TRANSLATING: BHARTRIHARI

translating bhartrihari 1Points Illustrated

1. Introduction to Sanskrit.

2. Using the Monier-Williams dictionary.

3. Getting at the meaning.

Bhartrihari

Little is known of Bhartrihari the man, {1} but he left some of the most pleasing lyrics in the Sanskrit canon. Each of the three shatakas or collections has one hundred cameo pieces. The Srngara gives us pictures of love and love-making. The Vairagya describes a gradual withdrawal from worldly matters, and the Niti deals with ethical conduct. {2} Our example comes from the Vairagya, chosen because its compact nature presents certain problems.

Original

The original

And transliterated from Devanagari:

Ayur varSazataM nRNAM rAtrau tadardhaM gataM
tasyArdhasya parasya cArdham aparam bAlatvavRddhatvayoh
zeSaM vyAdhiviyogaduHkhasahitaM sevAdibhir nIyate
jIve vAritaraNgabudbudasame saukhyaM kutah prANinAm

And the prose translation by A.B. Keith runs: {1}

To man is allotted a span of a hundred years;
half of that passes in sleep, one half is spent in childhood and old age;
the rest is spent in service with illness, separation and pain as companions.
How can mortals find joy in life that is like the bubbles on the waves of the sea?    

There are no Internet versions I am aware of, but here is the translation by the Indian novelist and literary critic Dharanidhar Sahu: {3}

Man is born in the world
with a lifespan of a hundred years,
more or less, and he spends
half the time sleeping.
The half of the remaining years
is spent in infancy and dotage.
The remaining twenty five
are spent in suffering from various
diseases, in lamenting and grieving
over a series of bereavements
caused by the death of offspring
and other relatives, in working
hard day and night at the household
of the rich to scrape a living.
Living, as he must, a life so
full of turbulence
and wave-like unsteadiness,
when does man find time
to experience true happiness?

Getting at the Original

As Bhartrihari is known for his terse expression, we might suppose that the first translation would be closer to the original, at least in spirit. But how to find out? Suppose we take the first word Ayur, and enter it into the largest online Sanskrit dictionary, the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionary. {4} The result is (in comp. for %{Ayus} below). Taking the hint, we next enter Ayus, which generates three documents. Looking at all three — Ayus, A4yus and another A4yus — we find our first result again, a cryptic see column 1, and a broad range of meanings: n. life , vital power , vigour , health , duration of life , long life RV. AV. TS. S3Br. Mn. MBh. Pan5cat. &c. ; active power , efficacy RV. VS. ; the totality of living beings [food Sa1y.] RV. ii , 38 , 5 and vii , 90 , 6 ; N. of a particular ceremony (= %{AyuH-SToma} q.v.) ; N. of a Sa1man ; of the eighth lunar mansion ; food L. ; (%{us}) m. the son of Puru1ravas and Urvas3i1 (cf. %{Ayu}) MBh. Vikr. VP. ; [cf. Dor. $ ; perhaps also $.]

A little perplexing, but probably something to do with life or living or vigour. Now we enter the second word varSazataM and get Search produced no result. Nothing at all. What has gone wrong in a dictionary of 160,000 entries? Have we misspelt the word, or made an error in transliteration?

The entries do not cover all eventualities because Sanskrit, like Latin, is an inflected language, and we have to know what those endings are. Secondly, words are changed by an extensive system of preserving euphony (sandhi). Thirdly, Sanskrit texts tend to run words together. And fourthly, just to compound difficulties, individual words are often joined together in compounds (samasa), commonly in different ways and taking inflections differently. How do we untangle all this?

