Fundamental Aspects of Sankaradeva's Religion - Guru Āsana
Another striking feature of the Eka Sarana faith is the complete absence of idol-worship. This again is a unique feature of the Sankaradeva-ite school not to be found in the other Vaisnava schools of India. The Bhagavata Purana especially any section of it rendered by Sankaradeva or his Gunamala—the quintessence of the Bhagavata—is installed on a pedestaled tray on a raised or elevated spot on the ground, thus forming what in the vocabulary of Mahapurusism is called, the thāpanā (<Skt. sthāpana) or Guru Āsana (literally, Seat of the Guru) and homage is paid to it by recitation of the Name of God from the holy texts (officially called prasanga). The devotees bow down only before this vāngmayi image of the Lord and, during the prasanga, the sacred offering (prasād) is placed before it. At the time of initiation, the initiate is required to prostrate himself before the Guru Āsana.
The Sole Object of Worship
In Sankaradeva's system, the sacred texts symbolize Lord Krishna Himself, and also the Guru, his teachings. This unique practice of adoring a holy book in place of any idol of the deity finds a parallel only in the system of Guru Nanak where reverence is paid by the Sikhs to their Granth Sahib. And it constitutes a significant difference between the Vaisnavism of Sankaradeva and other schools of Vaisnavism in India. The Nāmghar does not have, as the object of worship, any idol(s) of the deity, only the Guru Āsana.
Only His Name
Recitation/glorification of the Lord's Name is only to be followed for:
(Bhāgavata Purāna 1.5.38)
The Lord has no image other than the Word.
In the Satras and Nāmghars, the Guru-Āsana is a multi-tiered, pyramidal, wooden structure with a square base, standing on four pillars, adorned with lion-elephant-tortoise motifs. The peak of the Āsana (literally, 'seat') holds the sacred book. The whole structure is symbolic of ascending spiritual knowledge and accomplishment.
What it represents
The Guru-Āsanas have a two-fold significance. They represent the worshipful Lord and also stand for the Guru (Sankaradeva) in the form of renderings of the Bhāgavata by Sankaradeva, preferably the Kirttana or the Bhāgavata X, Ādi, by Sankaradeva, and the Nām Ghosā or the Bhakti-Ratnāvali by Madhavadeva. The Barpetā Satra Guru-Āsana is said to have a copy of Sankaradeva's work in the middle pedestal, which is a bit higher than the two on the sides, containing two works of Madhava in his own hand-writing according to one version. The Guru-Āsana at Nij-Pātbāusi is said to have a copy of Sankaradeva's Gunamālā written in his own hand.
In the Srimad-Bhāgavata-māhātmya section of the Padma Purana, Uttara Khanda, it is said that the sages of old considered the Bhāgavata as a form of the Lord:
Menire Bhagavad-rupam sastram Bhagavartam kalau
When Lord Krishna was to depart from this world, His ardent devotee Uddhava, entreated Him to have some consideration for the bhaktas, who would not now have the Lord in form anymore. The Lord pondered over the matter, placed his own energy in the Bhāgavata and entered the ocean of that Purana. This work, therefore, is the perceptible image of Hari, wrought of words alone:
Teneyam Vāngmayi murtih pratyaksa vartate Hareh
The Purana is said to be worshipped on this account with the burning of incense and the lighting of lamp, for it is no other than Lord Krishna Himself (Sri-Bhagavatakhyo yam pratyaksah Krishna eva hi). It is thus apparent why in a religion, in which image-worship does not hold sway, the Bhāgavata or its rendering, came to be reverentially treated as the Lord in worded form.
Sankaradeva initiated his disciples into his faith with the Bhāgavata to represent the Lord, in whom the initiate's soul was to find refuge (sarana). Sometimes, some other puthi (book) could also be substituted-Sankaradeva's Uddhava Samvāda, Madhavadeva's Bhakti-Ratnāvali, Sankaradeva's Bhakati Pradipa. A book thus represented the Lord, who is not visible to the mortal eye.
It also came to stand for the religious preceptor in this way. When Sankaradeva departed from this world, Madhava succeeded to Guru-ship but when Madhava Departed, no one was appointed as Guru. Guru-ship was thus abolished in a way as none but Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva could be called a guru. When Madhavadeva's end was approaching, and his followers wished that someone should be appointed his successor, he nominated no one and said:
Look I have composed the (Nām) Ghosā where I have recorded everything that I have got to say. Whoever reads and understands the Ghosā will verily find me there. I have reposited all my energy and knowledge in the Ghosā and those who know how to seek me will certainly find me there.
On one occasion, when Sankaradeva's Bhagavata X, Ādi was taken by one Padmanābha Laskar from Madhava, the latter said, “Sri Sankaradeva is today going to your place (in the form of the manuscript). Carry him and keep him with care.” On another occasion, he expressed:
The Dasama and the Kirttana are the image of my Master and the Ghosā and the Ratnāvali are my abode.
Thus, the scripture on the Guru-Āsana came to represent both the Lord and the Preceptor (Guru).