Srimanta Sankardeva : The Pioneer of Assamese Culture

Srimanta Sankara Hari Bhokotoro

Jana Jen Kalpataru

Tahanto binai nai nai nai

Amaro Parama Guru

Nam Ghosa, Sri Madhavdeva

This ghosa from Sri Madhavdeva’s Naam Ghosa places Srimanta Sankardeva as the Supreme preceptor, the guru who united the people of Assam religiously and culturally. Srimanta Sankardeva was like the holy tree, Kalpataru, who gave shelter to people of all religions and communities and gave them the meaning of life which is to devote themselves in the worship of the Supreme Being, Krishna. Srimanta Sankardeva’s Krishna is not merely an avatar but Narayana himself, the Supreme Reality, the Parama Brahma. The people of Assam considers Srimanta Sankardeva as their reverend Guru, the one whose contributions to the shaping of the Assamese culture is unprecedented and remarkable. He was the pioneer of Assamese culture.

Early Life:

Srimanta Sankardeva was a 15th- 16th century saint-scholar, poet, playwright, and a great social and religious reformer of Assam. Sankardeva was born in Bordowa, Nagaon on 26th September 1449 in the Shiromani Baro-Bhuyan family who were independent landlords and belonged to the Kayastha Hindu caste. He was named Sankaravara. He lost his parents at an early age and was raised by his grandmother Khersuti. At the age of 12 he started attending the tol or chatrasaal, meaning school, of Mahendra Kandali. He composed his first verses Kartal-Kamala soon after entering the school, and this verse is an exemplary verse highlighting his poetic genius. It was Mahendra Kandali who changed his name to Sankardeva. It is also believed that it was in this tol that he wrote his first work Harishchandra Upakhyan.

Srimanta Sankardeva
Source: indiaonline.in

Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma:

Srimanta Sankardeva inspired the pan-Indian Bhakti Movement in Assam and propagated the Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma or Neo-Vaishnavism. Literally meaning “shelter in one religion”, Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma focuses on devotion to Krishna in the form of congregational listening (shravan) and singing (kirtan) his name and deeds. But unlike other schools of Vaishnavas, ek-sarana-naam-dharma doesn’t worship Radha with Krishna, and rejects all focus on vedic rituals. Sankardeva’s Krishna is Narayana, the Supreme Reality or Param Brahma and not merely an avatar. Maha meaning Supreme and purush meaning Being, literally translates the religion as Mahapurushia and the Supreme Being as Mahapurush.

The four principles of Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma are:

  • Naam: The chanting of the name of the Supreme Being and singing his praises.
  • Deva: Worship of a single God, i.e., Krishna.
  • Guru: Reverence of a Guru or preceptor.
  • Bhakat: The association or the congress of devotees.

Sankardeva preached his religion of Neo-Vaishnavism to everyone and whoever wished to adhere were given sarana, which was a system to initiate people into this religion. The people who practiced Neo-Vaishnavism were called Mahapurushia, Sarania and Sankari. The institutions of Namghar and Satra were created for people to gather and engage in naam and other cultural activities.

The central religious text of Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma is Bhagavat of Sankardeva, which was rendered from the Sanskrit Bhagavat Purana. The three other main texts of the religion are Kirtana Ghosa of Srimanta Sankardeva, Naam Ghosa and Ratnavali of Sri Madhavdeva.

Cultural Contributions:

Srimanta Sankardeva’s contributions to the shaping of the Assamese culture is immense. Under the umbrella of Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma several dance, song and other art forms were propagated by him which are practiced widely even today. Ankiya Naat, Bhaona, Sattriya Nritya, Borgeet apart from his great poetic works form a major part of the Assamese culture.

Ankiya Naat and Bhaona

Bhaona performance
Source: vajiramias.com

Ankiya Naat are a class of one-act plays created by Srimanta Sankardeva. These plays are usually centered on Krishna and are written in the Brajavali language which gives them a certain poetic rendering. Some notable Ankiya Naat of Srimanta Sankardeva are:

  • Cihna Yatra
  • Patni-prasada
  • Janma-yatra
  • Kangsa-badha
  • Parijat-harana
  • Kali-damana
  • Rukmini-harana
  • Keli-gopala
  • Srirama-vijaya

The text of a few of these plays have been lost with time. The performances associated with these Ankiya Naat are called Bhaona. Live instruments, singers, dance and elaborate costumes are the essential elements of a traditional bhaona. These performances were created to spread moral and religious awareness through the medium of entertainment.

Gayan-Bayan which is a form of dance is performed before the enactment of the play. The performers play the instruments khul and taal, while dancing at the same time. Then enters the Sutradhar, who narrates the play to the audience. After this starts the actual enactment of the play by the performers.

Sattriya Nritya

Sattriya Nritya performance
Source: indusscrolls.com

Sattriya Nritya is a classical dance form with its roots in the ancient drama and music texts of India, particularly the Natya Shastra. Srimanta Sankardeva modernized this existing form and introduced drama and expressive dancing, nritta and nritya, as a form of community religious art for emotional devotion to Krishna. During his time this dance form was practiced by the monks inside satras and namghars in the form of dance-drama centered around Krishna. In the second half of the 20th century this dance form went out to the metropolitan stage and both men and women started performing this dance form. The Sangeet Natak Academy recognized Satriya Nritya as an official classical dance of India in the year 2000.

Borgeet

Pawe pori Hari, koruhu katori

Prana rakhobi mur

Bikhoi bikhodhoro, bikhe joro joro

Jeevan narohe thuro

Srimanta Sankardeva

Borgeet are a collection of lyrical songs composed by Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Sri Madhavdeva. These are devotional songs written in the Brajavali language, set to specific ragas but no taal. A prayer service in the naamghar or satra starts with the devotional Borgeet. Srimanta Sankardeva wrote his first borgeet ” Mon meri Ram saranehi laagu” in Brajavali language while on his pilgrimage to Badrikashrama. He composed around 240 borgeet in total and compiled them in a book which got burned in a wildfire.

His favourite disciple Sri Madhavdeva followed his footsteps and composed around 157 borgeet and carried forward the legacy.

Literary Contributions:

Srimanta Sankardeva was a great poetic genius whose contributions in the literary scene of Assam is noteworthy. Some of the major religious texts that every Assamese adhere to were compositions of this great saint and reformer. Some of his major literary works are:

  • Kirtana-Ghosa
  • Harishchandra-upakhyan
  • Ajamilopakhyana
  • Bali-chalana
  • Kurukshetra-yatra
  • Gopi-uddhava-samvada
  • Amrita-manthana
  • Krishna-prayana-pandava-niryana
  • Kamajaya

He also translated eight books from Bhagavat Purana which was named Bhagavat, and is the main text of Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma or Neo-Vaishnavism. Some other texts of Bhakti theory composed by him are:

  • Bhakatipradipa
  • Anadi-patana
  • Nimi-navasiddha-samvada
  • Bhakti Ratnakar
  • Gunamala

Conclusion:

Hari naamo raxe, Boikuntha prokaxe

Prem amritara nodi

Srimanta Sankare, paar bhangi dile

Bohe brahmandoko vedi

Naam Ghosa, Sri Madhavdeva

Srimanta Sankardeva broke all shackles and created an ideal place for everyone to live in. A place where devotion to Krishna and naam ras ran through the veins of the people thereby bringing them closer to the Supreme Being.

Srimanta Sankardeva breathed his last on 23rd August 1568 in Bheladonga, Cooch Behar leaving behind a rich cultural legacy for the Assamese to inherit. This inheritance is far meaningful and expensive, an inheritance that defines the roots of the Assamese culture.