Vairāgya

Can poems be definitions?

I’ve been thinking about the concept of Vairāgya, which Sir Monier Monier-Williams defines as “disgust, aversion, distate for or loathing” or more philosophically as “freedom from all worldly desires, indifference to worldly objects and to life, asceticism”.  This term is central to the thought of many thinkers, so to get to the bottom of it, I decided to turn to poetry, specifically Bhartṛhari’s Vairāgyaprakaraṇa, a chapter of stanzas on the topic.  This poem made my heart stop:

na dhyātaṃ padam īśvarasya vidhivatsaṃsāravicchittaye
svargadvārakavāṭapāṭanapaṭurdharmo’pi nopārjitaḥ |
nārīpīnapayodharoruyugalaṃ svapne ‘pi nāliṅgitaṃ
mātuḥ kevalameva yauvanavanacchede kuṭhārā vayam ||

Here’s my translation, which doesn’t do it any justice:

We did not meditate upon the feet of God

To cut our ties to worldly existence

As is required;

Nor did we acquire merit strong enough

To force open the doors at heaven’s gates;

Even in our dreams

We did not embrace the round breasts of women.

We were only axes

Cutting down the forests of our mothers’ youth.

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