Subhaashitam in Sanskrit language means anything that is spoken (bhaashitam) well or eloquently (su), a good or eloquent speech, a witty saying, a wise saying, a counsel. They are also known as suktis. Sanskrit literature abounds in these witty epigrammatic compositions, which are either in poetry or in prose, but mostly in verses of two or four lines. Subhasitas are set in metre, the most popular being theAnushtubh meter. These epigrams are acute observations on almost all facets and aspects of life and situations, sacred as well as profane, often, the writer making his own deductions or drawing his own conclusions.
Although, Subhaashitas invariably give messages, they also end in riddles. What make these sayings readable and time-abiding are the beauty and conciseness of their compositions, the vast range of subjects they deal with and their profundity. In most cases, the authorships of Subhashitas, which run into tens of thousands, are known. Subhaashitas are held in high esteem in Indian culture. This is evident from the following poetic shloka:
bhaashaasu mukhyaa madhuraa divyaa girvaanabhaaratee ǀ
tate-pi kaavyam madhuram tasmaat-api subhaashitam ǁ
[Meaning: Among languages (bhaashaasu), Sanskrit (girvaanabhaaratee) is the most important (mukhyaa), the most sweet (madhuraa), most divine (divyaa). More sweet (madhuram) than that (tate-pi), that is Sanskrit, is poetry (kaavyam) and still more (sweet) than that (tasmat-api), that is poetry, is subhaashitam (a good, wise, witty saying).]
The six Subhaashitas presented here are Roman transliterations of their Sanskrit original. They are extracted from different sources. I have provided my own translation and commentary on each Subhaashita.The first Subhaashita is from Narayana Pandita’s Hitopadeshah or The Book of Good Counsels, the second and the third are from Bhartrihari’s Neetishatakam or One Hundred Aphorisms on Neeti, the fourth is from Chaanakya’s Chaanakyaneetih, the fifth is from Mahabhaarata’s Udyogaparva or The Book of Effort, and the sixth is taken from Subhaashitasamgraha.
(1) vidyaa dadaati vinayam vinayaad yaati paatrataam ǀ
paatratvaad dhanam-aapnoti dhanaad dharmam tatah sukham ǁ
Translation: Knowledge (vidyaa) bestows (dadaati) modesty or humility (vinayam), from humility (vinayaad) comes or proceeds (yaati) worthiness or competence (paatrataam), from worthiness (paatratvaad) one obtains or gains (aapnoti) dhanam (wealth, riches, property, money, treasure, capital, any valued object), from wealth (dhanaad) (one performs) dharma (right performance of duties, good works), (and) after that or there upon (tatah) joy or happiness (sukham).
Commentary: This verse extols the greatness of vidya, the greatness here being in space, time, quantity or degree. Modesty here means obedience and discipline. It does not automatically follow from the process of acquiring knowledge or skills. It has to be instilled during the period of educational training. The education should be such that it imparts vinaya (obedience, submission to the teacher) onto the recipient while at the same time teaching the requisite skills. Vinaya makes one a fit receptacle for anything. One develops capacity, capability or competency, and becomes adept in something (paatrataam). This paatrataa or worthiness enables to acquire riches in a respectable way. The person then becomes an honourable man, a respectable citizen. Once he possesses the required wealth, he is in a position to spend it in discharging his rights and duties, duly and properly, as a person of ordinary prudence and good conduct would do. He is then said to have performed dharma, and performance of dharma in the prescribed way leads to happiness in this life. The word vinaya (vi-naya) in this verse is said to be artificially formed from vi + nri. vinamra or vinata might have been a better choice.
(2) na caurahaaryam na ca raajahaaryam na bhraatribhaajyam na ca bhaarakaari ǀ
vyaye krite vardhate eva nityam vidyaa dhanam sarvadhana pradhaanam ǁ
Translation: Wealth (dhanam) in the form of knowledge (vidyaa) is the best or most important (pradhaanam) of all (sarva) wealth (dhana). Vidyaa 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); it can not be split or shared (bhaajyam) among brothers or siblings (bhraatri) and it does not cause (kaari)burden or exertion (bhaara). On being spent (vyaye krite) daily (nityam), it (vidyaa) gets augmented or 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. Knowledge does not have mass, shape, or size so that there is the fear of it being stolen, taken away, appropriated or divided like all other forms of wealth such as money, jewellery, property, treasure, gift, booty. Being weightless, it is not a load 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 uniquely 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 (nityam eva). Because of these reasons, the writer considers knowledge the most valuable of all valuables; but he does not negate the value of other riches.
(3) nindantu neetinipunaah yadi vaa stuvantu
lakshmee samaavishatu gacchatu vaa yatheshtam ǀ
adaiva vaa maranamastu yugaantare vaa
nyaayaat pathaah pravicalanti padam na dheeraah ǁ
Translation: Whether (yadi) the neetinipunaah (experts in political wisdom, moral philosophy or conduct) censure (nindantu) or laud (stuvantu), whether all the good fortunes- collectively personified as goddess Lakshmee- come simultaneously (samavishatu) or (vaa) go (gacchatu) as they (she) wishe(s) [yatheshtam], (whether) death (maranam) comes (astu) right now (adaiva) or (vaa) after a yuga(yugantare), dheeraah (the brave, the calm and composed men) do not (na) get disturbed, deviate or swerve (pravicalanti) from the paths (pathaah) of nyaaya (righteousness) by a foot step (padam).
