Raja Bhartrihari of Ujjain was believed to be a person with a sage mind. He had lost, in early youth, his first wife owing to unusual and tragic circumstances.
One day, while out on a hunt, Bhartrihari happened to pass by a funeral pyre upon which a Brahmin’s widow had burnt herself live alongside her dead husband.
On his return to the palace, he narrated the traumatic incident to his loving wife Sita, popularly known as Rani Sita. She observed that “virtuous women die with their husbands, killed by the fire of grief alone, and not by the flames of the pyre.”
Doubting the genuineness of her belief, after an affectionate farewell, Bhartrihari rode into a distant village and sent back his royal robe torn and strained to his loving wife, implying some harm had befallen him.
Unfortunately, Sita Rani did not take the news well. Even before the messenger could convey that it was all a joke, the young queen was overcome by grief and perished on the spot. Widower Bhartrihari remained inconsolable for a long time.
After that tragic incident, Bhartrihari led a dull life and remained celibate for a long time. He channelized his energies towards the welfare of his people and state. His reign, that point onwards, marked an era of significant economic as well as social progress. Lives of his subjects were beyond comfortable, while his enemies trembled in fear.
His days, on a personal level, were rather dull. He had forbidden all pleasure for himself and was working in the palace harder than the pauper in his hut. He dedicated his free time to learning Vedic philosophies of the Rishis.
His ministers began worrying that he would become a renunciate. Life, however, had something unexpected in the offing for Bhartrihari. To the relief of his ministers and relatives, he fell head over heels for a delightful maiden who also happened to be the princess of his neighboring kingdom. Her name was Pingala (later corrupted as Dangla). Soon they were married. The hermit raja was a family man again.
So enthralled was Bhartrihari by his Pingala Rani that he kept no secrets from her. He was willing to commit even a heinous offence at her command. The mighty King would not even drink a glass of water without her permission. The revered hermit-philosopher, to win her smile, would don the attire of a girl and dance as a maiden.
Alas, as wise Rishis have declared, “Love breeds but not love.” The same was true with Bhartrihari. The warmth of his affection, instead of amusing his wife, annoyed her. His steadfast loyalty wearied her, his absolute commitment gave her headaches, and his touch made her shiver. Of course, smitten by her charm, Bhartrihari perceived nothing wrong.
He was lost in wonder and admiration at the queen’s beauty and demeaner. That was not all.
Pingala had begun lavishing all the passion of her idle soul upon the King’s bodyguard now assigned for her security. Needless to say, the King was unaware of the affair. By these means, the three were as happy as could be.
But, their bliss, having been built on a rotten foundation, was short-lived.
Bhartrihari’s younger brother, Prince Vikramaditya, who was also among the King’s trusted advisers, soon found out about the unhealthy relationship between the queen and her bodyguard. Vikramaditya was learned and worldly wise. He was aware of the severe consequences, should the King learn about the misconduct of his endearing queen. Bhartrihari had already suffered significantly from the untimely demise of his first wife – it was unlikely he would ever be able to recuperate from this second blow. Hence, Vikramaditya took it upon himself to reassign the bodyguard elsewhere and place a trusted replacement to secure the queen.
Pingala did not take it lying down. She stormed into the royal assembly and alleged that Vikramaditya had done so with sly intentions on the queen. She demanded that Vikramaditya be expelled, not just from the court but also the kingdom. Nobody in the King’s cabinet believed the queen’s allegations, but the King was completely under her spell. He accepted her demand and ensured that Vikramaditya was barred not just from the court and city but also the kingdom. Vikramaditya did not challenge the royal decree and left the court and kingdom quietly.
After a couple of days had passed, an old Brahman appeared in the court of Bhartrihari with an apple as an offering. “O revered King, kindly accept this humble gift,” he said.
“Be advised,” he added, “This is no ordinary apple. It has been blessed by the goddess Kali herself and anyone who consumes this will enjoy long and romantic life.”
King Bhartrihari was sceptical of the claim and asked the Brahman as to why he did not consume it himself. To this, the old Brahman replied, “O King, I am a Brahman. I have outlived my youthfulness and have lost interest in romantic fantasies. However, I do have a family suffering abject poverty. Before I am liberated from this body, I desire to leave behind a sizeable wealth for my dependants. As wise Rishis have justly declared, ‘To die is a passing pain but to be poor is an eternal anguish.’ Besides, I am also in agreement with the Rishis’ declaration, ‘It is better to die loved in youth and not hated in old age.’ If you would be generous to offer me a sizeable material reward for my family to live comfortably – that would be more desirous to me than the youth and romantic escapades the fruit can offer.”
Touched by the old Brahman’s words, Bhartrihari gave him a sizeable gift and approached his queen Pingala with the fruit. “Eat this blessed fruit my love; for this fruit will make you everlastingly young and beautiful.”
Pingala charmingly responded in a whisper, “Eat it yourself, my love, for what is life and what is youth without the presence of those we love?” But Bhartrihari, whose heart melted by these unusual words, put her away tenderly, and, having explained that the fruit would serve for only one person, departed.
Soon, the queen summoned her secret lover and passed on the apple to him. That was, however, not to be the end of it. Her lover was having an affair with the maid of honour to the queen. He slipped away the apple to her. The maid was an ambitious and determined girl. She decided to gift it to the King himself in exchange for some reward, or position or both.
Unpleasantly surprised, Bhartrihari took the apple in his hands and looked at it with tears in his eyes. He realized that it was the same fruit. His heart ached, and he felt betrayed. Yet, he was unwilling to accept that his dear queen had been unfaithful to him. He took it upon himself to find the whole truth. He was least happy when he realized his queen was having an affair with her bodyguard. He was filled with remorse when he found out that his dear brother Vikramaditya was aware of the whole morbid affair and that his decision to change the queen’s bodyguard was to diffuse the situation with minimal damage.
That was not all. Bhartrihari also understood the severe consequences that had incurred due to his absence from the court and from adhering to the advice of his beloved queen. His sense of betrayal almost doubled when he realized how he had failed his subjects. He realized he had failed his position.
However, he did not take any decisions of haste. First, he meted out justice to all the culprits, put his house in order and located his brother, in whom he found a worthy successor. After having placed Vikramaditya on the throne, Bhartrihari relinquished his material possessions and desires before retiring to the woods.
Legend has it that Vikramaditya always held Bhartrihari in high esteem and sought his counsel in matters where his own, or his advisers’, intellect failed. But Bhartrihari never stepped back into the palace even though he began to be revered as ‘Rajaguru’.
Two works of Bhartrihari are regarded as classics in Vedic literature, namely: Neeti Shataka (100 verses on morality) and Vairagya Shataka (100 verses on renunciation). Sringara Shataka, which some believe to be written by him during his days with Pingala, is another work; it is compared to Kamasutra of Vatsayana.