Vaikunthanātha Bhattadeva: The Father of Assamese Prose

Assamese prose was truly born in the hands of another bright star of the Sankaradeva Movement, Vaikunthanātha Bhattācāryya or Bhattadeva as he is popularly known. Bhattadeva was the last great Vaisnavite writer of genius whose contributions give him a unique place in the history of literature. True it is that Assamese prose began about a century before him (in the dramas of Sankaradeva). But he must be credited with using Assamese prose as a regular vehicle for essays and for making the vehicle popular enough for the use of his posterity. Bhattadeva was also called Kaviratna Bhāgavata Bhattācāryya in recognition of his profound scholarship in the Bhāgavata learning.

Brief Biographical Account

Vaikunthanātha Bhattadeva (1558-1638) was the second son of Kavi Saraswati and grandson of Candra Bhārati (not to be confused with the illustrious poets having the same titles), who resided in the village Bhara of Barnagar. Little is known about the early life of Bhattadeva. According to the account of Rāmacarana, Vaikunthanātha was at first a Tāntric and anti-Vaisnavite, but was influenced by Sankaradeva's personality and sought initiation from him. Sankaradeva sent him to Dāmodaradeva saying that there was little difference between himself and Dāmodara. So he came to be initiated by Dāmodaradeva. Other biographers give a slightly different version.

When the ruler of Koch Kāmarupa, king Raghudeva (1581-1603) died and his son Pariksit Nārāyana (1603-13), who now came to the throne, began to oppress the Vaisnavas and arrested Dāmodaradeva also, for being anti-ritualistic, the latter proceeded to Koch Behār, leaving his Satra in charge of Bhattadeva with further advice to translate the Bhāgavata into Assamese prose (kathābandha) referring respectfully to Sankaradeva's renderings in verse:

āru eka jagat-Isvar ājnā dharā:
kathā bandhe ek khanda Bhāgavat karā.
purve Mahāpuruse karile dasa skandha:
kirttan, bhatimā, chabi, dulari sucanda.
tāta kari sugam kario Bhāgavata :
stri-sudra sarvaloke bujhe yena mata.

Assamese Prose So Early

Bhattadeva abided and finished the work. It was not an easy task as there was no regular prose vehicle before him. However, he rendered the venerable text with exemplary precision into a prose (Sri-Bhāgavata-Kathā) laden with Sanskrit, harnessing a little of spoken Assamese of his time. He gave a summary of each and every chapter of the 12 Cantos of the Bhāgavata. Scholars assign 1593-97 as the period of composition of Bhattadeva's Sri-Bhāgavata-Kathā, popularly referred to as the Kathā (prose) Bhāgavata. There is nothing to inform us as to the exact date of composition of the Kathā Gitā - the other monumental prose work of his - but that he began it soon after the composition of the Kathā Bhāgavata can be inferred from the caritas.

According to Rāmrāya, Bhattadeva sent the Book I of the Bhāgavata extensively taking into hand the original and the commentary by Sridhara Svāmin and showed it to Dāmodaradeva. But Dāmodaradeva did not prefer the elaborative nature of the work and asked his disciple to be more precise as the elaborate work will need more time and paper (bark leaves). Bhattadeva was very much disappointed as to cut short his work. However, he obeyed his Guru's direction. And after Dāmodaradeva left for Koch Behār, Bhattadeva completed the work of rendering of the Bhāgavata with exemplary precision as we find it today.

Though Bhattadeva's works are popularly known as Kathā-Bhāgavata and the Kathā-Gitā, Bhattadeva calls them as Sri-Bhāgavata-Kathā and Sri-Bhagavad-Gitā-Kathā respectively.

Besides these two works, Bhattadeva is known to have rendered Bhakti-Ratnāvali and Sātvata Tantra into Assamese prose. He also compiled 3 works in Sanskrit, Bhakti-Sāra, Bhakti-Viveka, and Sarana Sangraha. Two other works, Prasanga Mālā and Guru-Vamsāvali in Assamese verse, more or less, of sectarian type, are also attributed to him.

The Bhakti-Viveka is considered to be Bhattadeva's last work.

The Prose Style of Bhattadeva

From Bhattadeva's first prose work, Kathā Bhāgavata, Book 7, Chapter 6, Prahlāda giving instructions to the fellow-children of the demons, about love of God, we quote the following, which has an echo in it of the prose-speeches of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva:

Prahlāde kahanta: He daitya bālaka sava: buddhivanta jane chavāla kālare parā Harit bhakti karok. Yato durlabha manusya janma ketiksane pare tār thān-thiti nāi. Eteke jānibā: purusar Hari sevāyese kartabya. Yato Hari savāre ātmā priya suhrid: bisay sukh punu sakal yonite pāy: yene nukhujileo dukh mile, temane sukh miliba. Eteke sukhar arthe yatna karok. Yāto āyu bifale nayāi: yāto sarir baikala natu hove, tāve Hari sevāk lāgi yatna karok: Purusar satek batsar paramāyu: tār ardhek nidrāt bifale yāy: bālak kālat krirhā kariteo kuri batsar yāy: Pāche jarā avasthāto kuri batsar yāy: Mājhar āyuo bisay karite bifale yāy: Kon no purusa grhat thāki dhan-janat āsakti kari āpunāk mukta kariba. Eteke torā savāre sanga eri Nārāyanak bhajā: tāhānte priti karite kicho prayās nāi. Yāto Hari savāre Ātmā, savāte pāy: Torāo sakal prānik dayā karibā. Teve alpa kālata Hari tusta haiba. Hari tusta haile purusar sakal purusārtha aprāpya nahe. Tathāpi ekānta Bhaktar tāt kicho prayoyan nāi. Ei jnān kathā purvat Nārāyane Nāradat kahilā; mayo Nāradar mukhe sunilo: ehi jnān Hari ekānta Bhaktar pada-renu laile savāre haiba.

[Prahlāda says:] O Daitya boys, let the intelligent people be devoted to God since childhood, since there is no certainty as to when this human life, so hard to acquire, finishes. So do know that it is the duty of men to serve God, since He is the dear intimate friend and soul of all, and worldly pleasures are available in any animal life. As miseries come even unasked, so happiness will also come. So make efforts to attain happiness. So that the life may not end in smoke, in order that the body be not tottering yet, till then may men strive to serve God. Men's duration of life is one hundred years. Half of it goes in sleep for nothing. Twenty years also pass in sports of childhood. Then another twenty years go in the infirmities of age. The duration in between them passes in worldly affairs for nothing. What man is there who can free himself remaining addicted to wealth and people at home? So do ye dedicate yourselves to God cutting off connections to all these. To love Him there is no trouble. Since God is the soul of all, available everywhere, ye too show love to all beings. Then God will be pleased in no time. If God is pleased, men's all efforts (virtue, wealth, desire, salvation) cannot be unattained. Yet selfless devotees feel no need of them. This wisdom was first given to Nārada by Nārāyana. Myself have heard it from Nārada. This wisdom shall come to all who take the dusts of the feet of Hari's selfless devotees.

Bhattadeva's prose style reveals a magnificent display of variety, flexibility and persuasiveness. While reading his Sri-Gitā-Kathā, one feels as if one were in the midst of a religious congregation with a Bhāgavati (Bhāgavata reader or interpreter) explaining the texts with comments on and answers to possible queries to his interpretation. On the other hand, no one can fully appreciate the compositional skill of the Sri-Gitā-Kathā without entering into the atmosphere of dialogue that prevails throughout. Bhattadeva also adopted the same style in the Sri-Bhāgavata-Kathā in which the famous Saint theologian and devotee Suta explained the Bhāgavata to the large congregation in the Naimisa forest, and he was singularly successful. In the 2nd chapter of the Kathā-Gitā where Krishna puts forth reasons after reasons why Arjuna must fight, Bhattadeva writes:

Sanjaye kahanta: ei bākya Govindaka buli Gurhakesa Arjun nujujhim buliā mauna rahilā. Hrishikesh Bhagavanto hāsya badane dehātmā bibhed dekhāi tāhān moh dur karite ei bākya bulilā: He sakhi Arjun, tumi sokar abisay bandhusavak sok karā: tāt mai bodh dileo pandit savar bādsav kahā; tumi punu pandit nahavā: yi punu pandit hay si jivanta maranta duiko sok nakare. Tār hetu sunā: yen mai anādi Isvar lilā tanu dharite erhiteo nāika naho, kintu sadāye thāko. Tumi ei Rajāsavo mor amsa pade nāikā nahavā: kintu satate thākā. Paramārthat janma maran nāi nimitte sok nakaribā. Yadi bolā, tumi Isvarar janma maran nāi: E satya hay: jivar punu janma maran prasiddha āche: tāta sunā. Yen dehi purusar ei dehate deh nivandhan kaumār yauvan jarā avasthā hay, dehāntar prāptiko temane bujhibā. Eteke yi dhir hay, si dehar utpatti bināsat moh nayāy. Yadi bolā mai bandhusavak sok nakaro, kintu tārāt biyoge duhkha pāibo buli āpunāko sok karo, tāta sunā. Yen anitya asthir bisay sambandhasav svabhāve purusak sit usma sukh dukh dei, tāk sahan dhirar ucit hay, pratikār karanato kari mahāfal sādhe pade sahanese bhāla dekhā.

[Sanjaya related:] Saying these words to Govinda, Arjuna maintained silence being determined not to fight. Krishna, with a smiling face, in order to remove his illusion by showing him the difference between the body and the soul, said, “ O my friend, Arjuna, you grieve for friends who (in reality) are not to be grieved for. When I give you sense against it, you put forth opinions of scholars. And you are not (yourself) a scholar. And he who is a scholar never grieves for the living and the dead alike. Listen to the reasons thereof. For instance, I who am God having no origin: whether I hold or give up this illusory body, I do not cease to live, but I always exist. Yourself and these kings being parts of Myself can (similarly) never cease to live, but shall ever exist. In the spiritual sense, there is no birth or death, hence grieve not. If you would argue, 'Thou art God; thou hast no birth or death, it is true: but birth and death of all beings are well known:' Hear my reply thereto. As bodied people experience childhood, youth and old age in the same body, do appreciate change of body (death) in the same way. So he who is wise can never be deluded by the emergence or annihilation of the body. If you would still argue: ' I do not grieve (for) my friends: I grieve for myself thinking that their separation will pain me': hear my reply thereto. As ephemeral and fleeting things by their very nature inflict the sensations of coolness and heat, pleasure and pain, and toleration of them befits the wise, (so) you see that to put up with them is better, since worthier fruits can be plucked by it, than by attempting at any remedy.”

The conversational and argumentative prose style of Bhattadeva's Sri-Gitā-Kathā served as a model and pattern to the metaphysical Vaisnavite prose-writers of later years, and the simple free light-sailing style of Sri-Bhāgavata-Kathā greatly influenced the writers of the caritas.

At some places of his renderings, notwithstanding his best effort to minimise the intricate philosophical contents, Bhattadeva could scarcely do away with what constituted some of the most radiant parts of the original work. And in such places his prose naturally tends to be argumentative:

Vidura puchanta, he Maitreya, nirguna Bhagavantar gunamay srsti ādir lilā kemone hay? tumi kahichā, miccā jivar arthe karanta siyo naghate/ des kālādiye aluptabodh brahma rup jivar kene avidyāmay samsār hay mor ei manar samsay dur karā/

[Vidura asked:] O Maitreya, how do the sports (lilā) like the creation of the universe which is subject to the limits of qualifications, accrue from the Lord Who is beyond qualifications? You say that the sports are done for the sake of the unreal individual selves (jivas), but that is not possible. Will you please remove the doubt of my mind why the individual self which is no other than Brahman, whose consciousness is never suspended by space and time, is subjected to the cycle of rebirths wrought by nescience.

