Parvathy Baul – Wikimedia

If you want to attain 
the unattainable One,
Free yourself from all that is
Fragile and temporary.
Know yourself
~ Rasika Dasa


In the deepest villages of Bengal, there remains today a community of vagrant singers, both mystical bards and wandering minstrels, the Bauls. For centuries they have been treading the dust of the roads, with a firm and aerial step, at the rhythm of their daily needs and highest aspirations. The term ‘baul’, derived from the Sanskrit ‘vatulā’, means ’he who is affected, or carried away by the wind’. It might also refer to the term ‘vyakula’, meaning ‘impatient eagerness for god’, or ’auliyā’, a word of Arabic origin meaning ‘holy’, ‘ascetic’. But the asceticism of the Bauls is not lost in penances and meditations, is not only about achieving the set goal. It is rather a kind of refinement in the expression of the moment, a healthy ‘madness’ expressing through dance, music, and songs, the love of the divine and the spontaneity of living. Coming from both Hindu and Muslim religions, the Bauls retain nevertheless a fierce freedom of spirit and are rebellious to any ideology, following no ritual, referring to no scriptures. They are ’outside’, offbeat, refreshing and unique.

The Bauls draw on the source of all the great spiritual currents that have bathed Bengal since the 11th century (Tantric Buddhism, Sufism, Bhakti). Their songs, transmitted from parent to child, or from guru to disciple (guru-shishya), are inspired by the great masters of the past such as the saint and mystic Chaitanya (1486-1534), or the famous poet Lalon Fakir (1774-1890), a revolutionary and holy man who composed thousands of songs and poems. The singers gather each year at important festivals that are opportunities for creation and exchange, and a special moment in their wandering.


Everyone asks, ‘What religion does Lalon belong to in this world?’
Lalon answers, ‘What does religion look like?’
I’ve never laid eyes upon it.
Some use Malas (Hindu rosaries), others Tasbis (Muslim rosaries), 
and so people say they belong to a different religion.
But do you bear the sign of your religion 
when you come (to this world) or when you leave (this world)?

~ Lalon Fakir (Wikipedia)


The Bauls live in small houses (akhras) that serve as a family ashram where any visitor, even unknown, is welcome. Not being suspicious of women, they often live together as a couple, considering each other as spiritual partners. They sometimes have children, and are also inclined to adopt orphans. For their living, they go from village to village, singing for a little food. More than a simple means of survival, this practice constitutes for them a spiritual mission and an asceticism. This is what they call the ‘madhukori’, the ‘honey harvest’, the honey of devotion that they collect from heart to heart, from house to house. They accompany themselves on their ektara, that one-stringed instrument they proudly hold above their heads, a symbol of their singing and wandering. They make their own instruments, such as the duggi, this small terracotta timpani covered with a skin, or the Khamak — also called ananda lahari (waves of joy), an instrument with an amazing sound and whose notes break through the hearts in successive waves. They wear clothes sometimes saffron-coloured, sometimes multicoloured patchworks, except for Muslim fakirs who wear a long white dress.


Guru, I am all bereft,
No path for me awaits, 
nothing for me in this world 
except for some shelter 
at your feet
~ Monimohan Das (MDPI)


The Bauls sing everywhere, at home, on the roads and the paths, in the boat that helps them cross the river, in trains and buses, in festivals and concert halls. The songs speak of simple things, material problems, suffering and love, moral or spiritual dilemmas, which everyone can know and identify with. But behind this apparent simplicity, there are often complex parables about the difficulties of the inner life and the spiritual quest, or scholarly doctrines (tattwas) that are not accessible to the uninitiated. Similarly, musical compositions are easy but can at times reach the pinnacle of the most difficult Indian ragas. Akkas Fakir explains: “Music is the medium through which we meditate, our music is very introspective. Our songs are about humanity. … [They] essentially question our ego, pride and attachments, which are hindrances to our ways of realizations.” Songs are such a central part of the Baul tradition and path that they have been named by a great variety of terms, like ‘spoken truth’, ‘living wisdom’, ‘sound knowledge’ (Shabd Jnana). For the Bauls, singing is sadhana. The great contemporary Baul singer Parvathy Baul said: “Baul singing is meditation in motion.”


