At various times over the past century, the Bauls have sprung into prominence in Bengal and further afield, without ever really penetrating the public consciousness. They remain, as Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta classified them, an "obscure religious cult." This despite the support they received from no less a figure than Rabindranath Tagore, whom Dasgupta even calls "the greatest of the Bauls of Bengal." [Obscure Religious Cults, 187).
In recent times, prominent members of the tradition such as Purna Das, Kisan Das, and Paban Das Baul have attracted some public attention, primarily as folk singers in the world music and fusion genres, rather than as a specific religious school. Some scholarly interest has taken researchers from the West to the Baul centers of Bengal to investigate their beliefs and customs, perhaps precisely because of their heterodoxy and the more sensational of their practices.
So it was with some interest that I read Mimlu Sen's memoir, Baulsphere. This is the story of Ms. Sen's entry into the world of the Bauls, by way of her attraction for their music and her love affair with Paban Das Baul, currently one of the major international performers and exponents of Baul music and culture.
Born into a wealthy upper-caste Bengali family, Ms. Sen had a strong rebellious streak that took her as a teenager from political and social action in the poorer parts of India to France, where she spent many years. Her political activism at the height of the Naxalite period in the early 70's even led to a one-year stint in a Bengali women's prison.
During her time in Paris, she came into contact with the talented and charismatic Paban Das for the first time. When she returned to Kolkata some time later, she soon found herself traveling in the most unlikely company of the Bauls through the villages and countryside of West Bengal. Most unlikely because the world of rural and suburban poverty inhabited by Paban Das and his milieu is totally different from the ones she has known – those of the big cities of India and Europe.
Now there are a lot of Bengali poets and artists in the bhadralok world who sympathize with the freewheeling Baul culture, but there are fundamental barriers that exist between the world of the urbanized and educated elites of Kolkata and the mostly illiterate and poverty-stricken strata of society that is the world of the Bauls. But Sen's sympathies lie with the Baul critique of the world of middle and upper class Bengali values, especially with the comparative freedom that exists, in theory at least, for the women of the sect. At one point she laments the compromises that even the Bauls have made to the traditional patriarchal values of the greater society, while elsewhere exulting in the presence of strong female figures like the woman guru Gaurima.
In particular, she remarks on the problems related to the social divisions in several places, particularly after she and Paban Das go in the early 80s to live in Shantiniketan where Tagore had started his experiment in bringing the bhadralok and Baul communities together:
My first impression of this town was that it had an atmosphere of sterility. Emaciated old people lived here, shuttered in their dilapidated bungalows and wrapped in memories of the transient glory Tagore had given it. Their withdrawal from reality was indicative of a shrinking of the arteries of rasa. Tagore had lauded a lifestyle close to nature and espoused the philosophy of Baul poets and philosophers, but how could he teach sensual life and the concepts of democracy to the caste-conscious, puritanical bhadralok society which had taken over the administration of the university.
Tagore had created the Paus Mela, a multicultural and multidimensional fair, with the idea of creating a bridge between the indigenous popular living arts of the local region and the cultures of the West... Tagore had hoped that these projects would spiral upwards into a fecund and rich communion between city and village. In half a century, that spiral had been straightened out and reduced to a conformist straight line, separating the world of the babu from the world of the Baul. If only Tagore could have foreseen that the destiny of a place like Shantiniketan after his death would finally be determined not by the individuals he had drawn there through his personal magnetism, but by the continued impoverishment of the village and forest world that surrounded it, a hardening of caste attitudes and total obliteration of the sensual and imaginary life of its women. The poets' dreams faded out with his life.
Mimlu notes that the Baul tradition appears to be endangered, though it is debatable whether there has been any real change over the centuries. The poor and lower classes have always been engaged in a struggle for existences, which inevitably leads to the vitiation of values in exchange for survival. All religions have always railed against the sell-outs. But whether it is singing for your supper while doing madhukari door to door or busking in the Katwa local, or adding mundane folksongs to your repertoire to widen your audience, the danger of watering down is always there. But the real crisis is in the changing times and the relevance of Baul philosophy and religion to the world.
Sen's unique position, of course, resulted in her being able to help Paban Das and other Bauls connect with the educated and artistic community of Kolkata, as well as to bring his art to the Western world. In her company (and that of her children) Paban Das, who was completely illiterate, himself starts to learn to read – even though many of his confreres in the tradition protest, as the Vedic brahmins once did, that to learn to read would result in a loss of the power that exists in a uniquely oral transmission. But that is only the beginning of a cross-cultural merge between the two that continues to give equal footing to both continuing participating in the Baul cultural circuit as well as the attempts at penetrating the international market.
But Ms. Sen's incursion into Paban Das's world and her resulting attempt to bridge the two, either by attempting to save the endangered tradition by modernizing it, or by "selling it" to the modern world, seems to be somewhat vitiated by her secular approach to the Baul tradition. From the very beginning, her principal attraction is to the music and the freewheeling antisocial mood of the Bauls, as well as the poetry of their songs. Perhaps it was her leftist sympathies for the downtrodden, which she took to a level of practical application that is certainly rare in the world... But my question is about the specifically religious and practical insights of the Baul religion, which gives the impetus to all its music and poetry. Can the one flourish without the other?
Mimlu is not a historian, but her replicating the oral accounts of Baul history is of some interest, even though they differ considerably from the textual traditions we have received. These are too numerous, but we will refrain from enumerating them as this will distract from what I really want this summary, which is the spiritual aspects of Baul dharma that she mentions.
