Cultural history of secular humanism in Bangladesh



Bangladesh was the first country in South Asia to have adopted a secular Constitution. The bloody War of Liberation that continued for nine odd months in 1971 and culminated in the birth of Bangladesh was based on the secular Bengali spirit. Secularism, democracy, Bengali nationalism and socialism were adopted as the fundamental principles of the state way back in 1972. It is worth mentioning here that it was not until 1976 that the Constitution of India – the largest secular democracy in the world – incorporated the principle of secularism.

21379_10152999008700201_547196358_nThe concept of secularism in Bangladesh differs considerably from that in the West. In Bangladesh as well as in India1, secularism connotes separation of the state, and not individuals, from religion. While explaining in 1972 the rationale for adopting secularism as one of the fundamental principles of the state, the founding father of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman unequivocally said, “Secularism doesn’t mean faithlessness, much less atheism. It is meant to ensure the right of each and every citizen of the country to practise his/her religion. We don’t want to ban the practice of religion by enacting laws, nor shall we ever. The Muslims will continue to practise their religion, no one can prevent them. And the Hindus will continue to practise theirs, no one can stop them. And so will the Buddhists and the Christians. The only thing that we won’t allow is the use of religion as a political weapon. We have seen for the last 25 years how grievous vices like killings, persecutions and rapes are committed in the name of religion in Bangladesh. Religion is indeed a very sacred thing, and this must not be used for political gains. Let me reassure you that it (adoption of secularism) has not curtailed people’s religious rights. I have only arranged for each and every citizen of the country to practise his/her religion out of his own free will.”2

In a bid to end political use of religion, floating of political parties based on religion was proscribed in the 1972 Constitution – something that was not possible in any secular democracies3 outside the socialist bloc. Had the 1972 Constitution remained valid, we would not have witnessed the existence of such political perversions in the name of religion and the disquieting rise of militant fundamentalism.

After secularism was incorporated in the 1972 Constitution as one of the fundamental principles of the state, it was faced with a two-fold criticism. On one side were fundamentalist and communalist forces, who regarded Islam as a complete code of life that would control everything including the state, politics, economy, society, culture as well as private life. On the other were the socialists and communists, who were in favour of a divorce of religion from individual and social life.

The fundamentalists disparaged Mujib’s concept of secularism by saying that “Secularism means faithlessness. When the state is secular, its citizens won’t have the liberty to practise or preach their faiths.” Some of the rightist intellectuals who were not quite fundamentalists criticized the incorporation of secularism into the Constitution as being tantamount to ignoring people’s religious sentiments and their attachment to their faiths. They opined therefore, that secularism would no way be acceptable in a country where Muslims accounted for 85 per cent of the population.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his associates who designed the ’72 Constitution stressed the need for separation of the state and politics from religion notwithstanding the fact that each one of them was devoted to religion in his personal life. Time and again, they had to remind us, “Secularism has nothing to do with faithlessness.”

On the other hand, the leftists castigated Mujib’s concept of secularism as a manipulated one and said, “Secularism means worldliness. Religion should have no place at any tier of the state and the society, as it has nothing to do with the world.”

They disapproved of the tradition of recitation from all the major religious Scriptures on government run radio and television as well as in public meetings of political parties, and regarded it as going against the principle of secularism. The fact that Bangladesh participated in the OIC Summit under the leadership of Sheikh Muibur Rahman and accepted its membership despite being a member of the NAM (Non Aligned Movement), came under severe criticism. Transformation of the Islamic Academy into the Islamic Foundation, ban on drinking alcohol and horse race and construction of mosques and seminaries at public expenses were all criticized as representing deviations from secularism. The leftists christened it ‘pseudo-secularism’ as practised in India.

Four thousand years of the history of Bangladesh stands testimony to the fact that the spirit of secularism was not imported from the West. Blasphemous materialistic thoughts originated as early as the Vedic faith was introduced in the Indian subcontinent. Little wonder, more than six hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the philosophy of Charvaka4 ho denied the existence of God, hell, heaven immortality of soul and life thus gave rise to materialistic beliefs in India, having renounced such Vedic concepts as deity, former life and reincarnation. In the old Vedic scripture, Rigveda, earliest guru of this philosophy and the god of wisdom and eloquence, Brihaspati, said, “Matter is the absolute being”. Followers of the Charvaka emphasized worldly gratification, which often influenced the believers as well.

