Religious Philosophy of Śankaradeva: A Glimpse

The colossal personality of Śankaradeva (1449 – 1668ca) has been enthralling the psyche of the greater Assamese society through the ages from various points of view, and for various reasons. For his contemporaries, he was just another incarnation of the Godhead [for Mādhavdeva and some caritkāras (compilers of the life history of Śankaradeva)]; then he was seen as a religious reformer, guru who has been now viewed as a Mahāpurusha (Great personality); and thirdly he has been made subject to critical acclamation by the modern educated elite on his poetry and literary style, his innovative cultural genius, scholarship, philosophy, and above all, his role as a reformer of the semi-civilized Assamese society of his time. (Barman, S. 1997, p.127) A lot of literature has been published during these three stages of Śankaradeva study though from various, and often conflicting points of views.

Śankaradeva‟s primary identity, no doubt, is as a religious preacher (guru). And this identity has been prevailing till now among the masses through the works of a variety of institutions like satras (Vaisnavite monasteries) and other organizations. But in the intellectual level, in the third stage of Śankaradeva studies, attempts have been made to throw lights on his philosophy over and above acclamations of his enormous literary and cultural contributions.



 The pre-Śankaradeva religious atmosphere of Assam was “clouded” with “uncivil” * practices of the Śākta and the Bauddha-Tāntrik cult. Even Śankaradeva and his prime disciple and colleague Mādhavadeva were born to Śaiva-Śākta families. It is also mentioned in the caritas that Śankaradeva was so named as his parents worshipped and got his blessings from Shiva before the former‟s birth.  (Mādhavadeva continued to believe in that Śākta cult till he met Śankaradeva.) But in such a situation overwhelmed by Śaiva-Śākta traditions how can Śankaradeva develop his Vaisnavite faith? To this question, the modern critic thinks that there was a hidden current, howsoever thin might it be, of Vaisnavism flowing even in that time (Barman, S. 1989, p.64ff and Gohain, H. 1997, pp. 35-59). Śankaradeva had gotten attracted to this tradition and later he set out for pilgrimage twice to the Vaisnava shrines like Jagannāth, Kāshi, Vrindāvan, Prayāg, and spent twelve long years outside Assam. During these two pilgrimages he acquainted himself with the pan-Indian Vaisnava movement. He was especially influenced by the Sreedharaswāmī version of the Bhāgavata Purāna, and based his religion mainly on that. This is why the Vaisnava religion of Śankaradeva is also known as Bhāgavatī  Dharma.

 The religion propagated by Śankaradeva was characterized by simplicity and openness in contrast to the extravagant character of the Śākta and Tāntrika traditions. It was also called eka sarana nāma dharma, comprised of chanting, listening and remembering the holy names of one single God. It was so simple an act that did not require any kind of formality:

Hari nāma kirtanara nāhi kāla desha pātra 

 Niyama samjama eko bidhi |

(Mādhavadeva, Nām-ghosā)

[There is no restriction of time, place, or person; no rule or restraint for chanting the name of God.]**


(It must be mentioned that no Śankaradeva study is possible without taking into account his prime disciple Mādhavadeva and his works since theirs was a joint venture.)


Contrasted with the expensive rituals and animal sacrifices of the Śākta tradition, the common illiterate, half-literate masses of the Assamese society had found it as a boon and accepted it whole heartedly. The only requirement one had to fulfill was love or devotion toward God. That too was not a hard and fast condition as exemplified by the parable of Ajāmila, who was rescued from the hands of the Yamadutas by the Visnudutas on uttering the name Nārāyana at the last moment of his life, although it was his youngest son and not God whom he addressed.


Moribāra bela   ito Ajāmile
Nārāyana nāma laila|
Kauti janamara  Yata mahāpāpa
Tāro prāyacitta bhaila|| 

(Śankaradeva, Kīrtan-ghosā, Ajāmilopākhyān)


[This Ajamila uttered the name Narayana at the time of his death. This has rectified all the great sins he committed throughout his crores of lives.]

 Again, God himself had advised Jaya and Vijaya, His chief courtiers in Baikuntha, to consider Him as enemy while the duo was to take demonic birth on the curse of an enraged Laksmi.


Vaira bhāve cintibaha moka|
Alpa kāle pāibā ehi loka ||
Dukhara karibo moi anta|
(Śankaradeva, Kīrtan-ghosā, Prahlād Carit)

[Consider me as your enemy; you will soon get back to this place. I shall end your suffering.]

