Baul movement, legacy of Lalon Shah

Maqsoodul Haque

THE social, academic and intellectual construct given to the baul movement of Bengal for centuries have been attempts by the elite status quo to box in the music, lifestyle and philosophy of fakirs, sadhus and sages of our time, thereby limiting them to easily explainable parameters and expected norms, practices of spirituality. Baul philosophy is, however, unique in that it challenges these constructs in the epochal tangents, setting it apart from other ‘religions’ or beliefs. Our dominant heritage culture, especially those practised by the marginalised majority, the construed ‘subalterns’, has, therefore, traditionally been in conflict and at odds with the city centres.
The objective of this essay is to give readers a concise yet coherent understanding to the basis of the baul creed, its history, philosophy, complex spirituality and lofty ideals. It also aims to present us an opportunity to appreciate why the teachings of Fakir Lalon Shah has become so pertinent in present-day Bangladesh, which is beset with sectarian strife of an unimaginable magnitude, and perhaps the lessons we may inculcate to the way forward.

THE word baul is a generic description given to an ascetic and deeply spiritual people who for centuries have remained at the farthest fringe of Bengal’s society. While the word may be unknown elsewhere in the world, in Bengal they are instantly identified as a group of people with a one stringed lute like musical instrument with a gourd bottom called ektara in company, their unkempt long hair and looks complimented by dishevelled beard, and rough and rustic clothes.
The word baul, derived either from Sanskrit vyakula, ‘confused’, or vatula, ‘mad’, is found in Bengali texts dating back to the fifteenth century, where it generally has its literal meaning ‘mad’ (d. Hindi baur). The bauls have presumably been so named because, they do indeed seem mad in their extreme unconventionality. They reject commonly accepted beliefs and practices such as the caste system and worship in mosques or temples. To the bauls, however, ‘mad’ does not have a pejorative connotation; rather, it has the positive sense of ‘mad with love for God’. In fact, pagol and khepa are two Bengali words for ‘mad’ that bauls often proudly affix to their names.
However, the mostly unlettered yet culturally sophisticated bauls as a ‘class of people’ are indeed Bengal’s rural intellectual elite who for centuries have looked at villages as their thriving ground, at a time in history when villages had their own power base, were affluent, self-contained and resilient and where bauls were free to practice their unconventional belief system.

Identity and reference points
BECAUSE of their unique social position, bauls are neither a cult nor a community. They can best be described as a ‘fraternity’ without any formalised power base or a spiritual or social hierarchy. Bauls have traditionally despised, confronted and challenged the clergy. Mullahs, purahits and padres have no place in their spiritual equation. Respect and admiration for elder bauls such as shadhu guru, guru, darbesh and murshid who are guides and teachers is emphasised. These men and women of wisdom employ the ancient working institution termed ‘guru/shishya or pir/murshid-murid parampara’, i.e. teacher-students interactions in traditional school of ‘lip to ear’ esoteric knowledge.
There are no ‘sacred texts’ or books among the bauls although references are widely taken from Upanishad, Vedanta, Mahabharata, Puran, Tripitaka as well as the Qur’an. Knowledge and readings about monotheist prophets are expounded and hagiographies of saints discussed as well as the Sufi spiritual lineage, genealogical transmission flowcharts or shirzanaama are widely used to understand and explain historical transmissions.
Sectarian and communal identities, or even indulgence in the politics of identity, are considered vices for essentially it is spiritual racism in different names and have been used as tools to divide communities. The issue is not with religions per se, but more to do with the implied superiorities of races, caste, creed, etc that creeps in consequently and inevitably becomes the core points that leads to exploitation and degradation of human values. Valid and pointed discussions on religions and scripts are acceptable among the bauls; what is not is any kind of provocations having communal/sectarian overtone or prevarications that seeks to damage harmony.

CONTEXTUAL records available in the public domain indicate that the baul movement may have its philosophical roots in the bhakti movement that swept India between the 14th and 17th Century. Among the stalwarts and sages of the movement that commenced in South India and very quickly spread north, the names of Ravidas, Srimanta Sankardeva, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Vallabhacharya, Surdas, Meera Bai, Kabir, Tulsidas, Namdev, Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram and other mystics of bhakti movement in the north can be mentioned.
Not until 1870, with the publication of Bharat Barsiya Upasak Sampraday (Indian Devotional Traditions) by Aksay Kumar Datta, did the bauls appear in the pages of history. Whatever the date of its origin, there can be no doubt that the heyday of the baul tradition was in the last century and the early part of the present one; it was during this period that the thousands of baul songs that comprise the present-day corpus were composed.
It appears from records that people who share a common South Asian ancestry were traditionally, culturally and genetically opposed to any form of dogmatism, religious bigotry or theocracy. History, therefore, mentions the bhakti movement evolved because of two extreme issues.
The dehumanising caste system among the Hindus had decimated the essence of Sanatana leading to social ostracisation on religious grounds, as also Muslim rulers were per force converting the local population to Islam.
As resistance to the above trends, saints of the bhakti movement taught that people could put aside the heavy burdens of rituals and caste that organised religions so scrupulously demand, with subtle complexities of philosophies thus associated, and simply express their overwhelming love for God. In Bengal, Chaitanya Dev and his Nadiya school of Vaishnavite teachings had a vast impact.
Whilst Islam’s inroad into India was marked by the invasion of Sindh in the 8th Century by Muhammad Bin Kasim, however by the time the bhakti movement peaked, the ultra-orthodox genre of Islam propounded by the original Arab conquerors were severely challenged and hence was waning. In India, Islam reached its zenith on the arrival of liberal Sufi saints mostly from Iraq, Yemen, Turkey and Persia. With the establishment of many tariqats or orders, Sufi Islam found ready acceptance in Indian society, for it coalesced favourably with the ideals and philosophies of the ongoing bhakti movement.
Also in the 16th century, syncretism of faith identical to what bauls believe in found patronage of the Mughal emperor Akbar, who founded the tawhid-e-ilahi (also referred to as dwin-e-ilahi).
This spirit of tolerance and cooperation was strikingly demonstrated in the policies of Akbar, the Mughal emperor, who reigned from 1560 to 1605 and who respected all faiths. Out of sensitivity to the Hindus, he became a vegetarian, gave up hunting, and forbade the sacrifice of animals on his birthday or in the Hindu holy places. In 1575 he founded a House of Worship, where scholars from all religions could meet to discuss God. Here, apparently, the Jesuit missionaries from Europe were the most aggressive. He founded his own Sufi order, dedicated to ‘divine monotheism’ (tawhid-e-ilahi), which proclaimed a radical belief in the one God who could reveal himself in any rightly-guided religion. Islam in its original sense of ‘surrender’ to God could be achieved by any faith: what he certainly called ‘Muhammad’s religion’ did not have the monopoly of God.
In Bengal there was, however, a legacy issue that preceded the bhakti movement by some two hundred years. It was the genocide perpetrated on the Buddhists, when a series of attacks perpetrated by Senas and later Muslim invaders largely decimated the native population. If we are to look at the Buddhist relics in Paharpur, Mahastangarh and elsewhere in Bangladesh, this part of Bengal was a thriving Buddhist centre of knowledge and most of the ancient sites were universities. It appears that Bangladesh was the centre of the Buddhist world and much importance attached to its networking with Bihar India and rest of South and Southeast Asia.
The final disappearance of Buddhism in ancient Bangladesh is mainly attributed to the degeneration of Buddhism into obscure Tantric cults and emergence of religious and social conservatism in the subsequent Sena rule. Buddhism is the original religion of Bangladesh for more than 2,000 years and the name Banga appears in the stone inscription of Nagarjunikonda dated 4th century BC. A sizeable number of Buddhist monks fled to Nepal and Tibet with their manuscripts and religious books while some others continued their existence here under various camouflages. Subsequently, a group of orthodox Buddhists from Magadha, Vajji and Vaishali of North India migrated to the eastern regions to escape the rising tide of militant Brahminism there in the 13th-14th century. They first came to Assam and then continued with their long journey to reach Chittagong where they found safe shelter merging with surviving Buddhists of ancient Bengal amidst geographical landscape of sea on the one side and ranges of hills on the other. The newly-settled immigrants from Magadha lived for about two centuries under Arakanese rule (1459 to 1666) when they adopted Theravada Buddhism.

Hypothesis: origins of the baul creed
KEEPING the varying and conflicting degree of opinions as explained above apart, what possibly set into motion is our hypothesis that the genocide on Buddhists in what is now Bangladesh and parts of northeast India, compelled its secretive monks and lay followers to flee with the earliest Bangala scripts, the Charyapad, that were later discovered in an ancient Buddhist monastery in Nepal.
The resident Buddhists, who wore the chibor (saffron-ochre robe) and sported mundu (shaven, tonsured head), but were neither monks nor had they degenerated from the basic teachings of Buddhism, fled to the impassable jungles and reversed their roles in society. There they discarded their chibor and grew their hair and beard. As an additional disguise, they wore a white shroud denoting that they were already dead and instead of remaining silent about God, as was the Sakyamuni order of Buddhism in Bangladesh; then, as even today, they started ‘singing’ the praise of the one God, and the baul was born.
Whatever may be the case, by the late 17th and early 18th century, the spill-over from the bhakti movement led to the Fakir-Sannyasi Rebellion in Bengal and resulted in Nadiya entering a golden age where social revolts and struggles of the marginalised class became a dominant theme in the mainstream. Other then Chaitanyadev, saints such as Nityananda and Adityacharya encapsulated the Nadiya school of Vaishnavite philosophy.
Kushtia, where Fakir Lalon Shah was based and spent better part of his life, was within the territory of the erstwhile Nadiya district during the colonial era. Thus, we may easily benchmark the sage as a later day pallbearer of the bhakti movement in Bengal, and the legacy continues.

The baul movement
THE baul movement for lack of better expression is a syncretic belief system incorporating elements and influences of Shahajiya Buddhism, Vaishnavism, and Tasawuf (Sufi) Islam. In Bangladesh and Bengal it is also known as Fakiri Islam (or Bengali Islam), etymologically evolving from the Arabic word Fiqh, or seekers with insight and practitioners of deep knowledge/wisdom. Fiqh is also the word used to explain Islamic jurisprudence. The Sarshina-e-Fakiri school of thoughts have run parallel to Islam since its birth, and although it is considered a branch of Sufism, what characterises it as different is in its enquiry that is grounded on rationale, intellect and not hearsays.

Philosophical creed
BAULS seeks equilibrium in religious quest, by transposing the best of mankind’s teachings to realities and looking for similarities rather than dissimilarities in religious text and their myriad interpretations. The all-important equation for Bauls is that man is a natural creature and anything that defies or overlooks natural laws and its many principals is neither credible nor acceptable. It also lays bare that man the creature has limited free will and in praxis Bauls tend to lean towards nature, seasons, agricultural and cosmological cycles, with their food habits varying accordingly. Ecology and preservation is a dominant criterion of the Bauls social behaviour.
To appreciate Baul philosophy is to understand the state of nothingness associated by their rejection to all that is exploitative to humankind. Their rejection however is not to be construed, as a willing suspension of disbelief, or a reckless abandonment of social responsibility or that of becoming inordinately fatalistic.
It is a living organic quest to go back to the dynamics of where it all began: to our infancy as much as the first moments of creation. Clearly, life is a blessed moment of procreation and an extension of the continuous cycle of Mother Nature which rolls on over, when we know all too well, it is also a process that cannot be rolled back.
Yet, bauls believe that, as seeds germinate into plants that flowers, bear fruits and later become seeds again, so can man, through practice and perseverance and that can only happen, when we identify ourselves as creatures of nature. The search for ‘seed truth’ has, therefore, had an overriding presence in baul practice, philosophy and music.

Limits to worshipping
BAULS believe that ‘worshipping’ is a limited exercise humans habitually indulge in expected behaviourist rituals. This is an effort to reach out to a power greater than oneself. Among bauls the word is bhokti (derived from Sanskrit bhakti) meaning a natural gravitation to the supreme being of one’s choice, appropriation, association, aspiration, adoration or adulation. There can neither be a fixed nor multiple notions about the ‘nature’ of God. In the baul equation, it is this formless, sexless, voiceless entity that superimposes itself on the ‘one’, the human body is where all complexities begin and nothing is yet more complex known to man, than his own physical being i.e. his body.
For bauls it is in the songs, and their inherent meaning that is the core of their belief. Their practices fall within the domain of contemplative science in its own right and incorporate everything from the Sufi state of sama or trance/ecstatic like state, the others come about the ancient Indian art and practice of Kundalini Yoga. Devotion through meditation and contemplating on the body to unleash the possibility of a union with the divine is Baul ‘religion’ if one would like to term it so.

Spiritual dichotomy
THE concept of God as popularly understood in normal parlance among theist, polytheist or even monotheist is nonexistent among Bauls. They believe that all mosques, temples, pagodas, etc are physical manifestations of ‘place of worship’ that already exist in the human body. Therefore, there is no object more worthy of worship than human beings, and the human soul, the fountain of its consciousness. The bauls believe that ‘the supreme being, the truth’ is embedded in human souls and its physical being. Likewise, whatever is in the universe, rivers, oceans, mountains, etc to the celestial ‘heaven and hell’ and beyond are present as a microcosm, within the human body.
The baul belief system has striking similarities with Sahajiya Buddhism of Bengal as it not an organised religion, but a lifestyle and creed.
The term sahaj, literally means ‘born together with’, and by extension ‘congenital, innate, hereditary, original and natural’. In modern Bengal, sahaj(a) also means ‘easy’, ‘simple’ and ‘plain’. Sahaja constitutes an ontological as well as psychological category, and emphasis is placed on realisation rather than ritual or scholarship.
Bauls believe there is nothing more mysterious in our existence than the human body and that it is within the human body alone where everything is concentrated. It is not a singular equation, for together with our body it is also our mind from where our creative faculty, our consciousness and our personalities evolve and develops, transmutes us into the beings that we are.
Since baul songs/poems are both philosophical and spiritual at the same time its tottyo (esoteric meaning) again has different and sometimes complex implications and may vary contextually. They are specific and discursive and include paradoxical ones relating to the human body, referred to as deho tottyo where everything from physiology, neurology to even embryology among others is included. Bauls believe God lives/resides within man the being, they ‘worship’ God in man as opposed to God of man’, i.e. every human being is a part of God and therefore worthy of worship.
In the Qur’an, man is obliquely referred to as ashraful makhlukat, i.e. often meant, as the ‘best of creations’. The term, however, falls short as the inference is by no means unconditional. Another verse refers to man supposedly being created in the ‘best of God’s image’ — the Qur’an again makes no direct mention of the same.
Man is created as representative of God on earth. Man is created out of dust and then God breaths into him His (Divine) spirit.
That said, spirituality or philosophy in the realms of Bengal’s bhaab baad is not a discipline that can be limited to academic discourse, but has to be lived and experienced.
If you want to call something spiritual or material or some other word, it is unimportant. In general these words were created in ivory towers by intellectuals who, though may love, admire, aspire to resemble or just record the histories of the beloved sadhus, fakirs, or gurus, may not, however, be one him/herself. Only a baul knows who a baul is.
Bauls are spiritual beings having a human experience and not human beings having a spiritual experience, and they are not necessarily ‘religious’. They also shun the urban construct of them being addhyatik or ‘spiritual people’ who hover close to some astral paradise where God resides and have shunned and removed themselves from society.
Quite in contrast, bauls have been a part of society, represented it faithfully with much of its hopes and aspiration and have remained relevant and contextual at all times. It is in their spirit of liberation from material instincts, greed and intolerance that Bauls believe eventual freedom evolves and ones they strive.

