Bhartrihari’s Maxims on Morality

Bhartrihari’s Maxims on Morality

Legends have it that Bhartrihari once ruled the city of Ujjain. Although a loving ruler, his mind was always engrossed about Love and Romance. He had over 100 beautiful women for his wives. No wonder he spent negligible time in the affairs of the state. His younger step-brother Vikramaditya was unhappy with his brother for not taking responsibilities. Bhartrihari was so much immersed in romance and sex that he wrote 100 stanzas on ‘the art of romance and sex’, now famously called Shringara Shataka. All the stanzas spoke about sensuality and sexual pleasure.

King Bhartrihari was particularly obsessed with his youngest wife Pingala, she was beautiful and charming. Vikramaditya complained to Bhartrihari about the affair of the queen with king’s charioteer and advised him to banish her for the sake of the kingdom. King was too obsessed with her to heed to his brother, in fact, when the queen heard of this from her sources, she manipulated the king and in turn banished Vikramaditya from the kingdom!

Sometime thereafter, one fine day a yogi came to his court and presented the king with an apple, which he said would bless the consumer with ‘youth and longevity’ on eating. The king wanted queen Pingala to have the apple, so that she would always look young for him. But queen Pingala passed it on to the charioteer with whom she had a secret affair. The charioteer, who was in love with a prostitute, presented the apple to her. The prostitute thought ‘it would be better if someone deserving ate this’, she always liked the king, and wanted to have him as his client so she took the apple to the king and presented it back to him.

Now, Bhartrihari was astonished to see the apple back in his hand, and enquired as to how she got it. She told that she got it from the charioteer, king sent men to bring the charioteer, he told the king that he got it from the queen, and confessed of his affair with the queen.

Bhartrihari realized the fleeting nature of the pleasure from worldly objects, he sent out his spies to look for Vikramaditya. Meanwhile, he took generic interest in affairs of his state and during this time wrote Neeti Shataka. Later on, it is believed that, he resigned from the throne and installed Vikramaditya in his place and took to Sanyasa. It was during the period as a sanyasi that he wrote his final work Vairagya Shataka. Here are the best nuggets of his Neeti Shataka

That man who is entirely ignorant is easily guided, the wise man is still more easily led, but even the Supreme Being himself cannot influence the smattering.

A man may forcibly get back a jewel from the teeth of a crocodile, he may cross over the raging waves of the sea, he may wear and an angry serpent on his head as if it were a garland of flowers, but he cannot win over the mind of one, who is foolish and obstinate.

A man may get oil from sand by violent pressure, he may drink water from a mirage when oppressed by thirst, he may get possession of the horn of a hare, but he cannot win over the mind of one who is foolish and obstinate.

He who would lead evil men into the path of virtue by a few soft words, is as one who binds an elephant with a young lotus-fibre, as one who tries to cut the diamond with a filament; or as one who desires to make the salty sea sweet with a drop of honey.

The Creator has given man, as it were, a cloak to conceal his ignorance, with that he can cover himself at all times, for it is always at hand. That gift is silence, the special ornament of the ignorant is the assembly of the wise.

When I knew, but a little, I was blinded by pride, as an elephant is blinded by passion, my mind was exalted, and in my arrogance I thought I knew all things. Then I came into the presence of the wise who know many kinds of wisdom, and my pride left me even like a fever.

A dog eats with delight putrid abominable hones, and though the king of gods may stand before him, takes no heed, even so a mean man considers not the worthlessness of that which belongs to him.

The Ganges falls from heaven upon the head of Shiva; from the head of Shiva on to the mountain; from the top of mountain to the earth, always falling lower and lower; even in so many ways is the fall of one whose judgement has departed from him.

Fire can be quenched by water, the heat of the sun can be kept off by a parasol, those wild elephants can be guided by a sharp hook, an ox or an ass by a stick, sickness can be subdued by the help of physicians, poison by the assistance of various charms. A cure has been ordained by the Shastra for everything, but there is no medicine for the cure of a fool.

The man who has no sense of literature and music is like a beast, though he has not horns and a tail, he may not eat grass, but yet he lives a life exactly like that of the cattle.

Those in whom is neither wisdom, nor penance, nor liberality, nor knowledge, nor good disposition, nor virtue, nor righteousness, may live in the world of mortals in the form of men, but they pass through the world like beasts encumbering the earth.

It is better to wander in a mountain-pass with the wild beasts than to live in the palace of the gods with a fool.

When wise men dwell in poverty – men whose words are adorned with polished sayings from the Shastra, and who impart sacred learning to their disciples – then that prince in whose kingdom they dwell is chargeable with folly, and the wise men, though poor, are the rulers of the land. Should not those bad examiners be worthy of condemnations, who (through) carelessness cause jewels to fall from their true value?

O Kings! Cast off your pride before those who have the inward treasure of wisdom, they are not despoiled by robbers, but their treasure, always increasing, grows greater when it is shared with the needy, not even at the end of the world does it perish. Who indeed may compare with them?

Despise not wise men who have attained knowledge of the truth. They are not held bound by riches, for they count wealth, even as the grass. The stalk of water lily will not bind an elephant who is infuriated by passion.

The Creator in his anger may hinder the swan from sporting in the lotus-bed, his dwelling; but he cannot take away his faculty of separating milk from water.

Bracelets are no ornament to a man, nor strings of pearls as the moon; nor yet bathing, nor perfumes, nor flowers, nor decorated hair. Perfect eloquence alone adorns a man. Adornments may perish, but the ornament of eloquence abides for ever.

Wisdom, indeed, is the highest ornament that a man possesses. It is a valuable to be carefully guarded, for wisdom gains food, glory and blessing. It is the lord of lords. Wisdom is a friend to a man travelling in a distant land. Wisdom is honoured among kings even more than wealth. The man devoid of wisdom is but an animal.

If a man has patience, what need has he of armour? If he has anger in his heart, what further enemy need he fear? If he has knowledge, what need of fire to consume evil? If a friend, what need has he of divine medicines? If there are malicious people about him, why should he be afraid of serpents? If he has perfect wisdom, what need of riches? If he is modest, what need has he of ornaments? If he gives his mind to poetry, what need has he of power?

Be well disposed towards relatives; liberal to inferiors; always hate the evil; love the good; be obedient to princes; honour the wise. Be firm towards enemies; be respectful to venerable men; deal shrewdly with women. The man who frames his life after these precepts prospers in the world.

Interaction with wise men takes away dullness of mind, elevates the intellect, and inspires the speech with truthfulness. What will it not do for men? May there be glory to wise men who are learned and accomplished poets! There is no fear that their renown shall wither or perish.

Abstinence from destroying life, keeping one’s hands off another’s wealth, speaking the truth, reasonable liberality according to one’s power, not conversing with the wives of other men, checking the stream of covetousness, reverence towards spiritual fathers, compassion towards all creatures – this is the path of happiness, violating no ordinances, taught in all the Shastras.

The low-minded man does not make even the least effort in the pursuit of wisdom through fear of difficulties, if he has made any attempt, he stops when obstacles meet him. The noble minded man may meet with repeated hindrances, but when he has once begun the pursuit of wisdom he does not give it up.

Righteousness must be loved; evil must be avoided, even at the risk of death; wicked men must not be spoken to; a poor man, even though he be a friend, must not be asked for alms, even in adversity the foot must be constant, and the vow taught by good and great men must be conformed to, even if it be as difficult as to stand on the edge of a sword!


The lion, though overwhelmed by hunger and weakened by old age, though at the point of death and in a state of misery, and though his majesty may have left him and his life be vanishing away, yet his whole desire is to swallow at one mouthful the forehead of kingly elephant which he has crushed in pieces. How should he, the mightiest of living things, feed upon withered grass!

There are two uses both for a garland of flowers and also for a wise man – they may be exalted on the head or wither in the forest.

These are all the same senses – exactly the same action – the same intellect diminished, the same voice. But, though a man may remain exactly what he was, yet, when deprived of the warmth, which wealth gives him, he becomes someone altogether different. This is indeed wonderful!

If a man has wealth, he is of good family, he is wise, he is learned in the Scriptures, and he is virtuous, eloquent, and beautiful. All the virtues attach themselves to gold.

A king is ruined through evil counsellors; and the ascetic through society; a child by spoiling; a scholar by not studying scriptures; a family – by the evil behaviour of children; good manners by evil habits; modesty by wine; agriculture by want of care; affection by absence from home; friendship by want of love; possessions by mismanagement; money by waste and prodigality.

Giving, consuming, and loss, are the three ways by which wealth is diminished. The man who neither gives, nor spends has yet the third way open to him.

