Beyond Hindu and Muslim: Bauls of West Bengal and Bangladesh

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Riding on the Visva-Bharati Express train from Kolkata to Bolpur, you can expect to be joined by a Baul singer, raising her voice above the clatter of the train, playing her ektara as she leans against a seat for balance. On this train, it is mostly the elite Bengali and foreigners who give Bauls money as alms when they sing, and oftentimes Bengalis request a favorite tune. At a tea stall in the small town of Santiniketan, you will see a Baul man talking with the cha-wallah. If you arrive in Chheuria in Kushtiya, Bangladesh, during the death anniversary of Lalan Shah (d. 1890), you will hear groups of Baul and Fakir singers. Or go to the High Court mazar in Dhaka, or the Shah Jalal mazar in Sylhet on a late Thursday night, and you may hear a harmonium and voice raised in song.

In popular imagination, Bauls are recognized by their ektara (a one-stringed instrument), orange or white clothing, beads, and long hair piled in a top knot to one side. Some wander the countryside singing and performing their passionate music, and it is their songs that have captured the imagination of most who know them. Besides the few Bauls who have gained international fame, most live in rural areas.

There’s a common saying among Bauls, not original nor exclusive to Bauls yet significant to them nonetheless: there are many different paths to reach the same goal.[i] Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that as many Bauls there are, there are that many opinions as well paths. Despite scholars’ attempts to claim what is authentically Baul, Bauls defy generalities. They represent a diverse group with diverse beliefs, practices, goals, and methods. And in fact, they actively embrace diversity, arguing that the individual has ultimate autonomy in matters of experience, belief, and method. I caution the reader to bear this diversity in mind. There are many scholars, laypeople, and even Bauls who claim to know what is a real Baul. Trying to demarcate what is authentic or fake among Bauls is a mistake.[ii]

But rather than discard the term “Baul” altogether (for indeed the term does mean something to those called Baul today), this diversity itself is a significant component to being Baul. When Bauls talk and sing, they draw on different traditions—including Sufism (the mystical path of Islam), Vaishnavism (a branch of Hinduism), and Buddhist Sahajiya. In doing so, they argue against sectarianism and caste hierarchy. They insist that all humans should be honored.

Bauls distinguish between two paths: one path is based on conjecture and blind faith in the words of others (anumān), including sacred texts and systems like caste, and the other is based only on what one can directly perceive with one’s senses (bartamān). It is this latter path of direct experience that Bauls defend. The existence of deities, such as those said to inhabit the images of gods and goddesses like Krishna or Kali, cannot be proven, they argue. A transcendental god like Allah or God also cannot be directly experienced. Bauls believe instead that one should revere what can be directly seen and experienced: human beings. Bauls, like Parvathy, argue that one cannot fully understand the path unless one is on it.

Nations, religions, and borders

Bauls are distinctly a Bengali phenomenon from West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh. Although people living on either side of the border speak the same language (with differences in regional dialects typical all over the subcontinent) and share a related Bengali identity, the region was divided in 1947 when the British handed over rule to the local population. The subcontinent was partitioned into separate nation states, the lines being drawn to give Hindus and Muslims distinct homelands. Thus, India was fashioned into a predominantly Hindu nation (though it remains secular) while Pakistan (in the far western and eastern corners of India) was predominantly Muslim. Partition led to mass exodus of peoples crossing the border, many dying in the violence that broke out as they left their natal homes to start new lives, often as refuges, in a new nation.

Although there have been clashes between Hindus and Muslims before Partition, the boundaries between religious groups were not always clear-cut. In villages all over, Hindus and Muslims often worshipped in the same temples for a god or goddesses or the same shrines for a Sufi saint (mazar). Hindus and Muslims lived as neighbors and valued shared local identities over religious differences. But with the creation of India and Pakistan, there emerged a heightened critique of such blending. Pakistan, which had its central authority in West Pakistan, sought to purge East Pakistan of what was viewed as local Bengali practices that were non-Islamic. In 1971, East Pakistan broke away and became Bangladesh on the platform that their Bengali culture was more central to their identity than an Islamic identity imposed from outside.

