Srimanta Sankaradeva founded a new religious order named Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma. The main guiding principle of this order is Eka Sarana or refuse in a single entity. The saint asked his followers to worship only a single entity, the supreme absolute being, who is termed as Ishwara in the religious terminology. What was propounded in Srimadbhagavadgeetā milleniums ago was thus practised by Srimanta Sankaradeva in fifteenth century. In the chapter 18, verse 66, Srimadbhagavadgeetā said,
Sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śharaṇaṁ vraja
Ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣhayiṣhyāmi mā śhuchaḥ
[Meaning: Abandon all varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear.]
It was said also in the Rigveda that only lord Vishnu should be worshipped.
Viṣṇor nu kaṁ vīryāṇi pra vocaṁ yaḥ pārthivāni vimame rajāṁsi |
Yo askabhāyad uttaraṁ sadhasthaṁ vicakramāṇas tredhorugāyaḥ ||
[Meaning: All creatures are created and cared for by lord Vishnu, just as the Sun controls earth and other planets by its gravitation. All the creatures and creations merge in the Lord at the end. So only lord Vishnu deserves to be worshipped.]
Srimanta Sankaradeva said that one should submit oneself to the supreme absolute being only, not to any other entity. He said that chanting the name and attributes of that supreme entity would absolve one of all sins. This is exactly what was said in Srimadbhagavadgeetā and Rigveda. Srimanta Sankaradeva therefore said confidently that his ideology was fully in tune with the Vedic ideology. He even said that only those devotees, who uttered the name of Hari understood the Veda properly.
Sehise kulina Vedaka buje
Jāhāra mukhe Hari-nāma sije
It is surprising that this important tenet of Srimadbhagavadgeetā and Rigveda had not been practised by any order belonging to Sanātana religion till the advent of Srimanta Sankaradeva, even though the Sanātana religion had come to existence milleniums ago. Till his founding the order Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma, the principle of Eka Sarana had remained a theoretical concept only. Srimanta Sankaradeva was the first preceptor who preached it as an essential principle of his order. In fact, it was the basic principle of his order; any devotee subscribing to his ideology had to have spiritual loyalty to only a single entity. That entity was lord Vishnu or any of his manifestations like Krishna, Ram, Hari etc. Since Srimadbhagavadgeetā is considered to be the most important scripture of Sanātana religion which is popularly known as Hinduism, we can dare say that Srimanta Sankaradeva is the most important preacher in the annals of this religion. Moreover he practised what had been ordained in the Rigveda milleniums ago. It is thus abundantly clear that the true Vedic religion was preserved in the Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma only. It was diluted in other orders.
Srimanta Sankaradeva advised chanting of God’s name as God’s name makes him available to the devotee. One can elevate oneself on the ladder of spirituality by chanting God’s name religiously. Chanting God’s name arouses the dormant spirituality in one. Incessant chanting of God’s name creates an atmosphere of purity and sacredness wherein enlightenment dawns in the devotee. This may be the genesis of Transcendental Meditation of Maharshi Mahesh Yogi in 20th century. So Srimanta Sankaradeva was much ahead of his time in evolving a mechanism of spiritual practice. Just like Transcendental Meditation, the Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma also does not require concentration or visualization. The practitioners become relaxed in the process, while both their mind and body remain awake. However, the difference is that whereas Transcendental Meditation requires recital of Mantra or incantation, Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma requires chanting of God’s name only. Of course, such improvisations or changes occur in any later development. We can therefore say that Transcendental Meditation is a derivative of the religious practice in Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma. There are many such derivatives of Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma across the wide spectrum of Sanātana religion.
Srimanta Sankaradeva’s philosophy is not similar to any other devotional philosophy, because none of those devotional philosophies preached the tenet of Eka Sarana like him. Eka Sarana means submission to a single ultimate supreme entity, which happens to be lord Krishna in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s case. He strictly forbade worship of any other entity. The Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma order not only established Srimanta Sankaradeva as a preceptor, but also as an original thinker. He departed from the traditional Vaishnavite orders of Sanātana religion. These departures included two major aspects, one – the absence of female deity worship and the other – incorporation of Shiva as a devotee of lord Krishna.
We see that all other devotional cults advocate worship of a female entity along with a supreme entity. In all other Vaishnavite orders we find that the personal God is worshipped alongwith a female entity, for example lord Krishna with Radha, lord Ram with Sita, lord Vitthal or Vithoba with Rakhumai or Rukmini etc. Even the Alwars worshipped the female deities Lakshmi, Sri and Bhu. These deities find mention in their holy scripture Nālāyir Divya Prabandhakam. This aspect of female deity worship is absent in Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma. This happened because of two reasons, One was the concept of Eka Sarana, which has been explained already.