Guiding tenets in baul philosophy
BAULS believe that God could not have existed without man, for it is only man that sings the great glory of God, in a roundabout way ‘keeps him alive’. God, contrary to popular misconception, is also not a ‘being’ that lives in a celestial heaven, as most religions will lead us to believe. The all-important equation for bauls is that man is a natural creature and anything that defies or overlooks natural laws and its many principles is neither credible nor acceptable.
Bauls reject anything called ‘absolute truth’. They believe that arriving at truth can only be guided through collective, cohesive human axioms, and transposing them to the vibrations of ancient wisdom of all humanity, not necessarily the ones that have been in our midst for a few thousand years only.
The complex human mind is constantly evolving, expanding and is by nature expansive; therefore, bauls believe even axioms themselves are perceptions, and perceptions in turn simply cannot be reality.
Reality, again, is an evolving process, and much of what we consider real is never above human enquiry. The baul quest is to remind us of the ‘known unknown’, matters of seemingly trivial implications and in its simplest, a reaffirmation that we retrace and re-fix our coordinates as appropriate in our times on mother earth.
There are, however, no rigid parameters or standard tenets in belief and practices of bauls nor do they have a clergy class, but broadly the following may be considered as aggregative standards of reference:
i. Antinomianism: literally a spiritual path which contravenes or lies outside authorised scripture (Hindu and Muslim) (bhed-bohirbhuto dhormo)
ii. The doctrines of (the primacy of) the guru (gurubaad).
iii. The value of the physical human body — the doctrine of the universe and the receptacle (body), (sthulo manab-deher gourob–bhanda–brahmanda). The usual aphorism that runs: ‘Whatever is in the universe is in the receptacle of the body’ (Ja achey brahmande, tai achey ei dehey bhande).
iv. The person of the mind/heart (moner manush).
v. The truth concerning the essence (roop-swaroop tottyo). The central notion here is the physical body (roop) of each man and woman is identifiable with his or her presence (swaroop), usually equated with Krishna and Radha respectively.
On the Sufi paradigm, baul philosophy may be viewed on the following foundational principles:
i. There is one God; the Eternal, the Only Being; None exists save He.
ii. There is one master; the guiding spirit of all souls that constantly leads all followers toward the light.
iii. There is one holy book; the sacred manuscript of nature, the only Scripture that can enlighten the reader.
iv. There is one religion; unswerving progress in the right direction toward the Ideal, which fulfils every soul’s life purpose.
v. There is one law; the law of reciprocity, which can be observed by a selfless conscience, together with a sense of awakened justice.
vi. “There is one Family, the Human Family, which unites the Children of Earth indiscriminately in the Parenthood of God.”
vii. There is one moral; the love which springs forth from a willing heart, surrendered in service to God and Humanity, and which blooms in deeds of beneficence.
viii. There is one object of praise; the beauty which uplifts the heart of its worshipper through all aspects from the seen to the unseen.
ix. There is one truth; true knowledge of our being, within and without, which is the essence of Wisdom.
x. There is one path; the effacement of the limited self in the unlimited, (shimar majhe oshim tumi bajao apon sur) which raises the mortal to immortality, in which resides all perfection.

Fakir Lalon Shah
FAKIR Lalon Shah lived in Seuria, Kumarkhali, Kushtia in what was pre-partition Nadiya district of undivided Bengal, British Imperial India. His date of birth (abirbhaab) is not known and his death (tirodhan) as recorded in his tombstone is the 1st Kartick, in the Bengali era 1297, corresponding to the Gregorian calendar’s 17th October, 1890. It is believed that he was between 115 to 117 years of age at the time of his transition, meaning he lived approximately between the periods 1774AD to 1890AD.
Accepted overall is that he was discovered in a semi-comatose state near the banks of the river Kaliganga in Seuria, Kushtia sometimes in the Bengali month of Falgoon in the Bengali era 1196, corresponding to 1790 in the Gregorian calendar with a full-blown case of smallpox virus (variola major) — a disease discovered in 10,000 BC, with estimated mortality rate as high as 30 to 35 per cent.
The person who instinctively rescued Lalon from his plight was a pious Muslim lady Fakirani Motijaan Maa (The Precious Jewels Life Mother: possibly a later day honorific) who had gone to the Kaliganga river to fetch water before dawn and found his (Lalon’s) near lifeless form washed up on the bank, breathing only in gasps and when the sound of sighing drew her attention. There are patriarchal versions to this legend, some implying that it was not Motijaan but her husband Maulana Malaam Shah who discovered Lalon at the river.
Traditions reaffirm that Fakir Lalon Shah by choice or necessity never revealed his date of birth, the name of his biological parents; his religion, caste or societal background, and any pertinent information that could have been used to track back his roots and origins.
Lalon’s spirituality, evidentially grew through his association with the childless Matijaan and Malaam, his adoptive parents, who reared him in what was to be very tragic and profound times in his life. In all probability, the trauma of small pox, abandonment by his biological parents, together with the devastating effects of the disease disturbed his psychological equilibrium and consequently he may have slipped into near permanent amnesia and was unable to recall his past. Also as a consequence, it is not unlikely that his highly evolved mind moved on to realms of ‘paranormal’ mental planes, i.e. that he instinctively acquired knowledge in extra sensory perceptions, precognition and maybe even psycho-kinesis.
Other than the above observations, nothing as such is known about Fakir Lalon Shah.
The followers and practitioners of the philosophy of the great sage believe that the only way one can discover him is in the gems embedded and encoded in over 1,200 songs by him and strewn in the national heritage. In reality, nothing can be taken further unless the tottyo or esoteric allegories embedded in the text are fully understood and appreciated. Unfortunately, the works of Fakir Lalon Shah has rarely if ever, been discussed in academia, nor has there been any effort at studying him beyond the banal and ordinary.

