The Microcosmic Vision of Sankaradeva

FeaturedThe Microcosmic Vision of Sankaradeva

The 15th century in Assam is remarkable for the rise of a unique school of devotion to Krsna (Krishna) that came to be known as the eka sarana (sole-refuge) school. And in the writings of its founder as well as foremost exponent Sankaradeva (1449-1568 CE), we obtain a glimpse of a microcosmic reality that is exciting and which promises to alter our understanding of the foundational texts of Hinduism in radical new ways.

The philosophy of Sankaradeva is a very real philosophy. Here, unlike in some other philosophies, the ‘world’ or the creation is not figmental or a product of one’s imagination. The objects of the senses, as also the senses themselves, are real and products of an undifferentiated mass of material substance known as prakrti, a term which may be translated into English as ‘primal matter’ or ‘Ur-matter’. The pure personalities (purusas), due to non-devotion to God, become forgetful of their own spiritual nature, and fall into this prakrti and become dead and extremely matter-like (jada). God, who is the supreme purusa, out of His own grace (krpa), then has to rescue the fallen purusas by actuating primal matter to evolve out of itself a microcosm—a body, a psycho-physical frame, equipped with all the necessary senses and organs—which will enable the purusa (now known as jiva or organism) to re-train his consciousness. It is this story of the evolution of the microcosm that forms the cornerstone of the Bhagavata Purana, the text that Sankaradeva chooses as his primary source.

Contrary to popular perception, the story of Krsna in the Purana—and in Sankaradeva, as a corollary,—is not one of an ‘epic hero’ or a historical personality of ancient India but, rather, the ‘story’ of the supreme, immanent pure personality (Paramatma) within the microcosm. Krsna is God Himself seen through the prism of the human body. The seer-devotees of the Vedanta have re-visualized the image of the transcendent Brahman as the immanent Lord; as a child, as it were, stealing the product of the senses! Here, one must remark on a very eye-catching feature of the Sankaradeva movement and it is this that there never has been a centrality of an external geographic conception of a Mathura or a Gokula in the lives of its saints and leading personalities. There is thus an intense paramatmic flavor in all of the Sankaradevite literature.

The mind of the Vedantic seer- devotees erupted in joy on seeing this most wondrous microcosm engineered by the Lord and animated by just a tiny part of His infinite spiritual power. And absorbed in the bliss of the Lord’s love, they began to translate, or rather, translocate, the topographical entities of the external world into this inner ‘world’. As a result, what we have in the Bhagavata is a microcosmic narrative woven together with the metaphor of the external world. The material evolution of the (theistic) Samkhya philosophy is set within a ontogenic framework. Science—embryology, to be precise,—philosophy and poetics thus come together in one irresistible combination.

As a side-note, Sankaradeva never viewed the texts such as the Puranas and the Mahabharata as historical texts. This is also a tremendous lesson for today’s interpreters. In the Caturbbimsati Avatara section of his Kirttana, Sankaradeva says that as Vyasa saw that the people had become ‘of extremely dull intellect’, he decided to compose the Puranas. This clearly indicates that these are philosophico-scientific texts containing abstruse concepts and scenarios in a ‘storified’ form.

Now, in order to appreciate fully this microcosmic vision of Sankaradeva—its full philosophical import as well as its practical implication—we have also to consider the strategy of personification that is adopted in the Puranic universe of discourse. There seems to be, as soon as we enter the puranic realm, a sudden profusion of personalities—kings and warriors, devas, asuras, mythical creatures, apsarases, rsis, etc. An overwhelming majority of these characters are the personified forms of the various evolutes of primal matter.

At the grossest level, we have the internal organs residing in the cavities of the nether region of the body; these are known as the bhutas or daityas. Diametrically opposite to these in point of nature, in the ‘heavenly’ or cerebral regions, are the subtle neural entities known as the devas. They are the controllers of the sense organs such as the eyes, the ears, etc. which are likened to sages (rsis) as they remain engaged in ‘knowing’ or acquiring sense-data. Creatures such as Garuda and Hanumana represent the vital airs (pranas). Further, we have two very special entities that are represented by the figures of Brahma and Siva. Brahma is the personification of the microcosmic mind while Siva is kala (‘time’). Kala is an agent of differentiation of the material substance (sakti). It is specially connected to the bhutas or the internal organs. Finally, primal matter itself is personified as Laksmi.

Apart from these basic categories, there exist numerous organic classes and sub-classes such as the glands, muscles, ligaments, sensors and nerves which may also be personified. There is also, as mentioned above, a microcosmic geography: venous rivers, arterial trees, neuronal forests, cartilaginous mountains, etc. As we can see, the bewildering material variety within the human body lends itself excellently to personification.