But South Asia continues to see violence among different religious groups as politics becomes increasingly intertwined with religion. India, for example, has had a rise in Hindu nationalism that seeks to purge Muslim and Christian elements from the nation. In Bangladesh, people have become increasingly intolerant of its Hindu minority as well as what is perceived as Hindu characteristics of Bangladeshi culture. It is against this background of both blending and divisiveness that Bauls need to be seen.

Hindu or Muslim?

Although their roots extend deeper, Bauls have been around at least a century.[iii]  Like many other South Asian mystical traditions, they present an alternative to conventional society, and membership is attained through initiation by a guru or murshid. However, unlike many other religious groups, Bauls intentionally reverse a number of orthodox practices. They are fiercely opposed to the caste system and sectarianism (jāt), and in practices and ideology, they extol women over men.

Bauls have variously been praised for their egalitarianism and critique of idolatry, and they have been condemned for their unorthodox practices and disregard for caste and religious norms. The public discourse on Bauls fluctuates between these extremes, and Bauls have been swept into larger discourses on both secular nationalism and religious identity.

The earliest reports on Bauls, dating from the mid-nineteenth century, reflect a low opinion of them, referring to them as degenerate, low-class, and immoral. But their status improved during the early twentieth century as Bengali nationalists sought a regional identity to refute British rule and critiques. Seeking a unique national identity, Bengalis looked toward cultural symbols on their own soil, and they found much in the Bauls that was worthy of praise and pride. In the eyes of Bengal intellectuals and nationalists, Bauls were idealized as wise village philosophers.

A similar trend happened later in what would become Bangladesh. During the Islamic reformist period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bauls and other Fakirs were denounced and persecuted for their heterodoxy as well as their esoteric beliefs and ritual practices. Music was also condemned as being un-Islamic. Due to the brutal attempts of Pakistan to suppress the Bengali heritage of Muslim Bengalis, locals responded by seeking their identity in the soil of Bengal and thus exalted various literary figures, whether Hindu or Muslim, such as Rabindranath Tagore, Lalan Fakir, Hasan Raja, and Nasrul Islam. The status of Bauls in what is now Bangladesh improved in a way similar to what occurred during resistance against the British.

With the increase in popularity of Bauls, there has also been a surge in research and academic writing on them, most of which focuses on songs, philosophy, and historical origins and influences.  Historical reconstructions of Bauls are more instructive about the agendas and interests of various scholars than of Bauls themselves.[iv] There is much concern and debate over whether Bauls are descendants of Hinduism or Islam, and this is, at least in part, related to both Hindus and Muslims wanting to claim the Bauls as part of their own tradition.

To understand the debate around Baul religious identity, it is instructive to look at Lalan Shah (Lalan Fakir), a famous poet and ritual practitioner of the nineteenth century who captured the attention of Bengali intellectuals on both sides of the border as well as Bauls all over. Little is known about the birth and life of Lalan, but much is speculated. Carol Salomon (1991) sums up two basic versions of the legends of Lalan’s origins. In one legend, Lalan was born in a Hindu Kayastha family. While on a pilgrimage, Lalan apparently contracted smallpox, was presumed dead, and was left behind. A Muslim found and nursed him back to health, and Lalan eventually became a Fakir (a term having, in this context at least, Muslim connotations). Another legend, however, claims that Lalan was born in a Muslim family. As his parents died when he was young, he was raised by Siraj Sai who later became his guru. In this case Lalan was viewed as Muslim from start to finish. According to Salomon, neither story can be taken as historical fact as Lalan himself never talked about his life, and these stories were printed after his death. She suggests that the latter story is “obviously apocryphal. The manuscript was discovered at just about the time when Lalan’s songs were becoming a source of national pride for Muslim Bengalis and is clearly an attempt to claim him for Islam” (1991:275). Salomon argues that Muslim Bengalis wanted to make Lalan into a “respectable Sufi” and a cultural hero.

