by Dr Ananyaa Barua
Srimanta Sankaradeva's Eka Sarana Nama Dharma was an attempt to revive the pristine aspect of Gita's philosophy of complete self-surrender in Love. God to Srimanta Sankaradeva was above duality, above Purusha and Prakriti. 'There was none but One' was his creed. Mahapurushiya or Eka Sarana Nama Dharma centers round this core principle. In the Shvetashvataropanishad, it is found :
Vedahametam purusham mahantam
adityavarnam tamasah parastat /
nanyah pantha vidyateyanaya // 3/8
Meaning: “ Beyond the realm of knowledge, existing in the form of light, that Mahapurusha I have known. Only by knowing this Mahan Purusha can one overcome death. For attaining the parama pada (Supreme Goal), there is no other way or path” .
Srimad-Bhagavata also speaks about this Mahapurusha :
dheyam sada paribhavaghnamabhishtadoham
tirthaspadam shivavirinchinutamsaranyam /
vande mahapurusha te charanaravindam // 11/5/33
According to Srimanta Sankaradeva and Sri Sri Madhavadeva, the Mahan Purusha (purusham mahantam) of the Upanishadas, Mahapurusha Krishna of the Srimad-Bhagavata and Rama are one and the same (abhinna), the expressions of God's blissful nature and individual jivas are the sparks of that divine bliss. By declaring that the creation is His expression and jiva amse tumi pravesila gave gave (Kirttana), they (Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva) have introduced the jivas as being the parts (amsa) of Krishna. All things considered, the final verdict is: Brahman (Param), Vishnu and Krishna are eka-tattva (One Truth), one and the same.All jivas or, in other words, every one of us, are His amsa.To cut through Maya that acts as the barrier in the realization of this amsa-amsi (part-whole) relationship :
diyo upadesa bhajo tomara carane /
mayar bandhana cindo sravana kirttane // -Veda Stuti
[Give us Thy counsel so that we may pray at Thy Feet, so that we may break the barrier of Maya through Sravana and kirttana.]
In the history of Indian philosophy the place of Sankaracharya is both permanent and high and his contribution to Indian philosophy and to Vedic religion and culture is unparalleled. This was made clear by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan when he stated “His philosophy stands forth complete, needing neither a before nor an after...whether we agree or differ, the penetrating light of his mind never leaves as wherever we were.”The quintessence of Samkara’s philosophy was stated by himself in half-a-verse: “Brahma satya jagat-mithya, jiva Brahmaiva naparah’ ! According to Samkara, the manifold world is a mere appearance of Brahman due to avidya (ignorance) and maya (illusion). Samkara says, “The world is not caused, but not uncaused, but not both and not neither; it is indeterminate; it is somehow there”, it only disappears when the ultimate truth, Brahman, is realized.
Erecting the edifice of Advaita and establishing four monasteries as centers of religious teachings and missionary work, Samkara practically fostered a rapprochement between Advaita and smarta orthodoxy, which by his time had not only continued to defend the varnasramadharma theory as defining the path of karman, but had developed the practice of PancAyatana Puja (five-shrine worship) as a solution to varied and conflicting devotional practices. Through maya and avidya, Nirguna and non dual Brahman appears as Isvara. This accorded an instrumental status to Isvara and to Bhakti that remains instrumental to Advaita-mukti. The Shakta tantric elements which are noticed in the theolohgical development of the cult of Jagannatha is also absent in Srimanta Sankaradeva, but it is much there in the theological developments iof Sankaracarya. According to researcher Dr Archana Barua, a close study of Prapancasara, Meru and Saradi Tilak including the Tantric texts reveals that the Bhuvaneswari cult was adopted and prescribed by Sankaracarya to please all sects.
