Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449 AD -1568 AD) was an important personality in the annals of Indian history. He was not only a religious preceptor, but also a social reformer, who had sanskritized the ethnic groups of the volatile North East India and assimilated them with the national main-stream. He is considered as the father of the modern Assamese race. He was a great messiah, who rescued the people of Brahmaputra valley from the regressive medieval practices like human sacrifice.
Srimanta Sankaradeva was born in 1449 at Bardowa-Alipukhuri. His family ruled the middle Assam. But he gave up his royal power as a king and came down to the level of the commoners. He went on pilgrimage twice, the first time touring the entire length and breadth of the country for long twelve years. He founded the Eka Sharana Nâma Dharma, which preached devotion to a single God, lord Krishna. The tools of song, dance and drama were used by the saint for this purpose. He was assisted by Madhavadeva in his ventures of social reform and proselytizing activities.
Srimanta Sankaradeva lived almost half of his life in Tembuwani (Bordowa) near the present Nagaon town and the remaining part in several places like Dhuwahata, Patbausi and Kochbehar. He got an institutional structure built at Tembuwani in 1468 AD, which came to be known as Thân over time. Some people started calling it Sattra in later days. It is the centre of entire religious activities and is still going strong. It consists of a prayer-house called Kirtanghar, which is surrounded by huts lived in by the devotees. The Kirtanghar is popularly known as Nâmghar these days.
Srimanta Sankaradeva preached his ideology in the rest of India during his twelve years long pilgrimage in 1481-1493 AD. People accepted him as Guru in different parts of the country. The famous Goswami brothers, Rupa and Sanatana, who in their later lives became activists of Chaitanyadeva (1486-1533 AD) also, took initiation from Srimanta Sankaradeva at Vrindavan. A distinguished person named Vrindavana Das also became disciple of Srimanta Sankaradeva at Vrindavan. Two ascetics named Radha and Trijata of Vrindavan and Vrajadham respectively were won over by Srimanta Sankaradeva to the Bhakti discipline. Then there were Ramakanta of Upa-Dwaraka and poet Gopinath of Puskar, who became his disciples. Of course, there had been hordes of people at Puri who took to Eka Sharana Nâma Dharma. Ultimately in 1493 AD, Srimanta Sankaradeva returned home at forty four years of age.
Srimanta Sankaradeva built a new Thân campus at Tembuwani in 1509 AD. Earlier also a Thân had been set up there in a skeleton form way back in 1468 AD. But this time he made it full fledged with houses for the devotees within the compound and on the four sides of the Kirtanghar. The new campus was set up in a field where Kusumbar used to cultivate mustard once upon a time. The Kirtanghar was the nerve-centre of the entire Thân. The Kirtanghar was a long and open hall, where the devotees sat together to sing the glory of God. There was no idol, but only a book, generally the Bhâgavata symbolizing God in the altar. Later, a small scripture Gunamâlâ authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva began to be kept there. Gunamâlâ is a summary of Bhâgavata. In addition to prayers, cultural functions and religious discourses also were held in the Kirtanghar. Over time it came to be an integral part of every Hindu village of Assam. Any Kirtanghar set up in the villages outside the Thân came to be known as a Nâmghar.
Srimanta Sankaradeva advised chanting of God’s name as God’s name makes Him available to the devotee. One can elevate oneself on the ladder of spirituality by chanting God’s name religiously. Chanting His name arouses the dormant spirituality in one. God’s name dispels ignorance and cuts asunder the bonds of attachment to the worldly life and things. Incessant chanting of His name creates an atmosphere of purity and sacredness wherein enlightenment dawn in the devotee. The method taught by Srimanta Sankaradeva is the least costly one for worshipping God.
Srimanta Sankaradeva preached a unique philosophy. His teachings were in the line of Upanishadic philosophy of enlightenment by knowledge of the self, together with pure devotion to the supreme God as preached in Bhâgavata. He made a fine blending of the two. There are elements of monism, dualism, qualified monism, dualistic non dualism and so many other branches of Hindu philosophy in his teachings. Actually he carried the entire spectrum of Hinduism in his teachings. But he corroborated his teachings so logically that it came to form a whole new school, which can be termed Vivartanavada in our view. It was a marvellous presentation of the entire range of spiritual inclinations of a person. A devotee could thus evolve through it from the gross to the subtle, from mundane to spiritual and from man to God.
Srimanta Sankaradeva founded a whole new school of art. He initiated a new form of painting with his epoch-making drama-festival Chihna-Yâtrâ held in 1468 AD, where he drew the imaginary pictures of heaven to be used as backdrops. He encouraged illustration of his manuscripts and decoration of the Kirtanghar walls with pictorial depiction of stories from Bhâgavata.
Srimanta Sankaradeva authored ten plays in his life. These were Chihna Yâtrâ, Patni Prasâda, Kâliya Damana, Keli Gopâla, Rukmini Harana, Pârijât Harana, Janma Yâtrâ, Gopi Uddhava Sambâda, Kangsa Badha and Sri Râma Vijaya. The first of these, Chihna Yâtrâ had been staged in 1468 AD. The second play Patni Prasâda was written while the saint was living at Gajalasuti temporarily.
Srimanta Sankaradeva used the Vrajâwali language in his plays like in his Bargeet. As a result, his plays had a wide audience covering almost the entire Northern India. The play Kâliya Damana had such an impact in Bengal that it led to an era known as Kâliya Damana Yâtrâ era there. Similarly the playwrights like Govinda and Umapati in Mithila were influenced by the peculiar style of Srimanta Sankaradeva.
Srimanta Sankaradeva used the medium of play for his proselytizing works. All the paraphernalia of his plays were symbolic. The curtain that had to be removed at the outset stood for Mâyâ. It was only after removal of Mâyâ that one could see God. The nine wicks in the Agni-garh implied nine types of devotion. The two Ariyâs stood for singing and listening to God’s name and glory. Above all, the altar specially set up at the place of enacting the play meant that all these were only ways of worshipping the almighty.
Srimanta Sankaradeva faced many inconveniences due to socio-political strife. He left Bordowa in 1516 due to such problems. He finally settled in Dhuwahata in Ahom kingdom, which was located in present Majuli; he stayed there till 1539. Then he left Ahom kingdom and settled in Koch kingdom. He stayed for a long time at Patbausi where many devotees joined the order. He passed away in Kochbehar in 1568, after enjoying full trust and patronage of the Koch king Naranarayana and Prince Chilarai.
[by Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti]