Category Archives: Religious Syncretism

THE SUFI WARRIOR WHO UNITED THE FAKIRS AND SANYASIS AGAINST THE BRITISH

 

‘Yes Majnu Shah’, nodded Cherag Fakir. ‘Only he can make the Sahibs run in fear.’ Asif had of course heard about Majnu Shah and his heroic battles with the British. Villagers often talked about Majnu Shah’s soldiers who came down the hills to loot the British offices….

From: The Tattooed Fakir by Biman Nath

Very little is known about his early life of this Sufi warrior except that he was born in the Mewat region of Haryana. He succeeded Shah Sultan Hasan Suriya Burhana to the leadership of the Bihar based Deewanagan Madaria sufi order in the mid-eighteenth century. He was an organizer of great ability, great commander in chief who travelled in Bengal and Bihar to inspire people to join the rebellion and fight against the superior forces of the British in the second half of the 18th century.  It was his Pir, Hamiuddin who motivated him to take up arms against the British:

There was a mazar of dervish Hamid

In the domain of Assadusman

There in the Khanaqa of the old Pir Khadim

Came Majnu Fakir to offer his Salam

Khadim urged Majnu in despair

Lakhs of people are dying in famine

Try to save their lives!

The company’s agents and landlords

Torture artisans and peasants

For exorbitant revenue

And people are deserting villages

Take up arms…

Distribute all provisions among the starved

And drive out the English

As no alternative is left.

-Majnu Shaher Hakikat by Jamiruddin Dafadar

majnu_shah

Majnu Shah became a legend in the literature and folklore of undivided Bengal. The lines mentioned below refer to the united Hindu-Muslim revolt against the British known as the Fakir Sanyasi Rebellion which engulfed most districts of northern and eastern undivided Bengal and parts of Bihar during the early part of the British colonial rule in India. According to some historians this movement represented an early war for India’s independence. Whatever little popular imagination that exists about this rebellion, largely stems from the film ‘Anandmath’ which is based on a novel of the same name by Bakim Chandra Chaterjee. This novel was published in 1882, a century after the events actually happened. Notwithstanding its literary significance, the novel has overtones of Hindu revivalism and attitude of co-existence with the British rule which is a major departure from the actual incidents of this movement. There are official records documented by British officers of at least three incidents where the Fakirs and Sanyasis together fought against the East India Company.

Majnu calls out Bhabhani Sanyasi

Catch the Whites and hang them straight

Bhabhani roars and the Giris flash swords

They dispatch the Whites to Yama’s doors

-Khwabnama, Elias

This movement, which the British, in their arrogance, refused to call nothing more than a law and order situation, turned into a fifty thousand strong rebellion of Muslim fakirs and Hindu sanyasis, along with peasants, poor artisans, disbanded soldiers of the Nawabs and Mughal army and dispossessed zamindars that would traumatise the British occupiers for the last three decades of the 18th century (1767-1800). These bands of Fakirs and Sanyasis were very familiar with territories bounded by Brahmaputra in the north and Ganges in the south. Using the riverine paths and the forest covered hills, they out smarted the East India Company troops, waging a guerrilla war on them and plundering the Company’s treasuries and factories, intercepting the Company’s revenue in transit and snatching the possessions of the new landlords and Company’s agents with weapons and ammunition looted from the British themselves !!

It all began in the second half of the 18th century when popular resentment against the East India Company had begun to grow. For over a century the Madari Fakirs and  Dasnami sanyasis (also known as Giris )  used to travel to their places of pilgrims in north Bengal and on the way collect alms and land grants from both Hindu and Muslim Zamindars, which was given willingly. However the situation changed after the East India Company took over the diwani of Bihar and Bengal. The British   increased the land tax, the lands of many Zamindars were also confiscated, and many restrictions were placed on the movements of the Fakirs and Sanyasis because the British considered them thugs and looters. Moreover the   unfair trade policies of the Company which consisted of one-way trading export of raw material, resulted in the crumbling of cottage industries like silk, muslin and handloom.  This, combined with natural disasters and crop failure and the consequent Bengal famine of 1770-71, which killed one-third of the population, all contributed to the popular resentment against the British and their agents.

In the 18th century many Fakirs and Sanyasis had recruited themselves as soldiers under the Mughal administration in Bengal. When The East India Company began to gradually dismantle the armed forces of the Nawabs and erstwhile Mughal provincial administration, the disgruntled soldiers joined the Fakir Sanyasi rebellion.

