Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

8.5 Looking for Hinduism in Calcutta

  • Academic consultant: Gwilym Beckerlegge;
  • produced and narrated by G.D. Jayalakshmi
  • Contributors:
  • Supradipta Dhar (student)
  • L.K. Jha (electrician)
  • B. Panda (priest)
  • Dr Dhar (heart specialist)
  • Brij Mohan Kumar Puri (company director)
  • Keshab Chandra Sarkar (information officer of the Ramakrishna Mission)

The programme

The following clip will provide you with an insight into the particular forms that Hinduism takes in the Indian city of Calcutta. It also continues the line of inquiry pursued in the earlier parts of this course, into the use and meaning of the term 'religion', within another urban context - this time in India. In this clip you will not hear academics analysing Hinduism, but a number of practising Hindus talking about the part that Hinduism plays in their lives. Those you will hear are from different socio-economic groups, including individuals who have come to Calcutta as migrants bringing other forms of Hinduism with them. This final section of this course continues to raise underlying questions about how the term 'religion' is used and the legitimacy of applying this Western concept to the realities of other cultures.

Preparing for the programme

Before watching the programme, you should look at Section 7 of 'How should we study religion?' in this course, if you have not already done so. You will find it useful to keep the glossary at the end of this free course (Section 9) to hand while you watch the programme. Also, in sequences of Calcutta's civic buildings built during the period of British rule, look out for architectural examples of the classical legacy. In fact, many of the buildings in the hearts of both Liverpool, which you saw in the earlier clips, and Calcutta incorporate classical motifs, although used in vividly different cultural and social settings.

Background information

The city of Calcutta is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. It has a population of well over 15 million and a floating street population. The city has been particularly associated with a style of Hinduism centred upon worship of the Mother Goddess, known variously as Kali or Durga, which is most evident during the festival of Durga Puja at the end of the monsoon season. The nature of Hinduism in Calcutta is greatly affected by the city's cosmopolitan character and its status as a commericial, industrial and artistic centre. Inward migration and socio-economic differences have left their mark upon the style of popular religion practised in the city.

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Transcript: Looking for Hinduism in Calcutta

