The chief literary oeuvre of Madhavadeva (1489-1596 CE), the foremost exponent of the sole-refuge (eka sarana) school in the post-Sankaradeva period, is the Nama Ghosa (The Proclamation of Pure Devotion). This text, which enjoys canonical status among the adherents of this school, is based primarily on the Bhagavata Purana. It celebrates the pure, joy-filled devotion (bhajana) to Krishna, the supreme spiritual personality (parama purusa, paramatma), forsaking all ‘materialness’ (krishata, in the author’s own words) engendered by the jiva’s default allegiance to primal matter. Madhavadeva has internalized the message of the Bhagavata—its call-to-action as well as its philosophical rationale—with the aid of the lucid commentary of Sridhara Svami and supplemented it further with apt translations from the other primary texts of the Vedantic-puranic tradition such as the Bhagavad Gita.
Madhavadeva’s Nama Ghosa (NG) is a landmark ‘essence-text’ in the history of spiritual thought in India not only because its author shows extreme courage for his time to boldly assert the supremacy of pure devotion over the path of microcosmic emulations technically referred to as karma, but also due to the revolutionary impact of some of its pronouncements on society. Spiritual and social reforms go hand in hand in Madhavadeva. This made the preaching of the eka-sarana faith also very much a social movement. In the modern period, some scholars have glossed over this important social aspect. In their view, Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva sought merely to establish equality for all on the spiritual plane without seeking to disturb the status quo in the social order. This is a mistake of epic proportions.
The society of the time was organized into a hierarchy on the basis of a system of varna and asrama which laid down separate ‘ordained duties’ (dharmas) for the different categories and castes. This was essentially born of a philosophy of bheda or difference which saw man as a part of matter (prakriti) rather than as a spiritual personality. It sought to emulate the material ‘personalities’—the sensory and motor units in particular—of the microcosm.
However, the philosophy of pure devotion championed by Madhavadeva in the NG, which runs counter to such a philosophy of difference, is that of intrinsic equality. Here, man is an amsa, a (tiny) part, as it were, of God. Madhavadeva says, “You are eternal, unstained, Narayana. We too are your amsas” [v. 273]. In fact, here, the very doing of pure bhakti is predicated on the existence of a transcendental society in which all members are essentially of one kind; all are purusas or pure personalities. They are by nature immutable (unlike matter) and, hence, not subject to placement at different levels on a material scale. Therefore, the bhaktic philosophy envisages a kind of society which is modeled on Vaikuntha, the transcendental society, in which the governing ideal is one of equality. In the NG, we find perhaps the most clear and emphatic rejection of caste in the entire corpus of Sankaradeva-ite literature: noho jana ami cari jati, cario asrami noho ati [v. 670]. “Know that we are no member of the four castes nor do we adhere to the system of four asramas”.
The embracing of such a philosophy and its widespread dissemination among the masses automatically put the conception of the ‘dharmic’ society at peril and in threat of diminution, if not eventual extinction. For caste, it now was logically concluded, could be sustained only in the state of ignorance (avidya, maya) in which there is the identification of the self with matter. The NG thus contains the framework of a unique philosophical rejection of caste based on the contradictions between two opposite ideologies.
Many a page in the history of medieval Assam is riddled with instances of persecution of the leaders of the Sankaradeva movement. It is in consequence of the preaching of the idea that was carried in germ form by the NG. There was a nexus of religion and politics in this period with the preservation of dharmic ideals weighing heavily on the decisions of the rulers.
For scholars and students of religion, the NG offers, on reflection, several instructive lessons. It challenges the traditional and rote interpretation of a religion. It points to the pitfalls of stereotyping and opens up the mind to newer possibilities. The idea of ‘two Hinduisms’, one mutually opposed to the other, is perhaps unimaginable to some, even more so in a scenario where we are keen to present a religion as a monolith. Yet, as we saw above, that is precisely the impression one gets on studying the NG. Left to themselves, the dharmic one would retain the caste-system and the truly bhaktic one would abolish it. Madhavadeva clearly says [v. 599] that the doing of karmas is antithetical (birodhi) to the singing of the Lord’s glories. Does not such a word-selection fly in the face of the conventional understanding in which the path of karma is seen to be supplementary or even a prerequisite to bhakti? How can such irreconcilable differences be explained? Madhavadeva’s NG forces us to raise these interesting questions.The fact is that, as with any religion, there have always been two contradictory currents of thought operating within Hinduism. The first is that of the status quoist; the second, that of the reformer. The reformer always challenges the misinterpretation of the former. The reformer’s prime strategy is that of engaging with the orthodoxy through a dialogue (samvada). In the dialogic strategy of the Gita, for instance, the dharmic side is represented by Arjuna and the bhaktic one, by Krishna. It would seem that Madhavadeva’s NG has no dialogue but there is the author and the reader (or listener)! It is through this dialogic strategy that the individual and social consciousness is sought to be sublimated. The final verdict of Krishna in the Gita [18.66]: “Forsake all dharmas, O Arjuna” (sarva dharman parityajya), may be understood in the context of this dialogue between two opposing ideologies.