Conditions Before the Advent

Politically, culturally and socially, Assam before the advent of Sankaradeva presented a dismal picture. There was neither political unity nor social solidarity. The society was rotten within and devoid of any sustaining vitality. Religion was reduced to a mere form without the soul of faith in it. The baneful effects of the caste-system had aggravated the situation. To the tyranny from without (frequent Muhammedan invasions etc) was added the tyranny from within. In short, the social condition of the land was utterly depressing, degenerating and tending towards anarchy.

Abominable Practices

The Assam in which Sankaradeva was born was least perfect in the matters of religion. The Tantric practices had a poisonous effect on the religious thought of the day. The Tantric mode of worship had become highly licentious and exceedingly loathsome.

Blood sacrifices were the order of the day. Saktism demanded the offering of blood to the Devi (Goddess). The Kalikapurana contains a very detailed acount of sacrificial animals to Chandika and Bhairava. It included birds, rhinoceros, antelopes, alligators, fish, tortoises, wild-boars, iguanas and other creatures. There was the prevalence of human sacrifice too. A man without blemish, it was stated, was the most acceptable sacrifice that could be offered, and the manner in which the victims were to be dealt with were laid down in full details.

In the temple of Kamakhya (Nilachala) and at various other parts of Assam, blood sacrifices were performed. At Sadiya, in the copper temple of the goddess Kecaikhaiti, 'the eater of raw flesh', a person in a sufficiently plump condition was selected to suit the supposed taste of the goddess and was then decapitated. The Tamresvari temple mentioned above was the centre of dreadful sacrifices. Among the offerings to the goddess were included strong spirituous liquour, human flesh, modaka, and flesh curry.

Instances are on record to show how offerings were made to the goddess in the form of blood drawn from the sacrificer's own body. The Katha Guru Carita gives an account of a man called Govinda who used to worship the Devi by taking out his blood with a small clipper and then offering it in shells of snails. As a result his body had turned 'white as cotton.'

A Debased Religious System

Apart from Saktism, a system of later Buddhism known as Vajrayana had taken root in Assam. It was associated with rituals, sorcery and necromancy. In actual practice, the Vajrayana system was against religion and morality. It defined nirvana as 'mahasukha' and permitted indulgence in the five makaras (madya, mamsa, matsya, mudra, maithuna) and advocated the path to gain emancipation through the agencies of women.

There was now a combination of the orthodox nath cult of Hatha yoga and Buddhist tantricism. The emissaries of this religion flocked to Kamrupa in large numbers and their songs and magical feats so easily captured the mind of the masses that gradually all the Hindu scriptures in the houses of the common people of Kamrupa were replaced by the 'Kaula-jnana-Nimaya', the sacred book of the Sahajia Nath. Already a centre of the Mother cult of the Austrics, and the Phallic cult of the Boros, Kamakhya now easily assimilated the Buddhist tantricism and Nath Sahajism and evolved a new form of tantricism modified by pure Saivism-and was at once looked upon as the first centre of the cult.

An Oppressive Caste System

On the other hand, in the citadels of Aryanism, the caste-sytem had become so tyrannical that it had sapped the very foundations of the society. The Brahmana priests and pandits who had managed to entrench themselves in the high seats of power did everything they possibly could to maintain their stranglehold on society. All people in the Koch kingdom, for instance, were required to follow the caste system, perform their functions and observe other customs and manners, as directed by Siddhanta Vagisa. Those who went against it were severely punished by the king and were boycotted by their own people.

The great bulk of the population had no light of education and there was a a hiatus between the literate few and the illiterate many. This fact was was exploited to the hilt by the Brahmanas who lost no time in prohibiting the lower strata from studying (even viewing) the religious texts. Thus religion had become practically a closed system with the Brahmanas possessing all the 'proprietary' rights over it.

Conclusion

Assam presented a sorry spectacle before Sankaradeva's advent. In politics, it was the age of invasions, which had brought untold misery to the people. In the sphere of religion, the period was distinguished by the notorious practices of Tantricism and Vajrayana, which combined many elements of ancient, savage superstition with ingenious and fanciful speculation. Above all, there was no social solidarity because of the baneful effects of the caste system. There was a definite fall in the moral tone of the people and the whole atmosphere was surcharged with gross worldliness. Spiritualism, in its real sense, was absent and so was Humanism.

The times were such as needed a reformer, a saviour...and a saint.

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