Lalan’s own death further reveals the contentiousness of Baul origins. In life he had denied any allegations that he was either Muslim or Hindu, insisting instead that he was a human being. In his songs he argues that there are only two jāts (man and woman), and all distinctions between religions and caste are merely created by human beings—in other words, they are not innate differences determined at birth.  (The term “jāt” connotes both religion and caste.)  When he died, there were no mullahs or priests officiating, but in the manner typical of Hindu Vaishnavas, there was all-night singing, and in the place of his grave was erected a tomb that was called by its Hindu name, samadhi.  In the 1950s, this samadhi was transformed into a mazar (a Muslim name for a tomb of a Muslim saint), and Lalan’s religious identity was thereby affirmed as Muslim. Although Lalan during life was adamant about not belonging to any jāt, a message that persists in his many popular songs, after his death his jāt affiliation became a central concern to both Hindus and Muslims.

The tendency to divide Bauls into Muslim or Hindu camps, or to prove that they were influenced more by one tradition over the other, continues today. However, although some praise Bauls for not caring about the distinctions between Hindus and Muslims, others found this problematic. In India this discomfort with Baul anti-sectarianism manifests itself in a Hinduization of Bauls, particularly in areas where being a Baul is viewed in favorable terms (as in Birbhum). Additionally, in both contexts, there is considerable pressure on them to fit into the larger socio-religious context.

But while intellectuals continue to debate about the origins and religious characteristics of Bauls and what actually belongs to the Lalan Shah corpus of songs, in Bangladesh they face considerable discrimination and violence. Some have been attacked in their akhra; followers of Bauls have been killed; many have endured humiliation; and recently a Baul was attacked on stage by madrassah students who protested his lyrics. In reference to an attack on Bauls in western Bangladesh, one news source described Bauls as “a predominantly Hindu movement.” Most news sources state that Bauls were attacked by people who believed their practices were un-Islamic.

Baul perspectives

Bauls, however, claim that there are no differences between Muslim and Hindu Bauls, or between Fakirs and Bauls, except for the words and cultural backgrounds. It is common for one Baul to have disciples or gurus from different religious traditions. Lalan Shah had both Hindu and Muslim disciples, and Bauls of Muslim and Hindu origin sing his song.[v] Traditionally, Bauls from different backgrounds draw on each other’s traditions to discuss matters of theory and practice. In discussions or songs, the Bhagavad Gita and the Qur’an might be cited by either Muslim or Hindu Bauls. They sing about the divine play of Radha and Krishna or the love between Allah and the Prophet. The language used may reflect different backgrounds, but the messages underlying those differences are shared.

This melding is self-conscious among Bauls and is supported by a vast number of songs that criticize the jāt system.

For many Bauls, there are personal reasons for their concerns about religious violence and caste hierarchy.  They have experienced the divisiveness and discrimination in society and have sought remedies in their own lives. By taking initiation into the Baul path, individuals distance themselves from their previous religious identities and defy social norms that seek to regulate social interaction among humans. They also gain a platform – whether on trains, in large programs, or in the village streets – from which to challenge communalism and discrimination. A Baul in India stated his sings his favorite Lalan song to reveal the contradictions inherent in the Indian caste system:

My caste is gone, my caste is gone…
Brahman, chandal (untouchable), methar (toilet cleaner), muci (leatherworker),
They all become clean with the same water.
[Although] Seeing and hearing this does not appeal to you,
The god of death will not let anyone escape.
Some secretly eat the rice cooked by prostitutes
But that does not seem to affect their caste.
Fakir Lalan asks, how do you define caste?

