History of Bengali Language and Literature/Chapter 1


Bengali Language & Literature.
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Early Influences on the Bengali Language.

Aryan Settlement in Bengal.Bengal was a very ancient centre of Aryan settlement in India. The pre-historic kingdom of Pragjyotiṣ, which extended from modern Jalpaiguri to the back-woods of Assam, was one of the earliest Aryan colonies in this country. 'Vanga' is mentioned in the Aitereya Āraṅyaka[1] and frequent references to this land are found in the great epics—the Rāmāyaṅa and the Mahābhārata. According to Manu, Bengal formed a part of the Aryyāvarta.[2] The two great heroes of the Dwāpara yuga, who are said to have been the sworn enemies of Çri Kriṣṅa—the great upholder of Brahmanic power, were (1) Jarāsandha, the King of Magadha and (2) Pouṅdraka Vāsu Deva,[3] the King of Pānduā in Bengal, and both of them led expeditions to Dwaraka to subvert the power of Kriṣṅa.

Buddhistic and Jain influences.This land has, from very early times, been the cradle of popular movements in religion. The Buddhists and the Jains, at one time, converted nearly the whole population of Bengal to their new creeds, and the Brahmanic influence was for centuries at a very low ebb here. Some of the greatest Buddhist scholars and reformers of India were born in Bengal, among whom the names of Atiça Dīpankara (born. 980 A.D.) and Çīla-Bhadra are known throughout the Buddhistic world. Çanta Rakṣit, the renowned High Priest of the monastery of Nālandā—a native of Gauḍa, spent many years of his life in Tibet on a religious mission, and an illustrious band of Bengalis, within the first few centuries of the Christian era, travelled to China, Corea and Japan, carrying there the light of the Buddhist religion. The scriptures of the Japanese priests are still written in Bengali characters of the 11th century,[4] which indicates the once-great ascendency of the enterprising Bengali priests in the Land of the Rising Sun. The marvellous sculptural design of the Boro Buddor temple of Java owed its execution, in no inconsiderable degree, to Bengali artists, who worked side by side with the people of Kalinga and Guzrat, to whom that island was indebted for its ancient civilization. In the vast panorama of bas-reliefs in that temple, we find numerous representations of ships which the people of lower Bengal built, and which carried them to Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, Japan and China,—countries visited by them for the purpose of promulgating the Buddhistic faith and conducting commercial transactions. The well-known story of how prince Vijay Siṁha, son of King Siṁhabāhu of Bengal, migrated to Ceylon with seven hundred followers and established his kingdom there in 543 B.C. is narrated in Mahāvaṁça and other Buddhist works. Buddhism flourished in Ceylon under the patronage of the kings of the Siṁha dynasty— and the island is called 'Siṁhal' after them. The Ceylonese era dates from the commencement of the reign of Vijay Siṁha. The citizens of Champā in Bengal had already, in a still earlier epoch of history, founded a colony in Cochin China and named it after that famous old town.[5] About the middle of the ninth century, Dhīmān and his son Bit Pālo, inhabitants of Varendra (North Bengal), founded new schools of painting, sculpture and works in cast metal, which stamped their influence on works of art in Nepal, from whence the art of the Bengali masters spread to China and other Buddhistic countries.[6]

In Bengal new ideas in religion have ever found a fit soil to grow upon, and it is interesting to observe, that out of the twenty-four Tīrthankaras (divine men) of the Jains, twenty-three attained Mokṣa (salvation) in Bengal. The place of their religious activity was Samet-çekhara or the Pārçvanāth hills in the district of Hāzāribāgh and many of the Tīrthankaras, such for instance as Çreaṁgçunāth and Vāsupujya, were born in Bengal.[7] The greatest of the Jaina Tīrthankaras—Mahavira spent eighteen years of his life preaching his faith in Rāḍa Deça (Western Bengal).

