Sankaradeva's Eka-Sarana is rooted in the Gita (18.66) and the Bhagavata (11.12.14-15). In the Gita, the God-Preceptor reveals the supreme secret before His devotee: ‘Forsaking all dharmas, O Arjuna, take Eka-Sarana or absolute refuge in Me alone. I will liberate thee from all sins, do not grieve’. Again, almost as an auto-commentary on His own utterance in the Gita, the Lord gives the following instruction to Uddhava in the Bhagavata,
The great originality of Sankaradeva in the field of Indian spirituality lies in the fact that not only did this remarkable Saint-reformer of 15th century Assam assign the highest priority to Lord Krishna’s doctrine of Eka-Sarana as the pinnacle of all religion in the exegesis of his own creed but, for the first time in the galaxy of religious preceptors, steps have been taken to implement the Word of God as a path - to be followed by all - within an institutional set-up. For instance, there is a special initiation ceremony itself referred to as ‘Sarana’ in the Sankaradevite school virtually guiding every aspect of the life of the spiritual aspirant and some special institutions have come into being primarily for the purpose of offering Sarana to neophytes. Eka-Sarana, it must be noted in this connection, is not to be equated with the ‘diksa’ of conventional Vaisnavism. As Sankara himself says in one of his biographies, ‘In Kali Yuga, Purna Krishna has Himself incarnated and put a ban on all diksas and tantras, mantras and pujas. Out of His kindness for the people of Kali Age, the Graceful One has propagated the religion of (Eka-Sarana) Sravana and Kirttana’.
In his doctrinal treatise, the Bhakti-Ratnakara, which may aptly be called the Book of Eka-Sarana, Sankaradeva makes it a point to end practically every chapter with the exhortation of Eka-Sarana. In the chapter entitled ‘The Glory of Nirguna Bhakti’, Sankaradeva has offered his own commentary on the supreme sloka of the Gita and has termed it the substance of the entire Gita. He concludes that chapter with the verdict:-
The whole discussion in the Bhakti Ratnakara centers on the four inseparable factors of Eka-Sarana - Guru, Deva, Nama and Bhakta - which constitute the core of the devotional experience in Assam Vaisnavism.
According to Sankaradeva, only the Sravana and Kirttana of the Lord’s Name in an attitude of complete surrender to the Lord is the only path prescribed by Krishna. Only then will the karmic reactions which entrap the embodied self in the vicious cycle of trans-migratory existence be terminated, maya (nescience) overcome and devotion fructified and not otherwise. This is because the Grace of God is attainable only when the spiritual aspirant becomes a servant of the Lord by entering into His sole-refuge - physically, intellectually and orally.
Apart from the Ratnakara, in the Krishna-Uddhava Samvada of the Canto XI of the Bhagavata, the Nimi Nava Siddha Samvada and Madhavadeva’s Nama Ghosa and Bhakti Ratnavali, we get special insights into the concept of Eka-Sarana. The Ratnavali is particularly important and must rank alongside the Ratnakara as one of the best expositions of Eka-Sarana. There is a special chapter in it, the final one, entitled Sarana Viracana (ch. 13), which highlights the supreme status of Eka-Sarana Bhakti. It is very striking how Eka-Sarana has been placed at the very end of the book, ahead of even the chapter on Atma-nivedana or self-resignation to God. From it, we also come to know that the ones who take Sarana in Krishna are exempt from the repayment of the ‘pancha-rina’ or the ‘five debts’ mentioned in the smriti texts. Citing the words of the Nava Siddhas, the nine accomplished masters of the science of devotion, to King Nimi, Sankaradeva explains, how by freeing themselves from positive and negative injunctions of the Vedas, the bhaktas secure accomplishment,
From the conventional point of view also, the ultimate objective of the Vedas, according to Sankaradeva, is to lead man on to desireless devotion to the One God through the bait of karma. Therefore, when a man takes Eka-Sarana he is staunchly attached to God and there remains no karma for him. Karma, in such a case, only runs counter to the single-minded pursuit of singing of the Name and Glories of God. As Madhavadeva says in the Nama Ghosa, they are ‘kathara virodhi’, a barrier to the Name. Therefore does Bhattadeva, the great disciple of Damodaradeva, also offer the following counsel at the end of the 12th chapter of the XIth Canto of his Katha Bhagavata, ‘(only) as long as one does not take Eka-Sarana in Krishna, one performs devotion to Hari along with nitya-naimittika’. Therefore, once one enters into the absolute shelter of God, these observances are summarily discarded.
From this discussion, it is proved that Eka-Sarana is the essence of the Gita and the Bhagavata which in turn is the essence of the four Vedas. In other words, if Krishna be ‘Vedanta Gayaka’, the singer of the Vedantic verse, then His final message of Eka-Sarana would have to be the crescendo, the last word in religion. And indeed it is, for has not Madhavadeva declared in the Ratnavali, ‘this, Eka-Sarana, is the limit of the Vedanta’? Therefore, the prayer of the Eka-Saraniya is, ‘Oh Krishna! I am almost killed in this dreadful path of the world being victimized by the three sorrows. I have no other shelter to escape from their attack save and except the shade of the umbrella of Thy Lotus Feet. Thy Feet are an umbrella so wonderful that they shower nectar while spreading shade on all sides. The one who takes shelter (Sarana) in them achieves the supreme accomplishment’.
[This article also appeared in a condensed form in the Assam Tribune newspaper of 8th Oct, 2011. To read that article online, click here.]