All the wonderful verses by Dharmakīrti that we encountered in the previous column are what the tradition calls muktakas. In fact, every verse ever featured in this column is a muktaka. And chances are, most verses you’ve heard are muktakas.

The boring ones:

आचारः परमो धर्मः आचारः परमं तपः ।

आचारः परमं ज्ञानम् आचारात् किं न साध्यते ॥

Good conduct is the highest Dharma.

Good conduct is the highest penance.

Good conduct is the highest knowledge.

What cannot be achieved through good conduct?

The interesting ones:

प्रिया दुहितरो धातुर् विपदः प्रतिभान्ति नः ।

गुणवत्यः कुलीनेभ्यो दीयन्ते कथम् अन्यथा ॥

(Subhāśita Ratna Kośa 1476)

It seems to me misfortunes

are God’s favorite daughters.

Why else should he always marry them to good men?

(Misfortune vipad is feminine in Sanskrit)

The ones abused by poor orators:

विद्या ददाति विनयं विनयाद् याति पात्रताम् ।

पात्रत्वाद् धनम् आप्नोति धनाद् धर्मं ततस् सुखम् ॥

(Translation for this one? Really?)

They’re all muktakas. The word literally means “free” (mukta-ka— no context is required to enjoy the verse). The verse starts, develops, and concludes an idea in itself. The word mukta or muktaka also means pearl (cf. Hindi motī), for which reason it’s sometimes translated as “pearl.” Incidentally, there is a muktaka by Dharmakīrti punning on this dual meaning of mukta:

हारो ऽयं हरिणाक्षीणां लुठति स्तन-मण्डले ।

मुक्तानाम् अप्य् अवस्थेयं के वयं स्मरकिंकराः ।।

(Subhāśita Ratna Kośa 479)

This necklace rolls about on the circle of women’s breasts.

When such is the condition of pearls/ liberated souls, (=muktas)

Who are we, bondsmen of Love, to refrain?

The thousands of Subhāṣitas found floating around are all muktakas. The verses found in the famous Bhatṛhari’s Śatakas are also muktakas. The thousands of witty cāṭu verses that live in the minds of the tradition, having never been committed to paper, are also muktakas. In ancient India, beautiful muktakas would be composed, exchanged, quoted in conversations, and have their subtleties discussed at social gatherings. For instance, in a rant at the village well about the apathy of the village chief, someone could have quoted this verse:

लक्ष्मीवन्तो न जानन्ति प्रायेण परवेदनाम्   ।

शेषे धराभरक्रान्ते शेते नारायणः सुखम्  ।।

While the ādiśeṣa swoons under earth’s weight,

Nārayaṇa happily slumbers under his hood.

It seems like people in the company of Lakṣmī

are oblivious to others’ troubles.

(The Ādiśesa is said to support the earth on his hood)

The muktaka was the animating force of India’s living tradition of poetry. The particularly popular ones would be recast in regional languages. It was one of the channels through which the vocabulary, themes and the meters of the deva bhāṣā trickled down into the deśa bhāṣās. This verse for instance, previously featured, has been absorbed into Telugu:

किं कवेस्तस्य काव्येन किं काण्डेन धनुष्मतः ।

परस्य हृदयं भित्त्वा  न घूर्णयति यच्छिरः ।।

ముదమున సత్కవి కావ్యము

నదరఁగ విలుకాని పట్టి నమ్మును బరహృ

ద్భిదమై తలయూపింపని

యది కావ్యమె; మరియు బట్టినదియు శరమే;

An arrow shot by an archer, a poem made by a poet;

Should cut through your heart, jolting the head.

If it doesn’t— it’s no arrow, it’s no poem.

It was perhaps only in India that poetry wove itself into popular culture in this measure. The reason of course, is the form of our languages, which allow ideas to be packaged attractively. Connoisseurs would collect the best muktakas and compile them into anthologies. There are hundreds of Sanskrit poets—excellent ones—of whom we know through one or two verses included in these collections. The munificence of the anthologist has saved the poet from getting lost in time. Dharmakīrti, whom we met in the last column, speaks to us through one such anthologist — Vidyākara— a buddhist monk in the monastery of Jagaddala.

Now, Vidyākara may have been a monk, but he was not a prisoner of priggishness. His religious practice did not stop him from enjoying the fine artistry of the verses he encountered in books or heard from visitors to the monastery. Mind you, love dominates all other themes in Sanskrit poetry. Books on aesthetics are chock-a-block full of erotic verses. However, that shouldn’t bother a real renunciate right? Well, It didn’t bother Vidyākara, and over the years, he stitched together 1738 fine verses into an anthology: the Subhāṣita-Ratna-Kośa “Treasury of Literary Gems.”

