PART 2: THE MATERIAL BONDS
We saw in the first verse, reviewed in Part I, the counsel to rest one’s mind on Lord Govinda from an early age. We interpret this more broadly as a call to adopt a spiritual life early on. The threefold repetition of it in the verse lends itself to more interpretations: we should worship through our mind (thoughts), words (speech), and body (actions) – मनसा manasaa, वाचा vaacha, and कर्मणा karmanaa; also, we should worship for the proper handling of the three types of afflictions we all suffer, namely, endogenous ones due to bodily and mental ailments (आध्यामिक aadhyaatmika), exogenous ones caused by others and other externalities (आधि भौतिक aadhi boudhika), and finally those due to natural and divine causes (आधि दैविक aadhi daivika).
In many verses to follow, Sri Sankara takes head on the pursuit of wealth and other worldly things and pleasures as major detractors from the path of spirituality. The portrayals in these verses of the negative aspects of worldly ties and pursuits need to be interpreted carefully as an admonition against indiscriminate indulgence in them for their own sake at the expense of one’s growth into a higher plane. After all, some of these pursuits and bonds are indeed what everyone — except the precocious sanyaasins (renunciates) and a few others incapacitated in some way — routinely pursue, nay indeed must pursue to some degree, especially in their role as grahastaas (householders) as even expected duty.
In this context, note especially that the author of Bhaja Govindam is the same Aachaarya who starts his commentary to the Bhagavat Gita by stating that twofold indeed are the dharma adhering to vedas, which form the very basis for the sustenance of the universe: those involving action (acquisition); and those involving cessation of action (renunciation) -“द्विविधो हि वेदोक्तो धर्मः, प्रवृत्तिलक्षणो निवृत्तिलक्षणश्च, जगतः स्थितिकारणम्।” (DwividhO hi vEdOktO dharma: – pravrithi lakshana: nivrthilakshanascha, jagata: Sthitikaaranam). Thus, Sri Sankara does not hold worldly pursuits in such disdain as to call everyone to sanyaasa, but only advices to keep one’s pursuits legitimate and in conformity with dharma, making adequate room for the contemplation of higher goals. Indeed, not only Sri Sankara’s teachings, but most of our entire religious literature does give an equal importance to all the stations ( आश्रमाः aashramaas) of life, be it as a householder (गृहस्तः grahasta) or as a renunciate (sanyaasi सन्यासिः). For example, the great saint Taayumaanavar said in Tamil: If one lives a life of noble deeds unconcerned and with the firm conviction that God is indeed the one who spins the world like a top at the end of a string, then life as a householder and as a renunciate are both exalted — சாட்டையில் பம்பர ஜாலம் போல் ஆட்டுவான் இறை என்று அறிந்து, நெஞ்சமே தேட்டமொன்றற அருள் செயலில் நிற்றியேல், வீட்டறம் துறவறம் இரண்டும் மேன்மையே (“Saattayil bambara jaalam pOl aattuvaan irai enru arindu, nenjamE tEttamonrara arul cheyalil nitriyEl, veettaram turavaram irandum mEnmayE”).
Much as it is true that certain of our pursuits are problem prone, becoming a renunciate as an act of escapism is not recommended anywhere. Like most other things in life, sanyaasa too is a change to be embraced for a positive reason. Indeed, there is no need for one to become despondent or depressed on reading what is to follow, for the intent is to help one develop an appropriate amount of detachment that is absolutely necessary to enjoy the fruits of one’s actions without being bound by them.
And, as for desires, they are natural in beings. The Lord himself says in Bhagavat Gita (Chapter 9, verse 11) that He manifests as desire in all beings (भूतेषु कामोस्मि भरतर्षभ bhootEshu kaamOsmi Bharatarshabha) legitimizing thereby one’s desires, as long as they are unopposed to dharma (धर्म अविरुद्ध dharma avirudhdha), as noted in the same verse. Thus, what is criticized is the act of becoming a slave to one’s desires and letting the desires run amuck. [By the way, it is for these types of subtle and incisive clarifications that one needs a guru who has done much contemplation (मनन manana) on the deeper import of the terse teachings of the great seers and can cross correlate the teachings from diverse texts and contexts.]
