A powerful hymn, a moving rendition.

This is my second blog for Nalini’s “Month of Mindfulness” campaign to raise funds for The/Nudge Foundation. You can read more about her work here.

In this episode I want to introduce you to a piece that wraps deep philosophy in melodious music. It is a hymn that I turn to whenever I need strength, whenever I feel the need to put the craziness of the world into a framework that makes sense.

The hymn is Bhaja Govindam composed by Adi Shankaracharya (and his disciples). To understand the glory of this composition, it is important to understand the composer — Adi Shankara is the 8th century philosopher who in his lifetime (a brief 33 years) walked the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent unifying the various streams of Hindu thought; and beautifully brought out the interdependence of Bhakti and Advaita philosophies. As Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari, the last governor general of India) says in his commentary on the Bhaja Govindam — “To believe that Jnana and Bhakti, knowledge and devotion are different from each other, is ignorance. If Sri Adi Shankara himself who drank from the ocean of Jnana as easily as one sips water from the palm of one’s hand, sang in his later years, hymns to develop devotion, it is enough to show that Jnana and Bhakti are one and the same”. This is the maturity and richness of Hindu thought that is nowadays lost in the humdrum of rituals and political colour.

Adi Shankara by Raja Ravi Verma (source: wikipedia); MS amma (source:TheBetterIndia)

I focus specifically on the edition sung by Bharat Ratna Sangita Kalanidhi MS Subbalakshmi for the singer’s voice and emotions add new depth to an already moving hymn. MS amma is probably the one Carnatic musician who everyone in India has heard of. Her popular appeal lasted many decades, on the back of a divine voice, impeccable manners, and her intense love for devotional songs. Her recordings of many classic devotional songs, hymns and slokas have become the canonical renditions of those compositions. For e.g. you would be hard pressed to find a recording in any South Indian household, of the Vishnu Sahasranamam or the Venkatesha Suprabhatam that is not sung by MS amma. Her recording of the Bhaja Govindam, the subject of this post, is also one such canonical performance. The song is set in Ragamalika style, meaning every verse is sung in a different raga. This adds tremendously to the variety and experience, and it is likely that you will enjoy some verses way more than the others.

The Bhaja Govindam can be a hard hitting call for ordinary people like us to focus on the important questions on life. The opening paragraph mockingly reminds you that when your time on this earth comes to an end your expertise in complex grammar rules is not going to be of much help. Reference to grammar is only because Sankara himself was an expert in them; you could just as well replace it with knowledge of Java/Python, or the math of commodity futures pricing!

Although the song has a frequent refrain to take the name of the Lord, if you are not the religious type, you could just ignore that part and still be left with weighty questions to ponder, or get simple practical advice on going about the business of life. For e.g. this advice:

maa kuru dhana jana yauvana garvaM
harati nimeshhaatkaalaH sarvam.h .
maayaamayamidamakhilaM hitvaa
brahmapadaM tvaM pravisha viditvaa .. (11)

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. (11)

Or if you are feeling particularly reflective, this will strike a chord:

kaate kaantaa kaste putraH
saMsaaro.ayamatiiva vichitraH .
kasya tvaM kaH kuta aayaataH
tattvaM chintaya tadiha bhraataH .. (8)

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. (8)

The song is composed in Sanskrit, of course. So unless you are an expert in that language already, you are unlikely to be drawn into deep philosophy while hearing MS amma sing. This is where it helps that MS amma sings with such deep devotion and bhava that over time it starts to have an impact on you. Her devotion has the power to move. Further just the quality of singing and the melody of the composition itself is such that you will love listening even to verses that you might not think a lot of if you just read the translation. For e.g. the following verse might read a bit strange if you are not into reincarnation, but you will still be moved by the verse when you hear it:

punarapi jananaM punarapi maraNaM
punarapi jananii jaThare shayanam.h .
iha saMsaare bahudustaare
kRipayaa.apaare paahi muraare .. (21)

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. (21)
(Stanza attributed to Disciple Nityanatha)

All that philosophising can appear heavy and intimidating. However the beauty of works like this is that the secrets reveal themselves to you over time. Depending on your frame of mind different verses will resonate at different times. I would recommend you buy a copy of the classic english translation by Rajaji. If you want a quick reference online you can go here. And keep listening to the melodious voice of MS amma keep you company, while you go back to the translation every so often. This is a life long keeper.

On a final note — this recording has only 10 verses, when the original has a total or 31 verses including contributions from Sankara’s disciples. I have not found any authoritative note as to why so many verses were skipped. If anyone knows the reason I would be very glad to hear about it.

Thank you, Sriram! There is so much to Bhaja Govindam that no single description can do justice to it. Each one has to experience it alone. Listening to this rendition, I am deeply moved by MS amma’s haunting taunt “yaavadvittopaarjana saktaH staavannija parivaaro raktaH” (So long as a man is fit and able to support his family, see the affection all those around him show). Her voice turns to a deep melancholy that is all so appropriate for these lines.

My favourite verse:

gurucharaNaambuja nirbhara bhakataH
saMsaaraadachiraadbhava muktaH .
sendriyamaanasa niyamaadevaM
drakshyasi nija hR^idayasthaM devam. .. (31)

Oh devotee of the lotus feet of the Guru! May thou be soon free from Samsara. Through disciplined senses and controlled mind, thou shalt come to experience the Indwelling Lord of your heart! (31)

It goes back to what you were saying earlier — that Bhaja Govindam unifies Bhakti marga and Jnana marga — for here while the start emphasises on relying upon the grace of one’s Guru, the end emphasises on the control of mind and senses. Both have been given equal importance and lead to the Indwelling Lord — not outside, not in temples, not in mountain caves, but inside our very hearts.

This blog is part of a series of blogs/tweets titled “My Month of Mindfulness”. A challenge to myself; an attempt to touch lives.

If you’d like to touch lives too, please consider contributing to my fundraiser here: NudgeNow

You can access the full series by following my Twitter handle.

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B Nalini

B Nalini

Interested in Tech, Society, Ethics, Nature, Life & Living. Writing about whatever moves me whenever it does.