In the corpus of premodern Bengali literature celebrating indigenous deities such as Manasa, Chandi, Satya Pir, Dharma, or Daksin Ray, one readily sees local cosmologies expanding in order to accommodate new superhuman beings introduced by foreign Muslims. For example, we have seen that the Rāy-Maṅgala, a poem composed in 1686, celebrated both the Bengali tiger god Daksin Ray (“King of the South”) and a Muslim pioneer named Badi‘ Ghazi Khan. According to this poem, conflict between the two was resolved, not by one defeating or displacing the other, but by the elevation of Badi‘ Ghazi Khan to the status of a revered saint, and by the peaceful coexistence of the two figures, who would thenceforth hold a dual religious authority over the Sundarban forests of southern Bengal. This dual authority was represented by the installation of the symbol of the tiger god’s head at the burial mound of the Muslim saint. The two were not, however, fused into a single religious personage, but remained mutually distinct. A separation of the indigenous and the exogenous was also maintained at a higher level. The agent who resolved the conflict between Daksin Ray and Badi‘ Ghazi Khan was neither the Hindu god Krishna nor the Islamic prophet Muhammad, but a single figure represented as half Krishna and half Muhammad. Islamic superhuman agencies were thus associated with indigenous agencies at two levels, though not yet fully identified with them.
The inclusion of Muslim alongside local divinities is also seen in the rich tradition of folk ballads passed on orally by generations of professional bards. Since they were normally preceded by invocations (bandanā) in which Bengal’s rustic bards invoked any and all divinities considered locally powerful, these ballads tell us much about the religious universe of the unlettered audience to whom they were sung. Here we may consider the opening lines of “Nizam Dacoit,” a ballad of Chittagong District dating from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries:
First of all I bow down to the Supreme Deity [Prabhu], and secondly to (the same Omnipotent Being conceived as) the Creator [Sirjan]; and thirdly to the benign Incarnation of Light. The Koran and other scriptural texts I regard as revelation—the sacred utterances of the Lord [Prabhu] himself.
When the Lord was engrossed in deep meditation, the luminous figure of Mahomet flashed before His mind’s eye, and as He gazed and gazed upon the vision, He began to feel a certain softening of the heart. So out of love, He created the prophet Mahomet and sent him down to the earth as the very flower of the Robikul (the solar race). He next created the entire universe. Had there been no incarnation of Mahomet, there would not have been established the seat of God [arskors, from Ar., ‘arsh, “throne of God”] in all the three worlds.
All reverence to Abdulla and to Amina; salutations at the feet of her, who bore in the womb Mahomet (the deliverer) of the earth. All honour to the city of Mecca in the west and to the Mahomedan saints; and further west, I do reverence to the city of Medina—the burial place of our Rosul [Prophet]. Bibi Fatemah, daughter of Rosul, honoured of all, was called “mother” by all excepting Ali.
In the north, I offer my tribute of respects to the Himalayas, beneath whose snowy heights lies the entire universe. I bow down to the rising sun in the east, and also to the shrine of Vrindavan, together with Lord Krishna, the Eternal Lover of sweet Radha. I next do reverence to the milky rivers and the ocean, dashing against the two shores, with sandy shoals in the middle. In all the four directions, I tender my respectful compliments to all the four sects of the Mussalmans. I pay homage to Mother Earth [Basumātā] below and to the heavens above.
I bow down to Mother Isamati in the village of Raunya and also to the mosque of the great Pir at Nawapara. I next make my salam to the hill of Kavalyamura to the right and the mosque of Hirmai to the left. The great upholders of truth are passed through these tracts. The river Sankha is also sacred.…Tendering my regards to all the sacred spots, I proceed onwards and arrive at Sita Ghat [Sitakund], where I offer my tribute of worshipful regards to that ideal of womanly virtue—Sita Devi—and also to her lord Raghunatha [Rama].
Clearly, the religious culture of the area in which this ballad was sung included a broad spectrum of superhuman agencies, ranging from nearby pīrs and rivers to the distant Himalayas and even the sublime Absolute of Indian philosophy. Above all, the invocation illustrates how easily Islamic superhuman figures could be included in what appears to have been a fluid, expandable cosmology. As in the case of the poem Rāy-Maṅgala, moreover, the poet did not identify these powers with one another, but treated them as separate entities.
The poem also includes both indigenous and exogenous religious ideas. On the one hand, we see the tenacity of the Bengali emphasis on divine power as manifested in female agency—Mother Isamati, Mother Earth, Sita, and Radha. It is significant that this emphasis is extended to include prominent females of Islamic history: special reverence goes to Amina, the Prophet’s mother, and Fatima, his daughter, is referred to as “mother” to all except her husband, ‘Ali. On the other hand, the poem shows that themes wholly foreign to the delta had also infiltrated the religious universe of the Bengali countryside. The emphasis on Light, the association of Light with the Prophet Muhammad, and the creation of the world as the result of God’s desire to see himself, all confirm what we know from Mughal government documents examined in previous chapters—that many of the men who played decisive roles in disseminating Islamic ideas in Bengal were steeped in Sufi metaphysics.
