Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Chandrabati: Tragic love in old Bengal

Gaura Nitai the other night.

I generally have secondary reading material lying around, stuff that is meant more for entertainment and distraction than anything else. Nevertheless, I generally speaking keep an open mind and betwixt and between I also don't mind cross-fertilizing my brain with books that often fall into my hands serendipitously. Bizarre as that may seem.

I remember once when I was living in Nabadwip and I was invited to a small village on the Katwa-Burdwan medium-gauge line. It was not a particularly prosperous village. I had several friends on that line, including Shambhu Narayan Ghoshal, one of the most colorful personalities in the Vaishnava world I ever met. Srikhanda and Jajigram are on that line, close to Katwa, but these villages were further.

The bhakta who invited me was once an ordinary man, but then he cured a couple of people in the village -- brahmins, and he wasn't one -- of leprosy, by chanting the Holy Name. Then he had become a pakka Vaishnava, even though he was not a deeply learned person. Nevertheless, when I came to his village, I happened to be reading a novel by Tara Shankar, one of West Bengal's most famous writers. He could not quite believe it, "Apnar mon anya-dike jay na? Bhoy korchen na? You aren't afraid your mind will get diverted from God?"

I remember how much insight I was getting into the real world of modern life in Calcutta through that book. But the reading of the novel itself grew out of a necessity to situate myself in this world, this palimpsest of a world -- India -- of which I was clutching to one part, which had become for me the central core of that world. And just like one thing cannot exist without its setting, I needed to at least see a little of that surrounding backdrop to understand that central core. One without the other seemed like a point adrift in space.

Once I was on the train from Howrah to Nabadwip, and in one of the early stations, a young hawker selling muri-masla was giving his spiel, "I have a B.Sc. and I can't get a job, so here I am, your over-qualified muri-masla guy!"

Tara Shankar described a similar young graduate whose life consisted of studying general knowledge questions so he could compete in mass public examinations, where a hundred thousand people like himself aspired for five or ten jobs. In one dramatic scene, after unsuccessfully undergoing one more humiliation of the sort, he berates a well-dressed young, gainful-employed man and starts asking him pointless questions of general knowledge, "What is the capital of Burkina Faso? Who wrote Cry the Beloved Country? What is the average temperature of Outer Mongolia? You don't know? Why do you have a job and I not?" That was Bengal in the economic doldrums of the 60s.

India is the context of bhakti, and India is legion. So bhakti in India has thousands of reference points. Our little corner of bhakti has three centers, and each of those is a world unto itself -- Nabadwip, Puri and Braj. And those three worlds are nestled within other worlds, each a snapshot of manifestations of the one human story. And within which is situated my story. The "Krishna-East" story of my life, if you like.

* * * * *

The two books I read are complementary and yet quite different. One takes place in the pre-British time in Mymensingh district on the north central part of Bangla Desh. The other is about Draupadi, but I will talk about that one later.

The first is Śāṅkh Sindūr (written in Hindi, शांख सिन्दूर) by Ramanath Tripathi, and translated into English as "Conch-Bangles and Vermilion." Unfortunately, I read this in the rather inadequate English translation. An attestation on the back cover acclaims it as "one of the greatest post-Independence Hindi novels."

The book was written in 1973, not long after the war of East Pakistan, which was characterized by genocidal anti-Hindu pogroms in Bangla Desh, perpetrated mostly by the West Pakistani soldiers, who automatically considered all Hindus part of the rebel side. They slaughtered them mercilessly, causing a mass exodus to India in the north and west, which ultimately led Indira Gandhi to intervene by declaring war. The tremendous tectonic shifts set in motion by Indian independence once again sent tremors through the world in new waves of horror, and once again with Muslims taking a leading role in the butchery.

When I first came to India in 1975, the residual traces on West Bengal -- Nabadwip is just fifty kilometers from the Bangla Desh border -- were very much in evidence, in the train stations and wherever else the refugees gathered, including our Iskcon temple.

Though "Conch Bangles" has no immediate relation to the times in which it was written, it is not hard to detect the trauma of the Bangla Desh independence struggle infusing the creative urge that produced it. Tripathi is a Hindu from the Doab heartland. His main life's work has been to retell the stories of the Rāmāyaṇa, which has appeared in a multitude of reincarnations in the vernaculars of India. It is probably by doing research on the Rāmāyaṇa that he came across Chandrabati's story in the first place, for she was the first woman to write the story of Sita and Rama in Bengal.

Chandrabati's story had become the stuff of legend, sung in ballads and especially given a full account in Nayanchand's Candrabatīra Carita. It is thus to be expected that there will be Muslim villains. Nevertheless, if Tripathi is to be believed, he created more Muslim characters for his novel in order to show some nuance to the village society of rural Bengal in the 17th century -- rather than just the faceless, nameless, dreaded Kazi -- nevertheless, General Tikka Khan, the Butcher of Bangla Desh, has his doppelganger in this story.

Her dates are uncertain, but it seems that the pre-British period (i.e. 17th century) is most likely. 16th seems I'll have to get myself a copy in the original Bengali and check it out.

The real reason I got interested in this story is because it is a tragic love story; but one that reflects a sad reality, another chapter in Hindu-Muslim relations. Tripathi, like every author, has played with the themes to make the story his own, perhaps making unreliable historical assumptions, but on the whole there is an air of authenticity to the writing, sparse novella style though it may be, and the ambience that he creates.

Chandrabati's father was Vanshi Das Bhattacharji, a wandering minstrel, a brahmin who sang Manasā Maṅgala, stories about the snake goddess, Manasā. In a country where death by snakebite is a common occurrence, a goddess who rules the snakes is one you want on your side. The maṅgala genre of songs served as both entertainment and religious proselytization. Moreover, Chandrabati wrote one pālā, i.e., the telling of stories through song, about how Vanshi Das converted a bloodthirsty dacoit, Kenaram, with his glorifications of the goddess Manasā.

Kali Ghat school, 19th century.
A brahmin boy from a neighboring village, Jayachandra, is enchanted by Chandrabati and even though they are still young, he writes poems to her based in the traditions of Sanskrit and Bengali love poetry. And she to him. Her family likes him, he is intelligent and enthusiastic. She likes him: he is handsome and romantic. And when Chandrabati comes of marriageable age, ghaṭakas (matchmakers) come and, to everyone's joy, arrange for the two to be married.

But Jayachandra lives some distance away, and he is also getting lustier by the day. One day, he is sitting in a tree near the women's bathing ghat and there sees a beautiful girl with her wet sari glued to her body, her breasts exposed. And he starts to also woo her with poems written on palm leaves left for her at the ghat. Sometimes he would play a flute from a hidden spot, awakening her curiosity, but stopping before she could discover him.

What he does not realize at first is that the girl, Ashamani, is Muslim. But, in Tripathi's version (apparently the original characterizes her as "the daughter of the Kazi"), she is the daughter of a Muslim, Fakir Chand, whose grandfather was born a Brahmin but forcibly converted. The man is barely a Muslim at all, and the doctrines he espouses sound more like those of the Bauls, who have both Hindu and Muslim manifestations. He plays the ektara and makes fun of religious fanaticism and the narrowness of vision of both Muslims and Hindus, though his sympathies lie with the more gentle Hindu people.

Ashamani's cousin Abdullah works for the Kazi as a kind of religious enforcer. He has "real Muslim blood"; his Bengali is mixed with more Persian and Arabic. He terrorizes Hindus and Muslims alike. The orthodox Muslims are wary of people like Ashamani's father, and on guard against any behaviors that are not according to the Sharia. There is a running joke that South Asian Muslims decide their behavioral rules by first finding out what Hindus do, and then do the opposite. But it has been a recurring feature of Islamic history in this part of the world, to first convert and then gradually enforce a tightening of social discipline.

Fakir Chand says to his nephew, ""

Abdullah and his gang are forever setting fire to villages, raping and pillaging and so on, for whatever apostasies they can find or imagine: Muslims who along with the Koran listen to stories of Sita and Rama, who sing songs of Hindu-Muslim unity.

One day, Abdullah finds one of Jayachandra's poems to Ashamani and takes the opportunity to forcibly convert him to Islam and make him marry the girl. And, in a great dramatic flourish, this happens on the very day that Jayachandra was to be wed to Chandra. The humiliation is so great that even though other suitors immediately come forth willing to take her as their wife, Chandra decides to remain unmarried and dedicate herself to writing her "woman's" Rāmāyaṇa.

