A Subhaashita or Subhaashitam in Sanskrit means something or anything that is spoken (bhaashitam) well or eloquently (su), a good or eloquent speech, a witty saying, a wise saying, a counsel. It is also known as sookti. Sanskrit literature abounds in these epigrams, which are witty sayings in poetry or in prose, but mostly in poetic stanzas of two or four lines. Subhaashitaani (plural of Subhaashitam) are structured in meters, the most popular metre being the Anushtubh.
Subhaashitas are acute observations on all facets and aspects of life and situations, secular as well as religious, often, the writer making his own deductions or drawing his own conclusions. Though mostly drawn from real life experiences, there are subhaashitani on abstract themes such as philosophy and spiritualism. Subhaashitas invariably give messages, but they also end in riddles. What sets apart these sayings and makes them timeless are the beauty and conciseness of their compositions, the vast range of subjects they deal with and their profundities. In most cases, the authorships of Subhaashitas, which run into tens of thousands, are known. Subhaashitas are held in high esteem and occupy an honoured place in Indian culture. This is evident from the following verse:
bhaashaasu mukhyaa madhuraa divyaa girvaanabhaaratee ǀ
tate-pi kaavyam madhuram tasmaat-api subhaashitam ǁ
What this shloka means is: Sanskrit is the most important (supreme) among languages, the most sweet, the most divine. More sweet than Sanskrit is poetry and still further more sweet is subhaashitam.
I am presenting here 4 Subhaashitas. They are Roman transliterations of the Sanskrit original. The sources of these verses are given immediately after each Subhaashita. The translations and the commentaries are mine.
(1) na caurahaaryam na ca raajahaaryam na bhraatribhaajyam na ca bhaarakaari ǀ
vyaye krite vardhate eva nityam vidyaa dhanam sarvadhana pradhaanam ǁ
–– Bhartrihari’s Neetishatakam or One Hundred Aphorisms on Neeti
Translation: Wealth in the form of knowledge (vidyaa dhanam) is the best or most important (pradhaanam) of all wealth (sarva dhana). (Knowledge) can not (na) be stolen or robbed off (haaryam) by a thief (caura) and (ca) can not (na) be taken away or confiscated (haaryam) by a king (raaja), can not be divided or shared (bhaajyam) among brothers or siblings (bhraatri) and (ca) does not (na) cause (kaari) burden (bhaara). On being spent (vyaye krite) daily (nityam), (it) increases (vardhate) immediately (eva).
Commentary: The author praises learning and tells why he considers wealth in the form of knowledge (vidya-rupi dhanam) to be superior to all other forms of wealth. He proves his point admirably through five examples in every-day life. Unlike the other forms of wealth such as money, jewellery, property, treasure, gift, booty, knowledge does not have mass, shape, size or momentum so that there is the fear of it being stolen, taken away, appropriated or divided. Being weightless, it is not a load on its bearer and it does not entail heavy work or labour to carry it. Knowledge is not something that can be won over, bribed or carried off. The most wonderful property of knowledge is that it is not liable to decay on being spent. On the contrary, the more it is disbursed or expended, the more it becomes, all the time and always, regularly and without fail. Because of these reasons, the writer considers knowledge the most valuable of all valuables. But he does not negate or down-play the value of other riches. Practical man he must be.
(2) nindantu neetinipunaah yadi vaa stuvantu
lakshmee samaavishatu gacchatu vaa yatheshtam ǀ
adaiva vaa maranamastu yugaantare vaa
nyaayaat pathaah pravicalanti padam na dheeraah ǁ
— Bhartrihari’s Neetishatakam or One Hundred Aphorisms on Neeti
Translation: Whether (yadi) the neetinipunaah (experts in political wisdom, law, moral philosophy or conduct) censure (nindantu) or laud (stuvantu), whether Lakshmee (goddess of all wealth) comes at a time (samavishatu) or (vaa) goes (gacchatu) as per her wish (yatheshtam), (whether) death (maranam) comes (astu) right now (ada-iva) or (vaa) after a yuga (yugantare), dheeraah (the brave, the calm and the composed) do not (na) get disturbed, deviate or swerve (pravicalanti) from the paths (pathaah) of nyaaya (righteousness, justice) by a foot (padam).
Commentary: The verse presents the ideal model of a dheera in Indian Samskriti (culture) and defines him. A very high standard is set like, for instance, we have for all categories of rishis. The writer elaborates on the distinguishing traits of a dheera. The image of a dheera that the writer describes closely resembles a sthitaprajna of Bhagavat-Gita , a person who remains unruffled and unaffected under all circumstances. A dheera refers to a calm, composed and well-bred person, a highly principled man such as many Brahmins were once.
In India, we commonly refer to a person as dheera-sthira if she/he is quiet, gentle and stable individual. The word neeti comes from the root nee meaning guidance, management, conduct or behaviour. Ni-puna comes from the root pun and means clever, adroit, sharp, acute, conversant with, skilled in. Mark the word stuvantu in the first line. It means to pray or glorify as in worship (pooja) and is usually done for deities, renowned sages and entities held in veneration. The word yuga in the third line denotes an inordinately long time since a yuga consists of hundreds of thousands of years. Ny-aaya is from ni and means that onto which a thing goes back, i.e. an original type, standard, method, a general or universal rule, model, axiom, system, right or fit manner or way, propriety; nyaayaat, as indeclinable, means either ‘in the right manner, regularly, duly’ or ‘after the manner of, by way of’; nyaaya is also used in the sense of a lawsuit, legal proceedings, judicial sentence, judgment, a logical or syllogistic argument. Pra-vi-calati is in present tense and means to become agitated, to tremble, quake; to become confused or disturbed; to deviate or swerve from.
