Life & Time of Mahapurush Srimanta Sankaradeva
Life & Time
Religious Institutions
The curtain comes down




Sankara is born on an uneventful day in September of the year 1449. His father, Kusumavara, is over-joyed; for, he had gone across the mighty river Brahmaputra to Singari and prayed before Lord Shiva, seeking a son. There is also quiet satisfaction for the Satyasandha, Sankara’s mother. Finding her without child after several years of marriage, Kusumavara had taken a second wife. By a turn of fate, it is Satyasandha who now bore him his first child, a son much coveted.


That night, there are great festivities in the household of the Siromoni Bhuya in Alipukhuri, a small village near Bardowa in Nowgong district in central Assam. No one in attendance would sense that the history of the period would one day describe the Bhuyas as ‘petty chiefs’.




Sankara’s ancestors entered Assam around 1350 through the western route, as emissaries from Dharmanarayana of Gaur to the Kamata king Durlabhanarayana. Durlabhanarayana settled them with land and men, and the title Bhuya. Bhuya, also Bhuiya or Bhuiyan, was merely the Sanskrit equivalent of the Persian word Zamindar’, meaning landlord, and had nothing to do with caste. Each Bhuya was independent of the others within his own domain, but they joined forces when threatened by a common enemy. Chandivara, the ablest among them, was made their leader. A man of enterprise, he was as well versed in the scriptures as in the art of warfare. He earned the goodwill of the Kamata king when he outsmarted a scholar from Nadia, Bengal, in a debate in the royal court.


Chandivara and few other Bhuyas later moved east and finally settled at Bardowa in Central Assam, ruling individual principalities or tracts of land. Being their leader, Chandivara held the title ‘Siromoni Bhuya’, meaning overload or holding supremacy over many Bhuyas. The tradition of learning continued through the generations. Sankara’s father, Chandivara’s great-grandson Kusumavara, would come to be known in his time as a scholar of some repute. When Sankara lost his parents while very young, his grandmother would see to it that the boy followed the tradition of his forefathers.



Assam on Its Own


The only routes between India and the rest of the world, practicable for mass migration, lie to its northwest

and northeast confines-hemmed in as it is by a sea to its south, and the lofty Himalayas to its north. Over the centuries, invaders such as the Greeks, the Huns, the Pathans and the Mughals entered through the northwestern route. Via the northeast came successive hordes of invaders from Burma and Western China. By the thirteenth century, northeastern India including Assam became a conglomeration of tribes of Mongolian origin, and the border was virtually sealed.


As the Buddhist scholar Richard Salomon points out, Assam’s historical tradition-like that of India’s neighbors Bhutan, Tibet and Sri Lanka- predates that of the rest of India by a good few centuries. This is because the Ahoms of the Tai or Shan race, who invaded Assam in 1228 and ruled uninterrupted for nearly 600 years, brought with them a keen sense of history. Their buranjis, or historical chronicles, give a full and detailed account of their rule since its inception. In the Ahom language, bu is an ‘ignorant person’, ran is ‘to teach’ and ji is ‘granary’; thus buranji means ‘a store that teaches the ignorant’.


Bansabalis or family histories, maintained by other kings and nobles of the period in Assam, also provide some detail of contemporaneous events. Unfortunately, these histories remained inclusive and sometimes in private preserve. The 19th century historian Edward Gait would employ an Assamese youth to delve into these chronicles for the purposes of his research.Elsewhere in India, the tradition took hold after the arrival of the Mughals in 1526. For events of earlier dates, historians painstakingly pieced together information gathered from old inscriptions, accounts of foreign invaders or travelers, and incidental references in religious writings.


Assam is geographically so situated that interaction with the rest of the country was possible only through its western border. Land communication at the time was not easy, while river navigation prospered after the British took over in the early nineteenth century. The Assamese perceived a need for protection of their western border from foreign invaders, and set about ensuring it, inadvertently bringing on a certain degree of insularity.


As with traditional scribes across civilizations, transcription and record keeping in Assam were largely confined to the courts. And so, despite the presence of chronicles, there are few contemporary accounts of ex-regal events in the time of Sankaradeva. Of his four generally accepted biographies, the earliest is by one who was a mere child when Sankaradeva passed away in 1568; the others written in early to mid 17th century, long after his death, are not always of the highest reliability.


Furthermore, the biographies tend towards hagiography, bringing in the pan-Indian tradition of myths and miracles that glorify saints. This makes any account of the saint’s life controversial especially where dates are concerned. What is of relevance, however, is the body of his work that clearly brings out the substance of it.



His Times


In mid-15th century, the northeastern states are ruled by a multitude of heterogeneous entities. The Koch and the Kamata kingdoms are in the west, the Jaintias to the south, the Chutiyas to the east mainly on the northern bank of the river Brahmaputra, and the Kacharis and the Ahoms to the east on its southern bank. In between, a few Bodo tribes enjoy a precarious existence as do a number of Bhuyas. Clearly, the once powerful Bhuyas, Sankara’s ancestors, who had arrived in the 1350, are on the decline.


The Ahoms, who entered Assam in 1228, are by far the most dominant power. The whims of the Ahom king of the day would greatly sway the fortunes of Assamese Vaishnavism. In 1497, Suhungmung became the first Ahom king to assume the Hindu name, Swarga Narayan or Swarga Dev, signaling his desire to merge with the mainstream. It also meant ascending influence for the Brahmin priests, the fiercest opponents to Sankara’s creed. The beleaguered preacher would seek succour in the neighbouring Koch kingdom of Naranarayana.


