|Shri Shri Krishnaya Namo Namah
Jaya Jaya to Guru Sankaradeva
Jaya Jaya to Guru Madhavadeva
SANKARADEVA’S CONTRIBUTION TOWARDS UPLIFT1 OF WOMEN
Retd. HOD, History
Handique Girls College
At the time when the Neo-Vaisnavite Movement (NVM) of Sankaradeva first got off the ground, religion determined society and Assam was least perfect in matters of religion. A perverted religious system exploited woman as an accessory of worship2. At the same time, along with the ‘inferior’ castes (sudras), she was brutally suppressed. All avenues of spiritual progress were closed for her. In fact, it is very interesting to note in this connection that at one point of time, “there were many debates in the Hindu tradition over whether women, low castes, and outcastes could attain liberation in this life or whether they had to await another birth or more”3.
But Krishna, in the Bhagavata4, had made a significant remark which was now to act as the contagion of a great social revolution: “O Uddhava, if the (so called) ‘women and sudras’ (stri-sudras) express their desire to learn the Supreme Truth, speak even to them this knowledge5.” Acting upon this order of the Lord, Sankaradeva introduced the popular religion of devotion (loka-bhakti-pantha)6 in Assam to ensure that the stri-sudras were not allowed to starve spiritually. The reformers of the NVM sacrificed their literary ambitions and concentrated on rendering the sacred texts into the vernacular. And the reason behind their doing so is best expressed in the words of Ananta Kandali, another stalwart of the NVM, “In Sanskrit, one knows how to write well. Still, for the benefit of the ‘women and sudras’, one will compose verses (in Assamese) so that they come to know of the parama-tattva (Supreme Truth)7”. If this is not sympathy for women, then what is?
Sankaradeva visualized a society in which both man and woman, on an equal footing, would seek sole-refuge in and chant the Name of God:-
“…forsaking all other gods, the man or woman who takes Sarana (Sole-Refuge) in Krishna, he or she, from then on, will receive the infinite grace of Krishna Himself.”
[Sankaradeva, Srimad-Bhagavata, Canto II]
Sankaradeva opened the gates of devotion for the women who had hitherto been kept outside the pale of religion by the protagonists of orthodoxy.
নলাগে ভক্তিত দেৱ দ্বিজ ঋষি হুইবে৷
নলাগে সম্ভৃত শাস্ত্ৰ বিস্তৰ জানিবে৷
যক্ষ ৰক্ষ স্ত্ৰী শূদ্ৰ যত ব্ৰজবাসী৷
পক্ষী মৃগো বিষ্ণু ভৈল কৃষ্ণক উপাসি৷৷
(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.
[Sankaradeva, Kirttana, Prahlada Carita]
[All] Those who have ears, minds and mouths have equal rights in Krishna bhakti8
[Sankaradeva, Nimi Nava-Siddha Samvada]
As a writer, Sankaradeva always upheld the liberty, dignity and equality of women in his own inimitable style. The principal women characters in his writings have all been endowed with a strong personality. They are bold and assertive. And expressive too. In the following outburst of Rukmini, for instance: -
“This Sisupala [Rukmini says] comes to marry me: my life has taken a better turn indeed; with what cheek has he come to marry me? As a fox would feed on the lioness, as a baby would snatch at the moon, as the frog in the corner would long for nectar, so would Sisupala desire me. As the crow would feed on the offerings made at a yagna, as the degraded Brahmana would covet great gifts, as the Brahmana-slayer would aspire for heaven, so would Sisupala desire me. He talks of being husband to Rukmini. But who would shut her eyes setting aside Madhava, the Lord of the three worlds, and choose Sisupala? Who would ignore the lion and ask for the pig? Who would ignore milk and drink the water in which fish has been washed? 9”
Or, in the following words of Satyabhama:-
“My dear husband [Krishna], you promised to get a parijata tree for me. So fetch it right away and don’t dawdle. I will not set foot into my home unless I see a parijata tree before it. I swear it!10”
These are hardly the words of meek and docile women who would let themselves be bound by the dictates of fate but rather those of assertive and self-confident individuals who know exactly what they want. In fact, it seems the delineation of the female characters has been done in such a manner that they mark a departure from the traditional model.
