Bauls are a religious and cultural group of India, best known for their songs and poems to the god who dwells within. The term "Baul" is usually understood to mean "madman" or religious ecstatic, and Bauls often describe themselves as crazy for God.
Bauls are found primarily in the state of West Bengal in India and in Bangladesh. There are three major communities or lineages (sampradayas ). The first is associated with the Birbhum District, which is traditionally considered to be the source of the Baul tradition in West Bengal. This community is in the western part of the state, and it inhabits the districts of Birbhum, Burdwan, Bankura, and Midnapore. It shows many influences, including Tantric Buddhism and Shaktism (goddess worship). The second community is known as the Navadvipa sampradaya, which shows strong Bengali Vaishnava influence and is found primarily in the Nadia and Murshidabad districts. The third group is the Muslim Bauls or fakir sampradaya, found primarily in Bangladesh.
Bauls may live as religious ascetics or as laypeople. The householder Bauls live as married couples and perform daily rituals in their homes. The ascetic Bauls take initiation, often as renunciant vows (sannyasa diksha ), and may wander through the countryside or live in the ashram or akhara (monastery). These ashrams are frequently supported by the local villagers. Bauls who wander from village to village may also contribute from their earnings from begging (madhukari ) or singing.
There are great gatherings of Bauls at festivals called melas or mahotsavas, at which hundreds of Bauls meet to sing and share stories. There are large tents and awnings, incense, fires, and flowers. Some of the largest of the gatherings are in Birbhum, in Jayadeva-Kenduli, Gopalnagar, Dubrajpur, and Bilvamangala. Baul singers are usually men, and they play a variety of instruments to accompany the songs. The most common is the gopijantra or ektara, a one-stringed instrument made from gourd and split bamboo. They may also play the dotara, a two-stringed lute with a long neck, as well as various drums, and sometimes small cymbals or a harmonium.
Bauls usually dress in orange or saffron, to show their association with the religious life. Men wear the alkhalla, a robe of coarse cloth, small bells at the ankles, long hair (often in a topknot), and beards, and sometimes rudraksha beads (sacred to the god Shiva). Women may wear simple white or saffron saris and no jewelry.
Bauls have a system of religious theology and practice that is characterized by the belief that God exists physically within the world, especially within the human body. This differs from more traditional Indian religious thought (both Vedic and dharmic) that understands the body as more Distant from the gods and emphasizes the importance of purity and transcendence of the physical world. For Bauls, the body is pure because the god is present. The teacher or guru is important because he can guide the student toward the vision of the god within (bhagavata darshan ).
Baul religious belief and practice are expressed in song, there is no revealed text and no single founder. Some songs emphasize spontaneity (sahaja ) and the states of religious ecstasy and creativity that come of their own accord, without effort. These states are highly valued by Bauls. Other songs describe the role of disciplined religious practice (sadhana ), which seeks to induce the state of ecstasy (bhava ).
Baul practice shows tantric influence, both in the importance of having a female partner and in its acceptance of Sexuality as a path to religious experience. The god is associated with creativity and is understood to dwell physically in the sexual fluids of the body. These fluids meet during sexual Ritual, which takes place when the male and female essences are believed to be strongest. At this time, the male and female aspects of the divine are understood to be fully present, and the god (often understood to be a divine couple, the god and goddess) can be perceived by the performers of the ritual. Many poetic metaphors are used to describe this process: the union of water and milk, catching the fish at high tide, the piercing of the moons. When the deity is fully manifest in the body, the body is recognized as a microcosm of the universe. As a Baul proverb states, "What is not in the body is not in the universe."
Baul beliefs are derived from many sources. Tantric Buddhism was strong in Bengal from perhaps the fifth century a.d. until the Muslim conquest in the early thirteenth century. Sufism or Islamic mysticism then arose in the area and became intermingled with the rising tide of devotional Vaishnavism (in Bengal, focusing on the relationship between Krishna and his mistress Radha) and its tantric offshoot, Sahajiya Vaishnavism. Shakta religion, the worship of the goddess (in forms such as Kali or Devi), grew from an esoteric meditative tradition to widespread devotional love, and it was also a strong influence on the Baul tradition. Shaktism was incorporated in the Baul songs both as worship of the physical woman and as imagery from Kundalini yoga. In Baul song and poetry, the deity may be called Bhagavan, Radha/Krishna, Shiva/Shakti, Allah, the man of the heart, the unknown bird, the great bliss (mahasukha ), or infinite light.
Today, Bauls are both religious practitioners and Entertainers, and they may sing both religious and secular songs. With the popularity of Christianity among Westernized Indians, some Baul songs now include Christian elements as well as more traditional ones.
Bhattacarya, Deben, trans. (1989). Songs of the Bards of Bengal. New York: Grove Press.
Capwell, Charles (1974). "The Esoteric Belief of the Bauls of Bengal." Journal of Asian Studies 33:255-264.
Dasgupta, Alokeranjan, and Mary Ann Dasgupta (1977). Roots in the Void: Baul Songs of Bengal. Calcutta: K. P. Bagchi.
Karim, Anwarul (1980). The Bauls of Bangladesh. Kushtia: Lalan Academy.
McDaniel, June (1989). The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
‘Bāuls’ are to be found among both Hindus and Muslims, and some Bāul lineages recruit from both these communities.
One meaning of the word ‘bāul’ is ‘mad’, and Bāuls are associated with madness in part through their liminal status. Their challenge to and partial transcendence of conventional structures and boundaries has caused them to be both extolled and vilified.
Most of their practices are esoteric (often classified as Tāntric) and are centred on the human body, almost invariably in conjunction with a partner of the opposite sex.