The rest of the Indian subcontinent is a mosaic of regional kingdoms: the princely states of Vijayanagar (1336-1646) and Mysore (1399-1947) in the south, the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) in the North, the Islamic Sultanates (1206-1596), Deccan Sultanates (1490-1686) and other small states else where. The Mughals who would dominate most of the northern parts of the subcontinent arrive in 1526, bringing with them Islamic art, architecture and a keen sense of history.


Elsewhere in the world, the Incas (1200-1573) in Peru are in their full glory, the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) flourishes in present-day Turkey, and in China the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) reigns supreme. Elizabeth of England ascends the throne in 1558 while, in 1547, Ivan the Terrible becomes the first Tsar of Russia. The renaissance in Italy, secured by patronage of both the church and the crown, is in full bloom.

Described as a resurgence of learning from classical sources, the renaissance becomes the bridge between the middle ages and the modern era. Scholars scour monasteries looking for ancient manuscripts and begin rewriting history. In England, Henry VI founds King’s College in Cambridge (1441), while Oxford (circa 1167) ---the oldest University in the English-speaking world---changes from the medieval Scholastic method of teaching to the Renaissance education. Christopher Columbus sets sail in 1492 to discover America, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama finds the spice route for trade with India. In the sphere of religion, a period of extreme decadence leads to rumblings of discontent within the Roman Catholic Church.


The dissidence that began with John Wycliffe (1320-1384), the English theologian, now becomes more vocal. Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the Dutch Renaissance humanist, criticizes clerical abuse in his writings but remains committed to reforming it from within. Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German monk, goes a step further. In 1517, in open defiance of papal authority, he launches the Protestant Reformation.

Luther drafts a ‘Letter of protestation’ containing these, and posts it on the door of the church. He denounces, among other things, the Church’s practice of selling ‘forgiveness’ for a price, proclaims the Bible to be the only source of divinely revealed knowledge, translates it into the language of the people and not into Latin, marries a lapsed nun, and declares Protestant monks free to wed if they so choose. He writes hymns for singing in the church, and his writings foster the development of a popular German language.

This is in keeping with the pattern already evident in other parts of the world, revealing phase of religious decadence followed by reformation. One only needs substitute the Bible with the ‘Bhagawata’, and Latin with ‘Sanskrit’ to discern uncanny similarities in the ways of the German monk with the neo-Vaishnava movement sweeping India, set in motion by a handful of religious figures.


The three functions of the cosmos, creation, preservation and destruction, are personified in Brahma, the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer. The Bhagawata Purana, one of India’s revered ancient texts, explains that the greatest benefit can be had from Vishnu, called the ‘All-pervading one’ or ‘one who is present everywhere. In vaishnavite tradition, Vishnu is the Supreme God, worshipped either directly or in one of his ten avatars, principally—Rama, Krishna, Narayana, or Vasudeva. His followers are called Vaishnava(s) or  Vaishnavites  while the word Vaishnavism entered the English language in the nineteenth century.


The worship of Vishnu in ancient India is well documented; it finds mention in the Mahabharata, in an episode later to become the source of Bhagawad Gita. It flourished during the reign of Chandragupta II (circa 375-413), and in Shaivite South India, in 6th to 9th century, through the tireless efforts of the twelve Alvar saints of Tamil Nadu. The seed of Vaishnavism sown by the Alvar saints and nurtured by later saints like Ramanuja (1017-1137) of Tamil Nadu, Basava (1106-1167) of Karnataka and Namdeva (1270-1350) of Maharashtra is now in fruition.


As if by divine providence, from across India, a number of religious leaders of great endowment appear on the horizon, bearing the message of bhakti to the people: Ramananda of Allahabad , Kabir from Varanasi, Sankaradeva in Assam , Nanak in Lahore , Vallabhacharya of the Telegu community in the South , Chaitanya of Bengal , Mira Bai from Rajsthan  and Tulsidas from Rajapur in Uttar Pradesh.


It is a period of tolerance among the diverse faiths. Chistiyya Sufi saints of Ajmer in Rajasthan invoke ideas from the Hindu bhakti movement in their devotional songs. The Sikh holy book puts in its pages thoughts from Hindu and Muslim saints: sixty one of Namdeva’s hymns, one of Ramananda’s poems, and more than five hundred verses of Kabir, one of the 99 names of God in the Islamic faith, find place in the Guru Granth Sahib. This resurgence in the universal and liberal doctrine of bhakti ushers in an era of profound reformation in the socio-religious milieu across the country.


In such times, Sankara is born.



Aimless wanderer


Sankara losses his father at the age of seven, his mother shortly thereafter, and is raised by his grandmother, Khersuti. Indulgent towards her foundling, she lets him wander freely for the first twelve years of his life. A happy, carefree child, he spends his time grazing cattle and roaming the fields. He goes hunting birds, deer, tortoises and porpoises, only to release them unharmed, and often swims the mighty Brahmaputra across and back unaided. He also indulges in the usual games played by village children, such as ghila, kotora, bhatta and dugdugali.


This aimless wanderer would one day:


Found a religious order that would bring about a social reform and over five centuries, become a way of life for his people.


Establish institutions that would become focuses of Assamese art and culture.


Write with equal dexterity in three languages to leave behind a treasure trove of literature, more than many religious poets of the world have done.


Translate scriptures and epics from Sanskrit into idiomatic Assamese to bring them within reach of the common people.


Compose soulful lyrics, set them to music in classical pan-Indian ragas and sing them.


Create dramas, design costumes and musical instruments, stage plays and also anchor them.


