Srimanta Sankaradeva in Global Perspective

Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449-1568 AD) was an important personality in the annals of history. He was not only a religious preceptor, but also a social reformer, who sanskritized the ethnic groups of the volatile North East India and assimilated them with the national main-stream of Bharatavarsha through the tools of culture as well as philosophical perspective. Such an act is unheard of in the entire world. While there were reformers, while there were philosophers and religious preceptors, while there were cultural maestros, while there were nation builders, there was none who achieved all these at the same time.

Srimanta Sankaradeva is considered as the father of the modern Assamese race as he integrated the ethnic groups who were at loggerheads. He rescued the people of Brahmaputra valley from the regressive medieval practices like human sacrifice. He was an architect, who designed Kirtanghar or Namghar. He was a cultural maestro too. He created a classical dance form known both as Sankari dance and Sattriyâ dance. He also evolved a school of classical music, which is named after him. He created as many as 25 Râgas of his own. He was also the first playright in all modern Indian languages. He introduced drop-scene and elevated stage in the world of drama way back in 1468 AD. He was also a fine artist. His famous work of textile art Vrindavani Vastra has been preserved in the Guimet Museum of Paris.

Srimanta Sankaradeva founded a new Vaishnavite order named Eka Sharana Nâma Dharma. He preached devotion to a single God. He suggested that this devotion could be within one’s heart, not requiring any religious paraphernalia. Realization of God was an internal matter, not external. So the external worship of icons was redundant. He talked of universal love for all beings as God resided within all beings. He was a great humanist. He gave a clarion call to all people to shun mutual differences as there was no intrinsic difference between different ethnic groups, all of them having the same soul within. Thus he talked of universal brotherhood and advocated for integration of different ethnic groups in the society. Religion was an instrument of social reform for him. Swami Vivekananda, Martin Luther, Swami Dayananda Saraswati etc had the same perspective.

A large part of the population in Brahmaputra valley used to be worshippers of mother goddess and other deities. The Shakti cult was very popular in the valley and even human sacrifice was made very often. Srimanta Sankaradeva persuaded the people to give up those traditions. Since all the creatures have the same God within them in the form of souls, they are all equal. He gave equal status to all his disciples. It was a major departure from the prevalent system in the society, where caste hierarchy was observed very strictly. Earlier only the upper caste people were offered access to the knowledge of scriptures. Srimanta Sankaradeva opened the door of religion to all and sundry. The Shudras, the Muslims, the tribals—all were initiated by him in his path-breaking religious system. Swami Vivekananda too highlighted the intrinsic unity of mankind. But it was not an easy thing in 15th century, the time of Srimanta Sankaradeva.

Lot of people accepted Srimanta Sankaradeva as Guru in different parts of the country during his twelve year long pilgrimage in 1481-1493 AD. The famous Goswami brothers, Rupa and Sanatana, who in their later lives became activists of Chaitanyadeva (1486-1533 AD) also took initiation from Srimanta Sankaradeva at Vrindavan. The most clinching evidence that Rupa Goswami was a disciple of Srimanta Sankaradeva happens to be the play ‘Bidagdha Madhava Nataka’. Rupa Goswami wrote there in its Nandi verse,

Adyahang swapnantare samadistoasmi
Bhaktavatarena Bhagavata Sri Sankaradevena

That means, “I was today ordained by Bhagavana Sri Sankaradeva in a dream (to write this play).”

Rupa Goswami thereby implied that Srimanta Sankaradeva was his preceptor, since the former termed the latter as Bhagavana in the verse. It may be mentioned that the disciples in the Bhakti discipline always consider their preceptor as the form of God. Moreover it was said in this verse that Rupa had been ordained by Srimanta Sankaradeva. Only a preceptor could issue such an instruction. Some writers interprete the word ‘Sri Sankaradeva’ in the verse as lord Shiva. But the great Vaishnavite, Rupa Goswami never worshipped lord Shiva. He came into contact of Chaitanyadeva in the intermittent period and was also influenced by the latter. But even Chaitanyadeva did not worship lord Shiva. So the word ‘Sri Sankaradeva’ means none else than Srimanta Sankaradeva. The adjective ‘Bhaktavatara’ also implies a human being, not a deity. Therefore, Rupa Goswami talked about Srimanta Sankaradeva only in this verse. This fact that the man who restored the glory of Vrindavan after its devastation in external aggression was a disciple of Srimanta Sankaradeva, confers a special status on him in the annals of Sanatana religion.

Srimanta Sankaradeva spent a lot of time in Puri during both his pilgrimages. The chief Pândâs of the Jagannatha temple were impressed by his profound scholarship as well as his spiritual aura and they embraced Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma. The society of Odisha came under direct influence of Srimanta Sankaradeva. One of his innumerable admirers was Jagannath Das (1480-1540 AD) who introduced the institution of Bhâgavata Tungi in Odisha in the pattern of Kirtanghar or Nâmghar. So we find many similarities in the Odiya society with the Assamese society. The people of Odisha accorded the status of Mahapurusha to Srimanta Sankaradeva. An Odiya author, Govinda Nayak authored a hagiography of Srimanta Sankaradeva named ‘Sankara Gosâin Charit’ in the medieval period itself. Factual information from this hagiography written in Brajâwali language and Odiya script help us in enriching the already available accounts of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s life. We learn from it that king Pratapa Rudradeva of Odisha felicitated the saint.

Srimanta Sankaradeva innovated a new residential institution named Thân, which also came to be known as Sattra over time. He built a full-fledged Thân campus at Tembuwani in 1509 AD. Earlier also a Thân had been set up there in a skeleton form way back in 1468 AD. But this time he made it full fledged with houses for the devotees within the compound and on the four sides of the Kirtanghar. The Kirtanghar was the nerve-centre of the entire Thân. It was a long and open hall, where the devotees sat together to sing the glory of God. There was no idol, but only a book, generally the Bhâgavata symbolizing God in the altar. Later, a small scripture Gunamâlâ authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva began to be kept there. Gunamâlâ is a summary of Bhâgavata. In addition to prayers, cultural functions and religious discourses also were held in the Kirtanghar. In the initial period, the Kirtanghar was known as Devagriha.

Any Kirtanghar set up in the villages outside the Thân or Sattra came to be known as a Nâmghar. Even social litigations are solved by the villagers in an assembly within this hall. Little wonder, Nâmghar became an indispensable part of every village, where Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma took root. The multi-dimensional role of this institution has made it unique in the entire world. Whether it be Church, Temple, Mosque, Synagogue, Gurudwara, Basadi (Jain), Dar-be-mehr (Zoroastrian), Shrine or Monastery (Buddhism), none compares with Kirtanghar or Nâmghar in this aspect. It has played an important role in elevating the standard of socio-cultural lives in Brahmaputra valley. Apart from the multi-dimensional function of the Kirtanghar or Nâmghar its architecture is also quite distinctive, which signifies its innovative nature. The Kirtanghar designed way back in 15th century was of futuristic design. It has a linear simplicity and is characterized by extensive use of pillars, which also characterize the modern architecture. Another characteristic of it was symmetry, yet another feature of modern architecture too. Srimanta Sankaradeva was thus the only religious leader in the world to have evolved his own architectural pattern. Other saints or religious leaders followed the traditional patterns. In India they followed either the Hindu or the Buddhist temples. Contrary to that, the Kirtanghar of Srimanta Sankaradeva set off a completely new style. The pyramidal altar inside the prayer hall known as Guru-âsana speaks volume about the creativity of Srimanta Sankaradeva and his followers. It has been found to be a pioneer for the modern cubist design pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the 20th century.

In no other prayer hall in Sanâtana religion one sees the openness like in Kirtanghar or Nâmghar. It is different from all other temples or for that matter place of worship. Another feature is that it is not made of stone like the temples. Made with indigenous elements like bamboo, thatch etc, the inexpensive nature of Nâmghar construction made it possible to dispense with the traditional necessity to rely on the royalty for construction of the prayer house. Consequently the order could have its autonomy. It is rare anywhere in the world for religious orders to take root without royal patronage. Srimanta Sankaradeva made the impossible possible. He even refused initiation to king. His order was for the mass people as he worked for them only. That was why his followers were subjected to severe persecution by different kings.

Srimanta Sankaradeva preached absolute self-surrender to God as enunciated in Srimadbhagavdgeeta. He advised chanting of God’s name as God’s name makes Him available to the devotee. One can elevate oneself on the ladder of spirituality by chanting God’s name religiously. Chanting God’s name arouses the dormant spirituality in one. Incessant chanting of God’s name creates an atmosphere of purity and sacredness wherein enlightenment dawns in the devotee. This may be the genesis of Transcendental Meditation of Maharshi Mahesh Yogi in 20th century.

Srimanta Sankaradeva preached a unique philosophy. His teachings were in the line of Upanishadic philosophy of enlightenment by knowledge of the self, together with pure devotion to the supreme God as preached in Bhâgavata. He made a fine blending of the two. There are elements of monism, dualism, qualified monism, dualistic non dualism and so many other branches of Sanatana philosophy in his teachings. Actually he carried the entire spectrum of Sanatana religion in his teachings. But he corroborated his teachings so logically that it came to form a whole new school of philosophy, which has been named Vivartanavâda by the present author as evolution from individual self to universal self was the main thrust of this philosophy. It was a marvellous presentation of the entire range of spiritual inclinations of a person. A devotee could evolve through it from the gross to the subtle, from mundane to spiritual and from man to Godhood.

This unique philosophy highlights the process of elevation of the individual self to a state of unity with the universal self. Thus different states like plurality, duality and non-duality are all incorporated in the ambit of the same philosophy in a consistent manner, which is unprecedented. It is about elevating the soul from illusion to enlightenment, without negating the intermediate states. It was because of such a revolutionary approach that Srimanta Sankaradeva could bring together the path of Bhakti and path of Jnâna. He equated Ishwara and Brahman, the mainstays of these two paths. He equated the attributeful God with the attributeless supreme entity by his unique philosophy. This had never happened earlier. People have emulated him thereafter, knowingly or unknowingly. Famous philosopher Spinoza walked along the same path charted four centuries before him by Srimanta Sankaradeva when he talked about love for the supreme absolute. The saint welcomed even the devotees of the primary state who found reality in the multitude; they were then taken upward step-by-step culminating in a non-dual state of unity with the universal self. That such a unique philosophy was propagated by Srimanta Sankaradeva in the fifteenth century remained in the dark for half a millennium only because he did not bother to write his commentary of Brahmasutra, the traditional Indian requisite for establishing a philosophy.

The Vaishnavite order Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma founded by Srimanta Sankaradeva had many new facets which were not there in any Vaishnavite order till that time. One such feature was the absence of any female deity alongwith the supreme deity worshipped in this order; lord Krishna is the only entity worshipped in Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma. Contrary to that, other Vaishnavite orders worship Lakshmi, Radha, Sita, Rakhubai etc alongwith the supreme deity worshipped in those orders. Vishnu or Krishna or Ram or Vithoba is the supreme deity worshipped in any Vaishnavite order. But all these orders except Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma worship the female consort or female devotee too along with the supreme being. Even the Alwars were not exception to it; they worshipped deities named Sri, Bhu etc. There are other deities too in the Vaishnavite orders. For example while other Vaishnavite orders worship Shiva equally alongwith Vishnu or Krishna, Shiva is presented as devotee of that supreme entity in Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma. The very words Eka Sarana in the name Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma means submission to a single entity. This was a new development in the annals of Sanatana religion. It made Srimanta Sankaradeva’s order unique. Other Vaishnavite orders have idols of both Krishna and Shiva in their temples. But in the Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma order only Krishna is worshipped and that too with Dasya Bhakti; the modes like Madhura Bhakti is absent in this order. The advice of lord Krishna to Arjuna that only the former should be worshipped is strictly adhered to in Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma.

Srimanta Sankaradeva authored ten plays in his life. These were Chihna Yâtrâ, Patni Prasâda, Kâliya Damana, Keli Gopâla, Rukmini Harana, Pârijât Harana, Janma Yâtrâ, Gopi Uddhava Sambâda, Kangsa Badha and Sri Râma Vijaya. The first of these, Chihna Yâtrâ was written and enacted at Tembuwani (Bardowa) in 1468 AD. It happened to be the first play written in any modern Indian language, thereby making the playwright a pioneer of the Indian drama movement.

Srimanta Sankaradeva brought about many innovations in his Ankiya plays. It was he who introduced the Shânta-rasa for the first time in his plays. It had not been there in the Nâtya-shâstra of Bharata. It was again Srimanta Sankaradeva who used Proscenium for the first time in entire world for enactment of his plays. However it had not been used in his first play Chihna Yâtrâ, where elevated stage was used, that too being the first time in the world. He departed from the typical norms laid down by Bharata for classical plays. For instance he incorporated scenes of eating, wedding, war, killing etc in his plays whereas such scenes were strictly forbidden in Sanskrit plays. The Sutradhâra or the compere of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s plays also was completely different from the Sutradhâra of Sanskrit plays. Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Sutradhâra remained in the acting arena from the beginning till the end whereas Sanskrit Sutradhâra departed from the arena just after introducing the topic of the play. The Sutradhâra of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s plays even participate in acting, singing and playing on the instruments like drum. The Sutradhâra keeps on explaining the story as well as its spiritual import from time to time. Srimanta Sankaradeva gave so much importance to the Sutradhâra that he himself performed this role in his first play Chihna Yâtrâ. This character was perhaps influenced by the folk elements like Ojâ-pâli and Putalâ-nâch (puppet-dance).

Srimanta Sankaradeva used the medium of play for his proselytizing works. All the paraphernalia of his plays were symbolic. The curtain that had to be removed at the outset stood for Mâyâ. It was only after removal of Mâyâ that one could see God. The nine wicks in the Agni-garh implied nine types of devotion. The two Ariyâs stood for singing and listening to God’s name and glory. Above all, the altar specially set up at the place of enacting the play meant that all these were only ways of worshipping the almighty.

Srimanta Sankaradeva’s use of drama as a medium for religious preaching was a great act of innovation. In this respect, he was a pioneer in the entire world. Nobody had used this medium for proselytizing or propagational work before him. He was thus a path-finder for even Bertolt Breckht (1898-1956), who used this medium for propagating his socialist message in the twentieth century. The Ankiya plays also differed from the morality plays of Europe. Characters of Ankiya plays were mythological characters, not personification of any abstract concept like beauty, knowledge, justice, strength etc as in morality plays. Srimanta Sankaradeva’s achievement as a playwright and dramatist was phenomenal even in global context. It was he who introduced the drop-scene in drama. He used it in Chihna Yâtrâ before it was used in Europe. His dramatic talent can be compared only to that of Shakespeare, who came 119 years later to the realm of theatre. He was also the first director to use elevated stage for play. ‘The swan theatre’ of London introduced such stage as many as 128 years after Chihna Yâtrâ was staged at Tembuwani.

Another pioneering character of the Ankiyâ plays was the incorporation of ‘boy actors’ in the Ankiyâ play ‘Patni prasâda’, which was an epoch making event in the realm of Indian theatre. Till then, only adult characters had been included in the Indian plays. Rabindra Nath Tagore followed the saint in his play Shâradotsava in 1908 AD and succeeded in revolutionizing the world of Indian drama. This was certainly an impact of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Tagore was influenced by the saint in respect of dance also. That impact was conveyed through the Manipuri dance. The Manipuri dance form had evolved after the style and tradition of the Sankari or Sattriyâ dance form; Manipuri king Bhagyachandra had taken several danceuse from Assam, who introduced the dance form there.

The works of Srimanta Sankaradeva had a Pan-Indian impact. The social life of Bengal is highly indebted to Srimanta Sankaradeva. The cultural activities in Bengal are indebted to the saint. The Yâtrâ tradition of plays were launched in Bengal in immitation of the Ankiya plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva, who was the first playwright in all modern Indian languages. These Yâtrâ plays kept the cultural sphere vibrant in entire Bengal from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century. The impact of the Ankiyâ play, Kâliya damana is noteworthy in this context. The popularity of this play was so high that all plays with the subject matter of lord Krishna’s life and activities came to be known as Kâliya damana Yâtrâ in Bengal. Many stage managers included this play in their commercial circuit till the nineteenth century. The period sixteenth century to the nineteenth century came to be known as Kâliya damana Yâtrâ era in Bengal. The Bageet and the Ankiyâ plays were written in the prevailing local dialect, which came to be known as Brajâwali over time. It endeared these creations to people and also made it understandable to people of North India, as their dialects were also very similar to this one. This experiment was to some extent similar to that of Charyâpada centuries ago; that was why Charyâpada had become a common heritage for several linguistic groups. The popularity of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Kâliya-damana play in Bengal can be understood from this linguistic perspective.

