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.