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Bangla literature of the Middle Ages, much of it poetry, based on the Vaisnava religion and philosophy. The story of radha and krishna forms the main theme of this literature. The first epic on this theme was jaydev's 12th century Sanskrit epic gitagovindam. In the 14th century baru chandidas composed Shrikrishnakirtan in Bangla, the first epic in the language. Its 418 lyrics on Radha and Krishna, which are meant to be sung, indicate their respective raga and tal. As a lyrical play, Shrikrsnakirtan is incomparable even today. In the second half of the century, Chandidas composed many lyrics on the story of Radha and Krishna. In the 15th century, vidyapati (c 1380-c 1460) of Mithila composed many lyrics on the same theme in brajabuli. The lyrics became so popular that subsequently many Bengali poets, both Hindu and Muslim, composed Vaisnava lyrics in Brajabuli. rabindranath tagore also composed his Bhanusingha Thakurer Padavali (1884) in this language. In 1474 maladhar basu of Kulingram in Burdwan translated the 10th and 11th cantos of the Sanskrit Shrimadbhagavata about Krishna into Bangla and named it Shrikrsnavijay. In Shrikrsnavijay, Maladhar Basu concentrates more on Krishna's divine side than on the human side of the mischievous youth and lover of Radha. The most important sacred text of the Vaisnavas is Vyasadeva's Bhagavatpurana. The Muslim poet Afzal also composed some lyrics on the romance of Radha and Krishna at about the same time.
Sri chaitanya (1486-1533) was greatly inspired by the lyrics of Jaydev, Vidyapati and Chandidas and composed lyrics on Radha and Krishna. None of the poets who had written about Krishna before Chaitanyadev had been a Vaisnava. Furthermore, their lyrics based on the love of Radha and Krishna did not reflect upon the spiritual aspects of this relationship. Instead, these poets were more interested in depicting the erotic aspect of love. This is why some critics do not include pre-Chaitanya compositions in Vaisnava literature.
Chaitanyadev was the son of a Brahmin. He became an ascetic while a fairly young man, after being initiated into vaisnavism by Keshab Bharati. He spent the rest of his life as a devout follower of Krishna. Inspired by humanism, and supported by his innumerable followers, Chaitanyadev moved around the country spreading his ideas. This religious movement became known as the vaisnava movement. The post-Chaitanya Vaisnava literature is the product of this movement. Through this literature the romance of Radha and Krishna grew from an ordinary, illicit romance to depict mystically the relationship of the human soul (jivatma) to the divine soul (paramatma). Chaitanyadev himself became the hero of a biographical epic. Many books in Sanskrit were written on the philosophy of
Vaisnavism and the life of Chaitanyadev, for instance, chaitanyacharitamrta and chaitanyachandroday. Many lyrics, informative biographies, and philosophical scriptures were also written in Bangla.
Padavali Vaisnava lyrics, known as padavali, continued to be composed for about three hundred years, till the 18th century. These lyrics are inspired by the different aspects of love. Since these are meant to be sung, their respective raga and tal are clearly stated at the beginning of each lyric. In the post-Chaitanya era the themes of Vaisnava lyrics were expanded, with new lyrics being added to reveal other aspects of Krishna, such as Krishna as a child and as a friend. The lyrics, inspired by Vaisnava philosophy, include hymns and devotional poems, with the post-Chaitanya poets adding symbolic and spiritual meanings to the romance of Radha and Krishna.
There is no accurate account of how many Vaisnava poets there were or how many lyrics they composed. The manuscripts of most of these lyrics have not been found. It is possible that the poets did not write down their lyrics and that they were sung by kirtan singers and passed orally from one singer to another. The names of the composers can be known from their compositions. Some lyrics dating from the beginning of the 18th century have been found, including Bishwanath Chakravarty's Ksanadagitachintamani (1705), Radhamohan Thakur's Padamrtasamudra, Vaisnavadas' Padakalpataru (1760) and Narahari Chakravarty's Gitachandroday. Padakalpataru is a compilation of about 3,000 Vaisnava lyrics by nearly 150 poets. The lyrics have been arranged according to the Vaisnava concept of aesthetics and are based on different episodes in Krishna's life: his childhood, his relationship with the Gopis, his romance with Radha, his estrangement from Radha, etc.
