The Neo-Vaishnava movement of Assam is associated with the personality of Shrimanta Shankardeva (1449-1568). The message of Bhakti was made the property of all through the activities of Shankardeva, his able disciple Madhavdev and the other Vaishnava saints. The movement ushered in by the saint created an unprecedented zeal for the culture of religious literature. The Sattra style was evolved when Shankardev- respectfully referred to as ‘GURUJONA’– a great artist and musician in himself composed ‘Ankiya Bhaona’ or ‘Ankiya-Nat’ (dance-dramas), devotional music- ‘Borgeet’, and the four sacred texts – “Kirtan’, ‘Dasam’ ‘Ghosa’, ‘Ratnavali’ (the last two composed by Madhavdev). There are a great number of more literary compositions by Shankardev and Madhavdev. A School of Philosophical Learning emerged and a deeper understanding of life through the simple path of devotion brought one and all to the fold.
The name ‘Sattriya’ has been derived from the word ‘Sattra’ which are religious Institutes set up by Shankardev, for the preservation and propagation of tradition, culture and religion. It was coined later than ‘Gurujona’s’ lifetime and represents all that the Saint had created, which brought about a Socio-cultural Renaissance in the Assam Valley.
Shankardev enjoyed a gay and wild childhood of boyish pranks and merry-making. Besides the usual children’s games he went on catching deer, birds and tortoises and often swam across the Brahmaputra and back unaided. His main passion was the keeping of cows and roaming in the fields after them. Although very playful, he was a devoted student and completed the course of studies within less time than was required ordinarily.
From Shankar to Shankardev : – One day, his teacher Kandali found him sleeping in the school house after class-hours, and lo! a serpent was extending its hood over his head in order to protect him from the burning rays of the sun. On the sight of a second man the serpent glided off. The pundit, it seemed, saw the vision of his young pupil’s future greatness. He asked the other boys of the school to call him ‘Shankardev’, and not Shankar and exempted him from the ordinary student’s routine of sweeping and washing of the school precincts.
Shankar was much more inclined to the scriptures rather than to the ordinary ways of the world. However, at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two he married Suryavati. Three or four years after marriage a girl was born to the couple and a year after Suryavati died. This bereavement seems to have thrown Shankar’s mind further off from worldly affairs, and he became determined to go on a pilgrimage to Puri and other places. Shankar set out on his first pilgrimage when he was thirty-two years of age. Seventeen persons are believed to have accompanied the young pilgrim during this sojourn. The whole journey from the beginning to his return lasted for twelve years. He visited several places like Jagannath-kshetra, Setukhanda in the south, Varanasi, Prayag, Vrindavan, Mathura, Kurukshetra and Upabadarikashrama.The biographers include in their list almost all notable places in North and South India connected with the life of Rama and Krishna. Shankar stayed at Puri for a long time and it is here that he received his illumination of jnana-bhakti and came in contact with various shades of religious opinion. His sojourn and stay in places like Puri and Benaras carried a deep influence and he discovered therefore the mission of his life. Shankar returned home at the age of forty-four. He carried a deep impression of the nascent neo-Vaishnava movement that was pulsating in the heart of northern India and manifesting itself in devotional songs. With a wide experience of religious life in particular, he was now ready to take up the task of fulfilling the mission of his life.
With the intention of leading a life of devotion Shankar had a temple (devagraha) built, where he could sit together with other people, discuss religious matters and hold prayers. But he had still to await the arrival of a complete copy of the Bhagavat-purana from Puri through one Jagadish Mishra of Tirhut. Jagadish recited and explained the whole work in Shankar’s presence after which he died. When Shankar was listening to Jagadish’s discourses he was convinced that this work had no peer and that its purpose was to fix Krishna as the principal deity. Celebration of His acts in the company of holy men and taking sole refuge in Him was the greatest of all religion. Shankar delved deep into the Purana and set himself the task of propounding and propagating the cult of Bhakti.
Madhavdev — around the personality of this poet-reformer Shankardev is another literary figure of the time- the most brilliant Madhavdev, Shankardev’s ardent disciple. Madhav’s (1489-1596) life was one of adversity and self sacrifice. Later, he chose to cancel a betrothal and devote himself to the feet of one, who held to him the light of Love.
Meeting with Master — Once Madhav resolved to sacrifice two white goats as offerings to cure his mother of illness. He asked his brother-in-law to buy thegoats for the sacrifice, who, had already converted to the Vaishnava faith and did not buy the goats. This led to an altercation and the two brothers-in-law proceeded to meet dev. No sooner had Madhav met Shankardev than he joined the Vaishnav Order and became its strongest adherent. Shankar and Madhav are considered as two successive incarnations of Vishnu.