“I love it – It’s my dream country, Hendustan”, an Iranian girl I met in Kashan once told me, thinking I am Indian, which I am, of course, in the anthropological sense of the word. “Why is that?” I asked her, looking appropriately bashful so as to keep up the illusion of an appropriated identity, “what do you love about our Hendustan?” I was expecting a response like: the land, the colours, the music, or even, if I’m lucky, the men, but what I got was far more profound.
“I love Hendustan because it’s the land of all religions.”
I basked, momentarily, in the honour of belonging to this Hendustan of hers until the theme music to the movie ‘Gandhi’ kicked in and I remembered that I no longer did, and was no longer Hindustani in the way that she meant it.
No, I belong to the other parts of Hindustan, the parts that wanted to be a land of predominantly one religion. Nearly 45 years on from that disastrous decision, Bangladesh, where I am from, has tried to move back towards an abandoned ideal, but some roads can’t be travelled in both directions. A splendid tapestry once torn, is never the same again.
To be fair, today’s India isn’t the ‘Hendustan’ of an Iranian girl’s dreams, either, and the new ‘saffron surge’ of Narendra Modi’s government seems determined to keep it that way. From the increasing use of Vedic references to the attacks on minorities and the reports of mass forced conversion, India too seems to be asserting its identity as a land of predominantly one religion. And Pakistan, the original sinner, is going further down its monolithic road as it turns from a land of one religion into a land of one word — violence.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this, especially not for my Bengal, where they had managed to turn syncretism into a fine art and where our writers, poets, mystics and minstrels extolled the virtues of Love by successful blurring the edges of their religious orientations until they belonged to no club and every club, all at the same time.
Nor did all this mixing take any space away from the puritanical pursuit of one’s own, separate religion, and so Baulism, a melded mystical tradition, didn’t drive out its parents, Vaishanvism and Sufism. Instead, the three existed simultaneously and still do. This didn’t just happen in Bengal of course, it happened with varying success all over India, and was eulogised by Baba Bulleh Shah, the 17th century Punjabi Sufi, who wrote,
Where is Ramdas [a Hindu] and where is Fateh Muhammad [a Muslim]? What an ancient noise between them. But now their quarrel has vanished, and something new has emerged!
Poor old Bulleh Shah, who also wrote,
“Neither Hindu nor Muslim, Sacrificing pride, let us sit together. Neither Sunni nor Shia, Let us walk the road of peace.”
He might have contemplated suicide instead if he was alive to see the way Hindu, Muslims, Shias and Sunnis kill each other now, in the land of his birth.
When did we stop loving each other in Hindustan? We must have done so once, because for hundreds of years we learnt from each other, and even though Muslims and Hindus also met each other across battle lines, the belief that harmony could be achieved between them was never totally abandoned.
Men like Amir Khosru certainly didn’t abandon it, in fact he contributed significantly to it and might have even been the first person to give literary credence to blended languages like Hindavi and Urdu, which are themselves testaments to the same sentiment. In fact Khusro took it much further, and is credited with inventions and innovations that have enriched Hindustani Classical Music – a musical tradition that is as old as the Vedas. He created musical forms such as the Qawwali, the Khayal, and the Tarana and aided in the development of musical instruments like the Sitar and the Tabla. He even composed new Ragas.
Amir Khusro could not have engaged with Vedic culture so intimately if he did not love it, and Vedic culture would not have accommodated him so hospitably had it not loved what he brought to the table.
But Khusro wasn’t just a writer and a musician, he was also a Sufi and a disciple of Nizamuddin Aulia who was a disciple of Moinuddin Chishti, the man whose dargah in Ajmer today draws both Muslims and Hindus – like it must have done while he was still alive. The Sufi schools of thought, with their belief in Divine Love have always managed to attract followers from both of these faiths, presenting as it were an alternative to the rigidity preached by the Hindu and Islamic orthodoxy alike.