Bengal interdicted by Manu.The country was for centuries in open revolt against Hindu orthodoxy. Buddhistic and Jain influences here were so great, that the codes of Manu, while including Bengal within the geographical boundary of Āryyāvarta, distinctly prohibit all contact of the Hindus with this land, for fear of contamination.[8] Ānanda Tīrtha, the famous commentator of Aitereya Āraṅyaka, declares Bengal to be inhabited by Rākṣasas and Piçāchas. In fact it is probable, that Bengal was mostly peopled by the descendants of the early citizens of Magadah,[9] hence Brahmanism could not thrive for many centuries amidst a people, who were the pioneers of Buddhism.

Bengali, a form of Paiçachi Prakrita.The Buddhist priests had already, in the latter part of the tenth century, begun to write books in Prākrita called the Gouḍa Prākrita. This Prākrita was called by the grammarian Kriṣṅa Pandit, who flourished in the twelfth century, as a form of Paiçāchī Prākrita or a Prākrita spoken by the evil spirits. The rules specified by him, in his celebrated grammar Prākrita-Chandrikā, as peculiar to our dialect, apply to it up to this day. According to him র and ণ change into ল and ন, and য় is pronounced as জ in this form of Prākrita, and of শ, ষ, স, one form only is found in current use. These are, generally speaking, the characteristic features of spoken Bengali up to this day and our old manuscripts are full of examples of them. The reasons which made Kriṣṅa Pandit give our language the contemptuous name of Paiçāchī Prākrita, are not far to seek. It is the same that made Manu[10] condemn all touch with this land. The dialect of the Buddhist people, in which the Buddhist priests were writing books, could not be accepted by the Sanskritic school which arose with the revival of Hinduism.

Earliest Bengali works by the Buddhists.Several works written in the tenth and the eleventh centuries of the Christian era in a very old form of Bengali, have lately been discovered by Mahāmahopādhyāya Hara Prasāda Çāstrī in Nepal. These are (1) Charyyācharyya Viniçchaya, (2) Bodhicharyyāvatāra and (3) Dākārṅava. The manuscript of Budhicharyyāvatār is incomplete. They appear to be but poor fragments of a literature which owed its origin chiefly to the earnestness of the Tāntrika Buddhists for popularizing their creed. Though these specimens have how been nearly all lost, we hope some portion of them may be yet recovered by careful research carried into the literary archives of Nepal and Chittagong,—the present resorts of Buddhism in Eastern India.

Revival of Hinduism.This effort on the part of the Buddhists to raise Bengali to the status of a written language, ever, came suddenly to a standstill on the revival of Hinduism in Bengal. Buddhist works were carried by the vanquished exponents of that faith to Nepal and Burma; and all traces of the creed, which was once ascendant in the country, were obliterated there. Whatever may be urged in favour of the theory of "the gradual, almost insensible, assimilation of Buddhism to Hinduism" there can be no doubt that Buddhism was often suppressed in India by a storm of Brahmanic persecution. The following extract from Çankara-Vijaya regarding King Sudhanvā will show the ruthless manner in which the Buddhists were sometimes persecuted:—

"দুষ্টমতাবলম্বিনঃ বৌদ্ধান্ জৈনানসংখ্যাতান্ রাজমুখ্যাননেকবিদ্যাপ্রসঙ্গৈর্নির্জিত্য তেষাং শীর্ষাণি পরশুভিশ্ছিত্বা বহুষু উদুখলেষু নিক্ষিপ্য কটভ্রমর্ণৈশ্চূর্ণীকৃত্য চৈবং দুষ্টমতধ্বংসমাচরন্ নির্ভয়ো বর্ত্ততে।"

"Many of the chief princes, professing the wicked doctrines of the Buddhist and the Jain religions, were vanquished in various scholarly controversies. Their heads were then cut off with axes, thrown into mortars, and broken to pieces (reduced to powder) by means of pestles. So these wicked doctrines were thoroughly annihilated, and the country made free from danger."

