Sankardeva

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By Swami Harshananda

Śaṅkaradeva lived in A. D. 1486-1568.

Life

Śaṅkaradeva is the brightest star of the Vaiṣṇava Movement in Assam and north-east India, whose contribution is no less than that of Śrīkṛṣṇa Caitanya[1] in Bengal and Orissa. He was born at the village Ālipukhuri.[2] His parents were Kusumbara and Satyasandhā. He lost his parents very early in life and was brought up by his grandparents. He got a good education in a Sanskrit school and also developed his god-given talents in music, painting and composing poems.

He was married and had a daughter. His wife died immediately afterwards. He went out on a long pilgrimage at the age of thirty. His travel spread over twelve years. He visited many places including Kāśī, Vṛndāban, Mathurā, Kurukṣetra, Dvārakā and Rāmeśvaram. During these visits, the strong current of Vaiṣṇavism he noticed everywhere due to the influence of saintly poets like Vidyāpati,[3] Jayadeva[4] and Srīkṛṣṇa Caitanya whom he met for a short period, practically converted him from his Śākta moorings to the Vaiṣṇava creed.

After returning to his place he was forced by his close relatives to marry for second time. This perturbed him much. However, the chance arrival of Jagadīśa mitra, a great pundit and a travelling mendicant, helped him to regain his balance and peace. Jagadīśamitra stayed with him and taught him the Bhāgavata. Śaṅkaradeva’s conversion to Vaiṣṇavism was now complete. This inspired him to translate the Daśamaskandha[5] into the Kāmarupi[6] language, in simple verses. Recurring political troubles forced him to migrate to safer places, finally settling down at Belguri on the bank of the stream Dhoasuti in North Lakhimpur.[7]

Three Aspects of the Sect

Though Śaṅkaradeva adopted Vaiṣṇavism as his religion he evolved his own form of it and developed a new sect. He carved a wooden image of Kṛṣṇa, called it Madanagopāla and established it in his prayer-hall with elaborate ceremonies. The prayer-hall itself was called ‘nāmaghar’. He started his own form of initiation called ‘śaraṇa’. This had three categories or aspects:

  1. Nāmaśaraṇa
  2. Guruśaraṇa
  3. Bhaktiśaraṇa [8]

In other prayer-halls built under his supervision or guidance, he installed the Bhāgavata-book instead of Kṛṣṇa’s image on a wooden pedestal. This new method averted the need for formal worship and associated riturals only by a brāhmaṇa. All the devotees, irrespective of caste or religion, could offer a simple service to the book before congregational prayers called kīrtan. The simple process of initiation he adopted was to transmit the mantra hare krsna, hare rāma. The Bhāgavata was adopted not only as the scripture but also as the object of worship.

Philosophy

According to Śaṅkaradeva, Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme God who is a person,[9] eternal, omniscient and omnipotent. The puruṣas or jīvas, individual souls are many and are His anśas or parts.[10] The insentient prakṛti[11] is also his.

Śaṅkaradeva lays great stress on bhakti, that too dāsyabhakti.[12] The most important aspect of this is ekaśaraṇatva.[13] Though mokṣa or salvation[14] is accepted, the devotee is indifferent to it since he enjoys devotion to God much more.

Works

Śaṅkaradeva did not write commentaries on the prasthānatraya. But he has left quite a few works for the posterity. They are:

  1. Bhaktiratnākara in Sanskrit
  2. Kīrtana in simple verses suited to music
  3. Gunamālā is a synopsis of the Bhāgavata
  4. Añkiānāt is one-act dramas
  5. Translation of a part of Mārkandeyapurāna
  6. Number of devotional songs known as bargits[15]

Except the first, all the other works are in the Kāmārupī or Assamese language. The work Nāmaghoṣa, by his chief disciple Mādhavadeva, has gained great respect from the followers and became popular.

Epilogue

The bhakti-movement that he started gradually spread in the whole area. However, it also split into six major groups in course of time. Institutions known as satras also came into being associated with this movement.

References

  1. He lived in A. D. 1485-1533.
  2. It is present Gong district in Assam.
  3. He lived in 15th century A. D.
  4. He lived in 12th century A. D.
  5. It is the tenth book of the Bhāgavata containing Kṛṣṇa’s story in great detail.
  6. Kāmarupi is an Assamese.
  7. It is in Assam.
  8. It is also called as Buddhist śaraṇas which are Buddha, Dharma and Sañgha.
  9. He is the Puruṣa, Purusottama, Parameśvara and Nārāyaṇa.
  10. Bhagavadgītā 15.7
  11. Prakṛti means nature.
  12. Dāsyabhakti means considering oneself as a dāsa or servant of God.
  13. Ekaśaraṇatva means total surrender or dedication to God.
  14. Salvation means freedom from trans-migratory existence.
  15. Bargits are the varagitā, ‘excellent songs’.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore