For ages, Bengal has been the hub of spiritual activities. From Chaitanya to Lalan Phakir to Ramakrishna to Vivekananda, great spiritual leaders and philosophers have come out of Bengal (here Bengal includes the present Bangladesh too) and graced the world stage. They have left indelible marks with their various religious theories, different in many respects but all emphasising that the ultimate aim of life is to attain the highest spiritual state that would make possible for man to truly reach out to god, just like themselves, and spread the name of god amongst the people.
Vivekananda (sitting, 2nd from right) at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago
Following are some of the greatest religious leaders and reformers Bengal has produced (arranged in chronological order of their birth).
ATISHA DIPANKARA (980–1054)
Atisha Dipankara was a Buddhist teacher from the Pala Empire in Bengal. He was one of the major figures in the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in Asia in the 11th century and inspired Buddhist thought from Tibet to Sumatra. He is revered as one of the great figures of classical Buddhism, and was a key figure in the establishment of the Sarma schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Traveling to Tibet from Nalanda, a centre of Buddhist studies in India, Atisha established monasteries there and wrote treatises emphasising the three schools of Buddhism: the Theravada (exclusive belief in the Gautama Buddha), the Mahayana (belief that Gautama Buddha is one of many buddhas), and the Vajrayana (which emphasiaes yoga). He taught that the three stages follow in succession and must be practiced in that order.
Atisha stands as an important figure in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for several reasons.
First, he refined, systematised, and compiled an innovative and thorough approach to bodhichitta known as ‘mind training’. He conveyed that teaching through A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, and other texts. Atisha established the primacy of bodhichitta for the Mahayana tradition in Tibet.
Second, after King Langdarma’s intolerant reign, the monastic Buddhist tradition of Tibet had been nearly wiped out. Atisha’s closest disciple, Dromtonpa, became the founder of the Kadam school, which later evolved into the Gelug, one of the four main school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Kadam/Gelug proved central to monasticism and the lojong teachings, incorporating into the other three schools – the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya – as well.
Third, Atisha mobilised his influence in India to reform corrupt practices and to reform Buddhism.
For these reasons, Atisha remains a central figure in the history and religious study of Buddhism.
CHAITANYA MAHAPRABHU (1486-1534)
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a notable proponent for the Vaishnava school of Bhakti yoga (meaning loving devotion to Krishna), based on the philosophy of the Bhagavad Purana and Bhagavad Gita. He worshipped the forms of Krishna and popularised the chanting of the ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ mantra; he composed the Siksastakam (eight devotional prayers) in Sanskrit. His followers, known as Gaudiya Vaishnavas, revere him as an avatar of Krishna.
Chaitanya's teachings are summarised as ten maxims (known as dasamula).
Krishna is the Supreme Absolute Truth.
Krishna is endowed with all energies.
Krishna is the ocean of rasa (theology).
The jivas (individual souls) are all separate parts of the Lord.
In the bound state, the jivas are under the influence of matter, due to their tatastha nature.
In the liberated state, the jivas are free from the influence of matter, due to their tatastha nature.
The jivas and the material world are both different from and identical to the Lord.
Pure devotion is the practice of the jivas.
Pure love of Krishna is the ultimate goal.
Krishna is the only lovable blessing to be received.
BABA LOKENATH BRAHMACHARI (b. 1730)
Lokenath Brahmachari or Baba Lokenath was an 18th-century saint and philosopher in Bengal. He is one of the most influential religious teachers in Bengal, and has a massive following in Bengal. He was born in 1730 and supposedly lived for 160 years, dying in 1890.
Baba Lokenath has 108 names, and it is said that by chanting the names with love and devotion, one will be closer to one’s self, and by extension, to the guru himself.
Chanting the names will also empower one from within, washing the mind clean of all the conditions that binds one to this world of pain and pleasures, success and failures - the trap of self-confinement.
Just as no two flowers are alike, no two Enlightened Ones are ever the same. Each is wonderfully unique, without artificiality. Once one becomes an Enlightened One, all knowledge and ignorance are transcended, absorbed in the blissful, egoless state of Sat-Chit-Ananda (Existence - Knowledge - Bliss Absolute).
