Simply put, the word ‘baul’ means ‘mad’ or ‘restless’. Technically, this would make the Bauls of Bengal madmen. I wouldn’t call them mad as much as I would call them mystics. This is mainly because apart from singing devotional songs on the likes of Radha and Krishna, the basic motive of any Baul is to understand the essence of the soul in the pursuit of knowing what really lies ‘within’.
Arguably, this is even the crux of Vedanta which forms the backbone of Hinduism. While Vedanta talks more about detachment and “knowing” the self, the Bauls attribute a sense of rhythm to their quest of knowing what lies within. The only difference is that they hardly give a damn about what they are or what they are wearing.
By embracing elements of Buddhism, Sufi Islam and Hinduism, the Bauls have now become somewhat a cross between the Bhakts and the Sufi saints. However, they are fearless and have no boundaries to their ecstatic devotion. These nonconformists have been seen wearing both Hindu and Muslim garments at the same time on various occasions. On many occasions, they even talk in contradictions.
For instance, on one hand most Baul songs speak of the love and devotion that they have towards Lord Krishna and on the other, they don’t think twice before talking about the physical intimacy that Radha and Krishna shared. In fact, the Bauls have been known to comment on issues such as sex and sleeping with more than one woman. While religions have expressed their anger towards this sentiment, the Bauls are not afraid to talk about the physical intimacy that Radha and Krishna shared while many know this as selfless love. After all, the Bauls are looking at sex as the closest someone could get to their God. More than sex being an act of pleasure, they term it as a spiritual union.
The Bauls have no temple or mosque to burn and no religious scriptures to read or recite from. The essence of any Baul lies in the love that he or she has in her heart. This love is born from the devotion they have towards God but it transcends into everyone around them. Indeed, trust too, comes with love.
They have now become one of the most prolific examples of counter-culture because they are living ‘among’ everyone else in the world but not ‘amidst’ them all. They have created a whole new religion which does not run by doctrine as much as it does by the heart.
Lalon Fakir, the most well-known Baul was probably the most influential among them all. He died at the age of 116 and when asked about his religion, he answered in the form of a beautiful song.
My eyes fail to detect
The signs of caste. Don’t you see that
Some wear garlands, some rosaries
Around the neck?
But does it make any difference, brother?