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It has been claimed that the Paharpur temple is a unique monument, the type of which has not been found in India, but the style of which was imitated in southeast Asia. It is equally true that in architecture, and for that matter, in sculpture and painting as well, the achievement of Bengal was rather limited. Patrons adhered, more or less, to convention. The canon of art, laid down in texts produced in north India, would not allow the artisans, who were members of professional guilds, to make any serious deviation. The world of the artist was essentially agricultural and rural, rather narrow, and one in which his place was predetermined. Living as he did in a hut made of bamboo, reeds, and mud, he was more at home with simple tools and easily available materials. This is amply demonstrated by the unique terracotta art of Paharpur. Nowhere in the religious art of India could be seen "such a large social content, such variety of human feelings, such intensity of contact with the events and experiences of daily life, such spontaneous actions and movements, depicted with such powerful effect and purposeful rhythm." 3

More important was the beginning, in this period, of the Bengali language, literature and script. The assertion of the language of the people in an atmosphere where Sanskrit was favored by the court and held generally in high esteem because of its association with Brahminical doctrines was, by itself, a matter of great social significance. The earliest specimens of Bengali literature were Buddhist mystic song's composed by leaders of the Sahajayana cult. In putting across their religious message they made use of the daily experience of an average man. Not only were the words of the songs Bengali, but the music of some of these at least seem to have been peculiar to contemporary Bengal.

The Bengali language received the patronage of the independent sultans who ruled Bengal between the Turkish conquest in the beginning of the thirteenth century and the Mughal conquest at the end of the sixteenth. Although under their rule Persian replaced Sanskrit as the court language, it did not play the same role as Sanskrit had done previously. The new rulers, doubtlessly led by political considerations to come in close contact with the people, took an active interest in the Bengali translations of such Sanskrit works as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagauata Purana, and amply rewarded the translators, who were chastised for this very act of heresy by the Brahmins. The example of the rulers was later emulated by small independent courts on the periphery, such as those of Arakan, Cochbehar, and Tripura. Thus the cultivation of Persian was confined to Muslim courts, that of Sanskrit, bereft of court patronage, became limited to urban areas like Navadwip, Sylhet, and Vikrampur, while that of Bengali became widespread.

The economic scene, however, did not undergo any major structural change. The permanent dependence of socio-economic groups on hereditary occupations continued; agriculture remained the backbone of the economy, and rural settlements far outnumbered the urban ones. In rural areas the cultivators, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and potters depended on each other for products and services, and the village market provided some scope for exchange of cowries, while administration, trade and commerce were the main occupations of the townsmen. Maritime commerce flourished once more, as did the textile industry - Bengal silk was much in demand, the slave trade became profitable, and there was an influx of silver coins - sometimes gold as well - in the urban areas. In all these, one visualizes a three-tier social organization, the top of which was occupied by the high officials and landlords, the bottom by the producing class – the cultivator, the weaver, and the manual laborer, - and the middle by the traders and the merchants, the priests and the teachers, most of whom depended on the ruling classes for their own welfare.

The onset of Mughal rule brought Bengal under the control of a distant central administration. Even when that control weakened in the eighteenth century, the colonial character of the Mughal rule did not wither. The peasantry was subjected to further impoverishment, and it is in this period that we hear of famines and mass exodus in the face of extortion by rent-collectors. Due to the growth of European trade, a considerable amount of money was put into the economy, but an additional drain on the economy was also created in the form of tributes to the central authority. The foreign traders and the Mughal courts, far and near, created a new market that resulted in the further growth of the ship-building and textile industries and the development of small-scale ivory work and filigree and repousse work in silver. Much of this industry, however, was dependent on monetary advances given by merchant money-lenders through intermediaries. A banking and mercantile class composed of men of north Indian origin grew to the exclusion of local entrepreneurs.

The urban culture that developed, centering round the Mughal court, also had the character of an exogenous one. Under the Mughals, Bengali literature was deprived of the kind of royal patronage it had received hitherto. The new writings in the seventeenth century thus appear in Arakan, and in the eighteenth in Nadiya, where the courts had extended support to poets.

One of the consequences of Muslim rule was the large-scale conversion of Buddhists and low-caste Hindus to Islam. To these people, Islam was not only an egalitarian ideal, but also a new prospect of material gain. However, it was soon found that the Muslim society had also been influenced by the caste system: the Muslims of foreign descent were ranked higher, and the indigenous ones were placed low in society.

Islam appeared in Bengal not in its orthodox form, but in the mystic one preached by the Sufis. Sufi teachings, again, were mixed with indigenous tradition of Yoga, which explains the existence of a continuous stream of Sufi-Yoga syncretism throughout the Muslim rule. The local converts to Islam, again, often clung to their older beliefs and practices; they continued to worship some of the old Hindu folk deities, such as the goddesses of pox and cholera, and created Muslim counterparts of Hindu local deities in the lady of the forest, the patron-saint of the tigers, or the saint presiding over the water-ways. Sometimes both the Hindu and the Muslim venerated the same deity, such as Satyanarayana, also known by his Muslim name of Satyapir.

With the declining influence of Brahminism following the establishment of Muslim rule, folk beliefs of the masses received an impetus, and all kinds of local deities and obscure cults rose to prominence. The orthodox Hindu ideas had to come to terms with this new wave of popular myths and beliefs and just as the Buddha was once proclaimed as the incarnation of the god Visnu, so were the local deities accepted as the poor relations of Puranic gods and goddesses. Simultaneously, as a reaction to this amalgam and to the Hindu contact with the Muslims for the Brahmins and Kayasthas were taking up administrative positions under the Muslim rulers - there was a tightening up of the archaic socio-religious legal system. This is represented by the enforcement of kulinism, the practice of mela order, and the development of the new smrti writings. Smrrti laws demanded a complete patternization of conduct of all sections of people, and denied any freedom of thought and action. Such rigid formulas could not help to identify or solve problems that confronted society. It is no wonder, therefore, that philosophy was divested of social moorings, and became a matter only of hyper subtle intellectual arguments. This explains the development of the Navyanyaya or the neo-logic school in Bengal, which, it has been claimed, surpassed all schools of Hindu logic in India.

 
 

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