The songs are composed in a very simple, beautiful form ... which expresses deep philosophical truth, but which cannot be understood by anyone apart from initiates. Although the language is simple, it is highly enigmatic.... Just as we can't understand the songs of birds, so too, we can't understand these songs, but still our hearts are touched by their obscure beauty. --Dinescandra Sen (1951: 459)
Amidst the long, rich history of literature in Bengal, few texts remain so enigmatic, poorly understood, or sadly neglected by contemporary scholarship as the body of highly esoteric mystical songs called the Bhaver Gita or "Songs of Ecstasy." (1) Composed sometime between 1825 and 1870, the songs of the Bhaver Gita are the most sacred texts of the enigmatic and secretive sect known as the Kartabhajas--the "Worshippers of the Master"--which flourished in the area around Calcutta beginning in the late 18th century. Founded by a semi-legendary holy madman named Aulcand, who is said to have been Sri Caitanya in the disguise of a Muslim fakir, the Kartabhajas are perhaps the most important later branch of the Sahajiya tradition which survived in colonial Bengal. In many respects, the Kartabhajas are a group much like the Bauls (who were neglected and ignored until made famous by Rabindranath Tagore) or the Vaisnava-Sahajiyas (who were virtually unknown in the West until brought to light by Edward C. Dimock ). At the height of their power in the nineteenth century, the Kartabhajas were more numerous and powerful than the Sahajiyas, Bauls, or almost any other of Bengal's so-called "deviant sects" or "obscure religious cults." Yet they remain to this day one of the most mysterious and poorly understood traditions in Bengali history.
Some of Bengal's most respected literary historians, such as Sukumar Sen, have commented on the importance of the Bhaver Gita, which represents both an unusual form of Bengali song and a highly influential body of religious thought. Sen even compares the Bhaver Gita with the songs of the great poet and national hero, Rabindranath Tagore:
Among the songs there is some philosophy, but its value is not as great as their unusual simplicity and the originality in their composition ... There is no influence from the high-class sadhubhasa. The unrestricted emotion of Sahaja is expressed with the simple language of the spoken word ... Within these songs flows the life blood of Bengali literature which one cannot see anywhere prior to Rabindranath (1977: 39).
But despite their acknowledged importance, the songs of the Bhaver Gita have never been studied in any thorough or critical way by modern scholars. Sen has even suggested that a careful study of the Bhaver Gita remains one of the most needed projects in the study of Bengali literature. (2) This neglect is not, however, surprising, given that these are also among the most deeply encoded and difficult songs in the Bengali language.
Perhaps most unusual is the fact that these songs not only employ a wide range of esoteric mystical imagery, drawn from the Sahajiya and other Tantric traditions of medieval Bengal, but they also clothe this Tantric imagery in a large amount of idiosyncratic economic discourse, the language of commerce drawn from the teeming marketplaces of colonial Calcutta. Not only is the metaphor of the marketplace (bajar) the dominant trope in these songs, but even more boldly the Kartabhajas appropriate the image of the British East India Company itself. Calling themselves the "new Company" or the "Poor Company" (gorib kompani), they promise to bring a host of new spiritual goods to the lowly and downtrodden of society (Urban 1996, 1998b).
Based on my field and textual research among the Kartabhajas of Bengal and Bangladesh (1994-98), I believe I have been able to unlock at least a few of the secrets of the Bhaver Gita. (3) In my analysis of the Kartabhaja songs, I will adapt, but also criticize and modify, certain insights of Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and other members of the Subaltern Studies Collective. I am in many ways sympathetic to their attempt to give new attention to the creative agency of lower-class, dominated peoples under colonial rule (Guha 1983a; Chatterjee 1993). At the same time, however, I remain critical of their work in at least the following respects: first, with their emphasis on the most radical and violent forms of subaltern resistance, such as peasant insurrection or tribal revolt, the subaltern scholars typically overlook the more quotidian, less violent, yet no less significant forms of resistance (see O'Hanlon 1988, Bayly 1988, Pinch 1996). Second and more importantly, with their heavily Marxist and reductionistic orientation, they have also failed to deal adequately with the specifically religious dimension of subaltern consciousness (see Hardiman 1995, Dube 1998). It may be true that colonized peoples often use religious symbols to express underlying material or economic interests, but it is no less true that they can also manipulate economic imagery to express profoundly religious concerns and spiritual ideals.
After a brief introduction to the Kartabhajas and their historical context (part I), I will argue that the importance of the Bhaver Gita is essentially threefold. First, stylistically, these songs fuse two different song-forms current in early-nineteenth-century Bengal: the folk styles of village Bengal and the urban "parlor" styles-of colonial Calcutta (II). Second, in its mystical symbolism, the Bhaver Gita combines the secular imagery of urban life in Calcutta with profound spiritual imagery, such as the haunting metaphor of the Man of the Heart, which would later become famous in the songs of Lalan Fakir and the Bauls (III). Last and most important (IV), with their extensive use of mercantile terminology and economic discourse, these songs open a fascinating window onto the lives of Bengal's lower classes--the poor men and women laboring in the underworld of the imperial city at the dawn of the colonial era.
I. THE UNDERWORLD OF THE IMPERIAL CITY: THE KARTABHAJA SECT AND THE CONTEXT OF COLONIAL CALCUTTA
The Kartabhajas are a degenerate [bhanga] form of the Tantric religion.... In the Kali age, people are deluded by ignorance, therefore the desire for the five M's is the religion of this era; and for this reason the Kartabhaja teaching has secretly become very powerful in this land. --Ramcandra Datta, Tattvasara (1983 : 99)
In the world of Bengal, the Kartabhajas have long had a controversial reputation--a reputation due in large part to their supposed engagement in secret, scandalous, and immoral activities. As the orthodox Muslim leader, Muhammad Riazuddin Ahmad, wrote in 1903, "The class of Fakirs called the Kartabhajas ... is a group of necrophagous goblins [pisac] who have spread their terrible poison throughout our community.... They are the refuse of our society" (quoted in De 1968: 88). Still today, the dangerous power and lurid attraction of the Kartabhajas survives in the Bengali imagination. As we see in popular novels like Kalakuta's Kothay Sen Jan Ache, the Kartabhajas are surrounded with a tantalizing aura of danger, power, and allure--an allure made all the more intense for Kalakuta, because any commerce with this group was forbidden by his conservative Brahmin family:
My first trip [to the Kartabhaja gathering] was not at all pleasant.... Even going to the gathering was forbidden. The instructions of my guardians were quite clear: That is a forbidden place.... [I]t was forbidden because of its infamous reputation. But the very fact that something is "forbidden" also means that there is always an urge to transgress that prohibition. For every veil, there is a desire to unveil. The more secrecy there is, the more one's curiosity grows. (1983: 25; my emphasis)
The teachings and practices of the Kartabhajas are rooted in the older Vaisnava Sahajiya and other Tantric schools, which had proliferated in Bengal since the sixteenth century. (4) Like the Vaisnava-Sahajiyas, the Kartabhajas identify the Supreme Reality and unifying force pervading all things as sahaja--the "in-born, spontaneous, or innate" (5) condition of all things in their true nature, unobscured by the veils of ignorance and the illusion of the phenomenal world. Sahaja is present within every human being, dwelling in the form of the Man of the Heart (maner manus), the inner core of the Self and the divine spark of the Infinite within us all. "All things and all events lie within the microcosm of the human body. Whatever is or will be lies within the Self-Nature. There is no difference between human beings.... The infinite forms in every land, all the activities of every human being, all things rest in sahaja" (BG 33, 32). As such, the means to attaining sahaja does not lie in rigid rituals or in the tenets of orthodox religion; rather, it lies within the individual human body, to be realized through techniques of yoga and meditation, and, in some cases, through rituals of sexual intercourse between male and female practitioners. (6) When asked, "To which caste does sahaja belong?" the Kartabhajas respond,
Sahaja is of the human caste ... Know, in a hint, what its nature is-- Public exposure is impossible, but a taste of it possible: its arising lies within the body itself! It is unrestricted by good or bad; So what use will known laws be? It is without refuge in any religious views ... Hear this law: "Man is supreme." (BG 48)
The Kartabhajas, however, represent a transformation of the Vaisnava-Sahajiya tradition under the new conditions of British colonial rule. The sect emerged at a critical historical moment and geographical location--the area in and around Calcutta, the "Imperial City," at the turn of the nineteenth century, the high point of early capitalist development in the subcontinent. The majority of its following was drawn from those classes which had been most negatively affected by the rapidly changing economic context under colonial rule. In the village areas, they came primarily from the poorer peasantry of rural Bengal, who faced increasing hardships under the new land revenue policies of the British Company: "Members were low caste, poor, illiterate people engaged in agricultural operations," as Geoffrey Oddie describes the early Kartabhaja following. "Change was in the air.... Because of chronic rural indebtedness, landlord oppression and famine ... thousands of the poor low caste people were seeking something better" (1995: 329).
