Tuesday, 18 September 2012

NATIONAL SEMINAR on 'The Mahabharata and the Indian Society'

Dr. Ravi Khangai:   ...

call for the papers on the national seminar on 'The Mahabharata and the Indian Society'

A national seminar on the topic 'The Mahabharata and the Indian Society' will be organised at Ambedkar college, Fatikroy, Disty- Unakoti, Tripura, India-799290. the detail concept note is published on the same blog.
Sub themes-

A character analysis of any character of the Mahabharata
A case study of literary recreation inspired by the Mahabharata
A different perspective of the Bhagavad Gita.-
Different philosophical concepts of the Mahabharata
Culture of any of the tribes of the Mahabharata
Women in the Mahabharata
Marginalized people in the Mahabharata
Society as depicted in the epic
The sub themes are only indicative and any area related to the epic can be explored

Tentative date-5-6  Feb 2013
Last Date of submission of abstract- 31 Dec 2012.
Contact Person- Dr. Ravi Khangai
                              Assistant Professor
                          Ambedkar College, Fatikroy
                          Dist-Unakoti, Tripura-799290

Email- ravikhangai@rediffmail.com
contact no- 9402168854, 9862799912.

SUNDAY, 22 JULY 2012

CONCEPT NOTE FOR THE SEMINAR ‘The Mahabharata and Indian Society’

Seminar proposed on,
‘The Mahabharata and Indian Society’
Objectives of selecting the topic-
‘What is there can be found anywhere else, but what is not there cannot be found elsewhere’ claims the Mahabharata. No wonder that the great Indian Epic is a reservoir of the information about the Indian society.  The Mahabharata, sometimes referred as a literary monster, is seven times larger than the Odyssey and Iliad, the two Greek epics combined together. Earlier known as Jaya with eight thousand verses, it was enlarged to be Bharata with twenty four thousand verses and finally emerged as The Mahabharata with nearly one lakh verses. It not only  gives the glimpses of the past, but the present can also be better understood in the light of  the epic, as it continues to be a source of inspiration and guidance to the Indian society.
The complexity of the epic is overwhelming. It encompasses the different perspective of life. InBhagavad Gita, which is a part of the epic, we see the attempts on the part of the authors/interpolators of the Mahabharata to achieve synthesis among the different philosophical tradition. The narrations in the Mahabharata also give us an insight into the socio-cultural life of the different tribes like Yadavas, Kauravas, Rakashasas, Nagas, Kiratas and the Nishadas.
Though the so called Aryan socio-cultural life dominates the space in the epics, but we still get the glimpses of the people, who are being perceived as ‘others’ by the self proclaimed     upholders of the Aryan tradition.  When the so called Aryan culture was sweeping across the length and breadth of India, there were many who were living on the fringe of the Aryan civilization and culture. We find glimpses of their life and culture in the pages of the Mahabharata. These people like Rakashas, Nagas and  Nishadas are often demonized and treated as ‘others’. Their women are also being portrayed in a different light. They are very often portrayed as being sexually aggressive, in contrast to Aryan women like Kunti or Drauadi, who are being portrayed as sexually passive.
Through the narration of the epic we can also identify the attempts on the part of the composers/interpolators of the Mahabharata, to culturally unify the whole of India. On the one side we have people from Gandhara, suppose to be present day Kandhahar in Afghanistan and on the other side people from Manipur also find place in the Mahabharata. Though the historicity of the events narrated in the Mahabharata is difficult to verify, it indicates that these places did exist in the imagination of the authors/interpolators of the Mahabharata.
The proposed seminar aims at bringing out the different unexplored areas from this literary monster. It also aims at brining the scholars together from across the country to discuss the Mahabharata. As the poet says,
‘The generations had sung it and the coming generations will continue to sing it’
The Mahabharata had inspired creativity in many Indian languages since ancient time to modern period. Taking episode and characters from the Mahabharata, Kalidasa immortalized the romance of king Dushyant and Shakuntala in his drama Dushyant-Shankuntalam.
In the modern period also writers in various Indian languages had taken episodes and characters from the Mahabharata and recreated them.
In Bengali Bakimchandra recreated Krishna in his Krishnacharita. Budhadev Bose’s‘Mahabhararter Kotha’ throws many questions about the real hero of the Mahabharta. Karna in Ravindranath’s Karna-Kunti Saamvad had mesmerized the generations.
In Marathi V.S. Khandekar through his novel ‘Yayati’ had brought out the futility of chasing happiness through sensual pleasure. Similarly Shivaji Savant had recreated Karna in a different light in his ‘Mrintunjay’. ‘Yugant’ of Iravati Karve provokes a new approach to the study of the Mahabharata.
Kannada novelist Bayrappa’s masterpiece Parva recreated the lives of the Rakashasas. In Hindi, Dinkar’s three long poems from the themes of the Mahabharata have an important place in the Hindi literature. His ‘Kukrushetra’ captures the conflict in the mind of Bhishma and ‘Rashmirathi’ projects Karna as a hero who had been wronged by the destiny. His ‘Urvashi’ brings out the sensuality in a very finer form. Arbindo recreated the epic in English as ‘Savitri’. There are so many literary recreations like that are mentioned above. A case study of any of the literary recreation can be taken.

Following sub themes can be explored in the proposed seminar-
A character analysis of any character of the Mahabharata.-Elders like Bhishma and Vidura are considered as ideals for the elders in the Indian society. Similarly the bravery of Bhima, Arjuna, Karna and Krishna continues to inspire the generations. A character analysis of any character from Mahabharata can be taken. Human beings are combinations of good and bad. Karna, who soars high pedestal of nobility while giving donation, stoops so low  as to call Draupadi a prostitute and encourages Dushasasana to disrobe her in assembly of men. Krishna though elevated to the position of incarnation of God, indulges in many ignoble acts for the sake of the victory of the Pandavas. He does not hesitate in using innocent Ghatotkacha as a cannon fodder to save the life of Arjuna. The papers analyzing different personalities can bring out these conflicting trends in the human personalities.
A case study of literary recreation inspired by the Mahabharata.- Themes and characters from the Mahabharata had been restructured/recreated by many writers/poets of fertile imagination. The literary recreations are sometimes faithful to the original text, but many times the author creates larger than life image of his/her favorite characters. Karna in Shivaji Sawant’s Marathi novel ‘Mritunjaya’ towers above many other heroes. The black spot on his characters like his deliberate insult of Draupadi is deliberately camouflaged.
     Dinkar’s Hindi poem ‘Kurukshetra’ highlights the futility of Bhishma’s noble life, when he says, ‘I loved the Pandavas and fought for the Kauravas, what I could achieve by this divided loyalty’. His ‘Rashmirathi’ portrays the struggle of Karna and gives a message that with tenacity and determination a person can mould his destiny. 
A different perspective of the Bhagavad Gita.- Being of synergic character, Bhagavad Gita can be interpreted differently. It is believed to be an essence of the Upanishads. It had been commented upon by galaxy of scholars from Sankaracharya to Sarvpalli Radhakrishnan. Any interpretation or a comparative perspective on the Bhagavad Gita can be explored. Though it is the Bhagavad Gita which takes away the attention of the many scholars interested in the Indian Philosophy, but the Mahabharata have some other Gitas like Ashtvakra Gita,Anu GitaParashar Gita and not to mention Kam Gita, the song of desire. Any of them can be analyzed.
Different philosophical concepts of the Mahabharata. - The concepts like Dharma,Anrishansa (not being violent), Swananda (Happiness within) can be explored.
Culture of any of the tribes of the Mahabharata.- The Mahabharata mentions different tribes like Asuras, Rakashas, Nagas, Kiratas, Panchals and Nishadas. Attempts can be made to decipher their society and culture.
Women in the Mahabharata- ‘Our’ women like Draupadi and ‘Other’ women like Hidimba are being portrayed in a different light.  The patriarchal influence is obvious in Draupadi’s attitude. In comparison the Non-Aryan women like Ulupi and Hidimba appears to be much freer and earthly when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. The women in the patriarchal society lead almost a mechanical existence. They are to be won at the Swyamvara, put as bait at dice, possessed and protected. All attempts are made to suppress their sexuality but the ‘other’ women are allowed to have assertive carnal desire as they serve the purpose of satisfying the baser instinct of the men.
         Though Swayamvara is quoted as an evidence of women having choice while selecting their mate. But many times they hardly had any choice. Take cases of Draupadi, she was married to a person who had shown a remarkable skill in archery. It was also common to forcibly carry a women from Swaymvara after defeating the other suitors, as it was done by Bhishma, who carried away three princes of Kashi after defeating other assembled kings.
Draupadi was married off to five brothers without consulting her, she was put as a bait during gambling and publically humiliated. Just before the great war Krishna offers her to Karna as an allurement to change sides from the Kauravas to the Pandavas. In spite of a princess and queen her life was a constant humiliation.
Marginalized people in the Mahabharata.- Among many other the Nishadas appear to be one of the most marginalized people. A Nishada woman and her five sons were burnt to death to save the lives of the Pandavas and their mother Kunti. However the most striking Nishadathat captures our attention is Eklavya. He was probably the greatest archer of his time and had potential to excel Arjuna, the Aryan hero. But the dominating Aryans (the BrahminDronacharya and Kshatriya Arjuna) conspired and neutralized the challenge by asking Eklavya to donate the thumb of his right hand. The episode is indicative of the fact that how the dominating group uses everything including the sacred Guru-Sikshya relation to keep the ‘other’ people subdued. Eklayva’s capacity as a warrior  was reduced due to giving away of thumb and later the Mahabharta does not say much about him, except that during the greatMahabharata war, Krishna revels that he had killed Eklavya to avoid any possibility of him joining  the hands with Kaurava. The contempt that is obvious in the behavior of the major Aryan characters towards Eklavya is indicative that the life and emotions of those who are considered as ‘others’ is considered as less important.
Society as depicted in the epic. - Any other social issues like Casts, Varnasnakara (mixing of caste), sexual relations, Niyoga (levirate) can be explored.
       The sub themes are only indicative and any area related to the epic can be explored.

Grounds of selecting the theme-
When we try to peep in the remote past we find that the resources are neither adequate nor reliable. Facts and fiction seems to be getting mixed up. Though the Mahabharata is  referred as Itihasa i.e. History, needless to say that all that is written in the Mahabharata cannot be taken as historical account but yet as a popular literature it is a mirror of the Indian society. To separate the fact and fiction a careful deciphering is required. Though certain areas like concept of Dharma and position of women had attracted the attention of the researchers, yet there are many areas which remain unexplored.
History represents perception of the victorious. With the main stage set in the Aryavarta (North Indian plains), the main focus of the epic is on the life of the Aryans and their culture, who subjugated the pre-Aryan indigenous people. Yet, we find glimpses about the people who remained outside or on the periphery of the Aryan civilization and culture. They are usually regarded as ‘Others’ and demonized. The ‘Others’ are usually termed as Rakashasas, Danavas, Asuras, Nagas and Kiratas. History and culture of these ‘Other’ people are waiting to be deciphered.
Kurus, the Aryan ruling house at Hastinapur came in contact with these ‘others’ in a different manner. They got into conflict with the Nagas for the possession of land which led to mass killing of the Nagas. Sometimes a natural desire of a man and women to unite also brought them together, like union of Arjuna and Naga princess Ulupi.
 The case of Ulupi, the Naga princess is an interesting case study of the attitude of the dominating race towards the women from the margins. Arjuna had relation with her and then dumped her. Only her son was used as a cannon fodder to fight for the Pandavas.
The names of the Nagas that we find in the Mahabharata are  similar to the names of the Aryan people like Virochana, Sakuni, Sushena, Parasara and Aruni. This indicates long association with the Aryan people and process of acculturation. It also raises doubt if theNagas were a branch of the Aryan people who came to India before the Vedic Aryan and developed a civilization. The Aryans who came subsequently distinguished themselves from them and called the earlier group Nagas, may be because they were snake worshippers. TheMahabharata repeatedly refers to friendship between Naga chief Takshaka and Aryan God Indra.  Some of the Nagas are also mentioned as worshipping the God Brahma.
The sequence of the migrants coming to India, building a civilization, reaching a high stage of affluence and then being replaced by the later migrants is very often repeated in the Indian history. Though contentious, history gives ample evidence that the Indian soil and climate snaps the vigor of men and makes them indolent. This makes them vulnerable from the more enterprising migrants from the hilly regions from the North-West. The migrants Aryans replaced the Pre-Aryan Indian settlers, Later during Medieval period they were replaced by Turks and Afghans, Turks and Afghans were also replaced by the Mughal after few centuries. 
The Mahabharata describes the cities of the Nagas. The description suits a city of very highly civilized and affluent people. The name of the city of the Nagas was Bhogvati which literary means city of pleasure. This indicates that probably the Nagas lived a luxurious life. Bhogmeans pleasure and it is used generally to indicate sensual pleasure. Does it indicate that theNagas were overindulgent as usually happens with the people who lives on accumulated wealth? Probably this had weakened them and they were defeated by the Aryans. History gives many evidences, when people build high civilization and then overindulgence leads to their decay.      The description indicates that probably the Nagas had an extensive kingdom around the river Ganga. The Nagas are also described as shining in the Sun. So probably the Nagaswere fair skinned people and so their assimilation in the Aryan society was relatively easy than other dark-skinned non-Aryan people.
Adi Parva describes the episode of the burning of Khandava forest. The forest is mentioned as abode of Naga Takshaka and his family.  Arjuna and Krishna set the forest on fire and killed the animals who tried to escape from it. The description indicates that it was not only the animals that were killed during this, but there were many human beings as well. Takshaka, who is described as the chief of the Nagas, was not there at the time of the burning of the forest but went to Kurushetra. His son Aswasena escaped from the slaughter, but his mother was killed. Was Arjuna so cruel and inhuman as not to spare even women who were running away! And surprisingly one of his name was  ‘Vibtsu’ i.e. someone who does not indulge in a ghastly act!
      There was some other Non-Aryan tribes in the forest apart from the Nagas. The description also gives some information about fighting machinery used by them.
Mentioning of Asuras, Gandharvas, Yakshas, Rakshasas and Nagas together indicates that all these forest dwellers joined hands together against Krishna and Arjuna, who wanted to encroach on their land. The description also indicates that these forest dwellers were familiar with the use of some war machine that threw iron balls and stones.
     The episode represents traditional conflict between forest dwellers and people who wanted to reclaim land for agriculture or for dwelling places. The forest was burnt, the inhabitants who resisted the burning were killed and the city of Indraprastha was built by the Pandavas with the help of Asura Maya, who was spared during the burning of the Khandava forest. The affiliationAsura indicates that he was a Non-Aryan mansion. However how the Nagas, who are described as dwellers of the splendid cities, landed in the forest? There are many contradictions in The Mahabharata, which makes the construction of the history form theMahabharata difficult. It is quite probable that they were driven away in the forest.  
    By forging matrimonial alliances with the Aryans the defeated Nagas probably tried to save their kingdoms and lives. The examples of matrimonial alliances between the Aryans and theNagas are numerous. A cursory look at the Indian history will prove that the defeated people tried to save themselves and their kingdoms by forming matrimonial alliances with the victorious, like some of the Rajput rulers have done during medieval India. They formed matrimonial alliances with the Mughals, which not only ensured survival of their kingdoms but brought some political gains. However in these kinds of alliances, it is daughters and sisters of the conquered people that were given in marriages to the victorious people and not other way round. So we see patriarchy working here as well! The matrimonial alliances between the Aryans and the Nagas also follows similar pattern. It is usually Aryan male and Naga female and not vice versa.
 A son, Iravat was born out of the union between Arjuna and Ulupi. As Arjuna do not take any responsibility for the son it was necessary to portray Ulupi in a bad light so that it was she who could be held responsible for the consequences of the union. No wonder that it was she alone who takes the responsibility of looking after the son, as Arjuna leaves both mother and son in the abode of the Nagas.
Ulupi was not brought to the Pandavas capital, Indraprasatha immediately after the marriage, but Subhadra, Krishna’s sister whom Arjuna married after his romantic encounter with Ulupi was brought to the Panadava capital immediately. Arjuna will not dare to abandon Subhadra as he had done to Ulupi. Subhadra had a backing of her powerful brothers, Krishna and Balarama and she was from the respectable royal family!
 Arjuna also did not feel any necessity to bring his son begotten on the Naga princess to Indraprastha. Only he was called to fight in the Great war to be used as a cannon fodder. Another son of the Pandavas begotten on Non-Aryan women and only used as a cannon fodder was Ghatotkacha, the mighty son of Bhima and Rakashsi Hidimba.
Portrayal of ‘Other’ women like Ulupi and Hidimba as  seductress also served one more purpose. It highlighted the so called ‘virtues’ of the Aryan women. In the Mahabharata we find attempts of desexualizing the Aryan women.     In contrast to sexually assertive Ulupi, the Aryan women like Draupadi is being portrayed as docile and passive in their interaction with men.
The epical attitude is not a thing of the past, but similar attitude continues to shape our behavior even today, one has to just remind ourselves about the treatment given to the girls from the North East by the ‘civilized’ citizens of the national capital. The ‘Other’ women are perceived as easy target and readily available.
Chitarangada and Ulupi, both non-Aryan wives of Arjuna were brought to Hastinapur after the Great War. This indicates that probably Naga and Manipuri wives of the Aryans began to be accepted in the Aryan society. The acceptance is also indicative of the gradual assimilation of the Non-Aryan tribes in the Aryan fold. However it may be mentioned here that the Rakshasi wife of Bhima, Hidimba was not remembered neither was she brought to Hastinapur. It indicates the traditional discrimination against the dark complexioned people. A fair skinned Naga and Manipuri wives of the Aryan princes can be accepted, but not a dark-skinned Rakashasi!
The Mahabharata, being a very complex narrative baffles the researchers. As mentioned in the Adi Parva, the first book of the Mahabharata (out of total eighteen), Ulupi, the Naga damsel had her romantic encounter with Arjuna at Haridwar, which is in modern day Uttarakhand . But later on during the Ashwamedha Parva, which is the fourteenth book of the Mahabharata, she surfaces at Manipur. How did she reach such a long distance? Is the Manipur mentioned in the Mahabharata is same as today’s Manipur? These are the questions which are waiting for the answers. Though nothing can be said assertively now, but probably associating present day Manipur with the Mahabharata was an attempt of Arynazation of the region and culturally unite India. In the Mahabharata we find the attempt of unifying west and east India. Some People of Himachal and people of Kachar in Assam both claim that Hidimba, the Rakashasi princess who cohabited with the Pandava prince Bhima was from this region. One of the easy way of associating with the epic and subsequently with the Sanskritic-Aryan culture is to create a myth about marriage between a local girl and a Pandava hero or claim one of the wives of the Pandava belonged to the region. This kind of myth created identity for the tribals who were slowly assimilating in the wave of the Aryanization. The Mahabharata played an important role in the process of nation building. People from Himachal to Assam can identify themselves with the Mahabharata.  Ulupi reaching present day Manipur from far of places like Haridwar during those days is less likely.
 The personality of the Non-Aryan characters like Eklavya and Hidimba and Half-Aryan character like Ghatotkacha, Iravat and Vabhruvahana(Son of Arjuna and Manipuri princess Chitarangada) still remains unexplored. As the recent trend is towards subaltern history, the characters mentioned above seems to be shouting for attention and bubbling to tear the veil of the time and lurch forward to become live through the pens (or computers) of the researchers and writers.
 One of the natural way of acculturation is marriage or co-habitation between the males and females of different cultural traditions. There are many incidents of this kind of alliances in the Mahabharata. The alliance between Arjuna and Ulupi is mentioned above. One more  interesting of this is an alliance between Bhima, the Pandava prince and Hidimba, the Rakshashi princess.
 The treatment given to Hindimba and her son  Ghatotkacha gives an indication of the way the pre-Aryan marginalized people were treated and used by the clever Aryans to serve their purpose. It also gives an indication of racial arrogance of the Braminical Aryan society.
The Aryans were so hypocritically obsessed with the idea of racial superiority and in that also purity of the Brahminical caste that ‘Varnasankara’ i.e. mixture of   ‘Varna’ (caste) was looked upon as a very heinous crime. Bhagavad Gita says,
     “The mixture of castes in the family only leads its destroyer to hell; their ancestor falls (from Heaven), for they are deprived of the offerings of funeral cakes and drink.” ( The Bhagavad Gita, Ch I)
 Many restrictions were laid down on the union between man and women. But how artificial restrictions can control the natural desire of man and women to unite? So the ‘Varnasankara’was taking place all the time not only within the ‘Chaturvarna’ of the Aryan society but also with those who were outside the fold of the Aryan system of Chaturvarna. So those who considered themselves as regulators of the society (Brahmins and Kshatriyas) were always riddled with this problem of the children born out of the union between different ‘Varnas’ and with the people outside the ‘Varna’ system.     
 The Aryan and the ruling elite among them i.e. the Brahamana and the Khatiryas were obsessed with maintaining racial purity and in that also the purity of the upper Varnas. Many restrictions were laid down on the sexual union between the men and the women. But the conflict between instinct and the superimposed social norms is eternal. In spite of many restriction the union between men and women of different caste as well with those who were outside the pale of caste system were taking place like the union between Bhima and Hidimba. The cunning Brahminical mind also found out the ways of using the offspring born out of the so called undesirable union for their own benefit. In the Anushasan Parva (Section XLVII, XLVIII and XLIX), Bhisma gives a long discourse about how the children born out of the union of the different caste to be treated. His following utterance gives an indication of the attitude of the higher caste towards the lower caste,
      “The son that is begotten by a Brahmin upon a Sudra wife is called Parasara, implying one born of cropse, for the Sudra women’s body is as inauspicious as a corpse. He should serve the person of his father’s race.---------. Adopting all means in his power, he should uphold the burden of his family. Even if he happens to be elder in age, he should still dutifully serve the other children of his father who may be younger to him in years”
     If this is an attitude towards the lower caste wife, what to say about the women who is outside the spell of Chaturvarna.  The children born to the lower caste wife of the higher caste man is denied any share in the property of the father.
       “It is through compassion that something is given to the son of Sudra wife (of a Brahmin)”(Anusasana Parva Section XLVII)
      No wonder that the same attitude is shown by the Pandavas towards Ghatotkacha. He was only used and denied the rights of the Son.
     At the time when the Mahabharata was written and many plots and subplots were added to it, many alliances across the castes were taking place. Many children born out of these alliances had already earned the place of respect in the society by their talent and hard work and also earned their place in the epic. Vyasa and Vidura both were born out ofVarnasankara. Probably when the epic was at its initial stage of development, the society was not   as phobic about ‘Varnasankara’ as they became later.  Satyavati was a daughter of a fisherman. She was dark-skinned and even referred as Kali. Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur married her and she became his queen. The children born out of this union Chitrangad and Vichitrvirya were accepted as princess.
Birth of Kripacharya and his sister Kripi and Dronacharya throws many questions. They are  narrated as being born without mother. This cannot be true, a child cannot be born without a womb of a mother. Probably these three people i.e. Drona, Kripacharya and Kripi were born out of the union between Brahmin sage and a forest aborigine woman. To hide the identity of their mother the story of their birth was mythologized. Dronacharya marrying Kripi also strengthen this hypothesis, as they found it suitable to get married as their mothers were non-Brahmins. Had the children being born to a Brahmin women, there would have been no need to hide the identity of mother. In Indian mythology, there were certain instances of children born without mother to the sages who were staying in the forest for study or doing penance. It is most likely that unable to control their carnal desires these sages had relation with the forest women and had children from them. But ashamed of their deeds, they contrived a story and propagated a theory that these children were born without mother or to celestial nymph who abandoned them.
 The Mahabharata have a profound influence on the Indian society, but it is not a very popular area of research in the academics. This signifies the dichotomy between the so called masses and the elites. The proposed seminar is a humble attempt of filling the gap.

