E-Pao! Features - Atom Bapu Sharma and the religious roots of integrationism

Atom Bapu Sharma and the religious roots of integrationism

By: John Parratt *


Atombapu Sharma’s reputation (as even E. Nilakanta acknowledges) has suffered a decline in recent years. For a generation or so, however, his influence was extraordinarily great, and it would not be untrue to say that, while most reputable Manipuri scholars now reject his position, at a more popular level some of his ideas have shown a surprising persistence, especially among apologists of brahmanical Hinduism.

At the height of his influence he even attracted the attention of the great Bengali Indologist Suniti Kumar Chatterji - though, as we shall see below, Chatterji was very much more critical of Atombapu than some of the latter’s apologists seem to have realised. In this paper I shall attempt to re-examine Atombapu’s speculative reconstruction of Meitei religious history, and try to show how its flawed methodology and hermeneutic led him to wholly erroneous conclusions.

I shall also suggest that his views not only had a substantially damaging affect on the development of the genuine study of Meitei culture and society, but that they also became an important ideological basis for the Congress agenda of the political integration of Manipur into the Indian mainstream.

According to a tradition, repeated by Nila-kanta, Atombapu’s family migrated into Manipur from north India, via Bengal, during the reign of Kyamba. This is possible, though its basis rests solely on the family’s own traditions. Atombapu was taught Sanskrit by his father, Nikunjabihari, for which he showed a considerable aptitude. It was his father who gave him the title Vidyaratna, which was later confirmed by Maharajah Churachand when he became Atombapu’s patron.

He is said to have attained a reputation for reading and interpreting the sacred texts, and at the age of 20 became a teacher in local Sanskrit school. A few years later he persuaded the Durbar to enforce Sanskrit as part of the curriculum of the Johnstone School and had himself appointed to teach there. Consequently he was able to influence a whole generation of elite educated Manipuris with his theories with little opposition.

Aside from his father’s instruction, which would have followed the traditional literalist brah-manical model, Atombapu was entirely self-taught. This fact goes a long way to explain why, though his knowledge of the Sanskrit texts must have been extensive, his general theoretical approach was quite uncritical and led him to a wholly misleading subjection of Meitei religion and culture to the sanskritic tradition.

In the 1930s Atombapu was appointed to the Brahma Sabha and made a court pandit. This period coincided with the notorious mangba-sengba outcasting scandals, for which the Brahma Sabha and Churachand were primarily responsible. There is clear documentary, as well as oral evidence, that Atombapu played a leading role in the outcasting abuses in common with a majority of the leading brahmins of the time, and that they saw this as a way of enforcing their own authority over the people as a whole.

In the meantime Atombapu had been busy publishing a flood of pamphlets (through the Chura Chand Press) advocating his own theories which sought to derive Meitei culture from Vedic tradition. Nilakanta claims that ‘his publications advocated social-human rights’ and showed a ‘deep patriotism for the freedom struggle in India’.

In reality his writings show no concern at all for the social welfare of the common people, and his patriotism, such as it was, was in line with the Manipur Congress politicians who wished to subordinate the autonomy of the state to India. During World War II Atombapu left Imphal. He returned later to pursue his writing and died in 1963.

The theory of the Vedic origins of Manipuri culture

Atombapu was a prolific writer, almost entirely self-published. Many of his publications are very brief and ephemeral, and as a whole his work is very repetitive. Some, like his early Harei Maaye (1930), which apparently helped to establish his reputation in the brahmin fraternity in Bengal, scarcely merit any consideration outside the circle of those who take astrological speculation seriously.

His translations of the Sanskrit texts into Manipuri are no doubt a valuable resource, but this work is vitiated by the fact that it provides a basis for his misinterpretation of Meitei culture. It is this aspect of his work, that is his writing on Manipuri culture, which is critical for the purpose of this paper.

In these we see most clearly the ideological position adopted by Atombapu, a position which exposes his lack of critical reasoning and analysis, and - more surprising - some very large defects in understanding what Meitei culture actually is. Allied to this is a lack of rigorous historical sense and a kind of thinking which moves in the realm of myth rather than reality.

What is most surprising, perhaps, is not that a largely uneducated brahmin should have come up with such historically flawed and uncritical speculations, but that he should have seduced so many Manipuris (including respected and educated scholars like Nilakanta) into accepting his ideas. But then social and political intimidation during the reign of Chura Chand no doubt made protest against royal and brahmanical control an option only for the most determined.

