Bengali - Religion and Expressive Culture

Hinduism and Islam are the two major religions of Bengal, and religious identification was the basis for the political division experienced by the Bengalis with the departure of British rule in 1947. In West Bengal, Hindus constituted 77 percent of the population in 1981, and Muslims 22 percent. Some 85 percent of Bangladeshis are Muslim, about 14 percent Hindu. Less than 1 percent of Bengalis are Christians; one can also find a few isolated Bengali Buddhist villages in southern Bangladesh.

Religious Beliefs. Bengali Hinduism by and large conforms to the orthodox Vedantic variety of that faith, although in response to the cultural impact of the British in the last century there emerged certain modernistic variants (e.g., the Brahmo Samaj, to which some Westernized high-caste elites were drawn). The Shaivite cult, focusing on worship of the god Shiva and his female counterparts, is widespread among the upper castes, while Vaishnavism, involving devotion to the Lord Krishna, is popular among the lower castes. Bengali Muslims belong overwhelmingly to the Sunni division of Islam and generally conform to the Hanafi school of Islamic law. Popular religion in Bengal often displays syncretism, a mixing of both Hindu and Muslim folk beliefs, deities, and practices. Bengal is famous for its wandering religious mendicant folk musicians (e.g., the Bauls, who disdain caste and conventional Hindu/Muslim religious distinctions in their worship and way of life). In addition to formal worship at Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, popular worship involving religious folk music is widespread, especially at Vaishnavite gatherings ( kirtan ) and among Muslim followers of several Sufi orders ( tarika ) present in Bengal. Bengali Muslims are also known for their practice of "pirism," the cultic following of Muslim saints or holy men (called pirs ).

Religious Practitioners. The Hindu clergy is drawn from the highest (Brahman) castes and is thus a matter of birth-right, although not all Brahmans actually practice as priests ( pandit, purahit ). Practitioners within the Hindu system also include persons who withdraw from conventional society to become religious mendicants in search of personal salvation ( sadhus ). By contrast, in Bengali Islam, recruitment to the clergy is voluntary; any man who has the desire and opportunity to study the Quran (for which he must learn to read the classical Arabic language) can eventually become the worship leader (mullah or imam) of a local mosque if so chosen by the congregation. Further study of the Quran and of Muslim law (the sharia ) may qualify a man to be a religious leader with a wider following, greater stature, and sometimes significant political influence.

Ceremonies. The Bengali Hindu religious calendar is replete with worship ceremonies ( puja ) devoted to the deities of both the Great and Little Traditions. Especially important is the annual festival (or gajan ) of the Lord Shiva, as are those of his counterpart goddesses, Kali and Durga. The goddesses Lakshmi (of wealth and good fortune) and Saraswati (of learning and culture) also have annual ceremonies. Important folk deities propitiated by Hindus and Muslims alike include the "goddesses of the calamities"—Sitala, goddess of smallpox; Olabibi, goddess of cholera; and Manasa, goddess of snakes—all of whom have their annual festivals. Bengali Muslims celebrate the major festivals of Islam: the Id al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim month of fasting (Ramadan); the Id al-Adha, or "feast of the sacrifice," coterminous with the annual pilgrimage ( haj ) to Mecca and commemorating the story of the prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command. Even though Bengali Muslims are Sunnis, they also observe the festival of Muharram, Usually associated more prominently with the Shia division of Islam, in which the death of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and martyr of the faith, is mourned. Bengalis also celebrate the well-known Hindu rite of spring called Holi; for members of all religious faiths, the annual new year ceremony on the first day of the Hindu (and Bengali) month of Baisakh, coming between April and May and marking the onset of spring, is a joyous occasion.


Arts. Urban Bengali elite culture has produced one of South Asia's finest literary traditions, including not only the novel, short story, and poetry but drama and film as well. Some of India's best classical musicians and greatest exponents of the dance have been Bengalis. Bengalis have also made major contributions to Indian and world cinema. Rural Bengal has an old and well-developed folk literature, including narrative poetry ( puthi ), drawn from history, myth, and legend, as well as a very popular itinerant theater (called jatra ). There is also a strong tradition of religious folk music, particularly associated with the more devotional and mystical practices of popular Hinduism (e.g., worship of the goddess Kali and the Lord Krishna) and of popular Islam (e.g., the devotional gatherings of the various Sufi orders). Terra-cotta temple and mosque architecture throughout Bengal is much admired, and there is a folk tradition of painting, seen in Hindu religious scrolls and in the flowery, and often obscure, religious symbols ( alipana ) commonly daubed in white rice paste on the walls and floors of homesteads by Hindu village women. Finally, despite industrialization and the spread of commercially manufactured products throughout the region, the Bengali rural economy still depends on the services of traditional craftspeople—weavers, potters, carpenters, blacksmiths, metalworkers, and the like—whose wares often represent a high quality of both technique and aesthetic design.


Medicine. Although modern scientific medicine has long been known and accepted in Bengal, the homeopathic, allopathic, and the Hindu Ayurvedic and Muslim Unani medical traditions continue to exist as alternatives. There also remains a host of folk beliefs and curing practices among both the urban immigrant poor and the peasantry as a whole. Folk healers ( ojha or fakir ) are commonly called upon to treat everything from temporary illnesses and chronic diseases to bone fractures and snakebite, as well as to counteract ethnopsychiatric afflictions resulting from sorcery and ghost possession. Folk curing practices stress the use of magical verses (mantras), often combined with indigenous medicinal concoctions. Traditional healers also provide amulets for protection against devilry and sorcery, the wearing of which is ubiquitous not only among the peasantry and the urban poor but also among the Bengali middle classes as well.

Death and Afterlife. Bengali Hindus, of course, accept the doctrine of samsara, or the transmigration of souls from one earthly life to another. Funerary cremations, practiced by nearly all Hindu castes, are thought to release the individual's spiritual essence or soul from its transitory physical body. Bearing the influence (karma) of all the actions of its just terminated earthly embodiment, the soul then is reincarnated into a new worldly form and way of life shaped by those past actions. Normally a man's eldest son carries out the funerary rites, lighting the funeral pyre after first placing a burning stick in the mouth of the deceased. Muslim beliefs require that at death the person be ritually bathed, shrouded, and buried in a coffin with the head facing the holy city of Mecca, after which there follows a funerary prayer ceremony ideally led by either a relative or a recognized leader of the local Muslim community. The dead are thought to enter an indefinite transitional state—during which the wicked begin to Experience punishment and the virtuous to receive their reward—between time of death and an eventual Day of Destruction, upon which the world will come to an end. There will then be a Day of Judgment, whereupon all beings will be restored to life, and humans will be brought before God (Allah) to have their lifetime deeds—which have been recorded by Allah's angels in a Great Book—reviewed and counted. Should one's good deeds outbalance the evil one has done, Resurrection Day will lead to everlasting life in Heaven; if vice versa, the outcome is a purifying, remedial period in Hell, whereupon, purged of its past iniquities, the soul may qualify for entry into Paradise.

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