was king Vikramaditya’s elder brother and we get into a debate about which Vikramaditya this was. There is nothing to contest the author’s note that Bhartrihari lived between the third and seventh centuries of the Common Era. Especially, if we delink the grammarian from the poet, placing him in Ujjayini in the seventh century of the Common Era is plausible. Ujjayini has a long history and the city has had several different names, primarily documented in Skanda Purana. In the seventh century of the Common Era, Ujjayini was a flourishing urban centre, located on the banks of the river Kshipra. It was also the capital of the kingdom of Avanti. Through transportation networks and trade routes, it was connected to prosperous kingdoms in other parts of the country. Ujjayini wasn’t only about the worship of Shiva (Mahakala temple and 84 Shiva lingas) and Krishna (the Sandipani ashrama). It wasn’t just a centre of Buddhism and Jainism either. It was also an intellectual hive (astronomy/astrology) and a place for devotees of Kama (god of desire). This last bit is often ignored. Kakar’s impeccable research is faultless, not just on this, but on other bits too.

This isn’t history, but it is a historical novel. One shouldn’t judge it by the yardstick of historical facts, real or speculative, though it always helps to get the setting right. Bhartrihari was a great poet. However, he never wrote anything long. This wasn’t a poet who wrote mahakavyas (great poetical works). He composed three sets of couplets/verses (shlokas) with 100 couplets in each set. This exists in manuscript form as subhashita-trisati (300 good sayings), divided into three sets of shringara, niti and vairagya. But there are wide regional variations in texts and there is no single unified manuscript. Across those three sets, Bhartrihari is probably best known for vairagya shataka — a collection of haunting, reflective, inward-looking, contemplative couplets, turning away from desire to detachment.

Kakar’s Bhartrihari isn’t from the royal family. He isn’t king Vikramaditya’s brother. He is a brahman who comes from Jalandhar to Ujjain and becomes the royal poet at the court there. This doesn’t contradict anything either. All that we know from the Sanskrit verses is that Bhartrihari was close to pomp, glory and royalty, before turning from them, not that he was necessarily a king himself, or even a king’s brother.

Why did Bhartrihari turn towards a life of detachment? Based on the stories, there are two answers. First, he received something precious and gave it to his wife, who in turn, gave it away to her paramour. That turned him away from a life of pleasure (This is the story mentioned in the Vikrama-Vetala accounts, though there are minor variations in what that precious item was). Second, he was influenced by a guru (Matsyendranath/ Goraknath) and practised austerity. Those two caves, adjacent to each other, still exist in Ujjayini. (This is the only trivia where Kakar errs on facts, though on something very insignificant. There are two Bhartrihari caves in Ujjayini, not one.) Of these, in the novel, the author mentions the first reason, but only in passing. In the fictional account, Bhartrihari arrives in Ujjayini from Jalandhar, becomes the court poet, lives a live of passion and desire and then turns to detachment. What goes wrong and what leads to his eventual falling out with the king? I am not going to tell you about the denouement in this superbly crafted novel and spoil your reading pleasure.

I didn’t like the end, because it doesn’t fit with my image of Bhartrihari. “Feeble, blinded, lamed, ears and tail bitten off, covered in wounds, pus sores flowing, body crawling with worms, starving, shrivelled neck garlanded with an alms-pot shard, a dog will still follow a bitch. Lust swats even those already dead.” This is Bhartrihari’s last verse in the novel. In my Sanskrit version of vairagya shataka, a translation of the last verse will be, “O mother earth! O father wind! O friend energy! O relative water! O brother air! I join my hands in salutation and bow down before you. Using the merit of good deeds, I have severed the subjugation that results from association with you. Through sparkling wisdom, all confusion has been dispelled. I merge in the great and supreme brahman”. Despite Kakar’s excellent novel, this is the Bhartrihari image I would like to retain. Praise is also due for the English translations of Sanskrit verses done by Kala Krishnan Ramesh. Even then, if one expects to enjoy the novel, one should know about Bhartrihari and his verses.

Bibek Debroy is an economist and a member of Niti Ayog.

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