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Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam : Satras and Namghar

Assam, the peerless land, is regarded as the region with the most fascinating aspect of Hinduism because of its complex and rich exchange between the wide indigenous traditions and Sanskrit Brahmanic traditions from central India.

The Neo-Vaishnavism movement or rather the Bhakti movement, spearheaded by Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev caused not only a great socio-cultural revolution in Assam but can also be interpreted as a means of salvation i.e. total surrender to God.

Pre-Bhakti movement:

The Bhakti movement emerged at a time when Hinduism was suffering a gradual decline during the medieval period in India. Before that, the religious scenario in Assam was variegated in two prominent religious faiths – Saivism and Saktism.

Saivism was prominent in ancient Kamrupa from the 7th to the 12th century. The Ahom kings were the followers of Saivism and erected many prominent temples to worship Siva.

Saktism was also prevalent in ancient and medieval Assam along with Saivism. Under the preaching of Brahmins, the kings and nobles became devout Sakta worshipers to attain high position by the virtue of blessings of mother goddess.

Interesting fact is that the ancestors of Sankardev and Madhavdev were also Saktas. In fact, Sankardev’s father bore a Sakta name Candibara and Madhavdev himself was a Sakta. Madhavdev had an argument with his guru Sankardev in favour of Saktism at Dhuwahat in Majuli, Jorhat, which bears a spectacular importance in the history of neo-Vaishnavism movement in Assam.  This probably makes the practice of Hinduism very fascinating in this region.

The ancient kingdom of Kamarupa in pre-Vaishnavism era comprised of fragmented socio-political ambience. There were different classes among different tribes and ethnic groups. Chutias, Kacharis and Baro Bhuyans ruled the eastern part of modern districts of Shivsagar and Lakhimpur, besides the Ahom Kingdom, which was the principal kingdom of Assam. The western parts, comprising of modern Kamrupa, Nalbari, Barpeta, Goalpara and Kokrajhar were a part of Koch-bihar and was known as Kamatapur. This part had seen the rise and falls of several dynasties.

At the time of Sankardev’s birth in 1449 A.D, there was a state of socio-political turmoil in Assam. There were the rise and falls of many dynasties in this region. In the East, The Ahoms who invaded in 1228 had captured a large portion of Chutiya and Kachari Kingdoms. In the West, the powerful Koch Dynasty took over the Khen dynasty, with a brief interlude of rule by Hussain Shah – the Afghan from Bengal. To the South, the Kacharis ruled over Dimapur and the hills that were populated by the tribals. North Assam was ruled by the Chutiyas. In Central Assam, there were miniscule states of Bara Bhuyans, who were land owning class and descendants of the Kayasthas of Kanauj. Interesting fact was that Sankardev himself was from the Bhuyan family.

The region was highly influenced by Saktism and Tantrism, but the accession of Naranarayana to the throne of Koch Kingdom saw drastic changes as the new king favoured Vaishnavism, being influenced by Chilaraya, who was a remarkable Sanskrit scholar and came in contact with mainstream Hinduism. Probably, this was the reason why Chilaraya appreciated the relevance of the teachings of Sankardeva. At his persuasion, King Naranarayana gradually repositioned his belief to Vaishnavism and thus the Bhakti movement caught momentum in Assam.

By the fifteenth century, Assam experienced a very different picture of diversified culture. Non Aryan tribes, which formed a majority in the region, followed their own distinctive manners, customs, religious beliefs and practices.  The followers of Saktism were still following some of the evil rituals like animal sacrifices and sometimes even Human Sacrifices.

In these disturbing times, it is really the intrepidity of Sankardev to create awareness among the common masses against such evil practices and spread unified religious ideas that set new values and social synthesis in the Assamese Society. Sankardev was quite critical about what he saw as the “idolatry and sacrificial piety practiced at that time”. Intially, his movement drew intense hostility from the Brahmans of the region causing him to flee from place to place. The Ahom Kings in fact imprisoned his disciple Madhavdev and beheaded another. After visiting many holy sites, Sankardev presented himself before Koch King Naranarayana at his court and persuaded him by the profundity of his learning and the depth of his faith. Sankardev finally settled in Bheladonga, a town in Koch Bihar and propagated his faith until his death at the age of a century and two decades.

