Part VI: The Practical Vedanta of Bhaja Govindam
We now move from the philosophical aspects to the specific actionable advice of Bhaja Govindam. This will be done in two parts after a quick review of the goals which form the worthy reasons to take the advice seriously.
Recall that the bulk of our discussion thus far has revolved around the evanescent nature of the world and its attractions in the form of wealth, relationships, etc., as also on the true merits obtained through disassociation (निस्सङ्ग: nissaṅgaḥ) and dispassion ( वैराग्यः vairāgyaḥ). A goal of Vedanta is to help one extricate oneself from the common traps of the mundane, not necessarily by becoming a total renunciate but even as one lives in the midst of all the trappings of the world. Thus, Vedanta is not some abstract theoretical exercise. Adi Sankara described it as “प्राणिनां साक्षात् अभ्युदयनि:श्रेयस हेतुः”prāṇināṃ sākṣāt abhyudayaniḥśreyasa hetuḥ”, i.e., as providing welfare in a worldly sense (अभ्युदय abhyudaya) and also spiritual emancipation (नि:श्रेयस: nihshreyasa). In this general spirit of Vedanta, Bhaja Govindam also offers some practical valuable steps for one’s welfare and spiritual ascension.
Let us begin by reviewing what we had previously discussed. In verses 2, 11 and 29 discussed in Part II of this series, we were advised not to be enamored by money and wealth. Thus, in Verse 2, we were advised to remain happy with whatever is legitimately obtained by our karma (यल्लभसे निजकर्मोपात्तं वित्तं तेन विनोदय चित्तम्yallabhase nijakarmopāttaṃ vittaṃ tena vinodaya cittam), and in Verse 29 to view all wealth as meaningless (अर्थमनर्थं भावय नित्यम्arthamanarthaṃ bhāvaya nityam). Reminding the transitory nature of all our possessions, Sri Sankara in Verse 11 admonished against pride in one’s wealth, youthfulness, or influence (मा कुरु धनजनयौवनगर्वम् mā kuru dhanajanayauvanagarvam), for death may momentarily snatch these away (हरति निमेषात्काल: सर्वम् harati nimeṣātkālaḥ sarvam). In short, material possessions, however essential, should not be permitted to possess us.
The need to overcome improper desires was stressed in several verses (see Part III), and we were reminded particularly that the objects of our carnal desires are nothing but gory flesh and blood (Verse 3: एतन्मांसवसादिविकारम्etad māṃsavasādivikāram). Indeed, Adi Sankara argued that age and time attenuate one’s desires towards all objects. Similarly, the object of our mind and senses vary from simple playthings in childhood to autobiographical memories and worries in late life. Even our desires are as transitory as our very lives resembling the tenuous water drop on a lotus leaf (Verse 4: नलिनीदलगतजलमतितरलंतद्वज्जीवितमतिशयचपलम्, nalinīdalagata jalamatitaralaṃ tadvad jīvitam atiśayacapalam). Thus, we are advised to control our desires and cravings appropriately and not be enslaved by them.
If wealth and possessions are transitory, we were reminded that so too are our relationships with others. In Verse 8, a question is posed about the true identity of one’s wife and son (का ते कान्ता कस्ते पुत्र: kā te kāntā kaste putraḥ). Adi Sankara has reminded us that not knowing who we are and whence we came from (कस्य त्वम् kasya tvam, Whose are you?कुत: आयात: kutaḥ āyātaḥ Whence have you come?), we must treat all our relationships as ephemeral only. We must overcome indiscriminate attachment towards others even as we discharge our duties and extend our support towards people.
In part IV, the pathetic plight of the man who does not understand this was delineated eloquently in many verses. They were further contrasted in verses discussed in Part V against that of those who have broken the fetters of worldly allures. The clarion call of Bhaja Govindam is to realize that the world is full of a variety of sorrows (Verse 4: विद्धि व्याध्यभिमानग्रस्तं लोकं शोकहतं च समस्तम् viddhi vyādhyabhimānagrastaṃ lokaṃ śokahataṃ ca samastam) that should be treated as an illusion, and to attempt to enter the realm of the eternal (Verse 11: मायामयमिदमखिलं हित्वा ब्रह्मपद्ं त्वं प्रविश विदित्वा māyāmayamidamakhilaṃ hitvā brahmapadṃ tvaṃ praviśa viditvā).
However, the higher level goals mentioned above are not at all easy. Many of us ordinary mortals need constant reinforcement and various austerities to achieve them. And, that forms the subject of the remaining verses from Bhaja Govindam we shall discuss from now on. It is in the identification of the simple austerities that can evolve us spiritually that Bhaja Govindam becomes one of great practical use. Bearing this in mind, we begin with a verse that, among others, also glorifies Bhagavad Gītā, the ultimate manual of practical Vedanta.
भगवद्गीता किञ्चिदधीता गङ्गाजललवकणिका पीता ।
सकृदपि येन मुरारि समर्चा क्रियते तस्य यमेन न चर्चा ।।
bhagavad gītā kiñcidadhītā gaṅgā jalalava kaṇikāpītā |
sakṛdapi yena murāri samarcā kriyate tasya yamena na carcā ||
By whom (येन yena) Bhagavad Gītā is studied even a little ( भगवद्गीताकिञ्चिदधीता bhagavad gītā kiñcidadhītā), Ganges water has been drunk even by a drop (गङ्गाजललवकणिका पीता gaṅgājalalava kaṇikāpītā), and Krishna, the killer of the demon Mura, is worshipped at least once (सकृदपि मुरारि समर्चा क्रियते sakṛdapimurāri samarcā kriyate), for him, there is no quarrel with Yama, the lord of death (तस्य यमेन न च चर्चा tasya yamena na carcā [bhavati]).
First, consider Bhagavad Gītā. It sets forth in Chapter 16, Verses 1-3 a set of values known as divine wealth (दैवीसंपद् daivīsaṃpad).
अभयं सत्त्वसंशुद्धिर्ज्ञानयोगव्यवस्थिति: ।
दानं दमश्च यज्ञश्च स्वाध्यायस्तप आर्जवम्।।
abhayaṃ sattvasaṃśuddhirjñānayogavyavasthitiḥ |
dānaṃ damaśca yajñaśca svādhyāyastapa ārjavam ||
Fearlessness, purity of mind, establishment in the yoga of knowledge, charity, sense control, sacrifice, study, austerity, uprightness …
अहिंसा सत्यमक्रोधस्त्याग: शान्तिरर्पैशुनम् ।
दया भूतेष्वलोलुप्त्वं मार्दवं ह्रीरचापलम् ॥
ahiṃsā satyamakrodhastyāgaḥ śāntirarpaiśunam |
dayā bhūteṣvaloluptvaṃ mārdavaṃ hrīracāpalam ||
non-injury, truth, avoiding anger, renunciation, tranquility, absence of envy, compassion to beings, not coveting anything, gentleness, modesty, being bereft of fickleness …
तेज: क्षमा धृति: शौचमद्रोहो नातिमानिता ।
भवन्ति सम्पदं दैवीमभिजातस्य भारत ॥
tejaḥ kṣamā dhṛtiḥ śaucamadroho nātimānitā |
bhavanti sampadaṃ daivīmabhijātasya bhārata ||
boldness, forgiveness, fortitude, purity, absence of hatred, being without pride; these values belong to one born for the divine state, O, descendant of Bharata !
Note that the very first quality mentioned in these verses of Bhagavad Gītā is fearlessness. Only the fearless can pursue freedom from the fetters that hold them back. The ultimate fear, of course, is fear of death, and no wonder Adi Sankaracharya elevated the Gītā so highly as to assert that even studying it even a little bit will help one overcome death itself. Here the words of Adi Sankara also have a much deeper meaning, namely, that a person endowed with the qualities mentioned in the verse overcomes the raga-dwesha (like/dislike) cycle and can be unaffected by the many births and deaths of situations and objects inevitably encountered as an earthly being. A careful study of the Gītā is what is advocated here, and the great qualities it will imbibe in one will automatically set one on a course of inevitable salvation.
Next, consider the river Ganges. The status of Ganga in Hinduism as a purifier is well-known as also the merit of pilgrimages to holy places. But the import of the reference to Ganga does not stop here. As noted by Swami Viditatmananda in his commentary on Bhaja Govindam, symbolically Hinduism’s representation of Ganga as emanating from the matted locks of Lord Shiva represents the flow of knowledge itself, while its re-emergence from the ears of Jahnu represents the Hindu tradition of oral instruction (कर्णपरंपरा karnaparampara. Furthermore, Shiva himself is the first Guru from whom all knowledge emanates (सदाशिवसमारंभां …. वन्दे गुरुपरंपराम् sadāśivasamāraṃbhāṃ …. vande guruparaṃparām). Thus, the reference to Ganga in the verse is to ask one to be clean both externally and internally, to undertake holy pilgrimages, and to be in constant quest for spiritual knowledge.
