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Bengali Religions


BENGALI RELIGIONS . This entry treats Bengalwhich corresponds to the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladeshas a region in which different religious traditions, from approximately the eighth century to the present, have coexisted, intertwined, and sometimes battled, creating a distinctive context for the study of religion in South Asia. While historically the two "great traditions" have been and continue to be Brahmanical Hindu and Islamic, Bengal has also been highly pluralistic, home to Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, and lightly Hinduized tribal peoples, as well as, more recently, Hindus and Muslims who identify as Marxists or secular humanists. This entry proceeds synthetically by proposing thirteen perspectives on Bengal's uniqueness, on what sets "Bengali religions" off from religious traditions elsewhere in the subcontinent.

Bengal as the Last Indian Stronghold of Buddhism

The first regional state in Bengal was established by the Mahāyāna Buddhist dynasty of the Pālas (750 to the mid-twelfth century). Under their rule, centered in Bihar, Bihar and Bengal were unified culturally and politically through religious and economic ties to the outside via trade routes and pilgrims; a great literary activity in Sanskrit (Buddhist intellectual strongholds in Bengal were located in Chittagong, Comilla, Maldah, and Rajshahi, and reflected a vibrant mix of Buddhist traditions (Mahāyāna, Sthavira, Sarvāstivāda, and Vajrayāna); and a common artistic tradition of sculptures and bronzes. Under the late Pālas and Senas (eleventh to early thirteenth centuries), the latter of whom dominated all of Bengal at the time of the Turkish conquest in 1202, the center of gravity began to change, both physically and in terms of religious patronage: political attention shifted from western Bihar to eastern Bihar and Bengal, and Brahmanical Hindu religion became more popular. One can chart this movement east through the artistic record: early Pāla art is Buddhist and found chiefly in Bihar, whereas late Pāla and Sena art is principally Hindu, favoring ornate statues of Sūrya and Viu, located in Bengal. It is also important to note that the Pāla period was responsible for cultural linkages between Bengal and Nepal and Tibet, through the transmission north of Tantric (Vajrayāna) Buddhist texts and practices.

Scholars are divided as to the reasons for the decline of Buddhism in Indiaviable proposals include the weak links between Buddhist institutions and Buddhist laity; the fact that life-cycle rites were left in the hands of brahman priests; the incorporation by Hindus of Buddha as an incarnation of Viu; the appeal of Hinduism to the late Pālas and Senas; and the loss of distinctiveness between Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions in the eyes of the laitybut it is certain that in Bengal it lasted longer than anywhere else. (The last Buddhist edifice in South India was constructed in the sixth century and the last Ellorā Buddhist temple in Maharashtra in the eighth century; Gandhara monasteries in the northwest were devastated by the Hunas in the sixth century, and by the ninth century in Kashmir, Buddhist and Śaiva institutions had comingled). Today, indigenous tribal remnants of such Buddhist communities, the Chakmas, Marmas, and Baruas, live mostly in the rural areas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in eastern Bangladesh, but they comprise less than one percent of the total population of that country, and they perceive their traditional lifestyles and religious freedom to be threatened when an Islamicizing climate is dominant in the government.

Late, Light Aryanization

A second curious feature of the Bengali religious framework is the region's slow incorporation into the Brahmanical orbit. After an early, Vedic period of scornfrom the time of the Aitareya Brāhmaa Bengal was said to be a place of exile, lying outside the boundary of Aryan civilizationthe area began slowly to be included in it, first under the Guptas from the fourth century and then later in the post-Gupta period with the introduction into the region of brahman s from elsewhere in India. This process of Brahmanization is encapsulated in a legend about five brahman s who were brought to Bengal from Kanauj by the mythical King Ādisura in order to render the country respectable (dates for this importation of specialists vary from the eighth to the eleventh centuries). These dates may in fact represent approximate beginning and ending points of the diffusion of north-India-derived upper-caste customs into Bengal. That Bengal never achieved the level of cultural refinement considered desirable elsewhere is indicated by the common disparagement of the Bengali brahman for his uncouth habits, such as fish- and meat-eating.

Caste in West Bengal represents its own further anomalies. Of the approximately 75 percent Hindus in West Bengal and 10 percent in Bangladesh, less than 10 percent are brahmans ; most of the rest are śūdras, divided into "clean" and "unclean" categories. The two highest groups of the former are the vaidyas (traditional physicians) and kāyasthas (traditional clerks); these, together with the brahmans, constitute the gentle classes, or bhadralok (literally, "refined people"), who distinguish themselves from the lower orders, the chotolok (literally, "small people"), in Hindu society.

Because of Bengal's peripheral geographic status and the late, relatively flexible structure of its caste system, outsiderswhether ethnic, religious, or culturalhave typically been able to settle and thrive there. This was true of the early Buddhists, and also accounts in large measure for the deep embedding of Islam in the region.

The Rooting of Islam in Bengal

Ever since the first Indian census of 1872, when the British initially noticed the surprisingly large number of Muslims living in the Bengal Presidency, the problem of accounting for their size has been a scholarly puzzle. Muslims remain even today the largest religious community among Bengalis (86 percent of Bangladesh and 24 percent of West Bengal). Most are Sunnī of anafī orientation, the few Shīʿah deriving from Persian officials of the late Mughal period; although there must have been a long history of mixed exogenous and indigenous parentage, the majority of Bengal's Muslims are converts, and hence of Bengali ethnic background.

