Sanskrit 101 and the Misery of Material Existence

By Steven J. Rosen (Satyarāja Dāsa)

The world is a mixed bag; we know that. Good and bad permeate our lives. Sometimes we are happy, and other times we are sad. Even though our hardships begin with birth itself and then graduate to various forms of disease, leading to old age and inevitable death, we manage to find moments of respite, even relish, as we make our way through life. If we are fortunate enough to find spiritual awakening, we can even move beyond the dualities of material existence and taste the sweet nectar of the Absolute, eternally.

Indeed, early Sanskrit texts inform us that the common goals of life — sense gratification (kāma), economic development (artha), and religiosity (dharma) — are known as trivarga or the “three categories” of human endeavor, and that they are fraught with problems, from birth to death. Beyond these three, there exists the pursuit of liberation (mokṣa), a relief from the drudgery of life, which is highly sought after and rarely achieved. Taken together, these four are the usual course of action for all souls in this world (puruṣārtha).

In the words of early Sanskritists, trivarga is meant to lead to apavarga. Let me explain what this means. Trivarga is defined above. The word apavarga is formed from the combination of the prefix apa, “away, off, back” + varga (from the root vṛj), meaning “completion or end.” Varga can also mean “group, class, or set.” So apavarga refers to “going out or away from an established class or group.” Thus, when souls move beyond the common goals of material existence, they embrace apavarga. That is to say, when people bid adieu to the path of material tribulation, they do so by surrendering unto Krishna, in one form or another, developing love for Him and, as a result, finding eternal happiness.

These philosophical truths, using the terms trivarga and apavarga, have been espoused by great Vaishnava ācāryas throughout history, often by employing a specific Sanskrit pun. As it turns out, Sanskrit’s various linguistic categories are also known as “vargas,” occupying five phonetic groups: ka-varga (guttural), ca-varga (palatal), ta-varga (lingual), ta-varga (dental), and pa-varga (labial). 

The last of these vargas — the part of the Sanskrit alphabet that is here being discussed as a pun — includes a group of five consonants: pa, pha, ba, bha and ma. These very consonants are interpreted as representing five misery-laden characteristics of worldly existence.

The prolific 16th-century spiritual master, Rūpa Goswami, explains this as follows in his Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (2.1.205):

parābhavaṁ phenila-vaktratāṁ ca
bandhaṁ ca bhītiṁ ca mṛtiṁ ca kṛtvā
pavarga-dātāpi śikhaṇḍa-maule
tvaṁ śātravāṇām apavarga do ‘si

“O Kṛṣṇa, whose head is decorated with a peacock feather, although You impose pavarga on Your enemies—i.e., defeat, foaming mouth, bondage, fear, and death—You give them apavarga (liberation) as well.”

Unless one is familiar with both Sanskrit and Vaishnava philosophy, it is difficult to unpack the depth of this pun. Not only is it complicated in terms of multilayered meaning but also in terms of sophisticated word play. 

Briefly, the verse tells us that Kṛṣṇa brings forth into the world the five labial consonants (pavarga), but in saying this it simultaneously says that He kills His enemies with the miseries of material existence. And yet, by that very method, He liberates them as well (apavarga).

Śrīla Prabhupāda gives the essential meaning of this pun in The Nectar of Devotion (Chapter 22), his summary-study of Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu:

Another name for salvation is apavarga. Apavarga is the opposite of pavarga, or the various miserable conditions of material existence. The word pa-varga indicates the combination of five Sanskrit letters: pa, pha, ba, bha and ma. These letters are the first letters of the words for five different conditions as described below. The first letter, pa, comes from the word parābhava, which means “defeat.” In this material struggle for existence, we are simply meeting defeat. Actually, we have to conquer birth, death, disease and old age, and because there is no possibility of overcoming all these miserable conditions, due to the illusion of māyā we are simply meeting with parābhava, or defeat. The next letter, pha, is taken from the word phena. Phena is the foam that is found on the mouth when one is very tired (as is commonly observed with horses). The letter ba comes from the word bandha, or bondage. Bha is taken from the word bhīti, or fearfulness. Ma is taken from the word mṛti, or death. So the word pavarga signifies our struggle for existence and our meeting with defeat, exhaustion, bondage, fearfulness and, at last, death. Apavarga means that which can nullify all of these material conditions. Kṛṣṇa is said to be the giver of apavarga, the path of liberation.

Elsewhere in Prabhupāda’s books, he varies the specific Sanskrit words used in this connection. For example, in his Śrīmad Bhāgavatam commentary (7.13.25, he writes that, “pa means pariśrama, very hard labor.” In the Teachings of Queen Kunti (Chapter 26), he adds “frustration” (vyarthā, for ba)1 and “fear” (bhaya, for bha). But despite these minor variations, and others, too, the end result is always the same: pavarga, i.e., the miseries of material existence, are only counteracted by apavarga, or Kṛṣṇa, who is the source of both matter and spirit.

Śrīla Prabhupada’s disciple Gour Govinda Maharaja elaborates on the journey from pavarga to apavarga:

Pa’ is taken to stand for pariśrama, hard labor—gardabhera mata āmi kari pariśrama—those on the path of pa-varga toil like an ass. Then ‘pha’. From such hard toil, pheṇa, foam, will come out from your mouth. Then comes ‘ba’, which stands for biṣāda, lamentation, disappointment and pessimism. Following that is ‘bha’, which stands for bhaya, fear. In this world there is fear at every moment. “Oh, there is war declared now! What shall we do? Now we’ll die! Everything will be destroyed.” The last letter, ‘ma’, stands for mṛtyu, death. These five alphabets are pa-varga. Those who do not tread the path of hard labor, foam coming from the mouth, lamentation, fear, leading ultimately only to death are said to treading the path of ‘a-pa-varga’. Kapila Muni says, āśv apavarga-vartmani—you should tread the path of a-pa-varga, the path of liberation, the path of devotional service (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 3.25.25). Then, śraddhā ratir bhaktir anukramiṣyati—gradually you’ll develop śraddhā, faith; rati, taste; and ultimately pure bhakti.

From a lecture on Nectar of Instruction text 3. Bhubaneswar, January 15 1991

So, in the end, the term “pa-varga” is a mnemonic that abbreviates certain letters of the Sanskrit alphabet while revealing specific aspects of misery in the material world. In this way, devotees are afforded a neatly outlined description of life for embodied beings. The most common listing would be as follows:

  • paparabhava, “defeat” (sometimes also parisrama, “hard labor”)
  • phaphena, “foam”
  • babandha, “bondage” (sometimes vyarthā, “frustration”)
  • bhabhaya or bhiti, “fear”
  • mamrtyu, “death”

As previously mentioned, pavarga can only be overcome by surrendering to Krishna, who is also known as Anapavarga-virya. This is a name that means “one whose strength is unlimited” or, as Prabhupada translates it (following the commentator Sridhar Swami), “one whose prowess is never defeated.” (See Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 4.30.43) Indeed, for those of us who are mortals, material tribulation seems insurmountable, attacking us from every angle, but if we take shelter of Krishna, who is more powerful than anyone or anything in existence, our liberation from misery is guaranteed.

  1. The word vyarthī and its variants might be considered somewhat peculiar for ba in this case, but in Bengali the v- would be vocalized as b-, and so this alternation is often found in Bengali texts and manuscripts. []

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