Evolve a dance form that would survive five centuries to become one of India’s eight classical dance traditions, the only one that can be traced back directly to an individual.


While doing so, he would find not only the ways but also the means. One can only  say that things come naturally to a Mahapurusha (Great Man) as Sankara, soon to be adorned with the epithet ‘deva’, would be known.


Days at School


Sankara’s idyllic existence ended when his grandmother decided that playtime was over and formal learning must begin. He would attend a tol or chhatrasala, a pan-Indian educational institution, run by Brahman scholars. Tols had small cottages for students hailing from afar. The pupils also had to clean and sweep the school premises and keep them in order.


The curriculum of a tol consisted mainly of Sanskrit grammar, lexicon, the epics, the puranas and other religious works. Accurate copying of original religious texts and reading them to scholars or holy men were considered qualifications in themselves. Scholars from outside visited such institutions and held discourses. After completing education in a local tol, many proceeded for further studies to places like Varanasi, Mithila and Nadia.


One’s learning was put to further rest in an open assembly of pandits, sometimes in the presence of royals. Scholars partook in verbal duels in such assemblies to display their learning or to settle contentious issues. A win, especially in a royal court, earned the victor great accolade, as with Chandivara, Sankara’s ancestor. In years to come, Sankara’s debating skill would come to his aid on many occasions.


On an auspicious day, the twelve-year-old Sankara set foot in the tol of Mahendra Kandali, a Brahman pandit. The boy took time to adjust to the cloistered regime but soon became a devoted student. About Sankara’s courses of study, one account gives an exhaustive list of subjects and works covering all branches of Indian learning---the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the puranas, the sambitas, the tantras, grammar, lexicon and the kavyas. Another mentions only chapter on grammar, adding that Sankara studies all books without exception and became an unerring scholar.


Evidence of this is borne out by Sankara composing his first poem soon after joining school. An ode to Lord Vishnu, it uses only the consonants and Vowel ‘a’ – whatever Sankara had been taught thus far.


The eight-line poem begins with hands lifted to the heavens,


‘karatala kamala kamaladala nayana,

bhavadava dahana Ghana vana saiyana.


(‘Thy palm is like the lotus, Thine eyes like lotus petals, Thou art the consumer of worldly afflictions, Thou art the sleeper in deep forest.’)


And ends with a note of submission:


jagadaha mapahara bhavabhoya tarana,

parapada layakara kamalaja nayana.


(‘Thou art the saviour from the earthly grief; Thou art the giver of final beatitude; O Lotus-eyed Lord! I worship thee.’)


Vibrant with unmistakable stirrings of the sentiment of bhakti, or devotion, the poem is a portent of things to come. Its lyrical beauty and sobriety of thought, coming from one so young, astounded Mahendra Kandali. The teacher had another surprise coming.


One day, Kandali found Sankara asleep in the school grounds, the extended hood of a cobra protecting his head from the burning rays of the sun. With this epiphany, the guru saw his young pupil’s future greatness. He conferred on him the epithet ‘deva’, usually applicable to Brahmans, and asked other pupils to address him as Sankaradeva, not Sankara. Kandali also exempted him from the ordinary student’s duty of cleaning the school precincts.


By the age of twenty, Sankara had completed all course of study assigned to him by his teacher. He had come to Yoga at about fifteen years of age and practiced it with great diligence, becoming immersed in matters of spiritual subtlety. It is said that when Sankara left school, everyone, above all his teacher Mahendra Kandali, recognized his immense learning and saw in it his future greatness.


Sankaradeva, true to his nature, would first pay his dues to his ancestors.



Marriage and Bereavement


Sankaradeva assumed the administrative duties of the Siromoni Bhuya. These had been temporarily assigned, after his father’s death, to the care of Jayanta-dalai and Madhava-dalai, his father’s paternal uncles. He began looking after the welfare of his people, mainly farmers and tradesmen.He had to contend with the frequent territorial disputes with the Kacharis who owned farmland contiguous to the Bhuyas. Skirmishes would often occur, keeping the neighbours in a state of constant agitation. The Bhuyas, by then, had become militarily weak while the Kacharis had grown stronger. Sankaradeva used resources at hand to resolve conflicts amicably before they came to a head, and generally succeeded.


Sankaradeva was twenty-one and his people suggested marriage for him. He married Suryavati, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Harivaragiri, a wealthy Bhuya. After few years of marriage, Suryavati gave birth to a daughter, named Manu or Haripriya. Tragedy struck a year later; Sankaradeva, who had been orphaned at a tender age, now lost his wife. At twenty-four years of age, his mind was distracted once more by personal bereavement.His life now took a turn, in a manner first evident during his aimless wanderings.


The world around Sankaradeva, late 15th century Assam, was in a state of flux. There was constant fighting among the heterogeneous entities, jostling for power and territory. From the west came successive invasion from other expansionist forces. Hemmed in between several kingdoms, the Bhuyas were plagued by wars not of their making, made worse by their lack of military strength. Sankaradeva was a witness, as a result, to great many wars during his lifetime.


The Ahoms would fight five wars with the Kacharis, ten with the various Naga tribes, seven with the Chutiyas, and engage in numerous conflicts with other minor entities. One Ahom king—Suhungmung—would be murdered by his power—hungry son. The Mohammedans would invade three times, once destroying the pre-historic temple at Kamakhya. Growing ambitious, the Koch King would wage wars with the Kacharis, the Manipuri Raja, Jaintia, Tippera and Sylhet kings, and the Badshah of Gaur, besides attacking the Ahoms five times.They are battles for greater glory, never greater good; involving the wagering of lands and the wasting of lives.