0‘The best-known verse attributed to Brihaspati enunciated a principle that is ironically used by the opponents as a handle to beat them with:
Yavajjivet sukham jivet
Rinam kritvaa ghritam pibet
Bhasmibhutasya dehasya
Punaraagamanam kutah
(As long as you live, live happily, take a loan and drink ghee. After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?)
In Ayurveda, a Hindu medicinal system, “ghee is life” (aayurghritam) is a standard quotation. This is the seventh verse in a set of eleven in Sarvadarsana Sangraha. These verses criticise the financial benefits earned by Brahmins in religious functions. Whether the words are Brihaspati’s or not is doubtful, but the sense does agree with the Chaarvaaka line of thinking. Ghee occupied a central place: it was symbolic of good food and had long been a primary offering to the sacrificial fire of Hindu ceremonies.’5

This also has been said by Brihaspati:
There is no heaven, no final liberation, / nor any soul in another world, / Nor do the actions of the four castes, / orders, or priesthood produce any real effect. / If a beast slain as an offering to the dead / will itself go to heaven, / why does the sacrificer not straightway offer his father? / If offerings to the dead produce gratification / to those who have reached the land of the dead, / why the need to set out provisions / for travelers starting on this journey?/ If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven, / why not make food offerings down below / to gratify those standing on housetops?”6
Later as a challenge to the Vedic creed of the Hindus came Jainism and Buddhism, both of which were looked down on by the Vedic adherents as atheism.

The Bengalis have always tended to be secular thanks to the influence of Charvaka and Buddhism. However, secularism has coexisted in the spirit of the Bengalis with scores of religious rituals, particularly those that have something to do with worldly gains.

About the Bengali’s cultural legacy and racial traits Professor Ahmed Sharif said, “The name of our country is Bangladesh, so our language is Bangla and we are Bengali as a race. We are children of this land. Since prehistoric times, our physiques and our psyches have been sustained by the fostering of the soil of this country, by the nourishment of its nature, and by the customs and traditions of its people. As a race we are not Aryans. Nor are we Arabs, Iranians or Turks. We are very much descendants of the Austric ethnic group of this country. Our ethnicity is different, our intellects are self-directed, our traditions are distinctive and our culture is unique.

“Previously, we were animists, later pagans, and afterwards Hindus and Buddhists. And now we are Hindus or Muslims. We have adopted alien creeds and foreign languages only to mould them at our convenience. This is testified by the fact that an atheist like Buddha not only developed a pristine orientation towards life, but also resolved to endeavour towards the attainment of immortality. Idols of numerous deities embellished Buddhist monasteries. Abandoning Hinayan and Mahayan they adopted ‘Bajrayan’ and Sahayan, which was nothing but guru-ism.

“His orientation is towards life. So he does not trifle with matters or belittle worldly enjoyments. He is therefore prepared to do whatever his life and livelihood takes him to. He has created gods for the sake of the security of his life and livelihood. His desire for a gratifying afterlife does not stem from his heart; it is rather phoney. His adoption of Buddhism or Brahmanism mirrored in his mouth, and not in his heart. Buddhism and Brahmanism only provided him with some sort of camouflage, but could not create a space of their own in his rather ordinary but sham life.7”

The Bengalis accepted Hinduism and Buddhism only after fine-tuning them to their materialistic idea. In the same fashion they later adopted Islam and Christianity. Islam came to this land about one thousand years ago and was preached by Sufis8.
With a few exceptions, Sufis preached Islam by virtue of humanism, and not by the sword. Victimized by the discriminatory caste system, Hindu people belonging to schedule castes converted to Islam to escape discriminations or, in later periods, to receive favours from Muslim rulers. However, this brand of Islam differed substantially from the pure Mutakallimin Islam practised in Arabia. People from this region were especially attracted by the brand of Islam that was founded on the virtues of liberal humanism – rather than on scripture-based rituals – brought about by the influence of the Mutazilis9 upon Sufism.
Dance, music and art are all forbidden in Islam. However, the Sufis, like the Mutazilis, ignored this proscription and practised them. It is worthy of mention that Muslim singers were unparalleled in Hindustani classical music in northern and north-western India as a result of the influence of the followers of Chishtia and Suhrawardiyah tarika10 of Sufism.
The Muslims also made valuable contributions towards the development of north Indian classical dance. Hindu landlords of Bengal used to sign up Muslim singers and dance girls from Lucknow, Joypur, Agra and Alahabad during Durga Pooja and other family festivals.

