Fundamental Aspects of Sankaradeva's Religion - Eka-Sarana
Eka-Sarana, in Sankaradeva's Mahapurusism, means taking absolute shelter or refuge in One God, Krishna. The word sarana has its roots in the Sanskrit sri literally meaning 'taking shelter or refuge'. It is as said in the Bhagavad Gitā:-
Sarvadharman parityajya mamekam saranam vraja
In fact, the Bhagavada Gita is one of the three sacred sources, the other two being the Bhāgavata Purāna and the Padma Purāna (Svarga Khanda), that constitute the 'prasthānatraya' of Mahapurusism. It is from these sacred sources that Sankaradeva derives the basic concepts of sarana, deva, nāma and bhakata respectively of his doctrine.
Sarana is sometimes equated with 'diksa', but the latter does not, in reality, sufficiently express the real meaning of 'sarana'. In historical sequence, after Krishna, the Buddha used the word sarana in the sense of taking refuge.
The Four Saranas
In the religious system introduced by Sankaradeva, a man becomes a devotee by the act of initiation which is itself referred to as sarana. Although the initiate takes shelter in One (eka-sarana), he is required to prostrate himself before each of the four reals (cāri vastu) in turn - Guru (Preceptor), Deva (God), Nāma (Name) and Bhakata (Devotee) - saying, “I take shelter in the Guru”, “I take shelter in God”, “I take shelter in Name” and “I take shelter in Bhakata.”
These four things, which constitute the essence of the devotional experience in Assam Vaisnavism, are held to be one and indivisible such that each presupposes the existence of the other three.
One in Four
The four saranas are, in reality, one in four:
Symbolically, the Guru first shows the jiva (- life - representing the proselyte) the wretchedness of its existence being afflicted by the three afflictions (tri-tāpa) and prescribes the panacea of complete surrender to God (Deva). But, as the Name of God (Nāma) is more potent than God Himself, the proselyte beseeches God to grant him the privilege of seeking shelter in His Name, for God is where His Name is:
āpona nāmara sanga nacāranta Hari
yei nāma sei Hari jānā nishta kari.
God does not part company with his Nāma (Name). Know it for certain that where Nāma is there God is also.
Again, Nāma is of no significance without the Bhaktas (Bhakata). Bhakatas are considered foremost of all, for God Himself has declared in no uncertain terms that the Bhakatas are no different from Himself, nay the Bhakata represents his true preceptor, and God is subservient to His devotees:
Mora guru bhakatese svarupa svabhāva
Yena vāyu-ākāsara nāhi bhinna bhāva
Sarvatattva bhakataka mai guru māno
Bhakata-guruta pare ānaka najāno
(Krishna says) Bhaktas represent the true nature of My Preceptor and are not different from Me just as the sky and air are inseparable. I respect Bhaktas, containers of all spiritual truths, as my Guru, and I know no others than my Bhaktas who are my Gurus.
It is, thus, seen that:
The chain of the four Mahapurusiyā saranas is a ring where the four are one as the one shows itself as four.
Thus, the true significance of Eka-Sarana in Sankaradeva's system lies in seeking the guidance of a Preceptor, surrendering completely to One Supreme God, chanting His Name and dedicating oneself in the service of His devotees.
“Eka-Sarana is not a religion of bargain and barter between God and man or of sacrifice and easy recompense; it is one with exclusive emphasis on slow spiritual regeneration, on growth of a new spiritual outlook by laying flesh and spirit in the hands of the Lord.”