Madness in its myriad forms has been represented in art and literature across historical periods and within cultural and social contexts. Philosophers and psychologists have struggled to define, explore, and understand the complex critical and ethical implosions of normality and abnormality. Any behaviour that breaches societal norms is termed abnormal. Those who define ‘normal’ and the parameters of ‘normalcy’ have always been definitive in castigating, deriding and marginalizing the ‘mad’. As Foucault pointed out (2001), responses to deviant behaviour can alter over a period of time, from perceiving the mad as possessing wisdom to regarding them as an aberration of nature. While no society comes to a full consensus in its views of madness, madness is not always necessarily considered a negative disorder. In a positive sense it can denote greatness. Creative madness is considered a sign of genius, and society has always been in awe of those who are ‘out of the ordinary’, those who are outstanding and spectacularly brilliant. Again, religious madness emphasised by intense spiritual experiences and departure from conventional practices has invited ambivalent response. While religion provides an interpretative framework to understand a given culture and society, religious deviance may be seen as asserting special claims to power and status.

Divine madmen have appeared on the social scene time and again to denounce the tyranny and evil of the sanctified and powerful figures of the society. Protected by their apparent ‘madness’, they turn the world upside down to show a new condition. Their eccentricities represent behaviour that seems sharply discontinuous from ‘normal’ worldly expectations. The participation in the divine, till one completely surrenders and renounces all senses has been seen and explored in various traditions, both in the East and the West, in almost all ancient cultures and civilizations of the world. The concept of holy foolishness, or ‘foolishness for Christ’, was part of the early Christian asceticism which referred to the deliberate flouting of society’s conventions by employing shocking unconventional behaviour. This included consistently rejecting worldly cares and imitating Christ who endured humiliation and mockery from the crowd. The yurodivy is the Russian version of the holy fool, one who deliberately acts foolish and immoral, is half naked, speaks in riddles, and is disruptive and challenging. The shaman was a mystical priestly figure who with his visionary ecstasy employed esoteric methods to heal the body and mind. In Sanskrit the term ‘avadhuta’ refers to one who is totally immersed in God and has renounced all worldly concerns. This was associated with the crazed behaviour and wisdom of some religious teachers who reversed established conventional social norms. In Islamic mysticism, Malamati was a Sufigroup who used to go into a divine trance and employed a set of unconventional, unorthodox set of practices.

The Bauls of West Bengal in India are typically a section of society who can simultaneously be termed both creative and insane. They are the singing mendicants who have been for centuries an integral part of the Bengali culture, visually prominent at fairs, festivals, and even on local trains and buses. They now enjoy a distinct identity of their own and have been included in the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Unfortunately very little research has been done by sociologists or anthropologists to understand their role in a community. Not only are they a repository of a rich archive of folk songs and music, but also more importantly, the Bauls are a narrative process which throws light on the changing patterns in the society. They make it possible to comprehend the relationship between a dominant centre and the periphery, the prevalent religious practices and social hierarchies that they question and challenge. They are also fundamental to the understanding of received notions of identity and reality.

The Baul singers are essentially integrated into the everyday activities of life. Seen in trains, buses, fairs and festivals, attired in loose saffron robes, accompanied by their musical instruments, the ektara – a one-stringed instrument comprising an animal skin stretched over a dried gourd shell – duggi – a drum – and khamak– a string instrument which is plucked – they walk down the crowded aisle of the trains or mingle with the masses. Oblivious of the heat and the jostling crowd, they break out into an ecstatic song, their haunting lyrics reverberating among the awestruck audience. Once a year several thousand saffron clad Bauls gather at Kenduli near Santiniketan in West Bengal. This annual carnival is held for three days in January. Bauls from all over Bengal congregate on the banks of the River Ganga. It is an annual pilgrimage for them, a celebration of their togetherness and their unique culture. They have been assembling at this site for at least five hundred years. Their origins are shrouded in mystery, as there is very little evidence of their history. Each Baul when initiated is told of the previous gurus. Going by the line of gurus till now, it can be estimated that their lineage originates around the mid-15th and 16th centuries, about the time of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Although we cannot say for sure when the Bauls forged their unique identity, we can trace the religious and philosophical influences on their way of life. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534), considered by his followers to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna, was a notable proponent of theVaishnava school of Bhakti for Krishna and his consort, Radha. Chaitanya, also known as ‘Nimai Pagal’ (the mad Nimai) is credited for propagating ecstatic love, almost bordering on madness, for Krishna in the Bengal-Orissa region. This was not through any elaborate ritualistic devotion, but through the medium of song and dance. From the Vaishnavas, their primary influence and origin, the Bauls have derived their theological tenets and lyrical expressions. Though there are many divergent groups within this sect, the Bauls have been significantly influenced by those whose worhip is ‘sahaj’ – effortless, natural and spontaneous. For them, all human feelings – love, generosity, lust, anger, hatred are natural. None was regarded as negative and therefore non should be repressed or rejected.

