Sankardev, also known as Srimanta Sankardev, was a revered saint, scholar, and cultural icon in Assam, Bharat during the 15th and 16th centuries. His profound contributions left an indelible mark on the cultural and religious tapestry of the region. Sankardev is best known as the founder of the Bhakti movement in Assam, and he played a pivotal role in shaping Assamese literature and performing arts.
Born on Vijaydashami in 1449 C.E. in the village of Alipukhuri, Sankardev’s early life was characterised by a profound spiritual inclination. He aimed to bridge divides between communities and foster unity through his teachings. Sankardev is credited with establishing the Neo-Vaishnavism movement, emphasising devotion to Bhagwan Krishna and advocating for a simpler, more inclusive form of worship.
His literary legacy is extensive, encompassing the creation of “Borgeets” (devotional songs), “Ankia Naats” (one-act plays), and the “Bhagavat,” a devotional scripture. He also initiated the construction of “Satras,” monastic institutions serving as hubs for cultural and religious activities.
Beyond religion and literature, Sankardev worked fervently to promote social harmony and eliminate social ills. His legacy endures, with Sankardev being revered not only as a saint and philosopher, but also as a cultural figure whose influence continues to shape Assamese society. The annual festival of “Magh Bihu” in Assam pays tribute to Sankardev, underscoring the profound impact he had on the cultural and spiritual life of the region.
While Sankardev’s central role in the socio-cultural lives of the Assamese people was that of a religious saint, the source of his influence permeated through literature, music, and arts, driven by his unique vision for expanding the path of Krishna-Bhakti and its ideals. He dedicated himself to uniting people of all communities through his philosophical principles, striving for the overall development of their lives and occupations. Even after five centuries, the influence of the Neo-Vaishnavite movements initiated by Sankardev on Assamese society remains palpable. His life philosophy excluded superstition, caste-discrimination, and other social prejudices.
He established Naamghars and Sattras with the motto “Sarba Dharma Sanatana” (All Religion is Sanatan religion), viewing people equally regardless of caste and class. Through the introduction of Ankiya Naat and Bhaona, he sparked a cultural and social renaissance across the state. Engaging in the Neo-Vaisnavite movement, one can’t help but be struck by the expansive reach of Sankardev’s philosophy and its impact on the lives and livelihoods of the Assamese people.
The sixteenth century in Assam witnessed significant developments in social life. Small states coalesced into larger entities like Assam, Kamrup, and Behar, bringing about a political equilibrium that greatly contributed to the development of a comprehensive culture. During this time, the Devi Marg and Shiva Marg religious practices became tools of exploitation for tribal people in the state, under the guise of religious customs. The scriptures, written in classical languages, failed to maintain religious unity. However, Sankardev rejected these practices, embracing Vaishnavism and presenting the essence of Upanishad in “Chidananda-Ghana-Swarupa.” He introduced the image of Bhagwan Krishna from Bhagawat Geeta for the masses to comprehend. Sankardev’s philosophy encapsulated the spiritual essence of Assamese society and established principles of social ethics. His innovations expanded the boundaries of knowledge from what was previously known. The enduring 400-year tradition of the Sattras vividly portrays a picture of social discipline and order.
One noteworthy aspect of Sankardev’s philosophy was his lack of orthodoxy. His efforts to enrich his own culture and society by connecting the ideals of Sanatan Hindu dharma are widely recognised. Sankardev’s achievement emerged from the assimilation of elements from various cultures. While Hindu temples in Bharat were constructed with bricks and stones, Sankardeva utilised bamboo, wood, and thatching grass to build Naamghars and Manikuts, making it more accessible for common people.
Initially, conservative and intolerant groups resisted Sankardev for his stand against existing societal norms. The lives of common people were fraught with difficulties. In Upper Assam, the Paik system exerted tremendous influence over their lives, akin to a form of feudal servitude. The struggles of common people are exemplified by Sankar and Madhab being sent to capture elephants in the forests. However, they overcame these obstacles, transforming themselves from slaves to saviors of mankind. Sankardev abolished class and caste-based discriminations, uniting all people on equal footing. He stands as a trailblaser in the region for his efforts to eradicate untouchability.
In the language of Naam-Ghosa: “Garo bhot jawane hori nam loi” and “ram buli tore miri oxom kochari”.
All these individuals embraced a shared sense of nationalism through their adherence to the same religion. Sankardev’s religious foundation was rooted in equality, extending to the illiterate, impoverished, and vulnerable populations of the state. He never propagated religion solely for the benefit of kings and the privileged elite. In fact, he elevated those who had been dehumanised, considered inferior, and labeled untouchable by society.
The narrative of Radhika Shanti, symbolising the resurgence of the marginalised fisherman community under Sankardev’s guidance, remains a widely celebrated testament to reclaiming lost identities. Sankardev endeared himself to humanity by championing freedom from all forms of social subjugation, fostering a harmonious and well-ordered social environment in the state.
His primary objective was to emancipate women from the oppression and intolerance perpetuated by the upper classes towards the lower echelons of society. As a result, the stories of Kirat, Kachari, and Chandal hold a more prominent place in his discourse than those of the Brahmins, Kayasthas, and similar upper strata. In his language:
Kiart kachari khasi garo miri Jawan kanka gowal
Oxom muluk dhua je turuk Kubas mless chandal.
Livelihood of the people and the Role of Sankardev
Occupation holds a crucial place in human life as it provides the means for sustenance and security. During Sankardev’s era, agriculture was the primary source of livelihood for people. However, it was recognised that relying solely on agriculture might not suffice for survival. With this in mind, Sankardeva took proactive steps to diversify the avenues for livelihood in the state.
The Vaishnavite culture during Sankardev’s time thrived in the production of various tangible objects. This encompassed a range of items such as intricately carved wooden idols, masks, elephant-tooth-made cool beds, ornate floral fans, Brindawani clothing, and an image of Chihnajatra-Sapta Baikuntha, along with expertise in throne construction and the preparation of Saachi leaves for book creation. Architectural feats of the era are exemplified in the forms of Naamghar, Kirtan Ghar, Devagriha, and Sattra. These monumental structures provided livelihood opportunities for the populace. People began showing interest in earning their livelihood through vocations like Barhoi (bamboo craft), pottery, pottery design (Kumar), painting, and more. Furthermore, roles like Naamghoriya and Sattradhikar were established to oversee institutions like Naamghar and Sattra. Though not typically viewed as formal employment, these avenues offered significant means for self-employment.
Artistic creations were primarily fashioned from materials like wood, clay, horn, and similar resources. The Vaishnav society saw the introduction of various new instruments, crafted in alignment with Sankari literature and performing arts. Sankardev played a pivotal role in nurturing accomplished instrumentalists engaged in musical performances.
These instruments included Kahali, Mohori, Dhool, Khul, Sankha, Bheri, Dundubhi, Doba, Mridang, Taal, Raamtaal, Kartaal, Bipanchi, Dotara, Beena, Banshi, Tabla, Dogor, Dama, Manjeera, Suruj, Singa, and more. Individuals from all walks of life participated in the Neo-Vaishnavite movement, leading to the opening up of diverse paths for self-employment. Prafulla Bora aptly notes, “Various professional groups actively became part of Vaishnav society, each contributing in their unique way. Sankardev discovered singers, musicians, and actors amongst these untapped talents, turning them into dynamic artists across various fields. He enlisted humble weavers in crafting intricate Chittrapats for Baikuntha, creating Singhaxons, Mayuraxons, Garudaxons, and other thrones for Manikutas, alongside crafting numerous instruments. With Sankardev’s encouragement, common folk practiced classical music, enunciated Sanskrit verses in plays with precision, and performed Sutradhari dances. His keen observance of local cultures and elements stemmed from his egalitarian approach, treating both royalty and the public alike, and upholding the authority of Shiromoni Bhuyan. Thus, by amalgamating elements of Putola-dance, Ujapali, and Sanskrit dance forms, he became a pioneer in original dramatic art in Assam.”
In his Kirtans, Sankara acknowledged various professional castes in Assam, including Baniyas (goldsmiths), Sutars (carpenters), Chandalas, Kamars, Kumbhakaras, Natas, and others. Many of these professionals are also mentioned in the biographies of saints. Among Sankara and Madhava’s Vaishnava followers were Kamalapati and Krishna, who were oilmen, and Haridasa, who was a Baniya. The accounts include mention of snake-charming Yogis and silk-worm-rearing Yogis (Katanis), along with Tatis led by group leaders called Marals, Kamars, Carmars, Hiras, Kumars, Candalas or Carals, kaibortas, Dhobas, Napits or barbars, and Salais or confectioners. These professions significantly influenced their caste or social status. Additionally, there were professionals who were not distinctly marked by caste, such as ploughmen, boatmen, fuel and alkali sellers (Khariyas), commodity traders, and more. Even women of high social standing considered activities like spinning and weaving as integral parts of their household responsibilities. Those who operated handlooms for their own use were known as professional weavers (Tatis), while those who wove for income were subject to a loom tax imposed by the government.
The social panorama of the time contemporary to Sankardev
During Sankardev’s time, it’s important to note that Hindu society had developed a tendency towards caste discrimination and sacrificial systems, which were not present in the Vedic period. Affluent castes, in the name of religion, sought to dominate less fortunate castes in the country. Sankardev recognised this and, after traveling to various religious sites, decided to propagate Naam-dharma among all classes of people. This became the foundation for Sankardev’s efforts to uplift people regardless of class or caste. He opposed the sacrificial systems within Hinduism and advocated for a formless concept of God. His acceptance of all four classes of people—Brahmin, Khastriyya, Baishya, Shudra—demonstrated his belief in a society without class discrimination, leading to the welfare of all, transcending class-related barriers.
Sankardev’s contributions to Assamese spiritual, cultural, and social life are evident through his literary works. His emphasis on finding a central god among many, creating social awareness about the eternal truth, bridging the gap between work and religion, and placing a pure heart at the core of spiritual realisation are considered invaluable gifts to Assamese society. His creations, such as Borgeet and Bhatima, as well as dance and Naamghar, form the bedrock of Assamese social heritage and its strength.
Edward Burnett Taylor aptly defines culture as a complex whole encompassing knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and other capabilities and habits acquired by individuals as members of society. Sankardev’s innovations touched every stratum of society, ushering in numerous developments. His creations, particularly Borgeet and classical music, have not only showcased Assamese culture on the national stage but have also inspired the creation of new songs in later years, resonating with the masses. Sattriya dance, comparable in popularity and originality to Kathak and Bharat Natyam, and Bhaona, an exemplification of Assamese performance arts, are both attributed to Sankardev’s artistic prowess. His mastery extended to painting, as seen in his design of the distinctive Brindaban-Leela cloth for Bhagwan Krishna and the intricately crafted “Xaat Baikunthar Pot” in vibrant hues. It is challenging to find such craftsmanship in Assam after Sankardev. Regardless, Sankardev made monumental contributions to the growth and development of Assamese national life.
Upon their initial presence in Assam, missionaries recognised the significance of Sankardev in the social fabric of the region. Miles Bronson, in a letter to “The Friend of India,” emphasised how Sankardev’s translations of portions of Hindu sacred texts into the local dialect empowered people to chant praises to their gods in their familiar language. These translations gained immense popularity, remaining so to this day.
Sankardev was the pioneering revolutionary figure of North-East Bharat, and his revolution aimed to reshape social values and foster an environment for transformative historical changes. Hegel’s assertion that “No revolution is possible without a renaissance” underscores the importance of cultural and social renewal in driving historical change. Jyotiprasad expressed thought-provoking remarks on Sankardev, envisioning the creation of a broader society by applying Sankari elements in practice.
These instances illustrate how Sankari literature sought to construct a well-structured and orderly society. Sankardev strived to create a harmonious balance between devotion to Bhagwan Hari and Bhagwan Hara, given the prevalent Shaiva religious trend in Kamrup-Assam. He even incorporated Bihu songs and the Bihu festival into Sattras and Naamghars, infusing them with a religious essence. Sankardev emphasised devotion to Bhagwan Rama over delicate sentiments, aligning with the societal trends of his time. In the words of Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, “Sankerdeva carefully avoided the amoral and unsocial ideal of the figure of the parakiya moral turpitude.” Sankardev identified the presence of the soul in dogs and foxes, reflecting his democratic and socialistic ideals. Consequently, untouchability failed to take root in Assam. Sankardev is indeed the true founder of Assam.
The Bhakti movement’s central objective was the betterment of people’s lives. The transformation of the formless Brahma in Upanishads to the formed Brahma in the Puranas stemmed from an understanding of folk arts. The evolution and expansion of the Bhakti Marg was deeply tied to the prevailing social system. Religion’s development was contingent upon the fusion of folk religion with the Vedic system of worshipping Bhagwan Vishnu. Thus, Sankardev incorporated local artistic elements into his literary and performance art creations. Even in his translation of Bhagawat Purana, he unhesitatingly included elements from folk culture. He adds an explanation for the critics in such stanzas:
“jiba kisu boha dekhisa etu oporadh era Bashyu dento kothat ranjan
aanu mohakobisoy kabyorox nibondhoi Tak nindoi kun hadhujon”
Sankardev and Social development through Mass Communication Medium
The mediums which bear the capability of influencing a large section of people are regarded as Mass media. The role of mass media is quite a remarkable one when it comes towards the development of society through social awareness and the spread of social proclamations, religious, moral or didactic proceedings. At present times, Mass media includes Radio, Television, Newspaper etc. in its range. but during the time of Sankerdeva, these mediums were unavailable. We have an inner belief that deities and bhagwan attain satisfaction only through dance-music, orchestra, acting and dramatic performances. Bhagwan Krishna himself expresses this by addressing his disciple Uddhav in the holy Bhagawat Geeta as-
“upogayan grinan nrityan karmavinayan mam,
xot katha shrawyan shrinan muhurtwa khyaniko bhawet ”
In this context, Bhagwan Krishna advises Uddhav to find eternal joy through the celebration of his works, including songs, dance, musical dramas, and recitations from Kirtanas (Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev, p. 22). This underscores Sankardev’s intention to create “Borgeets” as a means to instill spiritual awareness and challenge established traditional beliefs. Borgeets serve as a medium for disseminating religious, aesthetic, ethical, and moral values, providing avenues for recreation, socialisation, and even expressions of social protest. They contribute to the overall progress of favorable conditions through broadcasting, knowledge sharing, cultural authenticity, and social unity, all within the framework of religious teachings.
Banikanta Kakoti aptly states, “The songs of Sankardev and Madhavdev planted seeds of spiritual sensitivity wherever they fell, much like winged arrows.” Another impactful medium of communication and mass media established by Sankardev is “Ankiya Bhaona,” which has played a significant role in reinstating morality, values, and proclamations not only in Assam but also in other parts of Bharat. Ankiya Bhaona holds a unique potency surpassing that of music and dance.
Kakoti further notes, “Man is naturally inclined towards entertainment and pleasure, and one advantage of Bhaona is that it imparts lessons to people while providing joy and entertainment. In ancient Vaishnavite literature, Bhaona serves as a platform for captivating the minds of the people while enlightening them through the amalgamation of folk elements.” Both the dissemination of joy and the promotion of values can be achieved through theatrical performances. Dramatists ignite joy in the minds of the audience, drawing crowds from even the remotest areas to witness the performances. Over time, Sankardev’s “Ankiya Naat” evolved into full-fledged dramas, and this tradition continues to flourish with a plethora of plays in the mother tongue. This evolution has not only given rise to exceptional directors but has also cultivated a vast audience. Moreover, theater provided a new source of livelihood for artists. As with the progress in “Naats,” we witness an advancement in the way of life within Assamese society. Thus, it becomes clear that Sankardev employed songs, music, dance, drama, and Bhaona as mediums to connect with the masses, disseminate Neo-Vaishnavite values, philosophy, beliefs, and inspire spiritual growth for the betterment of society as a whole.
The profound impact of Assamese literature, rooted in Sankari literature, is vividly reflected in the language, culture, philosophy, religion, science, and traditions of the people. Sankardev’s teachings and philosophical works persuaded individuals to distance themselves from decaying cultures and religious orthodoxy prevalent in society, urging them towards a more established and meaningful way of life. The path to a better existence and elevated thinking is illuminated through Vaishnavite literature.
These elements save a person from all beastly encroachments. “The role of Sankardev in the lives and occupation of people are as follows:
- The Neo-Vaishnavism preached/ propagated by Sankardev evoked socialist speculations in the society. This promoted the socialist mentality and exhibited a new horizon of livelihood.
- The reformative cultural revolution of Sankerdev made progress in the evolution of thoughts and development of society. Borgeet, Bhaona, music, dance, and musical instruments gave this revolution an exceptional and unique structure.
- Sankardev’s dramatic thoughtfulness attracted all people besides class division. This kind of concern is not only unique but rare.The motive of the nats‟ were to abolish caste discrimination in society, create unity and allow everyone to assemble in the Naamghar.
- Sankardev established Naamghar and welcomed a life style based on the democratic tradition. He also upgraded this life style with social justice which helped to obtain a well-to-do state.
- The architecture of worshipping places during the Neo-Vaishnavite movement aroused a new democratic consciousness in the society. The materials necessary for worshipping were traditional and easily available. This gave a new dimension to the livelihood of the people.
- Opportunities were provided to the deserved ones without discrimination due to the caste or creed they belonged to, for the performances and participation in Bhaona, activities in Naamghar brought values to the lifestyle maintained.
- Couple of centuries even before Mahatma Gandhi, Sankardev denounced untouchability and opted religious philosophy to erase discrimination due to caste. Reformation with radical thought was sought by Sankardev to abolish injustice and inequality. He deserves to be regarded as the forerunner of non- violence and peaceful co-existence. This created social unity and raised the value of living.
- Sankardev discovered several professions and illuminated unique paths of occupation specially discovering “Mukha Xilpo” Sankardev presented a distinctive art form which polished the talents and potential of the common mass.