(Thanks to online magazine Ami Asomiya for giving space to my thoughts: http://amiasomiya.org/the-reverberation-english-section/article/can-sankardeva-still-save-assam/)
Sankardeva envisaged a society that would be liberal towards an individual’s idea and choice of practicing religion. That is how I have seen him In addition, like most of the other preachers and philosophers of his time, he was opposed to the practices of animal sacrifice for the satisfaction of Gods and Goddesses. During his pilgrimage throughout India Sankardeva came in touch with Sufism and Neo-Vaishnavism. On his return to his homeland he tried to enlighten the society about the new kind of wave that was sweeping the Indian mainland. If his life and works are closely monitored, it can be seen that Sankardeva was devoted towards making religion simpler for the common man, so that the latter could easily understand and each could stand to represent. His texts, translations, paintings and innovative form of dance drama or Bhaona are all directed towards this philosophy. Sankardeva was a connoisseur; much more of a social reformer and a cultural genius than a religious guru, a genius almost unparallel in the known history of Kamrupa.
If I think today of what Sankardeva would have had wanted the society of Assam to be like I am forced to think that he would have had gone much beyond what we today present as his legacy. The Satras or the Vaishnavite monasteries must have been the modern centers of liberal thinking back in 15th century. Defying traditional notions of religion, religious fundamentalism and caste system it came across as much ahead of its times. Today, these Satras still give us a picture of a 15th century Assam. Sankardeva would have wanted the Satras to keep progressing with time, he would have had wanted it to anchor society towards enlightenment. Who knows, had Sankardeva been alive today he might have had defied god itself. But why I choose to title this article as “Sankardeva cannot save Assam” is because what we see in the society of Assam today is the opposite of this. Sometimes I feel like questioning Sankardeva’s leadership qualities for this state of affairs. But then who could have envisaged so far into the future.
Nam Dharma was not a distinguishable subset of Hinduism during Sankardeva’s lifetime and a few centuries after it. He did not denounce all Hindu religious practices at one go. He was never comparative about Nam Dharma as the only or the most superior form of seeking salvation or realizing the ultimate truth of life. It was in fact an easy access to religion for the poor masses who couldn’t afford the practiced forms of offerings, rigid rules and customs for performing religious rites. With an aim to relieve the poor from the guilt of not being able to provide Mukti to the departed soul, Sankardeva designed a system in which society came forward to offer prayers together to the almighty. The prayers, known as Naam were composed by Sankardeva in a language that was understood and responded by all. Looking back, 550 years ago it was a revolutionary idea to break away the shackles of religious hegemony which until then was the monopoly of a privileged few. However, amidst this new religious revolution, nowhere did Sankardeva suggest a tone that said, “Defy the brahmins”. He never thrashed the system of Vedic rituals as meaningless and baseless. It in fact is rich in folklore that Sankardeva requested Madhavdeva, his foremost disciple, to write the name of his earlier guru on earth and rub it by the tip of his foot. Madhavdeva plainly rejected and cited that he respected his earlier guru as much as he would respect Sankardeva. It was a test and Madhavdeva passed. But today, although many would want to put things differently on diplomatic papers, the divide between Brahmins and Sankaris i.e. the followers of Sankardeva’s Neo-Vaishnavite cult, Tribals and non-Tribals, etc. is wider than ever before.