There is no simple way. To this point we have found translation fairly straightforward, even in Russian and Chinese, though less so in Farsi. But with Sanskrit we have to recognize what sort of words are involved, take them apart, remove the sandhi, understand the inflections and then look the words up. Dictionaries of European languages don't generally give all the declensions of verbs, of course, but we learn to decline the endings and translate for person, number and tense. Sanskrit verbs are declined according to number, person, voice, mood and tense, and the verb stems differ between the ten classes in which they are grouped. Confusing? Roderick Bucknell's Sanskrit Manual {6} is an extraordinarily useful overview, but does not cover all eventualities, and we can be floored by everyday words and constructions if we don't put ourselves through a simple Sanskrit grammar course, of which many exist. {6}

Returning a few months later, we find ourselves in a better position to understand Bhartrihari. Or partially so. On this page we shall use the Monier-Williams dictionary {7} to unravel the poem, but will have to leave other aspects of Sanskrit poetry translation — the transliteration from Devanagari script, how Sanskrit is pronounced, its quantitative metres, its free word order, and finding equivalent an English verse shape — to the extended section on Kalidasa.

Why the Monier-Williams dictionary, which is bulky and expensive? Because it:

  • 1. is complete: if we can't find a word here then it doesn't exist and we have made some silly mistake in identifying the word segment.

  • 2. comes with English transliterations (Sanskrit has 14 vowels and 33 consonants: their dictionary order is logical but quite different from English).

  • 3. has many hints on root meanings, indispensable to full understanding and proper translation.

Word for Word Translation

The Monier-Williams dictionary takes some getting used to, however, and it's well worth studying Charles Wikner's excellent (and free) online guide to its use. {8} All that done, we set out the word for word translation in the table below. Samasas are shown in brackets [], and the simplest, most likely translation is given in the final column.

text
before sandhi
dictionary entry
Monier Williams dictionary page and column no.
part of speech
translation
Ayur
AyuH
AyuS
149a
(m. Nom)
life
[varSa
varSa
varaSa
926c
(m. Not Declined)
year (of age)
zataM]
zataM
sata
1048c
(n. Nom)
one hundred
nRNAM
nRNAm
nR
567c
(m. Gen.)
of man/mankind
rAtrau
rAtrau
rAtri
876a
(f. Loc.)
in darkness, stillness of night
[tad
tad
tad
434a
(Prn. Gen in samasa)
[of that
ardhaM]
ardham
ardha
91c
(m f n Nom.)
half]
gataM
gatam
gata
347a
(m f n. Nom.)
gone, deceased
tasyA
tasyA
tad
434a
Prn (Gen.)
of it (i.e. nR)
Ardhasya
ardham
ardha
91c
(m f n Gen.)
of half
parasya
parasya
para
586a
(m n Gen)
of the last
[cA
ca
ca
380a
Indecl.
and
rdham]
ardham
ardha
91c
(m f n Nom. / Acc.)
half
aparam
aparam
apara
50c
(m f n Nom. / Acc.)
again
[bAlatva
bAlatva
bAlatva
729a
(m )
[boyhood
vRddhatvayoH]
vRddhatvavoH
vRiddhatva
1010c
(n Dual Gen)
old age] of
zeSam
zeSam
zeSa
1088c
(m n Nom. / Acc.)
remainder
[vyAdhi
vyAdhi
vyAdhi
1037a
(m )
sickness
viyoga
viyoga
viyoga
981c
(m)
separation
duHkha
duHkha
duHkha
483b
( m f n)
trouble, sorrow
sahitaM]
sahitam
sahita
1195a
(m f Nom. /Acc.)
accompanied
[sevAd
sevAt
sevA
1247a
Imp. 3rd Sing. Active
attended
ibhir]
ibhiH
ibha
167c
(m pl. Inst.)
with/by servants
nIyate
nIyate
nI
565a
(Pres. 3rd Sing. Pass.)
is led
jive
jive
jIva
422b
(m n Loc.)
in alive
[vAri
vAri
vAri
943a
[(n Not Declined)
[water
taraNga
taraNga
taraMga
438c
(m Not Declined)
across-goer, billow, wave
budbuda
budbuba
budbuda
733a
(m Not Declined)
bubble, anything transitory
same]
same
sama
1152a
(m. Loc.)]
like] in
saukhyaM
saukhyam
sukhya
1252a
(n Nom./ Acc.)
happiness
kutaH
kutah
kutas
290b
(Indecl.)
where?
prANinAm
prANinAm
prANin
706a
(m f n Pl. Gen)
of breathing

