Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449 AD -1568 AD) was an exceptional personality in the annals of Indian history. He was not only a religious preceptor, but also a social reformer, who had sanskritized the ethnic groups of the volatile North East India and assimilated them with the national main-stream ( Bharata Varisha). He is considered as the architect of the modern Assamese race. He was a great messiah, who rescued the people from the regressive medieval practices like human sacrifice.
The biography of Srimanta Sankaradeva was written by several authors in the later stage after his death. However, amongst the early group of authors, we come across Guru Caritas by Ramcarana Thakur, Daityary Thakur, Kantha Bhusan Dwija, which are believed as authentic documents of Sankardeva’s life . The late biographies differ from the early group on the count that they ascribe supernatural feats to Sankardev, and describe miraculous events. From all these caritas and including Katha Guru Carita, it appears that the accounts of Guru’s life are narrated in a mythological way. But historical value of these Caritas also cannot be denied, whatever, difficult it may be to determine the chronological events. Sankardeva in any case, was a great socio-religious reformer, a great litterateur, an institution of culture including classical dance and music, an artist and a sculptor and one of the first prose writers in the entire world. (The prose literature is found in the ‘Ankia Naats’). The Neo-Vaishnava faith propagated by Srimanta Sankardeva went a great deal , wherever he went or his religious emissaries cum disciples to eradicate the evils of caste distinction. It is to be mentioned here that prior to the spread of the new faith, Sakta –tantricism held the country. The Saivism was also prevalent. The Yogis and Buddhist Tantric were also spreading black magic. A personality, rich with immense multi-faceted qualities not to be found in any religious reformers of the world, Srimanta Sankaradeva influenced the lives and style of the people around and therefore, is considered by his followers as an incarnation of Lord Krishna, the Jagat Guru. In all the Vaishnava Sattras there is a system of studying and narrating Guru’s life story (Carit tola to eradicate the social evils from the society and to reassert human values including equal vision, sense of equality and nishkam karma). It is the philosophy, direction and guidance to human beings by Mahapurush Sankardeva.
As stated earlier, Sankaradeva, was born into the Shiromani (chief) Baro-Bhuyans family at Bardowa in 1449. His father was Kusumvara and the mother was Satyasandhya Devi. Sankardev lost his father when he was about 7 years old and his mother died after three days of ( Sri Sri Sankardeva and Sri Sri Madhav Deva , p 13 Lakshi Nath Bezbaruah) and there after he was raised by his grandmother Khersuti. The early flowering of the great genius was known, when he wrote his first verses karatala-kamala —. Sankara was baptized as Sankardeva by Guru Mahendra Kandali .
According to Carit Kara , he could swim across the river Brahmaputra while it was in spate. He practiced Yoga and his expertise as wrestler was known from the Carit puthi , when he won over a bull. The intelligent genius Sankara studied grammer and most of the scriptures of Sanatana Dharma during these days. After returning from Mahendra Kandali’s Tol,he attended to his responsibilities as Shiromani Bhuyan and came to be known as Dekagiri. Sankardeva , once expressed thoughts to his companion RamRam Guru to construct a ‘Deva Mandira’ at Bardowa. He got an institutional structure built at Tembuwani in 1468 AD. An idol of Lord Vishnu was found under the earth at the construction site. At the time of installation of the idol on the altar, the flowers given to the idol by the Brahmanas were found miraculously on the head of Sankardeva. Seeing all miracles, all the Brahmanas performing Puja asked him to give Sarana as Guru. Sankardeva wrote ‘Gopi Uddhava Sangvada’and gave Sarana to the Brahmanas by placing the scripture at the altar. . A prayer-house called Kirtanghar, which is surrounded by huts for the devotees was also constructed.It is also believed that he wrote his first work, Harishchandra upakhyan at that time to give Sarana Mahapurusha , while preaching his religious ideology often referred to heaven saying that Hari nama takes the people to heaven. One day , Burha Khan and other Brahmana pundits requested him to show the heaven as to how was that like. A high stage was built. He painted on tulapat or ginned cotton paper scenes of the sapta baikuntha (seven heavens),while performing “Chihna yatra” on that stage and played the role of Bayana, Natuwa, Sutradhar. He played the musical instruments by himself. “Chihna yatra” was staged continuously for seven days at Batadrava in 1468 AD. . This multi dimensional skills and knowledge in performing art, music, dance and acting influenced all sections of the people to Bhakti movement led by Srimanta Sankardeva .Carit karas wrote that Mahendra Kandali took Sarana from Sankardeva at that time.
