Songs of Ecstasy
Tantric and Devotional Songs from Colonial Bengal
Hugh B. Urban
Indeed, at the height of their power in the nineteenth century, they were more numerous and more powerful than the Sahajiyas, the Bauls, or any other of Bengal’s “obscure religious cults.”A variety of authors have commented on the importance of the Karta¯bhaja¯ songs, which represent both a unique form of Bengali song and a highly influential body of religious thought. No less an authority than Sukumar Sen even compared them with the songs of the great poet and national hero, Rabindranath himself: Among the songs there is some philosophy, but its value is not as great as their unusual simplicity and the originality in their omposition. . . . There is no influence from the high-class sadhubhasa. The unrestricted emotion of Sahaja is expressed with the simple language of the spoken word. . . . Within these songs flows the life blood of Bengali literature which one cannot see anywhere prior to Rabindranath. Yet despite their acknowledged importance, the songs of the Bhaver Gıta have never been studied in any critical way by modern scholars; indeed, some have suggested that a careful study of the Bhaver Gıta remains one of the most needed projects in the study of Bengali literature.
One of the primary reasons for the neglect of the Karta¯bhaja¯s is the long history of scandal, slander, and controversy that has surrounded the sect from its inception. Above all, the Karta¯bhaja¯s have been attacked because of their alleged associations with the practices of Tantra—a highly esoteric tradition, notorious for its antinomian practices, which came under intense criticism during the colonial era. As a uspected “Tantric” movement, the Karta¯bhaja¯s were fiercely attacked for their violation of caste laws, mingling of social classes, and use of sexual rituals. In the face of the changing moral norms of British rule and the reform movements of the Bengal Renaissance, the Karta¯bhaja¯s were identified as one of the worst examples of all the polytheism and licentiousness believed to have corrupted Hinduism in modern times. By the end of the nineteenth century, they were reduced to a sad laughing stock and object of ridicule.
In response to this criticism and controversy, therefore, the Karta¯bhaja¯s tended to conceal their teachings in profoundly esoteric forms, composing some of the most obscure, deeply encoded, and difficult songs in all of Bengali literature. As another respected historian,D. C. Sen, put it, the songs of the Bhaver Gıta are like the songs of birds—mysteriously beautiful, yet generally unintelligible to the uninitiated.
Perhaps most striking is that not only do these songs employ a wide range of esoteric mystical imagery, drawn from the Sahajiya¯ and other Tantric traditions of medieval Bengal, but they also clothe this Tantric imagery in a huge amount of idiosyncratic economic discourse, the mercantile terminology drawn from the teeming marketplaces of colonial Calcutta.Throughout these songs, the metaphor of the marketplace (bajar) is the dominant trope and recurring motif. And even more audaciously, the Karta¯bhaja¯s also appropriate the image of the British East India Company itself. Hailing themselves as the “new Company” or the “poor the spirituality of the subaltern Company” (gorib kompanı ), they promise to bring a host of spiritual goods for the lowly and downtrodden of society.
Based on my own research among the Karta¯bhaja¯s of Bengal and Bangladesh, I believe I have been able to unravel at least a few of the secrets of the Bhaver Gıta. The Karta¯bhaja¯ songs, I argue here, emerged at a key geographic locus and a critical historical moment—the area around the imperial city of Calcutta at the turn of the nineteenth century, the high point of European capitalist penetration into the subcontinent.As such, they offer a number of striking insights into this crucial period in the history of Bengal.
In my analysis of the Karta¯bhaja¯ songs, I adapt, but also criticize, certain insights of Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and other members of the Subaltern Studies collective. I am in many ways sympathetic to their attempt to give new attention to the creative agency of lower-class, dominated peoples under colonial rule. At the same time, however, I remain critical of their work in the following two respects. First, with their emphasis on the most radical and violent forms of subaltern resistance, such as peasant revolt, the subaltern scholars have typically overlooked the more quotidian, less violent, yet no less significant forms of resistance. Second and more important, with their heavily Marxist and reductionist orientation, they have also failed to deal adequately with the specifically religious dimension of subaltern consciousness.As I argue in the case of the Karta¯bhaja¯s, it may be true that colonized peoples often use religious symbols to express underlying material or economic interests, but it is no less true that they can also manipulate economic imagery
to express profoundly religious concerns and spiritual ideals.
Ultimately, they may also use such symbols to express alternative visions of community,new ideals of human society, distinct from both traditional hierarchies and modern capitalist forms. After a brief introduction to the Karta¯bhaja¯s and their historical context, I argue that the importance of the Bhaver Gıta is fourfold. First, stylistically, these songs represent a fusion of two different song forms of nineteenth-century Bengal: the folk styles of village Bengal and the parlor styles of colonial Calcutta. Second, in their mystical symbolism, these songs represent an important moment in the history of Bengali religious song, combining the secular imagery of urban life in Calcutta with profound spiritual imagery such as the haunting figure the Man of the Heart, which would later become famous in the songs of the Bauls.
Third, with their extensive use of mercantile terminology, these songs open a fascinating window on the lives of Bengal’s lower orders—the poor men and women laboring in the underworld of the imperial city at the dawn of the colonial era.
