Songs of Ecstasy: Mystics, Minstrels, and Merchants in Colonial Bengal

Article excerpt

      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 [1966]). 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. …