Bengal is situated in the delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, which means that it is criss-crossed with wide rivers. It is probably the most humid part of the subcontinent, with the hilly Meghalaya region at the north being the wettest area in the entire world. This means that the delta was tropical rainforest until quite late in its history, filled with tigers, crocodiles and mosquitoes. The march of civilization is associated with deforestation, which has been ongoing even through to the present day. At present, only the peripheral areas, which are still hilly and less suitable for agriculture, remain wooded.
The implications of this historically are that Aryan civilization was slow in implanting itself in this area, leaving tribal and non-Aryan belief systems strong until relatively late, in comparison even to areas not so far to the West. The region to the north of Orissa and west of the Ganges plain, the present day provinces of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, is still one of the least aryanized areas of India.
The Bhagirathi, the westernmost though of the Ganges (though not its largest), is generally considered to be the “genuine” Ganga throughout India, and its mouth is known as Ganga-sagara, immortalized in the Puranic tales of the descent of the Ganges. The areas surrounding the Bhagirathi can be considered the cradle of Bengali civilization, and this area south of the bifurcation of the Bhagirathi from the Padma, which flows into Bangladesh, was known as Gauda (perhaps derived from the word gud, which means molasses).
The city of Gauda near the current town of Maldah was the capital of many Bengali kings at various periods of its history, and the later Muslim kings also made their capital in that area.
Early texts stipulate that the lands of Anga (further to the east) and Banga (further to the south) were outside the pale of civilization and anyone visiting those lands became impure. However, the onward march of Brahmanism continued apace with the spread of Buddhism and Jainism in this area, with Buddhism appearing to have the upper hand for most of the first millennium.
Nevertheless, that certain kings found it useful to have brahmins in their land is shown by the famous importation of brahmins in 746 CE by the otherwise little-known king, Adishura. To this day, most brahmins in Bengal trace their descent from the five families that settled on his invitation, either in Rarha, on the west bank of the Bhagirathi, or Varendra, on the east.
Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktaism all have early histories in Bengal. In fact, the brahmin colonists were already largely "Hinduized." This means that their religion likely contained only a minimum of Vedic elements. Besides the usual ritualistic performances for the rites of passage, etc., brahmins likely took on priestly roles in the various temples that were established at this time.
Archeological evidence of Vaishnavism through this period shows it to be characterized by Pancharatric features:
1) Worship of Narayan as the principal form of God, with Vishnu and then Vasudeva in ascendancy.
2) Belief in the vyuha-vada (“theory of emanations”).
3) Increasing acceptance of the avatar concept, culminating in the popular Dasavatar idea.
4) Steady ascendancy of Krishna.
Shaivism and Shaktaism are both popular religions with numerous folk-features into which there is much ebb and flow with Buddhist tantra.
Buddhism received the greatest patronage from the most dominant Bengali dynasty, the Palas, who ruled empires of various extension from the 8th to the 11th centuries. The first king, Dharmapal, established some of the greatest Buddhist monasteries, such as Vikramashila in Bihar. Devapal and Ramapal were other great kings in this line. Under them, the viharas of Buddhist monks achieved “university” status, where Sanskrit culture of all traditions was preserved and studied. Bengali preachers were active in Tibet, Nepal and other Himalayan areas, as well as in the Indonesian archipelago, etc. Dipankar Srijnana is probably the most famous of these.
The Buddhism of the time was Mahayana, and this developed, no doubt with some returning Chinese Taoist influence, into the various Tantric traditions. Of these, the Vajrayana and the Sahajayana are particularly significant. These are progressively reactions to increased ritualism and formalism in religion. There arre a number of Siddhas (Luipa, Naropa, Kanhapa, etc.), who are venerated as Buddhists in Tibet and as yogis by the Nathas in India. Their writings (ca. 1000), the Caryacarya-gita, are considered the earliest examples of the Bengali language.
Despite the patronage given to Buddhism by some of the prominent dynasties of the first millennium (primarily the Palas, but also the Chandras, etc.), the kings did not withhold their largesse from the Hindus. It would seem that Buddhism, which traditionally took a position antithetical to socially purposeful religion, was in some ways insufficient as a state religion and needed supplementing by the various forms of Hinduism, which served this need. One may compare the situation in China, where Buddhism learned to live in symbiosis with Confucianism and Taoism.
The causes of the decline in Buddhism are a subject of much debate. Some say that there was a reaction to objectionable (viz. Tantric sexual) practices, but it is more likely that popular Buddhism became indistinguishable from Hinduism, the deities of both pantheons were identified with one another (e.g. Avalokitesvara = Shiva, Buddha was accepted as one of the ten avatars of Vishnu), the rituals related to mantra, yantra, puja, etc., were practically the same, only the names were changed. Educated Buddhist renunciates tended to be concentrated in the great monasteries, and eventually lost touch with the masses. With the decline of the Pal dynasty and the ascendancy of the Sena kings, who were Vaishnavas originally from Karnataka, Buddhism steadily lost its hold.
Religion under the Sena kings (11th to 12th centuries).
As already stated, the Senas were cultured Vaishnavas, and there are works in Sanskrit attributed to Ballal, Keshava and Lakshman Sen. Although Ballal was the first great king of the dynasty, it was Lakshman Sen who was the most famous ruler of the line. He is particularly known for having a highly cultured court scene in which “five jewels” flourished: Dhoyi, Umapati Dhara, Govardhan Acharya, Sarana, and finally Jayadeva, who wrote the Gita Govinda, one of the most influential poems on Radha and Krishna in India. Clearly showing folk and vernacular influences, this Sanskrit poem in 12 cantos had left a huge mark on all Vaishnava sects, especially that of Chaitanya. Some familiarity with this work is necessary in order to understand this religion.
