Home or Ashram?

The Vaishnavas of Bengal


  • Jeanne Openshaw University of Edinburgh




Caste Vaishavism, renouncers, gender and caste


In theory, Indic religious traditions rigorously differentiate the realms of householder and renouncer, with movement only permitted from former to latter and only for certain individuals. The presence of castes with renouncer names (Yogis, Naths, Vaishnavas) suggests that realities on the ground may not conform to this stereotype. Using fieldwork material from West Bengal, India, this article considers connections between the Caste Vaishnavas and renunciation. Not only do Caste Vaishnavas often follow renouncer practices, male Caste Vaishnava status is conferred by renunciation rituals in which the loin-cloth is functionally equivalent to the Brahmin sacred thread. Contrary to most textual accounts, there is constant movement of renouncers as well as other householders, in groups as well as individuals, into this 'open caste' (Risley, 1891). The relation of joint renouncers (a male and female pair) to Caste Vaishnavas is examined, as is the status of women within the caste.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Jeanne Openshaw, University of Edinburgh

Jeanne Openshaw is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh. Her PhD, based on fieldwork and textual research, was in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her publications include Seeking Bāuls of Bengal (2002) and another monograph, Writing the Self: The Life and Philosophy of a Dissenting Bengali Bāul Guru, is forthcoming.


Basu, Kedarnath, 1886–89, ‘On the Minor Vaishnava sects of Bengal’. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay 1(8): 477-504.

Bouillier, Véronique, 1979, ‘Naître renonçant: une caste de sannyasi villageois au Népal central’. Nanterre: Laboratoire d’Éthnologie.

Burghart, Richard, 1976, ‘Bair?g? Ma??als’. Contributions to Nepalese Studies 3: 63-104.

—1978, ‘Hierarchical Models of the Hindu Social System’. Man (NS) 13: 519-36. doi:10.2307/ 2801246

—1983, ‘Wandering Ascetics of the R?m?nand? Sect’. History of Religions 22.4: 361-79. doi:10.1086/462930

Caudhur?, ?bul ?hasan, 1992, ‘C?lacitra: ba?l?de?er b?ulder’. De?, 18/01/1992, Calcutta.

Chakravarti, Ramakanta, 1985, Vai??avism in Bengal: 1486–1900. Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar.

Chattopadhyay, R., and T. Guha Thakurta, 1995, ‘The Woman Perceived: The Changing Visual Iconography of the Colonial and Nationalist Period in Bengal’. In Jasodhara Bagchi (ed.), Indian Women: Myth and Reality. Hyderabad: Sangam Books (India), 1995.

D?s, Ajit, 1986, April, ‘J?t bai??aber kath?’, B?rom?s, Nababar?a edition. (2nd edition, 1993 December [Agrah?on 1400 B.S.], ‘J?t bai??aber kath?’, C?rub?k, Publisher Jaohar-ul-Islam).

Dasgupta, Shashibhusan, 1962, Obscure Religious Cults. 2nd rev. edn; Calcutta: K. L. Mukhopadhyaya. (Originally published as Obscure Religious Cults as a Background to Bengali Literature. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1946).

Datta, Jatindra Mohan, n.d. ‘On the Baisnabs of Bengal’. Samvadadhvam 8(1-4). Calcutta: Indian Statistical Institute (house journal).

Davis, Marvin, 1983, Rank and Rivalry: The Politics of Inequality in Rural West Bengal. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Day, Lal Behari, 1969 (1874), Bengal Peasant Life. Ed. Dr Mahadevprasad Saha; Calcutta: Editions Indian.

De, Sushil Kumar, 1943, Early History of the Vai??ava Faith and Movement. Calcutta: General Printers and Publishers.

—1946 (reprinted 1986), B??l? Prab?d. Calcutta: A. Mukherjee.

Dimock, E. C, 1966, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vai??ava-Sahajiy? Cult of Bengal. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Dumont, Louis, 1960, ‘World Renunciation in Indian Religions’. Contributions to Indian Sociology 4: 33-62.

