In 1947, the two parts of Bengal could avoid the merciless massacres and incredible violence that the two halves of Punjab inflicted on each other not just because Gandhi was the world’s most effective single man peacekeeping force – remember the Noakhali riots of 1946 – but also because the Bengalis are not naturally intolerant or communally-charged all the time. However, when dark forces work overtime to create discord and manufacture riots, bloodshed does happen, even though better sense prevails within a very short time.
Let us recall how both Hindus and Muslims came together in 1905 – to resist Curzon’s ‘partition of Bengal’ and eventually compel imperial Britain to roll back the announcement. But in August 1946, the same province burst into flames because armed hoodlums were imported into Kolkata to wreak havoc, by the Muslim League. It was only through this well-planned bloodshed – that was dealt with by the British police in quite a Machiavellian manner – that the two parts of the otherwise peaceful Bengal could be amputated so that the grand political master-plan of Partition could succeed.
With such a historical precedent, it is interesting to note how gods from ‘the rest of India’ – a typically regional parlance – are being imported and pressed into service in Bengal, to heat up the sweltering month of Chaitra.
The very Bengali Shiva, whose Gajan songs and pantomime have provided so much colour and festivity to Bengal during this month, is now being challenged in his domain, first by Ram and then by Hanuman. Also under threat is the traditional Bengali worship of the benign Basanti Durga and the bountiful local Annapurna and even the powerful folk goddess, Shitala Ma, as their festivals are overshadowed by aggressive gods from the upper reaches of the Ganga.
Lumpen leaders take photographs of swords and guns for newspapers before they proudly distribute these arms to hoodlums who go on motorbikes with saffron flags, to spread terror. The Indian Penal and the Criminal Procedure Code take a break, as musclemen from the ruling party that swears by ‘secularism’ from every rooftop get into competition mode, lest they lose ground – without realising that there is nothing called “just a little” where crimes like rape or communalism are concerned.
Gods in India have considerable flexibility in adjusting to the cultural demands of different regions and this is exemplified in Bengal’s choice of how their Shiva – called Sheeb – must be.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Bengal produced a large corpus of ballads in the local language that were called Mangal Kavyas, in which the local Brahminical poets valorised the previously derided ‘low class’ indigenous deities like Manasa, Dhammathakur, Chondi and Shitala. This deification or belated recognition of the gods and goddesses of the subaltern classes was, in reality, the ‘Magna Carta’ or social pact of Bengali Hinduism – that had lost two-thirds of the people to a more egalitarian Islam. What is relevant here is that the mighty Shiva of the Puranas had to suffer humiliating defeats, one after the other, at the hands of the local ‘ugly, one-eyed’ snake goddess, Manasa. Even Brahmin poets had to capitulate and compose these ballads, in order to survive.
These Kavyas entertained (and must have pleased) the masses as they were performed all over the region for several evenings in series – as one of the primary forms of popular entertainment. It was only much later that Shiva regained his popularity in Bengal after he was domiciled as a poor peasant in a flimsy gamchha cloth, with his very-Bengali wife chasing him all around the village with a broom. The point is that the King of Kailash had to be de-classed and plebianised before he hit the box offices, only after which, he was permitted, occasionally, to regain his earlier magnificence.
Let us look at the requirement of domicile once again. It is only in Bengal that Durga has invariably to come with her four children and nowhere else is she greeted with so much delirious joy. It is only in Bengal that the ferocious warrior goddess becomes such a sweet daughter and dutifully visits her parents in Ashwin and the local people revel for ten long days. ‘Navratri’? What’s that? As far as this part of India is concerned, it is time to gorge, not keep fasts, and vegetarianism is looked down upon, with derision. Incidentally, Bengalis do not forget Durga’s life and death struggle against the buffalo demon, as the dutiful daughter drags the bleeding Mahisasura to her mother’s place – as her trademark or special Aadhaar card.
Ram did not even pass through the Bengal region in search of Sita and Hanuman’s name never appears in any visitors’ book in the state. But Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti have suddenly been turned into good occasions to display spurious Hindu aggression and flare up inter-community passions. Just because a very small section of Muslims come out with their traditional tajias and some of them lash their bodies with whips and swords on Muharram – something they have been doing for nearly 800 years – a section of Hindu fanatics are demanding that they be allowed to come out with arms in processions.
But Muharram’s blood-stained rituals are done by less than 1% of the Muslims and should not be compared with Ram or Hanuman but with pain-inflicting religious rituals like Tai-Pusam of Tamil Nadu or the Charak-Gajan of Bengal. This is when Hindu bhaktas of Shiva (or the local Dhammathakur, whose worship he appropriated in Bengal) hold their gory rites of self-flagellation – that too, in more places than the Muharram ritual sword-play. Bhaktas insert hooks into the backs of willing devotees who are then swung around in circles far above the ground, with ropes tied to tall poles. Many jump from great heights into open blades and swords, while others stick long needles through their cheeks and tongues. They also roll over very thorny brambles and if Muharram is the alibi of Ram-Bhakats, they may like to try some such ritual. Inflicting pain on oneself may actually be more ‘Hindu’ than on others.
They can even take their up-country patrons to get vicarious pleasure from such bloody rites, before instigating others to slash with swords through a totally imported brand of aggression. Four have died in instigated riots on Ram Navami and more would have if the authorities had behaved like they do in some saffron-ruled states. Yet, an irresponsible junior Union minister spreads selective clips of the Asansol-Ranigunj disturbances in Bengal, hoping perhaps to keep communal flames flaring as much as possible.
Let us look closer at Hanuman, the second entrant, as Ram Navami is already over. We thought he was born on Chaitra Purnima but Tamils and Malayalis are confusing us by insisting that he was born in the month of Pous (December-January). Since birth certificates were not compulsory then, such things happen, but no one doubts that Hanuman symbolises strength and energy that he draws from both Pavan and Shiva.