As Richard Eaton (1993) has argued, old-style theories purporting to explain such large numbers of Muslims do not convince: people did not convert "by the sword" or for the "benefits" of political patronage; if either of these had been true, the majority of Muslims in the subcontinent today would either live around the sultanate and Mughal capitol of Delhi, or in Bengal they would be concentrated in the regions surrounding the old Muslim strongholds at Murshidabad or Dhaka, which they do not and are not. Indeed, the Mughals were condescending toward Bengal and hence discouraged conversion. Nor can one have recourse to the theory of conversion for social uplift, since the Hindu system of caste oppression was lighter than elsewhere in north India and since egalitarianism was not the main message of Islam as preached in the medieval period. Instead, Eaton argues, one must look to the geography and frontier nature of the region in a period of expansionism under the Mughals after 1574. Needing workers to clear and domesticate the lands in the east, where the rainfall is up to three times heavier than in the west, the Mughal representatives (nawāb s) and their land-owning dependents sent in local adventurers to plow and reclaim the land, and to settle and populate it. Such people were typically Muslim holy men (local judges, pīr s [popular mystics], and shaikh s [teachers]), who taught Islam by example and whose memories were hallowed by those with whom they worked. Such a historical perspective discounts four outmoded conceptions about Bengal and Islam: we now know that the Mughal period was not one of decline, Islam is not monolithic, Muslims are not primarily urban, and the emergence of a noticeable community of Muslims does not necessitate as a precondition a political regime encouraging conversion.

The Rise of the Bengali Language

Much, though not all, of what is distinctively Bengali in terms of religion is articulated textually in the Bengali language, which developed, after the late-Pāla breakaway from Magadhan/Bihari influence, around the twelfth century. Indeed, the earliest specimen of religious literature preserved in Bengali derives from this period: the Caryāpadas, or mystic poetic literature usually classed by experts as expressing a nonsectarian Tantric viewpoint. Discovered in 1907 by Hariprasad Sastri, the Caryāpada s and other Caryā -related texts uncovered since that time are the only texts extant from this earliest period.

What is usually called "the medieval period" of literature, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, contains three major literary genres, parallel for both Hindus and Muslims. The first are poems built around epic stories, such as Kttivāsa's Bengali version of the Rāmāyaa (from the early fifteenth century) and the Jangnāma stories, focused on battles like that fought against the Muslim heroes asan and usayn at Karbala, from the end of the fifteenth century. The second genre are poems, songs, and sayings on the Vaiava and ūfī theme of love in separation, most famously captured through the love story of Rādhā and Ka. Third, on the Hindu side, are the long narrative poems, or magal-kāvyas, praising the auspicious merits of various local deities, with a view to publicizing their worship. Examples include Bijaya Gupta's Manasāmagal, from 1494, and Bipradāsa's Manasābijay, from 1495, both about the snake goddess Manasā; the late-sixteenth century Caņīmagal by Mukundarāma Cakrabartī; a spate of Śītalāmagals and Dharmamagal s from the late seventeenth century; and even the sophisticated Annadāmagal by the famed Bengali poet Bhāratcandra Rāy, from the mid-eighteenth century. The corresponding Islamic narratives consist of stories about heroes, with the same mix of the supernatural, miraculous, and fantastic that one finds in the magal-kāvya literature.

Because of the ambivalence with which Bengal as a region was viewed, first by the Brahmanical mainstream and then by the ruling Muslim elite, Bengali as a language never developed a prestige market. In other words, there is almost no court poetry in Bengali comparable to that written in Persian and Sanskrit. In addition, there is a near complete lack of secular literature before the eighteenth century, and not until the nineteenth century did Bengali even garner sufficient interest to generate grammars and dictionaries. Nevertheless, perhaps because of the fluidity of the medieval vernacular medium, the seeds of distinctively Bengali forms of Vaiava, Śākta, and Islamic religiosity were sewn.

GauĪya Vaiavism, the Bengali Variety of Devotion to RĀdhĀ and Ka

While one can trace Bengali interest in Viu to Pāla- and Sena-period art of the eleventh to twelfth centuries, it is the tradition associated with (1) Jayadeva, the twelfth century court poet of Lakmaa Sena and author of the Sanskrit Gītagovinda, where Rādhā makes her first major literary debut, (2) the masterpoets Caīdāsa and Vidyāpati of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, and especially (3) Caitanya (14861533), considered the dual incarnation of Rādhā and Ka, that has endured as the most characteristic form of Vaiava devotionalism in Bengal (or Gaur/Gau; hence Gauīya Vaiavism). Caitanya, who introduced an ecstatic singing tradition centered on the name of Ka, was the subject of many biographies, the most famous of which is the Śrīcaitanyacaritāmta by Kadāsa Kavirāja, of the early seventeenth century. Caitanya's example led to a burgeoning of devotional poetry centered on Rādhā and Ka, and it inspired his chief intellectual disciples, the Gosvāmins of Vrindavan, to elaborate and categorize the aesthetic and devotional principles of that new religiosityof particular merit in this regard is Rūpa Gosvāmin's early sixteenth century Ujjvalanīlamai. In his own person Caitanya knit Nadia, his birthplace in Bengal, to Puri, Orissa, site of the Jagannātha Temple, where he spent the last twenty years of his life, and Vrindavan, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, where he sent the Gosvāmins to establish pilgrimage centers at the sites of Ka's various life stories.

Caitanya's influence also extended to art and architecture, the most striking example of which are the terra-cotta temples of Vishnupur in south-western Bengal. Constructed by Hindu chieftains who in the wake of the collapse of the sultanate in 1575 were looking for symbolic ways to establish their authority, the two-storied structures, heavily indebted to sultanate art forms, were sites for both Sanskritization of the new Vaiavism and protest against an authority structure dictated solely by brahman priests. Perhaps the most visible Western outgrowth of the Bengali Gauīya Vaiava tradition are the followers of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), whose founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (18961977), was a devotee of Ka in the tradition of Caitanya.

