His literary and artistic contributions are living traditions in Assam today. The religion he preached is practiced by a large population, and Sattras (monasteries) that he and his followers established continue to flourish and sustain his legacy.
In reverence to his personality, teachings and oeuvre, he is a Mahapurusha---'Great Man'.
karatalakamala kamaladalanayana |
bhavadavagahana gahanavanasayana ||
The complete poem was written before he was taught the vowels except, of course, the first one, and is often cited as an example of the early flowering of his poetic genius.
He was physically very able, and according to legend, he could swim across the Brahmaputra while it was in spate.
He left the tol in his late teens (c1469) to attend to his responsibilities as the Shiromani Bhuyan. He moved from Alipukhuri to Bordowa, and wrote his first work, Harishchandra upakhyan. He produced a dance-drama called Cihna yatra, for which he painted the Sapta vaikuntha (seven heavens), guided the making of musical instruments and played the instruments himself.
At Bordowa, he constructed a dharmagrha or a Hari-grha (house of the Lord) in which he installed an image of Vishnu that was found during the construction of the grha. But it was not meant for worshipping; it was just a 'Showpiece of art work'. In fact, he was absolutely against any kind of worshipping of Idols or Images of gods. He married his first wife Suryavati when he was in his early twenties. His wife died soon after his daughter Manu was born.
After his return, he refused to take back the Shiromaniship. On his grandmother's insistence, he married Kalindi at the age of forty four. Finally, he moved back to Bordowa and constructed his first naamghar (prayer hall), and began preaching. He wrote Bhakti pradipa and Rukmini harana. Soon after, he received a copy of the Bhagavata Purana from Jagadisa Misra of Tirhut which had in it commentaries from Sridhara Swami of Puri, an Advaita scholar, and began rendering it into Assamese. He also began composing the Kirtana ghosha. The thirteen years at Ali-pukhuri was the period during which he reflected deeply on Vaishnavism and on the form that would best suit the spiritual and ethical needs of the people.
Though the relationship with the Ahom royalty began cordially, it soon deteriorated. Once on the charge of dereliction of duty, Hari, Sankaradeva's son-in-law, and Madhavadeva were arrested and sent to the capital Garhgaon, where Hari was executed. Madhavadeva's life was spared but he was imprisoned for a year. This incident pained Sankaradeva much and he, along with his family and Madhavadeva, journeyed toward the Koch kingdom.
At Dhuwahat, he wrote the drama Patniprasada.
After a great deal of moving, Sankaradeva settled at Patbausi near Barpeta and constructed a Kirtanghar (house of prayer). Some of the people he initiated here are Chakrapani Dwija and Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, brahmins; Ketai Khan, a kayastha; Govinda, a Garo; Jayarama, a Bhutia; Murari, a Koch and Chandsai a Muslim. He also befriended Ananta kandali, a profound scholar of Sanskrit, who translated parts of the Bhagavata Purana. Damodardeva, another brahmin, was initiated by Sankaradeva and he later became the founder of the Brahma Sanghati sect of Sankaradeva's religion.
Among his literary works, he completed his rendering of the Bhagavata Purana and wrote other independent works and continued composing the Kirtana Ghosha. He further translated the first book of the Ramayana (uttarakanda) and instructed Madhavadeva to translate the last book (adikanda), portions that were left undone by the 14th century poet Madhav Kandali. He wrote four dramas: Rukmini harana, Parijata harana, Keligopala and kalidamana. Another drama written at Patbausi, kamsa vadha, is lost. At Patbausi, he had lent his bargeets numbering aroung 240 to Kamala Gayan. But unfortunately, his house was gutted and most of the bargeets were lost. Since that incident Sankaradeva stopped composing bargeets. Of the 240, 34 remains today.
Sankaradeva once again left for a pilgrimage with a very large party of 117 disciples that included Madhavadeva, Ramarama, Thakur Ata and others. Madhavadeva, on the request of Sankaradeva's wife Kalindi urged him to return from Puri and not proceed to Vrindavana. He returned to Patbausi within six months.
In the meantime Chilarai, the general of the Koch army and brother of Naranarayana, who had been influenced by the religion and had married Kamalapriya, the daughter of Sankaradeva's cousin Ramaraya, arranged for Sankaradeva's audience with Naranarayana. As he moved up the steps to the throne, Sankardev sang his Sanskrit totaka hymn (composed extempore) to God,
madhu daanava daarana deva varam |
vara vaarija locana cakra dharam ||
dharani dhara dhaarana dheya param |
paramaartha vidyaashubha naasha karam ||
kara churnita chedipa bhuri bhagam |
bhaga bhushana korchhita paada yugam ||
yuga naayaka naagara vesha ruchim |
ruchiraangshupidhaana sharira suchim ||
and as he sat down, he sang a borgeet, narayana kahe bhakati karu tera. Naranarayana was overwhelmed by the Saint's personality. The king then asked Sankaradeva's opponents to prove their complaint. After Sankaradeva defeated them in the debate, Naranarayana declared him free from all allegations. Sankaradeva began attending Naranarayana's court at the king's request. When he met Naranarayana, he was well over a hundred years old and had just three more years to live.
