Hinduism in Bengal and Surrounding Areas

Rebecca Manring

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Hinduism in Bengal and Surrounding Areas

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Bengal constitutes the geographic region bounded on the north by the Himalayan range and on the south by the Bay of Bengal; that is, the post-1947 Indian state of West Bengal and the post-1971 nation of Bangladesh. Hinduism in Bengal is no less complex and various than in the rest of the Indian subcontinent. Already by the time of the buddha, Indo-Aryan civilization and culture were well established in Bengal, and the civilization of earlier inhabitants seems to have influenced religion in this region to a greater extent than was the case farther west along the Gangetic basin. The terms Hindu and Hinduism were first used by Arab traders, and the term, which began its life as a geographic identifier, has shifted its meaning several times in the dozen or so centuries since it first appeared. A distinctly Bengali literature begins to appear around the 14th century, much of it devotional in nature. We find Śāktas (named for the rather generic goddess name of Śakti) worshipping various forms of the goddess; Śaivites worshipping Śiva; and the relative newcomers, the Vaiṣṇavas, who could more accurately be called Kṛṣṇaites. Each of these three main devotional streams developed a Brahmanical, high religion, praxis, and the Vaiṣṇavas, in particular, produced an extensive literature, from hagiography to lyrical poetry to drama and even grammatical treatises. The three strands did not always coexist happily. Some Vaiṣṇava writers lament the barbarous worship of a goddess who demands blood sacrifices, for example. From time to time, they joined forces with their Muslim neighbors to decry such practices. In time, the Vaiṣṇavas would outnumber the Śāktas and Śaivites in the region, and their literary output vastly exceeds those of the other groups. Other varieties of Hinduism exist, too, including the Sahajīyas, who use sexual ritual to approach divinity and who eventually associated themselves with Vaiṣṇavism. Tantra, too, is pervasive. The mysterious set of practices makes use of, rather than sublimates, the physical senses in the quest for the divine. The Bauls and the Kartābhajās arose a bit later from the lower classes of society, and they are unique to Bengal. Changing political circumstances also influenced religious thought and practice in the region. While on the ground there was less separation in the precolonial period between Hindu and Muslim than is often conceived, we eventually see arguments for Hindu unity in the face of Muslim and Western “others.” New texts produced in the 18th century respond by asserting an essential Hindu unity and decrying insistence on narrow sectarian views and praxis. During the colonial period, harsh criticism from the British led to intense debate about proper Hinduism, and the growing cry of the nationalists strongly influenced both reformers and conservatives within Hinduism. And in the postcolonial era, a hegemonic definition of “Hinduism” comes to signify all traditions native to the subcontinent, even Buddhism, a very problematic assertion for many.

Article.  9536 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

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