I like to listen to this when I am feeling powerless, self-loathing, or debilitated as a human being being face to face with my weaknesses and humiliating past experiences. Or when I feel paralyzed that I can’t do anything because of some of the ways I am marginalized.
I don’t think this song is meant for everyone and it certainly cannot be looked at through an arrogant lens. I think it is meant to honor the parts of ourselves we are taught to be shamed about and ignore while forced to find ways to survive the world we live in.
A human life like this will never happen again.
Do whatever your heart desires soon.
The Lord created infinite forms
but nothing is superior than human.
Even gods and goddesses
meditate to take the human form.
Due to immense luck
you’ve got this human boat (body).
Row it quick
Take care that it doesn’t sink.
anything can be achieved
that is why the Lord created this form.
If you lose this time as human
I don’t see any hope
-Translation taken from subtitles of Tanvir Mokammel’s film Lalon
I have briefly written about identifying with Lalon Fakir’s sect of beliefs and songs in a piece I wrote published by the Aerogram . Here I will expand just a little on what that means and my life’s shadhona (devotion).
I grew up hearing ‘lalon fakir and baul’ here and there by my parents, but I was far too less interested as a child to ask more about it. My parents subscription of Bangla TV channels from Bangladesh when I was in middle school would be the first time I would see folk performances on rural stages. But my parents would dismiss these performances as an embarrassment even though this was exactly the culture they grew up around. It would not be until college through Rabindranath Tagore’s writings on the fascination of rural culture (he had an estate he would manage in Kushtia near where Lalon and his followers lived) and the wandering minstrels paired with my growing disenchantment with the world, feelings of displacement, and out of placeness, would I reconnect with Baul-Fakir songs and philosophy. I don’t know what I would do without Youtube. I jokingly call it my guru as that is how I receive transmission of many Baul songs and videos (as an uninitiated follower). And there I would learn about Lalon until I had access to knowledge through academics.
Details about Lalon’s life are obscure and in result many variations of his life history exist. Hindus and Muslims try and claim his origins from each side even when Lalon never disclosed or would want to be classified. He was born in a village located in modern-day district of Kushtia Bangladesh. The area was a part of the Nadia district back then. I also share a connection to this part of the world as I was born in the neighboring village district of Chuadanga also formerly part of the Nadia district where the Baul-Fakir sampradaya (tradition) was widespread. Lalon and I share a similar regional culture and historical memory/mythology.
And while he may be categorized under the category of ‘folk’ for reasons being that he comes from the rural landscape and is part of a marginalized community, it is also not quite folk or every day in other senses. The language of his songs or at least a few categories of his songs are highly coded and philosophical. Not only are they coded but they are used as a source of contemplation which is why his songs are categorized as ‘bhab gaan.’ This is where his songs depart from the usual normative ideas of ‘folk songs of simple people.’
What casts Lalon apart slightly from other Baul groups is his centering of humans (human devotion) in which some scholars categorize him as a humanist, but I would not cast him as a humanist in the secular sense.
His songs are less devotional, in a sense, compared to other Baul groups who align more with a Vaishnava or Radha-Krishna centric only theology. This is what makes Lalon’s sect a bit more unique. While he rejects caste and doctrine, he pulls symbols, deities, myths, and imagery from all the traditions around him (sahajiyya-vaishnavism, gaudiya vaishnaism, sufism, tantra, shiva-shakti, puranic mythology, upanishads, yogic etc). And What emerges is a beautiful kaleidoscopic philosophy of thoughtfulness and reflection.
An aspect of Lalan Fakir’s which is often ignored or cast aside are the yogic-sexual rites and practices. Or in the opposite way, often exaggerated and sensationalized. But it is neither extraordinary nor revolting. Given the strong Tantric current of the area it should be expected. Many of the songs are references to these practices and bodily functions. Many of the simple language of nature in the songs are are referring to the human body.
One of the more popular reasons Lalon is revered is because of his critiques of rigid caste and classification. As this song illustrates:
Jaat gelo jaat gelo bole/ caste is lost
ei ki ajob karkhana/ what a strange world
shotto pothe keu nai raji/ no one agrees on the path of truth
shob dekhi thana na na na/ what i see is not what it is
jokon tumi bhobe ele (ashbar kale ki jaat chile)/ what kind were you when you came
thokon tumi ki jaat chile (eshe tumi ki jaat hole)/ what kind are you now
ki jaat hoba jabar kale/ and what kind will you be when you leave
shei kotha keno bolona (she kotha bhebe bolona)/ why don’t you tell me?
Brahmon chandal chamar muchi/ brahmin, outcaste, tanner, cobbler
ek jole shokole shuchi/ water is pure to all
dekhe shune hoy na ruchi/ but
jome tho kao ke charbe na/ death will not spare anyone
Jaat gelo jaat gelo bole
ei ki ajob karkhana
Gopne je beshher bhaat khai/ who eats rice from a whore
thar jaater ki khoti hoy/ how does it damage their caste?
lalon bole jaat kare koy/ lalon says what is caste
ei brom tho gelo na/ this question will never leave
shotto pothe keu nai raji
shob dekhi thana na na na
Jaat gelo jaat gelo bole
ei ki ajob karkhana
Lalon lived during a volatile time. South Asia was under British rule, new reform movements on both the Hindu and Muslim sides were emerging, sectarianism, and the concepts of religious purity and caste was at a peak. It makes me think about how the problems and songs of some obscure village commoners about 200 years ago are still relevant especially in my US context where it seems classification on a religious and ideological aspect can be limiting. I feel this way about my Bengali and Muslim identity. In order for me to be recognized as Muslim I need to fit a criteria and if I don’t fit that criteria then I would not be considered authentic. I would have to sacrifice my fluid authenticity for a fixed one.
I don’t think Lalon is calling for the abolishing of identity just the deep reflection of what it means when we limit them and try to enforce them on others or don’t recognize the wide scope of them.
Rice holds a sacred place in my family’s heart of meaning making. I have always been told the little line on the belly of a single grain of rice says the names of Allah. That was why we would have to eat every single grain on our plate in order to receive full blessings. If any dry grains of rice spilled on the floor, my mother would be quick to warn us not to step on any. Stepping on rice was akin to stepping on God.
Rice is an important staple crop across Asia. People of Bengal depended on it for food, employment, and trade since it grew very well in the region. This is why it held in high esteem there.
In fact, the first solid food a baby in a Bengali home eats is rice. This ritual or ceremony is called annaprasanna (Sanskrit). Many Bengali Muslims refer to it simply as mukhe-bhaat (rice to the mouth). It might be in the form of rice pudding or very softly cooked rice.
During Ramadan, it is common to break fast with dates but in my family eating three grains of dry rice with water comes before the date.”Where is the rice?! We need rice at the table! How could you forget the rice!” my mother would exclaim. I thought everyone did that until I came across other Muslims not being familiar with the practice.
My grandmother used to sprinkle freshly cooked rice to the earth three times before eating it. She used to make an offering to or feed Maa Khaki in thanks. Khaki meaning earth or soil originating from the Farsi word for dust (khak). This practice was a synthesis of local goddess/fertility beliefs with possibly Sufi terminology. My grandmother had many earth based practices such as this. I am just sad to be finding out after her death.
Eating rice will be a little different now that I know this. Perhaps I will make an offering to Maa Khaki and give a few morsels to my grandmother who is coalesced with the earth.
Disclaimer: I have tried my best to compile information from various sources. Apologies for any inaccuracies as I continue to learn about this topic.
I once came upon a blog called Bangladesh Unlocked where in the description it says “more Buddhism than Nepal.” Not what one automatically thinks about a Muslim majority labeled nation. There is a distinct and small Theravada Buddhist community mostly found in the eastern parts of the country especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The most well known Buddhist Dynasty in Bengal (now modern day Bangladesh and West Bengal) and Bihar is the Pala Dynasty/Pal Shomratjo. The empire differed from previous Buddhist empires such as that of Asoka and the Hellenistic infused Buddhist cultures of Gandhara (Modern-day Pakistan). Pala era Buddhism is described as being far removed from the Buddhism of the Buddha. Ruling for almost 450 years. The dynasty were the patrons of Mahayana/Mohajon Buddhism at a time when it began to wane in most parts of South Asia. It was founded by Gopala in approximately 750- 775 c.e. and saw expansion to modern-day territory of Uttar Pradesh during his son Dharmapala’s rule. During their reign, there was a proliferation of an indigenous type of Tantric Buddhism. There were several traditions and religions being practiced side by side at the time. Several forms of Vedic, Shaiva, Vaishnava (Pre-Bengal Vaishnavism of 12th c), Shakta, Jain, Naths, several Yogic groups, Tantric, Shamanic cultures and many others ( I don’t wish to portray this as some type of Utopia, I’m sure it was far from it though. But I think the plurality of ideas, practices, and beliefs to freely mix, thoughtfully co-create, or respond by making their own groups and myths is something to acknowledge. This is still happening of course but now it’s either surrounded with a headline of controversy or sensationalism and celebritydom as something novel.)
This dynasty had regular connections and diplomacy with Tibetan monks and monarchs. Much of the information about this era has been recovered from Tibetan texts and monographs.
The Somapura Mahavihara/Mohabihar was built during the reign of Dharmapala. It was a major intellectual site of the time in addition to others. Buddhist monks and scholars from China and Tibet came to study here and Bengali Buddhists went to Tibet to teach. Vajrayana Buddhism became popular and this was the time when Tibetan culture was being influenced by Tantra and vice-versa. Unfortunately with the rise of the Senas and the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji in the 13th century, many of these institutions were destroyed or abandoned. I want to emphasize the presence of Muslims in the region far before the Khilji invasion. Richard Eaton in The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontiertalks about the record from an Arab geographer named Mas’udi from 900s ce that were were Muslims living in Bengal during the Buddhist rule–mosty likely in the Buddhist Chandra Dynasty located in modern day Comilla due to trade routes. Eaton states,
Mas‘udi’s remark about Muslims residing in Pala domains is significant in the context of these commercially and politically expansive Buddhist states, for by the tenth century, when Bengali textiles were being absorbed into wider Indian Ocean commercial networks, two trade diasporas overlapped one another in the delta region. One, extending eastward from the Arabian Sea, was dominated by Muslim Arabs or Persians; the other, extending eastward from the Bay of Bengal, by Buddhist Bengalis. The earliest presence of Islamic civilization in Bengal resulted from the overlapping of these two diasporas.
The most well known and earliest text found from the period of the Bengali Tantric Buddhism (also known as Sahajayana) is the Charyapada/Chorjapod or Charyageeti –47 verses of poetry or songs composed by 22 poet-philosophers. The Charyapada was written sometime approximately between the Pala and Sena rule (950-1200 ce) when Buddhism was in decline due to the changing over to the Sena patronage of Hinduism. The Charyapada is described as mystical poetry that is meant to be sung and performed. It may be coded not only for its Tantric philosophy and for contemplation but for its critique on the rigid caste hierarchy revival being propagated by the Senas. Some of the verses talk about Buddhist and others about the opposition to caste and criticizing the laws barring lower castes from reciting the Vedas. It deals a lot with the everyday people, the body, contemplation, knowledge, existence, and landscape.
These texts were missing until scholar Haraprasad Shastri found them again in Nepal. There are also Tibetan translations of these songs.
Dr. Saymon Zakaria talks about looking for Bangladeshi identity and knowledge in the Charyapada than just 1971. I agree with him.
Without knowing the prior histories and cultures of 1971 then what is the point?
My favorite pada from the Charyapada would probably be number 27 by Bhusukupa:
adharaati var kamala bikasau/
batis yoini tasu anga uhlasiu//(ধ্রু♪)
chaliuaw ShaShahara magey avadhooi/
rawawNawhu Shahajey kahei//(ধ্রু♪)
chaliaw ShaShahar gau nivaNeyN/
kamalini kamala bahoi paNaleyN//(ধ্রু♪)
virmananda vilakshaNa sudh/
jo ethu bujhai so ethu budh//(ধ্রু♪)
vusuku vaNoi moi bujhhiaw meleyN/
sahajananda mahasuha leeleyN//(ধ্রু♪)
(taken from Tanvir Ratul’s book Charyapada. This language is the ancestral language of modern languages of Bengal, Assam, Orissa, and Bihar.)
ardho ratri bhore bhikashito holo phool
moha anonodo kore jogini rongo mul
abhodhuti ghore chandro ke chalan diye
rotno chere ore thaken shohoj hoye
chondro gelo oye Nirban pothe bheshe
komolini boye komol podo roshe
ardho ratri bhore bhikashito holo phool
moha anonodo kore jogini rongo mul
birom anondo shob shomoy shuddho
jara bhojen kotha tharai Buddho
Bhushuku bolen milone bhujechi ami
shohoj anondo moha shuk lila shami
(Translated to modern Bengali by Dr. Saymon Zakaria scholar of Bangladeshi folklore)
The lotus blossomed at midnight.
Bodies of thirty two yoginis were in ecstasy.
The moon descended on the ‘abadhuta marg’.
The jewels describe the greatness of Sahajananda.
The moon floated toward the path of Nirvana.
The lotus flows down the nerves.
One who experiences the four happiness’
the one who understand this is the true Buddha.
Bhusuku says: in union I have perceived Shahajanada.
(Taken from Open Knowledge Foundation Network India with a couple of modifications I made based on the Bengali translation above.)
I think I just liked the way it sounded in Bengali. I haven’t quite understood it completely, but I think that is why I like it. It makes me contemplate about it. The imagery is very beautiful though. Chondro gelo oye nirban pothe bheshe/ The moon floated toward the path of Nirvana is my favorite line.
According to Shah Alom Dewan, these songs are deha-tattwa (body philosophy). He compares the student to the moon and the sun to the Guru. The moonlight has no complete separate identity. It is dependent on the sun’s light to be illuminated. When the sun sets the moon is illuminated and casts its light. Just like a student inheriting and illuminating knowledge from a teacher.