The Bauls also borrowed their doctrine from Tantrism and Sufism. Tantrism was a well-defined practice even at the start of the 1st millennium A.D. It was an alternate creed to the more conservative and rigid path stressed in the Vedas. According to the tantras, caste or one’s birth does not limit a person from spiritual development or from the quest of the spiritual. The Bauls share the social outlook of the tantrics and the Sufis. They reject the conventional norms, the hierarchical social order and the spiritual authority of the Brahmins. The tantrics also believe that one needs a guru to show the light, that a guru can lead the ignorant follower and explain the secrets of yogic practices. Sufism also lays stress on finding a teacher who has found the permission of another master to impart knowledge. It is an unbroken succession of teachers who impart and transmit the Divine Light, rather than worldly knowledge, from one generation to another. This is one of the reasons why the Bauls, like the tantrics, do not have any written precepts. All that we know of them, their philosophy and way of life, is what is handed down as practices. There are no codified or organized Baul scriptures. It is mostly an oral tradition where all teachings are handed directly from the teacher to the disciple, mostly through songs but also through discussions and yogic practices. One is not born a Baul, but becomes one, after initiation by a guru. While there are some ascetic Bauls, there are no restrictions on men and women living together. In fact, certain Baul rites are based on the combined devotional practices of a man and a woman. The female plays the most vital part in Baul cult. Without women partners the cult loses its significance. The woman is also considered a ‘chetan guru‘, or one who awakens the consciousness and provides spiritual guidance to the cult. The Bauls are not worshippers of Goddess Durga or Kali, but they have adapted this conceptualisation of the female Shakti (power) in another form. A Baul almost compulsorily must have a female partner, and it is the woman who initiates him into esoteric sexual practices – she is the ‘knower’ who teaches him sensual knowledge. Their teachings are esoteric, but they are by no means elitist; they are secret only in so far as they are not advertised or openly revealed to the masses.

The Bauls make extensive use of parables, allegory and colourful metaphors in their songs. Mostly illiterate and belonging to the lower classes of society, the followers of this sect use the vernacular and the medium of songs to reach out to the common people. Their teachings are for the masses – simple to understand and generally provide an understanding of the divine through social commentary. There are inconsistencies, paradoxes, and ambiguities, but it is a living tradition that has the flexibility to change with time. They appear to sing and dance for themselves, and the devotion, passion and ecstasy lift their songs from the mundane to the divine.

Everyone asks, ‘Lalan, what is your religion?’
Lalan answers, ‘How does religion look?’
‘Brother, I have never laid eyes on it.’
Some wear beads around their necks
Some wear rosaries, and so people say
They have different religions.
But do you bear the sign of your religion
When you come or when you go?

Bauls come from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. Though there are essential differences of religious beliefs, terminology and social milieu between the Hindu and the Muslim Bauls, the very aspect that unites the two is the fact that both have discarded the very mantle of religion that distinguishes them. For both, love for humanity, tolerance and unquestioning devotion to a Supreme Being is what is of paramount importance. It is not uncommon to see them participating together, or even a Muslim fakir singing songs of Radha-Krishna, and a Vaishnava Baul praising Allah.

Despite the differences, contradictions and ambiguity, there is a strong identity that defines the Bauls. Behind all the garb of philosophy, religion, metaphysics and theology, the Bauls are essentially ‘madmen’. The word ‘Baul’ derives from the Sanskrit ‘Behul ’ meaning ‘mad’. They reject the orthodoxy of conventional religious paths, deny the authority of the Brahmins , the social hierarchies of caste and class, the usefulness of religious rituals, and the existence of any transcendental deity. They seek ultimate truth in every human heart – the divine inner knowledge – the ‘moner manush’:

Where can I find you?
The man of my heart

The man of my heart dwells within me
I see him wherever I look.

