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II

Scholars agree that the peoples of South Asia are closely interrelated, and their culture reflects a unity in diversity. The unity has been seen in terms, among others, of her being a seat of an ancient civilization, the predominance of her agricultural economy, and the preponderantly rural, caste-oriented and religious character of her culture; the diversity in terms of the physical features of the land and the people, the variety of regional languages, the political divisions, the differences in religious persuasions, the divergence of food habit and the like. It is therefore possible to study on one level, the culture of South Asia in its fundamental unity -- the whole wood, as some scholars put it, and, on the other hand, the individual trees - the cultures of her various regions, of which Bengal has been one.

The inheritance of common sources explains the similarities of the cultural traits of Bengal with other parts of South Asia. The ethnic groups that peopled Bengal, the caste system that appeared, the religious outlook that pervades the life of the people, the preponderantly agrarian economy, and the mode of production -- these were common to the whole subcontinent. The Bengali language, a member of the Indo-European family, and many customs and rituals of Bengal indicate a special affinity with northern India. The consumption of rice and oil, the use of turmeric, betel nuts, and betel leaves, and the custom of wearing unsewn garments point out an affinity on the other hand not only with southern India but with southeast Asia as well. An analysis of early Bengal architecture has also shown the co-existence of north Indian and southeast Asian styles. With the coming of the Muslims, the culture of the Islamic world - which itself was an amalgam of Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and Central Asian cultural elements - was introduced; and the European contact led to selective adaptation of yet another culture. Thus various cultural streams -- many major ones - confluenced in this region and contributed to the shaping of its culture.

So did Nature. The physical features of Bengal made the production of food easy, which led to a kind of self-sufficiency of the economy, which is now proverbial.1 The geographical situation of Bengal made possible the rise and continuance of numerous kingdoms in comparative isolation. This isolation also helped to develop the streak of heterodoxy in religious ideas of Bengal, noticed by so many scholars. The collective response to the physical features of Bengal was further reflected in the variety of her literary and musical expressions. A particular body of poems, glorifying the snake-goddess, Manasa, developed in the marshy eastern part of Bengal, while the dry west Bengal produced Vaisnaua lyrics. The Bhatiyali, a boatman's song, is exclusive to east Bengal; the Bhawaiya, a cartman's song, is peculiar to the north; the Kirtana - Vaisnava lyrics in tune - and the Baul. a branch of mystic songs, is mainly a product of west Bengal. The availability of art materials also depended on the gift of nature, this accounts for the fact that clay and bricks were more often used in Bengal architecture than stone, and that the sculptures tended to overcome the paucity of materials by imitating the form appropriate for a given kind of material on another.

Whatever peculiarities the cultural life of Bengal might have had in the earlier times- of which we know very little - were engulfed by an all-India orientation, when Bengal turned into a province of the Gupta empire between the fourth and seventh centuries A. D. Though agriculture formed the predominant sector of the economy, textiles developed as an important industry. With the growth of external commerce, boat-making and ship-building flourished. The kingship was already established; Buddhism began to lose grounds to Brahminical doctrines, and the caste system was asserted. A leisured class grew up; the priest and the learned who depended on the court stood high in the social order, while the artisan and the manual worker occupied a lower stratum. In this background the learned devoted himself to producing literary works in Sanskrit, the Ayurveda system of medicine found favour, and the prosperous lay patrons ordered works of art to be produced. Architecture bore the mark of the Gupta school, and sculpture showed affiliation with Kusana, Sunga, and Gupta art. Works of art expressed the collective religious experience of a cult - not necessarily the artisan's own, but that of his patrons.

By the end of the seventh century the ideal of an all-India sovereignty gave place to the regional spirit. By then external commerce had begun to decline; silver and gold coins had begun to disappear, yielding place to cowries, the textile industry had been compelled to cater to the needs of a smaller clientele, and pressure had mounted on agriculture. Men began to look inward to a narrower surrounding.

It was then that the creativity of Bengal was expressed in the development of distinctive traits in intellectual activities which were already in existence. Mystic Buddhism was evolved and was carried to Tibet, among' other places, by Bengali Buddhist leaders; a Bengal School of Dharmasastra, pertaining to Hindu law of inheritance and judicial procedure, was founded; an eastern style of art flourished; the Gaudi (Bengal) style developed in Sanskrit literature; literature appeared in Apabhramsa; and Hasti-Ayurveda,2 a branch of medicine for the treatment of elephants, developed. In the several cults that grew out of Mystic Buddhism one could find the matrix of primitive faith, the rejection of the caste system, the dismissal of rituals, and, at the same time, an attempt at finding common grounds with the Hinduism in practice. The essence of Gaudi style was its pompous diction, and that of the most well known Sanskrit literary work . produced in Bengal was a sensuousness which also notably featured in the sculpture and painting (found in the illustrations of manuscripts) of the period.

 
 

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