लोकस्य स्व-सुखोपलिप्त-मनसो वीक्ष्येति निःस्नेहतां
(lokasya sva-sukhopalipta-manaso vīkṣyeti niḥsnehatāṃ )
"After having seen the utter apathy of this self-interested world" — sva-sukhopalipta-manas is a beautiful contraction, meaning "One whose mind is smeared in his own pleasures". Who saw this utter apathy, and what did he do next? Read on!
This phrase is taken from the Rājataraṅgiṇī of Paṇḍita Kalhaṇa. Kalhaṇa was a Kashmiri poet who lived about 900 years ago, and is distinguished as one of the countably few (and arguably the greatest) ancient/medieval historians writing in Sanskrit, or for that matter any Indian language. Even though he wrote at a time when Sanskrit literature was well past its peak, it is surprising that he was almost the first writer to speak about chronological, historical narration and fact-checking in sources. He writes in one of the first verses:
श्लाघ्यस् स एव गुणवान् राग-द्वेष बहिष्कृता ।
भूतार्थ-कथने यस्य स्थेयस्येव सरस्वती ।1.7।
ślāghyaḥ sa eva guṇavān rāgadveṣa bahiṣkṛtā |
bhūtārtha-kathane yasya stheyasya iva sarasvatī |1.7|
"Among the chroniclers of the past, he alone deserves praise, who discarding alike favour and displeasure, writes with the impartiality of a judge."
Contrast this with the Greeks, Romans or Chinese, who had their written histories starting almost together with their literary works. Also given the fact that the prodigality and level of refinement achieved in Sanskrit literature was far ahead of them in comparable times, the lacuna seems even stranger.
The Rājataraṅgiṇī is a treatise that describes several hundred kings of Kashmir. It covers a period of almost 3000 years, in about 8000 (mostly śloka) verses split across 8 taraṅgas or books. Till about 600 AD (which occupy the first thousand odd verses), that is about 500 years before his time, the narration is rather untrustworthy, sketchy and quite dry. After that however, it settles into a steady rhythm: Kalhaṇa describes the circumstances of a king's rise, the people surrounding him and the conspiracies they hatch, anecdotes describing the king's good and bad qualities, and finally the ever-troublesome act of succession.
Kalhaṇa's work might be compared to Gibbon's masterful Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but on several counts it comes up rather short in both form and content. However, this is only when compared whole; in short bursts, Kalhaṇa can be as trenchant and incisive as Gibbon in his observations and insights. In story after story, king after king, into the tens and hundreds, the nature of power is laid bare — its irresistible allure; its tail-wags-the-dog relation to wealth; its countless suitors, secret and not; its rank carelessness in choosing one; and having once chosen, its fickleness in moving on to the next suitor.
For example, in the beginning of the 6th book, we hear the story of King Yaśaskara. He became king by the end of the 5th book, around 939 CE, by a sequence of extremely fortunate events. He was not born in a royal family, and because of poverty had gone abroad for work soon after getting a good education. He happened to come back at a time when a council of Brahmaṇas were trying to appoint a new king (this too happened after a very coincidental set of events). He met them by chance, and impressed by his eloquence, they immediately crowned him King.
He started out very well. As soon as he became king, he made this humble but firm request to them:
राज्य-दानाभिमानेन वर्तिष्यथ मदोद्धताः ।
यत् कार्यकालाद् अन्यत्र नागन्तव्यं मद्-अन्तिकम् ।6.4।
rājya-dāna-abhimānena vartiṣyatha mada-uddhatāḥ |
yat kārya-kālād anyatra nāgantavyaṃ mad-antikam |6.4|
"You have granted me this kingdom, and your pride will lead you to take undue advantage. Therefore, you are not to come to me unless on official business"
Sir M. Visvesvaraya, one of the true builders of modern India, whose labours a century ago were so great that they are still the foundation of the prosperity of Karnataka, and whose dedication to duty was so steadfast that decade upon decade of abject misrule has yet to nullify its effects, is also renowned for a similar act. The very first thing he did upon being appointed the Diwan of Mysore was to gather together all his relatives, and tell them that he would accept the post only if they promised never to ask for personal favours.
The King put the old laws back into implementation, and took control. His good governance started to have its effects:
अचौराभूत् तथा भूमिर् यथा रात्रौ वणिक्-पथाः ।
अतिष्ठन् विवृत-द्वारा मार्गाश् चाविघ्निताध्वगाः ।6.7।
acaurābhūt tathā bhūṃiḥ yathā rātrau vaṇikpathāḥ |
atiṣṭhan vivṛta-dvārā mārgāḥ ca-avighnita-adhvagāḥ |6.7|
"The land became so free of thieves that merchants kept their doors open at night in the markets, and the roads were made secure."
