His teachings have had tremendous impact on Hinduism and on religious thought of over a billion Hindus. He lived during a time when Hinduism was in decline with a rise of Buddhism and the first contacts of Islam in the Indian sub continent. This is generally attributed as the reason for the decline of Buddhism and the rise in what in modern times is called Hinduism. Several writers have written paens on Shankara, but to me Will Durant in his wonderful essay on Shankara encapsulates the essence of this titan of Vedantic thought. A small excerpt is provided herein as well as a link to the complete article.
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By Sri Adi Sankaracharya and his disciples. The Acharya is believed to have composed the Bhajagovindam during his famous pilgrimage to Kashi Benares. The fourteen disciples are said to have accompanied him.
The story goes that when he was walking along the streets of Kashi, he was pained to observe an elderly man trying hard to learn Sanskrit grammar. At his advanced age, the remaining valuable little time of his life should have been used for worshipping the God, instead of wasting on learning a language.
This prompted Sri Sankara to burst out this composition, a sort of rebuke to foolish way of living. The Acharya urges the man to turn towards God and sing His glory instead of trying to learn a language. A censure is implied when the Acharya calls the man a fool Moodhamathe.
It may be added here that the tone of Bhajagovindam is not at all soft, but somewhat striking, in spite of its exotic poetic beauty and perfection of composition. This is no wonder, because such a treatment is required to wake up man from his slumber. A milder approach would delay the matter. The matter is urgent, as the Acharya explains in the next verse, for, when the hour of death approaches without any forewarning, the hard-learned verses of grammar are not going to save the poor soul.
Hence the song rightly starts without any preamble:. Oh fool! Rules of Grammar will not save you at the time of your death. Give up your thirst to amass wealth, devote your mind to thoughts to the Real. Be content with what comes through actions already performed in the past. Do not get drowned in delusion by going wild with passions and lust by seeing a woman's navel and chest.
These are nothing but a modification of flesh. Do not fail to remember this again and again in your mind. The life of a man is as uncertain as rain drops trembling on a lotus leaf. Know that the whole world remains a prey to disease, ego and grief. So long as a man is fit and able to support his family, see the affection all those around him show.
But no one at home cares to even have a word with him when his body totters due to old age. When one is alive, his family members enquire kindly about his welfare. But when the soul departs from the body, even his wife runs away in fear of the corpse. The childhood is lost by attachment to playfulness. Youth is lost by attachment to woman. Old age passes away by thinking over many past things.
But there is hardly anyone who wants to be lost in parabrahmam. Who is your wife? Who is your son? Strange is this samsara. Of whom are you? From where have you come? Brother, ponder over these truths here. From Satsangh comes non-attachment, from non-attachment comes freedom from delusion, which leads to self-settledness. From self-settledness comes Jeevan Mukti. What good is lust when youth has fled?
What use is a lake which has no water? Where are the relatives when wealth is gone? Where is samsara when the Truth is known? Do not boast of wealth, friends, and youth. Each one of these are destroyed within a minute. Free yourself from the illusion of the world of Maya and attain the timeless Truth. Daylight and darkness, dusk and dawn, winter and springtime come and go. Time plays and life ebbs away. But the storm of desire never leaves. This bouquet of twelve verses was imparted to a grammarian by the all-knowing Shankara, adored as the bhagavadpada.
Oh mad man! Why this engrossment in thoughts of wealth? Is there no one to guide you? There is only one thing in three worlds that can save you from the ocean from samsara.
Get into that boat of satsangha quickly. Stanza attributed to Padmapada. There are many who go with matted locks, many who have clean shaven heads, many whose hairs have been plucked out; some are clothed in saffron, yet others in various colors all just for a livelihood. Seeing truth revealed before them, still the foolish ones see it not.
Stanza attributed to Totakacharya. Strength has left the old man's body; his head has become bald, his gums toothless and leaning on crutches. Even then the attachment is strong and he clings firmly to fruitless desires.
Stanza attributed to Hastamalaka. Behold there lies the man who sits warming up his body with the fire in front and the sun at the back; at night he curls up the body to keep out of the cold; he eats his beggar's food from the bowl of his hand and sleeps beneath the tree. Still in his heart, he is a wretched puppet at the hands of passions. Stanza attributed to Subodha. One may go to gangasagar ganes , observe fasts, and give away riches in charity!
Yet, devoid of jnana, nothing can give mukthi even at the end of a hundred births. Stanza attributed to Sureshwaracharya. Take your residence in a temple or below a tree, wear the deerskin for the dress, and sleep with mother earth as your bed. Give up all attachments and renounce all comforts. Blessed with such vairagya, could any fail to be content? Stanza attributed to Nityananda.
One may take delight in yoga or bhoga, may have attachment or detachment. But only he whose mind steadily delights in Brahman enjoys bliss, no one else. Stanza attributed to Anandagiri. Let a man read but a little from Gitaa, drink just a drop of water from the ganges, worship murari govinda just once. He then will have no altercation with Yama. Born again, death again, birth again to stay in the mother's womb! It is indeed hard to cross this boundless ocean of samsara.
Oh Murari! Redeem me through Thy mercy. Stanza attributed to Nityanatha. There is no shortage of clothing for a monk so long as there are rags cast off the road. Freed from vice and virtue, onward he wanders. One who lives in communion with God enjoys bliss, pure and uncontaminated, like a child and as someone intoxicated.
Who are you? Who am I? From where do I come? Who is my mother, who is my father? Ponder thus, look at everything as essenceless and give up the world as an idle dream. Stanza attributed to surendra. In me, in you and in everything, none but the same Vishnu dwells. Your anger and impatience is meaningless. If you wish to attain the status of Vishnu soon, have samabhava always.
Stanza attributed to medhaatithira. Do not waste your efforts to win the love of or to fight against friend and foe, children and relatives. See yourself in everyone and give up all feelings of duality completely. Give up lust, anger, infatuation, and greed. Ponder over your real nature. Fools are they who are blind to the Self.
This work of Adi Shankara underscores the view that devotion Bhakti to God, Govinda, is a vastly important part of general spirituality, as emphasised by Bhakti Yoga and the Bhakti movement. The first stanza of the composition, featuring the eponymous line "Bhaja Govindam", reads as follows: . Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, Worship Govinda, oh deluded mind! At the time of your death, Rules of grammar will not save you. There is a story related to the composition of this Hymn. It is said that Shri Adi Shankaracharya, accompanied by his disciples, was walking along a street in Varanasi one day when he came across an old aged scholar reciting the rules of Sanskrit grammar of Panini repeatedly on the street. Taking pity on him, Adi Shankara went up to the scholar and advised him not to waste his time on grammar at his age but to turn his mind to God in worship and adoration, which would only save him from this vicious cycle of life and death.
Rules of Grammar will not save you at the time of your death. Other than chanting the Lord's names, there is no other way to cross the life's ocean. This work is generally considered a good summary of Advaita Vedanta. Bhaja Govindam has an interesting legend.