Atombapu approaches Meitei culture and religion with a number of ideological assumptions, rather than from a position of scholarly detachment. Basic among these was his conviction that the Meiteis are part of a civilisation which stretched back to Vedic times. For him therefore the original Meitei civilisation was Vedic.

On this basis virtually everything in traditional Meitei culture - its lai, its rituals, its dance - are explained by selecting a Vedic text (usually quoted in Sanskrit) and then drawing a crude relationship with an aspect of Meitei culture. The foundation of all this was his belief that Manipur is referred to in the Mahabharata, more especially in the text which speaks of Citrangada. In Mhb (CE) 1.207 Arjuna is said to have visited ‘Manipura’ and to have left descendants.

There are several very obvious problems with the identification of the ‘Manipura’ of the epic with the present Manipur. Firstly, of course, it involves a naive anachronism, in that the name Manipur is actually of quite recent origin.

Exactly when it came into common use is debatable. The earliest of the English sources (Pemberton) does use it (though with a different spelling). But at the beginning of the 19th century this was not the most usual name for the country and seems only to have been used by outsiders (the local names were Meiteileipak or Kangleipak) and the country was known by a variety of different names by the Europeans. There is no evidence whatsoever that the term ‘Manipur’ could have been used as early as the time of writing of any of the recensions of the Mahabharata.

Secondly there is the issue of historicity. While there is a literalistic tradition in the interpretation of the Sanskrit scriptures, few reputable historians today would allow for the absolute historicity of the epic. Its interpretation has been approach as a piece of writing into the literary category of myth. To use it as the basis for the supposed factual base of the Vedic origin of Manipuri culture is uncritical in the extreme.

Nor thirdly, does the geographical location of the Manipura of the Mhb. remotely correspond to that of the present state. It is clearly situated on the eastern coast of Kalinga (ie. in or around the modern Orissa). The reference to Mt Mahendra would further locate it somewhere in present Andhra Pradesh or Tamilnad. Whatever the geographical problems involved here, one thing is quite evident: it was clearly nowhere remotely in the vicinity of the present Manipur.

Finally we have the problem of the text itself. In Mhb. 1.207 the place is not called Manipur at all, but Ma.nal.ura (12). It is surprising that Atombapu and his disciples did not observe this: one is temp-ted to suggest that there has been a deliberate misrepresentation of the text in the interests of a spurious theory.

Fortunately the theory of the identification of the of the Mhb. with the present Manipur has been largely abandoned in the light of compelling evidence from ethnology, linguistics and history. It is now also generally accepted that the Meiteis and related peoples must have entered from the east and not from the sub-continent itself.

It has further been conclusively demonstrated that Hinduism, in any shape or form, was a comparative late comer to Manipur. Despite this, however, the myth of the Vedic origin of the Meiteis continues to be peddled.

The socio-political context

The attempt to find Vedic origins for Meitei culture reflected the socio-political struggles of Atombapu’s time. The reign of Churachand saw an increase in the power of the brahmins to a degree never before known in Manipur. An examination of the writings of the British administrators from the beginning of the 20th century indicates that they saw Hinduism in Manipur as having only a slight impact upon social structures.

Caste was virtually non-existent, food rules were not strictly observed and brahmins were not greatly respected. Churachand seems to have fallen under the control of the brahmins and the Brahma Sabha, and was clearly willing to exploit brahmin aspirations to power as a means to increase his own control over his people.

The most heinous aspect of brahmin grasping for power was of course the mangba-sengba scandals, in which Atombapu was deeply implicated. Atombapu’s writings reflect the literary side of this struggle for power over the people. They seek to establish the primacy, both in terms of time and of authority, of the brahmins as the supposed upholders of the original Vedic tradition of Manipur, and are therefore an attempt to give a literary and religious basis for socio-political claims to power.

As is common in such movements, justification for innovatory claims is sought in a drastic reinterpretation of the past. Atombapu’s assertion is that brahmin power was always there from the beginning of Manipur’s history and is vested in the supposed Vedic origins of the priestly caste in Manipur.

This authority, he infers, was interrupted briefly during the era of Vaishnavism under Garib Niwaz and some of his successors, but now needs to be returned to its rightful owners, that is the brahmins. These claims are, of course, based on a wildly inaccurate reading both of Manipuri history and culture and no arguable evidence is produced for it in his voluminous writings.

Such a religious ideology proved a gift to the burgeoning political movement for integration with India which became part of the Manipur Congress Party’s political agenda.

It is therefore unsurprisingly that L. Iboongohal and Dwijamani Sharma, among others, uncritically and enthusiastically espoused Atombapu’s position. Since the critical study of history and social anthropology was virtually non-existent among Manipuris at this early period it is not surprising that this ideology, though replete with falsities, swept the field and for a time became the ‘official’ history of Manipur.

