Religion in ancient Bengal: during pAla and candra

Buddhism was on the decline and idol worship on the rise in Bengal at the beginning of this period. However, under the pAlas, buddhism grew, and as its last resort India, it developed some unique sects here. Similarly, hinduism started developing its uniquely east Indian and Bengali forms during this period.


Vedic and Puranic

Many of the land grants in this period to brahmins mention vedic rituals, and the brahmins are praised for their knowledge of the scriptures, grammar, philosophy, and travel to holy places. Their praised behaviour included prAtaH, nakta, ayAcita and upavAsana. During this period, brahmins from other parts of India, e.g. lATadesha, kroraJja, muktAvAstu, and especially madhyadesha coming and settling down in Bengal. Mention of this settling is found as early as the donation of land to 205 vaidika brAhmaNas by bhUtivarmA, great-great-grandfather of bhAskaravarma, but the largest record is of a large land grant to 6000 brahmanas in zrIhaTTa in punDravardhana by the candra king zrIcandradeva.

In this period, the pauranic tradition is also in strong force in Bengal. vedavyAsas mahAbhArata, rAmAYaNa, and the various purANas were also commonly read. The stories of pRthu, dhanaJjaYa, ambarIsha, sagara, nala, yayAti, vali, bhArgava, karNa, vRhaspati, agastya, parashurAma, rAma, hutabhuj and svAhA, dhanapati and bhadrA, viSNu and brahmA, brahmA and sarasvatI, indra and paulamI, purandara and vali, shiva and sati, umA, and sarvvANI, sUrya and his horses, samudrotthita sashadharalAnchana candra of atri's dynasty and kAnti and rohiNI were already well known. viSNu has already completely merged with avatAra kRSNa, son of devakI who went to yashodA, and is shrIpati, ksamApati born of the sea and husband of lakSmI and vasudharA, murArI husband of lakSmI, janArddana, hari, murAri. The other avatAras like narasiMha, parashurAma and vAmana are also known.


Temples to nanna-nArAYaNa and garUD.astambha, temples to kAdambarI devakulikA, sthAnaka viSNu with lakSmI and sarasvatI, and separate idols of lakSmI and sarasvatI (one with rAm instead of the usual swan as her steed) and garUD.a have also been found. Overall, viSNu with lakSmI, sarasvatI, vasumatI, jaYa, vijaYa, his twelve avatAras, and brahmA predominate the idol collections. Most viSNu idols in Bengal are sthAnaka and in a group, few garUD.AsIna, AsIna, and yogAsIna are also found. The shaYAna style is extremely rare. Similarly, the mot common form was the trivikrama form, and the next was of the vAsudeva forms. But some other forms, e.g. abhicArika, shrIdhara (hRSikesha), vishvarUpa, and caturmukha. Joint idols of brahmA and viSNu, and separate idols of fat, four faced, four armed brahmA seated on a swan are also found. lakSmI is usually gajalakSmI, but four armed and two armed standing idols are also found, sometimes carrying a jhÃpi. Out of the avatAras of viSNu other than kRSNa, the most popular separate ones were varAha, narasiMha and vAmana; though a few matsya and parashurAma, and haladhara were also found. A few idols show influence of mahAyAnI buddhism on vishnavism in this period.


