This is a thorough and critical study of the cult of the Goddess Manasa-a study which throws valuable light on some features of the socio-cultural history of the country. The introduction deals with the nature, importance and scope of the subject. Sources are also discussed. The first chapter outlines the history of ophiolatry in Ancient India. In Chapter II the author traces the socio-religious background of Bengal from the 8th-12th centuries – a period when Manasa evolved and found a foothold in Bengali Society. The third chapter narrates the stories of Manasa written in Bengali, Asamese and Bihari, and found in the Puranas for comparative study and their analysis. The fourth chapter deals with the original location and historicity of the principal legend of Manasa. Attempts are also made to ascertain the periods of the origin of the Goddess and of the various stories of Manasa. In Chapter V the author traces the gradual evolution of the cult of Manasa; and the sixth is a fair account of the relations between Manasa and other cult divinities. The seventh chapter is devoted to examine the icons said to be of Manasa and to consider the views that Manasa originated out of many deities. The last chapter is a detailed account of the rites and ceremonies connected with Manasa from the earliest time to the present day. This chapter is mainly based on field investigation. Summary and conclusion briefly reviews the whole work and the main conclusions drawn in it. The work also contains five short appendices, 26 plates, a map of Eastern India and a few charts.
P. K. Maity. M.A., Ph.D. (London), D. Litt. (Jadavpur). Retd. Reader in History, Tamralipta Mahavidyalaya, Tamluk, Midnapore, West Bengal, is a well-known name in the scholarly world for his contributions to different branches of Socio-Religio-Cultural History of Bengal. Trained up in research under the able guidance of Late Professor A. L. Basham, Dr. Maity has produced, so far, a good number of research papers as well as research works in English and Bengali. A few of his important publications include : The Goddess Bargabhima –A Study, Popular Cults, Legends and Stories in Ancient Bengal, Folk Rituals of Eastern India, Some Aspects of Indian Culture, Human Fertility Cults and Rituals of Bengal (A Comparative Study), Biyalliser Tamluk O Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar, Banglar Loka Dharma O Utsav Parichiti, Samaj O Sanskrtir Ruparekha, Mednipurer Lokasanskriti, etc. He also contributed research papers in twenty four collected works both in English and Bengali. He enjoyed U.G.C. (New Delhi) research grant five times to carry out different research projects. One research scholar has obtained his Ph.D. degree from the University of Calcutta under his supervision and a few more have been working for Ph.D. degree in Vidyasagar University under his guidance. He is the founder member and Hony. Director, Tamralipta Museum and Research Centre, Tamluk, Midnapore.
The present book which deals with the history of the cult of the goddess Mansa is the outcome of my research work from October, 1960 to November, 1962 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. A draft of this work entitled “The early history of the cult of the goddess Manasa” was submitted for examination for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of London and was accepted by the University.
In the course of preparing this work I have received encouragement and help from several of my friends and scholars, and I wish here to acknowledge my debt and express my heartiest thanks to all of them. First of all I recall, on the eve of the publication of my work, with sincerest reverence the inspiration and financial support of my beloved grandfather who is no more in this world and but for whose help this could never see the light of the day. My sincere gratitude and respect should then go to my learned teacher Professor A. L. Basham, whose constant help, guidance, encouragement and sympathy have made this work possible. He has also been kind enough to write a foreword to this book. I must next express my gratitude and indebtedness to Mr. T. W. Clark, Reader in Bengali, University of London who took keen interest in the subject and made valuable suggestions. I am also grateful to Dr. S. K. Das, Reader in Bengali, University of Delhi (formerly Lecturer, School of Oriental and African Studies, London), who with his criticism and criticism and suggestions, was a source of help and inspiration. I am also thankful to Dr. J. G. de Casparis who suggested a few improvements on the first chapter of my book. I am indebted to Miss P. Misra for taking pains in reading with me my Sanskrit materials. I am grateful to Dr. N. C. Ganguli, M.B.B.S., Ph.D. (London), Miss A. Basu and Mr. A. Manna who have helped me in the preparation of my plates and map. I must also acknowledge the help of my cousin Dr. S.K. Maity of Jadavpur University and of Mr. A. R. Pathak who have given me encouragement from time to time. I am also indebted to my parents and to my elder brother for much encouragement. I am grateful to my informants especially the authorities of Bangiya Sahitya Parisat, Bishnupur Branch and to Dr. P. Goswami of Gauhati University for their sincere cooperation in my project. I should like to express my deep sense of indebtedness to my friend, Mr. M. C. Mahapatra, M.A., B.T. who cheerfully took upon himself the trouble of conducting the survey on my behalf. Without his help this project would never have been possible.