We now set out the lines again, with two levels of literal translation: directly from the table and with some simple rearrangement:

Ayur varSazataM nRNAM rAtrau tadardhaM gataM
life year of age one hundred of man in stillness of night of that half gone
living one hundred years of man this half (is) gone in stillness of night

tasyArdhasya parasya cArdham aparm bAlatvavRddhatvayoh
of it of half of the last and half again of boyhood - old age
of that half a half again is boyhood and old age

zeSaM vyAdhiviyogaduHkhasahitaM sevAdibhir nIyate
remainder sickness separation sorrow accompanied attended with servants is led
remainder is led with sickness separation sorrow accompanied attending as servants

jive vAritaraNgabudbudasame saukhyaM kutah prANinAm
in alive in[water across-goer bubble like] happiness where of breathing
where is happiness in being alive like a crossing water bubble of breathing?

The rearrangement is barely English, but the meaning and some of the poetry are immediately conveyed. The Keith version is very close, but the translation is a little dated, and we are rather baffled by bubbles on the waves of the sea. Dharanidhar Sahu's is an attractive and useful volume, but by adding humdrum expressions not in the original he has lost Bhartrihari's condensed poignancy.

Second Draft

Readers who have found their way this far may wonder if the effort has been worthwhile. We could for example have taken the AB Keith translation, found that vAri means water and not sea, and employed the good literary word blown to pick up the connotations of breath, passing and water. A straightforward translation in an iambic pentameters would have been:

Half man's hundred years is spent in sleep;
And youth and age withdraw a further half.
The rest sickness, sorrow, served as friends:
And joy, a bubble on the water blown

And if we'd felt, despite its absence from the original, that rhyme was needed to add shape to the stanza, we could have written:

Years seen as dotage, sleep, a childhood toy:
By halves, successively, man's hundred bring
Him disappointment, sickness, suffering
And that brief bubble on the water, joy.

Or:

Man serves by halves his hundred years of ends
in sleeping, dotage, a child's passing toy:
and that blown bubble on the water, joy,
is joined with loss and illness as his friends.

None of these is contemptible, but we have lost some of the words and poignancy.

Third Draft

We'd probably do better to brood on the literal translation:

living one hundred years of man this half is gone in stillness of night
of that half a half again is boyhood and old age
remainder is led with sickness separation sorrow accompanied attending as servants
where is happiness in being alive like a crossing water bubble of breathing?

and not bother overmuch about fitting it into standard English form for the present — indeed it's to extend those forms that we undertake translations, or is one reason for so doing. A free verse form:

1. Living one hundred years, man is half gone into the stillness of the night,
and of the half remaining, half is boyhood and old age: the rest
is lived with trouble, sickness, separation as attending servants
where is happiness in that crossing bubble on the water's breath?

An iambic pentameter form again, but one which doesn't miss out too many words:

2. A hundred years are man's: half spent in sleep,
And half again are boyhood and old age.
The rest is served by illness, loss and pain,
Where joy's a water bubble, passing breath.

And some hexameter quatrains:

3. Of man's one hundred years, half is stillness of
the night, and half again but boyhood and old age:
when served by sickness, sorrow, separation, where
is pleasure's crossing bubble in the water's breath?

4. One hundred years, and half is stillness of the night,
and half again then boyhood and old age: when served
by ill-health, sorrow, separation, where's the pleasure
in life's but passing bubble on the water blown?

5. Half man's hundred years is stillness of the night,
and half again but boyhood and old age. The rest
is served with ill-health, sorrow, separation: where
is pleasure's crossing bubble in the water's breath?

6. One hundred years: one half is stillness of the night,
and half again is gone in boyhood or old age.
In what is left, accompanied by illness, loss and pain,
pleasure is a water bubble, passing breath.

7. One hundred years: one half is stillness of the night,
and half on waking spent in boyhood or old age.
What's left is borne with illness, separation, pain
and pleasure as a water bubble, passing breath.

8. Half his hundred years is stillness of the night,
and half again but spent in boyhood or old age.
What's left is borne with illness, separation, pain
and pleasure as a water bubble: passing breath.