No other character perhaps illustrates this aspect better than that of Sita in Sankaradeva’s Ramayana who, in her anger, turns her back to an intimidated Rama and laying aside all shyness, speaks her mind with eyes and face scarlet with rage and indignation, “By a ruse he had abandoned me in the forest. He wanted to kill the two boys in my womb...” Indeed, her words are so piercing that “if paddy had been put into Rama’s mouth, it would have turned into puffed rice (i.e. he was burning with shame)”. This kind of an approach is unusual in Ramayana literature. Dr WL Smith finds that Sita here has much more to say. “What is exceptional here is Sita’s reaction. Sankaradeva's great sympathy for Sita’s plight leads him to portray her not as a passive victim as in Valmiki, but a person of “flesh and blood”, justifiably enraged at the way she has been treated. The point Sankaradeva is trying to make is one of compassion - compassion for Rama’s dilemma, but much more for Sita’s sufferings. Sankaradeva’s sympathies are with her” 11.
Similarly, in his maiden book Harishchandra Upākhyāna, Srimanta Sankaradeva had recognized the strength of a woman by comparing her with blazing fire:-
Strika durbala kare konano niskhale
Jvalanta bahnika bāndhe bastrara ānchale12
On the external front too, the NVM was a potent force for the improvement of conditions for women. It produced women leaders, scholars and poets who contributed to the culture and civilization of Assam. Sankaradeva led the way by actively practicing what he preached. Contrary to myth, he himself seems to have offered sarana (initiation) to women, even in the initial stage of his Movement. Actually, the leaders of the NVM showed considerable generosity not only by initiating women to the devotional path, but also by acknowledging them as religious heads. From a comparative angle, it may be mentioned that until recent times, women were generally excluded from episcopal and clerical positions within the Christian churches13.
Kanakalata Āi14, the grand daughter-in-law of Sankaradeva, sailed all the way from Koch-Behar up to the Ahom kingdom and reclaimed Bardowa and restored the place to its pristine glory. The Āi initiated many people into bhakti and deputed twelve disciples - six Brahmins and six non-Brahmins - to carry on the work of the Order in different parts of Assam15. She was a woman of much ability and great personality and was responsible for a “considerable furtherance” of the faith of her grandfather-in-law. It was also for the first time in the history of Assam Vaisnavism that a woman acted as a religious head and appointed other persons as Superiors16. Similarly, Bhuvanesvari Āi succeeded to the pontifical seat of her father Harideva17.
The dignity of women attained its height in Assam when Gopaladeva addressed his clerics thus: “Take the wives of the bhakats as equals of your mothers and the bhakats as your own body18.”
The women of the NVM were not found wanting in moments of crisis also. Narayanadasa’s wife, Bārabāsi, a woman of great piety, threw open her granaries for the bhakats at a time of great scarcity19. Similarly, Mathuradasa’s wife showed heroic virtue by keeping the ‘aksaya banti’ burning at the Kirttana Ghar at Barpeta, even after it had been gutted in a devastating fire, and conducting the prayer services herself with other women devotees20. For this, she received high praise from Madhavadeva. Even Candari Āi, the maid-servant at Sankara’s household, was so advanced spiritually that she could send a group of pandits packing by reciting to them the substance of the Gita21, while washing her clothes on the river-bank22.
One episode connected with Candari Āi, from the caritas, is worth mentioning here which, besides highlighting the amazing degree of spiritual enlightenment among the women of this period, also brings out clearly how Sankaradeva himself encouraged women to actively participate in matters spiritual. The following is a summary of that episode.
After the painting of the Vaikuntha [for the Cihna Yatra] was completed, Sankaradeva drew and painted the parisadas on the canvas. He painted the seven Lords of the seven Vaikunthas. He also painted the divine sarovaras (streams) at different places.
yaita yibā lāge samastaka tuli dilā /
ekatila māno Vaikunthara nalarilā //
kalpataru yehena dibāka najānanta /
abāka svarupe duyojana rahilanta //
He (Sankaradeva) painted all the visuals [of Vaikuntha] that were necessary;
The depiction did not leave out even a single detail of Vaikuntha
[But] As if not knowing where to place the kalpataru (the wish-yielding tree),
The two of them [Sankaradeva and the samnyasi] remained, seemingly puzzled.
