by Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti
Srimanta Sankaradeva, the father of Assamese nation, was an extra-ordinary person, who excelled in almost all areas of knowledge. His contributions not only made the foundations of Assamese literature, culture and social structure, but also established the super-structures thereupon. It goes without saying that all contributions of Srimanta Sankaradeva bear his marks distinctively. His influence was not confined to Assam only. Other regions of India also benefitted from his contributions. Specially, the plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva sparked off a cultural movement in Bengal and other adjacent regions. In fact, a period in the history of Bengali culture is named after Kaliya damana, a play by Srimanta Sankaradeva. It launched the yatra movement in Bengal. The method of entry by the actors as well as their enactment right in the middle of the audience in the yatra type of play is similar to the Sankari plays. The period from 16th century to mid-19th century came to be known as the Kaliya damana yatra era in Bengal.
Unfortunately, some writers from the neighbouring state of Bengal have been consistently trying to spread disinformations about Srimanta Sankaradeva and project him as a follower of other cultures. One such writer has even claimed that Srimanta Sankaradeva had borrowed the concept of his dances from sources in Bengal.1 But the fact is that the saint had developed his dance form based on indigenous elements and that his dances were completely different from any other dance form in India. Sankari or Satriya dances constitute a separate school of classical dance.
We will have to go back along time to explain the background of Sankari or Satriya dance form. It was an Assamese danceuse Usha, who had introduced classical dance in entire India. Usha was the princess of Sonitpur, the present Tezpur and the daughter of king Bana. She lived there more than 3000 years ago and belonged to the Mahabharata era. She had no human preceptor and is described to have learnt her art from goddess Parvati. This proves that she was an original creator as it is a norm for any person to dedicate his/her best contribution to the personal deity. Usha was married to prince Aniruddha of Dwaraka. She went on to teach the damsels of Sourastra in classical Lasya dance, which then spread to all over India. Thus the tradition of Indian classical dance was actually derived from Assam.2
Srimanta Sankaradeva was born and brought up amidst such an artistic environment. He therefore did not need to go elsewhere to draw his ingredients. In fact, he organized his grand cultural festival Chihna-yatra barely at the age of nineteen years, in 1468 AD.3 The Chihna-yatra was a grand drama, full of songs and dances. It can be said to be a compact exposition of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s life-long cultural activities. The saint gave a clear idea in this drama about what he was going to do in later life. The theme of this drama dominated all his later works. We can say that Srimanta Sankaradeva had already conceptualized his own form of dance by 1468 AD. Unfortunately, some motivated writers seek to attribute his dance form to that of Chaitanya.4 They overlook simple historical facts in this mis-endeavour. They forget that Chaitanya was born in 1486 AD, as many as seventeen years after the dance drama Chihna-yatra was enacted.
Srimanta Sankaradeva invented a musical instrument called Khol for use in the dance drama Chihna-yatra.5 The pre-dominance of dance in the play Chihna-yatra is a proof of the overwhelming dance traditions of Assam. Srimanta Sankaradeva’s dance form, known both as Sankari dance and Satriya dance, evolved from these indigenous tradition. He did not learn his art during his all-India tour, which he started in 1481 AD. It may be mentioned that the saint travelled all over India for twelve years alongwith seventeen disciples and fellow Bhuyans.6
The indigenous nature of Sankari culture is evident in its ingredients. One such component is the Sutradhar or the compere of the Sankari plays. The Sutradhar resembles more with the Oja or the leading singer in the Oja-pali dance of Assam than with the Sutradhar of the Sanskrit plays.7 The Sankari Sutradhar remains in the arena of acting from the beginning till end. He delivers religious sermons from time to time. The Sutradhar of the Sanskrit play has no role other than introducing the play to the audience whereafter he disappears from the arena of acting. The hand and foot works of the Sankari Sutradhar have similarities with those of the Oja, but are more refined and elaborate than those.
It is mentioned in the hagiographies of Srimanta Sankaradeva that his cousin Ram Rai had once arranged a Putala-nach (toy dance) recital for entertainment of all.8 This proves that Srimanta Sankaradeva was acquainted with this indigenous dance form. Knowledge of this folk-dance might also have helped him in conceptualizing his own Sutradhar. The dance master of Putala-nach controls the toys with a sutra or thread. This mode of control is evident in the functioning of Sankari Sutradhar too. But it is not seen in the Sanskrit plays. Thus though the name of the compere is the same in both Sankari and Sanskrit plays, both are completely different. Another point of departure between these two plays is the inclusion of scenes pertaining to wedding, battle, killings, and eating in the Sankari plays. Srimanta Sankaradeva would have abided by the prohibitions of these scenes, had he been a keen follower of the Indian classical tradition. It is therefore evident that Sankari plays constituted a school in itself. The same thing applies to Sankari dance, Raga etc.
The Ankiya nat, as the Sankari plays are called, were the breeding ground of the Sankari and Satriya dances. Even the Sutradhar participated in these dances. He is the over-all supervisor and director of the play. Srimanta Sankaradeva performed this role himself.9 He conducted music, directed the dances and indicated the arrival of any new character as Sutradhar. He also devised independent parts of action for the Sutradhar. Barbhangi and Sarubhangi are such two components of the Ankiya nat.10 These are not seen in the Sanskrit plays.
Another important difference of Sankari plays from the Natya-shastra tradition is the use of mask. Srimanta Sankaradeva used masks in these plays to depict animals and demons. However he used masks even for deities in Chihna-yatra. Only lord Narayana was not played by wearing mask.11 Srimanta Sankaradeva did not want his audience to get carried away by emotion as their spiritual enlightenment was his prime intention. So he very often hid the facial expressions of the actors by making use of the masks. Actually his plays constituted a mode of conveying his spiritual philosophy, where the songs and dances helped a lot. He was the first person in the world to use this medium for the purpose of propagating a view. It took four and a half centuries for a Bertolt Brecht to emerge, to continue with that tradition laid down by Srimanta Sankaradeva, albeit with stress on political views. Even the Brechtian style of dissociating the artists from the play had already been practised by Srimanta Sankaradeva in his plays. This was achieved by the use of masks and the sermons by the Sutradhar.
It may be mentioned that the concept of mask also was derived from indigenous source. It was very much in use in Assam since long ago. Especially, the Khamti tribe used the mask. The system of Gayana-Bayana also was derived from indigenous traditions by Srimanta Sankaradeva. The Sonowal Kachari tribe of Assam had their own Gayana, who were known as Gandharva Gayana and who played Mridang. Srimanta Sankaradeva replaced the Mridang with his innovation Khol and incorporated new rhythm as well as hand & foot movements. It goes without saying that the Sankari Gayana is an improved version of Gandharva Gayana.
The Sankari or Satriya dance form was not only original and beautiful, it also influenced other schools of classical dances in India. Some parts of Mati-akhora of Sankari or Satriya dance are seen in the Bharat-natyam dance too. But the former, devised by Srimanta Sankaradeva is more elaborate than the latter. There are even some elements of Hatha-yoga in them. As many as ninety types of Mati-akhora are being practised in different Than or Satra of Assam.12 Many of these are different from the Karan or hand and foot movement types mentioned in the Natya-shastra. Bharata had mentioned 108 types of Karan. These are seen in different classical dance forms of India in varying numbers. But Sankari or Satriya dance contains more types of hand and foot movements singularly in comparison to any other Indian classical dance form. This proves that the Sankari or Satriya dance is the oldest and the most matured among the Indian classical dances. Subhankar, the Assamese author of Srihasta Muktawali detailed different Hasta-mudras used in Assam. But unfortunately there has been an attempt now to dissociate Subhankar from the Assamese society and history by some authors outside the state.13
The pioneering status of Assam in the history of classical dance is borne by the fact that Bharata composed Natya-shastra in between 200 BC and 200 AD, that is 1800 to 2200 years ago only.14 This makes it abundantly clear that the classical dance and play evolved earlier in Assam than in the rest of India. The folk dances of Assam must have evolved at least 6000 years ago since the folk dances develop in a region after the aborigins of that region take to farming. We have calculated the time of evolution of folk dances in Assam by taking the mid-point of Usha’s time, which was also the time of evolution of classical dance here, and the starting time of agricultural activities in North East India, which was 7000 BC.15 We have allowed a time lag here to permit a time space for cultural activities to pick up at leisurely pace in the ancient agrarian society of Assam. But if we consider the evolution of agriculture to be absolutely contemporary with the evolution of folk culture, then Assamese folk dances may go back to 7000 BC, making it 9000 years old. With such a rich history, one does not need to borrow materials from other cultures.
Natya-shastra mentions Tandava dance as having been derived from sage Tandu. But the important thing is that Tandu performed his dance recital under the guidance of Shiva only.
Tatastandang samahuya proktavan surasattamah
Prayogamangaharanamachakshwa Bharataya vai.
[Meaning : Then Shiva called Tandu and said, “Please explain the uses of Angahara to Bharata.”16] This implies that the Tandava dance, attributed to sage Tandu was also derived from Shiva. Since Shiva is a mythological figure, the teacher Shiva stands for the community worshipping Shiva. It is now well-established that Shiva was a tribal deity, who was Sanskritized, and that most of the tribes which worshipped Shiva belonged to Assam. Lord Bathow, the presiding deity of the Bodos is none other than lord Shiva. The Tiwas also worship Shiva and Uma in the form of old man and old woman. The ancient Kirata tribe of Assam worshipped Shiva more than 3000 years ago.17
It is noteworthy that the Nataraja icon found at Shivapuram in Tamilnadu belonged to the 10th century Chola dynasty, whereas the deity Nataraja had been worshipped here three milleniums ago. The posture of Nataraja is therefore a contribution of Assam. Sankari and Satriya dances were greatly influenced by the form and aesthetic aspect of the Tandava dance. These were dominated by male figures. This is another point of departure of Sankari and Satriya dances from other classical dance forms in India. Sankari and Satriya dances transcended sexual divisions, which no other classical dance forms of India could.
