Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha

Established in 1930 at a village named Palasani in the district of Nagaon, the Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha is an organization of Assam based on the social, cultural, religious and spiritual ideals of Srimanta Sankaradeva, the great Vaishnava saint and religious preceptor of the medieval age. Over the years it has grown into a vast organization in the north- east India having several lakhs of its sangi (members) in Assam and the other states of Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and West Bengal. The organization has contributed significantly to religious and spiritual regeneration, social and cultural change and moral and intellectual growth. Above all, it has created an environment of peace, unity, integrity and amity among the large followers belonging to diverse ethnic groups, castes and creeds of entire north-east India.

                The advent of Saint Sankaradeva (AD1449-1568) in the medieval Assam was a historic necessity. The personality of Sankaradeva emerged at a time when the socio-political and religious firmament of Assam was in utter chaos. Sankaradeva shouldered the responsibility of redeeming the society and initiated the neo-Vaishnavite movement in the north-east India. He was a genius. He was a prophet and a seer, a preacher and a philosopher, an artiste and lyricist, a linguist and a literateur, an organizer and a reformer. The divine qualities made him a saint. Sankaradeva molded and enriched the whole Assamese  life and society, and laid the very foundation of the Assamese nationality for the posterity. Sankaradeva is defined and revered by the Assamese as guru Sankar.

                The medieval Assam was engulfed by the cults of Saktism, Saivism and Tantricism. Magic and sorcery were elevated to religion and blind belief in bigotry to religious maxim. Chaos and confusion reigned supreme in the spiritual world of Assam. The people, ignorant and superstitious, were influenced by those cults and worshiped innumerable gods and goddesses with elaborate rituals and ceremonies. Esoteric and exoteric ritualism even went to the extent of human sacrifice at the altar of mother goddess. The Kalika Purana mentions human sacrifice at the Kamakhya temple of Guwahati and the Tamreswari temple of Sadia.

                  Sankaradeva went on a pilgrimage to the different shrines and Vaishnava culture centers of India in 1483 and came back in 1495. He initiated the neo-Vaishnava movement and infused into people’s mind the sublime rays of wisdom and spiritualism. He preached the cult of bhakti and did away with the ephemeral practice of image-worship. His doctrine is known as eka sarana naama dharma, the religion of unflinching devotion and absolute surrender to one God, Krishna. Following this pure path of bhakti, one can realize Him and attain liberation. This is the cardinal principle of the doctrine founded by saint Sankaradeva.

                There is a happy blending of catholicity and wide democratic principle in the doctrine propounded by Sankaradeva. He rationalized and intellectualized the Arya Sanatana Dharma and revealed the ultimate truth by preaching the cult of bhakti. Sankaradeva preached the ideals of equality and fraternity and removed the caste and class distinctions. Sankaradeva’s doctrine cured the society of the age-old malaise of untouchability and dissolved the caste distinctions in the temporal and spiritual world. The neo humanism is a unique feature in Sankaradeva’s Bhakti cult. He said emphatically:

Nahi bhaktita jati ajati bisara 

Krishna bhakatita samastare adhikara.

There is no distinction of castes in bhakti,

everybody Has equal right to the devotion of God Krishna.

                Sankaradeva initiated people of different cast and disparate ethnic groups like the Kirats, Kacharis, Khasis, Garos, Miris, Jabans, Bhutiyas, Kaivartas, Banias, Kumars, Mlechas, Kankas, Gowals etc. into his fold and elevated them to the status of Ata or devotee par excellence. For the first time in history, the people of lower castes were given due recognition to live with dignity in society.

                Sankaradeva established a very important institution called Namghar or Kirtan ghar which was a prayer hall and a democratic institution of social change and development. Besides being a prayer hall, a namghar served as a village congregational centre, a village parliament, a village community hall, a village library, a village stage and a village cultural centre- all in one.

                Krishna is also known as Vishnu or Narayana. Sankaradeva believed that sarva avatarara karana Narayana (Narayan is the root cause of all incarnations). If one worships this supreme God Krishnawhole-heartedly, all other subsidiary gods and goddesses become satisfied as the leaves and branches get sap when water is poured at the roots of the tree. The establishment of this sanatana satya (internal truth) is the most significant contribution of Srimanta Sankaradeva to the allembracing neo vaishnava movement. Sankaradeva was also a very great poet and a prolific writer. He wrote a number of great books in verse. He also composed a number of lyrics, Bargits (grand hymns), plays and poems on the subjects and themes based on the Vedas, the Upanishadas the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the age-old religious scriptures and epics of India. He translated a number of ancient religious scriptures from the Sanskrit Language into Assamese with a view to educating the illiterate people and bringing home the truth and philosophy of religious doctrines and theories of God in their own mother tongue. He advised and inspired his ardent devotees like Madhavadeva, Ananta Kandali, Rama Saraswati, Ratnakara Kandali and others (who were great poets on their own merit) to translate and write books. They enriched the Assamese literary world with epics, kabyas (poetical works), songs, lyrics, plays and prose of a high standard. In the history of Assamese language and literature, the age of Sankaradeva has rightly been called the Golden age. Kirtana-ghosa and dasama of Sankaradeva, nama-ghosa and bhaktiratnawali of Madhavadeva are monumental literary works of unsurpassable quality. Sankaradeva worked very hard for the social and religious reformation and succeeded in bringing about a total revolution and regeneration in the moral, spiritual, intellectual, cultural and literary spheres of the Assamese society. Sankaradeva’s bhakti cult was in each full flowering in the 16th century, particularly after Madhavadeva had accepted Sankaradeva as his guru and joined hands with him in the noe-vaishnavite movement. Sankaradeva handed over leadership of his cult and the spiritual world to Madhavadeva before his death. Madhavadeva assumed the responsibility of effective leadership for propagation of the bhakti cult for nearly three decades till his death in 1596. After the death of Madhavadeva, different sects and four sanghatis (groups) emerged among the followers of the same faith and the same guru. Each sect and group tried to infuse new thoughts and practices.

                There were political reasons also for degeneration of the Vaishnava faith. Ahom rule of the 17th and the 18th century was marked by political instability, factional rivalries, the internal uprising and external aggressions by the Burmese army. To carry royal favour and good will, a few satradhikars (monastic heads) of satras and naamghars introduced the image worship of Lord Krishna which undermined the very basis of the bhakti cult. The Burmese army also inflicted brutal torture on the people and devastated the land. The Ahom king had to seek the help of the British rulers of India to restore Ahom rule. In1826 the Burmese army signed the Treaty of Yandabo and left Assam. At this juncture, Assam was subjugated to British rule. In the early years of the East India Company regime in Assam, the Bengali clerical staff of the British administration influenced the British rulers and introduced the Bengali language in the school and offices in 1836. At this crucial period of the cultural and literary history of Assam, a number educated young men under the leadership of Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan succeeded in convincing the British rulers that Assamese was an independent language with a rich literary tradition. The Assamese language was reintroduced in schools and offices in 1873. During the period of political turmoil and social upheaval, Sankaradeva’s Bhakti Movement suffered. However during the early years of the twentieth century, the freedom movement of India gained momentum. The spirit of freedom found expressions in Assam also in the political, cultural and intellectual spheres. The revival of Sankaradeva’s ideals was a historic necessity. Lakshminath Bezbaroah, the illustrious intellectual and renowned litterateur and an ardent devotee of Sankaradeva, initiated the movement for revival of Sankaradeva. His book, titled sri Sankaradeva, was a tremendous success and the people accepted it with overwhelming interest. His other book titled sri sri Sankaradeva aru sri sri Madhavadeva, depicting the lives and works of both the great souls, was published in 1914. This book was regarded as a milestone in the movement of revival of Sankaradeva’s studies.

                During the first three decades of the 20th century, organizations like the Discourse Centre, Study Circle, Publicity Centre, BhagavataStudy Centre, Jnanmalini Sabha and other small organization were formed in Barapujia, Kaliabor, Palasani of the district of Nagaon, Dhekial of Golaghat and Sualkuchi of Kamrup for propagation of the doctrines of Sankaradeva. These efforts remained limited in nature and impact. The meeting of Ramakanta Bhuyan and Haladhar Bhuyan, the 2 important social workers of Nagaon in the third decade of the 20th century, was a significant event in the history of the Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha. Ramakanta Bhuyan, popularly known as Ramakanta Muktiar-ata, moved from place to place on his bi-cycle to chant the bhagavata in religious congregations and to preach the spiritual and social ideals of Sankaradeva. He came to know about the existence of Jnanmalini Sabha, established in 1918. Ramakanta Muktiar-ata and Haladhar Bhuyan decided to make a united and concerted effort to spread Sankaradeva’s Bhakti movement. On the advice of Haladhar Bhuyan and with the objectives spelt out by Muktiar-ata, a publicity centre was formed at Palasani with the cooperation of the members of the Jnanmalini Sabha. In 1930 the centre was named ‘Sankar Sangha’ in a public meeting marking the beginning of the organization. The Sangha’s name was changed to ‘Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha’ in the conference held in 1970 at North Lakhimpur under the presidentship of Sonaram Chutia.

                Ramakanta Muktiar-ata, Haladhar Bhuyan and Keshab Barua established the Assam Sankar Mission, known as the Kahrali Mission later, on a land of 18 bighas donated by the villagers of Kahrali near Nagaon town in 1931. The activities of the Sangha suffered for several years as most of the leading organizers were in jail during the Freedom movement. The 1951 conference was held on the premises of the Mission under the presidentship of Vaishnava scholar Pitambar Deva Goswami, the satradhikar of the Garmur satra. This conference is remembered for boosting the organizational strength of the Sangha. Some other notable persons who contributed to the strengthening of the organization in the early stage with labour and intellect are Nilamani Phukan, Haliram Mahanta, Dambarudhar Barua, Gahan Chandra Goswami, Sashi Chandra Barbarua, Harmohan Das, Tirtha Nath Goswami and Lakheswar Saikia.

                Since 1952 the Sangha has been publishing a 6 monthly magazine Namdharma (initially it was monthly Juga Dharma, changed to the present name at the suggestion of Lakshminath Bezbaroa). In the silver jubilee conference of the Sangha held at Kunwaritol, Nagaon in 1956 and presided over by Dimbeswar Neog resolutions were adopted to form the sahitya sakha (literary section), sanskriti sakha (cultural section) and saran samity (initiation committee) of the Sangha. The annual conferences of the Sangha are important events to discuss organizational as well as spiritual matters. These conferences in the recent years have turned into national event with massive public participation. Cultural activities are organized on a grand scale. The conferences have played an important role in bringing about the unity and integrity among the diverse sections of people of the region.

                The four-tier system of the Sangha consists of the prathamic sakha (primary unit), ancholik sakha (localarea unit), jila sakha (district unit) and the central committee. A prathamik sakha is formed with a namghar as its centre or within a village or its part with a minimum number of 10 families and 25 enrolled members. An ansolik sakha is formed with the minimum number of 7 prathamik sakhas and a district unit with at least 10 prathamic sakha. The Sangha’s more than 5000 primary unites 300 regional unites and 45 district unites function on a democratic basis. The sevabahini of the Sangha, formed in 1997, enrolled young boys and girls for their moral, spiritual and intellectual development. The Sangha, with its head office at Nagaon, organizes festivals for children, youth, and women with elaborate literary and cultural programs. The brunches of the Sangha at Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Dhubri and Guwahati also carry out their local activities. Seminars and symposiums are held on issues related to objectives of the Sangha.