Jayachandra on the other hand, finds himself in a predicament where his personal culture and education as a brahmin are all despised and held in contempt in his new surroundings... except for his father-in-law, who is also an afficionado of Meghadūta and Gīta-govinda. But they are a kind of tenuous and fearful underground, constantly wary of being discovered. In the circumstances, Jayachandra's relationship with Ashamani quickly starts to sour. She is attracted to her powerful and cruel cousin and Jaya even suspects her of sleeping with him. Eventually, the situation becomes so desperate for him that he begins writing to Chandrabati. Not because he expects to be able to ever repair what has been broken, but only to ask forgiveness for his foolish error.
I mistook a venomous snake for a garland
and I draped it round my neck.
I drank poison, mistaking it for nectar.
I took the haunted sheora tree for holy basil,
I worshiped it. In air and water I only find poison.
Only once I crave to see your charming eyes,
to hear your honey voice. Only once to wash
your delicate red feet with my tears.
One last time I wish to see you, after which
I can leave the world in peace.

He goes to Chandrabati's village, but as a pure Hindu she refuses to meet with him, for he is now tainted and untouchable, though she hears his message as he speaks from outside the walls of the temple where she is writing her book. In hopeless despair, Jayachandra drowns himself in the Phuleshwari River. Chandra, too, as she is washing the temple to purify it of the Muslim's touch, faints and in her grief gives up the ghost. Amongst her possessions are found the conch bangles that Jayachandra had sent her on the day they were to be married, as well as the three manuscripts, including the unfinished Rāmāyaṇa.

* * * * *

The flute-playing of a lusty boy while girls are bathing is a recognizable trope for anyone who knows anything about Krishna. Although Tripathi describes the exchange of poetry and Jayachandra's wooing of both Chandrabati and Ashamani in sweet romantic terms, we know the former relation is pure, the latter one of lust. But the social situation is such, worse even than that of feuding Montagues and Capulets, that even the slightest error is fatal. Once the line has been crossed and one ceases to be a Hindu, there is no going back. It is easy to become a Muslim, impossible to escape being one. It is impossible to become a Hindu, and once it is gone, it is impossible to recover. "Flowers, once used, cannot be offered to the deity."

One Muslim asks Vanshidas about how he could become a Hindu again, and he is told that the only way is to become a Vaishnava, a "Pirali Brahmin." I had never heard this term before. The story that Tripathi tells is exactly that of Subuddhi Raya as told in Chaitanya Charitamrita, though the Wikipedia article does not make reference to that incident. So eventually, he goes to Vrindavan to become free of the social bondage of his community, and when things deteriorate further, Ashamani also decides to follow him.

Tripathi tells the story well, though it is written without elaborate description. It is evocative of the Bengal of green rice fields, clear rivers, cow dung and bamboo villages nestled amongst mango trees, and a Hinduism that is characterized as a romantic and poetic culture. But this idyllic natural world is simultaneously and incommodiously juxtaposed to the dangers of bandits like Kenaram and fanatics like Abdullah, both equally merciless and capricious. Burning villages and floating corpses seem to be a recurring nightmare in the midst of Bengal's beautiful panoramas.

In response to Abdullah's reprimand when he hears him singing a Baul song, Fakir Chand says,
Look, son, this is the land of Bengal, not Arabia. Here we have palm trees, but also areca and plantain, jackfruit and hijala too. Coconut trees raise their heads, topped by garlands of juice filled nuts. We have fragrant flowered mango trees filled with cooing koils. Here the earth is juicy, and so are the ideas. Here there are neither barren deserts nor a life philosophy thirsty for blood and water. Like our sweet fruits, our religions and creeds are also sweet. If the Koran is popular, then so is the Purana. If we have Allahji, so too we have Ramaji.
Abdullah calls him senile and reminds him that his protection is the thin line that keeps at bay the threat of repercussions.

As with all tragic love stories, Fate is the ruler. But here, at least, Jayachandra is the architect of his own misfortune: Lust is the villain. But the moral is that there really is no forgiveness for infidelity in the quest for pure love. There is only one Radha, and she will -- in fact -- only give Krishna one second chance.

And the perilous condition of Hindus in Bangla Desh continues unabated: "Do Hindus have a future in Bangal Desh? See also on this blog, The Ahimsa Heritage and More thoughts on Islam and Bangla Desh,


Jagadananda Das said...

A great blog for Bangla Desh is this one. Lots of pictures of sites all over BD, as well as flowers, etc.

Here are the articles on that blog for Mymensingh


Anonymous said...

I think your a nasty fanatic and I have a name of a women YOU groped in Vrndavana twice..her partner at the time is a long time personal friend of mine and told me the story and you even did it once in front of him!

Here's the deal...you remove your insulting, bullshit crap you said about me on your facebook page, that my life sucks, how lame I am..you fucking remove it you fake ass charlatan or I will EXPOSE you with a complete Facebook page on this to the entire devotee community you asshole!

