close logo

Part 1: Three Rules of Spiritual Life for a Beginner: From Adi Shankaracharya’s Bhaja Govindam

Bhaja Govindam is a beautiful text composed by Sri Adi Shankaracharya. It is more of a guide to intelligent living in accordance with Vedantic Principles than a literature of philosophical discussion. I originally read the text many years ago, in 2009, when I was still a college student. I had received this book from one of my teachers. My first exposure to Vedanta was through Bhaja Govindam, and I continue to return to it for guidance on issues both spiritual and material. I have tried to summarize the entire text through three simple yet profound rules for any beginner who wishes to understand and live a life in harmony with the vision of Vedanta.

The Context

The circumstances that inspired Sri Shankara to write this lovely text is a subject of an intriguing tale. Together with his students, Sri Shankara once travelled to Kashi, the heavenly city of Lord Shiva. They came across a pundit there who was yelling out grammar rules. His intention was to demonstrate his outstanding knowledge of grammar. Sri Shankara was overcome with both compassion and anger at the plight of the learned pundit much like what a father feels seeing his son go astray. His universal compassion, steadfast knowledge of Brahman, and profound intelligence manifested themselves in the shape of Bhaja Govindam, an exquisitely lyrical and extraordinarily insightful work. He burst forth into the following verse….

भजगोविन्दंभजगोविन्दंगोविन्दंभजमूढमते |

संप्राप्तेसन्निहितेकाले न हि न हिरक्षतिडुकृञ्करणे || Bhaja Govindam-1 ||

Worship Govinda, Worship Govinda, Worship Govinda, O misled One, reads the first line. Grammer rules will not help you when the appointed moment (the time of death) comes. The idea is that Govinda, not grammar rules, will save you. Sri Shankara gave out 12 more verses in addition to the main verse of Bhaja Govindam. This collection of verses from the second to the thirteenth verse is called Dvadashamanjarika Stotra and is sung with the main verse (i.e., Bhaja Govindam) being repeated after every other verse is sung. The disciples of Sri Shankara were immediately inspired by the moving verses of their teacher and at once contributed one verse each. 14 such verses were given, and they constitute the Chaturdashamanjarika Stotra. Finally, Sri Shankara gave 5 more verses to conclude the text, taking the total to 32. This text is also called Moha Mudgara as it acts as a hammer (Mudgara) on our delusions (Moha). Delusion regarding who we are, what the world is, who is Ishwara and what exactly is our relationship with Ishwara.

The problem with Grammar

Sri Shankara was a highly intelligent scholar. No other acharya has ever since come close to matching His level of shastra mastery. If we examine his commentary on the Bhagwat Geeta, the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Vishnu Sahasranamam, we discover that he frequently employed grammar to clarify many of the ideas and terms found in these books. Why, then, would he dismiss grammar in this specific instance? We must examine the Upanishads, which are the foundational works of Vedanta, to fully understand the acharya’s perspective. The entire body of human knowledge is divided into two parts for easier understanding in a dialogue found in the Mundaka Upanishad – into the higher and the lower. All four of the Vedas, grammar, phonics, code of rituals, etymology, metre, astrology, and other topics are included in the lower knowledge.

तस्मै स होवाचद्वेविद्येवेदितव्येइति ह स्म |

यद्ब्रह्मविदोवदन्तिपराचैवपरा च ||1.1.4.

तत्रापराऋग्वेदयजुर्वेद: सामवेदोअथर्ववेद;


अथपराययातदक्षरमधिगम्यते|| Mundaka Upanishad-1.1.5

Angiras said to Saunaka :” Those who know the Veda say that there are indeed two types of knowledge to be gained, which are known as higher and lower. Among the two, the Apara-vidya is Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda, phonetics, know-how of rituals, grammar, etymology of Vedic words, science of meters, astronomy, and astrology. And para-vidya is the one by which that imperishable Brahman is known.

The text continues by stating that knowing the imperishable Brahman is what constitutes higher knowledge. Sri Shankara in his commentary on the above verse argues that “of words found in the (books called) Upanishads. But by the word Veda the meaning implied everywhere is the assemblage of words. The knowledge of Brahman is distinctively mentioned, and it is called the higher knowledge since, even after the mastery of the assemblage of words, the realization of the Imperishable is not possible without some other effort consisting in approaching the teacher and so on, as well as detachment.” Grammar is undoubtedly necessary for understanding the collection of words known as the Vedas or Scripture, but to limit oneself to word meanings is to limit our scope of comprehension. It is exactly like mistaking the bottle for the medicine. We should try to understand the real import of the shastras and should embark on the path of Sadhana, instead of just being an intelligent animal carrying Shastras in his head.

