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January - March 2023

The Neeti Shatakam of Bhartrhari

At various stages of our lives, we start thinking and wondering about what is the purpose of this life that we are given, what gives meaning to it etc. Our ancient all-knowing great Rishis, have explained that there are four main purposes to human life – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. The four can be translated as Righteousness, Wealth, Pleasures and Liberation. It is indeed a very complete and comprehensive list and whatever we reflect and arrive at will surely fit into one of these.

Of the four Purusharthas, the middle two, viz. Artha and Kama, do not need anyone to tell us the importance of, or motivate us to work for them. Our innate nature makes us work for Kama, seeking happiness and various pleasures in life, and when we realize that desires cannot be achieved without wealth, we seek Artha, we seek to produce wealth.

The wise say that Artha and Kama are like a river which can be swell and sweep us away, so Dharma and Moksha are placed on either side like the two banks of the river. The banks when strengthened, keep the river in check. Dharma regulates Artha and Kama and also points out the importance of keeping Moksha in mind as the ultimate goal. Thus, when we acquire the first three, slowly our minds mature to seek Moksha, which means reaching God or reaching self-realization.

Dharma is a very vast term and there is no easy translation of it and we understand it intuitively looking at elders and great souls around us. For the sake of simplicity, we can call it righteousness. How to lead our lives properly, in harmony with creation, in harmony with the highest purposes, is the core of Dharma. Our four Vedas are the source of all Dharma (“Vedo akhila dharma moolam” it is said). The Rishis have taken the precepts of Dharma and made it into Smritis or Dharmashastra.

The word Neeti means ethics, which are principles we follow for fairness to all. It also means policies followed in systems that govern us. We could say that Neeti has both personal qualities and principles for professional life and hence is an important aspect of Dharma and Artha. These tenets are given in small doses to us through books by great poets. We have works in Tamil like Tirukkural, Naladiyar, Neeti Venba, Avvaiyar’s Athichudi, Konraivendan and Moodurai. There would be similar works in many Indian languages. Neetipradeepa, Neetiratnam, Neetisaara etc are some of the Sanskrit works in this category and Neeti Shatakam is the most famous of these. Leading our life according to Dharma means that we must cultivate virtues like truthfulness, kindness, humility, respecting others’ property, determination, being helpful to others etc. We all have some of these inborn, as our innate nature, and while the others we have to work towards cultivating, and books like Neeti Shatakam help us know these and urge us to work towards this.

The author of this book is Bhartrhari. We do not have clear and reliable sources about his life and times, although there are many stories about him, which indicate that he was king, who later became disillusioned with life and renounced everything. He is also said to have become a disciple of the Tamil saint Pattinathar, and followed him to the Tamil land, where his name becomes known as “Batthiragiri”.

Bhartrhari has written a work on grammar called Vakyapadiya, and three Shatakams of which Neeti Shatakam is one. The other two are Shrngara Shatakam and Vairagya Shatakam. Through these he has given us his thoughts on the four Purusharthas, since Neeti Shatakam is connected to Dharma and Artha, Shrngara Shatakam to Kama and Vairagya Shatakam talks about understanding the transient nature of the world, a quality that is a prerequisite to work towards Moksha. The Neeti Shatakam comprises of 109 verses (some variations are found in some versions), and these are “muktakas” , independent verses. There is no direct connection between verses and each can be taken and deliberated upon separately, from anywhere in the work. They are also set to a variety of metres such as Anushthubh and Vasantatilakam.

What makes Neeti Shatakam stand out is that in it we see a poet’s perspective towards Dharma, and his tone, which is friendly at times, humorous and sarcastic at other times, expressing emotions like admiration and reproach, dramatizing and even reprimanding, make us smile and chuckle, at the same time reflect on our own conduct. Thus, subtly and indirectly he impels us to want to cultivate those virtues.

The book starts with a Mangala Shloka:


(Salutations to that tranquil luminance, that is unlimited by time and space, embodies infinite consciousness and is understood only experientially.)