- Dr. Ravi Khangai, Asst. Prof. (History), Ambedkar College, Fatikroy, Unokoti, Tripura.
Email- ravikhangai@gmail.com, M-9402168854, 9862799912.


Neo-Viashnavism and Social harmony in Assam.

 Neo-Viashnavism and Social harmony in Assam.

Points covered-
1.      Concept of Bhakti
2.      Medieval Bhakti Movement.
3.      Sankardeva and Neo Viashnavism in Assam.
4.      Practices of Neo-Viashnavism.
5.      Neo-Vaishnavism and unification of different races.
6.      Neo-Vaishnavism and Caste system.
7.      Neo-Vaishnavism and Women.
8.      Limitations of the Neo-Viashnavism.
9.      How far the message of Sankardeva is relevant today?

         Bhakti, i.e. devotion to God is inherent in the growth of every religion, though we may call it by different names, like Sufis in Islam calls it ‘Tassawuf’.  When human mind fails to solve the intricacies of life, we turn to God, either to help us in our mundane affairs or to find solace.
        Like any other religion, the feeling of devotion is prevalent in Indian religious tradition since antiquity. But ‘Bhakti’ or devotion as a means of salvation had assumed special significance in the medieval period of the Indian History. It had brought many changes in the socio-religious life of the Indian people and so it is termed as ‘Bhakti Movement’.
        When we use the term ‘Bhakti’ movement in general, we should be also conscious that it was neither a homogeneous nor unified movement having same philosophy and practices all over the country, but there were many variations in it and, even at a time contradictions. Yet, by and large they had contributed towards reducing the discrimination purported towards the lower caste, improved the position of women and encouraged literary and creative activities.
          The ‘Bhakti’ movement had engulfed almost whole of India during the medieval period and also reached Assam with Sankardeva in the 15th century. It gradually gathered the strength and became an important factor in the socio-cultural changes in Assam. Main focus of the Bhakti was religion, but one aspect of human life has a spill-over effect on the other aspect, so we cannot entirely separate religious and social life. By trying to create relatively harmonious individuals, the Bhakti saints had contributed towards creating a relatively harmonious society. Having a perfectly harmonious society is probably a utopian dream. But after all it is a dreamer who dares to challenge the stereotype and initiate reforms. Without the dream of Martin Luther King, the condition of the Blacks probably would have not been as good as it is today and without Mahatma Gandhi, there would have been more bloodshed in the world. Bhakti saints were also such dreamer-visionary, who profoundly influenced the socio-religious practices of the Medieval India including Assam. This paper is an attempt of analyzing the contribution of one such dreamer-visionary, Sankardeva towards Assamese society as it stands today.
       Sankardeva and Neo-Viashnavism- Sankardeva was born in the middle of the 15thcentury and his father was a landlord called ‘Bhuyas’ and belonged to the ‘Kayastha’ caste.
      Sankardeva showed the qualities of genius since his childhood. But it was demise of his wife that made him introspective and he became more inclined towards God. It is an irony that a man turns to God when he goes through suffering in his personal life. It may be that when God selects someone to shower his bounty, he himself snatches away those things from his devotees which are likely to create attachments with the material world. Tukaram, the 17thcentury Maharashtrain saint says,
             ‘Bail meli mukt zali/deve maya sodvili’ (Marathi) 1   
{My wife had died and got liberation and God had made me also free from ‘Maya’ (illusion).} (Translation by author)
     So when material possession and the people who create bound with the world had gone we feel increasingly drawn towards God.
      Sankardeva’s first wife had died and after that he went for a long pilgrimage. According to ‘Katha Guru Carita’2, he visited important places of pilgrimage spread across the country. During his tour he was influenced by the ongoing wave of the ‘Bhakti’ movement throughout the length and breadth of the country. After coming back he started preaching worship of Narayana (Vishnu) and established ‘Satras’ (places of prayer) at different places. His disciples Madhavadeva also played an important role in the spread of Viashnavism in Assam.
      Viashnavism forms the major part of ‘Bhakti’ movement of the mediaeval period. Worship of Vishnu was prevalent in Assam earlier also, but Viashnavism that was introduced by Sankardeva brought in the wake, lot of churning in the society and affected almost all aspect of life in Assam; Social, cultural and political. So, this came to be known as Neo-Viashnavism.
Practices of Neo-Viashnavism-The rituals of Neo-Viashnavism are centered around ‘Satra’, the prayer house. The word had originated from the Sanskrit word ‘Sattra‘, which means a sacrifice lasting from a few days to a year or more.3
     ‘Satra’ is a complex, which is the centre of religious activity of Neo-Viashnavism. It consists of main prayer hall in which a religious scripture is kept. This is called ‘Kirtan Ghar’. ‘Kirtan Ghar’ does not have an idol. Only religious scripture like ‘Dasama4 of Sankardeva is kept in the ‘Kirtan Ghar’.
     There are four important scriptures of Neo-Vaishnavism.  ‘Dasama’ (a commentary on the tenth chapter of Bhagavata) and ‘Kirtana-ghosa’ of Sankardeva and ‘Nama-ghosa’ and‘Bhakti-ratnavali’ of Madhavadeva.
       Some of the ‘Satras’ are having idols, which are kept in a separate room adjutants to the ‘Kirtan Ghar’. Surrounding to this ‘Kirtan Ghar’ is row of rooms in which the people who had devoted themselves to the service of the ‘Satra’ stays. These are celibate and called ‘Kavaliya’.
       Women are allowed in the ‘Satra’ during daytime only. They are not allowed to become ‘Kavaliya’ i.e. monk.
     Sankardeva preached ‘Dasya-Bhakti’ in Assam. In ‘Dasya-Bhakti’, the relation between God and the devotee is like master and the servant.
Neo-Viashnavism and caste system- Caste system is one of the most discriminatory practices and had done a lot of harm to the Indian society. One bold act that Sankardeva had initiated was that he appointed some non-Brahmins also as head of the some of the ‘Satras’ and he did not seem to have encountered opposition to this.
      Assam, being on the border of the ‘Aryavarta’, the influence and rigidity of the caste system is relatively on the lesser side. ‘Bhakti’ saints in many other parts of the country had not shown similar courage like Sankardeva. Even many of them showered undue praise on the Brahmins, almost bordering on the servility. Bhakti saints in general had a very high opinion about the Brahmins, Tulsidasa, whose ‘Ramchritmanasa’ have a profound influence on the North India says,
            “Pujiya Bipra Shil Guna Hina,
            Shudra na Guna Gyan Pravina”  (Hindi)
                               (Ramcharitmanas, Aryankand)
(A Brahmin without character and qualities should be worshipped, but not a Shudra with all the good qualities and knowledge) (Translation by author).
    However, In the domain of religion, the Bhakti saints rejected the discrimination based on the castes, like Madhabdeva says,
“The impurest of all castes attains salvation,
With but the utterance of lord Rama’s name.”5
     This is very similar to what Ramananda preached in the North India,
Jat Pat na Puche Koi
Hari Ko Bhaje so Hari Ka Hoi” (Hindi)
(Nobody should inquire about the caste, Anyone who worship Hari, will be accepted by Hari)(Translation by author)
     However Bhakti sants did not systematically attempted to do away with the discrimination practiced in the society. This attitude of giving equality to the lower caste in Bhakti and treating them as inferior in social practices does not go down well with the rational mind. This undue importance given to the person born as a Brahmin and discrimination against the lower castes is one of the important causes of the lower castes walking away from the fold of Hinduism and embracing Buddhism, Islam and Christianity throughout the Indian history.