When it came to religion, the intrigues were no less bitter, the means no more redeeming. Sankaradeva, who would one-day bar idolatry from his religion, had himself grown up in a practicing Sakta environment. His great-great-grandfather Chandivara, a devout Sakta, bore the epithet ‘Devidasa’ (servant of the Goddess). His father, Kusumavara, kept and image of the goddess Chandi in the house for worship. Sankaradeva was born after his father had offered prayers to Lord Shiva, and had been named, at birth, Sankara-vara (gift of Sankara, another name for Lord Shiva).In the hands of unscrupulous practitioners, however, Saktism had by then degenerated into a debased form of faith.


Gait describes Assam at this time: “Saktism was the predominant form of Hinduism. Its adherents based their observances on the Tantras, a series of religious works in which the various ceremonies, prayers and incantations are prescribed, a religion of bloody sacrifices from which even human beings were not exempt.” Self-serving priests encouraged ritualistic worship of gods and goddess, and prescribed votive sacrifice of animals. This disturbed the young Sankaradeva, his intellectual awareness kindled by formal education under Mahendra Kandali. Sankaradeva saw around him a singular lack of tolerance, goodwill, and fellow-feeling. There was nothing beyond greed and selfish ego. Above all, there was lack of Bhakti as propounded in the Vedas and the Puranas.


When Sankaradeva’s teacher felt he had no more to offer, Sankaradeva had left school. Burdened with the duties of an administrator and a householder, he had continued his scholarly pursuits on his own. He immersed himself in the scriptures, held religious discussions among his people and engaged in discourses with visiting scholars. Even as a young cowherd, seemingly aimless in his wanderings, he had an astute sensitivity to his surroundings. Once free of the routine of school, he brought that sensitivity to bear on his independent study.


The neo-Vaishnava movement, unfolding across India, acted as a spark to this spirit. The understanding and commitment of the young Sankaradeva, working alone in a small village away from all centres of mainstream security, was of a piece with the movement. The outline of his work secure in his mind, Sankaradeva was now ready for a journey out, to meet and engage with other like-minded scholars.


Worldly obligations would delay his departure.



First Pilgrimage


Sankaradeva waited a few years. When his daughter turned nine, in keeping with the temper of the times, he gave her in marriage to a Kayastha youth named Hari. He entrusted the household duties to his son-in-law, and administration, as before, to Jayanta-dalai and Madhava-dalai. In 1481, the 32 year-old Sankaradeva set out on his first pilgrimage. He was accompanied by seventeen others, including Mahendra Kandali, his teacher. The pilgrimage would last twelve long years, a fair indication of Sankaradeva’s belief in the need for rigorous inquiry and debate in the making of a robust faith.


Sankaradeva visited the key centres of religious importance in various parts of the country, especially those connected with the lives of Rama and Krishna. Puri with the 12th century temple of Lord Jagannath was of special interest to him, and he stayed there the longest. Puri was the confluence where religious scholars gathered to exchange ideas, propound new thoughts and engage in debates. Sankaradeva’s personal surrender to the concepts of sadhana and bhakti—spiritual practice and devotion-resonated with the neo-Vaishnava movement. Holding discourses with scholars from around the country, all proponents of the gospel of bhakti, Sankaradeva refined his own faith.


Sankaradeva found bhakti pouring out in devotional songs, as he heard men of faith sing the songs of poets in Puri and Varanasi. He was witness to the power of community singing. At Badarikasrama, one of the scared sources of the Ganges, Sankaradeva was moved to compose his first devotional song. Written in Assamese Brajabuli, a linguistic construct comprising Assamese and Maithili, the hymn begins with the words ‘mana meri rama charanhi lagu’ (rest, my mind, rest on the feet of Rama) and is set to raga Dhaneshri.


Brajabuli made popular  by the 14th century poet Vidypati, was used by poets in Northern India particularly to narrate songs on the theme of Radha Krishna. Rabindranath Tagore would write his ‘Bhansingha Thakurer Padavali’ in Brajabuli in 1884. In composing his hymn in Brajabuli and setting the tune to a raga, Sankaradeva’s approach was pan-Indian.


Sankaradeva returns home with a faith robust and secure.



Return Home


Sankaradeva’s outlook on life was now much broader, and his religious beliefs encompassed a wider horizon. He felt ready to propagate his liberal faith of Bhakti among the people. However, his kinfolk insisted on his marrying a second time and resuming the duties of the Siromoni Bhuya. He yielded to the first and at the age of forty-eight, took as his second wife Kandali, daughter of Kalika Bhuya. He declined the administrative duties, declaring his intention to lead a life of devotion and prayer instead.


Sankaradeva had a simple temple of thatched roof built for little away from the householders, and immersed himself in the study of scriptures and in religious discussions. Termed Hari griha or deva griha, meaning house of the Lord, this would be the precursor to the naam ghar, or prayer hall, as we know today.


Once settled in Bardowa, he was urged by the local community to organize some kind of festivity as he must have seen during his travels. So, one Poornima (full-moon night), in the month of Phal guna (February-March), he organized at Bardowa a Doljatra, a festival of colour. Known variously as Dol Poornima, Dol Utsav, or Holi, it is observed with much gaiety, particularly in Northern India, and is said to mark the day Lord Krishna professed his love for his consort Radha. The festival was a great success. Doljatra today is an annual event celebrated with great fanfare, especially in Barpeta xatra; the one held in Majuli draws visitors from around the world. Some accounts, however, place Sankaradeva’s celebration of Doljatra at Bardowa at a date before his first pilgrimage.


