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Homage to Srimanta Sankardev

A new star appeared in the sky of Assam in the 15th century like an emissary of God to establish a new society removing the age-old evils of discrimination

Srimanta Sankardev

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  6 Oct 2022 3:15 AM GMT

Sumanta Rajbanshi

(sumantarajbanshi@gmail.com)

A new star appeared in the sky of Assam in the 15th century like an emissary of God to establish a new society removing the age-old evils of discrimination, ignorance, and superstition looming large over the society. That star is none, but Srimanta Sankardev, the propagator of the cult of Neo-Vaishnavism and the father of Assamese art, culture and literature. For the Assamese people, Srimanta Sankardeva (1449AD- 1568AD), not only propagated the Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam but also consolidated the foundation of Assamese art, culture and literature and unified the people of diverse castes and communities will for many more years from now remain an enduring source of pride and joy. The large congregations in the namghars across the state and singing and recital of his plays and verses by the members from all generations only demonstrate the efficacy of his creations and the allegiance of the people to the sempiternal values he stands for. When the religious life of the people of Assam was at a very low ebb and they believed in the existence of various gods and goddesses and took much pain for offering sacrifices and performing rituals for their blessings, Sankardeva preached the message of one Lord, Vishnu. Hence it is meaningless to offer worship to other gods and goddesses who were supposed to be other manifestations of the Divinity. Sankardeva taught them the simplest way of approaching God and being one with Him by chanting His name. Sankardeva thus showed the people a new way to Divinity, which was till then unknown to them. But, unlike most of the religious leaders of the past and of the contemporary time, he did not confine himself to the preaching of religious sermons to the poor people or propagating the new cult of Vaishnavism. With his experience as a householder, who married twice, as an administrator, who was a landlord, and with his great deal of knowledge gathered from the classical Sanskrit scriptures, and his intellect and creative genius, Sankardeva put all his efforts to materialize his lofty goal of bringing about change into the stagnant socio-cultural life of the people. He reformed their religious life by giving them only one God among a host of gods and goddesses and gave them new art and literature of the highest standard and varied forms of recreation. He also tried to abolish the age-old system of casteism, and unify the people founding the society on the principles of equality and brotherhood. He resorted to art and culture of extraordinary standard and unparalleled beauty in his crusade against casteism, inequality and other age-old evil practices.

Sankardeva was a literary genius, a great artiste with trailblazing and revolutionary ideas who heralded the message of a new dawn in the socio-cultural life of the agrarian state. He was the real founder of Assamese literature who found the spring of inspiration in the Bhagavata. The Vaishnavism which he preached with all its allegiance to one Supreme Being, i.e. Krishna, its abhorrence of animal sacrifices and its simple rituals greatly appealed to the masses. He felt the need for an effective instrument for winning the hearts of the people toward the new cult of Vaishnavism. He thought that art and culture that has a magical impact on the masses would effectively serve this purpose. So the creations of this saint-preacher are religious in nature and propagandistic in content, but at the same time, they are peerless pieces of literary craftsmanship and embodiment of enduring truth and beauty. His efforts and methods are unparalleled in human history as no propounder of any religious faith has ever set an example of founding a new society on a religious faith while concurrently enriching their life with new art and culture. It is thanks to his voluminous contributions that we have had a cultivated society and that we can hold our heads up high with our rich cultural heritage. Though a distinguished Sanskrit scholar, Sanardeva wrote mainly in the Assamese language to bring the Sanskrit lore to the reach of the common people. To create his literature Sankardeva got the language from Madhab Kandali who accomplished the stupendous task of translating the Ramayana into Assamese verse. Though Kandali translated the epic from Sanskrit, he tried to use the language of the soil and used the proverbs and idioms drawn from the mouths of the rustic people of the state. Sankardeva used the language in his great creations like Kirtana-ghosha, Dashama, Bhagavata, Bhakti-pradip and Gunamala and proved the potential of the Assamese language as a medium of classical literature.

Sankardeva also sublimated the life of the Assamese people and their culture with dance, drama and music of exquisite beauty and outstanding merit. Late Professor Birinchi Kumar Baruah calls him "the father of Assamese drama and sage." His plays like Rukmini Haran, Kaliya Daman, Parijat Haran, Rama Vijoy and Patni Prasad are best known for their paramount aesthetic quality and have been extensively staged for centuries and widely acclaimed. The dramatic compositions of Sankardeva opened up a new source of immense bliss and joy to the rustic viewers and it was a novel experience for them to assemble in the namghar and see very close the divine characters singing and dancing just before their eyes. Professor Birinchi Kumar Baruah holds that though this new genre is popularly known as Ankiya Naat, it bears no resemblance to the Anka type of Rupakas of Sanskrit. Ankita Nat is a generic term in Assamese and means a dramatic composition in a single act depicting the articles of Vaishnava faith. This new genre of dramatic composition helped in promoting the cause of Vaishnavism and made astounding contributions to the enrichment of Assamese art and music. The performance of the plays ensured large social and religious congregations in the namghars and provided the villager's opportunities to take part in the performance and demonstrate their hidden talent. The neo-Vaishnavite Movement also brought in its train a wide variety of music. Among the different forms of Vaishnavite music the two, tuned to ragas are known as Bargeet or noble numbers or song celestial, and Ankiya geet or songs in drama.

Sankardeva also established the Xatras and Namghars, two unique socio-religious institutions. The xatras can be called Vaishnavite monasteries where the resources of the Vaishnavite culture are preserved and cultural activities associated with the Vaishnavite Movement are performed. In addition to the proliferation of the teachings of the Vaishnavite saints, the Xatras are rendering a great service towards the preservation of dance, drama and music of the Vaishnavite school in their original form for the succeeding generations. The sincere and constant efforts of the Xatras have helped to evolve the system of Xatriya Nritya, which has brought the great laurel of being recognized as a classical dance by the Sangeet Natak Akademi along with seven other dance forms of India. The namghar can be called a place of worship for the Vaishnavite devotees. But it is also a social institute, which has since long been playing a vital role in remoulding and consolidating the fabric of Assamese social life.

It is a place where people assemble for offering prayers to God, seek solutions to their problems through dialogues, and for learning and enjoying dance, drama and music. This important open space that every villager can access without the restraint of any form has played a remarkable role in uniting the people and abolishing the walls separating man from man. He was the exponent of the revolutionary idea that castes within the Hindu fold like the Kiratas, the Kacharis, the Khasis, the Garos and many others become pure in the company of the devotees of Krishna and he vigorously upheld it across his verses.

The principles of equality, compassion, love and brotherhood preached by Sankardeva would ever inspire the people of this region to keep faith in the strength and efficacy of unity and maintain the same in their social life to avert the sinister designs of the communal forces to disrupt it for serving their vested interests. He boldly asserts in the Kirtana-ghosha the need of giving everyone equal status and dignity in society as religion is not for partition among the children of God but unity and solidarity among them.

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