Narrative Poet par excellence

Sankaradeva was a great narrative poet and playwright. A classical writer par excellence, he draws freely from classical mythology for ornamentation and embellishment. The descriptive touches he introduces into his narratives are unique. His pictorial quality stands him in good stead in working out a situation in which character clashes with character and with circumstances.

His short tales and his translations from the Bhāgavata and the Rāmāyana illustrate his descriptive skill at its greatest:

Kariliā prakāsa Rāma same samājata
Dekhe dasa prakāre Krishnaka sibelāta
Māle bole kino bajra sama kalevara
Anya jane bole ehentese narabara
Nārigane bole murtti dharilā madane
Āmārese bandhu buli māne gopagane
Āmārese sāstā bole dusta rājācaya
Vāsudeva Daivakiye bolaya tanaya
Kamse bole ehi Krishna antaka āmāra
Ajnānisakale bole Nandara kumāra
Yogigane bole ehentese Brahmatattva
Vrisni vamse bole ente kulara daivata
Kāchiā āchaya yena nata dui prāi
Nabhailā tripiti loka duiro rupa cāi
Caksuve piyaya yena celeke jihbāi
Bāhuve ālingi nāsikāi sunge prāi
[Sankaradeva, Kirttana]

Krishna made His appearance along with Balarāma before the audience. On this occasion, people saw Krishna in ten different forms. The wrestler thought Him to be one with a body hard as the Vajra (thunderbolt). The others thought Him to be the Supreme among men. The women saw in Him Cupid himself. The milkmen (gopas) thought Him to be their companion. The wicked kings knew Him to be their chastiser. Vāsudeva and Devaki found their son in Him. Kamsa said to himself, “This Krishna is surely my destroyer.” The people unaware simply thought Him to be Nanda’s son. Those divine meditators knew Him to be Brahma (Ego) personified. The Vrisni clans-men imagined Him to be the God of their line. The two brothers now well-dressed looked rather like two dancers, and people’s thirst in seeing them was not quenched. They would drink their beauty with their eyes, lick it with their tongues, embrace it with their arms and smell it with their noses.

The divine nature embedded in the incarnation finds superb representation in the verse rendering of the Ādi Dasama. In the episode of the Govardhana dhārana, for instance, the deluge of the rain is described in a style which has hardly ever been surpassed:

The terrible storm dislodges roof and wall and the lightening flashes out. The skies are filled with the noise of clouds and the tempest, the thunder shakes the earth and deafens the ears, water pours down in torrents with ear-piercing sound. The downpour of hail is so terrific that people lose their senses.Continual rains overflood Gokula. Sheets of water as massive as columns crash down; the high and the low become indistinguishable. It appears as if the deluge has come and the people suffer great destruction. The rain showers with hail, and the wind whizzes on. There is no distinction of the quarters and voices are drowned. The cows and calves stagger and the cold being oppressive, their limbs shake terribly. They, by divine instinct, rush to the side of Krishna. Even the languageless animals of Gokula know that Krishna alone can save them from peril.

When the total destruction of the people seems imminent, Krishna’s heart is filled with great compassion for His people and the cattle. Without further delay, he uproots the Govardhana hill and with one hand holds it aloft like an umbrella “with as little effort as that of a child holding a mushroom.” The people and the cattle take shelter under the hill. Krishna’s revelation of His divine form at this crisis of creation entering at Gokula finds adequate expression at the hands of a poet who can manipulate the Assamese language at his own sweet will:

Sundara pāndura ganda kundalara kānti
Adhara rātula dānta mukutāra pānti
Rucira cibuka kambukantha manohara
Kaustubha sosita yena nava divākara
Cāru syāma tanu pita bastre biracita
Yena nava meghakhanda taditajadita
Bahala baksata manimukutāra hāra
Karai jalamala jilimili pecandāra
Srivatsara pankti prakāsita gandasthale
Āpādalambita banamālā jale gale
Koti sasānkato kari prakāsai sarira
Samudrakotita kari dekhi jurāi jiva
Eka hāte padma āura hāte gadā dhari
Eka hāte sabāko abhaya denta Hari
Eka hāte giri govardhanaka ullāsi
Sabāko nirekhi cānta mahā snehe hāsi
Dhenugano ānande cāhanta Krishnamukha
Amritaka piyāi yena nāhi eko dukha
Shrā loma nayanara sravai jala
Citrara putali yena sarira niscala
[Sankaradeva, Ādi Dasama]

The beautiful, fair cheeks dazzling like the kundala; reddish lower lip, teeth like a row of pearls, graceful chin, conchlike neck shining with the kaustubha like the newly risen sun; the eye-filling darkish blue form clad in yellow as though a new piece of cloud is wrapped in lightning and in the broad breast, the necklace glitters and sparkles on the cheeks, the srivatsa lines and the garland of wild flowers shining on the body and suspended from head to foot. The body stands revealed shining like more than a crore of moons, a crore of Madanas cannot equal Him in beauty. His looks spread balm on soul more than a crore of amrita. In His one hand, a lotus and in the other, a mace; with one hand, He bids people have no fear; with another He Keeps in poise the Govardhana hill and gazes on all With a great compassionate and loving smile. The cows also gaze on the face of Krishna with ecstatic joy as though they are drinking nectar, bereft of pain; their fur stands upright in horripilation and they stand motion-less like human-forms in a picture.

Here the spiritual world is adumbrated in a concrete form, and the literal and the allegorical are fused into one image. Such spiritual transfigurations are everywhere present in the Ādi Dasama and other works of this remarkable poet of the Vaisnavite middle ages.

Sankaradeva had great knowledge of men and manners. He had seen palaces and towers in sundry places in different corners of India and knew the cities. This helped him in building the background for his narratives. Sankaradeva’s descriptions of the palaces, towers, lakes and gardens of Kundina, for example, are superb:

Bicitra kasati kāti silākuti
Grhara bāndhilā kānthi
Tāta nānā pata ghata nata bhāta
Prakati garhila hānthi
Bāgha ghongā simha nānā bihangama
Sāri sāri sāji āche
Aneka putali yen hāta tuli
Angi bhangi kari nāce
Darpana ākāra sāji dilā bāra
Jinjini kātilā tāte
Phatika kapāt, powālara khaya
Lāgoi āche hasti hāte
Suvarnara ghāta kare phāta phāta
Nisesa grha upare
Bajra sama drhra saupāsara garh
Devara durgama bare

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