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A religion of love found in the ancient Bengali songs of the Charyagiti

On the occasion of the UN Mother Language Day, Lounge brings you the story of a secret history of love found in a set of ancient Bengali songs

A fragment from an 11th century AD painting from Nepal depicting a Buddhist tantric milieu.
A fragment from an 11th century AD painting from Nepal depicting a Buddhist tantric milieu. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I dispel the three worlds by means of amorous play

And I fell asleep in the sport of sexual union

How lovely, o Dombi, is your coquetry

The twice-born is outside, the kapalika is inside your hut

By you, o Dombi, the whole world has been disturbed

And for no reason, the Moon has been agitated

Some are there who speak ill of you

But those who are discerning do not remove you from their throat

Kanha sings of the amorous Chandali

There is no greater harlot than you, o Dombi

This song, written sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries AD by the Buddhist siddhacharya Kanha, or Krishnapada, is one of the earliest surviving documents written in what was to become, in a few centuries, the Bengali language. A Buddhist tantric doha, also called a charyagiti, or a “song of realisation”, it was written in an eastern, so-called Prakrit language that would, in a few of centuries, give birth to Bengali. These songs were meant to be sung and danced to in a festive setting, accompanied by the playing of drums and cymbals.

The story of how these songs were discovered is fascinating. Around the turn of the 19th century, there was a concentrated attempt by Bengali litterateurs and intellectuals of the day to unearth the antecedents of the language. This effort was partly fuelled by a wave of regional cultural awakening set in motion by the publication of social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Barnaparichay, a primer of the Bengali language, in 1855. This paved the way, over the next fifty years and more, for a hunt by academics, travellers and collectors to unearth medieval manuscripts of works in the language. The chief discovery, during this time, was that of a manuscript in Nepal’s Durbar Library by archivist and historian Haraprasad Shastri in 1907. Shastri had a storied career as an academic, holding various positions at important institutions like heading the Sanskrit Department at Presidency College in Kolkata, the head librarian of the Bengal Library and the President of the Asiatic Society, among others.

First as an assistant to the English scholar Cecil Bendall, and later by himself, Shastri secured an exclusive access to the then-private Durbar Library from the Rana chief ministers of Nepal. In 1916, he published the songs and his analysis in a book called Hajar Bacharer Purana Bangla Bhasay Bauddho Gaan o Doha (One Thousand Year Old Buddhist Songs And Couplets In The Bengali Language). The book played a key role in deepening the linguistic history of the region. The language of the Charyagiti has also been subsequently claimed to be the linguistic ancestor of Maithili, Odia and Assamese.

The songs of the Charyagiti

The manuscript he discovered was a collection of 50 charyagiti songs, often called the Charyapada, composed between c. 8th and 11th centuries AD, alongside a Sanskrit commentary on the songs by a Nepali Buddhist monk called Munidatta, from the 13th century. A later find of these same songs translated into Tibetan, sometime in the 14th century, highlights their importance in an international literary tradition. Written by tantric adepts called siddhas, and performed as folk music of the day, the songs provided a rich and varied window into the cultural and social life of turn of the millennium eastern India.

A 17th century AD Tibetan painting of the Indian siddha Virupa, one of the writers of the Charyagiti songs.
A 17th century AD Tibetan painting of the Indian siddha Virupa, one of the writers of the Charyagiti songs. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, the songs also functioned ‘enigmatically’, with sophisticated linguistic codes embedded in the verses that held deeper, more esoteric meanings reserved for initiates. The song quoted at the beginning of this article, on the surface, is about the poet’s desire for a woman with many lovers, from upper-caste Brahmins to Shaiva kapalika mystics. The woman is probably from the Dombi caste, considered ‘impure’ in the Brahminical caste structure, but sought out by upper caste men nonetheless.

At another level, the song is about the erotic yogic practices of tantric Buddhist adepts, where words like ‘harlot’, ‘Dombi’, ‘Chandali’, ‘the moon’ etc. are codes for forms of meditative techniques, world of secret signs, that would be apparent only to the initiated.

The songs of the Charyagiti abound in multiple meanings. Scholars Nupur Chaudhuri and Rajat Kanti Roy, in their essay Eros And History: Sahajiya Secrets And The Tantric Culture Of Love analyse one couplet of another song by siddhacharya Bhusukupada in its three different meanings:

Vaj nava padi pauna khale bahiu

The literal translation would be, “I set of on my Vajra boat, and sailed up the channel of the Padma river”

The erotic meaning would encompass the physical union of the phallic ‘vajra’ of the poet with the 'lotus-like' vagina of his partner.

The esoteric yogic meaning for a tantric would be (according to Munidatta’s commentary), “I entered into knowledge by means of the true Guru’s guidance.”

While the mention of the Padma river, which is still the name of a channel of the Ganga when it enters Bangladesh, locates the song geographically, the esoteric code denoted by the word ensures that it makes sense to a Tibetan Buddhist as well. This use of enigmatic sandhya-bhasa (twilight language) is in keeping with the literary mores of the time. The official history of the Buddhist Pala kings of Bengal and Bihar, the Ramacharita, written in the 12th century AD by Sandhyakaranandi, the court poet of the king Ramapala, is a classic example. On the face of it, it’s a retelling of the Ramayana. However, the Ramacharita is a historical record and genealogical tale of Ramapala, expertly camouflaged within the well-known events of the epic. Similar use of sandhya-bhasa can also be found in famous Buddhist tantric texts of the period, written in a mixture of Sanskrit and regional languages, like the Hevajra Tantra.

While the Charyagiti songs tell tales of boatmen, of basket weavers, of cotton carders and tribal lovers, all liminal figures in the Brahminical caste hierarchy, they are all, at heart, songs about a secret religion of love, called sahaja.

