The River of Life – Cultures of Resistances Down the Ages

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Some stories say that Saraha was a Prince. Some stories say that he was born in a family of arrow-makers. At times, even the same stories, in different telling, tell different tales. Some say he lived in the 9th century AD. Some say, in the 10th. Some even say that he was from sometimes between the 10th & the 11th centuries AD. Beyond all the dusty layers of time & misty layers of mythologies, there is one telling for certain – he was a bard.

Even the then famed “Atheist Pundit” from Bengal Atish Dipankar, (AD 982-1054) – whom, since, the Tibetans have remembered & the Bengalis have nigh-forgotten – was an admirer of his songs. When Atish began to propagate Buddhism in the Himalayas, so moved was he by one particular song of Saraha that he had wanted sorely to use it while preaching.

Atish had a disciple named Jaya. Like Saraha & Atish, even Jaya has since been forgotten in the subcontinent. He is remembered in the translated annals of Buddhism in Tibet as Jaya the Dom. For Jaya, his identity was also a part of his dignity. That is why, his clansname glows along with those of many other bards, minstrels, scholars & philosophers from the subcontinent of those days. Tibetan Buddhism remembers them as great wise people from the subcontinent. The subcontinent forgets them because in the subcontinent, race (jaati) is law.

Before we flow with Saraha, let us read a verse written by Jaya. It appears as Verse No. 47 in the Charyapada collections that compile songs of the Easy Path heterodoxy that had thrived among the people of the eastern subcontinent across ancient, medieval & modern times:

Like ideals seen in dreams

Such are the delusions that hide behind

the Mind, unto which, when free

All arrivals and departures fade

It doesn’t burn; it doesn’t flood; it can’t be torn

Behold, how all Illusions and Delusions – all Mā.yā, all Mo.hā –

get slain

again and again!

The Body, the Shadow and the Illusions are all but the same

In Two Wings, from Two Sides –

In breathing in & out – beyond all these binaries

many Sciences be

Of the Mind, in zen of Buddha-Being

Jayanandi says – it is clear, that.

 no other ruptures & raptures be.

Let us come back to the story of Atish & Jaya – one involving Sarahapa’s Doha-kosh, a veritable manual of Easy Path visions.

But when Atish wishes to make that song by popular among the young & the faithful of the mountains, Jaya says – “no, you mustn’t.” Jaya was keenly aware how racism has spread deep claws and thus, how harsh can realities get. What was in that song that makes it so controversial? Let us see:


Damned (Brahmins) make fun of Yogis

& say – “worse than snakes their poison is

when you see them, flee!”

But Brahmins, in reality, are fools

They utter the four gibberish Vedas

Taking earth, water & grass

They mutter chants

The smoke that rises, when,

in the name of doing Fire Worship from home

they burn wood – does but only

makes their own eyes water.

Holding a variety of sticks

They don up as One Stick Holder, Three Sticks Holder etc

Feigning wisdom

Moving like Pristine White Swans

They cannot tell

religion from wrath –

All they do is lie

and swindle people

The Theists  – they who rub ashes on their bodies

tie chignons atop their heads – sitting at the corner of their rooms

They light lamps and ring bells

As people wearing different clothes come to them

To those people’s ears these Theists whisper chants

To consecrate them –

And earn

Kshapanakas – the Jain clergymen – they have long nails

They never clean their stinking bodies

Naked, with tangled hair

They pretend self-liberation and

Swindle people by directing them towards wrong paths

If bareness brings freedom

Then why shall foxes and dogs be denied?

If plucking hair brings freedom

Then why do smooth & hairless posteriors

of the young and the dainty

be denied?

If dangling whisks

made of peacock-plumes and yak-tails

brings  freedom,

then why shall yaks and peacocks be denied?