A jewel is cut by the polishing stone; a conqueror in war is killed by weapons; the elephant is weakened by passion; the islands in a river become dry in the autumn; the moon wanes; young women becomes languid through pleasure, yet is their beauty nothing lessened; so noble men who have diminished their wealth by giving to the needy are still illustrious.

A man who is famishing longs for a handful of gain; but when he has revived, he looks on the whole earth as a mere handful of grass. So objects seem great or small according to the condition of the men who possess them; it is the change in men’s fortune which makes things seem greater or smaller.

The behaviour of kings is as uncertain as the way of a courtesan. Now it is false, now true – now with harsh, now with agreeable words – now cruel, now merciful – at one time liberal, at another covetous – either always squandering money or heaping it together.

Whatever fate has written on the forehead of each, that shall he obtain, whether it be poverty or riches. His above may be the desert, but he shall gain no more if he lives even on Mount Meru. Let your mind be constant. Do not be miserable through envy of the rich. The pitcher takes up the same quantity of water, whether it be from the well or the ocean.

“Ah! Beloved Chataka, hear and listen attentively to what I tell thee. The heavens have many clouds, but they are not all alike; some water the earth, others thunder and pour forth no rain.” Do not degrade yourself by asking alms of anyone whom you may chance to meet.

Cruelty, causeless quarrels, the desire for another’s wife or money, envy of the good or of one’s own relatives. These are the natural characteristics of wicked men. An evil man should be avoided though he be adorned with learning. Is a snake less feared because it is ornamented with jewels?

The moderate man’s virtue is called dullness; the man who lives by rigid vows is considered arrogant; the pure-minded is deceitful; the hero is called unmerciful; the sage is contemptuous; the polite man is branded as servile, the noble man as proud; the eloquent man is called a chatterer; free from passion is said to be feebleness. This is how evil-minded persons miscall the virtues of the good.

If a man is greedy, what further vice can he have? What sin can be worse than backbiting? What need has the truthful man of the penances? What need has the pure minded man of the sacred bathing places? What virtue is beyond generosity? If there be greatness of mind, what adornment is required? If a man be learned, what necessity is there of the society of others? If disgrace overtakes a man, why need he fear death?

The moon obscured by the daylight, a woman no longer young, a pond destitute of water-lilies, a handsome man, who talks nonsense, a prince entirely devoted to money, a good man always in calamity, an evil man dwelling in a king’s court – these are seven thorns in my mind.

The man who preserves a respectful silence is considered dumb; he man who talks agreeably is considered forward; the man who stands close by is thought troublesome; he who stands far off, cold-hearted; the patient man is counted ill-bred. So difficult, indeed, are the laws by which behaviour is regulated, impossible to be learned even by an ascetic.

Is it possible to take pleasure in the society of a low man, dissolute, whose evil is all evident, whose wicked acts are the result of former births, who hates virtue, and who lives by chance?

The friendships formed between good and evil men differ. The friendship of the good, at first faint like the morning light, continually increases; the friendship of the evil at the very beginning is great, like the light of midday, and dies away like the light of evening.

Deer, fish and virtuous men, who only require grass, water and peace in the world, are wantonly pursued by huntsmen, fishermen and envious people.

 Desire for the companionship of the good, love for the virtues of others, reverence for spiritual teachers, diligence in acquiring wisdom, love for their own wives, fear of the world’s blame, reverence for Paramatma, self-restraint, freedom from the acquaintance with evil men – wherever men dwell endowed with virtues like these, they are always revered.

Firmness in adversity, restraint in prosperity, eloquence in the assembly, boldness in war, the desire of glory, study in the Scriptures – these are the natural characteristics of the virtuous.

Secret generosity, cheerful hospitality to strangers, not speaking in public about one’s own good deeds, proclaiming the benefits received from others, freedom from pride in prosperity, due respect in speaking of others – this is the vow of exceeding difficulty, taught by the good.

Liberality is the fitting virtue for the hand, reverence towards teachers for the head, true speech for the mouth, surpassing power for the arms of a mighty man, content for the heart, the Vedic hymns rightly understood for the ears; the man of noble mind who is the possessor of these adornments has no need of outward pomp.

The heart of the wise is soft as a lotus flower in prosperity, but in adversity, it is as firm as a mountain rock.

Water will not remain on hot iron, but standing on a leaf it shines with the beauty of a pearl. So is the disposition of men, good, tolerable, or bad, according to the society which they live.

The son who delights his father by his good actions, the wife who seeks only her husband’s good, the friend who is the same in prosperity and in adversity – these three things are the rewards of virtue.