It was quite difficult to find information about the Sahaja Buddhism of Bengal. I had to look through musicology articles, literature books, art history books, history books, and Youtube. I could not find articles or books in English about it under the topic of ‘religion’ unless it involved the Bauls. They probably do exist, but I just could not find them.
I am not finished with learning about this topic. This is just my start.
I have to acknowledge the minority status and prejudice Bengali Buddhists in Bangladesh and India are currently facing. I break at the news of attacks.
I feel similarly about Muslims in Buddhist majority nations as well as our past shared histories and cultures are either forgotten, ignored, and erased.
how mauw khauw, manusher gondho pow/ how mauw khauw, I smell a human
I remember this line from way back when I was a child. My mother would say it as she put on her winter gloves and wiggled her fingers in a menacing manner. I would imitate the line whenever I put on my own winter gloves. There are many lines like this I recall now and then from hearing stories from a long time ago. The how mauw khauw line comes from a story about a rakhosh/demon. The story is the Bengali equivalent of Jack and the Beanstalk. William Alexander Clouston in his 1887 book Popular Tales and Fictions, Their Migrations and Transformations says the Bengali fairy tale probably has its roots in a story from the Mahabharata from which Lal Behari Dey, journalist and reverend, incorporated into his collections of folklore. See Rev. Lal Behari Dey’s Bengali Folktales from 1883 for English translations of Bengali folktales accompanied by illustrations of Warwick Goble.
One of my most favorite folktales was Toona Tooni. I would listen to this one many times while my mother tried to get me to take naps in the middle of the day. I still haven’t been able to find any translations of it so far. I also could not find it in Bengali anywhere online. I am sure there must be one version of it in text somewhere out there, but I have failed to come across it. I plan to translate the version I heard in any case.
The tale of Toona and Tooni are about two little song birds who want to make peetha, a dessert, but they don’t have the ingredients. So Toona sets off to get them for Tooni to make. As they prepare the peetha, several animals pass by and ask what they are doing. They reply they are making peetha and each animal excitedly exclaims they want some too. But Toona and Tooni don’t plan to share and definitely not with the fox. They tell the animals to come back in the evening when they will be finished making it. In the meantime, they finish making and eating their peetha. The animals return in the evening only to come and see that Toona and Tooni are merrily singing up in the trees with full stomachs.
This story probably has connections to the Panchatantra, animal fables of South Asia. Many folktales I heard involved animals. My dad would tell tales about the Monkey and the Crocodile, The Hunter and the Tiger, and more I can’t recall specifically.
My parents also told stories of Kings and Queens called Roopkhotha/fairy tales. Some I am recalling are The Salt Princess, Madhumala ( it’s the equivalent of sleeping beauty) Roophban, Shaat Bhai Champa (which “made such a deep impression on young Tagore that it was not only woven into a serious poem (written at the age of thirty) but also used symbolically in a song (written at the age of eighty)”. [Sen, Sukumar. “Tagore and Folklore.”] These fantastic stories were filled with faeries, angels, fakirs, talking animals and flowers, miracles, gods and goddesses, ghosts, witches, and spells.
Living at the edge of woodsy places as a child and being alone most of the times, these stories came to life in my mind. They still live with me. I recall them every now and then in moments of solitude when I try to recover parts of myself I have forgotten. Like the time I was told I was born out of the sky.
After an informal oral history session with my parents, I learned about the Mendicant Garden/ Foykre Bagan and the practices of a village fubu/aunt. Her name was Goljaan Bibi or as she was affectionately called Gole Fubu. I’ve heard a few stories about her before in passing, but I am always trying to milk a much information about her as I can because I am told I am similar to her. She passed away years ago, but my mother jokes that she reincarnated as me.
Gole Fubu knew many practices. She was labeled superstitious and peculiar but everyone loved her. If there was anyone interested in preserving mixed practices and learning them, it was her. I asked my mother what she taught her and her siblings. She replied no one was interested. I was utterly disappointed. If I would have known her, I would have become a her disciple.
I listened to bits and pieces of what my mother could remember. Many times when my aunts or uncles were ill or if there was a new birth in the village, Gole Fubu would go out to the river during the tides. She would get in ankle to knee deep waters, recite a prayer, and offer the river a sacrifice of something like a bundle of stones or mixture of some sort in exchange for good fortune or healing on behalf of a child. Or she would go to what is called the Mendicant Garden where the wandering muscians, bauls, and fakirs would gather and offer a live chicken or two in exchange for blessings. She was keenly interested in the ways of the bauls. Interacting with such people did bring some criticism against her especially as a woman, but she did what she wanted.
Fubu knew what to do at every occasion and had a lot of knowledge you would think an illiterate person would not have.
This was only a vague recollection of her. I ache to know more about her. Though if she did return as me, I only hope I can be as half as wise and eccentric.