Sankardeva and Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam

Abhijit Bhuyan


In the 12th and 15th century A.D. the social fabric in India was torn by all-out degradation and cultural distortion, and corruption permeated all sections of the society, right from the ruling to the priestly class. Various malpractices were committed in the name of religion, which vitiated the social structure. Such a situation inspired Hindu thinkers and reformers
of the time to evolve a simpler and liberal faith acceptable to all. In this backdrop, the Vaisnava Bhakti movement, based on the liberal doctrine of bhakti or devotion, took shape, and encompassed the whole of India.
Assam too, was experiencing political turmoil with the different  principalities fighting to hold sway over the entire region. This chaos and instability was reflected in the religious sphere also. Assam in the 15th century presented a kaleidoscopic picture of diverse shades and grades of culture. There were people who loosely adhered to Vaisnavism or Saivism
and there were others who practised Saktism bordering on extreme Tantricism. The followers of these cults indulged in evil practices like animal and human sacrifice, magical rites, spells and the like. The poor and the downtrodden became victims of these ghastly practices.
It was at this juncture, that the great spiritual leader, social reformer, playwright and composer, Srimanta Sankardeva appeared on the social scene of Assam. He was a multi-faceted genius who gave a direction to the chaotic Assamese society by initiating a fresh approach to the existing Vaisnava religion that gave rise to a set of new values and aided in
social synthesis.
The writer of this article discusses at length about the uniqueness of the Neo-Vaisnavite movement initiated by Srimanta Sankardeva and the far-reaching changes that it brought about in the Assamese society. The writer dwells on the chequered journey of the Vaisnavite movement in Assam through both troubled and peaceful times, adding new elements to it through the ages, without losing its original essence, up to the present times.

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