Commentary: The verse presents the ideal model of a dheera in Indian Samskriti (culture) and defines him. It elaborates on the distinguishing characteristic traits of such a person that sets him apart from the ordinary. The image the writer depicts is that of a sthitaprajna of Bhagavat-Gita, of one who remains unmoved, unaffected, un-agitated at all times and under all circumstances. A dheera refers to a calm, composed and well-bred person, a highly principled man such as Brahmins were once. Often, in India, we describe a person as dheera-sthira (a quiet, gentle and stable man). 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 a worship (pooja) and is usually done for deities, 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; nyaayat, 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 such as in the Gautama system of philosophy that goes into all subjects physical and metaphysical according to its syllogistic method. 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. In Mahabharata, the word pravicalita is used to mean ‘moved, shaken’.
(4) gamyate yadi mrigendra-mandire labhyate kari-kapola-mauktikam ǀ
jambuka-aalaya-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 the metaphor of a lion (king [Indra] of beasts [mriga]) and a jackal to highlight the large hiatus in status between a king and his servants or hangers-on (jackal). The central idea conveyed is what one should expect to get on visiting a king’s palace and the house (aalaya) of his servants. 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 brings out the differential worth between a high and mighty person and an ordinary worker. In another version, 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 absolute loyalty to his master and the latter is considered deceptive and cunning. 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 or can be sure to get good things if you visit a king and nothing if you visit a servant.
(5) yasmin yathaa vartate yo manushyah tasmin tathaa vartitavyam sa dharmah ǀ
Maayaa-acaro maayayaa vaaraneeyah sadhoo-acaarah saadhoonaa pratyupeyah ǁ
Translation: Whenever (yasmin) any (yah/yo) one/person (manushyah) behaves (vartate) in a particular way (yathaa), he must be treated (vartitavyam) in the very same way (tasmin tathaa), that (sa) isdharmah (prescribed conduct, duty, law, virtue, established decree, custom). Deceptive behaviour (maaya-acaro) should be 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 maayaa (deception) with maayaa 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.
(6) dina-ante ca pived dugdham nishaa-ante ca pivetpayah ǀ
bhojana-ante pivet-takram kim vaidyasya prayojanam ǁ
Translation: At day-end (dina-ante) one should, indeed (ca), drink (pivet) milk (dugdham) and (ca) at night-end (nishaa-ante) one should drink (pivet) water (payah). After meal (bhojana-ante), one should drink (pivet) takram (butter milk mixed with water or thickened butter-milk). (If you do all these), where (kim) is the need (prayojanam) of a physician (vaidyasya)?
Commentary: This advisory on preventive health care tells what one should drink and when. We are used to drinking milk at night before going to sleep. But, here, we are advised to drink milk at sun-set. Possibly this is written keeping in mind persons who skip the night-meal for one reason or the other. Drinking water at dawn, day-break or on waking up in the morning is a practice with many of us including myself. This habit of first drinking water after waking up in the morning has manifold health benefits on our body-system, especially the digestive. Bhojana here means a meal or any enjoyment. Drinking butter milk diluted with water after meals is something many of us do and is good in a predominantly hot and dry climate such as the land of the Bharatas. According to the author, if these habits are followed, there is no need to consult a physician. What, in all probability, implied in this hyperbole is: many ailments can be avoided by following certain simple recipes on an every-day basis, and they cost extra little. In the olden days, and even now, in many parts of the world, number of deaths due to neglect of or aggravations from minor illnesses such as cold, flu, dysentery is large.
A singular characteristic of all subhaashitas is that they present a new perspective on life, on a life event, situation or circumstance. They are drawn from real life experiences but there are also subhaashitani(plural of subhaashitam) on philosophy and metaphysics taken from Vedas, Upanishads, Puraanas, Bhagavat-Gita or else where. 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.
The vast majority of these wise sayings can be made relevant for today provided they are interpreted correctly with slight modifications here and there. I learnt by heart a very large number of these Subhaashitas in my youth. That was the time when I could converse in Sanskrit. I can not recite those Subhaashitani from memory now; ages have passed since then, but they have not all faded from my memory completely. It is important to point out that the translations I have provided here are not free-hand translations.
The heart of any language is its grammar and this is particularly so for Sanskrit in which a mere addition or deletion of a maatraa can alter the meaning or significance of a sentence considerably. Samskrit alphabet has 50-51 letters which give the language immense power to express any kind of thought concisely and clearly. This is one single most important reason why a popular and great literary art form such as Subhaashitam is made possible.
~ by DR. SACHIDANAND DAS , PhD (Science, 1981, Bombay), BSc (Gold Medalist in Physics, Loyola College, Chennai,1964), BSc (English, Sanskrit, Mathematics, Chemistry, Economics, Political Science, 1964), FUWAI (1999), Distinguished Leadership Award and Advisor (RBI, USA), Franklin Templeton Award Winner (2015), CSci (London, 1985), Man of the Year by RBI (1997) and Member New York Academy of Sciences (1995), SERC Visiting Fellowship, London (1984), Certificate From World Pranic Healing Foundation, Inc (1999).