The Sankaradeva Movement: Its Educational Impact

Education in Assam, up to the British occupation, was not a concern of the State. Here and there were private institutions such as tols, chhatra-sals and pāthsālās manned by Brāhman scholars, but those were like a drop in an ocean. the great bulk of the population had no light of education and remained illiterate, creating a hiatus between the literate few and the illiterate many.

With the rise of the Sankaradeva Movement, the responsibility of imparting education came under its domain. The Satra institution voluntarily took upon itself the noble responsibility of enlightening the people through their own tols. All the important Satras used to maintain a regular band of scholars whose duty it was to impart education, especially in respect of ancient lore and scriptures. Along with the Vaisnavite texts and the Vedic and Puranic lore, the other branches of study such as Vyākarana, Nyāya and Kāvyas were also taken up for study and were not neglected.

The Pioneer Educators

Many of the early Vaisnavite reformers took upon themselves the task of educating their pupils. Madhavadeva himself taught Rāmacarana (his nephew), Haricarana and Purusottama, the youngest son and grandson of Sankaradeva respectively. He also imparted education to Paramānanda, son of Nārāyana Thākur, Acyuta Sarmā, Bar-Visnu Ātā and Laksmana Ojā. Bhattadeva, the Satrādhikār of the Pātbāusi Satra and the father of Assamese prose literature, conducted a regular tol in the precincts of his Satra and it is narrated in the biography by Rāmarāya that 1000 students received education from him. Rāmānanda Dvija, a biographer of Vamsigopāladeva, states that he received education from Vanamālideva, the founder of the Daksinpāt Satra. The medieval caritas record many instances to show that the Vaisnavite teachers were greatly responsible for diffusing knowledge among the masses.

The Satras imparted both formal and informal education. It imparted formal education through the tols and catuspathis maintained by some of the affluent Satras and informal education which was more effective than the former in the case of the masses, consisted of sermons, exposition of scriptures and discussions on philosophical and theological matters during the prayer services.

Besides the Satrādhikār, other teachers and functionaries of the Satras, namely the Bhāgavati and Pāthak, also imparted instruction to the monks through discussions and occasional debates. Further, the monks were given written exercises not only in copying out manuscripts and illuminating them with relevant pictures, but also in translating Sanskrit scriptures and composing original works in Assamese. After years of education and rigorous training in Vaisnava faith and discipline, these monks were deputed to various parts of the province for the purpose of preaching and propagating their faith. In course of time, many of these monks established new Satras at different places, and this network of institutions helped the diffusion of education, learning and culture in the entire country. In this way, the Satras produced successful teachers and missionaries as well as eminent philosophers, scholars and poets.

Dissemination of All-round Knowledge

The Sankaradeva Movement, besides making the common man conversant with the contents of the epics, Purānas and the other religious scriptures, taught the arts of singing, dancing, the playing of instruments, etc through the various cultural activities it promoted.

Through the network of Satras and Nāmghars spread all over the country, knowledge permeated the masses of Assam. Illiteracy was no handicap to the acquisition of this knowledge as there were arrangements everywhere for reading aloud portions of the scriptures and explaining their purport to audiences of house-hold members and large congregations of villagers.

“There grew in Assam what we may conveniently term 'illiterate literacy' of a form unknown in any part of India. An Assamese villager still carries this tradition about him; and if we can make him speak freely we shall see that he possesses a fair acquaintance with the general contents of the Epics and the Purānas.”

This speaks for the great educational progress made by the Sankaradeva Movement.

The Satra as a Library

Like the Christian monastery of the medieval times, a Satra was not only a religious centre but also a school and a library. Every Satra possessed a library consisting of manuscripts to the extent of a few thousand copies. Not only were the existing books preserved with utmost care, but books were also imported from other parts of India. Big Satras like Āuniāti and Daksinpāt once contained more than a thousand manuscripts, some of which are now being preserved by the different antiquarian institutions. It is not that only religious scriptures were preserved, but books on music and dance, medicine, literature, philosophy and even painting were carefully preserved. Some rare Sanskrit manuscripts like the Srihasta-muktāvali, Sātvata-tantra, Hastividyārnava have been recovered from the Satra libraries of Assam. The books that were preserved were not left to lie fallow. They were industriously and assiduously copied and worn-out ones were replaced by new copies. A set of persons were specially entrusted by the affluent Satras to do the necessary work of preparing manuscripts. The copying of manuscripts was considered to be a meritorious deed.

Top ↑