Baul etymologically arises from Sanskrit batul or byakul that literally means divinely inane or fervently eager
The Charyapadas (Buddhist hymns) which gave rise to Bengali bear references to the precepts of Baul. It is conjectured that around 6th century AD, Mahaprabhu Chaitanya, culled this esoteric coterie of Bauls as a formal community though the word ‘Baul’ appeared in Bengali texts around 15th century.
Bauls are essentially mystic minstrels hailing from the hinterland of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Baul is not just a music tradition but it’s also a syncretic religious sect out of Vaishnavite Hindus, Sufi Muslims and Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas as well as Tantric Buddhist schools like Sahajia.
Austerity and detachment is their keyword. Their itinerant cult possessing minimal accoutrement sans mundane trappings evokes a permeating effect of soul onto the macrocosm – unbound, unhindered and without obliterations. They remain out of the mundane quagmire despite being footed to the terra firma.
These undogmatic Bauls revel in a concept of iconography that transcends the visual apparent onto abstract, mystical rumination. And so, Radha-Krishna communion is embodiment of divine love and not idols to be worshipped in the home. This transmutes into subtle tenets on life taking cognizance of societal concerns and thereby churns out an admixture of exotic tradition of Baul wisdom.
Bauls are a very heterogenous group cutting across despicable denominations of religion, caste, creed and sex. Lalon Fakir (1774-1890), considered the greatest of them all had remarked, “What form does caste have? I have never seen it, brother, with these eyes of mine!”
They have varied lifestyles – domestics as well as ascetics, both exist. The ascetic Bauls do not marry and follow a strict ritualistic and religious lifestyle. They have no fixed dwelling place, keep hopping from one akhara to another. These akharas often come up in areas having graves of their earlier gurus and are kept at bay from the village communities.
The Bauls generally wear a sort of half-dhoti and an alkhalla on the top, both being saffron in colour. Traditionally Bauls don’t cut their hair so they coil it and make a bun atop their head. Around their neck they wear a rosary of basil beads and carry a big jhola, a shoulder bag.
The domestics however lead a family life though they opt to remain in secluded part of a village and do not mix freely with other members of the community.
Bauls do not pay heed to any organised religion being non-conformists, they are iconoclasts and humanists whose sole pursuit is to seek the moner manush – the God within, to ferret out the ultimate Truth through meditation. They bring about a fusion of the Sahajiya and Sufi concept of devotion believing that the human body is the seat of all truths centering which they follow some secret devotional practices.
Baul music solemnises celestial bliss of ethereal permeation. These songs of exultation are soul wrenching.
Several Baul songs have undergone changes owing to Vaishnava influence of kirtans and also under the influence of Sufism.
Though Baul songs are prevalent in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, they differ in both tune and theme. In West Bengal Baul songs, there is an increased presence of Sahajiya Vaishnavism while in Bangladesh, Baul songs have an affluence of Sufi ghazals.
The following couplet is an extract from an English translation of one of the most prevalent Baul songs. Every song may have two interpretations of human love or Divine love, the Bauls refer to them as lower stream and upper stream.
Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart?
He is lost to me and I seek him
wandering from land to land.
I am listless for that moonrise of beauty,
which is to light my life,
which I long to see in the fullness of vision
in gladness of heart…
Notwithstanding the paltry number of Bauls, it has left a profound impact upon Bengali culture. In recognition, Baul was accorded a berth among ‘Masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’ by UNESCO in 2005.
Nabani Das Baul’s son Purna Das Baul made world tours apprising the sagacity of Bauls to the world. He wrote and composed numerous songs and recorded many albums in India, USA, Europe and Japan. Purna Das Baul was conferred ‘The Emperor of Bauls’ by then the President Dr Rajendra Prasad in 1967. So much so, a film has also been made on his life.
Every year during January there is a congregation on the riparian banks of River Ajoy at Kenduli in the district Birbhum of West Bengal. During the four-day long-fest they commemorate their Jaydeb lineage.
Again Lalon Shah’s akhda at Cheuria village in Kushtia holds a three-day festival annually during the full moon in the month of Falgun. Even sadhus flock the auspicious event. These days, one might encounter these mendicants singing in trains or aimlessly straying around.
A mutant form of Baul has also splurged in the west in America and Europe under the spiritual tutelage of Lee Lozowick. But western Baul integrates rock, blues and gospel though maintaining the same principles.
The Mirror of the sky, reflects my soul.
O Baul of the road, O Baul, my heart,
What keeps you tied, to the corner of the room?