The Bhāgavata of Sankaradeva
Sankaradeva drew inspiration chiefly from the Bhāgavata, which distilled the quintessence of the Vedanta philosophy into a receptacle of popular and unforgettable legends. An early attempt was therefore made to translate the book into Assamese. It was really a very courageous and extraordinary undertaking to render into a provincial language a venerable text written in the grand style of a classical tongue. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Sankaradeva was accused before the Koch king Naranārāyana, by the Brahmanas, as an ardent reader, teacher and transcreator of the Bhāgavata.
Sankaradeva himself undertook the task of rendering of the major portion, namely Books:
- XI and
Besides Sankaradeva, the other scholars who undertook the rendering of the different sections of the venerable text in different periods of time were:
- Ananta Kandali (Books IV, VI and a section of Book X)
- Kesavacaran (Books VII and IX)
- Gopalacaran Dvija (Book III)
- Kavi Kalapcandra (sections of Book IV)
- Sri Visnu Bharati (sections of Book IV)
- Ratnakara Misra (sections of Book V)
- Sri Candradeva (sections of Book IV)
- Aniruddha Kayastha (sections of Book IV and V) and
- Hari (sections of Book V)
While certain writers of this group like Ananta Kandali were contemporary to Sankaradeva, most of the others belong to a later period.
The rendering of the Bhāgavata marks an era of renaissance in Assamese literature. Its influence on Vaisnavite literature was manifold. It remoulded the faith and the conscience of the Assamese. The greatness of Sankara's translation (transcreation, rather) lies not merely in the flowing Assamese version but in its vital use of the Assamese idiom.
Of all the books of the Bhāgavata, the Adi Dasama (the first part of Book X) enjoys universal popularity. This book describes the incidents of Krishna's early life, such as Child Krishna's killing of demons, His sports, His tending of cattle with his friends in forest glades, His childish pranks such as the stealing of butter, milk and curd, His quarrels with the milk-maids, and the various chastisements He had from his foster-mother Yasodā. Though permeated with religious emotion, the Dasama gives an intensely human and realistic picture of child life, a mother's love and grief for her little son, and other themes that eternally move the human heart. It should, however, be noted that, unlike as in Vaisnavite literature of other provinces, Rādhā does not appear in these scenes, nor does she find a place in the whole of Sankarite literature.
The Bhagāvata was an inexhaustible source of knowledge from which Sankaradeva drew again and again. Besides the rendering, he composed a large number of works with materials from Sanskrit scriptures. His Nimi Nava Siddha Samvāda is a doctrinal treatise based on Book XI of the Bhāgavata. Nārada here recounts before Vāsudeva the discussions which took place between king Nimi and the nine sages (Siddhas) on various moot points in Hindu theology. Each sage expounded one of these points, namely, the nature of the religion of the Bhāgavata, Devotion (Bhakti), Illusion (Māyā), way of escape from illusion (Salvation), Brahma-Yoga (The System of Meditation) and Karma-Yoga (The Metaphysics of Action), demerits of the uninitiated (abhakta), and the nature of a Divine Incarnation. Here a number of abstruse metaphysical problems are expounded in the Assamese language with a clarity of expression unique of its kind. Some of its verses bear mark of literary excellence. The merits of bhakti are expressed in popular homilies with apt illustrative similies:
He who meditates on the Word of God, Mādhava,
Finds at once all his three needs gratified.
First, he finds lust ebbing out, a sure sign of devotion,
then grows an indifference to his abode and body,
And love swells for the form of the Lord (Krishna),
The centre of love.
The three assets come to one,
Like food to the hungry.
And each morsel (of meditation) gives the soul fulfilment.
Pleasure grows, the body is restored,
And the soul's hunger vanishes.
Listen O King, to the nature of love and devotion,
Even a little of devotion sustains love well,
Just as a morsel satisfies some.
Bhakati Pradip, another metaphysical work of Sankara, gives a reflective analysis of the nature of devotion. Though the work is said to have been compiled from the Garuda Purāna, in fact, its contents tally more with the material of the Book XI of the Bhāgavata. His Anādi Pātana is mainly an adaptation from Book III of the Bhāgavata, though a few episodes are introduced from the Vāmana Purāna. The book deals in cosmological matters such as the creation of this universe.
Gunamālā (Garland of Praises) , one of the last works of Sankaradeva, is a little handbook based on Books X and XI of the Bhāgavata. It has six small sections, containing hymns of praise to Lord Krishna. Within the compass of a single laudatory verse, the poet recounts many incidents from Krishna's life making them easy to remember. There is not a Vaisnavite in Assam who has not learnt the Gunamala by rote. Superabundance of alliteration with sonorous rhymes makes the poem suitable for recitation.