Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449–1568) saint-scholar, playwright, social-religious reformer, is one of the greatest religious leaders India has ever produced. The saint led the medieval Bhakti-movement in the north-eastern part of India and founded a religion named Eka-sarana Hari naam dharma. He is credited with providing a thread of unity to Assam straddling two major kingdoms (Ahom and Koch kingdoms), building on past literary activities to provide the bedrock of Assamese culture, and creating a religion that gave shape to a set of new values and social synthesis. The religion he started, Mahapuruxiya Dharma was part of the Bhakti movement then raging in India, and he inspired bhakti (devotion) in Assam just as Ramananda, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Basava and Chaitanva Mahaprabhu inspired it elsewhere.
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.
Sankaradeva took his birth in 1449 in Siromani Bhuna family at Alipukhuri near Bardowa in the present district of Nagaon, Assam. He lost his parents at an early age. He was admitted to school at the age of twelve and after seven years came out as an “unerring scholar”.
On returning home Sankaradeva had to accept the Siromani Bhunaship. He got married at the age of twenty-one or so. But he was more inclined to the study of religious scriptures and ultimately propagated the Bhakti cult. At the age of thirty-two he went on a twelve years long pilgrimage with seventeen companions and visited most of the Vaishnava centres in India. Thereby he came into direct interaction with the nascent neo-Vaishnava movement. He saw the mission launched earlier in a proper perspective and also the means of realizing that.
After completing the pilgrimage, Sankaradeva returned home in 1493. He renounced the post of Siromani Bhunaship and made all arrangements for the propagation of his faith. However, under the pressure of his kinsmen, he had to marry again a Kayastha girl, named Kalindi.
Sankaradeva had to leave his ancestral home in the Bhuna-territories in 1516 A.D. owing to the clash with the neighbouring Kachari tribes. With his kinsmen and followers he shifted the residence to different places on the northern bank of the river Brahmaputra and finally got settled in 1522 A.D at Dhuwahat-Belaguri of Majuli, the river island, in the Ahom kingdom. It was here that, in 1522 A.D, Sankaradeva initiated Madhavdeva into his faith. Madhavdeva had been an young and exuberant pandit of Sakta faith, but after initiation h become the greatest apostle of his guru.
But soon the religion propagated by Sankaradeva proved to be a challenge to the existing Brahmanical priesthood. The priestly class naturally grew hostile to Sankaradeva, abusing and molesting his followers. They started lodging false allegations in the Ahom court against Sankaradeva resulting ultimately, under some pretext, in the tragic beheading of Sankaradeva’s son-in-law, Hari and the imprisonment of Madhavdeva for about a year.
Being shocked and hurt by this inhuman incident, Sankaradeva made up his mind to leave the Ahom kingdom. In the meantime, he heard that the King Naranarayana of Koc-Behar was a scholar and a poet also. Hoping for King Naranarayana’s patronage, Sankaradeva with his followers sailed down the Brahmaputra in 1545 and landed at Barpeta in Kamarupa under the Koc king. Sankaradeva finally settled down at Patbousi in Barpeta for the last eighteen or twenty years of his life. Here he secured the patronage of Cilaraya, the brother and commander-in-chief of the king Naranarayana, as a daughter of Sankaradeva’s cousin Ramraya was given in marriage to Cilaraya. Then Sankaradeva found another rich and sagacious devotee, named Bhavananda Saud (renamed as Narayana Das Thakur). His religious order thrived much there.
In about 1550, Sankaradeva set out for his second pilgrimage with 120 followers, including Madhavdeva and others. The pilgrimage took only six months and extended upto Puri only.
In the Koc kingdom, Sankaradeva’s new cult grew to its fullness. The old priestly class alleged to king Naranarayana against the teachings of Sankaradeva. The king ordered Sankaradeva to appear in his court. Sankaradeva appeared in the court in 1558. The king was overpowered by the radiating personality, sublime faith, profound scholarship and high poetic accomplishment of Sankaradeva. The Guru came out triumphant in the series of debates that ensured with the Brahmana pundits. The king turned a liflong bosom friend of Sankaradeva and under his patronage Sankaradeva’s cult grew vigorously.
In the last few years of his life, Sankaradeva kept shuttling between Patbousi and Koc-Behar. His eventful long life came to an end in Koc-Behar in 1569. Then Madhavdeva, Sankaradeva’s nominee, shouldered the headship of the religious order.