“Bhaja Govindam is one of the seemingly smaller but, in fact, extremely important works of Adi Sankara. It not only indicates to the students the goal and the path, but also reveals unto him the wretchedness of his present way of life… and the dire consequences that await him if he continues to pursue the path of ego and desire.”
“Sri Sankara has packed into the Bhaja Govindam song, the substance of all the Vedantic works that he wrote and he has set the truth of the union of devotion and knowledge to melodious music which delights every ear.”
Chandrika is primarily a seeker. Her post-graduate degree in English Literature armed her with a deep love of the language and a desire to communicate this to others. And thus started a career in teaching in institutions across the city of Mumbai like Sophia and St. Xavier’s College. Simultaneously she began writing articles, which were published in newspapers and periodicals in Mumbai.
Her interest in educating children soon took her outside the classroom, into a more creative space, where she experimented with both method and content, through the medium of workshops. This resulted in her first book, Exercises in Education to Creativity, published by Don Bosco’s Tej Prasarini. For seven years to provide wholesome reading material to children, she brought out a monthly periodical, nurture.
Her spiritual quest has culminated in a staunch belief in the intrinsic joy of living and a deep trust in the profound truth of scriptural texts. An avid collector of and believer in the power of stories, she has recently translated Atma Siddhi, from the original Gujarati, an enlivening discourse on the journey of the soul by the Jain saint, Srimad Rajchandraji. Armed with curiosity and enthusiasm, excited by the intellectual vigour of spiritual discourse and stirred by its sublime stillness, her journey continues…
To write about Bhaja Govindam is a presumption. In more ways than one. Because, it presupposes that one has the maturity to understand the depth behind the seeming simplicity of the text. It also presumes that one has the reflection and philosophical ability to decipher the power and potency of Sankara’s vision. Simultaneously, it implies the acumen to apply the thoughts of this great sage to modern times and make it relevant and purposeful to our life. A rather daunting order!
Yet, I had always been fascinated by Bhaja Govindam. One reason was, of course, that I was brought up on the hymn. As a child, I rote learnt it before I understood a word of it. Later, I heard it sung in the inimitable voice of M.S. Subbulakshmi. It was then, that I was stirred, for the first time, by the deep devotion she infused into the lines. Without even knowing it, I was waking up to the magic of Bhaja Govindam. Soon I listened to the great doyen of Hinduism, C. Rajagopalachari, talk about the verses and what they meant to him. And the words began to speak to me.
It offered me an understanding of, not merely Hindu thoughts of yore, but strangely enough, the world in which I lived, the people I met and the experiences I had. Bhaja Govindam was not a collection of out-dated Sanskrit stanzas, about abstract concepts and distant concerns. It was, surprisingly enough, a contemporary guide, a current companion, a perceptive insight into the complexities and confusions of life in modern times.
Indeed, the more I went back to it, the more I was convinced that Bhaja Govindam had a message that was waiting to be told. Not in philosophical terms, for that had already been done. Not in the manner of a scholar, for then the book would do little but occupy space on library shelves. Not in abstract, abstruse terms, or in dry, desiccated language. But in a way that would touch the lives of ordinary people. People whose concerns and conflicts, interests and aspirations have remained the same since the time of Adi Sankara, yet, who today, are more lost than they ever were before.
So I set out on this journey. Armed with little more than reverence. And faith. And an open mind. I then picked up each verse and let it whisper its secret to me. Some of them scolded me, some others cajoled me, some needled me and still others stilled me. As I listened to each one, I could immediately hear stories, which I had gathered over the years, struggling to break loose.
From Puranic lore, from Zen and Sufi sources, from sages of renown, from our eternal epics – they tumbled out in a plethora of little insights. And as they came, they found their home in each verse that was interpreted. With a story as a companion, the message of the verses no longer had to be deciphered. I was sure they would reach out. Even to those who would never have picked up a book on philosophy.
But I acquired the audacity to begin such a journey only because of the many pilgrims who had preceded me. First of them, was Swami Anubhavananda, whose classes on Bhaja Govindam were an adventure of delightful discovery. And then, I chanced upon others as well, - C. Rajagopalachari, Swami Chinmayananda, and Swami Parthasarathi. Each of them brought their unique flavor to the content, their original interpretations to the verses. Each one of them was a signpost along the way.
So, my exploration began to take shape, my destination to appear on the horizon. But, I was soon brought to a halt. For, what is a journey without its potholes and pitfalls? Mine surfaced when I tried to understand Sankara’s worldview. It seemed that his voice was oftentimes too harsh, his words excessively severe, his tone, one of caustic reprimand. It also seemed that, in his view, the world was an arena of deceit and debauchery, people, full of hate and hypocrisy and all man’s aspirations, trying and terrible.
Was there no place for the good and the pure, the noble and the virtuous? Was I to be derailed by cynicism, thrown off course by skepticism? That is how it appeared. But Sankara required patience, effort, maturity. As I got to the crux of his thoughts, I realized that the medication was only as strong as the disease. For, so caught up is man in dthe world’s material manifestations, the frenzy of desires, the fantasy of fulfillment, that nothing short of a shock will shake him out of his stupor. Worse still, man’s folly is compounded by his complete ignorance of it! No wonder, Sankara constantly uses the epithet, ‘Fool’ when he addresses man!