This is Calcutta. By Indian standards it's not an old city.
Calcutta was established a little over 400 years ago by the British.
It was thought of as the foremost city of the empire, and has always been a cosmopolitan place.
For many people outside India, they very name Calcutta conjures up images of poverty.
There's no denying there is poverty, but those who visit it may also be surprised by its vigor and liveliness.
Most people who live here, like people everywhere in India, follow the ancient traditions and practices we now think of as a religion called Hinduism.
But labelling Hinduism a religion will mislead us if then expect it to be a tidy system of clearly defined beliefs and practices.
So where in Calcutta should we go to find religion?
The answer is: almost anywhere.
And what should we look for? Almost anything.
The most visible aspects of Hinduism in Calcutta are daily worship, and annual festivals. Even these don't fall into any one pattern.
The most important event in Calcutta's calendar is the festival of Durga.
It takes place in October, and is a central event in the lives of many Calcuttans.
The festival is dedicated to Goddess Durga, the mother Goddess who is particularly revered in Calcutta.
The public celebration of this festival, the Durga puja, started in the 18th-century, and during India's fight for independence it was used with pride.
The goddess became a symbol of India, the mother land. Nowadays the Durga puja period is a national holiday.
The festival lasts for nine days, and on the 10th day, along with her four children, the goddess Durga is immersed in the Hooghly, the River which runs through the city.
It is believed that goddess Durga, with her children, comes to her parents house, and after 10 days, she goes back to her in-laws place. So, during these 10 days, we worship her here on earth.
The Hooghly is a tributary of Ganga, Ganges to the British, the holy river of the Hindus. The river is sacred, And plays an important part in Hindu ritual.
Daily worship, or puja, often begins by the riverside. Many of those who come here are migrants from neighbouring states.
They have poorly paid jobs, often as porters in the railway station across the river, or in the nearby flower market.
As they bathe in the Sacred River, they offer prayers to the sun god Surya.
Hinduism is not a centralised religion. Its customs vary enormously throughout India.
Most people fall into a pattern based on tradition and learned from childhood, but they're free to add to it or change it with very few restrictions.
We clap because lord Shiva is lost in meditation.
He need sound to wake Him up, so we ring bells and call out loudly to Him.
Every morning I come here after I bathe, and during the day, whenever I get time, to think of God. I offer water in His name.
Living Hinduism retains many of its ancient customs.
Like the river, other elements of nature: sun, water, earth, stones, trees, they're all treated as worthy of worship. Little shrines may be created under trees which are considered sacred.
Nature plays its part in the Durga festival too. One of the first events is the bathing of a young banana tree. People from all over the city bring the plant to the Hooghly.
The banana tree is bathed, decorated, and made human by being dressed in a sari as part of the ritual.
She becomes a symbolic bride. She is then taken to wed Ganesha, the god of good fortune, shown with an elephants head. He is the son of Durga.
Durga puja is also celebrated in other ways. High art is an aspect of the Hindu religion.
This dance tells the central story of Durga puja in a stylised form. Different gods give Durga their best gifts: strength, wisdom, cunning, weapons, and so on, so she can kill a demon Mahishasura, thereby destroying the evil, and restoring the world.
Supradipta is a student of business administration, but her dancing is much more than a hobby.
I feel that classical dance is a form of religious activity.
When I dance it depends where I'm performing. If I'm performing onstage, there I'm dancing for the audience, but when I'm practising myself, then I think, yes, I'm dancing for the Lord.
For some people, the festival of Durga is more than an annual celebration. They earn their living by it all year-round.
This man is actually a potter, but the potters in the district of Kumar Tuli in North Calcutta, form a special caste who spend most of their time making images, or murtis, of gods.
The worship of images plays a central role in Hinduism.
The clay for these images is taken from the Hooghly, in fact from the Nimtala Ghat, where they are finally immersed.
The relationship between the potters and the Goddess, is one of deep affection, not to mention that the festival provides them with their livelihood.
Once the images are complete, they're installed in marquees, or pandals, set up on the roadside, allowing people to glimpse their beloved Goddess as they passed through.
Durga is worshipped by almost any Hindu who lives in Calcutta, but Hindu migrants from other parts of India, bring their own personal gods for their everyday worship.
In this ornate shelter, migrants from the neighbouring state of Orissa, live and pray to Jagannath.
Jagannath is the most popular God in Orissa, just as the Durga is in Bengal.
B PANDA (SUBTITLES) clothes, my few personal belongings, and my gods. My gods of sitting there. Jagannath is my personal God.
It's about 20 or 30 years since I brought jagannath here.
It's 29 years since I myself came here. I go back to Orissa once or twice a year.
There, I have everybody - my family, a bit of land, and a few cows.
My brother, my son, my brother's wife, my younger brother are all there.
But I've come here to make some money and and living.