And, finally, the Karta¯bhaja¯ songs are also a clear example of the deeply ambivalent status of Tantra during the colonial era. Although filled with references to Tantric sexual practices, these songs conceal Tantric elements behind an elaborate veil of coded discourse. Above all, they employ the complex vocabulary of mercantile trade, masking their esoteric rites with the imagery of the British East India Company itself. 8 songs of ecstasy A Simple Path for the Poor: The Rise of the Karta¯bhaja¯s in Colonial Bengal The Karta¯bhaja¯ sect has recently emerged—now hear some funny things about them! . . . They see no distinctions between boys, old men, youths or women; thus they go along,
. . . Brothers, if any of you wish to go to the Karta¯bhaja¯ festival,
you’ll have to go where thirty-six castes go—and caste will have to be left behind. (Dasarathı Ray,“Karta¯bhaja¯,” a satirical poem ridiculing the Karta¯bhaja¯s)
Throughout the world of Bengal, the Karta¯bhaja¯s have a long and controversial reputation—a reputation due in large part to their alleged engagement in secret, scandalous, and immoral activities.The dangerous practices of the group were discussed fairly widely throughout nineteenth-century Bengali literature; the great Calcutta saint Ramakrsna, for example, had close personal contact with the sect, which he described as a powerful but frightening group comprised largely of “bitches,” whose path could only be described as a sort of “latrine door”—a quick and expedient, but also rather “filthy,” way of approaching God.
Still more scathing attacks came from the orthodox Hindu and Muslim reformers of the colonial era. “The class of Fakirs called Karta¯bhaja¯s,” as Muhammad Riazuddin Ahmad wrote, “is a group of necrophagous goblins who have spread their terrible poison throughout our community. . . . They are the refuse of our society.” And even in recent popular literature, the dangerous power and lurid attraction of the Karta¯bhaja¯s survives in Bengali imagination; as the widely read novelist, Kalakuta describes them, “At the very utterance of this word ‘Karta¯bhaja¯’ my family and neighbors would make mocking and disgusted remarks . . . “Oh! such a disgraceful thing has never before occurred in this world!” The teachings of the Karta¯bhaja¯s are largely rooted in the older Vaisnava-Sahajiya ¯ and other Tantric schools, which had proliferated in Bengal since at least the sixteenth century.
Like the Vaisnava-Sahajiya¯s, the Karta¯bhaja¯s identify the Supreme Reality and Divine Essence as Sahaja—the “in-born, spontaneous or innate” condition of all things in their true nature, unobscured by the veils of ignorance and the illusion of the phenomenal world. Sahaja is present within every human being, dwelling in the form of the Man of the Heart (maner manusa), the inner core of the Self and the divine spark of the Infinite within us all. When asked “to which caste does Sahaja belong?” the Karta¯bhaja¯s respond, “Sahaja is of the Human caste . . . Its arising lies within the Body itself. . . . It is without refuge in any religious views. . . . Hear this law: Man is supreme” (BG 48. As such, the means to attaining Sahaja does not lie in rigid rituals or orthodox religion; rather, the means lie within the individual human body, to be realized through techniques of yoga and meditation, and, in some cases, through rituals of sexual intercourse between male and female practitioners. the spirituality of the subaltern.
All things and all events lie within the microcosm of the human body; Whatever is or will be lies within the Self-Nature. There is no difference between human beings . . . The infinite forms in every land, all the activities of every human being, all things rest in Sahaja. (BG 32)
The Karta¯bhaja¯s, however, represent a fascinating transformation of the older Sahajiya¯ tradition under the new conditions of British colonial rule. Indeed, this sect emerged at a critical historical moment and geographical location—the area in and around Calcutta, the “Imperial City,” at the turn of the nineteenth century, the high point of early capitalist development in the subcontinent.
The majority of its following was drawn from those classes who had been most negatively affected by the rapidly changing economic context under colonial rule. In the village areas, they came primarily form the poor peasantry of rural Bengal, who faced increasing hardships under the new land revenue policies of the British East India Company:“Members were low caste, poor, illiterate people engaged in agricultural operations,”
as Geoffrey Oddie comments,“Change was in the air. . . . Because of
chronic rural indebtedness, landlord oppression and famine . . . thousands of the poor low caste people were seeking something better.”In the colonial center of Calcutta, the sect attracted the poor laboring classes
who had recently migrated to the city from the villages and now filled the slums of the Black Town.
As the nineteenth-century paper, Somaprakasa, reported,“This religion holds sway particularly among the lower classes. According to Hindu scriptures . . . they do not have any freedom . . . but in the Karta¯bhaja¯ sect they enjoy great freedom.” We might say that the Karta¯bhaja¯s represented the underworld of the imperial city, the lower strata inhabiting the slums of Calcutta’s Black Town, who posed an embarrassing eyesore to the wealthy,Western-educated upper classes. “One sect that raised a lot of controversy in those days was the Karta¯bhaja¯ group,” Sumanta Banerjee comments; “The stress on equality of all people irrespective of caste . . . drew the lower orders in large numbers.
”According to the Karta¯bhaja¯’s mythohistorical narrative, the Vaisnava movement led by Caitanya in the sixteenth century had been progressively corrupted and perverted by the later Vaisnava lineage; although initially opposed to caste hierarchies and Brahminical power, it had gradually reintroduced social divisions, strict orthodoxy, and rituals while progressively marginalizing the poor lower classes. Therefore, the story goes, Caitanya decided to become reincarnate in the form of the poor wandering madman, Aulcand, in order to found a new religion as a simple, easy (sahaja) faith, a religion of humanity (Manuser Dharma) for the poor, simple people.“At present,” Caitanya thought,“there is no simple method of worship for the poor, lowly, powerless people; that’s why I’ve revealed the easy [sahaja] path, so they can worship the truth within themselves, the worship of Humanity.”
According to one of the most telling Karta¯bhaja¯ metaphors, the “old marketplace” (i.e.,Vaisnava community) had become corrupt and full of thieves; thus it was necessary for Caitanya to come in a secret (gupta) form, to found “the Secret Marketplace” (gupta ha¯t.) or “Secret Vrndavana,” which is none other than the Karta¯bhaja¯ path.