As I finally began to make sense of the verses, it dawned on me that Sankara’s severity was a much-needed palliative, to make man realize not merely his current stupidity, but also his ultimate divinity. Far from being nihilistic, Sankara’s advaita was a supreme affirmation of man’s highest potential.
But there was another roadblock along the way. Did Sankara’s advice, sage and sagacious as it was, mean that all pleasures were to be avoided? That desires had to be forsaken as the more they were satiated the more they spiraled out of all proportion? Were the senses to be chained and all delights to be shunned? Was Sankara expecting every individual to become an ascetic and avoid all contact with the material world?
Obviously not! For, more than any other sage, Sankara was a practical philosopher. He was aware that for most men who were householders, living in a world of material objectives, with responsibilities to fulfill and expectations to be met, it was but natural to strive for the satisfaction of aspirations. The problem only began when one ceased to be in control of enjoyment and began craving it, when one was no longer master of one’s senses but a slave to their command, when one did not merely indulge in sensual delights but became an addict to them. Sankara neither advised denial nor self-abnegation. Like the Buddha, he only advocated restraint, moderation and self-possession.
Once I settled these doubts, I could see the ultimately soul-enhancing power of Sankara’s verses. But, I still needed to know more about the man. So clothed had his image been in divinity, that I had only heard awed whispers about his being a manifestation of Lord Shiva Himself. As for his life, all we had were inferences from his many journeys across the vast landscape of India.
So, my search began to know the real Adi Sankara. I little realized how many alleys and byways this quest would lead me into. For, Adi Sankara’s life was a veritable Gordian knot.
The events therein were mired in endless controversies, as legend and fact got inextricably entangled. Everything about him, from the date of his birth to the place of his Samadhi, was under dispute.
For instance, according to certain western Orientalists, Sankara was born in 788 A.D. and attained Samadhi in 820 A.D. Other traditional schools of thought date Sankara’s year of birth as 509 B.C. Again, according to some, Adi Sankara attained Samadhi at Kedarnath, in the north of India and according to some others, he disappeared from mortal view at Kanchi, in south Indian.
Similarly, differing accounts abound of the sequence of events through his many expeditions crisscrossing the hills and plains of India, with each school claiming knowledge of what they call the ‘definitive’ journey of the great sage. Ultimately, after endless detours, I decided to follow a chronology that made logical sense, constantly keeping in mind, the cumbersome logistics of travelling by foot in those early years.
My next hurdle quite literally tripped me up. It came in the form of the miracles that abounded in Sankara’s life. Each event in it had acquired, over constant re-telling and re-interpretation, the shape, substance and dimension of legends. No wonder, within each of them, the supernatural had mingled with the factual, the mythical with the real, to such an extent that it was impossible to tell them apart.
As I sifted through this rich diversity of material, I concluded that what was important, was not the dry details of the events (which, in any case, were so contradictory), but their essence, the unique message that permeated them. It is an essence I have, at all times, striven to retain. For oftentimes, while these events may appear magical and mythical, they were constantly true to the verities of life, that is why, to even look at these incidents from the prism of science and reason, is, I believe, to do them a disservice! To rephrase the renowned historian, A.L. Basham’s comment on history and myth, if we examine the mythology in Sankara’s life, we are bound to find lots of history, yet if we examine the history in his life, we will end up finding lots of mythology.
As my journey took these completely unexpected twists, turns and loops, and I sorted through account after account of every aspect of Sankara’s life, each providing justification for its stance and conclusions, I understood why history is considered only a matter of interpretation. So much so, the more I tried to unravel Sankara’s life, the more I grew learned only in my ignorance, not of its meaning and message, but of the clear facts that surrounded it.
But, as I got to know Sankara, I realized how completely unnecessary facts actually were. For while facts could give us a chronology, or a timeline of Sankara’s life, what use were they in interpreting his seminal role in history, or his unique service to Hinduism? That is why, while historians and Indologists fight it out over what actually happened in Sankara’s life, I realized that the greatest of all miracles was the fact that such a man even lived, breathed, walked the earth and shared his vision with us! For this, as for much else, we must be truly beholden.
Now, as I weave the concluding chapters to my book, humbled and awe-inspired, by turns, I know I owe a lot of my present understanding of spiritual thought, to this journey, a journey that could not even have started had Arun Mehta of Vakils, not placed implicit trust in my need to bring Adi Sankara into people’s lives today. Through the entire process, his unwavering support alone kept me relentlessly tapping away at my keyboard.
I need to thank my sister Malavika, who gleefully picked every fault she could in my writing, and my husband Bhaskar, who reads all I write, (and slashes away at my punctuations), as a price he has to pay to maintain domestic harmony.
I come to the end of this journey. Yet, in truth, my real journey has only just begun…
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