It was at this time that the old lady Candari spoke. She had been spreading out the grain in the compound for drying. Taking the ‘marjjani’ (broom, brush) in her hand, she, seeing that Dekagiri (Sankaradeva) had not yet drawn the kalpataru, went near the stage and said, “Dekagiri, this is where the kalpataru must be given (painted)”. Sankaradeva smiled and said,
āsiyā ethāka Ăi bara kaili kāma /
tai hena upakāra āra kaita pāma //
“O mother, by coming here [and pointing out the position of the kalpataru], you have done a great service [to me]. Oh! Where does one obtain such a help as you!” He, acting on the old lady’s advice, painted the kalpataru at that very spot [singled out by her]. Seeing this Ramarama and the others were struck with wonder, “Wherefrom did this budhi (old lady) get this knowledge! She must be a denizen of Vaikuntha, living here in disguise!”
[Guru Carita, Ramacarana Thakura, pp. 297]
The NVM was successful in diffusing a high degree of enlightenment among the masses. Vedanta was practically ‘vernacularised’. Works such as the Nama-ghosa in which hard philosophical truths melt into exquisite poetry like ‘snow-capped mountains converting themselves to glaciers or ice-rivers at the advent of springtime’, played a leading role in this process of internalization.
And in the caritas (biographies of the Saints) of the NVM, we come across numerous episodes which reveal the extent of spiritual progress made by the women of that period. Once, it is recounted, a courtier of the king had just returned from the capital. He had brought many rich presents for his wife. Now the wife23, being a follower of Sankaradeva’s creed, naturally asked, “You have brought so many things for me. But what about the Guru and the bhakats? What have you brought for them?” The husband replied, “Nothing. You distribute a few things to them”. The wife said, “If I give, the merit will be mine. You won’t acquire any merit”. The husband shot back, “But you belong to whom?” meaning that as she was his wife, her merits would automatically accrue to him. “Nobody belongs to anybody”, replied the wife, “this jiva, a part of God, is simply resting (in this body) as a traveler in the shade of a tree24”.
It seems that the work Janma-Rahasya was composed specifically on request from the women of the royal household. According to Daityari Thakura, one of the earliest biographers of Sankaradeva:-
Sankaradeva along with [his son] Rāmānanda Thākura again went
to Behar, Cilaray Devan’s place.
There Sankaradeva was always narrating the caritra (tale) of Krishna.
One day, Cilaray Devan said to Him,
“O Great One! Please translate into verses the Janma-Rahasya for me; all the queens (mahādai),
want to read it with great respect in mind”.
Sankaradeva said, “I will go to Barpeta and
compose the verses of the Janma-Rahasya there”.
The Devan said, “[By all means] Please go to Barpeta and
start the work of translation there soon”.
Hearing this Sankaradeva went to Barpeta.
Along with him was Rāmānanda, his eldest son (barbetā).
Going there, Sankara said to Madhava,
“Madhava, you do the translation of the Janma-Rahasya”25.
In the field of culture, Padmapriyā Āi wrote some fine devotional lyrics. Kamalapriyā, the daughter of Ramaraya (cousin of Sankaradeva) and wife of Prince Cilarai, was an expert player on the ‘sārengdār’ (a stringed instrument) and an excellent singer. It is said that hearing her sing a bargita, Cilarai was so carried away by the great quality of the song that he lost no time in seeking initiation from Sankaradeva and he remained a devoted follower and supporter of Sankaradeva to the last.
Padmapriyā was the daughter of Gopaladeva of Bhavanipur. She composed songs in praise of Krishna and of her Guru Sankaradeva. She is the only Assamese woman poet of the medieval period known today.
Don’t forget the feet of the Guru, O mind!
Deliverance lies at the two feet of the Guru.
That is a boat to pass over the world ocean.
No one can cross it in other ways.
Son, husband and wealth are all in vain;
Shine like water-reflection.
Just existed and just exhausted,
All become ashes - Time swallows all.
The mind is firmly tied to worldly affairs.
Infatuation is like a strong string.
Holding the feet of Krishna,
Padmapriya states this desire26.
Perhaps the immensity of the contribution of the Sankaradeva Movement towards the uplift of women especially on the spiritual front would be more fully realized if we also take into account that “the time when Srimanta Sankaradeva started his reform activities was a very adverse period in the history of Assam” and that “He was faced with opposition at every step27”. It will be interesting also to compare the condition of women in Assam, during the heydays of the Sankaradeva Movement, with that of other societies of the medieval world.
Document Last Revised: - January 06, 2017