     With due respect to the genius of the many Bhakti saints, I feel that many of them were a half-hearted or confused reformers. They were pained at the discrimination but they could not rise above the prevailing social practices and assert equality of all. It is also difficult for the privileged section of the society to introduce the radical changes which may challenge their own privileged position. Many luminaries of the Bhakti movement like Gyneshwara and Tulsidasa were born in the Brahmin family and could not imagine a society without a regulating mechanism of ‘Chaturvarna’ system. Being themselves Brahmins, they were probably also reluctant to let the privileges go from the hands of the Brahmins. In comparison Buddha appears to be more courageous, who out rightly rejected the caste system. Similar courageous spirit we also find in Kabir. However it may be mentioned that Buddha and Kabir, both were non-Brahmins.
      Sankardeva, being born in the low caste ‘Kayastha’and working away from the centers of orthodox Brahmanism like Kashi was relatively bolder than his counterpart in other parts of the country. He did not show servility towards the Brahmins like Tulsidasa, on the other hand as already referred; he appointed non-Brahmins also as head of the Satras. But at the same time it may also be mentioned that he also did not initiate any radical reforms in the social practices of the Hindu society of Assam. That was not his basic motive. His main focus was to preach the ‘Bhakti’ of Narayana. Other things came as a complimentary. Unusual domination of the Brahmins, their superiority based on the birth continued. In ‘Satras’ higher and lower castes mingled together, but once they stepped out, the old way of life continued. This duality of practicing semblance of equality during prayer and continuation of the discrimination after it is one of the glaring lacunas in the ‘Bhakti’ movement. This is true of the Bhakti movement not only in Assam but in other parts of the country as well. Rather it was more glaring in the other parts of the country.
           The caste system had taken such a hold of Hindu psyche for centuries together that the attempts of reformers starting from Buddha to B.R. Ambedkar had made a very little dent in it. Bhakti saints in general had also refrained from any attempt of demolishing it. Yet they must be given credit that they contributed towards reducing the intensity of discrimination towards lower castes. Gyaneshwara, who, like Tulsidasa had a very high opinion about the Brahmins also, says that,
Bhakti ga ath sare, Jati aprman’  ---(Marathi)(Gyneshwari Ch.IX)
(Devotion is everything and castes are irreverent) (Translation by author.)
      Sankardeva is even bolder to say in his ‘Dasama
“A Chandala who remembers God with heart and soul is superior to a Brahmin observing religious vow”     
       It is also possible that even though the Bhakti saints wanted to eradicate the discrimination based on the birth, they were cautious that they should not make the powerful Brahmin lobby hostile. We see in case of Sankardeva, he encountered the hostility of the Brahmins and the Brahmins taking advantage of their proximity to the kings instigated the royalty and Sankardeva and his disciples had to suffer. He was compelled to leave the Ahom kingdom and seek shelter in Koc kingdom. His son-in-law was executed and Madhabdeva was imprisoned. If this was a situation in Assam, which was relatively new in the fold of Brahminism and was surrounded by the Non-Aryan,  Non-Brahminical tribes, one can imagine the influence that the Brahmins might have had in other parts of the country, where the orthodox Brahaminism had taken deeper roots. Eknatha, the 16th century Maharashtrian Sant had written a Marathi commentary on the eleventh chapter of the Bahgavata. For this crime he was censored and had to travel to Kashi to explain his position. His own son, who was a Sanskrit Pundit, also rebelled against him. While contemporizing the historical events, the prevailing situations of that time should also be kept in the mind.  
     The network of the ‘Satras’ and ‘Namghars’ spread in the Brahmaputra valley. ‘Namghar’ is a place of Worship in village similar to ‘Satra’ but on a smaller scale. The population belonging to different tribes and communities found a common place to come together and satisfy their spiritual thrust. Out of these gatherings the common identity as Vaishnavas began to develop. Religious practices are one of the important unifying factors. The attempts of neo-Vaishnavism to bring the different tribes together is obvious from the sayings of Madhavdeva,
“By uttering O Rama,
One attains salvation including
The Miris, the Ahoms and the Kacharis.”6
       The ‘Neo-Vaishanvism’ had also given freedom to the people from the tyranny of the Brahmin priest and complicated, costly rituals and also from the heinous practices of the prevailing ‘Shakta’ cult.  
.    Coming to ‘Satra’ or ‘Namghar’ and singing the praise of God Narayana became new rituals in Assam. These rituals were simpler and were accessible to everyone in comparisons to the complicated and costly rituals of the ‘Shakta’ and orthodox Brahmins.
Neo-Vaishnavism and Women- There cannot be social harmony in a society where half of the population is discriminated against. The women had been always at the receiving end in the male dominated society. Men thought about their own emancipation and looked upon women as distraction from the spiritual path. It is always easy to externalize the problem and blame someone. One who is not strong enough to protest generally becomes scapegoat. Sankardeva like many other Bhakti saints also discriminated against the women. In the ‘Neo-Viashnavism’women are not allowed to enter in the main prayer hall i.e. ‘Kirtan Ghar’. They cannot become ‘Kavaliya’ i.e. monk. Sankardeva says,
    “The dire illusions created by women-the most hideous of all illusions”7
         Bhakti Movement and Hinduism in general do not treat women equally. Probably they overemphasized the sexual aspect of women, which possibly distract the men and strengthens the bonds with this world. Religion generally tries to break us away from the world.
     In comparison to Bhakti saints, Buddha was more liberal towards women. Though he initially hesitated, but later accepted women as Buddhist ‘Bhikuni’(women monk) in the Buddhist ‘Sangha’. However this proved disastrous. Young unmarried boys and girls staying together in the ‘Sangha’ (monastery) led to moral degradation and subsequent decline of Buddhism. But purely from the humanistic perspective, barring half of the population for the sake of the other half is not justified. But probably this experiment of Buddha and tantric practices of ‘Shaktas’ involving women had contributed towards shaping this attitude of the Bhakti saints towards women. They thought it is better for the men to maintain safe distance from the women. Nevertheless, the fact remains that no alternative method like having a separate dwelling quarters for the women monks or allowing them to  enter in the ‘Kirtan Ghar’ during a specific period exclusively kept for the women was not thought about.
          However the women did come to the ‘Satras’ during day time. Allowing the women to become monk is also fraught with the danger. As monks had to travel, there was always fear of violence against the women. One can also imagine the condition nearly 500 years before, when the life was relatively unsafe. The number of women coming forward to participate in the rituals of Satra must be considerably on the lower side.
           In spite of this discrimination, Kanaklata , the grand daughter in law of Sankardeva played an important role in managing the ‘Satras’. Women in other parts of the country got avenues through the medium of the ‘Bhakti Movement’ to give vent to their creativity and satisfy their spiritual thirst. But in my reading so far, I have not come across the name of any women Bhakti poetess of Assam.      
         Neo-Vaishnavism did not advocate the life of celibacy. Shankardeva himself married twice. Though his disciple, Madhavadeva, who played an important role in the spread of Neo-Vaishnavism was a celibate. But he also did not encourage others to remain unmarried.

