Hinduism Hinduism in Bengal and Surrounding Areas
by
Rebecca Manring
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0124

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

General overviews of Hinduism in Bengal are unusual. Chakrabarty 2002 and De 1960 offer the broadest studies of Hinduism in Bengal and eastern India. Ghosh 2005 “reads” temples to determine how they were used; Hatcher 2008 looks at Hinduism in early colonial Bengal, and Nicholas 2003 considers praxis in village India. Gonda 1976 helps to situate two important devotional streams in a broader South Asian context. Kripal 1998, treating the beloved 19th-century ecstatic Ramakrishna, spawned great furor, first in Kolkata and then in the American academy, for the author’s conclusion that Ramakrishna was homosexual. We find shifting contrasts among the terms Hindu, Turk, and Muslim, as Gilmartin and Lawrence 2000 reveals. Bhaṭṭācārya 1989 is a compendium on the uniquely Bengali maṅgala kāvya corpus.

  • Bhaṭṭācārya, Āśutoṣa. Bāṅglā Maṅgalakāvyera Itihāsa. 7th ed. Calcutta: A. Mukherjee, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    Definitive work on this distinctly Bengali literary genre. Author devotes separate sections each to Śiva Maṅgala, Manasā Maṅgala, Caṇḍī Maṅgala, Dharma Maṅgala, Annadā Maṅgala, and miscellaneous goddess maṅgalas, with one general introductory chapter providing historical and literary background. With glossary.

  • Chakrabarty, Ramakanta. Bangalira dharma, samāja o samskriti. Kolkata: Suvarnarekha, 2002.

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    Useful overview of Bengali religious history, with essays devoted to such topics as “Bankimcandra and Vaiṣṇavism,” “Nityānanda,” and “Brahmins in Ancient Bengal.” Chakrabarty ranges from ancient times to the present, examining the impact of historical events on religion in Bengal. Available only in Bengali.

  • De, Sushil Kumāra. Bengal’s Contribution to Sanskrit Literature and Studies in Bengal Vaiṣṇavism. Calcutta: Indian Studies Past and Present, 1960.

    E-mail Citation »

    Useful bibliographic reference, especially because many materials in Sanskrit from this region, aside from those produced by the Gauḍīyas, have been generally overlooked.

  • Ghosh, Pika. Temple to Love: Architecture and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Bengal. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    First winner of the book prize of the American Institute of Indian Studies, Temple to Love nicely brings art history to bear on Bengali religious practice. Good complement to Bimal Kumar Dutta, Bengal Temples (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1975).

  • Gilmartin, David, and Bruce B. Lawrence, eds. Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Anthology of articles by scholars in the fields of religious studies, art history, and history, demonstrating the many ways Hindu and Muslim worlds interacted and overlapped in South Asia.

  • Gonda, Jan. Visnuism and Sivaism: A Comparison. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1976.

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    This collection of lectures delivered in mid-1969 at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies is still useful for its succinct coverage of some of the sociopolitical as well as literary and ritual aspects of the history of the two movements. Not specific to Bengal but still relevant.

  • Hatcher, Brian A. Bourgeois Hinduism, or The Faith of the Modern Vedantists: Rare Discourses from Early Colonial Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195326086.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Evolution of modern Vedānta from the early-19th-century meetings of the Tattvabodhinī Sabhā, set in the light of the social and religious changes taking place in early colonial Calcutta. Includes a translation of the Sabhyadiger Vaktṛtā, the Sabhā’s earliest record, with entries composed by Debendranath Tagore and Īśvaracandra Vidyāsāgara, among others.

  • Kripal, Jeffrey J. Kālī’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Analysis of 19th-century mystic Ramakrishna’s “secret talk”—the eroticized language and activities that have long baffled scholars and devotees alike. Kripal’s groundbreaking work brings together the history and psychology of religion, mysticism, and cross-cultural studies of sexuality and gender.

  • Nicholas, Ralph W. Fruits of Worship: Practical Religion in Bengal. New Delhi: Chronicle Books, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Nicholas has devoted years to the study of the cult of the god Dharma and associated practices, and this collection of essays brings his work together.

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