Sankaradeva next staged at Bardowa ‘chihna yatra’, a’dramatic presentation with paintings’ using seven hand-painted scenes in succession, each depicting one of the seven Vaikunthas, celestial abodes of God, as the backdrop. This dramatic exercise was written, produced, and staged by Sankaradeva with music, illuminations and fireworks. Sankaradeva also played the main part of Sutradhar, the anchor. For the occasion, he had musical instruments such as drum and cymbals specially made to his design.


It was a tremendous success. His old teacher Mahendra Kandali was overwhelmed by his pupil’s achievement. He turned away when the latter came to pay him his respects, saying Sankaradeva was now his guru. It clearly was the beginning of what would later become the Ankiya Nat. Chihna yatra’ is said to be the first modern drama in the Indo-Aryan languages staged anywhere in the world, but this claim cannot be substantiated as the next of the play has not been found. Again, some accounts place Sankaradeva’s enactment of ‘chihna yatra’ at a time when he was nineteen years of age, long before his first pilgrimage. Interestingly, it would by another eighty years before the first ‘Early Modern English Drama’ is staged in London in 1576.


Sensing the positive impact of audio and audio-visual elements upon the masses, Sankaradeva set about exploiting it to the full. A devotional song, a spectacle of high melodrama, a homely verse for community chanting, a dance portraying the life of the Lord---would all become vehicles for propagation of his faith.


A’ fruit in full flower’ was soon to come his way.



‘Fruit in Full Flower’


Among the eighteen puranas, traditionally believed to have been written by the ancient sage Vyasa, Bhagawata Purana is the most celebrated and revered. I am said that one can attain salvation by worshipping, listening to, and reading or even by looking at his sacred book. Sridhara Swami, an Advaita (non-dualist) scholar, describes this purana as ‘delicious fruit falling to earth through the mouth of suka’, the narrator-son of Vyasa. As per accounts, sometime after the first pilgrimage, one Jagadisa Misra arrived from Puri bearing this ‘fruit’ for Sankaradeva, complete with commentary by Sridhara Swami. Jagadisa recited and explained the whole work to Sankaradeva, which reportedly took, about a year.


Sankaradeva was now convinced that this work was without peer. To him, the Bhagawata Purana’s privileging of Krishna as the sole worshipful, the imperative of taking single-minded refuge in him, and the celebrating of his acts in the company of holymen were sacrosanct. Sankaradeva proceeded to immerse himself in the purana, setting himself the task of propounding and propagating the cult of bhakti. Driven by an astute awareness of universalizing power of hymns, he first composed verses and hymns in simple Assamese. When his verses found ready an enthusiastic acceptance from the masses, he extended his range of literary activity. Sankaradeva’s engagement with the Bhagawata Purana, complete with commentary by Sridhara Swami, proved to be a galvanizing moment in his life.


Social reform was Sankaradeva’s main agenda; his religion, a means for his people to climb out of the abyss they found themselves in. He knew the faith needed to be liberal, practical, universal, and accessible. Above all, it had to appeal to the audience it was aimed at. Mere issuing of doctrinal messages was not enough; one had to create the ways and means to carry it to the people. For it to be successful, it needed to be administered with kindness, aberrations dealt with firmly.


The oneness of the Ultimate Sprit had been the governing ideal of most branches of Hinduism. Sankaradeva’s faith was no exception; it was based on-


Eka deva eka seva

Eka bine nahi kewa


One God, one devotion,

There is none but One.


He called it eka sarana nama dharma, that is, the religion of supreme devotional surrender to the One, the One being Krishna or one of his incarnations.Out of the nine modes of bhakti, enumerated in Bhagawata Purana, Sankaradeva chose two: sravana, the act of listening to accounts of Vishnu, and kirtana, the act of chanting prayers to the Lord. Simple singing of and listening to tales of Vishnu or Krishna, and taking refuge in Him without any desire or motive, were enough. “God is accessible neither through penance and renunciation, nor through gifts. He is not accessible through yoga or knowledge; He is tied down to bhakti alone.”


Sankaradeva’s religion was democratic in nature, open to all, irrespective of caste or creed. He declared that “to obtain final release or come to the presence of God, one need neither be a Brahman, nor a sage, nor should one know all the scriptures.” He embraced into his fold people of all denominations: the Mikirs, the Misings, the Garos, the Bhutiyas and the Bodos as well as a Kayastha, a Kachari, a Chutiya, a Kaivartya, an Ahom, a Brahman, koch, a Chandal (scavenger), and also people of other faith like Chandsai, a Muslim, who reportedly became a much respected devotee and rose in the ranks. To Sankaradeva, asceticism was not essential for leading a spiritual life.



Sankaradeva forbade the worship of other gods and goddesses in no uncertain terms. “You will worship only Vasudeva and no other god. All worship is to be found in the worship of Krishna; God will not accept any other. Do not become His enemy by violating religious rules. Do not enter their temples. Look not at their idols nor eat their Prasad. Bhakti will be vitiated by such practices.He warned the unbeliever, the frail of faith: “Those who worship other gods and goddesses are worse sinners than those who kill and eat dogs. There are no greater sinners than these.”


Seemingly harsh and intolerant, such strict disciplinarian measures were designed to negate the mindless rituals associated with idolatry, and to keep the motley flock together. A practical reformer, Sankaradeva had his feet firmly on the ground; his sure understanding of human psychology one of his greatest strengths. He once allowed an idol of Lord Jagannath inside the kirtana ghar, leaving a canny door ajar for Brahmans to embrace his religion. Five hundred years of history would prove him right.