Eaton, Richard M., 1997 (1993), The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ghosh, Anindita, 2006, Power in Print: Popular Publishing and the Politics of Language and Culture in a Colonial Society, 1778–1905. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gold, Ann Grodzins, 1989 (1988), Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims. Delhi: Oxford University Press (originally published by University of California Press).

Gold, Daniel, and Ann Gold, 1984, ‘The Fate of the Householder Nath’. History of Religions 24.2: 113-32. doi:10.1086/462982

Harvey, Peter, 1990, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hess, Linda, 1986 [1983], The Bijak of Kabir. Trans. Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh; essays and notes by Linda Hess. Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass.

Hunter, W. W., 1877, A Statistical Account of Bengal. Vol. 5; ‘Dacca (and Bakerganj, Faridpur and Maimensingh)’; London:Trübner,

—1881, Imperial Gazetteer of India. Vol. 2; London: Trübner.

—1968 (1897), Annals of Rural Bengal. London: Smith, Elder.

Inden, Ronald B., and Ralph W. Nicholas, 1977, Kinship in Bengali Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Kabir, 1986 (1983), The Bijak of Kabir. See Linda Hess.

Kennedy, Melville T., 1925, The Chaitanya Movement: A Study of the Vaishnavism of Bengal. London: Association Press; London and Calcutta: Oxford University Press.

Mitra, A., 1953, The Tribes and Castes of West Bengal (Census 1951, West Bengal). Alipore, West Bengal: West Bengal Government Press,

Nicholas, Ralph W., 1969, ‘Vai??avism and Islam in rural Bengal’. In David Kopf (ed.), Bengal Regional Identity (Asian Studies Center Occasional Paper: South Asia Series, No.9; East Lansing, MI: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1969: 33-47.

O’Connell, Joseph T., 1982, ‘J?ti-Vai??avas of Bengal: “Subcaste” (J?ti) without “Caste” (Var?a)’. JAAS 17(3-4): 189-207.

—1990, ‘Do bhakti Movements Change Hindu Social Structures? The Case of Caitanya’s Vai??avas in Bengal.’ In Bardwell L. Smith (ed.), Boeings and Bullock Carts: Studies in Change and Continuity in Indian Civilization. Delhi: Chakanya, 1990.

Openshaw, Jeanne, 1997, ‘The Web of Deceit: Challenges to Hindu and Muslim “Orthodoxies” by “Bauls” of Bengal’. Religion 27: 297-309. doi:10.1006/reli.1997.0093

—1998, ‘ “Killing” the Guru: Anti-hierarchical Tendencies of “B?uls” of Bengal’. Contributions to Indian Sociology 32(1): 1-19. doi:10.1177/006996679803200101

—2002, Seeking B?uls of Bengal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—Forthcoming 2007, ‘Renunciation Feminised? Joint Renunciation of Female-Male Pairs in Bengali Vaishnavism.’ Religion 36(3).

—Forthcoming, Writing the Self: The Life and Philosophy of a Dissenting Bengali B?ul Guru. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Parry, Jonathan,1982, ‘Sacrificial Death and the Necrophagous Ascetic’. In M. Bloch and J. Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982: 74-110.

Risley, H. H., 1891, Tribes and Castes of Bengal, Vol. 2. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press.

Roy, Asim, 1983, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sinha, Surajit, 1968 [1966], ‘Vai??ava Influence on a Tribal Culture’. In Milton Singer (ed.), Krishna: Myths, Rites and Attitudes. University of Chicago Press: Phoenix Edition, 1968.

Thapar, Romila, 1982, ‘The Householder and the Renouncer in the Brahmanical and Buddhist Traditions’. In T. N. Madan (ed.), Way of Life, King, Householder, Renouncer: Essays in Honour of Louis Dumont. New Delhi: Vikas, 1982: 273-98.



How to Cite

Openshaw, J. (2007). Home or Ashram? The Vaishnavas of Bengal. Fieldwork in Religion, 2(1), 65–82. https://doi.org/10.1558/fiel2007v2i1.65