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Baul ( , ) are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengalmarker. Bauls constitute both a syncretic religious sect and a musical tradition. Bauls are a very heterogeneous group, with many different subsects, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims. They can be often identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments.

Though Bauls comprise only a small fraction of the Bengali population, their influence on the culture of Bengal is considerable. In 2005, the Baul tradition was included in the list of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCOmarker.


The origin of the word is Baul is debated. Some modern scholars, like Shashibhusan Das Gupta have suggested that it may be derived either from Sanskrit word vatula, which means (divinely inspired) insane or from vyakula, which means impatiently eager and both of these derivations are consistent with the modern sense of the word, which denotes the inspired people with an ecstatic eagerness for a spiritual life, where a person can realise his union with the eternal beloved - the Maner Manush (the man of the heart)


The origin of Bauls is not known to any great degree of accuracy, but the word Baul has appeared in Bengali texts as old as the 15th century. The word is found in the Chaitanya-bhagavata of Vrindavanadas as well as in the Chaitanya Charitamrita of Krishnadas Kaviraj. Some scholars, however, maintain that it is not clear when the word took its sectarian significance, as opposed to a synonym for the word mad. The beginning of the Baul movement was attributed to Birbhadra, the son of Vaishnavite saint Nityananda, or alternatively to the 8th century Persian minstrels called Ba'al. Bauls are a part of the culture of rural Bengalmarker. Whatever their origin, Baul thought has mixed elements of Tantra, Sufi Islam, Vaishnavism and Buddhism. They are thought to have been influenced by the Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas as well as Tantric Buddhist schools like the Sahajia. Some scholars find traces of these thoughts in the ancient practices of Yoga as well as the Charyapadas, which are Buddhist hymns that are the first known example of written Bengali. The Bauls themselves attribute the lack of historical records of themselves to their reluctance of leaving a trace behind.

The baul were recorded as a major sect as early as mid 18th century.

Concepts and practices

Baul music celebrates celestial love, but does this in very earthy terms, as in declarations of love by the Baul for his boshTomi or lifemate.With such a liberal interpretation of love, it is only natural that Baul devotional music transcends religion and some of the most famous baul composers, such as Lalon Fakir, have been of Muslim faith. The famous Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was greatly influenced and inspired by Bauls. Here is a famous Rabindrasangeet (Tagore song), heavily influenced by Baul theme:

AmAr prANer mAnuSh Achhé prANé
tAi heri tAye sakol khAne
Achhe shé nayōntArAy, Alōk-dhArAy, tAi nA hArAye--
ogo tAi dekhi tAye JethAy sethAy
tAkA-i Ami Jé dik-pAné

The man of my heart dwells inside me.
Everywhere I look, it is he.
In my every sight, in the sparkle of light
Oh, I can never lose him --
Here, there and everywhere,
Wherever I turn, he is right there!

Their religion is based on an expression of the body, which they call deho-sadhona and an expression of the mind, which they call mana-sadhona. Some of their rituals are kept mostly hidden from the mainstream, as they are thought to be repulsive by many, and hedonistic by others. They concentrate much of their mystic energies on the chaar-chand (bengali for four-moons), i.e. the four body fluids, on the nine-doors or naba-dwar, i.e. the openings of the body, prakriti which implies both the woman and the nature, and a control of breathing, known as domo-sadhona.

Baul music

The music of the Bauls, bAul saNgeet, refers to a particulartype of folk song of sung by Bauls. It carries influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the suphi, a form of Sufi song mediated by many thousand miles of cultural intermixing, exemplified by the songs of Kabir, for instance. Their music represents a long heritage of preaching mysticism through songs in Bengal, like Shahebdhoni or Bolahadi sects.

Bauls use a number of musical instruments to embellish their compositions. The "ektara" is a one-stringed drone instrument, and by far the most common instrument used by a Baul singer. It is the carved from the epicarp of a gourd, and made of bamboo and goatskin. Other commonly used musical instruments include the dotara, a multi-stringed instrument made of the wood; the dugi, a small hand-held earthen drum; percussion instruments like dhol and khol; small cymbals called "kartal" and "mandira" and the bamboo flute.

Rabindranath Tagore and the Bauls

The songs of the Bauls and their lifestyle influenced a large swath of Bengali culture, but nowhere did it leave its imprint more powerfully than in the work of Rabindranath Tagore, who talked of Bauls in a number of speeches in Europe in the 1940s and an essay based on these was compiled into his English book The Religion of Man:

The Bauls are an ancient group of wandering minstrels from Bengal, who believe in simplicity in life and love. They are similar to the Buddhists in their belief in a fulfilment which is reached by love's emancipating us from the dominance of self.

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 fulness of vision
: in gladness of heart. [p.524]

The above is a translation of the famous Baul song by Gagan Harkara: Ami kothAy pAbo tAré, AmAr maner mAnush Jé ré. The following extract is a translation of another song:

My longing is to meet you in play of love, my Lover;
But this longing is not only mine, but also yours.
For your lips can have their smile, and your flute
its music, only in your delight in my love;
and therefore you importunate, even as I am.

The poet proudly says: 'Your flute could not have its music of beauty if your delight were not in my love. Your power is great -- and there I am not equal to you -- but it lies even in me to make you smile and if you and I never meet, then this play of love remains incomplete.'

The great distinguished people of the world do not know that these beggars -- deprived of education, honour and wealth -- can, in the pride of their souls, look down upon them as the unfortunate ones who are left on the shore for their worldly uses but whose life evermisses the touch of the Lover's arms.

This feeling that man is not a mere casual visitor at the palace-gate of the world, but the invited guest whose presence is needed to give the royal banquet its sole meaning, is not confined to any particular sect in India.

A large tradition in medieval devotional poetry from Rajasthan and other parts of India also bear the same message of unity in celestial and romantic love and that divine love can be fulfilled only through its human beloved.

Tagore's own compositions were powerfully influenced by Baul ideology. His music also bears the stamp of many Baul tunes. Other Bengali poets, such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, have also been influenced by Baul music and its message of non-sectarian devotion through love.

Present status

Bauls are to be found in the Indianmarker state of West Bengalmarker and the country of Bangladeshmarker. The Baul movement was at its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries but, even today one comes across the occasional Baul with his Ektara (one-stringed musical instrument) and begging bowl, singing across the farflung villages of rural Bengal. Travelling in local trains and attending village fairs are a good way to encounter Bauls. One of the biggest festivals for this cult of wandering minstrels is held in the month of January at Kenduli in the Birbhummarker district, a four-day fest organised in memory of the poet Jayadeva.

There are also the Western Bauls in America and Europe under the spiritual direction of Lee Lozowick, a student of Yogi Ramsuratkumar. Their music is quite different (rock /gospel/ blues) but the essence of the spiritual practices of the East is well maintained.


  1. "Baul." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 4 Dec. 2007[1]
  2. Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO. 25 September 2005.
  3. Das Gupta, Shashibhusan (1946, reprint 1995). Obscure Religious Cults, Calcutta: Firma KLM, ISBN 81-7102-020-8, pp.160-1
  4. Das Gupta, Shashibhusan (1946, reprint 1995). Obscure Religious Cults, Calcutta: Firma KLM, ISBN 81-7102-020-8, p.160ff


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