A clear distinction can be drawn between religion and society in ancient and medieval Bengal on the basis of historical developments. Although there were separate religious communities of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains in the ancient era, they had their origin from the same religious roots and their differences also diminished gradually. Besides, the Buddhist religion became almost non-existent in Bangla towards the end of the ancient era. Consequently, when the Muslims came to settle in this land at medieval times as conquerors, they termed the religion and society of the local people 'Hindu'.
MUSLIM CONQUEST OF BANGLA: The structure of a Brahmanical religion that was erected throughout Bangla through the efforts of the Sena dynasty was shattered after the defeat of Lakshman Sena in 1204 AD and the conquest of Bangla by Bakhtiar Khalji. Khalji and his soldiers destroyed and plundered many Hindu temples (Murshid, 2006). The rulers who succeeded Khalji followed the same path. From Zafar Khan Gazi of the 13th century to Murshid Quli Khan of the 18th century, they continued to demolish Hindu temples. The manner in which the Muslim soldiers led by 'Kalapahar', the military commander of Suleiman Karrani, looted and destroyed Jazpur temple during the second half of the 16th century (1568) was narrated in detail by the poem 'Niranjaner Rusma' in the book of religious worship 'Sunyapuran' by Ramai Pundit.
But this mentality of demolishing temples underwent some change towards the end of the Sultani era. After shelving this attitude, some Sultans built new temples instead and donated untaxed land for their maintenance. Researchers have opined that this was done for making governance easier as well as boosting security, as many Hindus were appointed to royal jobs. The rulers felt that problems might crop up in governance if there was religious harassment of the Hindus. They were probably tolerant of the religious practices of Hindus for the sake of their own wellbeing. Besides, there were many Hindu Kings and Zamindars whose taxes filled the royal coffers (Bhowmik, 2007).
ISLAMIC CHALLENGE TO HINDUISM: The destruction of temples by the Muslim rulers was an external assault against Hindu religion, but the internal blow was even more serious. The caste system, which had been in vogue since the ancient era, was weakening the Hindu society from within. In addition, there were many restrictions and regulations. This took a serious shape during the rule of the Senas. The swords of the guardians of society came down heavily even for the slightest deviations from rules; the low-caste Hindus were especially ostracised from society. The religion of Islam arrived in Bengal in such a backdrop.
Alongside the rulers, many Muslim saints also arrived in India and Bangla. They were very eager to preach Islam among the people of this land. Converting non-believers into Muslims was considered to be an act of virtue. Consequently, the Sufi saints were very enthusiastic about performing this task. Many of them were very learned and used to live honest lives by following religious dictums. The ordinary people found them possessing many good qualities as well as miraculous powers. They held the saints in very high esteem and converted to Islam when they were impressed by the behaviour and magnanimity of the saints (Bhowmik, 2007).
Unlike the then Hindu society, not too many religious or social restrictions were in vogue in the Muslim society with regard to food, marriage etc. A kind of equality existed among all in the social milieu including the rich and the poor, the small and the big. Because of these reasons also, many low-caste Hindus - who had to undergo brutal torture or persecution because of class discrimination - voluntarily converted to Islam. And there were others who were compelled to convert. Grounds for these compulsory conversions were many. One's faith was blighted if an infidel touched a Hindu woman. Her whole family used to be ostracised from the society of faithful if she was taken back. One lost his class status if anything banned by tradition was eaten. And there was no scope for a reinstatement if one had deviated from Hinduism. The Hindus were therefore converting in droves because of these multifarious rules, restrictions and reasons (Majumdar, 2005).
CHAITANYADEV'S REFORMS: Chaitanyadev (1486-1533) appeared on the scene at this terrible hour of the Bangali Hindus. He preached a single 'Harinam' in place of numerous sectarian doctrines. He started to sing 'Harinam Kirtans' on the roads of Navadwip with his group, amid the sounds of 'Khol-karatal'. According to his doctrine, there was no difference between humans. He declared class distinctions as unjustified and gave equal rights to all irrespective of their gender, wealth or caste. He stopped the repression of the lower castes by the higher ones. He urged everybody to adopt 'Vaishnava' religion based on love and devotion. Responding to his call, scores of people irrespective of caste and class started adopting 'Vaishnava' faith. A few Muslims also converted. In this way, the tide which was created in favour of Islam returned to 'Vaishnavism'. In other words, the conversion process of Hindus stopped and the Hindu religion and society were saved (Bhowmik, 2007).