It is surprising that some people are trying to establish the dances of Assam as derivatives of those of Bengal.18 Actually it happened the other way round. The Sankari/Satriya dance tradition was passed on to Manipur, wherefrom it was further passed on to Bengal. Ahom king Rajeswar Singha married a Manipuri princess, Kuranga Nayani in 1768 AD.19 Kuranga Nayani’s father, king Bhagya Chandra was also known as Maharaj Jai Singh (1759-1798 AD). When he visited the Ahom capital, the Ahom king got a Satriya play ‘Ravana badha’ enacted in the honour of Bhagya Chandra.20 Rajeswar Singha also presented some Gayans (singer of Sankari songs) and Bayans (drummers of Sankari music) to the Manipuri king.21 Thus Manipur came under direct influence of Assamese culture, that is Sankari and Satriya culture, in the late eighteenth century.
King Bhagya Chandra introduced Ras-nritya in Manipur on his return, that was in 1768 AD. He also introduced dance dramas based on Ras story in 1789 AD.22 These were influenced by Keli-Gopal, an Ankiya nat authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva based on the Ras story. It may be mentioned here that this play had gained extra-ordinary popularity in Northern India. The Ras-nritya by the Chaitanyaites of Bengal drew heavily on it. This influence was cemented with a strong bond, when Bhagya Chandra went to Nabadwipa in 1793 AD, after abdicating his throne in favour of his son Labanya Chandra. This had to happen as Bhagya Chandra was the man who sponsored the revival of the Vaishnavite traditions of Nabadwipa, which had been devastated by Muslim invaders.23 Thus Sankari and Satriya culture entered Bengal through the agency of Bhagya Chandra.
The Mudras like Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), etc used in the Dashavatara dance are actually the Assamese way of depicting the stories from the Bhagavata regarding the ten main incarnations of God. Gayan and Bayan present these Mudras. These were completely new innovations, devised by Srimanta Sankaradeva. It deserves mention here that the book Sri hasta muktawali illustrates 71 types of Mudras against 67 types mentioned in Natya-shastra.24 If these Mudras were depicted in any sculpture in Deoghar or for that matter in any other place, it must have been the depiction of Sankari and Satriya dance form only, done at the behest of some Assamese king.
It may be mentioned here that Bengal was ruled by kings of Assam for as long as 2,600 years beginning from the tenth century BC upto the sixteenth century AD.25 And it is a universal truth that the literature and culture of any nation is invariably influenced by its rulers. The successive Hindu, Mughal and British rulers in India have showed clearly how a culture undergoes change. All of them have left their marks on Indian culture. The fact that Bengal used to be a colony of Assam for two and a half milleniums ensured that their culture developed in about the same line as that of Assam. The Bengali literature and culture were greatly influenced by the Assamese literature and culture. The Deoghar sculptures are evidences of that. It proves the expansion of Sankari and Satriya culture in Bengal, not the other way round as hinted by some writers.26
The uniqueness of Sankari and Satriya dances is underscored by the pre-dominance of Aharya and Vasik types of acting in them. The artists convey their messages through speeches and external paraphernalia like masks, costumes etc in Sankari dances. Other classical dances of India on the other hand are characterised by Sattvic type of acting. The salient features of these dances are trembling, perspiration, fainting, shedding tears, broken voice, etc. None of these are seen in Sankari and Satriya dances. Thus Sankari and Satriya dances are distinctly different from Odissi, Kathak, Bharat-natyam etc.
Like his dances, Srimanta Sankaradeva’s songs also were original creations. His songs launched a whole new school of classical music in India. This school is different from both the Hindustani and the Carnatic schools. Srimanta Sankaradeva used Ragas like Vayoomandala, Timir, Meghamandala etc in his play Chihna-yatra.27 All these Ragas were his own innovations. The Meghamandala Raga became quite popular over time. It was mentioned by Durgabar Kayastha in his book Giti Ramayana also.28 He was a great artist of Oja-pali dance. He was a great admirer of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Once Durgabar performed dance recital of Oja-pali before Srimanta Sankaradeva. The latter developed his cultural innovations based on such folk elements. He evolved classical dance and music from out of such folk dances and music.
The method of singing in Sankari school of music differs a lot from both the Hindustani and the Carnatic schools. For instance, the extensive rise and fall all over the scales along the path of a Raga is a unique character of Bargeet, the devotional songs composed by Srimanta Sankaradeva and his foremost disciple Madhavadeva. They called the first verse in every Bargeet as Dhrung, which means constant. This concept is a basic requirement in classical music. Alap also is ingrained in the Bargeet. Again, the curvature in the movement along the scales is the highest in the Sankari songs among all types of classical songs in India.29 Not only that, the Sankari songs established the classical traditions in India. Other classical musicians like Man Singh Tomar etc came to the arena of classical music much later.30 Tansen also practised music much later than Srimanta Sankaradeva. The former lived from 1532 AD to 1585 AD. Again, an important ingredient of classical music, Khayal was evolved by Sultan Hussein Sorkee only in the fifteenth century.31 Thus all these great musicians were contemporary of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Srimanta Sankaradeva belonged to that period when the classical music itself was being developed in India in the modern sense. He is thus one of the great pioneers and a leading light in the world of Indian classical music.
Both Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva were opposed to any unwarranted external influence on their own school of music. When Srimanta Sankaradeva went on his second pilgrimage, he often asked Madhavadeva to sing a devotional song. This happened whenever the former heard any native person singing a devotional song or hymn. Once he said, “The penegyrist of other people is singing so eloquently. What about our penegyrist now ?” We can decipher a competitive attitude in this statement. That Srimanta Sankaradeva was an original creator is proved by it. Madhavadeva also inherited this attitude from his preceptor. Once eighteen new devotees started singing a song in a non-Assamese style. Madhavadeva stopped them immediately from singing and later composed two songs for them in Sankari style. These two Bargeets were “Moke kina mati dile Gopala ......” and “Sai dekhu dekhu ....... .”32
Next, let us discuss the literary contribution of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Almost all hagiographers say that Srimanta Sankaradeva composed his first verse just a few days after his enrolment in school. He was yet to learn the use of vowels at that time.33 His verse used only the vowel ‘a’. Thus it was very soft to hear. Hence it came to be known as Komal geet or soft song over time. The song is reproduced below.
Karatala kamala kamaladala nayana
bhavadava dahana gahana vana sayana
napara napara para satarata gamaya
sabhayamabhaya bhayamapahara satataya
kharatara bara sara hata dasabadana
khagachara nagadhara phanadhara sayana
jagadagha mapahara bhavabhaya tarana
parapada layakara kamalaja nayana.34
This single verse itself would have been sufficient to remember Srimanta Sankaradeva as a great poet. Even the famous Sanskrit verse Mohamudgara pales before it. No other Indian language can boast of such a verse. But it is only one of the numerous literary works of Srimanta Sankaradeva.
The indigenous atmosphere depicted in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s writings is another proof of the originality of his works. He used local phrases and idioms in his writings. The natural scenarios depicted in his verses are those of rural Assam.35 Actually his main purpose was to enlighten the common masses, not to teach the elite class, the strategy hitherto maintained by the religious preachers in and outside Assam. This itself was a great departure from the general tradition of Indian literature till that time. Srimanta Sankaradeva was a reformist litterateur and was first of his kind in entire India. Goswami Tulsidas followed in his footsteps. Tulsidas (1532-1623 AD) came to the literary world almost one century after Srimanta Sankaradeva and he preached the same egalitarian philosophy as the latter. Both Srimanta Sankaradeva and Tulsidas suggested the devotees to maintain equality in respect of all people.36 Thus Srimanta Sankaradeva became a leading light for Tulsidas.
There are some descriptions of places outside Assam in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s writings. There are strong evidences that Srimanta Sankaradeva had left deep impressions on the people of those places. For instance, he described the history of Jagannath temple in Oresa barnan. The Oriya society and culture had been influenced by him. He lived in Orissa for some time during his twelve year long pilgrimage from 1481 AD to 1493 AD. Several Pandas of the Jagannath temple became his disciples and they once took out a procession there with him. The institution of Bhagavata Tungi also developed there as an after-effect of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s visit. The famous social reformist of Orissa, Jagannath Das (1480-1540 AD) was imbued with the egalitarian philosophy of Srimanta Sankaradeva. He developed the Bhagavata Tungi institution in Orissa in the model of Namghar.37
Some writers opine that poet Jaideva had an influences on Srimanta Sankaradeva.38 But that is a misinterpretation arising out of ignorance about Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Vaishnavite philosophy as well as the history of Assamese language. Jaideva presented Radha, named as Raseswari as the central character in his book Gita Govinda. But this whole concept of Radha is foreign to the Sankari literature. Srimanta Sankaradeva drew his materials from Srimadbhagavata, a scripture written around eighth century AD, where Radha did not find any place. But Jaideva modified the original story of Srimadbhagavata and emphasized on the character of Radha in the above-mentioned book. This suited the Sahajiya Buddhists of that time. Later the Chaitanyaites also followed in Jaideva’s footsteps. They began to worship both Krishna and Radha. But it is only lord Krishna, who is worshipped in the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma propounded by Srimanta Sankaradeva. Worshipping Radha is an aberration from the point of view of Srimanta Sankaradeva. All creatures are equal for him and hence there is no justification for worshipping a fellow creature. Jaideva could not therefore have been an ideal of Srimanta Sankaradeva with such major difference in ideology. His was clearly a distinct ideology within the Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism.
