Dr. Rita Moni Baishya, Associate Professor of Hindi, Gauhati University delivered the 5th Dr Minati Hazarika Memorial Annual Lecture on December 27, 2017 in VKIC’s W.M. Auditorium. She spoke on ‘Assam’s contribution to the Indian Bhakti Movement.’
According to her the Indian Bhakti Movement was a great process that contributed to the religious and spiritual emancipation of a large mass of people. There are many reasons for its emergence and subsequent growth. One of the reasons cited was the threat of Islamic aggression, which was not the main reason. In the literature and philosophy of the movement one can find much more than a mere response to a particular situation.
The men behind the movement dwelled in different parts of India, and through their words, gave us Bhakti, philosophy as well as literature.
There were many saints and seekers in India of that time among which were Ramananda, Kabir, Chaitanya who had influence over different parts of Bharat. Many of them are well known throughout the country. However, not much is known about Assam’s Vaishnavite Movement in the same way.
There are two main Margs in the broad Bhakti Movement – the Nirguna and the Saguna. Kabir and Jaishi were among the most famous who believed in the former path. There was also a Sufi tradition in which there existed a relation of love between the devotee and the divine.
Among the Assamese Bhakti literature there is no such clear cut path. Sankardeva, in his works adopted a middle path. He even unified the worship of Sri Krishna and Ram. In his Borgeet the Param Brahma means both of the entities. For his there is no difference between the two as such.
He celebrated Gyan and Prem, and considered them integral in his literature. Although there is no such consensus it can still be argued that the Vaishnavites of Sankardeva’s time can be considered as a Sampradaya. Like Sampradayas that grew around other Bhakti traditions, the Vaishnavites of Assam do possess common features spelled out in their beliefs and teachings.
When the contemporary Bhakti saints are compared it is seen that Kabir in particular was very critical of some practices of Hindus and Muslims of his times. He possessed a deep social consciousness. Guru Nanak too had a strong message of devotion for his followers which he expressed through his writings in three languages.
Some of the saints did not write books, which can be found today. But Tulsi Das did write at least eight very important books; some of course believe that he wrote more.
What sets Sankardeva apart from his contemporaries was his strong belief in the idea of Bharatvarsha. His significant writings are replete with references to this land. In times much older, Valmiki did write about events in different parts of Bharat, but the notion of Bharatvarsha as a nation finds mention only in the writings of Sankardeva. He was foremost in mentioning Assam as a part of Bharat. He was the guru of all the Assamese saints and seekers in the Bhakti tradition.
In the sphere of cultural activities, Srimanta Sankardeva was peerless due to his wide range of contributions. Apart from being a great saint in the Vaishnav tradition, he was a social unifier, great poet, painter, actor, and who also wrote songs and developed a dance form. His output and merit in literature is yet to be fully appreciated.
In order to promote an understanding of the Assamese Bhakti Movement, there is a need for it to be understood by more people in the country. One of the ways could be to have the literature of Assam’s Bhakti movement translated into other languages. It is essential that they are made available in Hindi, so that they can subsequently be translated into other Indian languages.