The virtues of humanism and equity that characterized Sufism had a tremendous impact upon the ancient form of Hinduism in Bengal. The appearance of the Vaishnava faith founded by Chaitanya Dev in the 15th century is a case in point. Human compassion has been reflected in various forms in the writings of Vaishnava poets. As the famous Vaishnava poet Chandidas of 15th century put it –

bengali-culture“Listen O brother man,
Man is above everything.
There is no greatest truth than Him.”
Even before that, during the Charyapad (collection of lyrical poems composed by Buddhist monks, supposed to be earliest specimen of Bengali literature) era, Buddhist poets raved about humanism and frowned upon religious rituals that had nothing to do with life. About 1100 years ago, a couplet song composed by Charyapad poet Sarahpaar went:
What will you gain by your candle lighting?
What by your holy offering?
And what will you get by going on pilgrimage
Or by living in solitude in the woods?
Can one achieve salvation merely by bathing
in holy waters?11
This philosophy is amply reflected in the folk music of Fakir Lalan Shah12 and his fellows. One hundred and fifty years ago, Lalan wrote:
“Oh, when will such a human society be created
Where no racial distinction will exist between
Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.”
In many a song of Lalan secular humanistic ideology has been exemplified13. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (c 1861 1942) was later influenced by the humane splendour of Lalan. However, Tagore’s perception of humanism was not confined to particular countries or times. In his famous essay Religion of Man, Tagore unequivocally said, “My religion is the reconciliation of the super-personal man, the universal human spirit in my own individual being.”
Secular humanism is much louder in Nazrul’s poem. In one of his legendary poems, rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam (c 1899 1976) lashed out at God and eulogized humanity –
“Of equality I sing.
There is nothing greater than Man,
There is nothing nobler than him.”
In 1925, during the time of Nazrul, a free thinking movement was initiated in Calcutta for the emancipation of the intellect, which inspired the educated urban Muslims to practise secular freethinking. Abul Hussain, Kazi Abdul Wadud and Kazi Motahar Hussain were among the pioneers in initiating the movement, whose slogan said, “Where knowledge is confined, intellect is benumbed and emancipation is unattainable.”
Contemporary Bengali intellectual M N Roy introduced the ‘radical humanism’ movement, which was based on reasons, principles and freedoms. He especially exalted man’s free individual being. His object was to emancipate man from all sorts of political, social and religious subjugation. Secular humanistic practices among the Bengal intelligentsia received a tremendous boost in the 19th century owing to the influence of the Renaissance in Europe, insomuch as the colonial policy of the British rulers encouraged interfaith conflicts and divisions.

In the Bengali folk tradition, sense of secular humanism has always outweighed that of urban opulent elites. In the folk tradition of the Bengalis, some sort of harmonization exists among Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam thus formed its multicultural identity. This is evident in various forms of folk music, Bengali New Year, Chaitra Sankranti (kind of spring festival) and Nobanno (festival marking new harvest) etc. Practised by the Bengali village folks for hundreds of years, these cultural events are essentially secular in nature.

Political and economic interests of rulers and landlords have sometimes prompted interfaith conflicts. However, people in rural Bengal rarely responded to it. As for religious practices, still there are Hindu people who visit the shrines of Muslim saints and present their offerings. Conversely, there are Muslims who, during their hard times, seek refuge to many imaginary gods and goddesses, among whom Satyanarayan14, Olaichandi, Shitaladevi and Banadevi are noteworthy. Both Hindu and Muslim people turn to these saints or deities for worldly gains, and not for anything to be gained in the hereafter.

In the reckoning of the Bengalis, worldly life is much more important than the afterlife. In the medieval period, many Bengali Muslim poets wrote poems extolling romance of Radha Krishna and other Hindu deities. Similarly, Hindu poets and artistes eulogized Muslim saints and rulers, adorning their thrones.