Limitations of Neo-Viashnavism-
     Hinduism is not based on one particular scripture and do not subscribe to any rigid ideology and practices. There are many variations. The process of assimilation of the different ideas and practices is a continuous process. This process does have advantage and disadvantages both. Advantage is that in this process of assimilation and churning whatever is best will survive with the progress of civilization. It can also satisfy the people who had diverse orientations. When we all are so different from each others, how one ideology can satisfy everybody? At the same time many times many undesirable practices gets assimilated and the degeneration sets in.
        The history of Hinduism is a very big Puzzle as it is a religion which had grown out of the churning of the centuries. It accommodates not only diverse but contradictory views as well. It was through this process of retrospection and Introspection that our philosophers reached a conclusion that,
     “Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanati
(Truth i.e. God is only one but the learned call it by the different names)
  However the Neo-Vaishnavism did not propagate these ideas, which have the potential to unite the divergent view and practices. Sankardeva’s standpoint seems to be rigid as he rejects the worship of any Gods other than Narayana. Madhavadeva, who became the head of the Neo-Vaishnavism after Sankardeva says in his ‘Nama Ghosha’, which is a collection of his devotional poetry, says,
“Those vile and foolish person who try
To compare Thee, Krsna
The crowned head of all Gods, with other Gods,
Suffer in hell”8
        Probably it was the prevailing heinous practices and superstitious of the ‘Tantrism’ and ‘Shakta’ that prevailed in Assam before the spread of Viashnavism that Sankardeva had taken extra care to keep his newly founded creed pure and away from the degraded practices. That is the reason that he gave supreme place to only one God, Narayana and looked down upon the worship of any other God. Madhavdeva even expelled one of his disciples for worshiping Kali.    
       But due to this rigidity the appeals of Neo-Viashnavism had remained confined to the plain people of Brahmaputra Valley and could not spread in the hilly areas of the North East India. The geographical factors and other racial and socio-cultural differences further resisted the attempt of unification and assimilation.
      Sankardeva did have some disciples among the tribal and there was a Muslim disciple as well. Though these examples are often quoted in support of the exercise of the nation building. The fact nevertheless remains that Neo- Viashnavism have failed to bring any fundamental changes in the socio-cultural and religious practices of the Hill people in  the North East. It remained mainly confined to the plains of Brahmaputra valley. Tribes by and large continued to practice their animism with some influence of superstitious Tantrik practices. In the plains also, the tribal and non tribal differences continued as usual. Even on the plain people also the influence appears to be very thin as obvious by the popularity of ‘Kamkhya’ the Shakta goddess and continuation of the worship of numerous other Gods by the Hindu population of Assam. 
     During the British period of the Indian History the gulf between the Hill and plain people in the North East of India has widened further as British restricted the movement between plains and hills of the North East. It suited them that the hill people should not be influenced by the ongoing anti-British movement for independence. Conversation of the tribes to Christianity further increased the gulf between the hill and plain people.
       In post Independence period, political and economic dimensions were further added to the socio-cultural differences. Now we see the tribes of the North-East of India underlining their separate identify vis-à-vis that of the non tribals. Whatever the influence of the Hinduism they might have had in the past; there is a tendency to reject that. They try to either go back to their pre-Neo-Viashnavism, pre-Hinduism practices or try to become westernized in their manners and dress, to assert their separate identity.
       This gulf between Tribal and Non-Tribal many times culminates into the violent conflicts as we see Bodos, Dimasas ,Karbis and other tribes of Assam taking up arms against the domination of the non-tribal and also fighting among themselves. Different Religious practices and beliefs by itself do not give rise to the violence but it does contribute in the process of polarization and more so, in a country like India, where inter-faith dialogue is missing.  
      Bhakti literature in general is dominated by the fatalist and escapist tendencies. It proclaims that everything happens according to the will of the God and human endeavor are futile. These tendencies are having advantage and disadvantage both. Advantage is that it helps us to cope up with the drudgery of the life. But the meek submission also adversely affects the industrious spirit. Bhakti movement had not attempted to create rational thinking and the religion of the masses continued to be the religion of superstitious beliefs, only the rituals had become simpler and less violent due to the influence of Neo-Vaishnavism.  
       The simple, innocent and unquestionable faith in God Narayana that Neo-Viashnavism had tried to popularize may not appeal to the modern rational mind. In their attempt to popularize Bhakti, the Saints had many times gone really overboard. Like there is a story of Ajamil, the Brahmin in the Bhagavata. The story had also found its place in the ‘Bhakti Ratnavali’ of Madhabdeva (Ch.5). As the story goes, the Brahmin Ajamil had committed all the possible sins during his life. At the time of his death he called out to his son ‘Narayana, Narayana’ as his son was named Narayana. The lord Narayana heard this and came running and emancipated him. Does this indicate that only by mechanical repetition of the name of the God without any devotional feelings is enough? There are many things like this in Bhakti literature which may provide temporary solace to the person who had committed sins, but it may also percolate the idea that whatever you do good or bad does not really matter, so long you take the name of the God. The spread of this idea may encourage the people to be hypocritical, like the traditional Hindi saying goes,
Muh me Ram, Bagal me Churi
 (Name of the Rama on the lips, but dagger hidden in the armpit)
       The idea also does not stand the scrutiny of rationality.
How far the message is relevant today?
       Bhakti movement of Assam and in other parts of the country as well tried reduce discrimination and injustice done to lower caste on the name of religion. Yet the injustice and discrimination continues even today. They tried to purify religion, yet the superstitious and degenerating practices still continues. Shall we conclude that their efforts had been all wasted?
       Probably there cannot be a simple answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to this question. The progress of civilization and development of philosophy and socio-cultural changes are very slow process. It takes centuries for the mindset to change. But the beginning has to made, as Seneca, the 1stcentury Roman Philosopher said,
      “Knowledge will be unfolded through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not knew things that are so plain to them”9
             Our predecessors like Shankardeva, Gyneshwara, Kabir, Vivekananda and Mahtma Gandhi had taken couple of steps towards building up of a civilization and this seminar is also a small step towards it. This is small step as we progress from material civilization to intellectual civilization, from intellectual to Philosophical and from Philosophical to spiritual civilization.
     The socio-cultural situation in Assam and in India would have been worse than today without the efforts of the Bhakti saints of making religion relatively simple. The division and conflict that we see around us would have been probably sharper without them.
      By reducing the complications within the individuals and purifying the life of the individuals, Bhakti saints had tried to create harmonious individuals. Harmonious individuals makes Harmonious and peaceful society. The disharmony and conflict that we witness around us are but extensions of the disharmony and conflict that we carry within us. If the inside is purged, the outside will become pure as well.
       In a pluralist society like India, inclusion of religion in school and college curriculum have its own difficulties. But we are creating the generations whose spiritual aspect remains underdeveloped. The crises of values and rampant corruption is probably fall out of this. What qualities the Bhakti saints had tried to inculcate among the devotees is obvious from the following verse of ‘Uddhava Gita’ which is a part of the Bhagavata.
       “Pure, genial by nature, sweet and a source of imparting holiness to men, the sage-resembling water-purifies all, being seen, touched and praised by them” (Uddhava Gita, Ch.II)
       Instead of bringing out any radical social reforms the practicing ethical behavior and moral values were more important to the Bhakti Saints.
      In a pluralist society and in the time of the rapid globalization, one particular creed may not satisfy the spiritual need of the humanity. Any attempt of doing that is bound to fail and give rise to the conflict. But through interfaith dialogue we should try to reach what Dalai Lama calls the ‘core’ of the religious tradition i.e. love and compassion.


