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Review: Two books on Bauls

In my recent post on syncretism I made mention of two books that I had recently read concerning the Baul tradition. I found both of these books helpful in relation to their attempts to understand religious difference and the negotiation of Identity, and what follows is a brief review of each.

My own attraction to the Baul tradition was largely triggered by the popular depiction of the Bauls as saffron clad wandering minstrels whose expression of the ecstatic spoke to my own interest in Bardic inspiration.

Seeking Bauls of BengalThe first that I’d like to review is Seeking Bauls of Bengal by Jeanne Openshaw (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Openshaw’s book is a thorough and engaging account of her anthropological field work that largely took place in West Bengal between 1983 and 1990.
The first section of this books deals with the way in which various societal agendas have been projected onto the descriptor “Baul”. These agendas have included Bengali nationalism and the idealisation of the Baul as liberator from the restrictions of religious and social orthodoxy. Openshaw looks at the way in which visual depictions have been used to reinforce romanticised depictions of the Baul as “the other”- the outsider who represents wildness, syncretism and madness. She places specific emphasis on how the perception of the Bauls by the Bengali gentry (the Bhadralok) has shaped, classified and reduced the breadth of Baul complexity.

Openshaw provides a brilliant analysis of how many recent attempts to describe Baul practice has struggled to move beyond pre-existing notions of Parampara (succession) and Sampradaya (tradition). In trying to identify the component parts of Baul syncretism (Vaishnava, Nath, Sufi etc) observers have often lost the subtlety and local variance that seems to typify the more familial approach to Baul initiation where the focus appears more praxis focused and concerned with immediate living relationships. Quoting a song concerning the state of the “perfect Baul”:

“This time I shall be baul, I shall lose birth-group (jat) and lineage.
People will call me mad and laugh, but I shall merely watch and listen (without reacting)
When a person becomes baul, some show him affection, some ill-will.
I mean to enjoy the fun of it all.” (pg. 110)

One of the great strengths of this book in my view is that over half of it is given to her description of her interactions with the specific group of Bauls that she worked with and their own self-perception in relation to both identity and practice. These followers of the Baul Raj Khyapa self-identified more specifically as being “Bartaman Panthi” i.e. of the tradition/line that works the path of direct knowledge and unorthodoxy.

While being mindful at the outset of the dangers of exoticisation in relation to Baul identity much of the section on Baul sadhana in the book is concerned with the role and significance of sexual activity between practitioners and the complex array of ideas that relate to use of bodily fluids as an alchemical practice. In the section concerning Bartaman sadhana, over seventy pages is given over to a complex and nuanced exploration the sexual/alchemical practices employed by the group, with special focus being given to the “four moons” practice in which the practitioners makes ritual use of urine, faeces, semen and menstrual fluids.

In short, this is a highly recommended (and readable!) account of social anthropology that is masterful in its engagement with themes around identity, the process of religious synthesis and the use of the body within the context of post-colonial spiritual practice. For me the attraction of this work lies particularly in Openshaw’s insight that the fluidity of Baul identity in many ways echoed her own: “As one who finds herself perplexed or resistant when asked her identity, it came as no surprise that this is even more the case with many of those called Baul.” (pg. 113)

To Live WithinGiven the above and complexity involved in trying to identify the practices of Bauls, it feels important to hear a first person narrative of someone working with a teacher who identified himself as such. To Live Within by Lizzelle Reymond provides us with her own account of working with her Guru Shri Anirvan that began in the early 1950’s. Such an account provides another important jig-saw piece in trying to gain a sense of who the Bauls were and are. Although the book contains in its appendices a collection of Baul songs and also an outline of how Baul tradition, the book is primarily a deeply personal account.

Viewed in the light of breadth of Openshaw’s work it might be easy to critique Raymond’s’ account given the inevitable romanticism contained within it. Personally I think to do so would be both disingenuous and failure to realise that a deepening of our understanding must be made up of such accounts. As with Openshaw’s focus on the Raj Khyapa “family”, Reymond’s work provides us with further insight into the heterogeneity of a “tradition” that places such a central value on spontaneity and the challenging of orthodox religiosity.

Given the relatively early date of Reymond’s account (1971), the thematic intersects with Openshaw’s work lend her account a feeling of authenticity. Following her account of her meeting her Guru and the manner in which he interacted with other seekers, the second half of the book is largely given over to her description of his teachings to her. She acknowledges that Shri Anirvan whilst identifying as “a simple baul” also had a vast knowledge of Vedanta derived from his time as a Hindu Sannyasin. While his teachings contain an emphasis on the Shiva/Shakti dyad that seems in keeping with the teachings of the Bartaman Panthi, one can quite readily detect not only concepts drawn from Samkhya traditions but also the overt referencing of the Gurdjieff Work (the teaching of which Raymond was dedicate the rest of her life). Such synthesis is most probably due to the lens employed by Raymond in recounting his insights, but the extent of such conceptual fluidity may well be in keeping with the spirit of his self-identification as a Baul.

It is worthy of note that in Reymond’s subsequent role as a Fourth Way teacher, she was often criticised for the level of innovation that she introduced. One could frame such creativity as being in keeping with what we know of Baul sadhana. Reymond’s account is a good read and an interesting piece of spiritual biography.