An Introduction to the Philosophy of Sankaradeva

[See also: Q&A on the Philosophy of Sankardev]

There are three primary entities (tattvasThe ancient philosopher-scientists who were the originators of the Vedanta and the Purana seem to have had a special interest in the ontological analysis of entities around them—in analysing their essential characteristics and classifying them according to category of existence. Sankaradeva’s studies represented a continuation of the same approach. The word that comes up frequently in this context in the works of the key personalities of the Eka Sarana school is “tattva,” standing for “entity.” It has a special ontological connotation.), numerically speakingWe say “numerically” because although from the point of view of enumeration, these three would represent three tattvas independent and distinct, from the standpoint of essential characteristic, there would be only two entities: (a) prakrti and (b) purusa. As both purusa and parama purusa would fall into the same ontological category. This is made clear later in the section on the difference between the embodied personality and the Lord., in the philosophical scheme of Sankaradeva: (a) primal matter (prakṛti); (b) pure personality (puruṣa) and (c) the supreme pure personality (parama puruṣa). The supreme entity is God (parama puruṣa) referred to in his immanent capacity as Kṛṣṇa. He is supremely conscious (caitanya pūrṇa). He is termed as the supreme truth (satya). The living beings (jīva) are also, in truth, pure personalities (puruṣas). There is thus discussion in the Sankaradeva-ite philosophical literature on the nature of reality—specifically, on what constitutes the essential nature of entities (tattva). The difference between the material (jada) and spiritual (caitanya) is critical in Sankaradeva; it determines worship in the Eka Sarana school.

The Philosophy of Sankaradeva: The Three Entities Prakrti, Purusa and Parama Purusa (Assamese Manuscript Painting, Sankaradeva Movement).The pure personalities (puruṣas), due to non-devotion to God (parama puruṣa), become forgetful of their own spiritual nature and fall into prakṛti and become dead and extremely matter-like (jaḍa). In ignorance (avidyā, ajñāna) and illusion (māyā) the pure personality (puruṣa) thinks himself to be a part of primal matter and considers himself a material entity. In the state of ignorance, he does the worship of prakṛti and its evolutes. It is this false apprehension and non-discrimination that forms the basis of his entrapment in the cycle of births and deaths (saṃsāra).

Given this philosophical background, Sankaradeva exhorts the jīvas to take refuge solely in parama puruṣa in the form of Kṛṣṇa and do pure devotion (bhakti) only to him. Kṛṣṇa is supremely conscious (caitanya) personality while primal matter (prakṛti) and ‘her’ evolutes are unconscious (jaḍa) substance. The jīvas too are essentially conscious (caitanya) and spiritual and ontologically superior to prakṛti. Therefore, it behoves them to do pure devotion (bhakti) only to Kṛṣṇa.

The Supreme Lord is the Controller of both Purusa and Prakrti

The supreme pure personality, who is Parama Īśvara (God, Supreme Lord), is the controller (niyantā) of both puruṣa and prakṛti. The term mahāpuruṣīyā (from mahāpuruṣa, the supreme pure personality) is also sometimes found applied to the religion of Sankaradeva. It implies the worship (upāsanā) of parama puruṣa Krsna.

prakṛti puruṣa duiṭo kari para duihāno nija kāraṇa . parama īśvara nāmaka dhariyā āchā tāte nārāẏaṇa ..172

He is superior to both prakrti, primal matter, and purusa, the pure, spiritual personality.
He is the cause, as it were, of these two entities.
On account of this fact, He is holding the name of ‘Parama Iśvara’ (Supreme Lord),
the shelter of all the embodied beings. 172

prakṛti puruṣa duiro niyantā mādhava . samastare ātmā hari parama bāndhava .. 405

Mādhava is the ordainer of both prakrti and purusa. Hari is the (supreme) soul and great benefactor of all.

kṣara pade iṭo dehaka buliya akṣara śabade brahma . duito kari hari uttama nimitte prakhyāta puruṣottama .. 171

By the term ‘kṣara’ is meant the body.
By the ‘akṣara’ term, the spiritual personality (brahma).
As The Remover of All Afflictions is superior to both of these—matter as well as spiritual personality—
He is extremely well-known as ‘Puruṣottama’ (The Supreme Spiritual Personality). 171

puruṣa uttama parama puruṣa parama ānanda svāmī . tayu pādapadma- makaranda āśe śaraṇa paśilo āmi ..186

Thou the best purusa, the supreme purusa and Master of Supreme Joy. I seek refuge in thee for the nectarine juice of thy lotus feet.

