Verses Of Resistance: How Certain Folk Literary Cultures Of Medieval Bengal Had Risen Against Brahminism
October 14, 2017
This was in the 13th century. 5 centuries had passed since the marauding Vedantic forces led by Adi Shankaracharya had torn into the sanghas, monasteries and stupas of the Buddhist. Meanwhile, General Vijay Sen had risen in coup from the barracks of the last Pala kings of Bengal to deal the final staggering blow to the last Buddhist dynasty of the subcontinent. The Brahmins had established their rule over the feudal gentry. By the 11th century AD, Buddhism was wiped out by the caste-Hindu order. Over the one and a half millenniums preceding these times, many communities had sought refuge in Buddhism as a shelter from the harsh caste oppression of the Vedic and post-Vedic Hindus. They had found social dignity in Buddhism. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, all such communities in the subcontinent were browbeaten back within the humiliating folds of the caste system.
So, this was 13th century Bengal. Brahminical oppression had reached peak. And then, as yet another stream of faith, in came the travelling Fakir musicians from the Sufi orders of Moinuddin Chisty and his disciple Hazrat Nizamuddin into Bengal. Also came the Khilji general Bakhtiyar with his horsemen. Those who had faced the rawest deals of this Brahminical order of Shankaracharyaand the Sena kings, included the dalit ‘nyara’-‘neri’ or shaven-heads (a common caste-slur of rural Bengal used even until the last century). These and other oppressed communities, having resisted the advent of Brahminical orders by adhering to their Buddhist and indigenous systems of faith across two centuries – saw hope and respite in this advent of new order – one more egalitarian than Brahminism.
Five centuries down the line, these Sufis and Fakirs and many farmers & fisherfolks from Bengal who had taken to their ways of life would be the earliest communities to offer the first line of resistance to the tyranny of the European traders and their Hindu lackeys in the form of the Fakir Vidroha(1774-‘78).
But ours is a tale from older times. There was still a century left for the Vaishnavas to present one more of such prima facie egalitarian social option to the repressed castes. Institutional narratives of history are very silent on this phase. History is written by the victors, and the victors never write about their inequities. Instead, they spew lies. Hindutva icon Bankim ignores all these heritages to sigh “Bengal has no history”, and then goes on to spew venom against Islam, blaming Bakhtiyar and his twelve horsemen, along with their Islamic ways of life, for all the bloodshed and injustice, and, further, to portray the Fakir Rebellion led by Fakir leaders such as Majnu Shah and Lalan Fakir against the English East India Company and its vassals – being the Hindu tax-collecting kings, babus and zamindars as a make-believe rebellion led by some fantastically a non-existent Vedic Hindu monastic order against the Nawabs and the Muslim community.
However, literature, in this case, Bhakti Literature, provides a crack in the dominant narratives of silence and falsity surrounding those two-three centuries between the set of Buddhism and rise of Islam in Bengal. This is a 13th century verse ‘Niranjan-er Rushma’, meaning, ‘the Wrath of Niranjan’, penned by one Ramai Pundit in the medieval Bangla language. ‘Niranjan’ alludes to the shunyavadior nihilistic philosophies of non-dualistic emptiness or Advaita Shunyavada as propounded by famed Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna in the 2nd century AD – one that was co-opted and converted into Advaita Vedantavada or Non-Dualistic Vedantism, Adi Shankara & his two immediate gurus Govindacharya & Gaudapa across the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries AD. The concept of ‘Niranjan’ – denoting the formless, colourless emptiness or shunya, has since lodged itself within the folds of the Sikh disciplines of faith.
However, in the context of this poem, Niranjan denotes ‘Dharma’ – a divine conception of faith that has ever since been present extensively among rural Dalit Hindu communities of rural Bengal. This ‘Dharma’, the deity that this verse was dedicated to, was an amalgam of the Dhamma of Buddhism manifested as emptiness and an older indigenous deity represented by vermillion anointments on pieces of rocks and stones – one that points at the very conspicuously forgotten Austric adivasi past of Bengal. This deity is worshipped in the red-soiled rugged Rarh landscapes located on the lateritic fringes bordering Bengal and Chhotanagpur – a region noted for its adivasi past – where, it is said, that the soil turned red when Bhimsena of the Pandavas arrived and began killing ‘asura’s and ‘rakshasa’s.
A verily “Grotesque Body and the Carnivalesque” manifestation of folk devotion occurs through the Gajana ritual-worship of Dhamma performed, attended and celebrated by the Dom and a few other Dalit communities from Bengal.
