How Sanskrit subhashitas are a perfect blend of joy and reason

Hari Ravikumar
Hari RavikumarSep 11, 2015 | 15:42

How Sanskrit subhashitas are a perfect blend of joy and reason

For about 500 years, starting from the 12th century CE, poets and philosophers of India wrote thousands of subhashitas (su = good, bhāṣita = spoken). These are self-contained verses that are witty, romantic, wise, puzzling, devotional, sarcastic, or didactic. They are typically composed in the classical anushtup poetic metre with four lines and eight syllables to a line (and certain other rules). While many of the subhashitas are standalone compositions by various poets, some of them are extracts from major works of poetry or drama (like Raghuvamsham). The subhashita form itself is probably much older than 12th century CE but it was during those 500 years that they became exceedingly popular.


Many languages have such standalone verses that deal with a specific topic and set to a poetic metre (of varying lengths; couplets, tercets, quatrains, etc.) For example, the Tamil venpa, the Japanese haiku and tanka, the Persian rubai, the Kannada tripadi and chatushpadi, the Urdu nazm, the Telugu chaatu padyam, the Marathi ovi, the Hindi doha, and the English limerick. Often they are exclusively devotional or instructional or comical or amorous, but the Sanksrit subhashitas cover a broad range of subjects and themes.

Often we don't know the composer of the subhashita because unlike some other forms of Indian poetry, the name (or signature word) of the poet does not appear in these verses. However, we have a record of some traditional works of subhashitas which bring together the works of several poets. For instance, the Subhashitavali is a compilation of more than 3,000 subhashitas written by over 350 poets, put together by the Kashmiri poet Vallabhadeva.

Let us look at subhashitas across themes. A good place to start is with a subhashita about subhashitas:

  • pṛthivyāṃ trīṇi ratnāni
  • jalamannaṃ subhāṣitam |
  • mūḍhaiḥ pāṣāṇakhaṇḍeṣu
  • ratnasaṃjñā pradīyate ||
  • (Three jewels adorn the earth:
  • Water, food, and good words.
  • Fools regard stones and diamonds
  • As precious jewels!)

Here is a word of caution to the people of the world:

  • agniśeṣam ṛṇaśeṣaṃ
  • śatruśeṣaṃ tathaiva ca |
  • punaḥ punaḥ pravardheta
  • tasmāt śeṣaṃ na kārayet ||
  • (Leave unattended a fire or a debt
  • Or an enemy even for a bit
  • Again and again, they will rise!
  • Always destroy them completely.)

A famous comic verse, making mock of doctors:

  • vaidyarāja namastubhyaṃ
  • yamarājasahodara |
  • yamastu harati prāṇān
  • vaidyo prāṇān dhanāni ca ||
  • (O doctor, I salute you,
  • O accomplice of Death!
  • Death steals life only
  • You steal both life and money!)

Here is a subtle one for the romantics:

  • ekavastum dvidhā kartum
  • bahavaḥ santi dhanvinaḥ |
  • dhanvī sa māra evaiko
  • dvayoḥ aikyaḥ karoti yaḥ ||
  • (To cut one thing into two -
  • This many archers can do.
  • But only Cupid, the bowman
  • Makes two into one!)

Here's one for the parents who are rearing a child:

  • lālayet pañcavarṣāṇi
  • daśavarśāṇi tāḍayet |
  • prāpteṣu ṣoḍaṣe varṣe
  • putre mitravadācaret ||
  • (Pamper them for the first five years
  • Keep them in check for the next ten
  • When they turn sixteen,
  • Treat your children as friends.)

Here's great material for a motivational poster:

  • suvarṇapuṣpāṃ pṛthivīṃ
  • cinvanti purūṣāstrayaḥ |
  • śūraśca kṛtavidyaśca
  • yaśca jānāti sevitum ||
  • (The golden flower of earth
  • Is obtained by three kinds of people:
  • The courageous, the wise,
  • And those who know how to serve.)

And here's the prefect one for a de-motivational poster:

  • budhāgre na guṇān brūyāt
  • sādhu vetti yataḥ svayam |
  • mūrkhāgrepi ca na brūyāt
  • dhudhaproktaṃ na vetti saḥ ||
  • (Speak not about your greatness to the intelligent -
  • The wise will find out by themselves.
  • Speak not about your greatness to the ignorant -
  • The fools will never understand.)

A verse with a twist in the end:

  • na cora hāryaṃ na ca rāja hāryaṃ
  • na bhātrū bhājyaṃ na ca bhārakāri |
  • vyayaṃ kṛte vardhata eva nityaṃ
  • vidyādhanaṃ sarvadhanapradhānama ||
  • (Thieves cannot steal it, kings cannot usurp it
  • It can't be divided among brothers, it isn't heavy either
  • The more your spend it, the more it will grow, all the time
  • The wealth of knowledge is indeed the greatest of them all!)

(Note: This verse is composed in the trishtup poetic metre, which has four lines and eleven syllables per line.)

This verse closely resembles a Zen koan:

  • kṣamā śastraṃ kare yasya
  • durjanaḥ kiṃ kariṣyati |
  • atṝṇe patito vahniḥ
  • svayamevopaśāmyati ||
  • One who holds the weapon of forgiveness in his hand -
  • How will the wicked ever face such a person?
  • A fire that falls on a grassless patch of land
  • Gets extinguished all by itself!

And we have a riddle to conclude the list of ten:

  • keśavaṃ patitaṃ dṛṣṭvā
  • pāṇḍavāḥ harṣanirbharāḥ |
  • rudanti kauravāḥ sarve
  • hā hā keśava keśava ||
  • (Seeing the fall of Krishna,
  • The Pandavas jumped with joy.
  • All the Kauravas cried aloud,
  • "Oh! Oh! Krishna! Krishna!")

Clearly, there is something amiss here. The Pandavas are such dear friends and admirers of Krishna that they would obviously not rejoice in his fall. The Kauravas so hate Krishna that they would surely not wail at his collapse. The real meaning of this kind of trick verse is often understood by splitting the words in a way that is not readily evident. The word keśavaṃ (Keshava is another name for Krishna; Keshava means "the lord of creation, sustenance, and dissolution") can be split into ke śavaṃ (ke = in the water; śavaṃ = corpse). The word pāṇḍavāḥ (Pandavas are sons of King Pandu) can be split into pā aṇḍavāḥ (pā = water; aṇḍavāḥ = born from eggs). The word kauravāḥ (Kauravas are descendents of King Kuru) can be split into kau ravāḥ (kau = who; ravāḥ = noise, howl).

Now, with the word-splits, we get the revised meaning:

  • Seeing a corpse fall into the water,
  • The fish jumped with joy.
  • All the howlers cried aloud,
  • "Oh! Oh! A corpse in the water! A corpse in the water!"

(Here, "born from eggs" refers to fish while "one who howls" could refer to the wolves or other wild animals who can't access the meat; or it could refer to the crows cawing loudly).

Last updated: September 11, 2015 | 15:42
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