Bengal and the Brahmanical Preoccupation with Goddesses

Structurally, Muslims and Vaiavas have tended historically to occupy the same social position in Bengali society: among the lower middle castes of cultivators, artisans, and service providers. By contrast, the preferred deities of brahmans, vaidyas, and kāyasthas, as well as of the lowest castes and tribes, are goddesses. These range from folk and rural deities like Biaharī and Manasā (serpent goddesses), aī (the protectress of children), Śītalā (the goddess of smallpox), and Caī (a popular form of Durgā), to the more universalized Kālī (the demon-slayer who stands astride Śiva), Durgā (the killer of the buffalo demon Mahia), and Umā (the Bengali name for Pārvatī, Śiva's gentle wife). Starting as early as the eighth century and extending to the eighteenth century in the Sanskrit Upapurāas from Bengal, one can see an avid interest by brahman authors with local goddess cultsan indirect acknowledgment of their prior preeminence in the region. Such authors identified these folk deities with Śakti and Śiva, making Śiva Caī's and Śītalā's husband, Manasā's father, and aī's father-in-law. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, many of the landowning rājās or self-made gentry under the Mughal representatives patronized Śākta deities, festivals, temples, literature, and devotees. Famous examples of goddess-worshipping devotees supported by the noted Śākta enthusiast Rājā Kacandra Rāy of Nadia (17281782) were the brilliant court poet Bhāratcandra Rāy (17121760) and Rāmprasād Sen (17181775), the first in a long line of folk poets to write devotional poetry (called Śyāmāsagīt ) to Kālī, Durgā, and Umā. Scholars speculate that the reason for this interest among the upwardly mobile in martial goddesses has to do with their own ambitions: the ostentatious patronage of strong, bellicose deities, especially those whose worship had been undercut during the sultanate period, was seen in the Mughal and post-Mughal periods as an expression of political aspiration and muscle.

Ka- and Kālī-centered traditions have long been at loggerheads in Bengal, with competition and cooption the dominant strategies for mutual containment. The Caitanya cult has tended to downplay Śākta deities as impure or barbaric (due, in part, to their association with blood sacrifice), whereas the Śāktas have been more inclined to embrace Ka by claiming that he is none other than the Goddess in a different form. The saintly figure of Ramakrishna (18361886), a priest in Calcutta's famed Kālī temple at Dakieśvar, was a living example of such theological accommodation, for he attempted to experience the divine in all forms, realizing ultimately that all were the same Mother Goddess.

That Durgā's yearly festival, or Durgā Pūjā, has now become synonymous with Bengali religious culture and identity, regardless of caste, region, or economic status, is proof of the success of the upper-caste Brahmanical project. Other goddesses with popular and universally celebrated annual festivals are Kālī and Sarasvatī; more regional goddesses, like Jagaddhātrī and Śītalā in the Hulgi and Howrah districts of West Bengal, respectively, also follow the festival model of their more famous sisters. As Kunal Cakrabarti notes, "a common orientation towards the regional goddesses makes Bengal a cult region" (2001, p. 309).

Tantra and Bengal

Along with Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in South India, Nepal, and Tibet, Bengal is noted for its Tantric tradition. While the origins of Tantra are still a hotly debated issue among scholarsdoes it derive from the non- or pre-Aryan substratum? To what degree can one find hints of Tantra in Vedic literature? Does Buddhist Tantra predate Hindu Tantra, or vice versa ?from the eighth century, in the Pāla period, Tantra flourished in Bengali religious contexts at both elite and popular levels. Although a Tantric perspective can be applied to the cult of any deity, even including Ka, from the medieval period in Bengal, Tantric texts tended to focus on goddesses and to prescribe specific meditation techniques, hymns, philosophical interpretations, and rituals for their worship. The overall concern in Tantra is to integrate the world into, not separate it from, the perspective of salvation, and the Tantric adept tames the deity in question through transmuting her into inner energy in meditation, receives associated spiritual powers, and learns a monistic method of homologizing his own body, the outside world, and the cosmos with the deity. Significant Śākta Tantras for Bengal include Lakmaadeśika's Śāradātilaka Tantra (eleventh century), the Kulārava Tantra (10001400), the Kālī Tantra (c. fifteenth century), Sarvā-nandanātha's Sarvollāsa Tantra (sixteenth century), the Śāktānanda Taragiī and Tārārahasya of Brahmā-nanda Giri (mid-sixteenth century), Pūrānanda Giri's Śyāmārahasya and Śrītattvacintāmai (sixteenth centu-ry), Kānanda Āgamavāgīśa's Tantrasāra (seventeenth century), and Raghunātha Tarkavāgīśa Bhaācārya's Āgamatattvavilāsa (1687). There are also sizeable Buddhist and Śaiva Tantric literatures in Bengal, as well as Vaiava and even ūfī texts influenced by indigenous Tantric patterns.

Humanism and Domestication of Divinity

Tapan Raychaudhuri has characterized one of the dominant traits of Bengali Hindu religious sensibility as a "domesticated religiosity, a pervasive sense of belief in and adoration of multiple deities as well as other supernatural beings, not all very benign, inspired by an ardent hope that faithful worship and observance of ritual duties would ensure the well-being, mangal, of all one cared for" (1996, p. 97). There is ample evidence for this claim as far back as the Bengali magal-kāvya s, whose deities are local, ambiguous, greedy for devotees, and sometimesas Edward C. Dimock has argued in his essays on Śītalāeven outwardly repulsive, although to a devotee such masks hide their true benevolence or mercy (dayā ). This tendency to endow gods and goddesses with human, almost fallible characteristics is also present in the devotional poetry focused on Kālī, who is chided for her unmotherliness, and even in that centered on Ka, who in Bau Caīdāsa's Śrīkakīrtana from the fifteenth or sixteenth century acts like a magal-kāvya deity, not above moral reproach. In the same vein, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lower-class women used songs about Rādhā and Ka as vehicles for airing their grievances against men. Kttivāsa's Rāmāyaa presents readers with a good-natured, not necessarily divine Rāma, and peppers Rāma's story with references to Bengali marriage rituals, Kulīn polygamy, food types, musical instruments, and even place names. Following in this trajectory, the female poet Candrāvatī, in her seventeenth century Bengali Rāmāyaa, centers the action on Sītā, whose emotions are just like those of a Bengali woman. Continuing into the colonial period, one finds the same tendency to domesticate, Bengali-ize, and humanize divinity in the person of the famed poet Michael Madhusudan Datta (18241872). His Bengali version of the Rāmāyaa, the Meghnādkāvya, casts Rāvaa and his son Meghnād as the heroesand he heightens their pathos by the typically Bengali imagery of love in separation, portraying their eventual fall as an indication of universal human frailty. Likewise, the illustrious Bengali novelist, Bankimcandra Chatterjee (18381894), presents in his Kacaritra (Acts of Ka) an idealized, humanized Ka as a model for modern Indians.

Pride in Regional Identity

Another theme common to Bengali religious traditions is the consistent attempt, in the person of local rulers, to use religious and other symbolism to assert their independence from north Indian centers. One can see this from the first sultanate government under Muammad Bakhtyār in 1203 at Lakhnauti, through the nearly two-century period from the Ilyās Shāhī dynasty at Pandua and Gaur in 1342 to the nominal take-over by the Mughals in 1526, to the state governments of East and West Bengal in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For example, sultanate rulers asserted their autonomy by patronizing mosque styles different from those customary in Delhi, minting coins with local Bengali imagery, and giving encouragement to folk and popular Hindu traditions over classical, Sanskrit ones. Under the nawāb s in the early eighteenth century when the Mughal empire was unraveling, this same impulse led to the conscious aggrandizement of Hindu estates by men wishing to build their own power bases in Bengal; Murshid Quli Khan (nawāb 17041725) cultivated the rājās of Burdwan, Nadia, and Rajshahi to create a buffer between him and claimants to the Mughal throne in Delhi.

During the decades before independence, Bengali nationalists who were still mourning the loss of the centrality of Calcutta, which had been demoted from the capitol of British India in 1911, attempted to differentiate themselves from the politics associated with Delhi and Mohandas Gandhi (18691948); C. R. Das (18701925), head of the short-lived Swaraj Party (19221925), challenged the politicians of his day in an attempt to bring Bengal back to center stage: "You cannot delete Bengal!" A string of other Bengali nationaliststhe "extremist" Bipincandra Pal (18581932), the litterateur Rabindranath Tagore (18611941), the radical humanist M. N. Roy (18871954), and the Indian National Army leader Netaji Subhascandra Bose (18971945)also disagreed with Gandhi's policies, whether for his mixing of politics and religion or for his adherence to a Vaiavized doctrine of nonviolence. After independence in 1947, the passionate commitment by Bengalis in East Pakistan to their language and culture contributed to the split from West Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971; in a parallel movement, West Bengal since the 1970s has been ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which in many cases has distanced itself from politics in Delhi at "the center." Hence, in spite of or perhaps because of their vantage point from the periphery of the subcontinent, Bengalis have always wished to maintain a significant, unique perspective.

Bengal as an Early Testing Ground for Indian Relationships to Christian Missions

As the seat of British power until 1911, Bengal was the "nerve center" of political, commercial, and intellectual developments in India from the early nineteenth century. One of these developments involved the relationship between Hinduism and Christianity, and many elite Bengalis, especially Hindus, were at the forefront of such an exploration. While some became famous converts to Christianity (Krishna Mohan Banerjea [18131885], Lal Bihari De [18261894], Protap Chandra Majumdar [18401905], and Brahmobandhab Upadhyaya [18611907]), and others derided and fought against Christian diatribes from a conservative Hindu viewpoint (see Richard Young's work [1981] on several paits ' reactions to John Muir's anti-Hindu tracts after 1839), many Hindu intellectuals preferred to remain Hindu but to engage Christian ideas, finding in them common ground for a postulation of universal truth. For example, Rammohan Roy (17721833), often called "the Father of Modern India" for his role in the so-called Bengal Renaissance, was one of the first to enter into dispute in English over issues of Christian doctrine and interpretation. After the publication in 1820 of his The Precepts of Jesus: The Guide to Peace and Happiness, he was challenged over a three-year period by the Baptist missionary Joshua Marshman, who did not approve of Roy's attraction to Christian Unitarianism and its emphasis on the unity of a merciful, rational God, an ethical Jesus, and social reform, and who denounced Roy's assertion that while Jesus' moral teachings were fine, doctrines such as the atonement were not. This public disagreement soured Roy on the missionaries, and led him in 1828 to leave the Unitarians in order to found the Brāhmo Sabhā, which eventually became the Brāhmo Samāj (Society of Theists). The Brāhmo Samāj attracted an elite group of Hindus who professed monotheism, shunned image worship and blood sacrifice, and decried the evils of caste discrimination.

Two other noted examples of Hindus appropriating Christian imagery for their own ends are Keshab Chandra Sen (18381884), founder of the syncretistic New Dispensation in 1881, who, although he championed an "Asiatic Christ," never quoted the Bible and had no use for Christianity, and Swami Vivekananda (18631902), who, in an inclusivist, almost triumphalistic interpretive move, saw in the New Testament evidence for the three levels of Vedānta: Dvaita, or dualism (Jesus calls God his father); Viśiādvaita, or qualified nondualism, in which God dwells in us as if separate ("I am in the Father and the Father is in me"); and Advaita, or monism, the highest truth ("I and the Father are One"). Yet Vivekananda believed that Jesus' death was a mirage and, like Roy, that the miracles are a stumbling block to true faith.

Indigenous Christians comprise about half of one percent of the population of West Bengal and a third of one percent of that of Bangladesh, according to the 2001 census. They are a diverse group: Roman Catholics, through Portuguese influence in the sixteenth century; Baptists, descended from converts made by the Baptist Mission founded in Serampore in 1793; and Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, most of whom trace their origins to nineteenth-century Western missions. Anglo-Indians, those descended from a British or European father and Indian mother, are also a significant element of the multi-denominational Christian population in Bengal. Because of the colonial legacy and, in India because of the memory of Nobel Prize winner Mother Teresa (19101997), Christians are more influentialand more controversialthan their small numbers might imply. In the 1990s, for instance, with debates about Christian dalit inclusion in constitutional provisions for benefits, the 1999 murder of missionary Graham Staines in Manoharpur, Orissa, by an alleged Hindu nationalist sympathizer, and the accusations by Hindu nationalist politicians that political separatism in Christian-majority states like Mizoram (85 percent in 2001) and Nagaland (87 percent in 2001) is linked to religious preaching, Christians throughout India, and also in West Bengal, felt beleaguered. The same is often true in Bangladesh as well, in periods when the drive for a more complete Islamicization is pushed through to state policy.

It is worth noting that since the nineteenth century Calcutta (Kolkata) has been home to one of India's three communities of Jews, the Baghdadi Jews, who arrived in India as a result of opportunities opened up by the British. However, their numbers today have dwindled drastically (in the 1991 census they compromised one-twentieth of one percent of the population of West Bengal), and only one synagogue remains functional in Kolkata as of 2004. Other small religious groups, the Jains (0.05 percent in 2001) and the Sikhs (0.08 percent in 2001), who are Gujaratis, Rajasthanis, and Panjabis by background, live in the state primarily for business purposes.

Debates about Idolatry, Obscenity, and Politicized Religion

Probably because of the early nineteenth-century Brāhmo critique of image worship, influenced from its inception by the strict monotheism of Islam, many elite Bengalis, Hindus, and Muslims, over the last two hundred years have spoken out against idolatry in any form. One sees this, for instance, in the Unitarian leanings of Rammohan Roy, who coined the term for idolatry (pauttalikatā, derived from the Bengali word for "doll"); in the writings of Isvaracandra Vidyasagar (18201891), who was concerned with ethicizing and universalizing dharma, emphasizing purity of mind over outward ritual; in Swami Vivekananda's patronizing attitude to image worship as a lower step along the spiritual path; in the poetry by Kazi Nazrul Islam (18991976), who denounced idolatry; in Rabindranath Tagore's repudiation of ritual in his poetry collection Gītāñjali, blood sacrifice to the goddess Kālī in his play Bisarjan, and country-worship in his works on nationalism; and in the consistent disavowal of dead religious ritual and superstition in the novels and stories of Saratcandra Chatterjee (18761938). Sumanta Banerjee (1989) explains that this condemnation of the "folk religion" of the lower classes for its lack of sensitivity to Upaniadic monism was one way in which, after the 1820s, the bhadralok sought to define and elevate themselves in the context of their new role as cultural mediators between India and the West. Another was their championing of a prudish, almost Victorian sensibility, according to which the traditions of popular religion, such as the esoteric and often Tantric Vaiava Sahajiyās, Auls, Bauls, Kartābhajās, and ūfīs, were viewed as participating in dubious moral practices and hence as embarrassing. Bankimcandra Chatterjee was outspoken in his disapproval of the frank eroticism in Bhāratcandra's Annadāmagal and of the sensuality displayed in normative devotional poetry centered on Ka and Rādhā (he preferred the martial Ka of the Bhagavadgītā ). Although one can certainly lay this concern to prove one's religion as "respectable" at the feet of the British, it is also undeniable that the sanitizing instinct was alive and well before colonial influence: consider Caitanya's disciples, the Gosvāmins, who tried to demonstrate in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, via several theological somersaults, that Rādhā and Ka were not adulterers.

These puritanical diatribes against image worship did not last in Bengal, however; at least among Hindus they largely fell victim, in the nationalist period after 1905, to a politicized revival of traditional and religious fervor, expressed in a peculiarly Bengali idiom: Śāktism. Thus even though Bankimcandra was by nature morally conservative, his novels attempted to arouse Hindu pride and to remove humiliation. "Bande Mātaram!," or "Hail to the Mother!," the song identifying the motherland with the Mother Goddess that he embedded within his novel Ānanda Mah (1882), became a political slogan during the protests from 1905 to 1907 against the first partition of Bengal. Political extremists of the period went further, using temples as rallying places, taking oaths in front of Hindu deities to buy only India-made (svadeśi ) items, and glorifying caste and caste rituals as natural and beneficial. Aurobindo Ghose (18721950), who before his retirement into spiritual seclusion in 1910 was a Bengali revolutionary, wrote a didactic play called Bhawani Mandir, in which he follows Bankimcandra in homologizing the Goddess to the nation. The British even noted with alarm that Kālī was being employed as an incitement to the violent sacrifice of "white goats." Much later, Bengali political leader Subhascandra Bose, a staunch critic of Gandhi for the latter's reliance on nonviolence, extolled a self-sacrificing love for Bengal closely entwined with his own devotion to blood-demanding Durgā.