Sankaradeva’s worship was austere, with the Bhagawata (or its concise version the Gunamala) replacing all idols. Lord Krishna is said to have invested his complete energy into the Bhagawata Purana, and this work, therefore, was the perceptible image of Hari in worded form. In place of an idol, the Bhagawata or its renderings were to be reverentially treated as the Lord. Sankaradeva initiated his disciples into his faith with the Bhagawata representing the Lord, in whom the initiate’s soul would find refuge. In a similar manner, the Sikhs worship the Adi Granth complied in 1604 by fifth Guru Arjun Das; and the Terapanthi Jains Worship Scriptures, not idols.


Sankaradeva’s new discipline of faith in a single Divinity offered something simple and straightforward, divested of all questionable associations or implications. He defined the nature of the relationship between Vishnu or Krishna and the devotee as one between the Lord and his servant. It was the path of a man’s direct faith in his Master, without his assuming the nature of a woman as in the Vaishnavism of Bengal. Sankaradeva, ever mindful of the erotic overtones of Krishna-gopi episodes, would not allow any form of eroticism in his faith, not even as an allegory of divine love.


Sankaradeva’s eka sarana nama dharma is also called Mahapurushiya dharma. Both Sankaradeva and his chief disciple Madhavadeva are considered to be Mahapurushas, great beings further elevated by virtue of their faith in God, not by birth.


Bolstered by the success of ‘chihna yatra’, Sankaradeva declared himself a preacher and made his first conversions. Jayanta-dalai’s wife is said to be the first convert, followed by a leper, Harirama, later called Tulsirama. His teacher Mahendra Kandali and friend Ramarama, also belonged to his first batch of converts. Sankaradeva began traveling far and wide to propagate his faith. He established kirtana ghar or naam ghar--- a hall for congregational prayer—which became a popular institution in the religious life of the Assamese people. He translated religious texts from Sanskrit verse form into homely Assamese, wrote devotional songs, and created music, drama and dance-forms as means of reaching out to the people.


Sankaradeva loved his birthplace. A much-traveled man, he still found his native Bardowa a place “with no equal of agricultural crops and fish.” Aided by Sankaradeva’s extraordinary personality and his voice of thunder, Bardowa became the centre of Vaishnavite movement and the cultural awakening that accompanied it.


Sadly, he would soon leave Bardowa never to return.





After a period of relative stability, trouble started anew at Bardowa. Matters reached serious proportions when the Kacharis attacked the Bhuyas. Bhuyas were now too weak to resist; Sankaradeva advised his people to move north of the river Brahmaputra. Around 1516, they abandoned their homes, never to return. Bardowa would remain shrouded in anonymity for the next 150 years.


All Sankaradeva had ever wanted was to share his faith with a wider audience and this was being denied to him. He was now ousted from what had been the ancestral home for generations of Bhuyas. He began his search for a new shelter, for himself and for his people. They camped at several places on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, including Rauta and Gangmau, forced each time to move by one warring faction or another. The beleaguered group finally reached Dhuwahat in the island of Majuli, a part of the Ahom kingdom. Here, they would serve the Ahom king loyally under the leadership of Hari Bhuya, Sankaradeva’s son-in-law, and also enjoy a certain degree of autonomy.On the bank of the little stream Dhuwa, Sankaradeva established what would become Belaguri xatra. Due  to erosion by the Brahmaputra, the Majuli Belaguri xatra has been relocated to Narayanapur on the north bank.


Sankaradeva and his people had a considerably long stay at Dhuwahat. But their relationship with the Ahom rulers always remained tenuous, predicated wholly upon their paying obeisance to Ahom supremacy. Offering harbour to the Bhuyas did not stop the Ahom from persecuting them, particularly when under pressure from the priesthood. This apparent dichotomy in the attitude of the ruling fraternity towards his religion marked Sankaradeva's lifetime. Time and again he would be summoned to the royal court to prove the validity of his religion through verbal duels which he invariably won.


Interestingly, the Sikhs would undergo a similar ordeal with the Mughal rules but with radically different results; the pacific followers of their founder, Guru Nanak, would turn into the militant khalsa under the tenth and last Guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708).



In 1497, Suhungmung had become the first Ahom king to assume a Hindu name. It signaled the king’s desire to merge with the mainstream as also greater clout for the priesthood. Despite this, Sankaradeva’s tireless efforts began to bear fruit. His school of thought took root; his religion caught the imagination of the people. The number of his followers grew, and so did the opposition of the clergy. This dialectic with the priesthood would continue till the very last days of his life. He was soon sent help under unexpected circumstances.


In 1522, Madhava is a 32-year-old Kayastha youth, proficient in philosophy, logic, Sanskrit poetry as well as in accountancy, and also a staunch Sakta. When his mother became ill, Madhava decided to sacrifice two white goats to the Mother Goddess as votive offerings. He hurried to the side of his sick mother, instructing his brother-in-law, Gayapani, to buy the goats. Madhava was unaware that Gayapani had already embraced Vaishnavism under Sankaradeva, and taken the name Ramadasa. Gayapani, a Vaishnava now, did not buy the sacrificial goats.On learning this and being given the reason for it, a furious Madhava chose to confront Sankaradeva.


A bitter verbal duel ensued between the two: Sankaradeva, exponent of Bhakti, and Madhava, quoting from scriptures in defense of his Sakta beliefs. After four and a half hours, Sankaradeva turned to the following lines from the Bhagawata Purana:


“As the branches, leaves, and foliage of a tree are nourished by the pouring of water only at the root of the tree, as the limbs of the body are nourished by putting food only in the stomach, so all gods and goddesses are propitiated only by the worship of Krishna.”