Progress of the Vernacular retarded.With the decadence of the power of the Buddhist priests, who in their zeal to popularize their creed, had not considered the Vernacular of Bengal as an unworthy medium for propagating their religious views, Bengali lost the patronage which it had secured of the lettered men of the country; and its future seemed dismal and uncheerful. We have shown that the form of Prākrita prevalent in Bengal was in disfavour with the Sanskritic school which gave it a contemptuous epithet. Sanskrit scholars, who brought about a revival of Hinduism in Bengal, were imbued with a taste for the hard and fast rules of classical grammar, and had an unmixed abhorrence for the laxities of Prākrita adopted by the Buddhists. Bengali seemed to have no prospects with such scholars:—nay they zealously opposed the efforts of those who offered to help the Vernacular of the country to assert its claim as a written language. The following well-known Sanskrit couplet bears testimony to their ill-will.

"অষ্টাদশ পুরাণানি রামস্য চরিতানি চ।
ভাষায়াং মানবঃ শ্রুত্বা রৌরবং নরকং ব্রজেৎ॥"

"If a person hears the stories of the eighteen Purānas or of the Rāmāyaṅa recited in Bengali, he will be thrown into the hell called the Rourava."

There is a corresponding Bengali couplet which is also well-known:—

"কৃত্তিবেসে, কাশীদেসে, আর বামুনঘেঁষে
এই তিন সর্ব্বনেশে।"

"Krittivāsa (Bengali translator of the Rāmāyaṅa), Kāçīdāsa (Bengali translator of the Mahābhārata) and those who aspire to mix with the Brahmins too closely, are the greatest of evil-doers."

In the famous controversy, which Rājā Rāmmohan Ray held with the orthodox Pandits, he had frequently to explain his conduct in regard to his publication of vernacular translations of the Sanskrit scriptures, which according to those Brahmins, were sacrilegious. This shows that even as late as the early part of the 19th century, when Bengali had reached a high stage of development, it was looked down upon by the orthodox Brahmins.

Our readers are likely to conclude from the above, that the Brahmins were jealous of the gradual development of Bengali and its recognition as a written language. They wanted all truths of their religion to be locked up in the Sanskrit texts; any attempt to promulgate them through the vehicle of a popular dialect, meant a loss of the great power which they had monopolized; and they thus looked upon all such movements to enrich the vernacular language, with jealousy and distrust. But it admits of another explanation also, which is perhaps the right one. The Brahmanic school probably suspected, that the hunters after cheap popularity who adopted Bengali for conveying the truths of the Brahmanic religion, would not keep intact the purity of their spiritual ideal, and that the truths, so dearly prized by them, would be sullied in the provincial versions of the great Sanskrit works. They therefore decried all efforts to popularize the Çāstras by compiling Bengali translations. Add to this their contempt for Bengali which was one of the most lax forms of the Ardha-māgadhi Prāikrita. Not only did the Sanskrit-knowing people hold the Vernacular of the country in disfavour, but even the writers of Bengali themselves had no high opinion of the resources of this language. We frequently come across such lines in old Bengali works, as—"Naturally Bengali poems are faulty"[11] (Vijay gupta) "Not fit to he discussed in a vernacular poem"[12] (Kavīndra)—implying, that Bengali was quite an unfit medium for conveying any serious or high thought.