The other reason was the social background in Assam during the contemporary period. The decadence of the religious practices by different Tantric cults had taken the medieval Assam to a dark abyss. The deterioration in the Sahajiyā cult leading to massive insecurity of women had necessitated the removal of dual worship. Many aberrations had crept into that system in the name of female deity worship. A sixteenth century Tantra scripture Yogini Tantra even prescribed indiscriminate sex. Honor of women was frequently breached in the name of religion during the medieval times. Status of women had gone down to the zenith. Many distorted practices had been going on in the name of worship of female deities and it was tacitly accepted by the society, in the absence of any organized protest. The emergence of Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma was in fact the first organized protest against this decadence. Srimanta Sankaradeva was well equipped to take on the well-entrenched evil doers as he hailed from an aristocratic family with favorable social standing, he was well versed in the scriptures and he had a compassionate heart. Such a combination was rare in the medieval semi-feudal society. The common illiterate mass people did not have requisite knowledge or social standing to launch a movement like he did.
The second major departure of Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma from other Vaishnavite orders was the incorporation of Shiva as a devotee of lord Krishna. In all other Vaishnavite orders of Sanātana religion Shiva is equally worshipped alongwith Vishnu or his manifestations. Icons of both are found in the Vaishnavite temples elsewhere in India. This put Srimanta Sankaradeva in a tricky condition as it was contrary to the idea of Eka Sarana. At the same time, he could not outright reject Shiva, who was overwhelmingly worshipped all over the Brahmaputra valley. Different tribes also had different manifestations of Shiva as their personal God. So, Srimanta Sankaradeva presented Shiva as a devotee of lord Krishna. This enabled him to incorporate that huge mass base without any conflict. The chapter Haramohana in his magnum opus Kirttana-ghoshā was written with that motive. His disciple Madhavadeva also carried on with that strategy by composing several verses in similar line in his Nāmghoshā.
Srimanta Sankaradeva did not approve of worship performed with selfish desires. His ideology was that of Nigama path or the path of selfless works. He did not approve of the āgama path or the path of selfish works, since that path led to damnation of the soul in Naraka or hell, which is a metaphor for unhappiness caused by unfulfilled desires. The concept of Naraka or hell is an integral part of Indian mythology. Contrary to that, Srimanta Sankaradeva’s entire philosophy was targeted at lifting the soul through different phases to the supreme non-dual state. That is why we have termed it as Vivartanavāda. The mention of different incarnations of the supreme entity in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Kirttana Ghoshā is a metaphorical representation of his ideology.
Srimanta Sankaradeva had a compassionate heart. He understood the plight of the poor people who had been made to pay through noose by the priests in religious functions in the medieval times. Removal of priests in religious functions therefore became an important objective for the saint. It is a salient feature of his order. No priest is necessary in devotional activities in the Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma. He highlighted this concept in his writings that God did not need elaborate rituals, but devotion from heart. That he highlighted chanting God’s name as a mode of worship proved that he wanted to eliminate middlemen from the sphere of religion. There was no need of any intermediary between God and the devotee.
Srimanta Sankaradeva had a very broad outlook. Inclusiveness was an important feature in his order. Whether it was in the cultural tools used for proselytizing works or the religious paraphernalia, everything exuded an inclusive character. The costumes worn by the actors of his Ankiyā plays had ingredients from different ethnic groups. In consonance with it, his epistemological principles also incorporated a wide spectrum of ideas ranging from dualism to non-dualism. He accommodated beliefs of all stages in his philosophy, so that any devotee could rise through that philosophical system, whatever be the philosophical state of the devotee. Starting from the devotee of primary level up to the devotee of the highest order of non-dual realization, everyone felt at home in the philosophical system of Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma.
