Bhartrhari’s Nine Fears of Mankind

By K S Venkataraman (e-mail: and

Arun Jatkar (e-mail:

Bhartrhari is a celebrated Sanskrit poet of India belonging to the 5th century during the Gupta’s period. He is the author of the famous Tri-Satakam (literally, The Three-Hundreds), on three topics ─ Vairaagyam (Dispassion), Neeti (Good Conduct), and Shrngaaram (Sensuality) ─ with one hundred verses on each. Decades ago, when we read his sensuous verses on Shrngaaram, we wondered how Bhartrhari could also write profoundly on Vairaagyam (Dispassion).  We found that Bhartrhari is not unique here. TiruvaLLuvar (वळ्ळुवर् not वल्लुवर्), the author of the famous 2000-year old Tamil literary work called TirukkuraL with 1330 couplets, wrote along similar lines. For most mortals, the transition from Sensuality to Dispassion is a natural and healthy one, coming from one’s mental maturity and also because of age-related drop in testosterone in men and estrogen in women.

In any case, here is one verse by Bhartrhari from the Vairaagya Satakam on the nine fears of mankind, first in the Devanagari script, and then in a non-literary, but factual translation:

Bhartrhari versse in Devanagari

In gratification of sensual pleasures, the fear of ailments;

In noble pedigree, the fear of disgrace;  In wealth, the fear of kings;

In status, the fear of hardship;  In strength, the fear of enemies;

In beauty, the fear of decay;  In scholarship, the fear of challengers;

In virtues, the fear of slander;   In the body, the fear of death.

In this world, everything for mankind is filled with fear. 

Dispassion alone gives freedom from fear.

On first reading, the verse is straightforward and rather mundane.  However, on many levels, the messages conveyed are profound for their timelessness, given that the verse is 1500 years old.

On Indulgence: The Sanskrit word bhoga means sensual gratification that needs to be understood in many contexts. There is no need to expand on the most common sensual pleasure. There are other types of sensual gratification. The common one is gluttony — overindulgence in the calorie-packed and unhealthy food and drinks. Even modern medicine emphasizes moderation in these, something Asian cultures have insisted through the millennia. Observing Bhartrhari start his verse with sensual gratifications, we can infer that people overindulged even in his time.

Fear of Kings: It is interesting that in the case of wealth, Bhartrhari talks about the fear of kings, and not thieves and robbers. Today, with elected governments replacing kings of yesteryear, landowners are afraid of land ceilings and ownership through legislation; business people are afraid of governments nationalizing industries and bringing in foreign and domestic competition. Even when these laws are enacted for public good, land and business owners always cry foul for getting a better deal out of the government.

And people with wealth are perpetually anxious of changes in tax and inheritance/estate laws to protect their wealth. This fear is what is forcing them to stash their money — hard-earned or not, well-gotten or ill-gotten — in secret off-shore banks.

Fear of Falling from Grace: This fear is universal. Today we see people from blue-blooded or rich families, religious leaders, celebrities, politicians and others, get arrested for sexual misconduct and financial irregularities. In the US, even prestigious Catholic dioceses carry liability insurance out of fear of lawsuits against errant priests’ misconduct. Several dioceces in the US also filed for financial bankruptcy after losing their moral edge, in the wake of  lawsuits involving wide spread pedophilia indulged by Catholic priests that was covered up by church leadership not only in local churches, but also by the bishops of dioceses, prelates, going all the way up to to the Pope in the Vatican.

Fear of Enemies: No kingdom remains strong forever. Towards the end of Mahabharata, Arjuna, the most celebrated warrior, finds himself helpless against the tribesmen who attack and rob the ornaments of the women he was escorting to safety from Dwaraka to Hastinapuram. The mighty Roman Empire collapsed under the brute force of the Barbarians from Northern Europe. Between the 8th and 12th centuries, the mighty Hindu kingdoms of Northern India succumbed to the invading Arab, Turkish and Afghani armies. The Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War. The tiny island nation of England spread its reign over five continents and finally shrank back to its original confines. After the Second World War, it seemed like the U.S. would forever remain an unrivalled military power in the world because of the nuclear weapons. But that dream shattered several years afterwards.

So the strong nations of today, the US, France, Germany, Russia, China, and England, spend billions year after year to upgrade their armies and weapon systems out of their fear of enemies, both real and perceived. Even in poorer countries defense budgets gobble up a large portion of the national budget, while their citizens don’t have access to half-decent education and healthcare. The fear of enemies is not confined to military might alone. Economic and technological threat among nations is also real.

Fear of Decay Due to Aging: No one remains handsome or beautiful forever. Time takes its toll wreaking havoc on one’s health and beauty. In earlier days people accepted this as natural. However, advances in science have given hope that beauty can be preserved for a longer span of time. Among women, the fear of fading beauty with aging has spawned a whole new industry — Cosmetic and Reconstructive Surgery — originally developed to treat burn victims and people with severe deformities. In 2014 in the US, 92% of all elective cosmetic procedures were performed on women: One million cosmetic procedures on women under 30 years of age and a whopping 13.8 million on women over 30. (Source: www.plastic Today, the original intent of plastic surgery may account for less than 5% of plastic surgeons’ lucrative business.

Fear of Competition: We all understand the insecurity that professionals, college professors (including tenured ones), lawyers, doctors, artistes, and engineers feel from colleagues perceived to be better than themselves; or when newer technologies make their skills useless. While they profess that competition is good for society at large, as individual professionals they are not philosophical when they see competition threatening their own survival, or demolishing their theories or defunding their pet projects.

In today’s consumer world progress is seen as synonymous with higher per-capita consumption of every commodity. So, people caught in the whirlpool of trying to get ahead of others in the comparative lifestyle today may not agree with Bhartrhari’s advice that Vairaagyam (dispassion) is the antidote for fear. But people standing out of the vortex of consumerism are beginning to say, “Enough.”

In any case, even those who disagree with Bhartrhari’s antidote to fear will agree that his Nine Fears of Man are as valid today as they were 1500 years ago when he wrote the verse. These fears are still the driving forces controlling not only our individual behavior, but also our collective behavior as societies, corporations and nations.  ♦

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