Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Bauls

(This article was originally published in Prabuddha Bharata, a monthly journal of the Ramakrishna Order that was started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896.)

Nabani Das Kshyepa Baul

“A band of minstrels suddenly appears, dances, and sings, and it departs in the same sudden manner.  They come and they return, but none recognizes them.”
- Sri Ramakrishna (Gospel Chapter 49)

Sri Ramakrishna said that he would be born again as a Baul; the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi told this to Swami Arupananda.  According to one of her recorded conversations, this would happen within a century, while Girish Chandra Ghosh and some others were of the opinion that Sri Ramakrishna spoke of returning in two hundred years.

My First Experience with the Bauls

It was the year of 1985 – almost one hundred years after Sri Ramakrishna’s passing -- and I was living near the Hollywood Vedanta Society at the time.  When I heard that one of the most famous Bauls – Sri Purna Das Baul – was on tour in Los Angeles, I went to find him.  This was my chance to get to know more about the Bauls.

I had been rather ill for almost a year, suffering from a severe respiratory infection and, since I had never experienced any long-lasting illnesses before, I felt insecure and thought that I might never get well.  When Babu, Purna Das’ eldest son invited me to come to the 1986 Joydeb Mela, I happily accepted.   For a long time I had the desire to go to India, travel to a remote place and write about it for the National Geographic magazine.  This was my chance to do that and to forget about my illness.  Moreover, deep in my heart I cherished a wild dream:  perhaps, I would find Sri Ramakrishna born again as a baby Baul at the mela, fair.

As it turned out, my first trip to India put me into the fast lane to God.  Although I never wrote a story for National Geographic, I got cured of my illness, and I started to live and experience first-hand what I only had been reading and dreaming about before.

For those unfamiliar with this event, Joydeb Mela is a three-day and three-night Baul festival which takes place every year during the time of Makar Sankranti, the 14th day in January as per the solar calendar when the sun begins to travel northwards.   The mela is held in Kenduli, a small village in Birbhum located about 30 km west of Shantiniketan where Rabindranath Tagore founded his famous forest university. Tens of thousands of people throng to Kenduli during the mela to hear the Bauls sing and to bathe in the Ajoy river during the auspicious time of Makar Sankranti.

The poet Jayadeva who composed the Gita Govinda, is said to have taken birth at Kenduli, although some dispute that and put his birthplace somewhere in Orissa.  Be it as it may, the Joydeb Mela is dedicated to honoring Jayadeva and his wife Padmavati and, as one wanders or rather is pushed by the crowd through narrow, dusty lanes lined by make-shift stalls, one finds many pictures, statues and small booklets glorifying the poet.  One of Jayadeva’s famous saying is sabar upare manush satya tahar upare nai  - there is no higher truth than the human soul.

Throughout the year, Kenduli is a sleepy little village but, when the mela starts, thousands of people arrive in cars, buses, bullock carts, and on bicycles.  There are long lines of dusty villagers that have walked for days to get there.  Every year, temporary large tents are erected in Kenduli where the Bauls stay and perform.  Generally these tents fill up with people way past maximum safety regulations.

Brajabala Dasi, wife of Nabani Das and mother of Purna Das Baul
When I arrived in Kolkata, it was night time and Purna Das’sons Babu and Bapi picked me up from the airport.  The first impressions of India rolled past me as I pressed my nose against the car window.  I saw people walking in the dark and shopkeepers sitting in small stalls lit up by flickering kerosene lanterns.  This sight was deeply familiar.  It reminded me to my early childhood when my mother, grandmother and I stayed in a house in the Austrian countryside after the war.

Purna Das Baul Samrat
Early next morning, Purna Das, his wife Manju Das, his three sons Babu, Bapi and Chotton and I squeezed into a light-blue Maruti mini-van and drove to Shantiniketan where we picked up three musicians that were to accompany Purna Das during the performance at Joydeb.  It was hot, dusty and extremely uncomfortable sitting in the crowded car.  As we drove on a small country road over pothole after pothole and dodged one head-on collision with a truck after another, we were all getting somewhat irritable.   All of a sudden, Manju Das began singing a Baul song.  It was as if she waved a magic wand.  The mood changed instantaneously from being irritable to joyous.  Everybody in the car started singing, and we arrived in Kenduli elated.

I did not want to get out of the car when I saw the mass of people that surrounded us.  The ocean of excited faces staring at us was scary to me.  Out of exuberance over the arrival of Purna Das, people were shaking the car.  The side door opened and Purna Das stepped out of the car unperturbed and smiling.  I was scared to get out, and I was even more scared to be left behind.  Clutching my camera equipment and purse, I pushed through the throng of people, following Purna Das’orange turban bouncing above all the heads in front of me.  I was terrified of getting lost. 

In later years, I learned that there was never any chance of me getting lost.  I may not have known where I was, but everybody among the thousands of people attending Joydeb knew exactly where I was at any time.  I was one of, perhaps, two or three Westerners that attended the mela.  During my first trip to India, I still thought like a Westerner.  I had not yet learned the Indian way.

Kenduli did not have much of an infrastructure to support that many people.  At that time, there were dirt roads, and it was very dark at night because few houses and tents had electricity.  Yet, the magic that happened on a stage lit by a single light bulb is difficult to describe.

They say that once you have listened to a Baul singing ecstatically, you will never forget this experience.  I can vouch for that.  Even though I don’t understand the words being sung and need to rely on somebody’s translation, my inner being intuitively responds to the call of the Baul.  Filled with passionate longing for God, the Baul sings earthy songs dripping with the juice of divine love.  As he sings loudly, the red earth of Bengal resounds and carries his call to villages far off into the horizon.

The Ways of the Bauls

Though most Bauls are poor, their spirit is rich due to non-attachment to external things.  Outwardly they wear the garb of a beggar but, inwardly, they delight in the wealth of bliss.  Established in his sadhana, the Baul sings with the freedom of a soul without shackles.
Baul songs are mystical, poetic and multi-layered.  Underneath the obvious meaning of words, lie deep meanings that cannot be properly understood by a person who does not practice sadhana.  Secrets of Baul sadhana are given openly in hidden language.

Naboni Das Khyepa Baul’s elder brother Rasaraj wrote the following famous Baul song “yemon beni temni rabe...” 

The way my braid is, that’s how it will stay.
I’ll get into the water, I’ll splash water around
But I won’t get my hair wet.
I’ll swim about this way and that way
I’ll dive into the water and won’t listen to what people say.
I’ll enjoy myself but not suffer because of it.
Gosain Rasaraj says: “Listen, my friend,
That beauty leaves me speechless.
I won’t be chaste; I won’t be unchaste.
I won’t leave my Lord.”

On a similar note, Sri Ramakrishna often told his householder disciples engaged in worldly activities: “A boat may stay in water but water should not stay in the boat. An aspirant may live in the world, but the world should not live within him.”
The Baul sips like a bee, as it were, the most suitable nectar from Hinduism, tantric Buddhism and Sufi Islam and distills this concoction into a honey that gives him an intoxicating direct experience of God.  This approach to God is perceived as too unconventional by people who lack the freedom and willingness to comprehend.  Therefore, Bauls have been labeled as “mad” by orthodox prejudice for at least 600 years.  Breaking conventional social customs, Bauls deliberately dress in both Hindu and Muslim garments.  They embrace all, disregarding religious, caste and social restrictions.

Kanai Das Baul
Authentic worship of God, according to the Bauls, takes place only deep within the heart where the divine moner manush, “Man of the Heart,” is enshrined.  “God is hidden in the heart of man and, neither priest nor prophet, nor the ritual of any organized religion, will help man to find him there,” writes Professor Edward Dimock, an eminent scholar of Bengali literature.

The village of Kenduli has been built up quite a bit since I attended Joydeb Mela in 1986, and the number of people attending this festival has dramatically increased.  Purna Das Baul, who was one of the first Bauls to bring Baul songs and philosophy to the drawing rooms of Kolkata and the rest of the world, has done much to spread awareness of Baul traditions.  Before Purna Das Baul, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore added much to the popularity of Baul ways.  Drawing inspiration from the Bauls, Rabindranath Tagore was a great supporter of Purna Das’ father, Nabani Das Kshyepa Baul.  He collaborated with Nabani Das Baul, supported him financially and gave him land for a Baul institution.

While the popularity of the Bauls brought material success to some, it did more harm than good to the true Bauls who practice serious sadhana.  It brought an influx of shilpis, professional singers, who dress like Bauls and sing Baul songs for money but do not practice Baul sadhana.  According to some estimates, there were over 200 shilpis at the 2008 Joydeb Mela, almost outnumbering the real Bauls.  The shilpis cash in the rupees while the real Bauls are still poor.