Also I want a public apology at the top of your page to me personally...you do this or I will come out with this story..I have had enough bitch!!

Anonymous said...

so remember delete that crap and apologize

I want to see it up there by tonight

or maybe I will just tell nandini....

she will have fun with this..

Jagadananda Das said...

Perhaps you should reveal the details. I am very interested to hear who is spreading these rumors.

Radhe Shyam.

Jagadananda Das said...

Of course I have no objection to apologizing. I will apologize, I already did on that thread. I am sorry I was heavy on you.

Nevertheless, I am not about to succumb to this kind of blackmail. If you have something to say, please say it. If I have done anything wrong, I am only too happy to take my licks.

It will maybe save me from my urge to be a guru. I don't have prema, so what is the use of anything else?

I am sorry if I was not kind, Jijaji. That is a great sin, you are right. I don't know how to be kind or loving to you. But I do feel good will to you and I truly hope for the best for you.

Jai Radhe

Jai Sri Radhe.

Anonymous said...

You think all people who reject your religion of worshiping an human being advaitin monk as God are just bitter?

It's called wising up frankly.

And you think I bring up this groping business because I am bitter as well..

I have been holding this in for over a year, and you finally pushed my buttons enough this time... always been good at that and have gotten off on it...

I remember when you scammed people on Gaudiya Discussions to send you money to go to India..and later use it to hook up with some babe..

Who you kidding, like I said the other night you been stirring the pot since istaghosti forums and were one of the 1st to slam IGM and bhaktivedanta and then later after distancing yourself from all the traditionals like Nitai and Advaita das ...you started 're-interpreting' your understanding that included all those you had been bashing and BITTER towards??

And your silly logic is flawed, you say "He wants it removed" that proves his life really does suck...!

No it means I don't like slander..

BTW what kind of child are you in an old mans body anyway, I know you can't function in the world...but geez

just keep it up with this act that anyone who disagrees with HK is bitter, lame etc..

You may get HK's to laugh and like your posts, that's all you have ever cared about ...getting attention

Anonymous said...

maybe this is the only way to get the attention of the gaudiya community..

maybe it's time you understand that some of us no longer accept your theology not just because we are bitter and hurt little boys and girls with a poor fund of knowledge, but because we see your theology, doctrine and dogma as outdated, sexist and filled with questionable history and miracle stories and not only from IGM.

We question scriptures that claim to have ancient origins, yet the oldest existing manuscripts that represent them do not even go back beyond the middle ages, the oldest existing written copy of Bhagavad Gita for example goes all the way back to 1488.

Whenever any gaudiya scholar outside your tradition does any research it is generally scoffed at and written of as 'envious', 'materially motivated' or some other stupid saying that it can be stuffed away into..

Fact is the Gaudiyas and the Gaudiyas alone say that Sri Caitanya is Krishnas Kali Yuga Avatar, and only gaudiyas accept such convoluted, hard pressed so-called proof of his being Kali Yuga Avatar from twisted meanings of verses from puranas, upanishands etc.

and just because people continue to discuss does not mean they have not moved on in some manner, that is nothing black an white..people process differently...but don't assume that people who no longer accept your tradition have no life, or it sucks..that just makes YOU look like a fanatic,

and ..."everyone knows you have nothing better"

what kind of dumb thing was that to say...really and how old are you?

How many people do you know who have ever met me or been to my place? HUH...

I think you may have been implying that the devotees all know anything outside KC is worthless...typical

that's how fanatics think and fanatics also think men are god and create all kinds of miracle stories surrounding those mengods

the groping..I heard some rumors a while back..

However, I'm not moving forward in that regard, too under the belt and could be hearsay..

and again for the record since you are the most transparent guru in history kinda like Obama..

My life does not suck, is it hard you bet.

I work my ass off, help care for a disabled child, have health issues of my own..but you know what..I am smile and laugh more than most people I know..............

Am I in samadhi..no, but taste a bit of happiness in my life every day and I taste sadness as well, I am human and life is a mixed bag and we are deat various situations in this world.

I will stand up and challenge GV and speak out against what I know is wrong and especially blind follow and acceptance of such people who are nothing less than greedy cult leaders..

you can get all emotional over bhaktivedanta you want but I know and saw another side of him as a young man, very motivated by money and not too interested in the kids on the streets who were out 'preaching' for him, he was more inclined to pamper those with the big bucks..and not too concerned with kids being loved by their parents, better send them off at 5 to some idiots at his crap ass schools so the parents can engage in his missionary work of saving the world..yea he was right on the money ..sure

You say he was a great scholar and given a significant title, why then did he plagiarize his own
gurus works with barely a mention and Dr Radhakrishnas Bhagavad Gita not one mention..?

and what about his incessant attack on 'mayavad' without any seemingly coherent real understanding of it is at all..

the list goes on

Anonymous said...

