History of Bengali

I was not proposing to compile this piece till I read an article by one Sauvik Chakraborthi in today’s Economic Times where he writes about feeling closer to Bengali Muslims / Bangladeshis rather than Punjabis. I agree that Punjabis do not eat fish like the Bengalis do but do you know that Baisakhi and Boishakh festivals are celebrated on the same day in Punjab and Bengal respectively. Further Punjabi and Bengali have originated from Indo Aryan forms of speech. Urdu too originated in India but has more words of Persian Arabic than Hindi today. When I use the word Aryan it does not mean that I subscribe to the Aryan Invasion Theory but as Sri Aurobindo said Aryan means Arya or cultured.

This article is virtually verbatim from The History and Culture of the Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan. After that I compared notes with The Cultural Heritage of India by the Ramakrishna Mission and made additions.

It is said by some Muslim scholars that development of Bengali literature was rendered possible only after the enlightened rule of Hussain Shah, the Sultan of Bengal, whose rule ended in 1519. Quote Shri R C Mazumdar editor of the Bhavan book ‘After a careful study of the materials now available, I feel that Hussain Shah has no reasonable claims to be regarded as the promoter of Bengali literature”.

Origin  - The three Bihari speeches of eastern India namely Maithili, Magahi and Bhojpuri and Oriya, Bengali – Assamese all originated from the Magadhi Prakrit. By 1000 A.D. judging from the specimens of Bengali, Assamese and Oriya, these languages had become fully established although the relationship between Bengali (B) and Oriya was a little closer than between these two and Oriya. About this time Bengali was fully characterized while Assamese remained much closer to Old B.

The article is divided into two chapters covering periods –
1. 1000 to 1818
2. 1818 to 1947

1000 to 1300 A.D.
The oldest specimens of B are to be found in place and personal names in early inscriptions of B from the 5th century down to 1000 a.d. Connected specimens of B literature are found in the fifty Charyapadas which were discovered in Nepal. Shashtri its founder published these in old B along with specimens of Apabhramsa (Sauraseni or Western Apabhramsa – Incidentally Punjabi derived out of a Sauraseni Apabhramsa around 1300 a.d.) literature obtained from Nepal. The 47 songs found in this work alone have a claim to be regarded as old B while the rest of the work is in Western Apabhramsa. These poems relate to the ideas and practices of the Vajrayana School of late Mahayana Buddhism of Eastern India.

The poems were composed by a class of religious teachers known as Siddhas. They were claimed by both the later Mahayana Buddhists of India and Tibet as well as by the followers of Saiva Sect of Goraksha-natha. (Some of you might be surprised to see the connection between the Tibetans and the Saiva sect but having visited Mount Kailash I found that Tibetans worship Lord Shiva with greater fervor than we do). Of the 84 Siddhas some 24 are represented in the Charyapadas. They composed short lyrics of generally five couplets in a metre, which is commonly the Padakulaka metre from which the modern Hindi chaupa and the B Payar evolved. The style and technique was continued in Bhojpuri, B and Western Hindi poetry and this school which is represented in the Charyapada songs also has something to do with the medieval North Indian Sant poets and reformers.

The Charyapada poems have also been claimed as belonging to Oriya, Assamese and Maithili. All these go to show that 1000 years ago these various eastern speeches converged into a common basic type of speech – a kind of Magadhi Apabhramsa with local variations.

The main values of the Charyapadas are linguistic and doctrinal. The main characteristic is their religious and emotional appeal, which found a later development in later B literature in Sahajiya songs, Vaishnava padas. The date these were composed is between 950 to 1200 A.D. when most of the new languages like Bengali, Marathi, and Gujarati were taking shape.

Other specimens of B literature prior to 1300 a.d. are to be found in a few verses in Prakritapaingala (1400 a.d.). The poems give us a specimen of literature in the Brahmanical tradition as the Charyapadas give us the Buddhist Vajrayana tradition. Poets in Bengal before 1300 a.d. used not only Bengali but also Western Apabhramsa (a type of Khariboli Hindi of a thousand years ago) in addition to Sanskrit.

The old B literature in the compositions of the Siddhas exerted influence on North India too. Gorakh-nath the great Sant of North Inndia and founder of the Kanphata Yogis of Punjab is closely connected with the Siddhas of Bengal. In certain works attributed to Gorakh-nath and his disciples like the Gorakh-Bodh we have specimens of poems in Old Bengali but masquerading as a form of Old Hindi. Ancient Bengal can have said to have influenced North India through her Charyapda literature. Although I must say that the influence was both ways as has been brought out in the earlier paras.

1300 to 1526
As we have seen above B descended from the old Magadhi Prakrit. The oldest specimens of B literature dated roughly from 1050 to 1200 followed by a period of transition from 1200 to 1350. It is likely that the first drafts of the great B narrative poems were made during this period.

The first century and a half after the Turks conquered Bengal the state did not produce any literature. However, when a stable Muslim govt was established and the Brahmans could pay greater attention to old learning a renaissance of Sanskrit studies appears to have started in Bengal in the 14th and 15th centuries. Probably the first great poet of Middle B of whom we have some record was Krittivasa Ojha Mukhati (born about 1399). He was probably the first and the most popular poet to adopt the Ramayana into B 1418. His poem is mainly narrative – not with a spirit of Bhakti as we are to see later. The Krishna story was taken up by Maladhara Basu, Gunaraja Khan about 1473 in his Sri-Krishnavijaya, which is based on the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana. To the 15th century are attributed two poems on this theme (the story of Bihula, who was widowed on the night of her wedding by snake bite through the machinations of Manasa, the snake Goddess, how she worshiped the Gods and brought back her husband to life – is one of the greatest tales of wifely devotion and womanly courage through love) by Vijaya Gupta and Bipradasa Piplai.

A great name in early medieval B literature is that of Chandidasa who is considered by many to be the greatest lyrical poet of Bengal prior to Rabindranath Tagore. Over 125 poems relating to the love of Radha and Krishna are current in the name of Chandidasa. He is supposed to have existed around 1450 as Chaitanya 1486 to 1533 used to sing his poems. In 1916 was discovered Sri Krishna-kirttana written too by a Badu Chandidasa. This created a problem on who was Chandidasa. Probably there were three Chandidasas with the names Bapu, Dvija and Dina. It is one and two who were great poets but all get remembered as one Chandidasa.

The 15th century was a great one for Bengal. It was ruled by the Sultans of Turkish - Afghan origin who had become sufficiently Bengalized to support B literature. One such king was Husain Shah who had as his private secretary and intimate minister two Brahmans who later on became followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Husain Shah was also an active patron of B literature while Parag and Chuti Khan governors of Chittagong had the Mahabharata translated into B verse, first by a poet called Kavindra and secondly by Srikara Nandi. From the early 15th to the 19th century the tradition of telling Ramayana and Mahabharata stories esp relating to Krishna continued.

The Sanskrit scholars in Bengal were active during the 15th century and an all round cultural renaissance started from the end of the century. When Chaitanya came to preach the Bhakti Cult through the figure of Krishna, the Puranas, Mahabharata and Ramayana were eagerly studied. Renowned jurists like Raghunatha Siromani and poets like Chaturbhuja Misra (author of Haricharita, a kavya in Sanskrit on the story of Krishna) came to strengthen the tradition of Sanskrit scholarship in Bengal. Social organizers like Devivara Ghataka established a set of social usages in matters of marriage among Brahmans to keep society intact from the onslaught of Islam. Colleges of Sanskrit learning sprung up everywhere and contacts with other centers of learning like Mithila, Gaya and Kashi were established.

Chaitanya who flourished from 1486 to 1533 rode at the crest of the wave of the 15th century renaissance and gave a new turn to Hinduism in Bengal through reviving Vaishnavism with Krishna and Radha as symbols for the Divinity and its innate power of bliss. The personality of Chaitanya is looked upon by many Bengalis as the greatest fact of Bengal’s cultural and spiritual life in late medieval times. He left only eight Sanskrit verses and an eight-stanza hymn to Jagannatha or Vishnu. But what he is supposed to have taught is elaborated by the later Gaudiya or Bengali Vaishnava philosophy in the 16th to 18th centuries. After living his early life in Bengal Chaitanya went on pilgrimage to South India from where he brought Sanskrit words, returned to North India via Maharashtra and passed away at Puri.

1526 to 1707
B literature during this period was profoundly influenced by the Neo-Vaishnava Movement of Chaitanya. Numerous poetical compositions including lyrics and songs, inspired by his life and teachings, constitute the richest treasure of B literature before the middle of the 19th century a.d. Vaishnava literature is discussed under a few heads –

Biography  – The earliest biography of Chaitanya by one of his oldest followers, Murari Gupta, was written in Sanskrit. The oldest bio in B is Chaitanya Bhagvata by Brindavandas, a classmate of Chaitanya (CH). It was composed not later than 1540 a.d. and is certainly the most authentic – popular bio of CH. It has two important characteristics, one that the author presents CH as a human rather than as a divine being and two, the book gives an interesting detail of the social life in Bengal at that time.