If you fail to recognize 
your own heart, 
can you ever come to know 
the great unknown? 
The farthest away 
will be nearest to you, 
and the unknown 
within your knowing. 
Fill up your home 
with the world, 
and you will attain 
the unattainable man
~ Kālāchānd (Hohm Press)


This astonishing fusion between the material and the spiritual, between the worldly and the devotional, the simple and the complex is very revealing of Baul philosophy, of their way of life which mixes, without rejecting anything, the pleasures of living with the divine aspiration. For the Bauls, all acts of daily life can lead to happiness. They are in perpetual quest for the Adhar Manush, ‘the Essential Man’, that heart in which resides the universal consciousness, that elusive part of each being that they honour through their songs and which summarizes the object of their asceticism. This search for Man in man is the very foundation of the Baul spirituality. They have many names for it, like the ‘unattainable man’, the ‘primeval man’, the ‘spontaneous man’, or the ‘Man of the heart’. Parvathy Baul gives a beautiful account of the nature of this quest: “This path is of complete love and surrender. Unless a complete surrender of the ego is made, one cannot be called a true Baul. Once you start singing, you abandon yourself in the complete bliss of the moment, you merge with the song, which is a vehicle to reach the Beloved.” 


Will the day ever dawn 
when the treasured man of my heart 
will become my own? 
Though not cast in any shape, 
he is seen 
in the ways of love
~ Haridās (Hohm Press)


The Bauls attach great importance to the physical body, for they believe that it is the temple in which the Supreme resides, and indeed the only place they need to seek God. “Do not forget that your body contains the whole of existence.” sings Gosāiñ Gopāl. It is therefore quite naturally that the baul path is full of sensuality. The songs offer infinite variations in the descriptions of feelings and emotions, from sadness to joy, from doubt to bliss. In turn, the Bauls are imploring, fatalistic, quarrelling with their minds, shouting at God himself. Crazy with love and ecstasy, they become admirers, peddlers of joy, admonishing us unceasingly to join the path of quest and devotion. It is therefore not surprising that they are inspired by the devotional practice of the vaisnavas, who worship the couple of Radha and Krishna. With their long hair, their buns, their sensual dances, the Bauls alternately play the beloved and the lover, living through them the feelings of devotion and love, but also the expectations, the suffering, the uncertainty and exaltation. All these many expressions can coexist in the same song, and then only its spontaneity, its truth prevails.


Photo by lorises on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Human is the eternal treasure, 
search for that ‘Human’ 
(the man of the Heart).
To search for the man of the heart 
is the destination by itself
~ Unknown (MDPI)


Baul poetry knows no conventions. It comes out raw and plain from their daily concerns, sometimes songs of wisdom or quest, sometimes songs of protest. Often illiterate, the Bauls are nevertheless the guardians of an immense oral tradition whose richness and variety are matched only with the spiritual intensity and spontaneity of their message. Parvathy Baul mentions: “These metaphorical songs, based on mundane life experiences, are composed mostly in simple, colloquial Bengali. Their special language is called ‘sandhya bhasha’, ‘twilight language’, and is loaded with cryptic mystical meaning.” For example, the ‘sixteen gangsters’ are the forces of the body and mind; the ‘five wealthy ones’ are conscience, wisdom, restraint, renunciation, and devotion; the ‘room’ or the ‘boat’ are symbols for the body; and the ‘river’ is a symbol for life itself. The songs being essentially an individual expression, the variety of metaphors is proportional with the creativity of the authors. 


Look, look for him 
in the temple of your limbs. 
He is there 
as the lord of the world, 
in enchanting tunes. 
He is an expert at hide-and-seek, 
no one can see him. 
He is the universe 
with no form of his own. 
Do not try to catch him, 
O my heart, 
he can never be caught. 
You can only hope for him 
in faith, 
in complete faith
~ Jādubindu (Hohm Press)


To be a true Baul is not about folklore or tradition. It is an individual quest, a mystic approach to living. It is an example of a people living amongst the Indian traditional frame, and yet being truly and spontaneously alone and independent, not bound by mainstream beliefs, traditions, or conventional usages. It is the spiritual quest that puts them to fire. This is the true aim of the Baul tradition, and it is deep. This is the true Baul’s madness that can be related to the madness of Rumi’s tavern when he says: “In this gathering there is no high, no low, no smart, no ignorant, no special assembly, no grand discourse, no proper schooling required. … This gathering is more like a drunken party, full of tricksters, fools, mad men and mad women. This is a gathering of Lovers.” The Bauls call their path ‘ultā’, the ’reverse’ path, because they believe that to advance spiritually is to advance against the current of society — (or the current towards objective experience?) Ultimately, in Parvathy Baul’s words, silence and effortlessness (Sahaja) are all important. And they are to be felt both while singing and not singing. This is true Sadhana. It has ceased to come and go. This is what the Bauls give their mind and heart to.