A philosophical basis for which was sought to be provided by the theistic Vedanta of Ramanuja in particular that extended to other Bhakta philosophers such as Madhava, Chaitanya, Vallabha and others. Although Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva and the school of Assam Vaishnavism in general did not feel the need for establishing its distinctive philosophical school by means of its own distinctive bhasya or commentary of the Vedanta and Brahma-sutra, the philosophical interpretations of the Bhakta Saint can be found in the commentaries that are there at the end of a particular Bhakti Text or in the Bhakti compositions including Bargeets, Kirtan, Naamghosha, besides the other Texts as Bhakti Ratnavali, the translations of the Bhagavata along with the commentaries etc. That way one can identify a serious concern commonly expressed by theists and Bhaktas, including Ramanuja, Chaitanya and others, for safeguarding the personalistic aspect of Godhead against absolutistic interpretations of any kind. With the centrality of Bhakti both as a means and an end, Mahapurusha Sankardev would agree with the concerns expressed by the theistic interpretation of the Vedanta that was largely represented by Ramanuja. However, the doctrinal differences are there between Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva and other theists, including Ramanuja, Chaitanya, Madhavacharya and others. Despite the differences in doctrinal matters all these saints, reformers and Bhakta-philosophers share with one another one common objective, that of safeguarding religious dimension of life philosophically.
In Mahapurush Srimanta Sankaradeva there is the centrality of the path of Bhakti, as for Srimanta Sankaradeva, Bhakti remains the means as well as the end. Srimanta Sankaradeva, the great Saint-Poet spearheaded the epoch-making movement aimed at popularizing Vaishnavism with centrality of bhakti. The cult of Bhakti sought to resist the sacrificial aspect of religion with offerings to Vishnu Krsna the supreme God. Various vegetation items such as milk, fruits, some kind of grams etc along with the offerings of flowers and exclusive devotion to Vishnu-Krsna. The principle of Bhakti preached by Srimanta Sankaradeva has been termed as Eka Sarana Nama Dharma which enjoins whole hearted devotion to Lord Krishna. Srimanta Sankaradeva proposed a novel way to keep in focus the supreme significance of the sure path of Bhakti which alone would lead one to one's cherished goal of attaining supreme peace, beatitude and the joy of never ending divine bliss at the close proximity of the supreme Godhead, the abode of all joy and bliss.
It is in this background that it makes sense when scholars find some basic differences between the path of Bhakti in Srimanta Sankaradeva and the Smarta and Adavaita Vedantic perspective of Sankaracharya in particular. Accordingly we find scholars who find that the positions of the “two Sankaras” are opposed to one another. According to Dimbeswar Neog, unlike in Brahmanical religions as advocated by Smarta Brahmins, Sankaradeva prescribes the path of Eka Sarana Nama Dharma for reaching out the Eka Deva, who is not just one of the multitude of deities in the Hindu pantheon, nor is this path of Bhakti just one of the paths. In this regard the initial position of Sankaradeva differs from the Smarta–paths either of Sankaracharya centric path of Jñana or the path of ritualistic karma.
There is similar instance on the worship of one god in Southern vaishnavism also. Like Ramanuja, Srimanta Sankaradeva too considered Vishnu Narayana the supreme Godhead, the Param Brahman, the other deities are seen as lower manifestations of Narayana. There is similar insistence on the worship of one God in Southern Vaishnavism also. It is said that when Kurathalvar, a disciple of Ramanuja was forced by the Saiva Cola king to acknowledge the supremacy of God Siva by uttering “Sivat Parataram nahi”, the Vaishnavite sarcastically replied , “dronamasti tatah param”, (there is a drone beyond Shiva), drone and siva being two measures of quantity.
There was also a challenge posed by Advaita Vedantic position of Acharya Sankara that does not keep room for Bhakti, Bhagavan and Bhakta at the final stage of Paramarthika Jñana. For Ramanuja and others, Isvara is a living reality that alone sustains all other forms of life, including jiva and jagat. It is obvious that a philosophical approach to certain key themes of Eka Sarana Nama Dharma like maya, bhakti, jñana, mukti etc are to be interpreted from a Bhakti centric perspective than the one that gives centrality to the path of jñana, or of karma. This is how the scholars find affinity of the Bhakti centric interpretation of Visistadvaita Vedanta with the Bhakti- philosophy of Mahapurush Srimanta Sankaradeva than the Advaita-vedantic interpretations of Bhakti and Bhagavan as the critics have pointed out time and again.
