The Bauls and Their Heretic Tradition
Of late there has been a perceptible trend to treat the Bauls and their melodious songs as merely a segment of the folk culture of Bengal which is occasionally presented with much fanfare for the entertainment of the sophisticated urban audience. In the process we tend to forget the popular philosophic tradition of the Bauls in providing a heretic counterpoint to the sectarian scholastic scriptures of both Hindu and Islamic religious establishments. The isolated presentation of the Baul songs seems to be somewhat meaningless unless the listeners are initiated to the underlying philosophic allusions of the compositions which have consistently negated, in an aesthetically discreet manner, the bondage of any institutional religion down the centuries at the grass-root level. The Bauls, however, were not the lone heretics. They had emerged from the broader Buddhist Sahajiya and the Vaisnava Sahajiya background and had also intermingled with the Sufi mysticism and the Bhakti movement of the mediaeval sant mystics of northern India. The objective of this paper would be to explicate the distinctive features of the Baul philosophy in relation to the other devotional mystic streams of thoughts in order to assess the historical role of their collective process in sustaining a popular tradition of syncretism as a viable alternative to the opposite trend of intolerant fundamentalism discernible in both Brahmanical Hinduism and orthodox Islam.
The villagers of Bengal, though mostly unlettered till the mass literacy drive undertaken in several districts of West Bengal since 1990, were well a^yare of the Baul tradition which had always been transmitted by the Bauls through the presentation of the melodious philosophic songs accompanied with a simple rendering of ek-tara Cone-string') instrument and soothing dance movements. The English-educated urban middle class, however, began to be acquainted with this age-old oral tradition of the village-singers from the early decades of the present century mainly due to the pioneering collections of Kshitimohan Sen and Muhammad Mansuruddin and their introduc-
Sociological Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta.
Social Scientist, Vol. 22, Nos. 5-6, May-June 1994