Maitreya kahanta, jānā Vidura, eiito Harir māyāi vicār nohe, yāhānte michā samsāro jivat dekhi/ yena svarupe āpunār sir āpuni ched dekhi; bolā yadi, Isvarat kene nedekhi, āta drstānta sunā, yene candrar pratibimbatese kampādi guna dekhi, bimbat nedekhi, temane jivarese samsār, Isvarar nāi, eteke Isvarat bhakti karile āpuni samsār guche.

[Maitreya said:] Know you this O Vidura, that it is Hari's māyā which remain inexplicable, because of which the unreal cycle of rebirths is seen in the individual self, just as one's head is seen falsely as severed. If you seek to argue, why do we not see it (the unreal cycle of rebirth) in Isvara, have a parallel phenomenon: just as one sees trembling and other phenomena in the image of the moon, but not in the moon itself, so also it is the individual self (jiva) and not Isvara who undergoes the cycle of rebirths. Therefore, if one practises devotion towards Isvara, the cycle goes away automatically.

In these passages, some of the expressions attempt to assuage the suspicions of the audience, put up questions and objections and again to reply to such questions and sum up the discussion. And thus the expository style of the writer also becomes impersonally argumentative and persuasive.

A Profound Grasp

Bhattadeva had a profound grasp of the Gitā and the Bhāgavata, which earned for him the title of Bhāgavata Bhattācāryya (versed in the Bhāgavata). Bhattadeva has several original Sanskrit works to his credit.

Bhattadeva, in his second prose work, Kathā-Gitā, writes about the commentaries he uses:

Yadyapi āmi Sri Krishnar prasāde Sridhari Sankari Dāmodari Bhāskari cārio tikā bicār karico, tathāpi prāy Sridhari tikār mate kathā nivandhibo: tāhār yukti sunā. Sankari tikā jnānak pradhān kari byākhyā kare: Bhāskari karmak pradhān kare: Sridhari bhakti mātra nirupan kare: Dāmodari tinio yog sama kahe. Eteke Vaisnav savar pritir arthe bhaktipradhān tikār matake prāy likhibo. Bhaktir anukul dekhi kicho kicho tārār matako nivandhibo. Jnān karma rakhitese Sankari Bhāskari bibād, bhakti kicho bibād nakariche: Eteke Bhaktipantha savaro sammāt.

Although by the grace of Sri Krishna I have enquired into the four commentaries Sridharite, Sankarite, Dāmodarite and Bhāskarite, yet I shall write mostly according to the Sridharite commentary. Hear the reasons. The Sankarite commentary interprets giving predominance to knowledge, the Bhāskarite to rituals, the Sridharite to devotion, and the Dāmodarite to all as equal. So for the satisfaction of the Vaisnavas I shall mainly write according to the cult predominating devotion. When found favourable for devotion, I shall include some opinions of the others also. The Sankarite and the Bhāskarite commentaries dispute only on predominance of knowledge or of rituals. They do not question devotion at all. So the cult of devotion is agreed upon by all.

Rich Encomiums

Bhattadeva's prose especially the Sri-Gitā-Kathā brought encomiums to Assamese prose literature from savants like Ācārya PC Roy and Rabindranath Tagore. Ācārya PC Roy of Bengal wrote on the Sri-Gitā-Kathā:

Indeed the prose Gitā of Bhattadeva composed in the 16th century is unique of its kind. It is a priceless treasure. Assamese prose literature developed to a stage in the far distant 16th century, which no other literature of the world reached except the writings of Hooker and Latimer in England.

And Rabindranath Tagore in his letter to Hem Chandra Goswami who first edited the Sri-Gitā-Kathā, wrote:

It is a very striking book, interesting from many points of view. You may very well be proud of the author of this book who could handle prose in such a remarkable lucid style more than a century before we had any prose book in Bengal.

In the same manner as the translation of the Bible by John Wycliff marked the beginning of English prose literature, and as George Philip Crapp has called Wycliff the father of English prose, so Vaikunthanātha Bhattadeva is celebrated as the father of Assamese prose.

Linguistic Features of Bhattadeva's Writings - A Discussion

Though Bhattadeva's prose marks a departure from the Vrajāwali form of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva, he could not free himself from the great poetry tradition left behind by the two Masters. So Bhattadeva's prose, especially the Sri-Bhāgavata-Kathā is highly surcharged with poetic diction.

In the Sri-Bhāgavata-Kathā, for instance, one noticeable feature is that the writer occasionally drifts into rhythmic expressions or almost rhymed verses in the midst of usual prose narratives. Of course, such rhythmic expression is limited to a few select topics, such as the description of Krishna's physical charm and beauty:

syāma sundara / pitāmbara /
prasanna vadana / kamalanayana //
nāsā tilaphula / adhara rātula //
mukhe manda hāsa / kataksa vilāsa //
parama niruja / cāru caturbhuja //
samkhacakradhara / gadāpadmakara /

Bhattadeva's sentence construction is usually short and simple, but occasionally he revels in using long compounds and complex sentences. The influence of Sanskrit, the use of compounds and sandhis of not more than two or three words are also occasionally noticed in his prose compositions:

He mahāvāhu [...] tomāra ākāsavyāpi diptitejayukta aneka varna, vyktamukha, visāla netra-mukha dekhi vyathitacitta huiyā sānti-dhrti duyoko napāo/
[Arjuna to Krishna, on seeing the all-pervasive cosmic form of Krishna, Sri-Gitā-Kathā, 11th chapter]

A Judicious Blending

While applying himself to the task of evolving a new prose medium, Bhattadeva must have felt that retaining the dignity of religious texts and the adequate expression of the subtle and philosophical ideas of the originals were not feasible if the exact replica of the spoken dialect were adopted for the purpose. He therefore adopted a via-media course by judiciously blending the forms of the spoken dialect with those of the literary forms of the verse-translations of the epics and Purānas. In such a light, the complaint of certain scholars that Bhattadeva's language is over-loaded with Sanskrit words seems to be unwarranted. More so when one judges the simpler narration and comparatively homelier diction in the Sri-Bhāgavata-Kathā.

“The judicious use of Sanskrit words has only invested these religious writings with dignity and grace. In syntactical structure also, his writings are disciplined by Sanskrit grammar. In his Sri-Gitā-Kathā, however, the sentences hobble at places running to complex lengths due to the piling up of clause on clause for illustrating the knotty points. In spite of these, the syntax is regular, the verb is not dropped or shifted at will, the infinitive is not split, and clauses are not thrown in in a higgledy-piggledy fashion with the utter disregard of the principles of clarity and precision.” [BK Barua]

Bhattadeva created a “sure-footed expository prose-style with an eye to grammatical perfection”.

Varied and Versatile

Bhattadeva scrupulously avoids the repetition of words or verbs even when he is called upon to express the same meaning. In the following sentences, we notice the use of different verbal forms to express the sense of blowing a conch:

suklavarna cāri hayayukta mahārathata uthi Krishna-Arjune divya samkha bāilā / Sri-Krishne pāncajanya samkha phunkilā / Arjune devadatta samkha phukilā / ananta nāma mahā samkhaka Yudhisthire vādya karilā / Nakule sughosa nāme samkha bāilā / Sahadeve manipuspaka vāni karilā / paudarka nāme mahā samkha Bhime sabada karilā/

Similarly, to express the sense of the verb 'to desire' he uses 3 different verbal forms in the same sentence as follows:

yuddhata svajana vadhe kichu phala nedekho, vijayako ākāmsā nakaro, rājyaka icchā nāi, sukhako navāncho/

A Trendsetter

The way paved by Bhattadeva for the use of prose was followed by a host of religious writers of the 17th and the 18th centuries. Bhattadeva set the ball rolling by boldly adopting prose as the medium of his literary works in the 16th century itself. Since then, prose became one of the principal vehicles of expression of the early Assamese writers. From the advent of Bhattadeva till the British occupation, we notice the emergence and use of 3 distinct styles of prose in early Assamese literature. These were the prose of the religious texts, the prose of the hagiographies of the Vaisnavite saints (caritas) and the political chronicles known as the 'buranjis'.

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