It is instructive to compare what these folk ballads have to say about the establishment of new mosques and shrines in eastern Bengal with what we know from the Mughal records discussed in chapters 8 and 9. Whereas government sanads describe the founding of local institutions from the perspective of the Mughal bureaucratic machine, the Bengali folk ballad tradition views the same process from the perspective of its rural clientele. Listen to the sixteenth-century ballad “Kanka and Lila,” set in what is now Mymensingh District. “At this time,” goes the ballad,
Although no known Mughal sanads pertain to this man or the mosque he built, it is likely that he, like the many pīrs and mosque functionaries discussed in the preceding chapters, had received government support in the form of a tax-free land grant intended for clearing jungle, establishing a rice-cultivating community, and building the mosque. In any event, it is evident that, by virtue of his charisma and his association with magic, the pīr of this ballad was understood as spiritually powerful. Villagers would likely have conferred on him an intermediate status between the human world and the transcendent power associated with his mosque.
there came a Mahomedan pir to that village. He built a mosque in its outskirts, and for the whole day sat under a fig tree. The whole space he cleared with care so that there was not one tuft of grass left. His fame soon spread far and wide. Everybody talked of the occult powers that he possessed. If a sick man called on him he would cure him at once by dust or some trifle touched by him. He read and spoke the innermost thoughts of a man before he opened his mouth. He took a little dust in his hand and out of it prepared sugar balls to the astonishment of the boys and girls who gathered around him. They greatly relished these presents from him. Hundreds of men and women came every day to pay him their respects. Presents of rice, fruits, and other delicious food, goats, chickens and fowls came in large quantities to his doors. Of these offerings the pir did not touch a bit but freely distributed all amongst the poor.
Given that this part of Bengal was overwhelmingly Muslim by the time of the earliest census reports in the late nineteenth century, it is tempting to hypothesize that the holy man’s intermediary status helped in easing the local community’s transfer of religious allegiances from non-Islam to Islam. But what does that actually mean? One can by no means assume that the gap between “Islam” and “non-Islam” in sixteenth-century Mymensingh was the same as that of the late twentieth century. Indeed, the idea of Islam as a closed system with definite and rigid boundaries is itself largely a product of nineteenth- and twentieth-century reform movements, whereas for rural Bengalis of the premodern period, the line separating “non-Islam” from “Islam” appears rather to have been porous, tenuous, and shifting. Indeed, such boundaries seem hardly to have been present at all. Popular literature dating from the seventeenth century, such as the Mymensingh ballads cited above, evolved amongst communities of people who were remarkably open to accepting any sort of agency, human or superhuman, that might assist them in coping with life’s everyday problems.
On this point we can profit from the insights of modern ethnographic research. Writing of religious change among the Yoruba of modern Nigeria, the anthropologist J. D.Y. Peel observes: “The more religion is regarded as a technique, whose effectiveness the individual may estimate for himself, the readier will the individual be to try out other techniques which seem promising. He will not be inclined to rely exclusively on one technique just for the sake of simplicity, nor will he prefer other techniques.” Similarly, Melford Spiro notes the ruthless pragmatism that the Ifaluk peoples of the Central Carolines (in the western Pacific Ocean) had toward superhuman power. “When I asked a group of Ifaluk men about the power of the spirit whose therapeutic intervention was being invoked in a healing ceremony, their response was ‘We don’t know if he is powerful or not; maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. If he is not, we’ll throw him away’ (i.e., we will no longer concern ourselves with him).” In the 1950s Igor Kopytoff remarked on the spirit of pragmatism with which the Suku of the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) assessed religious power. “There is a pervasive assumption in Suku culture,” wrote Kopytoff,
It is this pragmatic attitude to religious phenomena that characterizes the phase of religious change in Bengal I am calling inclusion.
that somewhere, somehow, other methods exist for dealing with the culturally-given causes of misfortune—methods already known to others or as yet undiscovered. This instrumental orientation makes the system very much akin to a technology which is ever-receptive to innovation and trials of new means for the same ends.…Spectacular abandonment of old medicines does not mean disbelief in the old as much as the acceptance of the greater efficacy of the new, in somewhat the same way that the adoption of a diesel engine does not mean the rejection of the principles of steam power. When an innovation is seen to be a failure, a return to the old proven techniques is a logical step.
In sum, the worldview of the people here considered was the very opposite of a zero-sum-game cosmology, in which the addition of any one element requires the elimination of another. When Bengali communities began incorporating techniques or beliefs that we would call “Islamic” into their village systems, they did not consider these as challenging other techniques or beliefs already in the system, far less as requiring their outright abandonment. The holy man who appeared in sixteenth-century rural Mymensingh was locally believed to have brought something new to the village, some new access to superhuman power that the villagers had never before witnessed. Everyone spoke of his occult skills and of his ability to cure the sick and read the minds of others. But his arrival did not require a rejection of other cults—dedicated perhaps to the goddess Chandi or Manasa, the god Krishna, or a tiger god—that were locally familiar and known to be efficacious in tapping superhuman power. Nor did the saint come to the village proclaiming with great éclat that a New Age had dawned, a New World been ushered in. As Kopytoff writes of the Suku: “Instead of the promise of a new world, we have but the discovery of a new gimmick for handling the same old world.” This predisposition to accept new “gimmicks” to deal with old problems, while not itself constituting the full religious transformation that subsequent generations would call “conversion,” was nonetheless a necessary first step along this road.