Drifts of Defiance: The Kartabhaja Sect in Bengal
By Md. Dilwar Hossain
In exploring the multi-faith context in South Asia, one is confronted repeatedly with the drifts of defiance that have emerged from the lower and marginal strata of society. It is one such story, about the Kartabhaja sect of Bengal, that I will write.
One among the many syncretic religious faiths that defied oppressive mainstream religions, this sect originated in the early years of the 19th century in colonial Bengal. I use the phrase ‘drifts of defiance’ to indicate the meandering course of the sect from initial defiance and challenge to the hierarchy of caste and religious absolutism to an ambivalent acceptance of institutionalized Hinduism. Despite this apparent capitulation, however, the sect has been successful in blurring caste and religious distinctions within its fold.
The story goes that Aul Chand (birth date unknown, died 1769), a Sufi Fakir, founded the Kartabhaja sect at Ghoshpara, an area inhabited largely by impoverished Muslims and Hindus of the lowly castes. This was in the Nadia district of West Bengal. His first disciple Ramsarn Pal was a Sadgop, a caste of the lower order. The message of love and tolerance attracted the lower class people greatly dissatisfied by the rigid nature of established religions:
“Mog, European, Dutch, Hindu, Muslim all are created by one God
All are invested with same substances
See, all the thirty-six castes and creeds call only for humanity” (Bhaber Geet, all translations mine)
This is a song taken from Bhaber Geet, a book that is a collection of songs and which is, in many ways, the scriptural text of the sect. It also placed itself as the ‘true’ faith, an alternative path to Vaishnavism which was, by the end of the 18th century, dominated by the Goswamis and had hardened its caste hierarchical divisions. The simple rituals of the Kartabhaja sect, consisting largely of sitting together and singing the songs from Bhaber Geet, attracted many.
Sudhir Chakraborty, who has extensively researched the varied grassroots sects of Bengal, argues that the social, political and economic turmoil caused by the beginning of the British rule may have acted as a trigger in generating a ‘felt need’ for new faiths. From its very beginning the Kartabhaja sect revealed the influences of Sufism and Islam. In all likelihood, this was because its founder was a wandering Sufi saint. For example, the weekly worship is observed on Friday which is the holy day in Islam and the practice of singing by gathering in certain place resembles the majlis of Sufi orders. Moreover, many of the Mahashayas I met on my field trips, revealed that the prescribed cremation rite, which is almost obsolete at present, consists of the burial of the dead body, a practice that is in accordance with the Islamic tradition. Besides, the sahajiya practices consider the body as the microcosm of the universe where the Guru/Murshid is the mediator in finding the ultimate ‘truth’.
The great Bengali scholar Sukumar Sen argues that in the eighteenth century, in almost all religious syncretic sects, the term ‘satya’ was bestowed with immense significance. When the Sufi saints worshiped Allah as their personal God, they used the name ‘Haq’, a word which is synonymous with satya or truth. The resonance of satya may be traced in the other local worships of Satya Pir or Satya Narayan. The Kartabhajas similarly placed great emphasis on satya and, in the process of theological indoctrination, the Kartabhajas sometimes named their sect ‘satya dharma’. Satya does not refer to mere veracity but to the eternal and unitary self of the Supreme Being.
At this point I would like to bring into the discussion the worship of Satya Narayan/Pir – a deity widely worshipped in Bengal, and relate it to the present religious imaginary and practices of the Kartabhajas. Satya Narayan/ Satya Pir was a syncretic tradition and, according to Sumanta Banarjee, was fluid and flexible in its rituals. There are different narratives that frequently transgressed the boundaries of ‘Narayan’ or ‘Pir’ – words which are commonly associated with Hindu and Muslim religiosity, respectively. However, the gradual polarization of Hindu and Muslim identity had an impact on the practice of these syncretic grass root level faiths, and the idea of Narayan and Pir became distinct and unchangeable absolutes in two distinct worships that were born of the earlier syncretic one.
Similar to the trajectory followed by the Satya Pir/Narayan worship, a process of Hinduisation occurred within the Kartabhaja sect after the passing of the first generation of disciples. The founder Aul Chand, a Sufi fakir (revered as pir by some Muslim Kartabhaja followers), began to be spoken of as an incarnation of Narayan, a belief that has found articulation in the name with which the Kartabhaja followers refer to him–“fakir thakur” (‘thakur’ is the term that is used in Bengal to address a Hindu God or Goddess).
After the death of Aul Chand, the authority of the sect fell on the first disciple Ramsarn Pal and has since followed a dynastic succession. During the time of Dulal Chand, the son of Ramsaran Pal, the sect achieved acceptability among a large majority of the Hindu community. About a century after its beginning, the Sufi fakir Aul Chand was transformed into an avatar of Sri Chaitanya, which meant an avatar of Sri Krishna. A popular Kartabhaja song goes:
“Krishnachandra, Gourchandra, Aulchandra
Are three in one, one in three.”
Ramsaran Pal’s wife Saraswati Devi came to be known as Satima (the holy mother), and with her magical healing power attracted thousands of devotees to Ghoshpara. Gradually, with further demographic changes occurring in this area post the Partition of India, Aul Chand’s egalitarian message began to be replaced by the curative rituals associated with Satima at Ghoshpara. Today, the very name of the sect Kartabhaja has almost entirely been replaced in the minds of the people with Satima Dharma.
The local demographics of Ghoshpara played a decisive role in the transformation of the syncretic nature of the sect. The region had been, in the pre-World War period, inhabited by lower class Hindus, mainly Sadgops, tribes and a large number of Muslims. But Ghoshpara, adjacent to the township of Kalyani and 54 kilometers north of Kolkata, witnessed a drastic change in demographics during the 1940s. First the establishment of an American Air Force Base led to the original inhabitants being relocated, and in 1947, the Partition caused mass uprooting and migration across the border, some 30 kilometers from Ghoshpara. These movements resulted in the migration of the original Muslim inhabitants to East Pakistan and simultaneously a large number of Hindu inhabitants moved from East Pakistan into independent India. And this changed the caste and religious equation irreversibly. The decrease of Muslim inhabitants may be seen as the reason for the rapid Hinduisation of the sect and has perhaps been catalytic in the wide reach of the Mother Goddess figure of Satima.
Would one then conclude that the Kartabhaja dharma has failed in achieving the union of communities that its founder and first disciples had aspired for? That answer, from my experience, would be incorrect. In post-independence India, when caste discrimination has been ruled as ‘unconstitutional’, the sect may be seen as having softened its rebellion against orthodox Hinduism. Its inclusiveness is still upheld by large sections of people from the lower caste and (relatively fewer) from the higher caste communities congregating during the festivals. My interviewees have included people from all castes and both genders. Shantilata Chakraborty, for example, is one who is not merely a follower of the sect but herself a female Mahashaya of the sect. Then there are the Muslim followers. In Ghoshpara and its adjacent regions, Muslim followers are rarely found. But they reside in large numbers in Bangladesh, while others are scattered in other districts of West Bengal. Many of them are in the district of Murshidabad and Nadia, though a few have admitted that they are the lone followers of the faith in their families. Also, they reveal that there are sometimes argument with conservative Moulavis over their choice of faith, but that does not stop them from joining the gathering on Fridays to sing the Bhaber Geet. Till today, the practice of a Muslim guru initiating a Hindu disciple into the sect or vice-versa, is continued. The gurus make no discrimination between his Hindu and Muslim disciples. All the followers, irrespective of caste, class and religion desist from consuming non-vegetarian foods on Fridays at the weekly gatherings. At the annual festivals, all mix freely and serve food to each other in an unbiased manner; or at different clandestine akhras, on Friday evenings, in the flickering lights at the evening prayer, they sing together, a rising chorus of voices searching for the ‘truth’:
“There is no division between human beings;
so why, brother, is there sorrow in this land?
In their Sahaja own Self nature,
Does the infinite take form in every land.”
Md. Dilwar Hossain completed his Masters degree in English from West Bengal State University, India and then worked as Research Officer at an ICSSR project on folklore. He has been teaching English for the past few years, but has been particular about making time for his passionate research into religion and identities.
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