What can Atheists Learn from the Bhaja Govindam?

Bhaja Govindam is a popular poem attributed to the scholar-saint Adi Shankara, one of the foremost advocates of the Advaita Vedanta School of philosophy. A short work, of 31 verses, it urges us to pray to Govinda (‘the herder of cows,’ another name for Krishna).

Apparently, Shankara and his disciples were walking on the streets of Varanasi when they came across an old teacher drilling the students in his class with grammar rules. Shankara was moved by this scene and told the teacher that he should focus on God at his stage in life and not waste time teaching the rules of grammar. This incident inspired Shankara to compose Bhaja Govindam. [There is much speculation about the historicity of this incident. Regardless, it is a nice story.]

This is largely a devotional poem. But what value will atheists get from it? In the introduction to his lucid translation of Bhaja Govindam, C. Rajagopalachari says, “Some immature critics of Indian philosophy believe...that the way of devotion is different from the way of knowledge. The learned employ this distinction to emphasise [sic] a particular thesis on which they discourse in different contexts... When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the heart, it becomes wisdom. When that wisdom is integrated with life and issues out in action, it becomes devotion.” This statement has been my inspiration in writing this article.

Upon reading this poem, the two verses that will immediately appeal to an atheist are the following:

Those with matted hair, shaven heads,
saffron robes and many costumes –
they have eyes yet fail to see the truth, the fools!
They just use these disguises to fill their bellies. #14

Bathe in Ganga, observe fasts and vows, or donate your wealth.
But they are all futile
if you lack knowledge;
you won’t achieve salvation
even if you are reborn a hundred times! #17

An oft-repeated message in this poem is the purging of the desire for amassing wealth. Shankara says that there is no end to desires. Even when humans are in terrible health and in distress, they still don’t give up their desires. (#12, #15) Shankara reminds us that the joy that wealth can bring is only temporary:

Wealth is dangerous.
Think about this.
Wealth does not lead to true happiness!
A rich man even fears his own son.
This is the way of wealth. #29

But on the other hand, if people learn how to be content and to be satisfied with the fruits of their labor (#2), then they are bound to be happy. Further, if people are detached from material possessions and can find happiness in the simple pleasures of life or by living simply (#18), what can be better than that? This bears a striking resemblance to the modern-day minimalist saying – “a rich person is not one who has the most but one who needs the least.”

A second theme in this poem is the illusory nature of human relationships. Shankara seems quite the cynic when he says:

As long as a man can earn money
his family is attached to him.
Once he grows old and frail,
nobody enquires about him even in his own house! #5

When a person is alive,
people enquire about his well-being.
When the soul leaves the body,
even his wife fears the corpse! #6

Since we are never sure about these relationships, Shankara persuades us to constantly think about our place in the world – Who is my spouse? Who is my child? Where did I come from? Who are my parents? What is the true nature of this world? (#8, #23) Then he goes on to say that it’s useless making friends or enemies; if your aim is to attain the highest, learn to treat everyone the same way (#25).

A topic connected with relationships is sex. Shankara reminds us not to over-indulge in sex. He rebukes the lecherous ones, who are lost in staring at a woman’s breasts or navel. He tells them to remember that they are merely a modification of the flesh. (#3) Later on in the poem, he says that it is easy to fall prey to sexual enjoyment but before you know it, you are plagued by disease, and ultimately death. (#28)

Shankara asks:

When you’ve grown old, where is the chance for love-games?
When the water has dried up, where is the lake?
When wealth is gone, where are the family members?
When you know the truth, where are the bonds of samsara? #10

While all these suggestions are beneficial, they go against human instinct and it requires a great deal of self-control to adhere to them. One practical solution that Shankara gives is to cultivate good friends:

If you have the right company,
then you can renounce vice.
As you renounce vice and get detached from cravings,
you are no longer deluded by them.
As your delusions decrease,
you become calm and steady.
This is the prerequisite for salvation! #9

One can easily connect this with the idea of a Running Partner, or a Sponsor (a term used in Alcoholics Anonymous for the mentor who will help you in rehab) – in both cases, it’s useful to have company if you’re trying to break away from a bad habit (laziness, alcoholism).

Perhaps the most beautiful verse from Bhaja Govindam is one which reminds us that the ultimate purpose of life is ananda, or bliss. Whatever one does in his/her life, if he/she can be genuinely happy, then that’s pretty much the secret of life:

You might be practicing yoga,
or you might be having fun;
you might among friends and lovers,
or you might be all alone –
but if you are joyous with the experience of the divine,
then you are truly happy!

[Some scholars are of the opinion that Shankara composed only 17 verses (the first 12 and the last 5) of the poem while his disciples composed the other 14. Some others believe that this poem was not composed by Shankara at all. My friend Shashi Kiran tells me that some scholars opine that it was the composition of one Charpata Natha belonging to the Natha sect. Apparently the poem was originally called 'Charpata-panjarika-stotram' as it is composed in the panjarika poetic meter. At any rate, it makes no difference to the message!]

References

Rajagopalachari, C. Bhaja Govindam. 8th ed. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2003
Giridhar, M. Bhajagovindam. <http://sanskritdocuments.org/doc_vishhnu/bhajagovindam.pdf>

This article was first published in Daily O as part of my column Commonsense Karma.

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About:

Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.

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