By subscribing to the famous Yathā Tarurmula nisshechanena verse of Bhāgavata, he showed a tolerant attitude to the multiple beliefs prevalent in the Sanātana religion. During the famous nine hour long debate with Madhavadeva, Srimanta Sankaradeva uttered a verse from Bhāgavata which said that watering a tree at its root nourished all its branches and leaves. Thereupon Madhavadeva went down on his knees and accepted Srimanta Sankaradeva as his preceptor. Madhavadeva understood that Srimanta Sankaradeva showed respect to all the cults and all beings; the saint did not talk about chopping off the branches while stressing the need to water the root. Clearly it was the idea of peaceful co-existence of all orders. It was an innovative approach in the realm of religion. Civilization can prosper only if intransigence is gotten over. Srimanta Sankaradeva showed the path to become a civilized society. While he preached Eka Sarana to the supreme absolute, he remained tolerant to multiple deity worshippers. He advised to his followers Parara dharmaka nihingsibā kadāchita. That means never criticize the faith of others. His followers never hit back at the detractors. This tolerance is an important trait of a civilized society. Srimanta Sankaradeva always tried to make his people civilized.
Srimanta Sankaradeva had an integral view about life. He incorporated literature, songs, dance, music, agriculture, craft etc with his religion. Culture was used as a tool in the proselytizing works and the mundane activities like agricultural farming was used to sustain themselves without depending on others. The devotees living inside his Thān had to necessarily engage in all these activities as part and parcel of their lives. This integral approach of Srimanta Sankaradeva extended to philosophy also. His philosophy is an integral philosophy; it contains elements from different perspectives. He equated Brahma and Ishwara. Srimanta Sankaradeva considered Ishwara as non-different from Brahma. For him, Ishwara was above Māyā. He categorically said that Bhagavanta or Ishwara was the supreme entity as described in the Vedānta. He said in his transcreation of Bhāgavata,
Jito prakritita para prabhu Bhagavanta
Vedāntaro mukhya bhāge jāka prakāshanta
(Bhāgavata / 10 / 469)
[Meaning: God is above Prakriti or creation. The main content of Vedānta expresses Him only.]
Thus a major characteristic of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s philosophy is that it preaches equality of the Nirguna Brahma and Saguna Ishwara. He says this categorically in a verse of his magnum opus Kirtana-ghoshâ,
Tumi Paramātmā jagatara Isha eka
Eko bastu nāhike tomāta byatireka
(Kirttana-ghoshā / 519)
[Meaning: You are the universal self as well as the one supreme God of the creation. There is nothing other than you.]
Knowledge and devotion had always been parallel paths which could not be combined by any philosopher. It was only Srimanta Sankaradeva who achieved that feat. He paid obeisance to the eternal entity in the form of Brahma at the very outset of his book Kirttana-ghoshā. His philosophy Vivartanavāda facilitates a journey from the gross to the subtle for the devotee as it covers ideas ranging from dualism to monism. It lays stress on spiritual evolution of the devotee from gross to subtle, from plurality to non-duality. It facilitates the elevation of the Jiva from the primary dual state to the non-dual state of identity with Brahma. Evolution is an important theme in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s writings. In fact he started his Kirttana-ghoshā with descriptions of the incarnations of Ishwara. These incarnations are nothing but metaphors for different phases of development of the creatures. So Srimanta Sankaradeva highlighted the process of evolution. Even the altar of Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma, which is known as Guru āsana is a metaphorical representation of this evolution. It has a wide base, which goes up to a single point at the top. Moreover the box called āmohi ghar at the top has no icon, thereby signifying the identity of Brahma and Ishwara.
No other branch of Sanātana Indian philosophy had taken this position before Srimanta Sankaradeva. That was why the branches of Jnāna Mārga (path of knowledge) and Bhakti Mārga (path of devotion) had always remained wide apart in Sanātana religion. It was Srimanta Sankaradeva, who brought these two paths together; thus he did a great service to Sanātana religion. Though his order was basically a devotional cult, he highlighted the importance of knowledge time and again. He declared the importance of spiritual knowledge in a verse of his book Nimi navasiddha sambāda,
Howe jnānasunya / kona pāpa punya / karite napāre sāra
Bishaya byākula / samyake bātula / nuguche jātanā tāra
(Nimi navasiddha sambāda / 56)
[Meaning: One who is devoid of knowledge, cannot differentiate between vice and virtue. He gets totally immersed in mundane affairs like a mad man and his woes never end.]
An important aspect of any philosophy is the attitude towards Jagata or creation. Srimanta Sankaradeva treated Jagata as the play-field of God. And the object, which God relishes in cannot be untrue. This was a positive approach to life and creations, contrary to the negativism shown by many philosophies, including the Neti, Neti, Neti approach of the Upanishadas. Srimanta Sankaradeva said in his transcreation of Bhāgavata,
Tumi Brahma tattva jagata jateka
tomārese krirā bhānda
(Bhāgavata / 3 / 157)
[Meaning: You are the supreme entity, Brahma. The entire creation is nothing but your play-field.]
