|Mother of the universe, Motherland 3|
But the Vaishnava movement had a deeper and less obvious influence on Sakta worship. If in its popular form it was normally confined to modest piety, the esoteric practices of the Tantrics to which I have referred were geared to jnanamarga, the path of knowledge, and not resonant with ecstatic emotions. Since alcohol and blood sacrifice were associated with the worship of the goddess, at times it contained an orgiastic element. But the spirit which informed such worship was very different from the ecstasy of Vaishnava devotion.
All this began to change in the mid-eighteenth century. Krishnachandra, the Sakta Maharaja of Krishnanagar, introduced a new festival, Bhagavati’s Rasa. Rasa was originally one of the many lilas, divine plays, of Krishna: having saved Vrindavana from torrential rains by holding up a hill as an umbrella, the Lord incarnate dallied with the milkmaids to celebrate the deliverance. The Maharaja decided to excel the Vaishnava festival commemorating the event and celebrate it instead in honour of Bhagavati, thus creating a new myth and a new sensibility within the Sakta cult. This new sensibility structured around ecstatic bhakti, love devotion to the deity, reached a mystical as also literary climax in the Shyama-sangeet, songs celebrating devotion to the dark goddess written by the mid-eighteenth century poet, Ramprasad Sen. The poet was fully aware of the doctrine of non-duality, advaita, and rejected the popular practice of idol worship in terms of that knowledge: "The universe is the Mother’s image. How can you make a clay image to worship her?" But for him all abstract knowledge was futile, for "bhakti, love-devotion is at the root of all faith; salvation is merely its slave." The six systems of philosophy were but blind men who could not distinguish rubbish from the truth. The poet had no use for nirvana, for it was like pouring water into water. And merger into the deity was not his preferred way: "I do not wish to become sugar, for I love to eat the stuff." Bhakti assumed a new voice as the devotee blamed the great Mother for neglecting her child. The language of rural slang resonates through Ramprasad’s poetry as he lovingly chides the deity as magi, i.e., slut or hussy. And the fierce deity who devours all is threatened by her wayward son who now proposes to eat her, making tasty dishes out of her limbs. These intensely emotive songs were and remain highly popular. Through them, bhakti, especially the cult of the mother goddess, acquired an intensity which had no precedent in the culture. The deity came to be perceived as a deeply beloved mother: her children felt free to make impossible demands and to abuse her if these were not met.
In late eighteenth and nineteenth century Bengal, the worship of Durga acquired meanings other than devotion as well. For the nouveau riche, the products of the East India Company’s trade and their tenurial system, Durga Puja became a grand occasion for the display of wealth and for hobnobbing with the sahibs. Initially, the tendency was to celebrate in one’s village home and thereby acquire a reputation for wealth and generosity in the eyes of the local community. But soon one had higher aspirations: wealth was not worth acquiring if it was not used to impress the elite of Calcutta and the sahibs who were the ultimate source of that wealth as well as status. This is how the rural elite of Bengal began to sever the umbilical cord which had bound them to the villages and their people for centuries. Conspicuous consumption rather than display of bhakti was the central motif of these urban festivals. Bhakti, such as it was, was directed as much to the English masters as to the mother of the universe. The trump card was to have the governor-general as the chief guest at the puja. The compliment was duly repaid when the governor-general, Lord Wellesley, ordered a nine-gun salute in honour of Kali on appropriate occasions, much to the chagrin of believing Christians. The sahibs were entertained in great style. There were performances by the ubiquitous nautch girls. Karan bari, the sacred liquid, ie alcohol, was of course de rigueur in Sakta ritual. So whisky, champagne and lesser wines flowed freely and the feasts were truly fit for the gods. Inspired by the sacred liquid, one affluent devotee whose family name was Simha (the word means lion) is known to have replaced the clay lion with his own body as the more appropriate vahana or mount for the Universal mother. In the new urban centres where the petty functionaries of the colonial government often lived as grass widowers, large settlements of prostitutes developed. During the Puja, we are told, people spent as much time on looking at the images as on window-shopping at the establishments in the red-light district. This was an entirely new development in the tradition of bhakti.
