The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Logic In Popular Form: Essays on Popular Religion in Bengal By Sumanta Banerjee, Seagull, Rs 595

Inadvertently caught amid swirling crowds that invade one shop after the other, in resolute traffic jams that never seem to disentangle, it is almost impossible not to think of one extremely “popular” religion in Bengal. The Durga Puja however is not on Sumanta Banerjee’s itinerary as he goes “ragpicking” through 19th century Bengal to retrieve the “popular logic embedded in the socio-religious life of the lower orders”. Banerjee’s intention is to give voice to the “unheard” people who, through their customs and rituals, try to make sense of the hostile world around them, cope with modernity and try to give meaning to their own existence. Popular religion thus reflects the “collective rationality” of the underdogs.

Banerjee weaves in several layers of argument within this broad format. One, he shows that this oral religion is not “fixed”. Over centuries, it borrows generously from institutionalized religion, despite challenging it, and sometimes even gets coopted into the latter. Two, through the ages, such popular religions in India undergo tremendous change in answer to the changing needs of the people. Thus Kali in the longue duree is a tribal goddess, a deity worshipped by murderous dacoits, mother and daughter to a devotee like Ramprasad Sen, and also the rallying point of revolutionaries fighting the raj.

Banerjee in fact insists on making India’s case slightly different from the history of popular religion in the West. He argues that in the Indian context, popular religions reflect a more fluid and changing reality and are far from becoming extinct as in the West. Neither has their history been entirely of conflict with the established order or within society itself. Syncretism has been a major feature of popular beliefs. In the six chapters that follow — on Kali, on Satyapir, on Radha-Krishna, on the Karta-Bhaja sect, on Bamakshyapa and on Bharat Mata — Banerjee harps on the same theme of continuity through change. Thus if Satyapir and Satyanarayana continues to lord over Muslim and Hindu households separately, shorn of his original syncretic ambitions, the Karta-Bhaja sect continues to congregate at the Ghoshpara mela annually, despite the fall of the kartas or dilution of its original principle of providing solace to the diseased and the disabled.

Banerjee’s forté is popular culture. So he does not hesitate drawing from its rich treasury. He excels in the chapter on Radha and Krishna that shows Radha’s journey, from the preserve of the Vaishnav Goswamis, to the songs of Calcutta’s kobiwalas and ultimately the beats of the city’s jhumur dancers and khemtawalis. Compared to the ease with which Radha is explored in the colonial context, the chapter on Bamakshyapa comes across as a bit laboured, not because it is unusually long, but because it does not hold interest, which is probably a fallout of the elaborate description of tantrik rites.

The author does not want to conduct his examination of popular religion aimlessly. He asks two questions: why do these popular religions still survive' And what are the social implications of their continuity in the everyday life of the masses' Quite naturally, Banerjee is aware of the baggage that “collective rationality” carries in the form of child sacrifices, witch-hunts and other deep superstitions. But even though he answers the first question indirectly, Banerjee leaves the second to the discretion of the Indian historian, who he says, cannot “escape the responsibility of explaining the persistence of such popular religious practices, and analysing their implication for collective psychology and behaviour”. But given the current role of our historians in the shaping of the Hindutva idiom, can we trust them to be discreet enough'

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