That brings us to the concept of Māyā or illusion as this puts a veil over the reality, that is the supreme entity. The seeker of truth remains away from truth till Māyā prevails. Many philosophers also tend to term the creation as nothing but Māyā. Srimanta Sankaradeva advised the devotees to worship God in order to get His blessings so that God’s Māyā could be surmounted. He said this in a verse of his Kirttana-ghoshā,
Harināma hiye dhari Harināma sadā smari
Tebese Harira Māyā tari
(Kirttana-ghoshā / 599)
[Meaning: We can surmount Māyā only by holding the name of lord Hari in our heart and chanting His name always.]
Srimanta Sankaradeva considered the human body as a holy tool for worshipping God. Such a precious body could be had only after numerous births, he said. (Bhakti Ratnākara) The creation was treated by Srimanta Sankaradeva as a play-field of God. He did not share the negative Neti Neti Neti approach of the monists towards the creation. He sought to explain everything positively. Here he departed from the Upanishadic tradition. The positive attitude of Srimanta Sankaradeva helped him in his reformist social movement. He did not renounce the world, but worked for the upliftment of the world.
Srimanta Sankaradeva had many uniqueness. He termed Ishwara as different from Jiva. He termed Ishwara as Uttama Purusha (the best entity) and Jiva as Adhama Purusha (the worst entity). (Bhāgavata 11 / 78) This is clear evidence that the saint considered Ishwara and Jiva as different entities. But this difference is not permanent as it disappears at the time of dissolution of the creation, according to him. He says that at that point, the Jiva merges in Ishwara. (Anādi Pātana / 50) Srimanta Sankaradeva talked about a unique relationship between Jiva and Ishwara. He also treated Jîva as equivalent to Ishwara, since Ishwara permeates all beings. Therefore, he enjoined upon everyone to treat all beings as manifestations of lord Vishnu.
Samasta bhutate byāpi āso moi Hari
Savāko mānibā tumi Vishnu buddhi kari
(Kirttana-ghoshā / 1821)
Srimanta Sankaradeva also accepted the existence of Brahma inside every creature. He believed in the ultimate merger of all entities in Brahma at the end of Kalpa (the cycle of existence). Nevertheless, he did not consider it important for the devotees to strive for merger with Brahma; instead, his ideology stressed on inculcating devotion to Ishwara. These are distinctive features of his religious philosophy. A natural corollary of this was the egalitarianism in his order. It was obvious that he saw everyone in equal light; there was no caste differentiation in his order. He said that one should not ask about the caste of either the Brahmin or the pyre-lighter; one should have the same attitude to both the donor and the thief; one can be said to be enlightened only if one treats both the pious and the lowly ones equally.
Brāhmanara chandālara nibichāri kula
Dātāta chorata yena dristi eka tula
Nichata sādhuta yāra bhaila eka jnāna
Tāhākese pandita buliyo sarbajana
(Kirttana-ghoshā / 1822)
Srimanta Sankaradeva’s philosophy had elements of both Parināmavāda and Vivartavāda. He considered Jîva as a changed form of Ishwara. This is an element of Parināmavāda. In other words, it is a departure from monism. But at the same time Srimanta Sankaradeva also alluded to the illusion of snake in rope, while referring to the creation. This is an element of Vivartavāda. So, his philosophy Vivartanavāda cannot be categorized exclusively as either Parināmavāda or Vivartavāda. He blended Parināmavāda and Vivartavāda in his Vivartanavāda. The way he blended these two elements is a unique thing. Such a blending is not seen in other philosophers. Another feature of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s blending Parināmavāda and Vivartavāda is that while he termed Ishwara and Jiva as different, he also accepted the identity of both in the final analysis.
The religious philosophy preached by Srimanta Sankaradeva had its genesis in the Vedas. There are many explicit references to Veda in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s own writings. He glorified the Vedas in many places of his numerous writings. He advised people to follow the path of the Vedas. In order to explore the similarity of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s ideology with the Vedic thoughts, we will have to analyse the Purusha-sukta of Rigveda. The Purusha-sukta of Rigveda is an important exposition on Brahma. It says that the ultimate Purusha pervades every entity, both sentient and insentient beings. He is the past and present of everything and the controller of all beings. This universe is his attribute. He can be known by surmounting ignorance. So, he is the Paramātmā. All deities emanate from him. Actually, all these deities are nothing but metaphorical representation of the nature. This is explained beautifully by the Bāgambrini-sukta of Rigveda. So, the Vedic idea about the deities is the same as that of Srimanta Sankaradeva, who considered the deities as subservient to the supreme God. That the Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma is also known as Mahāpurushiyā Dharma is significant in this context. This nomenclature itself means that Srimanta Sankaradeva preached devotion and allegiance to the supreme absolute entity in the line of Purusha-sukta of Rigveda.
