The curtain comes down
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The curtain comes down


Last Days



Sankaradeva is 119 years of age. His religion is now firmly in place, his life’s work done. His multifaceted genius lies bare; remarkable in that he achieved it all while propagating his faith. The great saint is ready for a journey beyond.


In February-March of the year 1568, Sankaradeva set sail from Pat-bausi for Koch Behar, leaving his family and worldly concerns behind. He broke journey at Ganakkuchi to spend the night with Madhavadeva. They shared a meal and in their last intimate discussion, Sankaradeva is said to have placed in the hands of his chief disciple the work he had developed thus far.


Sankaradeva had given his all in furtherance of his religion. Nevertheless, he cared deeply for his family. Uncompromising though he was, he behaved in the manner typical of the domesticated husband within the bounds of his home. He quietly tolerated his wife’s indulgence in various cults and worship of idols. Only after Sankaradeva’s death was Madhavadeva able to convert his preceptor’s wife to strict monotheism.


He married twice and raised five children. Like any other parent, he was concerned about their welfare. Sankaradeva was pained when his eldest son Ramananda was not much inclined towards religion. When he showed little interest in his studies either, Sankaradeva devised a way to inspire in him an interest in both. Sankaradeva had him trained in Kaitheli, the art of transcribing manuscripts, and also in account-keeping, a traditional occupation of the Kayastha people. Ramananda would then earn the respect reserved for the literate, and also make a living. To his credit, Ramananda became proficient in Kaitheli; he also looked after the accounts of the Tantikuchi weavers.


Sankaradeva had hoped that if not his children, his grandchildren would carry the tradition forward. So it came to be. Two of his grandsons, Purusottam and Chaturbhuja, became preachers of note; their descendants went on to establish xatras known as nati (grandson) xatras. Chaturbhuja’s wife Kanaklata became the first women preceptor in Assamese Vaishnavism. She would later resurrect Bardowa xatra from its ruins,150 years after Sankaradeva had left it under duress.


Arriving from Pat-bausi, Sankaradeva took up residence at Bheladenga xatra in Koch Behar. After a short stay, Sankaradeva became sick. The end was near. At his death-bed, a contrite Ramananda, his eldest son, is said to have pleaded that Sankaradeva’s inheritance be passed down to him. Sankaradeva advised him to contact his mother for any of the earthly possessions. When Ramananda explained that he meant Sankaradeva’s religious inheritance, the great saint lapsed into silence. For, true to his democratic nature, Sankaradeva had chosen his most capable and faithful disciple, Madhavadeva, as his spiritual successor. Sankaradeva’s long and fortuitous journey came to an end on Thursday, 21 September 1568.



Summing Up


To call Sankaradeva a mere religious reformer is misnomer. His being a man of religion did not limit the scope of his universal influence. The reforms he engendered pervaded every strand of social milieu. He raised his people from a debased form of Sakta tantrism to the monotheism of his Vaishnava faith. He achieved this not through polemics or organized propaganda, not by decrying what was evil but by presenting what was virtuous, in a manner that appealed to their imagination. His religion brought in a profound change, a purer spiritual life to Assamese society, and has held it together for more than 500 years.


Even those who do not subscribe to Sankaradeva’s precepts and ideologies recognize in the context of their identity, their language, dialects, thoughts and value judgments; the indelible influence of Sankaradeva’s legacy. Museums in London and Now York, who know not of his verses, marvel at his creativity in a completely different sphere; children in Assam, who have not seen the Vrindavani Vastra, listen to his verses as a matter of course. Such is the scope of his inspired reach, unaided by colonial interests and unhampered by small ambitions.


Sankaradeva embodied creativity; and above all, he was a man of religion. His literary and artistic activities are not ends in themselves; they are consciously oriented towards the sharing of his creed. His work,be it a hymn, a verse for chanting, dramas for the stage, dance forms, or even a drum for accompaniment, was only to draw his audience to the word of God. That he performed each task with consummate excellence is a measure of his greatness.


The India of Sankaradeva’s day had not yet come together as one, as it would a few centuries later in its fight against colonialism. It was a conglomeration of distinct regional identities: Kabir’s influence touched the regions around present-day Uttar Pradesh and Guru Nanak’s the Sikhs, Chaitanya’s words embraced Bengal while Sankaradeva’s moved Assam.


Dr. R. K. Dasgupta, the eminent scholar, writing on Chaitanya and the Vaishnava movement in Bengal, makes clear: “It has now become important to know that Sankaradeva was thirty six years old when Chaitanya was born and that Vaishnavism had struck deep roots in Assam when the great leader of the new faith in Bengal had just begun his work.” Scholars acknowledge: “If any religious leader and poet has received much less attention than he deserves, he is Sankaradeva (1449-1568),the founder of Assamese Vaishnavism and one of the finest writers of devotional verse in Indian literature.”


The great are not guided by small ambitions. Many have faith, only a few the courage to carry it through. Erasmus and Luther both had faith; Luther along had the courage of conviction, as did Sankaradeva. Some movements are fleeting, bright and glorious while they last. Sankaradeva’s faith has stood the test of time, and half a millennium later, shines brighter than ever. A wider reassessment dose not add to that achievement. For it is clear he stands among Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Ramananda, Kabir, Chaitanya, Mira Bai, Guru Nanak and Tulsidas.