Although, because of the Communist Party's strict policy of secularism, the politicized equation of the land with the Goddess is not much in evidence in West Bengal today, it is alive elsewhere in India in the form of deśabhakti, or devotion to the country, which can be traced back to Bankimcandra's Bengali articulations. Deśabhakti and Rāmabhakti form the twin backbones of Hindu nationalist ideology.

To What Extent Can One Be Bengali and Muslim at the Same Time?

Another characteristic of the Bengali religious context is related to the third theme mentioned above: Islam and the process of its embedding in the region. A striking feature of premodern Islam is the disjuncture between a folk Bengali variant of Islam, based on and in conversation with indigenous roots, and an urban elite variant, with ties outside Bengal either to north India or to Persia, Arabia, and the regions of central Asia beyond the Khyber Pass. The latter group, called the ashrāf (literally, "noble people"), cultivated a high Perso-Islamic culture and literature in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, and ignored the Bengali traditions of their lower-class coreligionists, the ātrap (literally, "mean people"). In the medieval period from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, such folk traditions were highly syncretistic, pragmatic, and influenced by the surrounding Hindu culture. For example, Hindus and Muslims both worshipped the composite Hindu-Muslim figure of Satya Pīr, for Hindus a form of Viu who acts like a magal-kāvya deity and for Muslims a moral exemplar or hero; in the deltaic areas near the Bay of Bengal, they joined, again, in the reverence for Daki Rāy and Baa Ghazi Khān, who in Karāma Dāsa's 1686 Rāymagal-kāvya are co-authorized by a figure that is half-Ka and half-Muammad to offer protection against tigers and crocodiles.

Other examples of a liberal, flexible premodern Islam can be seen in ūfī texts, such as Saiyid Sultan's Nabī-vaśa (1654), where yogic and Tantric parallels are forged with ūfī imagery; in the lineages of Baul singers, many of which are mixed Hindu and Muslim; and in intercommunity social customs, such as those relating to kinship, marriage, and even naming practices. Such commonalities make sense in the context of the fact that the vast majority of Bengali Muslims are converts, from the same stock as their tribal and Hindu neighbors.

Although there are sporadic examples of continuing syncretistic trends after the nineteenth centuryfor instance, Nazrul Islam's attempt in the 1920s to forge a nonsectarian message equally applicable to a Hindu and Muslim audiencefrom the anti-partition period in 1905 one finds evidence of maturing Islamic reform movements, particularly the Tariqah-i-Muammadīya, based on the prior teachings of Shah Waliullah (17031762), and the Farāʾidī movement, founded a century earlier by Hājjī Sharīʿat Allāh of Faridpur (17811840). Fueled by agrarian unrest against Hindu landlords and responding to the cry of "Islam in danger!," both groups wished to purge the Muslims of eastern Bengal of Hindu influences, dress, and names; of syncretistic attitudes promulgated by local ūfīs and pīr s; of folk customs such as the veneration of tombs, the celebration of the Shīʿī festival of Muarram, and the exorcisms performed by local mullah s; and even of the Sanskrit-derived vocabulary in Bengali language. "Displacing" Hindu elements with Muslim ones was the agenda. By the 1920s, such calls were becoming increasingly successful, and many Bengali Muslims took to this "Ashrafization" process (the Muslim equivalent to what happens in Sanskritization) with increasing vigor. By 1938, when Jinnah, on behalf of the Muslim League, demanded that "Bande Mātaram" be dropped as the nationalist anthem, the more accommodative strategy of Nazrul Islam, who in the early 1920s had written poems like "Ānandamayī," in which he pleaded with Durgā to save her sons, and "Vidrohi," which exhorted rebellion through combined Muslim and Hindu images of martial strength, was politically outmoded.

It was not until after the formation of Pakistan that Bengalis in East Pakistan began to vocalize once again, in the face of increasing persecution and attempts at cultural obliteration by the dominant, Urdu-championing wing of their bifurcated country, that their Muslim identity was in no way inconsistent with their Bengali origins; indeed, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 was a direct result of such a conviction. Since the formation of Bangladesh, however, a slow process of Islamization has inexorably proceeded: under General Ziaur Rahman (19761981), "secular" was dropped from the constitution and replaced by "absolute faith in Allah"; Hussain Mohammed Ershad (19821990) was responsible for the addition of the Eighth Amendment, "Islam is the State Religion"; and Jamāʿat-i-Islāmī spokespeople continue to press for sharī ʿah law to become the law of the land. When parties aligned with the Jamāʿat-i-Islāmī have come to power in Dhaka, minority communitiesHindus, Buddhists, Christians, and tribalshave feared oppression and reported state-promoted endeavors to use cultural differences and linguistic divergences as a means for justifying harassment. In the eyes of many secular or liberal-minded citizens, those for whom Bangladeshi identity is neither equated with being Muslim nor exclusive of non-Muslims, such Islamicizing trends are a departure from the vision of the country for which its founders fought in the late 1960s.