The coming of Islam
Bakhtiar Khilji, a Turk, swept across eastern India at the turn of the 12th century, causing Lakshman Sen to flee his kingdom in 1202. He conquered large parts of Bengal and established Muslim dominance that would last until 1757.
There is little evidence that there were forced conversions of non-Muslims in Bengal. However, Muslim rulers did give patronage to Sufi preachers, who thus enjoyed a certain psychological and economic advantage. Some features of Islam that shared a common ethos with aspects of Bengali native religious tendencies were anti-casteism and simplification of ritual. Sufi practices that undoubtedly had an influence on Vaishnavism were communal singing (sama) and meditation using beads (dhikr). The Sufis also appeared to share a sympathy for ecstatic or experiential religion, such as is found in many of the Bengali religious groups, in particular Vaishnavism. The Persian legend of Layla and Majnun (the madman), which is often interpreted allegorically by Sufi mystics, also has parallels with the erotic themes of Krishna mythology.
Hinduism under Islam
Over time Hindus did play a role in the power structure, although generally a secondary one that came at great social cost. Whereas lower caste Bengalis of whatever religious culture may have found the Sufi preachers attractive, the Brahmins were appalled by their beef-eating and other mleccha habits. Those who cooperated with the Muslims lost their caste and were ostracized from Brahminical society. For the lower castes, this was not an issue, but for the upper castes it certainly was the source of a growing malaise. The orthodox Brahmins developed an attitude of inwardness and there was a movement towards a stricter approach to the various Smarta rituals.
On the other hand, it appears that Hindu culture was flourishing. Most likely by the 15th century, crossing over from Hindu to Muslim or vice versa was already quite a rare phenomenon. Nabadwip, where Chaitanya was born in 1486, was in competition with Mithila as the center of leaning in the eastern part of the subcontinent. Contemporaneous developments in the schools of Nyaya, Tantra and Smriti show that the Hindu society was very much alive and well, even it kept itself separate from the Muslims. [Vaishnava texts show limited familiarity with Muslim theological concepts and practices.]
On the level of popular religion also, it appears that there was an awakening of vernacular Bengali culture the 15th century. Bengali verse translations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana were written at this time and enjoyed great popularity, probably amongst ordinary folk of both communities. The Bhagavata Purana was translated more than once, in various forms: Maladhar Basu’s Sri Krishna Vijaya, Bhagavatacharya’s Prema-rasa-tarangini, the Gopala-vijaya, Chaturbhuja’s Sanskrit poem Hari-caritam all show that there was a great revival of interest in the Puranic version of Krishna’s life.
Another poem or collection of songs that would have been performed was the Sri Krishna Kirtan of Baru Chandi Das. More than one writer using the name Chandi Das seems to have lived in the 15th century. Baru Chandi Das’s Krishna is unique in the literature of the time—he truly embodies the boisterousness and carefree attitude of an uneducated village boy. The more refined writing of another Chandi Das, no doubt a proto-Vaishnava Sahajiya, clearly identifies his own loves with a washerwoman and those of Radha and Krishna. A third writer whose songs enjoyed great popularity at this time was the Maithili Vidyapati, whose descriptions of Radha and Krishna’s loves are strongly erotic in tone.
It is probably safe to say that the educated Brahmin community tended to look down on the Vaishnavas as well as other non-Brahminic religions. The moral force of the Bhagavatam seems to have become manifest in the 15th century. Though this text was written near the end of the first millennium in South India, manuscript evidence shows that it spread through North India fairly slowly. The Gita Govinda and other texts with erotic themes are often thought to show the influence of the Bhagavata, but this is not necessarily true. Friedhelm Hardy opines that the Bhagavata was the first “ecstatic purana”, which he contrast with an earlier “intellectual bhakti.” Though it is true that ecstatic religion has a presence in this text, it is accompanied by a intellectual depth that is unmatched in any other Purana, including the Vishnu-purana, its most immediate antecedent. It appears to have crept into Northeast Indian consciousness as a result of a commentary by Sridhar Swami, a resident of Jagannath Puri in Orissa.
Chaitanya and his followers place the most importance on this text because with its sophisticated “advaita theism,” it legitimized the kind of ecstatic religion that is equated with obsessive love, or prema. Chaitanya, therefore, was born of a confluence of an erotic Radha Krishna tradition, deeply rooted since at least the 12th century, a primal belief in ecstasy as the highest religious mode, and the philosophical depth of the Bhagavata Purana.
Chaitanya’s Direct Disciplic Antecedents
This is an area of some controversy, which we will have occasion to look at later. The importance of the Guru was well established in the Tantra and Pancharatra traditions, where the idea of initiation is given prominence. The Sufis also placed a great deal of importance on the idea of murid, murshid and silsila. Chaitanya’s own guru was Ishwara Puri, whose spiritual father was Madhavendra Puri, who had a numbers of disciples in Bengal, many of whom gravitated to Chaitanya when he manifested himself as a leader of the community.
Puri is a dasa-nami or Shankarite sannyasa title. Chaitanya himself was ordained in the Bharati line, another such sannyasi. The strong influence of other elements of the Alvar tradition can be found in the few verses that Madhavendra left to posterity, indicating that these sannyasis were part of a new movement bringing a living Bhagavata tradition into the North.