Sanskrit Poets of India
Bhartrihari, the Sanskrit poet and grammarian
As is often the case with Sanskrit writers, little is known for sure about Bhartrihari, though he is one of the great lyric poets of India, still widely read and quoted. He may have been the Buddhist grammarian mentioned by the Chinese traveller I-tsing, who visited India in the 7th century AD, but the attribution is unclear, and Bhartrihari appears in his work more a worshipper of Shiva. Tradition makes him a king of Ujjain in the 1st century BC, who abdicated in favour of his brother over disgust at his queen's infidelities. Bhartrihari has certainly some unflattering things to say about women, but does not appear the pampered ruler so much a shrewd and needy brahmin. There are also stories of his vacillating character, drawn equally to pleasure and spiritual matters, and so continually moving between court and Buddhist cloisters, but again they are no more than anecdotes. Bhartrihari's works combine scraps of writings by other poets, including Kalidasa, but is this plagiarism by Bhartrihari or later interpolation? Controversy rages and nothing is settled. Sanskrit literature is notorious for being little interested in history, and India was only occasionally united under Indian rulers: the Mauryans, the Guptas and the Marathas.
Bhartrihari wrote three collections or shatakas of poems. The Srngara gives us little pictures of love and love-making. The Vairagya describes a gradual withdrawal from worldly matters, and the Niti deals with ethical conduct. Topics not very conducive to poetry, perhaps, yet Bhartrihari shows Sanskrit at its best: profound, pithy and beautifully clear. Each of the shatakahs contains one hundred poems, generally just of four lines, sometimes two. But the content of each poem may be as wide as that of fourteen lines in the English sonnet, and can print out in more when all nuances are translated. The poems are entertaining, observant, wry and often deeply reflective. Kalidasa is the greater artist, but epic poetry is not dramatic in a western sense: stereotyped characters, unlikely plots, long digressions that hold up the story, verbal cleverness, and a jewelled and increasingly elaborate style, with sentences that sometime stretch over several pages. Bhartrihari's pieces are sharply-cut cameos, brilliant poems in miniature, to which the only equivalent in European languages may be the scattered fragments of the Greek Anthology.