In explaining the structure of colonial rule in India, some historians from Cambridge have referred to the role of the Bengalis as that of sub-imperialists. This perception refers to the fact that Bengal was the first imperial bridgehead in India and Bengalis the first group of Indians who took to English education. Bengali clerks, middle level functionaries and professionals like teachers, lawyers, doctors and journalists exercised modest authority and enjoyed modest benefits from the functioning of the colonial regime. One consequence of the fact was that they travelled with the flag all over the subcontinent and as far as Burma and Malay. And wherever they went in any number, worship of Durga in her Bengali version followed and a temple to Kali was set up.
The affects and sensibilities associated with the worship of the Mother Goddess, so far as the modern Bengali exposed to western education was concerned, has been perceptively explained by Bipin Pal, a radical politician who later renounced Hindu orthodoxy. The gods and goddesses to the believing Hindu were like human beings, he tells us, but not human. As for Durga and her family, he writes: "True, we saw with our own eyes that the image was made of clay and straw. But though we thought of it as a mere doll until the morning when the actual worship began, after that we could in no way think any longer of the image as mere image." On the last evening of the festivity, the deity really appeared to shed tears in anticipation of her imminent departure. And after the immersion of the clay image, he writes, people returned home in a mood of total despondency.
There was an angle to this sorrow rooted in the social system of Bengali Hindus. The Mother Goddess, to them, was also the daughter of the family given away in marriage as a mere child. And she returns home every year with her progeny for only three days. Hence the angst evident in the folk songs known as agamani, the songs of welcome, and visarjani, the songs of farewell, still sung, though only occasionally, during the Pujas. The arrival and departure of the mother, who is also the daughter, were resonant with the emotions of a tragic family drama integral to the life experience of most Bengali Hindus. Bengali nursery rhymes are replete with references to the sad departure of the child bride, her many trials in the in-laws’ home and her pathetic longing for the brief returns to the parental home. The nineteenth century memoirs of Bengali women echo these sad sentiments. If the reorientation of bhakti as reflected in the songs of Ramprasad turns the goddess into a familiar figure, the mother in the rural household, it is only natural that the sorrows and sentiments associated with her life experience be replicated in relation to the deity herself.
Yet the cult of the goddess did not lose the grander dimensions of bhakti because the Bengalis had come to see her as part of a domestic environment. The mystic poet Ramprasad had a famous successor in the nineteenth century, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who delighted in the songs written by his predecessor and acquired great fame as a mystic who had attained his goal. His admirers and disciples, who included members of Calcutta’s glitterati, believed that he had tried out the mystic regimes of all religions accessible to him. He announced his quintessential insight into these multiple traditions by stating that there were as many ways to the knowledge of the godhead as there were systems of belief (jato mat tato path). This supreme eclecticism notwithstanding, Ramakrishna was primarily a devotee of Kali. He abandoned his formal role and occupation as priest in a Kali temple in Dakshineswar, a suburb of Calcutta, but was allowed by his patron to stay on in its precincts. He believed he was in continual and direct contact with Kali, his Mother, the form in which the Ultimate Reality manifested itself to his consciousness. He explained that just as the sky was colourless, the Supreme Being had no form. But from a distance the sky looked blue, and similarly one needed a form so long as one was not one with the Deity. Non-duality was the truth, but like Ramprasad he wished to relish the joys of being a devotee, separate from the object of adoration — to taste sugar rather than become sugar. His frequent trances and his childlike yearning for closeness to his Mother impressed many members of the sceptical Calcutta elite. One of them, the Anglophile reformer Kesav Sen, became very close to this illiterate man of God. In Sen’s discourses on religion in his later years, the term Mother occurs frequently and his devotionalism echoes that of Ramakrishna. Dakshineswar became a new centre of pilgrimage to countless Hindus, a fresh boost to the cult of the goddess. But through Ramakrishna it had acquired a new and human face, for many saw him as an incarnation of the deity.
Tapan Raychaudhuri is Professor Emeritus at St Anthony's College, Oxford, UK.
This article is based on a lecture delivered at the Ashmolean Musuem, Oxford.