Shaivism was probably less important in comparison to vaishnavism. There is mention of establishment of a four headed liGgam for shiva. nArAYaNapAla donated land to pAshupatas, and is said to have established one thousand shiva temples. rAmapAla is said to have constructed three shiva temples, one temple dedicated to the eleven rudras and others to sUryya, skanda, and gaNapati. The shaivism was probably of the pAshupata kind started by shiva-shrIkaNTha and lakulIsha in first century BC. The eighteen Agamas and the six yAmalas written slightly later, including the piGgalA appendix to the brahmayAmala describe the pAshupata sect: it describes kAmarUpa, kaliGga, kaGkana, kAJcI, kAverI, koshala, and kAshmIra as being outside the AryAvartta which is ideal for shiva worship. However, gauD.iYa teachers were not considered amongst the best. Shiva was worshipped mainly as a liGgam, usually one headed, but sometimes four headed in north bengal. The latter usually has four shakti idols. Also are found candrashekhara, nRtyapara, sadAshiva, umA-maheshvara, ardhanArIshvara and kalyANa-sundara or shiva-vivAha. Out of the the rudra forms vaTuka bhairava and aghorarudra has been found. Both two armed and four armed IshAna forms have been found. A four armed sthAnaka is known as virUpAkSa, though it fits nIlakaNTha better. The naTarAja or naTeshvara form in bengal is distinct from the southern ones, are usually ten armed as described in matsyapurANa, and do not have the apasmArapuruSa at his feet. A twelve armed version is also found. The sadAshiva follows uttara-kAmikAgama and garUD.a purANa description; it is similar to the southern forms, and might have been brought from there. The umA-maheshvara was the favourite of the bengalis: shivakroD.opaviSTa, sukhAsInA, AliGganavaddhA, and hAsyAnandamaYI umA had tAntrika significance. arddhanArIshvara (man on right, woman on left) is rare in bengal. The kalyANa sundara forms have typically bengali characteristics like saptapadI and kartri vahana. The aghora rudra worship was probably a cult. The wildly laughing, fiery faced naked vaTukabhairava holding skull and wearing skull garland and wooden slippers accompanied by dogs is definitely a tAntrika influence. Some shaivaite teachers, especially of the sadAshiva form, were respected far outside bengal.

Separate gaNapati and kArttikeYa are also found though gaNesha was probably more popular. He was always portrayed dancing on a mouse with a fruit in his hand: a typical siddhiphaladAta. A single example of shaiva gANapatya sect has been found, and is exactly like the southern form: probably an import. kArttika is in the mahArAjalIlA pose on a peacock.


Shakta purANa from seventh-eigth century speaks of shakti worship in rADh.a, vArendra, kAmarUpa, kAmAKhyA, and bhoTTadesha. jaYadratha-yAmala written outside bengal after the guptas mentions IshAnakAlI, rakSAkAlI, vIryyakAlI, prajJAkAlI etc., as well as ghoratArA, yoginIcakra, cakreshvarI, etc. These ultimately lead to the tantradharma in Bengal, and the forms of shakti in this phase is probably already precursors to being tAntrika. In fact mahAnIla sarasvatI seems completely tAntrika. Most idols are four armed and standing. Sometimes she is alone, sometimes with the entire family of gaNesha, kArttikeYa, lakSmI, and sarasvatI, and sometimes with family and brahmA, viSNu, and shiva. A chameleon, perhaps from the caNDI-kAlaketu story, and two auspicious banana plants, foreshadowing later kalAbau, are almost always found. The contents in the four hands vary, and these have been variously called caNDi or gaurI-pArvvatI. Sometimes, they are only two armed, sometimes joined by other gods like navagraha. Seated forms are rarer, and have four, six or twenty hands, and are called sarvvamaGgalA, aparAjitA, pArvvatI or bhuvaneshvarI, and mahAlakSmI. There is an example of liGgodbhavA caturbhujA, two arms in dhyAnamudrA, two holding akSamAlA and a book, called mahAmAYA or tripurabhairavI. Of the ugra forms, mahiSamarddinI durgA, sometimes called shrI-mAsika-caNDI, is the most popular, in the oldest forms she is eight or ten armed. The navadurgA form mentioned in bhaviSyapurANa is also found; this is probably influenced by mahAyAna and vajrayAna. Twelve and sixteen armed mahiSamarddinI have also been found, as well as a thirtytwo-armed. A few four and six armed vAgIshvarI have also been found. Of the mAtRkAs, cAmuNDI was most common in bengal especially in the twelve armed siddha-yogeshvarI, two armed danturA, rUpavidyA, ksamA, rudracarcikA, rudracAmuNDA, and siddhacAmuNDA forms. There is a pishitAsanA on a donkey, and a carcikA on a corpse. A four armed brAhmaNI, a few varAhI, and an indrAnI have also been found. gaGgA and yamunA used to flank the temples, yamunA alone is rare otherwise. gaGgA on a crocodile is not that rare, and four armed gaGgA idols are also found. gaGgA is sometimes called dakSiNA-kAlikA.

