If I am asked to name the greatest personality of Assam, who has contributed most to the Assamese life and culture, I would not have any hesitation in taking the name of Srimata Sankardeva as my choice. I am sure my co-patriots of the state wouldn’t differ on my choice, for, there is none in the history of Assam who has exercised so much influence on Assamese way of life, culture, literature and religion as Sankardeva has done.
In fact, without his noble contributions the Assamese culture and literature would not have been what it is today. The footprints of this ‘Mahapurusha (great soul) are still visible on the present-day Assam.
Sankardeva was born at Alipukhuri, near Bordowa in the present district of Nagaon, in the year 1449. He lost his parents early in life and was brought up by his paternal grandmother.
He started schooling at the age of 13 and seemed to have completed it by the age of 17 in 1470. He was a child prodigy who showed his intellectual brilliance at an early age. Soon thereafter he got married. However, three years later his wife passed away leaving behind a daughter whom he married off in 1481. Then he set out on a pilgrimage to North India to seek wisdom and knowledge. In his pilgrimage, he is supposed to have met the famous saint Kabir of North India as well as many sages and wise men. On his return from pilgrimage, Sankardeva married again, and began his second phase of life.
Soon after his return from pilgrimage, Sankardeva got settled in Majuli Island and started preaching his new faith called Bhagavati Vaishnav Dharma. He stood against the meaningless rites and rituals of the day and preached a simple faith to the people. The principal point of his new faith was the “Ek Sharaniya Naama Dharma,” i.e., chanting of the name of one god devotedly.
For him the worship of the idols of numerous gods and goddesses were unnecessary as the same supreme soul exists in all human beings. He taught that devotion, not salvation is the aim of all human life. He also opposed vehemently all class distinctions and man-made social barriers. Ultimate emphasis was placed on singing and reciting of Bhajans.
For this purpose, he wrote a book named’ Kirtan Ghosha’ which till today has remained a priceless gem of Vaishnava thoughts. In the task of establishing the new faith, he was helped by his disciples named Madhabdev, Damodar Dev, Haridev, etc.
After having set up the new cult on a strong footing, in the Ahom kingdom, Sankardeva with his disciples settled at Koch Behar, the capital of Koch kingdom in the year 1537. After a long earthly sojourn of 118 years, Sankardeva breathed his last in the year 1568 leaving behind a trail of immortal fame.
Today Srimanta Sankardeva is remembered not only as a great religious reformer and preacher, but also as a great scholar and a renowned writer. Sankardeva greatly enriched Assamese language and literature and raised it to a high level of excellence. His main work includes, books such as, ‘Harish Chandra Upakhyana’, ‘Rukminiharana Kavya’, ‘Gunamala’,Bali-Chalana, Amritha-Manthana, ‘Gajendra Upakhayana’, Kuruskshetra’, ‘Ramavijayanta’, etc. Sankardeva’s ‘Kirtan-ghosha’, the book of songs based on Bhagavad-Purana is the bible of Assamese Vaishnavism.
His ‘Bhakti Ratnakar’ is a masterpiece in Sanskrit exposing his wide learning and profound scholarship. His concept of ‘Satra and ‘Nam ghar’ have revolutionised social life in Assam. Sankardeva is also credited to have developed a new type of dance form called ‘Satriya. His dramatic works such as, ‘Rukminiharan, ‘Parijat Haran, ‘Kaliyadamana, etc., have raised Assamese literature to great heights. His fight against social demarcation of the time will go down as another lasting legacy of this great soul.
Today Assam and the Assamese people can never forget the noble contributions of this great son of the soil. Assam is yet to produce a man of his intellectual depth, legacy and greatness. He has made the Assamese people pulsate with a new culture, a new faith and a new social order. The Renaissance in Assamese culture and literature initiated by Srimanta Sankardeva continues to echo throughout the length and breadth of Assam even today.