Religiosity of the heart was missing when in the Rg Veda Samhita, we first came across the ideas of definite gods as a normal evolution from the striking phenomena of nature that also gave way to the phase of philosophical speculations in the Upanisadas. The Upanisadic emphasis on meditative knowledge and for moksha, jñana (nidhyasana), as against the Karmavadis emphasis on ritualistic sacrifices, could make their appeal only to the intelligentsia, but it fell flat on the average man. The moral and religious needs of the masses could not be fulfilled by these abstract dimensions of knowledge and the attainment of such profound knowledge appeared an utopia for them. It is at this juncture when the conception of an impersonal Brahman was the prevailing idea in the Upanisadic era, we find the first beginnings of a theistic system in the Svetasvatara upanishada. The Upanisadic doctrine of an impersonal God was fused with the devotional worship of a personal God, and a beginning was thus made which led to almost revolutionary changes. It is in this background that we find the personalitic theism of Bhakti in Bhagavata and in later Bhakti texts and movements including the one centering round the magnetic personality of the Bhakta Saint Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva in Assam.
In an attempt at philosophically approaching the teaching of a Vaishnavite Saint, a believer and a preacher whose prime objective was to combat much superstitions, magical practices and materialism and selfishness of his contemporary society in order to safeguard the spiritual dimension of life, Srimanta Sankaradeva and his ardent disciple Madhavadeva concentrated more on depending religion against the onslaughts of other degradations. They related their religious beliefs and practices with the noble ideas of humanism with the doctrine of Bhakti, love for God and love for man as antidotes to hatred, fanaticism and discord and disharmony.
We can understand Srimanta Sankaradeva’s avoidance of the Radha cult centric Madhura bhakti rasa and his choice for social aspect of dasya bhakti in the context of Tantricism infected Assam of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s time. While the tantric rites introduced the breaking of all the usual taboos of Hinduism the tantric group indulged in the five Ms (panca-makaras) including madya, mamsa, matsya, maithuna, this tantric license and accommodation also led to the chaotic religious scenario in Pre-Srimanta Sankaradeva stage in Assam. Brahmanism could influence the growing of Mahayana with its Shaivite and Tantric practices that led to the association of Buddhism with magical cults. D.D.Kosambi shows how the Vaishnava reform appears in the guise of a bitter theological controversy between the Smarta followers of Siva and Parvati as against the Vaishnavas who worshipped Vishnu Narayana in some form.
Krisna remained popular with small cultivators. It was the Tantric Brahmins that repeatedly obstructed the Bhakti centric path of Srimanta Sankaradeva and his followers. Later the similar priestly class of Kamarupa sent Madhavadeva in exile to Hajo with false allegations against him to King Raghu Narayana. Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Bhakti dharma not only centers round the Bhakti as a means but also as a end and this centrality of the Eka Bhakkti Path could not be safeguarded if it falls under the Tantriism of Siva-Shakti centric Brahmanical religion of the time. Srimanta Sankaradeva not only prescribed dasya bhakti but he sought to safeguard the social and moral dimension of bhakti with his solidarity on the conceots of Four Realities, that Bhakti is fulfilled in the company of Bhakats. Srimanta Sankaradeva introduced Nama-Kirttan in place of Mantra and Tantra and the ethical aspects were sought to be safeguarded with democratization and catholicity in Bhakti.
The Bhagavata itself is a Text that seeks to restore deeper significance of bhakti and ahimsa as an antidote to the rise of Vedic- himsa of animal sacrifices as prescribed by the karmakandis. People have largely followed the path of Vedic sacrifices believing this to be the true essence of dharma as prescribed in the Vedas and also as interpreted by the compiler of the Vedas, the great sage Vedavyasa himself. A repentant Vyasa was then advised by Narada to compose the Bhakti Nirnnanyak Grantha, the Bhagavat Purana, so that the centrality of Krishna, the Godhead, the true essence of all the scriptures, of the Vedas and the Vedantas, be restored and people will be drawn to the pure path of Bhakti. Srimanta Sankaradeva sought to deliver the true import of Bhagavat- bhakti among the masses and thereby to divert their mind toward spiritual and Bhakti centric aspect of religion than the propitiation of ferocious deities with the offering of blood of sacrificial animals. This can be done by re-chananlising bhakti from pravritti marga toward nivritti marga, away from what bhakti literally means to the common man, toward what it should mean with emphasis on inner and spiritual side of bhakti that God is to be sought as the inner indweller in all. Srimanta Sankaradeva expresses this simple truth thus : “kukura gadarbha srigalorao atma Raam, jania savako Hari kario pranaam”! Tulsidas sings the glory Bhagavvat bhakti as the glory humanitarian love and services “SiyaRamamaya saba jaga jani,Karahu pranama jori youga pani”!
