Personalities of the Sankaradeva Movement: Gopāladeva

Gopāladeva (1541-1611), better known as Bhawānipuriyā Gopāla Ātā (Gopāla Ātā of Bhawānipur), was one of the principal disciples of Madhavadeva and the founder of the Kāla-Samhati branch of Assam Vaisnavism. A section of the Vaisnavas acclaim him as the successor of Madhavadeva to the pontifical office.

The Thana of Gopaladeva at Old Bhawanipur
The thāna of Gopaladeva at Old Bhawanipur. Photo: Nataraj Das.

Early Life

Gopāla was born in 1541 AD (1463 Saka) at Nāzirā-hāt in the vicinity of the Āhom capital Gadgāo. His father Kāmeswara Bhuyān died about the time of his birth. Gopāla was brought up by his mother Vajrāngi, under great hardship. The Kathā Guru Carita, however, holds that Gopāla was born in the Kalitā Rājya lying to the north of Sadiyā up the Brahmaputra, and that Vajrāngi walked all alone from this rājya to Gadgāo on account of a family quarrel after her husband’s death.

When Gopāla was about eleven years old, Vajrāngi left the Āhom capital with her boy, possibly due to a state of war then obtaining, and settled at Bhawānipur in the modern Kāmarupa district. Here Gopāla had his education, grew up to be a sturdy youth and married. With his maternal uncle, Manpur and Manpur’s father, who lived at Pātbāusi, he sometimes used to go and see Sankaradeva.

But before he could make up his mind to offer himself as a neophyte, the Saint Departed. He then awaited a chance to have a proper introduction to Madhavadeva. He had also developed a slight inclination towards Bengal Vaisnavism having been in touch with a proselytizer of the Bengal school of Vaisnavism. Luckily enough, Madhavadeva himself had to approach young Gopāla and request him to sink a well at Pātbāusi for the wife of the Guru (Sankaradeva).

Initiation from Madhavadeva

Soon after this, Madhavadeva left his Satra and lived for six months at Hājo and for six months with Gopāla. During this time, Gopāla obtained the formal ordination. He moved to Madhava’s Satra, stayed there for some time and later re-moved to his own lands at Bhawānipur.

He had two sons, Dāmodara and Kamalalocana and a daughter, Padmapriyā. Padmapriyā Āi is credited with the authorship of some fine devotional lyrics.

Sometime after Madhavadeva’s Departure, Gopāla made a Satra at Kāljār on the western bank of the small river, Porolā. He accepted many proselytes at both Bhawānipur and Kāljār.

The 12 apostles of Gopāla Ātā

Gopāla Ātā is said to have appointed 12 apostles from among his chief disciples:

Name of ApostleName of Satra(s) originating from Apostle
1. Yadumani, the senior Bāhbari, Dihing or Silikhātal, Namāti, Lengdi, Sarmarā, Dhal, Telpāni Satras
2. Yadumani, the junior Gajalā or Saukājān, Āmtalā, Cirāatiyā Satras
3. Aniruddha Māyāmarā Satra
4. Nārāyana Dahghar, Hāladhiāti, Cakalā, Kathālkuci Satras
5. Sanātana Nagariyā or Naghariyā Satra
6. Krishnānanda No Satra
7. Srirāma Āhatguri, Karatipār Satras
8. Murāri Carāibāhi Satra
9. Rāmacandra Khaurāmocar Satra
10. Purusottama Kāthpār Satra
11. Samnyāsi Rāma Ikarājān Satra
12. Bar-guru (senior Brāhmana) Krishna No Satra

Some writers, however, seek to include the following names:

1. Paramānanda Hābung Satra
2. Purnānanda Ujaniyā Satra
3. Sanātana Daloir-Po Satra
4. Saru-guru (junior Brāhmana) Krishna No Satra

Gopāla Ātā’s only surviving son, Kamalalocana, was not assigned any Satra as Gopāla Ātā’s own Satra was also left in charge of Srirāma Ātā. The five sons of Kamalalocana, however, established five new institutions of their own at Daukā-cāpari, Āmguri, Kalākatā Dhopābar, Nācanipār and Hemārbari.