Though Ms. Sen brings up the matter of sexual sadhana several times in the book, she does not seem to be particularly invested either in it or in Baulism as a religion. She makes a bit of fun at the expense of a Baul guru who impregnates a Swedish disciple, saying "so much for retaining semen"! But in fact Paban has not been initiated in the practice when he meets her and has to send the curious Westerners who approach him elsewhere.
At the time of her initiation she says that she does not believe in God, and Hari Goshain pacifies her by saying,
jā dekhibo nā nija nayane
tā biśvāsa koribo nā gurura bacane
"If I cannot see it with my own eyes,
I will not believe it, even on the guru's word."
Hari Goshain whispered the mantra into her right ear and Ma Goshain into her left, and in the opposite ears of Paban Das.
One thing that is obvious to me from reading this is that Bauls can be considered a branch of Sahajiyaism. The external forms have taken a bit of different direction, as the Sahajiyas tend to engage in lila and nama kirtan, whereas the Bauls have their own style of songs, and there may be other philosophical differences also – Mimlu Sen mentions a controversy with the "Chintamani" sect, which "who indulge in sexual promiscuity," [associated indiscriminately with the orthodox Vaishnava Goshains of Nadia] but initiation is in the Vaishnava Kama Gayatri mantra. Mimlu calls it the beej mantra, and even describes it as "indispensible in the practice of hatha yoga" [!]) with the power to transform the senses. But at the time of the initiation ceremony, which she describes in some detail, the initiating guru Hari Goshai gives a detailed breakdown of this mantra.
Mimlu Sen renders the Kama Gayatri in a butchered form (kling sling kama devaya bidaha pusha binaya dhimohi tanna tanga prachodayang), but for the purpose of our readers, we have reconstituted it in its proper form.
- klīṁ = ka, la, ṅg, candra, bindu. [The third part of the mantra should be ī, as in the usual breakdown of the bīja]
- ka = Krishna.
- la = Radha
- ī = āhlādinī [she who desires to be caressed]
- candra = the divine beauty of lovers
- bindu = Vrindavan, the garden of love.
- In the Baul Kama Gayatri, there are five characters and five forms. (?)
- kā = from this sound is born the seed of knowledge
- ma = Know for certain that Madana is the origin of ma.
- de = (do) He who sings do in dohās, tames Krishna, surrendering his body [I suspect that deha was intended, drinks rasa.
- vā = (written rā, probably bā for bāhu, arm) lift up your arms, embrace at the sound of [ra] kiss the intangible couple again and again.
- ya = [written aw as the antaḥstha ya] Rādhikā's soul opens up at this sound. Radha knows what Krishna desires.
- vi = at this sound awakens the sensuous incantative body, which none can apprehend except through the eyes of Sri Rupa.
- dma = at this sound take pride and drink the rasa; he who is always steeped in rasa attains knowledge
- he = at this sound, the golden love of Radha awakens; Krishna savors it, nurturing this love
- pu = at this sound, he whose body flowers in the luxury of union, as with an arrogant prostitute, is a great man.
- ṣpa = at this sound, the heart of Radhika, full of flowers, blooms the blossom with the flavor of Krishna.
- bā = at this sound, the bhava Krishna, whose love is unchanging, judges the space of good and evil
- ṇā = at this sound, the actor becomes the rasa Krishna, nurturing and tasting the goddess Radha
- ya = a strange sound, the essence of the knowledge of the material world; tasting the feminine, Krishna becomes marvelous.
- dhī = at this sound, slowly and steadily the two fluids rise to two orifices and are tasted in the body
- ma = at this sound, the great element is interiorised within the body at the moment of sexual union.
- hi = at this sound, the cinnamon colored ancient rasa will rise and the actress [nāyikā] will mercifully reveal her secret to the actor [nāyaka]
- ta = at this sound, the actress becomes conscious; if she can hold herself, she becomes enlightened.
- nno = at this sound, the new Radha is imbued with new knowledge, with new rasa, new love and so a new body.
- na = at this sound, the two bodies become pliant and soft; if they are disciplined, the couple will encounter the light.
- ṅgaḥ = at this sound, he who masters the body will attain the results desired in all his pilgrimages.
- pra = at this sound, he whose heart is happy will attain the priceless element.
- co = at this sound, the devoteed waits like a chataka bird waits for rain, calling the name day and night one-mindedly.
- da = at this sound, address yourself to the element desired. He who is one-minded can attain it.
- yā = at this sound, the mysterious element is the essence of all mankind. He who can master it conquers death.
- t = at this sound, the half-moon of the mysterious element is mastered. Look, Shiva has it on his forehead.
The initiation had a profound impact of both Paban and Mimlu, who writes that "despite my scepticism it sealed our love in an intangible bond." However, she does not elaborate on the transformation that it may or may not have had spiritually on them both. Ultimately she admits that the two of them placed more importance on the poetry and songs more than the religious or physical practices, which she says are optional.
I would question this assessment. The Baul music is not entertainment, but a method of sacred communication that has its roots in sankirtan. The poetry, whatever else it may be, specifically intends to communicate a spiritual message. And that is the basis of the poetic and musical tradition, without which it has no standing. But the great discovery of Sahajiyaism is the role of spiritual sadhanas in enhancing the life of love. To some extent, the external ritual alone carried out that function for them, but the real purpose of any initiation is to "initiate," to induct one into a spiritual practice, without which one remains on the level of anumāna, rather than the vartamāna.