A disciple of Lalan, Duddu Shah, wrote direct and uncompromising songs, and he blames the jāt system on nurture rather than nature: “It’s by seeing and hearing about the qualities of their surroundings that children learn about Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, and it’s only then that violence and hatred in thought and actions arise in the mind. This is not something that one is born with” (Duddu Shah, in Bhattacarya 1971:822).

Armed with an arsenal of songs aimed at challenging discrimination, Bauls voice their criticism of society and offer an alternative ideology. That many of them come from lower caste backgrounds or are caught in the throes of inter-religious or inter-caste conflict is not a surprise.  These kinds of experience contribute to shaping their lives and paths.

Turning inward

Bauls counter sectarianism and the caste system with a philosophy that the body is a microcosm of the universe – that whatever is in the external world is also within one’s own body. This philosophy leads to the emphasis on the value of each human being, and anything that diminishes the value of particular people is rooted in false trust in hearsay and conjecture. As seen in the songs of Lalan and Duddu Shah quoted above, jāt is viewed as a learned system rather than an innate one. Bauls argue that the external trappings of all religions are merely constructions that divide people, creating enemies. Indeed, Bauls downplay the very differences apparent in physical form among people.

Distinguishing between the outer and inner world, a Bangladeshi Baul offers ideas to counter the divisiveness in society. In a discussion about the qualities of men, women, and God, he cited parts of a song, the wish-fulfilling tree:

Everyone knows the name “wish-fulfilling tree.”
Whatever the living being desires, I fulfill their wish at that very moment.
To the Hindus I’m Hari, the Muslims call me Allah,
And in the English language I’m called God.
However, I’m not different from any of those names.
They call me Brahma in the land of the Burma
And the Christians call me Jesus.

One message appears clear: God has several names and will respond to whichever name is being called. By extension, any presumed hierarchy among religious paths is leveled through the sameness of the object of devotion. The belief that these names represents different deities stems from a false sense of superiority and leads to discrimination and violence.

He continued. Looking around the room, he asked us if we saw one human or several humans. Trusting our eyes, we answered that we saw several humans.

He answered: “Yes, that’s what you see. But if I cut a person here, you here, me here, [pointing on his arm], then what do you see?  Blood. We see all these different forms on the outside, but in the inner universe we’re all the same. In my sight I see here many. But actually, we’re all the same; we’re all the same stuff. Same blood, same pain. The way you came into the world from your mother?  That’s how I also came into the world.  Isn’t it so?  We’re all foreigners. We came into this world. You’re from another country, but really we’re all foreigners in this world…When you go into the inner world (ādhyātmik), then you see that everything is mine (sabi āmār). Whatever I have for blood, she or he has for blood. [It may appear] white, spotted, dark, but if you put all the blood in one place, then you see it’s all the same.”

In a radical way, Bauls eliminate distinctions among humans and between humans and the divine, arguing that differences are merely a matter of outer form (rūp) or name (nām). The divine that is revered by various traditions is inside one’s own body and can, through proper training and effort, be experienced. For this reason, Bauls argue that one should honor humans, not deities or idols.

As Duddu Shah argues against Hindus in a song, “The living Kali is in your home, but you don’t see her. You worship a doll and die, you blind idiot! You don’t recognize she who is alive and pray instead to a form made of a bundle of straw… No one recognizes the Shakti who creates the world” (Duddu Shah, in Bhattacharya 1971: 816). Unlike deities, human beings are living and breathing and very readily perceived with one’s senses. In arguing that people have put faith in systems based on conjecture and which ultimately divide and rank humans, Bauls urge listeners to turn inward to recognize that the inner self within each human defies all systems of hierarchy and divisiveness.

Amid a background of increasingly communalistic tendencies, it is precisely the inclusive and egalitarian ideals of Bauls that has drawn some people to this path. Sometimes at great risk to themselves, they utilize performances as platforms to assert their views on social hierarchy and discrimination. Through songs and everyday lives, they promote a philosophy of the internal sameness of all humans.