The originality of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s literary works stand out on the basis of language also. He composed his poems in Brajabuli language much before the Bengali poets. He had composed his first Bargeet “Rama meri hridaya pankaje baise ......” in 1481 AD. But the Bengali Brajabuli came into being as much as two decades later, when the poet Yasowanta Raj Kha composed the song “Nripatihasana jagatabhusana ......” some time in 1498-1500 AD.39 Therefore Srimanta Sankaradeva can be said to have launched the Brajabuli literature in the Northern India. It may be mentioned that stone inscriptions written in Brajawali has been found in Assam dating back to 1232 AD. The Gachtal stone pillar inscription of 1362 AD also used Brajawali.40
So far we have discussed the literary and cultural contributions of Srimanta Sankaradeva. But these were only secondary works for him. These were means for him to spread his spiritual message among the masses. His main contribution, which was the most important from his own perspective was the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma. He took the original concept of Eka Sarana from the scripture Srimadbhagavadgeeta, but he was more practical and more consistent than Srimadbhagavadgeeta. Lord Krishna advised Arjuna in Srimadbhagavadgeeta to surrender before him, whereupon he promised to redeem Arjuna from all demerits. It is true that this concept of surrendering oneself before the one and only God is a suggestion proffered by Srimadbhagavadgeeta. But it is more clear and pronounced in the writings of Srimanta Sankaradeva only. It was he who first practised it as a religion. No other religious leader of India could practise it before him. Even Srimadbhagavadgeeta did not have any consistent philosophy. It is rather an encyclopedia of Hinduism. There is mention of different rites and rituals here, which are not observed in the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma. Srimadbhagavadgeeta prefers to advocate Swadharma.41
It may be mentioned here that Srimadbhagavadgeeta does not pinpoint any single ideology as its prescribed philosophy. This scripture is nothing but an anthology of Indian philosophies. It is not a book of a single philosophy. But Srimanta Sankaradeva was categorical about worshipping a single God. All his songs, dances and creative works conveyed this message. He supplemented the main text with his own observations when he translated the scripture Srimadbhagavata. He forbade the devotees even to look at other deities in one verse.42 He underscored the importance of worshipping only one God by such writings. Devotion to the Lord must be whole, complete and absolute; otherwise it would not be Eka Sarana. Srimanta Sankaradeva was unique in this sense. He was without any precedent in the context of the philosophy of Eka Sarana.
It is therefore surprising that some writers from Bengal are trying to project Srimanta Sankaradeva as a follower of Chaitanya.43 These writers have misinterpreted the facts. Chaitanya was born in 1486 AD. He embraced Sanyasa in 1509 AD and died in 1533 AD. On the other hand, Srimanta Sankaradeva was born in 1449 AD. He started preaching formally and actively from 1468 AD. Chaitanya was not even born at that time. Srimanta Sankaradeva toured all over India from 1481 AD to 1493 AD. His second tour outside North East India took place in 1550-1551 AD. Thus he never came into contact with Chaitanya.
Some people say that Chaitanya came to Hajo in lower Assam in 1533 AD during the coronation of Koch king Nara Narayana and met Srimanta Sankaradeva there.44 That these are fabricated stories become clear from the facts that Nara Narayana ascended the throne only in 1540 AD and Srimanta Sankaradeva did not leave the Dhuwahata area in upper Assam from 1522 AD to 1540 AD.45 Over and above that, there was no formal philosophy at all of Chaitanya which he would have preached. What is now being presented as the philosophy of Chaitanya is nothing but the combined work of two Bengali scholars Baladeva Vidyabhushana and Jiva Goswami. This theorization was carried out in the eighteenth century only.
Radha is the supreme authority for the Chaitanyaites, as she guides even lord Krishna. The Chaitanyaites worship both Radha and Krishna. Their philosophy is thus based on relationship between Purusa and Prakiti, both being worshipped in their cult. But the concept of Krishna, according to Srimanta Sankaradeva, surpasses all mundane sentiments. Krishna is beyond both Purusa and Prakriti in the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma. Naturally the treatment of Ras-lila differ in the two cults. The Chaitanyaites depict lord Krishna as the embodiment of carnal desires.46 On the other hand, Srimanta Sankaradeva pointed out that the love of the Gopis for lord Krishna was a symbol of the soul’s inclination towards the universal self. He cautioned the devotees time and again not to emulate the apparent love affair of the Gopis, but to transcend all gross, mundane feelings. Contrary to that, the Chaitanyaites emulate the Gopis in their Sankirtana.
