Roughly from the 12th century to the 17th century, a galaxy of religious reformers appeared in different parts of India to launch a reformed movement having the characteristics of ritual-free simple religion which could be observed by all sections of people irrespective of caste, creed, social status, pedantry, aristocracy and economic condition.
This reformative revival movement, which swept over the length and breadth of India during the period, was responsible for the growth of many a sect, most of which were Vaishnavite in creed.
Among the medieval religious leaders and reformers, Sri Sankaradev (1449 AD – 1569 AD) of Assam stands in the forefront as a versatile genius. L Smith of Stockholm University, Sweden, has remarked on Sankaradev: “He remains a very real person and very impressive without the paraphernalia of the miraculous.”
VS Agarwala of Benaras Hindu University, has written: “There are poets and composers, there are saints and religious teachers, there are musical masters, there are preachers, but Sankaradev was a genius in whom all these qualities were rolled into one.”
Besides, Sankaradev was a dramatist, philosopher, social reformer, artist, painter, linguist and actor. There was no one such aspect that was not touched by his creative personality.
He started his education at the age of 12 years and finished his education at the age of 17. After studying all the faculties of learning of those days, he started propagating “Eka Sarana Naam Dharma” or “Mahapurusia Dharma”, a religion of love and devotion to God through selfless service to all creatures, small or big.
Sankaradev curved for himself an abiding niche of glory in the history of the subcontinent by waging a relentless war against the blind upholders of narrow casteism and challenging the haughtiness of those who wanted to perpetuate the barriers of caste on the basis of wrong interpretation of the basic teachings of Hinduism.
Like most of the Vaisnava reformers of his time, Sankaradev preached the fundamental equality of all religious paths and the unity of Godhead. He also held the banner of revolt against excessive rituals and superficial formalities of religion and domination of the priestly class. He brought a new message of hope to the unlettered millions that they could also attain spiritual excellence through simple devotion and faith in one Supreme God. The compassionate saint, who saw the Supreme being in all forms of life and respected the inner souls of all, including even the humblest creatures like dogs, asses and foxes, did not find any justification behind the system of abhorring people because of their so-called low birth. Not only did he defy and expose the hollowness of untouchability but gave initiation to the so-called lowly born ones in the same manner as he did to those of higher castes.
But it is interesting to note that he never initiated a king or member of an authoritarian class into his faith, not even his patron-king Naranarayan, in whose kingdom Sankaradev enjoyed the asylum and royal patronage as a venerable scholar.
He composed more than 17 books in three languages. The Kirtan Ghosa is the Bible of every Assamese family and community. A few lines from that book summarize his philosophy: “Sabako maniba tumi Visnubudhi Kari”, i.e., respect all creatures as Visnu (God).
Moreover, he advised: “Never seek the caste of a Brahmin (upper class) or a Chandal (lower class). Have an equal eye on a donor and a thief. One who has an idea of sameness in between a rogue and a saint, know him, ye all, to be a true scholar” (Kirtan Ghosa).
This view of Sankaradev makes everyone not only tolerant but also respectful of others’ views. That is why, there is no communal tumult, among the followers of his faith. If this view is accepted as a world outlook, the global tension may be diffused with the least effort. This is the Summum Bonum of Mahapurusiasm.
Sankaradev will forever be remembered in the history of this subcontinent as one of the greatest integrators of the Indian people. Through his extensive tours and pilgrimage throughout India and his profound knowledge of the history and philosophy of this vast land, Sankaradev could realise the vision as well as mission of India.
The writer is President of Silpota Satra Parichalana Samitee. Views expressed by the writer are his own.