One can hardly blame the past generation for this. However it is deeply saddening that so many of those who came after, and were educated in a more critical and discerning educational system, failed to expose the glaring flaws in Atombapu’s argumentation and method. This allowed spurious and damaging conclusions, based on wholly false premises, to gain popular credibility.

Atombapu had a very clear agenda: This was the enforced sanskritisation of Meitei culture, effected through an obsessive programme of identifying all things Meitei with the Vedas. In effect this was a re-writing of Meitei history to make it part of the grand Vedic tradition. To pursue this agenda it was necessary for him wilfully to misinterpret Meitei culture in almost all its aspects and subordinate it to a wholly different, and indeed contradictory, tradition.

Some illustrations of flawed methodology

It would take too long, and indeed be quite unnecessary, to take apart all of Atombapu’s writings on Manipuri culture and religion. But some specific examples are helpful in order to illustrate the critique of his method and approach outlined in the previous section. I shall take these from one of his more influential pamphlets, though - as indicated above - similar argumentation recurs often in his writings.

The title of his booklet Manipur Sanatan Dharma at once gives away the agenda behind it, and indeed is typical of Atombapu’s frequent and inappropriate application of sanskritic terminology to Manipuri culture. This agenda is clear: Manipuri (not even Meitei!) religion is not something that stands in its own right but must be understood as part of the eternal dharma of the Hindu world view.

Thus we have the gratuitous quote upon quote from Vedic texts, none of which bear any sensible relationship to the aspects of Meitei culture to which they are alleged to refer. The booklet opens with what is supposed to be an account of the Lai Haraoba.

This is not only factually inaccurate at a number of points, but the festival is unilaterally, and without any vestige of evidence, interpreted as a festival in honour of Parvati and Parmeswara - an identification which even those only casually familiar with Lai Haraoba will find bizarre. In similar vein is the identification of the makei ngakpa with Hindu deities, and more extraordinarily the introduction of Krishna, Uma, Mahadeva and numerous other Hindu deities, none of whom of course find any mention at all in the text of the Lai Haraoba.

The identification of Panthoibi and Nongpok Ningthou with Siva and his spouse is very late indeed and probably a result of Atom-bapu’s own theories. A critical analysis of the text of Lai Haraoba reveals that one of its functions was almost certainly to oppose and resist the hinduising of Meitei tradition. Atombapu’s efforts to make it mean the contrary, and for which he can produce no evidence whatsoever, are perverse in the extreme.

It is clear that either Atombapu was substantially ignorant of the text of the festival he claimed to be describing, or else has deliberately misconstrued and falsified it in the interests of his brahmanising theory programme.

Atombapu’s linguistic manipulations are no less fatuous. Meiteilon belongs to a quite different language family from Sanskrit, and to attempt to make connections on the grounds of apparent linguistic similarities is fanciful in the extreme. His argumentation in this area (despite his knowledge of Sanskrit and Manipuri) betrays a woeful lack of understanding of how languages relate and of the modalities of loan words.

The connection between lai and linga, for example, is wildly improbably, and derives only from his ideological need to find a place for Siva in the Manipuri pantheon. Atombapu refers to a number of myths which he claims are derived from Manipuri tradition. No sources are given for these myths, nor does he attempt to produce any evidence to show how old they are.

Some are obviously based on Hindu mythology (eg. the myths of the dead cow, and of Pakhangba and Sanamahi circum-perambulating the throne of their father). The earliest written record we have of them seems to be in the pamphlet Bijoy Panchali written by Mutua Jhulon (who had no claim to be either an expert in Meitei traditions or to be a scholar in any sense of the word).

This would suggest that they may have come into existence as recently as the 19th century or even later. Significantly nothing similar to their contents is found in the earlier British sources, nor indeed is the characterisation of Meitei Hinduism by Shakespeare and Hodson anything like that set out by Atombapu. By the time Higgins compiled his Notes in the 1930s we are beginning to see traces of a type of Hinduism in Manipur which resembles that set out by Atombapu.

Atombapu was one of Higgins’ informants, along with some others who espoused the Vedic theory at the time. There must be more than a suspicion that some of the mythical material which seems to lend support to Atombapu’s theories could well have been deliberately fabricated around this time in support of his own agenda.

The same suspicion applies to some of the so-called Puyas. It is very unfortunate that scholars of the Meitei Mayek have not as yet turned their attention to the dating and authenticity of these books, and one of the urgent needs in Manipuri scholarship is for competent literary critical analysis and dating of this corpus.

