Understanding Bihari Identity through celebration of the Chhath
1. The struggle of Being and Consciousness of a Bihari in an alien land
It was in the middle of 1980s that I came to Delhi to pursue my Master Course in Sociology from Delhi University. The city itself proved a revelation to me. Till then I had not seen such a big city, nor had I any experience of cosmopolitan life and culture. Delhi seemed a fairyland to me. For quite some time, I was lost under the gaze and glow of city. But soon the reality caught me in a cruel way. To my chagrin, I found that beneath the apparent civility and sophistication of the city there existed layers of contempt and indignation for the people of one of the most backward states of Bihar. Any motley group of labourers was instantly and contemptuously identified as Biharis. The very mention of the word ‘Bihari’ seemed intimidating to our being and consciousness. For others, Biharis were a necessary evil.
The word ‘Bihari’ is an adjective relating to things and people, culture and traditions of Bihar, yet it was given a humiliatingly evil connotation in India’s metros where the unemployed young men and women from Bihar flocked to pick up any work these cities offered. Left with little to fall back upon, they lacked bargaining capacity in the labour market and became the source of cheapest and most malleable labour force. From security guards in offices, residential colonies and bazaars to domestic help and factory workers in informal manufacturing sector, they were / are seen everywhere, drawing contempt of the urban civil society. They were / are ridiculed and insulted for having inundated the city space and disgraced the urban civility with their vulgar rustic behaviour and unruly criminal arrogance. I was once asked how I would react if I were to be congratulated for the second successful invasion of Delhi by Bihari migrant labourers, the first since the great medieval warrior Shershah Suri invaded Delhi in A. D 1528. The question unsettled me though completely for a while, I soon sensed something anew and funny about it. Presenting a calm and composed face I said: I would not like to be congratulated for the second successful invasion of Delhi by Biharis, because unlike the first invasion of Delhi by Shershah Suri, the present invasion by the migrant labourers of Bihar involves shame, not pride: the first was a joy, the second is a farce and tragic. Furthermore, I said I would also like to witness the rapid transition of our collective tragedy into a joyful comedy. Yet I didn’t know how it would be effected and by whom.
2. A ray of hope at the dead end of the dark tunnel
But time flew on wings for Biharis. Beginning in the late 70s, streams of students from Bihar started enrolling themselves in DU and JNU for higher studies. Over a decade or so, many of these students forced their way into the elite professional groups of Delhi. Some taught in colleges and universities, others supervised law and order situation. The growing occupational diversity among the migrant Biharis made them visible at places other than the labour market. To top it all, Biharis drew the attention of political leaders by dint of their sheer demographic size. Yet, Biharis lacked a specific cultural identity that can bind them together in the midst of the strangers. They needed a new binding force to remain tied up to their cultural roots and uniqueness. They wanted to have a new symbol, a totem to represent their conscience collective.
3. Emergence of a new religion
Needless to say, ‘Chhathi Maiya’ has emerged, over the last couple of decades, as a new symbol representing the conscience collective of Bhari people. Apart from the Chhath Puja, no other religion or festive occasion keeps Biharis so distinctly apart and forbidden from others. Biharis wear this identity on their sleeves. It means a lot to them. Chhath is the new religion and Chhathi Maiya is the supreme deity of Biharis. Biharis seem to impulsively comply with mores and behaviour associated with Chhath Puja. This impulsive compliance with a body of beliefs and rituals brings us back to reflections which the French sociologist Durkheim had proposed long ago in his book Elementary Forms of Religious Life. If religion is to be treated as a social fact, it has got, said Durkheim, to be sui generis, a-priori, constant, external and constraining to individual’s mind and behaviour.
The Chhth Puja seems easily akin to what Durkheim thought of as a social fact. Like any living being, the live religion too grows and expands and commands. Till very recently, the Biharis celebrated Chhath differently in North Bihar and South Bihar. The tradition of Chhath Puja in north Bihar is well entrenched and has been promoted and sustained through a unique institutional system which requires strict observance of Chhath Puja without break or discontinuation under any pretext or circumstance. As per the current tradition, once a woman starts observing Chhath Puja in north Bihar, she is always under a divine vow to continue the practice till the time her body and mind can endure the rigors self discipline and denials. However, if she becomes incapable of enduring the rigors of the Puja, she can pass on the baton to her daughter-in-law who will undergo similar process of continuation and transition. On the contrary, the tradition of Chhath Puja in south Bihar presented a broken rather than a continuous stream of family engagements with theChath Puja. Here. one can observe Chhath Puja as per one’s choice. It was never considered a mandatory obligation in south Bihar to do Chhath Puja continuously year after year. It is another thing to inform though that the situation today is totally different. Even in south Bihar, the tradition of celebrating Chhath Puja is no way different now from that of the north Bihar.
An all encompassing deity
The Chhathi Maiya finds resonance and acceptability even among the non-Hindu groups and communities. The unwritten code of conduct to be observed during Chhath Puja is not confined only to observance of specific rituals but extends to include even mundane sphere of our life. The high standard of personal and environmental cleanliness or swachchhata has always been the hallmark of Chhath Puja. Celebration of Chhath Puja involves massive mobilization of youth who act not only as safaii-karmachatis, but also as custodians of good civil conduct during the entire Puja period. The near zero crime rate which the state records every year during the Chhath Puja is indicative of the fact that religion can be used as a potent tool of social control. This is the wonder we witness every year during the Chhath puja in Bihar. The feeling and ambience that we experience during the puja is simply an out of world experience in nature. Biharis all over the world melt into a monolithic entity on this occasion and stands guard to any moral digression.
The Bihari identity is no longer a fragmented entity showing diverse directions and affiliations. Along with being divided into sub-cultural identities of Magahi, Bhojpuri and Maithili, Biharis are unified and tied up to a super cultural identity. I see no reasons as to why the Chhath Puja won’t unfold new creative energy among and build a new cultural identity for the people of Bihar living either in Bihar or elsewhere. At the same time, efforts will also be made to assimilate this inclusive tradition with the priestly Great tradition of Hinduism.