The man who breathes 
lives on air 
and the other, unseen, 
lies beyond reach. 
Between the two 
moves another man 
as a secret link. 
Worship knowingly. 
There is sport amongst 
the three of them. 
My searching heart, 
whom do you seek? 
Between the doors 
of birth and death 
stands yet another door, 
wholly inexplicable. 
He who is able 
to be born 
at the door of death 
is devoted eternally. 
Die before dying, 
die living
~ Gosāiñ Gopāl (Hohm Press)


Although their Sadhana is expressed throughout, the Bauls’ songs are not used for propaganda, or to convert people to the baul tradition. They are a means of preserving and teaching the baul path by the guru, and are considered to be the intermediary between God and man. However, even if the Bauls attach great importance to the guru, seeing him as the form of the divine in man, and in some cases the Supreme itself, the disciple has no responsibility towards the master and remains free from any commitment. The Bauls believe above all in man. The castes, the particular deities, the sacred places, play no role in their lives. Nowadays, the Bauls are more and more led to settle down, and with their families growing, they must work to support themselves, and submit to modern life rules that undermine their tradition. In the countryside, the villagers’ interest is declining because their habits and musical tastes have been disrupted by the arrival of television and mobile devices. Some Bauls become ‘mere musicians’, giving recitals and gaining a new status, with the risk of emptying their practice of its spiritual content. But let us bet that they will be able to face these challenges, thanks to their big heart and astonishing spontaneity. Let us bet that they will continue, as they have done for centuries, to preserve in Bengal and on the world’s stages, their mad singularity.


Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart?
He is lost to me and I seek him 
wandering from land to land. 
I am listless for that moonrise of beauty,
which is to light my life,
which I long to see in the fullness of vision
in gladness of heart
~ Gagan Harkara (Wikipedia)


Dissolve into yourself
and you’ll become the realized one.
Sirāj Sāi says ‘Lālan, you’re blind —
See for a moment the true form in forms
~ Lālan Fakir (Academia)


Touching the end of this journey in Baul territory and path, I would encourage you to listen to this interview of Parvathy Baul: ‘Make your life into a prayer’ by Science and Nonduality. It is a truly beautiful account and insight into the baul condition and Sadhana. At the end of the interview, after having sung a song and translated it, Parvathy Baul delivers this truly spontaneous and heartfelt piece of wisdom: “I feel that in the same way we want to become very good musicians, very good singers, we need a certain discipline, so that our voice remains in the correct note, that we don’t go out of the rhythm — so many disciplines are there. In the same way, the aspiration should be for becoming a true devotee. And there is also a lot of notes we have to keep intact. And lots of details we must take care in the practice. And it is continuous and it’s always. … Make your life into a prayer.” 


What am ‘I’ — if that is known
then my striving will be complete.
The meaning of the word ‘I’ is profound. 
In me there is no more ‘I’
~ Lālan Fakir (Academia)



Songs by various Baul singers, past and present

Text by Alain Joly



Parvathy Baul sings ‘Aaye Kheyene’ by poet Rajjab Fakir…


Thank you to Hohm Press for letting me use some whole poems from the book ‘The Mirror of the Sky: Songs of the Baul’s of Bengal’, by Deben Bhattacharya.

Read Keith Cantú’s research paper ‘Islamic Esotericism in the Bengali Bāul Songs of Lālan Fakir’ and this article by Uttaran Dutta and Mohan Dutta: ’Songs of the Bauls: Voices from the Margins as Transformative Infrastructures’.

Listen to this interview of Parvathy Baul in YouTube: ‘Make your life into a prayer’ by Science and Nonduality.

Baul singers on this page:
– Lālan Fakir (1774-1890)
– Gagan Harkara (1845-1910)
– Gosāiñ Gopāl (1869-1912)
– Jādubindu (1821-1916)
– Haridās
– Kālāchānd
– Monimohan Das
– Rasika Dasa
– Parvathy Baul

– ‘The Mirror of the Sky: Songs of the Baul’s of Bengal’ – by Deben Bhattacharya – (Hohm Press, U.S.)

Hohm Press
Baul (Wikipedia)
Parvathy Baul
Lalon Fakir (Wikipedia)


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2 thoughts on “The Unattainable One

  1. Fascinating! I appreciate all the work you put into this writing – to give us a glimpse of this “spontaneous way of living.” Although I am not a scholar, it does remind me a little of what Ramana Maharshi said – “Be as you are” – and what Krishnamurti called “Truth is a Pathless Path” – always in a rhythm of Self Recognition of that which is within (Pratyabhijnahrdayam)…


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