We know that he wields his deadly gada (mace) with ease and that he can handle many other celestial weapons like toys. He is capable of assuming any form at will and can move mountains. He flies through the air very swiftly and actually gave Ram many free flights, even before ‘Pushpak’ was conceived. The beleaguered Indian Science Congress may soon have to scientifically study this. But when did he first appear? The first Indian civilisation in the Indus Valley had no Ram or Hanuman, nor did the Vedas mention them. Some over-enthusiastic scholars have strained to compare Indra’s favourite monkey, the Vriksha Kapi, with Hanuman but cultural DNA tests proved negative.
The kernel of the Ramayana first appeared in the ancient Buddhist Dasaratha Jataka, but it mentioned neither Sita’s abduction nor any Lanka. It exiled Ram, but he went north to the Himalayas. Let us accept the present version of the Ramayana, though there are strong views that Ravana’s Lanka was not today’s Sri Lanka but was somewhere in central India. It has been argued that the Ramayana’s events were later transferred to a more southernly location.
Albrecht Weber, Lassen and other scholars believe that Ram’s ‘long march to Lanka’ is an allegorical narrative of the Aryan penetration into South India and Sinhala country. The clash between the Shaivite Ravan and the Vishnu-worshipping Ram also comes out quite clearly. Pre-Aryan religions or Dravidian traditions neither record nor deify Ram. In fact, during the anti-Brahmin, anti-North agitations in the mid-twentieth century period, Periyar and his Dravidian followers burnt the Ramayana because they felt that Southerners had been treated most unfairly.
Edward Moor’s classic text, The Hindu Pantheon of 1810 says that there was indeed “a popular idea entertained in India that Ceylon (was) peopled by monkeys and demons, (so) the priests and poets who chronicled the exploits may have constructed their epic machinery for the Ramayana in conformity to the public prejudices or tastes”. H.C. Lal is, however, categorical that Vanara refers to the tribe of Oraon or Vraon while others feel it could be any Austric or Negrito tribe. The Aryan-Vanara social engineering and coalition worked very well and the best reward that the Vanara tribes could be given for helping defeat the superior Dravidian power of Lanka was to allocate a cabinet berth in Hinduism to the most loyal and Sanskritised Vanara, Hanuman.
For nearly 400 years, Valmiki and his scholars had to work hard to portray the glory and valour of Brahmanical religion that had suffered heavy losses in the popularity contests of Aryan India, thanks to the new craze for Buddhism and Jainism. The new Hinduism that the Ramayana preached had lesser complications, rituals and mantras and it introduced new stars with very human faces. Ram, incidentally, gave frequent bear-hugs to Hanuman, somewhat like our leader does nowadays, but to foreigners only. This love that Ram bestowed on ‘lowly monkeys’ sent the right signals down to the masses who were tired of Hinduism’s suffocating caste system and had moved towards egalitarian Buddhism. Devotion, sheer devotion to the Master was the latest Hindu reply and Hanuman was its cultic figure.
This upgraded version of Hinduism portrayed Ram not as a hot-headed Arya-putra like Bhim or Duryodhan, but as exceedingly mild and tranquil, for he was modelled on the Buddha. We are sure that this Maryada Purush Ram could never want schoolboys in Bengal to carry swords. Though two major elections are drawing near, political parties have no right to test their strength through Ram and Hanuman and cause so many deaths.
Returning to history, we see that within five-seven hundred years of the Ramayana’s final version, leaders like Sankaracharya ensured that the new Hinduism made people forget Buddhism. During this period, several other non-Aryan deities and even animals and birds were also accommodated. Even the leader of the opposition, the Buddha, found himself on the Dashavatar pedestal, seated quite close to Ram. In the medieval period, regional language Ramayanas and Krishna literature spread the Bhakti cult, with Ram-Bhakt Hanuman and Radha as role models of devotion. Ramananda, Nimbarka, Namdev, Suradas, Tuncatt Eluttacchan, Krittivas and, of course, Tulsidas, led the way with brotherhood and loyalty as their thrusts.
Incidentally, Bengal, Punjab and Kashmir that had little or no place for the Ram-Hanuman duo, actually accounted for the maximum conversions to Islam. But, while Ram could be a pacifist, a belligerent deity was also needed, especially by the chiefs of Rajputana, Vijaynagar or in Maratha county who challenged Muslim rulers, with ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’. Hanuman was again in great demand and akhraas spread all over. We must really thank this god of the wrestlers for encouraging them to get so many rare gold and silver medals for India.
Other ‘genius’ qualities were then discovered in Hanuman: in music, grammar and pancha mukhi virtues. But one of the primary reasons for his success was that he emerged as a 24×7, any-hour distress relief agency. Even coastal fishermen and seagoing sailors invoked his aid to calm his father, Pavan, during tempests and the weak sought his protection in the face of terror, while the ailing prayed to him for succour.
As a hassle-free god, he appeared to be winning a few Muslim admirers as well. K.C. Aryan says that he was called a mo-atbar madadgar (reliable helper) by some Muslim believers. Begum Rabia of Avadh even built a temple in his name at Aliganj in Lucknow in the 19th century.The worship of this simian god of Hindustan has passed through quite a chequered career. Bengal can always welcome more gods who seek ‘domicile’ and more gods result in more public holidays, but this last bastion of secularism also loves peace and plural values. While there is no dearth of musclemen and other desperados in all political parties – nor of arms and bombs – and power is quite a heady drug, elections have to be fought on real issues, not on hollow but mesmerising oratory or through ready-to-use riots.
Jawhar Sircar retired from the Indian Administrative Service as Union culture secretary.