The lyrics also describe the different feelings of a woman in love: her coyness, the way she dresses to please her lover, her sulking when her lover breaks a promise, her jealousy when her lover looks at other women, etc. Towards the end of the 19th century dinesh
chandra sen mentioned the names of 164 composers and 4,548 lyrics in Bangabhasa O Sahitya (1895). More compositions of old and new poets were found subsequently, raising the number of Vaisnava lyrics to about 8,000 at present. Some Muslim poets also composed padavali, among them Afzal, alaol, syed sultan, syed martuza and ali raza. The lyrics composed by Muslim poets can not be separated from the lyrics of the Vaisnava poets. They include bhajans as well as lyrics on Chaitanyadev's life and the romance of Radha and Krishna. These Muslim poets may have viewed Chaitanyadev as a pir or guru and Radha and Krishna as symbols of the human soul and the eternal soul.
Some prominent Vaisnava poets of the 16th century were murari gupta, Narahari Sarkar, Basudev Ghosh, Lochandas, jnanadas, govindadas, Balaram Das and Dwija Chandidas; some of the 17th century poets were Kaviranjan (Chhoto Vidyapati), Kavishekhar, Radhaballabh Das, Ghanashyam Das and Ramgopal Das; some of the 18th century poets were Vaisnavadas, Chandrashekhar, Radhamohan Thakur, Narahari Chakravarty and Yadunandan. Vidyapati excelled in composing lyrics on separation, Chandidas on love and union, Jnanadas on affection and Govindadas on trysts. Their lyrics were religious in theme but show considerable literary and artistic qualities. In describing the relationship of Radha and Krishna, the Vaisnava poets also drew upon human psychology. The poets skillfully merged human love with spiritual love in their poems, thus blurring the boundary between religion and literature. The lyrics of Vidyapati, Chandidas, Jnanadas and Govindadas are so rich in ideas and artistic qualities that they can easily claim a place in world literature.
According to theme, Vaisnava lyrics may be divided into four categories: the life of Chaitanyadev, bhajan, the relationship of Radha and Krishna and spiritualism. The first category describes the life and activities of Chaitanyadev. The lyrics of the second category eulogize gurus and great souls. The third category of lyrics describes in detail the story of Radha and Krishna and the incidents that take place at Brindaban. Most of the lyrics have been written on this theme. The fourth category includes lyrics which are deeply devotional. Vaisnava lyrics were written over a period of about three centuries. These lyrics flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, but, in the 18th century, they started to decline. The same is true about the other genres of Vaisnava literature. In fact, the rise and fall of the Vaisnava movement was also reflected in Vaisnava literature.
Charitakavya Vaisnava biographies or Charitakavya grew out of the life stories of Chaitanyadev and some of his associates. Biography was a new genre, not only in Vaisnava literature but also in bangla literature itself in the Middle Ages. No other community composed such monumental poetical works about the lives of contemporary historical personalities or about those of the past. The first biography in Sanskrit was Chaitanycharitamrta. Its composer, Murari Gupta, was Chaitanyadev's contemporary. The book is composed in a mixture of prose and poetry, and is in the form of a diary. This is why it is also known as Murari Gupter Kadcha. It contains several important events in the life of Chaitanyadev, beginning with his birth and ending with his death.
The first poetical biography in Bangla, chaitanyabhagavata (1548), was written 15 years after his death. Brindaban Das wrote this monumental work in 25,000 couplets, at the instance of Nityananda, a close associate of Chaitanyadev. Murari Gupta depicted Chaitanyadev as the personification of Radha and Krishna, united together in love. Brindaban Das depicted Chaitanyadev as the incarnation of Krishna. Lochandas' Chaitanyamangal (1576) was the second biography on Chaitanyadev. Lochandas was followed by Jayananda who, towards the end of the 16th century, composed a third biography on Chaitanyadev, also called Chaitanyamangal. Lochandas' Chaitanyamangal is perhaps the best of the three. krishnadasa kaviraja wrote yet another biography of Chaitanyadev: Chaitanyacharitamrta (1612). Krsnadasa was a disciple of Raghunath Das, an ascetic of Brindaban. Krsnadasa's poem was popular because, though its main theme was the life of Chaitanyadev, it contained reflections on the philosophy of
Vaisnavism and its rites, contemporary history, society and traditions. Krsnadasa Kaviraja depicted Chaitanyadev as the personification of the spiritual relationship between Radha and Krishna. The popularity of the poem is evidenced from the many copies of the poem in circulation.
