Last summer I began a deep inquiry of Gaudiya/Bengali Vaishnava culture. That inquiry had its origins in a dream I had two years prior where Radha and Krishna appeared in the form of miniature clay figurines. Krishna went missing and Radha asked me to help find him like how she implores her sakhis/friends in much Vaishnava literature. Seeing deities in that manner, as I know in some aspects of Bengali culture, is a big deal. It usually signifies some spiritual connection to those deities. I wrote the dream down because of how vividly I saw it but brushed off as anything significant to me personally though the dream sparked my inquiry.
I had gotten some great information from an academic I met at the American Academy of Religion conference in 2015 who recommended I start with an ethnographic study, The Place of Devotion (Open source by UC Press), published that year by scholar Sukanya Sarbadhikary on the diversity of Bengali Vaishnavism. That was my start of my spiritual-academic journey of understanding Bengali Vaishnavism, but it has taken a while for me, through a lot of counseling, to get mentally and emotionally stable before I could start processing and analyzing all the information I’ve been collecting on this topic. I’m not going to divulge on the details about this in depth, but I can say it is connected to the politics of religious purity found across South Asian Muslim and Hindu communities which is exacerbated by non-Muslims and Hindus who can’t comprehend, for lack of a better word, folk religion or religious syncretism apart from the framework of dual religious identity through intermarriages and the term “multiple religious belonging.” But even those terms are not readily ascribed to non-white bodies.
It was quite frustrating and confusing to make sense of the information I was gathering because of the lack of representation of Vaishnava culture in contemporary mainstream Bengali culture in South Asia and the US. Part of this lack or of representation as stated by Sarbhadikary in her book is because:
“The colonial stereotype, especially among Western educated Indian elite, was that the heightened emotionalism associated with the worship of Krishna, the lover-god, was improper for zealous nation building, while the aggressive masculine vigor of Ram-worshipping cults was appropriate. There was also the Vedantic assertion that Hinduism is high and exalted when disembodied, and Krishna cults with their emphasis on erotic love between deities and on sensuous devotion, were seen as licentious.”
Not only that, but the lack of recognition by many American academics, students, and general public because, I believe, everyone thinks ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness AKA Hare Krishnas; an offshoot of a reformed sect of Bengali Vaishnavism founded by Srila Prabhupada in the 1960s in NYC) when they think Vaishnavism and are not aware of its history and variations. There is very good quality research out there about Bengali Vaishnavism. But this research gets stuck within the confines of conferences which is why I am writing about it on this platform.
I found out that I am more culturally connected to Vaishnava culture than I thought. I had encountered Vaishnava aesthetics, songs, poems, and art in the past. I had never connected it to myself culturally or religiously because it was always presented to me as something distant from me (being affiliated with Islam). A specific memory I have was my first visit to an ISKCON temple in the UK during an interfaith trip in 2013. Back then I had no idea that ISKCON was affiliated with my culture and it was not mentioned to be so by the ISKCON temple. Additionally, I was admonished by another Muslim member of my group for being emotionally involved with the kirtan session and crying during it. It was a distressing event.
I kinda lost it when I eventually did find out my family is from a region historically part of the Nadia district; strongly associated with Bengali Vaishnava traditions (currently on the Bangladesh side of the border after partition). Before this I only had associated it with West Bengal. All I could think was ‘why didn’t I know?! I should not have been admonished for feeling connected to something that literally comes from my culture. And how dare ISKCON leave out that detail!’ I went through a period of resentment for the fact that I was made to feel that I had to choose between religions and cultures that I had historical and ancestral connections to.
Because of politics of partition, populations exchanges, and religious reform movements, the images and aesthetics of Vaishnava culture have been disappearing from Bangladesh with the exception of remnants of members who never left for India and through Baul-Fakir groups. My parents have heard oral stories of Chandidas and Nimai Pandit known as Sri Chaitanya, a pivotal figure of Bengali Vaishnavism, but they never learned it in school. By the time they were enrolled in school the school, Hindu and Muslim students were strictly categorized and enrolled in separate religion classes to learn about their respected faiths, but I don’t think the culture has left our psychological memory like with my dream.
I think the blended heritage of Islam and Vaishnavism (I am leaving out other local folk traditions for the simplicity of this essay) were always there in my childhood just not named. When I couldn’t remember how to do prescribed prayers or memorize the Quran, my mom would console me and say the memory of god in the heart is enough and even better. This reminds me of the concept of bhakti/devotion and biraha/separation found in Vaishnavism which is remedied on the expressive remembrance or memory of Krishna a practice echoed by similar erotic language in Sufism of firaq/separation and achieving wisal/union with Allah through Zikr/remembrance. This not to say they are the same thing, but I am not saying they are wholly separate either. Allah and Krishna are not the same to me or used interchangeably by me. Rather, I’d like to say that I am in a space where I find Krishna in the black inked verses of the Quran and Radha in its meters where the perplexing leela of Allah is played.