Bengalis on the World's Stage

Mekhala Banerjee
The University of Chicago

One hundred years ago, Gokhale, a prominent Indian leader said about Bengalis, "what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow." This was an accurate description of Bengalis a century ago. In science, in literature, in patriotism, in every sphere of life, Bengal was at the forefront. Bengali literature has been translated into many different languages all over the world. The revolutionary fire that had spread across India, the fire that would eventually force the British to leave India, had originated in Bengal. Sons of Bengal, such as Netaji Subhas Bose, Rishi Aurobindo, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan, Rashbehari Bose, Masterda Surja Sen and many others of that age were the masterminds of the revolutionary movement. Kazi Nazrul's revolutionary songs, Bankim Chandra's anthem, "Bande Ma Taram," and Tagore's "Jana gana mana" all became songs not only of Bengal, but of all India. Netaji's daring escape from British house arrest and his alliance with the leaders of countries that were fighting against the British during the was led to the formation of the Ajad Hind Fouj which inspired and united India in her fight against British rule. One hundred years ago, a young saint from Bengal came to America to spread the glory of Hinduism in the heartland of Christianity in the rich and powerful Western world. By virtue of his vast knowledge and courage, he was able to spread the essence of Hinduism and won universal acclaim from the delegates of the congress of religion. He was our own Swami Vivekananda. These heroes make us truly proud.

In an era when the sun never set in the British empire, Bengal's patriotism and courage shook the mighty British rule with terror. In an attempt to assassinate the notorious Tegart, proudly confessing his guilt, Khudiram walked on the gallows with a smile on his face. Had the eighteen-year-old martyr pleaded even once that the shoe found near the site of the assassination did not belong to him, he would have been acquitted. Still he refused to hide behind any lies in exchange for his life. There were so many martyrs like him in Bengal's rich history that is impossible to write about them all.

In the struggle for freedom, women were not behind either. It seems that in many aspects, they were just as audacious and daring as their men counterparts and far more so than women of today. Names such as Pritilata Wadedder, Jotirmoyee Devi, Ashalata Devi, and Suniti Devi, among hundreds of others, still bring us pride.

The Bengal I am speaking of does not refer only to West Bengal. The Bengal of which we are so proud of is the unified Bengal, consisting of both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Before leaving, the divide and rule policy of the British ripped apart Punjab and Bengal. In the game of political chess, Punjab and Bengal were the pawns that were sacrificed. They paid a heavy price for the freedom they had so dearly fought for.

In the last few decades many Bengalis have migrated to the United States. The period of adjustment has been difficult for us. Difference in spoken language and culture have hindered us from blending into the melting pot of this great nation. We are perceived to be mysterious and from another planet in the eyes of Western people. We often reciprocate in the same way - our religion, our culture, and our inter personal relationships are so different from theirs. But is it really so? Are people from different countries or different cultures so different? My twenty years of experience convinces me that it is a myth. We Bengalis are in no way different from other people in this country of many nationalities. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to analyze the principles, customs, and philosophy of life of the Bengalis and compare them with those of other races.

Religion has a large influence on one's life. Even the most atheistic people are affected by religion in some way. The rituals, actions, and words of people of different religion that one is surrounded with in childhood mold the life of the child as he grows. With Hinduism have flourished Buddhism, Jainism, and Shikhism. Among the Muslims are the Sunnis and Shias. Within Christianity, there are division among Catholics and various Protestant denominations. West Bengal is predominantly Hindu and Bangladesh is primarily Muslim with a small percentage of Christians residing in both.

It is well known that the basic teachings of all the religions show a universality of theme. A careful evaluation of how or why a religion has evolved will show the main purpose of religion is to keep the average citizen within the confines of moral law. Religion teaches us to control anger, greed, jealousy, sex, and sorrow. It teaches us to be humble and to have faith in God. Whether one is reading the Bible, Gita, Koran, or Torah, all of these contain numerous tributes to God's or creator's eternal power.

In Hinduism, the Tuesday and Thursday, in Christianity, the Sunday, and in Islam and Judaism, the Friday, are held as sacred. On those days, the followers of each respective religion light lamps or candles and pray to their respective Gods. Each observe a different day of the week, but the ritual is the same. Hindus light oil lamps (Pradip), Muslims and Christians light candles, and the Jews light Menorah. The inner approach is all the same: praying to God by lighting a lamp or candle. In Hinduism, they say that the soul is immortal; death does not mark the end of the soul. Science teaches the conservation of energy: energy is never created or destroyed. Soul is energy and hence is never destroyed. Behind each Hindu belief, one can discover a scientific truth. The same holds in other religions, even if it is not implicitly stated. Thousands of years ago, the pyramids were built in Egypt without ever having been influenced by Hinduism. However, unconnected to the Hindus, they too believed in an afterlife as seen in their rituals of elaborate burial. The Sun is the source of all energy. Just as Hindus worship the sun, people in ancient Greece and Egypt used to rave the sun as a God. So we see the universality of religion not withstanding the diversity in their arts and architecture between churches, mosques, and temples. Hindus go to temple to pray, Muslims to mosques, Christians to churches, Jews to synagogues, Sikhs to gurdwaras. The object is the same - the difference being in the language or culture or in the dress. The custom of fasting and forsaking non vegetarian food on certain occasions exists not only in Hinduism. Ramadan or Roja is a very well known practice. For a whole month, everyday they fast from dawn to dusk. Fasting is also part of Judaism and Christianity. Lent in Christianity starts from March 1. Jesus fasted for forty days before his crucifixion to save the mankind. On Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent, Christians are not supposed to eat meat. During the forty days of Lent they have prayer meetings everywhere on different topics. They pray, "God, please rinse me clean of all my sins." Hindus go to the temple and pray the same way. Hinduism preaches humility in acts of charity. The Jewish philosophy is, "when you practice charity with one hand, the other hand should not know about it." Among the Christians is a common practice to thanks God before every meal. We all start and end our day with prayers. In Bengal, we teach our kids, "Sokale uthiya ami mone boli, saradin ami jano bhalo hoye choli; adesh koren jaha mor gurujone, sei kaj ami kori bhalo mone" (every morning I silently pray: "God, let me be a good person today; let me follow what my superiors say, with a happy face throughout the day").

Food plays an important role in all religion. Hindus offer fruit and sweets to God and after the worship they eat them as blessings of God. Jews and Christians take wine and bread, Muslims offer "sinni." In this vast world climate varies from one part to another, and so do the lifestyles of the people. Hindus and Muslims, in large measure, live in tropical countries. They drink cold water, not wine, to protect them from dehydration. Christians and Jews, on the other hand, live in cold climates. Naturally, they drink wine to keep their bodies warm.

Now comes the aspect of daily life. Irrespective of time and place, all of us follow some customs. They may not have a deep philosophical significance, but through various customs we try to embrace our religion. It is amazing that the same picture is apparent everywhere. Hindus do not eat beef or pork; Muslims do not eat pork; Muslims and Jews eat only kosher meat. Jews do not eat shellfish and they do not take dairy products with meat. These kind of minor customs are practiced in all religions. When a child is born, we Hindus have rituals performed after eight days, one month, and six months. The new-born baby is welcome with God's blessings to protect it from evil influences. Other religions have similar practices. Jews have a celebration at the end of eight days and one month. When the child is six months old, the Hindu baby is given its first solid food in a religious ceremony. A Christian baby has a christening between six and eight months. In Islam, the Muslims have a religious ceremony fourteen days after a child is born, When a child enter puberty (adolescence), Hindus have a "Threading" ceremony - they have to go through a strict religious ritual to prepare them for future life. Jewish children have a bar mitzvah. Formerly, these practices were for boys only. Nowadays, Jewish girls have a similar ceremony, called "bas mitzvah." It is apparent that each religion has a more or less similar trial.

After adolescence come youth - celibacy ends in marriage. It does not matter how boys and girls meet. They have to utter the same vows at the time of the wedding. Hindus take a vow. "jodidong hridoyong tobo, todidong hridoyong momo; momo brote te hridoyong momo chittong anuchitton testu" (may your heart and my heart be one). "In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, we will be together until death do us part," is the Christian vow. In the name of religion, people fight with each other but we don't realize that in each and every religion, the same principles of life are taught. In each step of life, in church or in synagogue, in mosque or in temple, the same quote is ingrained, only the language is different.

In some religions, the bride and groom exchange flower garlands. In others, they exchange rings. In some religions, vows are taken in front of stone and fire as witness, while in others, in front of a statue of Jesus Christ in the church. However, no matter what the language or religion it is, they all mean the same. In every case there is a priest of rabbi to conduct the ceremony. They promise to be one in heart and soul, through happiness and mourning, bad time and good time until the last day of their lives. It is amazing how similar the vows are, from one of the world to another. It does not matter how civilized or progressive the country is, or how backward it is. It does not matter if it is the marriage of the king of England of a peasant in India. They all start their life together with the same vows. On a more trivial note, when a daughter gets married, the role of the father is the same in most cases. The father takes his daughter's hand and gives it away to the groom. The picture is identical everywhere. In the movie "Father of the Bride" the father laments that his house is empty after the party is over. This is the same thought that goes through the mind of a Bengali father. In India, a bride's family has to pay a dowry (jewelry, lots of things, and the expense of the wedding) to the groom's family. In this country, it is no different. Here also, generally, the bride's father bears the expenses of the ceremony and party.