Vaishnava Tradition:

Since the exploration and study of the early images of “Visnu” that were found in ruins throughout Assam, Vaishnavism has been widespread in the region since at least 5th or 6th century. The Kalikapurana mentioned many sites dedicated to Lord Vishnu, including Manikuta Hills in Hajo where the famous Hayagriva temple of Lord Vishnu is situated. (Hayagriva means Horse-head incarnation.). In the 14th century, the great Assamese poet Madhav Kandali composed popular verses of the great epic Ramayana celebrating Lord Vishnu’s incarnation as Lord Rama. It is believed that Barahi kings, like any other Assamese dynasties, traced their lineage to Varaha, Visnu’s boar incarnation.

Sankardev and Neo-Vaishnavism:

In Assam, Vaishnavism became a major religious sect when Reformer Sankardev led the neo-Vaishnavism movement (Bhakti Movement) in the 16th century. Born in the modern Nagoan district of Assam, Sankardev came from a Sakta family. His father used to worship Goddess Candi. Sankardev was not in favour of many aspects of the worship in Saktism.

On a pilgrimage to the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha, Sankardeva experienced a great spiritual illumination. He then returned to Assam to preach the devotional love of Krishna, as the highest form of avatara of Vishnu and thus began Neo-Vaishnavism, .i.e. The Bhakti Movement, much like the devotional revivals led by Kabir and Meerabai in North India or Sri Chaitanya in Bengal.

The wings of Bhakti movement spread rapidly throughout the North-East, probably because of its simplicity in terms of direct connection with God through Bhakti songs and its accessibility to individuals of all classes or castes. But, this practice was not acceptable at an early stage. Even his disciple Madhavdev defended the practice of blood sacrifice in a debate with Sankardev, but later he conceded defeat and converted to the Vaishnava. Sankardev’s reformist movement had seen hostility from the Brahmans of the region because of his critique of Sakta ritualism. The Brahmans complained to the Ahom kings. Madhavdev was imprisoned and another disciple was beheaded. Sankardeva fled from place to place to avoid persecution. Later, he returned to the Koch Kingdom, where Koch King Narnarayana arrested and tortured him along with his two disciples. But, the stubborn Sankardev didn’t accept defeat and presented himself in the king’s court where he persuaded the king with the profundity of his learnings and depth of his belief. Later Sankardev settled himself in a town of Bheladonga, Koch Bihar where he died at the age of 120. He left behind a huge collection of literatary work like a magnum opus ‘Kirtanghos’-, a translation of Bhagavat Purana and Ramanayana, along with numerous dramas, poems and songs. His legacy was later carried forward by his disciple, Madhavdev and others.

This Bhakti Movement or devotional faith is simply known as ‘Eksarana Namadharma’ which means worship of one true God (here, Vishnu ín his incarnation as Krishna) through recitation of his name (nama). According to Sankardev, as written in his ‘Bhaktiratnakara,’ “There is only one religious duty, the worship of God. There is only one mantra – The name of God”. In Eksarana Namadharma, all other deities are seen as mere manifestations of Vishnu. It is astonishing that Sankardev’s bhakti traditions don’t involve the worship of Krishna’s female consort – Radha. Moreover, it primarily focuses on the dasya attitude – a slave of God. Probably, that is his way of total devotion or surrender to God. This bhakti movement doesn’t include the elaborate rituals, rites or sacrifices; rather it focuses on the remembrance of God’s name through chanting, prayers and naam-kirtan (singing). This naam-kirtan has been proved as the strongest aspect during that period. It is said that, during Kaliyuga, human beings were frail and weak and hence, singing and remembering God was the simplest and most direct and appropriate form of worship during that time. As said in our Puranas, in the Golden age, salvation was obtained by knowledge, in the Silver age by sacrifice, in the copper age by rituals and likewise, in iron age it was through Kirtan.