Scholars divide the book into a few subheadings, based on the themes of the verses, though it must be said that the themes are not water-tight compartments. Let’s look at these subsections.


These verses highlight the trouble caused by obstinacy and haughtiness. In the above verse, the poet says that it is easy to please an ignorant person as well as a scholar, but even Brahma, the creator, cannot please a stupid person inflated with pride. Another verse praises silence as the cover of ignorance and as the ornament of the unlearned.


With characteristic humour, the poet says here that a person without learning arts and literature, is an animal, though without tail and horns. It is indeed lucky for the animals that he does not start eating grass! This section also contains the verse with the famous line “वा ूषणं भूषणम्”, stating that ornaments like necklaces and armlets are transient, and eloquence alone is the greatest adornment. There are also verses that say that unlike other kinds of wealth, learning is one that never diminishes.


“Who has taught this tough path of walking on the razor’s edge to the good people, that makes them follow a pleasing and just path, do no evil even if it costs their life, do not capitulate to the wicked, even a friend is not asked for help if he is needy, maintain dignity in troubles and follow the footsteps of great men?”

While accepting the reality that wealth is respected everywhere, the poet makes no secret of his contempt in this regard. This tongue-in-cheek verse is an example


“He who has wealth is high-born, he is a scholar, learned and discerning. He is a great orator and good-looking. All virtues depend on wealth.” There are also verses describing the greatness of generosity in wealthy people.

In this section he tells us what is evil and the need to steer clear of such people. There are also descriptions of how a good quality can be twisted and projected negatively by such people.

“Ruthlessness, unfounded hostility, desire for another’s wealth and wife, envy towards good people and relatives – these are naturally found in the wicked.”

The verses in this section celebrate the qualities of good people, such as loyalty, humility and courage. One such is the verse, where devotion to Shiva is also mentioned as a rare trait.

“Salutations to those men in whom these impeccable virtues reside: desire for association with good people, pleasure in others’ merits, humility towards elders, striving for learning, delight only in one’s wife, fear of public censure, devotion unto Shiva, power to restrain oneself, and freedom from the association of the wicked.”

Another verse detailing the actions of a good friend is

“Noble people say that such is the definition of a good friend: he saves one from sin, leads to welfare, protects secrets, publicises one’s virtues, does not leave one in distress, and gives (the needed things) at the right time.”

Helping others is the nature of noble souls. Nothing else adorns a person more than this quality, says the poet. One of the verses here describes exalted souls who spread joy by their blessed lives, and seems to perfectly fit great souls.

“There are a few good people, filled with the nectar of purity in thought, word and action, pleasing the three worlds with their continuous beneficial acts. They make a mountain of the tiniest virtues of others, with their hearts flowering in delight”

Determination and commitment mark the activities of great people, and these are extolled here. In one verse the churning of the ocean becomes the metaphor for a challenging task. The Devas went on churning till they obtained Amrita. Neither did the poison scare them away, nor did the gems like Airavata, Kamadhenu and Kalpavriksha enamour them and make them halt.

The last quarter of the verse becomes a quotable line: that courageous people never stop before reaching their intended goal.

Just as Thiruvalluvar concludes the section on Dharma (Arathuppal) with a chapter on Destiny (“Uzh”), Neeti Shatakam too ends with this section, which reiterates the fact that we receive the fruits, both good and bad, of our past actions, which may be from earlier births. This helps us to accept the fact that in this birth, sometimes despite our best efforts, things may not work in our favour.

“Good deeds performed earlier, protect a person, whether in a forest or in war, amidst enemies or in water or fire, in the great ocean or in the summit of a mountain, even if he is asleep, careless or in danger.”

Thus in many delightful ways, Neeti Shatakam fills us with admiration for goodness, and gives us the much-needed motivation to practise virtues. If the words of Rishis in Dharmashastas are like parents’ advice – loving yet stern, the poet’s advice is like that of a good friend who is determined to keep us on the right path and uses wit and admonition to persuade us.