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The Philosophy of Bhaja Govindam

Shankara wrote Bhaja Govindam to explain the transience of all that humans take for granted. Each verse is a shining lamp that shows us the way out of materialistic craving, writes Y S GOWRAMMA 

Adi Shankaracharya is one of immortals of India’s cultural history. As the propounder of Advaitavada in Vedanta philosophy, his contribution to Indian philosophy is without any parallel.

Advaita doctrine is an old one and its earliest exposition is found in Gaudapada Karika, which is based on Mandukya Upanishad.  Shankara wrote a commentary on Gaudapada Karika. He possessed an unrivalled philosophical genius and sharp intellect. He developed the monistic tendency of the Upanishads into a systematic Absolute Monism. Though he lived for just 32 years, his intellectual power, logical precision and emotional profundity are unique.  Thus he is a ‘jnani’ par-excellence.

The essence of his philosophy consists in considering Brahman as the Ultimate Reality, the World as an Illusion and Atman as none other than Brahman. “Brahma Satyam, Jagan Mithya, Jivo Brahmaiva Na paraha”.

Shankara, being an exponent and preacher of Jnana Marga, never disregarded Bhakti.  Rather, he considered it complementary to Jnana. He was a great scholar, philosopher, yogi and equally a great devotee. He propogated the love of god and composed many devotional poems like Shivananda Lahari, Saundarya Lahari, Bhaja Govindam etc, as another way of realizing the Supreme.

Bhaja Govindam is one of the important compositions of this spiritual giant.  When Shankara was staying in Benaras, he noticed a very old man studying the rules of Sanskrit grammar. He was touched with pity at seeing the plight of the old man spending his years in intellectual pursuit while he would be better off in praying and spending time in self realization. This is not just the fate of that old man but of the majority of the people in this world. Here Shankara makes us realize how foolish we are in our conduct and behavior and guides us in showing the right path.

But Shankara’s words in this text seems very piercing. His words can be compared to a knife of a doctor.  The doctor’s knife cruelly removes the tumor which causes much pain, but removing the tumor ultimately restores good health.  So is Shankara’s word, which pierces and point to our ignorance. It is a knife into the heart of worldliness, and by removing this tumor of ignorance; we can attain everlasting bliss with the grace of Govinda.

Shankaracharya wrote Dwadasha Manjari or the series of twelve verses and his fourteen disciples added one verse each to it. Then in the form of blessings to his disciples Shankara added five more verses and called it Moha Mudgara for a total 31 verses.  Then it was termed the Bhaja Govindam series. It contains the essence of the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, Sastras, and Puranas in an explicit manner.

Man, being a materialist, gives importance to sensuous happiness and pleasure to a maximum extent. Shankara considers materialists who are nastikas and anatma-vadis as ‘moodhamatees’ and says that as Death draws close, they do not know that their name, fame, popularity, wealth and even scholarship will not save them except the thought of god.  So long as we do not yearn for the grace of god and understand the real ultimate truth i.e. Brahman, but, allow our life to enjoy materialistic pleasure, we will be termed ‘moodhamatees’.  So the verse goes,

Here Shankara uses the word ‘Govinda’ specifically because it refers to one who looks after cows and controls it. In other words it means the one who has control over the animal nature in man. By uttering the name ‘Govinda’, one can transform one's animal nature to divine nature and attain immortality. Shankara considers that through devotion we can turn our mind towards detachment. This devotion is possible only when we have faith in god. So a ‘Moodhamatee’ can become a ‘Muktamatee’ by understanding the inner meaning of the different aspects of life described in the verses of Bhaja Govindam. These verses depict a clear picture of the knowledge of Advaita, dispelling all our ignorance.

According to Shankara this world is just an illusion and not a reality, ‘Jagan Mithya.’  He gives an example of the ‘rope-Serpent illusion’ to illustrate this point.  Here the rope appears as serpent where it is not.  The serpent is just a presented datum and not real. In the same way this world is just an appearance of Brahman and not a reality. It is distinct from the real. Shankara calls this ‘Vivarta’.  Brahman alone is real, eternal and, being the ground of the world, yet transcends it, while this world is transient and changing ‘Gacchati iti jagat’.  So Shankara warns us in Bhaja Govindam:

One should not feel proud having health, wealth and prosperity, as they are transient and changing. They are just ‘Maya’, appearance and not reality.  So by understanding this, one must think of the ultimate reality Brahman that is ‘Ekam-eva-advaitam’ and ‘Satyasya satyam’.  In the fourth verse Shankara affirms

As a drop of water on a lotus leaf disappears in no time, when one knows
that one’s life is transient and full of sorrow, then how can one lead a peaceful life? Here Shankara suggests that one can attain bliss and get rid of all sorrows only by realizing the true nature of Brahman who is Nirguna, Nirakara and Sacchidananda.

When Atman is covered with ignorance ‘Avidya’ it is termed ‘Jiva’. This jiva is a complex of matter and spirit.  So Atman plus ignorance is jiva. Shankara distinguishes carefully the metaphysical subject ‘I’, the ‘Self, ‘The Sakshin’ and the psychological aspect ‘Me’, ‘Ego’.  This jeevatman being the ‘doer’ (kartru) and the ‘enjoyer’ (bhoktru) subjects himself to births and deaths – ‘Samsara-chakra’ which is an endless circle.  So Shankara says


That means whatever is born, is sure to die.  Whatever is born, is sure to die.  Whatever exists, is sure to change, decay and finally extinct.  This will occur to all living beings.  Our life here is like a water bubble: temporary, transient and destined to perish.  So Shankara suggests that only by expressing one’s love, devotion and complete surrender to god can one get rid of this cycle of births and deaths.  Shankara clearly analyses man’s life thus:

That means when once the jeevatman takes birth in this world, he has to cross the different stages, like childhood, youth and old age.  In his first stage he will desire to play games, while in youth, he thinks of love and in old age his mind will be full of worries and sorrows.  So in the journey of his whole life, he will be so busy that he cannot think of spirituality at all. So Shankara asks, "What then is the use of human life if one never tries to realize one’s true nature?"

It is avidya which gives the knowledge of ‘I’, ‘Mine’ and ‘Ego’ to Atman.  When this ego is present, jiva considers everything as its own and hence suffers.  So Shankara warns humans in the following two verses:


One must ponder over questions like who am I?   From where have I come?  Who is my father and mother?  Who is my wife?  Who is my son?  What a mysterious thing is this family?  To whom do we belong?  What is the reality?   What should be our aim of life? etc.

Shankara explains three kinds of reality in advaita.  They are Vyavaharika, pratibhasika and paramarthika truths.  From the vyavaharika level the experiences of pratibhasika (dream) state are untrue. In the same way, from the paramarthika level of reality this vyavaharika jagat seems untrue.  But as long as we are in the vyavaharika state we consider this world and its experiences real.  So Shankara advices us to attain this paramarthika jnana, the highest knowledge, the state of enlightenment.  When one gets enlightenment, then the jiva is liberated from all its adjuncts, worldly relations and attachments.  It is a state where the sense of finitude is removed.  Then, he realizes ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ – I am Brahman,  ‘Tattvamasi’ – You are Brahman, and ‘Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma’ – Everything is Brahman.  When one attains this stage, jiva never identifies itself either with the three states of matter (Jaagrith, Swapna, Sushupthi) or with the panchakoshas.  One realizes that it is above all these and transcends everything.

To become what we are should be our aim.  Avidya has to be displaced by vidya.  So we have to remove the obstacle, avidya, which is concealing the truth. For this, one has to follow certain disciplines namely

It is the good company, which leads one to detachment, removes illusory relationships and maintains the steadiness of mind.  A solid piece of iron that is hard and dark becomes soft, red and gets shining when it is associated with fire and acquires rust when it is associated with mud and moisture.  All these modifications are because of the association with the other in the environment.  In the same way, our exposure to good company leads us to detachment and finally dispels all our ignorance, while bad company deprives us of the supreme bliss.

Thus in Advaita, Shankara mentions Sadhana Chatustayas – Nityanitya vastu viveka jnana, Vairagya, Shamadamadi Shat Sampath and Mumukshutva as the inner means to be followed by a Sadhaka to attain liberation.

He emphasizes on giving up of bad qualities like lust, anger, greed, attachment and egotism to attain self-realization.  He confirms that by following blind rituals like taking bath in river Ganga, performing yagnas and yaagas, giving  alms without inward purity – will not attain liberation.

By knowing Brahman, he himself becomes Brahman.  ‘Brahmavid – Brahmaiva Bhavati’ and exclaims  ‘Sohamasmi, ‘Ayam Atma Brahma’ etc.  This is Jeevanmukti, which one can attain through Jnana, the real knowledge.  To achieve this Shankara considers that the grace of the teacher is highly required.  So he says

Self-realization consists in acquiring jnana from the preceptor – Guru.  The grace of the guru is highly essential to attain jeevanmukti.  By surrendering oneself to the teacher one will be released from the bondage of Samsara-chakra i.e. from the empirical limitations and sufferings.  Shankara considers this the highest goal – the Summum Bonum of life, which is otherwise called Self-realization (Atma sakshatkara) or God realization (Brahma sakshatkara).

Thus, Shankara has given the verse of Bhaja Govindam in order to make us realize that time is very precious and we must strive hard to secure the vision of god in our limited span of life. 

Each verse in the Bhaja Govindam series may be regarded as a shining lamp of knowledge, which helps us remove our ignorance, illusion and concentrate our mind on divine contemplation.  We must put its contents into practice and rectify our life.  By following the path advised by Shankara, the great teacher, we get enlightened and move from ‘Moodhamatee’ to the stage of ‘Muktamate’. 

Note: The writer has tried to illustrate Advaita philosophy found in the verses of Bhaja Govindam.  This is not a complete analysis of Bhaja Govindam.

Y S Gowramma is Professor of Philosophy, University Maharaja’s College, Mysore.  Her papers have appeared in the Indian Philosophical Congress journal and Artha, the International Journal of Social Sciences.

Published on 17 February 2005

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