“Indeed, the Sufi tradition in India represents a confluence of the best that either religion has to offer, and due to its syncretistic and non-prejudiced outlook, it has been instrumental in promoting harmony between the Hindu and Muslim communities.” Writes Abhik Majumdar, a blogger on a site called ‘Debating Shastriya Sangeet’ where he ponders on how the Chishti Sufi Tariqah, an order that places a premium on music, meditation and zikr (remembrance), has been so positively received in South Asia.
The Chishti order did particularly well in Bengal, in fact it is probably safe to say that Bengal’s majority Muslim population is a direct result of the mass appeal Chishti mystics had in the area. Although Muslim settlers and preachers arrived on the delta as early as the 10th century (if not earlier) it wasn’t until the 12th that an established order began weaving itself into the spiritual fabric of an already mystically oriented land. Akhi Sirajuddin Usman a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya and a contemporary of Amir Khosru went from Gour to Delhi to study with the great Sufi and on his return, established the Chishti khanqah in the Sultanate of Bangala. The silsila was quickly endorsed by the people as well as the rulers of the Sultanate and many of the better known Bengali Sufis belonged to it, with the notable exception of Shah Jalal of Sylhet, who predates Akhi Siraj by over a century.
Akhi Siraj was succeeded by Ala ul Haq, who was a wealthy member of the ruling elite, and his spiritual transformation from nobleman to mystic strengthened ties between the Sultanate’s throne and the Chishti khanqah. The close personal relationship between the Sultans and the Sufis had an impact on the kingdom’s character, reflected in a variety of ways one of which was an appreciation of plurality. From the very beginning of the Sultanate’s existence, Hindu-Buddhist motifs and architecture influenced mosque styles and Sultanate structures, while pre-Islamic articulations of political authority were readily adopted by Muslim kings. The titles Raja and Ishvara were liberally used instead of sultan, and Muslim Bengali kings were, as late as the 16th century, sending for Ganges water to be used during their coronation rituals – a distinctly Hindu practice.
This wasn’t just one way traffic either. The Hindu poet Vijay Gupta in 1494 was full of praise for Sultan Hossain Shah, among the more enlightened of the Bengali Sultans, and wrote,
“Sultan Hossain Raja, nurturer of the world:
In war he is invincible; for his opponents he is Yama [god of death].
In his charity he is like Kalpataru [a fabled wish-yielding tree].
In his beauty he is like Kama [god of love].
His subjects enjoy happiness under his rule”
Hossain Shah was known for his promotion of literature. A couple of translations of the Mahabharata, along with a number of Vaishnava padas (short verse) and a few works on Manasa, the snake-goddess, were published during his reign. But he wasn’t the first to patronise Bengali or Hindu writing, his fore-bearer Ruknuddin Barbak patronised both Hindu and Muslim writing in Bangla, and before that, in the 1300’s, Bengal’s most flamboyant Sultan, Ghyasuddin Azam Shah supported Krittibas Ojha’s publication of the Ramayana in Bengali. Ghyasuddin also famously sent Buddhist Monks to China to propagate the religion. The point of saying all this is not to give the impression that Muslim Sultans were patronisingly enamoured by Hindu-Buddhist exotica, but to reveal that they were not encumbered by the communal prejudices we find ourselves mired in today.
In a more spiritual sense, the presence of multiple faiths on the delta didn’t inevitably lead to conflict but also to a mutual appreciation for each other’s practices. Muslims mystics were intensely curious about Tantric yoga and had a seminal text translated into Farsi and circulated as far as Central Asia under the name Bahr al Hayat.
Similarly, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, influenced by the Sufi devotion to love and music, adapted his own mystic practices to include the worship of Krishna only as the embodiment of Love, and the use of Kirtans – musical tributes to God. Sri Chaitanya then went on to establish what has become known as Gour Vaishnavism which contributed to the existence of Baulism, Bengal’s entirely indigenous mystical tradition that draws upon Islamic, Hindu as well as Buddhist mystic references.