My thanks are also due to the members of the library staff of the School of Oriental and African Studies and of the Oriental section of the British Museum for their sympathetic co-operation. For some financial assistance I thank the authority of the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Trustees of the Edwina Mountbatten Grants to Commonwealth students.
I also acknowledge the following persons and Institutions for illustrations: A. K Pal (No. 17), K. L. Sarkar (Nos. 23, 24), S.K. Kundu (No. 18), Trustees of the British Museum (No. 8) and Bangiya Sahitya Parisat, Bishnupur Branch (Nos. 14, 16, 19, 21, 22, 26). I owe special obligation to Sri S. K. Bhattacharya, Proprietor, Punthi Pustak, who kindly undertook to publish this book. I also thank the staff and workers of Punthi Pustak and Pooran Press for publishing and printing the book with all possible care. Lastly I am thankful to my wife and to Prof. S. Maity for helping me in the preparation of the Index.
Among the most beautiful and best loved legends of Bengal is the story of the goddess Manasa. It contains many elements of a strange surrealistic character, and numerous exciting incidents. And among its characters the personality of the brave and faithful Behula has been for centuries a model to Bengali womanhood, even more vital and vivid than the Epic Savitri in her courage nd loyalty. The warm poetic personality of the Bengali has been developed for centuries by this strange and lovely story, and Manasa has been an object of worship in some ways even closer to the Bengali heart than the Great Mother herself, for the capricious snake-goddess is hardly worshipped outside Bengal and some regions on its borders.
In his study of the obscure history of this cult Dr. P. K. Maity has had little in the way of sources but the Manasa Kavyas themselves. By a minute and thorough analysis of the various versions of the legend he has been able to throw very valuable light on the origins of the cult, and on its progress and development. The information obtained from the Manasa texts he has supplemented with information gathered from many villages in West Bengal, and with the evidence of kindred snake cults throughout the world. His study forms a most scholarly and valuable contribution to the existing work on the popular religious cults of India, which hitherto have been largely neglected, though their importance in the formation of the National Culture is probably as great or greater than that of the great philosophies which have attracted the attention of hundreds of scholars in both East and West. It is to be hoped that Dr. Maity will produce equally valuable studies of further aspects of Bengali folk religion, and that he will find imitators in other parts of India.
I. Nature and importance of the subject :
The present work is an attempt to trace the early history and evolution of the snake goddess Manasa. This study throws much light on some features of the sociocultural history of the country, one of whose most important aspects is religion. The importance of such history, whether of a nation, a race or a tribe, has been well emphasized throughout the world since the late 19th century. This social and cultural history falls within the scope of cultural historians, anthropologists and sociologists, who differ in their approaches. In India, though some pioneer studies date from the late 19th century, it was only in comparatively recent years that serious work on a large scale has been carried out by historians.
The materials for socio-cultural history which we find in the Brahmanical text are on-sided. The traits of the culture traced in those texts are those of the culture of the upper classes. Nothing or very little is said on the beliefs, rites, amusements and other aspects of the daily life of the common people. Even the part played by them in the evolution of Indian culture is not sufficiently known. It is stated by an American historian that the Americans have been suffering from the same lacuna in their knowledge of the cultural role of the “statistically numerous, nondominant groups.”
Though the necessity of writing such history has been felt in India, much remains to be done in the study of the culture of the people. The lack of sufficient materials might restrain us from studying the culture of the people of the ancient period, but materials for the centuries from the early mediaeval period to the present day are not lacking. Until the history of the great bulk of population is written, the full picture of a country’s civilization cannot be assessed. This has been realized by scholars all over the world, and the output of work on the history of the common people continues to increase.
It is observed : “For any true understanding of American cultural development, the writing and study of American local history is of primary importance. There lie the grass roots of American civilization… American history in the past has been written from the top down, an approach feasible enough as long as scholars were content to write only political and diplomatic history. But the necessity of studying American life from the bottom up becomes obvious for the cultural historian”. Our objective in this work is not to study from the top down but from the bottom up. Thus it aims to trace the belief of the common people among whom the goddess Manasa had her origin in 9th-10th centuries A.D. in Bengal and later on spread in Assam and Bihar.
II. Scope of the subject :
The history of the goddess Manasa is an almost unexplored and uninvestigated field of study and is confined to comparatively brief references in a few works. D. C. Sen’s History of Bengali Language and Literature and some works in Bengali devote a few pages to her, but there the subject is treated in connection with the study of mediaeval Bengali literature. The first attempt to treat the subject systematically was that of N. K. Bhattasali in his Iconography of Buddhist and Brahmanical Sculptures in the Dacca Museum but his work suffers from lapses. The next important move has been taken by A. Bhattacharya who in his Bangla Mangal Kavyer Itihas furnishes some more information relating to the goddess, against the general background of serpent worship in India. Though his book primarily deals with the history of the mediaeval literature written in honour of the popular deities of Bengal, the importance of his contribution cannot be minimized. His work, no doubt, adds much to the previous knowledge of the subject. However, many of his conclusions are confusing. In the Introduction and Notes of Bipradas’ Manasa Bijay SUkumar Sen has attempted to throw fresh light on the subject.
References to the goddess and the methods of her worship may also be found in the published district records and other published works. Besides these a few articles published in different Bengali and English Journals have been utilized in course of our investigation. The work which has so far been done is in no way sufficient to reconstruct the history of the goddess. Moreover the materials have not been properly explored and very little has been done to study the subject historically and scientifically.
Our aim, therefore, is to find out new fact and to reconstruct a fuller history of the goddess, based on a reasonable interpretation of the sources. Of course to produce positive conclusions we cannot avoid making inferences and hypotheses in some cases in dealing with a period of which the materials are not sufficient.
III. Sources :
(1) Folklore Materials –As our study depends primarily on the folklore materials, a short introduction is necessary on the meaning, nature and importance of folklore in the field of socio-cultural history.
The word “folklore” was first coined in 1846 by the English scholar William J. Thomas to replace the earlier expression “popular antiquities”. The scientific term was quickly adopted by scholars of other countries and finally became internationally accepted. Different definitions and uses of the term have been given by different scholars at different times but broadly speaking it consists of “the beliefs, customs, superstitions, proverbs, riddles, songs, myths, legends, tales, ritualistic ceremonies, magic, witchcrafts, and all other manifestations and practices of primitive and illiterate peoples and of the ‘common’ people of civilized society.”
The term folklore was first used “to denote only the materials included in the scope of this study; later on, it was frequently used to designate also the branch of science which devotes itself to the study of the material.” It is explained by an eminent folklorist : “The science of folklore is an historical science, historical because it seeks to throw light on man’s past; a science, because it endeavours to attain this goal not by speculation or deduction from some a priori principal, but by the inductive method use in all scientific research.”
Nowadays it is accepted hat folklore helps us in the fields of ethnology, pre-history. Modern natural science, psychical research, abnormal psychology and religion. But it is further believed: “Even more intimate is the connection of folklore and religion, more particularly the so-called natural, i.e., nondogmatic, non-revealed and usually but imperfectly organized, religions of the semi-civilised and of classical antiquity, but to a certain extent also the great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism)…. In virtually all known religions a constant strife has been known to be going on between those desirous of reducing the folklore element to the very minimum, considering it incompatible with their concept of true religion, and those others claiming that, while a religion thus purged of the popular element may serve well enough the needs of select spirits, the educated, it will never satisfy the people.”
B. A. Botkin writes: “If we admitted no impediments to a marriage of true minds between folklore and history, the product of their union would be folk history….a history, also, in which the people are the historians as well as the history telling their own story in their own words-Everyman’s history, for Everyman to read.” He further believes that folklore and social history are “inextricably bound up with each other, and are not simply common ground but one and the same ground.” Thus folklore materials are of great importance to us as a source of socio-cultural history.