There were several biographies about Advaita Acharya, the oldest of Chaitanyadev's companions; one biography is in Sanskrit and four in Bangla. Balyalilasutra (1487) in Sanskrit is about Advaita Acharya's childhood and was written by Harakrishna Das. The first book on him in Bangla verse was written by Ishan Nagar. The second such book was Advaitamangal by Haricharan Das. Another book, with the same title, was composed by Shyamdas but its manuscript is no longer extant.
The fourth book, Advaitabilas, was written by Narahari Das in the 18th century. These books contain many references to the association of Advaita Acharya with Chaitanyadev. Two biographies on Advaita Acharya's wife Sitadevi - Sitacharita and Sitagunakadamva - were written by Loknath Das and Vishnudas Acharya respectively. Another biography, Premvilas (1601), about Srinivas, another close associate of Chaitanyadev's, was written by Nityananda Das. Srinivas also figures in Yadunandan Das' Karnananda (1608), Gurucharan Das' Premamrta and Manohar Das' Anuragavallari. Narahari Chakravarty wrote Narottamavilas on the life of Narottam Acharya. Another of his books, Vaktiratnakar, contains biographies of Srinivas, Narottam Acharya and Shyamananda. In the 17th century Rajballabh composed Bangshivilas on the life of Bangshibadan, another associate of Chaitanyadev. In the 18th century some more biographies were composed. These were not many in number but have historical significance. Most of these biographies have little literary value but they are excellent sources of information about the period, about its society and culture, and particularly about the Vaisnava religion and community. The literature of the Middle Ages is dominated by gods and goddesses, religion, mysticism, etc, but the Vaisnava writers wrote about human beings as well, and their literature reveals their deep reverence for their fellow human beings.
Plays A number of plays with Vaisnava themes were also written during the Middle Ages. kavikarnapur wrote a Sanskrit play, Chaitanyachandroday, on the story of Chaitanyadev. Premdas later made a free translation of it into Bangla and named it Chaitanyachandrodayakaumudi. This ten-act play emphasizes the ascetic side of Chaitanyadev's life and his devotion to Krishna. Ramananda Roy wrote another play in Sanskrit on the life of Chaitanyadev and named it Jagannathavallabhanatakam. The play was later translated into Bangla by Lochandas.
Narrative poems Some narrative poems on the romance of Radha and Krishna were written in the tradition of Bhagavata. The writers were also inspired by folk legends and the Puranas. Some epics in this tradition are Madhavacharya's 16th century work Shrikrsnamangal, Krsnadasa' 17th century work Shrikrsnamangal, Abhiram Das' Govindavijay, Ghanashyam Das' Shrikrsnavilas and Raghunath's Shrikrsna-prematarangini. These epics include Krishna's godly activities as well as his activities in Brindaban.
Miscellaneous writings Some essays and poems were also written about the Vaisnava religion and philosophy, society and music. Some such works are Nityananda's Premvilas, Yadunandan's Karnananda, Manohar Das' Anuragavallari and Akinchan Das' Bibartavilas. These are about devotional rites but possess some literary value.
During the Middle Ages, considerable Vaisnava literature was written about Krishna, the romance of Radha and Krishna, the life and work of Chaitanyadev, and about religion. Much of this writing was inspired by the unique personality and religious thoughts of Chaitanyadev. The wide range of subjects dealt with in Vaisnava literature have greatly enriched Bangla language and literature. Through the lyrics the poets expressed their perception about human beings, narrated the numerous events in their lives, and revealed their deeply felt religious thoughts. Although the Vaisnava lyrics were about a particular religion, they possess great literary value and this has made them widely popular. [Wakil Ahmed]
Sukumar Sen, Bangla Sahityer Itihas, 1st Part, Calcutta, 1965;
Gopal Haldar, Bangla Sahityer Ruparekha, 1st Part, Calcutta, 1963;
Satyavati Giri, Bangla Sahityer Krishnakathar Krumavikash, Calcutta,
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