There are sufficient hints in the writings of Sankaradeva and his disciple and successor Madhavadeva regarding these mappings. In his rendering of the 3rd book of the Bhagavata entitled Anadi Patana (Cosmogenesis), Sankaradeva says that all the signs of the universe are ‘within this very body’. He mentions that the location of all the devas is the body. His rendering also clearly brings out the material nature of the mind and the devas. Similarly, in the verses of the Nama Ghosa (Namanvaya section), Madhavadeva explains that as the Lord has entered into the category of the indriyas, He is referred to as ‘Hrsikesa’ by all exemplar-devotees. Further, he says, ‘by the term go (cow) is meant the sensory receptors’ (go pade beda indriyaka buli). And, as the Lord preserves these, He is known as ‘Gopala’.

To conclude, given this microcosmic background, it is not difficult to understand why Sankaradeva should exhort the jivas to take refuge solely in Krsna. This is because, among all the entities, only Krsna is conscious personality, the others being mere personifications of matter. The jivas too are essentially conscious and spiritual and ontologically superior to matter. Therefore, it behoves them to do pure devotion only to Krsna, shunning all forms of worship that are a mere emulation of the microcosmic material processes.


On Laksmi, the Personification of Primal Matter (Prakrti)

On Laksmi, the Personification of Primal Matter (Prakrti)



In the philosophy of Sankaradeva, the ‘world’ or the creation (jagat) is not figmental or a product of one’s imagination. The objects of the senses, as also the senses themselves, are real and products of an (initially) undifferentiated mass of material substance known as prakrti, a term which may be translated into English as ‘primal matter.’ It is the primitive matter or the ‘Ur-matter,’ from which all material products evolve. It is thus the ‘mother substance. ’ (It is worthwhile mentioning in this connection that in his Kirttana, Sankaradeva uses the metaphor of the mother for this primal material substance—‘she,’prakrti, is the ‘mother of the creation’ (jagata mava). This is a very apt metaphor because prakrti is indeed the ‘mother substance.’ All material evolutes are ‘her’ ‘children!’)

The Nature of Prakrti (and Also the Other Two Tattvas)

The main reason why we should be reading about prakrti is to know about its nature and to develop within us the discrimination (viveka) between inert substance (jada) and ‘spirit’ or conscious personality (caitanya). Indeed, the awakening of such discrimination is the key to appreciating the need for taking sole-refuge (eka sarana) only in the supreme conscious personality rejecting all other material objects of worship. This is also known as tattva vicara and forms an inalienable part of the complete teaching of Sankaradeva. The Nama Ghosa of Madhavadeva is one text in particular, in the Sankaradeva-ite literature, that devotes a considerable number of its verses in asserting the difference between matter and spirit. The bhakti of Sankaradeva, we must remember, is Vedantic bhakti, rooted in a thorough understanding of the difference between the tattvas.

There are three primary entities (tattvas) in the philosophy of Sankaradeva (we say ‘primary’ because, apart from these three, there may be some other entities such as the knowledge entities): prakrti, purusa and parama purusa. Prakrti, as we have seen, is the technical term for primal matter. It is also known in the Samkhya philosophy as the pradhana. It has yet another name—avyakta (the unmanifested) due perhaps to its extremely subtle nature. Here, since we have brought in a reference to the Samkhya, we might as well make it clear that the Samkhya of Sankaradeva, which we get to see particularly in his rendering of the third book of the Bhagavata, dealing with the creation of the world and the process of material evolution, is not the atheistic Samkhya philosophy. It is the Samkhya of the Bhagavata (and of the Hindu Puranic world, for that matter). It is very much theistic. Here, prakrti works for the welfare or salvation of purusa only at the instance of God, Isvara. Otherwise, it is totally unconscious and a totally unconscious entity cannot possibly formulate any policy (of redemption). Therefore, here, it is the consciousness of Isvara that drives the evolution of prakrti with the ultimate objective of securing the welfare of the purusas. This is a very fundamental difference between the atheistic Samkhya and the (theistic) one of the Bhagavata.

Now, coming back to our discussion, the term purusa refers to pure, conscious personality, unencumbered by any material limitation—when it is so encumbered, it is referred to as jiva. While prakrti is totally unconscious and dead (lifeless), purusa is ever-living and conscious. Prakrti is jada while purusa is caitanya. Another great difference between prakrti and purusa is that while prakrti suffers from modifications and transformation (vikara), the purusa is immutable, suffering from no transformations (avikari). Purusa is everlasting (nitya) and indestructible (avinasi). Although, here, some may point out that prakrti also is everlasting and indestructible in the ultimate sense. This is because, even after the withdrawal of the creation by the supreme pure personality (parama purusa), prakrti continues to stay as the ‘property’ of the Lord, albeit in unactuated form. But, this is true in a sense very different from the one applying in the case of purusa. Purusa is eternal, conscious, feeling, thinking, personality and, quite rightly, the epithet of ‘eternal’ (sanatana) can, in the true sense, only be applied to it (along with, of course, God!).