The Rules

  1. Bhaja Govindam- Live an Ishwara centric life
  2. Kasya sukham na karoti viraga- Develop detachment
  3. Brahmapadam tvam pravishat viditva- Strive for jnana

Rule No.1: Bhaja Govindam- Live an Ishwara centric life

The first rule of spiritual life that Sri Shankara teaches us is Bhaja Govindam. Worship the Lord. Worship Ishwara. Let us take a deep dive into the meanings of the words Bhaja and Govindam so that we know what exactly Sri Shankara meant by these words. Bhaja means service. In our tradition worship is seen as a service to the Divine. Hence, we have Bhagawati seva, Ekadashi seva etc. in our temples, which is nothing but worship. Sri Shankara does not specify the form of worship. Worship may take the form of Japa, meditation, Kirtana, Archana, or any other form as permitted by the Shastra. The shastra speaks of nava-vidha bhakti. Nine types of bhaktis are described by Prahlada to his father in Srimad Bhagawata Purana

श्रवणंकीर्तनंविष्णोःस्मरणंपादसेवनम् |

अर्चनंवन्दनदास्यंसख्यंआत्मनिवेदनम् || Srimad Bhagwat Purana-7.5.23

People of any caste and gender can practice any of these nine forms of bhaktis. These techniques can be used by everyone, and everyone should incorporate them into their daily lives to connect with Ishwara. The intensity and fulfilment of these nine Bhaktis, from Shravanam to Atmanivedanam, additionally demonstrates a progressive gradation. Even for great bhaktas like Prahlada and Vibhishana we cannot say absolutely that they were committed to Shravana or Kirtana alone, hence we can incorporate a part of all these practices into our lives slowly and steadily. It is a trend in modern times to either wait for inspiration or postpone our spiritual journey until we know the meaning and convince ourselves of the entire shastra or until retirement and old age. But Dhruva and Prahlada are excellent examples showing that these things cannot and should not be postponed. Sadhana is something that should be started as soon as possible. Sadhana, no matter how small or distracted it may be, will slowly pave the way for deep Sadhana. Scriptural Knowledge, inspiration and experiences will follow the one pursuing Sadhana.

  1. Shravanam- Listening to the glories of Ishwara. Shravanam is the basis of our entire relationship with Ishwara. But Shravanam needs to be done from a person who has himself studied the shastras and is engaged in devotion to Ishwara. Reading books written by such a competent person is also shravanam.
  2. Keertanam- Singing the glories of Ishwara mostly in a congregation. This reinforces the spirit of bonding between devotees themselves and with Ishwara.
  3. Smaranam- To remember Ishwara always. This occurs when the bhakti that is done specifically for a few minutes/hours, starts to show its effect on other facets of the life of the devotee. This is the great crossover of Karma Yoga with Bhakti Yoga.
  4. Padasevanam- To serve the feet of the Lord. Feet of the Lord here need to be understood as other devotees and the downtrodden and people in distress. We need to contribute to the wellbeing of society as a fulfilment of our devotion to Ishwara.
  5. Archanam- To worship Ishwara according to rules laid out in the shastras, which include Panchopachaar Puja (worship with five items), Shodasopachara Puja (worship with sixteen items) etc.
  6. Vandana- To praise Ishwara with the near infinite number of stotras available to us in our great scriptural literature and those that have been composed by great mahatmas. Acharya Shankara himself has written an uncountable number of stotras on every deity mentioned in the Puranas.
  7. Daasyam- To think of oneself as a servant of the Lord.
  8. Sakhyam- To think of Ishwara as our greatest friend.
  9. Aatmanivedanam- This is the highest culmination of Bhakti, where we surrender ourselves completely to the mercy of Ishwara.

