Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam

APSC Mains Test Series - GS Paper

Bhakti Movement across India

Devotion to God is intrinsic in the growth of every religion, although it is known by different terms in different societies. Submission to God does not mean the lack of the knowledge of the laws of the working of the natural forces, although it is often taken so, but man’s deep faith in his own self and the world around him makes him believe in the orderly system of the universe as a whole. This type of belief in order is what is known as devotion or Bhakti in Assamese. Bhakti has been interpreted as a means of salvation, but in the history of religion in India it has also been interpreted as the search for the unknown.

Bhakti movement was not uniform or unified in its spirit, but a multi-faceted phenomenon with the philosophy and practices deeply rooted in the incarnations of Vishnu. The history of the growth and development of this movement brings to our notice not a smooth journey, but a surging movement in the face of oppositions in almost every nook and corner of India. The positive aspect of the believed drew the masses to join the congregations because of its wider out-look that encouraged to do away with or lessen the discrimination based on caste and sex. Discrimination between men and women was a part of the society because of the male domination prevalent at the time, but the Bhakti movement, through its encouragement for acquisition of knowledge and pursuit of studies of the scriptures was a great force for creating an atmosphere of the culture of human values. It was a ground work for a reformation of the society on the basis of mutual love and respect between men and women. Thus, the movement to a great extent helped encouraging education and the upliftment of the position of women in the society.

The Bhakti movement, which was an all inclusive spiritual movement, emerged at a time when Hinduism was suffering a gradual decline during the medieval period in India. The factors responsible for such a decline had to be brought under control not by the empowerment of any policy from the rulers or the society as a whole, but through theculture of human values by encouraging the people to come under a common platform of worship of the Absolute One without any discrimination of caste, sex and religion. It thus encouraged love for the people at large and devotion to the power Infinite and crossed the boundary of religiosity to a humanitarian cult.

Bhakti movement began in South India even around the 5th or 6th century A.D. when the Alwars, the worshipers of Vishnu and Narayana as well as of Shiva propagated devotional bhajans (songs) in Tamil. The Alwars were primarily Brahmin messengers who composed devotional songs and hymns in local vernacular languages and could attract the attention of the common people who felt their emotions and sentiments reflected in them. It was obviously an easy way to approach the common people without any opposition and as such the movement could run uninterrupted down to the end of the 15th century. The contribution of the Alwars in the Bhakti movement is of a unique kind in the contemporary social situations by bringing about a spirit of unity and fellow filling in spite of differences of caste and creed.

There was a great change in the political scenario of India between the 12th and 18th centuries when a major part of India came under Islamic rule and Hinduism also suffered a set back because of the discrimination among the Hindus on the basis of caste and conversion from Hinduism to Islamism. But the uninterrupted efforts by the Alwars for the spread of Vaishnavism through devotional songs started by Ramanuja in 11th century and carried forward by Nimarkacharya of the 11th century, Madhabacharya of 13th century,Ramananda of 14th century, Kabir of 15th century, Chaitanya of 15th to 16th centuries and others proved fruitful as the great Vaishnava renaissance inspired the common people for spontaneous acceptance of the devotional cult.

Conversion from Hinduism to Islam had an impact upon the thinkers and reformers to develop a liberal outlook in matters of rigidity. The popularity of Bhakti cult in South India started spreading to the other parts of India although with certain modifications by the reformers there. It turned into a renaissance which spread throughout the length and breadth of India.

The Bhakti movement shows diversity in matters of the practice of religious faith giving rise to four main sampradayas or sects of Vaishnavism based on the teachings of Ramanuja, Madhavacharya and Nimbarkacharya. The existing minor sects got incorporated in the four main sects. The first sampradaya known as Sri-Sampradaya Was founded by Ramananda, the 15th successor after Ramanuja stretching upon the worship of Lord Rama, who is taken for an incarnation of Vishnu. The second sect known as Madhvi s known so after the name of its founder Madhavacharya. The Rudra-Sampradaya is the third main sampradaya, founded by Vallabhacharya worshipped Gopala Krishna with Radha and the images of his various manifestations. Followers of Vallabhacharya Vaishnavism are still following this practice in several parts of India, particularly in Gujrat. The forth main sampradaya Nimat was founded by Nimbaditya with the practice of worshipping Krishna and Radha. Followers of this sect consider Sri Mad-Bhagavata as their chief scripture.

Besides these four main sects another sects called Vithal-Bhakatas developed in Maharastra and the followers have now scattered in various part of central India, Gujrat and Karnataka. These scattering followers called their sect Vaishnava-Vir, although originating in Vithal-Bhakatas and worship pandurang, Vithal or Vithoba, who is considered the 9th incarnation of Vishnu. The 9th incarnation being also known as Budha-Deva, the followers of this sect are also known as Budha-Vaishnavas who lay importance on the love between the Upasya and the Upasaka, i.e. the object of worship and the worshipper.

The Bhakti movement spread to the eastern part of India, particularly in Bengal where the foundation of Vaishnavism can be credited to Chaitanya, who spread the idealsof the worship of Radha-Krishna, the main spirit being the attitude of the soul for a merger in God known as the Chaitanya sampradaya, this cult considers the longing of the Gopis for Krishna as the archetypal of the soul’s longing for God.

Neo-Vaishnavism and its historical perspective in Assam

Neo-Vaishnavism had a charging wave of reformation and renaissance in Assam during the 15th and 16th century, bringing about considerable changes in almost all aspects of life including social, cultural and religious aspects. This period was presided by practices of Tantrism and even sacrifices of birds and animals, even including human sacrifices at a number of temples. This mode of worship was considered to be a part of the religious set up of the society.

Sankaradeva, the great Vaishnavite saint of the 15th and 16th centuries was the guiding spirit for the initiation and development of Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam. Born of a Kayastha family in 1449 A.D. at Alipukhuri near Bardowa of the present district of Nagaon, he was educated in the mediaval Sanskrit lore known as ‘tol’ and settled down as a member of the Baro Bhuyan family of his legacy. After the death of his first wife, h went for his first pilgrimage all over India for a period of fourteen years. It had a lasting influence on his mind. When he visited the famous sacred places of India, his attention was drawn towards vaishnavite faith. It had a lasting influence on his mind. His attention was drawn towards the vaishnavite faith deeply. He could not rest in solace without devoting himself to the propagation of the vaishnavite faith which he thought appropriate in the prevailing situation of Assam. It was an age of resurgence in India as a whole as vaishnavism flourished almost throughout the country, even in its southern part, especially under the propagation of Ramanujan. Sankaradeva initiated a unique cult of religion which became known in history as Neo-vaishnavism as it had its origin in the cult of vaishnavism, but interpreted to fit the occasion in the north-eastern part of India. The unique quality of his faith lies in his deep rooted faith on Lord Krishna, the creator of the universe and it was quite unlike the pantheistic philosophy of the western world. This creed of neo-vaishnavism came to be known as Eksarana-nam-dharma, the main preaching of which is none other than Lord Krishna. As it is said in the Bhagavata-purana and Gita, Lord Vishnu assumes incarnations in various forms from time to time with a view to redeeming the world as well as to graze his devotees. Narayana is one such incarnation that is hailed in the Bhagavata-purana as well as in the Gita. Eksarana-namdharma is the absolute submission to only one who is none other than Krishna and it consists in the performance of nama, i.e. the recital or singing of the acts of Lord Krishna and listening to his glory. It is glorified by two aspects of recital of and listening to the glory of Lord Krishna for which it is aptly called Nam-dharma.

Eka-sarana-nam-dharma, as the very term implies absolute surrender to one, does not allow the worship of any other Gods or Goddess. Such worship is strictly forbidden and it has been clearly mentioned by Srimanta Sankaradeva in his Kirtana, “A vaishnavite should not worship any other God except Vishnu, he should not enter into any other God’s temple, nor should he part take of the offerings made to any other God. In so doing Bhakti would be vitiated”.

In preaching the principles of Vaishnavism, Srimanta Sankaradeva based his conception on the texts of the Bhagavata-Gita and Bhagavata-Purana which were
rendered into Assamese verse by the learned saint for easy access of the common people. Sankaradeva’s Eka-sarana-nam-dharma preaches the lesson of absolute devotion to Vishnu or Lord Krishna in total exclusion of Idol worship which he debarred the vaisnavas to go far. Among all the founders of the religious sects in India Sankaradeva enjoys a unique and most honorable place for his unqualified scholarship and the yeoman’s task of rendering the scriptures into Assamese for the common benefit of the illiterate mass of his time. His cult or sect is popularly known as Mahapurusiya.


