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Storm in Assam

india Updated: Jan 31, 2009 12:10 IST
Rahul Karmakar

Srikanta Deva Sarma, a Guwahati-based priest turned biographer, insists that his 200-page book on 16th century Vaishnava saint-reformer Srimanta Sankardeva is not blasphemous. “What I have done is simply piece together contradictory observations on the revered saint in 16 acclaimed books,” he says.

But the furore over his book, given that he is a Shaiva priest at the famous Kamakhya temple to Devi, forced the Assam government to ban his purportedly analytical Sankar Bibhrat (Confusions about Sankardeva) in Assamese, two months after it was published in December. Bookstores were accordingly asked to take it off the shelves. But the ban has only ensured brisk sales on the sly for a book that was not considered particularly important and was read only by a few inmates of the Sattra (pronounced ‘hottra’), the Vaishnavite monasteries conceptualised by Sankardeva. The biographical ‘contradictions’ are on issues like was he born into a zamindar’s family or not.

“Controversial or not, this book should ideally have generated a debate instead of being banned on the recommendation of certain people or organisations,” says Rishikesh Goswami, secretary of the reputed Children’s Literary Trust.

Counters noted Assamese litterateur Lakshminanda Bora, “Sarma did distort facts about Sankardeva, and his observations are offending to Assamese society.” The Asom Sattra Mahasabha agrees with Bora: it is the apex body of the 65 or so Vaishnava monasteries, mainly on Majuli Island on the Brahmaputra river.

Notably, Sankar Bibhrat is the third Assamese book to be banned for “hurting religious sentiments”. The first was a
political satire titled Phool Bibi on a high-profile mistress, by former bureaucrat Satyen Borkotoky in the 1960s. The second was Swadhinatar Prastab, a pro-ULFA, pro-secession tome by Bharat Kumar Das in 1990.

However, Sarma is not the first to have put Sankardeva into a controversy. More than a decade ago, Christian missionaries
in Central Assam had to withdraw a ‘baptised’ version of Nam Ghosa (Book of Divine Names) that the saint-reformer had asked his foremost disciple Madhavdev to pen. And a couple of cults professing variations of Sankardeva’s Vaishnavism have been embroiled in scandals.

So, who was Sankardeva?
Like Sarma, a few scholars are confused about certain historical facts on Sankardeva. They point out that his early years, transformation from a landlord to saint and pilgrimages across the sub-continent have an element of vagueness. There is, however, no disagreement about Sankardeva’s acumen as a master communicator. He was a visionary, social reformer, philosopher, administrator, poet, dramatist, artist, actor, singer, lyricist, musician, martial artist, yoga specialist, ace swimmer and weaver.

The non-Brahmin Sankardeva (1449-1568) lived in an era when Assam, divided between the Ahoms in the east and the Kochs in the west, was reeling under socio-economic crises and adherence to diverse religious faiths and sects. The ‘eka sarana dharma’(devotion to a single deity, in this case, Sri Krishna) that he preached had a stabilising effect. Casteism had no place in the initiation into his cult, which came to be known as Mahapurushiya Dharma (religion of great men) and even Muslims were allowed in.

Sankardeva was born into the family of a bhuyan or landlord and was expected to take up administration of the principality under him. He did so with aplomb, but the death of his first wife after childbirth made him veer towards spiritualism.
He blended his religious beliefs with his creativity — he had already displayed his literary and cultural prowess soon after learning Sanskrit in school — to package his brand of neo-Vaishnavism.

Such has been Sankardeva’s literary range that Assamese prose and poetry are divided largely into Vaishnava and post-Vaishnava periods. He wrote the Assamese Ramayana, and Kirtan Ghosa, his magnum opus, found in almost every household in Assam, had a trendsetting poetic narrative appealing to both children and the elderly.

More than literature, though, Sankardeva connected with his music and drama. While his raga-based Bargeet (devotional songs) have a style distinct from both Hindustani and Carnatic classical forms, his Bhaona (masked dance dramas) and Ankiya Nat (one-act plays) continue to enthrall. He also conceived and fine-tuned Sattriya Nrittya, now among the major classical dance forms of India.