Śankaradeva‟s religion has been kept alive for the last more than five hundred years by the Assamese community chiefly through two means – chanting of God‟s holy names and theatrical performances. The first of the two, which is called nām-prasanga in Assamese, is performed in two ways – by a single person on a daily basis (especially in the Satra institutions), and on special occasions by a community of people. This nām-prasanga is also performed either in public nāmghars or in private homes. It is a function comprising of singing the poetic chapters from Kīrtan-ghosā (Śankaradeva) and Nām-ghosā (Mādhavadeva) that narrate the glory of God. The other way alluded to above is enactment of ankiā nāt or plays written by Śankaradeva and Mādhavadeva. This is one of the earliest forms of dramatic performance, called bhāona in Assamese, based on stories of Bhāgawata purāna. These plays were full of moral teachings where the victory of virtue over vice was glorified. However, enacting the plays (holding of bhāona) was not an easy task because it was a team-work that required elaborate preparations, rehearsal for about a month. The peasantry therefore chose only their leisure times for such performances. As a result, it was not possible for them to hold a bhāona for more than once or twice a year.


Śankaradeva‟s Projection of God:

 For Śankaradeva the ultimate reality is one, and he is God. This God is variously described as personal and abstract; and variously named – in his heavenly abode (baikuntha) he is Hari, Nārāyana, Bishnu, and in his earthly life, he is Krishna. However, Krishna is not a partial incarnation with a limited purpose; he is the full fledged God. There are many allusions to Brahmā, Indra and other Gods in his works, but in Śankaradeva‟s projection they were all limited and subordinate gods. Even Brahmā the creator is projected as possessing lesser degree of wisdom than a mere devotee of Krishna. There was of course one exception about Hara or Śiva who was sometimes identified with Hari or Bishnu himself, although at other times a ludicrous image of Śiva‟s is projected. Critics opine that this conflicting attitude toward Śiva might be because of Śankaradeva‟s mixed response toward Śaiva-Śākta tradition in which he was brought up.

 God can be thought of as both transcendent and immanent. For Prahlāda, for example, God was an abstract transcendent entity. But he believed that God was everywhere. And Nrisingha incarnation from a post came to verify his belief. But it is not that important in Śankaradeva‟s religion whether God is transcendent or immanent as the fact that God is subordinate to devotee. God can be won by means of bhakti or devotion.


Yadyapi ajita tumi tinio jagate|
Tathāpi tomāka jine sehise bhakate||
(Kīrtan-ghosā, Sishulīlā)

 [Though invincible thou art in all three worlds, you are won over by a devotee.]

As mentioned earlier, the most popular form of Śankardeva‟s religion is nām-prasanga or singing of verses from Kīrtan-ghosā (Śankaradeva) and Nām-ghosā (Mādhavadeva). It involves the first two of the nine forms of bhakti, viz. śravana and kīrtana (listening to, and singing of, the glorious name of God). Both Kīrtan-ghosā and Nām-ghosā comprise of narrations of the glory of God. Apart from these two, Śankaradeva also glorified the sakhitva (friendliness) form of bhakti insofar as Krishna‟s relation with the people of Gokul is concerned while for himself he had chosen the dāsya (servitude) form. Whenever he (also Mādhavadeva) had to refer to himself in his works, he used expressions like “Krishnara kinkar Śankara”,  “bhanilā Śankare Krishna caranata dhari”, “Hari dāsaku dāsā” etc.

In Śankaradeva‟s Kīrtan-ghosā, the Krishna character occupies a predominant role over the abstract and semi-transcendent concepts of Hari, Nārāyan, Bishnu etc. This Krishna is a personal God, rather a man-God, born to Basudeva and Daivaki, and brought up in a village of cowherds, Gokul. The image of playful child Krishna has been very attractively drawn by Śankaradeva in the chapter entitled Śishulīlā of Kīrtan-ghosā. The child Krishna used to steal milk, curd and other milk products from the neighbouring houses which the women folk of the cowherd enjoyed. They lodged artificial complaints with Yashodā:

Ki bhoila tomāra ito tanaya durjan
Krishnara nimitte āra narahe jīvan||
Gāi natu dohante dāmuri mele goi|
Griha pashi curi kori khānta dadhi doi||
Bastuka napāle dhori māranta sawāli|

(Kīrtan-ghosā, Śishulīlā)

 Apart from such childish nuisances Krishna also performed a lot of super-natural activities like killing of a number of demons, consumption of bonfire, lifting up of the Govardhan hill to protect the people of Gokul from the wrath of Indra – from which the cowherd folk were convinced that he was none other than Parama Brahma. Yet he was their own dear child.