Given that this was rather close to Kalhaṇa's time, we have every reason to accept this as accurate and not an exaggeration.
A very interesting incident then comes up. A distraught man comes to the King, and tells him that he has been cheated. Twenty years previously, the man had been in a difficult financial situation and decided to seek employment in foreign lands. As his future was uncertain, he made arrangements for his wife to stay back. In order to give her a source of livelihood, he sold to a merchant his house and everything in it except for a water-well, which he gave to his wife so that she could make a living selling water in the dry months.
He had come back now, and to his shock discovered that the merchant had forcefully acquired the water-well and driven his wife into servitude. He went to the local judges, but on examining the sale deed, they found no discrepancies and threw out his case. He came to the King as a last appeal, and threatened to kill himself if he did not get justice.
The King pacified him, and called a court himself the next morning, and spent many hours amusing all the judges and even the defendant. Slyly, he collected all their rings as if preparing for a game. He then secretly sent a servant with the defendant merchant's ring to the merchant's accounts-keeper, and asked for all detailed accounts of 20 years ago. Convinced by the ring that the request was from the merchant, the accounts-keeper gave it to the servant.
सोपान-कूप-सहितं विक्रीतं गृहम् इत्यथ ।
राजा विक्रय-पत्रस्थान् स्वयं वर्णान् अवाचयत् ।6.30।
sopāna-kūpa-sahitaṃ vikrītaṃ gṛham ityatha |
rājā vikraya-patrasthān svayaṃ varṇān avācayat |6.30|
"The house has been sold with the stair-well" — the King himself had the sale deed read aloud.
The King then went through the transaction, and found that 1000 dināras had been paid for the seal, an abnormally high amount.
तस्मै मित-धनार्हाय बहु-मूलार्पणात् नृपः ।
रेफे सकारं वणिजा कारितं निश्चिकाय सः ।6.39।
tasmai mita-dhanārhāya bahu-mūlārpaṇāt nṛpaḥ |
rephe sakāraṃ vaṇijā kāritaṃ niścikāya saḥ |6.39|
"For such a small transaction, such a huge fee had been paid. [It could only have been for a bribe.] Clearly, the King decided, the 'ra' had been changed to a 'sa'". sopāna-kūpa-rahitaṃ in the original had been changed to sopāna-kūpa-sahitaṃ by the merchant! Can you believe a thousand years have passed since this happened?! The King immediately gave the house back to the man, and exiled the merchant. Kalhaṇa also mentions another similar case to hold up the King's firm justice.
However, Kalhaṇa's impartiality soon shows itself. In spite of such an interest in upholding justice, the king had several fatal blind spots.
इत्थं जनं सविनयन् हास्यो ऽभून् निज-दुर्नयैः ।
परस्योपदिशन् पथ्यम् अपथ्याशीव रोगहृत्।6.68।
itthaṃ janaṃ savinayan hāsyo abhūt nija-durnayaiḥ |
parasya upadiśan pathyam apathyāśī-iva rogahṛt |6.68|
"Thus while he was guiding his subjects well, he still became an object of their ridicule because of his personal foibles, like a physician prescribing a diet for others, but himself eating bad food."
The foremost of these foibles was his extreme attachment to his wife, who the whole kingdom knew was unfaithful to him. In spite of the evidence staring in his face, he refused to even let go of her, let alone punish her per the law. He developed several diseases, and made fatal mistakes in choosing a successor. A host of vultures in the form of ministers, led by one Parvagupta, were waiting on his every mistake, and capitalized on each of them. He was soon killed, and the kingdom continued as if he was never there.
There are many parallels we can draw with the life of the greatest Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Although Marcus Aurelius was a much more superior man and commanded a much more powerful empire, his fall too came with his blindness to his wife Faustina's widely perceived missteps, and the choice of Commodus as his successor. In one generation, Rome had gone from being the pride of the earth to an empire in inexorable decline.
It's the same story with the great Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara and his minister Timmarasu. The king had the loyal minister, who was responsible for much of the prosperity of the empire, blinded and incapacitated because of succession problems. Again the same story with the great Ottoman emperor Suleiman Kanuni, who turned a blind eye to his favourite wife’s machinations in killing off her son’s competitors to the throne. Barely a couple decades later, the Golden Age of the Ottoman empire was over.
Later in the 7th book, Kalhaṇa writes in great detail the story of Harṣa (different from the one described by Bāṇa and others). This King matched the Roman emperor Elegabalus in his depravity, and if one even reads of his acts, nothing of the present day will appear shocking. A sad fact of history seems to be that the cruelest tyrants often enjoy their heydays the most. As a Woody Allen quote goes, "It seemed the world was divided into good and bad people. The good ones slept better... while the bad ones seemed to enjoy the waking hours much more."
