This article is from the book Bhaja Govindam.
Introduction: Bhagavad-pad-acharya, Jagad-guru Adi Shankaracharya, one of the greatest philosophers the world has ever produced, unparalleled in his Realisation, as well as in his exposition of the nature of the ultimate Reality, has commented upon all the three great scriptures that form the source of our religion Sanatana Vaidika Dharma. Vedas are the mother scriptures of those who follow the Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism. Therefore, we call it Veda-Mata (Veda, the mother) and our Dharma the Vaidika Dharma. Upanishads are that portion of the Vedas, which expounds the nature of the ultimate Reality, and thus, is one of the most important parts of these scriptures. The quintessence of the Upanishads is propounded in Srimad Bhagavad Gita in a brief, concise, aphoristic yet complete form by Bhagavan Veda-Vyasa, Bhagavan Badarayana, an amsha avatar (a partial incarnation) of Lord Vishnu. They say of him:
व्यासाय विष्णुरूपाय व्यासरूपाय विष्णवे।
नमो वै ब्रह्मनिधये वासिष्ठाय नमो नमः॥
[Prostrations to Vyasa, the whole universe is whose manifestation, who is a form of Lord Vishnu; again and again prostrations to him who is established in Brahman and who is the descendent of the sage Vasishtha.] He is no other than Lord Vishnu Himself, and he has given the quintessence of the vedantic philosophy, the wisdom portion of the Vedas. Just as Patanjali Maharshi gave the Yoga-sutras and Devarshi Narada and Shandilya Rishi gave to us the Bhakti-sutras, even so Bhagavan Badarayana, Maharshi Veda-Vyasa gave us the Vedanta-sutras, which are popularly known as the Brahma-sutra. It is the second great scripture upon which the entire Sanatana Dharma rests.
Srimad Bhagavad Gita, which is the most lucid, concise, as well as comprehensive marvellous teachings, expounds quintessential Truth and Anubhuti, the supernal Experience of all the Brahmasutras as well as the Upanishads — the Vedanta or the end portion of the Vedas. In the Bhagavad Gita we have got the whole of Vedanta, the whole of the upanishadic wisdom. All this has been given to us in a compact form within the range of seven hundred verses in eighteen chapters in an easy question and answer form, giving normal analogies familiar to our own experience in the world.
These three — the Upanishads, the Brahma-sutra and Srimad Bhagavad Gita — are known as Prasthana-trayee (the three authoritative landmarks in spiritual literature). They form the ultimate authority to decide all questions pertaining to religion, metaphysics, philosophy, sacrament, rituals, dharma and the ultimate Reality, the transcendental Reality in Hinduism. They are the three authoritative scriptures that decide in case of all disputes, and their conclusion has to be accepted as final. Great scholars and pundits say, “One’s learning or education is incomplete until one has mastered the Prasthana-trayee.” Jagad-guru Adi Shankaracharya is one of the luminous commentators of the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. His commentary known as Shaankara-bhashya is forever of the ultimate highest standard. He has set a standard.
The truths of the Bhagavad Gita, and the truths which Shankaracharya expounds in his beautiful lyric Dvadasha Manjanka — popularly known as Bhaja Govindam — are not different from each other. But the style in which it is given and the way in which it is expounded to the layman are different. Bhagavad Gita, Brahma-Sutra and the Upanishads are for a Sanskrit scholar, who has already got some background of philosophy; but for Bhaja Govindam no such background is necessary, because it tells you what you already know. It tells you home truths within the range of your own bitter and sweet experiences of this world of human nature and of the state of things that prevail in human society.
The great compassionate Jagad-guru Adi Shankaracharya might have thought, ‘If these people, who are the children of Bharatavarsha, who are the descendants of those great illumined sages, who are the heirs to this wonderful cultural treasure of knowledge, are to be deprived of it, it would be a great pity. Something should be done to bring quintessence of the teachings of all the great Upanishads and the Vedanta, within easy reach of the common man. I shall, for the common man, bring to their very homes, at their very doorstep, the Upanishadic message, the loftiest truths of the Upanishads in an easy, interesting, concise style, but at the same time in a complete, compact and comprehensive way.’ And this great gift Bhaja Govindam was the outcome.
Spontaneous Poetry: The origin of all the wisdom teachings was spontaneous, unrehearsed; there was no pre-meditation. Sri Shankaracharya had composed this great scripture, Bhaja Govindam, on the spur of the moment without any intention of composing something, not being aware that such a thing will come out of him.
The sage Valmiki, before whom Sanskrit poetry did not exist, is known as the adi-kavi, the first poet. By a chance incident, when he was going to take a bath in the river, he saw a hunter aiming at two lovemaking birds. He was so struck, ‘Oh, this man is going to kill this loving pair!’ And spontaneously the words came out: “Ma nishad … Don’t, O hunter! . . .” So out of that heinous incident, out of the urgency to do something to prevent that dire occurrence, poetry came out spontaneously from the heart of sage Valmiki. Even so, poetry flowed spontaneously from Shankaracharya when he saw one student very diligently trying to learn by heart some grammar rule: “Dukrin karane, Dukrin karane, Dukrin karane.”
In those days, schools, which were called pathshalas, were held in open. Shankaracharya was coming back after a bath in the holy Ganga in Varanasi. He heard this, and turned around. There was a scholar completely absorbed in getting by heart this grammar rule. Something struck Shankaracharya. He thought: “What is the sense if this man will stretch his brain for the whole life to remember the grammar rules? Will this help him? One day death will come and say, Come on!”: Jatasya hi dhruvo mrityuh [Certain is death for the born. Gita 2.27] One day all of us have to go, we are only passers by here, we are merely travellers; this is not our ultimate abode.
Just as from the Adi-Kavi (the first poet) Valmiki spontaneous poetry had come out suddenly, unexpectedly, due to sudden self-expression, and it became the first poetic work in Sanskrit literature; even so, passing by the streets of Kashi, seeing a student intently trying to get by heart some grammar sutras, this wonderful poem Bhaja Govindam came out from the mouth of Shankaracharya spontaneously.
Shankaracharya must have been moving about the streets of Varanasi, going to the gnat and taking bath, and going to Sri Vishvanath Mandir, Annapurna Mandir and all that so many times. Varanasi is full of little Sanskrit schools, pathshalas and toles. So, he might have noticed futile exercise in grammatical things so many times. But on this particular day, to our good fortune and to the good fortune of the world, somehow his attention was directed to this absurdity. Spontaneously, on the spur of the moment, the Bhaja Govindam Stotram flowed from his mouth. Perhaps he might have thought, ‘What this man is going to get after all? May be, he will become a pundit or a scholar. May be, he will set up a little school like this and it may become his source of income and profession. He may become akarmakandi and a purohit and may perform marriage ceremonies,yajnopavit samskaras, after death samskaras and all such religious rites.
He may teach other students. What all these will bring to him? He will miss the purpose for which God has sent him as a human being.’
And Shankaracharya burst forth: “What is this? The whole life will be wasted in this. Instead of making use of God-given intellect for vichara, viveka and Self-realisation, here is one who is intent upon mere intellectual acrobatic exercise. This is not good. What will help him at the time of death? Adore the Lord, remember Him, take His name, Bhaja Govindam, Bhaja Govindam, Bhaja Govindam. “
The beauty of this Bhaja Govindam is that it can be sung sweetly. One of the greatest singers of our present contemporary age Padmashri M.S. Subalakshmi Mataji, who has sung before the United Nations Organization, and who has also been honoured with the great Magsaysay award, has sung this Bhaja Govindam Stotram very beautifully.
The Refrain: The recurring refrain is: “Bhaja Govindam, Bhaja Govindam, Bhaja Govindam. ” Inspired at that moment by this foolish man’s giving away his God-given life, time and intellect to this little thing like getting by heart a grammar rule, Shankaracharya says:
भज गोविन्दं भज गोविन्दं
गोविन्दं भज मूढमते।
संप्राप्ते सन्निहिते मरणे
नहि नहि रक्षति ‘डुकृञ् करणे’॥
भज गोविन्दं भज गोविन्दं।
Bhaja Govindam Bhaja Govindam
Govindam Bhaja moodhamate;
Samprapte sannihite marane
Na hi na hi rakshati dukrin karane.
Bhaja Govindam Bhaja Govindam. [Dhruva padam]
[O deluded man! Surrender yourself to the Lord, sing the name of the Lord, take shelter in the Lord! Seek Govinda. When the inevitable death overtakes you, never, never will the grammar rule ‘dukrin karane’ take care of you. (Refrain)].
This introductory admonition explains: “When death comes, this knowledge is not going to save you. Therefore, adore the Lord who will liberate you from the cycle of birth and death once and for all, and take you to the realm of His (which is) beyond darkness. [Having gone thither they return not; that is My supreme Abode. — Gita, 15.6]. Try to attain That, O man!
[These three, so difficult of attainment, are acquired only by the kindness of the gods: humanity, desire for emancipation, and the guidance of (spiritually) great man. – Viveka-chudamani, 3].
“What a wonderful chance this man is missing just for the sake of earning his livelihood and maintenance! Instead of using discrimination between the Eternal and perishable, he is using his God-given intellect and putting his heart and mind in this mere repetition for remembering by heart a grammar rule! What a great pity!” Shankaracharya is moved; and he says: “Look here! This is all right. But worship the Lord. Direct your mind to God. In that alone is your highest welfare.”
This particular teaching has an appealing naturalness and spontaneity. It has got a universal appeal, because evidently this student whose repetition attracted Shankaracharya’s ears must have been a young man preparing to enter life, not yet having entered into life. And it is at this particular stage of an individual that he should be given the right direction. That is the crucial importance of the Bhaja Govindam composition. It was given to a young man at the entry point of his life. Shankaracharya thought: “This is the right time that one should be made aware of the higher purpose of human life, the deeper significance, the great objective and Goal for which one has been sent here.”
If he enters into life with a proper understanding about life: “Why have I come here? What is the objective for which God has sent me here?” — then all will be well. He will take care of his secular side without neglecting his spiritual side. He would have died in ignorance, if that right understanding is not given at this entry point of life when one is young, when one needs to be awakened and made aware that life is more than mere eating-drinking-sleeping, earning, putting aside little bit of money, having a family, and getting caught and entangled in the cobweb of samsara, in the net of maya‘. Being born in ignorance, having lived all his life in ignorance, non-discrimination, avichara, aviveka, he would have died too in ignorance.