I see him here and there,
And wherever I look for him.

There is a strange mix of spirituality and scepticism, a believing and a denying. Metaphorically they straddle an in-between space – neither in society, like other people, or outside, like thetantrics who occupy the cremation grounds. Their space is the road – the open road that leads them from one place to another. This reflects their restlessness, their perpetual quest, which has no definite destination but can be followed only because they believe. Their singing reflects this transitoriness of life, the elusive searching for something unattainable. Their songs compare this life to a river, a road, which goes on and on.

I have neither father nor mother,
Nor a brother whom I can call my own.
Nor a bosom friend,
One who can gauge my sadness.
I am a lonely traveller
Destined to wander alone.

The Bauls are largely poor, illiterate, blind or maimed and come from the lower strata of Hindu and Muslim society. They are the ones who have not been integrated into the community because of social prejudices, economic pressures or physical disabilities. They are the non-conformists who have not fitted in. Like the transsexual, like the lunatic, their identity is formed by coercive exclusion. They are the marginalized, the ‘khepas’ and the ‘khepis’ (loonies, crazy). They are regarded with disdain and outrage as ‘transgressors’ of morality. The Bauls have subverted this by adopting an alternate path for themselves, to form a unique identity for themselves – one that is wild, abandoned, crazy, mysterious, and non-conforming. Every aspect of theirs – their clothes, look, habitat, food, songs, dance, and sex life is defiant, impudently mocking all traditions and norms. Their wild looks, their absolute disregard of an ordered lifestyle, their custom of smoking opium, their bizarre sexual practices, are a deliberate and dissident way of proving their ‘madness’ to a ‘normal’ world. Their songs speak of their detachment from this world and their ultimate quest for the divine beloved; and it is in this search that they go ‘mad’.

O listen you madman’s followers,
It is not easy to be mad.
God is the greatest madman,
He has created so much confusion in this world.
Such a madman as this, I have not found.

Having been ingloriously neglected for many centuries, the Bauls gained prominence and respect around 1915, after Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore patronised their art and culture. The credit for bringing the Bauls out of a life of obscurity goes to Tagore, and it was to a large extent a conscious image makeover for nationalistic purposes. The idealization of the Baul culture, especially their emphasis on the oneness of Man suited the purpose of projecting a unified nation undivided by caste, class, or religion. The Baul culture, with its emphasis on universal brotherhood, coexistence and syncretism of thoughts and beliefs, was an ideal means of accomplishing the conscious agenda of nationalism. From being vilified and ostracised, the Bauls were, overnight, romanticized. The very ‘madness’ for which they were shunned earlier now became an exotic element of their lifestyle, to be copied and commended. Their madness and crazed behaviour, which was the result of their esoteric practices, was now subverted by the intelligentsia to glamorise the Bauls. The dark inconvenient side of the Bauls was overlooked, and a more appealing cleaner image of the Bauls was presented to the world.

The Tagorian Bauls are more of musical practitioners for whom madness has become an aesthetic goal. The evolution of the Bauls from the rural areas of Bengal to the gentrified urban spaces has been one of defining the Indian culture in general and of Bengaliness in particular. The Bauls have been increasingly packaged and marketed to suit, first, the gentrified Bengali sensibilities, and second, it has a Eurocentric approach to satisfy Western consumption. While audiences in India, typically the upscale gentry, patronise the music and the lyrics and ‘culture’ of the Bauls, the Western audience see the Bauls as the typical product of a stereotyped mystical India. The combination of the erotic, aesthetic and the spiritual in the practices of the Bauls have resulted in mixed responses. The Bauls have been either exoticised, or it has been customary to denigrate their cult as an order of debauchery under the cloak of religion. The very identity of the Bauls has been subordinated to make a political and economic agenda viable. In fact it is very difficult to distinguish a ‘real’ Baul now. Those who practice the traditional yogic practices are very few in number, living mostly in remote rural areas of Bengal and Bangladesh, rarely if ever interacting and speaking to the media or Baul scholars. The emphasis has shifted to their performance – on their singing and dancing abilities. The modern audience is not interested in and may be completely unaware of the mystic practices of the Bauls. The Bauls today are representative of the exotic folk culture of India, singing select hit songs, feigning madness to fulfil the expectations of the urban audience. Sadly, madness for the professional Bauls of today has become a performative technique – a public demonstration.


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