An All-inclusive Religion
Sankaradeva's religion has space for all. It accepts no distinctions of caste, race, gender or occupation.
Rejection of Caste-Distinctions
An outstanding feature of the Assamese society is that it is remarkably free from the scourge of virulent casteism that afflicts Hindu societies in most other parts of India. This is a direct result of the teachings of Sankaradeva. At a time when religious orthodoxy had the social-life of Assam in a vice-like grip, Sankaradeva boldly came out with the declaration that in the matter of devotion to the Lord, all are equal and there could be no caste distinctions:
kariyā kalita kirttana āti
pāve vaikunthaka chautrisa jāti
By chanting the Name of God in the Kali age,
people of all the thirty-six castes (can) reach Vaikuntha
sito cāndālaka garistha māni
yāhara jihvāgre srave Hari vāni
sehise kulina vedaka buje
yāhara mukhe Hari nāma vije
That Candāla, on whose lips is ever the Name of Hari, is superior (to all other people), and he is to be regarded as of high order. He who sings the Name of God, alone is to be considered as a man of high caste, understanding the Vedas
Sankaradeva pointed out:
(Look how) By worshipping Krishna, the yaksas, the demons, women and sudras, all the dwellers of Vraja and even the birds and animals became Visnu.
A low caste devotee is superior to the devatas (gods).
By remembering the Name of God, even the lowest of the low may attain liberation.
Sankaradeva was a Kāyastha, but accepted Brahmanas as his disciples, who made such obeisance to him as spiritual guru was due to receive. In Sankaradeva's system, therefore, we find Brahman disciples of Sudra teachers, and even people who would be considered untouchables in other parts of India in the following of a Satra.
No body, on the other hand, is to be considered as unfit for securing initiation into the creed on caste considerations. Even Muslims were welcomed into his religion by Sankaradeva.
The Saint's Disciples
Among the disciples of Sankaradeva were:
Madhavadeva, a Kāyastha
Dāmodaradeva and Harideva, both Brahmins
Cilārāy, the Koch Prince
Govinda, a Gāro;
Jayananda, a Bhutiya;
Mādhava of Jayanti, of the Hirā or potter profession;
Srirāma, believed to have been a kaivartta
Dāmodara, a baniyā and
Cāndsāi and Jayahari, both Muslims.
Involvement of the Tribes
Sankaradeva's high spiritual idealism was steeped in an extra-ordinary degree of scientific objectivity and mature awareness of social realities. Of particular significance is his concern for and involvement with the tribes that make up a sizeable proportion of the population of this region, which were mostly kept out of reckoning by the protagonists of orthodoxy.
Kirāta Kachāri Khāsi Gāro Miri Yavana Kanka Goāl Acama Maluka Rajaka Turuka Kuvāca Mlechha Chandāl āno pāpi nara Krishna sevakara sangata pavitra hay bhakati labhiā samsāra tariā vaikuntha sukhe labhay
The Kirātas, the Kachāris, the Khāsis, the Gāros, the Miris (Misings), the Yavanas, the Kankas, the Goālas, the Asamas (Āhoms), the Malukas, the Rajakas, the Turukas, the Kuvāchas (Koches), the Mlecchas, the Candālas and all others become pure in the company of the devotees of Krishna.
The references here are not only to the so-called lower castes within the Hindu fold but also to the tribes of the region as well as to the Yavanas and the Turukas (Muslims) who are outside the pale of Hinduism. As is well known, the north-eastern region is dominated by various groups of Kirata affiliation and Sankaradeva's particular mention of many of them - the Kachāris, the Khāsis, the Gāros, the Miris (Misings) and so on - not only speaks of Sankaradeva's knowledge of the ethno-social background of the region but is also a measure of his genuine concern for its people.
Due to the catholicity on the part of the Vaisnavite movement regarding caste system, the bond of friendship and fraternity among the different tribals, such as the Tibeto-Burman peoples, and races became solid and firm and the Assamese society became more extensive.
No Gap between Theory and Practice
In practice as in theory, Sankaradeva inspired, welcomed and embraced into his fold large number of his tribal people. Quite a number of his favourite lieutenants were tribals, and they occupied a place very near to his heart.
A small incident associated with Madhavadeva, Sankaradeva's greatest disciple and spiritual heir, is very significant for its bearing on the the spirit and attitude towards the tribals with which the Master must have imbued his truest and dearest follower:
Govinda, a Gāro, who had risen to be an ātoi (a devotee of high status) was a favourite of the Guru. Govinda's Assamese was not very refined and correct, as is common with the tribal people. He could not make proper use of the superior and honorific terms in addressing people of status and addressed everybody, including the Guru, by the inferior term. Some sticklers for form among the attending devotees (bhakatas) of Madhavadeva noticed this and on one occasion when Govinda was visiting the Guru, advised him to be particular about the use of the superior and honorific terms of address. Govinda left for home, obviously much disturbed, and returned a few days later with some loads of presents. On seeing him, Madhavadeva lovingly asked,
“So, Govinda, you are here again?” “Yes”, replied Govinda, “(this time) I have come to address thee (using the inferior term tai) as you (using the superior term tumi).” The compassionate Guru said with a smile, “Govinda, I do not get so much of pleasure when others address me as tumi as I do when you address me as tai.”
As a matter of fact, the Neo Vaisnavite movement not only preached Vaisnavism among the non-Aryan people,but also successfully brought these people into the fold of the one Assamese society. Sankaradeva's religion embraced all peoples of society. His movement was indeed cosmopolitan and the Guru, as we have seen, had Brahmins as also Muslims as pupils.
Householders and Ascetics
Sankaradeva was a house-holder, and although Madhavadeva lived a life of celibacy, one need not forsake the world, he taught, to find God. It was probably the ideal of Madhavadeva's individual life that brought into being an order of unmarried monks who led an ascetic-life (not mendicancy), who formed the innermost circle within the Satras. But there could be married persons as well as monks in those establishments as divines or ordinary residents.
A Religion for both Man and Woman
One of the prime objectives behind the rendering of the holy texts in the language of the people by Sankaradeva was so that they could be read and easily understood by the common people including the women-folk. Thus, Sankaradeva opened the gates of devotion for the women who were hitherto kept outside the pale of religion by the protagonists of orthodoxy. Sankaradeva's Vaisnavite Movement did a great deal in according equal status to women in matters of religion. They can receive initiation and even hold responsible positions in the Vaisnavite institutions like Nām Ghar.
Although there is no order of nuns in Sankaradeva's system, there are instances of women holding the position of Superiors in the Satras. Sankardeva's grand-daughter in law, Kanaklatā made a definite contribution to the growth of the Satra system when she organized the Bardowa group therein and on her own appointed twelve deputies, all men of course, as heads of Satras. Similarly, Harideva's daughter Bhuvanesvari was a talented poet and scholar of repute.Top ↑