The History of Ancient Bengal

The literary references in the Vedic, epic and Sutra texts do not represent chronological facts. It is therefore necessary to look at other Indian and foreign literature and early epigraphs for historical information about ancient Bengal.

Though the name Banga has been used since the earliest centuries for one for one of the regions of Present Bangladesh, the name Vangala-desa has been mentioned in epigraphic and literacy records since the eleventh century A.D. It was Vangala, rather than the Vanga of earlier references that gave its name to the eastern subah or province of the Mughal empire that stretched from Chittagong to Garhi. Historian Abu'l-Fazl regarded Vanga and Vangala as identical. The derivation of the name Vangala supports its identification with the part of old Vanga intersected by 'khals'or canals, dides and bridges that was known as Bhati or 'downstream' or 'land of tide and ebb' during the time of Akbar and Lama Tartan. Taranath refers to 'Bati' near the mouth of the Ganges. It is in this land that Gastaldi (1561A.D.) Places Bangala.

It may be presumed that Bengal had developed a culture of its own which was non-Vedic and non-Aryan. It is true that the Aryan culture, and the Vedic, Buddhist and Jaina religions influenced Bengal. The primitive culture became absorbed but it also influenced its adopted religion. The diffusion of the Vedic culture is seen during the Gupta period, evidenced by epigraphic inscriptions. The Vedic influence became stronger in Bengal during the Pala period. The Varman and the Sena kings were patrons of the Vedic culture.

When the Chinese traveler Fa Hien came to Bengal in the fifth century the country was flourishing in Aryan learning and culture. Huen Tsang visited Bengal during the first half of the seventh century and found that the Bengalis had great respect for their learning. According to him Mahayana and Hinayana Buffhism, Brahminism and Jainism exited in harmony. From about the second millennium B.C. Aryanization in India extended to the Ganges Valley. The non-Aryans the Dravidians and the Kol (another aboriginal people,) fought with the Aryans and eventually made peace with them. Many non-Aryans remained unaffected by Aryan culture and language for quite some time, although they were looked down upon as "Sudras" by the Aryan settlers or the "Vaisas". The Dravidian culture was not possessed a philosophy which influenced the Aryans. Some of the cosmic notions seem to be Dravidian. The composite culture of Bangladesh reflects a synthesis of Dravidian and Aryan culture. The eastern Aryans were a mixed people. The Vedic Aryans called the non-Vedic Aryans Vratyas, outcasts or people without rights, who could obtain admission into the Vedic community by performing a sacrifice. Bengal was Aryansized much later than other parts of India.

The rise of the anti-Brahmin and the anti-sacrificial ideas of the Buddhists and the Jains among the eastern people or Bengalis shows that other strong traditions were established before the Brahmins came and that Vedic ideas brought by the Brahmin did not inspire the masses. According to Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sen, the country was for centuries in open revolt against Hindu orthodoxy. Buddhist and Jain influences were so great that the Hindu code of Manu prohibited all contact of the Hindus with this land; hence Brahminism could not thrive there for many centuries. With the revival of Hinduism the Sanskrit pundits did not accept works in Bengal were carried away to Nepal and Burma as Buddhism was gradually suppressed in India by the Brahmins. Sanskrit scholars from outside Bengal who brought about a Hindu revival in Bengal abhorred the simple Bengali language.

A number of old Bengali inscriptions of this period, consisting of copper plates on which are recorded deeds of grants of land made to Brahmins, are extant. Brahmins were given gifts of land so that they might settle in Bangladesh. Although Bengal adopted the Aryan civilization and culture, it never became a stronghold of Brahminc orthodoxy. Even as late as the early part of the nineteenth century, when Bengali was highly developed, orthodox Brahminc were highly critical of the publication of Bengali translations of the Hindu scriptures by Rajah Ramona Roy who a reformer.

