I am talking about the Bauls of Bengal and the Mahima people of Odisha. For the members of these spiritual sects ‘Being Human’ is not a mere slogan to be displayed on T-shirts to redeem past sins. Their whole being radiates human values when they sing and dance while travelling from place to place.
The reason I am talking of songs in a series on poems and poets is that before the advent of free verse movement there was no such distinction, especially in the eastern part of the world. Now a days poems are written to be recited, or read while there are song writers to help the pop stars rake in millions with words like – ‘char bottle vodka roj mere kaam ka ….’
In ancient times poems were composed to be sung and passed on to next generation through oral tradition. Even after the invention of writing tools, poems stuck to strict metrical patterns. Of course now a days even songs don’t follow strict metrical patterns. The poems of Rumi can be read and analysed for their depth and at the same time sung to enthral an audience. Same is the case with the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, or the stanzas of Tulsidas.
Both these sects – the bauls and the mahimas – must have started out as rebel religions. They are against idol worship and caste discrimination. Though they keep on travelling, the bauls are based in undivided Bengal and the Mahimas are in Odisha. So are their songs in Bengali and Odia respectively.
ONLY A CONNOISSEUR OF THE FLAVORS OF LOVE
CAN COMPREHEND THE LANGUAGE OF A LOVER'S HEART,
OTHERS HAVE NO CLUE.
THE TASTE OF LIME RESTS IN THE CORE OF THE FRUIT
AND EVEN EXPERTS KNOW OF NO EASY WAY TO REACH IT.
HONEY IS HIDDEN WITHIN THE LOTUS BLOOM
BUT THE BEE KNOWS IT.
DUNG BEETLES NESTLE IN DUNG
SUBMISSION IS THE SECRET OF KNOWLEDGE.
Thus goes a baul song. Baul songs celebrate human body, human spirit, and human life here and now.
Baul means the mad one. Bauls are mad because they go against the prevailing superstition ridden religious mindset of the society. They are mad because they are drunk with an inner ecstasy that cannot be understood by a culture obsessed with more and more worldly gains.
Some songs may use the symbolism of Krishna and Radha and other Gods of Hindu Mythology, or other religious terms used in Islam and Budhism. But, they sing no ode to an invisible God. Rabindranath Tagore admitted to have been highly influenced by the baul philosophy.
What kindled my curiosity about the bauls was William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives where in he has given the actual life story of a baul. Even in Bengal there are a lot of misconceptions about the Bauls. Some classify their songs under folk songs. But bauls are basically spiritual practitioners with strict Guru -Shishya Parampara. No doubt they sing and dance and go around spreading their message. But their songs are not meant to be sung at marriage parties.
The origin of the bauls are not known. Like many ancient Indian texts, the writers of many of their songs are not known. Later on many prominent masters like Lalon Fakir composed thousands of songs.
Even though, bauls denounce any kind of religious or caste discrimination, members hailing from Islam are known as Fakirs and members hailing from Budhism are known as Sahajias. This divisions may have been made to customize their songs and appeal to different religions, even though the core belief of all of them is same.
The Mahima People
Unlike the bauls, the origin of the Mahima People is known. The movement was started by Mukunda Das, better known as Mahima Gosain or Mahima Swamy. One of his prominent disciples was Bhima Bhoi, who composed hundreds of songs and was instrumental in propagating the philosophy of Mahima Gosain. Bhima bhoi hailed from a Kond community – an indigenous tribe of Odisha .
The Mahima people are against caste discrimination. They believe in the dignity of all forms of human life. They have temples, but there are no idols in it. Their God is the Alakh Niranjan – one, unique, and invisible but everywhere. While it is against all superficial religious dictats, its philosophy incorporates all higher human values like love, compassion, tranquility, and detachment.
One of the poems of Bhima Bhoi that we used to read as part of our school syllabus goes like this:
How can I keep quiet and be passive
While there is so much pain in the world.
If the price is to rot in hell
I will pay to save the world.
The followers of Mahima Dharma come from all castes and tribal groups. The mendicant sanyasis adhere to strict food and dress codes. However, there are many devotees who are normal householders. But all follow a simple lifestyle and are expected to adhere to their basic philosophy of compassion and respect for all life forms.
Commercialisation of spiritual traditions
Compared to the Mahimas, the Bauls are much better known outside their state, thanks to the number of documentaries and books on them and their performances outside Bengal.
The great lyricist Gulzar does it. The great music composer A R Rahman does it. They take sufi poems and vulgarize them to create amorous moods in movies. Tujhe dekh dekh jeena ….. is a sufi song to evoke longing for the divine. But when you hear it at the backdrop of two human beings reminiscing love making, the song definitely gets devalued to fill the pockets of the lyricists and the music maker.
Baul songs too are increasingly being used for stage performances and for making bestseller albums. Devoid of its spiritual milieu, the poetry no doubt loses its soul.
There is a silver lining though. Occasionally it may entice a listener to undertake the journey to find its roots.