The third ontological entity, parama purusa, is the highest of the three. It is the supreme entity (parama tattva). Parama purusa, as the name itself suggests, is Krsna, God—the supreme pure personality. He is the Lord of both prakrti and purusa. The former is His tool-substance (sakti) or His property, while the latter is, as it were, His attendant (kinkara).

Both purusa and parama purusa are conscious personalities and hence, essentially similar. As Sankaradeva explains very lucidly in his Bhakti Ratnakara, in the chapter on the difference between jivatma and paramatma, purusa (the essential jivatma) is not different in kind from parama purusa (or paramatma). However, one great difference there certainly is: parama purusa is supremely conscious while purusa is only conscious. The consciousness of parama purusa is uneclipsable while that of purusa is eclipsable. (Purusa is, in the default mode, affected, nay almost crushed, by prakrti (also known as maya); on the other hand, the gunas of prakrti cannot even touch parama purusa.) Moreover, purusa is not the Lord of prakrti; parama purusa is.

One more point regarding these 3 entities needs to be stated: prakrti is one while there is a multiplicity of purusas. Parama purusa is also one. This is again, as scholars point out, a significant departure of the Samkhya from the absolutist Vedanta which is supposed to stand for the numerical unity of not only purusa and parama purusa but also of prakrti and parama purusa (there being one and only one (impersonal) Brahman, bereft of all attributes!)

To close this section, the main differences between prakrti and purusa, which also serve to recapitulate the nature of prakrti, are given below.

Prakrti Purusa
Dead matter (lifeless). Conscious personality.
Mutable. Immutable.
Destructible. Indestructible

The Evolutands and Evolutes of Prakrti

The actuation of prakrti by parama purusa for the purpose of creating the cosmos (brahmanda) triggers a process of material evolution. This process, which gives rise to a series of evolutands (evolvents) and evolutes (products), is treated in a fairly detailed manner in both the Puranas and the atheistic Samkhya. These evolutands and evolutes are known in the technical literature of the Samkhya by such terms as prakrta, vaikrta and prakrta-vaikrta. To quote from the Samkhya Karika of Isvara Krsna,

Primal Nature is not an evolute; Mahat, etc., the seven, are evolvents and evolutes; the group of sixteen is evolute; the Spirit is neither an evolute nor an evolvent[1].

Laksmi, the Personification of Prakrti


Figure 1: the Supreme Pure Personality is the Lord of Primal Matter

In order to appreciate fully the philosophy of Sankaradeva, we have also to consider the strategy of personification that is adopted in the Puranic universe of discourse. The entity (tattva) known as prakrti is represented in the Puranas in personified form as ‘Laksmi.’ And as prakrti is under the control of parama purusa, the supreme pure personality (the point made by figure 1), it is for this reason that, in the motifs of the puranic world (figure 2)—whether they be expressed through art or painting, literature or sculpture—we invariably have Laksmi serving always the feet of Visnu (parama purusa). Therefore, Laksmi is only a anthropomorphization. She is not a personality at all! ‘She’ is, in reality, primal matter—the ‘mother-substance,’ from which the entire material creation evolves! And this is the reason why in the theology of Sankaradeva, Laksmi is not worshipped (refer to the preceding discussion on jada caitanya viveka). ‘She’ is recognized for what ‘she’ really is—inert, unconscious substance!


Figure 2: Visnu, the Supreme Pure Personality, is the Lord of Laksmi (Personification of Primal Matter)

An overwhelming majority of the characters of the Puranas, like Brahma and the devas, are, in reality, the personified forms of the various evolutes and evolutands of prakrti (referred to in the previous section). They are the ‘children’ of Laksmi! And therefore, as Madhavadeva rightly points out in the Nama Ghosa, while each of these material ‘personalities’ may pray to Laksmi—prakrti personified—and report to ‘her’, Laksmi, in her turn, must serve and report only to Visnu (parama purusa):

brahmā ādi devagane nicala sampatti mane
laksmika sevanta tapa kari
laksmio sevanta yāka hena mahesvara visnu
āna kona deva tānka sari
All the devas—Brahma et al—wishing wealth, immovable,
serve Laksmi, doing austerities.
He whom even Laksmi serves, such a supreme Lord Visnu;
which other deity is equal to Him?

Maya Synonymous with Prakrti

The term maya is used synonymously with prakrti because, by default, it is prakrti that conceals and obscures Isvara.

