Monday, April 25, 2011

BAULS : The Guardian Of Mysticism In Bangladesh

The news came as a shock; in fact at first it seemed like a fabricated story aimed to create social disruption. Some Bauls – the spiritual wanderers of Bangladesh, who have, over centuries, enriched the philosophical aspect of our culture and have thus become integral to our identity---had come under attack in Rajbari where their practices were deemed ‘un-Islamic’.  Reportedly the ‘crusade’ on behalf of religion against the Bauls was led by an Imam of the local mosque who was also aided by influential local leaders.  The music loving philosophers, who espouse a more liberal outlook on religion and love for mankind as the true basis for any faith, were humiliated further when their long hair was cut off. We also hear that the law enforcers were lethargic in reacting and this is worrying because if hardliners can physically harm a section of society which has enriched the mystical side of our culture then, in the future, any social exercise can come under the wrath of the so-called Puritans.  The mystics are under fire today, and tomorrow the rural culture of having all-night open air musical shows and jatra (stage theatre) may also be slammed for going against religion.   With valid reason there is widespread condemnation but while the general society, which is still not swayed by bigotry, denounces such a philistine act, this incident also works as a warning that within the rural social structures there are elements which can threaten the secular image that Bangladesh strives to achieve. In fact, we have always been secular and Bauls were never deemed a threat to Islam and their ways of living never created a conflict with the general population. Filled with praise for the creator, their music, culture and practices advocate trust and belief in the spirit and the power of truth. And Bengal society opened its arms to the mystics because the wanderers not only showed a different path to fulfillment but also gave our culture a much needed mystical side.  Call it a variant of Sufism if you will, the Baul philosophy exalts the position of songs and music and at the same time regards physical union as an ultimate human expression through which spiritual enlightenment can be achieved. As noted earlier, these rural mystics are not bound by any social template. Though they go beyond the banalities of mundane life, there is always a place for the creator in their credo and so, there is no reason to believe that Bauls are going against any religion. In point of fact, this could be the right time for us to revel in Baul philosophy since it speaks of tolerance and not about extreme moves. Going back a few years we remember that a statue of the Baul was vandalised by hardliners near the airport on the grounds that it was against the principles of religion to have statues.  Today the actual mystics were assaulted. Will it be the shrine of Lalon Faqir, the iconic Baul philosopher, in Kushtia next? But leaving aside the arguments of religion and principles of philosophy if we look at Baulism from the perspective of history, we feel that it needs to be safeguarded because it has evolved not over a period of fifty years but over 500 years. And so, this is irrevocably intertwined with the cultural fabric of Bangladesh which has always accommodated a wide variety of beliefs. Baulism developed in a crucible of openness and history tells us that this philosophy attracted both Hindus and Muslims alike. Hence it’s safe to say that this mystic trend reached out to people of both faiths and acted as a uniting factor.  So, what is wrong with the Bauls? Maybe the moral brigade feels that the preaching of physical union as a way to find satisfaction of the soul erodes society’s image. If so, then they must also storm some exclusive locations. But obviously it’s always easy to raid a meeting of mystics because they are poor and do not believe in material possessions but to do the same in posh hangouts would definitely be quite another story. Be that as it may – Baulism came under fire in Rajbari and the same act could be replicated in the future and, so, there needs to be a directive from the government identifying the philosophy of the mystics as an indispensable part of our cultural identity.  When foreign visitors come to Bangladesh and visit the rural areas they are enchanted visually by the natural beauty of the villages but when they seek some spiritual stimulation they always look for the Bauls – the guardians of the earthy and rain- drenched mysticism of Bangladesh.  Kill that and we kill the mystique of our culture to become pathetically prosaic.