Moreover, misunderstanding of the “way of the Baul” has caused a lot of mischief at Joydeb Mela.  Nowadays aside from simple village folk, hordes of people from cities throng to Kenduli during Joydeb.   Attracted by the term “freedom,” worldly city dwellers come to Joydeb Mela to indulge in licentious behavior.  They come to smoke ganja, get drunk and behave badly with women unaware that their distorted understanding of freedom only leads to greater bondage and suffering.

Bauls are rather difficult to comprehend.  I have lived with Bauls, read most books written on the Bauls, interviewed people on Baul philosophy and seen most video clips on Bauls that are available.  Rarely have I found worthy information and accurate statements in books written by Westerners as well as Indians.  Either the books are too scholarly or they deal with an author’s misguided perception of what it means to be a Baul.  One cannot understand the Baul intellectually; one must intuitively feel them with one’s heart.

Some statements in these books remind me to Sri Ramakrishna’s fable of the blind men describing an elephant.  Touching different parts of the animal, each of the blind men has the experience of the elephant but that experience is only partial.  The blind man who touches the ears of the elephant proclaims that the elephant is like a winnowing fan and another, who touches the leg, says that the elephant is like a pillar.

One cannot label Bauls and put them into convenient categories.  Baul sadhana practices differ from one Baul clan to another, from one akhra, Baul ashram, to another.  Perhaps it would be easier to herd cats than to start an organized group of Baul members.

Yet there is a through-line of similarities among the different Bauls.  Be they Vaishnava Bauls or Muslim Fakirs, be they grihasta, householder, Bauls or sannyasin Bauls, all Bauls believe that love for man is the path leading to love for the Divine.  All Bauls practice intense pranayama and various kundalini and yogic practices.

Nabani Das Baul became such an adept in breath control that he could stay under water for a long time.  His wife, Brajabala Dasi, told a story about the time she and her neighbors thought that Nabani Das Baul had drowned.  A neighbor saw him enter into a pond in Shantiniketan in the early morning hours but did not see him come back out.  As villagers stood around the pond lamenting, Nabani Das Baul resurfaced and was startled by the commotion.

Bauls dress in flaming orange colors or in patchwork kurtas that reach down way past their knees.  They do not cut their hair and generally tie it up in a top knot.  When they dance, their steps follow practices so ancient that they are universal.  An Australian aborigine elder joined Purna Das Baul during a performance in Australia.  While Purna Das sang an old Baul song and performed dance steps handed down by his ancestors, the aborigine elder sang an old aborigine song in the same tune following the same dance steps.
Traditionally, Bauls only used percussion and stringed instruments for accompaniment.  Of these, perhaps the most famous one is the gopiyantra or ektara, a one-stringed drone instrument that is plucked by a wire plectrum.  The drone sound reminds the Baul of the oneness of all.  The next in importance is the anandalahari or khamak which is a drum that is plucked.  A pair of strings attached to the skin of an open one-headed drum is fixed to another small drum.  By tightening and relaxing these strings, the Baul strikes them with a plectrum, creating a most exhilarating sound and beat.

Other Baul instruments are the dotara, a four-stringed long-necked lute, the duggi, a kettle drum which is tied to the Baul’s waist, nupur (anklets), kartal (cymbals) and the khol, a drum that is a Bengali village version of the mridanga.   Today, some Bauls also use the harmonium, tabla, flute and violin.

Bauls earn most of their living by singing in public places, at railroad stations, and by going from door to door.  Their style of living is simple – some would say lowly - but their attitude, their way of thinking is most high.  They may sit on a used, torn mat on the verandah of a clay hut and eat a simple meal, but they share it with their family and whoever happens to be around with such gusto that the simple food turns into nectar of the gods.

Bauls give respect to all.  In the West, we may say “thank you,” and think that we are done with giving respect.  I remember Purna Das Baul scolding me once severely after I thanked Sri Manohar Kshyepa Baba, a most respected guru of many Bauls, for allowing me to interview him at Joydeb Mela.

Manohar Kshyepa Baba
“Who are you to thank such a great soul as Manohar Kshyepa Baba?” scolded Purna Das Baul.  “You are in no position to thank him.  All you can do is pranam and beg for his blessings.”  I learned a great lesson.  Bauls regard their guru as God and pay the utmost respect to him.

Non-attachment is another trait of a real Baul.  I remember Purna Das Baul telling me a story about his childhood.  His family moved often from village to village.  At one time, they stayed longer at a particular village.  Outside this village was a small roadside Kali temple.  Purna Das Baul took a liking to this image and went there every day without telling his parents.  Curious about where his son was going,  Nabani Das Baul followed him one day.  “My son, you should never be attached to any external thing,” said Nabani Das Baul.  The next day, the family packed up and moved to another village.

Another story I heard from Purna Das Baul gave me a lesson in same-sightedness.  Nabanidas Baul was gone for many weeks and his family was starving.  Ma sent out Purna Das Baul in search of his father.  After searching for a while, Purna Das Baul found his father in a small village that was suffering tremendous food shortages due to draught.  They had asked Nabani Das Baul to stay and do a special sadhana to bring rain.   Nabani Das Baul told the villagers to feed the children.  When they did as told, not only did rain come but also miraculously food appeared , brought by neighboring villagers.

Purna Das Baul tapped his father’s shoulder and mentioned that his family is starving while he is feeding children in this village.  Nabani Das Baul replied, “Who says that these are not my children?  All are my children.  I am feeding my children.”

Sri Ramakrishna Baul

I am still waiting to meet Sri Ramakrishna as a Baul.  Though many disregard the possibility of Sri Ramakrishna being born again -- saying that he has given enough and does not need to return -- I believe that Sri Ramakrishna will return as a Baul.  Perhaps he will come in 100 years, perhaps in 200 years.  In my humble opinion, the mood of a Baul might suit Sri Ramakrishna well.   Outwardly, the Baul shows tremendous emotion and drama but inwardly, the Baul is still like Shiva soaked in the bliss of Oneness.

It may be apt to conclude this article  -- my humble attempt of verbally using a few brush strokes to sketch a picture of a real Baul -- by quoting Sri Ramakrishna talking about the Bauls in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna recorded by M.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
Sri Ramakrishna (to M.):  Leaning on one side too long yesterday while in ecstasy in Adhar’s house, I got pain in my leg.  So I now take Baburam with me wherever I go.  He is a sympathetic soul. 

Saying this, the Master sang:

How can I tell you, O friend! What is in my heart?
I cannot live without a sympathetic heart.
The man of the heart is recognized by his look.
He is rare; he swims in bliss and is steeped in love.
The man of the heart trades in love.
Where can we find the man of the heart
Who carries only a tattered rag under his arm?
He does not say a word; he travels the high road.
The man of the heart makes a stir on the high road.

Sri Ramakrishna:  The Bauls sing such songs.  There are also songs like this:

Wait, O Dervish, holding the begging bowl,
Stand and let me dwell on your beauty.

Sri Ramakrishna:  The siddha (perfect individual) of the Shakta Cult is called a kaul.  According to Vedanta, he is called a paramahamsa.  According to Baul Vaishnavas, he is a Sain.  There is none beyond the Sain.

A Baul becomes a Sain when he is a siddha.  For him, there are no differences in the world.  One half of his necklace is made of cow bones and the other of the tulsi plant. 

Sri Ramakrishna:  A Baul once came here.  I said to him, “Are you finished with all the work of refining?  Is the pot down from the fire?”  The more you boil the syrup, the more refined it will be.  First you have the juice of the sugar cane, next molasses, after which lumps, next sugar, then sugar candy, hard sugar balls, etc.  It is being refined continuously.

When is the pot taken down?  That is, when will spiritual practices come to an end?  It will be when the sense organs will be conquered.  The sense organs will become loose like the leech which drops off itself when lime is put on it.  He lives with a woman but does not know her.

Jai Guru


  1. I very much enjoyed your article. Many thanks, Usha! Ian Eashan Johnson

  2. I appreciate your acute observation and emotional content of your thought...I belong to the land of Bauls...trying to sink into that madness...going to Kenduli this year...

  3. jai i like this article.. thanks.

  4. It is a one of the best art form in music from bengal and we should keep this alive.


  6. Nice your article. I really was moved to tears reading about Swami Gambhiranandaji. A relationship with the Guru is a relationless relationship- somethiing we cannot explain. Please email me a video of true baul singing. Please also recommend me some books on bauls.

  7. Hi...nice article.... But I think that master pointed towards north west ....Plz search DHANANJAY ALLEXPERT... I have a different feeling for this person... He is something different... Read his all answer... And ask your query... But never ask his identity;)

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