Monday, May 11, 2009


Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Bengal saw a curious commingling of two seemingly diverse streams—tantra and Islamic Sufism. Tantric practices and ideas influenced the Sufis who incorporated these as stages of the mystical path.
Bengal, comprising present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, is one of the most heavily populated parts of south Asia. It is home to a rich cultural heritage, which has been influenced by many religious traditions, including Buddhism, Tantrism, Shaktism, Brahminism and Islam. One of the most intriguing aspects of this intermingling of religious traditions in Bengal is the marked influence of the Nath cult, based on yoga and Tantra, on popular Bengali Sufism. This is hardly surprising, as significant sections of both the Tantriks as well as the Sufis were bitterly opposed to the religious establishment, and both enjoyed considerable support among the lower castes who constituted the majority of the Bengali populace. Further, both Tantra as well as popular Sufism themselves are, in their origins, a product of various influences, and have freely borrowed from other traditions over time.

The period between 15th and 18th centuries, which witnessed the growing Islamisation of large numbers of lower caste as well as tribal groups living in Bengal, also witnessed a growing synthesis of Sufism and Bengali Tantra of the Nath variety, which, it is interesting to note, has generally been associated with the non-Brahmins, particularly with the low castes who were outside the pale of the Brahminical religion. It was primarily through the agency of various Sufis that Islam spread in the Bengali countryside, particularly in the eastern parts of the region, what is now Bangladesh. Some Sufis were sternly orthodox, insisting on the need to strictly follow the Islamic law or Shariah. They looked upon local customs, practices and beliefs with distaste, as wrongful innovations that needed to be purged if Muslims were, so they believed, to lead proper Islamic lives. They preached a puritanical form of scriptural Islam that brooked no compromise with local Bengali traditions and cosmologies.

On the other hand, in this period Bengal also witnessed the emergence of a number of unorthodox Sufis who willingly embraced local beliefs and practices. For some it was a sensible missionary technique in order to make Islam intelligible to the Bengalis, speaking to them in an idiom that they could readily understand. In most cases, however, the fusion of Islamic and local, including Tantrik, traditions was unconscious and organic, a result of a natural expression of living and working in the Bengali context. Several of these Sufis, many of whom are now little-remembered today, were heavily influenced by Tantrik doctrines, so much so that for their Hindu followers, mostly from the lower castes, they came to be seen as hardly distinguishable from their own deeply revered religious figures. Over time, they spawned local devotional cults centered on their shrines or mazars, attracting a multi-caste and multi-religious following as they came to be seen as powerful beings capable of interceding with God to meet people’s needs.

Many medieval Bengali Muslim Sufi-Tantriks, if they can be called so, remain unknown, having been local figures about whom no historical records exist. Some others are known to us through historical chronicles as well as instructional texts they penned for their own disciples. Notable among these was a certain Shaikh Zahid, author of the Bengali mystical text Adya Parichaya. The text is a fascinating example of a Sufi work clearly influenced by Tantra, illustrating the fact that in medieval Bengal the notion of Hindus and Muslims as two distinct and clearly separate communities was hardly known. It also shows how foreign the notion then was of Islam and Hinduism as two radically different faiths, which, in turn, allowed for the possibility of significant borrowings and overlaps.

The Adya Parichaya is devoted to an elaborate discussion of the various stages on the mystical path. Interestingly, these are described in terms almost identical to those used by the Tantriks, and are not presented as an exclusively Muslim way to salvation. The book then refers to the process of the emergence and growth of the embryo into a physical organism and the influence of stars and planets under which parturition is supposed to take place. It then shifts to a detailed treatment of Yoga Tantra, or the principles of Yogic-Tantrik discipline, where it discusses the various techniques of what it refers to as kayo sadhana or physical culture. It repeatedly employs the word samrasa, a technical Tantrik term signifying the nondual state of union between Shiva and Shakti, the male and female principles. The text describes this as the final stage of the mystic, when Shiva, the principle of rest, fuses with Shakti, the principle of motion and phenomenal manifestation, in what it refers to as the vajra kuthi or the thunder-like impregnable fortress. Curiously enough, Shaikh Zahid uses this term to draw parallels between it and the popular Sufi concept of baqa or abiding in Allah, a stage that the mystical adept reaches after the annihilation of the self (fana).

Another medieval Bengali Muslim Sufi writer who seems to have been heavily influenced by Tantra was a certain Sayyed Sultan, about whom the extant historical records tell us relatively little. He was the author of a Bengali mystical treatise, Jnana Pradalpa, which provides a detailed account of various meditation techniques that seem almost identical to those practiced by the Tantriks. The book discuss what it calls the sat chakra, or the six nerve-plexuses, the various yogic postures or asanas, methods of breath control and the practice of dhyana (fixed attention), mudra (posture) and samadhi (ecstatic concentration). The aim of the yogic discipline, Sayyed Sultan explains, is to arouse the kundalini shakti, the coiled energy, from the Muladhara chakra at the bottom of the spine, and to direct it to the Sahasrara, the thousand-petalled lotus located in the cerebral region where Shiva is said to reside.

This ultimate union of Shiva and Shakti within an individual is what Sayyed Sultan calls the stage of the changeless state of immortality, which, he says, can only be attained after penetrating all the six chakras or energy points located in the body. He refers to the sushumna as the passage along which the Primordial Power (adya shakti) can be worshiped. He places it, and what he calls a void containing knowledge of the Lord, in the Sahasrara. When Shakti arrives at this spot, he writes, ultimate bliss is attained. Elsewhere, he refers to this union as the sacred triveni or confluence of three sacred rivers. Here, he says, Yogis start their mental and spiritual exercises by stopping the flow of the Ganga (pingala) and the Yamuna (ingala), directing their waters along the upward course of the Saraswati (sushumna).

Each of the stages on the mystical path that the Sufi passes through, Sayyed Sultan writes, entails a different set of demands. He begins with the Shariat, the external observances of the Islamic law, which includes ritual worship. This is a necessary stage for the mystic, for without the control and restraining influence of the law he is sure to go astray. He then moves, by various stages, to the tariqat, the mystical journey, which the Sufis discuss in detail in their works. He progresses to the stage of haqiqat or Reality, and his journey then finally culminates in the highest state of marifat or gnosis. In this way, by firmly locating the yogic path within the discursive framework of mainstream Sufism, Sayyed Sultan seeks to legitimise key Tantrik beliefs and practices in Islamic terms. It is not known, however, what the reaction of the orthodox ulama, Muslim clerics, or the more mainstream Sufis was to this effort.

Another interesting attempt at translating Tantrik beliefs and doctrines into a Sufi framework appears in an anonymous Bengali text, the Yoga Qalandar. We know nothing about the author, except that he was a Bengali Muslim and was probably closely associated with the heterodox side of the Qalandar Sufi order. This is evident from the way in which the book seeks to combine and reconcile Tantrik and yogic beliefs with Qalandar Sufism. The book includes a detailed discussion of the chakras of the yogic system, which the author claims are identical with to the Islamic mystical notions of manzil and maqam, the different stages that the adept passes through on the Sufi path. The author sees several yogic practices as perfectly legitimate for a Muslim, and even suggests that Sufi adept should engage in various yogic exercises, among which he specifically recommends the padmasana (lotus posture), mayurasana (peacock posture) and garbhasana (posture of a foetus in the mother’s womb).

The effort to incorporate Tantrik practices and beliefs into practical Sufism by seeking to provide suitable Islamic sanction to them is evident in yet another medieval Bengali Muslim mystical treatise, the Jnana Sagara, authored by Ali Reza, who, as his name suggests, might have been a Shia.

The book takes the form of a lengthy poem in the Bengali language peppered with numerous words of Arabic and Persian origin. The Tantrik influence on the work is clearly evident from its detailed discussion of what it calls the six lotuses existing within the human body, each of which is said to contain six chakras. These, Ali Reza says, are the abodes of the six seasons and six musical scales or ragas. He also discusses various Tantrik practices, such as physical and meditation exercises and breath control methods, which he says can assist the adept on the Sufi path.

Yet, Ali Reza warns his readers that meditation, while necessary and useful, is meaningless if it is not accompanied and infused by love. In arguing this position he implicitly critiques both the empty ritualism of Brahmin priests and sections of the ulama, as well as the world-renouncing asceticism of the Yogis and Tantriks, insisting on the ethical dimension of faith that forms the core of the Sufi vision.

He holds the Prophet Mohammed as a role model for the Sufis to emulate, for it is from him that they can learn the meaning of true love, service and devotion. The world exists, he tells his readers, simply because of the love of God. Every particle of the vast universe has been created out of this love, he says, and the true Sufi is one who comes to a realisation of this truth and acts on the ethical demands that it makes.
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