After the debate, Sankaradeva shuttled between Kochbehar and Patbausi. On the request of Naranarayana and Chilaria he supervised the creations of the 60mx30m woven Vrindavani vastra, that depicted the playful activities of Krishna in Vrindavana. This was presented to the Koch king.
Sankaradeva used the form of Krishna to preach devotion to a single God (eka sarana), who can be worshiped solely by uttering His various names (naam). In contrast to other bhakti forms, eka sarana follows the dasya attitude (a slave to God). Moreover, unlike the 'Gaudiya Vaishnavism' of Bengal, Radha is not worshiped along with Krishna. In uttering the name of God, Hari, Rama, Narayana and Krishna are most often used.
Sankaradeva himself and the religion in general are particularly antagonistic to saktism which was strongly prevalent in Assam at the time. This probably explains the non-use of Radha as an icon. His famous debate with Madhavadeva, who was a staunch sakta (devotee of Shakti) earlier, and Madhavadeva's subsequent conversion to Vaishnavism, is often cited as the single most epoch-making event in the history of the neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam. Madhavadeva, an equally multi-talented person, became his most celebrated disciple.
A non-brahmin, Srimanta Sankaradeva started a system of initiation (saran lowa) into his religion. He caused a huge Social revolution by fighting against anti-social elements like casteism prevailing at that time. He initiated people of all castes and religions, including Muslims. After initiation, the devotee is expected to adhere to the religious tenets of eka sarana. Failure to adhere to these tenets led to ex-communication in certain cases.
Though he himself married (twice), had children and led the life of a householder, his disciple Madhavadeva did not. Some of his followers today follow celibate monkhood (kevaliya bhakat) in the Vaishnavite monasteries---the sattras.
The people who practice his religion are called variously as Mahapurushia, Sarania or Sankari.
His language is lucid, his verses lilting, and he infused bhakti into everything he wrote. His magnum opus is his Kirtana-ghosha, a work so popular that even today it is found in nearly every household in Assam. It contains narrative verses glorifying Krishna meant for community singing. It is a bhakti kayva par excellence, written in a lively and simple language, it has "stories and songs for amusement [for children], it delights the young with true poetic beauty and elderly people find here religious instruction and wisdom".
For most of his works, he used the Assamese language of the period so the lay person could read and understand them. But for dramatic effect in his songs and dramas he used Brajavali, an artificial mixture of Braj language and Assamese.
Other literary works include the rendering of eight books of the Bhagavata Purana including the Adi Dasama (Book X), Harishchandra-upakhyana (his first work), Bhakti-pradip, the Nimi-navasiddha-samvada (conversation between King Nimi and the nine Siddhas), Bhakti-ratnakara (Sanskrit verses, mostly from the Bhagavata, compiled into a book), Anadi-patana (having as its theme the creation of the universe and allied cosmological matters), Gunamala and many plays like Rukmini haran, Patni prasad, Keli gopal, Kurukshetra yatra and Srirama vijaya. There was thus an efflorescence of great Bhakti literature during his long life of 120 years.
His translation of the Bhagavata is actually a transcreation, because he translates not just the words but the idiom and the physiognomy too. He has adapted the original text to the local land and people and most importantly for the purpose of bhakti. Portions of the original were left out or elaborated where appropriate. For example, he suppressed the portions that revile the lowers castes of sudra and kaivartas, and extols them elsewhere.
Sankaradeva was the fountainhead of the Ankiya naat, a form of one-act play. In fact, his Cihna Yatra---staged by him when he was only 19---is regarded as one of the first open-air theatrical performances in the world. Cihna yatra was probably a dance drama and no text of that show is available today. Innovations like the presence of a Sutradhara (narrator) on the stage, use of masks etc. were used later in the plays of Bertolt Brecht and other eminent playwrights.
These cultural traditions still form an integral part of the heritage of the Assamese people.
The Borgeets (literally: great songs) are devotional songs, set to music and sung in various raga styles. These styles are slightly different from either the Hindustani or the Carnatic styles The songs themselves are written in the 'Brajavali' language.
For a sample of a borgeet written by Sankaradeva, listen to sung by Bhupen Hazarika.
The famous Vrindavani Vastra—the cloth of Vrindavan—a 120 cubits long and 60 cubits broad tapestry depicted the lilas of Lord Krishna at Vrindavan through richly woven and embroidered designs on silk. A specimen, believed to be a part of this work, is at the Association pour l'Etude et la Documentation des Textiles d'Asie collection at Paris (inv. no. 3222). The vastra, commissioned by Chilarai, was woven by twelve master weavers in Barpeta under the supervision of Sankaradeva probably between 1565 and 1568. It was housed in the Madhupur sattra but it disappeared at some point. It is believed this cloth made its way to Tibet and from there to its present place.