Srimanta Sankardev, who is famously known for his many contributions to the state of Assam, was a polymath, a dancer, an actor, a writer, a musician, and a social reformer. He invented a new dance form, Sattriya, which is now recognized as one of the eight classical dances of India, and Bhaona, a theatre form where actors often wear eloquent masks to enact scenes from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and many other stories. He also created a new form of musical composition, Borgeet. Borgeet describes a collection of lyrical songs that encompass devotional themes and are used to begin prayers in the Satras and Namghars. Sankardev also contributed through his literary works, like Kirtan Ghosha, where he wrote poems meant for community singing for his philosophy, the Ekasarana Dharma.
Sankardev’s literary works are often referred to as “lively and simple”. These stories were written for all age groups and for the middle class. They were mostly written in the vernacular medium. While children read it for entertainment, the elderly read it for wisdom. They have been passed down across generations by word of mouth in Assamese households and are still appreciated, widely read and respected.
Surprisingly, for a scholar, Sankardev had refused to go to school initially. He would often get scolded by his grandmother for this, who brought him up all by herself, eventually starting school at the age of twelve!
One day, in class, the teacher assigned the pupils to write a poem. Since Sankardev was not familiar with swarasinha (a term used when a consonant is followed by a vowel in the Assamese language), he wrote a poem using only consonants, and thus produced a masterpiece that would enthral the generations to come. His prowess was such that he could accomplish such a task at the mere age of twelve. The poem is considered to be one of the most difficult Assamese poems ever written. Many consider it is as one of his masterpieces and it truly is. The poem is known as Komal Geet or is sometimes referred to as Karatala Kamala Kamala Dala Nayana.
It is a devotional poem, where Sankardev describes Lord Krishna. The first line of the poem, Karatala Kamala Kamala Dala Nayana, loosely translates to “Thy palm is like the lotus. Thine eyes are like the lotus petals”, which is a description of Krishna, who was also known as the Lotus-Eyed God. In the same poem, there is a truly enchanting line, “sabhaya mabhaya bhaya mamahara satataya.” It means “thou constantly removest my fear and vouchsafest my safety (vouchsafest, an archaic word, that means to give/ offer, often selflessly)”. An exceptional line, woven into a vowel-less poem, could only have been executed by Sankardev.
Since he wrote the poem at an early age on Krishna, it could be said that his devotion began quite early too. Later in his life, Sankardev went on to establish the Ekasarana Dharma (literally, ‘Shelter-In-One’ religion), a belief in Sarba Dharma Sanatana, which is pure devotion to Lord Krishna and a form of neo-Vaishnavite Hinduism
Ekasarana dharma is against differentiating people on the basis of class and even includes people from other religion, such as Muslims. There is no room for any superstitions or discrimination. This religion attracted many into its fold by virtue of its simplicity and egalitarianism.
As early as the 15th century, Sankardev created an egalitarian, balanced community that many societies still thrive to become. His philosophy and cultural impact and in fact many scientific beliefs, which he popularized by giving it a religious perspective, pervade all aspects of Assamese society to this day. Assam owes a large measure of its identity to Srimanta Sankardev.
Not only was he a literary prodigy, but also an exceptional social reformer. A selfless intellect who created a peaceful society, that still today believes in respect for an all-encompassing humanity.
©Aaira Goswami, 2021. All rights reserved.