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In Bengal on Ram Navami, a tale of two idols, two celebrations

Although both Ram and Krishna are worshipped as incarnations of Vishnu, Lord Krishna was/is more popular in Bengal than Lord Rama, courtesy the role played by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his followers since the 16th CE

Kolkata |
Updated: March 27, 2018 7:47:47 pm
ram navami clashes, armed ram navami rally, tmc, west bengal, bjp, indian express Incidents of arson over Ram Navami procession were reported from Raniganj in Burdwan district on Monday. (File Photo)

Written by Sibaji Pratim Basu

Charles Dickens is making a beeline for Bengal. Watching the bizarre incidents that unfolded on Ram Navami day in the state, one couldn’t but help remember the proverbial lines of the 19th century English author, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” In present-day Bengal, though, the twist in the tale is essential : ‘It was the best of farce, it was the most mindless travesty.’

But beyond the farcical and mindless competition between the growing BJP and the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) over the celebration of the janam tithi of Lord Rama, Sunday’s Ram Navami celebrations were also full of blood and gore, at least in the state’s southwestern Purulia district. One 50-year-old villager, Sheikh Shahjahan, died, and five police personnel (including a deputy superintendent of police) were injured. Even where there were no reports of clashes, an uneasy tension prevailed, and the administration heaved a sigh of relief when it was over.

But why did this unprecedented tug of war take place — and as many anticipate, will take place again and again, over other similar issues in future — in a state known for its syncretic and secular culture? Among other religious sects and practices, Vaishnavism in Bengal has been an important constituent part of this syncretic culture.

Although both Lords Ram and Krishna are worshipped as the incarnations of God Vishnu, Lord Krishna was/is more popular in Bengal than Lord Rama, courtesy the role played by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his followers since the 16th CE.

The Vaishnavas of Bengal worship Lord Krishna as a God of Love (prem) rather than the mentor of Arjuna in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Thus, the idol of Krishna besides his divine ladylove Radha with a flute (banshi) in his hand, has been more popular in the state than idol of Lord Rama with bow and arrows.

Thus, janmashtami (the janam tithi of Lord Krishna) is celebrated spontaneously all over Bengal. Even in traditional city-homes, palm cakes (taler bora) are prepared to celebrate janmashtami. The folk child artistes, dressed as Krishna and Radha, perform dances and songs, going from door to door. In Bengal, you don’t have to politically mobilise people to take part in janmashtami, like the recent Ram Navami processions.

Of course, some devout people, mostly, non-Bengali Hindus, also observe Ram Navami in the state. But that has always been more a personal or closed-group activity sans the present pomp and fanfare of ‘public’ functions.

This paradigmatic shift of worship: from Lord Krishna to Lord Rama also signifies a shift in emphasis in the popular culture of worship in Bengal — from the phenomenon of love to that of armed clashes (with demons like Ravanas).

In plain terms, if the first stands as an instance of harmony (like Chaitanya’s affectionate embrace of the lumpen brothers Jagai and Madhai, even after they hit him on the head) through non-violent means, the other is the image of a conqueror who defeated the opponent after a deadly fight.

The latter may be used to inspire the traditionally non-martial Bengali Hindus to militarise themselves and to prepare for an imaginary (or, perhaps not so ‘imaginary’) enemy – in this case, perhaps, the minorities/traffickers/‘infiltrators’. Remember, West Bengal has witnessed several communal clashes in many parts of the state in last few years. The BJP will benefit the most in case of such a future outbreak.

No one knows it better than Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that such things should be handled with extreme care, otherwise, riots can break out in many sensitive places. So, the administration also acted very cautiously.

But, as the head of one of the foremost populist political parties in India, perhaps she cannot leave this new space of politically inspired worship in the hands of the BJP that is growing by leaps and bounds in the state. As a populist party, the TMC, unlike the CPI(M), cannot overlook a popular event that is already attracting a large chunk of people (voters) in the state.

Hence, the contestation over the celebration. But the question that remains is still pertinent: How far can the TMC defeat the BJP in its own game?

(Sibaji Pratim Basu is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, West Bengal)

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