Friday, November 15, 2019

Subhāṣita Sunday: Episode 1: Bhartruhari, Karma Yoga, DVG

We are delighted to announce a new feature entitled Subhāṣita Sunday starting today on The Dharma Dispatch. As the name indicates, this will be a weekly feature published every Sunday carrying a short list of curated articles, book lists, verses, reviews and other valuable material drawn from the best and the most prized annals of Bharatiya tradition. As may be well-known to most readers, the word Subhāṣita means “good counsel,” “eloquent speech,” “wise sayings,” “elegant or eloquent discourse,” and so on. In the whole world, it is perhaps only the Sanskrit literary tradition that can deservedly boast of almost an infinite treasure of Subhāṣitas. Since ancient times, Subhāṣita has come to represent a separate literary genre by itself and is unique in world literature. The most famous collection of Subhāṣitas is Bhartuhari’s Shataka-traya comprising Niti, Shrungara, and Vairagya Shatakams. Of these, Niti and Vairagya Shatakams fall in the Subhāṣita category proper. Rightly inspired by this Subhāṣita tradition, countless other Subhāṣita works emerged in various Indian languages and have more or less remained in popular memory.

The Subhāṣita Sunday feature is, in a manner, our way of paying obeisance to this hoary tradition and hoping to preserve its continuity to the best of our ability and resources. The other reason owes to the near-total absence and obliteration of even a trace of these simple but profound, elevating and life-affirming gems, which emanated from the Sanatana ethos, from our education system. One look at what our children are being taught in their textbooks destroys your entire day. From this perspective, we may humbly submit that this effort is generational in nature, again to the best of our ability and resources.

Happy Reading!


1. Bhogā na bhuktā

What better way to inaugurate this feature than this immortal Subhāṣita by Bhartruhari? This is from the Vairagya Shataka.

भोगा न भुक्ता वयमेव भुक्ताः
तपो न तप्तं वयमेव तप्ताः ।
कालो न यातो वयमेव याताः
तृष्णा न जीर्णा वयमेव जीर्णाः ॥

bhogā na bhuktā vayameva bhuktāh
tapo na taptam vayameva taptā: |
kālo na yāto vayameva yātā:
tṛṣṇā na jīrṇā vayameva jīrṇā: ||

Explanation: While enjoying worldly pleasures we think we are the enjoyers, but in reality, it is we who are actually being devoured. We are not actually practising meditation and austerities (Tapas) but we’re really being scorched (tapah also means, “to burn”) by the fire of our miseries. We think that we are passing time but it is actually time that is taking us closer to death (kāla also means death). There is no reduction in the intensity or extent of our greed but we ourselves are being reduced to old age (jīrṇā also means reduction, old age, fraying, etc), infirmity, disease, etc.

2. The Permanence of Roots

This is drawn from the other immortal work, the legendary D.V. Gundappa’s Mankutimmana Kagga.

ಅಶ್ವತ್ಥವಿಲ್ಲಿ ಬಾಡಿದೊಡೇನು? ಚಿಗುರಲ್ಲಿ ।
ನಶ್ವರತೆ ವಿಟಪ ಪರ್ಣಂಗಳಲಿ ಮಾತ್ರ ॥
ಶಾಶ್ವತತೆ ರುಂಡಮೂಲದಲಿ; ಪರಿಚರಿಸದನು ।
ವಿಶ್ವಪ್ರಗತಿಯಂತು – ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮ ||

aśvatthavilli bāḍidoḍēnu? ciguralli |
naśvarate viṭapa parṇaṃgaḻali mātra ||
śāśvatate ruṃḍamūladali paricarisadanu |
viśvapragatiyaṃtu – maṃkutimma ||

Explanation: The progress of this world is like that of the scared Ashvattha Tree (Peepul). A twig here, a few leaves there will wilt, wither and die. But there will be birthed sprouts and fresh leaves elsewhere. The twigs, leaves and branches are the only elements that are temporary. The trunk and the roots are permanent. The world progresses on – only parts of it flourish and perish with time. Serve that permanent principle, O Mankutimma.

