Ekasarana Dharma

Ekasarana Dharma[4] (Assamese এক শৰণ ধৰ্ম; literally: 'Shelter-in-One religion') is a panentheistic religion propagated by Srimanta Sankardeva in the 15th-16th century in the Indian state of Assam. It rejects vedic ritualism and focuses on pure devotion (bhakti) to Krishna consisting primarily in singing (Kirtan) and listening to (Sravan) his deeds and activities. It is also referred to as ek sarana Hari naam dharma.

The simple and accessible religion attracted already Hinduized as well as non-Hindu tribal populations into its egalitarian fold. The neophytes were inducted into the faith via a system of initiation itself referred to as Sarana. Institutions propagating Eka Sarana like sattra (monasteries) and village Namghar (prayer houses), had profound influence in the evolution of the social makeup of Assam. The artistic creations emanating from this movement led to engendering of new forms of literature, music (Borgeets or songs celestial), theatre (Ankia Naat) and dance (Sattriya dance).

The central religious text of this religion is Bhagavat of Sankardeva, which was rendered from the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana by Srimanta Sankardeva and other luminaries of the Eka Sarana school. This book is supplemented by the two books of songs for congregational singing: Kirtan Ghoxa by Sankardeva and Naam Ghoxa by Madhabdev. These books are written in the Assamese language.

The religion is also called Mahapuruxiya because it is based on the worship of the Mahapurux or Mahapurush (Sanskrit: Maha: Supreme and purush: Being), an epithet of the supreme spiritual personality in the Bhagavata and its adherents are often called Mahapuruxia, Sankari etc. In course of time, the epithet 'Mahapurux' came also to be secondarily applied to Sankardeva and Madhabdev, the principal preceptors. Non-adherence to the Hindu varnasrama system and rejection of Vedic karma marked its character.

Though often seen as a part of the wider, pan-Indian Bhakti movement, it does not worship Radha with Krishna which is common in other Vaishnava schools. It is characterised by the dasya form of worship. Historically, it has been against caste system, and especially against animal sacrifices common in Vedic sacrificial form of Hinduism. Noted for its egalitarianism, it posed a serious challenge to Brahminical Hinduism, and converted into its fold people of all castes, ethnicity and religion (including Islam).[citation needed]

Worshipful God and salvation

Schools of Vedanta
4th century CE
8th Century CE[disputed ]
11th Century CE
13th Century CE
(Vivekananda & Radhakrishnan)
19th century CE
9th century
13th century
16th century
(Chaitanya & Jiva)
16th century
Three Vaishnava schools accept the Bhagavata as authoritative (Madhava, Chaitanya and Vallabha)[5] whereas Ramanuja does not mention it.[6] Sankardev's school accepts the nirvisesa God[7] and avers on vivartavada[8] which maintains that the world is a phenomenal aspect of Brahma, thus taking it very close to Sankaracharya's position.[9] Further, like the modern neo-Vedanta philosophies, Sankardev's philosophy accepts both the Nirguna and the Saguna Brahma.[10] Despite this unique philosophical position among the Vaishnavites, the preceptors of Ekasarana or their later followers provided no commentary of the prasthana-traya or gloss and did not establish an independent system of philosophy.[11]
Notes, references and sources for table

Notes and references

  1. ^ The realistic stance of Bhedabheda probably predates Shankara's Advaita. The Brahma Sutras may reflect a Bhedabheda-perspective. See Nicholson (2010)
  2. ^ Neo-Vedanta is a modern interpretation of Vedanta, with a liberal attitude toward the Vedas; see King (2001). It may also be regarded as a modern form of Bhedabheda, since it reconciles dualism and non-dualism; see Sooklal (1993) Nicholas F. Gier (2013) p.268-269: "Ramakrsna, Swami Vivekananda, and Aurobindo (I also include M.K. Gandhi) have been labeled "neo-Vedantists," a philosophy that rejects the Advaitins' claim that the world is illusory. Aurobindo, in his The Life Divine, declares that he has moved from Sankara's "universal illusionism" to his own "universal realism" (2005: 432), defined as metaphysical realism in the European philosophical sense of the term."


  • Gier, Nicholas F. (2012). "Overreaching to be different: A critique of Rajiv Malhotra's Being Different". International Journal of Hindu Studies. Springer Netherlands. 16 (3): 259–285. 10.1007/s11407-012-9127-x. 1022-4556.
  • King, Richard (2001), Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and "The Mystic East", Taylor & Francis e-Library
  • Nicholson, Andrew J. (2010), Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History, Columbia University Press
  • Raju, P.T. (1992), The Philosophical Traditions of India, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited
  • Sheridan, Daniel (1986). The Advaitic Theism of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. p. 139. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
  • Sivananda, Swami (1993), All About Hinduism, The Divine Life Society
  • Gerald Surya, Review of "A Critique of A. C. Bhaktivedanta" by K. P. Sinha
  • Sooklal, Anil (1993), "The Neo-Vedanta Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda" (PDF), Nidan, 5, 1993
  • Olivelle, Patrick (1992). The Samnyasa Upanisads. Oxford University Press. pp. 1–18. ISBN 978-0195070453.