In later evolution, the distinction between shAkta and Buddhist tantrik beliefs is often difficult.


sUryya was considered the healer of illnesses, and his importance continued to rise. The form of the idols were clearly of the western/Iranian kind, though the interpretation probably got strongly influenced by the vedic and brahminical thoughts. Most of the idols are standing, and with entire family: seated ones are rare. They rarely had six hands. There is one which has three faces and ten hands; probably this is mArttaNDa bhairava. There are rare idols influenced by southern rather than western tradition. A few horse-riding revanta idols are also seen. Some independent navagraha idols are also found; separately only a single candra and a single bRhaSpati have been found.


In addition, manasA has been found. The local concept has also produced gaGgA and yamunA, as well as bauddha hArItI and brAhmaNya SaSThI. A lady with a child is known: it is not clear whether this is a depiction of the birth of shiva or viSNu. Rare examples of indra, agni, varuNa, yama, and kuvera have also been found. zrIcandradeva also established a maTha for brahmA and eight maThas, two each (one each for dezAntarI and vaMgAla) for agni vaizvAnara, yogezvara ziva, jaimini, and mahAkAla ziva. They studied the four vedas and cAndra vyAkaraNa and housed a variety of people: we find mention of, amongst others, kAryanirvAhaka and other brahmins, kAYastha, mAlAkAra, tailika, kumbhakAra, kAlalika, shaGkhavAdaka, DhakkavAdaka, drAgaD.ika, karmakAra, carmakAra, naTa, sUtradhAra, sthapati, karmakara, veTTika, nApita, rajaka, mahattara, brAhmaNa, vArika, gaNaka, and vaidya.


Royal support

Many of the kings in this period belonged to the mahAyAna sect of buddhism, as is clear from their official documents staring with appropriate prayers. However, many of the queens seem to be shaivaites (especially the pAzupata sect), and the kings established many temples dedicated to shiva, sarvvANi, nArAYaNa, eleven rudras, sUryya, skanda, gaNapati, and other hindu gods. Sometimes, like under nArAYaNapAla, not only were temples dedicated to shiva, but arrangement were made to provide for worship and sacrifice in these temples. The kings also participated in hindu rituals like bathing during the summer solistice, giving land grants to brahmins, attending the yajJas, and organizing srAddha ceremonies. dharmmapAla seems to even have accepted and somewhat reformed the caste system in society, and it seems that the later pAlas and kAmbojas might even have become hindus.


On the other hand, this support for hinduism pales into insignificance when compared to the rise of Buddhism during this period. The state support for building and enhancing vihArAs, already known from the previous period, continued during this period. Thus dharmmapAla enhanced the nAlanda mahAvihAra with repairs, and established the somapura (or somapurI or zrIdharmapAladeva) mahAvihAra (in current pAhAD.apura in rAjazAhI district; may have originally been a jaina vihAra). Tibetan sources claim that the latter was established by devapAla, but archaelogical evidence is against that. Its three storied central building housed the main temple on the second floor; with ornamentation on top it looked like a pyramid. The courtyard surrounding this had buildings at each corner, and 177 housing units around it. This mahAvihAra had 108 temples, 6 schools and 114 teachers, including such famous ones like bhikSu AraNyaka kAlambalapAda bodhibhadra, atIsha dIpaGkara for a while, vIryyendra who made a huge buddha statue in buddhagaYA, and later, karuNAshrImitra teacher of gokulashrImitra. Under dharmmapAla, in the traikUTaka vihAra (location unknown, but may be in rADh.a), AcAryya haribhadra wrote his famous works. Buddhist kumAra ghoSa in 778 AD established a maJjushrI statue, probably during the rule of dharmmapAla. vikramazIla dharmmapAla might also have established the vikramapurI vihAra which housed such teachers as avadhUtAcArya kumAracandra and lIlAvajra, stdent of lakSmIGkara. In the eighth century itself, bAlaputradeva made a vihAra in the mahAvihAra of nAlandA, and devapAla gave five villages for its upkeep. Either he or dharmmapAla established the odantapurI vihAra as well. Later he put brahmin vIradeva, who turned buddhist under AcAryya sarvajJashAnti of kaniSkavihAra and came to devapAla in yashodharmapura vihAra in budhagaYA, as a teacher in nAlandA. In 851 AD, probably under devapAla, gomin avighnAkara went to the kingdom of karpadina in shilAhAra and established a prayer hall in kRSNagiri mahAvihAra. rAmapAla might have established tje jagaddala mahAvihAra which housed such teachers as vibhUticandra, dAnazIla, mokSAkara gupta, zubhAkara gupta, and dharmmAkara.

