Madhavadeva’s Nama Ghosa : Essence of Vedanta Philosophy
Handique Girls College
Whatever may be said of the rich and variegated forms of worship sanctioned by the Hindu religion, one thing is certain and it is this that, “throughout its long career, the oneness of the Ultimate Spirit has been the governing ideal” (Dr. Radhakrishnan). In the Rig Veda, perhaps for the first time, we find the expression of such a monotheistic idea –“The truth is One (ekam sat)”; to what is One, “the vipras (scholars) give many a name, Agni, etc”. The ancient seers and philosophers denoted this Supreme One by the mystic ‘Om’, the primordial sound. The Chandogya Upanishad, eg, begins, “Let men meditate on Om”. The purpose behind this was to connect with the Supreme, Unknowable Entity called God by such a chanting and contemplation of His Name. Thus, Om was the Name of God - God Himself - and the one who recited Om invariably felt oneness with God and made the transition from unconsciousness to consciousness.
Madhavadeva (1489-1596), the foremost disciple of Sankaradeva and one of the most outstanding theologians and exegetes of the Hindu religion, dwells on the same Upanishadic idea in his magnum opus, the Nama Ghosa. This magnificent work may be said to be the distilled essence of the entire Vedanta philosophy. The Vedanta holds that only God is consciousness and echoing it, Madhava also writes that only Hari is conscious and the rest are all unconscious (“avara samasta jada”). The God of the Vedas is Hari for Madhava and, according to him, it is only of Him that the Vedas talk about. “In the Vedas, in the Puranas, and in all other sacred texts (scriptures), in the beginning, middle and in the end, it is only Hari that is spoken of”.
We must note here that this ‘Hari’ of Madhava (and hence of Sankara) is conceptually at a higher level than the conventional ‘Brahma-Visnu-Maheswara’ of the puranic theological framework. Thus, there is absolutely no sectarianism involved here simply because God (Hari) Who is ‘ekam sat’ can have no competitor.
All the properties of God that the Vedas discuss are present only in Hari. And most importantly, only He is conscious. Madhava stresses on this vital difference again and again because he wants to make a critical point here - “only by worshipping consciousness can one achieve consciousness”. This is undoubtedly the central message of the Nama Ghosa. And the way this worship is to be performed is also Vedic. If the reciting of the Om, the Name of God, is the only way to God in the Vedas, uttering the Name of Hari is the only way to Hari in Madhava. But the similarity does not end just here. Just as in the Vedas, no difference is admitted between the Param Brahma and Om, so also in Madhava, there exists not a difference between God and the Name of God. 'Nama' and 'Deva' are one.
The next point that Madhava makes is even more significant, perhaps from the point of view of the religious practitioner. He says that (a) this worship of consciousness must not be mixed with the worship of unconsciousness, ie only pure consciousness should be worshipped; and (b) the means of this worship should also be conscious. They may not be combined with other non-conscious means. These two points are cardinal to Assam Vaisnavism and we may go so far as to state that they make Sankaradeva’s system unique in the Vaisnavite realm of India. They would require a little elaboration.
First, apart from Hari, all others, including the gods, are unconscious. Prakriti or material nature itself is unconscious. Hence, all forms emanating from Prakriti are unconscious. Now, according to Madhava, mind is that “which hovers between satya (truth) and a-satya (unreality), jada (unconsciousness) and caitanya (consciousness)”. This mind is aligned with either consciousness or unconsciousness “according as what one worships”. Worship may then be seen as an effort to align oneself with God Who is all-consciousness; as a kind of internal, spiritual force exerted by the embodied-self against the external, unconscious material force. This conceptual model is rather abstract but it serves well to highlight exactly what Madhava means. These two forces invariably pull in opposite directions.
If the internal, conscious force is to fully counteract the force of matter so as to enable it (the embodied-self) to escape from the material plane, then the mind is to be channeled towards consciousness alone because only then will the force be a purely conscious one. This conscious force cannot be combined with any unconscious force (through the worship of jada) because the intensity of the opposite unconscious force is so overwhelming that the net result will instantly be negative – the jiva will remain grounded on the material plane and will not be able to reach God. This is like a spaceship needing to exert a certain force to overcome the gravitational field of the earth and fly out to space. If, instead of a purely upward force, it exerts even a little downward force, then its ascent will automatically be retarded. The spaceship will remain on earth. And as to what constitutes unconsciousness, Madhava repeats that apart from Hari (God), all others are unconscious. Therefore, if one is to attain to consciousness, it is solely Hari that is to be worshipped.
This commitment to consciousness is the basis of Sankaradeva’s doctrine of ‘eka-sarana’. It was first of all revealed by Lord Krishna in the Gita. To digress, it is again in the Gita that Krishna declares “I am the Om”. The name of His path is ‘Eka-Sarana Hari-Nama’ and not merely ‘Nama Dharma’ or anything like that. This needs realization. ‘Eka-Sarana’ in the above nomenclature is the adjectival qualifier of ‘Hari-Nama’. Hari is to be worshipped to the exclusion of all unconsciousness.
Moving on to the second point, it is more of a corollary of the first one. The means to consciousness must themselves be conscious. Otherwise it will simply be lapsing back to unconsciousness. One cannot hope to cross the world-ocean by a material bridge. Madhava writes in the Ghosa that, apart from the Name of God, everything else is constrained by the gunas or qualities of material nature (“avara sava gunamay”). Only Name is nirguna. The Vedic seers regarded the contemplation of the Om as the only connecting link between man and God and so does Madhava. He therefore directs that Hari ought not to be worshipped through other means. Therefore in Assam Vaisnavism, Hari is worshipped only by chanting His Name and singing His glories and not through other means.
The whole of the Vedanta may be said to be occupied with two aspects, determination of the Supreme Brahman and the way to Him, basically reduced to the two questions of ‘whom to worship’ and ‘how to worship’. The primordial sound of God was identified with God and contemplated upon. Madhavadeva also, in the whole of the Nama Ghosa, delves deeply into these two eternal spiritual queries and succeeds not only in providing convincing answers but also in reclaiming much of the Vedic essence as the foundation for a whole new philosophy.
[Written on the Birth Anniversary of Mahapurusha Madhavadeva.]