                The Sangha has sixteen declared aims and objectives incorporated in its constitution. Some of the objectives are to preserve, protect and propagate the real religious doctrine of Sankaradeva and to work for the social and spiritual uplift of mankind; to spread the socio-cultural ideals of Sankaradeva throughout the world with a view to uniting mankind; to endeavour for a united progressive society devoid of class and caste distinctions among the diverse ethnic groups of the northeast reason; to initiate research work and publish the works of Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and other Vaishnava scholars and poets; to perform the rituals, ceremonies and festivals adhering to the Bhakti cult; to work for the physical, moral, spiritual and intellectual development of the young and the old; to associate with other national organization on the issues of national and international interest; to established educational institutions from primary to university level to impart value-based education through additional ethical and spiritual courses and to work for socio-economic development of the new generation.

                The Sangha from each inception has been dedicating itself to bring about a reawakening in the study of Sankaradeva’s ideals and philosophy and also to use itself as an instrument for social change in its totality. Besides its normal activities of religious and social reforms, the Sangha has two major research departments on the literary and cultural aspects of Sankaradeva’s doctrine. The Sangha has published several valuable books on Sankari sahitya (Sankaradeva’s literature) and Sankari sanskriti (Sankaradeva’s culture) including the complete works of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva. Among the Sangha’s 70-odd published books some are srimadbhagavata, kirtana-ghosha, naama-ghosha, gunamala, complete works of Dinanath Deka and Sonaram Chutia, bargeet mukul and khol anka. The yearly and half yearly publications of the Sangha include the magazines and journals Naam Dharma, Dekagiri, sisumanjari, Mahiyashi, Sankari Sanskritir Subash, and in English Mahapurushajyoti. The Sangha has also published a monthly popular news magazine titled Manikanchan since 1994.

                The schools from pre primary to higher secondary level throughout the State are established by the Sangha in the name and style Srimanta Sankaradeva vidyalay. In these schools, ethical and spiritual course contents are taught in addition to the general curriculum. In order to facilitate training in sankari art, culture and dance, the Sangha has established music schools and colleges. The cultural complexes built by the Sangha in Guwahati, at Gauripur in the district of Dhuburi and at Rangajan, the birth place of Madhavadeva in the district of Lakhimpur, have become tourist attraction.

                The Sangha is deeply concerned with the unemployment problem faced by the educated young men and women of the State. It has initiated a number of self-employment schemes like establishment of small-scale industries, weaving centers, farming etc. Workshops and training programs are organized to educate the young men and women on self employment schemes. The Sangha had established an economic institution to carry out economic plans and offer financial aid and loan for productive purposes. In the near future, the Sangha proposes to devote itself more extensively in education, environment up gradation, women empowerment, health care, vocational guidance and economic measures to supplement each religious activities, and to instill confidence in the young minds living amidst political strife.

The Sangha has set up four years ago an institution of higher education in the district of Nagaon in the name and style Mahapurusa Srimanta Sankaradeva Viswabidyalay. The university has been running in two capuses in Nagaon and Guwahati with seven departments such as Sankaradeva Studies (research department), Assamese, English, Economics, Education, Yoga and Performing Arts. The Sangha aimed to make this university a full-fledged institution of learning with facilities of studies, research and training in art and culture, science and technology, management, vocational course, health science and physical education, communication and social science. Here Studies on Sankaradeva is an integral component to promote humanitarian values in the teaching-learning process. A model study centre of agriculture farming, dairy farming, horticulture farming, herbal medicinal, etc. will be established in the north bank of the Brahmaputra as an outside campus of the university. It will be a study-cum-production centre emphasis on vocational course.

The Srimanta Sankaradeva Sangha has now become a premier socio-cultural organization of India devoted to the study and research, preservation, promotion and propagation of the spiritual, ethical, cultural and humanistic ideals of Srimanta Sankaradeva with a view to create a nobler and healthier society devoid of class and caste distinctions.