How could Bengali obtain favour in the Hindu Courts?The question is: how could the poor Vernacular of Bengal find recognition in the courts of the kings, inspite of this opposition of the Brahmins? Every Hindu Court gloried in keeping a number of Sanskrit scholars attached to it. From the time of Vikramāditya it grew to be a fashion with Hindu kings to keep learned companions, and they were generally picked men—finished masters in Sanskrit Poetry, Grammar and Logic, who revelled in the high flown style and in the niceties of rhetoric which abound in the latter-day Sanskrit works, such as Kādamvarī, Daçakumār Charita and Çri Harṣa Charita. The copperplate-inscriptions of the Pāl and Sen Kings of Bengal bear abundant proofs of the learning and poetical powers of some of these gifted men, whose contempt for Bengali was as great as was their scholarship in Sanskrit. How can we account for the fact, that the court of Kriṣṅa Chandra of Navadwipa,—a glorious seat of Sanskrit learning—where Hari Rām Tarkasiddhānta, Krisnānanda Vāchaspati and Rāmgopāl Sārbabhouma were the professors of Logic—where Vāneçwar Vidyālankāra won his laurels in Sanskrit poetry and Çiva Rām Vācaspati, Rām Ballabha Vidyāvāgiça and Vīreçwar Nyāya-Panchānana discoursed on philosophy,—such a distinguished seat of classical learning as Kriṣṅa Chandra's court could bestow its favours and titles on Bhārat Chandra and Rāmprasād—the Bengali poets of the eighteenth century? Not only Kriṣṅa Chandra, but many other Kings and Chiefs of Bengal, who preceded him, are described as having extended their patronage and favour to the early Bengali poets. Their courts were guided by Sanskrit-knowing Pandits, and how are we to reconcile the fact, that these Brāhmins welcomed the poor patois—the despicable Paiçāchī Prākrita of Bengal, for which they had hitherto only a feeling of unmixed contempt.

Bengali favoured by Moslem Chiefs.This elevation of Bengali to a literary status was brought about by several influences, of which the Mahammadan conquest was undoubtedly one of the foremost. If the Hindu Kings had continued to enjoy independence, Bengali would scarcely have got an opportunity to find its way to the courts of Kings.

The Pāthāns occupied Bengal early in the thirteenth century. They came from a far distance—from Bulkh, Oxus or Transoxina, but they settled in the plains of Bengal and had no mind to return to their mountainous home. The Pāthān Emperors learned Bengali and lived in close touch with the teeming Hindu population whom they were called upon to rule. The minarets and cupolas of their Mosques rose to the sky, adjoining the spires and tridents of the Hindu temples. The sounds of the conch-shells and bells emanating from the latter, were heard while the new-comers assembled in the Mosques to say their evening prayers. The pompous processions and the religious rites of the Hindus—their Durgāpujā, Rāsa and Dolotsava—displayed a religious enthusiasm which equalled their own, while celebrating the Maharam, Id. Sabebarāt and other festivals. The Emperors heard of the far-reaching fame of the Sanskrit epics, the Rāmāyaṅa and the Mahābhārata, and observed the wonderful influence which they exercised in moulding the religious and domestic life of the Hindus, and they naturally felt a desire to be acquainted with the contents of those poems. The Pāthān Emperors and Chiefs could not have the great patience of the Hindu Kings who were inspired by a religious zeal to hear the Brahmin scholars recite Sanskrit texts and their learned annotations, step by step, requiring the listeners many long years to complete a course of lectures on the Rāmāyaṅa or the Mahābhārata. They appointed scholars to translate the works into Bengali which they now spoke and understood. The first Bengali translation of the Mahābhārata of which we hear, was undertaken at the order of Nasirā Sāhā, the Emperor of Gauḍa who ruled for 40 years till 1325 A.D. This translation has not yet been recovered, but we find mention of it, in another translation of the epic made by Kavīndra Parameçwara, at the command of Parāgal Khān, the governor of Chittagong. Nasira Shāh was a great patron of the Vernacular of this country. The poet Vidyāpati dedicates one of his songs to this monarch[13] and in another, speaks with high respect of Sultan Guisuddin.[14]