 Another playful work of Krishna bears deep philosophical significance: One day while on their daily routine of minding the cows, Brahmā the Creator with a view to testing the power of Krishna had stolen all the cows along with the boys minding them. Failing to find out the cows and his companions, Krishna by applying his omniscience came to know what had happened. He then himself took the form of the cows and the boys, and went back home. Afterwards, Brahmā while coming to see the plight of Krishna found that all the cows and the boys he had stolen were present there, everything was as usual. This gave him utter surprise. But there awaited a greater

surprise for Brahmā when the cows and the boys, each of them, got converted to four armed Hari (caturbhuja Hari). After a little while, everything except Krishna vanished. This incident made Brahmā realize how insignificant a creature was he in front of the Absolute Reality of Krishna.

Moyi kene durbodha dekhiyo Bhagawanta|
Māyādira Īsha tumi anādi ananta||
Tomāka parikho moyi māyāka prakati|
Aganira āge jena khudra firingati||

(Kīrtan-ghosā, Śishulīlā)

[O‟ Lord, see how fool am I! You are the beginning-less, end-less Lord of everything including Māyā. And I am going to test you by applying Māyā, as if a spark making boast of its power in front of a burning flame.]   

This realization made Brahmā surrender completely before Krishna – I do not need this Brahmāhood, rather I shall prefer to take births of ants and insects as per the law of karma.

 This verse within the chapter Śishulīlā has enormous philosophical significance in that Krishna is projected here as the Absolute (the Śamkarite Brahman) whereas Brahmā the Creator is identified with Māyā. Krishna the cowherd boy with all his childish wickedness and Godly superpowers is an epitome of qualities; again he is the one Absolute Being which goes above all qualities, thus the quality-less Parama Brahman. The illiterate and half-literate peasantry is thus led by Śankaradeva along the philosophical itinerary from the cowherd boy through his super-manhood to a height that goes even beyond the Creator. Śankaradeva‟s God therefore is both – saguna and nirguna; He is the Absolute, but surrenders before His devotee.

Tumi prabhu nirguna gunara sīmā nāi
Nirguna howaya jīva sohi guna gāi

     (Mādhavadeva, Bargīt)

[Thou art O‟ Lord, devoid of any quality yet without a limit to qualities. People become quality-less by chanting those qualities.]


 Śankaradeva‟s philosophical stance has been perplexing the scholars of Śankaradeva-study since the beginning. (It is to be noted that a kind of non-attached study of Śankaradeva with a modern outlook had begun in Assamese literature only in the nineteenth century of which the fore runner was Laksminath Bezbaroa.) The perplexity consists in the fact that Śankaradeva while propagating bhakti or devotion as the best way to approach God, and in maintaining that God can be won over surely, and only, by means of devotion on the one hand, on the other he described God as the Absolute (Parama Brahma) and without any quality (determination). This

led some thinkers to interpret his philosophical leaning as Visistādvaitin of Ramanuja sect while another group of thinkers interpreted him as an Advaitin of the Śankarite sect. Again, Śankaradeva‟s insistence on bhakti or devotion was interpreted as if he did not recognize the path of wisdom (jnāna mārga) as worth following. Bezbaroa himself could not get rid of this doubt and seemed to conclude that although Śankaradeva talked about nirguna Brahma, he actually propagated a kind of personal or saguna Brahma, which is beyond the state of unqualified Brahma.

 Taking up this issue of debate, Professor Hiren Gohain quotes approvingly from Bezbaroa‟s contemporary Kanaklal Baruah,  “ That God is actually quality-less, formless, pure consciousness is admitted by both [Śankaradeva and Mādhavadeva]. He takes a form and admits of qualities only for the devotee. Otherwise how can people of lesser intelligence grasp the concept of quality-less Brahman? Therefore, people ascribe the best qualities to Brahman and worship him as a qualified God. When wisdom develops through this worship of qualified God, then at last they can go for meditating on the quality-less God.” [Author‟s translation from Assamese] (Gohain, 2013 p.93.) Gohain also opines that for Rāmānauja, God is not quality-less; but both Śankaradeva and Mādhavadeva speaks of quality-less Brahman. The concept of qualified Brahman found in Śankaradeva is only a “means” for realizing the higher quality-less state of Brahman (Gohain, 2013 pp 90-91).