Coming back to the meaning of words Bhaja and Govindam – Govindam in addition to the obvious meaning i.e., Sri Mahavishnu/ Krishna, here refers to Ishwara. The Ishwara who is the creator/sustainer/destroyer of Ananta Koti Brahmandas. Ishwara is Sarvajna-all knowing, Sarva Saktiman-all powerful, Sarva Vyapi-all pervading, Sarva Karana-the primordial cause. Specifically in Sri Shankara’s philosophy Govinda means the ‘Pure Consciousness’ that is beyond the body, mind and intellect which is the same as Brahman, the ultimate reality pervading the whole universe.

What Sri Shankara is saying is that we need to devote ourselves to the worship of Ishwara. Ishwara should become the locus of all our lives. He certainly does not mean that we all should become renunciates and monks and become full time sannyasis. But we need to integrate the practices of karma yoga and bhakti yoga into our lives so that whatever we are doing at the present can be done in a spirit of bhakti to Ishwara.

यद्यत्कर्मकरोमितत्तदशम्भोतवाराधनम् | Shiva Manasa Puja-4

O śambhu! Whatever actions I do is Thy worship alone.

The Bhagwat Geeta advises us to carry out every task with a sense of obligation, as if we were following Ishwara’s instructions. Doing actions thus amounts to offering our actions to Ishwara.

सर्वकर्माणिमयिसंन्यस्यअध्यात्मचेतसा |

निराशीर्निर्ममोभूत्वायुध्यस्वविगतज्वरः ||Bhagwat Geeta-5.

Renouncing all actions in Me, with the mind centered on the Self, free from hope and egoism (ownership), free from mental fever, do fight

The Geeta also teaches us to accept whatever results from our deeds, good or bad, with humility and tranquilly of mind as the Parsada of Ishwara. This action-taking and subsequent acceptance of the results with unwavering devotion for Ishwara is a powerful force that grants us Chitta Shuddhi. We can use the increased mental peace that Chitta Shuddhi gives us to do further inquiry into Ishwara and our own nature. Such a mind, even when it attaches itself to worldly and secular tasks, produces transcendental beauty in all it touches.

Why Ishwara centric life?

First, we must acknowledge that the universe was created by the great power Ishwara. Depending on the actions we have taken, this same force distributes the results of our actions impartially. Every action we take is not a stand-alone action. We are powerless against the powers of nature. Both our actions and the outcomes of those activities are influenced by these factors – known and unknown. As a result, Jeeva’s influence in samsara is quite constrained. It is unclear to us exactly what sort prarabdha karma we have earned. And our prarabdha is having an impact on us in ways that we cannot fully understand. These arguments are not intended to depress seekers, but plain realities must be kept out in the open if we truly wish to comprehend and live happy lives.

People have faith in their loved ones to be there for them when they need them. They want them to be a continual source of inspiration, support, and protection as they navigate the challenges of life, acting as a comprehensive support system. Some individuals place their faith in wealth and power; as a result, their support networks consist of people in positions of authority and wealth. Some people have unwavering confidence in their own talents, including intelligence, hard work, resilience, etc. But come to think of it, are any of these support systems infallible? The short response is a resounding “NO!” Although our parents’ friends and associates may do their best to assist us, they might not always be able to do so, in all situations and always. Someday, even our own capabilities might let us down. There is a chance that they will not be sufficient to handle the forthcoming challenge. Since all these support systems are inadequate, we need to turn ourselves to a support system that is infallible. And Ishwara is the sole unfailing being in the cosmos. We can have entire faith in Ishwara since he is not constrained by knowledge or ability. It is accessible to everyone who requests it at anytime, anywhere, and under any condition.

अनित्यमसुखंलोकमिमंप्राप्यभजस्वमाम्॥ B.Geeta 9.33॥

Having reached (obtained) this impermanent and joyless world, do worship Me devoutly.

What can be said about Moksha, or total liberation from the suffering that Samsara is, if this is just in terms of gaining material advantages? Only Ishwara’s Grace can save us from the repeated cycles of birth and death.


