The Vaishnavite Reformer of Assam (1449-1569)
Sankara Deva (1449-1569) is regarded as a religious saint by a large section of the Hindu population of Assam. He was the first of the religious reformers of Assam in the Middle Ages.
The reformation movement in Assam, led by Sankara Deva, took place when the Koch king Nara Narayana (1528-1584) ruled in Western Assam, and the Ahom King Chuhumung or Swarga Narayana (1497-1593) ruled over the Eastern part of the Brahmaputra Valley.
Sankara Deva was born in the village of Borduwa in Central Assam. His father was a chieftain or baaro bhuiya. By the time Sankara Deva was born, the bhuiyas had lost their semi-royal power to the rising Ahom power and had become a part of the land holding class.
Early in his life, Sankara was puzzled by the inconsistencies of the Sakta religion which was pervalent in Assam at that time. Saktas are worshippers of the Hindu God Siva and the Goddess Shakti or Durga. Sakta priests were considered to be physically and spiritually tyrannical by the common man.
Sanakara Deva spent a large part of his life traveling in Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and other parts of current-day Eastern and Northern India. When he returned to Assam after his first long trip extending over twelve years, he started a religious movement based on the Bhagavad Gita. Sankara Deva made the Gita his scripture and Krishna, the heroic incarnation of Vishnu, his God. This Bhagavad or Ekxoroniyaa (Only One God) religion, espoused by Sankara Deva in Assam and by others in the rest of the Indian subcontinent at this time, resembles Christianity to a great extent. This movement of simplification in religious beliefs, also called the Bhakti Movement wherein one is guided by one's devotion and adoration (or, bhakti) to a divine Father, is considered by some religious scholars to have borrowed, at least partially, its seminal ideas from the Thomasine Christians of Southern India.
Sankara Deva shunned priests in all religious services and ceremonies. He preached against the use of idols during prayers. He invited all castes, races and religions to his prayer services. He taught that all human beings are sons of Vishnu, possess immortal souls, and are hence equal in their dignity. He preached that human beings can be freed from their sin and sorrow by addressing their prayers to God without the intervention of a priest. Sankara Deva conducted religious services in namghors, which are simple structures, unlike elaborate temples built by other sects of the Hindu religion. The buildings were kept simple since Sankara Deva's God was a personal God and prayers were simple and avoided elaborate ceremonies. The Bhagavad religion that Sankara Deva brought to Assam did not try, like the Brahman predecessors had done, to win over the ruling classes. The converts to the new religion were among the humblest of all races and classes.
Initially, Sankara Deva tried to convert citizens of Assam to his new religion with a missionary zeal, just like Christian missionaries. However, the Ahom rulers of Eastern Assam, were followers of Sakta priests. The Sakta priests considered Sankara Deva a heretic. Since the Ahom king proscribed the practice of the new faith in Central and Eastern Assam, Sankara Deva fled to Paat Baauxi in Western Assam. Paat Baauxi, at the time, was under the kingdom of the mild and enlightened Koch king Nara Narayana. It is here that Sankara Deva spent a large part of his productive life.
Sankara Deva and his principal disciple Madhava Deva, and other disciples such as Hari Deva, Damodara Deva and Gopala Deva started many xotras or centers of religious instruction. The last three were Brahman disciples of Sankara Deva who had seceded from his movement and formed their own Vaishnavite sects. The xotras, are similar to Buddist monasteries, and the primary ones are located at Auniaati, Dakkhinpaat, Goromur, and Kuruwaabaahi in the Majuli Island of the Brahmaputra River. The Borpeta Xotra and Paat Baauxi Xotro of Western Assam are also venerated.
Many scholars of religion are intrigued by the conditions of the world that produced religious reformers in the Indian sub-continent and Europe at the same time. When Martin Luther and other reformers were rebeling against a corrupt Christian religion emanating from Rome, a precisely similar movement had started in the Hindu religion also. This movement was led by Hari Vyasa in Nepal, Ramananda in Orissa, Chaitanya in Bengal and Sankara Deva in Assam.
Source: Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, editor James Hastings, Volume 2, pages 131-138, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1951.
Written on April 10, 1998