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The man who heralded culture and unity in Assam
From Namghars to Satras, Sankardeva’s influence on the society and culture of Assam is enormous. His very emergence in the socio-political climate of his time led to, what many scholars have referred to as, the “cultural renaissance” in Assam.
An imaginary portrait of Sankardeva created by Bishnu Prasad Rabha. Source: Wikipedia

From the world of Assam

The 15th and the 16th centuries witnessed the rise of Bhakti or devotional movements in several parts of India. Irrespective of their regional variations, what connected these different strands of Bhakti, was their mutual opposition to the dominant Brahmanical norms and institutions. The Bhakti leaders of the 15th-16th centuries wanted to alleviate if not completely eliminate, the inequalities in the society pertaining to caste, religion, and so on.

Similar was the nature of the Bhakti Movement that was ushered in by Sankardeva in Assam. But at the same time, there was a novelty, a unique essence in the way this movement developed in Assam. Perhaps, this can be attributed to the personal qualities of the founder himself. So, who was Sankardeva and how immense were his contributions to Assam?

The year attributed to the birth of Sankardeva is 1449 AD.  Sankardeva was born to a family of administrators called Siromani in Alipukhuri, Nagaon. Orphaned at an early age, he grew up under the care of his grandmother, Khersuti. Since his early days, Sankardeva demonstrated the qualities of a great scholar. Although he wasn’t too keen on taking up the family duties of Siromani, he nonetheless fulfilled them. That was until his wife, Suryavati, passed away.

The death of his wife became a turning point in Sankardeva’s life as he soon found himself drawn to the call of spirituality and social reforms. Along with a few companions, he embarked upon a religious journey to Jagannath Puri, where he encountered several other followers of Bhakti.

Inspired by their ideas of equality, brotherhood and monism (the belief that God is one), he returned to his hometown, where he founded his faith of monotheism in Assam. Thus, began the Neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam, founded upon Ekasarana-Nama Dharma.

The genesis of Sankardeva’s Ekasarana-Nama-Dharma can be traced to the Bhagwad Gita and the Puranas. He incorporated various elements of these religious texts and formulated his own belief based on his interpretations. He argued, based on his inferences of Bhagavata Purana, that Krishna was the primary God and all other deities were incarnations of the same God. This argument won over Madhavdeva, a staunch Shakta Bhakt, who went on to become the successor of Sankardeva.

Upon his return from his pilgrimage in 1494 AD, Sankardeva built a small temple in Bordowa, near Nagaon, making it the centre of religious and intellectual discussions and teachings. This very initiative became the basis of the monastic order or satras (pronounced ‘xatras’) that were founded in Barpeta, Majuli and several other regions after Sankardeva’s death. It is believed that the word Satra was derived from the Satapatha Brahmana, where the term was first used.

It is important to note that the Satras do not have the typical characteristics of other monasteries.

Satras are not merely the centres of religious learning, but they are also the platform where art and culture flourish.

Even today, satras in Assam act as centres, where people from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds come to mingle in performances like Bhaonas (dance dramas) and celebrate Dol Utsav, Janmashtami etc.

Every Satra has its own Namghar (prayer hall), meant exclusively for devotees to engage in deep devotional activities like Borgeet, Naam Kirtan, etc. The appeal of the Namghar owed to its transcendence over all barriers, as it included people of different faiths and castes.

The entrance of Barpeta Xatra, located in Assam (left). The Vaishnava saints, preparing for Naam (right). Source: Natural Holidays

The heterogeneous society of Assam, thus became a homogenous unit, within the walls of satras and Namghars. Tribes like Moran, Kachari, Chutiya, Deori etc., also became involved in the spread of the Neo-Vaishnavite movement. In a way, it led to, what some sociologists would call, the Hinduization of tribes in Assam. Yet, it cannot be denied that Sankardeva’s philosophy provided an escape for all those people who were oppressed by the orthodox Brahmanical norms.

The Neo-Vaishnavism of Sankardeva also abolished the existing Tantric beliefs and practices that Assamese people were popularly associated with, and ushered in a progressive and reformist cultural pattern in Assam.

Sankardeva’s efforts in modernizing Assam were more than successful. His movement, although similar to many other Bhakti cults of his time, was also unique because there was a deep cultural essence that was not witnessed elsewhere. Being a poet and a composer, Sankardeva incorporated many cultural practices into his philosophical framework. Dance and music were seen by Sankardeva as a powerful medium to spread the philosophy of Ekasarana Dharma to the local masses.  For instance, he introduced the genre of Borgeets (devotional songs attributed to Vishnu) composed in the Brajawali language.

The Sattriya Nritya, which is now a proud representation of Assamese tradition and culture, also owes its origin to the great Vaishnava Saint.
Assamese Bhaona (dance drama). Source: Beyonder
The age of Sankardeva was marked by serious socio-political turmoil in Assam. There was nothing that bound the people of Assam together. Hence, Sankardeva’s Ekasarana dharma provided a sense of belonging and security to the people, who were struggling to find an identity on their own.
Rituparna Goswami Author
I find happiness in mundane activities like spending time with my mom and dad, helping out around the house, watching funny youtube videos with my elder sister and so on. I don't believe in sticking to only one area or one skill. Life is too short to limit ourselves, isn't it? I am curious about almost anything and I love exploring new things. I read fiction novels and watch movies/series, when I feel too lazy to get up from my bed. I sing when I am in a really good mood. I'm quite easy to get along with and I love meeting or talking to new people. After all, every person has a unique story to tell and who doesn't love stories?

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