Part I : Introduction
Ascribed to Sri Adi Sankara, the collection of verses Bhaja Govindam lays out the primary reasons for adopting a spiritual life and some practical means to achieve the appropriate mental framework for it. Another name for this work is “मोहमुद्गर Moha Mudgara” which translates to “a stomper of delusion and ignorance,” the delusion here being the undiscriminating fascination with worldly attractions arising mainly from ignorance about the distinction between the eternal and the ephemeral. A study of this work is a good step in acquiring a passion for spiritual liberation (मुमुक्षुत्वं mumukshatvam), noted in तत्वबोध (Tatvabodha) as one of the four quintessential qualifications (साधन चतुष्टय sadhana chatushtaya) for attaining liberation. It is also one that can guide day by day in achieving a measured dispassion and a great level of inner peace. It brings forth the hidden perils of worldly pleasures and debunks the relationships that tie the fundamentally free Self. It explains neatly the roles of the Guru (the spiritual teacher) and good company (सत्सङ्गः satsanga), as well as of the correct role of rituals in one’s journey towards attaining the ultimate goal of inner peace and identification with one’s true self. It demonstrates the absurdity of meaningless pursuits we mostly engage in, the ostentatious piety of false prophets, and the fruitlessness of rituals performed mechanically without realizing their purpose which is the regulation of one’s desires and aspirations. It describes in poetic terms the freedom and inner joy of one who has acquired the true knowledge. When carried with one as a constant reference, the verses of Bhaja Govindam are indeed a great guide in navigating the complex world we live in and in keeping our sight on the abiding, eternal, and truly worthwhile.
In the words of Rajaji, this and other hymns of Sri Adi Sankara, “who drank the ocean of knowledge as one sips water from the palm of one’s hand,” are great testimony to the equal stature he affords to devotion (भक्तिः bhakthi) and knowledge ( ज्ञान jnana). They are both important in the context of spirituality and in liberating oneself from the worldly woes marked by the birth-death cycle punctuated by repeated suffering and misleading fleeting pleasures (संसार दुखः samsara dukkha and मोह moha). As noted by Swami Tattvavidananda in his New Year message of 2013, akin to a lamp placed in the threshold of the living and family rooms that illumines both, Bhakthi is the lamp that illumines both spiritual knowledge (jnana) and dispassionate and righteous action (karma). It helps one live in the present without being sucked into guilt from the unchangeable past or worries about the unknown future. The placement by Sri Sankara of the call for Bhakthi in the very opening phrase “Bhaja Govindam” does indeed appear deliberate.
Again, as Rajaji notes, “When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the heart, it becomes wisdom. When that wisdom is integrated with life and issues out in action, it becomes devotion. Knowledge which has become mature is spoken of as devotion. If it does not get transformed into devotion, such knowledge is useless tinsel.”
It is a fact that unless senses are controlled, knowledge will not mature and wisdom will not dawn. The secret of getting there is the restraining of natural impulses and keeping the eye on the ball, the eternal. Bhaja Govindam is not just an assertion of the above facts but a menu of steps that will make it possible. So, without much further ado, let us start with the very first verse of this great work that encapsulates much of the teachings of Vedanta with great insight into the machinations of the very world we live in. Worldly distractions do seduce us away often from the path of knowledge and the translation of that knowledge into right action.
भज गोविन्दं भज गोविन्दं, गोविन्दं भज मूढमते |
संप्राप्ते संनिहिते काले नहि नहि रक्षति डुक्रुंकरणे ||
Bhaja Govindam, Bhaja Govindam
Govindam Bhaja Moodamathe,
Sampraapte sannihite kaale,
Nahi nahi rakshati dukrumkarane.
Oh, mind steeped in ignorance (मूढमते moodamathe) ! Pray unto Govinda (गोविन्दं भज Govindam bhaja). When our time comes near (काले संप्राप्ते [सति] kaale sampraapte [sati]), mechanical chanting (डुक्रुंकरणे dukrunkarane), will not save us (नहि नहि रक्षति nahi nahi rakshati.)