Specific References-
1.      Vinoba Bhave ‘Tukaramchi Bajane’ (Marathi), (‘Devotional songs of Tukaram’) (Devotional songs are known as ‘Bhajan’ in Marathi and Hindi as well.)
2.      An 18th century important work about the Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam.
3.      Dr. Sarma S.N. ‘The Neo-Vaisnavite Movement and the Satra institution of Assam’, Lawyer’s Book Stall, Panbazar, Guwahati, 1999, P.143.
4.       Commentary of Sankardeva on the 10th Chapter of the ‘Bhagvata’.
5.      Pathak Pranabananda, ‘Nama Ghosa’ Promilla &Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2005. P.125.
6.      Pathak Pranabananda, ‘Nama Ghosa.’ Promilla &Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2005. P.131.
7.      Devgoswami Ranjit Kumar(Ed.), ‘Essays on Sankardeva’ LBS publication,Guwahati,2005. P.50
8.      Pathak Pranabananda, ‘Nama Ghosa.’ Promilla &Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2005. P.23.
9.      Times of India, Delhi Edition, May 3,2004.

General References-
 1. Vinoba Bhave ‘Gyandevachi Bajane’ (Marathi), (‘Devotional songs of Gyandeva’)
2. Tulsidasa ‘Ramcharitmanas’(Hindi), Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
        3. Swami Madhavananda, ‘Uddhava Gita’, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2003.
4. A.N. Deshpande, ‘Prachin Marathi Wangmayacha Itihas’ (Marathi) (History of ancient Marathi literature)
5. Maheswar Neog ‘Sankardeva and His Times’, LBS publication,Guwahati,2008.
10.  Sir Edward Gait, ‘A history of Assam’ Bina Library, Guwahati, 2008.
11.  S.L. Baruah‘A Comprehensive History of Assam’ Munshiram Manoharlal,2007.
12.  The Dalai Lama, ‘The power of compassion’, HarperCollins,2001.
13.  Pathak Pranabananda, ‘Bhakti Ratnavali.’ Promilla &Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2009.


 Submitted By-
                                                       Dr. Ravi Khangai
                                                                        Asst. Prof. & HOD                                                                                                                    
                                                                 Department of History
                                                         Ambedkar College, Fatikroy
                                                          Dist- North Tripura-799290
                                                 E Mail-  ravikhangai@gmail.com
                                                                    Ph- 9402168854                                                         


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