(3) gamyate yadi mrigendra-mandire labhyate kari-kapola-mauktikam ǀ
jambukaalaya-gatena labhyate vatsa-puccha-khura-carma khandanam ǁ
Translation: If (yadi) you go to (gamyate) the dwelling place (mandire) of the king of beasts (mrigendra), you will be met with (labhyate) cheek (kapola) of elephant (kari) and heap of pearls (mauktikam). On going to (gatena) the habitation (aalaya) of a jackal (jambuka), you will be met with cut-pieces (khandanam) of tail (puccha), hoof (khura) and skin (carma) of the young of animals (vatsa).
Commentary: The author uses a lion-king and a lowly-jackal as symbols to highlight the large hiatus in status between a king and his servants or hangers-on. The central idea conveyed is what you would get on visiting a king’s palace and a servant’s house. Lion (lord of animals, king of beasts) signifies the exalted status of a king, and jackal, the humble status of his servants or retinues. The verse vividly and mockingly brings out the difference in worth between a high and mighty person and an ordinary worker. In another version of the same verse, the second line is read as gamyate yadi ca kukkuraalayam labhyate astikhurapucchasancayah. In this version, the meaning changes a little but the sense remains the same.
The example of dog to signify faithful servants is more appropriate than jackal because the former is known for its loyalty to his master and the latter for its deceptive and cunning nature. Gamyate is passive and comes from the root gama. It is meant to convey ‘to be understood’. ‘Yadi’, in the context, may mean ‘as sure as’. ‘Labhyate’ comes from the root labh and is in passive like gamyate. It means ‘to be taken, caught, to be met with, found, got or obtained.’ What to be understood is: you can take it for granted or you can safely assume that you are going to get good things if you visit a king and nothing if you visit a servant. Only a Brahman can think like that. When it comes to receiving, the caste of the giver is not crucial on many occasions.
(4) yasmin yathaa vartate yo manushyah tasmin tathaa vartitavyam sa dharmah ǀ
Maayaa-acaro maayayaa vaaraneeyah sadhoo-acaarah saadhoonaa pratyupeyah ǁ
–Mahabhaarata’s Udyogaparva or The Book of Effort (Book 5)
Translation: Whenever (yasmin) any (yah/yo) one/person (manushyah) behaves (vartate) in a particular way (yathaa), he/she must be treated (vartitavyam) in the very same way then and there (tasmin tathaa), that (sa) is dharmah (prescribed conduct, duty, law, virtue, established decree, custom). Deceptive behaviour (maaya-acaro) should be prevented or thwarted (vaaraneeyah) by deception (maayayaa) and good (sadhoo) behaviour (acarah) should be returned or welcomed (pratyupeyah) by goodness (saadhoonaa).
Commentary: The verse enjoins (dharmah) to have a tip-for-tap attitude in social conduct and dealings, almost hinting at a retaliatory approach. If a person behaves well with you, you should behave well with him. If a person tries to be smart, you pay him back with the same coin. And this should be done then and there (yasmin yathaa tasmin tathaa). Righteous conduct demands that one should deal with others exactly the way others deal with you. Deal deception with deception and good behavior with goodness, says the author. This exhortation on social conduct has never been more appropriate than in the present selfish and materialistic world and can easily be extended to dealing with belligerent nations. In practical social life, this tit-for-tat approach will work well only among people of same or similar status, not among the un-equals. The weak and the meek can not even contemplate retaliating against the strong no matter how much wrong are heaped on them.
A singular characteristic of all subhaashitas is they present new perspectives on life, events and situations. They are, no doubt, drawn from real life experiences but there are subhaashitani which are taken from Vedas, Upanishads, Puraanas, Bhagavat-Gita or somewhere else. In so far as I am concerned, anything and everything is subhaashitam if it is small, compact, composed beautifully, and the content is original or pithy. Description of natural scenery will qualify for a subhaashita for me if it has the characteristics as stated above. A Subhaashitam can come from prose, poetry, play or can simply be the spontaneous outburst of an intense feeling. They need not be preaching morals, ethics and statecrafts all the time.
It is the greatness of the Sanskrit language that its basket of 50-51 letters has given the language unbounded power to express, orally and/or in writing, any kind of thought, from the most abstract and sublime to the most down-to-earth, clearly and concisely with greatest economy of words. This is the single most important reason for the existence and popularity, to-date, of such a great and popular literary form as Subhaashitam.
The vast majority of these wise sayings can be made contemporary if they are re-interpreted with slight modifications here and there. I learnt by heart a very large number of these Subhaashitas in my youth (under 25 years). That was the time when I could converse in Sanskrit. I can no longer recite those Subhaashitani from memory, ages have passed since then; but they have not all vanished from my memory.
BY DR. SACHIDANAND DAS