Four ways of reaching Truth, as recognized in Indian tradition are : Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, Jnana yoga and Raja yoga. The first one induces the devotee to engage in selfless surrender to a monotheistic personal God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Great sage Shandilya definedBhakti as the highest form of devotion to God (‘Sa paranuraktireesware’). Narada’s Bhaktisutra defines Bhakti as the form of intense love towards Him (‘Sa twasmin parama premarupa’). “Meditation upon the true form of real self is said to be devotion,” said Sri Sankaracharya (Viveka-Cudamani, verse 32). He continued, “Some say devotion is meditation on the nature of one’s atman.” In the Vedas several deities are praised and reckoned as supreme, ignoring, for the time being, other deities altogether. This phase of religious belief was termed by Max Muller as ‘henotheism’. However, there are hymns in the Vedas confirming belief in ‘one only God.’ What is but one, wise people call by different names Agni, Yama and Matarisvam(R.V1.164.46)
It is significant that in the Vedic literature the word Bhakti does not occur, but the word Bhakta does. Ramanujacharya propounded ‘Vishistadvaitavada’ that provided a strong foundation to the principle of Bhakti. Later Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya, Tukaram, Srimanta Sankaradeva, and many other saints preached Bhakti in different regions through different regional languages. Earlier, in the South, the Alwars created waves among the people of the South from the seventh to ninth century A.D, by their devotional songs that were primarily a serenade to Lord Krishna and Rama.
The principle of Bhakti preached by Srimanta Sankaradeva has been termed as ‘Eka Sarana Nama Dharma’ which enjoins whole hearted devotion to Lord Krishna. The Srimadbhagavad Gita in which Lord Krishna demands “Abandon all the ways of religion and take refuge in Me alone” (18/66) conveys the hidden meaning of Eka Sarana Nama Dharma,which means ‘anayabhakti’ (devotion to Supreme God Krishna only and none else). This principle is derived from the Srimadbhagavad Gita (11/54). Srimanta Sankaradeva’s ‘one god and one devotion’ theory yields no place for gods and goddesses other than Lord Krishna who is a manifestation of the ultimate reality. Of the nine forms of devotion as preached in the ‘Srimadbhagavata’ Srimanta Sankaradeva laid emphasis on ‘dashya’ type of devotion i.e rendering oneself a servant of the supreme God. Here too, the way to salvation is ‘shravana’ (listening) and ‘kirtana’ (chanting name of lord Hari), with the form of Lord Krishna etched in the heart. One of the characteristics of Bhakti is said to be a continuous flow of Bhagavat-Bhakti in the heart of hearts. Srimanta Sankaradeva preached devotees to chant the name of lord Hari or God incessantly as it purifies the heart. Reincarnation is a fundamental principle of Bhakti. The Srimadbhagavad Gita holds that our Lord reincarnates periodically to protect Dharma and to destroy the evil. Srimanta Sankaradeva stuck to this theory, based mainly in the ‘Srimadbhagavad Gita.’ He narrated twenty four reincarnations of the almighty. Lord Krishna is purna Brahma, he said, not an incarnation.
A salient feature of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s preachings is that he seeks to break all barriers of caste, the scourge of the medieval society. He preached his followers not to differentiate between the castes of Brahmins or Candals, and to treat the thief and the doner with same respect. In the practical field he made the ‘Namghar’ (prayer hall) of the village a place where people of all communities attended and participated in Nama-kirtana and then deliberated over community problems. He made ‘Namghars’ a cultural centre too; because Ankiya Bhaona (enactment of his play) are still performed in the namghar with great fervour.
Srimanta Sankaradeva preached that dogs, foxes, oxes have Ishwara in them as atman; so these living beings should also be treated with respect. The worldly possessions are nothing but Vishnu’s maya; so one should not be captivated by their charm. Love and compassion are real treasures. One should dedicate oneself to God by deeds, thoughts and words. Salvation is not the most covetable thing; but the company of a real devotee is the most precious gift in the spiritual life. Srimanta Sankaradeva also deprecated all forms of ostentatious rituals and stood firmly against sacrifices offered to earn favour of gods and goddesses.
The ‘Srimadbhagavad Gita’ and ‘Srimadbhagavata’ were two most important religious works that provided the bedrock of the principle of Bhaktipreached by Srimanta Sankaradeva. Of course, he also relied on many other important works of the principle of Bhakti, like Padma Purana,Brihannaradiya Purana, Suta Samhita, Bamana Purana etc. An erudite scholar as he was, Srimanta Sankaradeva had a thorough grounding in Sanskrit literature and religious treatises. In his childhood he studied under a learned Sanskrit scholar, Mahendra Kandali. There he studied the four Vedas, all the parts of Vedanga, Mimansa, Nyyaya, eighteen Puranas, grammars of Panini and Kalapa, besides the literary works of Magha, Kalidasa etc. He authored a large number of books, including the Kirtan Ghosa and Dasama believed to be two repositories of his preachings. He also translated the Srimadbhagavata, authored ten plays and composed devotional songs (Bargeet) of different dhrupadi ragas created by himself. These songs and Kirtanas of the Kirtanghosa reverberate the hills and dales of Assam till today. Thus his preachings conveyed in the form of expressions, both oral and written were blended with music and art that included paintings and dramas. A versatile genius indeed !