The Bauls


The term “Baul” refers to various groups of people in Bengal (the Indian state of West Bengal, whose capital is Kolkata, and its neighbor, the sovereign state of Bangladesh, whose capital is Dhaka) for whom the body is the sole organ of all experience and means to knowledge. Many of them practice a type of psycho-physical manipulation or tantric yoga which emphasizes control of sexual union, the purpose of which is to enable the couple to achieve a break with phenomenal existence, to escape the endless cycle of death and regeneration, and to achieve a state of eternal stability or samadhi. This practice involves the retention of semen during intercourse and ingestion of bodily secretions. Those who follow these practices view them as a tool for perfecting the body, the only available aid mankind has to achieve understanding and liberation. In this belief, those who may be called Bauls are joined by numerous other traditions of practical mysticism in India, and Bauls are therefore a regional, linguistically circumscribed, branch of an ancient and widespread approach to personal eschatology. The earliest examples of the Bengali language, in fact, are found in a 10th-century manuscript of song texts, the caryapada, whose esoteric references to Buddhist and Saivite tantra presage similar texts of contemporary Baul songs.

Because of the centrality of the sexual and coprophagous elements in the rites practiced by some of their number, Bauls have often been subjected to ridicule and even persecution by their more orthodox brethren and by those influenced by colonial attitudes of propriety. Promiscuously borrowing cultural elements from the religious traditions around them—particularly Vaisnava Hinduism and Sufi Islam—while rejecting their prescriptive requirements, the Bauls’ personally oriented pursuit of spiritual perfection also made them reject caste. While such attitudes have caused them to be attacked by religious authorities and scholars, during the nineteenth century there arose an increasing interest in their musical traditions. It became fashionable for literary men to imitate the lyrics of their songs and for urban elites to parody their performances. When the Nobel-Laureate-to-be, Rabindranath Tagore, was the young overseer of his family estates in an area of what is now Bangladesh, he came into contact with Lalan Fakir, a mystical poet lauded as the most famous Baul. For Tagore, the Bauls’ songs represented a quintessential element of Bengali culture and he, along with his colleague Kshitimohan Sen (grandfather of Amartya), emphasized the humanistic, anti-sectarian, and heterodox attitudes expressed in some of their songs, and Tagore particularly valued their poetic diction and musical qualities as a stimulus to his own artistic inspiration, even incorporating Baul characters into his plays and famously portraying them, himself, on stage in private performances.

The Bauls attracted attention from Americans when Edward C. Dimock, a scholar of early Bengali literature and Professor at the University of Chicago was writing his dissertation for Harvard on the Sahajiya cult, The place of the hidden moon; erotic mysticism in the Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult of Bengal, just at the time Allen Ginsberg was meeting the young Purna Das Baul and his dying father, Naboni Das Khyapa, in Bengal. As the Beats were being succeeded by a younger generation of Hippies, American interest in India was growing, and through Ginsberg’s connection with the pop music Personal Manager, Albert Grossman, the first group of Bauls, including the illustrious Purna Das and his brother Laksman, made a tour of the States. Since then, various Baul performers have become peripatetic entertainers far beyond the borders of their populous home territories. This Archive, we hope, will make them still better and more widely known.