However, there was great emphasis on the importance of Guru or teacher in Sankardev’s Neo- Vaishnavism. According to him, Guru or teacher shows the way to salvation. One should see the Guru as God incarnate and respect him as such. “God and guru are one, different only in body” He said. Hence, in Neo- Vaishnavism, initiation means taking refuge under the guru and surrendering oneself to God, to the Guru and the naam (Kirtan). Unlike other forms of Hinduism in the region at that time, this faith was open to all – Men, women and people from all, castes. Sankardev even gave initiation to the untouchables, tribals and Muslims without hesitation. He wrote in his Kirtanghosa,

Who understand the words of Krishna

What need he be by birth a Brahman?

Let him only remember Hari by day and by Night

Bhakti doesn’t care if he has a caste or not.. (Cantle, 1984,268)

Sankardev brought about the greatest social reform by giving social recognition to the common man without making any distinction amongst them. He propagated his doctrine of Bhakti based on the principles of universal brotherhood. His emphasis on personal cleanliness, both inward and outward has brought about optimum social etiquettes establishing social harmony in society. He said:

“Kukkra Srgala Gardahbaro atmarama

Janiya savako pari kariba pranam”

The souls of Dogs, Srigalas and Asses are also a variety of God and so should be saluted.

It is probably because of Sankardev relentlessly working towards removing the stigma of casteism and untouchability through his Bhakti movement that this stigma couldn’t hold as much of a criminal proportion in Assam as prevailing in other parts of India till date.

Satras and Namghars of Assam:

In order to erase the blemishes of casteism, Srimanta Sankardev introduced a new kind of Vaisnava institutions, which reshaped the religious dimension along with the social life and communal structure of the region. The two main institutions that he introduced were Satras, i.e. monastic centres and Namghars or chanting houses. While the Satra, which has a Guru (Satradhikar) and his disciples initiated by him, serves as a centre of learning and study of Vaisnava tradition, the Namghar serves as a religious congregation of many local communities.

Satras and Namghars played a vital role in spreading the ideology of Vaishnava faith in Assam. They were unique and their religious teachings, beliefs and spirituality served as radiating forces of all religious activities. Satra is a place where people from different castes and tribes stayed and try to connect to God through prayers and religious discourses. They also celebrate various cultural programmes like Bhaonas, Ras Leelas, Janmastami, Dol Utsav etc. The head of a Satra is called Satradhikar, who takes the initiative of Saran (Surrender). Through this Saran ceremony, one can come into the fold of Satra and become a disciple of the Satra. It is of some note that you can become a disciple irrespective of your caste, creed, religion etc. The people who take saran are called Saranias and they assimilated into the Assamese society. This simple process helped people from various tribes like Moron, Kachari, Chutiya, Deori etc. to accept Vaishnavism and adopt the Hindu conducts of life and religious practices gradually. These tribes also gave up their many impure practices and became more and more refined. Thus, Neo-Vaishnavism helped the tribal people come under the fold of Hinduism and assimilate with other caste people within the folds of Hinduism. Satra, hence, plays an important role in the context of upliftment and upgradation of status of the backward classes and other communities of Assam.

Growth of Satras and Namghars reached its pinnacle by around the 18th century when the Ahoms and Koch kings extended their support to a number of Satras accepting Vaishnavism. The patronage that Satras received during this period boosted the economy too, hence a large number of functionaries also increased. The royals helped the spread Vaishnavism by allocating them lands without taxation. Sundaridia Satra is one such Satra which received royal patronage from Ahom and Koch kings.

Origin of the word Satra:

From the historical viewpoint, the term Satra is as old as the Vedic age. The word “Satra” can be found in Sanskrit literature, meaning a sacrificial session lasting from a few days to a year or more. The concept was taken from Bhagavat Purana in which it is mentioned that a place called NAIMISA KSHETRA i.e., the space where a great number of saints and sages assembled to perform a long session of sacrifice of a thousand years’ duration is called Satra.

Although the origin of the word is a myth, according to a few available sources it was first used by SataPatha Brahmana.

