What is rare as the ‘chintamani’ (alchemy) that turns iron into gold, goes an old question. The ‘chaturbhadram’ or Four Greatnesses, is the reply. Pat comes the query: what are these Four Greatnesses? The answer is one for the ages: ‘daanam priyavaaksahitam jnaanamagarvam kshamaanvitam shauryam vittam tyaagasametam durlabhametat chaturbhadram, meaning ‘a gift accompanied by soothing pleasant words, knowledge without conceit, courage tempered by forgiveness, wealth coupled with generosity — these, known as the Four Greatnesses, are rare indeed.
So, ‘What is to be lamented?’ ‘Stinginess’ is the shatteringly accurate answer. ‘Who is dumb? One who cannot utter kind and sweet words at the appropriate time’. ‘Whom do the very celestials (devas) salute? The one whose chief virtue is kindness’. ‘Ko vairi? Who is the foe? ‘It is but laziness’.
‘What is the cause of greatness? That which is known as not asking for favours.’ What is giving? Expecting no return, whereas, What is the kalpa (wish-giving) creeper of the world? Knowledge imparted to the earnest student. And alongside, Where is effort ordained? In learning, good medicine and charity.
What should the practical goals of life be? Knowledge, wealth, strength, fame and merit. But What is the destroyer of all good qualities? Greed.
Of course, there are predictable bits: What is as fleeting as lightning? The company of bad persons and young women and What makes a person free from sorrow? A submissive wife and abiding means of livelihood. At this point, we must consider that its a never-a-householder sanyasi speaking and how would he know? In fact hes told to go find out by a woman named Saraswati and smartly chooses to experience samsara (life, not the Guerlain perfume) as a king, not a woodcutter.
These questions and their mostly excellent answers are from the Prashnottara Ratna Malikaby Adi Shankara, the 67 Q&A in Sanskrit that he composed as a self-help book, sort of an ancient Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for men in the 8th century who had the right to be educated. Incidentally, among women, a respectable woman did not have this right but a courtesan did, perhaps to equip her to specialise as the thinking mans bimbo.
Whatever, the point is that a heap of Shankaras handouts make sense even today and the stuff about gender and caste can be edited right out, which may reduce the 67 by a few. But like he said, What adorns speech? Truth.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture