Questioning Religion with the Bauls of Bengal

Commentary by Ben Bowen King

O’Re Mone Jele
from The Bauls of Bengal

Religious groups don’t take criticism very well.  Flip the pages of a world history book and that’s abundantly clear.  However, in the Indian state of Bengal it’s a different story—sort of.   

The two main religions are Hindu and Islam—both belief systems take themselves seriously.  But here’s the difference—out in the streets across from the temples and mosques are small musical groups of men called Bauls.

They’re an unlikely group of theologians.  In Bengali Baul means “afflicted with the wind disease.” These musicians deliberately wear second-hand clothes in styles worn by both Hindus and Muslims.  It keeps folks confused about their theological leanings. They wander the cities and countryside, like the wind, singing their songs which, by the way, have a great back beat.  

It’s the lyrics of the Bauls’ songs that have sustained them for centuries.  They take a distinctive holistic approach to God.  The Bauls are blessed with the belief that God doesn’t “side” with any one religion.  Rather the core of Baul theology says:  “God is in a man’s heart—not the temple or mosque.”  To that end, the Bauls believe man doesn’t need a “go between” in his relationship with God.

So the Bauls have developed a repertoire of songs that aim to prick the minds of passersby.  The songs offer solace and a different spin on accepted beliefs.   A quick example is the lyrics found in the song “Do Not Worry”:

Why do you worry?
Life is short—like a three-day transaction in a busy market place

You’ve got to love the theology, it almost sounds like something Jesus would have said during the Sermon on the Mount.

At the same time though, most people need and find comfort and direction in mosques, temples and churches.   And the argument can be made that the Bauls’ almost Zen approach to life is too simplistic.

But the Bauls do provide an important service for anyone on a spiritual path.   Their music and lifestyle get people to do a double-take concerning their own beliefs about God and how those beliefs affect their conduct and their perception of others.

SPECIAL NOTE:  If you buy only one Bauls of Bengal CD this year, get O’Re Mone Jel. This group is composed of musicians who found themselves in the middle of the “summer of love” during the late ‘60s.  They recorded with the Rolling Stones and are the guys standing with Bob Dylan on his iconic “John Wesley Harding” album cover.

The group’s leader Purna Das was embraced by other counter-culture characters such as Allen Ginsberg as well as Dylan during those tumultuous years.  Das once put the whole “Baul” calling in perspective:  “A true Baul always recognizes another, even if the other one doesn’t call himself a Baul.  Bob Dylan is a great Baul and so was Allen Ginsberg.  There’ll always be Bauls, people who sing and dance to the tune of truth.”

PRACTICE:  Are you a “Baul” or a “church member in good standing”?  Are the two paths mutually exclusive?  The history of Christianity is filled with people who have questioned it—at a personal price—but made deep changes in the way we believe.  How does an “average” Christian balance “the church’s” teaching with a more instinctive quest for God?  

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