Fundamental Aspects of Sankaradeva's Religion - Bhakti

According to Sankaradeva, God is to be worshipped and adored with singularly unflinching devotion. Through desireless devotion alone can be achieved the grace of God and not through rites and ceremonies.

Bhakti, the Supreme Path

Bhakti, as the best path, is upheld by the Sāstras:

Om trisu satyesu Bhaktireva gariyasi Bhaktireva gariyasi
[Nāradiya Bhakti-Sutra]

Of the three truths (Jnāna, Karma, Bhakti), Bhakti is decidedly the most glorious, aye, Bhakti is decidedly the most glorious!

The Bhāgavata also shows bhakti as the golden path among the three.

In one of his earliest works, the Uddhava Samvāda, Sankaradeva advocates Bhakti:

Jagatar dharma karma karok sakale
Moke ātmā buli yadi jāne yoga bale.
Tathāpi pavitra tār nohe tanu citta
Neday mrtyu bhay jnāni karmi kadācita.
Napāvay mok yāg-yog yajna-dāne
Mahā mantra japi koti sata tirtha-snāne.
Napāve āmāk ekādasi upabāse
Nakaray vasya mok param sanyāse.
Ān karma kariā michāte mare loka
Bhaktar sangese samyaka jāne moka.
Devato tirthato kari bhakatese bar
Bhakatak bhajile gucay karma-jar.
Thākoho sarvadā mai bhakatar pās
Yei bole sei karo yena nija dās.

(Krishna says) Let any body do all virtues and rituals that there be in the world; let him know Me as the soul by dint of yoga: Yet his body and heart cannot become pure. For the intellectualist and ritualist can never escape the fear of death. None can attain Me by sacrifices, meditations and gifts, not by murmuring great incantations, not by bathing in a hundred crores of pilgrimages. None can attain Me by observing fasts on ekādasi, nor can great renunciation of the world overwhelm Me. Men mortify themselves in vain by making rituals. It is really the congregation of Bhaktas that can know Me. Superior to the gods and better than pilgrimage are the Bhaktas. All vices accompanying performance of rituals are removed when one is devoted to Bhaktas. I am always in the company of Bhaktas and I do their bidding as though I have been their own slave.

I am in the heart of the devotees. My devotees think of none but Me. I also think of none but my devotees.

Madhavadeva, further elucidating the Bhakti aspect of Sankaradeva's teachings, says that a devotee should bind with the rope of love the feet of Krishna to the pillars of his heart:

Hridaya stambhata	Krishna caranaka
	prema-jari diyā sāndā;
parama sudridha	Rāma-Krishna nāma
	kavaca galata bāndhā.

The holy Nām Ghosā of Madhavadeva begins directly with a reference to devotion:

I bow low to the devotee who has no craving even for liberation. I pray for that devotion which is full of sweet joy. I worship that Lord of the Yādavas, who is the crowning gem of all and (yet) who is submissive to His own devotee.

Bhakti greater than even mukti

The Eka-Sarana of Sankaradeva asks for nothing in return, not even moksa (salvation) or mukti (liberation), except the privilege of devotional recitation of the Lord's Name. It is truly niskāma (selfless). Madhavadeva begins his Nām Ghosā by saluting that (supreme) bhakta who is muktita nispriha (indifferent even to liberation). Devotion, which originated as one path to salvation among others, comes to be valued as an end in itself. Madhavadeva thus observes that the devotee who plays in the nectar of the Lord's Name spurns salvation as if it were a piece of straw.

Rejection of līna mukti

For this reason, that form of liberation which involves complete merger in God (līna mukti) is rejected:

Nalāge līna mukutika tathā
Nāhi Hari-pada-pankaja yathā.

I refuse the salvation in which, being merged in Thee, I miss Thy lotus feet
[Sankaradeva, Kirttana].

Thus there is a re-interpretation of the final goal, bhakti being substituted for mukti.