And what an anthology it is! There are very few preachy or boring verses in this collection. Vidyākara has distilled only the finest virgin poetry into his collection. Look at this verse, where Pāṇini (he was a poet too!), describes the incoming rush of the monsoon clouds as the scorch of the summer withdraws:

क्षपां क्षामीकृत्य प्रसभम् अपहृत्याम्बु सरितां

प्रताप्योर्वीं सर्वां वन-गहनम् उच्छाद्य सकलम् ।

क्व सम्प्रत्य् उष्णांशुर् गत इति समन्वेषणपरास्

तडिद्-दीपालोकैर् दिशि दिशि चरन्तीव जलदाः ।।

(Subhāśita Ratna Kośa 251)

“After shrinking the nights short,

Robbing the streams of water,

Scorching the earth,

Stripping the deep woods,

Where has the sun now fled?”

Thus the clouds seem to say as they invade the skies,

searching the directions with their lightning lamps.

The monsoon clouds invade the skies with their lightning lamps, as if to hunt down the absconding summer sun, guilty of crimes against nature! What a good poet can make of splotches of grey in the sky! They make us feel blind in comparison. Look at what Śrī Dharmapāla sees in the passage of day and night:

दिनमणिर् अनर्घ-मूल्यो दिन-वणिजार्घ-प्रसारितो जगति ।

अनुरूपार्घम् अलब्ध्वा पुनर् इव रत्नाकरे निहितः  ।।

(Subhāśita Ratna Kośa 877)

The merchant Day,

having set for sale before the world

the day’s invaluable gem,

now failing as it seems

to find a worthy price,

returns it to his treasury.

In Sanskrit, dinamaṇi “Day Jewel” is one of the names of the sun, and the ocean has a name ratnākara “Treasury.” So, the merchant called Day takes out his invaluable Sky-Jewel from the Treasury, and advertises it to the the world everyday. But he fails to find a buyer. It’s clearly not a good strategy to ask for the moon when you’re selling the sun. So he plonks it back into the Treasury, and sets out again the next day!

Vidyākara was a monk in the Jagaddala Mahāvihāra, a center of Vajrayāna Buddhism. Of the monastery, only a mound, and the name survives today. Vidyākara probably assembled his collection over a lifetime, exchanging verses with visitors to the monastery and poring over books in the library. He is also sure to have had access to the libraries of other major Vihāras of eastern India (a facility not available in contemporary Indian universities!).

As the size of the anthology grew, Vidyākara added new sections and scribed out a second edition, a third larger than the first. Around a century after Vidyākara’s time, the monastery was sacked by Muslim conquerors. The good monks somehow managed to smuggle one palm leaf manuscript of the anthology into central Tibet. This manuscript is believed, on the basis of the markings found on it, to be Vidyākara’s handwritten first edition of the anthology! It comes complete with the shelf numbers of the books Vidyākara consulted in the library of his monastery. The rescued manuscript falls asleep for the next 800 years in a barn in the Ngor Monastery in Tibet.

Vidyākara did not suffer from sectarian afflictions. The anthology begins with verses on Buddha, but he also includes sections on Śiva and Vishnu. However, even these verses are really more poetry than piety.  This is a verse from the most quoted author in the collection, Rājaśekhara:

जटा-गुल्मोत्सङ्गं प्रविशति शशी भस्मगहनं

फणीन्द्रो ऽपि स्कन्धाद् अवतरति लीलाञ्चित-फणः ।

वृषः शाठ्यं कृत्वा विलिखति खुराग्रेण नयनं

यदा शम्भुश् चुम्बत्य् अचल-दुहितुर् वक्त्र-कमलम् ।।

(Subhāśita Ratna Kośa 62)

The moon dives deep within the ash-strewn tangle of his hair;

the snake slips from his shoulder, hiding beneath a graceful hood;

the bull with hooftip slyly rubs his eye

as Śambhu kisses the mountain daughter’s face.

(Pārvatī is the daughter of the Himālaya)

This may well strike a wrong note in those leaning towards piety (as it did for some I recited it to). Well, all the worse for them. As the Prakrit anthology gāhā sattasāi notes:

गाहाण अ गेआण अ तन्तीसद्दाण पोढमहिलाण ।

ताणं सो च्चिअ दण्डो जे ताण रसं ण आणंति ।।

(Gāhā Sattasaī, Weber 815)

Poems, songs, the sound of the lute, and beautiful women

To men who have no taste for such things,

Well, that’s their punishment!

In the next column, we shall see what happens to Vidyākara’s manuscript, which has fallen asleep in a barn somewhere in Tibet. I leave you with a verse that is often found at the end of palm leaf manuscripts:

भग्न-पृष्ठ-कटि-ग्रीवं स्तब्ध-दृष्टिर् अधो-मुखम् ।

कष्टेन लिखितं ग्रन्थं यत्नेन परिपालयेत् ॥

A broken neck, an aching spine,

stinging eyes— these pains of mine,

To scribe this book for you, my friend,

I hope with care you shall defend.

References on next page

  1. Translations of verses from the Subhāṣita Ratna Kośa are either from, or inspired by Ingalls’ An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry.

  1. Translation of the verse “किं कवेस्तस्य..” is from A Poem at the Right Moment: Remembered Verses from Premodern South India

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