The initiation process of the two cults are also completely different. Srimanta Sankaradeva embodied the concept of complete surrender before God in his initiation process Sarana, which means submission or surrender. The devotee is guided to consider God as his/her ultimate resort from the very beginning. The preceptor remains there only to guide the devotee, but the ultimate Guru happens to be none other than God Himself. Srimanta Sankaradeva thus maintained a low profile in his relationship with the devotees and always presented himself merely as a servant of God.
But the Chaitanyaites consider both the supreme God and the founder of the cult, Chaitanya as Mahaprabhu. Thus they worship three entities--Krishna, Radha and Chaitanya. Against that, the followers of Srimanta Sankaradeva worship only one entity, lord Krishna. So we can see that the concept of Eka Sarana applies to the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma only. The Chaitanyaites receive Diksha, not Sarana as in Eka Sarana Nama Dharma. Their founder, Chaitanya is worshiped as an incarnation of God, which is not done in the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma, though Srimanta Sankaradeva is obviously considered by his followers as an incarnation of lord Vishnu. The Chaitanya cult is broadly similar to the Nimbarka cult, whereas the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma does not have full similarity with any other Bhakti cult. The Eka Sarana Nama Dharma stands out among the different Bhakti cults of India in its numerous uniqueness.
The external paraphernalia also differ completely from one another in the two cults. Srimanta Sankaradeva used Khol, a new type of drum innovated by himself as well as Bhortal, a pair of big cymbals, in the prayer songs. The Chaitanyaites on the other hand use small Tal and modern instruments like harmonium for music in their Sankirtana. Srimanta Sankaradeva made it a practice to offer high protein diet as holy prasada. Thus the prasada in his cult consist of gram, a lentil named Mug, coconut, banana and other seasonal fruits. These are served with a salted flavour. There is no such practice in the Chaitanya cult.
The altars of the two cults are also different. The one in the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma is called Guru-asana. It has seven layers, representing seven Vaikuntha (heaven). The holy scripture Gunamala is placed on top of it. This book, authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva contains the attributes of God. Srimanta Sankaradeva gave the highest importance to the shapeless universal self by placing this book on the top platform of the Guru-asana. So the devotee bows down to this shapeless universal self, not to any icon, whenever he/she bows down before the altar. This also proves the equality of Brahma and Iswara in the philosophy of Srimanta Sankaradeva. But the Chaitanyaites place the icons of Radha and Krishna on their altar, which happens to be a simple platform. This not only proves the concept of duality in their philosophy, but also introduces the element of female deity worship in their order.
The Guru-asana of the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma is decorated with beautiful engravings. Generally elephants are shown being overpowered by flying lions in these engravings. This implies the destruction of demerits by the chanting of God’s name. Such artistic altar is rare in any religious cult. In fact, art and culture were the mainstay of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s religious system. He was the first person in the world to use drama as a medium of propagation. He was also the first playwright and director who enacted his play on a raised platform. He did this in Chihna-yatra in 1468 AD, as many as 128 years before the theatre hall ‘The Swan Theatre’ was built in London with a five feet high stage. He also used drop-scenes in the Chihna-yatra, which is yet another world record.47 He was also the first playwright in all modern Indian languages. It is sad that such a genius has remained virtually unknown outside Assam. It is sadder still that a certain section has been trying to belittle this extraordinary person and even projecting him as follower of other cult.48 However truth will always prevail. The dispassionate scholars will always say that Srimanta Sankaradeva “was the greatest builder of Assam by bringing in a purer spiritual life ...... .... as a religious leader he is unquestioningly one of the greatest India has produced.”49
References and notes
1. The concerned author was Dr Mahua Mukherjee. [Mahapurusa Sri Srimanta Sankaradeva Sri Chaitanyar dwara prabhabanwita haisilne ?, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, in Asom Bani, edited by Homen Borgohain, Guwahati, November 22, 1996 AD. This article was mainly based on interview with Dr Mahua Mukherjee in Kolkata.]
2. Abhinaya darpana, Sribhagavannandikeswar, quoted in Abhinaya darpana by Nirmal Chandra Sil, 1981 AD, p. 13; Asamar natya nritya kala, Suresh Chandra Goswami, 1st edition, Guwahati, 1978 AD, p. 6; Asom deshar buranji, Dr Lakhmi Devi, 6th edition, Guwahati, 1990 AD, pp. 31-32, 36; Rag sangit, B.K. Phukan, 2nd edition, Guwahati, 1992 AD, p. 265. Usha is mentioned by Sribhagavannandikeswar.