Let me clarify, I did hear the allegation directly and do not consider it hearsay..but I am not and will not take it any further...

I will not give up their names and possibly cause problems in their lives, I have said too much already and that because you pissed me off so much..

you take care mr guru

Jagadananda Das said...

OK. There is a lot there, Jijaji. I can only say I am deeply sorry. You are entitled to your opinion, and if you have wised up, then we should all celebrate.

As to the accusations, feel free. I have no feeling of guilt or shame about the original GD incident, the scam to which you refer and to which you also contributed so generously.

With regards to the groping, I assume that your informant is Cha***? That is the only person I can think of who might have said such a thing, and the only person I can think of who came to see me with a woman friend. But I do not recall any groping, though I do recall him saying some rather unpleasant things to other people, including yourself, on the internet.

The use of the word "babe" in reference to my romantic involvements is an insult to the woman involved.

Anyway, Don, we seem to get into these kinds of conflicts repeatedly. It is interesting being accused of fanaticism. As interesting, I suppose, as it is for you to hear me make assumptions about your life.

I will give you the benefit of the doubt. Once again, I offer you my deepest apologies for any disturbance I may have caused you. I know less about your life than you know about mine. We really only know what we read of what the other says.

On the whole, though, this last letter strikes me as more honest than most of what you say. Perhaps because there is a tinge of vulnerability in it.

Jai Sri Radhe.

Jagadananda Das said...

My defense of Prabhupada was not based on an assessment of the positive and the negative things in his life, of which I am well aware and have also spoken against.

As I said elsewhere, I reacted emotionally due to the particular conditions of the moment. But I have no objections whatsoever to that kind of criticism. It IS necessary, and I don't have a problem with it.

It was a question of assessing MY life and the costs and benefits that have come to me as a result of being involved with Krishna bhakti. My emotional response was to say that my life is what it is because of Prabhupada and that for better or worse, I am grateful to him.

As to your personal life, you are right. I was not sympathetic. Please forgive me. I know what a struggle it is. I wish all the best for you and your dependents. Please be well and happy. It is not and was not my intention to increase your suffering.

Jagadananda Das said...

Let me not be the judge of your life -- I am not -- and please do not let anyone's judgments be a source of pain to you.

Radhe Shyam.

Jagadananda Das said...

Our Facebook remarks are here.


I honestly don't know why I react like this to you, Jijaji. No doubt I am at fault. Let me reflect.

Jagadananda Das said...

And just to make it clear, let me thank you for being so open with me. Look, Jijaji, my goal is prem. That is what I think is the goal of life. But I am a fallible human and I don't really know what I am doing.

The only reason I continue with Gaudiya Vaishnavism is (a) because I like it, and (b) because it has given me a lot to think about, and (c) prema as the ultimate goal of life makes a lot of sense to me.

If I seem to you to be inadequate to the highest standard, which I know I am, then I ask you to please forgive me and to continue to be kind to me, as well as to pray to your God or gods, or to your highest self, that I may move towards prem and not be an embarrassment to myself or _my_ gods.

Jai Sri Radhe.

Anonymous said...

You are correct in inferring that my source had an axe to grind and had said things before...l am sorry if I put that doubt in anyone's head..also sorry for my lashing out at you Jagat...surely there must be better ways to discuss differences of opinion...I apologize more for my tone rather than my language....curse words are part of modernity _ Don

Anonymous said...

Anyway I'm sure the attack on me is not over on your FB page ...can't say if i'll be back there ...sick of online misunderstandings with people I barely know...take it easy

infowarrior said...

Whoever this Anonymouse is, apparently "jijaji" is is handle?, has made a complete fool of himself hasnt he. Tsk tsk. This is why its important to take a few deep breaths, relax and then really think, before typing allegations that are not only rubbish but malicious and concocted. I think JagatJi handled himself in a gentlemanly manner, making this anonymous coward look even more ridiculous. And to just point out, if this coward thinks of Srimaan Mahaprabhu as just another "advaitin monk", then who would waste any time hearing what he has to say further? Its like saying, "oh Sri Krsna was just a simple cowherd boy, nothing more. Yes, he was the darling of the Vrajvasi's, but what do those simple villagers know about the Almighty God? "