Parama Purusa Actuates Prakrti

Now, the pure personalities (purusas), due to non-devotion to God, become forgetful of their own spiritual nature, and fall into this prakrti and become dead and extremely matter-like (jada). Parama purusa, being the supremely conscious entity and the Lord of prakrti, out of His own grace (krpa), actuates prakrti to evolve out of itself a microcosm for the purpose of the purusas’ redemption. It is this story of the evolution of the microcosm that forms the cornerstone of the Bhagavata, the text that Sankaradeva chooses as his primary source.

Only Krsna (Parama Purusa) is to be Worshiped, Not Laksmi (Prakrti)

From this discussion, it is clear why Sankaradeva should exhort the purusas to take refuge (sarana) solely in Krsna. This is because, among all the entities of the Puranic universe of discourse, only Krsna is the supreme conscious personality (parama purusa), the others being mere personifications of primal matter (prakrti) and its products. The purusas, too, are essentially conscious (caitanya) and spiritual (non-material) and ontologically superior to prakrti. Therefore, it behoves them to do pure devotion only to parama purusa Krsna and not to prakrti.

[1] The Samkhya-Karika (Critically edited with Introduction, Translation and Notes), Vidyasudhakara Dr Har Dutt Sharma, M.A., Ph.D., The Oriental Book Agency, Poona, 1933.




The Three Entities in Sankaradeva’s Philosophy: Prakrti, Purusa and Parama Purusa

The Three Entities in Sankaradeva’s Philosophy: Prakrti, Purusa and Parama Purusa

There are three primary entities (tattvas) in the philosophical scheme of Sankaradeva:

  1. Primal matter (prakrti)
  2. Pure personality (purusa)
  3. The supreme pure personality (parama purusa).

Purusas are many while parama purusa (God) is one. Primal matter (prakrti) is also one.

From the ontological point of view, among these three entities, it is the third one (parama purusa) that is supreme. Primal matter (prakrti) is at the bottom of the hierarchy. It is dead, unconscious material substance. It is the clay of the universe.

While primal matter (prakrti) is subject to modifications (vikara), pure personality (purusa) is immutable (avikari). He—and by ‘he,’ we mean a genderless, transcendental personality—is conscious spirit. However, the main difference between pure personality (purusa) and supreme pure personality (parama purusa) is that the consciousness of purusa is eclipsable while parama purusa is of undiminished and uneclipsable consciousness.

Primal matter (prakrti) being unconscious, it is the supreme pure personality (parama purusa) who must actuate prakrti to set into motion the process of material evolution (parinama) of the entire creation. This fact is beautifully and very poetically expressed by Sankaradeva in his rendering of the 3rd book of the Bhagavata entitled Anadi Patana (Cosmogenesis), as follows:

Even lady prakrti—the primal matter—lies asleep in my belly.
She lies unconscious; she is not in actuated form.
Only I am supremely conscious, the spotlessly pure personality who cannot be covered by any material limitation. 42
Staying alone, what purpose do I achieve?
Let from my body all the unredeemed personalities (jīwa) come out.
At the hands of my tool, primal matter (māẏā), let me make manifest the world.
Let me now do the sportive activity of creation; let me have fun. 43
Thinking thus, opening His lotus-like eyes, the one ever present in time and space,
cast a sidelong glance at primal matter, maya.
The Lord infused life even into the dead material substance!
It became endowed, as it were, with eight parts of spirit and sixteen parts of vital-air! 44
In order to fulfill the desire of the Lord—the work of creation—
out of the supreme personality, emerged the great maya.
Of beginningless form, as if the wife of the Lord!
She, the great maya, was thus actuated as a means or device for creation. 45

Sankaradeva Movement: The Clash of Ideologies

The history of Sankaradeva’s faith and movement can be viewed as a clash of ideologies. Here, there are two (primary) ideologies, the dharmic and the bhaktic.

Karma refers to certain acts that are to be compulsorily performed by members of the dharmic system. They are in the nature of positive injunctions. They may be more precisely translated as: ‘the ordained acts of the Vedas’ or ‘the prescribed duties of the Vedas.’

In contrast to the dharmic system, the bhaktic path is characterized by the absence of such karmas. It is the path of pure devotion (bhakti). But what is the philosophy at the core of each of these systems that has led to this critical difference between them? It is the following:

While the dharmic system has its origin in the material conception of man, the bhaktic one regards man to be spiritual in nature. The dharmic system, being pantheistic, makes no difference between spirit and matter. The bhaktic system, on the other hand, is monotheistic. It differentiates between spirit and matter.

These critical differences between the two systems—philosophical as well as practical—can be shown in tabular form as follows:

Dharmic Bhaktic
Views man as part of matter and nature. Materialistic conception of man. Views man as part of God (Supreme Spirit).
Spiritual conception of man.
Pantheistic. Monotheistic.
Characterized by doing of karmas (‘Veda-ordained duties’). Rejection of karmas (‘Veda-ordained duties’).