The name of the Emperor of Gauḍa who appointed Krittivāsa to translate the Rāmāyaṅa, is not known with certainty. He might be Raja-Kaṁsanārāyaṅa or a Moslem Emperor, but even if he was a Hindu King, there are abundant proofs to show, that his court was stamped with Moslem influence. The Emperor Husen Sāhā was a great patron of Bengali. Mālādhar Vasu, a native of Kulingrāma, and one of his courtiers was employed by him to translate the Bhāgavata into Bengali, and after two chapters of this work had been translated by him, in 1480 A.D., the Emperor was pleased to confer on him the title of Gunarāj Khān. We have already referred to a translation of the Mahābhārata made by Kavīndra Parameçwar at the behest of Parāgal Khān. This Parāgal Khān was a general of Husen Sāhā, deputed by him to conquer Chittagong. Frequent references are found in old Bengali literature, indicating the esteem and trust in which Emperor Husen Sāhā was held by the Hindus.[15] Kavindra Parameçwar had translated the Mahābhārata upto the Striparva, and Chhuti Khān son of Parāgal Khān, who had succeeded his father in the governorship of Chittagong, employed another poet named Çrīkaraṅa Nandī for translating the Açvamedh Parva of that epic. Çrīkaraṅ Nandī's translation has lately been published by the Sāhitya Parisada of Calcutta. The poet Ālāol, who lived about the middle of the seventeenth century, translated a Hindi work entitled Padmāvat by Mīr Mahammad in a highly sanskritised Bengali at the command of Māgan Thākur, a Mahammadan minister of the court of the Chief of Aracan. It should be noted here, that there are many instances where Mahammadans adopted Hindu names and the name Māgan Thākur should not lead us to mistake him for a Mahamaden. Ālāol was also employed by the Moslem chief—Solaman, to translate a Persian work into Bengali. Instances of like nature, where Mahammadan Emperors and Chiefs initiated and patronised translations of Sanskrit and Persian works into Bengali, are numerous, and we are led to believe, that when the powerful Moslem Sovereigns of Bengal granted this recognition to the Vernacular language in their courts, Hindu Rājās naturally followed suit. The Brahmins could not resist the influence of this high patronage; they were therefore compelled to favour the language they had hated so much, and latterly they themselves came forward to write poems and compile works of translation in Bengali. From the account we have found in some of the early Bengali works of translation, we can have a glimpse of the manner in which court patronage was accorded to the Bengali poets. When the shades of twilight settled on the dark green clumps of shrubby trees on the far Sonāmurā ranges, Parāgal Khān the Governor used to call his ministers, attendants and courtiers every evening to his palace at Parāgalpur in Feni, and before this illustrious audience, the translator of the Mahābhārata had to recite portions from his poems—the governor himself giving cheers in admiration of beautiful and interesting passages. The poet flattered his noble patron by calling him an incarnation of Hari in Kaliyuga[16] and it is curious to note, that the Pāthān chief, who was a devout Mahammadan, enjoyed this compliment of the Hindu poet and did not take it as an affront.

Hindu Rājās follow the Example.Thus the appointment of Bengali poets to the courts of Hindu Rājās, grew to be a fashion after the example of the Moslem chiefs, and we find most of the works of our best poets dedicated to the kings and noble men who patronised them. Thus the works of Vidyāpati, the Maithil poet, are inseparably associated with Çiva Siṁha and other sovereigns of Mithilā. Mukundarām, the immortal author of Chandī, had for his patron Bānkurā Rāi, the Rājā of Ārah-Brāhmanbhumi. Rāmeçvara who wrote the "Çivāyana" enjoyed the patronage of Yaçovanta Siṁha, Raja of Karnagaḍa. Ghanarām, the author of "Dharmamangal" was the recipient of many favours from Kirttī Chandra, the Raja of Burdwan, and who can think of the great poet Bhārat Chandra without remembering his great friend and patron Kriṣṅa Chandra of Navadwipa? Raja Jay Chandra employed the poet Bhabānī Dās for compiling a translation of the Rāmāyaṅa; and many other valuable Sanskrit works were translated into Bengali under the auspices of the Kings of Tippera. We shall dwell upon all these works in their proper places hereafter.