Death is inevitable at the end of life. In every country, black is regarded as a symbol of mourning. There is a correlation between sadness and dark or black colors. In all religions, there is some ritual for the soul of the departed. The priest or rabbi performs the ceremony according to religious customs. They read from the Gita or Bible or Koran. When a Jewish parent dies, his or her children go to the synagogue every morning for a year. In Poland, Christians have mourning for a period of one year, when their parents pass away. They were black dress and pray for the soul of the dead parent. The Hindu customs are as follows: not to eat outside and not to attend any joyous celebration for one year. Just as the Hindus do some rituals on every death anniversary of for fifteen days before Durga Puja, people of other religions also commemorate death anniversaries by leaving flowers on their graves.

Time and place have forced changes upon some of these customs, but despite small differences within cultures the sentiments are the same. It is the same water that flows through the river, the Ganges, the Nile, or the mighty Niagara Falls - so is the human mind in its universal appeal. Every child - from any country or culture - want love of his mother, feels secure in his mother's arms. The first step in learning to talk or walk, or exploring the world of the young is the same everywhere. In physical appearance, they differ due to differences in genetics and the language can be widely dissimilar, but inside they have the same chemical reactions. One example is a baby with Down's Syndrome. Irrespective of their parentage - Caucasians, Africans, or Mongolians - they look strangely alike. In pictures, they often look like twins. This reinforces our belief that notwithstanding the difference in other appearances, a product of geographical environment, people inside are the same. Everyone knows the stereotypes associated with people of different races. People are often distrustful of people from other races and cultures. However, when we see a person in terms of his inner traits of compassion, honesty and sincerity, we should be reassured. Everybody is aware of the predictable reaction one will have if a girl marries a boy from another race. We wonder - couldn't she find a suitable buy from her own race? Then we discover that this man is moved by the same spirit of honesty, sincerity, or compassion, which we idealize in our own society, we are no less shocked. The moral courage of a girl to jump her social barriers makes me wonder that she did not come from an orthodox Hindu family.

Inter religion marriages are still looked upon with suspicion and disapproval. If a Jewish boy marries a Christian girl, parents on both sides cut off relationships from them. Quite often similar welcome awaits a couple when a marriage takes place between a Hindu and a Muslim. It appears that "caste discrimination" as we call it in Hinduism is widespread in one form or another throughout the world. It could be a discrimination of race, religion, appearance, of economic class. Because of our ignorance we like to stay away from other. We like to stay in out comfort zone - same language, same religion, same race, and same economic class. But today realistically the world is a much smaller place. Whether we like it or not, there will be more and more mixed marriages. We will begin to realize that the more different we seem, the more similar we actually are.

It is amazing how closely thought cross human minds even if they live thousands of miles away or decades apart. A Hindu widow's wishes of a few decades ago found an expression in a Canadian widow. Hindus believe in life after death. It is not uncommon for a Hindu wife to wish to reunite with the soul of her husband after death. How could a Canadian lady have the same wishes, unless their beliefs are alike? She wished to be cremated alongside her husband when she dies. Besides she had another wish - to have her ashes commingled with that of her husband and spread on to the Canadian soil. She wished, in the quiet snow-covered fields of Canada, that her soul would meet her husband's, whom she lost very early in her life.

After a period of adjustment to the new environment in this country, Bengalis are ready to plunge into the melting pot of this great nation. We are beginning to have noteworthy achievements. The world's tallest building, the Sears Tower, was designed by the late Mr. Fazlur Khan. The late philosopher Dr. Bejoykrishna Motilal and economist Dr. Amartya Sen are two famous educators. Dr. Amanda Chakrabarty was credited with patenting a life form for the first time in history. Recently, another Bengal, Mr. Rajat Gupta, has been the first Asian to be appointed the CEO of the world's largest consulting firm.

The paper analyzed the culture and tradition of Bengal and I have shown the universality in them, which makes the difference of the Bengali culture with those of others around the world only superficial, more apparent than real. The Bengali culture on both sides of the border is rooted in the practice of religion and thus it is socio-religious in nature. In spite of the two different major religions in Bengal, both have a wealth of harmony which is molded by the mother tongue and common and common aspirations. As a Bengali immigrant yields to the new cultural environment if he views it dispassionately, he is not forsaking his roots but merely amalgamating himself into a broader context.