A present day Dalit community of Bengal – the Doms, have been worshipping this deity Dharmasince ancient times. Cooptive Hindutva forces have sought to interpolate the Dhamma of the Domswith the Yama of caste-Hindu pantheon – because Yama, according to Hindu mythology, lords over the dead and the historical caste-profession of the Dom community has been burning corpses. Buddhist scriptures dating back to the Pala era indicate how this community had acquired considerable social dignity in the Buddhist times and there was a great scholar and poet from this community Dombipa who had defeated Shankaracharya in a debate by the then Buddhist monasteries at Kashi. The latter, being defeated in debate, had entered Kashi by force. That, during the rule of the Brahminical feudal gentry of the Sena era, this Dom community had risen in revolt is remembered through a child’s-play rhyme in the Bangla language that starts with:
“the Doms prepare at the fore,
At the rear
Dhaak, dhol, mridanga drums beat….”
This rhyme, along with multiple verses from the earlier Buddhist times, as well as the medieval ballad-verses of the Dharmamangal sub-genre written between the 13th and the 18th centuries AD, indicate effusive musical proficiency of the Dom community as drummers. The Brahman erases it all for the corpse burners.
The poem Niranjan-er-Rushma by Ramai Pundit tells a beautiful tale of resistance against the Brahminical exploitation by the people of Jajpur. It had to be told in a slightly cryptic form to avoid destruction or cooption by the dominating tides of time. It is a part of a larger poem titled ‘Shunya-Purana’ that is dedicated to the Shunya, the emptiness represented by this Dhamma or Dharma – a deity as described above. Presented below is a translation of the poem.
The Wrath of Niranjan
The plaintiff is from Jajpur, Sol Shah’s family has read the Vedas
He asks, why this tax?
The harlot goes South, no home for her
She curses the earth to ashes
More taxes in district Malda, everyone has to pay
Nets can’t tie the sides up!
They are strong, they gather in handfuls
They destroy Saddharma
Vedas spelled out, flames circle up and gather thick
Saw and trembled in fear
Deep meanings held in mind, all say to keep Dharma
Who but you can be the salvation?
Thus the Brahmins wrecked everything
And injustice grew strong
Dharma, who stayed in paradise got the sign
and all darkness became Maya
Dharma turned Muslim, he donned a black cap,
He rode the three barreled cannon
and arrived – the three worlds began to quake
in the name of Khoda
Niranjan, formless, became Avesta-avatar
And spoke of the Dum in words had that held the Dum
All the gods became one in mind
and attained the Izar of Ananda
Brahma became Mohammad, Vishnu became Noah
Adam became Shiva
Ganesh became Ghazi, Kartik became Quazi
All the sadhus became fakirs
Narad threw his disguise and became Sheikh
Indra became Haji Maulana
The other gods like Chandra and Surya became footsoldiers
And they all started making music!
Devi Chandika, herself she turned into Haya Bibi
Padmavati became Bibi Noor
All the gods became one in mind
And entered Jajpur!
And thus began the war
Temples were smashed, the prosceniums looted
Sounds filled the sky: ‘catch ‘em bastards!’
Ramai Pundit holds the vessel of Dharma
“THERE IS MUCH HULLABALOO!”
Yet another folk-rhyme, held in the recesses of faith in the collective memories of Dalit Hindu communities of Bengal as the ‘Rhyme for Breaking Houses’ or ‘Ghawr Bhangar ChhawRa’ – a part of yet another anonymously penned long verse from the early medieval ages called ‘Dharmer Katha’ or ‘Words of Dharma’ also speak about ‘Niranjana’ taking to a ‘Yavana’, i.e., Muslim, identity to manage the tumultuous state of affairs in this same Jajpur – goes, roughly translated, thus:
Niranjan needed to destroy the Brahmin race
He became Yavana and reached Jajpur
Broke many temples with his mace
The priests dropped their scriptures and ran
Wiping anointments off their foreheads
Oh Brother, Yavan arrives at the celebration of Dharma!
And wherever temples stand,
He wrecks them to oblivion
It these folk-verses and the documentation by 17th century AD Tibetan scholar Taranatha that prevents the Brahman historian from ensuring a complete erasure of the historical truth behind the welcome that the Dalit communities of Bengal had offered to Islam wherein they had found soothing refuge from three hundred years of Brahminical tyranny in the 13th century AD.
Jajpur is the name of a modern-day district in Odisha. Kalinganagar, where, on the night between the 1st and the 2nd of January, 2006 Tata company had gunned many the Adivasi people down after having snatched their lands, is located in this district. Today, the bhadralok socialists of Bengal, comfortably numb inside a rehashed-beyond-contextuality cocoon called ‘religion is the opium of the masses’, continue with their Brahminical tradition of maintaining puritanical distance from the race, caste & identity struggles of historically repressed Dalit communities. Making hay in such sunshine of political vacuum, neo-Hindutva lobbies like Hindu Samhati seek to foment communal disharmony by invoking the ‘dalit’ identity of multiple historically repressed Hindu castes to stoke and channel their anger against equally historically repressed Muslim communities – all with the ultimate aim of gaining political mileage through communal polarization. On such a day, may we not remind ourselves how, from Jajpur, 13th century AD to Jajpur, 21st century AD, sudden streaks of revealing lightning rush through history, throwing the ruling elites off guard on certain moments of indignant indiscretion!
First published in Counter Currents.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.