To the question, “What is the path to a happy and peaceful life?”, the Baba’s answer was, "Do whatever you like, but do it consciously, with a sense of awareness… Once you become conscious and aware, you will find that your conscience will prevent you from hurting anyone."
Be angry but do not become blind with anger. Never allow anger to possess you. Then it blinds you.
Baba always followed the maxim, 'First, practice yourself; then preach.’
"Good, bad, virtue or vice, all these are relativities of a relative
world, the creation of material mind. I belong to a world where there is
no discrimination. Everything is beautiful."
LALON FAKIR (1774-1890)
Lalon, also also known as Lalon Sain, Lalon Shah, or Lalon Fakir, was a Baul saint, mystic, songwriter, social reformer and thinker. In Bengali culture, he has become an icon of religious tolerance whose songs inspired and influenced many poets and social and religious thinkers including Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and Allen Ginsberg. He "rejected all distinctions of caste and creed". His disciples mostly live in Bangladesh and West Bengal. He founded the institute known as Lalon Akhdah in Cheuriya, about 2 km from Kushtia railway station. He is also regarded as the founder of the Baul music.
He was against religious conflict and many of his songs mock identity politics that divide communities and generate violence.
He even rejected nationalism at the apex of the anti-colonial nationalist movements in the Indian subcontinent.
He did not believe in classes or castes, the fragmented, hierarchical society, and took a stand against racism.
He does not fit the mystical or spiritual type who denies all worldly affairs in search of the soul: he embodies the socially transformative role of bhakti and sufism.
He believed in the power of music to alter the intellectual and emotional state in order to be able to understand and appreciate life itself. The texts of his songs engage in philosophical discourses of Bengal, continuing Tantric traditions of the Indian subcontinent, particularly Nepal, Bengal and the Gangetic plains.
He appropriated various philosophical positions emanating from Hindu, Jainist, Buddhist and Islamic traditions, developing them into a coherent discourse without falling into eclecticism or syncretism.
He explicitly identified himself with the Nadia school, with Advaita Acharya, Nityananda and Chaitanya.
He was greatly influenced by the social movement initiated by Chaitanya against differences of caste, creed and religion.
His songs reject any absolute standard of right and wrong and show the triviality of any attempt to divide people whether materially or spiritually.
MAHARSHI DEBENDRANATH TAGORE (1817-1905)
Debendranath Tagore was a philosopher and religious reformer, active in the Brahmo Samaj (‘Society of Brahma’, also translated as ‘Society of God’), which aimed to reform the Hindu religion and way of life.
He became a close friend of his younger fellow reformer Keshab Chunder Sen.
Tagore spoke out vehemently against sati (self-immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), a practice that was especially prevalent in Bengal.
Together, Tagore and Sen attempted to raise the Indian literacy rate and to bring education within the reach of all.
Deeply affected in childhood by the death of his grandmother to whom he was greatly attached, Debendranath was drawn to religion and began contemplating the meaning and nature of life.
He commenced a deep study of religious literature, particularly the Upanishads.
In 1839 he formed Tattwabodhini Sabha (Truthseekers' Association) to spread his new experiences and knowledge. The Brahmo Sabha, founded by Rammohun Roy in 1833, was absorbed into the Tattwabodhini Sabha and renamed as Calcutta Brahma Samaj.
In 1848, Debendranath codified the rules of the Brahmo Samaj.
These he published in the book, Brahmo Dharma, which enshrined the fundamental principles – monotheism, rationality, rejecting scriptural infallibility, the necessity of mediation between man and God.
He gathered reputation as a person of spiritual accomplishment and came to be known as ‘Maharshi’, or ‘great sage’.
His spiritual stature was confirmed by Sri Ramakrishna, who paid Debendranath a visit.
Debendranath's roles in the Bengal renaissance and the reform and rejuvenation of Hindu religion are considerable.
RAMAKRISHNA PARAMAHAMSA (1836-1886)
Ramakrishna was a famous mystic of 19th-century Bengal. His religious school of thought led to the formation of the Ramakrishna Mission by his chief disciple Swami Vivekananda. He is also referred to as ‘Paramahamsa’ by his devotees; hence he is often called Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Ramakrishna's teachings were imparted using stories and parables. These teachings made a powerful impact on the intellectuals of Kolkata, despite the fact that his preachings were far removed from issues of modernism or national independence. His spiritual movement indirectly aided nationalism, as it rejected caste distinctions and religious prejudices.
