The urgent need to understand Srimanta Sankardev’s syncretism
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Srimanta Sankardev, the master builder of the larger Assamese society, fought a lifelong battle to integrate all the communities irrespective of their religion under a common cultural umbrella popularly known as Ek saran nam dharma. Srimanta Sankardev brought significant changes in the social system of Assam and rescued the people from regressive customs like human sacrifice, prevalent in pre-colonial days. Sankardev’s neo-Vaisnavite has created the ‘cultural life world’ of the Assamese identity.
The neo-Vaishnavite movement had a great potential to mobilise people across caste, community, and religion to form an Assamese national identity. In the 20th century, tribal communist revolutionary Kalaguru Bishnuprasad Rabha also adopted Shankaradeva’s liberal syncretic spiritual cultural thought as a mantra for fighting against narrow religious divisions and dogmas. In the post-Sankardev period, the neo-Vaishnavite movement’s assimilative capacity narrowed down and Brahmanical ideology crept into the sattriya institutions.

The Brahmanic ideology is now making way for ‘strategic syncretism’ in the land of ethnic tapestry while distorting the ideas and philosophy of Sankardev. With the rise of Hindutva forces in the region, they openly started advocating the politics of religious polarization.

In a very recent episode, Sattradhikar Janardan Deb Goswami of Dakshinpat Sattra of Majuli in the land of Sattra Nagari-Majuli- opined that Majuli people should celebrate Durga Puja with its Brahminical rituals to prevent the influence of Christianity among the tribal people of Majuli. This kind of dictum, which seeks to stop the flourishing of Christianity in the river island by advocating Shakti puja with the chanting of Vedic mantras and sacrifices while increasing the strength of the majority plaintiff (majoritarian) Hinduism, has naturally become a threat to the originality of Sankari culture.

This article makes an attempt to explore the genesis of Brahmanical ideology in Sattras of Assam and how the Hindutva forces while taking advantage of the situation, appropriated Sankardev’s philosophy for the appeal of Hindu nationalism. 

Neo-Vaishnavism as an agent of social transformation

Sankardev, who lived in the mediaeval Assam ruled by the descendants of Tai-speaking migrants from Yunnan, led a reformist neo-Vaishnavite movement, the Ekasaraniya Nama Dharma. The movement, which began as an anti-Brahmanical crusade, seeking to simplify Hinduism (Deka 2006: 194), saw the setting up of monasteries, popularly known as Sattras across Assam.

The land of Tantricism and Sakitism was impacted by the preaching of Sankardev’s Eka Saran Naam Dharma. The mediaeval Assam practised polytheism, animal sacrifice (human sacrifice in certain places) and maintenance of strict rules of ‘purity and pollution’. So, Sankaradev propagated neo-Vaishnavism at a time when ritualism was gaining a firm impact, with a sporadic incursion of ultra-religious animism and occultism. Sankardev’s Vaishnavism replaced sacrificial rites and rituals with prayer and devotion. It was also an egalitarian religion which helped to form a multi-ethnic society.

The caste hierarchy and the ritual complexities of Brahminical Hinduism enjoyed little significance in neo-Vaishnavism. This was indeed in tune with the neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti movement that swayed almost all parts of contemporary India. Though it recognized Lord Vishnu as the supreme deity, it was different from Vaishnavism. The preponderance of a complex set of rituals and the ritual superiority of the Brahmins that came to characterise Vaishnavism were absent in neo-Vaishnavism.

As against Brahmanical orthodoxy and conservatism, neo–Vaishnavism advocates simplicity and liberalism in religious practice. On account of this, it could make itself acceptable to the various indigenous tribal communities of the region.

The tribal people, who were recognised as backwards even by definition, were considered people of the lower class in mediaeval society. Some castes like Kaivarta were also included in that category.

The Eka Sharana Nama Dharma preached by Srimanta Sankardev had immense compassion for all these people. The saint advised his disciples to consider all creatures as manifestations of God.

Srimanta Sankardev declared that the path of devotion was a good way of life for low-class people like Bodo, Kachari, Khasi, Garo, Mising, Muslims, Gowal, Dhoba, Koch, etc. Madhavdev also echoed that feeling. 

Acceptance of tribal people and culture is very much prominent in Eka Saran Nama Dharma. People from various ethnic groups became disciples of Srimanta Sankardev and followed the neo- Vaishnavism cult propounded by him. The tribal cultures of North East India enriched the Sankari culture and it is evident in many aspects of it.

One such component is the instrument Bhor-Tal, which is indispensable in the Namprasanga or Kirtan, etc. This Bhor-Tal actually came from Bhutan, because of which it was earlier called Bhot-Tal (Borkakoti: 2000) (Erstwhile Bhutanese were known as Bhot in Assam). Similarly, various other musical instruments of Sankari culture were borrowed from various tribal cultures. For Instance, Nagara is designed similarly to a Tiwa instrument known as Ludang-Khram. Another instrument known as Khol innovated by the saint was made by a Kachari artisan from the Kapili valley.

The Sarengdar was a contribution of the Bodo tribe. Daba, one of the most important instruments of Kirtanghar is influenced by tribal culture. The contribution of the tribes of Assam is undisputed in the case of Sankari dances too. The postures of hand and foot movements of Bodo, Karbi, Mising, Jaintia and other tribes are found in Sankari dances. For instance, Gayana- Bayana came from the Sonwal Kachari tribe. Similarly, tribal essence is also found in Sankari music.

The tunes of Borgeet, a collection of lyrical songs that are set to specific ragas but not necessarily to any tala, resemble that of the Lali Hilali songs of the Tiwa tribe. The Tiwa tribe always maintained a cordial relationship with the followers of Eka Sharana Nama Dharma. The Tiwa kings gave a regular grant to the Bordowa Than. Even tribal language is used in Sankardev’s playwright locally known as Ankiya plays. The attire used in playwrights and dances is influenced by tribal attire. For example, the headgear worn by the Sutradhara came from the Jaintia tribe.

The Ghuri (skirt) worn by the Sutradhara came from the Rabha tribe. The jacket worn by him on the upper part of his body came from the Khangaliphaga of the Tiwa Tribe (Das: 2004). There is even a tribal influence in the masks worn by some characters of the Ankiya plays. Gradually, with the advent of time, many new ingredients must have entered the Eka Sharana Nama Dharma too. The liberal sub-cult, Kal-sangha has a greater scope for such incorporation.

Simultaneously, the impact of Sankari culture created by Sankardev had an impact on all the tribal cultures and helped them to Sanskritised without any Brahminical customs and practices. As such almost every tribe of Brahmaputra valley and its surrounding hills were absorbed in the new culture introduced by Sankardev. It also helped in removing the ethnic conflicts besetting the Brahmaputra valley.

All the tribes in this region accepted the Sankari culture as their own since this culture incorporated cultural ingredients from all tribes. The Sankari culture thus became the first ever common culture in Assam. It helped in mitigating the inter-state conflicts too. The creation of this common culture created the Assamese race itself.

When there was no idea of self-determination in the mediaeval period, the Eka Sharana Nama Dharma acted as a bonding agent for nation-building (Borkakoti: 2005).

The role of the Sattras could be seen in the movement of Backward Communities or so-called Sankritization in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Kaivartas who were early inhabitants of Assam.

In the middle ages and till the early part of the 20th century they were called Dom and were considered untouchable, therefore, their entry to the temples and Sattras was prohibited. In the early 20th century along with other backward communities, the Kaivartas too led a movement for their upward mobility and to replace the derogatory word Dom with the more respectable word Kaivarta.

Their battle for upward mobility was long. It is interesting to note that the demand of the Kaivartas received a very cool response from Auniati Sattradhikar Lilakantadev Goswami (1922-26) who laid a condition that if he is to consider their demand for the replacement of the word Dom for the honourable word Kaivarta, they must dissociate themselves from the fishing profession for good.

It was in this situation that Pitambardeva Goswami of Garmur Sattra and the Dhingiya Gossain came forward and supported their claim and approved it, and the then Governor Sir Nicholas Beaston Bill had conceded to the demands of the Kaivartas in February 1921 with the remark that “the manners and customs which this section of the people have followed from past generations and their rights and rituals characterizing the higher caste Hindus which they have opted in their everyday affairs and byasbastha given by Pundits and Gossains of Hindu Shastra entirely convince us that they may be recognized as Kaivartas.” (Sharma: 2008)

Similar upward mobility and backward caste movements were launched by some other communities of Assam such as Ahom, Sutailas Boriya, the Nath Alias Yogis, etc. A microscopic few like Pitambardev Goswami responded positively to the demand of the new age, but finally failed to break the ice as their number was so small compared to their counterpart.

As a result, casteism and untouchability remained in the society of Assam in general and the seat of Sattra institution Majuli Island till the post-independent period. According to Hiren Gohain, therefore, the Sattriya culture of Assam failed to uproot the Brahmanical culture of casteism and belief in the ‘pure and impure theory’. Sanjoy Ghosh a well-known activist working in Majuli during 1996-97, the land of Sattras, has remade that:

The issue of caste is interesting. Seeing from the outside this society seems egalitarian, classless, and casteless. But from within, the perception is quite different……True, not the kind of vicious caste discrimination one is used to seeing at close quarters in Rajasthan, people sitting at different levels; drinking water in different glasses,…..This was apparent at every step on my journey.”(Sharma: 2008)

Around that time, a large part of the contemporary central and upper Assam was under the control of the Ahom state. The common economic and political conditions it created contributed to the development of a broad-based social formation in upper Assam by incorporating various tribal as well as non-tribal groups into it.

The military superiority of the Ahom state also led to its expansion towards central Assam. Such a political structure inclusive of fragmented groups naturally called for a common cross-cutting ideological order.

It is worth mentioning here that the primary ideological doctrine of neo-Vaisnavism was bhakti (devotion). It propounded monotheism. It devised the concept of dsaya (servitude) as the form of devotion to the guru (religious preceptor) only, through whom the proselyte could attain salvation.

Besides, the expansion of the Ahom state, as indicated above, led to an immediate possibility of the political and cultural integration of the valley. It warranted “a supporting ideology that would cut across tribal fragmentation than in existence, and would legitimise the feudal role” (Guha: 1991). Neo-Vaisnavism was ideally suited to play this role.

The author is Assistant Professor, Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati. Views expressed are personal. 

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