A study of Śankaradeva‟s literature (Mādhavadeva‟s included) reveals that he was keen on educating the common masses of then Assam along the line of Vaishnavite bhakti movement based primarily on Bhāgavata. He himself had a first hand acquaintance with that movement during his two pilgrimages to various Hindu holy shrines of India. It is most likely than not that, as interpreted by caritakāras and authors of the traditional outlook, it was in Śankaradeva‟s agenda to get the Assamese society rid of the Śaiva-Śākta religious tradition which often included vulgarity and barbarism. Although himself enriched with the higher order wisdom of the quality-less, formless, pure consciousness character of Brahman, Śankaradeva perhaps thought this truth cannot be imparted to the common folk straight away. He therefore made an admixture of qualified and quality-less Brahman. Śankaradeva‟s version of philosophy may be an echo of Śankaracharyya‟s advaitism, but it cannot be denied that he had here a different kind of religious philosophy in which the saguna and nirguna states of Brahman are not separable. It is the same earth-eater naughty child who shows to his mother that the whole universe was inside him. Nowhere in his writings did Śankaradeva ask one to rise above the saguna level and realize the nirguna. The saguna is nirguna – may be one is the other side of another. He did not differentiate between vyavahārika and pāramārthika sattās, and said nothing about their relative reality. A devotee may attain wisdom and see the saguna as nirguna, but it was not explicitly prescribed. Instead, he makes a disillusioned Brahmā confess before the cowherd Krishna:


Mukuti rasako srawe tomāra bhakati
Tāka eri jito jnāna pathe kare goti
Klesha mātra pāwe jena nishfala prayāse
Bāhana patāne jena tandulaka āshe

[Devotion to you showers the nectar of liberation. Those who pursue the path of knowledge in negligence to that, only suffer like one who hopes to get fruit from a blighted corn.]

Brahmā said all these things after he realized that Krishna is none other than the Parama Brahma. It shows that the concept of bhakti is not incompatible in Śankaradeva‟s philosophy with that of a nirguna Brahma. Brahman and Īswara is one and the same entity, not necessarily from two different perspectives, but from the same perspective. It cannot be called an inconsistent combination of Rāmānuja and Śamkarachārya, rather should it be seen as Śamkarachāryya simplified. It is not Rāmānuja modified, because Śankaradeva had without ambiguity maintained that Brahman in its true nature is quality-less, formless, consciousness and bliss. To modify Rāmānuja‟s God in this way would involve inconsistency, but to simplify Śamkarachāryya‟s Brahman as an object of devotion would be only to retain an element of lower level reality even when one attains a higher level reality. Hence, it would be probably better to recognize the ingenuity of Śankaradeva in finding out a way to educate the common masses along a rich philosophical line of India through a means accessible to all. The kind of abstraction required in identifying the cowherd Krishna as the Lord of everything, then as Parama Brahma, is not that difficult to understand as in forming a concept of formless unqualified Brahman. The significance of the word “Parama Brahma” may not be understood by the vast majority of people, but that makes no difference. The Ajāmila parable shows that even by uttering the name of his youngest son Nārāyana, which is also the name of God, Ajāmila attained liberation. A mistakenly consumed poison kills, so a mistakenly uttered name of God saves. Hence, an utterance cannot go in vain simply because its significance is not understood. Probably it was in this line of argument that Śankaradeva thought it proper to introduce the concept of formless, unqualified Brahman in his religious philosophy addressed to the common folk.



*The people of Assam, before the advent of Sankaradeva, believed, like many other races throughout the world, that there was some relation of human sexuality with the fertility of the soil. This belief got expressed in certain rites and rituals in the garb of religion. (See Barman, S. (1989) Śreemanta Śankaradeva: Kriti aru Krititva, Purbanchal Prakash, Guwahati, pp.59-60)

** Transliteration and translation of the verses are by the author.



Barman, S. (1989) Śreemanta Śankaradeva: Kriti āru Krititva, Purbanchal Prakash, Guwahati

Barman, S. (1997) (ed.) Prasanga Śankaradeva, Students‟ Store, Guwahati

Bezbaroa, L. (1995) Mahapurush Śree Śankardev āru Śree Madhavdev, Lawyers‟ Book Stall, Guwahati

Duttabaruah, H. (1986) (ed.) Bargīt, Duttabaruah & Company, Nalbari, Guwahati

Gohain, H. (1997) “Śreemanta Śankar āru Asomar Itihas” in Barman, S. (1997) (ed.) Prasanga   Śankaradeva, Students‟ Store, Guwahati (pp. 35-59)

Gohain, H. (2013) Śankardev Sandarsan, Santi Prakashan, Guwahati (pp. 62-105)

Goswami, K. (2001) (ed.) Nām-ghosā, Students‟ Stores, Guwahati

Sharma, N. (2010) (ed.) Kīrtan-ghosā, Kiran Prakashan, Dhemaji


by Dr Sauravpran Goswami, Professor at Department of Philosophy, Gauhati University.

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