The 15th century in India is remarkable for the rise of a unique Krsnaite devotional movement that arose in the region now known as Assam. In the face of almost insurmountable odds, Sankaradeva, a spiritual and social reformer and a charismatic figure, founded a school of devotion known as eka sarana hari nama dharma or ‘the religion of doing pure devotion to God taking sole-refuge in Him,’ that promised to redefine the shape of Hinduism and to re-cast it in a devotional mould. [FOOTNOTE: The effort of Sankaradeva may be seen as representing the effort of the entire community of proponents of pure devotion in the world, cutting across time and place, to challenge the false interpretation of scripture and to re-interpret it in the light of the philosophy of pure devotion.] On mere superficial glance, this school of eka-sarana might appear similar to the other bhakti movements that took root in the India of the same time. But the great characteristic that marked the rise of this new school was its insistence on basing its theology on a purely bhaktic philosophy rather than the conventional dharmic one. [FOOTNOTE: As a result, it came into direct conflict with the ruler-sacerdotalist nexus and the extreme brutality of the persecution which it faced at the instance of the dharmic orthodoxy is perhaps matched only by the cruelties inflicted on the followers of the early Christian faith by the Roman authorities.] It followed the Bhagavata Purana, which is famous for espousing the message of pure Vedantic bhakti, as its canonical text. To a beginner, the most apt picture to conjure up in one's mind regarding this pure bhakti would be perhaps that of a system like Kabir's fused with the intense flow of the juice (rasa) of love for God. This is also known as rasamayi bhakti or ‘nectar-flavored’ devotion—exclusive, pure, desireless, love-for-love’s-sake.
Sankaradeva was a very versatile personality. During his entire lifetime, he concentrated his energies on bringing home to the lay populace the message of the Vedantic-Puranic system through diverse media that made easy the comprehension of the philosophico-scientific truths contained in the Upanisads. The story (‘kahini’) of Krsna in Sankaradeva is thus not one of an ‘epic hero’ or historical personality taking birth in a certain province of India in ancient times but, rather, the ‘story’ of the supreme immanent personality (Paramatma) within the micro-cosmic setting actuating and animating the material entities for the sake of facilitating the development of consciousness in the pure personalities (purusas) who have now, fallen into matter (prakrti), become dead and extremely matter-like (jadapraya). There is an intense paramatmic flavor in all of the Sankaradeva-ite literature, the best example of which is surely the Nama Ghosa (The Proclamation of Pure Devotion) of Madhavadeva in which the abstruse metaphysical truths of the Vedanta have ‘melted into sheer poetry.’ And this paramatmic spirit of Sankaradeva's faith is reflected in the day-to-day practices of the adherents of the faith. It is a great reason why the eka-sarana faith distinguishes itself greatly from the conventional stream of ‘mainstream’ Vaisnavism. About this paramatmic basis of Sankaradeva, we will have more to say in a later section.
He wrote trendsetting popular plays, composed classical songs of the devotional genre as well as numerous devotional poems (kirttanas) and also encouraged the art of manuscript illustration and painting. He even got built large prayer houses for the masses to pray together in a whole-souled manner in front of the text of the Bhagavata. As a result there was a sort of a distillation of the essence of the Vedanta in the vernacular language, essentially Assamese of the old variety and Vrajawali, which like the Hindi of today seems to have been the then lingua franca (although Sankaradeva also authored a highly influential text in Sanskrit known as the Bhakti Ratnakara).
Madhavadeva, his foremost disciple, has described him as a ‘mine of all qualities.’ He has brought down the ‘river of the nectar of the love of God’ from Vaikuntha, the transcendental society. In fact so deep is the impact of Sankaradeva on the spiritual (and also social, there being in this context an intimate connection between the two) landscape of Assam that the entire corpus of medieval Assamese literature is resonant with his praise.
Paralleling this spiritual reform, and as a by-product of it, was a strong surge of social reform which swept away the dharmic conception of society and sought to remodel it on bhaktic lines. 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 angle; in their view, Sankaradeva 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 in Sankaradeva's time was organized into a hierarchy on the basis of a system of varna and asrama which laid down separate duties (dharmas) for the different categories and castes. This was essentially born of a philosophy of bheda or intrinsic difference which saw man as a part of material nature rather than as a spiritual personality and sought to simulate the material units of the cosmos. However, Sankaradeva’s philosophy which runs counter to such a philosophy of difference is that of intrinsic equality. In fact 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 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. The embracing of such a philosophy by Sankaradeva 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.