3. Swami Vivekananda on Karma Yoga and Character

In one of his simpler and straightforward discourses on Karma Yoga, Swami Vivekananda, the savant of modern Sanatana Renaissance speaks about Karma in its effect on Character. This is notable for its lucidity and provides plenty of what is called quotable quotes. Here is an excerpt.

But in Karma-Yoga we have simply to do with the word Karma as meaning work. The goal of mankind is knowledge. That is the one ideal placed before us by Eastern philosophy. Pleasure is not the goal of man, but knowledge…After a time man finds that it is not happiness, but knowledge, towards which he is going, and that both pleasure and pain are great teachers, and that he learns as much from evil as from good…There are certain works which are…the sum total, of a large number of smaller works. If we stand near the seashore and hear the waves dashing against the shingle, we think it is such a great noise, and yet we know that one wave is really composed of millions and millions of minute waves. Each one of these is making a noise, and yet we do not catch it; it is only when they become the big aggregate that we hear. Similarly, every pulsation of the heart is work. Certain kinds of work we feel and they become tangible to us; they are, at the same time, the aggregate of a number of small works. If you really want to judge the character of a man, look not at his great performances. Every fool may become a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man.

Read the whole, beautiful discourse!

4. Natti Shastri: The Uncelebrated Life of the Stammering Vedic Guru

One of the prized volumes of D.V. Gundappa in his Jnapakachitrashale corpus is Vaidikadharma Sampradayastaru (Life of the Traditional Vedic Brahmins). A truly moving and elevating profile in this volume is titled Natti Shastri. Here is how DVG describes this Vedic teacher:

The assets that Shastri possessed included just these: an earthen roof-house, a small field, and some palm-leaf books…Shastri had relegated familial worries to his wife and children and lived like a guest in his own home…It appears that the God Brahma who was so munificent in bestowing the boon of command over language to Venkatarama Shastri indulged in mischief in the matter of giving him speech. If this wasn’t true, what explains the fact that a Vidwan—an accomplished scholar—like him stammered at every step? It was for this reason that all the village folk referred to him as “Stammering Shastri.” This appellation was merely for the convenience of identification, not ridicule…Typically, Shastri would awake at about four or four thirty in the morning, and poke one of the sleeping students with his stick, and then indicate the awakened student to wake the others up. Shastri always carried the stick with him. He kept it next to him even as he slept. When he had to say something, he’d poke the intended person with it and draw the person’s attention towards him.

Thus woken up by the stick-poking, the students would wash their face and sit in the glow of a small lamp fed with beech oil. Then one of the students would open the book and read the lesson for the day. It would be Raghuvamsham or Shishupalavadha or Uttararamacharita—Shastri had no need for a book. He had assimilated the book. While reading, if the student made an error in either the alphabet or word-division, Shastri would prod him with his stick. The student would understand on his own that he had made a mistake, would correct it and re-read it. Or his classmates would suggest the correction. Normally, the prodding would continue relentlessly until the student learned how to read correctly without making a single error.

It was only when Shastri himself realized that it was impossible or difficult for the students’ abilities to grasp a certain portion that he would open his mouth. It was extremely tough for him to utter the initial words. After that, they flowed out generously. It was because he had this inborn speech-impediment that majority of his teaching had to occur via that stick. Word-division, meaning, compound-words, word-order, syntax—the students had to put in their own effort to master all of these. Indeed, it was Shastri’s conviction that it was good that learning took place in this manner.

  Do read the whole essay.


That’s it for Episode 1 of Subhāṣita Sunday. Stay tuned for the next week.

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1 COMMENT

  1. This is so inspiring. Your statement:

    “One look at what our children are being taught in their textbooks destroys your entire day.”

    is so true. I look forward to many inspiring Sundays henceforth.

    Thank you for ideating and executing such an exercise in disseminating dhaarmic knowledge!

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