Misunderstood legacy
RESEARCHERS for instance in over 200 years have locked horn over claims and counterclaims on Lalon by both Shonaton (Hindus) and Muslims being adherents to their respective faith and/or religion. In reality, the misunderstood legacy of Fakir Lalon Shah’s spirituality lies in direct confrontation of grounded norms of the times he lived when he very cruelly earned the ire of Shonaton Purohit priest and Islamic Mullahs and it had all to do with his interpretation of their respective ‘holy text’ and scriptures.
In the absence of detailed accounts, verifiable or reliably published documentation about him or of the times he lived in, and his entirely private, controversial and secretive quest for a union with the Maker of the Universe, that went public with its wide acceptance, it is not surprising that every aspect of his life has been up for scrutiny, and the resultant curiosity have led to myths, half-truths and unfortunate fabrications about the message that he wished to convey.
Ironically, more than his message and its interpretation, the persona of Fakir Lalon Shah have become of sole importance in serious study of Baul spirituality.
In Seuria, Kushtia, Bangladesh where Lalon Shah’s body was eventually interned without any religious ceremony, his legacy has been one of diabolical ignorance, a heritage of an insane struggle to assign him either an Islamic identity by hard-line Islamist fanatics, in confrontation with the dominant city bred middle-class precepts of the ill defined Europeanized Hindu Brahmin supremacist ‘secular’ Bengali culture; matters even till this day remains complicated in the understanding of the great man and his vision.
The sage during his lifetime steadfastly repudiated any attempts to be tagged as a ‘follower’ of any organized religion. Thus till this day for his followers unwilling to infer religiosity on Lalon Shah, he is simply ‘Shai-ji’ and Baul philosophy is no religion but a quest, in small insignificant ways, perhaps even a permissible way of life.

The existence equation: alignment vs. enlightenment
BAULS are neither theist nor atheist. They are ‘agnostic monotheist’ – the twist being while they have faith in ‘one God’ or are ‘ek iswarbadi’ on the question of his existence they are open-ended and more specifically silent, when we consider the following equation:
Truth is in acknowledging and appreciating our left and right and knowing that cohesion comes only when the ‘two meets with the one’, our intellect — or akel that any reality presents itself.
Reality is neither stereophonic nor monophonic, but quadraphonic.
Reality is the surrender to the centre by the duals. It is our physical supplication as demonstrated in sajood/sizda, or prostration; in that we understand our left and right but not our centre — the head, that must be grounded (as in electricity) for current to flow its full course, for a ‘circuit’ to be complete!
Circularity is in aligning plurals with the singular over the centre, with the spine and the two great organs, the brain and heart that have multiple chambers, to the global axis of poles (as in magnetism) that our equilibrium our ONE in ONE, our ALL in ALL — Allah, Bhagwan, Iswar, Guru, Boddhisatva, etc can be positioned and their importance in all religions are defined.
The hypothetical ONE, therefore, is the sum total of the combined plurals on the singular/s.

Life: the unexplainable journey
LIKE a ship that has constantly to check its coordinates to north, south, east and west via the stars up above, so has man in his day-to-day existence. The process of surrender/supplication/submission for Muslims is exemplified when they kneel and prostrate ‘due west’ (in case of those living in the east) in prayers. It is, therefore, to be appreciated that as per the fundamental principles of polarity and rhythm juxtaposed with the principles of mentalism — equilibrium to the great YES ‘maybe’ discovered in exercise of our limited free will.
That, however, is an individual experience and defies explanation, for each experience then is very private, unique and personal. ‘Sacred and secret’ starts here quite unnecessarily for one simply cannot explain or put it in pen or paper (keyboards in these enlightened times!).