Another important feature of the Purusha-sukta is that it placed Vāsudeva in the highest pedestal, which was also what Srimanta Sankaradeva did. According to the Purusha-sukta, the universe emanated from Vāsudeva, which means that Vāsudeva is the supreme God. Vāsudeva is none but lord Krishna. Vāsudeva means son of Vasudeva. In other words, Vāsudeva means lord Krishna. That is why lord Krishna is worshipped as the supreme God in the Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma.
The philosophy of Srimanta Sankaradeva that there is one supreme being is in tune with the philosophy of the Vedas. It was said categorically in the Rigveda that one supreme being existed in all entities of the universe. This supreme being is called by different people by different names.
Ekang sat viprā bahudhā badanti
Moreover, the work of the Vedas did not end in the declaration of the existence of that supreme being. The seers of the Vedas sang the glory of chanting the names of lord Vishnu too.
Om Asya jānanto nāma chidbivaktan mahaste Vishno sumating bhajāmahe
It is said in this verse that the name of lord Vishnu is consciousness itself; the chanting of lord Vishnu’s name begets devotion. So the tradition of singing the name of lord Vishnu or lord Hari in the Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma is in tune with the main concept of the Vedas. The Vedic tradition of devotion to lord Hari, and chanting the name of lord Hari had been relegated to a secondary status following the rise of the āgama path. The leaders of Karma-kānda had suppressed the Vedic tradition of devotion to lord Hari, for which Srimanta Sankaradeva expressed deep regret. He wrote in the chapter, Bhāgavata Tātparjya of his Kirttana Ghoshā,
Satya juge prathamata Brahmā ādi deva jata
Hari nāma karile guputa
[Meaning: All the deities including Brahma hid the name of lord Hari at the outset of the Satya era.]
So the entire religious exercise by Srimanta Sankaradeva was an initiative towards revival of the true Vedic approach to creation and the creator.
Ethics is an important ingredient of the preachings by Srimanta Sankaradeva. He advised people to shun violence and any type of misbehavior. He asked people to give up demonic nature.
Hena jāni asura svabhāba save eri
Samasta prānika puja Vishnu buddhi kari
[Meaning: Give up demonic nature and worship all creatures knowing them to be manifestations of lord Vishnu.]
Moreover, respect and good behavior to women constituted important message in his books like Uttarākānda Rāmāyana and Harishchandra Upākhyāna. He also said categorically in his book Anādi Pātana that women should be educated. This was an extremely progressive outlook for a medieval preceptor. No other religious preceptor in Sanātana religion had allowed women the kind of status that Srimanta Sankaradeva conferred on women. He initiated several women like Chakuli, Barabahi, Kalindi, Chandari etc. It was this progressive outlook in the order that enabled his wife Kalindi to initiate disciples after the passing away of the saint. Another woman, Padmapriya, who was daughter of Gopal Ata used to run a training centre in the later period for the followers of Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma. Thus, clearly Srimanta Sankaradeva was successful in creating a new lifestyle. People came out of the regressive customs of the medieval era and lived a peaceful and civilized life. He was the harbinger of a new era.
Srimanta Sankaradeva did not confine himself to any race or geographic region. He did not talk about Assamese community in his writings. He was a global citizen. He addressed the entire humanity in his writing. He said Obā naraloka Hari bhajiyoka, meaning O mankind, worship lord Hari. He thus had a global vision. He talked of universal love for all beings as God resided within all beings. He was a great humanist. He gave a clarion call to all people to shun mutual differences as there was no intrinsic difference between different ethnic groups, all of them having the same soul within. Thus, he talked of universal brotherhood and advocated for integration of different ethnic groups in the society. Religion was an instrument of social reform for him. His repeated eulogy of Bharatavarsha in his writings also was broadly a philosophical concept. He eulogized the land of the Upanishadas and the Vedas. It was not any kingdom or state as there was never any single such state before the modern era. So whenever Srimanta Sankaradeva talked about Bharatavarsha, he talked about the source of the Upanishadas and the Vedas. He did not talk about any political unit. All these make Srimanta Sankaradeva and his order unique in the annals of religious philosophies.