DIVINE SONGS OF THE HUMAN BODY
DIVINE SONGS OF THE HUMAN BODY
My primary research interest is in the domain of Buddhist tantra (and its dialogue with ancient Hindu tantras); its impact on Sahajiya Vaishnavism in Bengal and much later the vernacularization of Tantra in the mystic cultural praxis of the Bauls, the minstrels of Bengal singing profound songs of deha-tattva , often using colloquial analogies to explain classical complex Tantric terminologies. My efforts would be directed at blending the existing art-historical tradition in the form of archaeological remains, sculptures and folios with an anthropological study of the living traditions of different mystic sects and cults existing today in the greater Bengal region, centred around the aesthetic domain of visual arts and performance.
As early as the second council of Buddhism, the radical non-conformist Buddhist thinkers had formed the Mahasanghika . Nagarjuna’s theory of Sunya or “Absolute Nothingness” comes from a sense of anatta or selfless-ness. The implicated meditation procedures as embodied in the Mahayana sutras of Prajnaparamita, Manjusrimulalkalpa find their roots in the Madhyamikakarika of Nagarjuna. The Yogacara tradition of Asanga developed the concept of Mahasukhavad by uniting the male and the female principles- Prajna and Karuna.
Vajrayana or the Adamantine Vehicle of Buddhism flourished from the seventh century onwards on these ideals, bringing into practice- the theoretical treatises of Mahayana Buddhism. Sincere discipline, dedication and devotion to the guru were required from the initiates in the mandalas of Cakrasamvara or Hevajra to reach Buddhahood in a single life-time. Thriving in Eastern India under the rule of the Palas and thereon spreading to Tibet via Nepal and Bhutan after the Islamic invasions in the twelfth century, the art of Vajrayana Buddhism owes much to the tradition of the eighty-four mahasiddhas , who have experienced a vision or sakshat of the deity in either its peaceful or wrathful emanation. The yogi’s ritualistic process of visualization after initiation under a guru is largely reflected in the prescribed iconography for depicting the pantheon of Vajrayana Buddhist Gods and the associated mandalas and drawings of yantras. These Buddhist Gods do not have any real independent existence, but rather are manomayakaya or mind-made creations to cultivate energy within the body in altered states of consciousness.
The land of greater Bengal or Varendra-bhumi in the medieval times was dotted with several important Tantric monasteries- Nalanda and Vikramshila in present day Bihar, Jagjivanpur in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, and a group of monasteries at Paharpur in Bangladesh. The onslaught of Islamic invasions in the late twelfth century wreaked havoc to all of them; the monks migrated through Nepal to Tibet along with their scriptures. The succeeding Sena dynasty in Bengal, heavily Brahmanic in its outlook, tried to crush the residual Buddhist practice and image-worship; doing so often appropriating the Buddhist icons in the Brahmanical pantheon. The earliest forms of Bengali literature in the form of Buddhist dohas and caryas, paved the way for Vaisnavite poets like Vidyapati, Gobindadasa and Chandidasa. As Islam gained a strong foothold in Bengal through the Sultans, the fringes of the society became the breeding grounds for the interaction of heterodox Sufis and the vyamachari tantrikas.
Sharira or the human body comprises of two components: the physical body or sthula-sharira and the subtle body or suksha-sharira. The latter is being addressed in these songs coming down from the seventh century onwards and still thriving in the region of greater Bengal through the various cults of the Bauls and the Fakirs. Tantra: Extending or elongating the tan vayu (the upward moving breath impulse or spanda), whether Buddhist, Shaivite, Vaishnavite or of the Marfati Fakirs- sets forth an elaborate set of texts, manuals and commentaries for cultivating the sexual energy, for directing the bindu upwards in the shushumna, (the central of the three nadis) connecting the seat of lowest consciousness- the muladhara chakra at the anus, to the highest centre of thousand petalled lotus at the tip of the head- the Sahasrara. The ritualistic nature of Vajrayana aimed to see the vision of Absolute Salvation or Nirvana in the mud and dust of samsara. The vision would operate through a
subtle and delicate energy system of nadi, prana and bindu- the control of breath in vital neural centres of the body or the chakras. The joy of this annihilation of self, which one can enjoy in the state of the identity of enjoyment is when the sukra and the rajas remain immobile. “And as in Hinduism, Buddhism has been led to count sexual union among such methods, texts which are frankly Buddhistic teach the Sahaja Cult, like the Bengali poet Candidasa of the fourteenth century and much later and right up to our days abundant Baishnabite literature…” To begin with the dohas and caryas, they are written in an eastern variety of Apabrhamsa or what we can say Magadhi Apabhramsa. . The songs use Sandhya-bhasha or a codified language speaking about the guhya or secret practices of the order.
Kanha, Saraha and their songs:
The authors of our songs belong to the list of eighty-four mahasiddhas in the Vajrayana tradition. One of the Dohakosas is signed under the name of Kanha in Apabhramsa. The Sanskrit, commentary gives the classic form of Krisnhacharya or Krishnavajra; the Subhasita samgraha mentions him as Kanhapada. In Bengali Natha literature he is known as Kanupa. According to varying historiographies, the author can be from the early eighth century or as some scholars had directed towards the twelfth century, I do not even deny the possibility of the songs being from two different authors under the same name as it is common in Buddhist monastic traditions.
The second of the Dohakosa is signed in the name of Saraha. Again, there were several personages bearing this name- according to Taranatha there were atleast two Sarahas, Saraha alias Rahulabhadra, the elder and Saraha, the younger one, otherwise known as Sabari. The commentator of the Dohakosa of Saraha is Advayavajra, of Saridesa origin in Bengal. As I have already given an introduction about the philosophical ideas of the song, I would like to expound on them with one specific doha from Kanha’s text. (As an artist, I have immersed myself in working a book of paintings based on the dohas. One of the paintings is also the central design for my curatorial mural project in the faculty-campus.)
Ahe na gamai na uhe jai
Benni rahia tasu niccala thai
Bhanai Kanha mana kahabi na phuttai
Niccala pabana-gharini ghare battai
It neither descends nor ascends
Hold the breath still as ever
Kanha says the spirit never withers
If the breath- the mistress of the house can be suppressed
I have tried translating it into modern Bengali as:
Na adha na urdha gaman
Bayu koro nischala shaman
Kanha bole, moner nei skhalan
Nischolo paban grihini ghorei daman.
The Songs of the Bauls and Fakirs of Bengal
The trajectory now shifts to Baul-sadhana, the vernacularized idiom of Tantric sadhana as practised in different parts of West Bengal: Nadia and Birbhum districts in particular. I find the above mentioned caryas and dohas when translated to Bengali, pre-cursors to the lyrics of Baul-music. Thus, I would try to summarize the development of the cultural praxis of the Bauls. Their Islamic counterparts- the Marfati Fakirs would be investigated in a case study of Gourbhanga village in Nadia, West Bengal.
The present day Bauls, mostly Vaishnavite devotees of Radha-Krishna trace the history of their cult to Chaitanyadeva and Nityananda. The sect of Nityananda is to say keener to the idea of Sahaja or the innate and forms a large section of the Bauls in West Bengal. The Vaishnava Sahajiyas were engaged in theorizing the aesthetic development of the concept of Radha within the folds of the Tantric practices of kaya-sadhana , the cultivation of the mortal physical body, a ‘microcosm in which the cosmic abode of the all-pervading Supreme Being is represented’. Amrtaratnavali of Mukunda-dasa (c.1600 CE) and the Vivartana-Vilasa of Akinchana-dasa (c. 1650 CE) give a theoretical insight into this “alternate” development of tradition. The very conceptualization of the separate entity of Radha as Krishna’s hladini-shakti (pleasure potency), however has its seeds rooted in the heavy Tantric backdrop (Shaivite, Shakta or Buddhist) in the pre-Chaitanya age of Jayadeva, Chandidasa and Vidyapati, only to leave a great impact on the sahridaya- rasika , Chaitanya.
Chaitanya-leela had a different significance for the Sahajiyas altogether, adapting the classical devotional interpretations of Radha and Krishna into the inner cosmic form (svarupa) of every human male and female. In their ujaan-sroti sadhana (practice of cultivating the sexual fluids up against the current), the conjugal couple would make the female sexual fluid or rati and the semen or rasa meet, causing them through breath-regulation move upwards along the bank-nadi (the crooked river as envisioned in the microcosmic human model) through four inner ponds or sarovaras, finally up to Sahaja itself. The ardent consciousness of Chaitanya is manifested in the deep-seated urge to be born as Radha in the next birth: Bonomali tumi poro jonome hoyo Radha…
The Marfati Fakirs believe, they have transcended the Shariya of orthodox Islam in their immense faith in the murshid or pir. Lalan Fakir, disciple of Siraj Sai from the nineteenth century is the most popular of Baul practitioners- much of his repute came with recognition from the famous Tagore family at Jorasanko. The aspect of music and performance is central to the ritualistic practice of the Bauls and Fakirs. The songs speak of complex Tantric terminologies as imageries of domestic rural household. For example, the three nadis- ida, pingala and shushumna become Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati in the spontaneous and colloquial Baul argot.
These cults share a vital link to the earlier tradition of the Buddhist mahasiddhas, an area which has been overlooked in academic research so far and becomes the focal point of enquiry for my subsequent project. My efforts would be directed at creating a bridge between these two traditions, looking from the vantage point of secular aesthetics rather than an orthodox religious lens. The project majorly encompasses:
i. Field documentation of the remains of Vajrayana monastic sites in the Eastern Indian states of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal and Paharpur in Bangladesh; Documentation of Vajrayana Buddhist art in regional, state and national museums. Sarika Kumari, a post-graduate student doing her dissertation on Vikramshila and Pataliputra is to be credited for the same.
ii. Interaction and interviews with contemporary Vajrayana Buddhist monks in North Bengal and Sikkim: the enquiry would delve into philosophical variations among the lineages and its aesthetic reflection in art and music. I would primarily interview Kulavadhuta Satpurananda, a Vajrayana monk of Bengali origin, a thangka painter and singer himself. Documentation of archaic as well as contemporary metal sculptures and thangkas in curio-shops in North Bengal and Sikkim.
iii. Completion of a self-initiated translation activity of dohas and caryas of Kanhapa and Saraha belonging to the lineage of mahasiddhas in Vajrayana, from Magadhi Apabhramsa to modern Bengali. As a visual artist myself, I have immersed myself in illustrating the dohas in the format of a book in gouache and watercolour and would like to lead the on-going process to a final publication within the research period.
iv. The trajectory then shifts to the vernacularized idiom of Baul- I would examine the mode of vernacularization of complex Tantric imageries of the Kundalini to domestic metaphors from rural life. The aesthetic aspect of performance which somehow replaces the iconic worship of Buddhist icons is to be probed into through a series of documentation of performances and interviews of Baul performers at Jaydeva Mela, Kenduli- the most prominent being Deen Dayal, Sadhan das Bairagya, Parvathy Baul, Lakhan Das Baul and Paban das Baul.
The final output would be in the form of a core paper focussing on specific themes in the aesthetic domains of visual arts and music; co-ordination and compilation of already existing scholarship in regional languages and digital multi-media content. Further, in collaboration I would like to film the entire process of my documentation and research.
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