Stages of Evolution of the Sattra Institution

In the time of Sankaradeva the early stage of Sattra institution can be marked. The starting of such kind of institution was obvious with the shape of a religious sitting around him. It is said during those days the sitting of the devotees and disciples were held under the open sky or the big trees. Perhaps this was the beginning of the Sattra. At the beginning time of Sankaradeva there was no provision of permanent Sattra institution. Gradually devotees and the disciples felt the necessity of a permanent Namghar or a Kirtanghar for religious purposes. This stage was known as a divine place or Deva mandir or Devagriha. There was no office of the Sattradhikar (head of the Sattra) at that time.

Regular source of income was totally absent in that period. In the preliminary stageof Sattra institution there was no reference relating to the existence of Chari-hati (four rows of residential huts around the Namghar). The source of economy of the management was very simple and most probably the management of the Sattra was conducted with the help of resident devotees.

In the times of Sri Sri Madhavadeva the system of Guru-kar (Guru-Tax or fee to the Guru) and Sidha-bhojani (donation of cash or kind goods) was first introduced. This was the regular source of income of the Sattra. The Sattra institution directly imposed the Guru-kar on its disciples. On the other hand Sidha-bhojani was an indirect sort of tax. Each and every resident disciple had to render money or food staff to the Sattra as his capacity when he attended Sattra.

The first Sattra institution was started by Srimanta Sankaradeva at Batadrawa (Vatadrava) in the present district of Nagaon. After the return of Sankaradeva from first pilgrimage he converted Batadrawa (Vatadrava) to patbausi with his school mates, some of his family members and his school masters and other followers. Due to lack of the structure of a permanent institution Batadrawa ceased to exist for more than a hundred years after the departure of Sankaradeva from Batadrawa to Patbausi via Gangmou (north bank of the Brahmaputra) and Dhuwahati (Majuli). The Batadrawa was recognized as the importance of holy or sacred place towards the middle of 17th century by Kanaklata, daughter-in-law of Sankaradeva. Saint Srimanta Sankaradeva settled at Patbausi (present Barpeta district) with his relatives and devoted followers where a force of motion of religious cultural restoration occurred. During his stay at Patbausi his main disciples were Sri Sri Madhavadeva, Sri Sri Damodardeva, Sri Sri Harideva and Sri Sri Narayan Das Thakur Ata. The three close disciples of saint Sankaradeva established the respective Sattras. Sri Sri Damodardeva established the Patbausi Sattra during the period of 1560-1590 A.D. and Sri Sri Madhavadeva built the Sundaridia Sattra in 1570 A.D. and the Barpeta Sattra in 1583 A.D.

Sri Sri Harideva established the first Sattra at Maneri (Kamrup district) during the period of 1560-1580 A.D. Within the Koch Empire the early Sattras of Assam were situated. After the establishment of the early Sattras of Koch kingdom, the Koch kings of eastern and western Assam (Kamrup) showed sympathy to the Vaishnava saints and also helped them in different ways.

Saint Madhavadeva played a significant role during the growth of Sattra. After demise of Srimanta Sankaradeva, Saint Sri Sri Madhavadeva appointed a large numbers of disciples for spreading the Neo-Vaishnavism ideals among the village people. The contribution of Vamsigopaldeva (initiated by saint Damodardeva), Gopaldeva and Padma Ata were praiseworthy in case of creating a Vaishnavite atmosphere in eastern Assam among the 12 disciples appointed by Sri Sri Madhavadeva (Hazarika, 2014, p.185).

The eldest grandson of saint Sankaradeva, Purusottam Thakur (1561-1619 A.D.) became aware of necessity and importance for extending the Sattras. He first established the Jania Sattra (About 10 k.m. far from Barpeta Town). In this Sattra he selected 12 disciples, (6 Brahmins and 6 non Brahmins) in order to establish Sattras in several regions of Assam, so that they might spread saint Sankaradeva’s religious belief and doctrines. Chaturbhuj Thakur the younger brother of Purusottam Thakur also appointed 12 disciplesAfter the death of Chaturbhuj Thakur (1648 A.D.) his first wife Kanaklata was appointed as a religious head and she had 12 disciples. The woman’s role in the establishment of the Sattras for the first time in the history of Assam is remarkable. She played an active and vital role to spread the Neo-Vaishnavism.


