Merry Christmas everyone

Afsan Chowdhury
Published : 26 Dec 2015, 12:48 PM
Updated : 26 Dec 2015, 12:48 PM

In this day and age, when the last thing on a person's mind is goodwill towards others, it's all the more important to wish everyone a good cheer. There are religious connotations to Christmas, but there are more inter-faith and inter- community elements in all such events.

As we struggle to be reasonable, accommodating, and open to all in our hearts, our most common wish is to hope that joy and happiness is spread everywhere.

But that is not the case today which is why we must insist on the triumph of the spirit of Christmas, and Eid, and Hannukah, and Puja, and every other celebration that are linked to faith practices but belong to society in general.

We didn't know of Christmas much till the British came to India. Of course Christianity had travelled to us many years ago and missionaries landed in Kerala soon after it arrived in the world.

Bengal has been visited by Hindusim, Buddhism, and Islam at different moments of history. Like everyone, else Bengalis began with animist practices and on which various layers of organised faith practices have been placed to produce a mixed sensibility.

The people are not concerned about the theological intricacies of any religion but in fact have adjusted every faith to its social theology producing through this process, a social syncretism that is like a multi-layered cake which holds something special for all.

The land has perhaps been the greatest influence on all welcoming everyone to its fold. Bengal's lack of fixed identities has often created confusion about who they really are and sometimes even to themselves. But in the end, he is the tiller, the peasant, the fisherman who needs divine support to make a living.

His dominant identity is marked by his pursuit of the harvest and the catch rather than the pages of the book he has never learned to read.

History shows that strict and organised faith groups have always existed in Bengal, but there have rarely been fanatics. Religious institutions have always served both divine and political purposes. The first examples are the Buddhist monasteries of ancient Bengal which were mostly of the Vazrayana school. This was of course inevitable since pristine theologies had little attraction or importance to anyone.

So we see the rise of the first dynastic rule in Bengal led by Palas (8th century) who were Aryan Khatriyas and became great supporters of  Tantric/Nalanda Buddhism. Some contemporary scholars state that this relationship denotes religious harmony and so on, but the facts according to many other scholars is more practical.

Buddhism in Bengal was actually flourishing at a time when it was decaying in Imperial North India. The Buddhist sangha/institutional network was the strongest one in India, and using their support to run Bengal made good common sense. It was a social rather than a religious strategy.

Most importantly, ancient Buddhism and Hinduism were not separated as they are considered by some now.

It's sometimes stated that the Senas, who followed the Palas, were militant Hindus who savaged Buddhism and drove many of its scholars to Nepal and other places. The earliest "Bengali" book "Charyapada" which was found in Nepal is cited as evidence of Buddhism in exile.

However, this too is a simplistic explanation. The Senas were no different in faith than the Palas and actually helped them to power first. What Senas did was to subdue the Buddhist sanghas that had become political and militant supporters of the deposed Palas.

To the ordinary peasant and fisher-folk, this conflict didn't matter at all. Faith didn't matter to the kings either as what ordinary people believed or practiced was not a matter of concern. This attitude has not changed much over time.

The situation was no different with the Turko-Afghan Muslims who came in the 13th century and the Mughals under whom many converted. The Sultans of Bengal were committed promoters of Baul and similar cultures and conversion was never their agenda.

Again, this was a practical approach because as rulers from outside India, they needed local support which is why they encouraged traditional faith practices over organised religion.

Similarly, the Mughals used religion as an entry point for their agricultural initiatives and no conversion took place which was unnecessary.

Bengalis becoming Muslims used the Vedic term "Niranjon" to mean the creator and not "Allah" or "Khuda", which means that they were not converted but simply moved into a new religious space because they had respect for the agricultural success of the Mughal policy and thus the religion of the Mughals.

It was only when the colonial British came that religion began to be used as a militant force. The peasants suffered deeply under Company rule and so did their faith institutions.

Thus we see a series of rebellions beginning from the 1760s. The famine of 1770 – the British made famine – killed 10 million people. Later, Wahabbi ideas also helped fuel resistance of Titu Mir and the Faraizis against the zamindari system.

This pattern of revolt ended with the Indigo movement of the mid-19th century which ultimately created the space for the intellectual and social supremacy of British-bred ideas of the new middle class.

As their alienation increased, so did the practice of using a variety of social tools to create privilege spaces. It's this class which even today uses the idea of "secularism" as a form of "religion" with all its intolerance.

But in the muddy womb of Bengal, there has been no intolerance because there has been no need for it to gain something or steal something from another. It's not prosperity, but poverty that is the leveler.

So Merry Christmas to all.

In Bengal there is space for much, and that includes the ideas and practices of faith and religion. It matters little what religion looks like in the rest of the world.

In Bengal, religion has had no reason to enter conflict unless it's forced upon it by the powerful and selfish elite.

Season's greetings to all.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher