Introduction to Sankaradeva’s Eka Sarana Faith and Movement

The closing decades of the 15th century in Assam witnessed the rise of a unique school of pure devotion to Krsna that also assumed the nature of a movement for social reform. In the face of insurmountable odds, SankaradevaThe name of Sankaradeva is also found transliterated in various writings as “Sankardeva,” “Sankardev,” “Shankar Dev,” etc. (IAST: Śaṅkaradeva; AS: শঙ্কৰদেৱ), a spiritual and social reformer and a charismatic figure, propagated a religion known as eka śaraṇa hari nāma or ‘the doing of pure devotion to God taking sole-refuge in him,’ which, on superficial glance, might appear similar to the other vaisnava movements that took root in the India of the same time. But the great characteristic that marked the rise of this new school was its insistence on basing its theology on a purely bhaktic philosophy rather than the conventional dharmic one.As a result, it came into direct conflict with the ruler-sacerdotalist nexus and the extreme brutality of the persecution which it faced at the instance of the dharmic orthodoxy is perhaps matched only by the cruelties inflicted on the followers of the early Christian faith by the Roman authorities.

Saci Manuscripts placed on Sarai, Assamese TrayDevotees are seen singing the Name of Hari playing on various instruments like cymbals and drums and marching as if in a celebratory procession. The figure in the lead appears to be carrying a copy of the Bhagavata in some sort of a portable book-case. The whole scene is reminiscent of the Bhagavata Bhramana celebration in which the Bhagavata is taken outdoors by the devotees on certain special occasions.Manuscript from the KirttanaSaci Manuscripts Illumined
The Sankaradeva Movement: Efflorescence of a Great Devotional Literature

Sankaradeva-artist's impressonIt followed the Bhagavata Purana, which is famous for espousing the message of pure Vedantic bhakti, as its canonical text. To a beginner, the most apt picture to conjure up in one’s mind regarding this pure bhakti would be perhaps that of a system like Kabir’s fused with the intense flow of the juice (rasa) of love for God. This is also known as rasamaya bhakti or ‘nectar-flavored’ devotion—exclusive, pure, desireless, love-for-love’s-sake.

Krishna, the Supreme Reality

Sankaradeva was a very versatile personality. During his entire lifetime, he concentrated his energies on bringing home to the lay populace the message of the Vedantic-Puranic system through diverse media that made easy the comprehension of the philosophico-scientific truths contained in the Upanisads. The story (kāhinī) of Krsna in Sankaradeva is not one of an ‘epic hero’ or historical personality of ancient IndiaOne very eye-catching feature of the Sankaradeva movement is that there never has been a centrality of an external geographic conception of a Mathura or a Gokula in the lives of its saints and leading personalities. but, rather, the ‘story’ of the supreme pure personality (paramātmā) within the microcosm actuating and animating the material entities for the sake of facilitating the development of consciousness in the pure personality (puruṣa) who has now, fallen into matter (prakṛti), become dead and extremely matter-like (jaḍa). There is an intense paramatmic flavor in all of the Sankaradeva-ite literature, the best example of which is surely the Nāma Ghoṣā (The Proclamation of Pure Devotion) of Madhavadeva in which there is a considerable ‘melting’ of the ‘hard philosophical truths’ into ‘exquisite poetry.’ And this paramatmic spirit of Sankaradeva’s faith is reflected in the praxis of the adherents of the faith. It is a great reason why the eka sarana faith distinguishes itself greatly from the conventional stream of ‘mainstream’ Vaisnavism. About this paramatmic basis of Sankaradeva, we will have more to say in a later section.

Bhagavata ScriptureHe wrote trendsetting popular plays, composed songs of the devotional genre set to classical ragas as well as numerous devotional poems (kīrttanas) for congregational singing and even encouraged the art of manuscript illustration and painting. He also got built spacious prayer houses for the masses to pray together in a whole-souled manner, in front of the text of the Bhagavata. As a result, there was a sort of a distillation of the essence of the Vedanta in the vernacular language, essentially Assamese of the old variety, and Vrajawali which, like the Hindi of today, seems to have been the then lingua franca (although Sankaradeva did author in Sanskrit a highly influential text known as the Bhakti Ratnakara).

play in progresssalaguri satrafront view of a satraSattra gateway
The Sankaradeva Movement: Institutions

Madhavadeva, his foremost disciple, has described him as a ‘mine of all good qualities.’ He has brought down the ‘river of the nectar of the love of God’ from Vaikuntha, the transcendental society. In fact, so deep is the impact of Sankaradeva on the spiritual and also social—there being, in this context, an intimate connection between the two—landscape of Assam that the entire corpus of medieval Assamese bhakti literature is resonant with his praise.

Krishna goes out early in the morning to the green fields of Vrindavana on the banks of the Kalindi driving herds of cattle along with other cowherd companionsParalleling this spiritual reform was a strong surge of social reform which swept away the dharmic conception of society and sought to remodel society on bhaktic lines. This made the preaching of the eka sarana faith also very much a social movement. In the modern period, some scholars have glossed over this important social angle. In their view, Sankaradeva sought merely to establish equality for all on the spiritual plane without seeking to disturb the status quo in the social order. This is a mistake of epic proportions. The society in Sankaradeva’s time was organized into a hierarchy on the basis of a system of varṇa and āśrama which laid down separate duties (dharmas) for the different categories and castes. This was essentially born of a philosophy of bheda or intrinsic difference which saw man as a part of matter rather than as a spiritual personality and sought to emulate the material units of the microcosm. However, Sankaradeva’s philosophy, which runs counter to such a philosophy of difference, is that of intrinsic equality. In fact, the very doing of pure bhakti is predicated on the existence of a transcendental society in which all members are essentially of one kind. All are puruṣas or pure personalities; they are by nature immutable and hence not subject to placement at different levels on a material scale. Therefore the bhaktic philosophy envisages a kind of society which is modeled on Vaikuntha, the transcendental society, in which the governing ideal is one of equality. The embracing of such a philosophy by Sankaradeva and its widespread dissemination among the masses automatically put the conception of the dharmic society at peril and in threat of diminution, if not eventual extinction.

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Editor’s Notes

This article is a reproduction of Sankaradeva’s Eka-Sarana Faith and Movement written by Arunava Gupta. It is available on his blog eka-sarana.blogspot.com.

References (Resources Utilized in Making this Page)

The following resources were used in making this page:-

  1. Gupta, Arunava. “Sankaradeva’s Eka-Sarana Faith and Movement.” Sankaradeva’s Eka-Sarana Hari-Nama Dharma, eka-sarana.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html.