This movement also had the support of dispossessed zamindars like Maharani Bhawani of Natore and Assad Usman Khan – the Nawab of Birbhum.

By the end of 1760 the extraordinary leadership qualities of Majnu Shah brought the Muslim Fakirs and Hindu Sanyasis under a common platform in their struggle against the British.  Bhavani Pathak and Devi Choudhrani were two prominent leaders of the Sanyasis who supported Majnu Shah. Other prominent leaders of this movement were Musa Shah, Chirag Ali, Shobhan Shah, Parigullah Shah, Karim Shah, Mohan Giri and Ganesh Giri.

majnu_bridge
Majnu Shah Bridge in Bangladesh (photo credit: vsgoi.blogspot)

 

Majnu Shah build a fort in 1776 behind an ancient dargah at Mahasthangarh in Bogra. Here he made make- shift barracks, where he would retreat with his forces to regain strength and discuss their next strategy. Majnu Shah enjoyed the good will and support of the locals and he would station his spies among them to inform him of the Company’s movements. He made constant efforts to keep unity among the Fakirs and Sanyasis and to avoid confrontations among them. One such conflict was sparked off in 1777 but was amicably resolved due to Majnu’s efforts. He was shot at and wounded on December 8, 1786 in a battle at Kaleshwar, he managed to dodge the British and reach Makanpur where he was given shelter by ancestors of local landlord Mir Syed Hasan. The injury however proved fatal and he died on January 26, 1787.  After him, his lieutenants, Musa Shah and Chirag Ali led the rebellion.

Although this rebellion of Sufis and Sanyasis could not achieve its ultimate goal, it left a blazing trail for others to follow. In Bangladesh, Majnu Shah is acknowledged among the first martyrs of India’s early resistance to the formation of the British Empire. His relentless struggle against the British is still preserved in Bangladeshi literature and folklore. A feature film based on this martyr was made by the Bangladeshi actor and Darashika titled ‘Fakir Majnu Shah’.  Several years ago, the Bangladeshi government paid tribute to this brave heart by dedicating a bridge in his name. But in India, Majnu Shah has been forgotten and the grave of this great son of India lies in utter neglect in some forlorn corner of Makanpur in Kanpur district.

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Dilapidated grave of Majnu Shah at Makanpur (photo credit: zindashahmadar.com)

 

REFERENCES

  1. Nath, B. 2012. The Tattooed Fakir, Pan Macmillan, India
  2. Khwabnama (Tale of Dreams). 1996. Akhteruzzaman Elias, Naya Udyog, Kolkata
  3. Dasgupta, A. 1982. The Fakir and Sanyasi Rebellion. Social Scientist. Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 44-55
  1. Khan, Muazzam Hussain 2012. Majnu Shah. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh(Second ed.).Asiatic Society of Bangladesh
  1. http://vsgoi.blogspot.in/2014/12/imami-malang-majnu-shah-national-hero.html
  2. http://zindashahmadar.com/majnu-shah/

LIVING TOGETHER: 17TH Century Maratha Empire, an Attempt at Harmonious Coexistence

While we Indians pride ourselves over the rich diversity of communities, race and religion that our country has, it also means dealing with differences and contradictions in the way we live, eat and pray. However there has always been a sense of, not just tolerance, but respect for these differences. This appears to be an intrinsic factor of Indian cultural ethos. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘we must respect other religions, as we respect our own. Mere tolerance is not enough’. There have been times when this sentiment could not hold up against hatered and violence however there were other times too when this sentiment flowered against heavy odds.  Seventeenth century Maratha society was one such period in the history of this great nation.

It is a myth to presume that a society at confrontation with itself cannot find ways to co-exist peacefully. The Medieval period in the Maratha Empire saw three apparently conflicting forces at work, especially during the seventeenth century: there was religious as well as political conflicts among the Bahamani kingdom, the Mughals and the Marathas.  With the consolidation of Maratha power in this century, the Hindu and Muslim communities of the Maratha society found innovative ways of co-existing with mutual respect and peaceful tolerance. There were instances of hate and intolerance, no doubt, but these were offset by numerous examples to the contrary.  The people and the rulers, in their wisdom knew that the only way for a peaceful society was respecting and giving space to the ‘other religion’. Marathi writers and historian have cited numerous instances of this as depicted in the daily lives of administrators and rulers. Examples from which our present day society could learn a lesson or two.