If eating leftovers bring freedom

then why shall horse & elephants

be denied? Saraha says, freedom, for

the the Kshapanakas – is beyond my reckoning

They know not the truths – and,

in that darkness, do they inflict torture

upon their own bodies

According to Theravadin advice

taking to the path of wandering hermitage

is the best thing to do

The Shramanas and the Bhikshus

read the Sutras, some

cumber their own minds

by quoting from the Shastras

Other run on the chariot of Mahayana

And boast that their scriptures

are the best – some put their zen

on chakric mandalas; Others explain

the Four Theories (of the Four Voids)

Some think of the sky as one of the elements

While some meditate on the Shunya-Void

They all move along wrong ways

They who leave the Easy

and run in hope of Nirvana – neither do they find

Parmarth – the Ultimate Essence, and nor the Attainment that is Siddhi.

They whose minds lie enchanted by subjects of othering

How can they be free?

There is no freedom in zen

There is no freedom in meditation

What will lamps do? What is the need

for oblations?

What is the point of chanting mantras?

Why go then, to pilgrimages,

to Tapovanas – those Forests of Austere Medication? Does freedom

arrive through holy-dips?

Leave the ties of Maya

Renounce False Philosophies

When you know the Easy

Nothing remains to be known. What others

think of as freedom – can be got

in such ways.

The Easy needs to be known, recalled

Shastras and the Puranas explain nothing

Easy is all. Here, all ideals

reach finality.

Neither Samadhi, nor the Wandering

that they call Prvrjya – take you there

Just live in your house

With your beloved

Until you have fulfilled all your desires,

quenched all your thirsts

Who shall you free yourself from shackles?

If it is so easy to find Ease

Then what is the need for zen?

And if the Easy is unknown

Then why fumble around

in the dark? So, Saraha speaks out aloud:

‘in the Easy there is no Bhava – being

nor Abhava – not being’

neither in Samadhi, and nor,

in meditation – shall the Easy

be found. Then why meditate?…

Tantra, Mantra, Zen – are but all ruse

Oh fools, why besmirch

the mind that is unqualified by nature?

Torture yourselves not. Stay happy.

eat and drink in happiness – make love

not just once but again and again; fulfill

the turning of this Wheel of Life.

crossing of the Samsara – shall be fulfilled

through this Dharma

Persecute not this samsara – (which, but, is) the earth

beneath your feet – think not of this world as less

Saraha says –

may your Chitta – your conscious mind – rest

in such Ease, where the breezes of mind

cannot enter, neither can the sun

nor the moon

Mingle. Distinguish not.

Judge not with futile logic

When desires peak, everything,

everywhere – feels like one and the same

No beginning, no middle, no end

no samsara, no nirvana,

in these splendid climes of happiness –

there is no self and no other

All that you see before you, behind you,

On all ten sides  – all those realities

are the truths.

May you free yourself from all illusions today

Make no futile questions on othering.

What is the point of choking own breaths

in the name of that devoted praxis (which, the Sanskritics call,) Sadhana? Does mindfulness

imply that you fix your vision on your nosetip

and sit

for long hours, holding breath? Oh fools,

once, at least, enjoy Ease – all

shackles of samsara shall break.

In the Easy all are same

Here lies no Shudra-s and Brahmana-s – (no divisions on race)

Easy flows holy rivers – flows Yamuna with waters of goodness –

In Ease lie those pilgrimages – (such as) –

Where the Ganges meets the sea, as Benaras –

the Capital of the Universe! –

as the Confluence –

Here lies the sun and the moon

Much have I wandered across pilgrimages –

Been to divine fields, seen sacred seats,

ordinate ones so many!  – (and, yet,) nowhere, have

I found a place of happiness so blessed as the body!

O you, who has no caste

O you, (repressed as) casteless,

O you, who defeats racism

In Ease, all Tantra, all Mantra, all rites & rituals

are meaningless

in here fades all divinity, all universe

They who drink not the ambrosia

that flow through words of wise teachers

Like thirsty rivers do they dry out in deserts

of claptrap banal, scriptured

Pardon me, pundits,

I have no other task

but to speak out all that I have learned

I shall hide nothing.

