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
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.
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
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
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
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