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Bahmani Sultanate 1347-1527 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Saraswati Gangadhar, author of Gurucharitra, a poetic work of the fourteenth century, mentions that Alauddin II (1435-57), of the Bahamani dynasty which ruled over much of Deccan India, including parts of present day Maharashtra between the 13th and 16th century, held great respect for Narsimha Saraswati, the hero of Gurucharitra.  

Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1490-1510) another Bahmani ruler, tried to create cultural harmony among Shias, Sunnis and Hindus through the medium of Art. According to Chitnis (p48) he was a worshipper of Allah and a Hindu goddess. Both the Mandir and the Masjid were sacred to him. His official documents would begin with the words Az-puja-i Shri Saraswati. He built a temple at Bijapur dedicated to Lord Narsimha. He bestowed liberal grants to temples and safeguarded the rights of pujaris. Little wonder that he came to be known as Jagadguru.

The Mahanbhav Matha of Otur (Pune) received land grants from the Nizam Shahi rulers who ruled over large parts of Deccan (1490-1633) with their capital at Ahmednagar in present day Maharashtra. Chand bibi, the regent of Ahmednagar (1596-99) and sister of Hussain Nizam Shah I, sent a note to her officers to respect all such grants to Hindus and Brahmans. The priest of Pedgaon (Ahmednagar) too received land grant from Malik Amber (1549-1626) who was a very popular Siddi Prime Minister in the Ahmednagar Sultanate (Kulkarni p. 113).

Maratha_empiremap
Maratha Empire 1674-1818 (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among the rulers of the Maratha Empire (1674-1818), Shivaji’s grandfather, Maloji Bhonsale was a disciple of the legendary Muslim saint-poet, Shaikh Muhammad, and when Maloji shifted to Nizamshahi (in Ahmednagar district) he brought Shaikh Muhammad along with him (Kulkarni p.110). Maloji also gave 12 bigha land to Shaikh Muhammad and built a math (hermitage) for him at Shrigonde (Dhere, p60). Ramdas, the great saint poet of 17th century, was a strong critic of the Muslim rule but a great admirer of Shaikh Muhammad (Chitnis, p110). Sant Ramdas was Shivaji’s guru.

Maloji Bhaonsale’s wife and Shivaji’s grandmother, Umabai, took a vow to Shah Sharif of Ahmednagar for a child and when she gave birth to two sons, they were named after this Pir : Shahaji and Sharifji, in gratitude for his blessings (Dhere, p.60). The dargah of Shah Sharif enjoyed two villages, Eklare and Konosi under the Marathas (Bendre). Mir Sayyid Sadi of Nasik and Mulla Hussaini Mosque of Rannebennur (Dharwad) received inam lands from Shahaji (Kulkarni p. 112). Shivaji held great respect for Baba Yakut of Utambar village near Kelashi (Ratnagiri) and Sambhaji undertook the construction of his dargah which eventually remained incomplete. Numerous Muslim holy men received allowances for maintenance and illumination of mosques from Shivaji, including the Pir of Sayyid Sadat Hazrat (Pune region). The Kazi of Indapur and the khidmatgar of the Bhambavade mosque received land and allowances from Shivaji. Many believe that Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji was victorious against the Portuguese due to the blessings of Pir Abdullah Khan and in return the Prime Minsiter, Kavi Kailash granted the Pir certain allowances. Shivaji’s grandson, Shahuji gave an entire village in grant to the Muslim saint Sayyid Ata-ullah of Shakarkoti of Loni in Pune. The Peshwas too were equally generous and benevolent towards Muslim holy men: Pirs Sayyid Sada and Shaikh Salah received grants from Peshwas for construction purposes. Even the dispute among them regarding who would lead the Muharram procession was settled by the Peshwas.  Dargah of Shaikh Salah and Takiya of Angad Shah received one sher of rice and one paisa for Frankincense every day from the royal palace.

The village councils were called gotsabhas and enjoyed supreme positon in the society and state and it decided cases that effected the whole society. The Kazi and the Maulana had a seat in the gotsabha and in every village Got, the proportion of Muslim members was usually proportional to the Muslim population in that village. Both the Hindus and Muslims sat together in the temple village and settled disputes irrespective of caste or religion. Mulansara, a kind of tax originally introduced by the Muslim rulers for the maintenance of the village Maulana continued under the Marathas. Muslim Patils were not unheard of under the Marathas (Kulkarni p.115).

Both the Bhakti and Sufi movements were at their peak during this period, both sought to bring about socio-religious reforms in their communities. With their message of universal love and brotherhood, they placed the service of fellow humans above religious rituals.  Muslims learnt Sanskrit and also studied the sacred poetry of Bhakti saints. The study of the ‘other’ religion promoted a better understanding of each other and helped in eradication of religious prejudices. The well-known Marathi saint poet of this period, Sant Eknath wrote his famous gatha – Hindu Turk Samvad which consisted of a dialogue between a Hindu and a Muslim (Turk) who, at the end of a lengthy dialogue, end up respecting each other as creations of Khuda. Sufis at this time made valuable contributions to devotional literature in Marathi. Shaikh Muhammad, the Muslim saint poet wrote Yoga Sangram (1645), Nishkalanka Prabodh, Pavan Vijaya and 300 abhangas (devotional poetry sung in the praise of the Lord Vitthal) in Marathi. Another Muslim saint of this period, Husain Ambakhan, who was a devotee of Lord Ganesh, wrote a Marathi commentary on the Bhagvatgita. Shah Muntoji Bhahmani, a Muslim saint of the seventeenth century, who hailed from the royal family of Bidar (Bahmani Rulers) was initiated into the Bhakti cult by a Hindu saint – Sahajanand Swami of Kalyan (Bijapur). Shah Muntoji wrote Panchikaran in Dakhani Hindi, outlining the common fundamental concepts in Hindu and Muslim scriptures. His contemporary, Shah Muni, a Muslim saint, lamented that the enmity between Hindus and Muslims was due to the absence of proper understanding of their respective faiths (Kulkarni p.111).

Time and again the people, the mystics and the leaders have proved that the essence of this land is peace and harmony in spite of differences and diversity. Let us sow the seeds of love again in the consciousness of this sub-continent.

 

References and Extra Reading:

 

  • Bendre, V S. Ed. Maharashtr etihasachi Sadhane, vols.1-3: part II vol II: 314,315
  • Chitnis, Krishnaji Nageshrao.2003. Medieval Indian History. Atlantic Publishers and Distributes. New Delhi
  • Dhere, R C. 1967. Musalman Marathi Sant Kavi. Padyagandha Prakashan. Pune.
  • Kularni A R. 1999. Social Relations in Medieval Maharashtra: Experiments in Living Together. In: We Lived Together. Eds. S Settar and P K V Kaimal. 1999. Pragati Publications. Delhi
  • Parasnis, D B (ed.). 1917. Peshwe Daftaratil Sanadpatratil Mahiti, Bombay
  • Potdar, D V. (Introduction) Aitihasik Samkeerna Sahitya, BISM Publication, Pune vol. 8 (ASS Vol.)
  • Rajwade, V K (ed.). 1908. Marathyanchya Itihasachi Sadhane. Vol.15. Kolhapur.
  • Shivacharitra Sahitya, 1930.vol.II. 94. Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal, Dutto Waman Potdar, Pune

The Warkari Movement II: EKNATH- A Brahmin Saint and a Sufi’s Disciple who Embraced Dalits

Artist's version of Sant Eknath. Picture credit: Shri Eknath Maharaja Mission
Artist’s version of Sant Eknath. Picture credit: Shri Eknath Maharaja Mission

For all those who equate organised religion to dharma and who, due to their narrow mind set, are compelled to box pluralistic saints like Kabir and Shirdi Sai baba into Hindu/Muslim categories, for them, Sant Eknath is an enigma, an embarrassment. His Guru – Swami Janardan, is claimed, by some scholars, to be a Sufi. Many of his bharuds (devotional songs) are in Hindustani and can often be mistaken to be written by a Sufi. He spoke of finding parallels in Hinduism and Islam, his followers belonged to different castes and creeds and according to one legend he even led Muslim armies on one occasion.  Little wonder then that recent Marathi writers, have tried to recast him as a savior of Hinduism from Islam although available literature proves something altogether different!!

The story of sant Eknath is a story of a scholarly Brahmin whose compassion and wisdom allowed him to rise above caste distinction and even engage Muslims in his spiritual dialogues.

Sant Eknath (1533-99 C.E.) was born to a Brahmin family in the holy city of Paithan, known as the Benaras of Maharashtra, which stood on the banks of Godavari. He was the grandson of Sant Bhanudas- a devout Warkari sant who is credited with returning the idol of Vithobha from Hampi to Pandharpur, its original home. It had been taken from Pandharpur by Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar in 1951. Spiritually inclined from a very early age, Sant Eknath was allowed by his guru, Swami Janardhan to lead a life of a house holder. Sant Eknath carried forward the tradition of social reform of Sant Gyaneshwar and Sant Namdev by rejecting all distinctions of caste and creed and the relevance of ritual and rites. For this he won many opponents among the high caste Hindus.