The Difference Between the Embodied Personality (Jiva) and the Lord (Isvara)

While primal matter (prakṛti) is unconscious substance subject to modifications (vikāra), pure personality (puruṣa) is conscious and immutable (avikārī). Both puruṣa and parama puruṣa are conscious pure personalities and, therefore, essentially similar. Both are quite unlike matter. As Sankaradeva lucidly explains in his Bhakti Ratnākara, in the chapter on the difference between jivātmā and paramātmā, the jivapuruṣa connected to mind and the senses—is not different, ontologically, from paramātmā (parama puruṣa). However, (from the point of view of degree of consciousness) parama puruṣa is supremely conscious while the puruṣa is not so. The consciousness of parama puruṣa is uneclipsable but that of puruṣa is eclipsable. In the default state, puruṣa is not only affected but almost crushed by the illusion (māyā) wrought of matter. On the other hand, the guṇas of prakṛti cannot even touch the supreme pure personality.

sehise īśbara yāra baśya māẏā parama ānandamaẏa . māẏā mardde yāka tāke buli jīwa duḥkhate tāra udaẏa .. 763 ati sukha-rūpa ānande yuguta caitanya-rupa īśbara . tāhāne māẏāẏe ḍhākileka nija ānanda-sukha jīwara .. duḥkhacaẏe beḍhi āchaẏa jīwaka pāwe ati mahākheda . kahilom̐ pratyeka jānibā eteka jīwa-īśbarara bheda .. 764

“That only is the Lord under whose control is primal matter (maya);
He is the personality of supreme transcendental joy.
That which primal nature—its nescience—crushes, that only is embodied personality;
he has his rise in affliction. 763
Of the nature of extreme happiness, endowed with bliss is
the supremely conscious form of the Lord.
It is His nescience (maya) only that has covered and kept under wraps
the happiness born of own-joy of the jiva.
Various miseries and afflictions are surrounding the embodied person;
he is suffering greatly on account of them.
I have told directly; know, in this manner,
the difference between the embodied personality and the Lord.” 764

byaẏa āche tāra abyaẏa howaẏa jīwa nitya abināśī .. sukha-duḥkhamaẏa māẏā-moha pāśe bhailā ati bimohita . karmma-jarī-baddha huẏā saṃsārata pari duḥkha pāwe nita .. 772 īśbarata kari jīwa bhinna nuhi śānta abikārī haẏa . bhrāntiẏe ajñāna ābarita huẏā āponāka najānaẏa ..

That body is subject to wearing out and decay but the jiva is imperishable;
he, like His Lord, is also always-existing and indestructible.
Caught in the snare of infatuation with matter—made up of pleasure and pain—
he has fallen into extreme delusion.
Bound by the rope of desire-actuated material action (karma) to the cycle of trans-migratory existence (saṃsāra),
he suffers always from affliction. 772
The jiva is not different in kind from Isvara
he is calm and immutable.
But, enveloped by ignorance and false opinion,
he does not know his own spiritual nature avikārī vibhuḥ śāntaḥ abhinnaḥ parameśvarāt
bhrāntijñānāvṛto bhūtvā nātmānaṃ vetti tattvataḥ

According to Sankaradeva, only by the listening (śravaṇa) to and singing (kīrttana) of the immanent Lord’s glories—in an attitude of sole-refuge (eka śaraṇa)—would the jīva be able to overcome the nescience (māyā) wrought by primal matter (prakṛti) and obtain the supreme happiness and not otherwise.

kṛṣṇa-pāwe eka śaraṇa paśiẏā harita kari bhakati . ati ajñānīẏo anāẏāse labhe durllabha parama gati .. 773 jīwa-ātmā para- ātmā bheda jāni bhakati kare yijane . kikuhibā tāka pāibe ati sukhe mahāgati siṭojane .. iṭo māhātmyaka karilom̐ sasāṅga śunā sawe buddhajana . mādhawaka mane dhari rāma rāma buliẏoka sarbbajana .. 774

Entering into sole-refuge in Krsna’s feet and
doing pure devotion to the Great Remover of Affliction,
even the extremely ignorant one effortlessly obtains
the unobtainable supreme deliverance. 773
Knowing the difference between the embodied spiritual personality and the supreme spiritual personality,
the one that does bhakti,
Oh, what will I say about him! He will obtain in extreme happiness
the great and rare deliverance.
This chapter here I have concluded;
hear, O all enlightened people!
Holding in mind the Lord of Primal Matter, ‘Rama!’ ‘Rama!’
please utter, all you people. 774

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Editor’s Notes

This article is a reproduction of An Introduction to the Philosophy of Sankaradeva written by Arunava Gupta. It is available on his blog

References (Resources Utilized in Making this Page)

The following resources were used in making this page:-

  1. Gupta, Arunava. “An Introduction to the Philosophy of Sankaradeva.” ‘পাইবা ভক্তি পৰম নিৰ্ম্মল’,