Liberation a by-product of devotion

What then becomes of liberation? How can it be achieved?

Sankaradeva takes a refreshingly different approach towards liberation by saying:

Muktisca prasangiki bhavati
[Sankaradeva, Bhakti Ratnākara]

Liberation is a by-product of the process of devotion

Devotion is not a means to achieve an end but the supreme end in itself.

Pure, Selfless Bhakti

As to the form of devotion, Sankaradeva prescribes Suddha Bhakti or Niskāma Bhakti (pure, selfless devotion) which is characterised as being ahaituki (love for love's sake), apratihata (un-interrupted), krcchrahina (non-tyrannising), abyabhichāri (unadulterated) and also ekānta (undivided). This is in stark contrast to ritualistic or intellectualistic bhakti.

Rites and rituals all useless

Madhavadeva in his Nām Ghosā has not given any importance to the observance of rites and ceremonies associated with religion. Performance of rites and ceremonies cannot enable the subject to reach God. He says that they are pursued by only those whose minds have not been imbued in the glory of God. He illustrates his remarks with an analogy that a man who gets nectar to drink does not hanker after any other beverage:

How will you worship with rites and ceremonies, Hari, the unmanifest God? How will you invoke or send away the All-pervading One? How will you contemplate Him who is formless? (Be not puzzled.) Purify your mind by chanting the name of Rāma.

Again, in the words of Sankaradeva:

Nachāde karmik soke-dukhe prati dine
Jnānato nāhike gati Bhakatit bine.
Āne najānay ito Vedar bicār
Eteke Bhakati-path sammat āmār.

Ritualists are under tribulations of grief and sorrow from day to day. There can be no deliverance from them even by acquisition of knowledge without the aid of Bhakti. Laymen are ignorant of the true verdict of the Vedas. So the path of Bhakti is the one that I approve.

Sankaradeva also discards the path of Karma (ritualities) as slippery and unsuitable, but wholly advocates the path of Bhakti (Love) which is not only highly suitable and universally practicable, but is also quite easy and practical:

Verily, O Hari! Dwellest Thou there, where those who are single-minded in devotion to Thee, sit and sing always the attributes of the attributeless Krishna; for their sake, dost Thou leave behind even the Vaikuntha and the hearts of the Yogis.

Madhavadeva even throws a challenge when he puts a question like this to the earnest seekers of the Lord:

“Is there anyone in this kaliyuga who has attained salvation without treading the path of bhakti and without the love of Nāma?”

Special Place to the Devotee

The Devotee (bhakata),one of the four reals, occupies a special place in Assam Vaisnavism. The company of devotees (bhakatara sanga) is worshipped as the visible symbol of God and is said to be superior to Him:

Who worships Krishna alone without worshipping the devotees
His offering Krishna does not accept as his own.
Who in worshipping Krishna bows down to the devotees,
His offering becomes prasād.

At the conclusion of the prayer-service in the Nāmghar, the following verse from the Nām Ghosā is ardently recited by each and every devotee:

Kripāra sāgara	Devaki-nandana
	purio manara kāma
bhakatara sanga	sadā nugusoka
	mukhe tuvā guna-nāma.

Ocean of Kindness! Son of Devaki! Fulfil this desire of my heart:
Let not my mouth cease uttering Thy Name in the company of the bhaktas.

It may be pointed out that the seating arrangement in the Nāmghars, with the congregation in two facing rows, is such that when the congregation bow down in worship to God, they are at the same time bowing down in worship to one another.

To the devotee, his chosen path (of devotion) is not one out of several paths, but the path and the life of a true devotee resembles a calling in which his most routine activities gain significance by being performed for the purpose of devotion.

“The abiding significance of Srimanta Sankaradeva's teaching is that a selfless, motiveless devotee perseveres in his love of God, not as a task which shall lead him after death to heaven as its reward, but as a supremely worthwhile exercise, as the highest human ideal in itself that man can pursue on this earth.”

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