He composed numerous religious songs in Marathi called abhangs, owees and bharuds.  He wrote a commentary in Marathi on the Bhagvad Purana known as Eknath Bhagwat and also began writing Rukimini Swayamvara which, after his death, was later completed by one of his disciples. His works brought the highest of religious truths and moral guidance to the common people. He was a renowned kirtankaar giving birth to a unique style of Marathi kirtan singing called Eknath kirtan. He collected all the versions of Gyaneshwar’s Gyaneshwari and produced a critical edition of it.

Sant Eknath’s abhang recited by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi:

However his unusual contribution to Marathi Bhakti literature is his empathy with the dalits. Out of the three hundred bharuds (drama poems) that he has written, about fifty are from the perspective of a Dalit. In forty seven of which the protagonist is a Mahar and in one a Mang is the central character. Both these castes are considered among the ‘lowest’ in Maharshtra and elsewhere in India. These characters in Eknath’s drama poems, preach morality, the righteous path, the importance of a Guru and how the Bhakti marg liberates us from the cycle of death and rebirth. He mocks at the so-called learned Brahmins and fake gurus in the following Bharud:

“They say ‘we have become saints’

They put on garlands and sandal paste.

Taking a lamp in their hands

They cry udo,udo….. !

They do kirtan for the sake of their stomachs

They teach the ‘meaning of all’ to the people.

They cheat their ignorant devotees.

They do not know the meaning of kirtan…….

Do the one kind of Bhakti.

Don’t wait for anything else.

Good and bad come in their own way.

They are the proof of past deeds…..”

Like his predecessors of the Warkari Bhakti movement, Eknath, in his following Bharud preaches that all humans can experience nearness to God irrespective of caste and creed:

God baked pots with Gora

drove cattle with Chokha

cut grass with Savata Mali

wove garments with Kabir

dyed hide with Ramdas

sold meat with butcher Sajana

melted gold with Narhari

carried cow dung with Jana Bai

and even became the Mahar messenger of Damaji

There are numerous stories of Eknath being ostracised and punished by the Brahmins for his proximity and social interactions with the so called ‘untouchables’.

Eknath is also credited with contributing to the religio-cultural pluralism of the Deccan in the sixteenth century. He lived during the rule of Ahmednagar Sultanate. Apart from being an ancient capital, the sixteenth century Paithan was a major trading center and Eknath had the opportunity to interact with people of all castes as well as Indian Muslims and Arabs.

 His guru, Janardhan Swami, was a saint as well as in charge of the Daulatabad fort. Janardahan Swami was the disciple of Chand Bodale, also known as Chandrabhat, who was a Vaishnav and yet a follower of the Kadri or Qadarriya Sufi path and dressed like a faqir. At one time, it is believed, Eknath took his guru’s place to lead the Muslim army when the fort was attacked, as his guru was in deep meditation at this time!! According to Rigopoulos (p.160) Eknath disguised himself as his guru and in the process acquired all his strength and defeated the attacking army. This phenomenon of the disciple (murid) completely absorbing himself into the personality of his master (shaykh) is known as fana-fi-sh’shaykh among Sufis.

The Sufi influence on Eknath is further indicated by the number of Persian and Arabic words found in his Bharuds. While recently many right wing ideologist have tried to cast Sant Eknath as a saviour of Hinduism from the ‘hated’ Muslim tide, numerous scholars, both Hindu and Muslim, concur that medieval India was an era of tolerance, participation of Hindu subjects in the Islamic government and cultural interaction and influence among the two communities. Eknath’s bharud titled, Hindu-Turk Samvad sums up the situation aptly:

Eknath: The goal is one, the ways of worship are different.

Listen to the dialogue between these two!

The Turk calls the Hindu ‘Kafir’!

The Hindu answers: ‘I will be polluted, get away!’

A quarrel broke out between the two,

A great controversy began.

Muslim: O Brahman! Listen to what I have to say:

Your scripture is a mystery to everyone,

God has hands and feet, you say.

This is really impossible!

Hindu: Listen you great fool of a Turk!

See God in all living things.

You haven’t grasped this point

And so you have become a nihilist…….

At that moment that saluted each other.

With great respect, they embraced.

Both became content, happy.

Quiet, calm.

‘You and I quarrelled to open up the knowledge of high truth,

In order to enlighten the very ignorant.

In place of karma-awakening!!’

(Note: References for any information cited in the article may be obtained on request from the writer of this blog.)