मूढ जहीहि धनागमतृष्णां
कुरु सद्बुद्धिं मनसि वितृष्णाम् |
वित्तं तेन विनोदय चित्तम् ||
Mooda jaheehi dhanaagama trushnaam
Kuru sadbuddhim manasi vitrshnaam
YallabhasE nija karmOpaattam
Vittam tEna viNodaya chittam
Oh ignorant ! (मूढ mooda!) Win over (जहीहि jaheehi) the thirst for the inflow of wealth (धन आगम तृष्णां dhana aagama trushnaam). In your mind (मनसि manasi) develop (कुरु kuru) detached noble thoughts (वितृष्णां सद्बुद्धिं vitrshnaam sadbuddhim). Rejoice your mind (विनोदय चित्तं vinOdaya chittam) with that wealth (तेन वित्तं tena vittam) which is obtained (यत् लभसे yat labhase) with your own efforts or karma (निज कर्म उपात्तं nija karma upaattam).
As a householder, one has to earn money and acquire various possessions to support one’s family and also to meet one’s obligations to society. The great poet Tiruvalluvar said that those without possessions do not really have a world here — பொருளில்லாற்கு இவ்வுலகு இல்லை (“porulillaarukku ivvulaku illai”). Bhartruhari wrote that those who do not have the capacity to earn can get subjected to chidings of the mother and the ire of the father and may lose the love of one’s consort — माता निन्दति, पिता कुप्यति, कान्ता च न आलिङ्गते (“maata nindati, pitaa kupyati, kaantaa cha na aalingatE”). Look at this verse from Bhaja Govindam itself:
स्तावन्निज परिवारो रक्तः |
पश्चाज्जीवति जर्जर देहे
वार्तां कोऽपि न पृच्छति गेहे ||
“Yaavad vithOpaarjana saktha:
Paschaajjeevati jarjara dehe
Vaarta kOpi na prchati gEhE”
So long as (यावद् yaavad) one is able to earn money (वित्त-उपार्जन-सक्तः vithah upaarjana saktha: ), [only] until then (तावत् taavat), one’s relations (निज परिवारः nija parivara: ) remain affectionate (रक्तः raktha: [santi]). Later [when one is unable to earn] (पश्चात् paschaat) one lives in a decript body (जर्जर देहे जीवति jarjara dehe jeevati). No one (कोपि न kOpi na) at home (गेहे gEhE) bothers to ask even a word (वार्तां पृच्छति vaarthaam prchati).
Even that learned seer, Sri Sankara, who opted for sanyaasa even as a boy and did not live to see old age, does indeed recognize the importance of wealth and security. But he is pointing out that just as education alone does not bring happiness particularly towards one’s end, nor does wealth. One does indeed need divine grace. In this verse, the adjective निज (nija) can be interpreted as qualifying one’s relations (परिवारः parivaara) as those that one begets without choice due to one’s प्रारब्दकर्मफल praarabda karma phala (the fruits of those actions in prior birth that has made one take this one), unlike the conscious choice of the more elevating relationship with Brahman that one can establish.
Wealth is only a means to certain ends, and if one pursues it for its own sake, then one can end up being possessed by one’s possessions. When one’s increasing desires grow into avarice, one inevitably gets afflicted by feelings of inadequacy and jealousy at others, and could fall into many temptations to do wrong. Each day’s newspaper has at least one such story especially from the political sphere and from the financial world. Although wealth may appear to be an exception to the ‘Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility’ of economics, in reality abundance of wealth and a mindless pursuit of it can indeed bring its own problems and thereby become a liability. Later in Bhaja Govindam, we will see a line पुत्रात् अपि धनभाजां भीतिः “putraat api dhanabhaajaaam bheeti:” (the wealthy are afraid of even their sons). History is replete with tales of many vile intrigues in various royal families of the past, and today we see even among the not-so-super-rich much strife caused by wealth, and strange insertions like “pre-nuptial agreements” and the like in what should otherwise be relationships of unconditional trust.
Going back to verse 2, the term “निजकर्मोपात्तं nijakarmOpaattam” in it lends itself to two equally important interpretations. At a mundane level, it translates to “what is obtained by one’s own true effort.” At a more philosophical level, it translates to “what is obtained as our प्रारब्दकर्म praarabda karma” in line with the Hindu belief that birth is taken by the human being, among others, to enjoy and pay off certain actions of prior births. While the former is a call to earn with integrity and to be content with what one gets as a payoff commensurate with one’s efforts and the value it offers, the latter is a call to accept whatever comes, with the attitude that it is a divine blessing ( प्रासादबुद्धिः prasaada buddhi). With a commitment to integrity one avoids further entanglement due to sinful actions, while with a prasaada buddhi, one is freed from envy and avarice making it easier to lead a life of integrity filled with inner peace.
