The Bhakti Movement

Subaltern Vaishnavism in Bengal

Arup Kumar Sen

Religion carries a pejorative connotation in the orthodox Marxist discourse. Among the Marxist thinkers, Antonio Gramsci was an exception, who interpreted religion in a pluralist sense and argued that the same religion carries different meanings to different social classes/groups: “Every religion, even Catholicism... is really a multiplicity of religions that are distinct and often contradictory: there is a Catholicism of the peasant, a Catholicism of the petty bourgeoisie and urban workers, a Catholicism of women, and a Catholicism of the intellectuals”. (Gramsci quoted in Michael P. Carroll, Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)

The present article aims at exploring Subaltern Vaishnavism in Bengal, based on the observations made by grassroots scholar Ajit Das (See Ajit Das, Jatvaishnav Katha, Revised Edition, Samay, Kolkata, 2006), who made field study of contemporary Vaisnavism in several districts of Bengal over the years.

Sri Gauranga (renamed Chaitanya after his renunciation) arrived in Nabadwip in the Nadia district in the early 16th century when the domination of Brahminism in the social life of Bengal was at its peak. Other than the Brahmins, all other castes were treated as shudras, who did not have the right to study the shastras, religious texts of Hinduism. During his year-long stay in Nabadwip (1508-10), Gauranga challenged the domination of Brahminism. He started visiting the villages of the shudras and interacting with them. The cult of Gauranga spread soon in different parts of Bengal through kirtans, a popular ecstatic performance of song and dance. The Vaishnav identity preached by Gauranga gave farewell to the caste identities of the Hindus.

Jahnyaba Devi and Sita Devi, the respective wives of Gauranga’s close associates, Nityananda and Advaita Acharya, also emerged as leaders of the bhakti movement. The women of the vaishnav society got the rights of education and studying shastras, which in turn increased their social status.

It is significant that Gauranga was forced to quit Nabadwip and take the path of sanyas (renunciation) because of opposition by the Brahmins. Gauranga’s departure from Nabadwip to Puri in Orissa created a big crisis for the egalitarian bhakti movement in Bengal initiated by him.

The bhakti movement of Chaitanya was not well organised, and it did not have any powerful central leadership. The absence of Chaitanya weakened the movement and created different sects of Vaishnavism in Bengal. The first phase of Vaishnavism ended with the death of Chaitanya and his two close associates, Nityananda and Advaita Acharya. None of them did formulate any coherent theory or law of Vaishnavism.

Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism challenged the tenets of Brahminism, including its rituals. After his departure, guru cult developed in the vaishnav community, and many leaders started earning lots of money as gurus.

Chaitanya-initiated bhakti movement in Bengal did not have any connection with the Brahminical Vaishnavism of Vrindavan, located in North India. The next generation vaishnav leaders of Bengal, including Nityananda’s wife, Jahnyaba Devi, started visiting Vrindavan and took lessons from the six famous religious preachers of Vrindavan, known as sharagoswamis. Five of them were orthodox south Indian Brahmins and Sanskrit pundits, but they composed religious texts for the vaishnav society of Bengal. Thus, Brahminical customs and mental traits got incorporated in Bengali Vaishnavism. The south Indian Brahmin, Gopal Bhatta Goswami, composed the shastric text, ‘Haribhakti-bilas’, which preached the caste norms of vaishnavism, placing the Brahmin in the highest rank of the caste order and conferring on him the exclusive right to initiate one in Vaishnavism. In fact, ‘Haribhaktibilas’ sanctified Brahminism in Bengali Vaishnavism.

Gaudia vaishnav community emerged as the dominant brahminical vaishnav sect, which stigmatised all other vaishnav communities in Bengal as fallen communities and did not give recognition to them as vaishnavs. In fact, the Gaudia vaishnav community emerged according to the dictates of goswamis of Vrindavan and negated the egalitarian ethos of Chaitanya-initiated Vaishnavism.

Many indigenous vaishnav sects of Bengal did not accept the Brahminical Vaishnavism, which came from Vrindavan. For instance, vaishnav guru Shyamananda of Gopiballavpur-Dharenda in Medinipur and his disciple, Rasikananda, who were Sadgop by caste, went on initiating both Brahmins and shudras in the cult of Vaishnavism.

One outcast vaishnav sect is the Jatvaishnav community. How this community was born is not known. The dominant opinion is that some unknown vaishnav leaders outside the Gaudia vaishnav community initiated people from the Bagdi, Dom and Bauri communities in Vaishnavism, and this is how the Jatvaishnav society was formed. There is no caste division in this society and anyone can become a part of it by giving farewell to their previous caste/community identities. One can either live a family life or live the life of a bairagi after being initiated in Vaishnavism. Even the sex workers entry were allowed in the Jatvaishnav community. The famous Bengali stage actress, Notibinodini, was the daughter of one such outcast mother belonging to the community.

On the basis of his field study of people belonging to the Jatvaishnav community in different districts of Bengal, Ajit Das narrated how the community subverts brahminical norms and rituals in their everyday lives. He argued that the Jatvaishnav community, which was attacked by the Gaudia vaishnavs as untouchables, carried the egalitarian ethos of Chaitanya’s bhakti movement. However, he found that in recent years many educated families of the community are getting adapted to rituals and norms of Brahminism and Sanskritisaion for upward social mobility. Das emphasised the need of making family and village-based surveys of Jatvaishnavs for proper understanding of their society/societies in Bengal.

It’s not known how Vaishnavism works in the minds of the subaltern classes/groups in West Bengal in the 21st century. Recently, a field reporter, Shoaib Daniyal, while summarising his field experiences, observed: “Bengal’s Vaishnavs form a large segment of the state’s population and are usually drawn from the lower castes. Courting them using their Vaishnav identity is a new phenomenon in Bengali politics...Five years of (Mamata) Banerjee’s rule has seen the slow political emergence of low-caste subaltern identities, till now kept away from the high table of power by both the Congress and the Left”. (, April 30, 2016)

Reading low-caste Vaishnavism and its negotiations with institutional politics through the Gramscian lens may enrich understanding of the dynamics of popular politics in contemporary West Bengal.

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021