During mahIpAla and jaYapAla, vikramashIla and somapura mahAvihAras were international institutions of knowledge. Many great texts were written during this time, and teachers like atIsha dIpaGkara and ratnAkara arose. A bengali whose name is recorded as pau-si or ko-lin-nai took a lot of sanskrit texts to china in 1026 AD.

vihAras were scatterred all over in this period: traikUTaka vihAra in rADh.a, devIkoTa vihAra, with such teachers as AcAryya advaYavajra, udhilipA, and bhikSuNI mekhalA, in dinAjapura, paNDita vihAra in caTTagrAma, phullahari vihAra in nort Bihar, paTTikeraka mahAvihAra, kanakastUpa vihAra in which was probably the one referred to by harikAladeva raNavaGkamalla as durgottArA vihAra, and sannagara mahAvihAras, where lived vanaratna, in tripura, vikramapurI mahAvihAra with such teachers like avadhUtAcAryya kumAracandra, lIlAvajra, and puNyadhvaja in vikramapura, jagaddala mahAvihAra with the likes of vibhUticandra, dAnashIla, shubhAkara gupta, mokSAkaragupta, and dharmmAkara in varendrI, and many others. The number of smaller vihAras was huge, and though many famous teachers lived there, not all have been traced yet.

mahAyAna and its evolutions

The sammatIYavAda of the previous period is almost unrecognizable in the Bengali buddhism of this phase: the advent of tAntrika beliefs changed it almost beyond recognition. Traditionally AcAryya asaGga is associated with this large scale tAntrika influence on mahAyAna. The exact reasons of this transition are unknown, but it is possible that increased contact with the himAlaYan tribes might have contributed. The net resut was that shUnyavAda and vijJAnavAda, yogAcAra and mAdhyamikavAda, and even sarvAstivAda and mahAsAGghikavAda failed to capture people's attention except probably during their initiation; most people focussed on the magical elements and the importance of mantra giving rise to mantrayAna.

mantrayAna however soon evolved into the complex thoughts of vajrayAna. nAgArjuna conceived of the shUnyatatva: the idea that sorrow, karma, and its results are all meaningless, and knowledge or vijJana, of this fact, the knowledge associated with goddess nirAtmA, is nirvANa and leads to mahAsukha. bodhicitta is a particular state of the mind or soul which decides upon attaining true knowledge; it is compared to the concentration that underlies sexual intercourse. To control emotions, one needs to arouse them first. This bodhicitta is supposed to control the emotions and senses to the extent that it is called vajra, or hard. When bodhicitta becomes vajra, bodhijJAna is achieved, and this path is called vajrayAna. The gods and goddesses are the personifications of the mantra needed to control the emotions. All these are secret, and a teacher is essential in following this path.

