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The Last Vaishnava resurgence


By Karunamay Sinha, Tripura



Conspicuously, one of the few songs with which the Father of the Nation used to bathe his soul regularly is ‘Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye je pir parayi jaane re…’ meaning Vaishnava is he who feels the pain others suffer. Vaishnavism can be said to be the phenomenon that played the most important part in forming the soul of India. Some call it the essence of the Hindu way of life.

Indian cultural traditions, all that we are proud of as Indians today are immeasurably indebted to this phenomenon. Most of the puranas and other priceless gems of Sanskrit literature were restored, recreated and reinstated during the period of the Guptas. Most importantly, a new literary and cultural resurgence gave a firm shape to what we know today as India’s cultural heritage.

It was during this period that the traditionally worshipped deities of the people like Vishnu, Shiva and the mother goddess were given prominence in an area where the Vedic divinities like Brahma, Indra and Varun ruled. In an attempt to assimilate the two classes of deities, they imagined the trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It was this honour given to people’s imaginations that opened the floodgates of a cultural resurgence that was aptly described as the Gupta Renaissence. This Gupta Renaissance, the main foundation of India’s cultural heritage, happened during the reign of Chandragupta II, believed to be the legendary king Vikramaditya. And this Chandragupta II was a Vaishnav.

Thereafter have a look at the cultural resurgence in the South. The Vakatakas, the Chalukyas, the Rastrakutas and the Pallavas during whose periods the most beautiful creations in arts, literature and architecture happened were all under the influence of a liberal mixture of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. I would not be surprised if one says almost all the most valued cultural traditions in India are inspired directly or indirectly by what they call Vaishnavism, Bhagabata Dharma or a kind of Vishnu worshipping religion.

Come to the Vaishnava resurgence in the medieval period. Rajasthan’s cultural traditions got a strong foundation thanks to the Vaishnavite renaissance there. Mira Bai epitomizes this spirit in Rajasthan. Then come to Mithila, Orissa and Bengal.

Come to Assam. Father of the Assamiya nation cemented the cultural as well as literary foundation of Assam. Can you imagine all this to happen without the inspiration drawn from the Vaishnava spirit? However, the last Vaishnava resurgence to happen in India is Manipur. A distinctly perceptible renaissance it was.

Manipur represents the most recent, most modern and arguably the most refined cultural revivalism inspired by Vaishnavism. For it had the luck to reap the benefits of or exploit all the finer points of the Vaishnava movements that had taken place in different parts of the country. Some say it was a direct offshoot of the Vaishnava movement initiated by Lord Chaitanya in Bengal. But this is a half truth.

Vaishnavism of Manipur has many other unexplored sides. There are some who try to give a simplistic historical account of how it happened. Eighteenth century, they say, is the time when the Meitei kings came under the influence of the Vaishnava preachers and all sorts of cultural development happened in Manipur after that. But this explanation leaves many questions unanswered.

One question is, is it not too short a time for a non-Aryan speaking non-Hindu people to develop so sophisticated and so vast a cultural repertoire? Pamhaiba or Garib Newaz initiated the people of Manipur to Ramandi Vaishnavism. His grandson Bhagyachandra was initiated in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It was in the period spanning 85 years, from 1714 (Pamhaiba’s accession to the throne) to 1799 (end of Bhagyachndra) that the transition of Manipur from a non-Aryan, non-Hindu people to a people with as sophisticated and refined a form of Aryan Hindu culture as classical Manipuri dance and Not Sangkirtan happened.

History also says it was mainly Bhagyachandra who initiated the cultural resurgence in Manipur. Pamhaiba or his sons were not known for such refined tastes. Ironically, Bhagyachandra (1758 -1799) had to spend most of his time outside Manipur. For internal upheavals as well as Burmese invasions repeatedly compelled him to go in exile and seek shelter in neighbouring kingdoms.

No one doubts that Bhagyachandra was the architect of modern Vaishnavite Manipuri society. The very shape of the present-day Manipuri society was given by him. His was a multifaceted talent; a gifted person he was. But it takes stretching one’s imagination to the extremes to believe that he, a person who had throughout his life fought for ensuring a secure grip on his throne, created so robust a cultural tradition, that too among people who had only just come into contact with the Hindu ways. Socio-cultural aspects do not allow us to believe that the edifice of Vaishnavite Manipuri cultural traditions was built up in such a short period of time.

Another question: why is there so much resemblance between Satriya and other cultural traditions of Assam and the cultural traditions of Manipur? There’s one explanation. Bhagyachandra had once taken shelter in Ahom king Rajeshwar Singha’s palace when he was driven out of Manipur. May be his stay in Assam was the clue to Satriya influence on Manipuri. But when we talk of Assam influence on Manipuri culture, attention must be drawn to one fact: it is not merely Satriya influence on classical Manipuri dances; the whole of the Manipuri concept of social life and cultural expression has many intricate, subtle influences of or similarities with the Assam or Kamrupi traditions. The cultural aspects of Koch-Rajbongshis are also traceable in the Manipuri culture.

Did Bhagyachandra whose only concern while he was in Assam was how to rescue his kingdom imbibe all these there? Some basic things about Manipuri Notasongkirtan have nothing to do with the traditions of Gauriya Vaishnavism of Bengal from which, it is said, Manipur learnt the tenets of Vaishnavism or Hinduism.

How come there are influences of Aryan traditions that weren’t in practice even among the Gurus at source? The most baffling question, however, is that of the Vishnu temple of Bishnupur (Bishenpur) Manipur. If Vaishnavism happened in Manipur in the eighteenth century, how does one explain this fifteenth century temple on the soil of Manipur? There’re historians to come up with fanciful explanations. King Kyamba once led a campaign against the king of the Pongs, who, after accepting defeat, showered the Manipur king with gifts, and a Vishnu idol was one among other things of novelty he had presented.

The Manipur king Kyamba built a temple for the idol at a place which thus came to be known as Bishnupur and arranged for its worship. Noticeable point here is: Kyamba himself didn’t embrace Vaishnavism, nor are there accounts of his subjects embracing Vaishnavism during his reign. How come the oldest structure in Manipur was built by a king for a deity neither worshipped by him nor by the noblest section of his subjects?

H.M Bhareh’s epic tome ‘Encyclopedia of North-East India’ brushes the explanation aside saying: ‘It is hard to believe that a non-Hindu king will present to [a] non-Hindu king, an image of Vishnu for worshipping. It is not free from ambiguity to claim that the temple was constructed by Kyamba for Vishnu. However, the materials and architecture of the temple clearly shows that this temple was constructed much earlier than the present available temple….’ Who constructed the temple then? How old is it? Has the department of Archeology conducted tests to ascertain the age of the temple? How old is Vaishnavism in Manipur exactly?

It is time we became more sincere, more sensible in dealing with history. There is scope for research work in the field. Much more needs to be unearthed to ascertain things pertaining to Vaishnavism in Manipur and the famed Manipuri culture.


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