This is one of the smallest works of Shankara Acharya, with just 31 verses. The first 12 verses were composed by Shankara himself; the next 15 by his 14 disciples. Then Shankara finished it with 4 more verses of his own. Bhaja Govindam, widely accepted as the essence of the Vedanta is often called "Moha Mudgara" (remover of delusions).
Shankara Acharya, better known as "Adi Shankara", was an 8th century AD Hindu philosopher and Vedic scholar. Consolidating the principles of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism), his substantial works stand out from the other Vedanta texts. As a staunch proponent of non-dualism, he went on spiritual expeditions with his disciples, all over the Indian mainland. In his short life, he founded four Mathas (monasteries), established the 'Dashanami' monastic order and unified the Shanmata tradition of worship. Born in Kerala, this spiritual giant left his body in present-day Uttarakhand, ending his 32-year long adventurous ascetic life - a Karmayogi.
The backdrop in which this jewel of Bhaja Govindam was born, is very insightful. As a part of his spiritual expeditions, he once met an old man at Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh (Bharat). The man was religiously studying Sanskrit grammar, from the works of Panini. Disheartened at the agony of the old man, Shankara advises him not to run behind material accomplishments. Berating our ignorance, he scoffs at the trifles that our lives are.
All 31 verses are said to be extempore recitals. I'll try to put forth their messages in my own words:
1. Mere intellectual achievements won't come to your help when death arrives.
2. Get rid of your desires for wealth. Cultivate good thoughts. Stay contented.
3. Don't lust for women.
4. Life is unstable.
5. Once you get old, everyone loses interest in you.
6. After death, all bodies decay.
7. No one contemplates on the meaning of life.
8. Who are you - do ponder upon it.
9. Foster good relationships.
10. All sorrows end when one realizes the ultimate truth.
11. Don't take pride in your youth and wealth - time takes away everything.
12. Desire sorrows man.
To these 12 verses, his 14 disciples [Padmapada, Thodaka Acharya, Hastaamalakan, Subodhan, Sureshwara Acharya, Nityananda, Aanandagiri, Drudabhakta, Nithyanadhan, Nithyanadhan, Surendran, Medhaatidhi, Medhaatidhi, Bhaarati Vamsan, Sumati] added their verses (in that order). It is generally accepted that the number of disciples was 14, but attributions have been given for 15 verses, two disciples - Nithyanadhan and Medhaatidhi - having two verses each to their credit. Whether it was that one of them wrote 2 verses or were they different people with same names, is not known. Anyways, the last 4 verses are again by Adi Shankara, thus concluding his counsels.
Despite it's size and "simplicity", Bhaja Govindam has a noteworthy place in the spheres of Advaita Vedanta.