The first eight verses Adi Sankara’s Bhaja Govindam, come as heavy hammer blows to blast us out of our comfortable anchors in life. That is the first phase of spiritual transformation.
Now we come to the first of the verses that extend a positive helping hand to the seeker of Truth.
Man is a gregarious animal. He wants associates; he wants companions; he must have society. Rare is he who can live by himself. Why? Because man has been made so, created so. The Lord created man with the senses going outward therefore he perceives, seeks things outside,’ says the Kathopanisad.
His delights are outside of himself. He wants to share his thoughts, his sorrows, his joys with others. For where is the man who can say that he will not share some good news, that gives him happiness, with another who is likely to appreciate his talents, or envy his success? In sorrow and in disease, man really needs somebody, who would sympathise with him, who would feel for him.
In our everyday life we meet with such situations where we share joy, grief, pain and pleasure in an atmosphere that is conducive (in listening to us). This means that an atmosphere is not merely physical but something more. And this other atmosphere acts on the psychic being of man as the outer climate and atmosphere acts on his body. The psychic being in man can be and is influenced by the environment he lives in, by the company he keeps.
‘Tell me with whom thou art found, and | will tell thee who thou art,’ said the German poet- philosopher Goethe.
So, it has been a universal experience, all through the ages, all
through the climes and all throughout the world that, but for a few
exceptions, all men desire company; and that association influences them as sure as milk acted upon by acid transforms itself into curd. That being so it behoves all to take good care with what type of people they associate. It can be inferred by your own experience in life. Spiritual personages have emphasized the need of keeping holy company, on all aspirants
It is important that if one wants to evolve oneself to his/her true potential (both materially and more importantly spiritually) one should should seek out like minded good company. Such good company comes in the form of great teachers and religious exponents, spiritually inclined friends and colleagues, prayer groups, religious discourses and gatherings, etc.
Swami Chinmayananda commenting on this sloka states that in this sloka Adi Sankara has given a ladder of progress in the spiritual field to beginners in devotion.
Let us try and understand the Sloka in its entirety.
Meaning of the Sanskrit Words
सत्संगत्वे - Satsangatve = through the company of the good
निस्संगत्वं -nissangatvam = ( there arises) non attachment/dispassion
निस्संगत्वे - nissangatve = through non attachment/dispassion
निर्मोहत्वं - nirmohatvam = ( there arises) freedom from delusion
निर्मोहत्वे - nirmohatve = through freedom from delusion
निश्चल - nischala = immutable or unchangeable
तत्त्वं - tatvam = Reality
निश्चलतत्त्वे - nishchalatatve = through this immutable Reality/from the steadfast establishment in the Truth
जीवन्मुक्तिः - jivanmuktih = state of liberation/one becomes realized / released from bondage, here and now, while alive.
Meaning in English
Through the company of the good and wise people arises non attachment. Through non attachment arises the freedom from delusion, when there is freedom from delusion, there is unchangeable reality. On experiencing this unchangeable reality, there comes liberation or freedom. Seek Govinda.
The steps in the ladder that Swami Chinmayananda was referring are
1. Satsangam - association of good people
2. Nissangatvam - non attachment
3. Nirmohatvam - freedom from delusion
4. Nishchalatatvam - steadfastness
5. Jeevan Mukti - liberation in life
Let us try to understand each one of these steps.
Satsang is a Sanskrit term derived from two roots: sat meaning "true’"and sangha meaning community, company or association.
It can be translated as "associating with good people" or simply "being in the company of truth," and refers to the act of gathering with like-minded, uplifting people, especially those on a spiritual path.
The mind requires a suitable atmosphere to grow, in much the same way as a little plant does. As a sprout, it is very delicate and requires a lot of care and nurturing. Our mind is also like this sprout. It has to be taught and trained to follow certain values and priorities so that we get a proper perception of life.
Satsang, or the company of those who are good and have wisdom and insight exerts a positive influence upon us. We need an inspiring atmosphere in order to maintain our enthusiasm in a conducive and positive manner.
In modern times, satsang has evolved to mean any gathering in which spiritual reflection, discussion, meditation or teaching takes place. It helps to remove the negative thoughts, material attachments and mental obstacles that block the path to Self-realisation.