There in no definite evidence as to when Buddhism originated in Eastern India and Bengal. The reference to Vanga as an important center of Buddhism can be found in a Nagarijunikonda inscription which can be dated to the second or third century A.D. It includes Vanga in a long list of well-known countries converted to Buddhism. A line of Buddhist kings ruled in East Bengal towards the close of seventh century A.D. Buddhism flourished in Bengal in the seventh century. The Buddhist scholars of Bengal in the seventh century A.D. largely contributed to the development of the Nalanda monastery which was situated in Magadha.

In Bengal, Buddhism spread rapidly among those people who never took to the Aryan caste system. Aryanization in Bengal began from the time of Asoka in the third century B.C.

Of the two forms of Buddhism practiced in India, Mahayana and Hinayana, Mahayana became more widely accepted in Bengal. The Mahayana form of Buddhism developed forms of mysticism, known as Vajrayana and Tantrayana, which dealt with certain deeper metaphysical issues. In Bengal Buddhist mysticism had three important forms: Vajrayana, Shahajayana and Kalachakrayana. Vajrayana and Shahajayana represented different aspects of the same mysticism. The first was concerned in which ceremonies had no place. The siddha authors ofCaryagiti treated this aspect of mysticism.

The earliest Bengali Buddhist teacher to achieve distinction outside Bengal is Shilabhadra. Hiuen Tsang came to India to study under Shilabhadra, who was then in charge of Nalanda. Shilabhadra and Atisa Srigana Dipankara, another great Buddhist scholar and reformer, were both born in Bangladesh but converted Tibet to Bengali Buddhism and enriched Tibetan literature by writing in both Sanskrit and Tibetan.

Bengali Baul songs, which are considered close to Carya poems in mysticism, are a synthesis of Shahajia Buddhism, Vaisnava Shahajia and Indo-Persian Sufism. Tagore was highly influenced by the Baul songs of Bangladesh. Murshidi, an old form of folk mimic, perhaps bears the last traces of Buddhist influence. One finds the impression of maya borrowed from the Buddhists. 'The world is nothing - we have to leave it behind' forms a common theme. 'Like the dew on the grass the body is transient' is an essential message.

Among ancient works the Atharva Veda hymns were highly mystical poems composed earlier than the Buddhist mystical songs and may have directly influenced the later. The Hindu Krishna legend, an essential element of Vaishnavism in Bengal which was formed in Bengal as early as the sixth or seventh century A.D., was also inspired by Buddhism in Bengal. Evidence of this is found in the sculptures of Paharpur, the oldest of which probably belong to sixth or seventh centuries A.D. and the latest to the eighth century A.D. The Krishna legend was highly popular by the seventh century A.D. [Ed. This refers to the earliest accepted artifacts of Krishna worship in Bengal, and the apparant connection to Buddhist sites. The reference to a 'legend being formed' is, of course, a misinterpretation.]

Bengal influenced Tibet in many ways and vice versa. The form of the Buddhist religion and monastic order in Tibet was largely shaped by number of famous Buddhist scholars from Bengal. The Tibetan chronicles give detailed accounts of these.

According to the Tibetan book, Pag Sham Jon Zang of the eleventh century, Bengal occupied first place in the field of art. Tibetan opera or old drama combines singing and dancing, which immediately reminds one of the Carya Nryta and Carya singing which is still founded in Nepal and Bhutan today. Dance movements in Tibetan opera correspond with lyrics and melodies much as in the Carya Nrytas or dance. Some movements, such as bowing with the hands clasped and scriptures. The use of metaphors in the Caryas.

Between 581 and 600 A.D. Srong Tsan founded a powerful kingdom in Tibet. He led a victorious campaign to India possibly Bengal since the campaign is commemorated in both Bengal and Assam. Through the influence of his Buddhist queen from Nepal he was converted to Buddhism and Indian. Invited Pundits to Tibet, and had Bengali alphabets.

bayof bengal

Map of the Bay of Bengal, c. 1660

The form of the Buddhist religion and monastic order in Tibet was largely shaped by a number of famous Buddhist teachers from Bengal.

