Hindu Religion—the Vaishnava Complex
From epigraphic, artistic, and literary evidence—notably the Sanskrit poem Gīta Govinda, composed by the thirteenth-century poet Jayadeva—we know that the Vishnu cult had been gaining royal favor immediately prior to the Turkish conquest. During the first several centuries of Turkish rule, however, this public cult, like that of śiva, suffered from the withdrawal of state patronage. It next appeared in deltaic Bengal as a popular devotional movement unmediated by priestly rituals or court patronage, and marked by the appearance of vernacular literature glorifying the various incarnations of Vishnu. Sometime in the fifteenth century, Kirtivas Pundit made a Bengali translation of the Rāmāyaṇa, the famous epic of Rama. Yet what ultimately won over the mainstream of Bengali Vaishnavas was Vishnu’s incarnation, not as Rama, but as Krishna—the naughty child-god, the slayer of the snake king Kaliya, the seducer of the pastoral Gopi women, and especially, the lover of Radha. The popularization of a new Krishna literature can be attributed, in part, to patronage by the Muslim court at Gaur. Between 1473 and 1480, the Kayastha poet Maladhara Basu composed his śrī Kṛṣṇa-Vijaya, “The Triumph of Lord Krishna,” under the patronage of Sultan Rukn al-Din Barbak (r. 1459–74). Somewhat later, Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah (r. 1493–1519) patronized composition by Yasoraj Khan of the Kṛṣṇa-Maṅgala, now lost. The most famous early poem of the Krishna story was the śrī Kṛṣṇa-Kīrtan. Composed by Chandi Das, probably in the fifteenth century, this work explores the devious tactics deployed by the lusty young Krishna in winning the love of the cowherdess Radha. Once won, Radha’s passionate love for the divine Krishna became the central motif of Bengali devotionalism, or bhakti.
The movement crystallized around a single, charismatic personality who appeared in West Bengal early in the sixteenth century—the saint and mystic Chaitanya (d. 1533). Born a Brahman in 1486, Chaitanya began his career studying and teaching at Nadia, then a bastion of Brahmanical learning, but in 1508 he met a devotee of Krishna while on a trip in Bihar, and his life took a decisive turn. Once initiated into the cult, Chaitanya renounced his former life for that of an ecstatic worshiper of Vishnu manifested as Krishna. Upon returning to Bengal he became the center of a group of devotees who established a tradition of devotional worship through enraptured dance and songs (kīrtan) praising Krishna. The practice soon became a public one, as Chaitanya and his followers took to parading through the streets of Nadia shouting the name of God in moods of raptured devotion. Although officers of the sultanate placed curbs on the cult’s ecstatic excesses when they disturbed the public peace, the true adversaries of the growing neo-Vaishnava movement were neither local Muslims nor the court at Gaur—which actually patronized Vaishnava literature—but Brahman supporters of the cults of Chandi and Manasa. First, in their view, the Vaishnava custom of communal song, the kīrtan, not only disturbed the peace but lacked scriptural authority. Second, Chaitanya had identified himself with God (“Gaurhari”). Third, he had usurped from Brahmans their monopoly over the use of mantras , or sacred oral formulae. And finally, his cult was charged with having attracted followers from amongst the lower classes, a point hinting at the social basis of the leading Hindu sects in this period. Since Goddess cults enjoyed broad popular support, the śākta Brahmans, as patrons of those cults, viewed the lower classes as their own natural constituency, even though they were sometimes ambivalent about extending their support to such cults. Chaitanya’s movement thus threatened to cut into their pool of religious clients.
Despite initial Brahman attempts to resist the movement, and later to control it by incorporating it into a broader Brahmanical framework, Vaishnavism managed to carve out and maintain for itself an autonomous identity in the delta’s religious landscape. By emphasizing non-Brahman inclusiveness as opposed to high-caste exclusiveness, the practice of devotion rather than ritual, and the use of Bengali rather than Sanskrit, the movement posed a real alternative to the Brahman-supported śaiva movement, with its ties to various Goddess cults. Devotional and hagiographical literature composed in the sixteenth century dramatized the assurance of salvation through love of Krishna and fixed the historical Chaitanya as one who was at least divinely inspired, if not identified with both Krishna and his lover Radha. Even during his lifetime, Chaitanya had been deified by enthusiastic devotees, and by the end of the century, when his name was included among those of the gods praised in the introductory lines of contemporary poems, his divinity seems to have been widely accepted.
Vaishnava piety spread dramatically across Bengali Hindu society. In his idealized image of a Bengali kingdom the poet Mukundaram included Vaishnavas among the city’s Brahmans, referring to them as homesteaders who engaged in devotional singing, or as prosperous city-dwellers living amidst beautiful Vishnu temples adorned with golden spires and fluttering flags. This suggests that by the late sixteenth century, while the ecstatic spirit of Chaitanya’s devotional movement was still vibrant, the upper castes had already begun to ally themselves with the movement, in the process redefining it along orthodox lines. In subsequent centuries, Vaishnava piety, though originating in cities, would make deep inroads among Bengal’s Hindu artisan and cultivating castes. By 1893 James Wise could write, “It may be said with perfect truth that Vaishnavism, in one or another of its diverse forms, to the exclusion of Saivism and all other [Hindu] creeds, is the faith professed by the agricultural, artizan, and fisher tribes of Bengal.”
In sum, Hindu society in the sultanate period was dominated by two principal religious orientations—the various Goddess cults and Vaishnava devotionalism—with Brahmans endeavoring to appropriate both. In terms of geographical reach, the Vaishnava movement appears to have been centered in western Bengal, whereas the cults dedicated to the Goddess prevailed throughout the delta, especially in the south and the east, where rebellious Hindu political movements rose up in the name of Chandi. Although the public śiva cult never recovered from the withdrawal of court patronage that followed the Turkish conquest, its śākta Brahman patrons eventually succeeded in grafting the high god to indigenous cults, and especially to that focusing on the goddess Chandi. Similarly, Vaishnava Brahmans in time managed to check the unrestrained emotionalism of Chaitanya’s movement.
It was in the context of these religious currents that Islamic devotionalism became a force in its own right in the Bengal delta. Thus far we have seen Muslims as rulers, soldiers, Sufis, merchants, administrators, or judges. But we have not yet seen them in the role of the ordinary cultivators who came to pervade the modern Bengali countryside. Indeed, Bengali Muslim cultivators would eventually form the basis of one of the largest Muslim communities on earth. This raises the question of Islamization, and the contested issue of conversion to Islam.