Hearing this, Madhava fell silent; he was now convinced that Sankaradeva’s was the correct stand. He promptly fell at Sankaradeva’s feet, accepting him as his Master. From that moment on, he dedicated his life to the cause of Bhakti and to Sankaradeva, and remained a bachelor despite being goaded by Sankaradeva himself to marry. Thus, what began as a routine confrontation between two scholars--- both well-versed in the scriptures, each firm in his religious belief—developed into a defining moment in Assamese Vaishnavism.


Sankaradeva now had in Madhaba an able associate who was a scholar, a poet, and a fine singer. The religion of Bhakti flourished and the number of devotees increased manifold. At the age of 73, Sankaradeva had found his chief apostle and, as he realized, his religious successor. Sankaradeva named Madhaba his prana bandhava, his soul mate.


The growing popularity of Sankaradeva’s religion would now cause his downfall.



Homeless Once More


Sankaradeva’s relations with the Ahom had always been under a lot of strain. Things took a turn for the worse in 1539 when Suklenmung became king after killing his father, Suhungmung. Matters came to a head during an elephant-catching operation. The Ahoms accused Hari Bhuya of non-cooperation and dereliction of duty, arresting him together with Madhava. After a summary trial, the Ahoms executed Hari Bhuya, and detained Madhava for several months. Facts came to light only after Madhava reached home upon his release. The fraught relations with the Ahoms finally snapped. Sankaradeva realized this was all a ruse engineered by the Brahmin clergy; the time had come for him and his people to seek new pastures.

All through his adult years, Sankaradeva and his people had suffered such humiliations and disturbances to their peace. These militated against their settling down anywhere for long. Since leaving Bardowa, he had set up home in no less than seven different places, driven out each time by divisive forces. He now longed for clement surroundings in which to propagate his faith.


His wishes were fulfilled when Naranarayana (1540-1584) ascended the throne of the neighbouring western kingdom of Koch Behar. Schooled in Varanasi, Naranarayana was a “man of mild and studious disposition, more addicted to religious exercise and conversation with learned men than to the conduct of State affairs. In all questions of politics, Chilarai, his brother and Commander-in-Chief of the army, seems to have possessed and overwhelming influence; he was the moving spirit in every adventure.” The two princely brothers, Naranarayana and Chilarai, soon gained reputation as lovers of learning.


Two prominent Bhuyas in the west, who had fled the Koch kingdom during the reign of Bisva Singha, Naranarayana’s father, now formed an alliance with the new king. They agreed to serve in his army and help in his attack on the Ahoms. The western Bhuyas also facilitated a safe passage for their eastern brethren to leave their tormentors in the Ahom kingdom and migrate to the safer haven of the Koch kingdom.


And in Chilarai, Sankaradeva would find his most loyal patron.


Migration to Koch Kingdom


In 1546, Sankaradeva and his followers set sail for Koch Behar, taking the river route from Dhuwahat. While selecting a site for a xatra, other than the practical consideration of river communicability, the key determinant was the ‘availability of grains, vegetables and fish. The travelers made several attempts at finding a suitable location. They first set up camp at Palengdi-bari near Barpeta town, before finally settling at Pat-bausi, a few kilometers away.


At first, Naranarayana did not take too kindly to Sankardeva. But he was won over after he heard Sankaradeva's  devotional songs and saw his scholarly prowess in debates with the priests. A great patron of learning, Naranarayana’s religious ambivalence is evident in his allowing Sankardeva to preach his liberal faith of Bhakti, while also helping rebuild the Sakta temple at Kamakhya, destroyed by the Mohammedans.


The brothers, Naranarayana and Chilarai, together took the kingdom of Koch Behar to great heights. They defeated the powerful Ahoms and erected a fort at Narayanpur, the Kacharis were easily overcome and the kings of Manipur, Jaintia, Tippera and Sylhet meekly surrendered. The Koch kingdom, in its prime, extended from the river Karatoya in the west to central Assam in the east. Naranarayana would, however, be the last king of undivided Koch Behar.


Chilarai became a staunch supporter of Sankaradeva and developed kinship with him when he married into the saint’s family. During his pat-bausi days, Sankaradeva paid regular visits to the court of Naranarayana. While there, he would stay with Chilarai who had built a xatra for him at Bheladenga, near the capital of Koch Behar. This xatra would twice be washed away, before being established at its present site, known as Madhupur xatra.


Around 1550, soon after settling down at Pat-bausi, Sankaradeva embarked on his second pilgrimage, accompanied by 120 devotees, including Madhavadeva. They visited Puri, which always held a special place in Sankaradeva’s heart. Unlike the first, this pilgrimage turned out to be a short sojourn. It is said that Sankaradeva’s wife tutored Madhavadeva to decline to accompany him to Vrindavan, fearing her husband might decide to stay on and not return home. The plan worked; after six months in Puri, the pilgrims returned home. Sankaradeva too no doubt aware of the time left to him in which to carry out his work.


His most creative period was now imminent. For the last eighteen or twenty years of Sankaradeva’s life, Pat-bausi was his permanent place of residence. At last, he had come to the serenity he had sought all his life. His prodigious creative output during this period speaks of that arrival.


Sankaradeva’s major poetical and dramatic works were composed at Pat-bausi between 1546-1568. The last sections of the Kirtana-ghosa were set down, and the Bhagawata X-Adi was rendered into Assamese verse, these two being the key texts of Assamese Vaishnavism. All his dramas, with the exception of Vipra-patni-prasada, were composed and produced during his stay in Koch Behar. Other works include the Bhagawata I,II,XI and XII, and some lyrics belonging to the genres of Bargeet and Bhatima. During this period, Sankaradeva also wrote the Totaka hymn and complied his treatise, Bhakti-ratnakara, culled from the Bhagawata-purana, the Bhagawadgita, and other Vedic texts.