Bengali Religious Communities in the Diaspora

It is difficult to know exactly how many Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshiswhether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or otherwiselive abroad in the diaspora, as published estimates vary. According to the 2000 United States census, "Asian Indians" make up 0.6 percent of the United States population; of these, people described as "Bengalese" form one of five subcategories. Similarly, "Other Asians," at 0.5 percent of the population, include Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, and Burmese peoples. Of the approximately three million Muslims judged to be living in the United States, the largest subgroup is South Asian, with Bangladeshis slightly trailing Pakistanis. The number of Muslims from India who have emigrated to the United Statesmostly from Hyderabad and Bihar, not West Bengalis one-tenth of the non-Muslim Indian immigrant population, roughly equivalent to their proportional size in India.

Most Bengali immigrants, whether Hindu or Muslim, Indian or Bangladeshi, arrived in the United States after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which liberalized American immigration policies. They came and come for a variety of reasons, including educational and economic opportunities, violence at home, and a desired freedom of political and religious expression. Once here, not surprisingly, immigrants retain strong ties with their homelands, facilitated by ease of travel and transnational communications networks. One can see this in the types of religious groups they have organized. For instance, the first thing Bengali Hindus tend to do is to form cultural associations to sponsor the annual celebration of Durgā Pūjā (and, if they are big and wealthy enough, Kālī and Sarasvatī Pūjās). North American cities in which there is a sizeable Hindu Bengali population, such as Toronto and Washington, D.C., have also raised money to build Kālī temples. In addition, Bengali associations offer activities geared toward training second-generation youth, like classes in Bengali language, dance, and the singing of Rabindra-sagīt. In all of this, the imitation of the model "back home" is extremely significant, and much ritual paraphernalia, including personnel, is brought directly from South Asia to sacralize the diaspora celebrations. Bangladeshi Hindus, although they may join West-Bengali-run associations, have tended to form their own groups, partly because of different socio-economic backgrounds and partly because, for the Bangladeshi Hindu, cultural celebration cannot be divorced from political reality. Sensitized to the plight of Hindus in Bangladesh who are perceived as being threatened when Islamicizing governments hold power in Dhaka, they use Durgā Pūjā festivities in the United States as a means of raising awareness and garnering support for the straightened circumstances of their coreligionists back home. This is not something that West Bengalis can readily identify with.

While West Bengali and Bangladeshi Muslims have often made common cause with one another, as also with Muslims from Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, they too have founded groups that speak to concerns specific to their lands of origin. The Association of Indian Muslims in America, for example, raises money to help beleaguered and persecuted Muslims in India, and a whole host of Bangladeshi organizations endeavors to keep alive Bengali Muslim culture, festival traditions such as ʿĪd al-Fir, and devotional musical events, to which Bengali poets are invited from the subcontinent.

There is some overlap of communities and religious traditions in these diasporic contextsfor instance, Bengali Muslim artists singing at Durgā Pūjā cultural events, or Hindus attending fast-breaking meals at the close of each day of Ramaānbut the degree to which such communal harmony prevails in North America depends to some extent on what is happening in the subcontinent: whether India and Bangladesh are on friendly terms, or whether Muslims or Hindus, respectively, are perceived as being maltreated at home. What oils the relationship between the two separate diaspora groups is, of course, their dual pride in the Bengali language, which, until a momentous point in history wrenched the two halves of Bengal apart, united its people.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in India; Caitanya; Christianity, article on Christianity in Asia; Dīvālī; Durgā Hinduism; Goddess Worship, article on The Hindu Goddess; Hindi Religious Traditions; Indian Religions, article on Rural Traditions; International Society for Krishna Consciousness; Jayadeva; Kaism; Marathi Religions; Ramakrishna; Tamil Religions; Tantrism, overview article; Vara and Jāti.


Although somewhat dated, the two-volume History of Bengal, edited by R. C. Majumdar and Jadunath Sarkar; Vol. 1: The Hindu Period, edited by R. C. Majumdar (Dacca, Bangladesh, 1943); Vol. 2: The Muslim Period, edited by Jadunath Sarkar (Dacca, Bangladesh, 1948), is still useful, if supplemented by current studies on individual subjects. Likewise, for comprehensive introductions to Bengali literature, Asitkumār Bandyopādhyāy's Bāglā Sāhityer Itivtta, 5 vols. (Calcutta, 1955) and Sukumar Sen's History of Bengali Literature, 3rd ed. (New Delhi, 1979) remain invaluable.

Excellent studies on Islam include Rafiuddin Ahmed, Bengal Muslims, 18711906: A Quest for Identity (Delhi, 1996); Rafiuddin Ahmed, ed., Understanding the Bengal Muslims: Interpretative Essays (New Delhi, 2001); Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 12041760 (Berkeley, Calif., 1993); Abdul Karim, Social History of the Muslims in Bengal, down to A.D. 1538 (Dacca, Bangladesh, 1959); Asim Roy, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal (Princeton, N.J., 1983); Tony K. Stewart, Fabulous Females and Peerless Pīrs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (New York, 2004); and Mamatjur Rahman Tarafdar, Husain Shahi Bengal, 14941538 A.D.: A Socio-Political Study (Dacca, Bangladesh, 1965). Ahmed Sharif, Anisuzzaman, and Rafiqul Islam have each written voluminously in Bengali on aspects of Bengali Muslim literature and culture.

