Bengali Sufis and Hindu Thought
From the beginning of the Indo-Turkish encounter with Bengal, one section of Muslims sought to integrate into their religious lives elements of the esoteric practices of local yogis, together with the cosmologies that underpinned those practices. Contemporary Muslims perceived northern Bengal generally, and especially Kamrup, lying between the Brahmaputra River and the hills of Bhutan, as a fabulous and mysterious place inhabited by expert practitioners of the occult, of yoga, and of magic. During his visit to Sylhet, Ibn Battuta noted that “the inhabitants of these mountains . are noted for their devotion to and practice of magic and witchcraft.” Around 1595 the great Mughal administrative manual ā’īn-i Akbarī described the inhabitants of Kamrup as “addicted to the practice of magic [jādūgarī].” Some twenty-five years later a Mughal officer serving in northern Bengal described the Khuntaghat region, in western Kamrup, as “notorious for magic and sorcery.” And in 1662–63 another Mughal chronicler, referring to the entire Assam region, of which Kamrup is the western part, remarked that “the people of India have come to look upon the Assamese as sorcerers, and use the word ‘Assam’ in such formulas as dispel witchcraft.”
Since Sufis were especially concerned with apprehending transcendent reality unmediated by priests or other worldly institutions, it is not surprising that they, among Muslims, were most attracted to the yogi traditions of Kamrup. Within the very first decade of the Turkish conquest, there began to circulate in the delta Persian and Arabic translations of a Sanskrit manual on tantric yoga entitled Amṛtakuṇḍa (“The Pool of Nectar”). According to the translated versions, the Sanskrit text had been composed by a Brahman yogi of Kamrup who had converted to Islam and presented the work to the chief qāẓī, or judge, of Lakhnauti, Rukn al-Din Samarqandi (d. 1218). The latter, in turn, is said to have made the first translations of the work into Arabic and Persian. While this last point is uncertain, there is no doubt that for the following five hundred years the Amṛtakuṇḍa, through its repeated translations into Arabic and Persian, circulated widely among Sufis of Bengal, and even throughout India. The North Indian Sufi Shaikh ‘Abd al-Quddus Gangohi (d. 1537) is known to have absorbed the yogic ideas of the Amṛtakuṇḍa and to have taught them to his own disciples. In the mid seventeenth century, the Kashmiri author Muhsin Fani recorded that he had seen a Persian translation of the Amṛtakuṇḍa, and in the same century the Anatolian Sufi scholar Muhammad al-Misri (d. 1694) cited the Amṛtakuṇḍa as an important book for the study of yogic practices, noting that in India such practices had become partly integrated with Sufism.
In both its Persian and Arabic translations, the Amṛtakuṇḍa survives as a manual of tantric yoga, with the first of its ten chapters affirming the characteristically tantric correspondence between parts of the human body and parts of the macrocosm, “where all that is large in the world discovers itself in the small.” In the mid sixteenth century, there appeared in Gujarat a Persian recension of the Amṛtakuṇḍa under the title Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ, attributed to the great Shattari shaikh Muhammad Ghauth of Gwalior (d. 1563). A prologue to this version, written by a disciple of the shaikh, records how these yogic ideas were thought to have entered the Bengali Sufi tradition:
The exchange between the yogi and the qāẓī cited here appears to have been modeled on a passage in the Qur’an (17:85), in which God tells the Prophet Muhammad: “They [the Jews] will ask thee concerning the Spirit. Say: the Spirit is by command of my Lord.” By putting into the mouth of a yogi words that in the Qur’an were those of the Jews of Muhammad’s day, the author of this recension apparently intended to make the yogi’s exchange comprehensible to a Muslim audience.
This wonderful and strange book is named Amṛtakuṇḍa in the Indian language [i.e., Sanskrit]. This means “Water of Life,” and the reason for the appearance of this book among the Muslims is as follows. When Sultan ‘Ala al-Din [i.e., ‘Ali Mardan] conquered Bengal and Islam became manifest there, news of these events reached the ears of a certain gentleman of the esteemed learned class in Kamrup. His name was Kama, and he was a master of the science of yoga.
