Ekasarana Dharma

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Ekasarana Dharma[1] (Assamese এক শৰণ ধৰ্ম; literally: 'Shelter-in-One religion') is a panentheistic religion founded and propagated by Srimanta Sankardeva in the 15th century. Most of the adherents of this religion today live in the Indian state of Assam. As part of the greater Bhakti movement in other parts of India, it rejects vedic and other esoteric rites of worship, and instead replaces them by a simplified form that requires just uttering the name (naam) of God.

The simple and accessible religion attracted already Hinduized as well as non-Hindu tribal populations into its egalitarian folds. The new converts were accepted via a system of individual initiation and were given a path to social improvement. Institutions like sattra (monasteries) and village Namghar (prayer houses), had profound influence in the evolution of social makeup of Assam's society. The artistic oeuvres lead to engendering of new forms of literature, music (Borgeets or songs celestials), theatre (Ankia Naat) and dance (Sattriya dance).

The central religious text of this religion is Bhagavat of Sankardeva, which was transcreated from the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana by Srimanta Sankardeva and other religious preceptors. This book is supplemented by the two books of hymns: 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 Lord Vishnu in the Bhagavata and its adherents are often called Mahapuruxia, Sankari, Saraniya etc. In course of time, the epithet 'Mahapurux' came to be (secondarily) applied also to Sankardeva and Madhabdev, the principal preceptors. Non-adherence to the Hindu varnasrama system and egalitarianism marked its character.

A strictly monotheistic religion, the only form of worship prescribed by this religion is uttering the name of God ("Sravana-Kirttana"), who is worshiped in the form of Krishna or Hari. Thus it is also called ek sarana Hari naam dharma. Though a part of the wider Bhakti movement, it does not worship Radha with Krishna which is common in other bhakti movements. It is characterised by the dasya form of worship. Historically, it has been against idol worship, and especially against animal sacrifices common in sakta forms 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).

Worshipful God and salvation

Subschools of Vedanta
Bhedabheda[lower-alpha 1]
4th century CE
Advaita Vedanta
Maṇḍana Miśra)
8th century CE
13th century CE
Neo-Vedanta[lower-alpha 2]
(Vivekananda & Radhakrishnan)
19th century CE
9th century
11th century
13th century
16th century
(Chaitanya & Jiva)
16th century
Three Vaishnava schools accept the Bhagavata as authoritative (Madhava, Chaitanya and Vallabha)[2] whereas Ramanuja does not mention it.[3] Sankardev's school accepts the nirsisesa God[4] and avers on vivartavada[5] which maintains that the world is a phenomenal aspect of Brahma, thus taking it very close to Sankaracharya's position.[6] Further, like the modern neo-Vedanta philosophies, Sankardev's philosophy accepts both the Nirguna and the Saguna Brahma.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] Nevertheless references found scattered in the voluminous works of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva indicate that their theosophical positions are rooted in the Bhagavata Purana[10] with a strong Advaita influence via its commentary Bhavartha-dipika by Sridhar Swami.[11] Nevertheless, Sankardeva's interpretation of these texts were seen at once to be "original and new".[12] 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.[13]

Nature of God

Though it acknowledges the impersonal (nirguna) god, it identifies the personal (saguna) one as worshipful[14] which it calls Narayana.[15] The sole aspect that distinguishes the personal from the impersonal one is the act of creation,[16] 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.[17]

Even though Narayana is sometimes used synonymously with Vishnu, the gods Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva are considered of lower divinity.[18]

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.[19][20][21] who is suddha (pure), satya (true). All other deities are subservient to Him.[22] Brahman, Vishnu and Krishna are fundamentally one.[23][24] 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.[25] It considers Narayana (Krishna) as both the cause as well as the effect of this creation,[26] and asserts Narayana alone is the sole reality.[27] 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.[28] Moreover, some of the characteristics usually reserved for the impersonal God in other philosophies are attributed to Narayana with reinterpretations.[29]

Jiva and salvation

The embodied self, called jiva or jivatma is identical to Narayana.[30] is shrouded by maya and thus suffers from misery,[31] When the ego (ahamkara) is destroyed, the jiva can perceive himself as Brahma.[32] 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).[33] Among the five different kinds of videhamukti,[34] 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.[35] 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][36]

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):[37]-

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.[38] [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.[39] 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).[40] 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.[41]

Four Reals

The cari vastu or the Four Reals defined this religious system. They are:

  • Guru — reverence of a Guru, or Spiritual Preceptor.
  • Deva — worship of a single God.
  • Naam — the chanting and singing the name and the qualities of God.
  • Bhakat — the association or the congregation of devotees (bhaktas).

Four Books: sacred texts

The single most important religious text is the Bhagavata, especially the Book X (Daxama). This work was transcreated from the original Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana to Assamese in the 15th and 16th centuries by ten different individuals, but chiefly by Srimanta Sankardev who rendered as many as ten Cantos (complete and partial) of this holy text.

Three other works find a special place in this religion: Kirtan Ghoxa, composed by Sankardev; and Naam Ghoxa and Ratnavali, composed by Madhavdev.


The different branches of the Ekasarana dharma, based on (Cantile 1984:170). Note that the followers of Damodardeva and Harideva deny they took initiation from Sankardeva.

The religion fissured into four sanghati (samhatis or sub-sects) soon after the death of Srimanta Sankardeva. Sankardeva handed down the leadership to Madhabdev, but the followers of Damodardeva and Harideva did not accept Madhabdeva as their leader and formed their own group (Brahma sanghati). Madhabdeva at the time of his death did not name a successor. After his death three leaders formed their own denominations: Bhabanipuria Gopal Ata (Kaal sanghati), Purushuttom Thakur Ata, a grandson of Sankardeva (Purusa sanghati) and Mathuradas Burhagopal Ata (Nika Sanghati). They differ mostly in the emphasis of the cari vastus (four fundamental principles)

Brahma sanghati
The Brahma sanghati developed as a result of Damodardeva and Harideva moving away from Sankardeva's successor Madhabdeva's leadership. Over time this sanghati brought back some elements of Brahminical orthodoxy. The vedic rituals which are generally prohibited in the other sanghatis are allowed in this sanghati. Brahmins too found this sanghati attractive and most of the Sattras of this sanghati have traditionally had Brahmin sattradhikars. Among the cari vastus, Deva is emphasised, worship of the images of the deva (Vishnu and the chief incarnations, Krishna and Rama) are allowed. Among the gurus Damodardeva is paramount. Later on they came to call themselves Damodariya after Damodardev.
Purusha sanghati
The Purusha sanghati was initiated by the grandsons of Sankardeva—Purushottam Thakur and Chaturbhuj Thakur—after the death of Madhavdeva. The emphasis is on Naam. Sankardeva has a special position among the hierarchy of Gurus. Some brahmical rites as well as the worship of images is tolerated to some extent.
Nika sanghati
This sanghati was initiated by Padma, Mathuradas and Kesava Ata. The emphasis is on sat-sanga. This sanghati is called Nika (clean) because it developed strict codes for purity and cleanliness in religious matters as well as in general living, as laid down by Madhabdeva. Idol worship is strictly prohibited and it gives special importance to Madhavdeva.
Kala sanghati
The Kala sanghati, initiated by Gopal Ata and named after the place of his headquarters Kaljar, placed its emphasis on Guru. The leader of this sanghati came to be considered as the physical embodiment of Deva, and the disciples of this sect are not allowed to pay obeisance to anyone else. This sect was successful in initiating many tribal and socially backward groups into the Mahapuruxia fold, and it had the largest following among the different sanghatis. The followers of this sect were responsible for the Moamoria rebellion against the Ahom royalty.


  1. Sarma (Sarma 1966, p. 41), Cantlie (Cantlie 1984:258) and Barman (Barman 1999:64) call it Ekasarana. Maheshwar Neog uses both Ekasarana(Neog 1985:111) as well as Ekasarana naam-dharma, qualifying the word dharma in the second example. Others call it Ekasarana Hari-naam-Dharma, further qualifying the word dharma.
  2. (Sheridan 1986, p. 2)
  3. (Sheridan 1986, p. 7)
  4. "To him (Sankardev) Brahman is indeterminate (nirvisesa)..." (Neog 1981, p. 244)
  5. "Sankardev cannot lend himself to parinamavada because of his monistic position and therefore, leans on the side of vivartavada (Neog 1981, p. 227)
  6. "...on the philosophical or theoretical side there is scarcely any difference between the two Sankaras. (Neog 1981, p. 244)
  7. (Sarma 1966, p. 27)
  8. (Neog 1981, p. 223)
  9. Though several schools of Vaishnavism had their own philosophical treatises (Ramanuja, Madhava, Nimbarka, Vallabhacharya), Sankardeva and Chaitanya did not. Though Jiva Goswami compiled systematic works for Chaitanya, nothing similar was attempted by Sankardeva's followers (Neog 1980, pp. 222–223)
  10. "Sankaradeva was enabled to preach the new faith he had established for himself and for earnest seekers in his province, basing it on the philosophical doctrines of the Gita and the Bhagavata Purana as its scriptures" Chatterji, Suniti Kumar. "The Eka-sarana Dharma of Sankaradeva: The Greatest Expression of Assamese Spiritual Outlook" (PDF). Retrieved 29 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "...the influence of the Bhagavata Purana in forming the theological backbone of Assam Vaishnavism in quite clear and the monistic commentary of Sridhara Swami is highly popular amongst all sections of Vaishnavas" (Sarma 1966, p. 26)
  12. "If there could be any question of mutation or affiliation still, it could have been with the Gita and the Bhagawat direct which Sankardew read and interpreted in his own way, at once original and new" (Neog 1963, p. 4). Haladhar Bhuyan, the founder of the Sankar Sangha, a modern sect of Ekasarana concurs: "Sri Neog now definitely shows that Sankardew’s philosophy is his own and that his religion is as original as that of any great preacher of the world" (Neog 1963:vii)
  13. For example, "the Chapters of the Bhagavata Purana, where the Pancharatra theology is discussed, have been omitted by Assamese translators because the Vyuha doctrine finds no place in the theology of Assamese Vaishnavism." (Sarma 1966, p. 27); "the highly philosophical benedictory verse (mangalacarana) of Book I of the Bhagavata-Purana, which has been elaborately commented upon by Sridhara from the monistic stand-point, has been totally omitted by Sankaradeva in his rendering." Whereas, "Kapila of Saṃkhya is an incarnation of God" in the original, Saṃkhya and Yoga are made subservient to bhakti (Neog 1980, p. 235). Furthermore, "Where Sridhara's commentary appears to them in direct conflict with their Ekasarana-dharma, they have not hesitated to deviate from Sridhara's views." (Sarma 1966, p. 48)
  14. "Assamese Vaishnava scriptures without denying the nirguna, i.e. indeterminate aspect of God, have laid more stress on the saguna aspect." (Sarma 1966, p. 27).
  15. "The first two lines of Kirtana has struck this note: 'At the very outset, I bow to the eternal Brahman who in the form of Narayana is the root of all incarnations'" (Sarma 1966, p. 27)
  16. Nimi-nava-siddha-sambad, verses 187–188 (Sarma 1966, p. 27)
  17. ekerese tini nama laksana bhedata in Nimi-navasiddha-sambada verses 178–181 (Sankardeva) (Sarma 1966, p. 30)
  18. Nimi-navasiddha-samvada, verse 178 (Sankardeva); Anadi-patan verses 163–167 (Sankardeva) (Sarma 1966, p. 31)
  19. Chutiya, Sonaram. "Srimad-Bhāgavata : The Image of God" (PDF). Retrieved 29 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Therefore, it is the incarnate Krishna Who is the Param-Brahma, denoting Om, and it is He Who is also the world's father and mother. The Deity of Worship (ārādhya devatā) of all gods and goddesses or, in other words, of life itself, is Lord Krishna only.
  21. Bezbaroa, Lakshminath (2004). A Creative Vision: – Essays on Sankaradeva and Neo-Vaisnava Movement in Assam (PDF). Srimanta Sankar Kristi Bikash Samiti. Retrieved 3 November 2012. Krishna was the all-supreme God of adoration for him<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Fundamental Aspects of Sankaradeva's Religion – Monotheism". Retrieved 27 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Chutiya, Sonaram. "The Real Philosophy of Mahāpurusism" (PDF). Retrieved 29 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Brahman, Vishnu and Krishna are fundamentally one
  25. "Fundamental Aspects of Sankaradeva's Religion – Monotheism". Retrieved 27 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Kirtana VIII (Sarma 1966, p. 29)
  27. Bhakti-ratnakar, verse 111 (Sarma 1966, p. 29)
  28. Gupta, Bina. "Lord Krishna's Teachings and Sankaradeva". Retrieved 2 November 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. For example, nirakara is used to describe Narayana as someone without an ordinary or special form (prakrita akara varjita) (Sarma 1966, p. 28)
  30. "Though associated with body yet I am not identical with it: I am verily Paramatma. I am Brahma and Brahma is I", Sankardeva in Bhagavata Book XII verses 18512-18518 (Sarma 1966, p. 33)
  31. Sankardeva, Bhakti-ratnakara, verse 773 (Sarma 1966, p. 35)
  32. Sankardeva, Bhagavata (Sarma 1966, p. 34)
  33. (Sarma 1966, p. 41)
  34. (1) Salokyo (being in the same plane as God); (2) Samipya (nearness to God); (3) Sarupya (likeness to God); (4) Sarsti (equaling God in glory) and (5) Sayujya (absorption in God)
  35. (Sarma 1966, pp. 41–42)
  36. Mahanta, Chandrakanta. "Sankaradeva's 'Veda Stuti' (The Prayer of the Vedas)" (PDF). Asom Satra Sangha. Retrieved 2 November 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Mahanta, Chandrakanta. "Sankaradeva's 'Veda Stuti' (The Prayer of the Vedas)" (PDF). Asom Satra Sangha. Retrieved 2 November 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. Chutiya, Sonaram. "Eka-Sarana in the Light of the Bhakti-Ratnākara" (PDF). Retrieved 3 November 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. based on the Bhagavata Puran, 1/3/28 (Sarma 1966, p. 32)
  40. (Murthy 1973, p. 233)
  41. (Sarma 1966, p. 32)


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