“The word Satra originally was applied to discourse of the Brahman much in the style of sages gathered in Naimisa forest round Roumasharsani Suta. Later on, however, it came to mean the physical form of an institution with Kirtanghar in the center and four surrounding rows of huts for residential celeries”.

Satra institutions had faced many challenges in development and extension over its long course of history of five centuries. During this period, Satras multiplied and became a special feature of the Assamese society.

“Etymolocially the term Satra is derived from Sat meaning honest, pious people and trai meaning to rescue or to deliver” (Williams, 1997, p.113)

In ‘Hemkosh’ written by Hemchandra Barua, which is the first etymological dictionary of Assamese language based on Sanskrit spellings, Satra is defined as a dwelling place of Neo-Vaishnavite scholars and devotees like Gossai, Mahanta and Bhakat.

In Sanskrit, Satra is used in two senses – first – as an almshouse and second – in the sense of a sacrifice lasting from a few days to a year or more. The second is responsible for lending nomenclature to Vaishnavite institutions in Assam. In Bhagavad Purana, the word Satra is used to donate a long session of Sacrifice of a thousand years performed by sages in the forest of Naimisa. In this session, Suta-Ugrasrava was recited with rendition of the entire Bhagavat Purana to the assembled sages. This process probably gave birth to the word Satra in Assam. Sankardev initiated his movement by reciting and expounding stories from Bhagavata Purana. This remained the part played by Suta-Ugrasrava, assembled with a group of holy sages in Naimisa. Both of these discussions were identical. Under this impression, devotees began to term the assembly as Satra. The etymological meaning of the word, implying an association or sitting (Sad+tra) and instrument which helps to liberate (Sat+trai) added additional weight to the term.

Satra and Namghar- The Place of Worship:

Satras consist of a large assembly hall or a prayer hall (called Namghar or Kirtanghar in lower Assam) supported by two rows of pillars and is generally an enclosed area.  Each main Satra is marked by the existence of a Namghar, Manikuta, a Batsara and two or four rows of Satras.

Namghar is considered to be more than a reverent place of worship – it serves as a commonplace of gathering for congregations as well as doubles up as a theatre for dramatic performances and also becomes a venue for village panchayats. Namghar is thus an inherent feature of Assamese society.. A Namghar consists of a nave and side aisles having rows of wooden pillars separating the nave from the aisles. The size of Namghar varied on the basis of the number of disciples and devotees. The eastern end of the Namghar opens into manikuta (house of jewels i.e., The Supreme One) where the holy book “Kirtana” is placed on a multi-tier wooden throne (Thapana) along with other paraphernalia. Sometimes the whole thing is also referred to as Kirtanghar. All these constituent structures are surrounded by a wall according to the length of the main prayer hall (as in Barpeta and Sundaridia Satra) with opening of gates, but sometimes they are without the compound wall (as in Patbausi Satra near Barpeta, one of the earliest Satras of Sankardev’s time). The enclosure also includes rows of huts or spacious houses at the sides divided into a number of rooms for the accommodation of the resident monks or celibate devotees (Kevalia Bhakatas) who have renounced the world, such as Auniati, Kamalabari, Dakshinpat, Barpeta and so on situated in Assam.

Batcara or Korapat – is the entrance which leads to the interior of a Satra by a small open house. It serves as the gate house. Distinguished persons are received at the Batcara and they are escorted to the interior of the Satra.

The centering round the Manikuta and the Namghar of the Satra exist four or two rows of residential huts intended for clerical devotees (Bhakats). These four rows of huts are known as cari-hati. The word Hati is derived from the Sanskrit word “Hatta” meaning market or a fair. A hut is allotted to each devotee consisting of one or more rooms according to his need and status.

Kirtanghar or Namghar has played an important role in maintaining unity and solidarity in the Assamese society which served as a center of spiritual, intellectual and cultural activities of the villagers. Namghar had become an institution to establish justice and peace between village communities. Almost every village of Assam today now has their own Namghar. In some places, even different castes come together to constitute a Namghar. It has become a public hall, a cultural centre and a common forum for villagers to assemble for discussion of various issues to establish a friendly and co-operative environment. The Namghar became the venue for congregational chanting of prayers or Nama-Prasangas, singing of Borgeets composed by Srimanta Sankardev and his disciple Madhavdev, and enactment of “Bhaona” on various occasions. This cultural performance in the Namghar has united people irrespective of their caste and classes and established a strong bond among them. Namghar is sometimes considered a little parliament too. All sorts of quarrels and disputes among the villagers were settled by the villagers themselves in Namghar, thus standing as a court of justice.

Birinchi Kumar Baruah, a noted personality of Assam in his book “Sankardev – Vaishnava Saint of Assam”, stated that “Namghars which were set up as central religious institutions of the village worked to a great extent towards spread of intellectual and cultural activities in the village, in course of time being nerve-centres of village to co-ordinate all the aspects of social, economic and political life of Assamese people.”

Again, A. Bhuyan in his book “Socio-cultural and political role of Namghar” stated “democratic performance in a society is due to social capital. If one wishes to promote democratic government, one should support the source network of the civic community in the society at different levels. In this specific context of civil social partnership, the Namghar becomes an important conceptual category.

It is a proven fact that Namghar has the potential to mould human society based on a culture of self-help, tolerance, unity and integrity. Namghar, serving as a community communication institution can promote religion directly to society. Mobilizing the masses to shoulder responsibilities to the best of their capacities relating to matters of community life, these Namghars helped to establish the fact that peoples’ participation is a prerequisite for development of any society.

Evaluation of Satras:

During the initial stage when Srimanta Sankardev started the Satras, the sitting of devotees and disciples were held under the open sky or big trees. There was no provision of permanent Satras. Gradually, as they started feeling the necessity to have a permanent institution, the making of Satra or Namghar came into existence although at that time there was no permanent office system of the Sattradhikar too.

There was not even a permanent source of income. It was in the times of Sri Sri Madhavdev that the system of Guru-Kar (Fees or Tax to the Guru) and Sidha-Bhojani (Donation in cash or goods) was introduced for the first time. Guru-Kar was directly imposed on the disciples whereas Sidha-Bhojana was a kind of indirect tax where each resident disciple had to render money or food to the Sattra as per his capacity.

The first Satra was started by Srimanta Sankardev at Batadrawa in the present district of Nagaon. As soon as he returned from first pilgrimage, he converted Batadrawa to Patbausi with the help of his schoolmates, some of his family members along with his school masters and other followers. But due to lack of proper structure of a permanent institution, Batadrawa ceased to exist for more than a hundred years after the departure of Sankardev from Batadrawa to Patbausi. Later, Batadrawa came to be recognized as a consecrated place towards the middle of the 17th century by Kanaklata, daughter-in-law of Sankardeva.

At present, a project has been initiated by the Narendra Modi Government along with the State Government under the initiative of “Assam Darshan”. This project aims to develop the ‘Batadrawa Than’ as a place of tourist attraction preserving its history and cultural heritage for an estimated amount of Rs 188 crores.

After departing from Batadrawa, Srimanta Sankardev settled at Patbausi (present Barpeta District) with his devotees. Among the main disciples who were with Sankardeva at Patbausi were Sri Sri Madhavdev, Sri Sri Damodardev, Sri Sri Haridev and Sri Sri Narayan Das Thakur Ata. Later on, these close disciples established many other Satras too. Sri Sri Damodardev established the Patbausi Satra during the period of 1560-1590 A.D. and the Barpeta Satra in 1583 A.D. Sri Sri Haridev established a Satra at Maneri (Kamrupa) during 1560-1580 A.D.

Mahapurush’s favourite disciple, Sri Sri Madhavdev had played a very significant role in the growth of the Satras. After Srimanta Sankardev had attained samadhi, Srimanta Madhavdev appointed many of his disciples to spread Gurujana’s Dharma among the people.

Vamsigopaldev who was initiated into the dharma fold by Sri Sri Damodardev, Gopaldev and Padma Ata had also contributed praiseworthily in creating a Vaishnavite ambience in eastern Assam. All of them were appointed by Srimanta Madhavdev.

Purosottam Thakur, the eldest grandson of Srimanta Sankardev also established the Jania Satra. Being aware of the necessity and importance of expanding the Satras, he appointed 12 disciples (6 Brahmins, 6 non Brahmins) to set up Satras in several regions of Assam. Younger brother of Purosattam Thakur, Chaturbhuj Thakur also appointed 12 disciples for the same sewa work. Later, when Chaturbhuj Thakur died, his wife Kanaklata became the head and appointed 12 disciples. She was also the one who had recognised ‘Batadrawa Than’ as a holy place.



 List of total Satras in Assam

Satras in Majuli:

Majuli, the largest river island in the World, situated in Assam, is also the hub of Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture. Srimanta Sankardev and his disciples had constructed many Satras here, which have survived to the present day and represent a beautiful Vaishnavite Assamese culture. Around sixty five Satras were set up in Majuli, however, today only twenty-two of the original sixty-five are operational.

It was at Majuli that Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardevadev met his foremost disciple Madhavadev for the very first time, in the 16th century. This event is referred to as “Manikanchan Sanyog”.  It is said that after this meeting the Neo-Vaishnavite Movement gained momentum.

Srimanta Sankardev had established the first Satra in Majuli by planting a Bilva tree and naming the place Belguri. Auniati, Dakhinpat, Garmur and Kamalabari are one of the most influential Satras in Assam, which are situated in Majuli.

Post Sankardev-Madhavdev period, the neo-Vaishnavism movement gained impetus with a surge in the number of Satras under the guardianship of one of their disciples – Sri Sri Vamsigopaldev. Amongst the many Satras that he established, one of the magnificent Satras that he instituted was Kuruwabahi on Brahmaputra. After the muksha of Sri Sri Vamsigopaldev, Misradev became the head of Kuruwabahi Satra. However, there were some allegations of conspiracy brought to the Ahom king against him. The king, without any proper enquiry, ordered the demolition of the Kuruwabahi Satra. The Satra was set on fire and Misradeva was taken to the capital as a prisoner. He passed away in prison.

The list of 64 satras Established in Majuli are:

  1. Dhunyanhat or Belguri sattra (1st Sattra)
  2. Adi Alengi Sattra
  3. Boralengi Sattra (Malual)
  4. Boralengi Sattra (Balichapari)
  5. Boralengi Sattra (Borgoyan branch)
  6. Boralengi Sattra
  7. Takoubari Sattra
  8. Bahjengoani Sattra
  9. Ahatguri Sattra
  10. Sakupara Sattra
  11. Garamur Sattra
  12. Bihimpur Sattra
  13. Motiabaribihimpur Sattra (Adibihimpur Sattra)
  14. Bhogpur Sattra
  15. Kamalabari Sattra
  16. Kamalabari Sattra (New Sattra)
  17. Kamalabari Sattra (North)
  18. Dakhinpat Sattra
  19. Auniati Sattra
  20. Dikhoumukhia Alengi Sattra
  21. Bogiaai Alengi Sattra
  22. Punia Sattra
    Punia Sattra (Branch)
  23. Bhagoti Sattra
  24. Letugram Sattra
  25. Moderguri Sattra
  26. Belsiddhiya Sattra
  27. Owa Sattra
  28. Adhar Sattra
  29. Digholi Sattra
  30. Bengenaati Sattra
  31. Narasimha Sattra
  32. Samaguri Sattra (Majuli or Newly established)
  33. Samaguri Sattra (Old)
  34. Baghargayan Sattra
  35. Karatipara Sattra
  36. Chakala Sattra
    Chakala Sattra (Branch)
  37. Anantakalsila Sattra
  38. Botorgayan Sattra
  39. Pohardiya Sattra
  40. Nachonipar Sattra
  41. Ulutolia Sattra
  42. Douka Chapori Sattra
  43. Kathbapu Sattra
  44. Katonipar Sattra
  45. Kalakota Sattra
  46. Koupotiya Sattra
  47. Kherkotia Sattra
  48. Gojola Sattra
  49. Dihiiing Sattra
  50. Randhoni Bor Allengi Sattra
  51. Chupoha Sattra
  52. Fulbari Sattra
  53. Kakorikota Sattra
  54. Kamjonia allengi Sattra
  55. Nepali Sattra
  56. Saudkuchi Sattra
  57. Laiati Sattra
  58. Hemarbori Sattra
  59. Dichiri Sattra
  60. Nikamul Sattra
  61. Ratanpur Borkolia Sattra
  62. Doloni Samaguri Sattra
  63. Garamur Saru Sattra
  64. Dakhinpat Ashromi Sattra

Divisions in Neo-Vaishnavism:

After the muksha prapti of Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev, the Vaishnav Belief had undergone radical changes which led to the existence of four new Samhatis (group or association). They were Brahma Samhati, Kala Samhati, Purusa Samhati and Nika Samhati. “Samhati ” word is derived from the word “Sangha ” which means group or association. This term came into existence in the 18th century to mean “sub-sects”.

  1. Brahma Samhati: After separation from Srimanta Madhavdev, Sri Sri Damodaradev and Haridev founded the Brahma Samhati. It is called Brahma Samhati because it originated from Brahma, the creator. They perform Brahminical Vedic rituals and practice idol worship too. The followers placed Sri Sri Damodardev as their Guru.

After the moksha prapti of Srimanta Madhavdev, the group again took three more distinct forms. Purusa, Kala and Nika grew under the leadership of Purusottam Thakur, Gopaladev and Mathuradas Burha Ata respectively.

  1. Purusa Samhati: The Purusa Samhati considered Srimanta Sankardeva as their only Guru. As per them, the name of Sankardev faded away after his demise. Hence, they started this Samhati. They considered other religious heads as agents only. The name originated from Purusottam Thakur, the Grandson of Srimanta Sankardeva.
  1. Kala Samhati: Kala Samhati was initiated by Gopal Ata. It was named after Kaljhar, the headquarters. The leader is regarded as the physical embodiment of Deva. The disciples and followers of this sect were not allowed to pay courtsey to anyone. It is said that this sect had succeeded in initiating the tribal and backward people into their fold. They were mainly responsible for the Moamaria rebellion.
  1. Nika Samhati: This sect gave importance to Bhakti Sangha and stuck carefully to the ideals of saint Madhavdev. This sect, emphasized on some series of rules to evolve into purity of Vaishnavas. They lay stress on proper food, dress and cleanliness. They considered Srimanta Madhavdev as their Guru and Srimanta Sankardev as the Guru of Guru.

Contributions of Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam:

  1. Religious Contribution: The main achievement of the neo-Vaishnavite movement is that it turned the Land of Kamrupa into predominantly Vaishnavite land from the stronghold of Tantrism and Saktism. When Mahapurush Sankardev initiated this movement, Assam had a prevalence of different castes, creeds and various cultural groups having diverse religious practices. Thus Satra can be seen as a unifying spiritual force of the Assamese landscape.
  2. Social Contribution: Satras played an important role in the upliftment of the backward castes and classes. All castes and tribal groups were equal with others and all were freely initiated. Their belief of ‘Unity in Diversity’ had made people accept Sankardev as their Guru. Thus, Jaihari Atai who originally was a Muslim, Govinda Atai a Garo, Bhola Atai a Karbi and Ram Atai a Kachari accepted Sankardev’s Ekasaran-nam-dharma and became his disciple.
  3. Educational and Cultural Contribution: The Satras had also played a great role in the educational and cultural field. There were also private teaching systems like “Tols” and “Pathsalas”. Madhav Kandali, Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev, Srimanta Madhavdev and Damodardev had initiated the Assamese literature from original Sanskrit texts. Even their disciples had written under their guidance. The most remarkable contribution in literature is the introduction of biographical descriptions of medieval Assamese period, both in prose and verse form of Vaishnava Saints. One such biography is Katha Guru-Carita.