Finally, of what use is wealth after all, if one spends most of one’s time worrying about its preservation or growth, and loses sleep over it? Wealthy indeed is the one who has no craving for more, and poor certainly is the one who is wanting more. No material possessions however dear can bring lasting happiness, for, happiness is a state of mind and, at a higher level, a realization of the true nature of the Self ( सत् चित् आनन्द sat-chit-aananda). That realization is enabled only by spiritual uplifting, and that uplifting cannot be made by others. It has to be done for one by oneself (“उद्धरेत् आत्मानं आत्मना UdvarEt aatmaanam aatmanaa”, Bhagavat Gita, Ch. 6, Verse 5). The line “कुरु सद्बुद्धिं मनसि वितृष्णां kuru sadbuddhim manasi vitrushnaam” is a prescription for the right antidote for the toxicity of our endless desires. Such replacement of an undesirable set of thoughts by something desirable is a technique in yoga sastra called प्रतिपक्षभावन prati paksha bhaavana (adopting an opposite standpoint). Clearly, contentment is the right antidote for craving.
In this context, the primary advice from the Aacharya comes in Verse 29 of Bhaja Govindam.
अर्थमनर्थं भावय नित्यं
नास्तिततः सुखलेशः सत्यम् |
पुत्रादपि धन भाजां भीतिः
सर्वत्रैषा विहिआ रीतिः ||
“Artham anartham bhaavaya nityam
Naasti tata: sukhalEsa: satyam
Putraadapi dhanabhaajaam bheeti:
Sarvatraishaa vihitaa reeti:”
Always (नित्यं nityam) consider (भावय bhaavaya) wealth (अर्थं artham) as harmful (अनर्थं anartham). Honestly (सत्यं satyam) in it (ततः tata: ) even a bit of happiness (सुखलेशः sukhalEsha:) does not obtain (न अस्ति na asti). To the wealthy (धनभाजां dhanabhaajaam) [there is] fear (भीतिः bheeti:) even from their own sons (पुत्रादपि putraadapi). Everywhere (सर्वत्र sarvatra) this (एशा Eshaa) [appears to be the] ordained way (विहिता रीतिः vihitaa reeti:).
Much as it is needed, money also creates anxiety and fear of losing it, increases one’s greed for more money, creates fear, suspicion and envy, and divides people. The pleasures it can buy are at best of a fleeting kind and at worst harmful. You may buy the best bed, but could you buy sleep? Therefore, even when one is young and is pursuing material wealth, one should constantly cultivate a measured detachment from it. Keeping one’s mind focused on the divine (Govinda) and keeping one’s compass on the true North through constant reinforcement by maintaining good company (सत्सङ्गः satsanga) are truly how one can prevent oneself from being parched by the thirst for wealth. Fortunate and most wealthy are indeed those who acquire that skill early on in life like the boy Nachiketa of KathOpanishad who refuses the offer of many types of wealth including ब्रह्मलोकः BrahmalOka (the heaven of unimaginable pleasures) by Lord Yamaa. He shuns them with the words, “All life is short, thine alone may remain thy horses, dance and song” सर्वं जीवितं अल्पमेव तवैव वाहाः तव नृत्यगीते (sarvam jeevitam aplpamEva, tavaiva vaahaa tava nrtyageetE), “Man is not satisfied by wealth” न वित्तेन तर्पणीयो मनुष्यः (na vitthEna tarpaneeyO manushya:) and “we also live only as long as you rule [i.e., allow us to].” (जीविष्यामः यावत् ईसिष्यसि त्वम् jeevishyaama: yaavat eesishyasi tvam), and asserts that the only boon he wants is the one to be craved for (वरस्तु मे वरणीय एव varastu mE varaneeya Eva), namely, knowledge of the eternal Brahman.
Sri Sankara’s own admonition is expressed in much stronger terms in the following verse.