In order to debate with the Muslim ‘ulamā [scholars] he arrived in the city of Lakhnauti, and on a Friday he entered the Congregational Mosque. A number of Muslims showed him to a group of ‘ulamā, and they in turn pointed him to the assembly of Qazi Rukn al-Din Samarqandi. So he went to this group and asked: “Whom do you worship?” They replied, “We worship the Faultless God.” To his question “Who is your leader?” they replied, “Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah.” He said, “What has your leader said about the Spirit [rūḥ]?” They replied, “God the All-nourishing has commanded (that there be) the Spirit.” He said, “In truth, I too have found this same thing in books that are subtle and committed to memory.”
Then that man converted to Islam and busied himself in acquiring religious knowledge, and he soon thereafter became a scholar (muftī). After that he wrote and presented this book to Qazi Rukn al-Din Tamami [Samarqandi]. The latter translated it from the Indian language into Arabic in a book of thirty chapters, and somebody else translated it into Persian in a book of ten chapters.…And when Hazrat Ghauth al-Din himself went to Kamrup he necessarily spent several years in studying this science.…The name of this book is Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ.
A second prologue to the Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ established a framework within which a text on yoga could be accommodated within the rich body of classical Sufi lore. In it, the translator tells of once being in a country whose king summoned him and ordered that he undertake a great journey to a distant but fabulous realm. The king reminded the traveler that they were joined together by a covenant and that they would meet again at the end of the traveler’s voyage. Then the translator/traveler describes the hardships he endured while on his journey: the two seas (the soul and nature), the seven mountains, the four passes, the three stations filled with dangers, and the path narrower than the eye of an ant. Ultimately, he reached the promised land, where he found a shaikh who mirrored or echoed each of his own moves and words. Realizing that the man was but his own reflection, the traveler remembered his covenant with his master, to whom he was now led. The story’s climax is reached in the traveler’s epiphanic self-discovery: “I found the king and minister in myself.” The dominant motifs of this second prologue—the traveler, the arduous path with its temptations and dangers, and the ultimate realization that the goal is identified with the seeker—all show the influence of Sufi notions current in the thirteenth-century Perso-Islamic world. The placement of the yogic text immediately after this prologue suggests that the esoteric practices described therein constitute, in effect, the means to achieving the mystical goals stated in the second prologue.
Although some scholars have regarded the Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ as a work of religious syncretism, this judgment is difficult to sustain if by syncretism one means the production of a new synthesis out of two or more antithetical elements. Rather, the work consists of two independent and self-contained worldviews placed alongside one another—a technical manual of yoga preceded by a Sufi allegory—with later editors or translators going to some lengths to stress their points of coincidence. Although Islamic terms and superhuman agencies are generously sprinkled through the main text, allusions to Islamic lore serve ultimately to buttress or illustrate thoroughly Indian concepts. Here, at least, yoga and Sufi ideas resisted true fusion.
Nonetheless the book’s popularity illustrates the Sufis’ considerable fascination with the esoteric practices of Bengal’s indigenous culture. The renowned Shattari saint Shaikh Muhammad Ghauth even traveled from Gwalior in Upper India to Kamrup in order to study the esoteric knowledge that Muslims had identified with that region. In doing so he was following a tradition of Sufis of the Shattari order, whose founder, Shah ‘Abd Allah Shattari (d. 1485), included Bengal on his journey from Central Asia through India. Although one cannot establish a continuous intellectual tradition between Bengali Muslims of the thirteenth century and the Shattari Sufis of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the association of the Baḥr al-ḥayāṭ both with Rukn al-Din Samarqandi in the former century and with Shaikh Muhammad Ghauth in the latter century suggests the likelihood of its continued use in Bengal during the intervening period.