As if for some consolation, their fall is proportionally hard, and the poet makes this chapter’s phrase's poignant remark when Harṣa, too, died a horrid death. One can almost see through the yawning gap of a millennium that the poet was very disturbed himself when he wrote this:
तावत्यप्यवरोधिका-परिकरे नैकापि चक्रन्द तं
तावत्स्वप्यनुगेषु नानुगतवान् कोप्यास्त तीर्थे न वा ।
लोकस्य स्व-सुखोपलिप्त-मनसो वीक्ष्येति निःस्नेहतां
निर्वेदं समुपेत्य नाश्रयति धिक् स्वान्तं वनान्ते रतिम् ।7.1730।
tāvati api avarodhikā-parikare na ekā api cakranda taṃ
tāvatsu api anugeṣu na anugatavān kopi āsta tīrthe na vā |
lokasya sva-sukha-upalipta-manaso vīkṣya iti niḥsnehatāṃ
nirvedaṃ samupetya na āśrayati dhik svāntaṃ vanānte ratim |7.1730|
"In spite of having an entire palace of women, not one wept for him.
In spite of having so many in his retinue, not one followed him, nor retired to a holy place in his memory.
Surely, after seeing the utter apathy of this uncaring world,
It is a pity that one does not get disgusted enough to lovingly seek the forest "
Right afterward, he writes this:
नादौ किञ्चिद् भवति नियतं यच् च पश्चान् न किञ्चित्
मध्ये ऽकस्मात् सपदि घटयन् सौस्थ्य-दौःस्थ्यानुरोधं ।
निःशीर्षाङ्घ्रिर् नट इव मुहुः को ऽपि जन्तुर् नटित्वा
नो जानीमो भव-जवनिकान्तर्हितः क्व प्रयाति ।7.1731।
na ādau kiñcit bhavati niyataṃ yat ca paścāt na kiñcit
madhye akasmāt sapadi ghaṭayan sausthya-dauḥsthya-anurodhaṃ |
niḥśīrṣa-aṅghriḥ naṭa iva muhuḥ ko api jantuḥ naṭitvā
no jānīmo bhava-javanikā-antarhitaḥ kva prayāti |7.1731|
"There is nothing before, and nothing after.
In a fleeting middle, Man complies immediately to happiness or sadness, whatever comes his way.
Like an actor without head or feet (i.e, he's a puppet who can't think or go anywhere himself) playing a part again and again,
We don't know where he disappears behind the screen of the world"
Writing nearly 800 years later, Bertrand Russell echoed the same thoughts in his masterful essay On Youthful Cynicism: "Man himself appears as a somewhat ridiculous strutting animal, shouting and fussing during a brief interlude between infinite silences.” Shakespeare famous lines seem to be echoing the very same sentiment: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances.” and again, “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Perhaps solace lies beyond the here and now; Carl Sagan, commenting on a picture of the earth called the Pale Blue Dot, taken from 3.7 billion miles away from where it is just a fraction of a pixel, makes one of the greatest orations in history:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
A PARTING THOUGHT
Sometimes it is easy to get carried away by the fervour of activity in the 'human anthill', and lose sight of our truly limited needs. These words of Vyāsa from the Mahābhārata are a fine anchor:
गो-शताद् अपि गो-क्षीरं प्रस्थं धान्य-शताद् अपि ।
प्रासादाद् अपि खट्वार्धं शेषाः पर-विभूतयः ॥
go-śatāt api go-kṣīraṃ prasthaṃ dhānya-śatāt api |
prāsādāt api khaṭvā-ardhaṃ śeṣāḥ para-vibhūtayaḥ ||
"From a thousand cows, [what we finally use] is a mouthful of milk. From an entire granary, merely a handful of grain. In a grand palace, half a bed. Everything else [that we hoard] is for others' enjoyment".
As an aside, however, Fate can deny even a khaṭvārdha to the unlikeliest of people. The last of the Mughal emperors, Bahadur Shah Zafar, ruled over a continually shrinking domain and in his lifetime saw the British go from a regional power to a pan-continental one. The rebellion of 1857 instilled a brief flicker of hope of a return to glory, but alas, that was a misconception. He was finally exiled to Rangoon, far away from his dear Delhi, the seat of his ancestors for centuries. As he lay dying from neglect, he penned these words:
Umr-e-darāz māng ke lāye the cār din
Do ārzu mein guzar gaye, do intezār mein
Hai kitna badnasīb Zafar dafn ke liye
Do gaz zamīn bhi na mili kū-e-yār mein
Appealing for a long life, being granted four days,
Two were lost in pining, and two in waiting.
How unlucky is Zafar! Even for his burial,
a mere two yards of land couldn't be found in the land (of the) beloved.