Adi Shankara’s Bhaja Govindam: An effective Stress Management Technique

Adi Shankara’s Bhaja Govindam:

An effective Stress Management Technique

T.N.Sethumadhavan

[This essay was originally published in the August, 2007 issue of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams’ illustrated monthly ‘Sapthagiri’ and later in esamskriti.com].

Preamble

“Not so long ago, men and women suffered depression silently. But this appears to be changing, for instead of getting bogged down by low moods, people are combating it to continue with their demanding, stress-laden lives. Result: a spurt in the sale of anti-depressant drugs. One leading company which makes bulk anti-depressant drug recorded a stunning 258% increase in sales in 2005-06” – A headlines report in the “The Times of India” dated May 10, 2007.

The above quoted press report aptly epitomizes the present day gloomy situation which everybody claims it to be human progress.  It can be understood from the report that anti-depressant drugs are widely used to combat stress implying stress is the universal disease and depression is its most common symptom which ultimately leads to suicides, violence, drug-addiction, alcoholism, intolerance towards slightest disappointments and failures, marital disharmony, parent-children collision  etc.

Pathology of Stress

Stress is a condition our bodies experience in the process of adjusting to continually changing life situations. In so adjusting to different circumstances, stress will help or hinder us depending on how we react to it. It has physical and emotional effects on us and can create positive or negative feelings, more of the latter than the former.

It is a situation where we perceive that demands on us exceed our personal and social resources that we are able to mobilize to meet such expectations.  Stress is not an inevitable consequence of any event; it is our perception of a given state of affairs and our real ability to cope with it.

As a positive influence, stress can stimulate and energize us to action. As a negative influence, it can result in feelings of distrust, rejection, anger, and depression, which in turn can lead to health problems such as headaches, upset stomach, rashes, insomnia, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Causes of Stress

The causes of stress are many, some real and many imaginary. The main reasons for tension are:

  • Overload of demands – personal, social , official etc.,

  • Problem Jobs

  • Problem People

  • Performance Stress

  • Unreasonable and impractical expectations in life causing the failure of our in-built defense mechanism to cope up with disappointments

What Is Needed?

Our goal is not to eliminate stress but to learn how to manage it and how to use it to help us. Insufficient stress acts as a discouragement and may leave us feeling bored or dejected; on the other hand, excessive stress may leave us feeling “tied up in knots.” What we need to do is find the optimal level of stress which will motivate but not overwhelm us.

There is no single level of stress that is optimal for all people. We are all individual creatures with unique requirements and capabilities. As such, what is distressing to one may be a joy to another. And even when we agree that a particular event is distressing, we are likely to differ in our physiological and psychological responses to it.

It has been found that most illness is related to unrelieved stress. The rule of thumb is that if we are experiencing stress symptoms, it means that we have gone beyond our optimal stress level in which case we need to reduce the stress in our lives and/or improve our ability to manage it.

Identifying unrelieved stress and being aware of its effect on our lives is not sufficient for reducing its harmful effects. Just as there are many sources of stress, there are many techniques for its management to avoid its evil consequences. But one common feature in all the stress-reduction practices is the requirement of a change from the existing mould: changing the source of stress and/or changing our reaction to it.

Techniques to Change the Status Quo:

  1. Become aware of the source of stress – the stressors and our emotional and physical reactions to them.

  2. Reduce the intensity of our emotional reactions to stress which is triggered by our perception of the situation which may or may not be based on the real position. Evaluate whether we are over reacting or being moderate? Are we putting the situation in perspective?

  3. Build physical reserves of strength by proper exercises particularly through Yoga.

  4. Maintain emotional reserves through Meditation – which is relaxation with sustained concentration

  5. A familiar Western Prayer reads

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to       change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Recognize what we can change and what we cannot. We bring much stress upon ourselves by worrying about and being obsessed with things that we cannot change. We also add to our misery when we fail to change stressful things that we can change. But wisdom lies in knowing the difference between the two.

Take some time to think about those stressors in your life. Apply your wisdom to them – specifically to decide whether the stressor is the one that you can change or not. If it is something that you can change, then decide to change it and make a plan to implement that decision.

  1. Meditation: Research has shown that meditation is a useful and practical technique for managing stress. Meditation is a good way of relaxing during, and at the end of, a stressful day. It is something one can learn to do oneself.

It is established that these techniques had a very real effect on reducing stress and controlling the fight-or-flight response. Direct effects included slowed heartbeat and breathing, reduced oxygen consumption and increased skin resistance.

The idea behind meditation is to consciously relax your body and focus your thoughts on one thing for a sustained period. This occupies your mind, diverting it from the problems that are putting you in a pressure cooker. It gives your body time to relax and recuperate, and to clear away stress hormones that may have built up. By meditating, you rest your body, allow stress hormones to subside, and occupy your mind so that unpleasant, stressful thoughts do not intrude. In simple words, meditation means unburdening ourselves.

This can be easily understood through a simple story. A lecturer was giving a lecture to his students on stress management. He raised a glass of water and asked the audience “How heavy do you think this glass of water is?” The students’ answers ranged from 20 gm to 500 gm. The lecturer said, “It does not matter on the absolute weight. It depends upon how long you hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it is OK. If I hold it for an hour, I will have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you will have to call an ambulance. It is the same weight, but the longer I hold it the heavier it becomes. If we carry the burden all the time, sooner or later, we will not be able to carry on, the burden becoming increasingly heavier. What you have to do is to put the glass down, rest for a while before holding it up again.”

Adi Shankaracharya’s Guidance

We are fortunate that this design of periodical unburdening ourselves for getting respite from strain has been provided to us by the great Acharya Adi Shankara through his immortal poem “Bhaja Govindam.” It is an users’ manual on meditation upon Govinda for attaining liberation – liberation from the cycle of birth and death in the hereafter and liberation here and now from attachment and desire which are the primary causes for a stressful life.

Significance of Bhaja Govindam in Stress Reduction

In this poem, Shankara emphasizes the importance of devotion towards God as a means to spiritual development and to liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The prayer leaves no one in doubt that the renunciation of our egotistical vagaries and surrender to God makes for salvation which is nothing but leading a stress-free life here and now. The refrain “Bhaja Govindam” which defines the composition and gives it its name invokes the Almighty as a focal point in the aspect of Vishnu in the normal sense. From a deeper view point the term Govinda means the one who has controlled the sense organs and hence the purport of this poem is to explain the whimsical behavior of sense organs which are the gateways to stress and also the means to control them.

The composition consists of thirty one verses and at the end of each verse the refrain “Bhaja Govindam ….” is repeated. The story goes that when Shankara was walking along the streets of Kashi, he was pained to observe an elderly man trying hard to learn Sanskrit grammar.  At his advanced age, the remaining valuable little time of his life should have been utilized for worshipping the God, instead of wasting on learning a language.

This prompted Shankara to bring out this masterpiece, a sort of rebuke to our foolish and ignorant way of living. The Acharya urges the man to turn towards God and sing His glory instead of trying to learn a language. Here language does not mean mere vocabulary but all the mundane things and worldly desires and attachment. A censure is implied when the Acharya calls the man a fool (Moodhamathe).

The tone of Bhaja Govindam is not at all soft, but somewhat striking, in spite of its exotic poetic beauty and perfection of composition.  This is no wonder, because a strong dose of medicine is required to cure a deep rooted malady. A milder approach would delay the matter.  The matter is urgent, as the Acharya explains when the hour of death approaches without any forewarning the hard-learned verses of grammar are not going to save the poor soul.  Hence the song hits the nail on its head right from the beginning.

In these simple, sweet and lucid Slokas, giving homely analogies and illustrations for our easy understanding, Shankara tells us about the fallacy and futility of our life; and sloka by sloka he removes veil after veil, dispelling our ignorance, illusions and delusions (moha) and shows us where the remedy for all our misery lies. The poem, therefore, is also called “Moha Mudgara.”

He touches all aspects of our life, how these blind and bind us, plunging us deeper and deeper into the abyss of ignorance and misery. He wants each one of us to cultivate a discerning and discriminating eye (viveka) to distinguish the permanent from the transitory, the real from the unreal, to practice dispassion (vairagya) for worldly attractions and distractions, to cultivate devotion for realizing Govinda, the abiding Absolute Truth and thus getting released from the misery and bondage of this worldly existence.  

Stress Reduction Technique in Bhaja Govindam

The workout schedule for stress reduction prescribed in Bhaja Govindam is based on a unique technique which we may call “empty it out – fill it up – feel the difference” which is discussed below.

EMPTY IT OUT

At present all our minds are full of mundane and worldly thoughts conditioned by three gunas. They are overflowing with polluted and egoistic fantasies. These thoughts transform themselves into attachments and desires which ultimately take shape as actions performed by karmendriyas – organs of action- guided by jnanendrias – sense organs. It is aptly said that the ancestor of every action is a thought.

These actions are the foundation for our inter-personal relationship with the external world.  Such relationships are the cause for the quality of our mindset which is influenced by negative forces called lust-kama, anger– krodha, greed- lobha, delusion- moha, dogmatic approach- mada and jealousy- matsarya. These Shad Ripus or six enemies are the root cause for stress in our lives.

Bhagavad Gita tells us that there are three gates to hell. They are kama. krodha and lobha – lust, anger and greed. Even out of these the Gita talks about anger more elaborately. Anger really arises from desires. We become impatient and angry when we do not achieve what we desire. The Gita tells “By constantly thinking of the objects, attachment develops, from attachment desire arises; from desire arises anger; from anger arises infatuation; from infatuation arises confusion of memory. Confusion of memory leads to loss of reason and the loss of reason results in complete ruin.”

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. As we think so we become.

The problem is how to restrain the native impulsion of the senses towards sensory objects?  The obvious answer to this question is that mind cannot be chastened if desires and attachments which are the origin for all our actions and the consequences thereof are allowed to occupy a commanding position.

Desire and attachment have to be subdued, completely dethroned and emptied from the mind so as to make it free from the stress to enable it to turn towards God. The excess baggage in the mind has to be jettisoned so that the journey of meditation can be comfortably undertaken and the destination of Moksha can be reached safely in this very lifetime. Except through devotion to God, there is no other effective way to restrain the senses and obtain total relaxation, the absolute peace of mind. But this advice is easier given than understood and followed.

So Shankara, as an expert teacher, starts explaining first where we are going wrong in understanding our own physical bodies which we love most and bestow maximum attention for their upkeep and beautification and with which we identify ourselves.

This brain storming session projects in our minds the true nature of our physical bodies, worldly attachments, temptations, possessions and relationships. It is a sort of deconstruction process whereby the normal assumptions and presumptions about our lives we have been accustomed to entertain right from our birth are demolished and a new perspective is injected in our thinking to help us keep the sense organs under control so as to prevent any imbalance in the mind.

The importance of control of mind is brought out by Kabir as “If you do not control your mind, the five senses go beyond your control. The five senses ride rough shod over you, resulting in loss of virtue, truth and love.” Upanishad says “mana eva manushyaanaam kaaranam bandha mokshayoh” – “It is mind which is responsible for liberation or bondage.”

Kathopanishad compares the human body to a chariot and the mind to the reins, the sense organs to the horses and the sense objects to the road. Unless the horses are controlled through the reins the journey towards destination cannot be safe. Similarly unless the outgoing tendency of sense organs is controlled the unbridled nature of desire will certainly push us into the deep ravines of disappointment and melancholy.

Shankara, in his own inimitable style, blasts our misplaced understandings about life. He says in Bhaja Govindam:

1. Mundane erudition is useless:

Seek Govinda! Seek Govinda! Seek Govinda! Oh ignoramus (Moodhamati), at the time of death the rules of grammar, which you are trying to cram and master, will not be able to rescue you at all. Grammar rules mean all secular knowledge and earthly acquisitions. Moodhamati means a materialist, wholly worldly-minded, who does not   believe in God or the spiritual entity that is in man i.e., Nastika or Anatmavadi

2. Avoid infatuation with opposite gender:

Enticed by the physical glamour of a woman, do not lose your senses; the body is nothing but a conglomeration of filthy flesh presented through attractive packaging of various colors, shapes and sizes; do not forget this any time. Here the advice applies to both the genders.

3. Life is ephemeral:

The water droplet on the lotus leaf is tremulous and unsteady.  So too is life which is as uncertain. Know the body to be in the claws of disease, which may swallow it at any moment. Life is ultimately nothing but worry, misery and grief.

Then he comments about senselessness of interpersonal relationships.

4. Your relatives or your money’s relatives?

As long as you are fit to make an earning, so long will your kith and kin be solicitous about you, but no sooner your  limbs become infirm and your earnings cease, none will care for  you, not even your own family people.

5. Body without life force, even wife is afraid of:

As long as there is life in your body, your people may have   concern for you, but once the life-breath ebbs out of your body, even your own wife will run away from you.

Then Shanakra talks about how we waste our life times in leading an animal life.

6. Time wasted is life wasted:

Childhood skips off on sport and play. Youth flies off in pursuits of love-making. As one grows older he is drowned in worry about the security and future of his wife and children. One’s whole life gets spent in some kind of   worry or other. And at no stage does a man find time to lift his thoughts to God.

Shankara now clearly tells us to ponder over basic questions relevant to our social relationships and family bonds.

7.How strange is the cycle of life?

Who indeed is your beloved and who indeed is your son? Strange   indeed are these family bonds; who belong to you and to whom you belong? Whence did you come, Oh brother! Reflect on the truth of it all.

Now the issue of throwing out the excess baggage of attachment and desire from the mind is taken up.

8. Satsang-good company- leads to detachment:

The company of the good weans one away from false attachments; when attachment is lost, delusion ends; when delusion ends; the mind becomes unwavering and steady. An unwavering and steady mind is merited for Jeevan Mukti (liberation even in this life).

Futility of pampering the physical body, material possessions and worldly existence is again emphasized.

9. Right knowledge is the way to Bliss.

When youth is gone, where are lust and its play? Where is the lake when its waters have dried up? Where are the kinsfolk when riches are gone? When Truth is realized, where is the snare of Samsara?

Shankara sympathizes over the vice like grip of desires on human beings despite their weakening physical stamina.

10. Time passes with every tick of clock but desires do not loosen their grip:

Day and night, dawn and dusk, winter and spring, all these are flipping through the stage of the world. While time thus is frolicking and befooling us, our life span is also running out; yet we do not give up, even a little, the clinging to our desires, nor do we let the desires loosen their grip on us.

11. Wrinkled and bald man is unable to be free from desires’ hold:

The body has become decrepit; the hair on the head has turned completely gray; the mouth has become totally toothless; the back is bent down and the old man cannot take even a step without the aid of his stick; yet he does not loosen even a bit, his hold on the bundle of desires.

12. Desire is a challenge even to an ascetic:

Homeless he is; his back is bent down with age. His body has lost its heat and he has to warm himself before a fire or in the sun. Tree is his only shelter; he lives by begging and by the crumbs thrown into his palms by others; in the night he sleeps by holding his chin on his knee (because the back is bent and he cannot stretch himself and lie down). Yet, he does not let and allow the grip of desires on him loosen even a bit.

13. What a pity? Knowingly we fall into the trap.

As readily as one takes to indulging in carnal pleasures, with the same readiness alas! He is taken over by disease too. Even seeing death as the inevitable and only end of all, man does not refrain from sinful ways.

In The Gita we see that when Arjuna asks Sri Krishna pressed by what man commits sinful acts as if compelled by some super-force, Bhagavan replies it is because of desire and anger which are all sinful and all devouring enemy in this world. He advises Arjuna to control the senses first and then kill the desire which is stated to be a sinful thing posing a direct threat to knowledge and wisdom.

Shankara gives examples of stress creating factors:

14. Let the rich be vigilant even about their own children:

It is wealth only that causes all harm and brings about one’s ruin. Bear this truth in mind always. Know that the pursuit of wealth does not lead one to happiness at all. The rich fear and are even afraid of their own sons. This is always the outcome of riches evrywhere. It is said that “properties” are not “proper” “ties.”

FILL IT UP

Having thus explained the factors that cause stress, Shankara now takes up the means to get out of this abject status.

15. Develop contentment:

Oh, Fool! Give up your insatiable desire for earthly possessions; be sensible and develop serenity and contentment. Be satisfied and happy with whatever you may earn by the sweat of your brow and whatever has destiny marked for your lot.

16. Destroy pride or else it will destroy you:

The pleasures and riches of worldly life are deceptive appearances. Understanding that they are all but a passing-show, be detached and dispassionate, cultivate renunciation and seek Brahman.

17. Seek the company of the holy, it is never too late:

Crazy man! Why do you worry so much about your wife and property?  Why don’t you seek out the Truth? Know that in these three worlds it is only the association with the good and holy that can help you in crossing safely the ocean of life.

Shankara warns about the deceptive people and advocates single pointed attention on Govinda:

18. What is the use of external show?

The ascetic with matted locks, the man with the shaven head or one with hair pulled out, or the man parading in the ochre robes — they all have eyes but yet do not see. All these are but deceptions for cheating the world, for filling their bellies. The implication  is that renunciation does not lie in external appearance, but in inward thought, attitude and feeling.

19. Go beyond rituals:

One may have bathed in the holy Ganga or even in the Ganga Sagar; he may have performed many charities and observed many vows; yet unless one gets a glimpse of the Truth (God), he will not gain release even after a hundred lives.

20. It is the right resolve that matters:

Even a little study and understanding of the Bhagavad Gita, or sipping of even a tiny drop of the waters of the holy Ganga or  even a little worship of Murari — these will surely save one  from confrontation with death !

21. Cycle of birth and death! Put an end to it:

Undergoing the pangs of birth again and again, passing through the throes of death again and again, lying in the mother’s womb over and over again, this process of samsara is hard to cross over. Save me from it, Oh merciful Lord!

22. The world is nothing but a dream:

Who are you? Who am I? Where did I come from? Who is my mother, who is my father? — enquire thus and you will, then realize that the entire  world of experience, all the worries and problems are but a dream, a mere hallucination, born of imagination and delusion. With such a   realization, you will be freed from the stressful delusions of the world.

23. Achieve non-duality by seeing God in everyone:

In you, in me and everywhere, there is but the one Vishnu.  Mistakenly viewing me with a sense of difference, you are ill-disposed towards me. Try to see in all beings only the Vishnu who is your own self. Give up your false and egoistic sense of separateness from other beings. Cultivate a sense of kinship, unity and oneness with all.

24. Equanimity leads to Divinty:

Do not look at anybody in terms of friend or foe, brother or cousin; do not fritter away your mental energies in thoughts of friendship or enmity. Seeking the Self everywhere be amiable and equal-minded towards all, treating all alike.

25. Multifold approach to purify thoughts:

Recite the Gita; chant the thousand Names of the Lord (VishnuSahasranama), meditate ceaselessly on the Consort and Lord of Lakshmi, lead the mind towards association with the good. Give away your wealth in charity to those in need and who are poor.

26. Stilling the mind is the sure way to Bliss:

Regulated breathing and sense control, discrimination between the enduring and the fleeting, the eternal and the transient, Japa and  meditation, and submerging of the bodily and mental consciousness in  the Consciousness of the Spirit, merging oneself into the total Inner  Silence — one must practice these with unrelenting fervour.

27. God is your own indweller:

Surrender yourself to the Lotus Feet of the Teacher; with your senses and mind disciplined, and freed from the shackles of Samsara you will behold the Lord who is seated in your heart.

FEEL THE DIFFERENCE

Shankara concludes his advice by highlighting the improved quality of life one can achieve through meditation on Govinda, the Parabrahman.

28. You want Bliss? Then renounce.

Who can disturb the peace and happiness of a man if he has the true spirit of renunciation and has controlled his desires, even if he be   the poorest, sleeping only in the temple corridors and dharmashalas or under  trees or on the bare ground and just with a deer skin to cover.

29. Fix your mind on God, Bliss you get unsought:

Whether one is immersed in yoga or is reveling in bhoga ( i.e, outward enjoyment), whether he is enjoying himself in social company or has retired into solitude, true happiness certainly cannot be his; but he alone who is reveling inwardly in Brahman, (wherever he be) will be truly happy and will verily enjoy.

30. How to identify the one who is immersed in God?

Clad in stray rags, treading the path beyond good and evil, caring for neither earning merit by taking to good deeds nor stooping to do any evil, and lost in meditation the yogi revels in the Supreme always, lost to all outward norms and decorum — his behavior may look prankish like that of a child or may be even queer like that of a lunatic.

31. Self-knowledge clears all the mist of woolly-thinking:

Free yourself from lust, anger, greed and delusion. Contemplate on ‘who you are’. Enquire within yourself, who am I? The fools who fail to apprehend the Self are caught in hell-fire here and now and suffer torture.

The Gita says “There  is no knowledge of the Self to the unsteady,  and  to the  unsteady no meditation is possible and to  the  unmeditative there  can  be no peace and to the man who has no peace  how  can there be any happiness ?”

Conclusion

“Seek Govinda, Seek the God, Bhaja Govindam”, in this refrain comprising of two words, Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada, has summed up in a nutshell as it were, the entire preaching of Vedanta and religion for the redemption of mankind. It gives us the key for entering into the realm of Bliss, the abode of Govinda and for terminating the misery of stress laden life we are in at present.

To summarize, Shankara suggests the following multifold strategy to achieve the objective of a stress free blissful life.

  1. Develop devotion to the Supreme Lord supported by Satsang.

  2. Devotion will enable us to calm the mind and control sense organs.

  3. By controlling the sense organs, the ruthless dominance of desires is     reduced and finally eliminated.

  4. Develop universal love and perceive unity in diversity which will lead to detachment and dispassion and create in you a more balanced view of life.

The Shankara method of playing the game of life assures one and all a sure win over the mighty enemy of worldly bondage leading to a real tension-free life.

Kathopanishad says “When all the desires that dwell in the heart are destroyed, then the mortal becomes immortal and he attains Brahman even here.” – Jeevan Mukti.

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