Make love, consummate the senses,

(for,) who is there in the Three Worlds

whom such raptures not make

feel bliss, realize all wanting?

But, they, who think of


as either belonging to the self, or to others

Tied are they without ties

Freedom lies far from them…

Us humans,

we know not our own nature.

We have no bhava – being

 we have no a-bhava  – not-being.

It is all void –

it is all Shunya.

No wall stands

 between the universe and freedom –

between bhava  and nirvana –

between being in the universe

and being free.

Nothing separates them.

It is all there, resting in Ease –

we all be, with our beings,

 in the being of the universe – bhava

build no illusions between self and the others, we’re all Buddha

 – endless –

This is the lotus, serene –

 – affirmative –

Your mind is clean

 By its own nature

The mind is one

The tree of mind spreads free

across the Three Worlds

of Heaven, the Earth and Hell

The flowers of karuna


and they fruit –

the fruit is called doing good to others




Put in context, the verses have multiple political shortcomings, most ruefully, on questions of patriarchy and sexualness. Nonetheless, the revolutionary potential of the song was actualized throughout the 11th century AD, when the fishing community of Bengal rose against the oppressive Pala kings.

The Pala kings themselves had indigenous origins. In fact, the tale involving their first king was a chieftain elected by and among the local chieftains of Bengal after a period during which caste oppression through forcefully conducted shifts of endogamy had led to so many race crimes that even the Brahmins could not refrain from calling those ages Matsyanyaya – When Big Fishes Eat Little Fishes. In fact, the folktale on how Gopala came to ascend the throne corresponds exactly with a folktale from Gondwana about a Gondi mythic hero – Chief Jatva Khandat or Jatva the Falchion Yielder – accredited by Ferishta (AD 1560-1620) as a founder of one of the Four Gond Adivasi Confederates of the Ancient and Medieval Times. Both of them had to cut angry bulls with wooden falchions in palace-ground carnivals and then kill the reigning kings from hostile clans with those swords – to come to power. Even Lava-sena, hero of Bengali mythos surrounding indigenous deity Dharma – had to cut a rhino with a wooden falchion. This Dharma, once, was identified by the Buddhists, as Niranjan – the formless emptiness that, even later, became one of the foundational bases of Sikh philosophies. Tales weave more tales. And onwards they flow, carrying in them scents of the subterranean roots of histories that they nourish & get nourished by – all in harmonious reciprocity.

With time, especially since the times a Gaudapada, the Guru to the Guru of Shankaracharya, the Pala kings began to turn towards the caste-orders to consolidate political power. Born & “twice-born” as a Brahmin, Gaudapada, was from the Teacher-Student lineage of Buddhist visionary Nagarjuna who had reflected so deeply on negation of binaries to reach the Shunya that an entire school of Mahayana thought had emerged. Nonetheless, Gauda could not forget his Brahminical pride. With much cunning, he interpolated Nagarjuna’s visions of Non-Dual (beyond binaries) Emptiness with the Vedantas, that is, the Upanishads – a veritable fountainhead of the caste-system. Soon, the Brahmins forged alliance with the Mahayanas. The Pala kings, by then, had shunned their totemic identities in favour of the then powerful Mahayana orders. They began to support the Brahmins and their rituals. For one such yajna conducted in the Vikramshila Vihara where Brahmin priests engaged in fire-worship (hom), animal-sacrifice (vali) and such other rituals for longevity of the king & his kingdom, the king had expended nine lac & two thousands of silver-coin currencies from the royal exchequer.

With time, their brand of Buddhism was to give way to the Brahmins. Soon, the ‘Buddhist’ Palas (8th century AD-11th century AD) were replaced by the ‘Hindu’ Senas (12th century AD). Bit by bit, Buddhism began to wane away. Many people from the repressed castes, who had found shelter below the calming shades of Buddhism, suddenly, lost their shade. For some time, Vaishnavism afforded shelter. But soon, that, too, got enmeshed into all the caste-violence that makes Hinduism thrive. Some sought shelter below the equitable shade of Islam. With time ideas of caste and race began to caste long shadows on that, too.

Kulinism, child-marriage, suttee, death-like austerities imposed upon widows – everything that hurts – thrived. Totems were changing into gotras fast. Kurmi people – many of whom had adhered to their turtle-totem thereby giving the tribe its name – began to get lynched for rearing chicken. Beef-lynchings were conducted to infuriate the Sultans of Delhi and Gour. Divide and Rule was the name of the game and the Brahmins excelled at this, like ever.

The people suffered. There were wars and there were famines. Heinous atrocities committed in the name of power made communities bleed.   This ballad, a conversation between a thief and his beloved, belonging to the Rajbongshi people – people of many tribes ruled by many great Chieftains in ancient times – record such misery:


(Thief says:)

Me, thief, leader of chakras

I worship you, my Radha, my enchantress

In the strength of your love, when i

set out – like ancient secret devotees

to the Mother Goddess do – as

a dacoit – but even in broad daylight, who can catch me?

Such thief has no fear, loses no hope

People whose houses I visit thus –

sees me not, even when I stand

right before them. Jealous neighbours

whisper in conceit. Oh the greatest thief

in the universe (i thus become) –

like a jewel shining in the crown of all thievery

(Hir lover says:)

I have seen that you, thief

are but all talk & gawk & gab-gab-gab

As for the other thieves – their lovers

wear sarees of jute – from bustling settlements to the west, the south

from thriving seaside ports – further to the west

further to the south – as for you, your lover

wears nothing but flowers

wears a chuddar made out of

nothing but air; thus ze sits – inside the room

what fun to look at, eh? what beauty, eh?

Why do you not cut your bravado

and fetch some real hustle?

(Thief says:)

Why worry, my love?
Don’t you worry. (It is) true that i

could not gift you ornaments & jewelry

when we wedded. But out shall I go and steal

And I shall steal well. I shall bring to you

jewelry, clothes, and so many things that

rich householders have. On that day

shall you see, my love, your beauty –


anew, each hour, each day


(Hir lover says:)

Thief, steal something for me today

I have only one piece of cloth –

To drape my body with

unwashed since ever – for,

each time I bathe, I have to wear it again
because there is no other.

for me, steal a pair of clothes

How many days must a woman walk down

wearing the same piece of rag?

(Thief says:)

O my love, in our country

there is much strife

there is no peace

Now, we have little to do

but die; o my love, on our lands

famine has unleashed

So long have the rich hoarded

to make money from the poor’s hunger

that, in their granaries, the rice of wrath have rotted

Currency has lost all value

Even when people take money

and go from door to door, seeking, –

they fail to buy rice and paddy;

Even rice that is baked, dried and flattened,

Even parched paddy that is coated in molasses –

Food that every household had until

these ravages befell –

has vanished from all the houses

And yet, the live on. In and as real songs. In and as real lives. But how?

As it has ever been with all our histories, wherever there is oppression, there is resistance. The kings have guns & laws. The oppressed – their cultures. It is from the people that great poets and singers came up – from the Shabar people came Shabari, from the Dom came Dombi, Jayanandi, from the Chandalas came Yogi, from the weavers came Tanti, from the tanners Chamri, from the fishers came Meena, from the distillers Naro, from the sweepers came Dukhandi and Jalandhari, from the washers Dhombi, from the tillers came Kuchi, Medhi et al, from the smiths came Kangpari, from the travelling sweet-sellers came Pachari. From the divers who dive into the Bay to collect pearls came Samud. Two daughters of a boatman – Mekhla and Kankhala – they lost their heads to the vile realities of patriarchy – only to be remembered forever by the people as a goddess – Chhinnamasta! There were many more – all Daaks (from Tibetan gdag, meaning, ‘Wizard’) and Khanas (from Tibetan mkhana, meaning, ‘Oracle’), bearing primeval shamanic wisdoms down the ages of Stone, Bronze and Iron. Scriptures have not remembered them all. But the people have. And histories have. Proper nouns are but trivia in all these collective remembrances.

