The famous five Saints or five Friends of medieval Odisha were collectively known as Pancha Sakhas. They were Balarama Das, Jagannatha Das, Achyutananda Das, Yasobanta Das and Sisu Ananta Das. They started their own Sampradaya, preaching Bhakti for Radha and Krishna in Odisha before the arrival of Chaitanya, following a tradition that had been established by Jayadeva‟s Gita Govinda. Such was the popularity of Gita Govinda that, king Purushottama Deva wrote his own imitation, called Abhinava Gita Govinda, hoping to establish it as the new devotional success of his times. Many other Oriya poets such as Dinakrishna, Abhimanyu, Bhakta Charan, Baladeva and Gopala Krishna etc. composed poems about Krishna‟s romantic storieswhich is famous as Valis. The Pancha Sakha have played a great role in the religious and socio-cultural history of Odisha. Towards the 16th century five poets emerged Balaram Das, Jagannath Das, Achyutananda Das, Ananta Das and Jasobanta Das. Although their dates of activity span one hundred years, they are collectively known as “Panchasakhas”, since they adhered to the same school of thought, i.e. Utkaliya Vaishnavism.
1. Balarama Das
He was born between 1472 or 1482 in Erabanga village at Gop (near Konarak). His father was Somanatha Mahapatra and his mother was Mahamaya Devi. Some say that he wasborn in the village of Chandrapur, where he also met Chaitanya. Balarama Das became a minister of king Prataparudra Dev, but after meeting Chaitanya he left the Government service and utilized his previous knowledge of Kundalini yoga, vaidhi bhakti in the mood of Ramanuja Acharya, and jnana to propagate the chanting of the Holy Name. He is sometimes called Matta Balarama, because of his disregard for social conventions in favor of ecstatic Bhakti. He used to participate to the discussions on Vedanta in the Mukti Mandapa in the Jagannatha temple (inspite of the resentment of the Brahmins), and it is said that anyone who touched his head would become instantly able to explain the philosophy of Vedanta. One day a beggar (who was dumb and deaf) approached him, touching his head, and he was not only cured and became able to speak, but he also started to discuss philosophy immediately. This beggar then became Balarama‟s foremost disciple with the name of Hari Das.
The mula mantra chanted and taught by Balarama Das was the Krishna mantra. His residence in Puri is called Gandharva Matha. Balarama Das wrote the famous Jagamohana or Dandi Ramayana, as well as a number of other works entitled Gita Abakasa, Bhava samudra, Gupta Gita, Vedanta Sara, Mriguni Stuti, Saptanga yogasara tika, Vedanta sara or Brahma tika, Baula gai gita, Kamala locana chotisa, Kanta koili, Bedha parikrama, Brahma gita, Brahmanda bhugola, Vajra kavaca, Jnana chudamani, Virat gita, Ganesh vibhuti, Amarakosha Gita, Lakshmi Purana (which is very popular in Odisha).
In his Bata Abakasa he writes hat Lord Jagannatha is served by 64 yoginis. In his Virata Gita, he describes the nirakara form of Krishna as Sunya. However, his idea of Sunya is quite particular, as it includes form and relationships. He was also a social worker and reformer, and an expert astrologer as well. He disappeared in 1540.
2. Achyutananda Das
He was born in Tilakana near Nemala, Cuttack, in 1485; his father was Dinabandhu Khuntia and his mother‟s name was Padmavati. His grandfather Gopinath Mohanty had served in the army of the Gajapati King. As a child, he was named Agani. When he grew older, he had a mystic dream where the Lord taught him the Gita, the Upanishads and the Tantra. Immediately he went to pilgrimage and on the way he met Chaitanya and it is said he received Harinaminitiation from Him. Some other people say that he went to meet Chaitanya together with his father; he was then 18 years old.
At the time of Achyutananda‟s initiation, Chaitanya asked Sanatana Gosvami to take care of him and coach him in spiritual knowledge. Achyutananda married the daughter of Raghurana Champati Rai and stayed in Dhauligram. He had 12 main disciples, of whom the most prominent was Ramachandra Das. The King gave him some land in Banki Mohana. The mula mantra he chanted and taught was the Radha mantra. Achyutananda is mostly famous for the book of prophecies called Achyutananda Malika, composed of 13 chapters, describing the future destruction of the town of Puri after Jagannatha has moved out, and the appearance of Kalki avatara who will annihilate all the evildoers starting from Odisha. A few summary studies have been published in Oriya language Achyutananda also translated into Oriya and commented Harivamsa, Tattva bodhini, Sunya samhita, Jyoti samhita, Gopala Ujjvala, Baranasi Gita, Anakara Brahma Samhita, Abhayada Kavacha, Astagujari, Sarana panjara stotra, Vipra chalaka, Mana mahima.
He wrote a book about the preaching mission of the Pancha sakhas (five friends) and organized a travelling party of Rahasankirtana, for which he also wrote several bhajan songs. It is said that once he was attacked by some envious Brahmins and he manifested his laghima yoga siddhi by becoming extremely light and floating away in the air. Achyutananda‟s teachings present a fusion of Saguna and Nirguna worship, uniting the doctrines of Dvaita and Advaita, and knowledge from Upanishads and Kundalini yoga. He left his body on Jyestha sukla Ekadasi.
3. Atibadi Jagannatha Das
He was born in Kapilesvarapur or Kapilesvar grama (one of the 16 traditional Sasana villages) at 14 kms from Puri towards Brahmagiri, on the day of Radhastami of 1487 (some say in 1490). Because he was born on Radhastami, he is considered to have a close relationship with Srimati Radhika. His mother was Padmavati Devi and his father was Bhagavan Das, from the Kaushiki Gotra. He used to recite the Bhagavata Purana in Lord‟s Jagannatha temple, and his explanations were so attractive that king Prataparudra gave him the title of “Purana Panda”. As son of the Purana Panda, Jagannatha Das used to sit by his father and learn the Bhagavata. One day, while visiting the temple, Chaitanya noticed the 18 years old boy sitting near the Bata Ganesha Deity in Sri Mandira, reciting the Brahma stuti from Gopa lila (10th Canto), and honored him by offering him a cloth and the title of Atibadi (“very great”).Jagannatha Das also used to go to recite the Bhagavatam in the houses of people and made no discrimination on the basis of bodily identification, befriending men and women in the same way. A famous incident regarded such confidential exchanges with Medha and Sumedha, two ladies endowed with great spiritual power and who were said to be going in the night to visit Jagannatha in the temple by their mystic powers after it was closed. Some envious men complained to king Prataparudra accusing Jagannatha Das of immoral behavior (illicit relationships with women) and the King called him for questioning. Jagannatha Das replied that for him there was no difference between men and women; he said that in fact when he was associating with ladies, he actually regarded himself as a woman, too.
The King did not believe him but when Jagannatha Das was put in jail he actually manifested himself in the form of a woman and the guards, impressed, called the King to witness such an extraordinary feat. King Prataparudra realized he had committed an offense to a great devotee, so not only he released him/her from prison, but he also asked that s/he gave initiation to his chief Queen into Bhakti yoga. The Queen invited Jagannatha Das within the royal palace, where he could open his own Matha, called Bada Odiya Matha.
It is said that by the order of Narada Muni, Jagannatha Das translated Srimad Bhagavatam into Oriya. This work gave him the reputation of the best spiritual teacher in Odisha in his times, and is still extremely popular even today, being worshiped and recited in all households. In fact in Odisha this text is considered on the same level of Tulasi Das‟ Rama charita manasa.
Jagannatha Das wrote also Gupta Bhagavat, Tula vina, Sola chapadi, Chari chapadi, Tola bena, Daru brahma gita, Diksa samyad, Artha koili, Muguni stuti, Annamaya kundali, Goloka sarodhara, Bhakti chandrika, Kali malika, Indra malika, Niladri vilasa, Nitya gupta chintamani, Sri Krishna bhakti kalpa lata and other books. The mula mantra he chanted and taught was the Rama mantra. He established two Mathas in Puri, the Bada Odiya Matha and the Satalahari Matha. His main disciple was Baliga Das. Jagannatha Das passed away on Sukla Magha saptami (the day of Chandrabhaga Mela in Konarak) in 1557, and his Samadhi Mandira is on the beach.
His main disciples were Uddhava, Ramachandra, Gopinatha, Hari Das, Nandani Acharya, Vamani Mahapatra, Srimati Gaura, Gopala Das, Akhandala Mekapa, Janardana Pati, Krishna Das, Vanamali Das, Govardhana Das, Kanai Khuntia, Jagannatha Das and Madhusudana Das.
4. Yasobanta Das
He was born in 1482 near Aranga Nandi village, district of Cuttack, in a kshatriya family. His father was Balabhadra Mala, his mother was Rekha Devi. He married Anjana Devi, the sister of king Raghunath Champatti of Aranga. Later on, he took sannyasa and traveled to many holy places in India, he attained mystic powers and was able to change his form at will. The mula mantra he chanted and taught was the Shyama mantra.
He wrote Govinda chandra, Shiva sarodaya, Sasti mala, Prema bhakti, Brahma gita, Atma pariche gita, a Malika and several bhajans. The Govinda chandra became very famous in Assam, Bengal and north India; it is basically related with traditional dance and teaching of dance, connected with the Vaishnava tradition. His best disciple was Lohi Das. It is said that also the famous saint Salabega was his disciple. He left his body on Margasira sukla Sasti.
5. Sisu Ananta Das
He was born in Balipatna village, near Bhubaneswara, in 1488. His father‟s name was Kapila, and his mother‟s Gaura Devi. In a dream he received from Surya Narayana in Konarak the order to go and meet Chaitanya, so he approached the party and took diksha initiation from Nityananda Prabhu. Sisu Ananta Das resided in Khandagiri, in what is today called Gadi Tapovana Ashram; through his Sadhana he attained mystic powers, and he was able to change his form at will. Usually he would take the form of a little child, hence his name as Sisu. In this form, he became the adopted son of the wife of king Prataparudra, who nursed him. He personally found a Patita pavana (Jagannatha) murti in the Matha in Balia patana. His main disciples were Barang Das, Hamsa Das, and Sisu Das. He wrote the Bhakti mukti daya gita, one of the oldest and most important popular scriptures of Odisha, and other texts like Sisu Deva gita, Artha tarani, Udebhakara, Tirabhakana, a Malika and several bhajan songs. In Udaya bhagavata he describes Lord Jagannatha as the combined form of Radha and Krishna. However, due to general lack of interest, these books are not properly valued at present.
Credit: Inputs from History of Odisha From 1435 to 1803 by Dr Manas Kumar Das