An 11th century AD painting from the Kathmandu Valley depicting the mandala of the Buddhist tantric deity Chakrasamvara.
An 11th century AD painting from the Kathmandu Valley depicting the mandala of the Buddhist tantric deity Chakrasamvara. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Sahaja and the religion of love

A thousand years ago, much of Bengal was forests and marshes, crisscrossed by the Ganga and the Brahmaputra and their innumerable tributaries and distributaries. Ruled by an ever-shifting confederacy of feudal chieftains led by the Pala kings of Gauda, the vast eastern Gangetic plains of Bihar and the delta of Bengal formed the final refuge of Buddhism in India, centred around Bodh Gaya, the older mahavihara Nalanda, and newer tantric ones of Vikramashila in Bihar, Somapura in Bengal, the Pandita Vihara in Bangladesh, the viharas of Sirpur in Chhattisgarh, and the Diamond Triangle monasteries of Odisha.

Along with the Kashmir Valley, parts of modern-day Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the eastern Indian heartland of Buddhism formed an international hub where new philosophies of the Mahayana, and its tantric counterpart, the Vajrayana, were formulated and exported to countries like Tibet, China, Japan and Cambodia by Indian monks, adepts and their foreign students in one of the most breathtaking exchange of ideas in history.

The concept of sahaja or “easy” love and compassion, was the catalyst for the popularity of the Vajrayana among the rural and tribal peoples of the region. The deeper mysteries might’ve been inaccessible to them, but everyone understood the simple message that the world and divinity are one, and love and compassion bound all. If the caste strictures of Brahminical society were like a chokehold, sahaja was the release. The word encapsulated a hidden stream of religion predicated on love in India. Written in the apabhramsa language, a close cousin of the language of the Charyagiti, the mahasiddha Saraha states in one of his dohas:

The Brahmins who do not know the truth,

Vainly recite the Vedas four.

With earth and water and kusha-grass they make preparations,

And seated at home they kindle fire,

And from the senseless offerings that they make,

They burn their eyes with the pungent smoke…

When the mind goes to rest

And the bonds of the body are destroyed,

Then the one flavour of the sahaja pours forth

And there is neither outcaste nor brahmin…

Here is the sacred Jamuna, and here is the River Ganga

Here are Prayaga and Banaras, here are the sun and the moon.

I have visited in my wanderings shrines and other places of pilgrimage,

But I have not seen another shrine blissful like my own body

Making its first appearance as a religious-yogic term in the Buddhist tantras around the 8th century AD, at one level sahaja means “easy” or “spontaneous”. At another, it means the “innate”. At yet another level, it means the “being born together”. It is fuelled by desire, which the tantras teach as a positive emotion, and the goal is to transcend all dualities—of gender; samsara (the phenomenal world) and nirvana (transcendent state); the pure and the impure; the sun and the moon—and achieve the state of “Great Bliss” or mahasukha, the key term that replaces nirvana in the Buddhist tantras.

Such was the impact of the word, that it survived the long fade of Buddhism, and became a key element of Hindu and Sufi mysticism, and, as lhan-cig skyes-pa, became a cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhism. To the Buddhists, it was the coming together of Upaya (skill in means) and Pragya (knowledge); for the Shaiva and Shakta tantrics, it represented the union of Shiva and Shakti; to the Sahajiya Vaishnavs, Krishna and Radha. To the Bengali Sufi fakirs and Bauls, it represented the moner manush, or the “person of the heart”, the eternal beloved. The sadhana (meditation) of the Buddhist siddhas became the ulta sadhana of the Shaiva Natha siddhas, while Kabir’s dohas on sahaja echo those by his Buddhist forebears:

If there be a saint in whose heart the bliss of the sahaj is born,

I’ll give him all litanies and penance as brokerage:

Let he but give me a single drop of Ram’s liquor

As the Liquor-girl pours out her drink

Many of Kabir’s dohas use literally the same imagery to denote similar spiritual meanings. This was noted by the scholar Shashibhusan Dasgupta in his influential 1946 book, Obscure Religious Cults As Background Of Bengali Literature. In it, Dasgupta writes, “There are poems in (sic) Kabir, which in their entirety can very well be compared with some of the Carya poems of the Siddhacharyas. This in song No. the Kabirgranthavali, can very well be compared with some of the Carya-padas describing the ecstatic realisation of the Sahaja bliss.” Dasgupta later notes similar dohas written by the famous north Indian mystic poets Tulsidas, Ravidas and Dadu.

The Vaishnav Sahajiya poet Chandidas too saw love as a means to attain the indescribable:

The essence of beauty springs

From the eternal play of man as Krishna

And woman as Radha.

Devoted lovers in the act of loving,

Seek to reach the goal.

His words echo in the songs of the Sufi mystic from Punjab, Bulleh Shah:

Repeating the name of the Beloved, I have become the Beloved myself

Whom shall I call the Beloved now?

Separation and union-I give up both

Whom should I belong to now?

Like Majnu, the mad one in love

Become Laila yourself

A Baul singer, when asked by the scholar Kshitimohan Sen as to why they didn’t keep better records of their songs, answered, “We follow the sahaj way and so leave no trace behind us…do the boats that sail over a flooded river leave any mark?…All the streams that flow into the Ganga become the Ganga. So must we lose ourselves in the common stream, else it will cease to be living.”

Apart from the important role of being the earliest literature written in Bengali, the songs of the Charyagiti also serve as a reminder of the true pluralistic ethos of much of Indian popular religion. Far from the hidebound rituals of caste-based mainstream Hinduism, the religion of love—a potent mix of the sexual, the romantic and the spiritual—once held a very real meaning in the hearts and minds of the masses, even if the esoteric nature of the dohas may have escaped them.

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