sahajayAna is the part of mantrayAna that deemphasizes the gods, goddesses, and rituals (‘mokkha ki labbhai pAnI hNAi?’). The way to bodhi was not known to ordinary people, not even to Buddha himself: everyone had the capacity to reach bodhi which resided in their own bodies. They conceived of the female nihilistic nature and male kindness: their sexual union lead to ultimate happiness. They believed in basic equality (samarasa) and an empty mind (khasama: like the sky). They did not believe in asceticism (to vinu taruNi nirantara Nehe bodhi ki labbhai praNa vi dehe~), and liked simple comfort. They were totally against brahminical rituals (kajje virahia huavaha home~ | akkhi uhAvia kuD.a e' dhUrme~ ||) and caste system as well, and did not believe in the vedas and Agamas (jAhera vANacihNa rUba Na jAnI | se koise Agama vee~ vakhANI ||). Neither did they have much respect for the other religions of their time (jai nggA via hoi mukti tA suNaha siAlaha | lomupAD.aNo atthi siddhi tA juvai nitambaha || picchI gaNahe diTTha mokkha tA moraha camaraha | uJche~ bho aNõ hoi jANa tA kariha turaGgAha ||), and later extended that to the kApAlikas. In this period, however, the distinction between the sahajayAnIs and the kApAlikas was not that marked (A lo dombI toe sama karibe ma sAGga | nighiNa kAhNa kApAli joi lAga). These kApAlikas remained naked and used to wear garlands of bones. They wandered alone, and much of their behaviour arose out of the characters attributed to shiva.

kAlacakrayAna, a separate evolution from vajrayAna looked to rise above the cycle of time by controlling the activities of the body. Tradition has it that it arose in sambhala and came to Bengal later, but one of its main teachers, abhaYakaragupta lived here.

It is to be noted that these forms are not always cleanly distinguishable. It is not possible to classify the 84 siddhAcAryyas like AcAryya sarahapAda or sarahavajra of nAlanda from rAjJI city during ratnapala having been initiated at uDDiYAna, nAgArjuna, student of sarahpAda at nAlandA, luipAda of uDDiYAna, tillopAda or tailikapAda of paNdita vihAra from a brahmin family in caTTagrAma during mahIpAla, nAD.opAda, student of jetAri, of phullahari and vikrashIla vihAra from varendrI during jaYapAla, shavarapAda, student of sarahapAda, from baGgAla, advaYavajra, kAhNapAda, bhusuku, student of atIsha dIpaGkara, from vikramapura, kukkuripAda from a bengali brahmin family, etc. into the various sects.

All these forms of attaining bodhi relied on haThayoga, which involved a knowledge of the human body. The concept of the three major veins or flows, lalanA, rasanA, and avadhUti, their connections and cakras go back to this period. So does the classification of the religious natures of men into dombI, naTI, rajakI, caNDAlI, and brAhmaNI.

As the ideas of sahajayAna increased, the difference between Buddhist tAntrism and Hindu tAntrism slowly disappeared. Starting around the end of the pAla period Buddhist sahajayAna and Hindu shAkta beliefs slowly merged. In fact, some of the later forms like kaulamArga (a brahmnical system of beliefs that accepted the caste system, but whose main aim was to awaken the kulakuNDalinI, identified with shakti, in one's own body to unite with shiva) and nAthadharma, both of which claim descent from matsyendranAtha, who may have been the same as luipAda described above, can not be nicely classified as either Hindu or Buddhist.

The nAthadharmIs probably arose out of the rasasiddha yogis, the sect that did not believe in a freedom after death. That sect believed that the body is everything. They believed that this physical body could be converted to the shiva form, and that is freedom. The nathadharmIs sought for the cause of all ills and sorrows in an unprepared body and hence which wanted to improve the physical health more than anything else. Though they do not exist in Bengal today except as a sect of weavers, a famous character in Bengali folklore is madanAvatI or maYanAmatI, mother of gopIcÃda or govindracandra (disciple of jAlandharipAda or AdinAtha or hAD.ipAda, disciple of gorakSanAtha) and disciple of gorakSanAtha, disciple of matsyendranAtha. Other famous people of this sect include mInanAthaand cauraGgInAtha.

The avadhUtas, who lived ascetic lives in the forest, the pre-sahajIYA religion, that looked for simple, often carnal, pleasure, and the bAUla community of Bengal, who were much closer to the original vajra and sahajayAna, also arose out of this disintegration of the original buddhist religion.

