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Srimanta Śaṅkaradeva: The Architect of Greater Assamese Society

In the annals of Assam’s history, society, culture, literature, arts and religious beliefs, Śaṅkaradeva occupies a significant and elevated position. Śaṅkaradeva was a polymath whose contribution to the greater Assamese society was both multitudinous as well as multifaceted. His contributions to the cultural, spiritual and religious spheres unveiled a new age of literature, art and culture in Assamese society. The spiritual and religious outlook and ideals of Śaṅkaradeva were expressed through the principles of eka-sarana-nama-dharma; the bhakti tradition which was initiated and propagated by him during the 15th century.

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The bed of Kalindi (wife of Sankaradeva) preserved in the Patbaushi Satra, Barpeta

Early life

Śaṅkaradeva was born to a family of Siromani (overlord of Bhuyāns) in October 1449 to parents Kusumvara Kāyastha Bhuyān and Satyasandhā. However, due to the untimely demise of his parents, he was brought up by his grandmother, Khersuti. He was enrolled in a tola (school), and placed under the care and responsibility of Mahendra Kandali, where he studied and eventually mastered several ancient texts. After completing his education, he was entrusted with the responsibilities of the Siromani Bhuyān. He settled down to a life of a householder after marrying Suryāvati, and they were blessed with a daughter, Manu or Haripriyā. However, tragedy struck when his wife passed away leaving him grief-stricken.

He undertook his first pilgrimage in 1481. He traversed several sacred places in North India which eventually left an indelible mark on his social, spiritual, philosophical and religious outlook. It was during his travels that he composed his first Borgeet at Badarikāshrama. The travels and the experiences he encountered subsequently helped in the formulation of the Neo-Vaiṣṇava bhakti doctrine. His spiritual outlook took a broader turn with the arrival of the complete copy of the Bhāgavata Purāṇ by Jagadīśa Mīsra. These events eventually had immense implications in Śaṅkaradeva life and spiritual outlook. After the return from the pilgrimage, Sankaradeva was again entrusted with the responsibilities of Siromani Bhuyān. However, he refused to take it and instead completely immersed himself in the propagation of the message of Bhakti. After his second marriage (to Kalindi), Sankaradeva actively propagated his bhakti creed. In 1550, he undertook another pilgrimage.

In his long and eventful life, Sankaradeva had to encounter several opponents in the form of Kings and other orthodox sections of the society who vehemently opposed his new religious order. Therefore, he had to constantly shift locations. The great polymath passed away in 1568.

Sankaradeva’s philosophical and religious aspects of the Neo-Vaiṣṇava Bhakti traditions

The religion and bhakti tradition propagated by Śaṅkaradeva is known as the eka-sarana-nama-dharma. It is also known as the Mahapurushiya dharma. The cardinal principle of the eka-sarana-nama-dharma lay in the worship of a single deity, Viṣṇu, primarily in his incarnation as Krishna. Etymologically, the term ‘sarana’ implies seeking refuge, shelter or protection. Hence, the essence of the eka-sarana-nama-dharma lay in seeking refuge in one God. The teachings of Śaṅkaradeva and the religious tenets propagated by him were primarily based on Bhāgavata-purāṇa. Additionally, Bhāgavata-gitā and Vāmaṇa-purāṇa amongst other religious texts, also influenced his teachings and conceptualisation of the bhakti creed.

One of the major objectives of Śaṅkaradeva was to remove all the external aspects which had come to characterise the religious sphere of Assam. On the contrary, he emphasised the observance of only two forms of bhakti, out of the total of nine forms: śravana (essentially implying hearing the name of God) and kīrtana (essentially implying chanting the name of God). In order to propagate the philosophical and spiritual tenets of the Neo-Vaiṣṇava bhakti traditions, he developed certain practices and institutions. These included the establishment of cultural institutions like Namghars and Satras which formed centres for congregational prayers and emphasised the maintenance of internal and external purity. These institutions still play a pivotal role in promoting literature, music, theatre, dance, manuscript-writing, painting, crafts, amongst others.

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Painting of Sankaradeva by Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha

The significance of the religious philosophy and spiritual outlook could be better comprehended if they are juxtaposed with the aspects of society which Sankaradeva had envisaged as a social reformer. An important aspect of the bhakti traditions as propagated by Śaṅkaradeva included the message of universal brotherhood. This aspect played a significant role in the formation of Assamese society, especially in the context of its fragmented past. The society of Assam is heterogenous and composed of people belonging to multitudinous linguistic, religious affiliations, tribes, and linguistic communities. The socio-cultural and religious fabric of the community consisted of several esoteric rituals and practices. In the face of such divisive conditions, Śaṅkaradeva ’s message of bhakti assisted in the creation of a community by uniting and integrating the disparate elements within the precincts of the Neo-Vaiṣṇava community. Though faced with intense opposition from the orthodox section of society, Śaṅkaradeva attempted to propagate his message amongst the masses through his literary compositions.

Kirata Kachari Khasi Garo Miri
Yavana kanka goala
Asama malaka Rajaka Turuka
Kuvacha mlechcha chandala
Ano Jata nara Krishna sevakara
Sangata Pavitra haya (Bhagavata 1270/1271)

Translation: The Kiratas, the Kacharis, the Khasis, the Garos, the Miri (Misings), the Yavanas, the Goalas, the Asamas (Ahoms), the Malukas, the Rajakas, the Turukas, the Kuvachas, the Mlechchas, the Chandalas, and others become pure in the company of the devotees of Krishna.