SMRITIKARAS' ROLE: Many 'Smritikaras' (theoreticians) also appeared on the scene at this juncture for saving the Hindu religion. They brought about various reforms in Hindu religion in order to face the challenges posed by Islam.
A famous scholar of the time was Pundit Raghunandan Bhattacharya (16th-17th century), who was known merely by the name 'Smarta'. 'Ashtabingshatitama' was his famous book of theory. There were also many other books including 'Dayabhagatika'. He had discussed all aspects of the Hindu society in these books.
The extraordinary thing that Raghunandan did was to adopt many modern doctrines after showing due respect to the ancient scholars; that is, he did not ignore the demands of time. He pronounced the edict that a renegade person could return to his own religion. Sometimes, he attuned old theory-books to the demands of time by providing modern interpretations. As a result, the rules and regulations of Hindu religion became much more flexible and people could enjoy a degree of freedom in religious practices.
One of the theoreticians of the time was Devivar Ghatak. He judged the purity of one's Hindutva on the basis of the magnitude of his deviations rather than on the basis of his caste. His objective was to develop a mechanism so that nobody became a renegade or religious outcast for minor faults.
But the efforts of these people were mostly confined to the higher classes and castes of Hindu society. This was because these scholarly books were written in the Sanskrit language, which was outside the purview of people belonging to the lower classes and castes due to their inexperience of Sanskrit language. So, the theoreticians and guardians of society adopted other means to deter religious conversions of these people. They started classifying Aryan gods and goddesses by according due recognition to the gods and goddesses of the lower class people.
As a result, people belonging to the upper classes and castes started worshipping the snake goddess Manasa, the 'Shakta' goddess Mangalchandi, Kali, Shitala and others, whom they had ignored for so long. Various 'Mangal-Kavya' were composed in Bangla language by eulogising their greatness.
IDEAL HINDU SOCIETY IN THE LIGHT OF 'SMRITI-SHASTRA': The Shaiva, Shakta and Vaishnava were the most influential sects in Hindu society of medieval Bangla. There were many other sects like Soura, Ganpatya, Pashupat, Pancharatra, Kapalik, Koula, etc. According to the 'Smritisastrakaras', the following major religious rituals were observed in different months of the year: Boishakh: Pratasnan, Jalghatadan for Brahmans; Jaishtha: Aranyashashthi, Sabitribrata, Dashhara; Ashar: Chaturmasya Brata; Sraban: Manasa Puja; Bhadra: Janmashtamibrata and Anantabrata; Ashwin: Durgapuja, Luxmipuja; Kartik: Pratasnan, Dipanwita; Agrahayan: Nabannasraddha; Falgun: Shivratribrata; Chaitra: Shitalapuja, Barunisnan, Ramnabamibrata, Madantrayodashi and Madanchaturdashi (Majumdar, 2005).
HINDU SOCIETY IN MEDIEVAL BANGLA: There were provisions in the 'Smriti-shastra' regarding the social and domestic lifestyle of Hindus as well as their religious practices and rituals. But it is difficult to say how far these provisions for an ideal Hindu society were reflected in the social milieu of medieval Bangla. It is, however, assumed that contemporary literature depicted a reliable picture of social life during the period. For example, the dominant castes in the Hindu society were found to be Brahman, Kayastha and Vaidya. Brahmans themselves were divided into various segments. Mukundaram mentioned about 40 categories. Among the Vaidyas, there was use of titles like Sena, Gupta, Das, Datta, Kar, etc. Although medicine was the main profession of the Vaidyas, they had expertise in some other disciplines as well. The titles used by the Kayasthas included Ghosh, Basu, Mitra, Pala, Nandi, Sena, Deb, Datta, Das, Kar, Chanda etc. They were educated and were engaged in agricultural work (Majumdar, 2005).
Apart from Brahman, Kayastha and Vaidya, there were also many mixed castes engaged in various professions. These included: Banik Gope (wealthy farmers); Teli (engaged in producing oil); Kamar (produced iron untensils like axe); Tambuli (sold betel-leaf, betel-nut and camphor in a package); Napit (hair-cutting and massaging); Modak (produced sugar and molasses); Das (sold fish); Kirat and Kol (drum-beaters); Chhutar (produced fried rice); Patni (ferried people on boats). In addition, mention was also made of Ksatri and Rajputs in contemporary literature, who were trained in military disciplines and warfare.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of The Bangladesh Quarterly.
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