Personalities of the Sankaradeva Movement: Dāmodaradeva

Dāmodaradeva (1488-1598) was a direct disciple of Sankaradeva and one of the most important leaders of the Neo-Vaisnavite Movement in Assam. He played a key role in the Sankaradeva Movement with his great organizing capacity and religious zeal. Dāmodaradeva’s contribution towards Satra-organization is immense and a host of future leaders and scholars of the Movement such as Vaikunthanātha Bhattadeva (the celebrated author of the prose works on the Bhāgavata and the Gitā and the inaugurator of Assamese prose literature), Vamsigopāladeva and Gopālacarana were groomed by him.The influence of the Brahma-Samhati, the sub-sect of Assam Vaisnavism tracing its foundation to Dāmodaradeva, is deep and far-reaching in Eastern Assam, particularly in the Mājuli area.

Early Life

Dāmodaradeva was born in a village Nalacā, just near Sankaradeva’s native place, Bardowā. Dāmodara was the third and the youngest son of Sadānanda, a Brahmin friend of Sankaradeva, who migrated from a village near Hājo to Bardowā where he lived in close friendship with the family of Sankaradeva. When the Koch invasion of Eastern Assam (1546) took place, Dāmodara came to Hājo again with his brothers and thence after a few years to Barpetā. This happened after Sankaradeva had moved from Dhuwāhāt (Mājuli) to Barpeta in c.1546. Dāmodara left the Āhom territories and settled, after some wandering, at Pātbāusi very close to Sankaradeva’s Satra. His elder brothers had passed away earlier at Hājo leaving two children who were maintained by Dāmodara.

The Meeting with Sankaradeva

Here in Pātbāusi, the religious life of Dāmodara began. It has unanimously been admitted by the earlier biographers of Dāmodaradeva that he was inspired and influenced by the great reformer. Nilakantha’s Dāmodara-carita and Rāmarāya’s Gurulilā asserts that it was from Sankaradeva that he first received the impetus for adopting the life of a preacher. Dāmodara was attracted towards Sankaradeva’s bhakti Movement with its musical charm, and he was soon found joining the Vaisnava Order.

Initiation from Sankaradeva

The caritas or the biographies of Sankaradeva unanimously assert that Dāmodaradeva was an agriculturist who, on his way to the field, used to listen to the religious discourses of Sankaradeva. The latter taking note of it one day advised him to devote himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of religion giving up his agricultural avocation. Dāmodara, accordingly, became a disciple of Sankaradeva, who after duly ordaining the former, requested him to propagate the path of devotion amongst the Brahmins. According to some accounts, Sankaradeva, before starting on his second pilgrimage, asked Dāmodaradeva to manage the Satra ceremonials and to initiate persons, especially Brahmins, to the faith. It is possibly after Sankaradeva’s return that Dāmodaradeva started a Satra on his own. A great number of people seems to have been now converted by Dāmodaradeva.

The Breach with Madhavadeva

After the Passing of Sankaradeva, a rift developed between Dāmodaradeva and Madhavadeva (who had been nominated as the head of the Order by Sankaradeva). When the annual Ascension of the Guru was to be celebrated, Dāmodaradeva had not attended the general congregation. Madhavadeva asked him to explain why he had harbored excommunicated people, and Dāmodaradeva denied any obligation on his part in this regard, and at the heat of the moment, even denied the authority of Sankaradeva’s Bhakti-Ratnākara. This was too much for Madhavadeva to bear, and he declared a division between himself and Dāmodaradeva. A schism was thus admitted into the Order.

Dāmodaradeva’s Missionary Work

In the post-Sankaradeva period, Dāmodaradeva carried on the work of proselytizing with undiminished zeal. He also sent out deputies, who established Satras and received neophytes. Vamsigopāladeva was deputed by both Dāmodaradeva and Madhavadeva on the most challenging mission of propagating Vaisnavism in the Āhom kingdom (Eastern Assam). This was possibly in the pre-schism period.

Royal Persecution and Departure from Kāmarupa

The growing popularity and influence of Dāmodaradeva at Pātbāusi (near Barpetā) alarmed the exponents of the Sākta cult who poured allegations into the ears of the Kāmarupa king, Pariksitanārāyana. Dāmodaradeva was accused by his opponents of preaching against the established religion of the state, and of unorthodox religious observances. The king at once sent for him and asked him whether he would worship the goddess Durgā and give up the unorthodox religious practices. On receiving a bold negative reply from Dāmodaradeva, the king ordered him to leave Kāmarupa immediately.

The Last Years in Koch Behār

Accordingly, in 1591, Dāmodaradeva crossed over to Koch Behār where Laksminārāyana was on the throne. With the kind and enthusiastic patronage of this ruler, Dāmodaradeva made a Satra within the capital, and named it Vaikunthapur. Here he lived for about seven years, while his most famous disciple, Vaikunthanātha (better known as Bhattadeva) was made the Adhikār or Head of the original Satra at Pātbāusi.

Placing his religious-order on a sound footing thus, Dāmodaradeva passed away at the Vaikunthapur Satra in Vaisākha, 1520 Saka/1598 AD.

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