In our current chaotic world with appalling injustices inflicted upon groups of people merely for their cultural, religious, national, gender, racial, or sexual identities, we can all learn to honor the inner self that is the same in each of us.

We are all foreigners in this world.


Selected bibliography

Bhaṭṭācharya, Upendranāth. Bāṃlā bāul o bāul gān [Bengali Bauls and Baul songs], Calcutta 1968, repr. 1971.
Capwell, Charles. The music of the Bauls of Bengal, Kent, Ohio 1986.
Cākī, Līnā. Bāuler caraṇdāsī [Maidservants of the feet of Bauls], Kolkata 2001.
Chakrabartī, Sudhīr.  Bāul phakir kathā [Teachings of Bauls and fakirs], Kolkata 2001.
Dimock, Jr., Edward C. The place of the hidden moon. Esoteric mysticism in the Vaiṣṇava-sahajiyā cult of Bengal, Chicago 1966, repr.    with new forward 1989.
Flueckiger, Joyce Burkhalter. Inside Amma’s healing room, Bloomington, Ind. 2006.
Hanssen, Kristen. “The true river Ganges. Tara’s begging practices,” in Women’s renunciation in South Asia. Nuns, yoginis, saints, and singers, eds. Meena Khandelwal, Sondra L. Hausner, Ann Grodzins Gold, New York 2006, 123-61.
Knight, Lisa I. “Renouncing expectations. Single Baul women renouncers and the value of being a wife,” in Women’s renunciation in South Asia. Nuns, yoginis, saints, and singers, eds. Meena Khandelwal, Sondra L. Hausner, Ann Grodzins Gold, New York 2006, 245-87
———. Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in West Bengal and Bangladesh, Oxford University Press 2011.
Openshaw, Jeanne. Seeking Bāuls of Bengal, Cambridge 2002.
———. Writing the self. The life and philosophy of a Bengali Baul guru, Oxford 2009.
Salomon, Carol.  “The cosmogonic riddles of Lalan Fakir,” in Gender, genre, and power in South Asian expressive traditions, eds. Arjun Appadurai,Frank J. Korom, and Margaret A. Mills, Philadelphia 1991, 267-304.
———. “Bāul songs,” in Religions of India in practice, ed. Donald Lopez, Princeton 1995.
Tagore, Rabindranath. The religion of man, Boston 1961.
Uddin, Sufia M. Constructing Bangladesh. Religion, ethnicity, and language in an Islamic nation, Chapel Hill 2006.
Urban, Hugh. “The politics of madness. The construction and manipulation of the “Baul” image in modern Bengal,” in South Asia 12:1 (1999), 13-46.

[i]Jata mat, tata path”: there are as many paths as there are opinions.  This statement is associated in Bengal with the saint Ramakrishna.

[ii] See Openshaw (2002) and Knight (2011) for more on the problematic debates about Baul authenticity.

[iii] Historical roots and origins of Bauls is highly contested among scholars, with some claiming Bauls were around as early as the fourteenth century.   Part of the difficulty in determining any origin is that the term bāul has also been used as a descriptive label for someone considered “crazy” and does not always signify members of the sect.  While the word Baul today carries both connotations, its current usage almost always refers to the sect.

[iv] See Openshaw (2002) and Urban (1999).  Both of these scholars take to task the constructions of Bauls in scholarly and popular discourse and demonstrate very convincingly the disjuncture between these discourses and Bauls themselves.

[v] Gosai Gopal also disregarded jāt distinctions.  Born in 1869 in a Hindu Brahman family, as a Baul he had followers from every class and from both Muslim and Hindu communities (Bhattacarya 1971: 763-4) He lived in Silaidah, the area where the Tagores had their home in East Bengal.


Lisa Knight is Professor of Religion, Asian Studies, and Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University in South Carolina.

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