अनन्येनैवयोगेनमांध्यायन्तउपासते॥B.Geeta 12.6॥

तेषामहंसमुद्धर्तामृत्युसंसारसागरात् ।

भवामिनचिरात्पार्थमय्यावेशितचेतसाम्॥B.Geeta 12.7||

But those who worship Me, renouncing all actions in Me, regarding Me as the Supreme Goal, meditating on Me with single-minded devotion (YOGA). For those, whose minds are set on Me, verily I become, erelong, O Partha, the Saviour, (to save them) out of the ocean of finite experiences; the SAMSARA. ||B.Geeta.12.6-7||

Thus, Sri Shankara requests that we practice Bhaja Govindam. To put it another way, since only Ishwara will be able to save us from both the difficulties of this life and from the cycle of rebirth, we should worship Ishwara and start living an Ishwara-centered life (samsara).

पुनरपिजननंपुनरपिमरणं, पुनरपिजननीजठरेशयनम् |

इहसंसारेबहुदुस्तारे, कृपयापाहेपाहिमुरारे || Bhaja Govinda-21

Again birth, again death, and again lying in mother’s womb – this samsara process is extremely hard to cross over…. Save me, Murari through Thy Infinite Kindness.

 How to Live an Ishwara centric life?

Satsang means to spend time with intelligent and spiritual people constantly. Through their spiritual writings, we can keep the company of great masters even when it is physically impossible.

त्रिजगतिसज्जनसंगतिरेकाभवतिभवर्णवतरणेनौका |Bhaja Govindam-13

In the three worlds it is the association-with-good-people alone that can serve as a boat to cross the sea of change (birth and death).

Daily reading of some spiritual works is known as swadhyay. It is better to start with Bhagwat Geeta and then gradually progress to reading something more philosophical.

भगवद्गीताकिञ्चिदधीता, गङ्गाजललवकणिकापीता|

सकृदपियेनमुरारिसमर्चा, क्रियतेतस्ययमेन न चर्चा || Bhaja Govindam-20

To one who has studied the Bhagwat Geeta even a little, who has sipped at least a drop of Ganges-water, who has worshipped at least one Lord Murari, there is no discussion (quarrel) with Yama, the Lord of Death.

Archana or worship is the act of engaging in ritualistic worship, such as the recitation of a Stotra or the Vishnu Sahasranam. This helps to maintain our connection to the divine in our beloved form. Additionally, Japa and Meditation is also included in worship.

गेयंगीतानामसहस्रं, ध्येयंश्रीपतिरूपमजस्रं |

नेयंसज्जनसङ्गेचित्तं, देयंदीनाजनाय च वित्तम् || Bhaja Govindam-27

The Bhagwat Geeta and Vishnu Saharsanama are to be chanted, the form of the Lord of Lakshmi is to be meditated upon; the mind is to be led towards the company of the good; wealth is to be shared with the needy.

Even practicing Yoga/Pranayama as an offering to Ishwara and fasting on ekadashi, pradosh etc. are great starting points to build our relationship with Ishwara. Fasting is called Upavasa in Sanskrit, which means to be near Ishwara. So on the day of the fasting, we should try to focus our thoughts exclusively on Ishwara.

प्राणायामंप्रत्याहारं, नित्यनित्यविवेकविचारम् |

जाप्यसमेत- समाधिविधानं, कुर्वावधानंमहदवधानम् ||

Pranayama, the sense – withdrawal, the reflection consisting in discrimination between the permanent and the impermanent, along with Japa and the practice of reaching the total-inner-silence (samadhi) these, perform with care…. With great care.

The great care here is not to mistake these means as the goal. The goal is to concentrate the mind to enable inhibition less Bhakti. Yoga and pranayama have been called torturing the nose if been done only for the sake of maintaining bodily health by Acharya Shankara (in AparokshaAnubhuti).

Karma Yoga

It is the discipline of offering all of one’s deeds in a spirit of divine reverence and accepting whatever we are given as his Parsada. It is the technique of making every part of our life a Sadhana. Learning Gita and chanting Sahasranama will take up only one hour of our life. The technique of divinizing the remaining twenty-three hours of our life, The Bhagwat Geeta does a wonderful job of explaining this idea.

स्वकर्मणातमभ्यर्च्यसिद्धिंविन्दतिमानवः | Bhagwat Geeta-18.46

Worshipping Him with one’s own duty, man attains Perfection.


Making an effort to lead an Ishwara centric life is just the beginning of our spiritual journey. We would need the tools of Vairagya and Jnana to reach our destination. In the next article, I shall try to touch upon the topic of Vairagya and Jnana as Sri Shankara has unfolded them in Bhaja Govindam.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.