Kukura Srigala gardhabaro atma Rama
Janiya savako pari Kariba pranama. (Kirtana 1823)

Even the dogs, srigalas, and asses are verily God. Knowing this, respect and salute them all.

Srimanta Śaṅkaradeva had attempted to bring significant reforms in the society, especially in the context of erasing differences that existed among people. He established Namghars where people from diverse castes and communities could gather and engage in śravana and kīrtana. One of the most significant aspects of his religious philosophy was the emphasis laid on the incorporation and accommodation of people from the diverse elements of the society within the folds of the Neo-Vaiṣṇava order. He had translated several sacred Vaiṣṇava books into Brajavali, propagated amongst the masses and attempted to remove the external aspects associated with the performance of rites and rituals.

Śaṅkaradeva’s contributions to the field of literature, art and culture

One of the most important legacies of Śaṅkaradeva to the Assamese society was in the field of literature, art and culture. His contributions are a reflection of extraordinary literary skills and genius. His literary compositions include translations, devotional literature, doctrinal treatises, devotional songs, compilations and adaptations, amongst others. He used the Brajawali language to compose his literature.

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Image of Gunamala written on a Sanchipaat

The Bhāgavata-purāṇa formed the basis of the religious tenets of Śaṅkaradeva. He had translated eight out of twelve books of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa. Amongst all the renderings, the Adi Dasama, i.e., the first half of the tenth section, which dealt with Krishna’s early childhood days and his playful antics, was the most popular. He had also composed Nimi Nava Siddhi Samvāda, which was a doctrinal treatise based on the 11th chapter of the Bhāgavata. One of the most unique compositions of Śaṅkaradeva was Gunamala, which was composed by him in a single night. It contains the essence of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa in six kirtans. One of his earliest compositions included Hariścandra-upākhyāna and Rukmini Harana Kavya. Several scholars are of the opinion that his literary composition Kīrtana-ghosā, was his magnum opus. The Kīrtana-ghosā was a compendium of kīrtanas or devotional songs which were primarily meant for congregational prayers. The Kīrtana-ghosā is one of the four sacred texts and is considered to be of utmost reverence by the Assamese community. It is sung during the daily congregations in the Namghars. His other compositions include Bhakti Pradipa, where he denounces the worship of deities other than Krishna; the translation of the Uttara-Kāṇḍa part of the Rāmāyaṇa (added as an additional part of the Madhav Kandali’s Saptakāṇḍa Rāmāyaṇa); Bhatimas (a form of poetry innovated by Sankaradeva which are sung in the praise of a guru or God) in praise of Lord Naranarayana; Borgeets (devotional songs); Ankiya Naats, amongst others.

Śaṅkaradeva’s contributions to the field of performing arts remain unparalleled. Significant amongst them include the conceptualisations of Ankiya Naats (plays), Borgeets, Bhaonas, and Sattriya style of dance.

The Ankiya Naats are plays introduced by Śaṅkaradeva that serve as a medium of propagation of the tenets of Neo-Vaishnavism. These are a unique creation composed to blend and juxtapose religious philosophy, indigenous forms of entertainment and technicalities derived from classical Sanskrit dramas. His first dramatic performance was Cihna Yatra which was staged in a painted setting. This play which he had composed during his early years is however not extant anymore. He had composed six Ankiya Naats, including, Kāli Damana Yātrā, Patnī-Prasād, Keli Gopāla Nāṭaka, Rukmiṇī Haraṇa Nāṭa, Pārijāta Haraṇa Nāṭaka and Śrī Rāma-Vijaya Nāṭa. These plays were composed in Brajavali and were based on several Vaiṣṇava scriptures. A unique characteristic of the Ankiya Naats is that these are one-act plays and are devoid of any divisions. The dramatic performance of the Ankiya Naats is called Bhaona, and these are performed within the premises of a Namghar on certain special occasions. They are also supplemented with the Sattriya dance form. Sattriya has a classical base and is performed with technicalities and rules of rhythm, presentation and singing.

Borgeets or the devotional songs were another significant contribution of Śaṅkaradeva. They form one of the living traditions and legacies of Śaṅkaradeva, which are sung by people to date. The Borgeets,composed in Brajavali, are based on ragas and talas. The Borgeets are accompanied by musical instruments and sung to melodious tunes. According to Katha Guru Carita (biography of Śaṅkaradeva and other Vaiṣṇava saints), the total number of Borgeets amounted to 240.

Another important contribution of Śaṅkaradeva was in the field of painting. One of the earliest references to his painting skills was during the staging of the play Cihna Yatra. Another important specimen of art he was associated with is the Vrindavani Vastra, which was presented to King Naranarayana. The Vrindavani Vastra contained several scenes from Krishna’s life along with a caption for each miniature in a cloth of 180 ft. Chitra Bhagavata is another such compilation of paintings which were the illustrations of the Tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana.

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Vrindavani Vastra

Śaṅkaradeva’s contribution to the field of the religious and socio-cultural fabric of the greater Assamese community is unparalleled. His role as a propagator of Neo-Vaishnavism holds importance not only in the context of Assam but also in the history of bhakti traditions across the country.

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Bordowa Than: the first than established by Sankaradeva