This brings us to Sankaradeva’s legacy, intrinsic to any study of the man.



Literary Works


Sankaradeva’s literary output is prodigious, remarkable for a religious writer. He adopted several forms of literature: prose, verse and poetical prose, translations or adaptations, compilations from different texts, songs and lyrics, longer narratives and a doctrinal treatise. He wrote in three languages---Assamese, Assamese Brajabuli and Sanskrit. Equally proficient in all three, he would choose the one most suited for the purpose and the target audience in mind.


Propagation of his religion was Sankaradeva’s chief concern. So, he wrote most of his works in simple Assamese to make them accessible to the common people. His Bargeets and Ankiya Nats are in Assamese Brajabuli, in keeping with the pan-Indian tradition. Brajabuli further affords the use of fanciful language making for heightened drama in the Ankiya Nats. Sankaradeva wrote Bhakti Ratnakara and the Totaka hymn in Sanskrit to silence the skeptics who doubted his mastery over the language.


Vaishnava poets of the time labored within the framework of spiritual ideals. This put a curb on their creative freedom. Sankaradeva circumvented the limitation adroitly: he invoked the sentiment of Bhakti in his writings and gave a new vigor to Assamese literature. His translations of Sanskrit scriptures into Assamese are in reality transcriptions, enriched with a visceral energy his own. His was a new diction; a style and rigour which provided a model for generations of poets and above all, laid bare the beauty of plain homely Assamese. Assamese literature is fortunate to be so enriched by the writings of a man without any literature ambitions, his only object as a writer being to bring his faith to the people. The enduring body of work he left behind makes him, nearly 500 years after his death, as much a man of letters as one of God. His most popular works, the Kirtana Ghosa and the Bhagawata X-Adi, are mainstays to this day in every Assamese home.


The Kirtana Ghosa, or simply Kirtana, is the first of Sankardeva’s work written specially for the purpose of propagating his faith. It describes “the divine attributes and activities of Lord Krishna in a language within the reach of the masses, that they may understand them and sing them in devotion to the Lord.” While trying to expound his religion, “the propagandist is not a dry bone preacher but a genius adroit in his appeal, felicitous in the choice of language and expert in evoking all the poetic and aesthetic sentiments of devotion.”


Every Kirtana is meant for more than one voice, and consists of two parts: the Ghosa or refrain, and a number of Padas or verses.


For example:


            “Oh Hari, I hold on to thy feet and seek refuge;

            Oh Gopala, in the midst of the ocean of worldliness,

            Oh Madhava, I have been submerged,

            Recollecting this, I lose sleep.”


“Oh fellow men, save yourselves from imminent death, Through uttering Rama and Rama.”


The verses carry his message to his devotes with a simple immediacy:


“It is the essence of all scriptures that with Hari Nama, one can be saved from this world. Of the Puranas, the Bhagawata the Agamas, the Vedantas, this is the gist.”


“All the effects available through pilgrimage to all the scared places, all the sacrifices, the various acts of charity, observance of vows, and the achievements, obtained by the Brahmacharis, householders, ascetics and the Sanyasis all combined together are achieved at the very sight of Lord Krishna, further description is useless. On the whole, men would achieve emancipation if they, upon seeing Krishna, bow down to Him.”


The rendering of the Bhagawata marks a turn in the development of Assamese poetry. Sankaradeva translated the Bhagawata not into literary Assamese but into idiomatic Assamese. It is of an interpretative nature, written in a homely and direct style, accessible even to the unlettered. After Kirtana, Sankaradeva’s Bhagawata X-Adi is the most popular Vaishnava scripture by virtue of its sustained storytelling, rich poetry and fine versification.


Extant literary works composed by Sankaradeva amount to 26 in number. The Bhagawata IX, often ascribed to him, has not been found, while the Nimi-Navasiddha sangbad, part of Bhagawata XI, is sometimes catalogued separately under kavyas. His complete works are: Kirtana-ghosa, Gunamala; Bhagawata I,II,III (Anadi Patana), VI (Ajamil Upakhyan), VIII (Amrita manthan & Bali Chalan), X (Adi), XI & XII; Six Ankiya Nats, Patni Prasad, Rukmini Haran, Kaliya daman Yatra, Keli Gopal, Parijat Haran & Sri Ram Vijay; Six Bhakti-Tatva-Kavyas: Nimi-Navasiddha Sangbad, Bhakti Pradip, Harischandra Upakhyan, Rukmini haran, Kurukshetra & Ramayan-Uttarakhanda; Bargeets (35 nos), Raj Bhatima (2 nos), Deva Bhatima including Totaka hymn (3 nos), and the Sanskrit treatise Bhakti Ratnakara.


It is difficult to fix the chronology of these works as, out of the 26, only one bears the date of composition within the body of the text. However, Dr. Maheswar Neog, eminent Vaishnavite scholar, makes an attempt, based on the tenor of the saint’s compositions. It is said that Sankaradeva’s writing from the early (Bhuya) period, pre-1516, is characterized by youthful gaiety and exuberance; the middle (Ahom) period from 1516 to 1546- a period of great unrest and obstruction-is marked by a note of self-criticism; while the final period in Koach Behar, from 1546 to 1568, is marked as the most peaceful and also the most creative period in his life.