The ‘Ocean of Stories’

Gopāla Ātā was very much adept in illustrating the abstract teachings and precepts with appropriate stories and parables for which he was known as kathāra sāgara (ocean of stories). His advice was eagerly sought not only by his colleagues but even by his Guru as well. Padma Ātā (Badalā Ātā), who had his initiation from Madhavadeva during the last days of the life of the latter, was advised to meet Gopāla Ātā on his way back to Eastern Assam, for Gopāla Ātā was considered as competent as Madhavadeva to teach religious matters. After Madhavadeva, Gopāla Ātā’s help was eagerly sought by the Assam Vaisnavas whenever a decision could not be arrived at. His biography mentions several incidents where we find Gopāla Ātā, by his tactful handling of situation, maintaining unity and concord amongst the Vaisnavas. He was also a strict disciplinarian and did not tolerate any laxity on the part of his disciples.

Gopāla Ātā established a permanent Satra at Kāljār, a place situated at a few miles distance from Bhawānipur where he passed away in 1611 AD at the age of seventy. His eldest son died in his lifetime, and the younger ones were minor at the time of his Departure. The Satra at Kāljār, after his passing being abandoned, was run for a few years by Srirāma Ātā, but later on he moved to Eastern Assam abandoning the Satra. After a period of temporary eclipse, the Satra was again revived by Srirāma Ātā and his descendants continued to run the Satra.

The most important contribution of Gopāla Ātā is that, in the post-Sankaradeva-Madhavadeva period, he brought to the forefront the doctrine of Guruvāda. The Guru in his sub-sect occupies the same exalted position as that of Sikhism.

The 12 Ācāryas nominated by Gopāla Ātā to act as religious heads, propagated the faith in different directions. The notable branches of the Kāla-Samhati (the sub-sect of Gopāla Ātā) which greatly contributed to the development of this sub-sect, are:

The first two branches deserve special consideration for their historical importance.

Gopāla Ātā’s Contribution

The contribution of Gopāla Ātā and his followers to the literature and culture of Assam is considerable. He wrote two religious dramas in the manner of Sankaradeva. His first play Janma Yātrā, with its sequel Nandotsava, is widely popular and is invariably performed all over the state on the occasion of Janmāstami, the birthday of Lord Krishna. A song by Sankaradeva was inserted into the play with the permission of Madhavadeva Who witnessed the inaugural performance and was deeply moved. This play, though modeled on the works of his predecessors, deviates from his models a little; the conventional laudatory ode at the beginning is omitted, perhaps following Madhavadeva’s example in some of his pieces. It also differs from the Bhāgavata, though the difference is not striking.

Gopāla Ātā’s second drama Gopi-Uddhava Samvāda is based on the Bhāgavata (X, 46-47). The dramatist has, however, put something of his own also into it. The piece represents Uddhava carrying the message of Krishna to Nanda, Yasodā and the Gopis of Gokula who suffered intense agony at their separation from their beloved Krishna. The deep sorrow of the residents of Gokula and the consolation offered by Uddhava are the ingredients of the play. Gopāla Ātā introduces to it some exquisite lyrics of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva for added sanctity associated with the two Masters.

Gopāla Ātā has left also a few devotional lyrics following his great predecessors. The prevailing sentiments are those of devotion to Guru Sankaradeva and importance of sarana coupled with nāma-dharma. The divine beauty of the boyhood of Krishna comes in as the subject-matter of a few songs. The influence of his Gurus can be easily seen in his sacred compositions. His daughter is also credited with the authorship of a couple of such lyrics. Gopāl Ātā’s followers have also left quite a large number of devotional songs which carried the tradition of the early Vaisnava poets with creditable competence. Some of them following the Ātā introduced rāgas like natanārāyana, bhairavi, multan, rāmkali, etc. in their repertoire.

Gopāla Ātā’s own contribution and his influence on his followers did much to augment Assamese religious literature of the medieval period.

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