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.
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!