Chapter

The Religion of Man (Mānuṣer Dharma)

Hugh B. Urban

in The Economics of Ecstasy

Published in print December 2001 | ISBN: 9780195139020
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780199834778 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/019513902X.003.0003
 The Religion of Man (Mānuṣer Dharma)

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Like the economic field of the late eighteenth century, the religious world of early colonial Bengal was also a vast “bazaar,” a marketplace of spiritual goods, both genuine and fake, in which traders from all lands haggled and bartered; amidst this teeming market, with its host of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and other competing factions, the Kartābhajā sect would emerge as perhaps the most successful of the various minor sects that spread among the lower classes. It is argued in this chapter that not only did the Kartābhajās emerge at a key locus and critical historical moment but they also represented a profound transformation within the older Sahajiyā tradition, which was especially well suited to this changing social context, and which offered a highly marketable set of spiritual commodities. The primary appeal of the Kartābhajās, and the main reason for their striking growth and success, lay in their remarkable capacity for synthesis; their tradition represents a rich bricolage (a method of borrowing elements from a variety of different “exoteric” traditions, while weaving them into a new esoteric synthesis that transcends them) of diverse elements, operating on at least three levels, which are examined in each of the three sections of this chapter. First, on the religious level, the Kartābhajās skilfully combine elements of esoteric Sahajiyā Tantric teachings, more orthodox Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology, a strong element of Sufism, and even a degree of Christian influence; second, on the social level, the Kartābhajās bring together members of all classes and social factions, rejecting caste distinctions and proclaiming the divinity of all human beings; and third, on the gender level, the Kartābhajās offered a new social space in which men and women could mix freely, even providing new opportunities for women in roles of spiritual authority. The result is a rather ingenious religious fusion – or “subversive bricolage,” which skilfully adapts and reconfigures elements from a wide range of sources – a kind of poaching or pilfering by poor lower‐class consumers in a dominated religious market that demanded the subtle use of secrecy, both, as a tactic of appropriation, and as a key social strategy or way of life.

Keywords: Bengal; caste; cults; esotericism; gender relations; history; India; Kartābhajās; men; religion; secrecy; sects; social status; Tantrism; traders; women

Chapter.  15675 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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