We now confidently presume that the above proofs will he held sufficient to support the view, that the patronage and favour of the Mahammadan Emperors and chiefs gave the first start towards recognition of Bengali in the courts of the Hindu Rājās and to establish its claims on the attention of scholars. It is curious to observe that, more than once in history, we have owed the development of our language to the influence of foreign people from whom such help was the least expected. Mr. Nathanial Prassy Halhed, a European member of the Indian Civil Service, wrote the earliest Bengali grammar for us in the eighteenth century; and Bengali prose, in our own days, owes a good deal to the impetus given to it by the European missionaries.

Other Causes.The other causes, which contributed to a rapid development of Bengali during the Mahomedan period, may be briefly summed up as follows:—

(2) The revival of Hinduism, which we have called in this book as the Paurānik Renaissance.
(3) The great Vaiṣṅava movement in Bengal in the sixteenth century.


  1. Aitereya Āraṅyaka 2.1.1.
  2. আসমুদ্রাত্তু বৈ পূর্ব্বাদাসমুদ্রাত্তু পশ্চিমাৎ।
    তয়োরেবান্তরং গির্য্যাবার্য্যাবর্ত্তং বিদুর্বুধাঃ॥—Manu.
  3. See Hari Vaṁça, Bhavisya Parva, Chap. 19.
  4. In the Horiuzi temple of Japan, the manuscript of a Buddhistic work entitled Uṣṅīsa Vijay Dhārinī, has lately been found. The priests of the temple worship the manuscript, a fac-simile of which is now in the possession of the Oxford university. It is written in a character, which we consider to be identical with that prevalent in Bengal in the 6th century. Vide Anecdota Oxiniensis, Vol. III.
  5. See Buddhist India, by Rhys Davids, p. 35.
  6. Vide Indian Antiquary Vol. IV. p. 101, and also Indian Painting and Sculpture by E. B. Havell p. 79. On page 19 of this work, Mr. Havell writes:—"From the sea-ports of her Western and Eastern coasts, India sent streams of colonists, missioneries and craftsmen all over Southern Asia, Ceylon, Syam and far distant Cambodia. Through China and Japan, Indian art entered Japan about the middle of the sixth Century. The Eastern sea-ports, here referred to, were probably Tamluk, Chittagong and those on the Orissa Coast."
  7. Vide Jainamālā or a chronological table of the Tīrthankaras quoted in the Bengali Encyclopædia, Viçvakoṣa Vol. VII. p. 168.
  8. "অঙ্গ বঙ্গ কলিঙ্গেষু সৌরাষ্ট্র মগধেষু চ।
    তীর্থযাত্রাং বিনা গচ্ছন্ পুনঃ সংস্কার মর্হতি।"—Manu.
  9. Vide Indian Pundits in the Land of Snow, by Sarat Chandra Das, p. 21.
  10. Manu lived in a prehistoric age, but as the laws of that sage are no longer to be found in the form in which they originally existed, our remarks apply to their modified version given in the Bhrigu saṁhitā which belongs to a much later period.
  11. সহজে পাঁচালী গীত নানা দোষময়।—Vijay Gupta.
  12. "পাঁচালীতে নহে যোগ্যবাদ।"—Kavīndra Parameçwara.
  13. সো নসিরা সাহ জানে। যাক হানিল মদন বাণে—চিরঞ্জীব রঁহু পঞ্চ গৌড়েশ্বর, কবি বিদ্যাপতি ভাণে।
    —Nasira Shaha knows it well, whom cupid pierced with his dart—the poet Vidyapati says—Long live the Emperor of the 'five Indies.'
  14. "প্রভূ গয়াসুদ্দিন সুলতান"—Vidyapati.
  15. (১) সনাতন হুসেন সাহ নৃপতি-তিলক,

    Padmā Purāna by Vijaygupta

    (২) নৃপতি হুসেন সাহ হয় মহামতি।
    পঞ্চম গৌড়েতে যার পরম সুখ্যাতি॥

    Mahābhārat by Kabīndra

    (৩) শ্রীযুত হসন, জগত ভূষণ, সেহ এহি রস জান,

    Song by Yaçorāja Khān

  16. "কলিকালে হবু যেন কৃষ্ণ অবতার।"