Ramakrishna emphasised God-realisation as the supreme goal of all living beings.
Ramakrishna taught that kamini-kanchan is an obstacle to God-realisation. Kamini-kanchan literally translates to ‘woman and gold’. According to his disciple Tyagananda, Ramakrishna used the concept of kamini-kanchan as "cautionary words" instructing his disciples to conquer the "lust inside the mind". Ramakrishna also cautioned his women disciples against purusha-kanchan (‘man and gold’).
Ramakrishna looked upon the world as Maya and he explained that avidya maya represents dark forces of creation (e.g., sensual desire, selfish actions, evil passions, greed, lust and cruelty), which keep people on lower planes of consciousness. Vidya maya, on the other hand, represents higher forces of creation (e.g., spiritual virtues, selfless action, enlightening qualities, kindness, purity, love, and devotion), which elevate human beings to the higher planes of consciousness.
Ramakrishna practised several religions, including Islam and Christianity, and taught that in spite of the differences, all religions are valid and true and they lead to the same ultimate goal – God.
His teaching, ‘Jive daya noy, Shiv gyane jiv seba’ (not kindness to living beings, but serving the living being as Shiva Himself) is considered as the inspiration for the philanthropic work carried out by his chief disciple Vivekananda.
Bamakhepa (often called the mad saint), also called Sadhak Bamakhyapa was a Hindu saint, held in great reverence in Tarapith and whose shrine is also located in the vicinity of the Tara temple. ‘Bamakhyapa’ literally means the mad (khyapa) follower of the left-handed (bama or vama in Sanskrit) path – the Tantric way of worship.
He was an ardent devotee of goddess Tara, and lived near her temple in Tarapith and mediated in the cremation grounds.
He was a contemporary of another famous Bengali saint Ramakrishna.
At a young age, he left his house and came under the tutelage of a saint named Kailsahpathi Baba, who lived in Tarapith.
He perfected yoga and Tantric sadhana (worship), which resulted in his becoming the spiritual head of Tarapith.
Bamakhyapa was in the habit of moving around completely naked. One day someone asked him why he was naked, to which he replied, “My Father (Shiva) is naked; my Mother (Tara) is also naked. So, I am practicing that. Moreover, I don’t live in society. I live in the cremation ground with my Mother. So I have no shame or fear!”
People came to him seeking blessings or cures for their illness and distress, or just to meet him.
Bamakhyapa healed many sick people with his psychic powers.
He used to say that he himself was not learned but that the Mother (Tara Ma) revealed everything to him.
SWAMI VIVEKANANDA (1863-1902)
Swami Vivekananda, born Narendra Nath Datta, was one of the greatest religious leaders not only of Bengal or India, but of the whole world. He was the chief disciple of Ramakrishna, and spread the teachings of his guru, mixed with his own views, through the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission. He was a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world. He is credited with raising inter-faith awareness, making Hinduism a major world religion from the late 19th century. He was a major force in the revival of Hinduism in India, and contributed to the concept of nationalism in colonial India. He is perhaps best known for his inspiring speech which began, "Sisters and brothers of America ...", in which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893.
Vivekananda believed that a country's future depends on its people, and his teachings focused on human development.
He wanted "to set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest".
Vivekananda believed that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in the Vedanta philosophy, based on Adi Shankara's interpretation.
He summarised the Vedanta as follows: Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
Vivekananda linked morality with control of the mind, seeing truth, purity and unselfishness as traits which strengthened it.
He advised his followers to be holy, unselfish and to have sraddha (faith).
Vivekananda supported brahmacharya (celibacy), believing it the source of his physical and mental stamina and eloquence.
He emphasised that success was an outcome of focused thought and action; in his lectures on Raja Yoga he said, "Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is the way great spiritual giants are produced."
