The Role of Secular Philosophy and Folkloric Culture in Bengal’s Awakening

Shamsuzzaman Khan

Translated by Mohammad Smhafiqul Isla


Bengal’s awakening in the 19th century has been discussed and criticized in different ways and dimensions at different times. Many intellectuals, social scientists and scholars have called the awakening as partial. A few pundits have marked it as the awakening of city people and high and middle class Hindus. It seems that the Bengali Muslims did not have any role in it, because they were until then rustic and backward in economic, social and educational sectors. As a result, in the context of unequal development, fundamentalist impact fell on the progress of socio-cultural sectors. So a huge social progress and manifestation of reasoning based democratic and national spirit for the modern and human awakening is missing in it. But against the city based awakening of the 19th century, a kind of overall spirit for equality upon humanity and liberal values emerged in the feudal society of agriculture bound rural areas – it was reflected in the folk philosophy propounded by ascetic, Tantric, Vaishnava, Sufi, Baul, Kobial (professional versifier) and boyati (folk singer). With their austere ascetic practice, the philosophy of human superiority based on the thoughts of human welfare, fair intellect and tolerance came into being. The partial awakening inspired by the west in the 19th century could not cast an impact on the vast grassroots of Bangladesh. But the folk philosophy of those rural ascetics, mystics and Bauls could help the Bengalis shape a united and secular national spirit. This article explores this issue with a special focus.



To build a folkloric spirit and a folkloric observation of the world, the folklore of Bangladesh has played an important role since ancient time. A huge population of this country was illiterate, yet with all surprise, it is certain that the life-spirit, understanding, reasoning power and universal outlook of this vast population have played a great role in shining their human qualities and the sense of being superior creatures. The folk culture has retained healthy social atmosphere in the rural areas of the country, and it has outspread human bonds and harmony. Human beings are given importance in the works of the ancient poets of Bengal too. The poetry of eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, and the writings of saints have also put emphasis on the worldly thoughts of the folk philosophy; a cultural system having affinity with and tolerance upon others has been established. Different religions, folk beliefs, cults did not emerge as barriers in this respect; rather, they inspired people to live in harmony. In collaboration with various communities such as Nath Jogi, tantric, Vaishnava, Baul, bolahari, a strong human and amiable atmosphere has been established in rural Bengal.

The folkloric expressions and performance art of Bengal established in the perspective of this society and culture have taken two forms. One is the system of Buddhists and Jains; the other is of Brahmin pundits. Buddhist ‘Bojrojanik and Shoibonathponthi Jogi Siddhacharya Bhikkhu’ would come from the common human beings. They would indeed spread the greatness of human beings through their folklore and secular philosophy. They did not write to please the pundits and royal people as the Brahmin writers would do. They wrote for common people in the language of common people. In the words of Sukumar Sen, “. . . Siddhacharya wrote neither for royal people nor for pundits. They would avoid both pomposity and pedantry. They felt proud of showing hatred towards pundits. Deep disdains to those who feel happy closing their eyes to the refinement of traditional religious practices” (The History of Bengali Literature, 1st Vol., page 39, Prothom Ananda edition, 1991). In one of their poems, such is said, “What happened to your light, what in your offering? What will be done through your mantra service? What do you achieve going to pilgrimages? What benefit is diving in water?” In another poem, “Why are you engrossed in prayers?” (ibid). This philosophy of common people of ancient times can be called common people’s philosophy or folkloric philosophy. The saints of the subaltern village people y were the forerunners and followers of this philosophy. Though there is a seed of materialism in this philosophy, we cannot call it modern materialistic philosophy. Actually it was a kind of ancient materialistic philosophy. Tantrism has emerged among the rural people in this subcontinent from this philosophy. In this Tantric philosophy, the soul was not seen separated from body. So they found soul in everything they observed. From this point, they were the followers of Animism. Animalism was the root of their observing the world. They were engaged in subduing the soul of all things with self-determination. And this way magic belief emerged. They believed that with self-determination and deep sincerity, human beings can subdue nature and natural phenomena. Here lies the basic difference between the religious belief of Brahmins, aristocratic people and the so called pundits and their religious belief. “Belief in an imaginary power beyond the material world is at the heart of religion; and the festivals which are observed to please the unseen power are religious festivals. But the ancient animist people do not have faith in any other power than material things. So they depend on their self-confidence to change things as per their desires and necessity; they do not observe any religious festivals or programs to please any power or god. They believe that they can meet their needs with material things employing their own will. This belief is indeed magic belief” (Bangalir Prakrito Darshan, Jatin Sarker, Bangalir Darshan Chinta, pg. 134).

With the continuity of the ancient Bengali philosophic thoughts, the image of ideal human beings of Vaishnava puthi writers emerged. Vaishnava-puthi writers of the 14th century accepted this image of ‘ideal human beings, and to them, the position of human beings is above even god. In the folk oral literature of the ancient and Middle Ages, this legacy dominated. The basic thing of their philosophy is the greatness of human beings. The folk poets of Chaitanyadeva’s era expressed this, “Man is the highest truth, none above him” or god is never like man. Phukaria writer says again and again. . . . God is never similar to living beings. This concept has got more depth in Dwijdas, and later in Lalan Shah’s poems.



The metaphor that pundit Jawaharlal Nehru would use to describe the basics of Indian civilization is: ‘Palimpsests’ . . . that Indian civilization is like some ancient Palimpsest, on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. All of these existed together in our conscious or sub-conscious selves, though we might not be aware of them.’ That means, Indian culture has developed with the combination of multi-cultures. In a thousand year development stream of ascetic culture, with the blend of layer after layer, a powerful culture of harmony has been established.

We indeed observed earlier that like this tradition of the subcontinent, the Bengal poets of the Middle Ages, the flagbearers of humanism, said, “God is never equal to living beings.” Or to speak more clearly, “Human being is the highest truth, none above him.” In that era of a huge development of Bengali literature and culture, that great pronouncement rendered incredible honor to the Bengalis. Such deep rooted belief and realization of the Bengalis are the main causes of our social harmony and social enlightenment. We also observe the unchanged folk culture in rural settings in the next societies, and more powerful and subtle questions and analyses about life are added. Among Bauls and ascetics especially in the poems of Lalan Shah, this declaration of the greatness of human beings became more subtle and powerful: “What words has my benevolent Sainji sent / God sends different words in different countries / What are holy words in an era are forbidden in another era / For this, different places look different / If created by the same God, there should not be differences / So these people’s works appear different / Sain Gunamoni sends different words in different countries / Lalan Fakir says they are created by human beings.” From Hasan Raja and Duddu Shah to Jalal Khan of the 20th century, Bauls have promoted this concept. After arrival of Muslims, the Supreme Being emerged as similar influenced by the monotheism of Vaishnava religion (Soham) of Chaitanya era and Muslim Sufism (Aynal Haq); as a result, human beings were considered part of god. So, folkloric philosophy earned a new dimension with a blend of Vaishnava philosophy and Muslim Sufism.

We think that folk philosophy and its subpart folkloric culture or folklore is at the heart of the renaissance of rural areas of Bengal. The role of folk philosophy and its ascetics, thinkers, kobial, boyati and gayen is indeed key to not only enlightening the rural areas of the whole Bengal with the spirit of humanism but they also promoted social health, humanitarian values and reason. This awakening bears more significance than the city based awakening of the 19th century. In the perspective of the emergence of free, sovereign, democratic and secular Bangladesh, the role of folkloric culture and the awakening of harmonious lifestyle is more significant.



Folklore is not static, it is dynamic. It changes with the socio-economic, psychological, mental and technological change. New kinds of folklore and its habitats are formed in a new socio-cultural context. This change is the heart of folkloric culture. If society and ambiance become very hostile, then the mainstream folk culture may temporarily turn dormant. In this circumstance, any current trend may come to the fore, but it only stays as a cover for many days, and if we observe deeply, we can see that the basic elements are still unaffected. Some examples may be cited. In the beginning of the nineties, we wandered around Sreemangal, Moulvibazar, Madhabpur, Mohanpur, Narail, Jhenaidah, Satkhira, Paikgacha, Rangpur, Kurigram and Gaibandha and saw that despite the aggression of fundamental culture of Pakistani era and Muslim bias in cultural practice even after independence, the mainstream folk music kulplari ‘Kanu chara geet nai – there’s no song without Kanu’ of Chaitanya era dominated there. An undercurrent of the songs about Radha-Krishna, dhamail, Krishnaleela, Rammatra, Bhawaiya, Kushangaan, Jari, Sari, Murshidi-marphoti, dehatatwa, baul songs, that is to say, an imposed covering on the original base of ancient folk culture based on harmony has received a strong hold. For political condition of the country, military autocracy and other governments’ fundamentalist or half fundamentalist laws of culture, the folkloric culture of the country is going through an uncertain state and volatile time. What the rural people receive from radio, television or VCR is not easy for them to get. They may accept it as a source of pleasure understating or without understanding anything, the rest remains outside the purview of their cultural knowledge or mindset because this recreation element has not become part of culture system of the people of this country passing through a long time, so it did not get ethnic or psychological, geographical base. But now, like before, coming from the groups of people, usual and pleasant jari, marfoti, raamleela, krishnaleela, keertan-bhajan, gajan, gazir gaan, gambhira, alkaap and bhashanjatra have got a lot of changes culturally and geographically. Rural intelligent people’s songs, kabigaan, songs adoring physique and Baul songs have also lost their theoretical intensity. These singers were the rural intellectuals and recreation artistes. On the one side, Moulvi-Maulana, school teachers, pundits – and on the other hand, the experts of many diverse subjects and books such as Veda, myth, Quran, Bible, Geeta, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Karbala tale, shariat-marfat, Prophet stories, Mother Fatima, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Seeta, Sabitri – they are kabials, boyati, geedal – have answered many questions regarding religion, and other religious aspects related to life, through their songs and conversations. That cultural trend of rural Bengal is to a great extent missing nowadays. Hundreds of years old jatra episodes of Bengal are not staged well too. And no new trends have emerged in rural Bengal as well. Confusion exists now because of bad politics, dismal state of educational systems, muscle power, terrorism and immorality.

There were four sources of cultural demands for the people of villages in Bengal in the earlier times. They were mosques, madrasahs, temples, religious sermons, milads, orash, speeches of moulvis, naamkeertan, puja, eid etc. These festivals and programs would meet the demands of the people of different religions.

In some of the festivals and programs, people’s gathering was worth noticing – for this, the people of different communities grew amity and good relationships; a source of two folkloric cultures: folkloric culture was mainly secular and traditional asset of society. As a result, humanist spirit and social harmony were established through pleasure and appeasement of cultural thirst – so it was indeed a source of powerful and basic culture. That society is more important than man in Asia is deeply rooted in it; three: the people of village areas in Bengal have been introduced to festive political culture in rural politics, local voting, and union and national elections. This also influenced their thoughts about life and their own life style. The fourth trend has now been added to it – radio, television, Hindi and Bengali film, VCR, NGO activities and even mobile phone. As part of culture, sometimes agriculture and industry fairs, victory fairs of the Liberation War, Rabindra-Nazrul anniversaries, New Year festivals, Jasim Uddin fair or drama, variety programs, jatra, gazir gaan etc. are organized. We hope that from this fourth trend, a new positive cultural trend will come to light and fill up the vacuity. But the strong enemies of this trend are aggression of low quality Hindi culture in satellites and ferocious fundamentalism.

During Pakistani regime, communal cultural rules were in force and they were promoted in different ways under the patronization of the government. The Bengali nationalist cultural activists staged a huge movement against them, but we cannot say that they failed completely. Despite Language Movement and secular Bengali nationalist movement, the influence of communalism still exists in state and social life. With a thousand year old education and cultural pride, a sense of being Muslims among the new educated middle class Bengali Muslims has increased. On the other hand, for earning bread, a huge number of people have gone to the Middle East and made a connection with their culture, so they have become somewhat communal. This influence has been working slowly – it was not understood in the beginning, but it became noticeable later. In the beginning of Pakistani era, we saw that jarigaan, murshidi gaan along with Krishnaleela, Ramjatra, Seeta’s exile were organized. The latter were not seen next. That means, state culture also impacted on the folkloric culture. In Bangladesh era, new structure of the old system has not emerged; rather, the trend that was active during Pakistan era still exists. It is not unusual because the military autocrats trained in Pakistan have projected ‘Bangladeshi nationalism,’ ‘state religion Islam’ in radio and television under the garb of religion and culture in their own ways. Failing to free the people socially, economically and culturally, they allure them, deprived of proper education, to religion. This is also a tendency of the underdeveloped South Asia.



The base of education in Bangladesh is unscientific and weak. Since well-thought nationalistic, scientific and especially cultural tradition and inheritance dependent, liberal, humanistic education system was not established; the main subjects of our education could not be democracy, secularism, logic and internationalism. As a result, religion, profits and greed have been important in our life. Though this is turbid, and there is Islamization in cultural sectors, we have recently observed some new optimistic tendencies. Celebrating Bengali New Year during Pakistan era could not take place smoothly. The traditional base that ‘Chayanot’ (1961) built with strong determination at Ramna Batamull during sixties (1967) has become a huge festive gathering of people; yet, it has created a new context of a search for tradition among a great number of middle class Bengalis in the city. Liberal humanistic and tradition bound but modern Bengali culture is being built this way.


NB: This article was presented in an international seminar organized by IBS, Rajshahi University in 2013.


Translated by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam

teaches English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh.

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