It is customary for Hindu didactic works to begin with an invocation and a formal verse setting out the topic of the piece, the anticipated fruits, and the qualifications of the learner. While this may appear to have been eschewed here, a deeper examination will belie that. The very opening words “Bhaja Govindam” – repeated thrice as is often done for emphasis in the Vedas – serves as the invocation, and the anticipated fruit of learning is unmistakably identified as ultimate salvation. The absence of an explicit mention of the qualified learner (अधिकारि adhikaari) should be interpreted as asserting that the work is relevant to all, and the particular exhortation not to wait too long is a call to start walking along the spiritual path of devotion from early on.
As humans, we are blessed with a mind and an intellect far superior to other beings that allow us not to live only by our instincts, but in a way governed by lofty goals. Yet, our mind often gets tripped by many of the trappings of the world we live in. It often gets fooled into mistaking some fleeting pleasures for true joy and many untruths as truth without recognizing the real Truth. Much of its energy gets wasted by us in trivial pursuits that have little edifying value. Hence it is addressed as “मूढमते mooda mathe” (Oh, ignorant mind!). Would it rather not be rested on the divine, Govinda? Then, why Govinda?
The choice of Govinda as the deity to be worshipped is undoubtedly inspired by the author’s reverence for his own guru Sri Govinda Bhagavadpada. Through the insertion of this particular name of the divine, Sri Sankara appears to communicate to the aspirant that Vedanta is something that should be learned from a guru and is not to be attempted as an exercise of self-learning. Elsewhere, the Acharya has stated, “Brahman can be known only through one’s spiritual teacher” (आचार्य आगमादेव ज्ञातुं शक्यं ब्रह्मः Aachaarya aagamaadEva jnaatum shakyam Bhrahma.) Furthermore, the guru himself should belong to a distinguished teacher-student-lineage (गुरुशिष्यपरंपर guru-sishya-parampara). Finally, Govinda in the form of Gopala is the family deity (कुलदैवत kuladaivata) of Sri Adi Sankara.
Contrary to misconceptions, Hinduism at its core asserts Brahman, the ultimate reality, to be निर्गुण (nirguna beyond attributes), since ascribing an attribute is to impose a limitation on its infinite nature through the absence of the negation of the assigned attribute. Therefore, that the ultimate वेदान्तिनः (vedaantin) Adi Shankara, who has expounded much on the nirguna nature of Brahman, calls upon us to worship and dwell on a personal God – Govinda – does require some examination. Note that this seer is also the author of hymns on many personal deities with forms and also renowned, among others, for his commentary on thea विष्णु सहस्रनाम (Vishnu Sahasranama), the thousand names of Lord Vishnu. First of all, the very omnipresence of Brahman implies that its worship in a diverse set of forms bears no contradiction whatsoever. For the Hindu, the form is only a concrete aid to concentrate on the abstract. We get reminded of this in every religious ceremony by both the invocation of the divinity in a form such as an idol and the subsequent retiring of the idol at the conclusion of the ceremony. Secondly, with Bhaja Govindam being primarily addressed at the aspirant and not at the achieved, an easier means accessible to all is perhaps offered by the great teacher Sankara.
Govinda is one of the epithets used for Lord Vishnu, the supreme protector. The term lends itself to two interpretations. The first is as one who is known through the vedas (गोपिः वेत्ति इति गोविन्दः gopi: vEthi iti gOvinda: ). Brahmasutra says that Brahman is realized only through the vedas (शास्त्रयोनिवत् saastra yOnivat). The second interpretation of the word is as one who knows the living beings (गाः विन्दति इति गोविन्दः gaa: vindati iti gOvinda: ). Being omniscient, He knows all living beings and their deeds, and his knowledge is described as one transcending the three time divisions (past, present and future) and serving as the illuminator of the entire universe (जगत् jagat).
The word भज (bhaja) has many meanings: worship; meditate upon; seek; know; love. In the sense of भक्ति (bhakthi), “ गोविन्दं भज Govindam bhaja” can be translated as “Love and worship Govinda.” For the worshipper (भक्त bhaktha), love towards Him is the means to attaining yet another prerequisite for salvation, namely detachment (वैराग्य vairagya) from the mundane. There are many sayings that assert this, such as the couplet of the Tamil sage Tiruvalluvar, “பற்றுக பற்றற்றான் பற்றினை அப்பற்றை பற்றுக பற்று விடற்கு Patruga patratraan patrinai, appatrai patruga patru vidarku” – acquire that affection of the renounced so as to relieve oneself of other affections.
However, in the vedantic sense, the connotation of the phrase ‘Bhaja Govindam’ is to be taken as “Know Govinda” in the sense of “Know Brahman as thyself.” According to the adherents of the path of knowledge (ज्ञानमार्ग jnaana maarga), if one does not realize the identity of oneself with Brahman, then no amount of good deeds done will help to liberate the person from the cycle of birth and death; hence the interpretation “Know Govinda.” Adi Sankara has stated in many contexts that salvation does not result from actions or rituals (कर्म karma) alone, and the word करणे (karane) used in the verse adds credence to that interpretation. Again, as noted in तत्वबोधः (Tatvabodha), true wisdom/knowledge (विवेकः viveka) is understanding the eternal (नित्य nitya) and being able to differentiate it from all others that are but ephemeral (अनित्य anitya).
“डुकृङ्ग् Dukrung” is a root in Sanskrit grammar with meaning करणे (karane) action. Knowledge of Sanskrit grammar is highly desirable for the study of Hindu scriptures like the vedas and Vedanta. One of the ways scholars acquire proficiency in grammar is by chanting and memorizing many सूत्राणि sutras (aphorisms) such as that of the great grammarian Panini exemplified here through “Dukrung karane.” Folklore has it that during his stay at the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi (काशि Kaashi) where he composed one of his famous commentaries (ब्रह्मसूत्रभाष्य Brahmasutrabhashya), Sri Adi Sankara saw at the river bank a very old man chanting such sutras endlessly and wondered if the latter had enough time to ascend the many steep steps of the arduous path of knowledge (ज्ञानमार्ग jnanamaarga). That path involves the study of grammar and then of the scriptures, meditating upon (मनन manana) and internalizing (निधिध्यासन nidhidyaasana) their teachings, and realizing that one is but Brahman, and thereby attaining salvation. Would one rather not spend the time worshipping Brahman and reaching Him through the easier path of worship (भक्तिमार्गः bhakthi maarga)?
Much as Sanskrit grammar proficiency is a great facilitator of the study of scriptures, it must be understood that it is neither sufficient nor absolutely necessary for acquiring true knowledge, namely, knowledge of the eternal. It is like the plantain leaf (or the plate today) for having one’s meal, a facilitator only. Indeed, an overemphasis of scholarship can indeed become counter-productive. The broader interpretation of this verse’s caution नहि नहि रक्षति (nahi nahi rakshati, does not save) is as one asking not to become conceited and totally self-assured only through one’s knowledge. It may also be interpreted as implying that one should not stop at the worship of सगुण ब्रह्मन् (saguna Brahman) alone as done through routine chants, prayers and oblations, but should indeed try to develop an appreciation for the निर्गुनब्रःमन् (nirguna Bhrahman), the true substance of one’s seeking.
None of the above, however, is to be misinterpreted as a denigration of the various rituals and prayers embodied in the पूर्वभाग (purva bhaga, the early part) of Vedas. For most, they play a significant role in the purification of the mind and body and in preparing one for the greater journey. The chosen few like Sri Adi Sankara, born prepared to undertake that journey directly without elaborate preparations, are very atypical in that respect. Indeed, the criticism is to be taken as aimed at mistaking the means for the end and for allowing oneself to be content only with rituals, and for performing them without caring to understand their true purpose and meaning.
Kaala is time and also the Lord of Death. Our scriptures assert that one attains whatever one’s mind is filled with at the time of death. Bhagavat Gita asserts
यं यं वापि स्मरन्भावं त्यजत्यन्ते कलेवरम् |
तं तमेवैति कौन्तेय सदा तद्भावभावितः ||
“yaṃ yaṃ vāpi smaranbhāvaṃ tyajatyante kalevaram |
taṃ tamevaiti kaunteya sadā tadbhāvabhāvitaḥ ”
– Chapter 8, verse 6
But one is not given to know when that time comes. Therefore, one should at all times in one’s life, have one’s mind rested on the Eternal, for it is the Eternal that we, without doubt, eventually reach. Again, to quote Bhagavat Gita,
तस्मात्सर्वेषु कालेषु मामनुस्मर युध्य च |
“tasmātsarveṣu kāleṣu māmanusmara yudhya ca |
– Chapter 8, verse 7.
In this context, we highly recommend the reading of the poignant भीष्मस्तुति (Bhishma Stuti) in Mahabharata chanted by Bhishma in seeking liberation from the mundane with a mind cultivated in an attitude of detachment (वितृष्णा मतिः vitrushna upakalpita mati:). The great grandfather (पितामहः pitaamaha) of our venerable epic has indeed set a worthy example of a glorious exit.
From even a practical, mundane perspective, the journey towards spiritualism should start early on. We Hindus consider life’s purpose as attainment of the four पुरुषार्थ (purushaarthas, the goals for humans), namely, धर्म (dharma), अर्थ (artha), काम (kaama) and मोक्ष (moksha.) Among these, the fulfillment of our desires and aspirations (कामः kaama) in a way conforming to duty and righteousness (धर्म dharma) through the acquisition of weath and security (अर्थः artha) are only the means (साधन saadhana) to the much larger goal (साध्यं saadhyam), namely, liberation (मोक्ष moksha). While for the religious and the spiritual, moksha entails liberation from the birth death cycle and effectuating the oneness of the self with Brahman, the need for liberation from the many bonds we create for ourselves through our likes and dislikes and passions is one that is felt by all including the atheists. At one time or the other in one’s life, most materially motivated actions and pursuits do get questioned if not understood as the root cause of most problems, both physical and mental. Modern psychology does attest to the oncoming of such eventual doubts; see, for example, the book, “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life” by Gail Sheehy. It is somewhat unfortunate that most formalized education of the day is aimed only at the first three of the four purushaarthas and has placed little emphasis on the most important one, namely, moksha. Thus, the advice of this verse not to wait for one’s late years but to start along the path to moksha from early on, deserves a constant place in one’s mind at every age and in all stations of one’s life.
If it is indeed so, what then are the obstacles that get in our way? How do we realize the illusory and ephemeral nature of this world and the absurdity of our bonds? What are the means to overcome them? What fruits do we get by overcoming them? Those are the subject matter of the verses that follow, and we will examine those in some detail later.
- This series of articles is inspired by the lectures of Pujyasri Swami Omkarananda (http://www.vedaneri.org/AboutSSO.aspx ) which have been summarized also in a Tamil book titled “Bhaja Govindam” by Om Sanatana Publications, Chennai, India Yet, this is not a literal translation of the book, for we have taken the liberty of adding some relevant material including from the Swamiji’s own other lectures and re-arranging the material along some basic themes. The author offers his pranaams to the Swamiji with great admiration for his deep knowledge and the clarity with which he shares it. Any mistakes of omission or commission are entirely of the author and are to be forgiven as that of a novice prayatnavaan (one making an attempt).