Sankardeva married his first wife Suryavati when he was in 21 and a daughter, Manu, was born in about three years. . His wife died about nine months later. There was shortage of water in Bardowa. One night there was heavy shower and asking his disciples to chant Harinama, a miracle occurred. The Bata Briksha was drowned and a lake was created, which is presently known as Akashi Ganga. Sankardeva gave his daughter in marriage thereafter and went for pilgrimage for twelve years along with his disciples.
The pilgrimage :
Srimanta Sankaradeva went for the pilgrimage for twelve years in 1481onwards. During that period, he met scholars and had religious discourse with them mainly on Bhaktivada (Sanatan Dharma) . He was greatly appreciated and was able to preach his ideology in the rest of India .He first visited Jagannath Dham at Puri and moved westward to visit Gaya , Kashi, Prayag , Ayodhya and Sita Kunda along with his four disciples namely Sarvajoy, Paramananda , Ram Ram Guru and Baloram. There had been hordes of people at Puri who took to Eka Sharana Nâma Dharma. in 1493 AD at these places. From Prayag they went to Baraha Tirtha , Brindabana and Mathura. A distinguished scholar named Vrindavana Das also became disciple of Srimanta Sankaradeva at Vrindavan. Two ascetics named Radha and Trijata of Vrindavan and Vrajadham respectively were defeated by him in the debate by Srimanta Sankaradeva and they were brought to the Bhakti discipline.. From Brindabana they went to Dwaraka and then to Badarikashram, where Srimanta Sankardeva wrote a Bargeet ‘Mana Meri Ram charanahi Lagoo’. Ramakanta of Upa-Dwaraka and poet Gopinath of Puskar, also became his disciples From Badarikashram they returned to Bardowa.
Later part in Bardowa:
On his return from his pilgrimage (1493AD ), Sankardev refused to take back the Shiromaniship. At the insistence of his elders, he took back the responsibility of a hundred families (gomastha). He received a copy of the Bhagavata Purana from Jagadisa Mishra of Mithila and Mishra recited the entire Bhagavata in the presence of Sankardev . Greatly influenced he wrote Bhakti pradipa and Rukmini harana thereafte. The Guru married Kalindi Aai after his return from pilgrimage at the age of fifty four in 1503. Bardowa than was built thereafter to give a complete shape of Sattra like Naimisha Kshetra. in 1509 by establishing ‘cari hati’ , ‘kirtanghar’ and ‘Manikut’. The Kirtanghar or Namghar was the centre stage of Sattra and was managed in democratic way to be administered by bhakatas However this Sattra institution got its full shape at Patbausi only.
The biographical text of Mahapurusha Sankardeva narrated creation of Shantijan as follows. There was a rivulet of river Brahmaputra, known as Tembuani Jan flowing by the side of the village Bardowa. The flood water entered through that rivulet causing damage to crops and property of villagers, who were the subjects of Bara Bhuyan. They prayed to Shiromani Bhuyan Sankardeva to take appropriate measures for protection of life and property from flood damage. Srimanta Sankardeva appealed to all people to identify one “sati “ ( chaste woman) saying that she had to bring one pot full of water to build the dam in a “Polo” ( a basket with three bamboo sticks for catching fish) . The wives of Brahmins failed in their attempts. Radhika heard it and as asked by Sankardeva, she attempted and brought the water in that Polo. The other people also participated thereafter to bring earth and the Tembuani Jan was diverted to the south. Bardowa was saved . Bardowa got a new name Tembuani Bandh thenceforth.Social evil of untouchability and gender inequality have no place in Sankardeva’s thoughts and philosophy. The rivulet is still flowing on the north of Bardowa and is known as ShantiJan.
The great social reforms started under the “Guru” from Bardowa. The “Guru” lived in Bardowa up to 67 years and left the place with his disciples leaving behind all the memoirs due to incessant attack by Kacharis.
Bardowa became deserted from 1515 AD to 1655 AD till it was rediscovered by Mahapurusha Sankardeva’s granddaughter –in- law Aai Kanaklata( Aai Lakshi) with the assistance and support provided by Ahom King Jayadhwaj Singha through Tangachu Phukan. The landmarks of Bardowa in Shantijan, Akashi Ganga and Daul (a high stage), as heard from her grandmother-in –law Kalindi Aai made her task easy to locate Bardowa than.
Due to the quarrel with the Kachari neighbours and their frequent attacks , Sankardeva decided to leave Bardowa along with his disciples and that brought to an end to the independence of ‘Bara Bhyuan’ in the year 1516–17. They first settled at Singari. Thereafter they further advanced to Routa and then to Gangmau in the Ahom’s territory. At Gangmau they stayed for five years where Sankardev’s eldest son Ramananda was born. At Gangmau, he wrote the drama Patniprasad.
Srimanta Sankardeva next moved to Dhuwahata near Ahatguri in the present day Majuli due to unsettled situation at Gangmau.The Guru met his spiritual successor ‘ barhar pu’ Madhav Deva , who was a Tantric that time . After a long debate, Sankardeva convinced him the principles of ‘Ek Sarana Namdharma’. Greatly influenced by Vaishnavism and Mahapurusha , he took ‘sarana’ in ‘ Namdharma’ ‘ At Dhuwahata Mahapurusha could attract a wider attention and popularity , which resulted in the initiation of many people to his newly founded faith. The popularity of Ek Sarana Namdharma and conversion of people alarmed the priestly Brahmins and they complained to Ahom King Suhungmung (1497–1539), against Mahapurusha . Sankardev was able to convince the king that he was not a religious rebel and a threat to the social order. After 14 years at Dhuwahata, Sankardeva escaped from the Ahom kingdom as they were apathetically treated and his son- in- law Hari was executed by Ahom King and Madhavdeva was made captive.
Sankardev and his followers reached Kapala in Koch kingdom in later part of 1540. They stayed there for 6 months. Thereafter they stayed for a brief period at Cunpora , where Bhabananda Saud took Sarana ,who was given the name Narayan Das Thakur Ata by Mahapurush Sankardeva. They moved to Kumarcuchi thereafter to finally settle at Patbausi in Koch Kingdom .
Sankardeva was appointed as Gomostha by Koch King at Patbausi. Soon after he resigned from the Office and began to preach his religious ideology. Here a ,Muslim taylor Chandsai, was initiated. Some of the people he initiated here are Chakrapani Dwija and Sarvabhaum Bhattacharya, Brahmins; Govinda, a Garo; Jayaram, a Bhutia; Madhai, a Jaintia; Jatiram, an ascetic; and Murari, a Koch. Damodardev, a Brahmin, was also initiated by Sankardev, who was entrusted by Sankardev to initiate Brahmin disciples. A Sattra was also constructed for him at Patbausi itself.
Sankardeva set out for the 2nd pilgrimage from Patbausi accompanied by Madhavdeva, Ramrai, Ramarama , and others at the old age of ninety seven. Madhavdeva , on the request of Kalindi Ai ( wife of Sankardeva) brought them back within sex months from Puri.
Death at Coochbehar:
While Sankardeva was at Patbausi, many people conspired against him and reported to King Naranarayana that Sankardeva was corrupting the minds of the people by spreading a new religion. The King ordered his arrest. However, Chilaraya ,the Great Warrior kidnapped Sankardeva on the pretext of arrest and brought safely to his Palace . Chilaraya married Kamalpriya ( Bhubaneswari), the daughter Sankardeva’s cousin Ramrai while the Guru was at Patbausi, and that was most important event in the annals of Vaishnavite history of Assam . Chilaraya pleaded the King to give a hearing to Sankardeva before condemning him. The King agreed to do so. Sankardeva impressed the King by composing ‘Gunmala’ (the condensed version of ten chapters of Bhagavata Purana in a small booklet, called Bhurukat Hati Bharoa , meaning an elephant squeezed in to a lime pot) and got Royal support to freely spread his religion. Sankardeva began attending the Royal court at the king’s request.
All of Sankardev’s literary and dramatic works were completed here with Royal patronage and protection from the Koch King . Sankardev shuttled between Kochbehar and Patbausi. During his visits to the Koch Behar royal court, Sankaradeva agreed to have the narrative of Lord Krishna inscribed on cloth in pictorial form. Sankardeva engaged the weavers of Tantikuchi, near Barpeta, to weave the cloth depicting Krishna’s early life in Vrindavan. It is known as Vrindabani Vastra , now prese rved at British Museum London.Sankardeva left Patbausi keeping his family there for Bheladonga in Kochbehar as the king Naranarayana wanted him always in his court. One day , the king expressed his wish to be initiated. Sankardeva was against the initiation of kings as it might not be possible for them to properly submit their body and minds to the paramatma and in the midst of discipline of Nam Dharma. Sankardeva passed away after four months of stay at Bheladonga in 1568 .
Literary works :
Mahapurush Sankaedeva was a great and unparalleled literary figure of the 15th – 16th Century. He also brought cultural resurgence in the medieval Assam, accelerated the pace of development of fine arts like music and painting. Hari Narayan Dutta Barua wrote in the Introduction of ‘Srimanta Sankar Bakyamrita’ ‘ He enlarged the scope of language with the boldness of a creative genius , coined the novel idiom of ‘Brajabuli’ and added to the variety of the verse-forms’. Dr Maheswar Neog observed ‘The use of Assamese , an Indo-Aryan language , which formed but an island in a Tibeto-Burman sea, as the medium for the propagation of the neo-vaishnava faith led to its emergence as a language of all the people”.He further wrote “ His soul and his message of love have permeated into the national consciousness and very being of the people. His name is ever on his nation’s lips, and his music in the country’s heart”.
Hari Narayan Dutta Barua divided Sankara’s literature into three periods, conforming to his life respectively- in Kayastha’s territory , in the Ahom kingdom and in the Koch kingdom under the head of three periods as follows.
Harichandra-upakhyana, Bhakti-pradipa, Kirtana –ghosa (Uresha –varnan, Ajamila-upakhyana, Prahlada-caritra, Haramohona, Balichalana, Gajendra-upakhyana, Caturvimsati-avatara-varnana,Dhyana-varnana, Rukminiharana –kavya,Bargeeta, Bhagavata-VI (Ajamila-upakhyana), Bhagavata VIII (Gajendra-upakhyana, Amrita-mathana and Haramohana), Gunamala ( ch ii-vi).
Kirtana –ghosa (Pasanda-mardana,Nama-aparadha, Sisu-lila, Rasha-krida, Kangsha-vadha, Gopi-Uddhava-sangvada,Kuji-vancha-purana, Akrura-vansha –purana sectiona),
Balichalana, Anadi-patana,Kirtana –ghosa (Jarasandha vadha , Muchukunda-stuti, Naradar- Krishna-darshana, Bipra-putra-anayana, Damodara-bipraupakhyana, Daivakira –putra-anayana, , Vedastuti,, Lila-mala,Rukmimir-prema-kalaha, Bhrigu –pariksha, ) Bhagavata-X, XI, XII, Bhagavata-I and II,Nimi-nava-siddha –sangvada, Gunamala- ch-I, Uttarakanda- Ramayana, Bargeeta, Bhakti-Ratnakara, , Kaliya-damana nat,Keli-gopala nat, Rukmini-harana nat, Parijata-harana nat, and Ram-vijoya- nat, Totaya and Chapaya.
– Sri Sankar Bakyamrit Edited by Hari Narayan Dutta Barua , Sahitya Ratna (1953)
– Laxmi Nath Bezbaruah(1914), “Sri Sri Sankardeva and Sri Sri Madhavdeva”,
– “Glimpses of the Vaishnava Heritage of Assam”, Asom Sattra Mahasabha, Edited by Dr. Pradip Jyoti Mahanta (2001)
– “Glimpses of the Sattra Institution of Asom” (2006),Vivekananda kendra Institute of Cultura
– “Guru carit katha” 4th Edition, Edited by Dr. Maheswar Neog(2012)
– Articles on Sankardeva in the wesites