Bengal’s Syncretism: Hindus & Muslims share worship of Satya Pir

Worshipped by Hindus as Satya Narayana, the legend of Satya Pir is syncretic

Satya Pir

Satya Pir worship is one of the popular religious beliefs and practices originating from Bengal, that symbolizes syncretism of Hindu and Muslim religions. While Satya means Vishnu in Sanskrit, also known as Satya Narayana; Pir means “old man” in Persian which was colloquially similar to the meaning of Faqir (ascetic). The Satya Pir belief in Muslims is synonymous with Satya Narayana reverence in Hindus. Satya Narayana Puja and Katha involve fasting during the day and then offering food like Shirni, which was a typical Muslim household preparation, to Lord Satya Narayana who is represented by a plain wooden plank, used to denote the seat of the Satya-Pir where offerings of edibles like confectioneries, milk, sugar, betel-leaf, betel nuts are made.  It is rare to see any deity or imagery of Satya Narayana in such worship which is also in line with Muslim beliefs. Even the origin stories of the belief among Hindus and Muslims have significant overlap.

According to one story, Lord Vishnu appeared in the guise of a Muslim Faqir before a poor Brahmin and told him he would have bounty if he worshipped Lord Satya Narayana. To assuage the Brahmin’s scepticism of following the words of a Faqir, the Faqir (SatyaPir) told him “Except one Brahma, no two Brahma exist, the Lord of all is one Niranjan Gosain, in whose name Brahma, Bishnu and Maheswar utter prayers. In one pore whose skin lies the endless universe. Without hands, without legs, he holds the world. He has no mouth to eat, he hears without ears, sees without eyes. None can recognize Him though He is omnipresent. Bismillah is but another name of that very same Niranjan: Vishnu and Bismillah are not at all distinct” (as quoted in Bangla Sahityer Itihas). The Brahmin obeyed and found himself quite well off in a matter of days. According to another story told about Satya Pir, which also finds mention in Satya Narayana Katha, a merchant pledged to worship Satya Pir if he could have a child. He later had a daughter but put off the worship till her marriage. The consequence of forgetting to worship Satya Pir as promised, led to him being engulfed in a storm along with his son-in-law. It was his wife who then completed the worship on mainland and they were able to return safely.

These legends and stories were meant to inspire awe of the Satya Pir and allude to his supernatural powers. In the stories and in real life, the worship of Satya Narayana was done by the women of the house. During the 15th-16th century, Islam was being taken up by more and more people in the Bengal region. The Muslim women though, had regular interaction with Hindu women who came to visit their households as friends, workers, sellers of knick-knacks, etc. The Hindu women’s beliefs also percolated easily in these interactions and Muslim women would also put their faith in the “brata” (fasting) and ascetic practices popular among the Hindu women to ensure good luck and prosperity of their menfolk who would often be away traveling.

The advent of Bengali Pir literature also helped spread the legend of SatyaPir with ‘Pir-kavya’ (or the eulogical poetic verses on the Pirs). Satya Pir was the symbolic imaginary Pir who acted as a messenger establishing synthesis between the Hindus and the Muslims. Besides SatyaPir, various Gods and Goddesses had arrived in the literature as the Pir-Piranis of the Hindus and the Muslims. Olai Chandi of the Hindus had become Olai bibi in the Pir literature. Similar transformations took place like from Bandevi to Banbibi, Matsyendranath to Masnad Ali and Machchandali, Bastudevi to Bastubibi.

The Pir Panchali Kavya or the eulogical poetic verses about Satya Pir are still read out in the Bengali households for Satya Narayana Puja and making offerings to Satya Pir. In the local folk tales, Hindu and Muslim poets alike had imagined the Satya Pir as the Khudah(God) manifesting dressed as a Faqir. Some Muslim poets also describe him as a Pir from Mecca. The character of Satya Pir had been created by describing him as a Muslim Faqir or Pir possessing supernatural powers.

In this way, the Satya-Pir (or Satya-Narayana) literature gained popularity among the people; the main purpose of the literature was to glorify the Satya-Pir. The first book on Satya-Pir called Satya-Pir Kavya is attributed to Shaikh Faizullah and the book is supposed to have been written between 1545 to 1575 AD.

Faizullah’s writing contains clear hints of cultural assimilation. He has saluted the deities of both communities in the beginning of his book, “You are Brahma, you are Vishnu and you are Narayan, Listen, O Ghazi, pay heed to yourself to preaching in the assembly (i.e. instead of fighting)”.

Towards the closing period of the Mughal rule in Bengal the first effort towards bringing the Hindus and Muslims together started through the medium of the ballad of Satya Pir and Satya Narayan. In the book Bangla Sahityer Itihas, SukumarSen says that the scribes of the Pir ballads were Hindus, the singers were Muslims, but their composers were the poets of both communities. Sen states further that numerous Hindu writers from West Bengal to Assam composed Satya Narayan or Satya Pir Panchalis (poems) by equating Rahim of Mecca and Rama of Ayodhya.

From 16th to 18th centuries various local Pir cults grew in Bengal with traditions and legends around some Muslim saints (Pirs) and mythical heroes of uncertain identity which became very popular among the masses of the both communities, the Hindus and the Muslims. Khawajah Khizir, Pir Badr, Zindah Ghazi, Madar Pir, Panch Pir etc. are very important among them. They were worshipped by the masses irrespective of religion.

Just as the Hindus found a reflection of Guru-Chela relationships in the Pir-Murid dynamic, to the Muslims who had converted, the Pirs occupied a similar space to Tantriks and learned sages while their dargahs held significance paralleled to the Chaityas and Stupas of the Buddhists. Slowly the people of all three religions in Bengal region developed a shared understanding of reverence that is witnessed even today in parts of Odisha, West Bengal, and Bangladesh. May this centuries-old tradition continue and Satya Pir always protect and bestow his blessings on all his devotees, regardless of who they are or what religion they follow or what name they call him by, for the power of faith is greater than all human differences.

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