The next important bio is the Chaitanya-charitamrita of Krishnadas Kaviraj. Its date of composition lies between 1575 and 1615. Kaviraj looked upon CH not only as incarnation of Krishna but of Krishna and Radha in the same person. There are some distinctive characteristics of this work –

1. It details in a masterly manner with the mystic and philosophical aspects of Vaishnavism propounded by CH.
2. He quotes authorities for his statements – a rarity in that age.
3. The book shows a unique combination of ripe scholarship and a wonderful literary style much in advance of his age.
4. The author gives due credit to the previous writers on the same subject.
5. He gives a very detailed account of the last eighteen years of CH’s life.

Kaviraj was a great Sanskrit scholar and wrote in Sanskrit, an epic poem on the story of Radha and Krishna. It is said that as a biography and work of thought it is a landmark in New Indian Literature.

Among the other bios of CH were Chaitanya-mangal of Jayananda, two works by Lochndas and Chudamanidas. Lochandas was one of the best lyric poets of that time and introduced a new style of folk songs known as Dhamali, dealing almost exclusively with the love affairs of Krishna and the cowherd maidens.

Padavali  – Next to biographical works, lyrical poems and songs known as Padavali constitute the most important branch of Vaishnava literature in Bengal. They deal almost exclusively with the para kiya prem (love outside wedlock) of Radha and Krishna. Some of the early compositions reached a very high standard of literary excellence expressing the selfless love of Radha in sweet, almost musical language. Gradually it became stereotyped and quality went down. In the hands of Vaishnava poets the love episode of Krishna and Radha was classified, almost in a scientific spirit, into various distinct moods of mind, as a child, friend, lord or lover.

In addition to Lochandas mentioned above, some of the most distinguished lyric poets were Basudev Ghosh, Kavisekhara etc, all of whom flourished in the 16th century. Another renowned poet Govindadas Kaviraj who wrote mostly in Brajabuli, an artificial language akin to both Bengali and Maithili.

A large number of narrative poems on the stories of Radha and Krishna were written with or without lyrical poems interspersed in them. Many of them were recited at large gatherings by professional kathaks (story-tellers), a religious entertainment current even today. It may be mentioned many composers of Vaishnava lyrics were patronized by the Hindu rulers of Tripura and Cooch Behar.

Less known but important were the serious writings on Vaishnava doctrines and philosophy by the Gosains of Brindavan and others. More important among these are the Premavilasa of N Das, Rasakadamva of Kaviballabh amongst others. Particular reference should be made to the literature of a Vaishnava sect known as Sahajiya, which had much in common with Tantrics.

Mangala-kavya - Next to Vaishnava literature, the Mangal-kavyas form the most important branch of B literature during this period. It consists of poetical works describing the glories of many popular gods and goddesses such as Manas (snake-goddess), Chandi (a form of Durga), Dharma-Thakur, Siva and others.

The central theme of Manasa-mangala is the conversion of the rich merchant Chand Sadagar who was at first unwilling to worship Manasa but was ultimately forced to do after his seven sons were killed by snakebite. Through her skills in dance and music the widow of the 7th son had his life restored.

The Chandi-mangala Kavya is based on two themes, which describe how, through the favor of the Goddess Chandi, the hunter Kalaketu becomes a king and merchant Dhanapati has his son married to the king of Ceylon. The oldest available texts of this kavya are accredited to Mukundaram Chakravarti, composed towards the end of the 16th century. The kavya has enjoyed immense popularity over the years. It depicts the social condition of Bengal during the medieval period esp. of the common man.

Dharma-Thakur, the subject matter of the Dharma-mangala Kavyas was a local God of Radha (West Bengal) worshipped mostly by the lowest classes of society. The hero of the kavya is Lausen, victorious in many battles always protected by Dharma-Thakur. The author Manikram, flourished about the middle of the 16th century.

The Siva-mangala has a long history but no texts older than the 17th century. The best known work is that of Ramesvar Bhattacharya who lived during the first half of the 18th century.
Several texts of the Kalika-mangal glorifying the goddess Kali were written during the period under review. The main theme is the secret love of princess Vidya and Sundara, Kali appears at the end when Sundara condemned to death is saved by her intercession. The best work is known as Vidya-Sundara kavya by Bharata-chandra who flourished about the middle of the 18th century a.d.

Lastly mention should be made of Raya-mangala who glorifies Dakshina-raya, the Tiger God i.e. one by worshipping whom men can be saved from the tigers.

Translations - Referred to above is the translation of the Ramayana into B by Krittivasa. Mahabharat was translated by Kavindra Paramesvara (lived about 1440 to 1520). But the most well known translation is the one attributed to Kasiram Das. The Bhagavata Purana was translated by Raghunath Pandit who wrote the Prematarangini. There were numerous Muslim writers during this period too.

1707 to 1818
In a sense B literature of the 18th century was a continuation of the 17th. Vaishnava songs and biographies continued to be written of inferior quality though. But the Mangala-kavya referred to earlier was the best poetical literature of that period.

