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Religion in ancient Bengal: during and after guptas

Vedic and Pauranic Hinduism

During the guptas, we find a lot of brahmins getting land grants and settling down. They are described by their vedic affiliation, e.g. RgvedI, belonging to vAjasaneYI shAkha, yajurvedI, or sAmavedI; and by their gotra, e.g. kANva, bhArgava, kAshyapa, bharadvAja, agastya, vAtsya, or kauNDiNya. By the sixth century, even in east Bengal, just during the reign of bhUtivarmA, great-great-grandfather of bhAskaravarma, in one village paJcakhaNDa of shrIhaTTa, 205 brahmin families are brought in, many of different affiliations like 60 Rg vahvRcya, 14 sAma chAndyogya, and 131 yajur mainly vAjasaneYI, and cArakya or taittirIYa.

It is during this same period, fourth century AD and later, that we start finding traces of paurANic tradition of viSNu as cakrasvAmI. Temples are beeing built for the likes of govindasvAmI, svetavarAhasvAmI, kokAmukhasvAmI, pradyumneshvara, anantanArAYaNa, and puruSottama. Many kings are describing themselves as paramabhAgavat. That viSNu is already associated with kRSNa and balarAma is clear: the stories of lifting up govarddhana, fights with cANUra and muSTika, uprooting of yamalArjjuna tree, killing of keshI, playing with the gopIs, vAsudeva going to gokula with kRSNa, etc. are already depicted. Though the concept of rAdha from this period is extremely debatable, an idol of kRSNa and a lady is found.

shaivism is less prononounced, though no less developed: he is depicted with a third eye, UrddhvaliGga, with matted hair, sometimes riding a bull, with a trident, akSamAla and kamaNDalu, and is sometimes samapadasthAnaka and candrashekhara. The worship of shiva liGga is found in the fifth century AD itself. Some kings describe themselves as paramashaiva, and his bull is seen on coinage. aSTadhAtuka sarvvANI idols were also made.

gaNapati idols are also found aplenty. Again, the mythology seems to be well developed. He is sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, and sometimes dancing. However, a few surprises are also found: in one he is holding a leafy radish!

There is mention of a kArttika temple in rAjataraGginI which describes 8th century puNDra. The few solar idols that we find are extremely influenced by western ideas rather than by a vedic tradition.


Jainism seemed to have been rare in the beginning of this period: only one jaina vihar is mentioned: it received some land grant from a brahmin family. However, soon afterwards, by the second quarter of the seventh century AD, digambara nirgrantha jainas were plentiful. The AjIvikas probably were integrated into their ranks by then.


Buddhism was at its strength during this period. Chinese travellers were coming to Bengal, and it had state support, in form of land grants and building of vihAras, even when they were Hindus. In fact, the establishment of the famous buddhist university called nAlandA vihAra probably goes back to the 4th century, founded by kumAragupta I. vainyagupta's gunaighara plaque mentions three vihAras: Azrama vihAra of rudradatta, rAjavihAra, and jinasena vihAra. Visiting chinese scholar Fa-hien in the fifth century reports 22 vihAras in tAmralipti, well supported by the kings. In 638 AD, Hieuen tsang found 20 in puNDravardhana (including po-ci-po), 30 in samataTa, 10 in tAmralipti, 6–7 in kajaGgala, and 10 in karNasuvarNa (including lo-To-mo-ci or raktamRttikA; archaelogical evidence finds Buddhist presence in Dheka near karNasuvarNa about the 5th century). mentions a vihAra belonging to AcAryya vandya saGghamitra in tripurA. I-tsing in late 7th century claims po-lo-ho or varAha was the most important one in tAmralipti. He describes that the vihAra upkeep was by taxing the produce from otherwise tax free lands the saGgha possessed, and by alms and other donations from people.

A lot of Buddha statues are found from this period, and number of Buddhists monks numbered in the thousands at the least: controlled by strong rules and segregation of the sexes. Both hInayAna (shrAvakayAna) and mahAyAna buddhists are known, though this statement may be the result of confusion when sarvAstivAdIs of sammatIYa sect, mahAsAGghikas and sthaviravAdIs are all present amongst the mahAyAnIs. The chavaggIYas are not found anymore, but the followers of devadatta (who did not accept the buddha nature of gautama, and did not consume milk products) are found.

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