Swami Paramarthananda classifies Satsangh into three levels depending on the meaning of the word Sat.
1. At the first level, the word Sat means a person who has got noble values. He is a man of values (Dharma Purusha) who does not compromise with values and adheres to the dharmic values. This is the operational level of “good” people. The primary focus is on action and adherence as laid down by scriptures. By sheer association with such a Dharmic person one will effortlessly imbibe these values. The focus will be on “appropriate, clean, balanced and non-binding desires that will help the society” says Swami Omkarananda. However in this level, the inner growth (inward looking journey) is limited due “avidya” - the lack of knowledge about Self.
2. In the second level of Satsangh, the word Sat means Jnana Purusha or Jnani. As every Jnani has values, the association with a Jnani has two fold benefits. The first benefit is one will imbibe values and the second benefit is one will get an opportunity to imbibe knowledge also. Learning the scriptures from a Jnani sat purusha is the second level of Satsangh.
3. In the third stage of Satsangh, the word Sat means Brahman itself. Association with Brahman itself means removal of ignorance that I am away from Brahman, through the knowledge gained from scriptural study that I am Brahman, “Aham Brahmasmi”, i.e. Brahma Prappti or Brahma Ikyam.
As philosopher Mooji says
“Satsangh is the invitation to step into the fire of self-discovery. This fire will not burn you, it will burn only what you are not.”
Therefore Adi Sankara advises us to keep the company of “good”, the divine centred people who are seeking and spreading the knowledge of “Truth”, as proper environment and company is necessary to start the process of detachment.
At any cost, we must avoid the company of the bad and the company of non-believers or those who can shake our sraddha. We should avoid discussion with others; there is no need for us to go around convincing others, or preaching to them. More often than not, they will convince us otherwise.
As Swami Chinmayananda used to say, “The Rudraksha Mala around Shankaracharyaji’s neck did not get realization!” Mere physical closeness does not ensure the awakening of knowledge and understanding. We have to be ‘in touch’ with what the saint stands for. What is necessary is that we must grow and realize how important this self-growth is.
Thus, when we keep the company of the good, we slowly grow out of the influence of the bad. Our personal commitment to pure thoughts through Satsangam gives us the access to the next step.
Satsang sets the ball rolling. The first fruit of Satsang is seen when we become a little detached to things we once clung onto with intense attachment. The light of Satsang lifts the veil of delusion that clouds our intellect. From that point onwards spiritual life begins in earnest. With the influence of good people, the mind develops a secret of detachment. Everyone is talking about seeking the highest. We all know its the mind that puts value to the objects. Once the mind realizes that one needs to develop detachment to the objects, the person is at the second step in the ladder.
Now here is a word of caution from Swami Viditatmananda.
“We must clearly understand what attachment and detachment do not mean. Very often, people think that giving up attachment means giving up contact with the family, or running away from the world. In fact, you cannot run away from the world because it is present everywhere in some form or the other. Therefore, it is not the physical objects of the world, but your dependence on them that has to be given up. People mistakenly interpret detachment as being an aversion to the sense objects or to the world. The teachers do not ask not to have any contact with the world. The world is meant for our enjoyment. They are only teaching us how to enjoy things. Enjoyment is having a relationship which is free from either dependence or demand, either attachment or aversion. Aversion is but a distorted form of attachment. Therefore, attachment and aversion (raga and dvesha), are the two sides of the same coin. Both represent bondage and dependence. They lead to an unhealthy relationship in which I lose my objectivity to the situations of the world; I allow my happiness to be determined by the situations and objects around me. In being attached, I superimpose a greater value on something than it has, and in having aversion, I see less value in it than it deserves. Thus, when it is said that we should become free from attachment, it also means that we should seek to become free from aversion”.
It is satsanga, the company of the good that enables us to slowly become free from both attachment and aversion. What is meant by satsangatve nissangatva is that in the company of the wise, I slowly develop composure of the mind and a freedom from the reactions of likes and dislikes and become objective. I learn to develop an objective perception of the world and deal with the realities of life, rather than living in a world defined by how I see it.
This means free from “moha”. To understand this term, we should first understand what is “moha”.
The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary explains moha as 'loss of. consciousness, bewilderment, perplexity, distraction, infatuation, delusion, error. '
It is delusion of mind which prevents one from discerning the truth (makes one believe in the reality of worldly objects and to be addicted to the gratification of sensual pleasures).
