An Indian Folk Religion By Rabindranath Tagore

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, a many splendoured creative personality. His contributions, not only as a poet but as a playwright, painter, musician, educationist, musician, short story writer, student of folklore etc., made him a cultural giant of our colonial era. Here we publish some extracts from his essay on the Bauls of Bengal.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, a many splendoured creative personality. His contributions, not only as a poet but as a playwright, painter, musician, educationist, musician, short story writer, student of folklore etc., made him a cultural giant of our colonial era. Here we publish some extracts from his essay on the Bauls of Bengal.

The members of the religious sect I have mentioned call themselves “Baul.” They live outside social recognition, and their very obscurity helps them in their seeking, from a direct source, the enlightenment
which the soul longs for, the eternal light of love.

It would be absurd to say that there is little difference between Buddhism and the religion of these simple people, who have no system of metaphysics to support their faith. But my object in bringing close together these two religions, which seem to belong to opposite poles, is to point out the fundamental unity in them. Both of them believe in a fulfilment which is reached by love’s emancipating us from the dominance of self. In both these religions we find man’s yearning to attain the infinite worth of his individuality, not through any conventional valuation of society, but through his perfect relationship with Truth. They agree in holding that the realisation of our ultimate object is waiting for us in ourselves. The Baul likens this fulfilment to the blossoming of a bud, and sings:

Make way, O bud, make way,
Burst open thy heart and make way.
The opening spirit has overtaken thee,
Canst thou remain a bud any longer?

One day, in a small village in Bengal, an ascetic woman from the neighbourhood came to see me. She had the name “Sarva-khepi” given to her by the village people, the meaning of which is “the woman who is mad about all things.” She fixed her star-like eyes upon my face and startled me with the question, “When are you coming to meet me underneath the trees?” Evidently she pitied me who lived (according to her) prisoned behind walls, banished away from the great meeting-place of the All, where she had her dwelling. Just at that moment my gardener came with his basket, and when the woman understood that the flowers in the vase on my table were going to be thrown away, to make place for the fresh ones, she looked pained and said to me, “You are always engaged reading and writing; you do not see.” Then she took the discarded flowers in her palms, kissed them and touched them with her forehead, and reverently murmured to herself, “Beloved of my heart.” I felt that this woman, in her direct vision of the infinite personality in the heart of all things, truly represented the spirit of India.

In the same village I came into touch with some Baul singers. I had known them by their names, occasionally seen them singing and begging in the street, and so passed them by, vaguely classifying them in my mind under the general name of Vairâgis, or ascetics.

The time came when I had occasion to meet with some members of the same body and talk to them about spiritual matters. The first Baul song, which I chanced to hear with any attention, profoundly stirred my mind. Its words are so simple that it makes me hesitate to render them in a foreign tongue, and set them forward for critical observation. Besides, the best part of a song is missed when the tune is absent; for thereby its movement and its colour are lost, and it becomes like a butterfly whose wings have been plucked.

The first line may be translated thus: “Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart?” This phrase, “the Man of my Heart,” is not peculiar to this song, but is usual with the Baul sect. It means that, for me, the supreme truth of all existence is in the revelation of the Infinite in my own humanity.

“The Man of my Heart,” to the Baul, is like a divine instrument perfectly tuned. He gives expression to infinite truth in the music of life. And the longing for the truth which is in us, which we have not yet realised, breaks out in the following Baul song:

Where shall I meet him, the Man of my Heart?
He is lost to me and I seek him wandering from land to land.
I am listless for that moonrise of beauty, which is to light my life, which I long to see in the fulness of
vision, in gladness of heart.

The name of the poet who wrote this song was Gagan. He was almost illiterate; and the ideas he received from his Baul teacher found no distraction from the self-consciousness of the modern age. He was a village postman, earning about ten shillings a month, and he died before he had completed his teens. The sentiment, to which he gave such intensity of expression, is common to most of the songs of his sect. And it is a sect, almost exclusively confined to that lower floor of society, where the light of modern education hardly finds an entrance, while wealth and respectability shun its utter indigence.

In the song I have translated above, the longing of the singer to realise the infinite in his own personality is expressed. This has to be done daily by its perfect expression in life, in love. For the personal expression of life, in its perfection, is love; just as the personal expression of truth in its perfection is beauty.

My longing is to meet you in play of love, my Lover;
But this longing is not only mine, but also yours.
For your lips can have their smile, and your flute
its music, only in your delight in my love;
and therefore you are importunate, even as I am.

A Baul says – he who, in the world of men, goes about singing for alms from door to door, with his onestringed instrument and long robe of patched-up rags on his back:

I stop and sit here on the road. Do not ask me to walk farther.
If your love can be complete without mine, let me turn back from seeing you.
I have been travelling to seek you, my friend, for long;
Yet I refuse to beg a sight of you, if you do not feel my need.
I am blind with market dust and midday glare, and so wait, my heart’s lover, in hopes that your own love
will send you to find me out.

The poet is fully conscious that his value in the world’s market is pitifully small; that he is neither wealthy nor learned. Yet he has his great compensation, for he has come close to his Lover’s heart. In Bengal the women bathing in the river often use their overturned water jars to keep themselves floating when they swim, and the poet uses this incident for his simile:

It is lucky that I am an empty vessel,
For when you swim, I keep floating by your side.
Your full vessels are left on the empty shore, they are for use;
But I am carried to the river in your arms, and I dance
to the rhythm of your heart-throbs and heaving of the waves.

The great distinguished people of the world do not know that these beggars–deprived of education, honour, and wealth – can, in the pride of their souls, look down upon them as the unfortunate ones, who are left on the shore for their worldly uses, but whose life ever misses the touch of the Lover’s arms.

Let me quote here some poems from a mediaeval poet of Western India-Jnândâs-whose works are nearly forgotten, and have become scarce from the very exquisiteness of their excellence. In the following poem he is addressing God’s messenger, who comes to us in the morning light of our childhood, in the dusk of our day’s end, and in the night’s darkness:

Messenger, morning brought you, habited in gold.
After sunset, your song wore a tune of ascetic grey, and then came night.
Your message was written in bright letters across the black.
Why is such splendour about you, to lure the heart of one who is nothing?

This is the answer of the messenger:

Great is the festival hall where you are to be the only guest.
Therefore the letter to you is written from sky to sky,
And I, the proud servant, bring the invitation with all ceremony.

And thus the poet knows that the silent rows of stars carry God’s own invitation to the individual soul. The same poet sings:

What hast thou come to beg from the beggar, O King of Kings?
My Kingdom is poor for want of him, my dear one, and I wait for him in sorrow. How long will you keep him waiting, O wretch, who has waited for you for ages in silence and stillness?
Open your gate, and make this very moment fit for the union.

The Baul poet, when asked why he had no sect mark on his forehead, answered in his song that the true colour decoration appears on the skin of the fruit when its inner core is filled with ripe, sweet juice; but by artificially smearing it with colour from outside you do not make it ripe. And he says of his Guru, his teacher, that he is puzzled to find in which direction he must make salutation. For his teacher is not one, but many, who, moving on, form a procession of wayfarers.

Bauls have no temple or image for their worship, and this utter simplicity is needful for men whose one subject is to realise the innermost nearness of God. The Baul poet expressly says that if we try to approach God through the senses we miss him:

Bring him not into your house as the guest of your eyes;
but let him come at your heart’s invitation.
Opening your doors to that which is seen only, is to lose it.

Yet, being a poet, he also knows that the objects of sense can reveal their spiritual meaning only when they are not seen through mere physical eyes:

Eyes can see only dust and earth, But feel it with your heart, it is pure joy.
The flowers of delight blossom on all sides, in every form,
but where is your heart’s thread to weave them in a garland?

These Bauls have a philosophy, which they call the philosophy of the body; but they keep its secret; it is only for the initiated. Evidently the underlying idea is that the individual’s body is itself the temple, in whose inner mystic shrine the Divine appears before the soul, and the key to it has to be found from those who know. But as the key is not for us outsiders, I leave it with the observation that this mystic philosophy of the body is the outcome of the attempt to get rid of all the outward shelters which are too costly for people like themselves. But this human body of ours is made by God’s own hand, from his own love, and even if some men, in the pride of their superiority, may despise it, God finds his joy in dwelling in others of yet lower birth. It is a truth easier of discovery by these people of humble origin than by men of proud estate.

The pride of the Baul beggar is not in his worldly distinction, but in the distinction that God himself has given to him. He feels himself like a flute through which God’s own breath of love has been breathed:

My heart is like a flute he has played on.
If ever it fall into other hands,-let him fling it away.
My lover’s flute is dear to him.
Therefore, if to-day alien breath have entered it and sounded strange notes,
Let him break it to pieces and strew the dust with them.

So we find that this man also has his disgust of defilement. While the ambitious world of wealth and power despises him, he in his turn thinks that the world’s touch desecrates him who has been made sacred by the touch of his Lover. He does not envy us our life of ambition and achievements, but he knows how precious his own life has been:

I am poured forth in living notes of joy and sorrow by your breath.
Morning and evening, in summer and in rains, I am fashioned to music.
Yet should I be wholly spent in some flight of song, I shall not grieve, the tune is so precious to me.

Our joys and sorrows are contradictory when the self separates them in opposition. But for the heart in which self merges in God’s love, they lose their absoluteness. So the Baul’s prayer is to feel in all situations-in danger, or pain, or sorrow-that he is in God’s hands. He solves the problem of emancipation from sufferings by accepting and setting them in a higher context:

I am the boat, you are the sea, and also the boatman.
Though you never make the shore, though you let me sink, why should I be foolish and afraid?
Is the reaching the shore a greater prize than losing myself with you?
If you are only the haven, as they say, then what is the sea?
Let it surge and toss me on its waves, I shall be content.
I live in you, whatever and however you appear.
Save me or kill me as you wish, only never leave me in others’ hands.

It is needless to say, before I conclude, that I had neither the training nor the opportunity to study this mendicant religious sect in Bengal from an ethnological standpoint. I was attracted to find out how the living currents of religious movements work in the heart of the people, saving them from degradation imposed by the society of the learned, of the rich, or of the high-born; how the spirit of man, by making use even of its obstacles, reaches fulfilment, led thither, not by the learned authorities in the scriptures, or by the mechanical impulse of the dogma-driven crowd, but by the unsophisticated aspiration of the loving soul.

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