Assessment

Though judged as verse, all eight have their strengths, we can question some at once. Blown is somewhat literary, and flowers do not appear in Bhartrihari's poem. The is pleasure's crossing bubble in the water's breath? is a beautiful line, but somewhat enigmatic: water doesn't have breath as such. The waking in and half on waking spent in boyhood or old age is only implied by Bhartrihari, and perhaps should stay in the background.

We also have to remember that Bhartrihari, while lacking the sonority of Kalidasa, is not writing platitudes in nursery jingles. He is still a classical Sanskrit poet, and we have to convey those qualities, which means poetry of restrained and elevated expression that does indeed express what Bhartrihari is saying. Taking the lines one by one:

One. Bhartrihari doesn't say sleep but rAtri, which is darkness or stillness of the night. What is possibly implied is not the peaceful oblivion of sleep, but ignorance, unenlightenment, a Buddhist concept. Only possibly because we don't know much about the poet, even his century for sure. 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.

Two. The second line is reasonably straightforward, though the original repeats 'half', which suggest some dwindling away of life.

Three. Again straightforward, though there is some ambiguity or redundancy in the line. The afflictions of man have to be endured, but they attend him like servants. Is Bhartrihari looking forward to the escape from these 'servant' by withdrawal from the world, the theme of his Vairagya? We might also remember that sorrow, sickness and separation each have many synonyms. VyAdhi can mean disorder, ailment, sickness, plague, tormenting thing, etc. Vyoga can mean disjunction, separation of lovers, loss, absence, want of, etc. And duHkha can mean being uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult, sadness, pain, etc. The samasa is a generalization of man's afflictions, not a clinical diagnosis.

Four. The fourth line is much more difficult, particularly that last word, prANinAm, translated here of breathing or being alive. It's a samasa, formed of pra and Ani. But looking up the individual words doesn't help: PRA means filled (M.W. 701c) and Ana means exhalation or inhalation (M.W. 139c). Something clearly to do with animating breath — hence the translation water's breath, which may be better split as water bubble, passing breath, both referring to pleasure.

All that said, and bearing in mind that the hexameter would give us more space to accommodate the packed meaning of other Bhartrihari poems, the preferred translation may be:

Half man's hundred years is stillness of the night,
and half again are gone in boyhood and old age.
What's left is borne with illness, separation, pain,
where pleasure is a water bubble's passing breath.

If that's too dogmatic, then:

Half man's hundred years is stillness of the night,
and lost a further half in boyhood and old age.
What's left is borne with loss, ill-health and discontent
where pleasure is a water bubble: passing breath.

And if we want to emphasize the incompetence of childhood and old age, and mark the line ends with assonance, we might do better with:

Half man's hundred years is stillness of the night,
and half again but dotage or a mewling state.
What's left is borne with ill-health, loss and discontent,
where pleasure is a water bubble's passing breath.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.


Notes and References

1. A. Berriedale Keith, A History of Sanskrit Literature (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1928/1993), 175-183.
2. Indian Literature. Sri Aurobindo. 1920. http://intyoga.online.fr/indlit04.htm. In "Foundations of Indian Culture" with "The Renaissance in India" SABCL, Vol 14, pages 294-306.
3. Srngara-Santakam, 35 in Three Shatakas of Bhartrihari, Dharanidhar Sahu (Penman Publishers, 2004), 139
4. 21. Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon. http://www.uni-koeln.de/phil-fak/indologie/tamil/mwd_search.html. Based on the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, with 160,000 main entries.
5. Roderick S. Bucknell, Sanskrit Manual: A Quick Reference Guide to the Phonology and Grammar of Classical Sanskrit (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1994)
6. A popular course, which I have used, is Thomas Egenes, Introduction to Sanskrit, Parts I and II (Point Loma Publications, Inc., 1989).
7. Monier Monier-Williams, English-Sanskrit Dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams (Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2003).
8. A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Charles Wikner. http://sanskrit.gde.to/learning_tutorial_wikner/index.html. Excellent guide to getting the most from the Monier-Williams dictionary.

 

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