Those who are ennobled by humility; those who display their own virtues by relating the virtues of other men; those who in their own business always consider the interest of others; those who hate the evil speaker, and the mouth that continually utters harsh and impatient words – good men whose admirable behaviour is shown in virtues like these are always held in reverence. Who would not respect them?

Trees loaded with fruit are bent down; the clouds when charged with fresh rain hand down near the earth; even so good men are not uplifted through prosperity. Such is the natural character of the wise.

The ears of such men as these are adorned with hearing revelation, not with earrings; their hands with liberality, not with bracelets; their bodies shine through doing kind deeds to others, not with ointment of sandalwood.

The good man shuns evil and follows that which is good; he keeps secret that which ought to be hidden; he makes virtues manifest to all; he does not forsake one in adversity; he gives in season. Such (according to the wise) are the marks of a worthy friend.

The sun opens the lotuses; the moon illuminates the beds of water lilies; the cloud pours forth its water unasked; even so the liberal of their own accord are occupied in benefitting others.

Those men are good men who study the good of others without regarding themselves. Those men are ordinary men who, while they benefit others, do not neglect their own interests. Those men are demons who destroy another’s good for their own profit. What shall we call those who aimlessly destroy that which is another’s?

The milk that has been joined to the water has long since given over to it its own innate qualities. The water has seen the milk growing hot, and has immediately made an offering of itself in the fire. The milk was eager to rush into the fire, but having seen its friend’s distress, remains still, being joined to the water. Even so is the friendship of the good.

Restrain desire, cultivate patience, conquer illusion, do not lust after evil, speak the truth, follow that which is good, seek the company of the virtuous, honour the wise, be reconciled even with enemies, conceal you own virtues, guard your good name, show pity for the unfortunate – these are the acts of the good.

How many noble men are there whose thoughts, words and deeds are, as it were, filled with nectar – by whom the three worlds are loaded with blessings – who exalt even the very smallest virtues of another to size of a mountain – whose hearts are constantly expanding?

The suras rested not until they had gained possession of the nectar, they were not turned aside from the search by pearls of great price, nor by fear of terrible poison. Even so, men of constant mind do not rest until they have completely accomplished their objective.

At one time a man may lie on the ground, at another he may sleep on a couch; at one time he may live on herbs, at another on boiled rice; at one time he may wear rags, at another a magnificent robe. The man of constant mind, bent on his purpose, counts neither state as pleasure nor pain.

Courtesy is the ornament of a nobleman, gentleness of speech that of a hero; calmness the ornament of knowledge, reverence that of sacred learning; liberality towards worthy objects is the ornament of wealth, freedom from wrath that of the ascetic; clemency is the ornament of princes, freedom from corruption that of justice. The natural disposition, which is the parent of the virtues in each, is their highest ornament.

The constant man may be blamed or praised by those skilled in discerning character; fortune may come to him or may leave him; he may die today or in ten thousand years’ time; but for all that he does not turn aside from the path of righteousness.

A rat fell by night into the jaws of a serpent, whose body had been squeezed into a basket, and who was half-dead with hunger. The serpent, revived by his meal, went forth, and immediately, meeting with the same fate as the rat, perished. Be content, O my friends, with your lot! The success or failure of men is in the hands of fate. A ball, though it falls to the ground, flies up again by the strokes of the hand. Even so the misfortune of good men are not often lasting. Idleness is a great enemy to mankind; there is no friend like energy; for if you cultivate that it will never fail. The tree that is cut down grows again; the moon that wanes waxes again after a time. Thus, do wise men reflect, and, though distressed, are not overwhelmed.

Legends say that Indra, though guided by Brihaspati, and armed with the thunderbolt; though the deities were his soldiers and Vishnu his ally; though Swarga was his citadel, and the elephant Airavata his steed, was defeated. How resistless is the power of fate! How vain are human efforts!

Discernment is the fruit of men’s actions, and is the result produced by deeds performed in another state, this must be carefully considered by the wise man, who gives heed to all things.

A bald-headed man was scorched by the rays of the sun on his head, and seeking a shady place, went, under the guidance of fate, to the foot of a palm tree. While resting there, the fruit of the tree fell with a loud noise on his head and broke it. Even so, whenever the unfortunate man goes, he generally meets with disaster.

When I see the sun and moon exposed in the eclipse to the assaults of the demon; when I behold the bonds which hold a serpent or an elephant; when I behold the wise man in poverty, then the thought strikes me, “How mighty is the power of fate!”