In the colonial center of Calcutta, the sect attracted the poor laboring classes which had recently migrated to the city from the villages and now filled the slums of the Black Town. As the nineteenth century paper Somaprakasa reported, "This religion holds sway primarily among the lower classes. According to Hindu scriptures ... they do not have any freedom ... but in the Kartabhaja sect they enjoy great freedom" (Somaprakasa 1864). (7) The Kartabhajas represented the underworld of the imperial city, an embarrassing eyesore to the wealthy, Western-educated upper classes or bhadralok:
One sect that raised a lot of controversy in those days was the Kartabhaja group. Although its headquarters was ... Ghoshpara, a few miles from Calcutta, it drew a lot of people from the poorer classes of the city.... [T]he stress on equality of all people irrespective of caste ... drew the lower orders in large numbers. (Banerjee 1989: 69)
According to the Kartabhajas' mytho-historical narrative, the Vaisnava movement led by Caitanya in the sixteenth century had been progressively corrupted and perverted by the later Vaisnava lineage. Although initially opposed to caste hierarchies and Brahmanical power, it had gradually reintroduced social divisions, strict orthodoxy, and ritual, while marginalizing the poor lower classes. Therefore, the story goes, Caitanya decided to become re-incarnated in the form of the poor wandering madman, Aulcand, in order to found this new religion as a simple, easy (sahaja) faith, a "Religion of Humanity" (manuser dharma) for the poor, simple people. Misra represents Caitanya Aulcand as thinking, "At present, there is no simple method of worship for the poor, lowly, powerless people; that's why I've revealed the easy [sahaja] path, so they can worship the truth within themselves, the worship of Humanity" (Misra 1925, in Bhattacarya 1981: 62). According to one of the most telling Kartabhaja metaphors, the "old marketplace"--that is, the old Vaisnava community--had become corrupt and full of thieves. Thus, it was necessary for Caitanya to come in a secret (gupta) form, to found "the secret marketplace" (gupta hat) or "secret Vrndavana," which is the Kartabhaja tradition. (8)
II. BETWEEN THE PARLOR AND THE STREETS: THE STYLE AND STRUCTURE OF THE BHAVER GITA
There is a secret to understanding [these songs]. Revealing that key to anyone who is not a Kartabhaja is for them the supreme "heresy." This is their version of "Free Masonry." --Nabincandra Sen, "Ghosparar Mela" (1974: 187)
Like the wandering mad minstrels of the Baul tradition--with whom they share many close ties--the Kartabhajas convey their mystical teachings through the medium of music and song. Over 600 of these cryptic songs have been gathered in the Bhaver Gita, which is traditionally ascribed to the sect's second, most famous Karta, Dulalcand (1793-1833). Dulalcand is said to have assumed the name Lalsasi ("red-moon") and recited the songs orally to four disciples, the foremost among whom was one Ramcaran Cattopadhyay, a man who, according to tradition, had been a Tantric Aghori before taking initiation at Ghoshpara (S. Pal 1991: 190).
Based on my own reading of this text, however, I have concluded that this diverse, eclectic corpus of songs is probably not the product of any single author. Even Romescandra Ghose, who compiled the first complete edition of the Bhaver Gita from a wide variety of hand-written manuscripts and oral sources, commented on the difficulty of these songs and the uncertainty of their authorship. Rather, the songs of the Bhaver Gita are more likely the cumulative result of a long process of composition, alteration, and transformation at the hands of numerous authors, which took place in the decades between the first known manuscript of 1821-26 and the first printed editions of 1870 and 1882. (9) As a whole, the songs are a diverse and confusing collection, drawing upon a wide range of poetic styles and varying greatly in readability and intelligibility. The result is not a unified coherent treatise, reflecting a single point of view, but a kind of hodgepodge, embodying many competing, sometimes contradictory, voices and interests.
In its structure, language, and style, the Bhaver Gita is arguably among the most enigmatic, deeply encoded, and difficult texts in the history of Bengali literature. As one well-known nineteenth-century author, Nabincandra Sen, described his own frustration in trying to …