3. Gurucharit : Srimanta Sankaradevar lila charit, Ramcharan Thakur, edited by Harinarayan Dutta Barua, 6th edition, Guwahati, 1985 AD, pp. 315-317; Satriya sanskritir swarnarekha, Narayan Chandra Goswami, 1st edition, Majuli, 1984 AD, p. 519; Vaishnav dharma ba namdharma, Bhuban Chandra Bhuyan, enlarged 2nd edition, Guwahati, 1980 AD, p. 109; Bordowa Gurucharit, Puwaram Mahanta, edited by Dr Maheswar Neog, 1st edition, Guwahati, 1977 AD, p. 63.
4. Pujari, Anuradha Sarma, op cit.
5. Katha gurucharit, Chakrapani Vairagi, composed in about 1758 AD and collected by Dr Banikanta Kakoti, edited by Upendra Chandra Lekharu, 15th edition, Guwahati, 1987 AD, p. 36.
6. Sri Sri Sankaradeva, Dr Maheswar Neog, 5th edition, Dibrugarh, 1985 AD, p. 33; Thakur, Ramcharan, op cit, pp. 398-399; Vairagi, Chakrapani, op cit, p. 29.
7. Asomiya sahityar samikhatmak itibritto, Dr Satyendra Nath Sarma, 2nd edition, Guwahati, 1984 AD, pp. 140-141.
8. Gurucharit katha, Chakrapani Vairagi, copy preserved by Tankeswari Mahanta of Bordowa, [unedited], in Katha, Vol I, Issue I, Guwahati, 1992 AD, pp. 146-147. It may be noted that Srimanata Sankaradeva had transferred his administrative power as well as most of his resources to his grand uncle Jayanta. So the family of Jayanta became rich over time. Ram Rai alias Jagatananda was grandson of Jayanta. Ram Rai knew that his well-to-do status had become possible only due to the abdication of power by Srimanata Sankaradeva, his cousin and preceptor. So he sponsored almost all cultural activities undertaken by Srimanata Sankaradeva.
9. Vairagi, Chakrapani, 1987 AD, p. 37.
10.Neog, Dr Maheswar, 1985 AD, p. 131.
11.Thakur, Ramcharan, op cit, pp. 325-328; Goswami, Narayan Chandra, op cit, p. 637.
12.Ibid, pp 531-532; Goswami, Suresh Chandra, op cit, p. 9.
13.Pujari, Anuradha Sarma, op cit.
14.Bharatar Natyashastra, Bharata, translated to Assamese by Nityananda Shastri, Part I, 1st edition, Guwahati, 1991 AD, Foreword by Dr M. M. Sarma.
15.The prehistoric background of shifting cultivation, Dr T. C. Sharma, in Shifting cultivation in N E India, edited by Dr B. Dutta Roy, 1st edition, Shillong, 1980 AD, p. 1.
16.Shastri, Nityananda, op cit, p. 46.
17.The Shaivite traditions were so strong that even the Brahminical influence imported from Northern India could not conquer them. [Srimanta Sankara aru Asomor itihas, Dr Hiren Gohain, in Bastavar swapna, reprinted in Prasanga Sankaradeva, edited by Dr S. Barman, 1st edition, Guwahati, 1997 AD, pp. 35-36.]
18.Pujari, Anuradha Sarma, op cit.
19.Devi, Dr Lakhmi, op cit, pp. 296-297.
20.Vaisnavism in Manipur : how it came and established itself, H. Ranbir Singh, in Ishani, Vol 1, No 3, Imphal, January 1996 AD, p.8; Goswami, Suresh Chandra, op cit, pp. 141-142.
21.Asomiya kristi, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, in Bishnu Rabha rachanawali, 1st edition, Nalbari, 1982 AD, p. 73.
22.Goswami, Suresh Chandra, op cit, pp. 141-142.
23.Bhagyachandra’s contribution to Manipuri culture, E. Nilakanta Singh, in Ishani, Imphal, 1996 AD, pp. 16-17.
24.Goswami, Narayan Chandra, op cit, p. 564.
25.Mahapurusa Sankaradeva samparke Chaitanyapanthir apaprachara, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, part III, in Natun dainik, October 26, 1997 AD. Also see the present author’s books Sarvagunakara Srimanta Sankaradeva, 1st edition, Nagaon, 2000 AD, Sankaradeva adhyayanat bisangati, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2005 AD, and Dr Lakhmi Devi’s Asom deshar buranji for factual details.
26.Pujari, Anuradha Sarma, op cit.
27.Vairagi, Chakrapani, 1987 AD, p. 36.
28.Rag sangit, Birendra Kumar Phukan, 2nd edition, Guwahati, 1992 AD, pp. 267-268.
29.Aitihasik patbhumit Mahapurusa Sankaradeva, Bap Chandra Mahanta, 1st edition, Jorhat, 1987 AD, p. 346.