Contributions of Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam

The contributions of neo-vaishnavism in Assam through the Sattra institution are highly appreciable which has sustained for about five centuries. With the help of the vaisnavite movement of Assam the Sattra institution played an important role to make the Assamese society united. There are several contributions of neo-vaishnavism which can be summarized as given below.

a. Religious Contribution

In the time of Sankaradeva the starting of the Vaishnavite movement’s people of different castes, creed and various cultural groups lived in different situations. Their religious practices and performance were also different. The people were by degrees converted into one common religious faith based on devotional doctrines. It was the main achievement of the neo-vaishnavite movement to turn the land of Kamrupa, famous from the earlier period as the stronghold of Tantricism and Saktism, into a predominantly vaishnavite land partly. The Sattra institution, the main religious part of neo-vaishnavism may be considered as the major force of unification or oneness.

b. Social Contribution

In any country of the world the social life of people is complexly related with religion. It is also prevalent in Indian society. Here the social and religious lives of men are more complex. The moral, spiritual and ethical basis of the society is derived from different religions. Regarding maintenance and management of the morality and discipline of a society, the Namghar (prayer hall), the extensive wing of the Sattra institution played an important role. All cultural and religious activities of a village in Assam are generally performed following this institution.

The upliftment of the backward castes and classes is also a remarkable social contribution of the Sattra institution. In the Sattra institution all castes and tribal groups were equal with others and all were freely initiated. Through the activities of the vaisnava thinkers and preachers of Assam a significant method of integration has been going on for centuries. They believe unity in diversity. That is why various persons outside of the Hinduism accepted Sankaradevas religion and became his disciples. For example Jaihari Atai originally was a Muslim, Govinda Atai a Garo, Bhola Atai a Karbi and Ram Atai a Kachari accepted Sankaradevas Ekasaran-nam-dharma and became his disciples. There conversion was not one sided because it is proved by the certain practices and performance of the vaisnavas.

c. Educational and Cultural Contribution

The Sattra institution presented a lot of contributions to the educational and cultural field. There were also private teaching systems known as ‘tols’ and ‘pathsalas’ joined with certain Sattras under some renowned scholars. Both the saint Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva took their early education in this system. The Brahmin Satradhikara of Patbausi Sattra Bhattadeva managed such type of tol in the premises of Sattra.

The ancient Assamese religious literature was in the form of contributions into Assamese language from original Sanskrit texts. These were initiated by Madhav Kandali, Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and Damodardeva and their disciples under the guidance and encouragement of the heads of the different Sattras. The most remarkable contribution to the literature is the introduction of biographical descriptions of medieval Assamese period both in prose and verse form on the lives of vaishnavite saints, such as Sankaradeva (1449-1568 A.D.), and Madhavadeva (1489-1596 A.D.). Among all the biographies of the vaishnavite saints of Assam the Katha Guru-carita (i.e. hagiography in prose) is remarkable and another prose hagiography known as Bordowa Katha-guru-carita is found in the Bordowa Sattra.

Sankaradeva introduced ‘Bhaona’ or ‘Ankia-bhaona’ for the first time almost five hundred years ago as a medium of religious publicity continued up to the present time. Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and other vaisnava poets of Assam wrote and composed Ankia-natas which are still performed in the Namghars through the Bhaona. Both the prayer halls and the Namghars of the Sattras are used as the auditorium and stage for performing the ankia-natas. On the different festivals and anniversaries of various Vaishnava saints the Ankia-Natas or Bhaonas are performed.

With the rise and popularity of the bhaona performances in different Sattras a special class of artisans started to specialize in the art of preparing the different accessories necessary for performances or acting. The accessories included effigies and masks representing demons, animals and birds etc.

The neo-vaishnavite movement also rendered great contribution to the Assamese society by particular songs, lyrics, music and dance. The Sattras served to act as the central place for cultivation and creation of these arts. Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva composed a kind of devotional songs called ‘Bargeetas’ based on classical ragas. Later on these are mainly associated with the Sattra system as a part of daily and occasional prayer services.

The Sattras have various contributions in producing artistic talent and experts through the various forms of Sattriya music and dance. Such talented persons perform as a traditional participant in different religious services of the Sattra. That is why the varied forms of music, dance and drama were the ways of attracting people towards the religious faith and these help to establish a kind of expressing thoughts between the Sattra and the community. The Sattra institutions were closely related with Assamese society and its culture.



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