Srimanta Shankardeva, who had spearheaded the Neo-Vaishnava Bhakti movement in Assam and its neighborhood, was the harbinger of an extra-ordinary resurgence in the life of this region. The movement had simple ramifications – spiritual, social, cultural, literacy and artistic. Saint and visionary, poet and dramatist, musician and painter – Srimanta Sankardeva was a many-splendorous personality. Ably and enthusiastically assisted by his equally gifted spiritual heir Madhavdeva, Sankardeva galvanized the diverse ethnic elements of the society into a unified and inspired mass with the lofty ideal of service to God through service to humanity. The Sankardeva movement broke down the irrational barriers of caste, creed and ritualism, and brought the newly emergent society into close touch with the finest spiritual and cultural values that have been the hallmarks of the Indian Civilization.
It was largely due to the deep and pervasive influence of the teachings of Srimanta Sankardeva that the Assamese society had come to acquire certain outstanding traits that still mark it out from those of most parts of India.
Assamese Neo-Vaishnava traditional lore is replete with legends, tales and anecdotes. Assam, in the fifteenth century presented a motley picture of diverse shades and grades of culture. The majority of the people belonged to non-Aryan tribes having distinct manners, customs and religious beliefs. Those who professed Hinduism loosely adhered to Vaishnavism or Saivism; Saktism bordering on extreme Tantricism, was also widely prevalent. The followers of these cults were all found indulging in evil practices like animal and sometimes even human sacrifices, magical rites, spells and the like. It was based on the philosophy of palate and sensual pleasures. The economically backward classes and the socially downtrodden became the victims of such ghastly practices. At the other end of the religious spectrum were the bulk of the indigenous tribal population who followed their indigenous tribal faiths. Bringing all these diverse communities and warring factions under a systematized religious code and conduct of life and to provide the masses with a mode of worship, which would be simple and at the same time accessible to all was what constituted the pressing need of the time. Against this backdrop, Srimanta Sankardeva appeared on the scene. Srimanta Sankardeva undertook the difficult and arduous task of a reformer at a juncture of acute crisis in Assamese society and polity. The Neo-Vaishnavite movement initiated by Srimanta Sankardeva in Assam in the latter period of the 15th century ushered in an era of socio-cultural renaissance in Assam, humanist in content and popular in form, in literature as well as in the vocal and visual arts. The movement was at once unique in nature and revolutionary in terms of its impact. The uniqueness of the movement lay in the fact that unlike other contemporary cults in the rest of India, Srimanta Sankardeva’s Neo-Vaisnavism rested not on a discursive reasoning and abstract thinking but its emphasis was more on ethnic integration, societal reforms and spiritual uplift through an innovative mode of religious conduct based on indigenous elements of the region, at a time when the society in Assam was in a turmoil fragmented and faction-ridden as it was. It was revolutionary in the sense that Neo-Vaisnavism in Assam meant not only a religious faith but a way of life. It encompassed their social, cultural and religious spheres even as it brought about a change in very outlook on life and the world. Neo-Vaisnavism stands out among the different Bhakti cults of India in terms of its unique and innovative character, which found expression in the move to create an egalitarian civil society based on the shared values of fraternity, equity, humanism and democracy.
Through the passage of time for some unknown reasons the preaching of Srimanta Sankardeva and the cult of Neo-Vaishnavism was gradually being lost in the sands of time. People were losing interest in the whole concept of this cult of glorious history that even the well renowned Neo-Vaishnavite Monasteries of the Majuli (the World’s largest inhabited river island and the home ground of the Assam’s Vaishnavite history) was losing its patrons on a regular period. This all has been revived since a past few decades and Srimanta Sankardeva now is being projected with ever-increasing fervor as the icon par excellence by individuals and organisations. At the intellectual, academic and artistic levels, the achievements of Sankardeva are being studied and highlighted with greater zeal and fervor. A whole lot of activities centering around Sankardeva and other Neo-Vaishnavite Gurus are taking place around the year the Srimanata Kalakshetra in Guwahati and the River Island of Majuli. Many of these activities and sometimes the organizations associated with them, wear the ‘National’ tag and some even boast of an ‘International Status’.
The Holy Saint reformer Srimanta Shankardeva was a great saint of Assam (earlier Kamrupa – that extended from North Bengal to Cooch Behar and the northern part of present day Bangladesh covering the entire present North East India) who was a devout follower of Lord Krishna and he was strictly against the religious ceremonies that used animal and human sacrifices and had started using wealth as a way to appease the Gods and Goddesses. Srimanta Shankardeva has a philosophy that was opposite to the thoughts of medieval India where people were discriminated based on their caste and Srimanta Shankardeva believed and also preached the ‘Ek-Sarana Nam Dharma’ that said that all human beings are alike and not to be discriminated on the basis of caste, colour and religion. He had gained a mass following because of his simple ideologies and his abilities of leading a simple life away from the luxuries of the World even though he was born in a very affluent family. Across his life, Srimanta Shankardeva did not wish to lead a life of comfort and luxury and he preferred to lead a life of sacrifice, struggle and penance because this was the way he could connect to the masses.
Shankardeva has a scholarly mind and personality that was found to be easily relatable to his followers and he found great following among the masses and his disciples Madhavadeva, Damodardeva, Harideva who helped the saint reformer to spread his message of ‘Ek-Sarana Nam Dharma’ that was based on the teachings of the Hindu epics of the Geeta, Bhagawat Purana and the Vishnu Naam. The teachings of Srimanta Shankardeva found patronage by the Ahom Kings of Assam who were responsible for uniting the various ethnic groups of erstwhile Assam leading to the formation of the Assamese society and the principle of Eksarana by Srimanta Shankardeva was the ideological force that strengthened this unity among the indigenous people. At the beginning, Srimanta Shankardeva found a tough resistance from the priests who were corrupt and believed in using of a person’s wealth to offer prayers to God bur Shankardeva was able to overcome these barriers and with his teachings and preaching’s he went ahead to strengthen the movement of Eksarna and Neo Vaishnavism across Assam.
Srimanta Shankardeva was unlike the other Saints and religious Gurus and he always wore simple attire that comprised of a white dhoti and a ‘Cheleng’ that was a thin cloth that was thrown over the shoulders without and adornments and he surrendered himself to the feet of Lord Krishna. Always deep in the praise of the Lord the holy Guru radiated a graceful beauty and so a large number of people followed him and he continued his task of preaching that helped the entire land to feel blessed. During the medieval period Kamrup or Assam had become a home of Tantricism and also Kamakhya temple had become a centre of tantric practices and a nerve centre of tantric rites where black magic sorcerers used to perform various rituals of sacrifice of ducks, goats, buffaloes and even humans in the name of Shakti or Durga. Assam came to be known to the outside World as a place of magic and practice of barbaric practices and the entire scenario of the state became cruel, barbaric and debased and the religion practiced here ceased to be a religion of the poor and the time had come that the place needed a leader to bring back the place to the people from the hands of the cruel and corrupt and it was during this time that Srimanta Shankardeva emerged (1449-1568).
Srimanta Shankardeva had an upbringing that can be described as a one that is no exception from the common people even though he was born to affluent parents but he hated the life of luxury and comfort and he lived the life of struggle, sacrifice and poverty. He spent most of his time outdoors with friends and this habit of his provided him with sound health and the Saint had a vast expanse of knowledge humbled by wisdom and these early qualities stood with him in all walks of his life. Srimanta Shankardeva had a soft corner for all living beings and he proved this many a times by rescuing many distressed animals and restoring them in their natural habitat. He went to school after age 12 and he set his mind deeply in studies and he managed to master all the Shastras and his guru told his father that his son would become a winning scholar someday.
Srimanta Shankardeva was a true revolutionary as he was always in the quest for excellence and he was deeply distressed with the practices in the name of religion that was prevalent across Assam and he wanted to bring about a radical change in the traditional form of religion. He wanted religion to be simple and his Bhakti cult whose basic principles were derived from the teachings of the Bhagwad Gita. His religion ‘Ek Sharan Nam Dharma’ that meant worshipping one God by uttering his name emphasized three basic steps viz. Shrayana (hearing and listening), Kirtan (singing and reciting) and Smarana (remembering) of the names of the God. At the age of thirty, Shankardeva set out on pilgrimage and he visited all the holy places across India from Kanyakumari to Badraika Ashram and for twelve years he moved from place to place meeting various religious saints and scholars.
The knowledge he derived from visiting these holy places and meeting the religious leaders helped him in shaping his new religious faith that gave his Vaishnavite spirit a uniqueness and universality and there was no gap in what he preached or practiced. He established the various Satras and Namghars across Assam he started the practice of Yoga at these Namghars, Thans and Satras in the 15th and 16th century. Shankardeva was expert in the practice of Yoga and he introduced this Yoga form in Sattriya form of dances that are mostly based on yoga and physical exercises. Shankardeva’s literary works centred around his religious mission and he was a great scholar, painter, singer, dancers, philosopher, playwright, naturalist and poet as well.
Srimanta Shankardeva composed several plays and devotional lyrics and his Kirtan Ghosa and Borgeets are a testimony to his poetic excellence and some of his literary works show that he had a command over Sanskrit as well. The Satriya Nritya form of dance was introduced by Srimanta Shankardeva and these dances are based on yoga or physical exercises. Srimanta Shankardeva was an advocate of work culture and he was often seen engaging himself as a farmer and even ploughed the agricultural fields as well. He introduced the Tal and Khol that were basically a cymbal and a drum to create the tunes to the Bhakti songs that are even now recited across the various Namghars across Assam.
Jungleideas welcomes you to India’s North East to witness the history of the Shankardeva Movement and the Neo-Vaishnavite Cult – Majuli River Island, the State of Assam, Incredible India!