Scholars argue that Sankardeva wanted a casteless and classless society. Today a distinct cult called Sankari or Mahapuruxiya exists in our society. If a person who has accepted allegiance to one of the organizations that supposedly follows the ideals of Sankardeva attends a Brahmin function then there stands a chance that he might be ostracized by that society. There are instances where families have been separated or sent out of the village because they performed some practices involving Brahmin or Vedic rituals. Consuming Prasad or holy offerings of vedic customs such a Durga puja, Satyanarayan Puja is considered inappropriate. Things have gone so wide that today in many cases a marriage between a Sankari & non Sankari tend to undergo unthinkable number of hassles. In Majuli, the seat of the neo vaishnavite culture, discrimination towards the local Mishing and Deori tribal populace is often talked of. It is sad that as I write this today Majuli is being swarmed by a number of missionary organizations targeting the conversion of the tribal population leveraging the said discrimination. The Satradhikar or the head of the religious monastery always has to be a high born. Gatherings of Vedic or Sankari followers will snatch a few moments to throw dirt on one another’s practices. The casteless and classless society that Sankardeva once envisaged has become the most caste obsessed of all. The fault doesn’t certainly lie in the initiator; the original idea needn’t necessarily be corrupt. As the power structure builds around any popular base, fault lines are sure to develop. These can be tagged by many as marginal examples but most painstakingly his followers are themselves seen to be dividing into factions, each carrying bitterness for one another.
The hypocrisy of the Assamese society has driven this into a crisis like situation. We all have realized off late that mistakes have had happened. But the sad part is that we shy away from even talking about them, leave aside accepting them. Somehow, we haven’t done much other than beating the drums around his name. We very proudly present what Sankardeva has left for us but have miserably failed to add value to any of his ideals and teachings. He left us an open heart and a liberal mind. We decided to close both and rest within.
It is often spoken with great pride that Sankardeva visualized Bor-Axom or a Greater Assam. However one can also but not deny that Bor-Axom wasn’t and cannot be one with the Kirtan as the holy book, Brajawali as the lingua franca and the Namghar as the foundation stone. None of Sattriya Dance, Borgeet and Bhaona has any visible touch and feel of the rich and colorful tribal culture of Assam. Naam Prasanga has no similarity to any of the tribal beliefs and customs. They all fall short of indigenousness. Bor-Axom was a process. It started in his times and stopped shortly thereafter. He introduced Assam to new and more liberal forms of Art and Culture and thinking. He accepted people irrespective of their original religious belief and never requested them to ignore their original belief. He gave us a skeleton and we had 550 years with us to add muscle and blood to it. It was a process of accepting more and more and going deep and wide. But instead, here we are- shallow and narrow. It is proudly announced in every occasion that Assam is a land of Sankar-Ajaan (Ajaan Pir or Ajaan Fakir, who introduced Islam and Sufism in Assam), but Jikir, the soulful verses of Ajaan Fakir is shamelessly neglected to die a natural death. In a way we have done nothing for liberal Islam to live in Assam and escaped from it to become a responsibility that rests only with the Assamese Muslims. So this brings to mind the question-are we in a way responsible for the religious divide of Assam? Today, everyone is keen on revisiting their past and identify reasons for their glories and failures. The Bodos sense a bit of discrimination, a sense of uncertainty as to what Sankardeva meant by kati mari “mlechaka” koriba bunda maro. Many scholars beleive that Mlechas meant Kiratas or Mongloids as mentioned in many other Hindu texts as well, where as some argue that it meant the evils of society. The Ahoms might in few pages of history see visible friction between themselves and the followers of Sankardeva. The Moamoria rebellion was all about this. These debates suggest that Sankardeva today is no more the undisputed hero of Assam. So, calls of a united Assam as visualized by Sankardeva will create confusion and will bring back unclear responses. Sections will doubt if that version of Assam will be free of discrimination, hegemony and politics of power. Sankardeva was a genius, but we all have failed him. After 550 years it is difficult to realistically visualize an Assam united by the ideals led by him because generations after him have done nothing to develop those ideals. Hence, it is to be understood that if we still believe in his dream, then the jingoistic claims in the name of Sankardeva must be toned down. We must start out a second wave of opening the society of Assam and breaking down its hypocrisy. Sukapha, Chilarai, Ajaan Fakir, Kalicharan Brahma, all must find space and value in mainstream society. We must or else even Sankardeva with his glorious ideals will not be able to save Assam from the crisis it faces today.