Srimanta Sankaradeva's great scholarship in translating and interpreting the Sanskrit texts was an well established fact. Besides the Bhagawata Srimanta Sankaradeva used all-important Puranas for his purpose and utilized them one with the other and none exclusively. Like the Bhagavata, Srimanta Sankaradeva's scheme retains the inclusive character of the texts, but in terms of the centrality of the path of devotion only.
The Bhagavata takes the form of a story recounting Vyasa's work being recited for the first time by his son Suka to the dying King Parikshit, who owes his life to Krishna. Longing to hear of Krishna before he dies, Suka recites the Bhagavata to Parikshit over the course of seven days. The Bhagavata is primarily an authoritative Bhakti text, with an emphasis on achieving moksha through cultivating a personal relationship with Vishnu in the form of Krishna. The philosophy and teachings of the Bhagavata include several traditions, and an absence of a "narrow, sectarian spirit”.
Emphasising on moral, social and family values than on ecstasy of Rasa, Srimanta Sankaradeva was strictly following the original line of the Srimadbhagavata in which Radha-cult does not figure. In Ramanuja, we come across similar position on the centrality of Lakshmipati Bhagavanta, than centering on Lakshmi in her own space as Shakti. Even in his devotional work Saranagati Gadya, intended for Vaishnava devotees, although Sri is given more prominence than in his Vedantic writings, there is still not the kind of contrast in function and character between the Lord and the Mother that we find being made later. In all references to her, Ramanuja’s principal intention is to show not only the eternal reality of Sri along with the Lord, but more importantly, the sovereignty of the Lord in relation even to her. She is omnipresent with him, but assumes whatever from he himself first wills. She has incomparable glory in her essential nature, beautiful form, qualities and manifestations. She possesses sovereignty, gracious conduct and such qualities that are pleasing and appropriate to Him. She is called "Mother of the Universe" but so too is Narayana, along with terms for father and friend. Noted Vedantic scholar Eric Lott submits, "Thus, the Mother merely reflects his character which is an ocean of motherly affection towards devotees. Distinct from all other beings (including Sri), he is a desire granting tree, a friend to the distressed, Sriman (one accompanied by Narayana, the refuge of the helpless). Neither Ramanuja, nor his Sri Vaishnava successors accepted the idea that it is the female principle that is the essential creative power (Shakti), an idea so dominant in the Tantric system".
Although many interpreters of Sankaradeva’s religion and philosophy identify Srimanta Sankaradeva with Sridhar Swami’s philosophy, we should not forget the basic difference between the two. Srimanta Sankaradeva's prescription of suddha bhakti differs from any kind of biddhabhakti that makes bhakti instrumental for some other goals. For Mahapuru?a Srimanta Sankaradeva Isvara is more real than anything else that appears real to us simply because of the fact that jiva and jagat are ensouled by Isvara who alone is the support and the sustainer for us. Accordingly central position to the Bhagavata Pura?a, with special emphasis on Chapter 10 (Dasam) of the Purana, Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva seeks to establish a personalistic and devotional relation between Bhakta and his Bhagavan. As against the Advaitin’s philosophical position of Nirguna Brahman, Mahapuru?a Srimanta Sankaradeva, like Ramanuja, does not conceive of Isvara as devoid of place and gunas (spiritual attributes). Srimanta Sankaradeva was clear about what should be the prescribed goal of Bhagavat-Bhakti. Interestingly enough Bhavartha-Dipika, being composed by a devotional monk of Sankarite line, could rise above sectarian bias and it made a Bhakti-centric interpretation of the Bhagavata, highlighting its sole emphasis on the path of devotion over and above the path of Jñana and Karma. This explains why Sridhar Swami's commentary became acceptable among Vaishnava and other Bhaktas. However Srimanta Sankaradeva did not accept the learned and revered commentator’s philosophy in toto. In place of beginning the Mangalacharan with Hara-Gauri vandana, he began the Bhagavata translation with a salute to Vishnu.
[Dr Ananyaa Barua is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in Hindu College, Delhi University. She is also faculty advisor for Northeast students of her college. She was nominated for the Commonwealth Scholarship for a split-site Ph.D. at University College London in 2008. She had presented her research paper at Sigmund Freud University, Vienna, Austria in 2010. She has been writing on various Northeast related themes on various conferences and has been associated with the Centre for North East Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia since 2007.]