Historical and anecdotal evidence confirms that Sankara composed this poem in a momentary flash of anger. In that sense, Sankara truly is the original angry young man.
Legend has it that the mnemonic verses of this poem flowed like a gurgling stream from Sankara’s mouth, blessed as he was by Vakdevi – the goddess of learning (Saraswathi). Composed as it was in anger, this poem dispenses with frills and fancies and cuts through poetic niceties like a hot knife through butter.
The story goes that Sankara was walking down the haloed streets of erstwhile Kashi with his 14 disciples following him. The very sight of a teenaged Sankara with the venerable octogenarian Sureshwaracharya by his side must have been a sight to behold and unimaginable in present times.
As this group of monks walked down the street Sankara saw a very old man, his body bent like that of a fully-strung bow sitting on one of the stone ledges, immersed in memorizing the nuances of Panini’s Sanskrit grammar. This sight of an old man at the fag end of his life, “wasting” his time reading and learning grammar instead of contemplating the spiritual purpose of life, so infuriated Sankara, that he burst forth with the first stanza of this poem originally called “मोहमुद्गर” (Moha-Mudgara).
This sanskrit word is derived by combining two words “मोह” and “मुद्गर” – In Sanskrit the same word can have slightly different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Here, Moha is used to mean “delusion”, “Confusion”, “ignorance” “which prevents the mind from discerning the truth.” “Mudgara” refers to a hammer, club, or mace. The name is apt given how Sankara in his “Dakshinamurti stotra” equates the illusory nature of the material aspects of the world to that of something/someone reflected as an image in a mirror – as unreal as the image in the mirror and as ignorant as forgetting the real person and mistaking the person/thing in the image for the real. The reference to the hammer/mace symbolizes the need to use the mace of one’s intellect to shatter the mirror of delusion
This poem is also known as “Dvadasha Manjarika” which is again a “sandhi” (coming together) of two sanskrit words – “Dvadasha” meaning twelve (12) and “Manjari” meaning a cluster of blossoms/buds. The more popular “Bhaja Govindam” made famous by MS Subbulakshmi and Rajaji) is merely a reference to the first few words of the first stanza of this poem – More about this in my next post where I shall attempt to present the first shloka in Sanskrit and English along with a transliteration and a contextual purport of the words.
Annotated References for the meanings of the Sanskrit words:
- मोहमुद्गर = V.S. Apte. Sanskrit-English Dictionary;2015. Pg-500;Col-2,P-5;L-1-4. Pg-508;Col-1,P-19;L-1-4; 7-9.