मा कुरु धनजनयौवन गर्वं
हरति निमेषात्कालः सर्वम् |
ब्रह्मपदं त्वं प्रविश विदित्वा ||
Maa kuru dhanajana youvana garvam
Harati nimEshaat kaala: sarvam
Maayaamayamidam akhilam hitvaa
Brahmapadam tvam pravisa viditvaa
Do not (मा maa) indulge in (कुरु kuru) any conceit based on wealth, people strength, or youthfulness (धन-जन-यौवन गर्वम् dhana-jana-youvana-garvam). Death (कालः kaala:) destroys (हरति harati) everything (सर्वम् sarvam) in a blink of an eye (निमेषात् nimEshaat). Abandoning (हित्वा hitvaa) all these (इदम् अखिलम् idam akhilam) that are illusory (मायामयम् maayaamayam), [may] you (त्वम् tvam) enter the realm of Brahman (ब्रह्मपदम् प्रविश Brahmapadam pravisa) knowing (विदित्वा viditvaa) [the greater principles of Brahman].
The greatest risk that could accompany wealth is an arrogant attitude filled with disdain for the less fortunate. Here the term wealth encompasses not only material wealth, but also such things as position, name, fame, power, etc. As the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar noted, humility is a great asset for all, but for the wealthy it is an even greater asset. எல்லார்க்கும் நன்றாம் பணிதல், அவருள்ளும் செல்வர்க்கே செல்வம் தகைத்து (“Ellaarkkum nanraam panital avarullum, selvarkkE selvam takaithu.”)
How can one take conceit in one’s wealth? One always, and forever, carries some inalienable debts – the debt to one’s teachers going all the way back to the great seers (ऋषि ऋण rishi rina), to one’s parents and ancestors (पितृ ऋण pitru rina) and to various divine blessings (देव ऋण dEvarina). Even our offerings to God are only an offering of what has been given by Him, and what can one take to be one’s own ( as the Hindi prayer goes तेरा तुझको अर्पण, क्या लागे मेरा? tErA tujkO arpan, kyaa laagE mErA)? . Furthermore, as noted by the aacharya in the शिव अपराध क्षमापण स्तोत्रम् (Shiva Aparaadha KshamaapaNa StOtram), wealth is as unstable and unpredictable as a bubble or a wave in water (लक्ष्मीः तोय-तरङ्ग-भङ्गा Lakshmi: tOya-taranga-bhanga). Over history, man has “built” many empires and lost them all due to irresponsible pride. He who enjoys wealth without giving back to the devas (and the poor around them) is verily a thief (तैर्दत्तानप्रदायैभ्यो यो भुङ्क्ते स्तेन एव सः “tairdattAnapradAyaibhyO yO bhunktE stEna Eva sah” – Bhagavat Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 12.)
Just as wealth, so also people power and youthfulness are also not ever lasting. We have noted earlier how even close relations may come to avoid one without wealth or earning power. And as for youthfulness and bodily strength, is there anyone who can defy the natural progression of the body to old age and eventual decay and death? Everything we own, we shall either leave them all one day, or they will leave us – and, that is an undeniable truth.
Thus, the world and all the wealth it offers are only illusory and transient, a product of माया (mAyA). The feelings of pleasure and security they bring are only fleeting and not real. After all, how often do we change our minds with respect to our own likes and attachment to things and people?
परमे ब्रह्मणि कोऽपि न सक्तः ||
Baalastaavat kreedaasaktha: tarunastaavat taruneesaktha:
Vrddhastaavat chintaasaktha: paramE brahmani kOpi na saktha:
When one is a child (बालस्तावत् baalastaavat) one is absorbed in playthings (क्रीडा सक्तः kreedaa saktha: ) In youth (तरुणस्तावत् tarunastaavat), one takes interest in young women (तरुणीसक्तः taruneesaktha: ). In old age (वृद्धस्तावत् vrddhastaavat), one is beset with memories and worries (चिन्तासक्तः chintaasaktha: ). No one (कोपि न kopi na) sets their mind on the Eternal (ब्रह्मणि सक्तः Brahmani saktha: )
The Self, the Atma, is intrinsically unattached (असङ्गोहं asangOham), and the attachment we feel towards our possessions and various others is all a temporary superimposition on that Self. Furthermore, even within that short span of such superimposition if our interest and attachments are so malleable, then we can certainly extricate ourselves from our attachments and direct our minds to develop a strong attachment to the Eternal that is the everlasting truth, the absolute consciousness, and bliss (सच्चिदानन्द sat-chit-aananda). And, as stated in the very opening verse of Bhaja Govindam, we can and must cultivate an attitude of prayerfulness from an early age and not be carried away by the allure of wealth, power, or personal strength so that our own later years may become an exception to what is described above as a common plight of man.