Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

8.4 Hinduism in eastern India: religion in Calcutta

The Hinduism of Bengal, as in other regions of India with their own languages and distinctive historical traditions, has absorbed and retained many local elements which make it peculiarly the Hinduism of Bengal. The city of Calcutta has exerted its own considerable influence upon the surrounding region. Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, was founded in 1690 originally as a British trading post on the Hugli, a stretch of the Ganges (or Ganga), a river sacred to Hindus (see Figure 13).

Figure 13
From C.J. Fuller, The Camphor Flame, p.xvii. Copyright c. 1992 by Princeton University Press, reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press
Figure 13 Major Hindu religious sites in India and Nepal

During the following century, Calcutta became the administrative capital of the British Presidency of Bengal and in 1858 became the capital of British India, a status it was to lose to New Delhi once Indian nationalism intensified in Bengal during the first decade of the twentieth century. Calcutta, therefore, is not an ancient Hindu city like Benares (or Varanasi), which developed partly as a centre of pilgrimage.

Calcutta began life and continues as a cosmopolitan trading city. It is home to a substantial Muslim population and followers of other religions. It thrives as an artistic centre for writers and film-makers. The name of the city, however, harks back to its antecedents. ‘Calcutta’ is believed to come either from the name of an earlier village absorbed by the growth of the city or from ‘Kalikshetra’, meaning the ‘field’ or place of the Mother Goddess, Kali. This is an allusion to the temple of Kalighat which existed prior to the growth of the city, although on a different site, and continues as a place of pilgrimage in Calcutta today. Kali (The ‘Dark One’) is another form of the Mother Goddess (or devi) who is frequently depicted in Hindu myths as the consort of Shiva, one of the most widely known and worshipped Hindu deities. The Mother Goddess is also worshipped under the name of Durga (The ‘Unfathomable One’) in Bengal and particularly during the great festival of Durga Puja in Calcutta.

As a centre of traditional Kali worship, Calcutta draws pilgrims to its temples and festivals dedicated to the Mother Goddess. Temples and other religious sites in Calcutta on the banks of or close to the Hugli are particularly likely to attract pilgrims. Contact with British and European thought during the time of British rule and the city's role as a cosmopolitan centre have also made it open to foreign ideas. The openness of Calcutta to novel and alien ideas has challenged Hindu intellectuals from the city to lead the way in shaping Hindu responses to new ideas, as we will discover later when we consider Hinduism as a ‘world religion’ (doctrinal and philosophical dimension). If you look at the map in Figure 13, you will see that Calcutta dominates the north-eastern quarter of India. As a state capital and commercial centre, Calcutta pulls many workers from India's professional and administrative élite. The city has also acted as a magnet to the poor, who have been drawn by the allure of finding new opportunities. Many of these migrants have brought with them their own styles of Hinduism and have added to the variety already found within Bengal.

A variety of deities are worshipped under the umbrella of ‘Hinduism’ in this city. The most obvious starting point is the worship of Kali in two of Calcutta's most well-known temples, Kalighat and Dakshineswar. Here devotees also pay their respects to other deities, like Krishna, who are housed in the same temple compound.

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