The preceptors as well as later leaders of the Ekasarana religion focused mainly on the religious practice of bhakti and kept away from systematically expounding philosophical positions.[12] Nevertheless references found scattered in the voluminous works of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva indicate that their theosophical positions are rooted in the Bhagavata Purana[13] with a strong Advaita influence via its commentary Bhavartha-dipika by Sridhar Swami.[14] Nevertheless, Sankardeva's interpretation of these texts were seen at once to be "original and new".[15] Scholars hold that these texts are not followed in-toto and deviations are often seen in the writings especially when the original philosophical contents came into conflict with the primary focus of bhakti as enunciated in the Ekasarana-dharma.[16]

Nature of God

Though it acknowledges the impersonal (nirguna) god, it identifies the personal (saguna) one as worshipful[17] which it calls Narayana.[18] The sole aspect that distinguishes the personal from the impersonal one is the act of creation,[19] by which Narayana created everything. Unlike in Gaudiya Vaishnavism it claims no distinction between Brahman, Paramatman and Bhagavat, which are considered in Ekasarana as just different appellations applied to the same supreme reality.[20]

Even though Narayana is sometimes used synonymously with Vishnu, the gods Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva are considered of lower divinity.[21]

Narayana as the personal and worshipful god is considered to be a loving and lovable god, who possesses auspicious attributes that attract devotees. He is non-dual, omnipotent and omniscient; creator, sustainer, and destroyer of all. He also possesses moral qualities like karunamaya (compassionate), dinabandhu (friend of the lowly), bhakta-vatsala (beloved of devotees) and patit-pavana (redeemer of sinners) that make him attractive to devotees. Though it does not deny the existence of other gods, it asserts that Narayana alone is worshipful and the others are strictly excluded.


Following the Bhagavata Purana, the object of devotion in Ekasarana is Krishna, who is the supreme entity himself.[22][23][24] who is suddha (pure), satya (true). All other deities are subservient to Him.[25] Brahman, Vishnu and Krishna are fundamentally one.[26][27] Krishna is alone the supreme worshipful in the system. Sankaradeva's Krishna is Nārāyana, the Supreme Reality or Parama Brahma and not merely an avatara of Visnu. Krishna is God Himself.[28] It considers Narayana (Krishna) as both the cause as well as the effect of this creation,[29] and asserts Narayana alone is the sole reality.[30] From the philosophical angle, He is the Supreme Spirit (Param-Brahma). As the controller of the senses, the Yogis call him Paramatma. When connected with this world, He assumes the name of Bhagavanta.[31] Moreover, some of the characteristics usually reserved for the impersonal God in other philosophies are attributed to Narayana with reinterpretations.[32]

Jiva and salvation

The embodied self, called jiva or jivatma is identical to Narayana.[33] It is shrouded by maya and thus suffers from misery,[34] When the ego (ahamkara) is destroyed, the jiva can perceive himself as Brahma.[35] The jiva attains mukti (liberation) when the jiva is restored to its natural state (maya is removed). Though other Vaishnavites (Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Vallabha, Caitanya) recognise only videhamukti (mukti after death), the Ekasarana preceptors have recognised, in addition, jivanmukti (mukti during lifetime).[36] Among the five different kinds of videhamukti,[37] the Ekasarana rejects the Sayujya form of mukti, where the complete absorption in God deprives jiva of the sweetness and bliss associated with bhakti. Bhakti is thus not a means to mukti but an end to itself, and this is strongly emphasised in Ekasarana writings——Madhavdeva begins his Namaghosha with an obeisance to devotees who do not prefer mukti.[38] This identity between the jivatma and Narayana is beautifully expressed by Sankaradeva through the words of the Vedas in the 'Veda Stuti' (The Prayer of the Vedas) section of his Kirttana Ghosā, jiva amse Tumi pravesilā gāve gāve:-

We, all creatures, constitute a part of Thine. Thy maya, Oh Lord, keeps us in bondage; give us instruction so that we may adore Thy Feet and remove the fetters of maya through Sravana and Kirttana. [1656][39]

Maya or nescience in Sankaradeva is seen as a barrier to the Lord's bhakti (Devotion). And therefore, to break the fetters of maya, is prescribed the path of adoration (bhajana) of the Lord solely through the listening to (Sravana) and recitation (Kirttana) of His Glories, taking sole-refuge (Eka-Sarana) in Him, in the company of His (single-minded) devotees (bhaktas):[40]-

From these words of Bhagavanta (God), by taking Eka-Sarana in Him, one gains the Lord's favour and is [thus] able to effortlessly understand māyā (nescience) and [also] liberate oneself from it.[41] [Sankaradeva, Bhakti-Ratnākara, Māyātaranopāya' ('Way to Release From Māyā'), the 36th Māhātmya]

Krishna is identical to Narayana

Narayana often manifests through avatars, and Krishna is considered as the most perfect one who is not a partial manifestation but Narayana himself.[42] It is in the form of Krishna that Narayana is usually worshiped. The description of Krishna is based on the one in Bhagavat Puran, as one who resides in Vaikuntha along with his devotees. Thus the worshipful form is different from other forms of Krishna-based religions (Radha-Krishna of Caitanya, Gopi-Krishna of Vallabhacharya, Rukmini-Krishna of Namadeva and Sita-Rama of Ramananda).[43] The form of devotion is infused with the dasya and balya bhava in the works of Sankardev and Madhabdev. Madhura bhava, so prevalent in the other religions, is singularly absent here.[44]