Srimanta Sankaradeva brought about a revolution in linguistic history of India. His plays and hymns not only put in a new shape to the Assamese language, but also encouraged the languages of the nearby regions. He even helped new languages develop in the medieval time. Experts like Kapila Vatsayana have accepted that the modern Hindi language has emanated from the language of the Ankiyâ plays. It is fully evident in the dialogues of Parashurama in the Ankiyâ play Sri Ram Vijaya. One can easily see that the Hindi language germinated in these plays only. Little wonder the Ankiyâ plays became very popular in North India. The Pan-Indian nature of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s works mark him as an extraordinary genius; no one had worked in that vein before him. His allusion to Bhâratavarsha numerous times in his writings was an extraordinary thing. He had a very broad canvas; he addressed the entire humanity, when he called upon Oba Naraloka, (O humanity) not only his fellow people, and enjoined upon them Hari bhajiyoka (worship Hari).

Education was a priviledge available to a limited few, belonging to the upper echelon of the society in the medieval time. But Srimanta Sankaradeva engaged himself in the work of propagating knowledge and wisdom among the mass people. His songs, plays, prayers and philosophical writings contained a major portion of the course material taught in the then residential schools. So when his plays were enacted, when his songs were sung, when his hymns were chanted, people received the very knowledge which made one educated by the standard of those days. But there were more in the teachings of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Some of the devotees were trained in manuscriptology. They were trained in making crafts. Thus the Thân or Sattra became an educational institution too. While religious institutions across the world had always been imparting religious education, there had never been such an integral approach covering secular cultural elements like dance, music, plays, crafts etc elsewhere as in Thân or Sattra.

Srimanta Sankaradeva was thus on a literacy mission. He helped people acquire knowledge of behavioural science too. His teachings are always full of advices about an ideal life-style. There are exhortations to give up aggressive nature. He asked people to shun evil. Ethics constituted the main component of his teaching. People were also cautioned against pride. Thus he stood as a teacher of the entire society. He was a global pioneer in adult education programme. His plays, discourses and prayer meetings were always full of people. People of all age groups including old ones and ladies invariably attended these. The main message conveyed to all and sundry was that there was no intrinsic difference between man and man, and even man and woman, all being expositions of the same God. He urged people to educate women also in a verse. He even initiated women, an unheard of thing in the medieval time. Barabahi, Chakuli, Kalindi, Khersuti and Chandari were some of them.

Tolerance was an important trait Srimanta Sankaradeva taught his disciples. When Madhavadeva met him for the first time, a nine hour long debate ensued between the two. Srimanta Sankaradeva countered the arguments given by Madhavadeva, who was a staunch Shakti worshipper till then. But Madhavadeva kept on raising new arguments. Finally Srimanta Sankaradeva uttered a verse from Bhagavata which said that watering a tree at its root nourishes all its branches and leaves. Thereupon Madhavadeva went down on his knees and accepted Srimanta Sankaradeva as his preceptor. Madhavadeva understood that Srimanta Sankaradeva showed respect to all the cults and all beings; the saint did not talk about chopping off the branches while stressing the need to water the root. Clearly it was the idea of peaceful co-existence of all orders. It was an innovative approach in the realm of religion. Civilization can prosper only if intransigence is gotten over. Srimanta Sankaradeva showed the path to become a civilized society. He categorically said in his writings that one should neither praise other beliefs nor condemn them. His respect for the right of people to have own belief was unprecedented; he did not initiate his adversaries who were ordered by the king to take initiation from him (Srimanta Sankaradeva) after their failure to substantiate the allegations brought against him (Srimanta Sankaradeva); this happened both in Ahom kingdom and Koch kingdom.

A major characteristic of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s order, which was a new development in the annals of religion is the introduction of Kewaliya devotees, who remain celibate for life and live in the premises of Thans and Sattras. They dedicate their lives to the preservation and promotion of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s legacy. Many scholars loosely translate the word Kewaliya as ascetic or monk etc. But that does not convey the features of this type of devotees. The English words ascetic or monk mean Sannyasin, which is an age-old system in Sanatana religion. The Kewaliya devotees are engaged in farming works unlike the Sannyasin who live by begging. The Kewaliya devotees are expert in cultural activities and they are required to learn songs, dances, drama, crafts etc in addition to their religious learning. Nowhere in the world the ascetic or monks perform such cultural activities. The biggest contribution to the evolution of this Kewaliya system was that of Madhavadeva. Many devotees emulated him and stayed single in order to serve the order. It is due to the dedicated Kewaliya devotees in the Thans and Sattras that the components of Sankari culture have survived over the centuries. They have trained up other Kewaliya devotees generation after generation. Even in the twenty first centuries families are offering their sons to the Sattras to be trained up as Kewaliya devotees. This sustained impact on the psyche of the people over the centuries is a unique phenomenon.

Srimanta Sankaradeva was a pioneer in environmental protection too. He said that one tree was equivalent to ten sons. He did not like to fell trees and used only the dead trees for extracting wood; this was evident in the preparation of the Madan Gopal icon. Even the raw materials for preparation of Sanchipat were extracted without causing harm to the tree. It is thus evident that he understood the importance of nature in human life. His writings are full of descriptions of trees, flowers etc. He loved the nature. That was why his ingredients in making different implements, in preparation of dye, in construction of house etc were taken from nature. Everything was eco-friendly, so that the nature was not harmed. Thus he showed a practical way of sustainable living. He even guided the farmers to keep a part of land as fallow so that it could get rejuvenated. In fact the productivity of such lands increased. He was thus a pioneer of natural farming, a global concern in current time. What Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) did in Japan in twentieth century, Srimanta Sankaradeva had done in Assam to some extent in medieval times.

The Ankiyâ plays were the breeding ground of a new form of classical dance, now known both as Sattriyâ Nritya and Sankari Nritya. Srimanta Sankaradeva composed these new unique dance items himself. The main content of this dance is devotion to lord Krishna. Postures like Tribhanga are special features of this dance form as the ancient sculptures showed lord Krishna mostly in this posture. Srimanta Sankaradeva created this dance and trained the first batch of danceuse himself. The grammar of this dance is taught in Mâti-âkhorâ which was characterised by elements of several Yogâsana. The hand and feet movements of Sattriyâ Nritya or Sankari Nritya were also innovated by Srimanta Sankaradeva from indigenous elements; one can see traits of Bodo dance, Mising dance etc in it. The hand postures of his dance form were called Hasta unlike the hand postures of other dance forms which were known as Mudrâ.

The Ankiyâ plays were also the breeding ground of a new form of classical music. Srimanta Sankaradeva was a genius in the field of music. He inherited it in his blood. He predecessors were maestros of Vedic music. They had practised Vedic music in Kannauj, till their migration to the eastern part of Bhâratavarsha following political upheaval in Northern part of Bhâratavarsha. Srimanta Sankaradeva did more research on this branch of music during his twelve year long first pilgrimage in 1481-93. It was mostly as a result of this research and heritage that Srimanta Sankaradeva composed his own style of music, which we venture to call Sankari Sangeet. But the first example of this music had been presented in Chihna Yâtrâ itself in rudimentary form before the pilgrimage. Srimanta Sankaradeva used a few Râgas composed by him in this play. His finer creations were however done only after the pilgrimage. Throughout his life he created twenty five Râgas.

The most distinctive component of Sankari Sangeet was Bargeet, the prayer songs highlighting the attributes of lord Krishna and the glory of devotion to him. The Râgas of Sankari Sangeet are different from Hindustâni Sangeet and Carnâtic Sangeet. The Sankari Sangeet carries the flavour of Vedic Sangeet, while the other two forms of classical music were later day creations, Hindustâni Sangeet even having ingredients from outside Bhâratavarsha like Persia. Carnâtic Sangeet was created two centuries after Sankari Sangeet. The notable point is that even though Sankari Sangeet derives its origin from Vedic Sangeet, it is completely new creation of the maestro. It was a revival of ancient Dhruva Sangeet tradition of Vedic time; but the ingredients were Srimanta Sankaradeva’s own. For example there are ingredients of ethnic music of Tiwa, Ahom etc. Such experimentation was done in case of music used in devotional prayers like Prasanga and Nâma Kirtana also. Thus Sankari Sangeet was quite innovative. It can be called a pioneering attempt in fusion too. But the blending was done in such a fine manner that the folk components were elevated to classical level, not the other way round. It was thus that the tunes of Lâli-hilâli of the Tiwa people were incorporated in Bargeet. Clearly the maestro gave importance to the indigenous resources. Even he named one of his Râga as Mâhur, a river in North East India.

Srimanta Sankaradeva innovated musical instruments too. He created the drum Khol, which looked like an amalgamation of the two parts of Tablâ joined together, during the preparation for enactment of his maiden play Chihna Yâtrâ. Accoustic property of Khol is different from Mridanga, its nearest kin. Sound of Khol is much more husky, resonant and deep than that of Mridanga. This made it more appropriate for rendering of Bargeet, which is characterised by wide variation in scale than other classical songs. He also introduced big cymbals called Bhortâl. It was an improvement on the brass-made dual plates used among the ethnic groups in Himalayan belt. He introduced Dobâ (kettle-drums) in the community prayers, which endowed a deep spiritual feeling to the renderings. The beating of Dobâ amounted to a clarion call too. It was beaten at fixed hours to exhort the devotees to come for community prayer. Later it began to be used for exhortation to social purposes too, which highlights the influence this instrument has had over the psyche of people.

Srimanta Sankaradeva knew that people needed cultural food. So he introduced festivals where mass people could participate. One such festival was Holi. He popularised this festival in Brahmaputra valley. He added a Vaishnavite hue to it and made it part of his religious activities. Over time other prevailing festivals like Bihu also incorporated Vaishnavite elements from his order. Such elements conferred longevity to his order, which continues to flourish even now. In fact this trend started with his very first initiative, the Chihna Yâtrâ. That was more of a festival than a play. Certainly that was an innovative act of Srimanta Sankaradeva which not only enthralled the audience but also attracted many of them to his ideology. Incorporation of cultural elements widened the ambit of his activities as it conferred a secular approach to his activities. Even though he was founder of a religious order, he went beyond that; he accepted people from other orders and beliefs in his order. Such magnanimity was unheard of in his time and rare even now.

The concept of Bhâratavarsha as described by Srimanta Sankaradeva in his writings is also very unique. It was a cultural concept, not a political concept. He eulogized Bhâratavarsha in so many places of his writings that it cannot be overlooked or termed as accidental. He promoted the concept of Bhâratavarsha deliberately. He said that to take birth in Bhâratavarsha happened to be a boon. He termed the birth in Bhâratavarsha as a great fortune for one’s spiritual elevation. That clearly negated any political boundary for his Bhâratavarsha. The ancient heritage of the Vedas and the epics determined his Bhâratavarsha. It was thus a religio-cultural heritage that he wanted to convey. This was quite innovative for a litterateur.

Srimanta Sankaradeva identified with the spiritual soul of Bhâratavarsha. So he praised Bhâratavarsha in several places of his innumerable writings and termed it as a great priviledge to get born in this sacred land. Of course, the Bhâratavarsha mentioned by him was the Bhâratavarsha that borne the flag of Upanishadic wisdom, not the political Bhâratavarsha or India. That was why he translated many Sanskrit scriptures like Bhâgavata, a part of Râmâyana etc to Assamese so that people of Assam could atune themselves with the spiritual-cultural miliu of Bhâratavarsha. Ram Saraswati translated the Mahâbhârata to Assamese inspired by Srimanta Sankaradeva only. Thus the saint enlightened the people of Assam about the spiritual soul of Bhâratavarsha. No other writer in any Indian language has done so much like him single-handedly. The contribution of Srimanta Sankaradeva in achieving spiritual unity in Bhâratavarsha is really unique.

The management style of Thân or Sattra also was unique, with decentralisation in every step. Srimanta Sankaradeva was an expert in Team Management, which was reflected in his unanimous acceptance even by the adversaries. The Decentralised Leadership Management he evolved for Thân or Sattra has enabled it to survive over the centuries. While Team Management could have been inherited from his forefathers, the Decentralised Leadership Management was certainly a new concept. Nothing was centralised in Thân or Sattra, which popularised the newly created order. Feedback was taken from all devotees, on the basis of which decisions were taken. There were also different layers of leaders, always ready to take over the mantle from the upper echelon. That was the genesis of democracy, eventually given shape by Madhavadeva in the management of Barpeta Than. The Thân or Sattra thus became a path-breaking innovative institution of the second millennium. The notable thing is that its central unit Nâmghar is itself a full-fledged institution, which is found in all the villages of Brahmaputra valley. The purview of these institutions went beyond that of the Kibbutz of Israel or Commune of China since it covered education, art, culture, religion and even maintenance of social order. In fact it covers almost all the societal aspects except the military aspect. No wonder, it still survives.

[Lecture delivered as resource person in the plenary session of national seminar on Srimanta Sankaradeva organised by Visva Bharati, Santiniketan on February 10, 2018.]

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