Fate brings forth an excellent man – a very mine of virtue – and in a moment works his ruin. Alas! How unreasoning is the action of fate!

It is not the fault of the spring that the leafless tree does not produce leaves; it is not the fault of the sun that the owl cannot see by day; it is not the fault of the rain cloud that the drops do not fall into the cuckoo’s mouth. Who shall reverse that which fate has written on the forehead of each?

Neither beauty, nor the greatness of family, nor force of character, nor learning, nor service, though performed with care, but merit alone, gained from penances in a former state, will bring forth fruit to a man as a tree in its season.

A man may be in a forest, or in war, or in the midst of fire, or among a host of enemies, or in the ocean, or upon a high mountain; he may be asleep or mad; or he may be surrounded by difficulties; yet the good actions performed in former state will profit him.

O wise man! Cultivate constantly divine virtue; for that makes evil men good, the foolish wise, enemies well disposed, invisible things visible; in a moment that turns poison into nectar; that will give you the desired fruit of your acts. O virtuous man! Do not vainly spend labour on acquiring mighty gifts with great pain!

The wise man, at the beginning of his actions, looks carefully to the end of them, that by their means he may be freed from births in another state. Actions performed with excessive haste are even as an arrow piercing the heart.

A man may dive into the sea, he may ascend to the top of Mount Meru, he may be victorious over his enemies, he may devote himself to merchandize, he may plough the earth, he may study all learning and all art, he may travel on the wings of a bird from one end of the heaven to the other, but yet he shall suffer that which he is destined to.

A terrible wood becomes a splendid city, and the whole world is filled with jewels, to that man who has performed righteous acts in his former existence; all men reverence his virtue.

What is most profitable? Fellowship of the good. What is worst thing in the world? The society of evil men. What is the greatest loss? Failure in one’s duty. Where is the greatest peace? In truth and righteousness. Who is the hero? The man who subdues his senses. Who is the best beloved? The faithful wife. What is wealth? Knowledge. What is the most perfect happiness? Staying at home. What is royalty? Command.

The man who possesses intelligence, like the Jasmin flower, has two courses open to him, he may flourish in the sight of the world, or he may wither away in the desert. The earth is variously adorned in various places; by poor men whose words are of no account – by rich men whose words are admired – by those contended with their own wives – by men, who refrain from passing censure upon others.

The constant man loses not his virtue in misfortune. A torch may point towards the ground, but its flame will still point upwards. The mind of the constant man is not pierced by the arrows shot from the glances of love; he is not consumed by the fire of anger; worldly objects do not ensnare him in the net of covetousness; he is the lord of the three worlds.

The mighty earth, trodden by the feet of one hero, is lightened up with his exceeding great glory as though by the shining of the sun. Through the power of constancy fire becomes even as water, the ocean becomes but a rivulet, Mount Meru becomes only a small stone, a lion becomes as harmless as an antelope, a savage beast becomes a garland of flowers, poison is turned into nectar. The constant man, by his constancy, turns the savage things in nature into the gentlest.

Honourable men may cast aside life and happiness, but inasmuch as they are intent upon truth, they do not cast off their truthfulness, the cause of modesty and of all the virtues, following them wherever they may go, pure in heart, even as dear to them as their own mother.

Whether a brave man, who is killed in the foremost of the fight obtain heaven or victory, he will gain great glory from both armies; and this is the aim of one who desires fame.

Of all the exceeding marvels which I behold, the Boar and Rahu bear away the pain. The one bore the drowned earth on his tusks, which dripped with water; the other, who has only a head, swallows his foe and then lets him go again.

The wise man must be respected, even when the advice they give us is not suitable. The ordinary converse of such men is like Writ. A good man may fall, but he falls as a ball; an ignoble man falls like a lump of clay.

If, by the decree of fate, the world were ever to become deprived of lotuses, would the swan scratch in the dust-heap like the cock?

It is better to fall from the highest point of a lofty mountain and be dashed to pieces among the rocks – it is better that one’s hand should be bitten by the poisonous fangs of a dreadful serpent – it is better to fall into the fire, than that one’s piety should fail.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

U. Mahesh Prabhu

U. Mahesh Prabhu is a media, management and political consultant. He's also Consultant & Columnist with BW Businessworld and Business Goa. He's also a Member of International Federation of Journalists (USA) and Fellow of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). Twitter- @indiamahesh