When a Spotless Poet Mortgaged an Alphabet in his Name

When a Spotless Poet Mortgaged an Alphabet in his Name

The story of the 13th Century Kannada poet named Rudrabhatta, who pledged an alphabet in his name to get a loan.

WHEN WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE memorably said, “neither a borrower, nor a lender be. For loan oft loses both itself and friend,” he merely stated an eternal truth of worldly life. There’s a reason moneylenders have been universally reviled since money was introduced. Usury was among the main reasons why Jews were subject to such hatred. It is the same reason our Marwaris, Gujaratis, Sindhis and Settis are derided. 

But we now live in an indebted era in which the global economic system actively encourages and abets people to entrap themselves in liability. Borrowing is no longer considered shameful. On the contrary, it has become fashionable to not only borrow but to renege on the loan and bask in your default. Ask Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi & co. 

Changing attitudes notwithstanding, some elements in every cultured society remain unchangeable. For example, the typical borrower subconsciously hates to pay interest on the sum they have borrowed. It is “free” money that the lender gets without sweat. On his part, the lender might forgo the principal but is merciless in collecting interest. Interest is also the recurring salt on the original wound called pledge: no lender will lend without taking a collateral. 

Like in all societies, the Hindu society too, recognised the typical items that can be offered as collateral: land, house, jewellery, etc. However, when we excavate history, it reveals a rich harvest of real-life stories that show the exalted side of moneylending. 

This is one such story. 

It is set in Sugandhapura or Sugandhavarti or Saundatti. Seventy-eight kilometres from Belagavi. Forty-one kilometres from Dharwad. 

For nearly four centuries, Saundatti was helmed by the Ratta dynasty, a branch of the imperial Rashtrakutas. While they were devout Jainas, they also patronised and nourished all Panthas. Their regime was elevated by prolific Basadi-building activity and refined by literature. Overall, the Ratta kingdom reflected the same ambience of all great Sanatana empires: a society that was bound by piety and cultured by education and the arts.  

AN EXTRAORDINARY KANNADA INSCRIPTION dated July 3, 1228 describes the atmosphere in Saundatti. It was ruled by the Mahamandalesvara (Governor) Lakshmideva. He was the “delight of the sages and wise men.” He was as valorous as Rama and endowed with his virtues. He was assisted by a council of the most excellent and competent ministers and Munis. 

Mallikarjuna was one such minister.

His son is the protagonist of our story. His name is Rudrabhatta, hailing from the Atri gotra

From his boyhood, Rudrabhatta distinguished himself as a precocious student. He grew up to become well-versed in the “best sciences.” But he was primarily renowned as a Su-Kavi — an outstanding poet.  

This is how the inscription extols him: “Rudrabhatta was the king of poets. From Sarasvati, he acquired excellence of speech. He may be compared in the excellence of his poetry with his illustrious predecessor of the same name: Rudrabhatta. He became an excellent poet in just six months after commencing his studies.”   

The older Rudrabhatta is the renowned author of Jagannatha Vijaya, a long poem in the Champu style. He flourished in the reign of the Hoysala monarch, Vira Ballala II.

Our Rudrabhatta’s poetic prowess and prodigious learning earned him a grant of eighteen villages from the ruler. Life was obviously good for him until it wasn’t. All of a sudden, his family was hit by calamity. While the inscription doesn’t give any details of the misfortune, it clearly says that Rudrabhatta was on the edge of bankruptcy. Accordingly, he approached a wealthy man in Saundatti seeking a loan of one thousand gold coins. This is where the full extent of Rudrabhatta’s penury is revealed: he had nothing to offer as collateral. 

What follows is what makes this story so profound. He told the moneylender that he would offer one alphabet in his name as collateral. Henceforth, he would drop the letter Bha from his name. The letter would be in the moneylender’s custody till the loan was returned. Thus, from then on, Rudrabhaṭṭa was addressed as Rudraṭa by all the citizens of Saundatti. This was akin to humiliation of a profound sort. 

To understand the significance of this, we need to transport ourselves back to the social and cultural milieu of that era. The surname Bhatta was held in reverence by the entire society. The person who bore it had to necessarily embody Panditya or Vidwat (scholarship) through both learning and conduct. His surname itself was a lifelong reminder of this sacred vow. And those who bore it took it seriously. And so, we can only imagine Rudrabhatta’s deep anguish when circumstances forced him to pledge it. In fact, there is intense significance in the letter, Bha, which means “sun,” “light,” “radiance,” etc. By choosing to pledge it, Rudrabhatta was, in a way, mortgaging the light of his scholarship. Which also opens another insight: that the Sanatana tradition regards the sale or trade of knowledge as a great sin. 

Rudrabhatta could have chosen to pledge any letter in his name but he consciously chose Bha. It would be a constant self-reminder of his indebtedness, which would be reinforced each time the people of Saundatti addressed him as Rudraṭa.  

The eminent scholar of archeology, Prof. S.K. Dixit makes a poignant observation about this episode: “Those were the days when the scholar’s name was literally honoured.” 

Equal credit of honour should go to the moneylender who actually accepted the letter Bha as collateral and lent a thousand gold coins to Rudrabhatta. How does one encash an alphabet? And what does this tell us about the value system of our ancestors? 

The story has a happy ending. Rudrabhatta stoically bore the self-inflicted insult of his truncated name. Eventually, he returned the loan and ”got back“ his alphabet. The inscription describes the whole episode as his “spotless achievement.” 

I concur with my head bowed.

Postscript

Remember, this episode is not fictional. And because it is not fictional, it makes the crime worse — of not including such character-sculpting episodes in our school textbooks. A ten-year-old kid can flawlessly understand it but it appears as though our “educational system” has been designed to develop immunity against virtue.      

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