30.Bargitar raga, Dr B. K. Dutta, in Bargeet, edited by Dr D. Pathak and R. Sarma, Guwahati, 1993 AD, Appendix, p. (17), (22).
31.Gayan vidya bodhini, Golap Mahanta, 1989 AD, p. 39.
32.Vairagi, Chakrapani, 1987 AD, p. 165, 268.
33.Ibid, p. 27; Bar charit, Dinanath Bezbaruah, 1st edition, Jorhat, 1987 AD, p. 12. Ramcharan Thakur however says that Srimanta Sankaradeva composed it at sixteen years of age. That is a more reliable version. [Thakur, Ramcharan, op cit, p. 306.]
34.Two more lines are available in Bar charit. [Dinanath Bezbaruah, op cit, p. 12.] These are given below.
Bhakatara bhayahara bhagavana sarana
Sankara kaharaha namaraha marana
35.Sankaradevar Kirtan-ghosha, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, in Sutradhara, edited by Medini Choudhury, August 1-15, 1996 AD.
36.Mahapurusa Sankaradeva aru Goswami Tulsidasar samajik adarsha, Dr B. Roy Choudhury, in Chintamani, edited by P.C. Das, Jorhat, 1997 AD.
37.Bhagavata Tungi aru Namghar, Jivan Krishna Patra, in Chintamani, edited by P.C. Das, Jorhat, 1996 AD.
38.Pujari, Anuradha Sarma, op cit; Sarma, Dr Satyendra Nath, op cit, pp. 141-142.
39.Brajawali bhasar byakarana aru abhidhana, Narayan Chandra Goswami, 1st edition, Guwahati, 1990 AD, Foreword by Dr Maheswar Neog. The record of the first Bargeet is found in Chakrapani Vairagi, 1987 AD, pp. 511-512. It was composed when Srimanta Sankaradeva went on his first pilgrimage in 1481 AD. He put up at a devotee’s house at Rowmari, where he composed this Bargeet.
40.Significance of the three stone inscriptions at the Assam State Museum : Gauhati, Dr P.C. Choudhury, in Journal of Indian history, University of Kerala, Vol XLII, part I, 1970 AD; Gachtal stone pillar inscriptions in the Assam State Museum and its significance, Dr P.C. Choudhury, in Visheswaranand Indological Journal, Punjab University, Hoshiarpur, Vol IX, part I, 1971 AD. The Assamese Brajabuli is also known as Brajawali.
41.Absence of Shakti worship : a unique feature of Eka Sarana Harinam Dharma of Srimanta Sankaradeva, in Mahapurusa Jyoti, Journal of Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha, (ed) by Dr. Suresh Chandra Bora, Volume V, Nagaon 2003. Since the meaning of ‘Swadharma’ was not made clear in Srimadbhagavadgeeta, it encouraged different interpretations and made it higly ambiguous.
42.Bhagavata, translated by Srimanta Sankaradeva, Canto II, verse 124. Of course this stringency was targetted at devotees of Prakrit (primary) level, who required protection to their faith. Srimanta Sankaradeva was a very liberal person, who honoured the beliefs of other cults and never abused those, even when his own cult-members were abused by people of other faiths.
43.Bharatiya sahitye Sri Chaitanya, Dr. Nirmal Narayan Gupta, 1st edition, Calcutta, 1986 AD, pp. 62-64; Srikrishna Caitanya : a historical study on Gaudiya Vaisnavism, Dr A. N. Chatterjee, New Delhi, p. 117; Bhakti movement and Srimanta Sankaradeva, Dr Amalendu Chakravarty, in Mahapurusa Jyoti, Journal of Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha, edited by Dr. Suresh Chandra Bora, Volume V, Nagaon 2003 AD, pp. 99-108; Early history of the Vaisnava faith and movement in Bengal, Sushil Kumar De, 1st edition, Calcutta, 1942 AD, p. 32.
44.Pujari, Anuradha Sarma, op cit.
45.Mahapurusa Sankaradevar samparkat Chaitanyapanthir apaprachara, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, part II, in Natun dainik, October 19, 1997 AD.
46.Chaitanya charitamrita, Krishnadas Kaviraj, Calcutta, 1996 AD, p. 154.
47.The life of Shakespeare, (English), F. E. Halliday, revised edition, London, 1964 AD, p. 70, 122; Sri Sri Sankardeva, (English), Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 1995 AD, p. 12; Goswami, Narayan Chandra, op cit, p. 519.
48.Gupta, Dr. Nirmal Narayan, op cit., pp. 50-58, 62-64, 67; Chatterjee, Dr A. N., op cit.
49.The place of Assam in the history and civilisation of India, Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, 2nd edition, Guwahati, 1970 AD, p. 65, footnote.