Gods and goddesses

Though most of the idols from this period can be linked to mahAyAna and vajrayAna, a few do belong to the old buddhyAna conception of a central large shAkyasiMha or bodhisattva gautama in bhumisparsha, abhaYa, vyAkhyAna, dhyAna, or dharmacakrapravarttana form, surrouded by buddhAYana, incidents from his life. Some of these buddhas are worshipped even today as shivas.

mahAyAna pantheon was based on Adibuddha and AdipraJjA or praJjApAramita. The pancatathAgata or the five dhyAnibuddha, namely, vairocana, akSobhya, ratnasambhAra, amitAbha, and amoghasiddhi, and a sixth vajrasattva arose out of this Adibuddha. Each of these dhyAnibuddha has a bodhisattva and a mAnuSI buddha: present dhyAnibuddha amitAbha corresponds to bodhisattva avalokiteshvara lokanAtha and mAnuSI gautama. The bodhisattva's maJjushrI and maitreYa are also very famous. In addition, their power, all thought of as different forms of tArA are also important. No idols of Adibuddha have been found, though some of praJjApAramita have been. A few dhyAnibuddhas have also been found. The most common idols are of avalokiteshvara lokanAtha: mainly in the padmapANi, siMhanAda (said to cure leprosy), SaD.akSarI and khasaparNa (named probably after a place name in south bengal) forms, rarely of sugatisandarshanarupI form; both Asana and sthAnaka. There are a few 12-armed and six-armed forms which seem to be influenced by the Hindu pantheon of gods. The next most common avalokiteshvara was maJjushrI (linked to akSobhya) in the forms of maJjuvara on a lion, arapacana on a lotus on a snake, or of sthiracakra forms. vajrapANi who was the god of power and rain, and bodhisattva maitreYa are rare. Of the lower deities important are jambhala (god of wealth like the Hindu kuvera and linked with ratnasambhara), heruka (with akSobhya), and hevajra (a tAntrika god), the last usually embracing shakti. A few trailokyavashaGkara have also been found.

Of the tArAs, khadirvanI tArA (or shyAma tArA, linked to amoghasiddhi), vajra tArA (linked to ratnasambhara), and bhRkuTI tArA (linked to amitAbha) are the most common. A sitAtapatrA or sitatAra might also have been found, and a mahApratisarA (one of the pancarakSAmaNDala); and a few cannot be classified. Of the other goddesses, we find mainly mArIci (linked to vairocana and related to Hindu sUryya), parNashavarI (also called pishAcI, linked to amoghasiddhi), hArItI (shakti of jambhala), and cuNDA. A few uSNISavijaYA have aso been found.

vajrayAna conceived of a large number of gods and goddesses; called by names such as vajrasatva, hevajra, heruka, mahAmAYA, trailokyavashaGkara, nIlAmbaradharavajrapANi, yamAri, kRSNayamAri, jambhala, haYagrIva, samvara, cakrasamvara, cakreshvarAlI, kAli, vajrayoginI, siddhavajrayogini, kulukullA, kurukulla, vajrabhairava, vajradhara, hevajrodbhava, sitAtapatrAaparAjitA, and uSNISavijaYA. It is difficult to link these with the actual idols found from this period: many of these are unrepresented, and many idols do not seem to have been otherwise named.

Thus, in addition to vihAras, buddhism used to be well an alive in temples across Bengal. Temples of bhagavatItArA in candradvIpa, lokanAtha and buddhardhitArA in samataTa, cuNDA in paTTikeraka, and lokanAtha in harikela were quite famous. Most of the evidence, however, seems to concentrate in north and east bengal, and slightly in bÃkurA-vIrabhuma region.


Jainism (or nirgrantha religion) reduced in influence during this period. It still seems to have existed into the thirteenth century: at least in lATa, gauD.a, and vaGga; but it was quite weak by then. A few idols have been found of the digambara sect: mainly of pArshvanAtha, but a few of RSabhanAtha, AdinAtha, neminAtha, and shAntinAtha as well.

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