The greatest poet of this period was Bharatchandra Ray Gunakar, born around 1710. He wrote his magnum opus ‘Annada-mangala’ around 1752-53 and enjoyed a reputation as a masterpiece for more than a century. Ray was regarded as the best B poet till the middle of the 19th century when the revolutionary took place thanks to Brit influence.

The Annada-mangala consists of three independent parts. The first part is Mangala-kavya proper dealing with the episodes of Shiva, Parvati (Annada). The gods and goddesses are endowed with human sentiments and the author shows great skill in describing them as such.

The second and the best of the three parts, is the romantic story of the secret love of Vidya and Sundara. Sundara visited Vidya every night till he was caught and ordered to be put to death only to be saved goddess Kali to marry Vidya eventually. The secret amours of Vidya and Sundara are described in beautiful verses, very skillful and highly charming.

The third part deals with a historical theme centering around the victory of the Mughal General Man Singh over Pratapaditya, the ruler of a petty principality in South Bengal. Although without any historical foundation the heroic stand of Pratapaditya has enchanted Bengali readers for over a century.

Although the Annda-mangala is unhistorical it has got passages of great importance. It gives a vivid picture of the hatred towards the Muslim ruler of Bengal, Ali Vardi Khan. It is said in the introductory part that when ‘Ali Vardi destroyed the Hindu temples in Bhubaneshwar, Nandi got furious and took his javelin to destroy the Yavanas but Lord Shiva prevented him by saying that the ruler of Bargis (the Marathas) will subdue the Yavanas. And so he appeared before the Maratha ruler who sent Bhaskar Pandit to Bengal.

In the third part reference is made to the oppression of the Muslims, by destroying temples and insult to the Brahmins. Far more interesting is the speech of the Mughal king Jahangir, which is a violent denunciation of Hindu religion and society ending with Jahangir’s exclamation ‘The very sight of a Brahmin is loathsome to me and the desire often seizes me to convert all Hindus to Islam’. All those who think that Hindu Muslim differences were artificially created by the British should read this. Ray wrote verses in Sanskrit too.

Ramprasad Sen - was another great figure in B literature during this period. He is also known as a great devotee of the Goddess Kali and a sadhak (saint). His devotional songs are still popular in Bengal.

Kabi poetry - The stream of religious poetry that had been flowing from the medieval age to the middle of the 18th century got considerably weakened by this time. This is exemplified by the growth of a new type of literature such as short poems on romantic love or on historical/topical subjects and short love songs. A sort of compromise between the new and the old ideals gave rise to the Kabi poetry and Panchali which flourished about the middle of the 18th century and continued throughout this period.

The best writer of this style of poetry was Nidhu Babu 1742 to 1839. He is one of the leading sponsors of the style of music known as Akhadai and introduced the now famous Tappa style.

As regards the Panchali style, a Muslim writer Shaikh Faizullah was the author of Satyapirer Panchali, flourished early in the 18th century.

Special reference must be made to a collection of songs and ballads known as Mymensimha-Gitika were collected early in the 19th century. They had two special features, one they were devoid of any religious sentiment, two they anticipate romantic sentiments expressed in Western literature, which was a dominant feature in B fiction, poetry and drama since the middle of the 19th century. The stories are based on the love and sentiments of ordinary men and women written in a simple and easy language; reflect the feelings and sentiments of the unsophisticated rural folk.

Historical Literature  - Reference has been made in the previous period to Rajamala-Chronicle of kings of Tripura. It gives the history of Tripura from the beginning to the rule of Dharma-manikya in the 15th century.

To this class belongs another B book called Maharashtra Purana. Composed around 1751-52 by one Gangaram the book gives an account of the Maratha raids in Bengal during the reign of Ali Vardi Khan from 1742 to the treacherous murder of the Maratha General Bhaskar Pandit by Ali Vardi Khan in 1744. The book is important since it gives a vivid picture of the atrocities perpetuated by the Marathas on the Bengalis.

Prose Literature - The vast B literature during the earlier periods was written in verse and there was no prose, properly called during the period under review. There were short sentences in the Vaishnava esoteric treatises and long or short letters written in prose but hardly any composition that could be really called literature except a few books belonging to the Missionaries mostly Portuguese and translation of Legal Codes by the order of the East India Company towards the end of the 18th century.

The oldest B book written in prose was Kripar Shastrer Arthabhed in 1734. The next was the Brahman Roman Catholic Sambad – a dialogue between a Brahmin and a Roman Catholic in which the latter seeks to establish the superiority of Christianity over Sanathan Dharam.

These two books mark the beginning of Bengali prose. Bengal owes a debt to the Portuguese for the development of B prose style and for the first printed books in B – the Portuguese had established the first printing press in Goa in 1556.

Receive Site Updates