Oh, when will I unite with the Being of my soul
When will I unite with Him!
Like the Chataka bird who eagerly waits for raindrops
Even I wait for the sight of my Lord.
But that is not to be. It is a matter of great luck
In the above verse, the earnest cry of a Baul to unite with the Supreme is aptly captured by Lalon Fakir, a renowned Baul mystic. The verse depicts the beginning of a Baul’s journey to reach the beloved Supreme. Not only does this journey embody a spiritual tradition, but is also rooted in deep philosophy. Soulveda explores the cultural confluence that is said to have shaped the Baul tradition during its infancy.
The Baul and its origins
Twentieth century historian Niharranjan Roy, in his book Bangalir Itihas, traces the origin of Baul to the Aryan ages. Roy establishes that the convergence of Buddhist and Tantric traditions framed the Baul philosophy to a significant extent. In his words, the native Bengali practice of Tantra and the worship of Goddess Shakti (the feminine energy) went against the patriarchal ideologies of the Aryans. These natives were thus banished from the society. A Buddhist monk, Asanga, perceived this as an opportunity. Buddhism was just beginning to take shape as a movement then. In order to provide momentum to the practice of Buddhism, the monk invited the outcast natives to be part of the Buddhist tradition. Even though Roy does not attribute a name to the tradition that took shape thus, he clearly indicates the shaping up of a community, which going forward, had practices similar to that of Baul.
Buddhist and Tantric traditions aside, the Sufis too had an influence on Baul. In fact, according to Banglar Baul, Sufi Sadhana and Sangeet by the Arabian reformer Abdul Wahhab, the Turkish invasion of Bengal brought a turning point in the history of Baul.
They had eventually left their families, renouncing the material world, wandering the deserts in search of the divine. This journey of the Sufi to unite with the ultimate is said to have influenced the Baul deeply.
This conquest catalysed the arrival of several Sufi mystics from Persia, Morocco, and Turkey. These mystics too had faced societal struggles while forging the path towards the Supreme. They had eventually left their families, renouncing the material world, wandering the deserts in search of the divine. This journey of the Sufi to unite with the Ultimate is said to have influenced the Baul deeply.
The Baul’s journey towards the Sain
In Baul philosophy, the journey to realise the Sain (the Supreme) is inherent. But unlike the Sufis, the Bauls see divine reflection in their own images. The ballad Moner Manush (the Being of the Soul) by the great Baul Lalon Fakir expresses this idea with lucidity. He says:
Like the lightening, which is unable to hide itself in the darkness of clouds,
the Supreme shows himself in my own reflection in the mirror.
The Baul also believes that there is nothing in the universe which cannot be replicated within the human body. They believe that the body is a microcosm of the universe and the Supreme resides within, unrealised. Thus, the journey to unite with Sain is through one’s own body.
Guiding a Baul through the spiritual path is the teacher Mursheed‘. The Mursheed plays an important role in paving the way for his disciple to achieve liberation and seek the divine. He weaves instructions in the form of verses, with which he prepares his disciple to realise the ultimate truth. The disciple is primarily trained to liberate himself from ego, so he may walk the path of realisation.
In the words of Parvathy Baul, “There is no self or other in the path. If you must unite with the Sain, you have to let go of ego.” Further describing the Shahajiya poth (the simple path), she says, “The path to the Supreme is realised through happiness, which is devoid of material bindings. We live in the moment and forget everything else. We can experience happiness from within our self. A Baul does not have to worry about anything else to follow his path, and so, he is spiritually free.” In fact, Vajrayana Buddhist monk Kambalamban Paag, a revered spiritual guide among Bauls, speaks of this process in the following verse:
My compassion boat is filled with the gold of nothingness
And I have no space
O Kamali, you row your boat toward the sky
You were born many times, let’s see what happens this time
You open the tie of ego and let it rise from your mind
You will find it sailing toward your destination, the abode of the beloved
The songs of the Vyakul (the restless)
While on the spiritual path, the Baul experiences a gamut of emotions especially when he experiences Viraha (separation) from the Sain. Just like in the tales of Radha Krishna, where Radha is restless and at the same time happy to just remember Krishna when he is not around, a Baul too longs for Sain, but is content with remembering. His emotions are translated into songs.
Withstanding prejudices and social barriers, the Baul mystics of Bengal have come a long way in their journey to unite with the Supreme. They are, however, far from reaching their destination.
Thus, these songs are usually about the pleasure he feels while on his spiritual journey and his yearning to realise Sain within himself. Parvathy elucidates this further, saying, “What do you do when you feel happy? You sing and dance. That is your expression of happiness. The Baul does that too.”
Notwithstanding prejudices and social barriers, the Baul mystics of Bengal have come a long way in their journey to unite with the Supreme. They are, however, far from reaching their destination. At least, that is what the Baul mystics believe. Buddha says: “Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” Similarly, a Baul finds solace in his journey rather than the destination.
Parvathy observes that a Baul does not want the journey to end in the first place. She says, “We are happy in this spiritual path of uniting with the divine. We sing, dance, and transform ourselves as spiritual beings in the path of supreme realisation. If we meet the Supreme, the process of transformation will end too.” Surmising the never-ending journey of the Bengali mystics, Parvathy sings:
The beloved is in my longingness
Inner joy is in the longingness
So, there is no destination to reach
He is there in every moment
In His absence is the longingness