For monographs and translations pertaining to the Gauīya Vaiava tradition, see the overview studies of Ramakanta Chakravarti, Vaiavism in Bengal, 14861900 (Calcutta, 1985), and Sushil Kumar De, Early History of the Vaiava Faith and Movement in Bengal, from Sanskrit and Bengali Sources (Calcutta, 1962); the translations of Edward C. Dimock Jr., The Caitanya Caritāmta of Kadāsa Kavirāja: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Tony K. Stewart (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), Edward C. Dimock Jr. and Denise Levertov, trans., In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (Chicago, 1981), and Barbara Stoler Miller, trans., Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva's Gītagovinda (New York, 1977); the study of Rādhā in Bengali Vaiava conceptions by Sumanta Banerjee, Appropriation of a Folk-heroine: Radha in Medieval Bengali Vaishnavite Culture (Shimla, India, 1993); and descriptions of Vishnupur and Vaiava art and architecture in Pika Ghosh's Temple to Love: Architecture and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Bengal (Bloomington, Ind., 2004) and Ákos Östör's The Play of the Gods: Locality, Ideology, Structure, and Time in the Festivals of a Bengali Town (Chicago, 1980).

Further reading on the Śākta and Tantric traditions should include two excellent studies of the Sanskrit literature: Kunal Cakrabarti, Religious Process: The Purāas and the Making of a Regional Tradition (New Delhi, 2001), and Teun Goudriaan and Sanjukta Gupta, Hindu Tantric and Śākta Literature (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1981). Essays on individual regional deities, such as Śītalā, Manasā, and Caī, may be found in Edward C. Dimock Jr., The Sound of Silent Guns and Other Essays (Delhi, 1989), and Ralph W. Nicholas, Fruits of Worship: Practical Religion in Bengal (New Delhi, 2003). For information on and translations of the Śākta devotional poetry tradition, see Rachel Fell McDermott, Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kālī and Umā in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal (New York, 2001) and Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kālī and Umā from Bengal (New York, 2001); Malcolm McLean, Devoted to the Goddess: The Life and Work of Ramprasad (Albany, N.Y., 1998); and Clinton B. Seely and Leonard Nathan, trans., Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess by Ramprasad Sen, 2d ed. (Prescott, Ariz., 1999). For studies of Śākta saints, see Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kālī's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1999), and June McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal (Chicago, 1989). For lists of Bengali Buddhist Tantras, see S. C. Banerji, Tantra in Bengal: A Study in its Origin, Development, and Influence, 2d ed. (New Delhi, 1992). The Tantric impact on ūfī texts is discussed by Asim Roy, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition, cited above.

Various types of folk and popular religionfor instance, the Bauls, Sahajiyās, and Kartābhajāshave been discussed in the following: Sumanta Banerjee, Logic in a Popular Form: Essays on Popular Religion in Bengal (Calcutta, 2002); Shashibhusan Dasgupta, Obscure Religious Cults (Calcutta, 1962); Edward C. Dimock Jr., The Place of the Hidden Moon : Erotic Mysticism in the Vaiava-sahajiyā Cult of Bengal (Chicago, 1966) and The Thief of Love: Bengali Tales from Court and Village (Chicago, 1963); E. Alan Morinis, Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal (Delhi, 1984); Jeanne Openshaw, Seeking Bauls of Bengal (Cambridge, U.K., 2002); Tapan Raychaudhuri, "Transformation of Religious Sensibilities in 19th Century Bengal (I)" in Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture Bulletin (Calcutta, March 1996): 96-100; and Hugh B. Urban, The Economics of Ecstasy: Tantra, Secrecy, and Power in Colonial Bengal (New York, 2001).

The colonial period, from roughly the early eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, has garnered tremendous interest among scholars of Bengal. A few titles germane to the study of religion include the following. For the interplay between Hindu zamīndārs, Śāktism, and the conditions of early British power, see David L. Curley, "Maharaja Krisnacandra, Hinduism, and Kingship in the Contact Zone of Bengal," in Rethinking Early Modern India, edited by Richard B. Barnett (New Delhi, 2002), pp. 85117; and John R. McLane, Land and Local Kingship in 18th Century Bengal (Cambridge, UK, 1993). For elite and popular contexts of eighteenth- to nineteenth-century Calcutta, see Sumanta Banerjee, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (Calcutta, 1989); and David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, N.J., 1979) and British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization, 17731835 (Berkeley, Calif., 1969). Sumit Sarkar's study of the first partition of Bengal is still a classic: The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 19031908 (New Delhi, 1973).

Recommended monographs on famous Bengali writers and religious leaders include Shamita Basu, Religious Revivalism as Nationalist Discourse: Swami Vivekananda and New Hinduism in Nineteenth Century Bengal (New Delhi, 2002); Michael Madhusudan Datta, The Slaying of Meghanada: A Ramayana from Colonial Bengal, translated with an introduction by Clinton B. Seely (New York, 2004); Brian A. Hatcher, Idioms of Improvement: Vidyāsāgar and Cultural Encounter in Bengal (Calcutta, 1996); Tapan Raychaudhuri, Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth Century Bengal (Delhi, 1988); and Sumit Sarkar, An Exploration of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Tradition (Shimla, India, 1993). For types of Hindu response to Christian teaching, see Julius J. Lipner, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay: The Life and Thought of a Revolutionary (Delhi, 1999); and Richard Fox Young, Resistant Hinduism: Sanskrit Sources on Anti-Christian Apologetics in Early Nineteenth-century India (Leiden, 1981).

Comparative data on Hindu and Muslim class, marriage, and kinship patterns may be found in Lina M. Fruzzetti, Gift of a Virgin: Women, Marriage, and Ritual in a Bengali Society (New Brunswick, N.J., 1982); Lina M. Fruzzetti and Ákos Östör, Kinship and Ritual in Bengal: Anthropological Essays (New Delhi, 1984); Ronald B. Inden and Ralph W. Nicholas, Kinship in Bengali Culture (Chicago, 1977); and Manisha Roy, Bengali Women, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1996).

Rachel Fell McDermott (2005)

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