Bengal has ever been a fruitful soil for the growth and development of folklore and for it study. Folk poetry, a branch of it, whether written or unwritten, as found in most of the villages of Bengal serves as important source material for the study of the early mediaeval culture of Bengal. The historical value of folk poetry has been esthusiastically emphasized by Western scholars, but in Bengal few scholars have-contributed in this field. Except in the works of some of these scholars, the socio-cultural approach to the subject has not been taken into consideration by historians of Bengal.
It is observed that folklore records “an expression of genuine desires, aspirations, genius, emotions and thoughts of a people. A reconstruction of the early history and civilization of Bengal is only possible by a critical study of the folklore, folk rites and practices which prevail even today in different parts of the country.” Prof. D. C. Ganguly writes that “the general character of folk culture which has developed in our villages is simplicity, sincerity, sensibility to human needs; and a general background of spiritual thinking without any complicated philosophical speculation. It is also marked by a childish love of nature and a childish love of God-though frequently expressed in very crude and superstitious irrational forms.” This observation of Prof. Ganguly can be well illustrated from the study of the mediaeval literature of Bengal.
Thus bearing in mind the importance of folk poetry and other folklore materials, especially in the field of religion, an attempt is made to study the history of the folk goddess Manasa by utilizing these materials. Bengal has a vast folk literature of narrative poems dealing mostly with the stories of the gods and goddess; many of these poems had their origin between the 10th-13th centuries of our era. One of chief subjects of this popular poetry is the goddess of our present study, about whom a considerable literature grew up in Bengal, and later on, in Assam, Different stories relating to Manasa have been treated by poets numbering about sixty, from the 15th century or earlier up to the end of the 19th century. But our present study is mainly based on the versions of the 15th century Bengali poets-Bipradas, Narayan Deb and Bijay Gupta-and of the 17th century poets-Ketakadas, Bamsidas and Jagajjiban. The versions of the 16th century poets of Assam and of the published Bihari version of the 20th century which is not based on any early manuscript, are also taken into consideration for comparative study of the stories of the three provinces.
The narrative poems which were composed to glorify the goddess, are important for more than one reasons. Firstly, they give us a clear and vivid account of the growth and spread of the cult of Manasa in different strata of society and of the rites and rituals connected with her. Her non-Aryan origin as a local deity, her struggle to make a place for herself in upper class homes which led her to face a long struggle with the worshippers of Siva as represented by Chando and her final triumph, can be well traced from these poems. Secondly, they throw considerable light on the social life of the country where the poems were composed. Details of the marriage of Behula and Lakhindar from its beginning with the search for a suitable bride to the actual marriage ceremony, superstitions regarding omens and auspicious days, customs of entertainment, food, especially that of pregnant women, dress, ornaments, peculiar festivals, trade and commerce, and other aspects of the mediaeval society of Bengal and Assam are vividly depicted in these poems. Lastly, they represent the specimens of both the vernacular languages and literatures of Bengal and Assam which help to trace their growth and development. In a word these songs contain a mine of information, though we concentrate on exploring those materials which help us to trace the history of the goddess Manasa.
Referring to the difficulties of using these folklore materials T.W.Clark observes that “none of the manuscripts we now possess are original, for the poems were handed down in oral tradition for many generations. And were not in many cases committed to writing until as late as the 18th or even the 19th century, during which interval it is safe to assume that material alterations were made; and…the authors were not writing of contemporary life and worship, but of periods preceding their own by three, four or even more centuries.”
(2) Field Survey Method –More than twenty years ago it was observed by C. M. Green that a historian who desires to write a local history may well employ field study techniques either by questionnaire or by interview, but the application of the survey method in the field of socio-cultural research is of comparatively recent development in India. We have made a local survey through questionnaire answered by schoolmasters and others throughout West Bengal. Out of this survey we have been able to collect a mass of materials on the present day popularity of the goddess and the rites and ceremonies connected with her. It is interesting to note that many of the rites and ceremonies which are referred to in the early versions are still current in Bengal. This field investigation has helped us to draw positive conclusions on many aspects of the cult.
Thus the use of folklore materials and the result of field investigation have enabled us to examine the subject thoroughly. This new approach to the subject has not been followed by previous students of the cult.
We have also utilized contemporary works of the Sanskrit literature, where some references to the goddess have been made. We hope this study will be of some interest to all students of the history, literature and religion of Bengal and the adjoining states in particular, and to the students of religion and anthropology in general.
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