An angry Sankara approached the old grammarian and uttered the following words:
भज गोविन्दं भज गोविन्दं
गोविन्दं भज मूढमते ।
सम्प्राप्ते सन्निहिते काले
नहि नहि रक्षति डुकृङ्करणे ॥ १॥
Bhaja Govindam Bhaja Govindam
Govindam Bhaj Mudamathe
Samprapthe Sannihithe Kaale
Nahi Nahi Rakshathi Dukkrunn Karane
The standard translations of this stanza simply state “Worship Govinda, for when the time of death approaches, rules of grammar are of no use”
However my own analysis of Sankara the person and the reading of a reference to a little known article by Shri Shankaranarayanan in the Tatvaloka magazine (April, 1989) published by the Sringeri Sharada Peetham confirms my own assessment that given how much Sankara loved the Sanskrit language and the number of compositions and commentaries he composed in Sanskrit, he could not have meant that the learning of Sanskrit was a “waste of time.”
Shri Shankaranarayanan goes on to say that dukkrunn is actually one of the most elementary sutras in Panini’s grammar and, if even at the fag end of your life you are still learning that, you are better off focusing on the higher truths of self-realization. Therefore, it is important to underline the fact that this was not a rant by Sankara against the learning of Sanskrit.
Further, Sankara always held the view that while Apara-Vidya (knowledge that is useful for material existence) is useful, one must always cultivate a love and longing for Para-Vidya (knowledge that leads to self-realization).
My own take on this stanza and its purport is as follows: The word भज (Bhaja) means to “worship, adore, honour, be devoted”. The word गोविन्दं (Govindam) refers to a “Cowkeeper” or a “Chief Herdsman” an obvious reference to Vishnu in his avatar as Krishna. In my opinion, what Sankara has also done is to use the word Govindam to pay obeisance to his guru Govindapada (to whom he was very devoted and looked up to as his own father, having lost his biological father at the tender age of three) by inserting the word गोविन्दं (Govindam) thrice a subtle hint at the Guru being the trinity – Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshwara.
Sankara also has been unfairly categorized as a Saivite saint-reformer when in reality he is much more democratic than the vaishnavite saint-reformers who followed him including Ramanuja and Madhava who promoted the exclusive worship of Vishnu. Therefore use of गोविन्दं (Govindam) is also a subtle message to these detractors.
The word “मूढमते” is used here to mean someone who is “stupefied and ignorant of that which is important” particularly when “सम्प्राप्ते” (attainment of… close at hand…) “सन्निहिते काले” (…is the time of death… is impending dissolution). Interestingly, “Kala” is also one of the names of Yama the Lord of death and Sankara is known for his penchant for Puns!
Now, the correct translation of this stanza therefore would be:
“Adore the name of Govinda (who is the indwelling spirit within all beings). For, when the time of dissolution approaches and Yama knocks on the door; all the time spent in mindless repetition of the most basic rules of grammar will not save you from the
relentless cycle of birth-and-death“
The first stanza is therefore a clarion call for action to take the first steps towards the goal of Self-Realization.
1. Shri Shankaranarayana’s view: Available at: http://lists.advaita-vedanta.org/archives/advaita-l/1999-January/009819.html. Last accessed: Feb 4, 2017.Author: Jaldhar S Vyas.