However, a section of fanatic religious preachers did not approve of the common masses’ secular way of life or the practice of interfaith harmonization in Bengal. When in the middle ages ‘religion of man’ was taking off through Emperor Akbar’s ‘Deeni Elahi’ scheme for interfaith harmonization in Delhi and through the collective initiative of the Sufis and Vaishnavas in Bengal, a group of hard-line mullahs surfaced under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhind, whose mission was to set the Muslims free from the influence of the Hindus and to strictly observe the rules of Islamic Sharia15. As an upshot of this mission, the Wahabi movement was initiated in Bengal in the early 19th century. Although the Wahabi extremists were initially vocal against the British rule, their target in later periods comprised the non-Muslim religious communities. Finally, they embarked upon the mission of establishing Islamic Sharia Law.

While deeming religion as the decisive factor in identifying themselves, a formidable section of the urban-centred Muslim elite of Bengal, like the Aryans, have always been antagonistic towards the Bengali language and culture. Whether Bengali or Urdu or Persian should be the mother tongue of the Bengali Muslims was debated until the 20th century. On this issue, the 17th century Muslim poet Abdul Hakim wrote –
“If one born in Bengal despises the Bengali language
Who fathered him I wonder!”
Almost one hundred years later, Ramnidhi Gupta, in his song, said –
“Different lands have different languages
But can one ever feel happy
Unless he speaks his mother-tongue?”
In protest against the partition of Bengal in 1905, many poems and songs were composed in Bengali that reflected the secular Bengali nationalist tenet. It took the elite Bengali-Muslims until our victory in the Language Movement in 1952 to overcome their identity crisis. Nonetheless, people living in rural the Bengal never faced such identity crises owing mainly to the incorporation of humanistic norms and values accentuated in the process of interfaith harmonization.

In the rich multi-cultural legacy of the Bengalis, recognitions of diverse views and ways of life have been reflected in the Bengali literature, music, dance, art and festivals of various types. The main ingredient of this rural Bengal culture was secular and non-communal in nature. By the European standards, it may be regarded as ‘soft secularism’ or pseudo-secularism. However, secularism may be practised without denying the human aspects of religions. Bangladesh is a case in point.

As a matter of fact, modern, scientific education motivates people to become secular, for religions have no impacts on science and practical life. However, the goal of secular humanists in Muslim majority country like Bangladesh, should be to stop the political use of religions and confine them to individual lives, so long as vast multitudes of people live in faith. The communist rulers of the Soviet Union and East Europe have met their dooms after waging a war against the practice of religions. Emancipation of man – from his haughty attitude towards his race, religion and caste – calls for enlightenment.
Evidently, there are political, economic and social reasons behind the recent rise of fundamentalism in the South Asian countries including Bangladesh. It has always thrived on government patronage. The militant fundamentalists of Bangladesh are receiving enormous amount of financial supports mainly from Saudi Arabia, Middle East and Pakistan besides the government. The common people of this largely agrarian land have always been averse to fundamentalism and their cultural heritage has always been bereft of an ingredient thereof.

BANGLADESH-3Thousands of years of our history of secular humanistic practices testifies to the fact that the fundamentalist and communalist forces of Bangladesh would not be able to keep going, if it were not for the support and cooperation from the government and the outside world.


Presented at the ‘Secular Islam Summit’ held in St Petersburg, Florida, USA on 3-5 March 2007


About Ehsan Abdullah

An aware citizen..
This entry was posted in BANGABANDHU - Father of our Nation, BENGAL - Heritage, Culture & Archeology, BENGALI CULTURE - Literature Poets & Poetries Paints & Painters, BENGALI NATIONALISM, HISTORY OF BENGAL, HUMAN RIGHTS, IDENTITY & PATRIOTISM, ISLAMIC EXTREMISM, REFLECTION - Refreshing our Memories, RELIGION & STATE, RESPONSIBLE CITIZEN & DUTY, SECULARISM, SHAHRIAR KABIR. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cultural history of secular humanism in Bangladesh

  1. Pingback: Bangladesh Tries to Recover from Worst Terror Attack in 40 Years

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s