Bhartrihari was a writer who lived through the second half of the fifth century. He wrote in the sacred Hindu language called Sanskrit and is believed to have produced at least two important pieces of work which became extremely influential. One was the definitive guide to Sanskrit grammar which portrayed a holistic view of the language spoken at that time. The second was a large volume of short verses which contained three separate collections of poetry, each part demonstrating a different aesthetic mood, known as a rasa. His poetry has survived the considerable passage of time and is still studied today by students of Sanskrit.
Often there is confusion and conflict surrounding the lives of writers who lived so long ago and the name Bhartrihari appears in literary references belonging to other centuries. For the purposes of this article though, it is believed that the subject was born circa 450. Some stories have suggested that he was a Buddhist whose writings influenced other Buddhist schools that followed, though this has been disputed by many.
As the author of the Vakyapadiya he was known for being a serious exponent of language and grammar and this work was, at the time, considered to be the major treatise on Indian grammar, semantics and philosophy. He was, possibly, the first to recognise that words can sound the same yet have different meanings. The same speech sound (known in Sanskrit as varna) can mean something else according to the context in which the word was used. It is therefore essential to hear a whole string of words or sentence to get the correct meaning.
Bhartrihari had this holistic view of sentence construction, insisting that the reader should take in the whole utterance rather than hearing only part of it. This way it might avoid any misunderstanding of what has been said. Once the whole sentence has been understood then it will be possible to break down, or analyse, individual components or words in turn, but only in the context in which they were written.
Bhartrihari was a keen observer of life going on around him and he used these observations to write his poetry in an aphoristic way. This means that he made plain, subjective statements in a clever way that made perfect sense to the reader. An example would be his poem While His Body’s Vigour Is Whole and it is reproduced below:
Some would say the poem was pithily written, while others would point out that it simply tells us all that there is no point in wasting time and energy on one project when something far more significant is happening to make that project irrelevant. His major collection of poetry, known as the Śatakatraya, was based on three separate themes of life as lived by the majority of people: love, dispassion and moral conduct. He wrote a hundred verses on each theme.
An example of one based on love is:
Another is a comment on social morality:
It is believed that Bhartrihari died in the year 510, aged 60.