For years, during Durga Puja, Bengalis queued up every morning, dressed in their new clothes, before the goddess with folded hands for a puspanjali, flower offering. It’s a must. Devotees follow it religiously, uttering after the priest: “Om Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalini…”
The quintessential mantra that has been always chanted in Sanskrit, often without understanding the meaning, will get an ethnic twist this year in many puja pandals in Bengal and beyond.
A campaign has been launched to replace Sanskrit mantras with Bangla, an initiative that could ultimately change the way Bengali Hindus have been conducting their pujas and other religious rituals all along.
A similar initiative has already been taken up in Tamil Nadu, where the DMK government had way back in 1998 directed temples to perform archanas (prayers) in Tamil, instead of Sanskrit. The DMK, after coming to power in the state in 2021, again introduced the Annai Tamil Archanai scheme to promote chanting of mantras in Tamil in the temples managed by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department.
Certain Hindu orthodox lobbies had opposed the scheme and even moved court. The Madras High Court, however, rejected a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) last September that had sought a withdrawal of the scheme. The court pointed out that the use of Tamil hymns was approved in 2008 itself.
No visible opposition
There has been no visible opposition to the language-change initiative in Bengal so far. More than 100 puja organisations in Kolkata alone have already signed up for the switchover, responding to the campaign rolled out by a popular Bengali media group.
Big draws of Kolkata Durga Puja, such as Kumartuli Park, Chaltabagan Sarbojanin, Ahiritola Sarbojanin, Telenga Bagan, Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha, Bosepukur Sitala Mandir, Badamtala Ashar Sangha, Kalighat Sree Sangha, Ajeya Sanghati Club and Barisha Players Corner, have joined the initiative.
To begin with, the mantras during Anjali in Ashtami will be recited in Bangla.
Backing the drive, eminent priest Kaliprasanna Bhattacharya said he has often witnessed while conducting pujas that devotees struggle to utter Sanskrit words in the hymns. Most could not follow or understand what they were chanting, he added.
“There is no point improperly uttering a few words, without even understanding their meanings. A person will be able to better express his or her feelings by chanting mantras in the mother tongue,” he contended.
Lost in pronunciation
“There is no special magic in Sanskrit hymns,” said academician and linguist Pabitra Sarkar, “and even if there is, it is anyway lost in wrong pronunciation.”
Historian and Indologist Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri, along with Sarkar and Bhattacharya, has translated the mantras from Sanskrit to Bengali. The translated work can be downloaded from the website of the campaigner https://chantbangla.org/. The print copy of the same can also be availed.
Unlike in Tamil Nadu, the West Bengal government is not directly involved in the campaign. Yet, it coincides with the ruling Trinamool Congress’s political push for Bengali sub-nationalism to counter the BJP’s Hindu nationalism.