By: Dipak Kurmi
In the intricate tapestry of Assam’s rich history, culture, and spiritual heritage, the luminary figure of Śaṅkaradeva stands as an indelible beacon of enlightenment. A true polymath of his era, his multifaceted contributions reverberate through the annals of Assamese society, leaving an enduring legacy. Śaṅkaradeva’s profound impact transcended the boundaries of culture, spirituality, and literature, ushering in a renaissance of unparalleled significance. His visionary ideals found expression in the sacred doctrine of eka-sarana-nama-dharma, igniting the fervent flames of the bhakti tradition that he ardently nurtured and propagated during the vibrant 15th century, forever reshaping the spiritual and artistic landscape of Assam.
Śaṅkaradeva’s entry into this world in October 1449 was into a noble lineage, born to Kusumvara Kāyastha Bhuyān and Satyasandhā, the Siromani of Bhuyāns. Fate, however, wove a different path for him as the untimely loss of his parents compelled his upbringing by his devoted grandmother, Khersuti. In the embrace of knowledge, young Śaṅkaradeva was enrolled in a tola, guided under the nurturing wing of Mahendra Kandali, where he immersed himself in the profound wisdom of ancient texts, emerging as a master of their profound teachings. Upon completing his scholastic journey, the mantle of Siromani Bhuyān’s responsibilities fell upon him. Life’s course led him to the tranquil waters of matrimony with Suryāvati, and together they welcomed the gift of a daughter, either known as Manu or Haripriyā. Yet, destiny’s somber touch cast a shadow when his beloved wife departed, leaving his heart cloaked in sorrow.
In the transformative year of 1481, Śaṅkaradeva embarked on a sacred odyssey that would reshape the very essence of his being. Journeying through the hallowed landscapes of North India, he encountered a tapestry of experiences that etched an enduring impression on his social, spiritual, philosophical, and religious convictions. Amidst the sanctity of Badarikāshrama, his creative spirit soared as he composed his inaugural Borgeet, a melody that resonated with divine inspiration. These peregrinations served as the crucible for the emergence of the Neo-Vaiṣṇava bhakti doctrine, expanding the horizons of his spiritual perception. The arrival of Jagadīśa Mīsra’s complete Bhāgavata Purāṇ further enriched his spiritual tapestry, infusing his outlook with profound depth. These pivotal moments held profound implications for Śaṅkaradeva’s life and spiritual journey. Upon returning from his pilgrimage, although entrusted with the responsibilities of Siromani Bhuyān once more, he chose the path of unwavering devotion, dedicating himself wholeheartedly to the propagation of the Bhakti message. A second marriage, to Kalindi, marked the dawn of an active phase in his mission to spread the bhakti creed, culminating in another transformative pilgrimage in 1550.
Throughout his enduring and dynamic existence, Śaṅkaradeva found himself in a perpetual dance with adversity, facing formidable adversaries that included not only powerful monarchs but also staunch orthodox factions within society, all vehemently resistant to his pioneering religious movement. To evade the relentless storms of opposition, he was compelled to embark on a nomadic journey, perpetually shifting his base of operations. And so, the great polymath’s earthly sojourn, marked by unwavering resilience and an indomitable spirit, reached its final chapter in 1568, leaving behind a legacy that would endure as a beacon of enlightenment for generations to come.
Śaṅkaradeva’s spiritual legacy, known as eka-sarana-nama-dharma or Mahapurushiya dharma, embodies a profound devotion and a singular path of worship, centered on the veneration of one deity, primarily the divine incarnation of Viṣṇu as Krishna. In the tapestry of this tradition, the term ‘sarana’ resonates with a deep resonance, signifying the quest for refuge, shelter, and divine protection. Thus, at its core, eka-sarana-nama-dharma beckons seekers to find solace and sanctuary in a singular God. Rooted in the sacred verses of the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, Śaṅkaradeva’s teachings and religious principles draw inspiration from a tapestry of texts, including the Bhāgavata-gitā and Vāmaṇa-purāṇa, weaving a rich and intricate fabric of devotion that continues to resonate through the ages.
Śaṅkaradeva’s paramount mission was the purification of Assam’s religious landscape by shedding extraneous elements that had encroached upon its sanctity. He ardently advocated the practice of two primary forms of bhakti, namely śravana (the act of devoutly listening to the name of God) and kīrtana (the fervent chanting of the divine name). To disseminate the philosophical and spiritual essence of the Neo-Vaiṣṇava bhakti tradition, he ingeniously devised practices and institutions. Among these, the establishment of cultural sanctuaries such as Namghars and Satras held pivotal significance, serving as hubs for collective prayers while emphasizing the importance of inner and outer purity. These venerable institutions remain steadfast in their role as guardians of literature, music, theater, dance, manuscript craftsmanship, painting, and the preservation of diverse crafts, etching their enduring influence on Assamese cultural and spiritual heritage.
To truly fathom the profound impact of Śaṅkaradeva’s religious philosophy and spiritual vision, one must align them with his role as a visionary social reformer. At the heart of his bhakti tradition lay the potent message of universal brotherhood, a vital catalyst in the sculpting of Assamese society, particularly against the backdrop of its fragmented history. Assam’s social tapestry, a mosaic of linguistic diversity, religious affiliations, tribal identities, and linguistic communities, was interwoven with intricate rituals and practices. In the face of such division, Śaṅkaradeva’s bhakti message served as a unifying force, harmonizing disparate elements into the cohesive Neo-Vaiṣṇava community. Despite fierce opposition from orthodox quarters, he tirelessly endeavored to disseminate his message among the masses through his literary creations, thus sowing the seeds of unity, integration, and enlightenment amidst the multifaceted landscape of Assamese society.
“Kirata Kachari Khasi Garo Miri
Yavana kanka goala
Asama malaka Rajaka Turuka
Kuvacha mlechcha chandala
Ano Jata nara Krishna sevakara
Sangata Pavitra haya (Bhagavata 1270/1271)”
Translation: The Kiratas, the Kacharis, the Khasis, the Garos, the Miri (Misings), the Yavanas, the Goalas, the Asamas (Ahoms), the Malukas, the Rajakas, the Turukas, the Kuvachas, the Mlechchas, the Chandalas, and others become pure in the company of the devotees of Krishna.
“Kukura Srigala gardhabaro atma Rama
Janiya savako pari Kariba pranama. (Kirtana 1823)”
Even the dogs, srigalas, and asses are verily God. Knowing this, respect and salute them all.
Srimanta Śaṅkaradeva embarked on a transformative mission to reshape society, with a fervent drive to bridge the yawning gaps that divided people. His creation of Namghars stood as sanctuaries where individuals from myriad castes and communities could congregate, uniting their voices in the harmonious acts of śravana and kīrtana. Yet, perhaps the most profound facet of his religious philosophy lay in its inclusive nature, a testament to his commitment to fold people from diverse backgrounds into the embracing embrace of the Neo-Vaiṣṇava order. He labored tirelessly, translating sacred Vaiṣṇava texts into the accessible language of Brajavali, disseminating spiritual wisdom among the masses, while endeavoring to strip away the external trappings that had encrusted the core of religious rites and rituals. In this pursuit, Śaṅkaradeva carved a path toward unity, compassion, and spiritual awakening, erasing the lines that once separated the people of Assam.
Among the myriad legacies bestowed upon Assamese society by Śaṅkaradeva, his indelible mark on the realms of literature, art, and culture gleams with resplendent brilliance. Within this vast tapestry of contributions, one encounters the unmistakable imprint of extraordinary literary prowess and genius. Śaṅkaradeva’s literary oeuvre, a mosaic of translations, devotional literature, doctrinal treatises, soul-stirring devotional songs, compilations, and adaptations, resonates as a testament to his multifaceted talents. It’s in the lyrical embrace of the Brajawali language that he wove these literary treasures, etching his name forever as a luminary whose creative legacy continues to illuminate Assamese heritage.
At the heart of Śaṅkaradeva’s profound religious tenets lies the sacred Bhāgavata-purāṇa, serving as the wellspring of his spiritual wisdom. A remarkable literary luminary, he meticulously translated eight of the twelve books contained within this venerable scripture, with the Adi Dasama, chronicling the enchanting tales of Krishna’s early childhood and playful exploits, emerging as a cherished gem among them. Not content with mere translation, Śaṅkaradeva composed the Nimi Nava Siddhi Samvāda, a doctrinal treatise infused with the essence of the Bhāgavata’s eleventh chapter. Yet, perhaps most astonishing was the creation of Gunamala, a magnum opus conceived in a single night, encapsulating the Bhāgavata’s quintessence in six soul-stirring kirtans. His literary tapestry further unfolded with early compositions like Hariścandra-upākhyāna and Rukmini Harana Kavya, while the opus known as Kīrtana-ghosā, a compendium of devotional songs designed for congregational prayers, ascended to revered status within the Assamese community, echoing through the hallowed halls of Namghars during daily devotions. Beyond these, his literary legacy encompassed Bhakti Pradipa, fervently denouncing the worship of deities other than Krishna, the translation of the Uttara-Kāṇḍa section of the Rāmāyaṇa (an augmentation to Madhav Kandali’s Saptakāṇḍa Rāmāyaṇa), Bhatimas, an innovative form of poetry extolling gurus and God, Borgeets, devotional songs, and the timeless Ankiya Naats, among other enduring compositions.
Śaṅkaradeva’s impact on the performing arts stands as an unmatched legacy, a symphony of creativity that resonates through time. His innovations span a rich tapestry of artistic endeavors, from the conceptualization of Ankiya Naats, enchanting theatrical plays, to the soul-stirring melodies of Borgeets that echo with devotion. The Bhaonas, his vivid dramatic productions, breathe life into ancient tales and spiritual narratives, while the elegant Sattriya dance style, a transcendent expression of grace and spirituality, continues to enrapture audiences with its timeless beauty. In the realm of the performing arts, Śaṅkaradeva’s genius remains an enduring source of inspiration, a testament to his profound impact on the cultural heritage of Assam.
Śaṅkaradeva’s Ankiya Naats stand as extraordinary theatrical creations, a bridge between religious philosophy, native entertainment forms, and the structural finesse of classical Sanskrit drama. These plays, a medium for the dissemination of Neo-Vaishnavism’s profound tenets, epitomize his artistic ingenuity. Among them, the inaugural performance of “Cihna Yatra,” although regrettably lost to the sands of time, marked the genesis of this theatrical tradition. Śaṅkaradeva’s pen gave life to six enduring Ankiya Naats, including “Kāli Damana Yātrā,” “Patnī-Prasād,” “Keli Gopāla Nāṭaka,” “Rukmiṇī Haraṇa Nāṭa,” “Pārijāta Haraṇa Nāṭaka,” and “Śrī Rāma-Vijaya Nāṭa,” all composed in the lyrical embrace of Brajavali and steeped in Vaiṣṇava scriptures. Remarkably, these one-act wonders defy conventional divisions, embracing a seamless narrative flow. The vibrant performances, known as Bhaona, come to life within the sacred precincts of Namghars during special occasions, further elevated by the graceful Sattriya dance form. Rooted in classical tradition, Sattriya dances unfold with precision, guided by rules of rhythm, presentation, and melodic harmony, embodying the essence of Śaṅkaradeva’s artistic vision.
Śaṅkaradeva’s gift of Borgeets, these sacred devotional songs, stands as a timeless testament to his enduring influence. These living traditions, cherished and sung by people to this very day, resonate with spiritual resonance. Composed in the lyrical embrace of Brajavali, these Borgeets are a tapestry woven with the threads of ragas and talas, their melodies intertwining seamlessly. Accompanied by a symphony of musical instruments, these songs are an enchanting expression of devotion set to harmonious tunes. According to the Katha Guru Carita, the biography that chronicles the life of Śaṅkaradeva and other Vaiṣṇava saints, the treasury of Borgeets stands at an impressive count of 240, a treasure trove of spiritual melodies that continues to echo through the ages.
In the realm of artistic expression, Śaṅkaradeva’s contributions extended to the mesmerizing world of painting. His early foray into this domain was noted during the performance of the play “Cihna Yatra,” a testament to his multifaceted talents. Among his notable masterpieces, the “Vrindavani Vastra” stands as a dazzling gem, a gift bestowed upon King Naranarayana. This remarkable cloth, spanning a breathtaking 180 feet, unveiled a rich tapestry of scenes from Krishna’s life, each miniature accompanied by evocative captions. Furthermore, the “Chitra Bhagavata” emerged as another awe-inspiring compilation, a visual symphony that breathed life into the Tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana through its captivating illustrations. In the hands of Śaṅkaradeva, the canvas itself became a portal to the divine, a testament to his profound artistic vision and craftsmanship.
Śaṅkaradeva’s imprint upon the religious and socio-cultural tapestry of the greater Assamese community stands as an unrivaled legacy. His stature as a champion of Neo-Vaishnavism transcends regional boundaries, echoing as a resounding chapter not only in Assam’s history but also in the broader narrative of bhakti traditions that resonate across the expanse of the country. His profound influence continues to reverberate, an enduring testament to his pivotal role in reshaping the spiritual and cultural landscape, forging a path of devotion and unity that resonates through the ages. (The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)