Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Love: The Tale of King Bhartrihari

The complete story of Bhartrihari is not just a tale of a king, but also that of a lover, a poet, a grammarian, a philosopher, and an ascetic. This is only a small part of that tale.

One fine day, a devout Brahmin and his wife came to the court of King Bhartrihari, and supplicating before him, presented him with a strange looking piece of fruit. The Brahmin explained he had spent most of his life undertaking austere penances and meditations in praise of the Gods, and pleased with him, the Gods had blessed him and granted him this fruit, the amar-phal. Any one person who ate the fruit would have the gift of immortality. But the Brahmin did not desire to live forever while his wife, whom he loved dearly, should grow old and die, and therefore he had come to offer the fruit to the King.

The King was very pleased with this present, and rewarded the couple generously. But once they had left and the fruit was in his possession, he became uncertain of what to do with it. The obvious thing would be to eat it. To have the gift of immortality would make him equal in stature to the Gods! Further, was he not a good and just ruler, he reasoned, and therefore it would be for the betterment of his kingdom and subjects if he were to reign indefinitely.

But something in his heart stopped him from eating the fruit. It was love. Bhartrihari was obsessively in love with his Queen, and he could not bear the thought of living without her. It would be better that she should live, and he have the comfort of knowing that at least she would be with him the rest of his life. Better a few moments with her, he thought, than an eternity without! He went and gave his Queen the fruit.

The young Queen felt the same way too, but not about her husband. She was having an affair with the King's handsome and trusted advisor, who made her swoon with his suggestive glances. She accepted the fruit from her husband, but secretly gave it to the King's advisor.

The King's Advisor heart though was set on another woman. He was hopelessly enthralled with a long-eyed and slender-waisted poetry-reciting Courtesan of his acquaintance, and he wanted to impress her more than anything else in the world. He gave her the fruit.

Now the Courtesan had met and known many rich and great men, and she despised almost all of them, including the King's Advisor. But there was one man whose kindness and concern for others had captured her heart, and though her feelings remained unspoken, she was very much in love. She went and gave the fruit to the man she admired - the good King Bhartrihari.

Bhartrihari accepted the fruit from the Courtesan, and understood what had happened. He saw the infidelity of his wife, and also the love of the courtesan for him. He concluded:

She who is always in my thoughts prefers
Another man, and does not think of me.
Yet he seeks for another's love, not hers;
And some poor girl is grieving for my sake.
Why then, the devil take
Both her and him; and love; and her; and me

That night, Bhartrihari put on the robes of an ascetic and stole away, leaving behind his wife, his palace and his kingdom. Some say he never returned, renouncing all things and becoming a great philosopher and poet. Or less romantically, a grammarian. Some suggest that Bhartrihari was a man who could not make up his mind whether to follow the sensual or ascetic path. Each time he chose one path, he would see its deficiences and the attractions of the other. And so he would move back and forth from pleasure and renunciation. Who can say they know for sure the truth!


The tale of King Bhartrihari continues a haphazard survey of that universal predicament - the unreliability of love. We have previously seen in The Madness of King Shahryar, a different reaction from Bhartrihari's to a lover's infidelity. Poets appear a particularly miserable lot. Whether the Thabri, or Momin, or Ghalib, or Raaz, all their relationships seem to end badly. We saw failed romances wherever we looked, but we kept looking anyway. Sadly, we have not had time to correct the gender bias in our choices. We would have particularly liked to sympathise with poor Sita, whose husband Ram would tastelessly demand proof of fidelity from her after she had been kidnapped by a villain! We have wonderered whether monasticism isn't a better option, but like Bhartrihari, couldn't make up our mind. Not all love is so fickle though. We have sympathised with moths, who hurl themselves at their flame. We have admired the great romance of Hir and Ranjha, and sighed over our love of Madhuri. Ominously, all these great romances also end badly. In conclusion, we are no wiser than when we started, which was not very wise at all.