SRI AUROBINDO (1872-1950)
Born Aurobindo Ghosh, Sri Aurobindo was a freedom fighter, who later became one of the greatest spiritual reformers of India, introducing his visions on human progress and spiritual evolution. He set up base in Pondicherry, which has become one of the biggest pilgrimage centres in the country.
Sri Aurobindo wrote that his philosophy "as formed first by the study of the Upanishads and the Gita’, as well as ‘knowledge that flowed from above when I sat in meditation".
The influence of the Indian Vedantic tradition on Aurobindo's thought was enormous.
The other major component was ideas that Aurobindo encountered during his education, such as the theory of evolution.
The Life Divine is Sri Aurobindo's major philosophical opus. It combines a synthesis of western thought and eastern spirituality with Sri Aurobindo's own original insights. The Life Divine covers topics such as the human aspiration, why it remains unfulfilled, the individual's divided nature, the nature of the divine reality, how the universe emerged from a divine source (aka Involution), the role of Supermind in the creation/involutionary process, the nature and methods of evolution from matter to spirit, the means of overcoming our divided nature through higher consciousness, the nature and boundaries of human ignorance, the transformation from our divided nature into a supernature, and the emergence of a gnostic supramental being and a divine life on earth.
Sri Aurobindo calls his yoga as integral yoga, aiming at ascending to the spirit and again descending to normal existence to transform it. According to Sri Aurobindo mind is the highest term reached in the path of evolution till now but has not yet reached its highest potency and calls current mind as an ignorance seeking truth, but he also states that even though the human being is treading in ignorance there is in every human being a possibility of divine manifestation, to realise which is the main objectives of Sri Aurobindo's yoga.
Sri Aurobindo argues that Man is born an ignorant, divided, conflicted being; a product of the original inconscience (i.e., unconsciousness) inherent in Matter that he evolved out of. To overcome these limitations, Man must embark on a process of self-discovery in which he uncovers his Divine nature, through the three-step process of Psychic Transformation, Spiritual Transformation and Supramental transformation.
THAKUR ANUKULCHANDRA (1888-1969)
Thakur Anukulchandra, born as Anukulchandra Chakravarty, was the founder of the Satsang ashram at Deoghar. He is devotedly referred to as Sri Sri Thakur by his followers. His devotees are known as Satsangees. His disciples believe he was an avatar of god and they regard him as Purushottam (divine man).
According to Anukulchandra, the purpose of our life is ishwarprapti, or attaining mastery over every aspect of our life, through which we become like a dewdrop reflecting the light of the sun of our life - the Supreme Father, the Lord of all Lords.
The pillars of life and growth, according to him, are jajan, jaajan, ishtabhriti, swastayani and sadachar.
The way to ensure that good souls tread the world, as he stressed, are: diksha (initiation), shiksha (education) and vivaha (marriage), done according to the way of the natural laws of the Supreme Father.
He gives detailed instruction in his books and verses as to how to conduct oneself in life.
Anukulchandra was a strong advocate of varna or caste system of Hinduism. His idea was varna, or the cultural groupings, helps to indicate the biological and hereditary qualities of a person.
Eugenics is one of the most important areas on which Anukulchandra has laid emphasis from the point of view of having a better society, more evolved human being and a peaceful conjugal life.
A religious organisation evolved around him which set up schools, charitable hospitals, engineering workshops, a publishing house and a printing press.
PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA (1893-1952)
Paramahansa Yogananda, born Mukunda Lal Ghosh, was a yogi and guru who introduced millions of westerners to the teachings of meditation and Kriya Yoga through his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, which is still a best-seller, in India as well as outside. In 1920, Yogananda went to the US as India's delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. That same year he founded the Self-Realisation Fellowship (SRF) to disseminate worldwide his teachings on India's ancient practices and philosophy of yoga and its tradition of meditation. He attracted a number of celebrity followers. Yogananda was the first Hindu teacher of yoga to spend a major portion of his life in America, living there from 1920-1952, interrupted by an extended trip abroad in 1935-1936 which was mainly to visit his guru in India.
Yogananda wrote down his Aims and Ideals for Self-Realization Fellowship/Yogoda Satsanga Society:
To disseminate among the nations knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God.