Sankardev also introduced Bhaona or Ankia Bhaona as a medium of religious publicity, which is continued up to the present time. Sankardev, Madhavadev and other Vaishnava poets wrote and composed Ankita-natas which are still performed in the Namghars, through Bhaona. As the rise and popularity of Bhaona increased, a special class of artisans started to specialize in the art of preparing the different accessories necessary for performance and acting. The accessories included effigies and masks representing demons, animals, birds etc. (See featured image)

The movement also rendered great contribution to Assamese society by way of distinct songs, lyrics, music and dance. These arts were created in the Satras. The songs that were composed were called Borgeetas based on classical ragas. There was also the Sattriya music and dance. This type of varied forms of music, dance and drama attracted religious faith and helped establish a bridge of expressive thoughts between Satra and community.

Role of Sri Sri Madhavadev:

Mahapurusha Madhavadev was born in 1489 in the month of Jeth (May-June) on the Krishnapaksha Pratipada Tithi of fortnight on Sunday midnight, in a Kayastha family at a village called Narayanpura in present district of Lakhimpur. His father’s name was Mohadar alias Govindagiri. His mother’s name was Monorama.

Madhavdev was a believer of Saktism before he met Srimanta Sankardev. It is said that once Madhavdev’s mother fell ill and on recovering promised to offer a pair of goats to Maa Durga. She asked Ramadasa, her sister-in-law, to procure a pair of suitable goats, but Ramadasa who was a disciple of Sankardev refused to honour her request. This annoyed Madhavdev immensely and he demanded an explanation. Ramadasa told him politely about the new faith which forbade the sacrifice of any animals. Hearing this, Madhavdeva asked for a religious debate with Sankardev. After a long dispute, Sankardev attained the superiority of Nivritti-marga.  Finally Madhavdev accepted Vaishnava and acknowledged Srimanta Sankardev as his Guru. After the death of Mahapurush Sankardev, Madhavdev was rightly proclaimed as his successor. Madhavdev had introduced the trend of regular and systematized prayer at Satras. He appointed 12 dharmacaryas (disciples) with the task of taking the teachings of Sankardev to every person in the state. Barpeta Satra grew to be the heritage of religious preaching of Madhavdev.

Madhavdeva also had great acumen in literature just like his Guru. He developed various one-act plays based on the childish pranks of Lord Krishna. His creation “Nam-Ghosa” was hailed as Hazari-Ghosa for having one thousand devotional verses written down in dignified style. Few of his great books were ‘Adikanda Ramayana’, ‘Vakti Ratnawali’, ‘Janma Rahasya’, ‘Nam Malika’ etc. He had also completed the Kirtan Ghosa and Nam ghosa, which become main pillars of Sankardev’s “Ek Sarana Dharma”. He had also written zhumuras like Chordhora, Pimpara Guchoa, Bhumi Letowa and Bhojan Behar. Bargeetas and Bhatimas along with Rajsuya Kabya marked the contribution of Madhavdev’s literary life. Few of Madhavdev’s literary contributions shorts were:

    1. Adhikanda Ramayana
    2. Bhakti Ratnawali
    3. Janma Rahasya
    4. Nam Malika
    1. Namghosa
    2. Rajsuya
    1. Borgeet
    2. Bhatima
    3. Songs in the middle of the act play
    1. Arjun Bhanjan
    2. Ram Bhaona
    1. Chor Dhora
    2. Pimpara Guchoa
    3. Bhusan Heroa
    4. Brahma Mohan
    5. Rass Zumura
    6. Bhumi Letoa
    7. Bhojan Behar
    8. Kotora Kheloa

Genealogical Chart showing the Founders of the Samhatis\Source: Cantlie 1984:


Thus the neo-Vaishnavism movement in Assam ushered in a new era of socio-cultural renaissance with Srimanta Sankardev’s religious teachings, beliefs and spirituality easily understood and accessible to all, including the humblest of the humble  – irrespective of caste and creed thus binding all the followers with a sense of brotherhood.


  3. Lakshminath Bezbaroa, HISTORY OF VAISHNAVISM IN INDIA

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