His teachings have had tremendous impact on Hinduism and on religious thought of over a billion Hindus. He lived during a time when Hinduism was in decline with a rise of Buddhism and the first contacts of Islam in the Indian sub continent. This is generally attributed as the reason for the decline of Buddhism and the rise in what in modern times is called Hinduism. Several writers have written paens on Shankara, but to me Will Durant in his wonderful essay on Shankara encapsulates the essence of this titan of Vedantic thought.
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The fourteen disciples are said to have accompanied him. The story goes that when he 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 used for worshipping the God, instead of wasting on learning a language. This prompted Sri Sankara to burst out this composition, a sort of rebuke to foolish way of living.
The Acharya urges the man to turn towards God and sing His glory instead of trying to learn a language. A censure is implied when the Acharya calls the man a fool Moodhamathe. It may be added here that the tone of Bhajagovindam is not at all soft, but somewhat striking, in spite of its exotic poetic beauty and perfection of composition. This is no wonder, because such a treatment is required to wake up man from his slumber. A milder approach would delay the matter. The matter is urgent, as the Acharya explains in the next verse, for, 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 rightly starts without any preamble: bhajagovindaM bhajagovindaM govindaM bhajamuuDhamate. Oh fool! Rules of Grammar will not save you at the time of your death.
Give up your thirst to amass wealth, devote your mind to thoughts to the Real. Be content with what comes through actions already performed in the past. These are nothing but a modification of flesh. Do not fail to remember this again and again in your mind. Know that the whole world remains a prey to disease, ego and grief. But no one at home cares to even have a word with him when his body totters due to old age. But when the soul departs from the body, even his wife runs away in fear of the corpse.
Youth is lost by attachment to woman. Old age passes away by thinking over many past things. But there is hardly anyone who wants to be lost in parabrahmam.
Who is your son? Strange is this samsara. Of whom are you? From where have you come? Brother, ponder over these truths here. From self-settledness comes Jeevan Mukti. What use is a lake which has no water? Where are the relatives when wealth is gone? Where is samsara when the Truth is known? Each one of these are destroyed within a minute. Free yourself from the illusion of the world of Maya and attain the timeless Truth. Time plays and life ebbs away.
But the storm of desire never leaves. Why this engrossment in thoughts of wealth? Is there no one to guide you? There is only one thing in three worlds that can save you from the ocean from samsara.
Get into that boat of satsangha quickly. Stanza attributed to Padmapada. Seeing truth revealed before them, still the foolish ones see it not. Stanza attributed to Totakacharya. Even then the attachment is strong and he clings firmly to fruitless desires. Stanza attributed to Hastamalaka. Still in his heart, he is a wretched puppet at the hands of passions. Stanza attributed to Subodha. GYaanavihinaH sarvamatena muktiM na bhajati janmashatena.. Yet, devoid of jnana, nothing can give mukthi even at the end of a hundred births.
Stanza attributed to Sureshwaracharya. Give up all attachments and renounce all comforts. Blessed with such vairagya, could any fail to be content? Stanza attributed to Nityananda. But only he whose mind steadily delights in Brahman enjoys bliss, no one else. Stanza attributed to Anandagiri. He then will have no altercation with Yama. It is indeed hard to cross this boundless ocean of samsara. Oh Murari! Redeem me through Thy mercy. Stanza attributed to Nityanatha.
Freed from vice and virtue, onward he wanders. One who lives in communion with God enjoys bliss, pure and uncontaminated, like a child and as someone intoxicated.
Who am I? From where do I come? Who is my mother, who is my father? Ponder thus, look at everything as essenceless and give up the world as an idle dream. Stanza attributed to surendra. Your anger and impatience is meaningless. If you wish to attain the status of Vishnu soon, have samabhava always. Stanza attributed to medhaatithira. See yourself in everyone and give up all feelings of duality completely.
Ponder over your real nature. Fools are they who are blind to the Self. Cast into hell they suffer there endlessly.
Stanza attributed to bharativamsha. Take delight to be with the noble and the holy. Distribute your wealth in charity to the poor and the needy. Stanza attributed to sumatira. Though death brings an end to everything, man does not give up the sinful path.
Reflect thus at all times. A rich man fears even his own son. This is the way of wealth everywhere. Chant the holy name of God and silence the turbulent mind. Perform these with care, with extreme care. May thou be soon free from Samsara. Through disciplined senses and controlled mind, thou shalt come to experience the Indwelling Lord of your heart!