To teach that the purpose of life is the evolution, through self-effort, of man’s limited mortal consciousness into God Consciousness; and to this end to establish Self-Realisation Fellowship temples for God-communion throughout the world, and to encourage the establishment of individual temples of God in the homes and in the hearts of men.
To reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.
To point out the one divine highway to which all paths of true religious beliefs eventually lead: the highway of daily, scientific, devotional meditation on God.
To liberate man from his threefold suffering: physical disease, mental inharmonies, and spiritual ignorance.
To encourage ‘plain living and high thinking’; and to spread a spirit of brotherhood among all peoples by teaching the eternal basis of their unity: kinship with God.
To demonstrate the superiority of mind over body, of soul over mind.
To overcome evil by good, sorrow by joy, cruelty by kindness, ignorance by wisdom.
To unite science and religion through realization of the unity of their underlying principles.
To advocate cultural and spiritual understanding between the East and the West, and to exchange of their finest distinctive features.
To serve mankind as one’s larger Self.
ANANDAMAYI MA (1896-1982)
She was born as Nirmala Sundari in what is now Bangladesh. The name ‘Anandamayi Ma’ was given to her by her devotees in the 1920s to describe what they saw as her habitual state of divine joy and bliss.
A central theme of her teaching is that "the supreme calling of every human being is to aspire to self realsation. All other obligations are secondary."
Moreover, "only actions that kindle man's divine nature are worthy of the name of actions."
However she did not ask everyone to become a renunciate. "Everyone is right from his own standpoint," she would say.
She did not give formal initiations and refused to be called a guru, as she maintained that "all paths are my paths" and kept saying "I have no particular path".
"Who is it that loves and who that suffers? He alone stages a play
with Himself; who exists save Him? The individual suffers because he
perceives duality. It is duality which causes all sorrow and grief. Find
the One everywhere and in everything and there will be an end to pain
AC Bhaktivedanta was a Gaudiya Vaishnava spiritual teacher and the founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also commonly known as the Hare Krishna Movement in the West. He took up the mission to propagate Gaudiya Vaishnavism throughout the world. Born Abhay Charan De in Kolkata, he was married with children and owned a small business, before he took a vow renunciation (sannyasa) in 1959 and started writing commentaries on Vaishnava scriptures. In his later years, as a travelling Vaishnava monk, he became an influential communicator of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology to India and more so to the West through his leadership of ISKCON, founded in 1966. As the founder of ISKCON, he emerged as a major figure of the Western counterculture, initiating thousands of young Americans. Since his death in 1977, ISKCON continues to grow and is respected throughout the world. Its international headquarters is located at a sprawling campus in Mayapur in Nadia district. ISKCON is famous for having taken up many welfare projects worldwide.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead is identical with the all-pervading Supreme Soul, the Paramatma. Although he cannot be seen, he can still be perceived. One who is intelligent can perceive the presence of the Supreme Lord everywhere.
The visible things around us are expansions of the inferior energy of the Supreme Lord, but the Lord also has a superior energy-consciousness.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says we should try to understand that consciousness is spread all over the body and that it is eternal. Similarly, consciousness is spread all over this universe. But that is not our consciousness. That is God's consciousness. So God, the Supreme Soul, is all-pervading by his consciousness. One who understands this has begun his Krishna consciousness (the basis of AC’s and ISKCON’s teachings).
We cannot see consciousness – either supreme or individual – but it is there. We can understand the supreme consciousness and our individual consciousness simply by the perception of blissfulness. Because we have consciousness, we can feel ananda, or pleasure; we can enjoy life by applying our senses in whatever way we like. But as soon as consciousness is gone from the body, we cannot enjoy our senses.
Our consciousness exists because we are part and parcel of the supreme consciousness. Similarly, because the pleasure potency exists in the Supreme Lord, we can also enjoy pleasure. We are īshwaras, or controllers, but the Lord, Krishna, is parameshwara, the supreme controller. Thus Kṛiṣhṇa, as the Supersoul, or Paramatma, by his controlling power, by his supreme will, moves this material creation, the world.
Because the Supreme Lord is present everywhere and because we are part and parcel of the Supreme Lord, our duty is to be merciful to all living entities; and we can be merciful by giving them Krishna consciousness.
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