Sankaradeva: A visionary reformer shaping Assamese identity

The tales of this remarkable individual seem never-ending, with accomplishments that stretch beyond measure. His heart is as vast and giving as the open sky,
Sankaradeva: A visionary reformer shaping Assamese identity

Dipak Kurmi

(The writer can be reached at

The tales of this remarkable individual seem never-ending, with accomplishments that stretch beyond measure. His heart is as vast and giving as the open sky, his creative output is as expansive as the endless Pacific Ocean, and his life is a dedication to the entire world. Nevertheless, this article aims to provide a concise glimpse into Sankardev’s remarkable contributions.

Sankaradeva introduced a religion known as Nava Vaishnavism. This faith stands for truth, love, beauty, goodness, non-violence, equality, and humanity. He aimed to make it a religion for those who were oppressed and less fortunate in society. He drew inspiration from the Gita, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Padma Purana to build the core beliefs of this religion. The essence of the Vedas, which are ancient scriptures, lies in the Upanishads, or Vedanta, and the essence of the Upanishads is found in the Gita. Sankaradeva blended the best teachings of the Gita, Bhakti Yoga, and surrendering to the virtuous God ‘Krishna’ into his religion. Sankaradeva’s faith, actions, knowledge, and meditation are empty without devotion. His religion is universal because devotion to God is at the heart of all religions worldwide, even if the name of God may differ in various languages.

Sankaradeva’s religion is rooted in the Bhagavad Gita, which revolves around love for the virtuous God Krishna. It’s all about worshipping God by listening to and singing the praises of Krishna, which is the core of Sankaradeva’s faith. His religion goes by different names, like Eksharan Namdharma, Bhagavat Dharma, or Bhaktidharma. Sankaradeva believed that the deity to be worshipped was Krishna, whom he saw as the Supreme Brahman. In this religion, there’s no initiation; instead, there’s surrender. Surrender involves four aspects: the name, the god (Krishna), the guru, and the devotee. Key elements of Sankaradeva’s faith include devotion, surrender, worship of the virtuous God, listening and chanting, Eksharan Naamdharma, monotheism (belief in one God), non-dual thinking, dasyabhakti (devotion as a servant), and the significance of the name, god, guru, and devotee. This religion doesn’t involve worshipping multiple gods and goddesses, making sacrifices, or supporting caste discrimination.

Srimanta Sankaradeva didn’t just reshape religion; he also sparked a wave of creativity in Assamese literature and culture. He wrote numerous books to teach and spread his religious teachings. His impact extended beyond spirituality and into the realm of literature. Inspired by his devotion, poets, writers, and scholars like Anant Kandali, Ram Saraswati, Baikunthanath Kabiratna, Sridhar Kandali, Bhawanipuria Gopal Ata, Ramcharan Tagore, Daityari Tagore, and Gopalcharan Dwij joined in, creating a vibrant literary movement.

Sankaradeva’s literary works were powerful tools for spreading devotionalism. One of his remarkable creations, the 26-volume Kirtan Ghosha, stands as an exemplary piece of devotional literature. For over five centuries, both Sankardev’s Kirtan Ghosha and Madhavdev’s Namghosha have been pivotal in the practice of Nam-Kirtan in Assam’s Satras and Namghars. Sankaradeva’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita into eight fluid Assamese verses is noteworthy, covering twelve Skandas of the original. His poetic talents shine in works like the Harichandra Upakhyana, Rukminiharana Kavya, and Uttarakhand from various Puranas. He also enriched Nava Vaishnava-era poetry with creations like the Ajamilopakhyana, Amrit Manthan, Balisalan, Kurukshetra, and Nimi Navasiddha Sambad from the Bhagavad Gita’s different Skandas.

Sankaradeva was a trailblazer in Assamese literature, penning six plays and staging dramatic performances known as bhaonas. He was like the Shakespeare of Assamese literature, pioneering the use of mythological stories in plays about a hundred years earlier. He cleverly used these plays as a way to spread his religious teachings among the common people. Sankaradeva’s six plays are: Patni Prasad, Kaliyadaman, Kaligopal, Rukminiharan, Parijat Haran, and Ramvijay.

Sankaradeva’s impact extended beyond religion and literature; he ignited a cultural renaissance. Renowned artiste Jyoti Prasad Agrawal hailed Srimanta Sankardeva as the guru of our culture. He named this culture ‘Krishna,’ emphasizing the significance of these two facets of life. Recognising the importance of physical beauty, Sankaradeva prioritised physical fitness through exercise. He also practiced celibacy and yoga to attain control over his body, mind, and emotions, aiming for physical strength and mental stability. Despite being a householder, he demonstrated how one could lead a worldly life without being shackled by worldly desires, and he encouraged others to do the same.

Sankaradeva was a true polymath, excelling in various fields like poetry, music, architecture, sculpture, and writing. He wasn’t just a scholar; he composed songs and plays, created melodies and rhythms, choreographed dances, played instruments, sang, and acted—a remarkably talented artist. He lived a culturally rich life and encouraged his followers to do the same. In Sankaradeva’s society, devotees were also artists. They sang, danced, acted, and contributed to their community through their everyday tasks, following Sankaradeva’s inspiring example.

Sankaradeva believed that religion and daily life should be intertwined. He taught people how to conduct themselves from the moment they woke up in the morning until they went to bed at night. He emphasized that an individual’s life should seamlessly merge with the lives of the community and society as a whole. This meant guiding people on how to behave, interact, act, feel, think, and believe in a way that harmonised with their religious beliefs and contributed positively to the greater social fabric.

Sankaradeva’s contributions were truly remarkable. He introduced an inclusive and universal religion, laid the foundation for Assamese literature, and played a crucial role in shaping the Assamese nation through a revolutionary culture. His efforts weren’t just theoretical; he stood up against the decline of royal power and the oppression of the Ahom rulers. His actions were instrumental in uniting the Assamese people and breaking down barriers. Sankaradeva’s revolutionary mindset, which promoted equality for all in society, was a key factor in the formation of the Assamese nation. He elevated devotees by giving them names like Govinda, Jaihari, and Narottam, and even recognised the contributions of a Muslim tailor named Chandsai. Sadly, it’s crucial to recognise that neglecting his ideals can jeopardise the unity of the Assamese nation.

Sankaradeva aimed to make his accomplishments accessible to everyone in society, regardless of their caste, community, or social standing. He wanted everyone to participate in Namdharma and his teachings. To foster social cohesion, he established various types of Namghar and Xatra, which served as unique institutions for community building. Nowhere else in India could you find such an innovative and effective approach to promoting unity and discipline in society through Namghar and Xatra. These places were open to people of all castes and communities, emphasising inclusivity and bringing people together.

Namghar and Xatra were more than just places of worship; they served multiple roles in the community. They weren’t solely religious institutions; they were also hubs for village development and even served as courts. In a way, you could think of Namghar as the village council and court of that time, where important matters were discussed and justice was administered.

Sankaradeva’s teachings went beyond just setting up democratic institutions like Namghar and Xatra. He made significant societal changes, such as ending caste discrimination and untouchability, discouraging drug use, promoting non-violence, and instilling compassion for all beings, even ghosts. He emphasised the importance of not harming animals and avoiding excessive rituals. Instead, he encouraged singing and using instruments to connect with the divine. He believed that true purity was in having a clean heart and mind, not just in temples. He taught that selflessness and kindness were the keys to a clear conscience, and the main path to connecting with God was through a pure heart and mind. Sankaradeva urged people not to seek fame, wealth, or power but to do what pleased God. Serving one’s country, he believed, was a noble and virtuous act.

In today’s world, we often witness a troubling erosion of values, leading to violence, terrorism, infidelity, moral decay, injustice, corruption, fraud, and various societal issues like gender-based violence and excessive individualism. Given these challenges, it’s vital to recognise that Sankaradeva’s teachings on values could offer valuable solutions to address these problems and bring about a positive change in society.

Sankaradeva wasn’t just a religious leader; he was also a visionary for an egalitarian and democratic society, embodying the ideals of fairness and equality.

We wrap up our discussion with the words of renowned Indian journalists. The Shankari era marked a golden age of cultural revival, the emergence of Assamese nationalism, and the pinnacle of the Nava Vaishnava movement in Assam. Sankaradeva didn’t just focus on devotion; he also sparked innovation in various fields, contributing songs, musical instruments, dance, literature, festivals, and important moral values to Assamese society. His movement in Assam became a monument embodying social, cultural, religious, and life ideals. No other religious leader held such a mesmerising sway over the Assamese people or ignited self-awareness like this philosophical leader. Sankaradeva essentially laid the groundwork for a spiritual society, with Madhavadeva as his key disciple. Now, it’s the responsibility of the government and the people to take steps to rebuild Assamese society and the nation based on Sankardev’s ideals.

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