Explaining Fakir Lalon Shah’s agnostic monotheism
WHILE agnosticism is often thought as an intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertainty of all claims to ultimate knowledge or even ‘acceptance of the Unity of God’ but a rejection of ‘religious rituals’, in Fakir Lalon Shah, the rejection was addressed to prevalent dogmas or meaningless practices that lay in direct contradiction to the laws of nature, or the natural process.
Lalon’s agnostic monotheist ‘syncretic fusion faith’ revolves around belief and disbelief, existence and non-existence of the ‘Maker being delicately balanced on the periphery of rationale, logics, enquiry, commitment, patience and explanation. Fakir Lalon Shah reaffirmed faith by remaining firmly ingrained to Monotheism or belief in one God, with its origins rooted to times of Abraham the founding father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Bauls of Bengal and the teachings of Fakir Lalon Shah
MUSIC was the vehicle of Lalon’s message, and despite its esoteric contents, it never failed to find a ready audience for the natives of Bengal had a natural inclination and inherent talent for the art form and its appreciation. Together, Fakir Lalon Shah was exceptional in that he personified what the Bauls in the good old days ascribed as a ‘belief system’ and this saw huge numbers flock in admiration to the great man. Lalon gave a voice to the Bauls struggle in his poems set to music of the poorest of the poor, something that was sadly lacking at the crossroad of our socio-political-spiritual struggle that started hundreds of years ago.
Lalon’s message about rejection of the ‘inevitable self’ then, as much as it is today, as an extension to the ‘inquiry of the self’ was never so obvious. Removed from society, and in grief and tragedies Lalon Shah evolved: his depth came not from wallowing on the periphery of mainstream beliefs, indeed his protracted period of isolation forced upon by the dominant Muslim and Hindu clergy of the day, were harbingers for his immense understanding into the intricacies of life.
Passing on his message to counter socio-political and religious prejudices in the simplest of couplets for the average person to understand was his mission. Life’s complex equations explained in the simplest of term were his forte.
The persona of Lalon as evident in his work, revolved around planned strategic subterfuge of a highly evolved mind desperately attempting to protect his privacy and space, to preserve the essence dissertation of ‘seed truth’ that he had the capacity to absorb and appreciate, from being distorted by the uninitiated and/or vested interest.
He was a recluse, a hermit, but never eased himself out of any debate that put him face-to-face with the bigoted clergy and pundits of the day. Documentary evidence from numerous available bahas (intellectual discourse, debates) suggests that Lalon mesmerised his audience and his nemesis with wit, candour and intelligence and in-depth explanation of wisdom in the simplest of parables possible.

If belief and existence be the north pole, and disbelief and non-existence the south, Fakir Lalon Shah was the equator of our times, an ‘imaginary line’ but one which faithfully delineates the axis of the universe, yet has necessarily revolved in a straight line, even when there is no such thing as a straight line!
Lalon was vehemently opposed to blind faith/belief and prejudices and demanded vigorous use of the akel or human intellect in understanding the Messages from the Messengers and religious text. Importantly as a living example, he identified that it is not religion, belief or creed that is the enemy of humankind, but the tyrannical politics of identity, which derides life and living, and has historically been the cause of hate and strife.
In context of Bangladesh today, we cannot help overlook the conflicts that politicians have exposed us to by blatantly using religion as a weapon of choice. This has pitted followers from even the same religion to question each other as to the validity of their respective faith.
In Fakir Lalon Shah’s message, a Hindu or a Muslim, a Christian or a Buddhist, a theist or an atheist have always been unimportant and he condemned politics of identity in the severest of terms, for this is a abominable crime that serves no other purpose, but the wilful destruction of humankind by humans.
Fakir Lalon Shan believed that it is not until our entrapped soul is set free, can we expect any freedom/liberation in the geographical, astral or celestial realm to take hold. It is time for ‘essence man’ devoid of pretensions, devoid of politics to rise, and seek life in what was our pristine form, our innocence at infancy, at the seed, where it all began.

Maqsoodul Haque is a columnist, poet and jazz-rock fusion musician. He is currently working on the expanded version of his 2007 book ‘Bauliana: Worshipping the Great God in Man’.

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