In fact, it's through worship that he earns a living.
These people are Brahmans – the highest caste among Hindus.
The Brahmans are the only caste entitled to perform rituals. They can be seen in temples, in the marquees set up for Durga puja, and even in ordinary houses on special occasions.
In return for their services, they're normally given food, clothes, and money. But even for them, the casual treatment of religious images is not sacrilegious. When an image has served its purpose, it can be discarded.
These Orissa Brahmans live here in eight hour shifts, with father and son sharing the same space. They may be the highest caste in the religious hierarchy, but in material terms they're poor.
Some do have paid employment of the most humble kind, but most of their living still comes from religious duties.
They go out to shops and commercial establishments, where each shopkeeper has a few Gods who must be worshipped before business starts for the day. It's the Brahman who conducts this worship, nowadays normally for a fixed monthly fee.
So most Hindus, not being Brahmans, have to call upon the priestly caste from time to time, to this extent, at least, Hinduism is an organised religion.
But ordinary daily worship at home is something that people do for themselves, whatever their caste or occupation. Doctor Dhar, a heart specialist, is not a Brahman.
I have my own duty, I worship them everyday. So, in that, the practice that I do have today, this has also evolved very naturally over these years.
Not that what I practice today I was practising three years, four years back - not at all.
I cannot explain it in so many words, but there has been a mental change, over these years, that I have felt in myself, since I have started this Puja and all that.
But then, you see if you ask me to express it in so many precise words it would be difficult for me, very difficult for me.
Even within the same family, worship, or puja, takes different forms and has different meanings for each member.
Dance is not the only way that Supradipta, Doctor Dhar's daughter, worships.
Every day after taking bath, I go into our puja room, where we keep all our deities, and I try to concentrate on what I had done last few days, what I should have done and what I have done, and what I should do with the day, and, to make it, to make the best of it, both for myself and everybody around me.
At the end, Supradipta lights incense sticks. Normally, hindus don't blow any light out with their breath, not even matchsticks, because light is divine.
For Kali, Doctor Dhar's wife, worship involved service to her family.
House work is part of worship. As a traditional wife and mother, she cooks, cleans, and keeps house, albeit with the help of a few servants. Here she's pouring out holy water or Ganga Jal from the Hooghly River, which doctor Dhar uses in his daily ritual.
Cleaning the puja Ghar, is that worship for her. She has to do the cleaning herself, for servants normally belong to a lower caste, and don't enter this room. Before she leaves, she drapes her sori around her shoulder, as a mark of respect, as she bows to the Gods.
But there are occasions when all the people in the house, including the servants, pray together. The oldest member of the household, Mr Puri, performs the family rituals associated with Durga puja, the ten-day festival.
This worship is performed in a more public space, allowing room for all to participate. As part of the celebrations, everyone is presented with new clothes. Durga is just one of Mr Puri's deities.
Some of the gods, I have taken in my prayers, from the childhood, but some of the gods I adopted later on also.
Actually, all these gods and goddesses are the representation of the same almighty power or God, which we call Brahman, and according to their qualities or functions, we give them different names.
I choose these gods, for my pur- for my prayer on a particular day, depending on my mood.
When I'm in a particular mood, I involve that God or Goddess. That gives me more solace and more peace.
That's why I do not stick to only one god or goddess.
Apart from street shrines, the temple known as Mandir, is the normal space for public worship.
Although most Hindus do go to temples, there's no compulsion to do so. Indeed, you could be a Hindu without ever going to a temple.
This complex in South Calcutta is dedicated to goddess Kali. Like most temples it has a thriving market just outside.
Traditionally cities in India have grown around temples, because the marketplace has been an important part of the complex. Hinduism has never had rigidly separate categories of the religious and the secular.
This area is Kalighat, known for its love of Kali. The worship of Kali predates the founding of Calcutta by the British. Some stories even claim that Calcutta got its name from Kali.
Indeed Kali is worshipped throughout the city, and is regarded as another form of Durga.
At the other end of Calcutta, is Dakshineshwar, another famous temple dedicated to Kali.
Hinduism generally is not an organised religion, it leaves people free to worship as and when they please, but temple life is more structured. Communities come together to build and run them.
Certain times of the day are considered particularly sacred and auspicious. At these times the official priest, again belonging to the Brahman caste, has to make ritual offerings to the deity.
The temple is the earthly home of gods and goddesses. They are treated as if they were honoured guests.
Here Kali is bathed, dressed, and fed, As if she were a human being. She is offered water, cloth, flowers and a fan to cool her in the hot weather.
Kali is Durga in another terrifying guise. She is the force of destruction necessary before any creation occurs.
For all her ferocity, she is still the mother goddess, treated by worshippers as part of their family. She wears red bangles, a sign of being married in Bengal, and she has a set of keys tied to her sari, typical of many married Bengali women, who wear their keys as a mark of their status, revealing that they run large households with kind firmness.
It's not only Kali who's worshipped here. Krishna the God of love, and his consort Radha, are also worshipped.
Several temples, dedicated to Shiva, also form part of the same large complex.
Dakshineshwar had a famous priest, Rama Krishna. He was a 19th century Hindu holy man, particularly revered for his piety. Rama Krishna himself is now worshipped, and across the river is this temple in Belur Matt, dedicated to him.
He is considered to be an incarnation of God, so it is he who was being worshipped. We call it in Bengali 'manush puja', man as God, he is being worshipped, in the morning and in the evening, he is worshipped inside the temple, inside your heart, he is held up as an idiom, of human beings - spiritually and also mentally.
Belur Matt is the headquarters of the Rama Krishna Mission. It was established by Vive Kananda. One his disciples who took Hinduism to the west.
In its turn, the organisation of Belur Matt has itself been influenced by the west.
Reverential silence is the norm here.
There is a serene atmosphere prevailing all over the campus. Once you get into it, you are in a completely different atmosphere. At the temple, is a place where anybody from anywhere has an easy access.
The architecture of Belur Matt is modern, and quite different to traditional Hindu temples.
Elements from Muslim and Christian architecture, are fused with Hindu icons, and in places we can see a Buddhist influence.
The institution believes that this reflects the composite culture of India, and the oneness of all faiths.
In keeping with this, Belur Matt marks the major festivals from other religions, but its most important celebration by far, is of the same Hindu festival as the rest of Calcutta: the Durga puja.
Throughout Calcutta people have very different personal religious habits, and nowadays with the urbanisation, different lifestyles.
Yet they come together to organise the festival, to decorate the marquee or pandal, to pray together, to eat together, and to indulge in endless hours of gossip. And it's time spent with the family, because the belief is that Durga comes back to her mothers house, children, no matter how old they are, go back to their ancestral homes. In a country where increasingly people leave their own states to work elsewhere, sometimes moving hundreds or even thousands of miles, the puja ensures that a family keeps in touch with all its members.
The festival is a social as well as a religious occasion. People don't spend all their time at worship.
On the 10th and last day of the festival, the women give Durga and her children what amounts to an affectionate farewell party.
The'ye even given pan, the betel leaf chewed after a feast. Durga is smeared a red powder, sindoor, a sign of being married. The greatest blessing a woman can have is Sada Sumangali Bahva – may you always remain married. While the women play with Sindoor their men watch with appreciation and indulgence.
And then Durga is taken for immersion. But before that, all night long celebrations are called for.
For three nights during the festival, nearly all of Calcutta is on the streets. People go from one celebration to another, totting up how many pujas they have seen.
Public transport runs throughout the night, and religious music has given way to film songs and folk tunes, which blare out from the marquees.
It's a time for buying special festival presents. A fantastic display of lights has more to say about modern lifestyles than about the traditional stories of gods and goddesses.
No-one disapproves of all this, not even the most devout. Indeed, icons from other religions too are absorbed and become part of the celebration.
Hinduism is all encompassing, able to absorb any experience that life provides.
Even in contemporary secular India, it's difficult to establish the boundaries of Hinduism, and thus a distinct compartment, which might be tightly labelled 'religion'. Many Hindus would simply say, that Hinduism is their way of life.
End transcript: Looking for Hinduism in Calcutta
Looking for Hinduism in Calcutta
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After the programme

Exercise 17

It was suggested in the clip that, from the cultural pespective of Hinduism, it makes more sense to describe Hinduism as a 'way of life' than as a 'religion'. Do you think that we should adopt this suggestion?


Let's start by considering why some Hindus prefer to speak of Hindiusm as 'a way of life'. I think there are two main reasons. The first is that, to date, what we call Hinduism has been associated with an all-encompassing pattern of behaviour, regulating matters such as bathing, diet and occupation. Second, Hinduism tolerates varied beliefs and is mostly clearly visible as an entity in what people do, although much of that takes place in the home and in the neighbourhood. On the other hand, 'way of life' is such a blanket term that one is tempted to try to identify the religious aspects of this 'way of life' as distinct from, say, the political. To attempt to distinguish a separate religious strand within Hinduism is not just a reflection of a different cultural perspective; this is also how Hinduism increasingly presents itself today in urban contexts such as Calcutta.


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