However even a superficial reading of these books (for example Panthoibi Khongul) shows that some of them betray such heavy traces of hinduisation that they cannot, in their present form, be particularly old. The only safe hypothesis for the moment has to be that they have either been extensively added to and altered by later hinduising editors, or that some of them at least are simply propaganda fabrications, the aim of which was to support the brahmaninising tendencies which characterised the reign of Chura Chand.

Few of them are dated, and where this does occur the datation may well (like that of the Phayeng copper plates) be spurious. Certainly we cannot naively accept them as evidence for state of religion in earlier times until critical literary-historical methods have been applied to the texts and scientific dating applied to the manuscript materials.

Professor S.K. Chatterji’s comments on Atombapu.

Apologists for Atombapu (including Nilakanta) claim support for their views from the writings of the eminent Bengali Indologist, the late Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterji. Chatterji was one of the very few mainstream Indian scholars to take the unique contribution of the north east seriously, and he wrote several disciplined papers on the region.

The main thrust of his argument is that the Mongoloid peoples of the north east - the ‘Kirata’ - had a unique and important contribution to make to Indian culture, and could not be regarded as simply an appendage to the Aryan mainstream.. Chatterji does not share Atombapu’s agenda of seeking to attribute a Vedic origin Manipuri culture: his object is quite the opposite, namely to recognise their original real distinctness, and to persuade his fellow Indian scholars to take this seriously.

In some of his publications in the 1960s Chatterji was inclined to date the beginnings of Hindu influence in Manipur at around 500CE, no doubt by a comparison with other geographical areas on which he had worked. He subsequently accepted the evidence presented by Saroj Arambam Parratt that this was much too early, and that Atombapu (whom she dismisses in a couple of footnotes) made no contribution of any value to the academic study of Meitei religion or to the historical reconstruction of Manipuri culture.

Chatterji’s position was that Atombapu was at the time playing a similar role in the spread of Hinduism in Manipur as did the ancient north Indian sages (‘that great body of unorganised missionaries’ as he calls them) in the brahminisation of the South.

In the South Indian context pre-brahministic Dravidian traditions were deliberately integrated, Dravidian gods becoming identified with the Aryan gods, and mythical traditions which were not directly contradictory to Hindu mythology were included into the secondary group of scriptures, the Puranas.

The function of these writings was to integrate the pre-Hindu traditions - even those which originally had nothing whatsoever to do with Hinduism - and to claim them as part of the Hindu tradition. Atombapu’s agenda in Manipur fifteen centuries later was exactly similar.

In Chatterji’s words, Atombapu was ‘attempting to harmonise the legends and traditions of the Meitei people with the Brahmanical Puranas.’ This harmonisation has nothing at all to do with historical truth, nor does it have anything valid to say about the nature of pre-Hindu Meitei religion.

Rather it is (as I have argued earlier) a particular individual interpretation (or rather mis-interpretation) which is forcibly imposed upon the data, and which is driven by the ideological aim of seeking to integrate Meitei culture into Aryan culture. As such it tells us nothing about Meitei culture, either essentially or historically.

It tells us only how Atombapu has deliberately re-interpreted it. Chatterji in no way endorses Atombapu’s thesis. He simply holds it up as a contemporary example of the way in which Hinduism in its expansion throughout India has always claimed other ethnic non-brahministic traditions as its own.


One might well ask why it is necessary to devote paper and ink to refute an ideological position which is so obviously flawed in methodology and argumentation, and so devoid of any kind of critical substance.

Unfortunately in all societies spurious mythologies of this kind often continue to have a popular appeal long after their theoretical framework has been demolished. In this particular case, as I have intimated above (and infinitely more seriously) Atombapu’s religious programme had distinct social and political overtones.

As Nilakanta rightly recognises, his work had implications for integration. His interpretation of Manipuri culture as simply part and parcel of the pan-Indian Vedic tradition gave a religio-cultural justification to the movement for political integration.

Atombapu was not the ‘renaissance scholar’ that Nilakanta claims. He can best be characterised as a propagandist of an agenda which sought to subordinate and absorb the Mongoloid world view into a wholly different one, derived from a literalist and uncritical reading of carefully selected Sanskrit scriptures.

This agenda did incalculable damage to the genuine scholarly study of Meitei culture for almost a generation, gave a religious underpinning to the fracturing of Meitei society by the introduction of a new form of caste distinction, and materially helped to pave the way for the Congress political activists to effect integration in 1949.

* John Parratt wrote this article in The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on 24th March 2006

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