नित्य अनित्य अविवेक: इति मोह: (nitya anitya aviveka: iti moha:).
So, a deluded mind superimposes an unjustified value upon the things of the world through Raga-devsha (attachments and aversions) as impurities. A mind under the influence of raga-dvesha is an impure and reactive mind. When something confirms my attachment I get elated and when something contradicts it I get depressed. Elation is the product of raga and depression is the product of dvesha. While I cannot see my raga-dveshas directly, when I find myself reacting I can see the product of these raga dveshas. These reactions could be anger, greed, resentment, repression, sadness etc. A reactive mind is thus an impure mind.
As the mind becomes clear, it slowly becomes free from moha or delusion. As the mind slowly becomes free from this moha it becomes free from raga and dvesha.
To the extent that the mind is pure, it enjoys peace, serenity, and composure, and to the extent that the mind is composed, it enjoys balance or equipoise. Just as water becomes transparent and pure when you remove the dirt from it, so also, as the impure thoughts are removed from the mind, it becomes pure and serene, and we enjoy tranquility of the mind - niscalatattvam
When the mind becomes tranquil, it becomes objective. It is then able to understand the purport of the scriptures. Until then, whatever we hear is processed by a mind which is distorted by raga-dveshas. When those distortions are not there, the mind is able to truly appreciate the unfoldment of the vision of the scriptures. When the attachment to raga-dveshas goes, the moha or delusion goes; when the delusion goes, the mind is able to understand clearly what the scriptures reveal about the Ultimate Reality - the intrinsic nature of the Self and not its incidental nature. That is how the knowledge takes place and one slowly gains abidance in that knowledge.
Jivanmukti, according to Hindu philosophy, is the state of being spiritually liberated while still alive. The Sanskrit term is derived from the root words, jiva, meaning "life," and mukti, meaning "freedom." Jivanmukti is a state in which one possesses the limitless knowledge (of seamless integration of Self & Brahman), free from suffering, and enjoys eternal bliss.
As outlined in the previous step, when this abidance in the knowledge (the aparoksha jnanam i.e. “Aham Brahmaasmi” - the direct knowledge that “ I am the Ultimate Reality”) is experienced, there is freedom even while one is alive. This is the growth that the scriptures present before us, the goal presented by Vedanta. The goal is jivanmuktiH, becoming free even when we are in this body. It is not the mukti or liberation after death, but the liberation or the freedom even while I am here.
For the one thus liberated (who has realised that all being are the Self), there is neither delusion nor grief, as there is no second for him. The Jivanmukta rests with an unshaken mind in the All-blissful Brahman. He is free from all the modifications of the mind. His heart is pure like the Himalayan snow or the crystal. He is free from the distinctions – I, He, Thou.
It is satsanga, the company of the wise or the company of the good, which ultimately leads to this jivanmuktiH.
If we don’t adhere to these processes, then what we can expect is clearly described in verses 62 and 63 of Chapter 2 of Bhagavad Gita.
ध्यायतो विषयान्पुंसः सङ्गस्तेषूपजायते । सङ्गात्सञ्जायते कामः कामात्क्रोधोऽभिजायते ॥ २-६२॥
dhyāyato viṣayānpuṃsaḥ saṅgasteṣūpajāyate saṅgātsañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmātkrodho’bhijāyate
When a man thinks of objects, attachment for them arises; from attachment desire is born; from desire arises anger.
क्रोधाद्भवति सम्मोहः सम्मोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रमः । स्मृतिभ्रंशाद् बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति ॥ २-६३॥
krodhādbhavati sammohaḥ sammohātsmṛtivibhramaḥ smṛtibhraṃśād buddhināśo buddhināśātpraṇaśyati
If we don’t attempt to climb the ladder of knowledge, we are bound yo come crashing down the ladder of attachment as outlined in the first eight strikes. We start all over again. That is why Adi Sankara outlines the 5 step process of achieving liberation in this Sloka.
Let us understand these concepts, digest, internalise and move to the next step towards Self Realisation. We will see what Sankara comes up with in his next strike. Until then…..
You can now get this and other Slokas in the book (English) which is now available at Notion Press