The Tibetan chronicles have preserved detailed accounts of these Pundits from Bengal, in particular from the Pala Kingdom; they not only preached the Bengali culture and civilization.

In the middle of the eighth century A.D. Santirakshita was invited to Tibet by the king there.

According to Pag Sham Jon Zang (compiled in 1747 A.D.) Santirakshita was born into the royal family of Zohar, which is the phonetic equivalent of Sabhar, outside Dhaka. On his advice the king to the Lama in Tibet. After Santirakshita, Kamalasila went to Tibet invitation of the king. Another great scholar from Bengal invited by the king of Tibet during the middle of eleventh century was Atisa Dipankara. Born in 982 A.D. near Dhaka, Atisa's village is still known as Vajrayogini and his original home site is called 'Nastik Punditer Vita' or 'abode of the non-believer learning as the Chief Monk. According to Tibetan tradition Dipankara went to Tibet at the age of fifty-nine and spent the last thirteen years of his life in Tibet. When he reached Tibet he translated many treatises into Tibetan. In Bsam Yes Monastery in 1042 he found many Sanskrit manuscripts which no longer existed in Bengal or India so he translated them into Tibetan. Because of him a vast number of Sanskrit and Pali literature is preserved in Tibet. He died in 1054 at the Snye-thang Monastery. The Chinese believe that many original manuscripts are buried under that monastery which is not too far from Lhasa.

The Anargha-raghva composed by the poet Murari during the latter half of the eighth century A.D. mentions Champa as the Capital of the Gaudas. The people of Champa in Bengal founded a colony in Cochin China, as I was told during my visit there. It will be interesting too trace similarities there with those of Bengali culture.

The Muslim Pathans occupied Bengal early in the thirteenth century from Bulk, Oxus and settled in the plains of Bengal. Dr. Sukumar Sen writes in his History of Bengali Literature (p.33): It is true that the whole of Bengal did not fail into the hands of the Turk adventurers in the course of a few great monasteries and universities were soon abandoned by the pundits and priests. This established social and cultural milieu was shattered and a new Bengali people emerged. This regeneration is personified in Chaitanya. The pundits' and poets' writing were silent but not the singers of the mystic cults and folk culture of the common people. Middle Bengali native and lyric poetry flourished for centuries.

The Muslim emperors learnt the Bengali language and lived with the people. Mosques and temples rose side by side. The Muslim rulers ordered translations of Sanskrit classics into Bengali for the first time for the common people to understand.

Poet Vidyapati prased Nasir Shah and Sultan Giasuddin for their intellectual patronage. Mahabharata was translated into Bengali.

Muslim sultans patronized translations of Sanskrit and Persian works.

Brahmins were compelled to write in Bengali. Bengali was adopted in Assam, Nefa, Orissa, Arakan, Ranchi and Bihar. Bengali Puthi literature was highly influenced by Muslims and the Persian language. The Muslims introduced many Persian, Arabic and Turkish words into Bengali. Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sen points out. 'This elevation of Bengali to a literary status was brought about by several influences of which the Mohammedan conquest was undoubtedly one of the oremost. An enriched folk culture grew up in Bangladesh due to both the Hindu and Muslim common masses and Bengali was its vehicle. Bengali was the common language and literature of the masses. The majority of the Muslims of Bengal, being convert from the Krishna and Nath. The unity between Hindus society, continued with their ancient cults such as the Sahajiya, Krishna and Nath. The unity between Hindus and Muslims in Bengali arose out of racial oneness, common interest and the communal life of the village. It was usual for Hindus and Muslims to take part in each other's social and religious festivals.

A new culture, based on folk culture thus emerged in Bengali. The decline of orthodox Brahminism and classical Hidus culture, well before the Muslim conquest, and their virtual extinction after the conquest gave the new Bengali culture full opportunity to grow. Bengali literature found room to expand in the gap left by Sanskrit.

(An excerpt from A Thousand Year Old Bengali Mystic Poetry by Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud)