The Intellectual Wonder That Was Dharmakīrti

The Intellectual Wonder That Was Dharmakīrti

by Suhas Mahesh - Tuesday, January 12, 2016 12:31 AM IST
The Intellectual Wonder That Was Dharmakīrti

In this installment of Kāvya, a glimpse at the genius that was Dharmakīrti, a profound scholar of Buddhism and a poet who taught at Nalanda in the 7th century. 

याता लोचन-गोचरं यदि विधेर् एणेक्षणा सुन्दरी

नेयं कुङ्कुम-पङ्क-पिञ्जर-मुखी तेनोज्झिता स्यात् क्षणम् ।

नाप्यामीलित-लोचनस्य रचनाद् रूपं भवेद् ईदृशं

तस्मात् सर्वम् अकर्तृकं जगद् इदं श्रेयो मतं सौगतम् ।।  (Subhāṣita-Ratna-Koṣa 440)

If this gazelle-eyed beauty had crossed the creator’s eyes,

he could never have let her go.

And surely,

he couldn’t have produced these features with his eyes closed.

From this we see that the Buddhists have it right:

There is no creator.

This is Dharmakīrti’s tongue-in-cheek “proof” for a creatorless universe. Dharmakīrti was a profound scholar of Buddhism and a poet who taught at Nalanda in the 7th century. He represents the final flash of brilliance of the Buddhist philosophical flame which was already tottering during his time. His profundity in learning was such that he has been hailed as the Kant of the Buddhist world by some. Dharmakīrti was not unaware that his appearance on the scene was ill-timed. He begins his magnum opus pramāṇa-vārttika with the air of a shattered man:

प्रायः प्राकृत-सक्तिर्  अप्रतिबल-प्रज्ञो जनः केवलम्

नानर्थ्येव सुभाषितैः परिगतो विद्वेष्ट्यपीर्ष्या-मलैः।

तेनायं न परोपकार इति नश्चिन्तापि चेतस् ततः

सूक्ताभ्यास-विवर्धित-व्यसनम् इत्यत्रानुबद्ध-स्पृहम् ।।

The general run of mankind is addicted to platitudes and has no interest in subtlety.

Not caring for profound sayings, they are filled with hatred and the filth of envy.

So I do not write for them, for my heart has found satisfaction in my work

and through it, my love for deep continuous meditation over every well-spoken word has been fulfilled.1

And closes it on an equally shattered note:

 मतं मम जगत्यलब्ध-सदृश-प्रतिग्राहकं प्रयास्यति पयोनिधेः पय इव स्वदेहे जराम् ॥

My work will grow old in my own body, like ocean’s water.

Since it can never obtain a worthy recipient.

A Tibetan historian says that when Dharmakīrti finished the work, his pupils were apathetic and his enemies “tied up the leaves [of the palm-leaf manuscript] to the tail of a dog and let him run through the streets where the leaves became scattered.”2 Perhaps it was then that he wrote this bitter verse:

शैलैर् बन्धयति स्म वानर-हृतैर् वाल्मीकिर् अम्भोनिधिं

व्यासः पार्थ-शरैस् तथापि न तयोर् अत्युक्तिर् उद्भाव्यते ।

वागर्थौ च तुलाधृताव् इव तथाप्य् अस्मिन् निबन्धान् अयं

लोको दूषयति प्रसारित-मुखस् तुभ्यं प्रतिष्ठे नमः ।। (SRK 1726)

Valmīki dammed the sea with rocks

put into place by monkeys,

and Vyāsa filled it with arrows shot by Arjuna;

yet neither is suspected of hyperbole.

On the other hand, I weigh both word and sense

and yet the public sneers and scorns my work.

O Reputation, I salute thee!

Dharmakīrti could not best his enemies in life; but unlike them, he did best the vagaries of time in death. His works on philosophy have survived, thanks to the vehicle of Buddhism. After its decline in India, the baton of Buddhism was picked up by Tibet and Dharmakīrti become one of the foundation stones of the Tibetan Buddhist renaissance. There has been no Buddhist philosopher since who has not invoked him in some way. But what happened to his poetry?

Pitifully, all we have are 19 verses. Nineteen verses without which Sanskrit poetry would be poorer. Nineteen verses that unmask an unseen face of the stiff logician— sensuous, passionate and witty. The twists of logic used (like in the first verse I quoted), sometimes betray the mind trained in logic. Look at this ancient pick-up line attributed to Dharmakīrti for a first taste:

शिखरिणि क्व नु नाम कियच् चिरं किम् अभिधानम् असाव् अकरोत् तपः ।

तरुणि! येन तवाधर-पाटलं दशति बिम्ब-फलं शुक-शावकः ।। (SRK 439)

Pretty girl! On what holy mountain, for how long,

and of what name was his penance? I mean your little parrot’s,

that he should bite into this cherry

as pink as your lip?

This verse has been hailed as an exemplar of Dhvani kāvya, the art of alluding, rather than revealing, which is the stuff that goes into the best poetry. If the little parrot had to do so ferocious a penance for a taste of the cherry, which had just the redness in common with the lip, then surely the lip must demand much more? Such foolish dreams are best given up, runs the Dhvani, playing on the universal human desire to feel desirable. Delivered well, the girl should now be flushing a bright red herself,  like a beacon signalling the enduring success of Dharmakīrti’s genius. Dharmakīrti is amongst the few poets in the tradition who excel in writing witty love verses:

नपुंसकम् इति ज्ञात्वा तां प्रति प्रहितं मनः ।

रमते तच् च तत्रैव हताः पाणिनिना वयम् ।।  (SRK 478)

Knowing that ‘mind’ is neuter, I sent mine to her;
 but now it refuses to return; I’ve been ruined by Pāṇini.

(The word for mind, manas, is of neuter gender in Sanskrit)

प्रिये प्रयाते हृदयं प्रयातं निद्रा गता चेतनया सहैव ।
निर्लज्ज हे जीवित न श्रुतं किं महाजनो येन गतः स पन्थाः ।।  (SRK 720)

My darling’s gone, my heart is gone,
 my sleep is gone together with my mind. 
Oh shameless life, have you not heard, 
”The way to go is with the crowd?”

The second verse is, of course, playing on the famous words “महाजनो येन गतः स पन्थाः” uttered by Yudhiṣṭhira during the Yakṣa Praśna: (The word mahājana means both the public and great man in Sanskrit)

तर्कोऽप्रतिष्ठः श्रुतयो विभिन्नाः

नैको मुनिर् यस्य वचः प्रमाणम् ।

धर्मस्य तत्वं निहितं गुहायाम्

महाजनो येन गतः स पन्थाः ॥

Logic is unfounded. 
The vedas are conflicting.
 There is no sage whose word is law. 
The nature of Dharma is shrouded in darkness.
 The path to follow is the one of great men.

Dharmakīrti can also be punny:

हन्तु नाम जगत् सर्वम् अविवेकि कुचद्वयम् ।

प्राप्तश्रवणयोर् अक्ष्णोर् न युक्तं जन-मारणम् ।।  (SRK 437)

It is apt for your breasts to lead the world to ruin.

They are avivekin (=without interval/foolish) after all.

But it is not apt for your eyes,

which are prāpta-śravana. (=extending till the eyes/educated)

But he can also touch upon more delicate emotion:

अलम् अतिचपलत्वात् स्वप्नमायोपमत्वात् परिणतिविरसत्वात् संगमेन प्रियायाः ।

इति यदि शतकृत्वस् तत्त्वम् आलोकयामस् तद् अपि न हरिणाक्षीं विस्मरत्य् अन्तरात्मा  ।।  (SRK 477)

“Since union with your darling

will be ephemeral, like a dream,

and end in disillusion, stay away!”

Though I reflect upon these truths a hundred times,

my heart forgets not the gazelle-eyed girl.

We can only guess how much more Dharmakīrti wrote that we have lost to the mists of time. It is a huge loss. The credit for preserving the little that we have goes to a Buddhist monk Vidyākara, and among others strangely, Jawaharlal Nehru. Next week, we shall see how that kind monk Vidyākara become a vessel to help Dharmakīrti and his contemporaries cross the ocean of time. I leave you with a verse by a gleeful Dharmakīrti. He got the better of at least one enemy in life:

अनङ्ग! पलितं मूर्ध्नि पश्यैतद् विजय-ध्वजम् ।

इदानीं जितम् अस्माभिस् तवाकिंचित्कराः शराः ।।  (SRK 1518)

See, Cupid, this white-haired pillar of victory. 
I have won. Your arrows are now harmless.

References on next page


  1. The Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins. Page 240.
  2. From Theosophy Trust.
  3. All translations are either from or inspired by, Ingalls’ An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry
Suhas Mahesh is an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Science. Blissfully wedded to Physics during day, he ekes out time to woo language at night. His other interests include Carnatic music, hobbyist electronics and history.
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