Such was multi-religious nature of that early Bengali state that when Sri Chaitanya ran into trouble with the Hindu orthodoxy for his unconventional ways, it was the venerable Raja Hossain Shah who protected him and ordered his court to provide the preacher with assistance in propagating his Bhakti creed anywhere he wished. Two of Hossain’s Hindu cabinet Ministers were even celebrated gurus of the Bhakti movement.
The Sultanate administration was a refreshingly non-communal apparatus, and from Jalalauddin Shah’s reign onwards, had numerous Hindu ministers, officials, administrators and judges in positions of power and influence. The commander of Jalaluddin’s army was a Hindu. Successive Sultans continued to appoint people to high positions based on their merit rather than their religious orientation and the jizya tax on non-Muslims was also abolished.
That’s not to say there weren’t periods of religious excesses of course, as in the case of Raja Ganesh, the Hindu landlord who captured the throne and was particularly intolerant of both Muslims and Buddhists, or the reign of Shamsuddin Yusuf, who enacted strict Sharia compliant laws, but these were exceptions rather than the norm, and ran contrary to the spirit upon which the kingdom was built.
The influence of Chishti Sufis on the Sultanate’s rulers and consequently its social climate can’t be overstated. They were instrumental in forging a polity that was representative of the various religious traditions which existed on the delta at the time, and in encouraging a society that was based on a mutual appreciation of differences. Even among the Sufis, the Chishti order is known for its willingness to absorb and learn from the environment it finds itself in and in Bengal, more than in many other places, it was able to infuse the state machinery with this enlightened attitude.
Dr Peter Custers, a researcher and journalist, in a lecture at Leiden University writes,
“The Chishtis’ openness is reflected in several striking practices. Among the different Sufi brotherhoods that spread their influence in India from the 13th and 14th century onwards, the Chishtis appear to have stood out as especially eager to communicate with Indian yogis. At Chishti khanqahs ‘in each and every city’ where these were established, yogis were welcome guests. Again, historians recount that the Chishtis encouraged the reciting of Vaishnav poetry at sama gatherings held at the hospices, — surely yet one more proof, if needed, of their spirit of liberalism… …While the evidence indicating an enormously large degree of intermingling between Islam and pre-existing religious currents, notably Vaishnavism and Yogatantra, is indeed strong, — there also appears to be significant evidence indicating that the Chishtis, as the leading missionary brotherhood, were instrumental in encouraging this trend”
So what went wrong? How did Bengal, where the religion of Love dominated both Hinduism, (in the form of Vaishnavism) and Islam (in the form of Sufism) end up filled with hate and being cleaved in half along religious lines?
For starters, the hate had very little, if anything at all, to do with religion. Hindus and Muslims in Bengal didn’t end up at each other’s throats because they belonged to different faiths but because they belonged to different social and economic strata, and because colonial machinations, both Mughal and British, pronounced their differences in an elaborate attempt at social engineering. It was fear, contempt and resentment, encouraged by colonial ‘divide and rule’ tactics and exasperated by racial prejudice that created tensions between the different communities in Bengal, not a dislike for each other’s religion.
Other ‘modern’ concepts like religious nationalism, which is also a legacy of colonialism in its existence as a reaction to political disenfranchisement, helped to pull people apart too.
A resurgent Hindu nationalism beginning with the rise of the Marathas and morphing into ‘Hindutva’ by the early 1900s, along with global Islamic revivalist movements like Wahabbism attacked the very syncretism that had made harmony possibly, and by the 18th century, Haji Shariatullah’s Faraizi movement in Bengal was attempting to undo history and purge Bengali Muslims of their ‘Hindu’ influences. Bit by bit, Bengal’s culture was chipped away at until Bengalis themselves were no longer able to appreciate their shared and common inheritance and began classifying themselves as either Bengali or Muslim – and absurd distinction if there ever was one, considering Bengali was the court language of the Muslim Sultans and the language of choice for Chishti Sufis, at a time when it was despised by Hindu Brahmins as a language of the Sudras.
These categories were carried forward into the travesty that was the Two-Nation Theory, along with memories of Hindu overlordship during the British era and Muslim hegemony during the Mughal era, resulting of course, in the fracturing of Bengal and all of Hindustan.
But it didn’t stop there and these fractures infected the Pakistani State in its relationship with an East Bengal that retained, and still does, much of its own social DNA. East Bengal was never really comfortable with either of Pakistan’s national lashings, no pun intended – an Urdu-based ‘Mughlai’ of Ashraf culture and standardised Islam – both of which were something of an affront to Bengal’s own interpretations of religion and culture.
Ironically, these were exactly what broke it apart in the end. Had Pakistan not demanded cultural and religious conformity, had it been able to love its many forms, it might have been possible for Bengal to live within it. But then Pakistan was never meant to be a heterogeneous place; they never set it up that way, with their insistence that Muslims are one nation and Hindus another, oblivious to the fact that there are many Muslim nations and many Hindu nations and many ways of being both Hindu and Muslim. It was a narrowing that led to Pakistan not a broadening, not of minds nor of identities, and it continues in the unrelenting attacks on Shias and liberal society and in the justification for Balochi separatism.
But here in Bangladesh, we’re also contending with the forces of forced uniformity, even if we’ve been able to shakily assert our own cultural space for the last half century. The insistence by the religious right on a Wahabbi-influenced Islamic atmosphere, weighs heavily on the society, and a Faraizi movement-esque purging of Bangladeshi Islam continues to this day. Sufi Mazaars have been attacked, Sufi thought dismissed as heretical and Sufis themselves attacked and killed. Traditional festivals like Bengali New Year have been targeted, and customs like our marriage rituals and our mourning ceremonies have been subject to intense criticism for their inclusion of practices that are either pre-Islamic or contain elements of Islamic flourish.
Even some words in the Bangla language have been called into question, words like ‘lokhkhi’, for their connection to ‘un-islamic’ elements – in this case the name of goddess Lakshmi. Our respect for the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, who’s own faith was syncretic through and through, has been objected to and the fact that Kazi Nazrul Islam is our national poet makes some people uncomfortable because he wrote tributes to Shiva and Krishna.
None of this is evident in the creed of Lalon Shah, the 19th century Bengali mystic who was the very embodiment of a fused religious identity. Lalon Shah’s songs echo the spirit of the Charyapadas (Buddhist poetry from the 10th century) the teachings of Sri Chaitanya and the mysticism of the Chishtis all seamlessly coexisting in his heart and words. He may well have been the tradition’s last hurrah, living in the latter part of the 1800’s, close to the time when a communal-centric paranoia began setting the agenda. Indeed, this change is reflected in some on his lyrics, most notably this one:
Everyone asks, “What creed does Lalon belong to?” Lalon answers, “What does creed look like?” I’ve never laid eyes upon it. Some use Malas (Hindu rosaries), others Tasbis (Muslim rosaries), and so people say they belong to different creeds. But do you bear the sign of your creed, when you come (to this world) or when you leave (this world)?
These traditions, handed down to us by generations of Sufis and mystics, of all stripes, constitute the spiritual backbone of the nation. They have sustained our need for social and spiritual cohesion and have nurtured souls for several centuries. Today, Bangladeshi Islam is engaged in a protracted struggle for its identity, the outcome of which will determine whether we will be able to retain these values or lose them to an altogether more unpleasant and unaccommodating experience. Baul music and Sufi values continue to win hearts and their public presence is a formidable one, but they lose potential adherents too, and the religious right is hardly a spent force. On the contrary, they are very much on the rise and physical assaults on Sufis and Bauls, some which have led to fatalities, are increasing. But everything’s not lost just yet and if we’re lucky, we can still succeed in turning our small corner of ‘Hendustan’ into a house for every religion; and if we’re not, it certainly won’t be for a want of trying.
[This article is published with the consent of the author. It first appeared on Ergo.]