The Guru-Āsana - What it Represents

The seat of the Guru or preceptor - Guru-Āsana - has its significance and centrality in Assam Vaisnavism.

Structure

The Guru-Āsana is a pyramidal, wooden structure with a square base, standing on four pillars. At the base of each pillar, there is an elephant on a tortoise. The seven lions on each elephant, totaling twenty-eight, represent the seven Vaikunthas (sapta Vaikuntha). The consecrated altar at the peak of the Āsana (literally, 'seat') holds the sacred books. 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.

Rationale

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).

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