Finally, prayer is advocated as an active means to salvation through the reference to prayer to Murari. We devoted the bulk of Part I to the call of Bhaja Govindam to prayer, and the importance of prayerfulness. Performing every action as a prayer and an offering is what is advocated here.
This verse of Bhaja Govindam just in itself incorporates all the various paths to salvation – devotion, action, and knowledge. We can summarize it simply as advocating that we should perform action that purify us, should also perform all our actions as a prayer and offering to the Divine, and constantly seek spiritual knowledge that leads to salvation.
गेयं गीता नामसहस्रं ध्येयं श्रीपतिरूपमजस्रम् ।
नेयं सज्जनसङ्गे चित्तं देयं दीनजनाय च वित्तम् ॥
geyaṃ gītā nāmasahasraṃ dhyeyaṃ śrīpatirūpamajasram |
neyaṃ sajjana saṅge cittaṃ deyaṃ dīnajanāya ca vittam ||
The Bhagavad Gita and the one thousand names of the Lord (गीता नामसहस्रं gītā nāmasahasraṃ) should be sung (गेयं geyam). The form of [Vishnu] the Lord of Lakshmi (श्रीपतिरूपम् śrīpatirūpam) should be meditated upon (ध्येयं dhyeyam) constantly (अजस्रम् ajasram). The mind (चित्तं chittam) should be led (नेयं neyam) to the company of the good(सज्जनसङ्गे sajjana saṅge). Wealth (वित्तम् vittam) should be distributed to (देयं deyam) to the needy (दीनजनाय dīnajanāya).
Talking of the Vishnu Sahasranama, it is stated in the Mahabharata that the venerable great grandfather Bhishma Pitamaha extolled Vishnu Sahasranama as a blessing to King Yudhishtra in answer to his question, “किमेकं दैवतं लोकेकिंवाप्येकं परायणं(kimekaṃ daivataṃ loke kiṃvāpyekaṃ parāyaṇaṃ, स्तुवन्त:कमर्चन्त: प्राप्नुयुर्मानवा: शुभम् stuvantaḥ kamarcantaḥ prāpnuyurmānavāḥ śubham?) What (Who?) is the sole divinity in this world, and by praising whom alone will men attain good?” The various names of the Lord describe many divine qualities which we can remind ourselves as we recite them. Combined with the Upanishad teaching “That thou art (तत्वमसि tat tvam asi)” as a powerful auto suggestion, one should kindle the divinity within oneself. Also one should meditate on the Supreme Protector Vishnu, the consort of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth. Of course, Sahasranamas are given for various deities, and one may substitute Vishnu Sahasranama equally for one on one’s own preferred deity (इष्टदैवतiṣhṭadaivata). But it is important that one recites some sahasranama and sings the praise of God.
In addition to the chanting of Geeta and Sahasranama, one is asked to set one’s mind on good company. In a verse to be discussed later, the benefits of good company are described in a potent manner, and we shall for now defer that discussion except to note that good company provides a constant reinforcement of one’s commitment to the path of spiritual growth.
Finally in the verse, one is asked to distribute wealth generously to the needy. The wealth noted here is not just monetary wealth alone, but the wealth of knowledge and one’s service. One of the six fundamentally bad qualities (कामक्रोध kāma, krodha, etc.) mentioned as destroyers of a person is the desire to accumulate and hoard (लोभ lobha). That is the result of possessiveness (ममत्वम् mamatvam) and over attachment to material things, both of which have their origin in one’s fears and in one’s ignorance about one’s own completeness (पूर्णत्वम् pūrṇatvam) as a manifestation of the Infinite and Complete (पूर्णम् pūrṇam) asserted in the teaching tat tvam asi.
Spiritual progress indeed entails the shedding of such feelings of limitation that result in the pursuit of an illusory happiness through material possessions.
The spiritual manual,the Bhagavad Gītā, goes even further in its Chapter 17, verse 20 to define the type of charity one should practice.
दातव्यमिति यद्दानं दीयतेऽनुपकारिणे |
देशे काले च पात्रे च तद्दानं सात्त्विकं स्मृतम् ||
dātavyamiti yaddānaṃ dīyate’nupakāriṇe |
deśe kāle ca pātre ca taddānaṃ sāttvikaṃ smṛtam ||
That gift which is given, knowing it to be a duty, in fit time and place, to a worthyperson, without any expectation in return is said to be noble.
Om Tat Sat !