For it is these people – the Bauls, their songs which were but people’s songs, their visions of the Easy Path, of Lokayata – which, but are People’s Wisdoms – that form the foundations of these wars on oppression, those against forces that divide. For, far beyond all battlefields & binaries, negating all that breaks & divides, these wisdoms celebrate the triumph of love over hatred. The fishing people of the 11th century had taught the Pala emperors a lesson. They had to lose their empire. When the marauding gangs of Adi Shankaracharya sought to loot & coopt Shiva as a Hindu god, the weavers resisted. Recalling all their ancient mystical inheritances, they did not concede to the idea of their father god being worshipped by those who kill & loot them. The Brahmins hurled them down the caste-ladder – made them Yugi-s. The Dom people refused to let go of their drums, their music, their ancient formless father god – Dharma, Niranjana. The Brahmins forced them out of the cities, into crematoriums – made laws condemning them to the jati-vritti (race-assigned-profession) as corpse-burners. Through ruse & guile of patriarchy verily similar to those adopted by the Aryan invaders in further ancient times to defeat adivasi chieftain Narakasura, they wrested the seat of ancient deity of the Shabar adivasi people by the Bay and named the deity – Juggernaut.  And yet, the Yugi-weavers, the Doms, the Shabars – they bore the torches of resistance – forward and forward – with the rolling wheels of history. To live, for the oppressed, is to resist.

Across the Middle Ages and beyond, the resistances are on. Songs remind us of the resistances. Songs take them forward. Cultures of materialism – those that emanate from the common people and celebrate dignity, equality and living together as communities – flow on, ever in stout resistance against cultures of spirituality – those that the privileged conjure to divide & rule, to unleash power & dominance through propagation of false ideas – ideas such as those that say that some races are bound to rule others because of divine providence, that some people deserve more to live than others based on which race they are born into because of deeds of past life. Some people call these resistances – dialectic. Let us call them – the River of Life.


Sources (in alphabetical order):

  • Bangalar Loko-Sanskriti o Samaj-tatwa, Benoy Ghose, 1983
  • Bangali Hindu-r Varnabhed, Niharranjan Roy, 1945
  • Bangali-r Itihash – Adi Parva, Niharranjan Ray, 1949
  • Bharatbarshia Upasak Sampraday, Akshay Kumar Dutta, (Vol.1, 1871, Vol.2, 1883)
  • Bharatiya Samaj Paddhati, Bhupendranath Dutta, 1983
  • Buddha’s Lions – the same book as above translated into English by James B Robinson, 1979
  • Churashi Shiddhar Kahini, translated by Alaka Chattopadhyay, 1969 based on Chaturasiti Siddha Prvrrtti, biography of the 84 Siddhas by Abhayakaragupta from Gour, Bengal (d. AD 1125)
  • Gondwana Ka Sanskritic Itihas, Moti-‘Raven’ Kangali, 1984
  • Hajar Bawchhor Puratawn Bangala Bhasha-ey Bouddho Gaan o Doha, Charyapada Compilations ed. by Pt. Haraprasad Shastri, 1916
  • History of Buddhism in India by Lama Taranatha (AD 1575-1634), translated into English by Alaka Chattopadhyay and Lama Chimpa, 1970
  • Obscure Religious Cults by Sashibhushan Dasgupta, 1946
  • Siddha-Sahitya, Dharamvir Bharati, 1955
  • The Blue Annals by Kumarshree from Goye (AD 1392-1491), translated into English by George de Roerich, 1949
  • The Royal Songs of Saraha by HV Guenther, 1969
  • Tribes and Castes of Bengal, HH Risley, 1891
  • Uttorbonger Rajbonshi Somprodayer Lokgeeti o Nari Jibon, Niyoti Ray, 1993

Atindriyo Chakraborty is a writer and poet




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